Simple Steps for Conducting Creative Content Research

Posted by Hannah_Smith

Most frequently, the content we create at Distilled is designed to attract press coverage, social shares, and exposure (and links) on sites our clients’ target audience reads. That’s a tall order.

Over the years we’ve had our hits and misses, and through this we’ve recognised the value of learning about what makes a piece of content successful. Coming up with a great idea is difficult, and it can be tough to figure out where to begin. Today, rather than leaping headlong into brainstorming sessions, we start with creative content research.

What is creative content research?

Creative content research enables you to answer the questions:

“What are websites publishing, and what are people sharing?”

From this, you’ll then have a clearer view on what might be successful for your client.

A few years ago this required quite an amount of work to figure out. Today, happily, it’s much quicker and easier. In this post I’ll share the process and tools we use.

Whoa there… Why do I need to do this?

I think that the value in this sort of activity lies in a couple of directions:

a) You can learn a lot by deconstructing the success of others…

I’ve been taking stuff apart to try to figure out how it works for about as long as I can remember, so applying this process to content research felt pretty natural to me. Perhaps more importantly though, I think that deconstructing content is actually easier when it isn’t your own. You’re not involved, invested, or in love with the piece so viewing it objectively and learning from it is much easier.

b) Your research will give you a clear overview of the competitive landscape…

As soon as a company elects to start creating content, they gain a whole raft of new competitors. In addition to their commercial competitors (i.e. those who offer similar products or services), the company also gains content competitors. For example, if you’re a sports betting company and plan to create content related to the sports events that you’re offering betting markets on; then you’re competing not just with other betting companies, but every other publisher who creates content about these events. That means major news outlets, sports news site, fan sites, etc. To make matters even more complicated, it’s likely that you’ll actually be seeking coverage from those same content competitors. As such, you need to understand what’s already being created in the space before creating content of your own.

c) You’re giving yourself the data to create a more compelling pitch…

At some point you’re going to need to pitch your ideas to your client (or your boss if you’re working in-house). At Distilled, we’ve found that getting ideas signed off can be really tough. Ultimately, a great idea is worthless if we can’t persuade our client to give us the green light. This research can be used to make a more compelling case to your client and get those ideas signed off. (Incidentally, if getting ideas signed off is proving to be an issue you might find this framework for pitching creative ideas useful).

Where to start

Good ideas start with a good brief, however it can be tough to pin clients down to get answers to a long list of questions.

As a minimum you’ll need to know the following:

  • Who are they looking to target?
    • Age, sex, demographic
    • What’s their core focus? What do they care about? What problems are they looking to solve?
    • Who influences them?
    • What else are they interested in?
    • Where do they shop and which brands do they buy?
    • What do they read?
    • What do they watch on TV?
    • Where do they spend their time online?
  • Where do they want to get coverage?
    • We typically ask our clients to give us a wishlist of 10 or so sites they’d love to get coverage on
  • Which topics are they comfortable covering?
    • This question is often the toughest, particularly if a client hasn’t created content specifically for links and shares before. Often clients are uncomfortable about drifting too far away from their core business—for example, if they sell insurance, they’ll typically say that they really want to create a piece of content about insurance. Whilst this is understandable from the clients’ perspective it can severely limit their chances of success. It’s definitely worth offering up a gentle challenge at this stage—I’ll often cite Red Bull, who are a great example of a company who create content based on what their consumers love, not what they sell (i.e. Red Bull sell soft drinks, but create content about extreme sports because that’s the sort of content their audience love to consume). It’s worth planting this idea early, but don’t get dragged into a fierce debate at this stage—you’ll be able to make a far more compelling argument once you’ve done your research and are pitching concrete ideas.

Processes, useful tools and sites

Now you have your brief, it’s time to begin your research.

