Thursday, September 8, 2016

Why Content Marketing's Future Depends on Shorter Content and Less Content

Posted by ronell-smith

Steve Rayson's latest BuzzSumo article is provocative, interesting and well-written. But I do hope he's wrong when he says the future will be about more content, not less. He shares why he thinks content marketing brands will begin producing more content in the days ahead, and how they'll likely be successful by doing so.

Upon reading the piece, I did a facepalm. I was reminded of a conversation I had a few years back, when I walked into the break room of the agency I was working for, and almost bumped into the content specialist on my team.

After we exchanged pleasantries, she informed me of an unwise decision she was about to make.

Her: "Guess what? I'm going to run a marathon."

Me: "Why?"

Her: "I think it'll be fun."

Me: "OK. How many marathons have you run? And have you been training for this one?"

Her: "I've never ran one, but there are a lot of training guides online; they say it only takes 17 weeks to train for it."

Me: "..."

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The philosophy of doing a lot what we don't yet do well is ruining content marketing — and the knees, joints and backs of wannabe marathoners.

If you doubt that, please explain why 90% of what's published online barely rises to the level of crap.

Anyone who disagrees with that statement is either (a) fooling themselves or (b) never had to conduct a content audit.

Even for big brands, producing quality content with frequency is seemingly near-impossible task

Therefore, when someone says "create more content," I hear "brands will continue to waste resources that would be better spent elsewhere," for now. Worse still, it means they'll see the failure as not one of execution, but born of content marketing itself.

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Rayson is a solid content marketer working for a brand with a strong product. I admire them both. And while I don't mean to attack him, I would like to tackle the logic of the post, which I'll excerpt below.

[Eds. note: The primary reason I chose to tackle this topic is because content frequency and content length remain two of the biggest albatrosses impacting our industry. Despite this fact, many fail to see how related they are. That is, many brands are failing fast by chasing the long-form posts and frequent posting unicorn. Also, I'm very clear in understanding that Rayson is not advocating for quantity at the expense of quality. My contention is simply that quantity is typically the wrong goal, at least for the vast majority of brands.]

You're a brand who publishes content, not a brand publisher

The Washington Post now publishes around 1,200 posts a day. That is an incredible amount of content. My initial reaction when I read the statistic was ‘surely that is too much, the quality will suffer, why produce so much content?’ The answer seems to be that it works. The Post’s web visitors have grown 28% over the last year and they passed the New York Times for a few months at the end of 2015.

As a former journalist who spent four years in a newsroom, I've always been against the brands as publisher mantra, in large part because, well, as a brand you ARE NOT a publisher. Publishing content no more makes you a publisher than running 26 miles makes someone a marathoner. Newsrooms are built to produce lots of content.

There are often dozens of editors, copy editors, line editors and writers on staff, so quality control is baked in and a priority. Additionally, a newspaper writer can easily write several stories a day and not break a sweat, owing to an environment that places premium on speed.

By contrast, most many content marketers use junior writers or, worse still, content mills, that deliver low-quality posts for $20.

It's very unlikely that attempting to follow the path of newspapers would prove fruitful.

Better idea: Determine the cadence with which your brand can create uniquely valuable content, which Rand defined and described in a 2015 Whiteboard Friday. The key is to focus the lion's share of your attention on creating content that's exclusive and recognized as best-by-far in its class.

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Will WaPo's strategy work for your brand?

I think whilst it is true that content will take a wider range of forms, including interactive content, the future is not less content but the opposite.

My reasoning is based on a number of factors including the effectiveness of the strategy adopted by the Post and others. ... As we noted above the number of pages Google has indexed over 7 years from 2008 to 2014 has increased from 1 trillion to 30 trillion.

That is an increase of 29 trillion pages in 7 years. The number of net additional pages indexed by Google each year appears to be increasing, it was 3 trillion in 2010, 5 trillion in 2012 and 8 trillion in 2014.

I'm of the opinion that seeing WaPo's strategy as anything but "effective for them" is a mistake. As anyone who's been around the marketing space for any amount of time can attest, chasing what another brand has been successful at is a bad idea. Yes, you should be aware of what the competition is doing, but seeing their success as anything more than unique to them, or their vertical, is a recipe for pain.

Remember, too, that WaPo isn't selling anything but ad space, not products, so the more real estate the better for them/businesses like them.

Also, the rapid rise in number of pages indexed by Google would seem to highlight one thing: A lot of brands are investing in content; it doesn't mean a lot of brands are being successful with it.

