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The State of Content Marketing in 2020

Breaking through the Noise

For many years, the biggest barrier to content marketing success was time: most firms felt that if they just had more time, then content would flow. But today, that’s no longer the central challenge. Today, more firms are producing more content than ever before. But the question is whether that content is the right content; whether it’s as effective as it could be; whether it’s reaching the right people; whether the message matters to them.

In this episode, Lauren and Mark discuss the most common challenges for expert firms doing content marketing today, and what aspects of content marketing’s evolution will affect them most. From choosing the right formats, to getting SEO right, to communicating with a specific, personal, and provocative point of view, Lauren shares her recommendations for leveling-up your content marketing.

You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Mark O’Brien: Hello and welcome to expert marketing matters. This is Mark O’Brien.

Lauren McGaha: I’m Lauren McGaha.

Mark O’Brien: And, Lauren next week you have a pretty major event coming up. Can you tell us what that is?

Lauren McGaha: I do. I’m excited to be giving a workshop at the Bureau of Digitals Owner Summit in New Orleans.

Mark O’Brien: Great, and that ties in perfectly and conveniently with what we want to talk about today, which is the state of content strategy in 2020, is that correct?

Lauren McGaha: Yeah, exactly. I think there’s been a lot of interesting developments that content marketers really need to be paying attention to this year.

Mark O’Brien: For sure, and fortunately we’re on the front lines of that and we get to see it all, which is a privilege of what we do. One of the privileges. What I’d like to do, if it’s okay with you, is to use your decision making process about what you chose to base your workshop on in New Orleans next week as a launching point for the key topics and trends you see coming into this year for content strategy.

Lauren McGaha: Okay. So the decision for how I arrived at the…

Mark O’Brien: Yeah. Basically Carl Smith said, “Hey, you got two and a half hours to talk about content, go,” and that’s it. That’s a pretty broad pallet you have to work with there. So what did you choose to focus on and why did you choose that?

Lauren McGaha: Well, I started by thinking about what is hardest for the firms that we work with today with regard to content marketing and why. And then I coupled that with what we’ve been observing in terms of trends in this industry and what people really ought to be paying attention to given the evolution of content marketing over the years. So I’ve developed a workshop that helps attendees ultimately come out of that experience with a much firmer grasp on how to say something meaningful with their content marketing. So how to say something that has a strong point of view, has a strong perspective, is likely to be memorable to the right kinds of people, because today that’s the absolute hardest thing to get right in content marketing.

Mark O’Brien: Why?

Lauren McGaha: Well, because the content marketing landscape is so incredibly crowded. We used to hear all the time, the biggest challenge with content marketing is just figuring out how to do it, how to make time for it, and that’s certainly a challenge that comes up often still. But what we’re seeing is that most firms have figured out a way to do this regularly. Most firms are publishing something out there, and so the real challenge today is breaking through all of that noise. You have to get the formula right, you’ve got to get the system, you’ve got to have the right kinds of content. You’ve got to make sure that you’re considering certain SEO best practices today and we’ll get into some of those things in our discussion today. But beyond all of that more formulaic stuff, if the content that you’re publishing is generic, if it’s not specific, if it does not have a provocative point of view, it just won’t matter and all of your efforts will be wasted.

Mark O’Brien: I’m going to challenge you on that a little bit. I’ve heard you say that a number of times and this time when you said it, it just struck me, the point I’m going to challenge is that most firms have figured out how to do this consistently. In my perspective, I’m not sure that’s true. I think pretty much all firms for a moment in time figured out how to do this and did it through sheer brunt force, basically. And all of those articles that were not very well considered, done because they had to be done, they had to be published, it was part of the demand made by leadership, were coming from a good place. All those articles are still out there, so the internet is cluttered with all of these bits of content that were created maybe not for the right reasons.

Lauren McGaha: Well that’s my very point, is that that’s a fact. That’s true. So what I mean when I say that most firms have figured out how to do this and what consistently is… There are more businesses in the world doing some form of content marketing, publishing something to their website with more regularity, than ever before. There are more blog posts every single day, more and more blogs are being added to the internet. It’s just more and more crowded. It’s more noisy than ever before. So from my perspective, the biggest challenge for firms is not how do we work into our operational process, the publication of content to our website? Even though that’s a challenge and that needs to be figured out. Beyond that, the real challenge is how do we make sure that that content is meaningful and actually says something so that it has any shot at achieving our content marketing objectives?

