Is your content working? Or just filling space?
Content is like a plant.
As if it were a living thing, content needs the attention of its creator. It needs nurturing because it’s always evolving, and it's evolving because it’s in an intimate, ongoing relationship with your target audience. Even more, this valuable marketing tool delivers a daily supply of intel — the information your company can use to build consumer trust and open the gates to an audience ready to be persuaded.
As marketers and content creators, how we understand content’s place in the wider ecosystem of brand marketing informs how we create, analyze, evolve, and deploy it. Yet often our work becomes so granular and routine that we forget why we’re doing the work in the first place. Content can quickly become box-checking, and the idea that it’s a living thing that needs constant attention to thrive goes by the wayside.
The real reason content can often turn into box-checking is because it’s often assumed not to be moving the needle. If that’s true, why are so many companies producing so much content... if it doesn’t improve a company’s sales numbers? You’re about to find out that it does.
Content is king, but the Internet is the kingmaker
As far as we can tell, Bill Gates was the first to use the phrase, “Content is king.” That was in 1996. Then, 17 years later, marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuk declared that every single company is a media company. He understood that, with the internet in almost every American’s hands (thanks to the smartphone), you're in trouble if your company isn’t populating this medium with frequent messages about who you are and what you offer. In fact, according to him, your brand doesn’t exist.
For context —
Still, let’s be careful not to degrade the other mediums advertising agencies have relied on for decades and, in some cases, centuries. We believe every advertising medium has value. You can never throw away the traditional vehicles — television, radio, billboards, print ads, and mailers.
With a detailed content strategy and synchronized deployment plan, the digital space can give support to and boost message frequency while working in unison with traditional mediums. And the traditional mediums can point targeted audiences to a company’s website.
The Internet favors content, so we do too
Online platforms like Google Search, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok — you name it — favor certain content types over others. Each platform has its own set of algorithms and every one is different. These algorithms can throw any company for a curve. Some may manage to play the game well only to have the rug pulled out from under them when an algorithm changes. Remember when Facebook nearly put BuzzFeed out of business? The social media platform changed its algorithm, and just like that, BuzzFeed began to struggle because the platform it had made its name on was actively elbowing them out.
While this sort of control and gatekeeping is prevalent in the social media landscape, Google has its own favorites. And for the purposes of this article, Google grabs most of our attention because of its dominance and control over how content is served when consumers and prospective buyers go online to search for information.
In this sense, the internet IS Google. And when it comes to organic traffic — user traffic to your website that’s not prompted by paid online media — the bulk of that traffic comes from online search engines.
This holds true for our clients and for companies nationwide. According to GrowthBadger.com, search is the single largest online traffic source, driving well over 50% of most industries’ web traffic. Google drives eight times more traffic than all social media networks combined.
Google also holds 88.14% of the world market share of all search engines. Statista calls this dominance “rather lopsided.” And then there’s this: 96% of Americans say they rely on their own research to make big decisions, underscoring how influential and dominant the online space is in the lives of the consumers we’re all targeting.
Content’s advantage hinges on data and refinement
Content isn’t a “set it and forget it” kind of deal. It’s meant to be updated, optimized, re-examined, and adjusted according to performance data. And it can be highly fruitful, but only when it’s treated like a living plant: If it’s dying (not getting traffic or funneling users correctly), move it to where it can get more sun and water where it can grow into something beautiful. When utilized correctly, digital content is —
- Cost-effective. It can be produced at a lower cost compared to other more collaborative mediums that aren’t as Google-friendly.
- Adaptable. Online content is an adaptable medium where the success of each message can be tracked and, as a result, fine-tuned based on effectiveness.
- Highly targeted. A medium that can be easily and frequently targeted at a specific audience and subgroups of that audience to meet refined geo and demo markers via paid social posts, social platforms, Google Adwords and social user profiles.
- Customizable. The way content is presented has a hand in how well users engage with a message based on the platform it’s on. Digital content isn’t printed and it’s not content that requires heavy production hours and polish. Thus, it’s versatile and can be repackaged based on the known user preferences of each distribution channel used. As an example, a single topic can be repurposed multiple times using different content types. The types you choose to create are based on what’s known to perform well in the platforms you choose to deploy your information. Maybe short 400 to 600 word blogs work best in your company’s monthly newsletter. While you might repurpose the same message again using another content type — say, an infographic, for instance — that is known to perform well with your brand’s Facebook community.
Collectively, these advantages underscore content’s edge over other traditional advertising mediums. But is your marketing team set up so it accounts for the data your content is collecting? Do you use that data to refine your message and approach based on how online users react (or don’t react) to your company’s messages? Or do you keep trotting the same content types out to the same platforms using the same style and topics you’ve used in the past despite what your audience is telling you about its likes and dislikes?
