The times they are a-changin’.

According to BuzzSumo’s Content Trends Report 2018, the median number of social shares of an article in 2015 was eight.

In 2017? Four.

If you’re sticking with your content approach from three years ago, it’s now 50% less effective.” ~Steve Rayson

You could probably point to a dozen different reasons as to why, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The writing is on the wall. Increased competition, a rise in private sharing, and Facebook algorithm changes are likely the major culprits, and you’ve got to adapt or perish on the content battleground.

In fact, things are swinging back to the golden age of content and search engine optimization. No, not the blackhat keyword stuffing tactics, but rather a return to search ruling the referral roost. For the first time since 2014, search was responsible for a larger share of visits than social in 2017, according to the latest Shareaholic Traffic Report.

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The top 6 search engines were responsible for 34.8% of site visits, compared to 25.6% for the top 13 social networks.

Each of the major search engines saw their share of visits rise, with DuckDuckGo leading the charge with a YoY increase of 21.83%.

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Google is still the one engine to rule them all, of course. But the others are grabbing a piece of the action, too.

What’s that mean for you? Content matters more than ever. Content is still king.

And it’s time for you to level up your content quality game.

How and Why to Level Up Your Content

If you haven’t already, you need to build your reputation, your audience, and direct distribution channels. You need to focus on very high-quality content and a stellar promotion plan. And search engine optimization – the oft-forgotten cousin in the marketing game – is once again a key cog in the machine (not that it ever really wasn’t).

What makes “quality” content in 2018? Let’s dig in.

Content Gaps and Rankable Ideas

Maybe you’ve been creating content for years. You’re an old pro.

But even the pros can have a blind spot. And with the re-emergence of SEO as king of the referrals, you want to find and eliminate those spots PDQ.

Mind the Gap

Your content and promotion in 2018 need to find the existing voids out there, expand on the classic subjects, and answer the questions that aren’t being answered properly. That’s “content gaps” in a nutshell.

Who haven’t you addressed (your customer personas)? What stages in your funnel don’t have enough content to support them? Which products have you not created enough informational and educational content for?

Those are your gaps.

First, be very clear on your targets. Are your buyer personas detailed and up to date? Could any be improved, combined, or removed? Are you missing any? You can’t identify gaps without knowing exactly who you’re going after.

Next, go straight to the frontlines: marketing, sales, and support. Ask them what content they’d love to see or feel is missing. They know better than anyone.

Look to your competitors. What’s working best for them? A tool like BuzzSumo or NinjaOutreach can find the best-performing content for any topic or competitor. See something that’s resonating with people, but you don’t have or cover it? That’s a major gap.

Ahrefs has a specific tool for finding content gaps. Select “Content gap” under Organic search, enter the domains of your major competition, click “Show keywords,” and it will show you all the keywords they rank for that you do not. You can even export the data to use later. Instant gap identification.

SEMrush has a similar feature called Keywords Gap.

Then, dive headfirst into a content audit.

Content audits are about as popular as colonoscopies, but they’re just as necessary to health – in this case, the health of your content marketing strategy.” ~Arash Asli, CEO of Yocale

What’s working for you? What keywords are you ranking well for? And is there anything you could tweak or expand to target keywords discovered in your content gap analysis? Those answers are worth their weight in gold.

To become the authority on something, you need to answer all questions, address all concerns, meet all needs, and go beyond what everyone else is providing.

Find those gaps. Fill them. Level up.

Zero In on Rankable Ideas

If people are looking for but not finding a great range of content, it’s a rankable idea. If your competition is succeeding with it but it’s missing from your stuff, it’s a rankable idea.

Find those gaps. Identify the rankable ideas. Create quality content. Share it everywhere. Build authority and trust.

That’s the recipe for leveling up.

While there’s always a grain of salt involved with Google gospel, it does seem to follow along with what we knew (or suspected) about authorship: Quality and trust signals are increasingly surrounding content and the individuals who write them.” ~Matt Cutts, Former Head of Webspam Team at Google

Domain authority and the quality of your content are important, but so are the trust signals surrounding you as the author. Build your traffic. Connect with others. And share.

A little more effort in your preparation, and you can see a big boost in your results.

Try looking for trending topics and questions. Once you’ve found something relevant to you, your products, and your audience, do some keyword research with your favorite research tool.

Search volume is important here. A decent amount guarantees that enough people are looking for it, but “decent” depends on where you plan to use the resulting content: awareness stage, consideration stage, or decision stage.

  • Awareness: 10,000+ searches/month.
  • Consideration: 1000+ searches/month.
  • Decision: 300+ searches/month.

Next, take a look at the first SERP for those keywords that meets your criteria. In order for it to have an impact, you really need to rank on the first page, and to really grab a share of that traffic, you need to rank in the top spots. First and second snag 45% of that potential.