Mark O’Brien: That makes a lot of sense. So what’s the rough agenda for the workshop next week? What are the main topics that you want to make sure people are going to be leaving that workshop having a better understanding of?

Lauren McGaha: We’re going to get into some of the the system of content marketing because there are some considerations there in terms of how to think about writing in terms of volume of publication, content types, how to be formatting things on the internet, SEO best practices. I’m going to spend a little bit of time there just to orient the attendees and make sure that they’re clear on what’s up to date today, but the vast majority of the workshop is going to be first focusing on targeting. So thinking very specifically about the target audiences inside of your market focus and taking them through an exercise to ask the right kinds of questions so that they can bring to the surface the areas of interest that are most important to these people as they progress through their purchasing journeys. It’s going to be like a little mini target persona exercise that they’ll come out of with a more useful audience persona.

Lauren McGaha: So I’ll spend some time talking about what makes for useful audience persona and what makes for kind of a dud of an audience persona and make sure that people understand how to go through that exercise and we’ll do that together. Then I’m going to focus on using the practical answers to their questions with regard to that target persona to inform a proper messaging strategy. So how to use the personas themselves to inform messaging categories that are most likely to resonate with these people at different stages of the buying cycle. And then finally we’re going to wrap up with developing really specific interesting topics that are laden with very strong points of view so that the attendees are coming out of the workshop, not just with a pretty well flushed out persona and areas of focus from a messaging perspective, but they’ve got 10 to 15 very specific topics that have a strong point of view that they can take back to their firm and write today and feel confident that those pieces of content are going to resonate with the right people.

Mark O’Brien: Great. It’s funny, you think about a two and a half hour workshop, it just sounds like an endless amount of time. But when you look at it from the other angle, all these things that we want to make sure these people leave with, that’s what you spend the first one to two months working out with our clients on.

Lauren McGaha: Yeah, it takes a lot of work. You can go pretty deep with this stuff and you need to, so the workshop will be interesting because we are, we’re condensing eight weeks of work into two and a half hours and hopefully people are leaving with the the most important nuggets from that kind of approach.

Mark O’Brien: So jumping from the talk itself, which touches on some of these big picture elements that you see gaining a prominence over the course of the year, or maybe changing in nature over the course of the year, let’s jump into some of those things. What are the top themes that you think our audience needs to be aware of as they consider and execute their own content strategies over the course of 2020?

Lauren McGaha: There are three big things that firms today need to be thinking about when it comes to their content marketing strategy. From my perspective, there is the system of the content plan. That would include things like the types of content, how you would define each type of content, how often you should be publishing, the makeup of that content, those sorts of things. There have been some changes there that are worth considering. The second theme is focused on SEO. What’s different about SEO today? How has that landscape continued to evolve and what impact does that have on the content marketing industry today? And then the third and most complicated and why the most of the workshop is focused on it is developing a message that matters. I would recommend we start with that first one. The system.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, as long as we get to the second one because the second one, I think, is something that most of our audience is pretty unaware of. Let’s start with the first.

Lauren McGaha: Okay. So with regard to the system of content marketing, we’ve said for many years that to have the best shot at driving organic traffic to your site, you need to be publishing a minimum of 3000 words of indexable content to the site. And that benchmark is still holding true today. But when we break that out per article or per blog posts, one of the trends that we’re seeing is that this content type is just more thorough than it’s ever been before. So that the actual word count per article or per blog post has increased year over year. And now the average blog post is around 1200 words that’s published to the average website and that’s up from 800 words four years ago. And that’s just been a steady increase.

Mark O’Brien: Why? Is that because people are just choosing to write long articles or are they doing it to meet some kind of stated goal that Google sets or they set internally?

Lauren McGaha: People are realizing that Google is getting better at its job of connecting users with the most thorough, deepest, richest content out there. I think it has to do with the smarter that Google gets, the better it is at understanding what a particular web page is about and then prioritizing the most thorough answer to the user’s search query in the search results, which is forcing content marketers to get a lot more specific and thorough about the content that they put out there in the first place.

