What You Need to Do to Build a Loyal YouTube Audience

My teen daughter has not watched television since elementary school. She gets her news and entertainment from YouTube.

While younger generations account for a lot of views, YouTube is ubiquitous across the generations, attracting 1.9 billion users each month. Every day, people watch over a billion hours of video.

While viewers have an unlimited supply of videos to watch, it’s a different story for marketers. With so much content available, how can creators gain a fair share of users’ attention?

Tim Schmoyer, CEO of Video Creators, offered some insight in his recent Content Marketing World presentation, How to Develop a Loyal YouTube Audience. Unless otherwise noted, images and insights come from his talk.

Think SEO with a twist

The goal of YouTube – like all content marketing initiatives – is to serve the right video to the right person at the right time, Tim says.

Google’s search engine similarly tries to serve the right content at the right time, but there’s an important distinction. Google serves up content like a concierge who seeks to answer a question and get the visitors on their way. YouTube, on the other hand, is like the hotel. It wants visitors to relax, unwind, and stay awhile.

Google views a successful search as one where the visitor doesn’t need to return to the search page. YouTube’s success comes from visitors extending their watch time – when the first video is done, the visitor views the next one and the next, and so on.

.@YouTube views success as visitors extending their viewing time, says @TimSchmoyer. #SEO
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To help keep people watching, YouTube’s algorithm considers starts, watch (time), and sessions.


Starts are the videos that bring people to YouTube – the video that started a visitor’s session.

If a visitor starts at the YouTube home page, YouTube displays videos it thinks the visitor would like. Visitors who are logged into their YouTube account will see recommendations based on viewing history.

When I visited the YouTube home page, it showed recommendations for videos, topics, and channels closely aligned to the topics I watched in the past.

According to Tim, videos that appear on the home page have been successful at starting new sessions for users.


Watch refers to viewing time. YouTube seeks to recommend videos that have been watched for a longer time. For example, if two videos are both six minutes, but one has an average viewing time of two minutes and the other has been viewed an average five minutes, YouTube will show the latter as a recommended option.


Session refers to the videos that contribute to the longest viewing times. According to Tim, “YouTube’s goal is to promote content that gets people back to YouTube, content people actually watch, and then keeps them watching another video and then another video.”

.@YouTube's goal is to promote #content that gets people back to YouTube, says @TimSchmoyer.
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Focus on quality, not metadata

Metadata (e.g., title, description, tags) on YouTube plays only a small role in the discoverability of videos, Tim says. “Google got really smart a long time ago. They’re like, ‘Just because it has the keyword in the title, the tags, the description, doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the best video to serve.”

Metadata plays only a small role in #YouTube #SEO, says @TimSchmoyer.
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Metadata’s impact is greatest when a video is first published. Because YouTube doesn’t know much about the content at this point, it pays attention to the metadata provided. As little as a few days later, however, YouTube can evaluate viewer signals – views, “likes,” watch time, etc. Those signals become more meaningful than creator-provided metadata.

“Your viewers actually determine how well your videos will rank,” Tim says. “So our goal is to make it as easy as possible for our viewers to give the signals to Google that they need to want to promote that video and surface it in front of everyone that they can.”

While you should fill in the metadata fields, spend more time optimizing your video for humans. Focus on the quality of your video. Quality will get people to watch your videos and check out other videos on your channel.

Tim dispels more video SEO myths in this video:

Build a community

Your YouTube channel gained 100 subscribers this month. Congratulations! What Tim might tell you, however, is that subscribers are not necessarily loyal fans. Subscribers may not visit regularly or pay attention when your next video goes live.

Tim urges creators to think less about managing a channel and more about growing a community. With a community, loyalty is measured by return visits and fan engagement and less by subscriber count.

Think less about managing a channel and more about growing a community, says @TimSchmoyer.
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The strongest communities, both online and offline, says Tim, revolve around shared beliefs, not common interests.

Let’s use an analogy.

You launch a YouTube channel about food. The videos show people making dishes and popular items served by local restaurants. They attract viewers interested in food. They become moderately loyal to your channel.

What if you created a channel about the slow food movement? It would appeal to a smaller but more passionate audience that is interested in countering the fast food movement by preparing locally sourced foods using a more intentional approach to preserve culture and heritage.

The channel would have fewer subscribers but a stronger bond tying the community together, one forged on a shared belief.

Create a niche #YouTube channel to build a strong community, not to get the most subscribers. @TimSchmoyer
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To really build a community, Tim says, requires something extra. “People really need to know your story in order to start caring. The second thing they need to know is your creed or your belief or your why. Not just who you are but why do you do this.”

The concept of the “creed” comes from the book Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company, and Your Future. According to the book’s Amazon page, author Patrick Hanlon “explains how the most powerful brands create a community of believers around the brand, revealing the seven components that will help every company and marketer capture the public.”

On Tim’s Content Marketing World speaker page, you can find his creed, which is: “to train other creators to master the YouTube platform and use it as a place to spread messages that change lives.”

When you visit Tim’s channel, you go to learn valuable YouTube tips and because of a shared belief that YouTube can be used to change lives. It can make a difference in the world that goes beyond making money for creators.

According to Tim, “People need to know why this matters to you, and that, again, gets people to create a more human, emotional connection with you.” Along these lines, your creed can extend beyond your YouTube channel to your entire content marketing and even your brand promise.

Use icons and rituals

Icons are not channel art or logos. They’re the things your YouTube community connects with that represent your brand. Tim, for example, wears a cap in all his videos. That cap serves as an icon. If Tim didn’t have his cap in a video, he would appear out of context and regular viewers might not recognize him.

For some creators, their face can be an icon – something that people grow to recognize and associate with the content. Andre Meadows has a channel called Black Nerd Comedy and shoots from his home on a distinctive set. Whenever Tim watches one of Andre’s videos, he thinks, “Oh, I’m back at home with Andre.”

Rituals are repeated interactions or customs that people grow to love and expect from your brand. Tim recommends you make them an integral part of your videos.

Make rituals an integral part of your #videos, says @TimSchmoyer.
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Using Tim’s definition of rituals, I came up with some examples:

  1. Sports commentary show Pardon the Interruption on ESPN
  2. Serial podcast from This American Life
  3. Performance competitions (e.g., The Voice, American Idol)
  4. Game shows (e.g., Jeopardy, where Daily Double and Final Jeopardy are well-known rituals)

Each of these examples uses a consistent format that viewers appreciate and has developed well-known customs that the audience expects. An iconic aspect of Pardon the Interruption is the visual on the right side of the screen that displays the time remaining on the segment and upcoming topics.

Icons and rituals help bind the community and keep them coming back. There’s such a strong bond that if you mistakenly leave out an icon or ritual, your audience will notice — and they’ll probably complain!

Know what’s working (and what isn’t)

YouTube’s audience retention report is a neat analytics dashboard, showing viewing duration, top videos, and audience retention for each video (e.g., a graph that shows precisely when users stop watching).

Tim urges creators to watch the last 20 audience retention graphs to spot triggers that cause people to stop watching the video. One of his clients discovered saying the word “module” would cause viewers to leave. When he stopped saying that word, he saw higher retention and viewing time.

Watch last 20 audience retention graphs to spot triggers that cause people to stop watching. @TimSchmoyer
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Some creators are so in tune with their audience retention graphs that they know how many seconds they can talk before cutting to a different angle, how music impacts viewing patterns, and how often they need to say a sacred word or have another ritual.

Sacred words express your beliefs in a way unique to your creed. “These are the things that people use to identify themselves as an insider or an outsider,” he says.

View this video from Tim on how to boost audience retention, which features insights from several creators:

What’s your loyalty level?

One in four people on the planet watch videos on YouTube. Each day, people watch more than one billion hours of video. If you’re a YouTube creator, the opportunity is enormous, but only if you take the right approach:

  • Understand what YouTube wants.
  • Know how YouTube’s algorithm works.
  • Build loyalty via a community of shared beliefs.
  • Use icons and rituals.
  • Use analytics to guide the creation of future videos.

Back to my teen daughter. She’s loyal to a handful of YouTube creators and can spend hours on the platform. She’s loyal because these creators keep her entertained and amused. They also produce new videos on a consistent basis.

If I look deeper, however, I think many of Tim’s principles apply to her loyalty. In addition to the entertainment value, she has shared beliefs with the creators and appreciates their icons and rituals.

Here’s an excerpt from Tim’s talk:

How about you? Are you loyal to creators on YouTube? What’s the basis for your loyalty? I’d love to hear from you – leave a comment.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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Want More Creative Content Ideas? Break These 6 ‘Rules’

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.”

More than 20 years later, an interview with Kathy Klotz-Guest at Content Marketing World brought to mind that Apple ad, which pressed into service images of some of the greatest leaders, artists, visionaries, inventors, and thinkers of the 20th century.

Speaker, comic, and founder of Keeping It Human, Kathy responded to the question of how to create a culture that truly promotes creative ideas with answers that echoed the sentiments in the Apple ad.

As you’ll see in the video below – the latest in CMI’s Mastering Content Marketing series – Kathy believes that the most interesting ideas come from flipping expectations on their head, breaking molds, and taking risks.

Watch the two-minute video to hear Kathy, who trained at ComedySportz and Second City in addition to working in marketing for 15 years, explain in her own words. Then read on to find out what she recommends you flip, smash, and challenge.

Here are six rules and conventions you should set about breaking and what to do instead to create a smarter content marketing program.

Make everything measurable and repeatable

Marketers often are scared of things that they can’t quantify or replicate. Too many companies, people, and teams buy into this template mentality: “I want to see what other companies do.” But you’re not that company. Your customers are different. Your path is different. Your story’s different.

Don’t buy into a template mentality for your #content. Your brand’s path is different, says @kathyklotzguest.
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Give the people what they expect

The best way to think about creativity is to ask: “How can we flip our customers’ expectations upside down to delight and surprise them?” Go to places where your competitors aren’t and do things they won’t. That’s where the good stuff is, the scary stuff. If it scares you, you’re doing it right. 

We don’t do that here

Creativity comes from asking “what if.” For example, “What if we go against assumptions and mash up two things that aren’t supposed to go together?” You might come up with amazing ideas. Creativity demands time to let ideas breathe. When you’re told, “We don’t do that here,” you need to go and do those things.

