Join us as we discuss the state of content marketing in 2017, along with some effective, easy-to-implement strategies for making your content marketing more successful on an over-crowded internet.

The web is drowning in content. An estimated 2.7 million new blog articles per day hit the net in 2016. Consider that along with the 300 hours or so of YouTube video that’s being uploaded every MINUTE, and you’ll have some idea of the epic scale at which competition for web users’ attention must be growing.

There’s too much content out there, but that doesn’t mean to say you should stop creating it. According to a recent SmartInsights survey, content marketing remains the item at the top of most digital marketers’ agendas, ahead of buzzy big data and email marketing. The content marketing industry is alive and kicking – but considering the fact that so much content is being produced, and mostly with poor results, it’s about time it grew up a little.

Lower volume, higher quality

The immense volume of content out there means it’s hard for anyone to achieve high visibility via organic search, or through social media share of voice. Unless you have a tremendous eye for under-reported topics with the potential to spark public interest, it’s time to cut down on using high-volume, lightweight content in your marketing activities. Instead, we suggest you produce fewer, but better items of content which ultimately give more value to the consumer.

Whilst word count is not regarded as one of Google’s key search ranking factors, there’s plenty to suggest that longer-form content will perform better in most subject areas – particularly this excerpt from Google’s quality assessors’ guide:

“6.2 Unsatisfying Amount of Main Content

Some Low quality pages are unsatisfying because they have a small amount of MC for the purpose of the page. For example, imagine an encyclopedia article with just a few paragraphs on a very broad topic such as World War II. Important: An unsatisfying amount of MC is a sufficient reason to give a page a Low quality rating.”

There’s still a place for short-form content in this world – it’s the fastest way to get the word out on a hot topic and it will empower you to add diversity to your content – but for the most part, if you want your content to secure high search rankings in the long-term, you need to be aiming for that similar or higher word counts to the best-ranked competing content in your subject area. This applies especially to evergreen content like complete guides, years in review and so on.

How to create better content

We’ve already touched on the importance of using long-form content to secure visibility in search results – but writing a tome won’t get you very far with Google or your readers if the content isn’t a crowd-pleaser. Here are some essential pointers to give your content the best chance of finding its place.

Make your content useful

This may sound like obvious advice, but it’s crucially important that you focus on making all of your content useful to the reader. You already understand that this is an important consideration, but make a point of bearing it in mind whenever you write or devise your content. Unless your content is pay-walled, your audience will not have made an investment like a person who has just bought a book or a cinema ticket – so when the online content they’re consuming ceases to be useful to them they can simply navigate away, free from any sense of wasting their money.

In order for content to be useful, it must fulfil its purpose, which will likely be some variation on John Reith’s definition of the BBC’s task: to inform, educate and entertain.

Decide on the quota of inform-educate-entertain your content should embody – say, 10% inform (basic info on one of your products), 80% educate (useful information on how to perform a task, especially using the product specified), and 10% entertain (interesting info and humour used to spice up the content; to make it a pleasure to read). Use this practice as a tool to help you visualise the composition of your content during planning.

When it comes to creating primarily educational content, the overwhelming trend amongst content marketers is to make the content actionable – so the reader can easily translate the advice provided by the article into useful actions. This proves the content’s effectiveness to the audience, thus enhancing the reputation of the brand and increasing the likelihood of sharing or other positive responses.

Perhaps the most obvious way to make your content actionable is to break sections down into numbered lists or bullet points (e.g. in a wikiHow guide or a recipe). Structural measures like this can certainly help make your content easier to action, but in our view the really important consideration here is to present your content clearly. That means full explanation (or systematic avoidance) of technical language, offering advice that doesn’t rely on the reader having access to significant resources, and providing solutions tailored to the characteristics of your audience.

Keep the reader’s attention

Search algorithms now use more factors than ever to calculate a webpage’s search rankings. Two of these factors are the average amount of time people spend on the page (their “dwell time”) and the percentage of people who navigate away from the site after landing on that page (the page’s “exit rate”). A low exit rate and a high dwell time will generally contribute positively to a page’s search rankings.