Mark O’Brien: Got it.

Lauren McGaha: So yes, first content, it’s just more thorough than ever. It’s also helpful to publish more frequently than ever. There are many studies out there that show the more frequently you publish, the more likely you are to drive organic traffic to your site. Where you start to see diminishing returns on that is if you publish more frequently than daily. But years ago people would publish a blog to their site once per month. The average blogger now is publishing two to four times per month and those who report strongest results are reporting as frequently as you like, all the way up into daily. Again, beyond daily, we’re not seeing a strong return on that investment, which is interesting.

Mark O’Brien: [inaudible] that one thing too. So first of all what you’re saying is basically what Google wants and what people are in part doing is delivering more specificity via more words more often. So just more of everything basically.

Lauren McGaha: More and more and more is the theme.

Mark O’Brien: We’re starting with specificity it’s not just volume. In regard to cadence, there are people out there, some really, really smart people out there like Philip Morgan who do write and publish daily, and I’ve seen various other thought leaders out there try that on. There’s always playing to Google, of course, and that’s a very important element of this, but there’s also effectively building a relationship with your audience. I’ve just found that even if you could publish daily, I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. I don’t think it’s a good idea long term. I don’t think a large percentage of anyone’s audience has time to read many things on a daily basis. I’d rather see the best of that thought on a weekly or maybe biweekly, meaning in this case every two week. It’s like Ryan Adams putting out an album every six months. People just get sick of it. He becomes a constant voice and therefore just disappears in the background.

Lauren McGaha: I don’t disagree with any of that. I can’t think of any client or prospect we have currently who’s well poised to do that very well. I think if the nature of your expertise is targeting something that changes so rapidly that it makes sense to be putting out a daily newsletter because people are hungry for that kind of information, then that might make sense. But that would be more applicable to something like a news organization. You can think of daily emails you might subscribe to in that arena for instance. And the thing with publishing more frequently is you don’t let yourself off the hook with the quality conversation. So it’s not as if you can ease up on being specific and targeted and smart about your perspective because you’re publishing more frequently. Those rules don’t change.

Lauren McGaha: So yeah, publishing daily I think is a tall order. And even if you were well poised to publish daily, I certainly wouldn’t recommend emailing it out to your list daily. We will also want to think about what’s the strategy to nurture organic traffic and get Google’s attention and then what’s the strategy to promote that content to the list that you’re nurturing over time? Those are two different things as well.

Mark O’Brien: For sure.

Mark O’Brien: So it seems like the system conversation and the Google changes conversation are melding into one conversation here.

Lauren McGaha: They are a bit, yeah. There are some specific things on the SEO side that we’ll get to, but there’s one more element on the system side that’s important to consider. In review, things are more thorough than ever, publishing more frequently, and again, there’s a big difference between publishing two times a month and publishing daily. The headline is the more you can publish good rich content to your website, the more likely you are to get organic traffic to those pages.

Mark O’Brien: An ideal reasonable target for the average firm out there is what?

Lauren McGaha: Two to four per month is still where I-

Mark O’Brien: So weekly at most.

Lauren McGaha: Weekly at most is a great place to be for most of the firms who’d be listening to this. The third thing is that content’s more visual than ever before. On average, the high performing blog posts from an organic search perspective has two to three images associated with it, and those that were published with 10 plus images saw 80% more organic traffic to those pages. That’s interesting as well. The other element of the visual consideration is just video’s impact on content marketing today. Video has been an area of interest for content marketers for a long time and the efficacy of video is continuing to improve. So there are some studies out there that say if you publish a video with your articles, that page on your site is likely to see an increase in conversions by as much as 80%. there are studies that say that if you publish videos with your blogs, that those pages on your site will enjoy 40% more organic traffic to those pages. So these are big increases in engagement metrics just by virtue of putting video on those pages.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, and like you said, that’s been going on for a long, long, long time and Google still isn’t indexing the content inside the video, or at least not to our knowledge, but the fact that it exists just bears a lot of weight.