Marketers usually know the data is there; they receive the analytic reports and they read them. But they’re not always good at using the data. There’s a disconnect because these numbers aren’t seen for what they are: The answers to the test! It’s the intel you can use to tap into exactly what your prospective buyers and consumers want.
On the other hand, many companies are really good at producing content to tout their brand. The blog looks nice with a modern layout and vivid, supporting imagery. Videos are beautifully produced. All of it adds texture to a website and populates a client’s social timeline. But this limited use of content is like taking highly-trained, intel-gathering spies and assigning them to Buckingham Palace as members of the Queen’s Guard. We don’t want our client’s content just standing there at the gates.
We can use a well-known Thomas Edison quote to frame content as a lost opportunity for many companies: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” All great things — inventions, empires, multimillion-dollar companies — come down to the work. How much work are you willing to put in? Are you willing to commit to the tedious, boring grind? Developing award-winning creative is both fulfilling and profitable for many ad agencies. Many thrive on their ideas and are known for their branding chops.
But once those ideas are a reality and they’re deployed into the digital space, we all have an obligation to use the tracking tools that are inherent to this space. Often, we don’t.
Why? Because observing online traffic through analytics and pinpointing user patterns is dressed in overalls and looks like work. Or more accurately still, it’s dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt and looks like an analyst underneath unruly hair, hunched over lines in a spreadsheet.
And since we don’t just make stuff up here, the person we just described is a real guy. He’s our agency’s analyst for Whitetail Properties, a national recreational land sales company that is also a Lewis client.
Real results come from applying the data
Remember the quote at the beginning of this blog post? Gary Vaynerchuk said every company is a media company. He said that in 2013. Whitetail Properties began putting this into practice in 2007, the year the company was founded. As the company has grown, they’ve doubled down on their commitment to content and overall user experience since becoming a client of Lewis’s more than 10 years ago. Its founding partners represent an equal mix of real estate and media professionals. From the beginning of the company’s inception, an emphasis was placed on content marketing. And the investment has paid off. Whitetail Properties recently enjoyed a watershed moment when its annual revenue topped company earnings recorded in previous years. . They average seven properties sold per day by 225 real estate agents known within the company as Land Specialists. The real estate company covers 37 states and is currently expanding into the last region that includes areas without representation: the U.S. West.
For Whitetail Properties, deploying high volumes of content targeting audiences primarily through Google search, Facebook and YouTube has allowed the Illinois-based company to track user patterns, dial in and refine their messages to increase engagement and ultimately pull users along to their website’s places of action: their property listings and agent directory.
One thing that stands out about Whitetail Properties is the company’s willingness to call an audible. They don’t mind deviating if it’s for good reason. This mentality takes full advantage of the adaptability of online content. Part of their marketing plan includes active social listening. They’re aware of what their targeted online communities are talking about, and they’re set up to quickly pivot away from a planned topic to pursue another if their audiences — through analytics or social listening — suggest the pivot would be advantageous.
Nearly 80% of buyer leads came from the Whitetail Properties website in 2019. Based on that year’s annual sales, totaling 1.3 million acres sold, more than 910 million acres can be attributed to the digital space and, specifically, Whitetail Property’s website. We’re lucky to have a brand that wants to work together to combine their expertise in the land business with our expertise in the digital content space. They’re doing it right. But all too often, brands don’t have the tools or guidance they need, and they’re doing it wrong.
Common Mistake No. 1: Your Content Lacks Empathy
All too often, agencies try to achieve “awareness” and “excitement” at the beginning of a project causing many content-based campaigns to fail. On its face, this approach makes sense. Companies are laying money down, paying ad agencies like ours to increase visibility. So it’s counterintuitive to beat around the bush. Why delay shouting your value from the rooftops? Isn’t that what we’re all here for?
By taking this shout-it-from-the-rooftop approach, we cast aside the communication tools we already know and use in our personal relationships every single day. What we are trying to do here — through marketing, content strategy, print ads, whatever medium you choose — is to create a relationship. And this relationship mirrors human relationships: empathy leads to trust, trust allows someone to be open enough for persuasion and persuasion leads to action.
In a human relationship, if you want to make a friend, you don’t sit down at the first meeting and make the prospective friend aware of your greatness. Nor do you tell this person that you are indeed the best friend available on the market today. That would be ridiculous. Instead, you listen. You relate. You show empathy based on what you hear. You meet someone where they are.
But what does it look like when a company follows the rules of a human relationship, using those principles to guide its content strategy? This approach to content isn’t new. It actually worked more than 100 years ago for Ball Corporation. They make Ball jars. And they created the Ball Blue Book, a complete guide to home canning and preserving. The first book was published in 1915, and the books are still published today. The content inside the Blue Book isn’t meant to explain the durability of the jars. It doesn’t talk about the superior materials used to make the jars or an innovative lid that seals better than any lid on the market.