When told, “we don’t do that here,” you need to go and do those things, says @kathyklotzguest.
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Content marketers own storytelling

The best stories don’t live in the C-suite, and they don’t live with marketing. Shocking, right? They live with customers. They live with partners. Who says you can’t put a story out there, or start a story and let your customers finish the story?

Minimize risk and place blame for failure

Make your rules and experiment. Make sure teams understand they can take risks. Foster a culture where team members know their managers possess a have-your-back attitude when they do take risks. Companies must start with culture and take an attitude of “yes, and …” to create that environment.

Create a culture where your #contentmarketing team understands they can take risks, says @kathyklotzguest.
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If teams don’t feel that the company has their back, they won’t (experiment). But if you say, “Look, I want you to know that you are empowered, when something news-oriented comes up that has to do with our brand, like the 2013 Oreo “dunk in the dark” Super Bowl moment, I empower you to do that.”

A good example is Wendy’s. The fast-food restaurant chain is killing it. Why is its social media team so darn good? It’s clear on its voice. And within the brand voice, the team has wiggle room to play.

Only reward results

Reward learning. If all you do is reward the outcomes, you’re going to get people going for the easy, safe checkboxes. Imagine if you rewarded teams for how many ideas they generated. Not how many viable ideas, but how many ideas. Or you rewarded them for breaking silos and working with other departments to create new stories. Reinforce the behavior you want to see.

Become a learning organization and an organization committed to curiosity versus just an organization committed to outcomes.

Your turn

What do you think? Is shaking up the status quo essential to truly creative content ideas? How do you get out of your safety zone to be creative? Let me know in the comments.

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Algorithm Analysis In The Age of Embeddings

On August 1st, 2018 an algorithm update took 50% of traffic from a client site in the automotive vertical. An analysis of the update made me certain that the best course of action was … to do nothing. So what happened?

Algorithm Changes Google Analytics

Sure enough, on October 5th, that site regained all of its traffic. Here’s why I was sure doing nothing was the right thing to do and why I dismissed any E-A-T chatter.

E-A-T My Shorts

Eat Pant

I find the obsession with the Google Rating Guidelines to be unhealthy for the SEO community. If you’re unfamiliar with this acronym it stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. It’s central to the published Google Rating Guidelines.

The problem is those guidelines and E-A-T are not algorithm signals. Don’t believe me? Believe Ben Gomes, long-time search quality engineer and new head of search at Google.

“You can view the rater guidelines as where we want the search algorithm to go,” Ben Gomes, Google’s vice president of search, assistant and news, told CNBC. “They don’t tell you how the algorithm is ranking results, but they fundamentally show what the algorithm should do.”

So I am triggered when I hear someone say they “turned up the weight of expertise” in a recent algorithm update. Even if the premise were true, you have to connect that to how the algorithm would reflect that change. How would Google make changes algorithmically to reflect higher expertise?

Google doesn’t have three big knobs in a dark office protected by biometric scanners that allows them to change E-A-T at will.

Tracking Google Ratings

Before I move on I’ll do a deeper dive into quality ratings. I poked around to see if there are material patterns to Google ratings and algorithmic changes. It’s pretty easy to look at referring traffic from the sites that perform ratings.

Tracking Google Ratings in Analytics

The four sites I’ve identified are raterlabs.com, raterhub.com, leapforceathome.com and appen.com. At present there’s really only variants of appen.com, which rebranded in the last few months. Either way, create an advanced segment and you can start to see when raters have visited your site.

And yes, these are ratings. A quick look at the referral path makes it clear.

Raters Program Referral Path

The /qrp/ stands for quality rating program and the needs_met_simulator seems pretty self-explanatory.

It can be interesting to then look at the downstream traffic for these domains.

SEMRush Downstream Traffic for Raterhub.com

Go the extra distance and you can determine what page(s) the raters are accessing on your site. Oddly, they generally seem to focus on one or two pages, using them as a representative for quality.

Beyond that, the patterns are hard to tease out, particularly since I’m unsure what tasks are truly being performed. A much larger set of this data across hundreds (perhaps thousands) of domains might produce some insight but for now it seems a lot like reading tea leaves.

Acceptance and Training

The quality rating program has been described in many ways so I’ve always been hesitant to label it one thing or another. Is it a way for Google to see if their recent algorithm changes were effective or is it a way for Google to gather training data to inform algorithm changes?

The answer seems to be yes.

Appen Home Page Messaging

Appen is the company that recruits quality raters. And their pitch makes it pretty clear that they feel their mission is to provide training data for machine learning via human interactions. Essentially, they crowdsource labeled data, which is highly sought after in machine learning.

The question then becomes how much Google relies on and uses this set of data for their machine learning algorithms.

“Reading” The Quality Rating Guidelines

Invisible Ink

To understand how much Google relies on this data, I think it’s instructive to look at the guidelines again. But for me it’s more about what the guidelines don’t mention than what they do mention.

What query classes and verticals does Google seem to focus on in the rating guidelines and which ones are essentially invisible? Sure, the guidelines can be applied broadly, but one has to think about why there’s a larger focus on … say, recipes and lyrics, right?

Beyond that, do you think Google could rely on ratings that cover a microscopic percentage of total queries? Seriously. Think about that. The query universe is massive! Even the query class universe is huge.

And Google doesn’t seem to be adding resources here. Instead, in 2017 they actually cut resources for raters. Now perhaps that’s changed but … I still can’t see this being a comprehensive way to inform the algorithm.

The raters clearly function as a broad acceptance check on algorithm changes (though I’d guess these qualitative measures wouldn’t outweigh the quantitative measures of success) but also seem to be deployed more tactically when Google needs specific feedback or training data for a problem.

Most recently that was the case with the fake news problem. And at the beginning of the quality rater program I’m guessing they were struggling with … lyrics and recipes.

So if we think back to what Ben Gomes says, the way we should be reading the guidelines is about what areas of focus Google is most interested in tackling algorithmically. As such I’m vastly more interested in what they say about queries with multiple meanings and understanding user intent.

At the end of the day, while the rating guidelines are interesting and provide excellent context, I’m looking elsewhere when analyzing algorithm changes.

Look At The SERP

This Tweet by Gianluca resonated strongly with me. There’s so much to be learned after an algorithm update by actually looking at search results, particularly if you’re tracking traffic by query class. Doing so I came to a simple conclusion.

For the last 18 months or so most algorithm updates have been what I refer to as language understanding updates.

This is part of a larger effort by Google around Natural Language Understanding (NLU), sort of a next generation of Natural Language Processing (NLP). Language understanding updates have a profound impact on what type of content is more relevant for a given query.

For those that hang on John Mueller’s every word, you’ll recognize that many times he’ll say that it’s simply about content being more relevant. He’s right. I just don’t think many are listening. They’re hearing him say that, but they’re not listening to what it means.

Neural Matching

The big news in late September 2018 was around neural matching.

But we’ve now reached the point where neural networks can help us take a major leap forward from understanding words to understanding concepts. Neural embeddings, an approach developed in the field of neural networks, allow us to transform words to fuzzier representations of the underlying concepts, and then match the concepts in the query with the concepts in the document. We call this technique neural matching. This can enable us to address queries like: “why does my TV look strange?” to surface the most relevant results for that question, even if the exact words aren’t contained in the page. (By the way, it turns out the reason is called the soap opera effect).

Danny Sullivan went on to refer to them as super synonyms and a number of blog posts sought to cover this new topic. And while neural matching is interesting, I think the underlying field of neural embeddings is far more important.

Watching search results and analyzing keyword trends you can see how the content Google chooses to surface for certain queries changes over time. Seriously folks, there’s so much value in looking at how the mix of content changes on a SERP.

For instance, the query ‘Toyota Camry Repair’ is part of a query class that has fractured intent. What is it that people are looking for when they search this term? Are they looking for repair manuals? For repair shops? For do-it-yourself content on repairing that specific make and model?

Google doesn’t know. So it’s been cycling through these different intents to see which of them performs the best. You wake up one day and it’s repair manuals. A month of so later they essentially disappear.

Now, obviously this isn’t done manually. It’s not even done in a traditional algorithmic sense. Instead it’s done through neural embeddings and machine learning.

Neural Embeddings

Let me first start out by saying that I found a lot more here than I expected as I did my due diligence. Previously, I had done enough reading and research to get a sense of what was happening to help inform and explain algorithmic changes.

And while I wasn’t wrong, I found I was way behind on just how much had been taking place over the last few years in the realm of Natural Language Understanding.

Oddly, one of the better places to start is at the end. Very recently, Google open-sourced something called BERT.


BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers and is a new technique for pre-NLP training.  Yeah, it gets dense quickly. But the following excerpt helped put things into perspective.

Pre-trained representations can either be context-free or contextual, and contextual representations can further be unidirectional or bidirectional. Context-free models such as word2vec or GloVe generate a single word embedding representation for each word in the vocabulary. For example, the word “bank” would have the same context-free representation in “bank account” and “bank of the river.” Contextual models instead generate a representation of each word that is based on the other words in the sentence. For example, in the sentence “I accessed the bank account,” a unidirectional contextual model would represent “bank” based on “I accessed the” but not “account.” However, BERT represents “bank” using both its previous and next context — “I accessed the … account” — starting from the very bottom of a deep neural network, making it deeply bidirectional.

I was pretty well-versed in how word2vec worked but I struggled to understand how intent might be represented. In short, how would Google be able to change the relevant content delivered on ‘Toyota Camry Repair’ algorithmically?  The answer is, in some ways, contextual word embedding models.


None of this may make sense if you don’t understand vectors. I believe many, unfortunately, run for the hills when the conversation turns to vectors. I’ve always referred to vectors as ways to represent words (or sentences or documents) via numbers and math.

I think these two slides from a 2015 Yoav Goldberg presentation on Demystifying Neural Word Embeddings does a better job of describing this relationship.

Words as Vectors

So you don’t have to fully understand the verbiage of “sparse, high dimensional” or the math behind cosine distance to grok how vectors work and can reflect similarity.

You shall know a word by the company it keeps.

That’s a famous quote from John Rupert Firth, a prominent linguist and the general idea we’re getting at with vectors.


In 2013, Google open-sourced word2vec, which was a real turning point in Natural Language Understanding. I think many in the SEO community saw this initial graph.