Given that we’re looking to uncover “what websites are publishing and what’s being shared,” It won’t surprise you to learn that I pay particular attention to pieces of content and the coverage they receive. For each piece that I think is interesting I’ll note down the following:

  • The title/headline
  • A link to the coverage (and to the original piece if applicable)
  • How many social shares the coverage earned (and the original piece earned)
  • The number of linking root domains the original piece earned
  • Some notes about the piece itself: why it’s interesting, why I think it got shares/coverage
  • Any gaps in the content, whether or not it’s been executed well
  • How we might do something similar (if applicable)

Whilst I’m doing this I’ll also make a note of specific sites I see being frequently shared (I tend to check these out separately later on), any interesting bits of research (particularly if I think there might be an opportunity to do something different with the data), interesting threads on forums etc.

When it comes to kicking off your research, you can start wherever you like, but I’d recommend that you cover off each of the areas below:

What does your target audience share?

Whilst this activity might not uncover specific pieces of successful content, it’s a great way of getting a clearer understanding of your target audience, and getting a handle on the sites they read and the topics which interest them.

  • Review social profiles / feeds
    • If the company you’re working for has a Facebook page, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find some people who’ve liked the company page and have a public profile. It’s even easier on Twitter where most profiles are public. Whilst this won’t give you quantitative data, it does put a human face to your audience data and gives you a feel for what these people care about and share. In addition to uncovering specific pieces of content, this can also provide inspiration in terms of other sites you might want to investigate further and ideas for topics you might want to explore.
  • Demographics Pro
    • This service infers demographic data from your clients’ Twitter followers. I find it particularly useful if the client doesn’t know too much about their audience. In addition to demographic data, you get a breakdown of professions, interests, brand affiliations, and the other Twitter accounts they follow and who they’re most influenced by. This is a paid-for service, but there are pay-as-you-go options in addition to pay monthly plans.

Finding successful pieces of content on specific sites

If you’ve a list of sites you know your target audience read, and/or you know your client wants to get coverage on, there are a bunch of ways you can uncover interesting content:

  • Using your link research tool of choice (e.g. Open Site Explorer, Majestic, ahrefs) you can run a domain level report to see which pages have attracted the most links. This can also be useful if you want to check out commercial competitors to see which pieces of content they’ve created have attracted the most links.
  • There are also tools which enable you to uncover the most shared content on individual sites. You can use Buzzsumo to run content analysis reports on individual domains which provide data on average social shares per post, social shares by network, and social shares by content type.
  • If you just want to see the most shared content for a given domain you can run a simple search on Buzzsumo using the domain; and there’s also the option to refine by topic. For example a search like [guardian.com big data] will return the most shared content on the Guardian related to big data. You can also run similar reports using ahrefs’ Content Explorer tool.

Both Buzzsumo and ahrefs are paid tools, but both offer free trials. If you need to explore the most shared content without using a paid tool, there are other alternatives. Check out Social Crawlytics which will crawl domains and return social share data, or alternatively, you can crawl a site (or section of a site) and then run the URLs through SharedCount‘s bulk upload feature.

Finding successful pieces of content by topic

When searching by topic, I find it best to begin with a broad search and then drill down into more specific areas. For example, if I had a client in the financial services space, I’d start out looking at a broad topic like “money” rather than shooting straight to topics like loans or credit cards.

As mentioned above, both Buzzsumo and ahrefs allow you to search for the most shared content by topic and both offer advanced search options.

Further inspiration

There are also several sites I like to look at for inspiration. Whilst these sites don’t give you a great steer on whether or not a particular piece of content was actually successful, with a little digging you can quickly find the original source and pull link and social share data:

  • Visually has a community area where users can upload creative content. You can search by topic to uncover examples.
  • TrendHunter have a searchable archive of creative ideas, they feature products, creative campaigns, marketing campaigns, advertising and more. It’s best to keep your searches broad if you’re looking at this site.
  • Check out Niice (a moodboard app) which also has a searchable archive of handpicked design inspiration.
  • Searching Pinterest can allow you to unearth some interesting bits and pieces as can Google image searches and regular Google searches around particular topics.
  • Reviewing relevant sections of discussion sites like Quora can provide insight into what people are asking about particular topics which may spark a creative idea.

