Transitioning to a Content Strategy

by on August 15, 2012 | posted in Content Strategy

Minimum Viable Product is a concept generally applied to startups, one originated by Eric Ries. It is used with new companies so that they may be able to ship an early iteration of their software to quickly get feedback on initial versions of their offering – to get market validation and to also allow them to quickly learn whether or not the presumed amazingness they are producing is actually, otherwise, a problem they and no one else actually had.

In today’s post-Penguin world, many businesses face the growing challenge of an adjacent and very-startup-esque problem – the pivot. Many a business have been doing the aggressive link building thing since the beginning of time, ignoring content, and funneling strategy towards the aim of producing the most amount of anchor text links at a quick pace – and in a scalable fashion.

Of course, we all know how this fairy tale ends – terribly. Many were hit, and many were hit hard. When the dust settled, all had to recover, and almost all came to the same conclusion that has arrived in the hearts and minds of most SEOs – content strategy.  Everyone is pivoting towards it, and for most, the transition is damn hard. Crying, sweat, failure – these are three words most of you have probably said and/or felt, albeit not very loudly, because, of course, you have a reputation to protect.

But, this is a transition that must be made. Go towards the puck, as it were. We have to pivot, and we have to pivot quickly, undoubtedly – or that stress assuredly begins to build that we are going to get left behind by the people who are sprinting ahead of us.  Unfortunately, much of the reality  and common sense of SEO we’ve been trying to pitch to clients and decision makers for some time –  that things move very slowly – tends to leave extremely quickly when we’ve seen any kind of negative ranking effect.

Making Appropriate Adjustments Towards Content Marketing

In the face of these changes, it’s important to step back and realize that most people have also faced similar ranking effects. All of them will be moving slowly as well, and the winners – the long term SERP dominators – will be the ones who do so in the most appropriate fashion. The answer, unfortunately, is not to immediately ship $20k pieces of interactive, 4D linkbait or to contact Dr. Phil in hopes he’ll link to your health insurance blog. Rather, the answer, actually, is to utilize minimum viable product philosophy to quickly ship linkable content and iterate.

How do we do that? Well, we move elegantly across the process of transition, and we do so in appropriate fashion such that we build links and appropriate our content strategy in a way that makes the best, low-risk sense – amongst every stage of the process of content marketing start and manipulative linking stop.

You see, the reality is that people who have been practicing Penguin-hit strategy are simply not adept at Penguin-proof strategy – especially in the “gray” markets that had made it an optimal scenario to ignore pretty much whatever Matt Cutts says in the pre-Penguin era. Even if we believe we know what we’re talking about, we simply do not. Pride becomes before the fall, as it were – and the most self-aware (empathetic) marketer will understand that he or she does not understand all markets, everywhere – and will instead take the most cost-efficient, low risk measures to understand those markets and define his or her content marketing strategy to quickly transition to a more future-proof link building gameplan.

An empathetic, self-aware marketer pivots from “Penguin-hit” to “algo-proof” by:

  • Quickly shipping a bare bones blog (if they don’t already have one) utilizing mostly text-based posts to get speedy, associative feedback on the awareness of their writers to assess the needs of their target market
  • Setting out immediately to establish the slower, methodical “promotional levers” (social media accounts/personas for his clients/websites), so that when their content strategy is finally appropriately tweaked, they have the promotional push to make real effect without continual, laborious outreach
  • Leveraging any kind of associative authority their company/client/personal brand has to get real, constructive feedback on early iterations of new content strategy from influencers in the sector and/or utilizing said associated brand to get secondary links
  • Not signing long, expensive contracts with “rich” media content developers on the assumption that sure, they can ship quality product that will generate links – without truly knowing and/or matching content production types with the associated needs/wants of the target market – and/or their own ability to develop good ideas/promote it to improve their success
  • Instead shipping and building rich media as one-time costs — with expectation to fail and still iterate on a second and possibly third attempt based on the hypothesis from the first — with outsourced developers leveraging new and growing influencer relationships to learn and quickly iterate on the effectiveness of various content types such as but not limited to a) humor b) encyclopedia content c) visual imagery d) video and/or e) interactive media
  • Not completely abandoning their “gray” strategy on the assumption that they will get things wrong at first, and that Google is not so sophisticated that they can stop links that never were bad – that is,  referring-traffic generating links that help users – links that can still be acquired through those atypically described “gray” strategies (while still realizing that sticking with this strategy might be a sub-standard long-term initiative)
  • Identifying and immediately utilizing as many “website anonymous” links (those that don’t require much website quality to pull down) their established network of SEOs and etc (you have that, right?) has leveraged/been shown to slam-dunk to the greatest degree during said transition, without fear of diminished profits in order to maintain link building momentum – including but not limited to a) guest posts b) infographic pushes on established seed sites and/or c) other website-anonymous relationships such as event sponsorships and scholarships
  • Realizing that in the near-term, the best use of their time might not be SEO at all, but rather, leveraging other skills such as content rewriting, CRO (and how content rewriting connects to that), affiliate development and PPC to dictate quick  change and revenue increases to grow internal personal trust and connected SEO buy-in which has since been shaken

While it’s pretty easy to list of a set of bullets to put you on the path towards post-Penguin success, implementation isn’t nearly as easy to do. Iteration and growth in the early stage is still just the early stage – it’s not the path towards a real content strategy that defines your business for the near-future. To do that, we must make intelligent, methodical decisions about our content and link building process to step into 2013 with hopes it persists in value until 2020, or at least, anyways, until SEO is dead.