Country to Capital Relationships

Cool right? In addition there was some awe around vector arithmetic where the model could predict that [King] – [Man] + [Woman] = [Queen]. It was a revelation of sorts that semantic and syntactic structures were preserved.

Or in other words, vector math really reflected natural language!

What I lost track of was how the NLU community began to unpack word2vec to better understand how it worked and how it might be fine tuned. A lot has happened since 2013 and I’d be thunderstruck if much of it hadn’t worked its way into search.


These 2014 slides about Dependency Based Word Embeddings really drives the point home. I think the whole deck is great but I’ll cherry pick to help connect the dots and along the way try to explain some terminology.

The example used is looking at how you might represent the word ‘discovers’. Using a bag of words (BoW) context with a window of 2 you only capture the two words before and after the target word. The window is the number of words around the target that will be used to represent the embedding.

Word Embeddings using BoW Context

So here, telescope would not be part of the representation. But you don’t have to use a simple BoW context. What if you used another method to create the context or relationship between words. Instead of simple words-before and words-after what if you used syntactic dependency – a type of representation of grammar.

Embedding based on Syntactic Dependency

Suddenly telescope is part of the embedding. So you could use either method and you’d get very different results.

Embeddings Using Different Contexts

Syntactic dependency embeddings induce functional similarity. BoW embeddings induce topical similarity. While this specific case is interesting the bigger epiphany is that embeddings can change based on how they are generated.

Google’s understanding of the meaning of words can change.

Context is one way, the size of the window is another, the type of text you use to train it or the amount of text it’s using are all ways that might influence the embeddings. And I’m certain there are other ways that I’m not mentioning here.

Beyond Words

Words are building blocks for sentences. Sentences building blocks for paragraphs. Paragraphs building blocks for documents.

Sentence vectors are a hot topic as you can see from Skip Thought Vectors in 2015 to An Efficient Framework for Learning Sentence RepresentationsUniversal Sentence Encoder and Learning Semantic Textual Similarity from Conversations in 2018.

Universal Sentence Encoders

Google (Tomas Mikolov in particular before he headed over to Facebook) has also done research in paragraph vectors. As you might expect, paragraph vectors are in many ways a combination of word vectors.

In our Paragraph Vector framework (see Figure 2), every paragraph is mapped to a unique vector, represented by a column in matrix D and every word is also mapped to a unique vector, represented by a column in matrix W. The paragraph vector and word vectors are averaged or concatenated to predict the next word in a context. In the experiments, we use concatenation as the method to combine the vectors.

The paragraph token can be thought of as another word. It acts as a memory that remembers what is missing from the current context – or the topic of the paragraph. For this reason, we often call this model the Distributed Memory Model of Paragraph Vectors (PV-DM).

The knowledge that you can create vectors to represent sentences, paragraphs and documents is important. But it’s more important if you think about the prior example of how those embeddings can change. If the word vectors change then the paragraph vectors would change as well.

And that’s not even taking into account the different ways you might create vectors for variable-length text (aka sentences, paragraphs and documents).

Neural embeddings will change relevance no matter what level Google is using to understand documents.


But Why?

You might wonder why there’s such a flurry of work on sentences. Thing is, many of those sentences are questions. And the amount of research around question and answering is at an all-time high.

This is, in part, because the data sets around Q&A are robust. In other words, it’s really easy to train and evaluate models. But it’s also clearly because Google sees the future of search in conversational search platforms such as voice and assistant search.

Apart from the research, or the increasing prevalence of featured snippets, just look at the title Ben Gomes holds: vice president of search, assistant and news. Search and assistant are being managed by the same individual.

Understanding Google’s structure and current priorities should help future proof your SEO efforts.

Relevance Matching and Ranking

Obviously you’re wondering if any of this is actually showing up in search. Now, even without finding research that supports this theory, I think the answer is clear given the amount of time since word2vec was released (5 years), the focus on this area of research (Google Brain has an area of focus on NLU) and advances in technology to support and productize this type of work (TensorFlow, Transformer and TPUs).

But there is plenty of research that shows how this work is being integrated into search. Perhaps the easiest is one others have mentioned in relation to Neural Matching.

DRMM with Context Sensitive Embeddings

The highlighted part makes it clear that this model for matching queries and documents moves beyond context-insensitive encodings to rich context-sensitive encodings. (Remember that BERT relies on context-sensitive encodings.)

Think for a moment about how the matching model might change if you swapped the BoW context for the Syntactic Dependency context in the example above.

Frankly, there’s a ton of research around relevance matching that I need to catch up on. But my head is starting to hurt and it’s time to bring this back down from the theoretical to the observable.

Syntax Changes

I became interested in this topic when I saw certain patterns emerge during algorithm changes. A client might see a decline in a page type but within that page type some increased while others decreased.

The disparity there alone was enough to make me take a closer look. And when I did I noticed that many of those pages that saw a decline didn’t see a decline in all keywords for that page.

Instead, I found that a page might lose traffic for one query phrase but then gain back part of that traffic on a very similar query phrase. The difference between the two queries was sometimes small but clearly enough that Google’s relevance matching had changed.

Pages suddenly ranked for one type of syntax and not another.

Here’s one of the examples that sparked my interest in August of 2017.

Query Syntax Changes During Algorithm Updates

This page saw both losers and winners from a query perspective. We’re not talking small disparities either. They lost a lot on some but saw a large gain in others. I was particularly interested in the queries where they gained traffic.

Identifying Syntax Winners

The queries with the biggest percentage gains were with modifiers of ‘coming soon’ and ‘approaching’. I considered those synonyms of sorts and came to the conclusion that this page (document) was now better matching for these types of queries. Even the gains in terms with the word ‘before’ might match those other modifiers from a loose syntactic perspective.

Did Google change the context of their embeddings? Or change the window? I’m not sure but it’s clear that the page is still relevant to a constellation of topical queries but that some are more relevant and some less based on Google’s understanding of language.

Most recent algorithm updates seem to be changes in the embeddings used to inform the relevance matching algorithms.

Language Understanding Updates

If you believe that Google is rolling out language understanding updates then the rate of algorithm changes makes more sense. As I mentioned above there could be numerous ways that Google tweaks the embeddings or the relevance matching algorithm itself.

Not only that but all of this is being done with machine learning. The update is rolled out and then there’s a measurement of success based on time to long click or how quickly a search result satisfies intent. The feedback or reinforcement learning helps Google understand if that update was positive or negative.

One of my recent vague Tweets was about this observation.

Or the dataset that feeds an embedding pipeline might update and the new training model is then fed into system. This could also be vertical specific as well since Google might utilize a vertical specific embeddings.

August 1 Error

Based on that last statement you might think that I thought the ‘medic update’ was aptly named. But you’d be wrong. I saw nothing in my analysis that led me to believe that this update was utilizing a vertical specific embedding for heath.

The first thing I do after an update is look at the SERPs. What changed? What is now ranking that wasn’t before? This is the first way I can start to pick up the ‘scent’ of the change.

There are times when you look at the newly ranked pages and, while you may not like it, you can understand why they’re ranking. That may suck for your client but I try to be objective. But there are times you look and the results just look bad.

Misheard Lyrics

The new content ranking didn’t match the intent of the queries.

I had three clients who were impacted by the change and I simply didn’t see how the newly ranked pages would effectively translate into better time to long click metrics. By my way of thinking, something had gone wrong during this language update.

So I wasn’t keen on running around making changes for no good reason. I’m not going to optimize for a misheard lyric. I figured the machine would eventually learn that this language update was sub-optimal.

It took longer than I’d have liked but sure enough on October 5th things reverted back to normal.

August 1 Updates

Where's Waldo

However, there were two things included in the August 1 update that didn’t revert. The first was the YouTube carousel. I’d call it the Video carousel but it’s overwhelmingly YouTube so lets just call a spade a spade.

Google seems to think that the intent of many queries can be met by video content. To me, this is an over-reach. I think the idea behind this unit is the old “you’ve got chocolate in my peanut butter” philosophy but instead it’s more like chocolate in mustard. When people want video content they … go search on YouTube.

The YouTube carousel is still present but its footprint is diminishing. That said, it’ll suck a lot of clicks away from a SERP.

The other change was far more important and is still relevant today. Google chose to match question queries with documents that matched more precisely. In other words, longer documents receiving questions lost out to shorter documents that matched that query.

This did not come as a surprise to me since the user experience is abysmal for questions matching long documents. If the answer to your question is in the 8th paragraph of a piece of content you’re going to be really frustrated. Google isn’t going to anchor you to that section of the content. Instead you’ll have to scroll and search for it.

Playing hide and go seek for your answer won’t satisfy intent.

This would certainly show up in engagement and time to long click metrics. However, my guess is that this was a larger refinement where documents that matched well for a query where there were multiple vector matches were scored lower than those where there were fewer matches. Essentially, content that was more focused would score better.

Am I right? I’m not sure. Either way, it’s important to think about how these things might be accomplished algorithmically. More important in this instance is how you optimize based on this knowledge.

Do You Even Optimize?

So what do you do if you begin to embrace this new world of language understanding updates? How can you, as an SEO, react to these changes?

Traffic and Syntax Analysis

The first thing you can do is analyze updates more rationally. Time is a precious resource so spend it looking at the syntax of terms that gained and lost traffic.

Unfortunately, many of the changes happen on queries with multiple words. This would make sense since understanding and matching those long-tail queries would change more based on the understanding of language. Because of this, many of the updates result in material ‘hidden’ traffic changes.

All those queries that Google hides because they’re personally identifiable are ripe for change.

That’s why I spent so much time investigating hidden traffic. With that metric, I could better see when a site or page had taken a hit on long-tail queries. Sometimes you could make predictions on what type of long-tail queries were lost based on the losses seen in visible queries. Other times, not so much.

Either way, you should be looking at the SERPs, tracking changes to keyword syntax, checking on hidden traffic and doing so through the lens of query classes if at all possible.

Content Optimization

This post is quite long and Justin Briggs has already done a great job of describing how to do this type of optimization in his On-page SEO for NLP post. How you write is really, really important.

My philosophy of SEO has always been to make it as easy as possible for Google to understand content. A lot of that is technical but it’s also about how content is written, formatted and structured. Sloppy writing will lead to sloppy embedding matches.

Look at how your content is written and tighten it up. Make it easier for Google (and your users) to understand.