Moving from data to insight

By this point you’ve (hopefully) got a long list of content examples. Whilst this is a great start, effectively what you’ve got here is just data, now you need to convert this to insight.

Remember, we’re trying to answer the questions: “What are websites publishing, and what are people sharing?”

Ordinarily as I go through the creative content research process, I start to see patterns or themes emerge. For example, across a variety of topics areas you’ll see that the most shared content tends to be news. Whilst this is good to know, it’s not necessarily something that’s going to be particularly actionable. You’ll need to dig a little deeper—what else (aside from news) is given coverage? Can you split those things into categories or themes?

This is tough to explain in the abstract, so let me give you an example. We’d identified a set of music sites (e.g. Rolling Stone, NME, CoS, Stereogum, Pitchfork) as target publishers for a client.

Here’s a summary of what I concluded following my research:

The most-shared content on these music publications is news: album launches, new singles, videos of performances etc. As such, if we can work a news hook into whatever we create, this could positively influence our chances of gaining coverage.

Aside from news, the content which gains traction tends to fall into one of the following categories:

Earlier in this post I mentioned that it can be particularly tough to create content which attracts coverage and shares if clients feel strongly that they want to do something directly related to their product or service. The example I gave at the outset was a client who sold insurance and was really keen to create something about insurance. You’re now in a great position to win an argument with data, as thanks to your research you’ll be able to cite several pieces of insurance-related content which have struggled to gain traction. But it’s not all bad news as you’ll also be able to cite other topics which are relevant to the client’s target audience and stand a better chance of gaining coverage and shares.

Avoiding the pitfalls

There are potential pitfalls when it comes to creative content research in that it’s easy to leap to erroneous conclusions. Here’s some things to watch out for:

Make sure you’re identifying outliers…

When seeking out successful pieces of content you need to be certain that what you’re looking at is actually an outlier. For example, the average post on BuzzFeed gets over 30k social shares. As such, that post you found with just 10k shares is not an outlier. It’s done significantly worse than average. It’s therefore not the best post to be holding up as a fabulous example of what to create to get shares.

Don’t get distracted by formats…

Pay more attention to the idea than the format. For example, the folks at Mashable, kindly covered an infographic about Instagram which we created for a client. However, the takeaway here is not that Instagram infographics get coverage on Mashable. Mashable didn’t cover this because we created an infographic. They covered the piece because it told a story in a compelling and unusual way.

You probably shouldn’t create a listicle…

This point is related to the point above. In my experience, unless you’re a publisher with a huge, engaged social following, that listicle of yours is unlikely to gain traction. Listicles on huge publisher sites get shares, listicles on client sites typically don’t. This is doubly important if you’re also seeking coverage, as listicles on clients sites don’t typically get links or coverage on other sites.

How we use the research to inform our ideation process

At Distilled, we typically take a creative brief and complete creative content research and then move into the ideation process. A summary of the research is included within the creative brief, and this, along with a copy of the full creative content research is shared with the team.

The research acts as inspiration and direction and is particularly useful in terms of identifying potential topics to explore but doesn’t mean team members don’t still do further research of their own.

This process by no means acts as a silver bullet, but it definitely helps us come up with ideas.


Thanks for sticking with me to the end!

I’d love to hear more about your creative content research processes and any tips you have for finding inspirational content. Do let me know via the comments.

Image credits: Research, typing, audience, inspiration, kitteh.

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Are On-Topic Links Important? – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

How much does the context of a link really matter? In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand looks at on- and off-topic links to uncover what packs the greatest SEO punch and shares what you should be looking for when building a high-quality link.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard!

On-Topic Links Whiteboard

Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat a little bit about on-topic and off-topic links. One of the questions and one of the topics that you see discussed all the time in the SEO world is: Do on-topic links matter more than off-topic links? By on topic, people generally mean they come from sites and pages that are on the same or very similar subject matter to the site or page that I’m trying to get the link to.

