- Brands are increasingly turning to content and SEO as a cost-effective alternative to paid advertising during the pandemic
- Content should be designed to be useful, not to sell
- Essentials include effective strategy (where is your right to win), execution (what quality content will you make), leveraging experts, and testing
- Start with competitive benchmarking, auditing your technology and brainstorming creative ways to distribute your content
Unfortunately for marketers, gone are the times when attracting customers meant hiring Don Draper to dream up a campaign in a hazy boardroom and calling it a day. As channels such as Google and Facebook become more saturated and expensive, marketers are increasingly looking to original content as a cost-effective alternative.
Businesses leveraging content for growth are onto something — for proof, look no further than Intuit’s plan to acquire CreditKarma for $7.1 billion. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend by forcing consumers to stay at home and shifting consumption online. Meanwhile, literally “off the charts” unemployment and a forthcoming recession have saddled 65% of marketers with a decrease in their annual marketing budgets paired with, unsurprisingly, no change to their annual targets (Conductor). Now more than ever, content marketing and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) provide brands with an opportunity to attract customers by offering engagement and education rather than paying for performance.
With this topic in mind, it was my pleasure to host a conversation with two experts in the field: Devin Friedman, Executive Creative Director at Wealthsimple and former Editorial Director and current contributor at GQ, and Jacob Kesey, a senior SEO strategist for WeWork at Conductor and advisor to various startups including Retirable. Together, we shared learnings and best practices on using content marketing to connect with consumers. I’ve summarized our key takeaways below.
Fundamentals: What is Content Marketing?
Let’s start with what content marketing is not: content marketing isn’t just advertising by another name. Traditional ads were designed for a captive audience, and in today’s multi-screen, digitally connected world, that’s hard to come by. Content marketing shouldn’t be thought of as producing an ad for a show: it’s producing the show itself.
“Content marketing shouldn’t be thought of as producing an ad for a show: it’s producing the show itself”
At its core, the aim of content marketing is to create something useful for your audience — not to explicitly sell something. Whether it comes in the form of articles, reviews, how-to guides, videos, pricing indexes, or interactive tools, effective content builds trust, humanizes your brand, and brings people into your ecosystem who weren’t necessarily looking for you. Exceptional content can even garner earned media or “go viral” — as was the case for Wealthsimple Magazine’s article “Debt: A Love Story.”
Effective content marketing can lead to higher conversions and sales, but your primary goal should be to inform. Creating content that captures your audience’s attention is harder than paying for ad space, but when done right, it can yield more powerful results.
Optimizing Content for SEO
Making compelling content is essential, but people also need to be able to find it. As the pandemic continues, customers will increasingly go online to discover products, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is key to increasing your discoverability on platforms like Google. Content that ranks for organic search terms on Google can save you millions of dollars in paid advertising each month.
Content that ranks for organic search terms on Google can save you millions of dollars in paid advertising each month.
A solid SEO strategy will aim to increase page rankings for search terms that are relevant to your business. Include those keywords in your copy, but be careful not to target too narrowly. Even if your company sells something specialized, the best content is relevant to people who know almost nothing about the subject — and also to those who already know a lot. Websites that have done this exceptionally well include Investopedia (+29% increase in first page keywords this year, ~37M monthly organic visitors, $108M organic traffic value) and NerdWallet (+40% increase in first page keywords, ~19 million monthly organic visitors, $90M organic traffic value) (SEMRush).
Four Essentials of Effective Content Marketing
Make no mistake: effective content marketing takes more strategy — and time — than writing a few blog posts and sprinkling them with the right keywords.
First, decide on your content strategy:
- What is your point of view, and how is it better than what’s out there?
- How can you leverage your expertise for added-value to your customers?
- Who is your audience, and how will you earn the right for their attention?
Second, decide what content you’re making.
Will it be service journalism, entertainment, or thought leadership? Study best-in-class examples for ideas, but remember that mediocre articles are a dime a dozen. Aim high and consider the kinds of content you look to for information. During the COVID crisis, the New York Times is leveraging the expertise of its world-class reporters to produce data stories on everyday spending and Internet usage. Bon Appetit Magazine is producing short, entertaining videos of people at home cooking during isolation.
Third, leverage a content expert:
- One option is to hire a writer, editor, or content creator with an existing following in your field to jumpstart your credibility.
- Another is to shine the spotlight inward on an expert within your company, and start building their reputation as an authority on the topic.
- Both approaches require partnering internally with your SEO, product, and media relations teams to ensure your content is optimized for backlinking, performance, and reach.
Finally, test and adapt.
Finding your niche and establishing credibility with your audience takes time. You likely won’t create a viral hit on your first try. Even after initial success, if what you did yesterday stops working, stay nimble and change course. When its original raison d’être as a fashion blog didn’t catch on, NY Mag’s The Cut leaned into reporting on broader feminist issues and captured an audience. Don’t be afraid of experimenting and taking some big swings.
Practical Next Steps
Do your homework. Take stock of what your competition and the broader ecosystem are creating, and determine where there’s white space. Leverage existing tools that aggregate SEO performance data — such as SEMrush — to determine popular search terms, keywords, or other information that your audience is looking for.
Check your tech. Content needs an attractive and reliable hub to live in. Whether that’s a learning center, a Medium blog, or an online magazine, make sure it’s easy to navigate and that your tech stack is up to scratch. Leverage tools like Google PageSpeed to gauge your load times and watch your bounce rates.
Get creative with distribution. You won’t succeed by paying people to consume your content. Consider the success of Busylamp, who made a variety of helpful “What is?” pages for search terms that rank on the first page of Google. Or Zebra, whose “State of Auto Insurance” pricing guide was featured in the New York Times.
Content marketing is a long-term investment, and sustainable growth is all about consistently putting out quality material. Even the most successful campaigns do not achieve page-one ranking overnight — but hey, it even took Don Draper years to hone his craft. With a clear focus, a dedicated team, and a nimble approach, you too can reach your audience and accelerate growth through this pandemic and beyond.