Intent Optimization

Generally you can look at a SERP and begin to classify each result in terms of what intent it might meet or what type of content is being presented. Sometimes it’s as easy as informational versus commercial. Other times there are different types of informational content.

Certain query modifiers may match a specific intent. In its simplest form, a query with ‘best’ likely requires a list format with multiple options. But it could also be the knowledge that the mix of content on a SERP changed, which would point to changes in what intent Google felt was more relevant for that query.

If you follow the arc of this story, that type of change is possible if something like BERT is used with context sensitive embeddings that are receiving reinforcement learning from SERPs.

I’d also look to see if you’re aggregating intent. Satisfy active and passive intent and you’re more likely to win. At the end of the day it’s as simple as ‘target the keyword, optimize the intent’. Easier said than done I know. But that’s why some rank well and others don’t.

This is also the time to use the rater guidelines (see I’m not saying you write them off completely) to make sure you’re meeting the expectations of what ‘good content’ looks like. If your main content is buried under a whole bunch of cruft you might have a problem.

Much of what I see in the rater guidelines is about capturing attention as quickly as possible and, once captured, optimizing that attention. You want to mirror what the user searched for so they instantly know they got to the right place. Then you have to convince them that it’s the ‘right’ answer to their query.

Engagement Optimization

How do you know if you’re optimizing intent? That’s really the $25,000 question. It’s not enough to think you’re satisfying intent. You need some way to measure that.

Conversion rate can be one proxy? So too can bounce rate to some degree. But there are plenty of one page sessions that satisfy intent. The bounce rate on a site like StackOverflow is super high. But that’s because of the nature of the queries and the exactness of the content. I still think measuring adjusted bounce rate over a long period of time can be an interesting data point.

I’m far more interested in user interactions. Did they scroll? Did they get to the bottom of the page? Did they interact with something on the page? These can all be tracking in Google Analytics as events and the total number of interactions can then be measured over time.

I like this in theory but it’s much harder to do in practice. First, each site is going to have different types of interactions so it’s never an out of the box type of solution. Second, sometimes having more interactions is a sign of bad user experience. Mind you, if interactions are up and so too is conversion then you’re probably okay.

Yet, not everyone has a clean conversion mechanism to validate interaction changes. So it comes down to interpretation. I personally love this part of the job since it’s about getting to know the user and defining a mental model. But very few organizations embrace data that can’t be validated with a p-score.

Those who are willing to optimize engagement will inherit the SERP.

There are just too many examples where engagement is clearly a factor in ranking. Whether it be a site ranking for a competitive query with just 14 words or a root term where low engagement has produced a SERP geared for a highly engaging modifier term instead.

Those bound by fears around ‘thin content’ as it relates to word count are missing out, particularly when it comes to Q&A.


Recent Google algorithm updates are changes to their understanding of language. Instead of focusing on E-A-T, which are not algorithmic factors, I urge you to look at the SERPs and analyze your traffic including the syntax of the queries.

Algorithm Analysis In The Age of Embeddings originally published on Blind Five Year Old.

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Non-Gaming Brands Find Value in the Twitch Audience

It seemed to happen overnight and with little warning: Video gaming grew out of its awkward phase, emerged from mom’s basement and confidently launched itself onto the social media scene – winning the attention of millions of active and deeply engaged viewers in the process.

With the help of streaming media technology and a virtually unlimited ability for consumers to build social communities around the things they love, massively popular video games like Call of Duty and League of Legends have been transformed from isolated youth activities into powerful and participatory online events. The new entertainment category these events have spawned – esports – is projected to reach $1.65 billion in market revenue by 2020, making it a lucrative playing field for enterprising marketers.

Few social media platforms have done more to help brands capitalize on this booming entertainment trend than Twitch. In case you happen to be a n00b, Twitch began as a livestreaming video platform built around the interests of the gaming audience. But, as this passion-driven community grew, so too did the company’s view of its marketing value. Thanks to some savvy content partnerships with big media brands like the BBC, Disney Digital Network, and even the NFL, Twitch is expanding into other areas of streaming news and entertainment and now averages more viewers than many cable networks.

Jane Weedon, director of business development for Twitch, shares her insights on tapping into the huge audiences for livestreaming video for gamers without alienating the core fan base or losing brand identity.

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CCO: The Twitch community has expanded far beyond its initial audience of video gamers. How has your content strategy evolved in response?

Jane: The content we support on Twitch is still tied to our community of enthusiastic gamers; but over time it has surfaced that they have a lot of additional interests aside from gaming, such as anime, vlogging, comedy, and the creative arts. Given the many different passions of our (content) creators, we are putting a big focus on providing better means of discovery to ensure their fans can easily find them, such as adding new tags, recommendations, and categories.

.@Twitch evolved its content to serve gaming audience’s other interests like anime & vlogging. Jane Weedon
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CCO: On the business side, what makes Twitch valuable to its marketing partners? And, as you scale your offerings by continually adding new content partnerships, how can you protect this value from being diluted?

Jane: Twitch has mastered the art of delivering live, interactive, shared entertainment on a global scale with a creator-focused approach. The result is a large and passionate fan community connected by chat behavior and emote-driven language (a meme-based pictographic shorthand) native to Twitch. In addition, our core demographic is the hard-to-reach, cord-cutting 18- to 34-year-olds who consume all of their content on laptops and mobile devices.

The key to our success lies in seeing what streaming interests surface among our community and blending those with the content and our data. This ensures that our partnerships are aligned with our users.

In general, the Twitch community is very savvy; so, transparency and authenticity are essential. We also offer a managed service to help brands understand authentic ways to communicate with Twitch communities, as well as identifying the most appropriate communities and streamers for brands to engage with.

Transparency & authenticity are essential given the @Twitch community’s savviness, says Jane Weedon.
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HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: The ABCs of Connecting With Generation Z

CCO: How does your team determine what content ideas to pursue through media partnerships vs. what community members might contribute organically on their personal channels?

Jane: Content pursued through media partnerships is based on areas of interest surfaced by our community. For example, when we saw an affinity for anime, based on creators who were cosplaying as anime characters and playing anime-related games, we began streaming anime marathons, all of which have been well received. When things happen organically, like the TwitchPlaysPokémon channel, it is usually the community that first rallies around this content, which we, in turn, help amplify.

An example of how this worked for brands led to a very successful branded campaign using the concept of chat-driven video: Old Spice’s Nature Adventure. Procter & Gamble unleashed an individual into the woods who had to perform actions dictated by Twitch chat, all to promote the Old Spice line of products.

CCO: Are there opportunities for brand marketers to license and/or leverage Twitch content off the platform?

Jane: Yes. A recent successful example is PepsiCo’s 7-Eleven Summer Series Presented by Brisk, (Pepsi’s brand of iced tea). PepsiCo took the concept of being an event sponsor to a whole new level by creating original programming to coincide with the release of a limited time product with exclusive retail placement. PepsiCo and Twitch created an off-season competitive gaming tournament for the popular video game Rocket League where the event’s commentators and personalities consumed Brisk and performed in skits about purchasing the product at 7-Eleven.

Viewers not only cheered for shoutcasters (live gaming commentators) to consume bottles, they engaged with Brisk via social media after the broadcasts were over. They named their cars Brisk in the game, created videos speculating about potential Brisk-themed in-game car customization options, and took over the Rocket League subreddit with threads about Brisk.

Fans in chat even created their own catchphrase: “Take the risk. Drink the Brisk,” which became the rallying cry for the whole event.

This positioned Brisk not as just a brand name appearing in front of a broadcast but as an interaction point in the fan experience, a conversation piece, and a content provider. The key ingredient of success here was PepsiCo successfully identifying and incorporating into their messaging the style of organic fan interaction on Twitch and within the esports community.

CCO: The nature of social video means that much of the content on Twitch will always be unscripted. Are there ways that brands can minimize the risks involved in engaging on a platform where anything can happen?

Jane: In addition to Twitch’s robust community guidelines and terms of service, which are designed to ensure the site is welcoming to everyone, we provide a full suite of moderation tools and features to help channel owners mitigate inappropriate behavior in chat. Also, every channel has a report button with the reports monitored 24/7 by a global human moderation team.

CCO: Social video is an evolving area where some content marketers may not have a lot of experience. What advice can you offer to help them measure the performance of their content activities on Twitch and maximize the impact of their engagement there?

Jane: I’d suggest digging into user engagement data – going beyond minutes watched, clicks, and uniques. Twitch can measure viewer engagement via chat and the use of emotes – especially useful if a brand introduces a custom emote for a promotional stream. We also offer unique technical features like Extensions, tools that allow third-party developers to help channel owners customize their pages with interactive experiences via custom overlays. They can be directly integrated with live video on Twitch and will grow the unique relationship between creators and their communities, leading to higher engagement and more dedicated fans.

Extensions can include polls, leaderboards, virtual pets, interactive overlays, mini-games, music playlists, game-specific tools, and more. These extra points of interaction, which any content provider can use, offer yet another type of user engagement data without altering any content.

CCO: The gaming industry has a reputation for being less accepting of women participants, sometimes even openly hostile. How has Twitch ensured that the community is a place where female audiences can feel they belong?

Jane: Twitch has a “welcome-everybody” philosophy, which is reflected both through internal and external initiatives. They range from participating in national events – such as Pride Month, Women’s History Month, and African-American History Month – to TwitchUnity, our annual site-wide holiday, and TwitchCon, where we have panels and organizations that deal with inclusivity and diversity. At our office, we’ve hosted Geek Girl Dinner and Glassbreaker events, which are both designed to empower women, and we’ve spoken at public events, such as Grace Hopper’s celebration of women in computing, where we also provided scholarships to two students majoring in computer science to attend the conference.

CCO: What are you most excited about when it comes to Twitch’s future plans for engaging its community through content?

Jane: For us, success is about seeing our creators succeed. The fact that on our service they can turn a hobby they are passionate about into a way to make a living creating unique content is hugely exciting.

A version of this article originally appeared in the November issue of  Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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How to Survive the Ongoing Confusion With SEO

Search is one of the most vital – and misunderstood – components of a content distribution strategy.

The ongoing algorithm shifts initiated by the search engines make it hard to be confident that you’re doing everything you can to optimize content performance.