Lauren McGaha: There’s been some indicator that video increases engagement time on page, things of that nature and that it influences organic traffic to a certain extent. But the fact that if your content plan, if the primary objective of that plan is to drive more conversions on your site, to put video as a primary content type, to prioritize that as the primary content type, you’re supporting that conversion strategy in a really big way.

Mark O’Brien: That makes sense. As with so many things here, every time I hear about, and this has been true for 20 straight years now, every time I hear about a new preference, the world has figured out Google has stated or adopted, it always makes sense, right? When you get into it, it’s like, “Okay, yeah, I can see how that follows,” but just because it makes sense after you hear about it doesn’t mean that you on your own would arrive at that conclusion.

Lauren McGaha: That’s very true. And these things are always changing and I think it’s helpful that when we learn about these things, they sound rational and they sound logical. But it’s hard because Google’s always working to be smarter. Smarter at doing its job well.

Mark O’Brien: Well, and it’s for the same reason it’s always had to do that, because spammers are smarter too. So much of their effort is just thwarting the negative efforts of others and sometimes their ill intention. This thing we were talking about the very beginning, a lot of firms out there just creating content because they felt they had to and it’s not really good content, and so Google has to work to discern the good from the great.

Lauren McGaha: Yeah. And on that note, I think that speaks really well to the latest change in Google’s algorithm. It’s called Google Bert, and it’s a pretty significant change. I mean Google changes its algorithm all the time, but what Google is saying is that this particular change is going to affect 10% of searches across the board. That’s a massive number.

Mark O’Brien: That’s a scary number.

Lauren McGaha: Yeah, so it’s important to pay attention to. And the good news about this change is that I think it actually makes really smart content marketers, true experts, I think it makes their content marketing job a lot easier because what has happened with Google Bert is that Google’s gotten a lot smarter about understanding the intent behind users search queries. So it is not only understanding context for a search query, it also has enough data now to understand related terms to a particular search query that the user may be did not type in. So what this means is that keyword strategy is going to start to take a little bit of a backseat inside of your content marketing strategy. It’s not as if you can ignore keywords altogether, but the weight that we place on researching a very specific long tail keyword and infusing that particular phrase into different areas of that webpage, that emphasis is going to decline as content marketers really focus again on just publishing the best, richest, most thorough content out there and trust that Google understands what users are looking for when they type in search queries.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, and that’s a clear example of the more things change, the more they stay the same. What you just said has been published on the Newfangled site dozens and dozens and dozen times since the year 2000 literally. That’s always been true. It’s just that what’s changed is that Google has gotten better and better and better and better and better at actually understanding the words and the implied intent, and that’s a difference. But that, that mission, that fact, that perspective has been in place almost since the very beginning of Google as a search engine.

Lauren McGaha: Well, that mission may have been in place the entire time, but only recently can they start to say that they are achieving it. And I think that’s the important thing. And it does change how we frame certain areas of the SEO formula. A really specific example would be, for years and years and years, we’ve all been told that when you’re framing a URL, just leave out certain stop words like for or to because Google doesn’t even look at those. It doesn’t understand the context. Now Google does, and it’s changed the nature of search results radically. So in the past, if a user was looking for content about a Brazilian citizen wanting to travel to the United States without a visa, that would return results about the US citizen trying to get to Brazil without a visa, because you don’t need one. The to and the for really matter there. So now with this iteration of the algorithm, Google understands that, “Oh no. This is a person, this is a citizen inside of Brazil traveling to the United States wondering about visa information rather than the inverse.”

Mark O’Brien: Well the fact that they also know that that particular citizen in Brazil ate at these restaurants in the past week and did all these searches and has this in their email and this on their events, which is all true, google does know all this stuff and they are starting to take all that information into context as well. And they’re also, they’ve got all the analytics, because all our sites run on Google Analytics, so the amount of information they know about the content provider and the content consumer, I mean there’s almost a full connecting of the dots that they’ve got between point A and point B. It’s far more thorough than we ourselves could ever understand or realize or connect on our own.

Lauren McGaha: Yeah. And I think we’ll only continue to see a collision of those two worlds as they continue to make the best use of that data from their perspective that they can. All of this really comes down to Google continuing to try to be the best at its job, at connecting users with the best content out there.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah. And to go back to its job, its original stated goal on the about page starting in 1999, or was it 98, whenever it was, “we exist to connect people with the information they’re seeking.” That’s a paraphrase. But that’s exactly the intent and that’s still the intent. They just have a lot more tools at their disposal to do so now.

