Effectively Using Data in your Content Strategy

Communications, Content Strategy, Marketing

Content Marketing has been an important part of the overall communications and marketing mix for more than a decade, but it continues to evolve and mature.  Content plays a significant role in attracting prospects and delivering the information they need to advance in their journey from consideration to decision.

However, a content strategy which is not based on clear business goals and driven by data will simply fall short of those goals. There are a ton of great educational resources and models out there but one thing that is lacking in many of the tips and articles is the use of data to offer additional insights in your content planning.

Before developing the content strategy, we need to outline the fundamentals:       

What are your business goals?

What are successful outcomes that you want to achieve?

How are you defining the core messages that differentiate you in the marketplace?

What does customer research tell you about where your targets spend time?

What channels make sense for content to reach your specific audience?      

If you are not clear on these elements, stop here. Without these answers, you are likely to waste time and money hoping for results. A great friend/mentor of mine, Bob Aronson, often said “If communications is not your top priority, then all your other priorities are at risk.” This is spot on. If you cannot effectively answer the questions above with confidence, it’s important to pause in order to define those to ensure your strategies will truly align to drive your desired results.

Assuming the fundamentals are in place, organizations typically dive in with creating content they think will hit the mark.Yet, data driven insights allow so much more than just taking a smart, educated guess as to how to deliver valuable content to meet the needs of the market. It’s an ongoing challenge that has been exacerbated in the last couple of years with more focus on the credibility of online results with Google continually looking to help users understand why they get the results they see.

With several great tools available, there is more that can be done to create an effective content plan. So, what should be considered?

Search Behavior Research

This is an extension of basic keyword research where you try to understand search intent. Of course, taking keywords into consideration should still be a part of the process but it also must be done in context. This is of critical importance. We want to deliver the right information to meet the needs of the person searching, not simply leveraging keywords and saying a prayer that somehow you wind up on page one of search results. Those days are long gone and never really worked all that well anyway.

Attention to the problem you’re trying to solve for a user should be the focus in all planning efforts. As a marketer, you must deliver the content that is meaningful to the audience. That’s the win-win for everyone. Readers want to find what actually addresses their needs, and you want to reach people who are seeking your content. Every page you are working on should have a specific purpose and advance the reader further into your marketing funnel by either addressing their questions or providing critical information. Thinking through the questions that will get a user to your site as well as every step through your content pathways once there, including effective calls to action, should be modeled as part of your plan. In the example to the right, the volume provides the obvious guide on if the topic is actively being searched online. Understanding the current interest in specific terms is the minimum to consider in capturing those readers and allowing you to begin to formulate ideas around topics.

Most Shared and Engaging Content

Another area that I believe is under-utilized is analyzing the content most shared for your industry or topic. This data is readily available and can provide extremely specific insights that help in understanding how your audience is engaging with content.

Conventional wisdom has said that shorter-form content is what most readers want. We’re busy right? You can hear it now- “There’s too much going on, I don’t have time to read lengthy articles” or even seeing how often people share articles and clearly have not read beyond the headline. But surprise, sometimes the most helpful content can be very heavy, lengthy pieces.

It varies of course, but if you don’t look you won’t know what is happening in real world scenarios. While personas and assumptions are better than nothing, you may be leaving opportunity on the table without doing this research.

In the table above, the data displays which articles are being shared most widely based on the initial research. To the left, I’ve included the column that corresponds to the length of that highly-shared content. You can see that longer articles are performing very well. Many of the top-shared articles are several thousand words. While many short content pieces do well for a lot of topics, you can see that some of the most highly shared articles feature deep, rich content. For new or potentially complex topics, many readers seem to appreciate the added detail versus quick-hit copy. This level of content planning simply allows smarter outcomes that are more likely to succeed.

Get Ready for Content Success in 2022

This time of year, many companies begin the process of planning for the year ahead and wouldn’t think of ignoring real-world customer or prospect data garnered from the sales team or industry voices but don’t fully leverage data available online. If you want to learn more about effective content planning, and ensure you’re turning over every stone to help meet your goals, please reach out for a discussion on opportunities to enhance your strategic content efforts in 2022.