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So, who’s ranking in those spots already? If it’s lots of “little sites” – personal blogs, low page and domain authority, few backlinks – then you can knock them down and claim the coveted pole position with your content.

If, however, the top ten is rife with “big” and authority sites, you’ll have a much, much harder time. Choose wisely.

It’s possible to rank for tough and competitive keywords, but it’s a lot of hard work and effort. Pick your battles.

Fill gaps. Create for rankable ideas. Level up.

Custom Imagery

Images are crucial. The data is crystal-clear on this: no images means less engagement, sharing, and commenting.

Consider:

The takeaway? Images and other graphics are important, but high-quality and/or original images and graphics are more important.

Anyone can find a free stock photo. There are many sites devoted to them. And they definitely have a time and place. But depending on the piece of content, you might want to consider avoiding free stock photos, because…

…they look like free stock photos. Readers are likely to encounter them on multiple websites and posts. Is that the impression you want to create for your brand and products?

If possible, you want original images that are yours and yours alone. You want high-quality images. You want consistent images, with the same overall colors, motifs, and “look.”

We want any photography that’s on social, in our marketing, to look like it came from the same camera. It’s consistent, it’s coherent, it’s speaking the same language.” ~Michael Baca, In-house Photographer at Pandora

Many online businesses have started explicitly outlining their visual identity in their style guide. It makes for a consistent and easily-shareable manual for everything from logos, colors, fonts, formats, and more.

Stay consistent. Get recognized.

On the Mailshake blog, for example, our team works with a designer to do custom blog post images for $25 each.

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It’s not much, but the payoff is huge in terms of brand consistency and recognition. All Mailshake visuals share the same look, colors (blue, white, red, and teal), and feel.

No matter where it’s shared or where someone sees it, it’s instantly recognizable as a Mailshake post because of our visual identity. And they look great, of course.

You can do the same with your brand by hiring your own designer. It need not be a full-time in-house position, either. The number of talented and capable graphic designers out there is staggering. Find a freelancer you like, and use him or her each and every time.

Services like 99Designs make it easy to find and collaborate with designers. You can even find good freelancers on sites like Fiverr for a more budget-friendly option.

If you’re a little more hands-on, tools like Venngage, Canva, and PicMonkey let you do it yourself. You can find online tools for making infographics, banners, charts, gifs, videos, and more. Just google whatever it is you need.

Content marketing is inching closer and closer to presentations in the 21st century. We want visuals. We demand visuals. We are increasingly ignoring content without them, so make sure yours is providing them.

As an added bonus, high-quality, custom visuals bleed into your content promotion. An infographic, video, or mini-visual representing new stats or studies can be featured on your site, social media, and elsewhere. Visitors are looking for more visual content, and they’re ready to click, read, and share when they find it.

Infographics, illustrations, charts, videos, gifs, presentations, and memes, and on and on. Make them consistent for your brand, make them high-quality and professional, and make them yours alone.

Better visuals = better content. Level up without writing a single word.

Expert Statistics, Data Points, and More

It’s not about just doing expert round-ups, although those continue to be a popular and effective format for your content marketing.

That said, storytelling is a bigger part of it these days. Yes, people still want to see statistics and data points from recognized experts, but how you share that information is equally important.

And we’re hardwired for stories. Stories are easier to digest than concrete stats and instructions. Stories speak to the heart, while stats and data speak to the mind. We connect and engage with stories in ways we could never with cold data. And perhaps counterintuitively, stories engage our brains in a much deeper way, producing a much deeper connection.

Best of all, 92% of consumers want brands to make ads feel like a story.

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The results showed that not only did all of the listeners show similar brain activity during the story, the speaker and the listeners had very similar brain activity despite the fact that one person was producing language and the others were comprehending it.” ~Uri Hassan, Neuroscientist at Princeton University

Stories and business are a match made in marketing heaven.

The LeadFeeder blog, for example, tells stories all the time about other companies. So does Airbnb and countless others. Why? Because people want to hear the stories of what makes something successful, or how a particular product or service works in the real world with real people.

Data-driven stories are going to get your point across better than a presentation with that same data. Customer-led stories are going to paint a better picture of your brand and product than simple user stats. Anecdotes. Mishaps. Behind-the-scenes. Watch any product reveal with Steve Jobs. He doesn’t just introduce a new iPhone. He tells a story about it.

Stories humanize your brand, resonate with consumers, create brand loyalty, and grab our attention.

Brand storytelling is a great way to get your point across, differentiate your brand, and work out new ideas. Today, if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur or leader, you also have to be a storyteller.” ~Richard Branson

Quotes are another simple but powerful way to integrate stats, data, and support into your content without just dropping it in with a thud.

