Content is undoubtedly the most discussed aspect of digital marketing. A hot topic, despite how hard it is to trace its connection to revenue.
Well, content creation and impact leave quite a bit up for discussion. Rather than science, the realm of content marketing feels like something closer to a wonderland made up by a five-year-old. And so, making claims one way or the other cannot really get you in trouble because the vagueness of it all makes it possible to defend pretty much any point of view.
The best part is, whatever you are claiming, you are likely correct.
Content, if anything, is contextual. In and of itself, content doesn’t exist independently but in relation to who it is being created for. Hence, the claims of what works and what doesn’t are more claims about the subject (audience) and not the object (content), so the variety never stops.
Amanda Natividad, VP of Marketing at SparkToro, who has a storied career in content marketing, is of a very similar opinion. To her, content always starts and ends with the value—be it knowledge, skill, or just good old fun—it brings to the reader/viewer.
In the last episode of season one of Ungated Marketing, Fernando Amaral interviews Amanda about the secrets behind compelling content creation and strategies that are sure to keep your audience on their toes.
B2B Content Marketing that Compels
As a fellow content marketer, I enjoyed listening to Amanda talking about content. It was rather a relaxing experience. That’s not a common occurrence when trying to learn more about “what is right” in content marketing. Usually, you gotta make your way through the trenches of one thousand and one opinions that leave you exhausted and confused.
Throughout the interview, she shares stories and insights into several content types that worked for her, but all of them have one thing in common—they start with the end value: “We’re just interested in taking this approach of how can we write about and talk about the things related to marketing we find interesting, we find novel… that help people think differently, that present problems in a different way. How can we create content that we just genuinely think is good and interesting, and then kind of build a trusted brand from that.”
Let’s dive into some examples.
SEO on the Back Burner
First and foremost, I feel like I should get the SEO elephant in the room out of the way.
In the first episode of Ungated Marketing, we interviewed Rand Fishkin, the CEO of SparkToro, who introduced us to the idea that the golden age of SEO is over and the new way to go are sources of influence.
In many ways, Rand is right. SEO will never be what it used to be, and Amanda confirms that this strategy is truly not on the forefront of their minds: “We don’t have an SEO strategy. It just isn’t how we’re doing marketing. It’s not how we’re creating content.”
What I like most about her answer is that she doesn’t condemn SEO. Because while it’s not as easy as it once was, it’s still pretty relevant when done right. Instead, she explains why the strategy doesn’t work for SparkToro and how staying away from it can be a strength rather than a weakness.
“The inherent problem that SparkToro is solving is helping people find their audiences, sources of influence [...]. There isn't really a universal term or a commonly accepted term for describing that problem. So we're calling it audience research [...], but it's not a commonly searched-for term. People aren't saying how to do audience research. They're just not searching for that. So because of that, we're not creating an SEO-driven strategy that's around all of these problems.”
A typical SEO strategy starts with main topics and then zooms in as you build your library, but this strategy loses relevance if there is no search term. However, it also doesn’t mean it’s entirely off the table. While, today, SEO content isn’t really indicative of the problems SparkToro is solving but “in the future, it could change, and at some point, we might feel like it makes sense to do that. So, we’re not saying we’re never doing this. It’s just that, at the moment, it’s not the priority. It’s not how we’re driving new visitors. It’s not how we’re converting customers.”
The case of permissionless co-marketing is a content strategy in its own right as well as a testament that you don’t need SEO for valuable content to work.
A couple of months back, Amanda wrote an article on ‘permissionless co-marketing,’ a strategy that exists as a concept nobody talks about, but it’s not wholly unfamiliar. However, in the world of SEO, it lacks the identity we attribute through search volume, and so, many SEO-focused marketers would dismiss the topic. Despite this, the article was a huge success drawing a lot of attention simply because what it lacks in SEO potential, it boasts in value.
So, what is it?
“Permissionless co-marketing is essentially the act of shouting out brands, people, companies, that are good examples of what you are talking about; And doing so with the intention of building goodwill, providing great examples, and potentially, maybe, setting the foundation for potential future formal collaborations.”
Amanda further describes it as “the inverse of earned media or the inverse of backlinks.”
It’s not anything new. You have probably “been there, done that” if you are a content marketer. Still, as Amanda points out, it’s not something that’s commonly talked about, the term is largely made up, and larger companies often consider this kind of “freebies” a no-no.
However, the tactic stands testament to SparkToro’s strategy of offering value first and looking at what can be gained from that later.
Webinars are not Dead
The last example of a content type discussed and which begets mentioning is webinars.
Few things skyrocketed as fast and as much because of the pandemic as webinars.
There are also very few things that became equally as hated.
While before the pandemic, you might have been neutral about the whole thing, today, you likely send the many webinar invitations straight to the Trash folder.
Does it mean webinars are over?
As I hear Amanda speaking, all I can think about is that it all comes down to value once again.
She and Rand run a very successful webinar with attendance in hundreds called ‘SparkToro Office Hours.’ The secret to success hides in this quote: “Rand and I take turns presenting. Sometimes we have a guest presenter where we really just present on something related to marketing strategy. And then, along the way, if it makes sense, we incorporate how somebody would use SparkToro to improve that strategy. So we really want to make sure that it's an event series that's valuable to any marketer of all levels, where they can learn something, where they don't have to use SparkToro to learn from it.”