Overcoming Obstacles and Inspiration

Business Communications, Communications, Life

In 2020, one positive that came from such an unusual year with more time at home was a re-birth of time spent reading by so many of us. While I didn’t get through as many books as I personally hoped, (it was still an odd year with plenty of other things to deal with) finding ways to learn through traditional business education or inspiration to think was a critical way for so many to keep some balance in an upside-down world.

I recently completed Fear Is A Choice which is the story of James Conner and all he learned in facing cancer as a young athlete. Initially, I wanted to read this book mainly as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan but as I read I found much more. Conner recounts his experience as a college player with dreams of the NFL, through diagnosis and treatment, to ultimately learning to embrace the new role he carries as a face for thousands of others facing cancer.

Through his personal journey, Conner gained wisdom beyond his years and I found myself thinking about how many of his messages are true values that can apply to our professional lives in addition to being great advice for daily life.

A few highlights included:

  • The more you are able to recognize the people who are walking beside you, in whatever capacity they can, the more grateful you will become for the allies you have, and the stronger you will feel.

    This was included appropriately enough within a chapter titled “Recognize Your Team” which we overlook far too often during tough parts of our professional journeys. When you consider this in the context of a career, it’s a pretty powerful concept. In a year when so many faced significant career change, think about those that have made an impact on your professional journey and how much it means when someone really believes in you, and walks with you during the challenging days. Take the opportunity to look around from time-to-time and do all you can to walk beside others whenever you can too.
  • You are in your position, living out your story for a reason. You were uniquely created to do something with the exact circumstances you’re facing. Your story exists for you… Don’t wish yourself into someone else’s life. Don’t wish yourself out of your own story.

    Over the course of your career, there will be success and failure. Everyone will be faced with both and often times the grass always looks greener on the other side, but the obstacles hold the potential to be the moments that transform us.

    For young professionals, please know that while you may not be where you want today, don’t run from or rush your story- it’s meant for you. For my fellow gray-haired friends, your story continues to grow and may even change dramatically from where you’ve been and that can be THRILLING.

  • Your courage to engage life with passion and chase your dreams despite setbacks sends a message to others. By coming out the other side of a challenging time stronger than ever, you are carrying a little bit of their fear and discouragement; you are making their load a little lighter because they know you’ve already walked this road.

    It’s been a year— we’re all working through things together and every time you do something brave you inspire the next person behind you. At a time when inspiration is needed, the work you choose and how you react to challenges can be more meaningful to others than you may ever know.

Don’t Fear the Financials

Business, Business Communications, Communications, Finance

finance, financial PR, annual reports, PR mathOne of the great misconceptions about the communications industry is that it is just a creative industry. Only right-brain people need apply and it’s all about being a “people person” and connecting.  Those are fine traits but communications professionals must be balanced and there remains an inherent fear in a lot of PR or communications people to tackle math and financials.

The truth is that it isn’t that hard to pick up a decent level of financial understanding and I have great faith in my communications colleagues. It’s just a matter of practice and taking the time to work through a few examples. Being able to read an annual report effectively is an important start so you can understand the current state of your company, clients, or competitors. By just walking through a few tutorials, you can understand all the basics needed to find important information about a company in those seemingly confusing sections. As a starting point, check out this How to Read an Annual Report post which provides a nice step-by-step process and examples.

From there, communications pros that are a bit shy about annual reports, 10k filings, and regulatory documents might be pleasantly surprised what intelligence and research is already out there about companies that will help improve their own work. After getting a few of those basics down, try checking out a site like Investopedia to work through the next steps like economic indicators, analyzing earnings (earnings calls are another great source of information for communicators by the way), and mergers and acquisitions. Or check out a book like Finance and Accounting for Nonfinancial Managers by William Droms and work through it at your own pace.

This isn’t to say you need to be a CPA to be an outstanding communicator but it also doesn’t hurt, especially when working with business leadership who are responsible for every number reported in that annual report. As with anything else, adding another strength to your creative communications toolbox is a good thing and these tools and resources can be helpful for anyone starting out learning more about finance.

What has your experience been working with finance departments or leadership? Is the relationship challenging or have you found tips to bring together the creative and concrete parts of your organization?

Time to Think

Communications, Growth, Public Relations

It’s hard to do when competing in a truly 24/7 world that depends on constant motion to stay ahead of the curve and ahead of your competition. However, there is an essential element to growth and success that requires leaders to make a conscious, and seemingly backward, choice. Stop. Think.