By committing to a content strategy that emphasizes empathy and usefulness, Ball Corporation positioned itself as an authority in its space and among its competitors. You can observe this same commitment to empathy when you read the content on Whitetail Properties’ website or view its “Land Beat” video series. Like Ball Corporation, Whitetail Properties understands the needs of its audience. The rural real estate company meets prospective buyers where they are and, in the company’s infancy, they began chipping away at the topics that matter most to them.
More important still, empathy makes content work because, by infusing empathy, you create trust. And a trusting audience is also an audience that is ripe for persuasion and, ultimately, action.
Common Mistake No. 2: Failure to Build a Digital Pathway
This final point — building a digital pathway — is critical to any successful content strategy. The community that you create, loyal as it may be, needs a clear pathway to the most important place a user can land on your website. And, more importantly, still, your company must identify and commit to that single place of action on your website. Otherwise, you begin to splinter the pathway and that forces your online user, who you hope will become a customer, to stall and make a choice before they arrive at the place you want them to go.
Currently, we’re working with Whitetail Properties to launch a completely reimagined website and business platform. A small part of that mammoth project involves the site’s content section. A writer, strategist, analyst, UX designer, and web developer have worked collaboratively to identify areas where digital pathways can extend a user’s journey through the website’s pages, and what those pathways should look like in each scenario.
The group working on the site’s content section is tasked with ensuring each pathway is seamlessly woven into the empathy-centric content we’re creating. In order to avoid creeping into marketing language or awkwardly plopping unnatural transitions and real estate agent promos into content pages, glimpses of Whitetail Properties products and services must act as a useful part of the story we’re telling.
This is achieved in a few different ways.
→ Highlighting what sets them apart: Expertise
We know Whitetail Properties believes one of the traits that set them apart is their company’s real estate agents or, Land Specialists. These agents have the professional background and accreditations required to recognize property nuances and subtleties the untrained eye wouldn’t see. Maybe that’s the value of a stand of timber or the potential of a property’s vast wetlands. For the purposes of our digital pathways, this trait presents an opportunity. If each agent possesses this level of expertise, we have access to more than 200 in-house sources for blogs and other content types like Whitetail Properties and “Land Beat” videos.
By using the company’s Land Specialists as expert sources, we’ve elevated agent visibility. We’ll link back to the source: agent profile pages that also feature the agent’s property listings. Plus, one blog at a time, we’re building a case that’s central to Whitetail’s brand story: When a land buyer or seller works with a Land Specialist, they’re getting a level of expertise in the rural land market they’d never be able to get by working with a traditional real estate agent.
→ Amplifying content value through user experience
Another digital pathway we’re working on involves a single property listing featured in the body of articles we post. If the property featured has no apparent relevance to the topic covered in the blog where it’s featured, then the property listing will likely feel like a promo spot. But our user data suggest that if the property is relevant to the story, the property is viewed as an added value.
So let’s say we’re writing a story about how deer rely on brushy fence lines for cover as they move from one open area of a property to another. By understanding how deer use this man-made property feature, a hunter or landowner can track the animal’s pattern and begin to understand its movements. For a property listing to avoid being intrusive to the user who’s arrived at the website to read about fence lines, we’ll ensure the property is presented as an example of what’s central to the article’s topic. That means it would be important, for instance, to avoid using a property that’s mostly planted in mature timber because that property would be less likely to have fencing. But open pastureland in Missouri? That’s a perfect fit.
In this scenario, someone reading the article about fence lines can flip through the featured property listing’s photos and visualize the amount of cover a typical brushy fence row can provide. They can see the pastureland for themselves and look at what a property like this might cost. Even better, once they click the property to check these details out, they’ve navigated to the property section of the website. Now they’re just a click away from looking at another similar property.
→ Continued optimization and tweaking
Of course, you might think that, in this scenario, maybe users will be frustrated by navigation that takes them away from a content page and into the site’s property listings. That concern is valid, and it’s why content is like a plant. We’ll be checking and watching. These pathways are living things, and there are bound to be adjustments based on how users respond to the pathways. As long as we’re keeping track of our user intel, and we’re willing and able to adapt, the pathways will ultimately work because our users will tell us, over time, how to build them in a way that suits their preferences.
And finally, yes, all of these efforts are tedious and exhaustive, which means we’ve come full circle. We’re back to the main thing: Content, if it’s done well, wears overalls and looks like work. It’s these synchronized and tedious tactics, embedded within your company’s broader marketing plan, that will carry your targeted audience to the finish line.