As part of CMI’s new Mastering Content Marketing video series, we asked Courtney Cox Wakefield, digital marketing manager at Children’s Health, to share her view on trends shaping the search landscape, and the challenges and opportunities they hold for content marketing.

You’ll find the highlights of our conversation filmed at Content Marketing World 2018 in the video below. Keep reading for a more detailed analysis of some of the key issues Courtney discusses. I also offer a few steps you can take to preserve your brand’s search influence and authority – even in the face of Google’s ongoing assaults on outbound link building.


New ranking factors rock the boat

One of the most talked-about shifts in the search world this year has been Google’s transition to mobile-first site indexing – i.e., crawling the mobile version of a site page to analyze its content and determine its ranking rather than using the desktop version.

Though Google insists that having your site content included in its mobile-first index is not a consideration in its ranking algorithm, the company notes (in a series of tweets) that overall mobile-friendliness of your site content is (and will continue to be) a ranking factor.

Courtney offers her take on what this shift might mean for marketers:

Mobile is really the most recent thing that’s made a big impact because Google used to look first at our desktop factors – so, what was going on our desktop – in order to figure out how they were going to rank us. Recently, within the last year, they have slowly started rolling out mobile-first rankings; so, they’re basically saying, ‘OK, we’re going to look first at the ranking factors for mobile. What are you doing on mobile, on your mobile site?’ Whether that’s a responsive site, or a separate mobile experience, or no mobile experience at all, they’re going to be ranking every search based on those mobile experiences.

Google is going to be ranking every search based on #mobile experiences, says @CourtEWakefield. #SEO
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Consider: In his analysis of the subject, SEO strategist Mike Murray contends that, whether or not mobile-first indexing directly affects rankings now, the fact Google shifted its priorities strongly suggests that meeting its high standards for mobile-friendliness and content quality is something marketers should pay extra attention to.

Latest word on voice

In her Content Marketing World presentation, Courtney discusses a sleeping giant among search ranking factors that’s poised to crush other factors under its tremendous weight – voice search.

Indications already are appearing that the growing smart-speaker market will make a huge dent in the way consumers search for information. For example, data from Alpine.AI reveals that over 1 billion voice searches are conducted every month, and comScore estimates that by 2020, 50% of all searches will be voice-based.

Why does it matter whether consumers search for information using their voice or their fingers? Well, for one thing (as I point out in my recent deep dive on the topic of voice technology), digital assistant devices deliver only one search result per inquiry.

Digital assistant devices deliver only one search result per inquiry, says @joderama. #SEO
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This makes reaching the coveted top SERP spot a heck of a lot more important. It also makes the path to achieving this critical goal – and measuring the impact of your content’s progress to achieve it – a lot more complicated. It’s a pressing concern, Courtney admits, that the industry isn’t adequately prepared to handle:

Voice, the things that we can do for it now, they’re limited because we don’t have a lot of measurement for voice. It’s not separated out in our Google Analytics. There’s not a lot of things that we can say, OK, I know this works because I can point back to this metric that shows that my traffic for voice is going up. The number of impressions I’m getting for voice is going up. We don’t have those things. What we have to look at is these proxy metrics, which nobody really likes, but they’re there and it’s what we’re stuck with right now. 

Google gobbling your lunch?

Since the beginning of search, there’s been an altruistic exchange in play between content marketers and the big G: Brands allow search bots to crawl and index their site content for free in order to supply the useful information and answers consumers rely on search engine results pages (SERPs) to provide. In turn, Google offers outbound links that direct back to the marketers’ site pages so the brands can capitalize on the extra attention and continue the conversation on their home turf.

But Google (and other search engines) has slowly and slyly started to rig the system against content creators by developing no-click features that ensure that the consumers’ path of discovery stays firmly within Google’s walled garden. The increased prominence of Google’s self-hosted solutions – including its answer boxes and featured snippets, Google posts, and knowledge panels – may provide greater convenience for consumers who want immediate gratification. By breaking the terms of this unstated social contract and killing organic reach, Google is leaving content marketers little choice but to make a few strategic changes of their own.

In his recent presentation at Brighton SEO, search expert and SparkToro CEO Rand Fishkin admits it won’t be easy for content marketers to keep the Google goliath at bay, but he offers strategic and tactical moves brands should prioritize in their content optimization efforts. They include:

  • Emphasizing tools, interactive features, data-driven stories, and other types of content experiences that drive clicks rather than providing quick answers
  • Doubling down on branded demand creation so that consumers are incentivized to search for you directly (rather than for broad keywords that you may or may not rank for)
  • Creating content for the platforms Google prioritizes (e.g., YouTube, G News, Google Maps)
  • Building brand profiles on the sites that rank well in your space and/or forging content partnerships with influential publishers that dominate the SERP for your top keywords

Think beyond SERP-based metrics

With Google seemingly set on cannibalizing brands’ traffic, another area where Courtney thinks marketers urgently need to make some changes is measurement:

We have spent a lot of time as an industry using clicks and traffic as a metric for success, and we’ve called other things vanity metrics, but I think clicks and traffic are vanity metrics. Ultimately, the only real metric is ROI. What money are you making from this?

This may be accurate from a pure search engine marketing (SEM) perspective; however, in the world of content marketing, the path from a click on a SERP to a sale isn’t as direct as it might be with pay-per-click advertising. This is where some of the softer ranking factors – influence and authority – are likely to come into play – something Courtney acknowledges and addresses:

I think we’re going to have to shift majorly as a marketing industry to say we’re going to lose clicks – and that’s OK because we’re building influence, and that’s what’s most important.

And that’s where getting more proficient with your content marketing holds a distinct advantage over relying on marketing techniques like SEM because the discipline is built on compelling consumers to view your brand as the go-to source of valuable, trustworthy information on the subject at hand. As Courtney says:

Just because you don’t get a click, it doesn’t mean you’re not building influence. It doesn’t mean that somebody doesn’t see you as that source where that content came from. So what if they get their answer right there? If they see that the recipe that they’re looking at came from allrecipes.com, well, the next time that they need a recipe, they may just go straight to allrecipes.com. It’s really hard to track that success back to that time that you showed up in the answer box. Ultimately, it builds influence and it makes people more likely to search you out as a brand in the future.

Just because you don’t get a click from SERP doesn’t mean you’re not building influence. @CourtEWakefield‏
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Content conclusion

Even if you can’t compete with Google’s self-serving strategic shifts and ongoing algorithm adjustments, your business still stands to reap strong benefits from search’s value exchange – as long as you focus less on counting the clicks and more on creating content experiences that satisfy consumers’ underlying needs. As Courtney advises:

One of the things with SEO is making sure that people stay engaged with your content and don’t leave and go back to the search engine results page and click to somebody else. Google is tracking that type of behavior. They know when people aren’t satisfied with the content that they get on your page. Building engaging content, like what Drew (Davis) was talking about in his (Content Marketing World) keynote session; and making sure that people are engaged, that you keep that tension, that you really answer their question but have that big payoff at the end, that is so important. Even though it’s not a direct ranking factor, it influences a ranking factor that can really make a difference for your content and your ranking.

Got a topic you would like our team to tackle in a future installment of the Mastering Content Marketing series? We would love to see your suggestions in the comments.

Courtney presented at Content Marketing World 2018. Will you be a presenter at CMWorld 2019? Speaker proposals are due December 14, 2018. Submit yours today. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

The post How to Survive the Ongoing Confusion With SEO appeared first on Content Marketing Institute.

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Build a Great Brand: Align What You Think, Do, and Say

“Content marketing is becoming marketing.” That’s the first item John Hall cites in his Forbes article about 2019 content marketing trends to watch.

Once a radical idea (despite its historical roots), the concept of replacing one-sided information pushes with two-way conversations and relationships with audiences is now commonplace with marketing teams.

“Content is one of the best tools you have for earning trust, building your brand, generating site traffic and qualified leads, and everything in between,” writes John, co-founder and president of Calendar.

Content is one of best tools for earning trust, brand building, & generating traffic & leads. @johnhall
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Content marketing’s success prompted LinkedIn’s Jason Miller to say content marketers need to look toward what’s next. “We need to figure out what’s really fundamental to what we do, and what’s just a tactic or technique that’s worked brilliantly in the past but might not necessarily work in the future,” he writes. “We need to build our conversation around a shared understanding of those fundamentals, but not around the same endlessly repeated tactics.”

Church+State founder Ron Tite suggests content marketers need to go further – to elevate every conversation to something greater than tactics.

Doing that, he says, is the only way to win and keep the audience’s attention.

“People used to vote with their wallets, and now they vote with their time,” he says. “We’re battling for time against content providers. We’re competing against the internet, and quite frankly, it’s kicking our ass right now.”

People used to vote with their wallets. Now they vote with their time, says @RonTite.
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The key to winning this battle, he suggests, is to build a great brand by focusing on what your brand and the people behind it think, do, and say. (Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and images come from Ron’s Content Marketing World 2018 presentation, The Death of Content Marketing – The Rise of Content Marketers.)

Why think, do, and say must align

Too many marketers hear the think, do, say alignment advice and immediately advocate for one social issue or another. Unfortunately, audiences see right through this unthinking approach, often taking to social media to point out a company’s hypocrisy.

Brands also sometimes are pushed by their agencies to jump into whatever hot conversations audiences are having. But if the conversation isn’t aligned with the brand as a whole, this approach rarely resonates.

Ron offers a contrast between outdoor retailer REI and carmaker Audi. When REI launched its #OptOutside initiative, its CEO said, “We believe that a life lived outside is a life worth living.” It showed the brand believes in something greater than selling tents – that initiative is aligned with the brand’s purpose.

On the other hand, Audi aired an ad on gender equality in the workforce during the Super Bowl. While an admirable cause, Audi missed a step because gender equality is not connected to the reason Audi makes cars.

“If you believe in something greater than your product and you align the behaviors and actions that reinforce that, that is worth talking about,” says Ron. “When an organization, and all the people within the organization think, do, and say the same thing, now you’ve got complete organizational alignment. And this is a marketing plan we can talk about.”

To illustrate, Ron shows a simple diagram that shows what it looks like when the thoughts, actions, and communications of an organization and its leaders and representatives are all aligned with the brand’s.

The harmonious image is quickly disrupted when the center circle rotates – and an individual thinks, does, or says things that oppose what the rest of the organization thinks, does, or says – creating an integrity gap.