It sort of makes intuitive sense to us that Google would care somewhat about this, that they would say, “Oh, well, here’s our friend over here,” we’ll call him Steve. No we’re going to call him Carl, because Carl is a great name.

Carl, of course, has CarlsCloset.net, CarlsCloset.net being a home organization site. Carl is going out, and he’s doing some link building, which he should, and so he’s got some link targets in mind. He looks at places like RealSimple.com, the magazine site, Sunset Magazine, UnderwaterHoagies.com, Carl being a great fan of all things underwater and sandwich related. So as he’s looking at these sites, he’s thinking to himself, well, from an SEO perspective, is it necessary the case that Real Simple, which has a lot of content on home organization and on cleaning up clutter and those kinds of things, is that going to help Carl’s Closet site rank better than, say, a link from UnderwaterHoagies.com?

The answer is a little tough here. It could be the case that UnderwaterHoagies.com has a feature article all about how submariners can keep their home in order, even as they brunch under the sea. But maybe the link from RealSimple.com is coming from a less on-topic article and page. So this starts to get really messy. Is it the site that matters, or is it the page that matters? Is it the context that matters? Is it the link itself and where that’s embedded in the site? What is the real understanding that Google has between relationships of on-topic and off-topic? That’s where you get a lot of convoluted information.

I have seen and we have probably all heard a ton of anecdotal evidence on both sides. There are SEOs who will argue passionately from their experience that what they’ve seen is that on-topic links are hugely more beneficial than off-topic ones. You’ll see the complete opposite from some other folks. In fact, most of my personal experiences, when I was doing more directed link building for clients way back in my SEO consulting days and even more recently as I’ve helped startups and advised folks, has been that off-topic links, UnderwaterHoagies.com linking to Carl’s Closet, that still seems to provide quite a bit of benefit, and it’s very had to gauge whether it’s as much, less than, more than any of these other ones. So I think, on the anecdotal side, we’re in a tough spot.

What we can say is that probably there’s some additional value from on-topic sites, on-topic pages, or on-topic link connections, that Google has some idea of context. We’ve seen them make huge strides with algorithms like Hummingbird, certainly with their keyword matching and topic modeling algorithms. It seems very unlikely that there would be nothing in Google’s algorithm that looks at the context or relationship of content between linking pages and linking websites.

However, in the real world, things are almost never equal. It’s not like they’re going to get exactly the same anchor text from the same importance of a page that has the same number of external links, that the content is exactly the same on all three of these websites pointing over to Carl’s Closet. In the real world, Carl is going to struggle much harder to get some of these links than others. So I think that the questions we need to ask ourselves, as folks who are doing directed marketing and trying to earn links, is: Will the link actually help people? Is that link going to be clicked?

If you’re on a page on Real Simple that you think very few people ever reach, you think very few people will ever click that link because it just doesn’t appear to provide much value, versus you’re in an article all about home organization on Underwater Hoagies, and it was featured on their home page, and you’re pretty sure that a lot of the submariners who are eating their subs under the sea are very interested in this topic and they’re going to click on that link, well you know what? That’s a link that helps people. That probably means search engines are going to treat it with some reverence as well.

Does the link make sense in context? This is a good one to ask yourself when you are doing any kind of link building that’s directed that could potentially be manipulative. If the link makes sense in context, it tends to be the case that it’s going to be more useful. So if Carl contributes the article to UnderwaterHoagies.com, and the link makes sense in context, and it will help people, I think it’s appropriate to put it there. If that’s not the case, it could look a little manipulative. It could certainly be perceived as self-serving.

Then, can you actually acquire the link? It’s wonderful when you go out and you make a list of, hey, here’s the most important and relevant sites in our sector and niche, and this is how we’re going to build topical authority. But if you can’t get those links, hey that’s tough potatoes, man. It’s no better than putting a list of links and just sorting them by, God knows, a horrible metric like PageRank or Alexa rank or something like that.

