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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How Google Pulls Structured Snippets from Websites’ Tables

Posted by billslawski

An article that came out at the beginning of 2015 was intended to (quietly) let people know about what Google had been doing to offer a new form of search results called Table Search. The article was titled 
Applying WebTables in Practice (pdf).

It tells us about an initiative that Google’s structured data team embarked upon, when they started the WebTables project in the second half of the 2000s, which involved them releasing the following paper:

WebTables: Exploring the Power of Tables on the Web (pdf)

It got some nice press in the paper
Structured Data on the Web (pdf).

What is Table Search?

There are many pages on the Web that are filled with data in the form of tables. It’s possible that if you weren’t paying attention you may have missed
Google Table Search entirely—it hasn’t gotten a lot of press as far as I can tell. If you include tabular data on the pages of your site, though, you may be able to find tables from your site included in the results from a query in Google Table Search.

Imagine that I am looking to buy a new camera lens, except I’m not sure which one to purchase. I’ve heard good things about Nikon lenses, so I go to Table Search and look for [
single lens dslr nikon].  The first table returned gives me some choices to compare different lenses:

Table Search and structured snippets

One of the interesting things to grow out of Table Search capability from Google is the structured snippet, a search result that is a combination of query results and tabular data results, as described by Google in their blog post
Introducing Structured Snippets, now a part of Google Web Search.

For example, this result involving a search for [superman] includes facts from a Wikipedia table about the character:

54f0c3048173c5.27232995.jpg

Those extra facts come from the table associated with a query on Superman that shows tabular data about the character:

54f0c33940aba2.23746399.jpg

We can see Google working in structured snippets elsewhere, e.g., in presenting snippets from Twitter, like from the following profile:

54f0c979c14ae7.95271653.jpg

A search for Rand shows the following (h/t to
Barbara Starr for this example of a structured snippet):

54f0c5345b4942.37671661.jpg

Note how Google is taking structured data (highlighted in yellow) from the Twitter profile and including it in the Google search result from the Twitter profile “about Rand”. That data may also be from Twitter’s API of data that they feed to Google. I have noticed that when there are multiple Twitter accounts for the same name, this kind of table data doesn’t appear in the Google snippet. 

Getting your structured snippets

The
Applying Webtables in Practice paper has some suggestions on how to create tables that might be sources of structured data that Google might use:

  1. Limit the amount of boilerplate content that appears in a table
  2. Use table headings <th> to add labels to the columns they head—this tells Google that they are filled with important data
  3. Use meaningful attribute names in table headings that make it more likely the tables might appear and rank for a relevant query
  4. Use meaningful titles, captions and semantically related text surrounding the table. These can help the search engine better understand what the table is about.
  5. The ranking of tables in Table Search can be influenced by Web ranking features such as The PageRank of a page a table is on and links pointed to that page.

If you decide to use tables on your pages, following these hints from the “Applying WebTables in Practice” paper may help lead to structured snippets showing up in your search results. The inclusion of that data may convince searchers to click through to your pages. A data-rich search result that addresses their informational and situational needs may be persuasive enough to get them to visit you. And the snippet is attached to a link to your page, so your page gets credit for the data.

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Introducing Followerwonk Profile Pages

Posted by petebray

Followerwonk has always been primarily about social graph analysis and exploration: from tracking follower growth, comparing relationships, and so on.

Followerwonk now adds content analysis and user profiling, too

In the Analyze tab, you’ll find a new option to examine any Twitter user’s tweets. (Note that this is a Pro-only feature, so you’ll need to be a subscriber to use it.)

You can also access these profile pages by simply clicking on a Twitter username anywhere else in Followerwonk.

For us, this feature is really exciting, because we let you analyze not just yourself, but other people too. In fact, Pro users can analyze as many other Twitter accounts as they want!

Now, you’ll doubtlessly learn lots by analyzing your own tweets. But you already probably have a pretty good sense of what content works well for you (and who you engage with frequently).

We feel that Profile Pages really move the needle by letting you surface the relationships and content strategies of competitors, customers, and prospects.

Let’s take a closer look.

Find the people any Twitter user engages with most frequently

Yep, just plug in a Twitter name and we’ll analyze their most recent 2000 tweets. We’ll extract out all of the mentions and determine which folks they talk to the most.

Here, we see that 
@dr_pete talks most frequently with (or about) Moz, Rand, Elisa, and Melissa. In fact, close to 10% of his tweets are talking to these four! (Note the percentage above each listed name.)

This analysis is helpful as it lets you quickly get a sense for the relationships that are important for this person. That provides possible inroads to that person in terms of engagement strategies.

Chart when and what conversations happen with an analyzed user’s most important relationships

We don’t just stop there. By clicking on the little “see engagement” link below each listed user, you can see the history of the relationship.

Here, we can see when the engagements happened in the little chart. And we actually show you the underlying tweets, too.

This is a great way to quickly understand the context of that relationship: is it a friendly back and forth, a heated exchange, or the last gasp of a bad customer experience? Perhaps the tweets from a competitor to one his top customers occurred weeks back? Maybe there’s a chance for you to make inroads to that customer?

There’s all sorts of productive tea-reading that can happen with this feature. And, by the way, don’t forget that you already have the ability to track all the relationships a competitor forms (or breaks), too.

Rank any Twitter user’s tweets by importance to surface their best content

This is my favorite feature—by far—in Followerwonk.

Sure, there are other tools that tell you your most popular tweets, but there are few that let you turn that feature around and examine other Twitter users. This is important because (let’s face it) few of us have the volume of RTs and favorites to make self-analysis that useful. But when we examine top Twitter accounts, we come away with hints about what content strategies they’re using that work well.

Here we see that Obama’s top tweets include a tribute, an irreverent bit of humor, and an image that creatively criticizes a recent Supreme Court ruling. What lessons might you draw from the content that works best for Obama? What content works best for other people? Their image tweets? Tweets with humor? Shorter tweets? Tweets with links? Go do some analyzing!

Uncover top source domains of any Twitter users

Yep, we dissect all the URLs for any analyzed user to assemble a list of their top domains.

This feature offers a great way to quickly snapshot the types of content and sources that users draw material from. Moreover, we can click on “see mentions” to see a timeline of when those mentions occurred for each domain, as well as what particular tweets accounted for them.

In sum…

These features offer exciting ways to quickly profile users. Such analysis should be at the heart of any engagement strategy: understand who your target most frequently engages with, what content makes them successful, and what domains they pull from.

At the same time, this approach reveals content strategies—what, precisely, works well for you, but also for other thought leaders in your category. Not only can you draw inspiration from this approach, but you can find content that might deserve a retweet (or reformulation in your own words).

I don’t want to go too Freudian on you, but consider this: What’s the value of self-analysis? I mean that to say that unless you have a lot of data, any analytics product isn’t going to be totally useful. That’s why this addition in Followerwonk is so powerful. Now you can analyze others, including thought leaders in your particular industry, to find the secrets of their social success.

Start analyzing!

Finally, this is a bittersweet blog post for me. It’s my last one as a Mozzer. I’m off to try my hand at another bootstrapping startup: this time, software that lets you build feature tours and elicit visitor insights. I’m leaving Followerwonk in great hands, and I look forward to seeing awesome new features down the line. Of course, you can always stay in touch with me on Twitter. Keep on wonkin’!

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