Integrity gap is created when brand reps think, do, or says things opposite of rest of organization. @RonTite
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These integrity gaps account for every brand failure (explosions, as Ron calls them) over the past decade.

“If, as an organization, all you do is think, then you’re a think tank,” he says. “If, as an organization, all you do is do, do, do, you’re a sweatshop. No one wants to work for you … If, as an organization, all you do is say, say, say, but you never actually deliver on what you promised, then your customer churn goes through the roof.”

It has to be think, do, and say in harmony.

Start with thinking

The first step toward a congruent, inside-out alignment is to stop and have a good, long think. Microsoft did this in 2014 when Satya Nadella took the reins and reversed a generations-old practice of denying and vilifying the competition.

Ron, who counts Microsoft as a client, remembers Satya’s predecessor, Steve Blamer’s era. “I could never go in with a Mac and present. You’d go in and they’d say, ‘Could you put a yellow sticky note over the logo?’”

During the same period, Microsoft employees consciously corrected non-Microsoft language, saying, “Don’t you mean you ‘Bing-ed’ it?” in response to someone using Google as the search-engine verb.

Satya thought differently about prioritizing Microsoft customers over its products. He realized Microsoft customers use a variety of software and hardware. He acted differently to change Microsoft’s culture. And he spoke differently by talking more about users and less about Microsoft.

Satya’s new way of thinking allowed Microsoft team members to reorient their thinking to put customers first. Without it, no behavioral or verbal strategy would have turned the stagnating ship around.

What brands do

In the past, marketers’ goals included the task of creating a customer. Today, though, marketers can elevate their thinking to affect what they (and the brand) naturally do and say. You’re not bound to the content marketing tactics of steadfast content marketing brands (think Red Bull, REI, and Nike). Instead, look at how they think and let that inform your brand’s strategy with its unique purposes and values.

Talk of change tends to motivate a few trailblazers on each team to go back and disrupt their hard-fought, well-oiled machine. To clarify, you can’t take what Ron says (or what you read on the CMI blog) and single-handedly innovate the proverbial automobile assembly line.

Most enterprise content marketing teams have spent time and resources honing clear roles, responsibilities, and performance measurements.

Even if your department is on board with the change, you should, in keeping with the assembly line analogy, dedicate one team to crafting a prototype that embodies your new philosophy. Much like a dedicated group creates a concept car.

To apply the method to marketing, Ron gives a real-life example: “I tweeted that I loved the Westin Grand,” he recalls. “They write back, boom, ‘We love you too. If there’s anything we can do to make your stay better, let us know.’”

He responded to let them know there was no shampoo in his room that morning. “A little later, there’s a knock at the door,” he says. “A woman comes in with fresh fruit. She has chocolate. She has ice water. She has this note.”

He was delighted, and, as he is a frequent speaker, many people in his audiences heard about his positive experience. Word got back to the hotel property, which decided to kick things up a notch. The next time he checked in to the same hotel, he found his favorite drink, snack, a framed picture of him with his furry best friend, 20 shampoo bottles, and this note:

Now, the Westin’s novel gesture feels natural. “They’ve done it before, and it feels just as special. They probably have a room full of the frames, and they’ve got a process,” Ron says. But the takeaway is that Westin’s personal outreach wasn’t always an “assembly line” act.

“(Content marketing revolutionaries) set out to make a change for their business through many incremental improvements that would add value to their customers’ lives,” writes CMI chief strategy advisor Robert Rose. “Only in hindsight do we see them as revolutionaries.”

Ron agrees. What you do today should not reflect another thing that weighs down your marketing task list but should represent a byproduct of your (and your corporate culture’s) rational transformation.

What brands say

How’s this for irony?  All the way to the end, Enron, the U.S. energy-trading and utilities company that perpetuated one of the country’s biggest accounting frauds, displayed in its corporate lobby the words integrity, respect, communications, and excellence.

The travesty seems laughable today, but how much of your brand’s purpose statement is really lived out?

How much of your brand’s purpose is really lived out, asks @RonTite.
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“I shouldn’t read your values,” Ron says. “I should experience your values.”

Nike’s much discussed Colin Kaepernick campaign provides an example of what a brand says being supported by its actions. The copy literally speaks to elevating the conversation, Ron points out. And for a company that says it’s about supporting athletes, stepping into this controversy despite the risks backs up its words with actions.

Aim higher than content, marketing, or advertising

Platforms and mediums will come and go. The content marketers who stand the test of time are those who build content brands around their values, not their products. And remember, if you only value your company and your products, that’s what you’ll talk about by default.

Adopt this think-do-say attitude, Ron says, and your advertisements and typical content assets can soon be interchangeable — not because they look alike or serve the same goals but because they spring from the same mindset, which drives everything your brand does and says.

Back to Nike’s Kaepernick tweet.

“Is this PR? Is this an ad? Is this content,” Ron asks. “It doesn’t matter. It’s marketing. Let’s own it and tear the labels away.”

When you elevate the conversation and let go of labels, you can choose any tactic to support your brand. It doesn’t matter what you call it.

“Once we believe something that’s greater, once we’ve elevated that conversation, once we’ve backed it up with actions that are based on who we’re doing it for, what they want us to do, and who we do it with, that is worth talking about,” Ron says. “That is worth marketing.”

Here’s an excerpt from Ron’s talk:

Ron Tite’s Content Marketing World presentation is part of this winter’s CMI University curriculum. Don’t miss out – enrollment opens today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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Slow Page Load Time Not Always the Culprit in Poor SEO Rankings

If you’re concerned about your Google rankings and website page load speed, you should keep them in perspective.

Website developers and marketers buzz about page load time, especially because Google announced beginning this past July that speed is a keyword ranking factor for some mobile versions of websites.

In a Google Webmaster Central Blog post, Zhiheng Wang and Doantam Phan write:

The ‘Speed Update,’ as we’re calling it, will only affect pages that deliver the slowest experience to users and will only affect a small percentage of queries. It applies the same standard to all pages, regardless of the technology used to build the page. The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal, so a slow page may still rank highly if it has great, relevant content.

Search query intent is still a strong signal. Slow page may rank high if it has great #content. @Google #SEO
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OK, that was hardly a surprise and clearly Google cares about websites that load fast even on desktops. After all, representatives talk about it all the time. Google even developed tools devoted to both desktop and mobile performance, including PageSpeed Insights.

You could have page load issues, but that deficiency might not be to blame for your Google keyword rankings.

Here are three realities:

  1. Fortune 500 companies sometimes get failing grades for page load speed and enjoy top rankings. You probably do too.
  2. Page load speed is only one ranking factor; everything can’t be important. Backlinks and content still rule.
  3. If you’re vigilant about website load time, you’re still making good use of time. Fast-loading websites impress visitors.

Page load speed is only one ranking factor. Backlinks & #content still rule, says @mikeonlinecoach. #SEO
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For SEO purposes, I looked at four Fortune 500 companies and analyzed keywords, search volume, page authority (with Moz), and rankings with SEMrush. For top-ranking keywords, I used the popular GTmetrix tool that references Google data.

As you can see, the companies often don’t do too well with page load speed grades, as noted in the mobile and desktop columns. But Google ranks their sites high for key phrases.

How does Walmart pull off a No. 1 ranking for “car seat” with 165,000 monthly searches?

Does “car” or “seat” appear in the domain name? No. What about the page URL? Not bad: https://www.walmart.com/cp/car-seats/91365

Its SEO page title is short and to the point with the plural version: <title>Car Seats – Walmart.com</title>

For the most part, parts of the page content seem relevant:


I think the real boost for Walmart’s car seat page is the domain authority – 92 out of 100 on Moz. Although the page authority is only 50, the domain authority influences rankings as well. Moz reports 183 million backlinks to Walmart’s website.

Though @Walmart page gets F for load time, it ranks No. 1 b/c of its domain authority. @mikeonlinecoach
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Johnson & Johnson has some SEO-related advantages too to support its No. 2 ranking for “pharmaceutical careers” (1,300 monthly searches): http://www.careers.jnj.com/pharmaceuticals

The subdomain “careers” provides context and focus. The H1 tag is “careers.” The content is kind of short, but the domain authority is 74, which is strong.

INTL FCStone has a good desktop page load speed grade (B), but the mobile grade is D: https://www.intlfcstone.com/Main-Channels/Commodities/Capabilites/Physical-Trading/Cash-Grain-Brokerage/

What did the company do to rank No. 1 for “grain brokers”? Is it the low search volume – 110 searches a month? I’m sure that’s a factor, but low-volume searches still have plenty of competition with search results (6 million) and value for potential leads and sales. The limited content refers to “brokerage” even though the SEO page title isn’t spot-on (it starts with the business name, not a keyword): <title>INTL FCStone – Cash Grain Brokerage</title>

I imagine that Google simply recognizes that the website page has relevant content backed by a reasonable domain authority (46) and a fair page authority (26). Page load speed grades likely aren’t helping or hurting.

Ericcson ranks No. 1 for “Apache Storm vs Spark” (390 monthly searches) because it has SEO success on many levels: https://www.ericsson.com/research-blog/apache-storm-vs-spark-streaming/

Sure, B is a notable page load speed grade. But other variables seem to have the influence:

  • H1 tag: Apache Storm vs Spark Streaming
  • SEO page title: <title>Apache Storm vs Spark Streaming | Ericsson Research Blog</title>
  • Page URL: https://www.ericsson.com/research-blog/apache-storm-vs-spark-streaming/
  • Content: About 800 words

Google likes the page so much that it even rewards it with a featured snippet and the first regular result:

Additional resources for SEO, page load time, and rankings

If you need technical advice about ways to improve page load speed, check out Aleh Barysevich’s recent CMI article: 4 Steps to Speed Up Your Website and Look Better to Google.

Crazy Egg also explores the topic and references website user surveys in this comprehensive piece: 20 Ways to Speed Up Your Website and Improve Conversion.

For a closer look at SEO ranking tactics and factors, I recommend these resources:

What’s been your experience with page load speed as it relates to Google rankings? What impact does it have for you as you work on multiple fronts to target high search engine rankings for your website’s most relevant keywords?