Naturally, it’s not all altruistic; the hope is that “they’ll pick up some new tips on getting the most out of spark Toro, or they’ll get a sense of why they should sign up.” However, pushing this goal off the leading position on the list of priorities is what gives the webinar power and makes it more worthwhile.
Amanda explains: “Even when I'm creating content for any webinar, even if it's not a SparkToro one, I really just think about how can I make this fun? What kind of presentation would I find interesting? How can I have fun creating this content? How can I engage the community and inspire them to take action or to participate?”
How to Generate and Validate Content Ideas
Okay. It’s all about the value you bring to your audience and community.
But how do you go about generating the “right” ideas?
According to Amanda, it helps to think about it from the perspective of your end goal. So, in B2B, that translates into the stages of the funnel.
Top of the Funnel
For instance, when it comes to the top funnel, you need something that can spread easily and very publicly: “If I'm thinking about a top of funnel content goal, some of the things I would think through would be, how can I create content that people want to talk about publicly? And that might be in the form of digital PR. So, maybe, that comes in the form of original research. Like that is something that will be novel, brand new.”
She explains that research or survey is a good way to go because “that's something that people are likely to talk about because it's new information. It could validate some existing beliefs they've had, or it could run counter to some beliefs they've had.”
Middle of the Funnel
What about the middle of the funnel?
Amanda thinks of this stage as the one that’s all about generating leads, and I can’t say I disagree.
“Because someone who is completely new to your product, like a completely new visitor, they’re not going to be very likely to just give you their name and email and phone number. They’ve never heard of you. [...] [They] might want to see a couple of your blog posts, might want to poke around on your website a little bit, and then maybe if they feel like it’s relevant, they’ll sign up for your email list [...]. And that kind of feels like the middle of the funnel to me because it’s somebody who has a little bit of familiarity with you, and then they want to get your content.”
Coming up with content that’s good enough that people will sacrifice their contact information is not easy. Amanda believes the key is to think about this practically “What would make it worth it for somebody to give me their email address?”
“It wouldn't be the original research,” she says, “because original research would be something you'd want for reporters to cite publicly or for bloggers to link to, and they're not going to do that if the asset is gated. But what would make something valuable enough to gate that somebody would give you their email for? I think it's stuff like templates, a couple of different spreadsheets, things that show that you, the marketer or the content creator, are putting in the work to do the job for someone else.”
Bottom of the Funnel
What kind of content is left at the bottom of the funnel?
“I think about things like what would inspire my current users or customers to share this message. What would inspire them to refer a friend? What would inspire them to further engage with the product? So, if it's in the case of SaaS or software, it might be, ‘how can I engage somebody with this new feature or this new product to be launched?’ Things that would speak to the improved user experience.”
A great example of a bottom-of-the-funnel content is Amanda’s “idea generator,” one she created when she was in charge of FitBit’s B2B strategy.
FitBit “was selling devices in bulk to employers so that they could run corporate wellness programs for their employees [...] and then they would run activity challenges, doing fun things like pitting marketing against sales for who can do the most steps, or it was just collaborative, like can we, as a company, walk a million steps within a month or stuff like that.”
To engage this customer segment, she came up with an idea generator where companies would put in their activity preferences, such as competitive vs. collaborative and the generator would come up with challenges based on that.
A simple piece of content that keeps customers engaged and increases the value of the product and their experience with it.
How to Relate Content to Business Value
Now that we have some foundation for generating worthwhile content ideas, let’s address the bottomless cause of insecurity and imposter syndrome for content marketers everywhere—connecting their work to revenue.
Amanda, once again, takes on a funnel-based approach since it’s all about “what you are creating and for what purpose.” But she also points out that “any kind of content can work in line with any part of the marketing funnel,” depending on how you look at it.
For instance, it’s quite natural to measure the top of the funnel content that’s designed to raise awareness—such as original research—by the number of accepted media pitches or a number of referring backlinks and social media shares/discussions. However, the same content can be responsible for persuading people to sign up or engage in other ways.
A better example of one piece of content affecting KPIs across the funnel is the case of FitBit’s idea generator. Although created to engage existing customers, its value can be tracked across every stage of the funnel. The virality of the generator raised awareness by drawing media attention and earning backlinks. It also worked for the middle of the funnel as FitBit “got a lot of relevant leads from it, because if you are somebody who is looking for an idea generator to help you with corporate wellness, then most likely you're in the target audience for that piece of content. So it's a win for everybody [and] you can tie that content KPI to leads generated, you can tie it to a number of qualified leads or how they progress or your lead scoring system.”
As for the bottom of the funnel metrics, the generator was to engage users, get them to renew their subscription, or refer other people. How do you measure that, though? Amanda explains: “It was something that users bookmarked and would come back to over and over again. We couldn't track the number of bookmarks, but we were able to see the repeat usage of it. We were able to see [that] this asset hasn't been promoted again in three months, but it's still getting thousands of new engagements or thousands of return visitors. So, we knew people were coming back to this or using it over and over again. So that's a measure of success.”
The takeaway? When connecting your content to KPIs, keep your mind open. Your primary goal might not be the only one worth measuring, and organic traffic is not the only way to assess your content’s success.
As the topic of content marketing is concerned, I could keep going but I feel that this is just enough to get you thinking, reevaluating and perhaps even experimenting with your content.
Though, if you liked what you read and want to hear more from Amanda about her newsletter strategy, approach to social media distribution, or her experience with TikTok B2B marketing, listen to the full episode below or tune in on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.