I would instead ask yourself if it’s realistic for you to be able to get those links and pursue those as well as pursuing or looking at the metrics, and the importance, and the topical relevance.

Let’s think about this from a broad perspective. Search engines are caring about what? They’re caring about matching the content relevance to the searcher’s query. They care about raw link popularity. That’s sort of like the old-school algorithms of PageRank and number of links and that kind of thing. They do care about topical authority and brand authority. We talked about on Whiteboard Friday previously around some topical authorities and how Google determines the authority and the subject matter of a site’s authority. They care about domain authority, the raw importance of a domain on the web, and they care about things like engagement, user and usage data, and given how much they can follow all of us around the web these days, they probably know pretty well whether people are clicking on these articles using these pages or not.

Then anchor text. Not every link that you might build or acquire or earn is going to provide all of these in one single package. Each of them are going to be contributing pieces of those puzzles. When it comes to the on-topic/off-topic link debate, I’m much more about caring about the answers to these kinds of questions — Can I acquire the link? Is it useful to people? Will they actually use it? Does the link make sense in context? — than I am about is it on-topic or off-topic? I’m not sure that I would ever urge you to prioritize based on that.

That said, I’m certainly looking forward to your feedback this week and hearing about your experiences with on-topic and off-topic links, and hopefully we’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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My Favorite 5 Analytics Dashboards – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by Sixthman

Finding effective ways of organizing your analytics dashboards is quite a bit easier if you can get a sense for what has worked for others. To that end, in today’s Whiteboard Friday the founder of Sixth Man Marketing, Ed Reese, shares his five favorite approaches.

UPDATE: At the request of several commenters, Ed has generously provided GA templates for these dashboards. Check out the links in his comment below!

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard!

Video transcription

Hi, I’m Ed Reese with Sixth Man Marketing and Local U. Welcome to this edition of Whiteboard Friday. Today we’re going to talk about one of my favorite things in terms of Google Analytics — the dashboard.

So think of your dashboard like the dashboard on your car — what’s important to you and what’s important to your client. I have the new Tesla dashboard, you might recognize it. So, for my Tesla dashboard, I want navigation, tunes, calendar, everything and a bag of chips. You notice my hands are not on the wheel because it drives itself now. Awesome.

So, what’s important? I have the top five dashboards that I like to share with my clients and create for them. These are the executive dashboards — one for the CMO on the marketing side, new markets, content, and a tech check. You can actually create dashboards and make sure that everything is working.

These on the side are some of the few that I think people don’t take a look at as often. It’s my opinion that we have a lot of very generic dashboards, so I like to really dive in and see what we can learn so that your client can really start using them for their advantage.

#1 – Executives

Let’s start with the executive dashboard. There is a lot of debate on whether or not to go from left to right or right to left. So in terms of outcome, behavior, and acquisition, Google Analytics gives you those areas. They don’t mark them as these three categories, but I follow Avinash’s language and the language that GA uses.

When you’re talking to executives or CFOs, it’s my personal opinion that executives always want to see the money first. So focus on financials, conversion rates, number of sales, number of leads. They don’t want to go through the marketing first and then get to the numbers. Just give them what they want. On a dashboard, they’re seeing that first.

So let’s start with the result and then go back to behavior. Now, this is where a lot of people have very generic metrics — pages viewed, generic bounce rate, very broad metrics. To really dive in, I like focusing and using the filters to go to specific areas on the site. So if it’s a destination like a hotel, “Oh, are they viewing the pages that helped them get there? Are they looking at the directional information? Are they viewing discounts and sorts of packages?” Think of the behavior on those types of pages you want to measure, and then reverse engineer. That way you can tell they executive, “Hey, this hotel reservation viewed these packages, which came from these sources, campaigns, search, and social.” Remember, you’re building it so that they can view it for themselves and really take advantage and see, “Oh, that’s working, and this campaign from this source had these behaviors that generated a reservation,” in that example.