Please note:  All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Enterprise marketers can take their knowledge to the next level at the ContentTech Summit April 8-10 in San Diego. Register today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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Data Privacy Law: Ignorance Is No Excuse

From the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal to the arrival of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), 2018 has pushed data privacy into the headlines. Ruth Carter – internet, intellectual property, and business attorney – talks to CMI’s Chief Content Officer magazine about how marketers should adapt to a world far less forgiving and far more skeptical of the ways we capture and use data.

CCO: Should marketers assume that capturing and managing customer or audience data is just going to get tougher? Is it time to stop looking for loopholes?

Ruth: Instead of things getting tougher, they’re going to get different. If you’re in a business that sells data, good luck. I don’t know if that is a sustainable business strategy at this point because of the way things are changing. We’re seeing things like with Cambridge Analytica and people being upset that their data is being given away and sold. With all the requirements now about having to get consent, I just don’t see selling data as an effective business. So, if that is how you’re making your money, I hope you have a backup plan.

I don’t see selling data as an effective business, says @rbcarter.
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This is not a static situation. Laws are going to be changing. GDPR just came out so we’re still looking at how this law works in reality versus just trying to apply it to your company based on the law as written. So, there are always lessons to be learned. I don’t think this is the end of new laws coming out.

CCO: Was it always unfair for marketers and certain business models to assume that people were cool with their data being captured, used, and possibly even shared in these ways? Who reads all those terms and conditions anyway?

Ruth: I think things changed so quickly in terms of becoming such an internet-based society that people didn’t think about what might be in those terms of service. They just clicked the box saying, “Yes, I agree.”

Just looking at things from an intellectual property perspective, I see people still using images that don’t belong to them and when I send them a cease-and-desist letter the most common reaction is, “I didn’t know.” That tells me we moved really fast, in terms of the technology developing and people taking advantage of the opportunities that came with that, without everyone necessarily reading the fine print or realizing that there was even fine print to be read.

There’s a difference between companies making that information available versus people availing themselves of that information and making educated decisions about when, where, and how they share their data with others.

Companies should be forthcoming about what they’re doing and not hiding the ball.

CCO: New rules and legislation around data privacy are, of course, aimed at curbing less-than-ethical or less secure business and marketing practices that might put personal data at risk. However, do such changes mean that even the best intentioned could be unwittingly caught out?

Ruth: I feel bad for some companies that have been doing everything above board, completely respecting their audience, as they’ve had to change. They’ve had to go through the process of updating their privacy policies.

One company sent me its “we’ve updated our privacy policy” email. They claim they’re complying with GDPR – and they get credit for trying – but they’re not lawyers. They haven’t read the law cover to cover like I have. I took one look at the email and I went, “Good effort, but you actually aren’t compliant.”

I emailed them and gave them some suggestions and some resources that I created. I just felt bad for them because they had this really simple privacy policy that made perfect sense for what they were doing and now it has to be much more complicated because the law changed – because some companies, for lack of a better term, shit the bed. So, now everybody has to adjust.

CCO: Is it advisable for marketers to take responsibility for data compliance themselves?

Ruth: I think it is. I think they can handle it themselves – with education. Yes, the rules have changed, and it’s much more complicated, but if you break it down into the requirements, it’s pretty doable, actually. But you have to go through the process of educating yourselves: “OK, this is what the rule is. What does this mean for our company?”

CCO: With the implementation of the recent European GDPR legislation, will concepts such as implied consent or inferred consent – concepts that many marketers have relied on for years to capture data and build lists – become less viable?

Ruth: I would agree with that. I’m definitely somebody who, if I exchange business cards with you or come to your booth at an expo and put my card in the bucket to win an iPad, doesn’t want to be on your newsletter list 30 seconds later. I didn’t consent to that and I think any company that does that is saying, “I don’t respect you.” Or, “We don’t know what we’re doing and we’re just going to throw everybody on our list and hope that it turns into sales.”

GDPR doesn’t apply to everybody, so there are situations where you can still put people on your list unless they have specifically written on their business card, “Don’t add me to your list.” But I think that isn’t a good strategy. Ditto to anyone who thinks they can buy a list. Apparently, that is still a thing.

Adding people who give you a business card to your mailing list isn’t a good strategy, says @rbcarter.
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CCO: How does GDPR define informed consent?

Ruth: The new GDPR legislation requires a business to provide 10 pieces of information when acquiring somebody’s consent to add them to an email list:

  • Identity and contact details of the controller or their representative
  • Contact information for the data protection officer, where applicable
  • Purpose of the processing for which the personal data are intended, and legal basis for the processing
  • Legitimate interests of the controller or third party (when sending commercial email/processing for
    a client/customer)
  • Recipients of the personal data
  • Intent (if applicable) to transfer personal data to a non-EU country or international organization and whether the EU Commission has determined that this entity has the appropriate safeguards
  • Length of time personal data will be stored or criteria for determining that period
  • Existence of the right to request from the controller access to, rectification or erasure of personal data or its restriction
  • Right to withdraw consent at any time
  • Right to lodge a complaint with the supervisory authority at any time

CCO: The new GDPR legislation is based on where the customer lives and not where the business operates. Does this set a new precedent, where marketers need to consider data privacy globally and not just what’s permissible in their own backyard?

Ruth: I definitely agree with that. It’s too hard to try to have different rules for different people. Who knows where they live or where they are when they sign up for your email? You can’t go off IP addresses. It’s a mess if you try to sort it out that way.

From a point of convenience, it’s just easier for a company to say, “We are going to comply with all rules simultaneously and whichever is the most restrictive, that’s what we’re going to do. That’s the easiest way to cover our butts.”

Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. If you want to be a global company and you’re open to having people on your list from anywhere on the planet, well, then you have to comply with every rule on the planet. Good luck with that. Just go with the lowest common denominator and comply.

CCO: Is there an upside for marketers? How might complying with these recent changes actually improve our effectiveness?

Ruth: Look at what data you’re asking for and then question why you’re asking for it. Don’t ask for anything you don’t need.

And be transparent. I’m very happy to report that the majority, if not all, of the companies that I’ve written terms of service for, put in those terms of service, “We don’t sell or give away your data.”

Data privacy is as much a trust and reputational issue as it is a compliance and technical one.

#Data privacy is as much a trust & reputational issue as it is a compliance and technical one. @rbcarter
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A version of this article originally appeared in the November issue of  Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription.

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3 Easy Ways Content Marketers Can Provide Instant Value to the Sales Teams

Editor’s note: Pam Didner recently authored the book Effective Sales Enablement for marketers. In this article, she shares that perspective with three ways content marketers can provide value to the sales team.

Most content marketers focus on meeting marketing’s needs to build brand awareness, drive demand, or nurture prospects to convert them to qualified leads. Marketing, working with business units or product marketing, generates many content pieces and customizes them to satisfy various marketing channels.

Sales, in a way, can be treated as another marketing channel. Marketers can enable sales leveraging different elements – one of those ways is through content. Here are three quick and easy ways content marketers can provide value to the sales team:

  • Incorporate marketing content into onboarding and continuous training.
  • Map select content to sales processes.
  • Use content as pass-through materials to customers.

Incorporate marketing content into onboarding and continuous training

Generally, it’s not marketing’s job to create sales training and development. However, marketing can easily exert influence and provide value in this area. Selling complex equipment, machinery, or newly found technology requires salespeople to be properly trained so they can talk about the benefits of new products and technology in the context of their customers’ challenges and pain points. Since the essence of content marketing is about creating relevant and engaging materials for customers, content used on the marketing side could be used for sales onboarding and training.

#Content marketers can exert influence & provide value to sales training & development. @PamDidner
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As a content marketer, you can obtain the agenda of sales onboarding and the curriculum of continuous training from your sales team. Review the agenda and the curriculum to get a sense of how training materials are created and by whom. In some cases, you may be surprised that you and the training team use the same subject matter experts from the business units or product marketing teams to create similar content.

Amy Pence, director of global enablement from Alteryx, shared her daily onboarding agenda with me:

Alteryx’s platform allows content marketers to build workflows by prepping, pulling, and blending data from various legacy systems. Then, they can use the data on their platform to run regression models or different statistical analysis to forecast or predict the outcomes of various scenarios. The offerings are technical and complicated and therefore require in-depth explanations.

Proper onboarding is critical for new sales talent to be successful. If you review Amy’s agenda, you can see content marketers can provide value in many ways. The first agenda item is storytelling. Content marketers can share how they tell product stories relevant for the sales team when they work with customers. For the second agenda item, live demos are conducted. In your company, you could share with your sales training manager any show-and-tell videos that marketing has created. As for the sales playbook, you can contribute product messaging, a buyers’ guide, and customer testimonials. The next item on her agenda is competitive corner. At this point, you could share product comparison guides, performance benchmark data, competitive analysis, and additional resources or reference materials. If you know the overall content landscape, you can help sales enablement or sales training managers source content and accelerate salespeople’s knowledge and performance. It’s a win-win.

Map select content to sales process

There are several approaches to map marketing-centric content to sales stages. One approach is to list key marketing content based on the customer journey.

Help the #sales team. Map marketing-centric content to sales stages, says @PamDidner.
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If your company offers many products and technologies, you can do this based on products, technologies, or buyers’ personas. Let’s use this customer journey created by Jacco Van Der Kooij as an example:

As a marketer trying to help salespeople, you can present a list of five to 15 content pieces related to each stage.

Now, you can work with your sales team to identify their sales tactics at each sales stage. Below is a typical sales journey:

Now, let’s map the customer journey to the sales journey. In general, the initial sales stage starts when prospects express interest in knowing more about your products, which can be part of the education phase of the customer journey. This image illustrates the mapping of the sales journey to the customer journey:

Since you identified key content pieces for the education, selection, and integration stages, you can now select appropriate content for the sales stages.

Again, this is one approach for content marketers to expand content to the sales side. The other way is to educate salespeople on a list of content and let them select the appropriate ones to use at different stages as they see fit.

Use content as pass-through materials to customers

Many of us have had the experience of going to a car dealer to buy a car. The salespeople hand us nicely printed brochures or booklets to help us decide. Those brochures are marketing materials, but they are handed out by salespeople. I call them pass-through content.

Have a list of content for your sales team to share via email or leave behind after customer meetings. If you have a regular cadence of creating new content or refreshing existing content, it’s important to regularly communicate the list of available content with your sales team.