There are various measures we can take to improve a page’s average dwell time and exit rate. It makes sense to start with focusing on creating high quality content that’s useful and relevant to your audience, as visitors will naturally be more inclined to spend more time consuming your content if they recognise its quality, whether consciously or subconsciously.

If you’re already producing well-targeted content to the very best of your abilities, there are still plenty of other measures you can take to keep eyes on your content for longer. Embedding rich content like infographics, videos and Tweets makes written content seem easier to consume, and videos in particular can effectively game a page’s dwell time by causing users to stay on-page while they watch the clip. Be careful to ensure the rich media you choose will complement your content, without contradicting or upstaging it.

Another good strategy for increasing a page’s average dwell time is signposting the usefulness of your content with introductions and headers. For example, this article’s intro tells you exactly why you will hopefully find it useful, and its sub-headers break the content up into bite-sized sections. If the reader is confident that they’re going to get what they want from a piece of content in its full duration, they’ll be likelier to stick around till the end.

Create content on highly specific topics

Given the increasing volume of content online, it’s getting harder and harder to secure great search rankings for content on broad or long-established topics. With marquee content subjects (e.g. comprehensive guides to an entire industry, product group or subject) now off the table for most content producers, it’s becoming necessary to target narrower subjects. Here’s Grow and Convert founder Benji Hyam suggesting as much in a video on content marketing trends in 2017:

Please note that we’re using the phrase “highly specific topics” here, rather than “highly niche topics”. We’re not suggesting you shift your focus from the core subject matter of your trade to the trivia; instead, your content should be useful and interesting in a very specific way, and should be optimised for specific search phrases.

For example, a digital marketing company might now be better served by producing a guide to advert retargeting than a guide to the broader subject of online advertising. A cleaning company might get better results from publishing a guide to removing stains from carpets than a guide to removing household stains more generally, and so on.

This is not a general rule for all content – providing the very best coverage or getting the scoop on a broad subject can still be as valuable as ever – but in terms of your overall content strategy, it seems like the smart money is on making your topics more specific.

Quick tips on identifying specific content topics

  • Start by imagining a certain problem, then create the content that provides the precise solution
  • Use a content planning tool.
  • Do the Google test! Simply Google search your prospective article title to gain an insight into the volume and quality of existing content on your chosen subject. If you’re producing video content, you may want to use a YouTube search instead.
  • Get long-term value from each item of content by writing on evergreen subjects in which people are likely to be interested for years to come.

Use a data-driven approach to content strategy

Utilising data is standard practice throughout most areas of digital marketing, from website conversion rate optimisation to programmatic email marketing. Content strategy should be no exception.

The easiest way to use data to inform your content marketing is to compare performance metrics like hits, bounce rate or newsletter signup conversions across different pieces of content. The more data points you have, the more reliable your findings are likely to be, so try to include as much of your published content as possible in your analyses. You should be able access all the data you need by linking up the site where you publish your content to Google Analytics or a similar application.

A slightly more involved (and often more interesting) approach to using data in your content planning is to set up experiments comparing how certain attributes of your content will affect certain metrics. For example:

  • How does the bounce rate of an article with no links in its body compare with that of an article where there are lots of links in the body copy?
  • Which CTA button position tends to yield the best conversion rate? (e.g. near top of copy, or at the bottom of the page)
  • How long do articles need to be before extra word count ceases to positively impact average dwell time?
    All sorts of experiments like these can smarten up your approach to content planning. It’s great to have a good natural instinct or a learned idea of the attributes your content should possess – but nothing beats a strategy based on fact.

Having said all that…

Content marketing strategies and standards are changing fast, and digital marketers now need to work harder than ever to differentiate their content from the rest.

For most of us this will mean making some changes – like using data more heavily in content planning, making content subject matter more specific, or taking measures to increase the amount of time our audiences spend looking at our content.

However, we would like to end with an important caveat: that content publishers should be sensitive to audiences’ desire for continuity. If your content already has an established audience, you should work to identify the characteristics of the content which define its appeal, and seek to keep those valuable selling points in-place whilst you modernise other aspects of your content marketing. Do sharpen up your content marketing game, but please don’t erase your identity as a content producer in the process.