#2 – CMO

Now, let’s look at it from a marketing perspective. You want to help make them look awesome. So I like to reverse it and start with the marketing side in terms of acquisition, then go to behavior on the website, and then end up with the same financials — money, conversion rate percentages, number of leads, number of hotel rooms booked, etc. I like to get really, really focused.

So when you’re building a dashboard for a CMO or anyone on the marketing side, talk to them about what metrics matter. What do they really want to learn? A lot of times you need to know their exact territory and really fine tune it in to figure out exactly what they want to find out.

Again, I’m a huge fan of filters. What behavior matters? So for example, one of our clients is Beardbrand. They sell beard oil and they support the Urban Beardsman. We know that their main markets are New York, Texas, California, and the Pacific Northwest. So we could have a very broad regional focus for acquisition, but we don’t. We know where their audience lives, we know what type of behavior they like, and ultimately what type of behavior on the website influences purchases.

So really think from a marketing perspective, “How do we want to measure the acquisition to the behavior on the website and ultimately what does that create?”

These are pretty common, so I think most people are using a marketing and executive dashboard. Here are some that have really made a huge difference for clients of ours.

#3 – New markets

Love new market dashboards. Let’s say, for example, you’re a hotel chain and you normally have people visiting your site from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Well, what happened in our case, we had that excluded, and we were looking at states broader — Hawaii, Alaska, Colorado, Texas. Not normally people who would come to this particular hotel.

Well, we discovered in the dashboard — and it was actually the client that discovered it — that we suddenly had a 6000% increase in Hawaii. They called me and said, “Are we marketing to Hawaii?” I said no. They said, “Well, according to the dashboard, we’ve had 193 room nights in the past 2 months.” Like, “Wow, 193 room nights from Hawaii, what happened?” So we started reverse engineering that, and we found out that Allegiant Airlines suddenly had a direct flight from Honolulu to Spokane, and the hotel in this case was two miles from the hotel. They could then do paid search campaigns in Hawaii. They can try to connect with Allegiant to co-op some advertising and some messaging. Boom. Would never have been discovered without that dashboard.

#4 – Top content

Another example, top content. Again, going back to Beardbrand, they have a site called the Urban Beardsman, and they publish a lot of content for help and videos and tutorials. To measure that content, it’s really important, because they’re putting a lot of work into educating their market and new people who are growing beards and using their product. They want to know, “Is it worth it?” They’re hiring photographers, they’re hiring writers, and we’re able to see if people are reading the content they’re providing, and then ultimately, we’re focusing much more on their content on the behavior side and then figuring out what that outcome is.

A lot of people have content or viewing of the blog as part of an overall dashboard, let’s say for your CMO. I’m a big fan of, in addition to having that ,also having a very specific content dashboard so you can see your top blogs. Whatever content you provide, I want you to always know what that’s driving on your website.

#5 – Tech check

One of the things that I’ve never heard anyone talk about before, that we use all the time, is a tech check. So we want to see a setup so we can view mobile, tablet, desktop, browsers. What are your gaps? Where is your site possibly not being used to its fullest potential? Are there any issues with shopping carts? Where do they fall off on your website? Set up any possible tech that you can track. I’m a big fan of looking both on the mobile, tablet, any type of desktop, browsers especially to see where they’re falling off. For a lot of our clients, we’ll have two, three, or four different tech dashboards. Get them to the technical person on the client side so they can immediately see if there’s an issue. If they’ve updated the website, but maybe they forgot to update a certain portion of it, they’ve got a technical issue, and the dashboard can help detect that.

So these are just a few. I’m a huge fan of dashboards. They’re very powerful. But the big key is to make sure that not only you, but your client understands how to use them, and they use them on a regular basis.

I hope that’s been very helpful. Again, I’m Ed Reese, and these are my top five dashboards. Thanks.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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