Content Marketing – Mid Term Solutions

While all of the above is going on in your transition, you must also make intelligent “mid-term” moves or be stuck shifting gears in quicksand. At some point, you want to make sure your newly minted content strategy is ready to kick back into fifth, and a lot of that comes from making sure you are moving the appropriate levers to do so once you’re sure your content pivots are properly aligned.

Finding talented blog designers

Much of the short-term dilemma will be in shipping an effective blog you can leverage to push content. Many businesses have a static, non-agile framework, one that is not conditioned to properly leverage quickly pushing new linkable assets.  However, it is my recommendation to ship whatever you can quickly, and then use your mid-term time to locate a blog designer who can make something beautiful that will increase the “push” of the blog-friendly content you develop.

In my experience doing this, you can find many answers, but almost always they are bad. In many ways blog design is like buying a house – many people have worked with one realtor (or maybe two), and are moderately happy, but that is not reflective of the entire (or elite) part of the market. When you ask people for blog design recommendations, they give you their one or two choices, and often many times they are either biased or incentive driven – referral fees and/or their close friend(s) that they have worked with in the past. For this reason, I suggest your own inquistion, leveraging the actual designer network that exists online to find what you consider “great talent” that fits your needed design style.

What I mean, here, is Twitter lists. If you start with a talented designer and look to the lists of people who have included them – in my example below, Shawn Johnston – you will find a large number of  talented folks in related design/development related groups. Since you have the core, you can now find the additional spokes to locate designers who are A) likely in a similar tier of quality as Shawn and B) easily accessible and searchable without having to worry about Pagerank, paid links or other levers that can artificially inflate perceived quality.

Understanding the diminishing value of non-brandable domains

As we move towards content marketing, domain value continues to face a crunch. “SEO” domains that may have been pretty valuable, previously, have diminished in quality because there is an inherent, combinatory effect that comes with marketing them. Of course, will get more clicks than, which may impact search rankings. However, with enough paid link punch to grind up those rankings, the 4-5% differentiating quality still made that beautiful domain ( well worth having. In today’s world, though, the value of such a domain has diminished – because there is also an inherent limitation on your ability to perform effective content marketing with that URL.

In the world of paid links, if you have a spammy domain name, it only matters so much, because you have money as a value proposition to overtake it. In the world of content marketing, it can immediately elminate you from consideration for an organic citation – no matter how great your content is. Good luck sending authentic pitches from anywhere and getting a good open rate. When working with clients like this in the past, I would resort to sending A) from my own e-mail and not the clients domain B) hiding the URL every chance I could, such as this when linking to the asset in question. Of course, this is not the funnest or most effective strategy, so I would strongly suggest moving the line of acceptability back in terms of purchasing an exact match domain for your niche.

Investing in the pursuit of elite-level content writers in your vertical 

In my talk at Link Love about building links through imitation, I dove into creative ways we might be able to locate content writers to do guest posting for us. The process is somewhat straightforward – look to sites that crowdsource high quality content from multiple authors, without paying them (such as Huffington Post, Wisebread, Seeking Alpha, etc) and then contact those authors (whose information is easily found through secondary channels) with incentives to write for you. Here, we have opportunity. These people:

  1. Are good, but underpaid/not paid at all
  2. Know how to get guest posts placed
  3. Have domain expertise in your area
  4. Have personal brand to leverage as a linkable asset above your (currently) crappy website

Once found, you can then craft a specific pitch to get them to “promote” your site (SEO as a branding mechanism/aim to get good writers to represent you is not super effective, so I would choose promotion based verbiage over that when contacting them) and offer to pay based on their ability to get stuff placed as representative of your domain. Boom, easy promotion/link opportunity. However, beyond that – and what I said at Link Love, this process is also a great way to get your foot in the door to have these writers take on content development for your own domain – blogging, writing the on-page stuff, building an audience. If you put out a job ad on Craigslist, you will likely not find someone good or worth using – at least in the mid-term. This process is a great multi-tier strategy, because it allows you to get links in the short term using a secondary asset (personal brand) above the main asset you are working towards (website quality) while also pursuing the full-time content writers you need to get hired to win in the long term.