Lauren McGaha: Yeah, it’s very true. I think the headline for the Google Bert update for true experts out there is continue to write what you know and do it in a really thorough way, and it does not mean that you throw away keyword research, but if you are… And this relates to the third theme I wanted to get to about writing messaging that really matters. If you are putting content out there that’s incredibly specific, that’s targeted to a specific audience and has a strong point of view and you’re writing the best content on the internet about that, Google’s going to find it. You’re going to be hitting the related search terms, the related questions, the related words, that you’d drive yourself crazy trying to research manually and make sure that you include in every other paragraph or in the subheadings or what have you.

Mark O’Brien: And that phrase, “the best content on the internet on the topic,” that’s an impossibly tall bar unless you’re… This goes back to the beginning of all of it when we talk about marketing. Unless you are positioned, if you are a highly targeted expert and you’ve really understand your audience and what they need, then you actually have a shot at writing the best possible article on a very specific topic for a set of people you’d know incredibly well. Then you’ve got all of these changes across the board, online and offline are just making it harder and harder and harder for generalists to survive.

Lauren McGaha: One thing that I’ve noticed with some of our firms who even are well positioned, it’s interesting. It’s like they forget that they’re positioned when it comes time to think about what topics to write. Even if you’re positioned, my advice is not to forget about that, because you put so much effort into becoming positioned and these firms believe in it, they live it, they do the work that way, their client roster represents it. But when they sit down to write, it’s like they put on their generalist hat again.

Mark O’Brien: And this is one of the core reasons we exist. And again, we only exist because of this odd paradox in the industry that marketing firms, both digital and creative, have the hardest time in the world marketing themselves. This is one of those reasons why they have such a hard time. It’s just the curse of knowledge. It’s assuming that what you know everyone else knows. It’s just really, really hard to get outside of your own head, and when you do get outside your own head, you realize how much is in that head and how much you know and what you express and why you exist and all of that. It just takes lots of discipline and vigilance to actually be true to what it is you know and how you can best help any given individual. It’s a really hard task. It’s an oddly hard task.

Lauren McGaha: And it takes a lot of courage and continually applied courage. Firms, they’re brave and decide to position and they put the statement out on the website and they maybe focus the service pages on the site that way. But to honor that positioning longterm inside of your content plan means you’re really doubling down, you’re reupping on that positioning every single article that you write, every single white paper, every single email. That to me is almost a deeper level of commitment to your positioning and it requires bravery again and again and again.

Mark O’Brien: It’s a deeper level of commitment to the positioning and it also is the shovel you use to dig deeper into it, so you commit to it and you actually go deeper through the act of doing it.

Lauren McGaha: You become a better, more specialized position firm by forcing yourself to think about all of the very specific topics and areas of interest and challenges that are very relevant to that industry, that market focus over time.

Mark O’Brien: And again, we and all the other consultants out there have been saying this exact thing for decades. It’s just fortunate that that’s always been right in line with Google’s perspective as well. I think the reason why all this just happens to work out is because it’s about being true. What is the truth? Who are you? Who can you best serve? How can you best help people? That’s the ultimate mission of all this stuff.

Lauren McGaha: Right. It all comes back to positioning again.

Mark O’Brien: And just being useful in the marketplace. These are all based on market trends that have existed since the beginning of commerce. Anything else that we should cover here?

Lauren McGaha: I think that pretty much covers the big theme.

Mark O’Brien: Great. Well, we’re excited to be in New Orleans next week. I hope we’ll see many of you there. If you do show up, please come by and say hello. Your workshop is that Thursday morning, right? To kick off the event. That that’s day one of the event.

Lauren McGaha: Yeah, it’s February 6th at &:30/

Mark O’Brien: Great. In New Orleans. It’ll be wonderful.

Lauren McGaha: Yeah, really looking forward to it.

Mark O’Brien: Well, thanks a lot. This was fun.

Lauren McGaha: Yeah. Thanks for listening.