Instead of pushing for faster and more efficient there are times when you need to look for slower and more thoughtful. In just the PR world, if you search on Google for PR Consultant List you’ll get over 3.2 million results on how to be a good consultant, who are the best consultants and much more. The point of all this? There are thousands of other professionals in any field that are tactically able to execute to some level in the same general way.

Finding creative solutions is not a new problem, every great advance in human history is brought on by the need to solve a challenge that required a different type of thought. The industrial revolution for example was a shift focused on economic development that increased the growth of major cities and moved countries away from a predominantly agricultural model. In 2011, as we collectively look at a landscape of economic challenges, significant global turmoil, and rapidly changing technological advances; it’s time to think again. People in every industry are seeking and desperately wanting to find creative ideas. That desire for truly smart thinking is why TED Talks are so engaging and popular. Smart thinking is not a commodity business, churning out tactics is.

Find ways that work for you to think and evaluate what’s next. A few ideas to consider might include:

Blocking time on your calendar – Literally carve out time on the Outlook or Google calendar that pushes you from meeting to meeting. Close the door for an hour to read, think about a challenge in front of you from a different perspective, or write out a few free-flowing ideas (maybe crazy ones) to spark your thinking.

Talk with others – Go out, get away from your typical environment. If you’re a social thinker you’ll be well-served by gaining energy from the process of gathering input and feedback.

Shut it down – If your goal is to push a 2,000 pound boulder up a hill, just pushing harder isn’t going to cut it. Same thing happens when we try to solve problems by just pushing. Go entirely away from the situation, find a place where you’re relaxed and can find new perspective. Maybe you’ll find that there’s actually a good boulder on the other side of the hill and you don’t need to push the first one at all.

The communications profession is not just a collection of tactics. It relies on smart thinking, problem solving, and understanding human dynamics which cannot simply be found on a checklist.

There is no right answer and everyone will find their place and style but having a place to think and create is critical. It’s what separates you from the 3.2 million other options out there for your clients and employers. What do you do to think and find focus? What has worked for you?

Where Are You Going? Three Benefits of Setting Goals.

Communications, Growth

As fall begins to settle in here in the great state of Minnesota, it gets cooler and the leaves fall. We collectively drag out some warmer clothes and bitterly put away those summer shorts and wonder why we do live here year after year. Fall also reminds me of looking forward and sorting out what’s next. You see, despite Outlook for both the office and my phone, Google calendars, a calendar on the fridge, a calendar in my office (you’re getting the idea) I still keep a planner too. It’s nice for me to make notes or change appointments on the go and it’s always with me. As I get ready to order the 2011 planner, I looked back and flipped through the pages of the last year. It’s amazing to see the journey you take in a year. There are reminders of successes, failures, and moments to remember both personally and professionally.

I also set goals in the back of said planner. Some are for the next year and some are significantly longer-term. I recently hit one that I’d set out more than 10 years ago when speaking with the president of the first company I worked for out of school. He’d asked “how will you know if you’re successful in your career? My response was, when my peers and those I respect come to me for thoughts, assistance, or to chat when they hit challenges in their careers. It was an answer rooted in what I saw in my dad growing up as he worked hard but gave freely of his time to try to help others and his profession. It was a surprising moment for me and one that probably wouldn’t have meant much if I hadn’t set out some goals about what I want to achieve and how to do so.

So, as we enter 2011, consider the benefits of goal setting in your career.

1) They provide focus: The process of goal setting is one where you need to stop and think. These goals aren’t just the tactical elements that need to be covered for you team/boss next year but think about where you really want to be in three years. What are the steps you need to take to make that possible? It’s difficult to take time to stop and slow down but it provides clarity to what you truly want to achieve.

2) You have accountability: The simple act of writing out goals provides you with a measurable timeline. You’ve laid out your goal, perhaps some building block goals along the way, and you have a path to guide you. You’re far more likely to meet your goals when they are written out than just saying “someday I want to…”

3) Goals serve as a reminder: When times get tough, which they will, looking at your written goals can provide you inspiration to keep moving forward. The challenges remain but when aiming for a larger goal, you can ride out the ups and downs along the way.