There is an old adage that many of us learn while taking music lessons growing up that "practice makes perfect." It's a simple idea, and an elegant one that seems to apply just as much to content optimization as it does to music lessons as it does to just about anything else.
I remember a particularly bad trumpet lesson I had back in middle school however, where at the end I sheepishly offered a "I'll practice more this week," in response to my cracking tones and missed notes. My teacher chuckled and said something that stuck with me much longer than my trumpet lessons did.
"Don't practice more, practice better. Practice doesn't make perfect, it makes permanent."
Here lies the trouble that many content marketing teams run into today. In an attempt to keep up with the constant demands of regular content schedules, tough KPI goals, and a hyper-competitive marketplace, we quickly settle into systematic and stylistic habits that may not actually be ideal for our marketing efforts.
But how would we know? Our practice has already made so much of our work permanent. What should marketers be doing to break out of their procedural ruts?
Image attribution: Igor Miske
Optimization as a Way of Life
Content optimization is a practice that marketers are primarily familiar with in relation to content distribution. Our email platforms include A/B testing features, our social media management software provides comparative analytics, but often this is where the creativity stops. But this only represents the first step of your audience's experience with your brand-so why don't we optimize for more?
Having a strategy for optimizing your content is key not only for maintaining the health of your content hub, but also for keeping your efforts reactive to changes in your target audience over a long period of time.
To best accomplish this, it is helpful to think about your content marketing as a cross section of your larger customer acquisition funnel:
By focusing on content experiences alone, we can home in on three key areas for testing and optimization:
- Entrance: What attracts your visitor to click on your content? With entrance-oriented testing, you'll aim to improve site traffic KPIs.
- Experience: What about your content keeps your visitors invested and reading? With experience-oriented testing, you'll aim to improve content engagement KPIs.
- Action: What does your content encourage people to do next? I like to think of this in terms of actions rather than conversion, because far too often we miss out on a lot of positive visitor behaviors simply because a visitor didn't immediately move on to making a buying decision.
Image attribution: James McKinven
What catches my audience's eye? What sparks interest and curiosity? And ultimately, how can I encourage more people to reach my content?
These are the essential questions to consider when optimizing your content marketing to improve how people enter into your content experience.
There is a key distinction to make here. Entrance optimization isn't interested in bumping how many people see your content distribution-expanding your potential audience is more a question for your social media, email, and possibly advertising teams. Rather, entrance optimization is interested in the rates at which people engage with your content, respective to each distribution medium.
This is often the easiest place to start when introducing a new optimization strategy, because so many of our marketing platforms already have tools in place to do this kind of work.
Some key areas to test and optimize:
Titles and Headlines
When we host content on a webpage, we only get one title for the piece-it's the stuff in big letters at the top of the page. But when we push this content out across numerous channels, we can tweak headlines and title previews to appear differently. A/B testing these headlines and titles can help you home in on the stylistic preferences of your audiences, depending on each platform (for example, your LinkedIn audience may prefer a different title than a recipient of your email newsletter). Buffer has a great blog explaining how they do this for their own content.
In the same way that different headlines appeal to different groups, different imagery may land better on your various platforms. Typically, the best way to test your imagery is to group the images you use for promotion under a handful of stylistic headings-for instance, "professionally posed stock photos" and "candid-style photography" are two clearly distinct aesthetic groups you might be utilizing. Test each type of stylistic grouping over time across your platforms, and look for trends to emerge. Some platforms, like email for instance, may also offer you additional content marketing tools to examine these elements, like click tracking that tells you if users were more attracted to clicking on images rather than hyperlinks in an email.
Last but certainly not least, our content today is pushed out into a digital world that is densely populated with competing material. Knowing when your audience is most active and receptive to receiving your content can be a powerful way to gain an edge and encourage more people to enter your site. Most email platforms include functionality to optimize sends based on recipient open behavior, while in the social space Sprout Social has some useful ideas about optimizing your content schedule.
Image attribution: Cathryn Lavery
You've stepped up your distribution game, and now you have more users on your site. Great! But how can you test and improve their experiences on your page?
Improving site experience is a broad topic for marketers, because it crosses so many disciplines. Your web team, SEO specialists, and content producers all have a stake in how your content is hosted and positioned once users reach your website. The question becomes how to organize all of them.
To begin tackling all of these considerations, start with these optimization considerations:
The first step to understanding how people interact with your content pages is to be sure to know what you're tracking and exactly what it means. For instance, average time on page is a hugely useful metric to consider for content experience measurement, but Google Analytics natively excludes "bounced" sessions from this calculation. Make sure you can accurately measure what you want to test against before diving in.
Scroll Depth and Heatmaps
Two additional content marketing tools that can be very helpful for evaluating how your audiences interact with your content are scroll depth and heatmap tracking. These can typically be added to your site back-end as add-ons. When a user comes to your content hub, are they looking for short, quick bites of information, or are they geared up for a longer read? Are these behaviors dependent on time of day, audience segment, or the device they access your site with? Being able to see how deep most users go into your content or where their cursor goes on your page can inform these questions and help you match your style to your audience's expectations.
Analyzing your content page's topical areas is an important practice for matching your site content to your target audience's interests. All this requires is grouping your content under a handful of topical headings (often, this is already accomplished through categories on your content site) and then examining which groupings are growing or lagging over time. Matching these groupings with site metrics (unique visitors, time on page, sessions) and associated target keyword metrics (number of SERPs, keyword ranking) can often give a clear picture even over just a couple months as to what topics are engaging and re-engaging your audience, while others lag behind.
Image attribution: John Schnobrich
Lastly, we want to understand what users are likely to do after engaging with your content. Do they go on to read more? Do they move further down the funnel towards your products? Or do they just leave your site all together?
Conversion is a term that gets used a lot in this scenario, but it doesn't necessarily describe every positive action your users can be taking in a useful way. Healthy content optimization isn't just about driving one type of action (like buying) but rather understanding the flow of actions that your visitors are likely to take and encouraging those in a natural way.
Try to encourage your users by testing and optimizing your content in these ways:
The first tactic on this list is by far the most time intensive, but it tends to be a crowd pleaser. User observation tests put your team "in the room" with a sample group of users as they navigate through your website while seeking to accomplish a set objective. For the purpose of action testing, you might ask a user to read a blog and then have them describe what their likely next steps would be, assuming the blog convinced them to pursue more information, opt in to additional communication, or even buy. The Intention Design Foundation has an excellent step-by-step guide for setting up your first study.
From CTA buttons to recommended content galleries to site navigation menus, web users today are bombarded with a load of ways to interact with the sites they're on. But knowing what actually convinces users to click and continue through can often be a difficult challenge. Depending on what elements of your page you want to test, there are some tools around the web that allow your to serve variations of site elements to users, allowing you to then go back and see what positional or stylistic choices real users preferred in their everyday site usage.
Making a Habit
Practice makes permanent.
So rather than continually practicing the same way of pushing out your content week after week, month after month, try to instead ingrain the practice of constantly examining and testing your content to ensure you're matching the expectations of your audience. The methods you can use and the elements you can test are wide reaching, but overall the real benefit of optimization and testing isn't each tweak you make, but the cumulative effect of having a critically thinking content marketing team that's willing to consistently self-evaluate over time.
For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.