When you use quotes from influencers, they should help prove your points, not necessarily help the influencers look good. Level up the game from “including quotes because they’re more promotable” to “including quotes to support your points.” Quotes are mini-stories. Quotes should complement and support your content.

Tell stories. Look to others for inspiration. Level up.

Be a Team Player

In order to level up your content, you may need to build a team to help produce and promote it. You can’t – and shouldn’t – do everything all the time. A leader is only as good as the team he surrounds himself with, so surround yourself with a top-notch content team.

Writers, designers, photographers, marketers…a stellar content marketing team has a slot for each job.

Find freelancers on sites like Upwork, or services like DesignPickle (a monthly subscription service for designers). Place an ad on job portals like Indeed. Ask friends and colleagues for referrals. Outsource to a team that specializes in content creation.

Just do something other than banging it all out on your own and hoping it’s good. And once you find people that consistently deliver the goods, hang on to them for dear life. I’ve been working with the same two designers since we first connected 6-8 years ago.

Build your team.

Take the Mailshake cold email masterclass, for example. It was a time-consuming and costly investment for something we ultimately give away for free, but it’s an example of an authoritative piece of content that uses custom-made imagery and video, engaging and concise writing, and tons of useful, actionable ideas and tips.

It promotes Mailshake, builds its reputation and authority, and creates brand loyalty and advocacy, and it was created by our talented and dedicated team.

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No man – or woman – is an island. Harness the strengths of others. Work together. Level up.

Pay Attention to SEO Basics

All this talk about the re-emergence of SEO and the necessity of creating better content, and I still haven’t really talked about SEO yet.

Search engine optimization can – and does – fill an entire post or class on its own. There’s a lot that goes into it.

The general rules, guidelines, and best practices are basically universal, although the size of your business may influence it in some ways.

You could outsource, of course. But there are also plenty of fantastic how-tos available from some of the biggest names in the biz: Moz, Neil Patel, Search Engine Journal, and more.

Keywords are important, as I’ve discussed. But so too are on-page elements like meta-descriptions and tags, and link-building. Make sure you or someone on your team understands them and knows how to tweak and refine them over time.

There are plugins available – like the excellent Yoast SEO – that make optimizing fast and easy when you’re just beginning your SEO journey. If you’re not sure where to start, start there.

Or you could turn to a variety of SEO tools – both free and paid – to build an SEO toolkit. Check out Google Analytics for reports on your traffic and marketing success. What content is resonating most with your visitors? Can you update it, expand it, transform it, or replicate it in some way? Give them what they most want. Then give them more.

Prioritize your SEO efforts. Level up.

It’s not the words you say. It’s the things around the words and the topics you choose.

In 2018, you should be decreasing the volume of content you create. You should be producing a lot less content, which means you have to spend more time creating individual content pieces. Make them ridiculously high-quality.

In this new world of content saturation and dwindling social shares, the big winners are sites that have built a strong reputation and following for original, authoritative, and engaging content.

Is that you?

What have I missed? How else have you leveled up your content to keep pace with changing demand? Leave your comments below:

Image: Pixabay

Comments
  1. Thank you for sharing, Sujan. As the old adage goes – Content is King. I really appreciate you sharing your expertise and giving insight on ways to create great content. I think it’s fascinating to find out what your target audience desires and to then deliver content to fulfill them and blow their socks off.

  2. Hi Sujan:

    That was a really good read!

    And you’re right, we have to still look at SEO with great seriousness as the principal traffic source (albeit the new avatar of SEO, not the old way of doing things) …

    … because social media hasn’t exactly lived up to its potential as a traffic source, I think.

    The only issue as I see it is that we are all onto the concept of deciphering “searcher intent” from search keywords we see, but there could be a gap between what a searcher intends to search for and the words he uses to search for that.

    In a focus group I was part of recently, we saw that people needed up to three to five tries of search before they found the right words to get what they intended to find. So it looks more complicated than just trying to gauge search intent from the search words used.

    Thanks again Sujan, I loved the depth of what you have written and a lot of it is very useful to me.

    Regards,

    Shobha Ponnappa

  3. It’s really a great full collection of all the tools. However, I would like to mention web push notifications as one of the tools to reach out to customers. Nowadays many of the e-commerce companies are using push notifications to connect to the user. It allows sending the notification to users even when the user is not there on their website. These are delivered directly to the browser both on mobile as well as desktop.

    1. Thanks Nhom. You’re right! Notifications can be great for some industries (like e-commerce). I personally haven’t seen much success from broswer notifications on my sites or client sites.

  4. Nice post! Already learn very effective tips from you, Sujon! its another big data. Helpful, and natural stunning for growth content level. Thank you so much..

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