It’s important to regularly communicate the list of available #content with your sales team, says @PamDidner.
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Find out the types of content the sales team is interested in sharing with customers or proactively recommend content for use. Let them know what’s coming. Michael King, former marketing director of DataDirect Networks, explains the importance of marketing helping sales put content into context.

When he was at DataDirect Networks, the sales team had regular quarterly business-review meetings. Experienced sales managers would share the challenges they encountered when they talked to prospects and existing customers. Then, they would share the solutions to address those issues and the relevant content they used. For example: “If customers inform you that they do not need centralized storage, here is what you (as the salesperson) should say and what content to use to illustrate your points …” He stresses that knowing which content to use is as important as understanding the customers’ challenges.

Marketing creates different content for multiple communications purposes. Depending on sales stages or conversations with customers, product-specific content tends to be frequently requested by the sales team. Examples of marketing-created content that would also work for sales communications include:

These types of content come in handy and should be part of the sales playbook or part of the sales portal, especially as a follow-up to a productive conversation or meeting. According to research, the Picture Superiority Effect indicates that people will recall learning more frequently and easily when they learned through visuals. As the article notes, only 10 percent of what you say or write will be recalled within two days of your meeting. That means that in a short period they will have forgotten the vast majority of what you were trying to convey. Therefore, after conversations and meetings, it’s important to share content to validate, reinforce, or remind customers of your key points. Content, if used appropriately, can benefit both marketing and sales, keep the brand top-of-the-mind for customers, and facilitate sales processes.

Do you want to speak to marketers in person? Apply by Dec. 14 to present at Content Marketing World 2019.

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Are You Measuring Right in Your Content Marketing?

Marketers are awash in data. But ask marketers if they’re measuring the right things and most answers are closer to “damned if I know” than “you betcha.” So, what can be done when big data gets the better of you?

In May I judged a category in the 2018 Content Marketing Awards. I was particularly interested to see how the entries reported success metrics. I was beyond disappointed to see many entries relying on the same ubiquitous (and often useless) metrics everyone touts regardless of the nature of the content or the business goals it’s meant to achieve. Even when people clearly defined their goals for the project – and not everyone did – there was a striking disconnect between the goals and how they claimed to demonstrate success.

Too many marketers mistakenly rely on the same metrics regardless of #content’s purpose, says @SarahMitchellOz.
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Rand Fishkin sees the same behavior. The founder of SparkToro and Moz, and author of Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World, has spent his career helping marketers reach their target audiences. Rand spoke to me about measurement on an episode of the Brand Newsroom podcast.

“I think that one of the biggest issues I see on measurement and reporting, for sure, is that the marketing metrics we use are disconnected from the things that actually impact the business goal,” he says.

The #marketing metrics we use are disconnected from the things that impact the business goal, says @randfish.
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He believes business is on autopilot when it comes to reporting, pointing to preconceived ideas as a culprit. “I think it happens because marketers are used to certain metrics. Their managers and CMOs and even CEOs are used to certain metrics; they’re used to reporting in a certain way,” Rand says.

“You know web analytics tools are used to giving certain kinds of outputs, so you get this bias.”

When pressed to give his top metrics, Rand says a one-size-fits-all mentality is the wrong way to think about measurement. “We should be asking, ‘For this particular situation, where we are trying to accomplish x, what are the metrics that we should be using to measure whether we’ve done x?’”

A one-size-fits-all metrics mentality for content evaluation is wrong. It’s situation-specific, says @RandFish.
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Rand says content marketers run into problems when they assume some metrics are good and others are bad. “It’s all situation-specific and tying the metrics to business goals is what we need to do,” he says.

Path to content marketing success

Let’s be clear: The way to content marketing success is simple to define but difficult to achieve. It looks like this:

  1. Define business goals.
  2. Develop a content marketing strategy with defined marketing objectives and success measurements.
  3. Produce original, high-quality content aligned with those objectives.
  4. Publish to online and offline channels identified in your strategy.
  5. Distribute content, via your email database, social media, and PR.
  6. Amplify your content using SEO and SEM to find those you don’t know or who don’t know about you.
  7. Measure results against business goals.
  8. Refine strategy to improve results.

Rand is right. What you measure must relate to the first thing in the cycle – your business goals. Yet, most content marketers focus on reporting the success of distribution and amplification efforts. This results in an overall lack of accountability to the business.

Before you protest, remember the title of this article. It isn’t about social media or SEO metrics. It’s about whether content marketers are measuring the right things. Content marketing’s purpose, according to the Content Marketing Institute, is “to drive profitable customer action.”

It’s easy to become distracted by the process of content marketing because data gives a great way to see results. It’s exciting to tweak a project and see metrics change, rankings shift, or follower numbers increase. The gamification of social media turned us into an industry of tracking fiends – while distracting too many of us from the business outcomes we should be trying to achieve.

Popular metrics aren’t necessarily useful metrics

In my opinion, some popular measurements deliver truly useless metrics when determining the success of a content marketing initiative. We need to be better at demonstrating content’s ability to influence business goals. It’s easy to report statistics and figures, especially when dripping in data, but none of these metrics is useful when calculating a return on investment: 

  • Activity metrics: Gobs of statistics – including impressions, reach, views, sessions, and engagements – are reported for websites, social media, and online advertising covering both organic and paid traffic. Big activity numbers can seem good, but they don’t necessarily help determine if you’re meeting business goals. It’s a little disingenuous to pay Google to promote your content or website, then turn around and claim success.

Big activity metrics don’t help determine if you’re meeting business goals, says @SarahMitchellOz. #ROI
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  • Time spent: Does more attention on Facebook, YouTube, Pandora, and any other online channel or platform convert to more business? Too many marketers make the pivot into content designed purely to entertain for the sole purpose of holding attention longer. Will that compilation of cheesy ads from the ’80s coax a person to make a purchase? Will those oh-so-clever memes lead to more newsletter sign-ups? Will people notice or care which company page or account the content came from?
  • Sentiment scores: These might reveal how people feel about your content, but do they make a difference to your bottom line? Sentiment may help you set the right tone, but it’s a long way from proving the effectiveness of your content.

What is your purpose? What does profitable customer action look like for you? What can be measured to ensure that your efforts are appreciated and rewarded with buy-in from your business? Profitable customer action most resembles growth in the business.

Caveat about unique users

One of the most misunderstood metrics is unique user views. Reaching 100% of your audience is difficult, if not impossible, so tread carefully before reporting you’ve reached everyone. Before you claim victory to your management team, it’s worth knowing how unique users work.

Unique user views are designed to count visitors to your website, but it’s not an exact science. In simple terms, a new user is counted on the first visit to a website. If a person uses more than one browser – say Safari and Chrome – the user is counted twice. Or, if cookies are in play and the user clears their cookies or the cookies are reset, the same person could be counted more than once during any given period.

Improvements are made continually and the rules defining unique users keep changing. Most recently, Google has started trying to predict and filter out duplicates for people visiting your website from more than one device.

Good things to measure

It’s vital to define business goals in your content marketing strategy along with how you plan to measure goal achievement. This creates a good opportunity to get buy-in from elsewhere in the business because the important measurements are not going to come from Google Analytics. You’ll need support from different departments to get assistance on reporting.

It helps to overtly explain how you intend to drive growth with content marketing. While a single piece of content rarely generates a direct conversion, your overall strategy should make a measurable contribution to growth. Consider including some or all of these measurements in your strategy:

  • Sales data is the motherlode of all measurement. If you can prove content marketing is impacting the bottom line, you’ll have no problem getting more budget for future efforts.
  • New customers are another critical measurement. Identifying the influence content has on customer acquisition – and you should be considering ways to capture that information – shows the value of content marketing.
  • Average customer lifetime value reflects how content marketing aids upselling and cross-selling opportunities. Benchmark this figure and track it as part of your management reporting.
  • Reduction in the cost of customer acquisition shows your content marketing can lower expenses in other areas of the business including advertising, traditional marketing, and sales.
  • Customer retention and loyalty demonstrate the value of content marketing since it’s cheaper to keep a customer than find a new customer.
  • Leads generated measures the number of potential revenue opportunities created for your company by tracking the leads directly resulting from your content.
  • Email subscribers rank at the top of the subscriber hierarchy, according to Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose in their book Killing Marketing: How Innovative Businesses are Turning Marketing Cost into Profit. This is because the audience has not only shown an interest in your content but expressly requested more of it. When someone wants your content, it’s much easier to convert that person into a paying customer.

#Email subscriber metric shows audience so interested in your #content they want more of it. @SarahMitchellOz
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  • Goal attainment in Google Analytics depends on the goals set up by your SEO team and can help track the effectiveness of your content and how well your calls to action are working.

The above goals measure profitable customer action. Meanwhile, other metrics provide useful leading indicators to analyze how your content marketing initiative is working and to identify weak spots or opportunities to improve:

  • Open rates from email show whether your titles or subject lines resonate with your audience.
  • Click-through rates (CTR) from website and email identify a willingness to answer calls to action or find further information. It’s essential to understand how customers move through your content – where they enter and drop off – but high CTRs don’t necessarily equate to conversion.
  • Time spent demonstrates your content is interesting, but it doesn’t show whether it’s meeting business goals. Still, if time-spent figures are changing, it’s worth examining why.
  • Invitations to contribute at in-person events, in writing, or by making appearances on videos or podcasts are an indication your content is positioning you or your company as subject matter experts.
  • Results from research and surveys about your company provide a body of information to track over time. Depending on the questions asked, you can ascertain whether your content efforts are having a positive effect on your business.

Rand explains how web analytics can lead to bias in marketing’s expectations. Consecutive monthly reports showing increased activity, time spent, and improved sentiment create a false sense of security. Because content marketing is known for taking time to build momentum and deliver results – six, 12, or even 18 months – focusing on the wrong measurements creates a difficult situation if the business hasn’t changed despite all the reports delivering good news for months.

The less that marketers and management understand analytics and metrics, the more likely that frustration levels rise until a growing sense of “content marketing doesn’t work” creeps into the psyche of the business. That’s exactly what’s happening in this era of too much information.

Switching to business metrics for measuring and reporting the effectiveness of content marketing requires a shift in thinking. Content marketers who report on the impact content has on the business are better placed to gain influence in their organization.

A version of this article originally appeared in the November issue of  Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

The post Are You Measuring Right in Your Content Marketing? appeared first on Content Marketing Institute.

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