Better idea: After finding your cadence and nailing quality consistently, test frequency along with elements such as length and content type to find the right balance for your brand.

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Quality and quantity typically go in the opposite direction

As the costs of production, storage and distribution fell, particularly with online and digital products, it became economically attractive to provide products for the long tail niche audience, in fact revenue from the long tail became greater than the hits because the tail was very long indeed. Companies like Amazon and Netflix were arguably some of the first long tail companies.

Unlike WaPo, which buys ink by the proverbial barrel and has a stout staff, most brands have razor-thin content teams, increasing the likelihood that producing more and more content means increased expenditure as new team members must be hired and vetted or contractors are hired.

As I experienced while working for an agency, brands expect that as the cost rises, so too do their rankings and traffic, which is not typically the case. And when those two don't move in lockstep, the spigot is shut off, often for good.

Better idea: Develop a goal for your content that's in line with your brand's goals, then let your marketing team test and refine the publishing schedule. You're likely to find that the right cadence to nail quality is fewer but bigger content pieces.

Don't conflate strategy with the goal

By creating over 1,000 pieces of content a day you are more likely to cater for demand in the long tail for specific niche content or simply to produce content that engages a wider audience. ... Sites such as BuzzFeed have also increased their content production, the Atlantic recently reported the following figures:
April 2012 BuzzFeed published 914 posts and 10 videos
April 2016 BuzzFeed published 6,365 posts and 319 videos

Again, these are — even in the case of BuzzFeed — media companies we're talking about, so it's not surprising that traffic, frequency and quality can continue in the same direction. For most brands, two out of three is the gold standard and one out of three is the norm.

Better idea: Stop thinking you're a media company. It's OK to adopt a strategy that includes more frequent publishing, but that strategy must fit inside your brand's overall goals, not vice-versa.

Shares are the cotton candy of content marketing

When I looked recently at the most shared content published by marketing and IT sites, the data confirmed that on average long form posts achieved more shares. But when I looked in more detail at the 50 most shared posts, 45 of them were short form and under 1,000 words. Thus people are very happy to share short form content and given the pressures on everyone’s time may prefer short form content. ...

I personally think there is a big opportunity for short form content and I aim to adapt my strategy to focus more on repurposing and republishing short form versions of my research that focus on specific issues. These could be focused around just a single image or chart.

On this point, I largely agree with Rayson insofar as shorter content, with rare exception, should be a part of your brand's content strategy (this post notwithstanding). I know, I know, many of you do very well with posts of varying lengths. I get that. What I'm saying is your content should be assigned, not by your whims or the needs of the brand, but by the needs of the audience.

And certainly not based on shares, which, as we know from a recent Moz and BuzzSumo post, do not correlate with the all-important links.

In many cases and for many brands, shares are a distraction serving to keep our attention away from the important elements of content marketing. I liken them to the cotton candy at the county fair: a lot of puff, but not nearly as filling as that smoked turkey leg.

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When creating content, we should begin with empathy being top-of-mind. That's when you can allow your inner journalist to soar:

  • Who benefits most from this information (i.e., who, specifically, am I talking to?)
  • What are their specific needs?
  • Why is my brand uniquely qualified to satisfy those needs?
  • How can I best depict and share the information?
  • When is the optimal time to create, share and promote it?

Notice I never mentioned length. That was intentional.

The length of your content should be determined by your audience, not your brand.

A recent study by Chartbeat, which looked at user behavior across 2 billion visits over the web during the course of a month, found that 55% of visitors spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page. 15 seconds!

Better idea: If readers aren't spending a great deal of time on our site's we should reward them, not punish them: create short but meaty posts; share graphics with a few lines of commentary to invite comments; share videos or podcasts you've enjoyed, as curated content; or ask a question, then be the first answer, nudging others to dive into the fray.

Whatever direction you decide to go in, do so with guidance from your audience and/or would-be audience.

Imagine a world filled with web searcher advocates

Again, this post is not meant as an attack on Raysons' post. If anything, I wanted to take the opportunity to reiterate to folks that content marketing isn't an either/or game; it's a long-haul game, a "this and that" game, an iterative game.

As someone who's been made sick from doing deep dives into clients' content, I feel strongly that we often need to protect brands from themselves. Big budgets and large teams don't prevent marketers from making bad decisions.

I've made it clear to prospects and clients that I'm there as an advocate for them, but first and foremost I'm an advocate for web searchers. The more and the better I can help brands be the chosen result (not merely the top result), consistently, the happier we will all be.

Who's willing to join me on the web searcher advocate crusade?


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