Continuing to build new efficiencies through quick, efficient failure

Link building as a process becomes scalable when you can repeat the same things and through executing that process, learn how you’ve failed and can therefore improve. A bad move towards content marketing is one where you continue to throw random shit at the wall expecting each of them to get three or four links and then bail, and/or making a huge, risky investment in something up front hoping it succeeds. A good process is investing heavily in a few singular arms that power your entire efforts, such as but not limited to:

  • A process of guest posting/placing outbound content at scale leveraging high quality writers/relationships you have sourced
  • Developing high quality visual content using internal designers and then leveraging “seed” relationships you’ve established to push it
  • Blogging as a primary methodology of growing a continuously building audience that will build you links and citations organically

The power of doing this should be obvious. By repeating the same things, you can lower costs and increase the speed that you implement them. If you continue to attempt new market initiatives and jump around like a dancing monkey, you will have high costs, lower success rate, and will likely lose in your vertical, should it be competitive. If you’re an agency, the story is quite the same – you need to build new competencies that power your entire business/linking initiatives, so that you might apply them at scale in an affordable and repeatable fashion. Yes, these are still possible, and likely.

Transitioning to a content strategy is a slow, tiring and ego-impacting process – but if we use minimum viable product philosophy to power it, make smart mid-term decisions, and work hard to get them implemented, we’ll set our businesses up for great success into 2020 and beyond.

Some quick announcements: I’ll be speaking at BlueglassX in Tampa in December – should be a great event. Also, thanks to Melissa Kowalchuk for the header image (she will continue to assist me with these kinds of designs). Finally, in the next few months, I will be ramping up the amount of custom newsletter content I release – stuff I essentially can’t say to everyone. There’s a sign up below if interested.

  • Eric Pratum

    Great post. I think you need to start doing audio versions because your posts tend to be so long that reading this much in one sitting takes a lot of effort ;)

    Either way, I don’t have a comment on the post, but instead the note at the end. It’s a great newsletter CTA as well. Moving it to the top of the post will probably bump your conversions if that interests you, but upon submission, it forces you to go to a thanks page rather than staying on this page, which was a little annoying when I wanted to leave a comment.

    • Ross Hudgens

      Thanks Eric – yeah this was a long winded one, I almost broke it into two, but decided not to. Noted on the leaving the page UX problem, will see if I can get that fixed.

  • Kevin Spence

    Interesting post, Ross. You make a lot of good points, and I like the idea of thinking of each piece of content as a little mini-product that you can iterate on and improve.

    I’ve been meaning to write a post on a similar topic, but since you beat me to it, I’ll just put down some of my thoughts here.

    I’m really into live music, and I read a lot of interviews with musicians who focus on live improvisation. One thing they commonly say is that you have to spend years learning music theory to become a good musician. And then if you want to become a good improviser, you have to spend many more years on top of that unlearning all the music theory you learned. You’re still aware of it at a certain level, but it’s kind of below the surface and not something you consciously think about.

    When it comes to SEO and content strategy, I think the same rules apply if you want to do it really well. Creating content around keyword research and product offerings is a great way to learn, but once you figure it out and have some success with it, you have to forget about it. Building your content around keywords is the only way to learn, but it’s ultimately shortsighted. These days, I believe that creating content around keywords is a great way to kick your site right in the nuts.

    Focus your content strategy around personas, relevance, and utility. In other words, create content that’s relevant to your audience and helps one specific person (or a defined group of people) solve a very specific problem. That’s how you create content that gets shared, which opens up whole new traffic channels to you. And on top of that, shared content is the content that ranks.

    • Ross Hudgens

      Yup, agreed. I think there are SOME ways to create content around keywords, but they’re not extensive by any means, and can be limiting if we try to stick around them. I think we should try to find them, but I’m with you in saying that we should find adjacent stuff to get the best possible results in the long term.

  • Philip Murphy

    This was a super long post as others have said. But, I think it has a ton of value to be taken from your insight. I have been working with my company to shift our “link building” into content marketing and learn how to really utilize the current iteration of the internet to gain exposure.

    Also, I have my ticket to BlueglassX in Tampa and will be excited to see you down here. Tampa is a great city and I am stoked to have all these great people from the industry here.

  • Shelli Walsh

    Hi Ross

    It’s really great to see SEO finally integrate good design as an important part of strategy. After being a long time print designer turned SEO side myself I have always had that passion to see a beautifully laid out web page in combination with content substance. It is so rare you see the two together.
    This is something I am working hard to change as I am so passionate about communication and design.


  • Joe Griffin

    I’m really disappointed we didn’t find a way to steal you. You get it man. Not a lot of folks out there that really get it – at this level. Good luck in your new biz! I bet you could actually help us out in a few areas.

  • Pingback: TWL #17 KPI’s for beginners, Newsroom Lessons, & Joe Rogan on Being the Hero of Your Own Story |

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