You need sales. A lot of content marketers are vague about how they can help with that. Sure, when you evaluate things on a campaign basis, you can see the changes in revenue. We know this stuff works. But if all we measure are results, we don’t gain any insight. We know we’re creating sales somehow, but we don’t really know why.

There is such a thing as conversion friendly content marketing. We can measure how content impacts sales, and use that information to further hone our strategy. This isn’t a fairy tale.

So let’s talk content and conversions. Here is your guide. We hope you read it more than once.

You Need a Good Tracking Tool

You can’t improve conversions without measurement. I feel like this should go without saying, but experience has shown me that it must be said. It seems like half of the people who are either for or against content marketing believe that you can’t measure its impact on conversions.

Many proponents argue that you should just look at how overall revenue changes, or rely on the easy metrics like traffic, social sharing activity, and subscriber count. It’s certainly possible to do content marketing this way, but you will end up with a lot of waste if you aren’t measuring what works and what doesn’t, and refining your strategy along the way.

A lot of CROs and SEOs doubt the validity of content marketing for precisely this reason. More importantly, businesses who could dramatically benefit from content marketing doubt it for the exact same reason.

To really measure and optimize the value of content marketing, you need to be able to:

  • Measure how individual customers first found your site
  • Measure how individual pieces of content are influencing conversions
  • Create customer segments based on how they interact with your content and target them appropriately
  • Create cohorts of users who interacted with a specific piece of content at a specific time and compare them to each other
  • Conduct A/B tests on especially influential pieces of content to improve conversions
  • Tie referral sources and content interaction directly to revenue

There are a number of tools available that can do this:

  • If you’ve got a huge budget, Adobe Analytics is probably the most powerful tool out there

The point is, you can’t measure how content marketing influences conversions if you’re just looking at the data in aggregate. Aggregate data can tell you how many people saw a piece of content, and it can tell you the final thing a user clicked on before buying something. It does not tell you whether that popular piece of content is having any influence on sales, and it does not tell you which referral sources are actually creating revenue.

You Need an Email List

True content marketing is fundamentally different from SEO, no matter how much the two are related. Imitation content marketing is really just SEO with high quality content. It’s about capturing demand.

True content marketing isn’t about capturing demand, at least not exclusively. It’s about creating demand.

This is what makes content marketing different from CRO and SEO. SEO, like advertising, captures demand. CRO removes objections and obstacles. Content marketing, on the other hand, creates demand and transforms products into inelastic commodities.

It accomplishes this by creating a repeat audience. Visitors become addicted to your content even if they originally have no interest in your product. Over time, you build trust and authority, as well as a sense of reciprocity. Visitors start to feel like they owe you. The more they are immersed in your way of seeing things, the more they start to see the value of your product.

The easiest way to create a repeat audience is with an email list. Conversion rates from email are 4.5 times higher than they are from social media, and email visitors view twice as many pages as social visitors.

Average email open rates are roughly 30 percent, while Facebook posts reach only about 16 percent of your audience. Average twitter click through rates are about 1.6 percent, while average email click rates are about 3 percent. (That’s not even considering the fact that a Twitter click is probably more comparable to an email open than an email click.)

I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t bother with social networks (more on that later). I’m simply arguing that the best channel for creating a repeat audience is email. The other channels are secondary.

To build up an email list, you will need to offer your visitors something of value in exchange for the email list. Here are a few examples of how businesses have grown their email list:

  • Social Media Examiner built an email list of 124,000 using a video as an incentive and high traffic guest posts as a traffic source. They paid a successful Facebook marketer to create a video about Facebook marketing to ensure that the quality was high enough to create additional referrals. They use a pop-up form, but it only displays once for users.
  • Social triggers grew from 0 to 17,000 subscribers in 11 months by defining a unique selling proposition, coining phrases, focusing on single concepts, getting people to take action on the advice in the content, publishing only when he had something important to say, and experimenting to get past plateaus. In short, he created a blog that was so valuable people couldn’t help but subscribe. (Putting a feature box on his blog was also a huge part of it.)

It all comes down to value. Most businesses will need to offer something in exchange for the email address, whether it’s an eBook, a training video, or simply a blog so earth-shatteringly useful that you don’t want to miss any updates.

Of course, you can’t build an email list without a continuous stream of new visitors. Here are some of the most powerful ways to accomplish this:

  • Guest post on top tier blogs, both industry-specific and mainstream. We talked about how to do this over at Moz.
  • Take the opposite approach, and either ask or pay influential people to post on your blog. We talked about how to do this over at Small Business Trends.
  • Recognize the difference between your mainstream audience and your hardcore audience. We talked about this on Jeff Bullas’s blog.
  • Don’t neglect forums. They may seem old fashioned but they are even more popular than blogs.
  • Join topical discussions on Google+ Communities, Facebook Groups, and/or LinkedIn Groups and compare the results with forum discussions. (Forums will typically offer better results.)
  • Share bite-size pieces of content on your social media profiles, with links back to your more in depth content, and use this to expand your reach. Focus on bite-size content that is funny, relatable, inspiring, actionable, and unique.
  • Work with microcelebrities like YouTube stars, mainstream bloggers, and podcasters.
  • Hire popular artists on sites like DeviantArt and popular photographers on sites like Flickr.
  • If it costs less than the lifetime value of your visitors, there’s certainly no shame in paying from traffic through AdWords, social media advertisements, or banner ads.

You will notice that as you continue to pull traffic from the same kinds of sources, you will eventually start to plateau. This is why you need to get more innovative and think beyond guest posts, especially guest posts on “made for AdSense” sites. Think bigger and broader, and remember that the right personalities have the ability to attract traffic to your site, as opposed to sending it over.

Finally, if you want to build an email list fast enough, you should experiment with the size, shape, position, and design of your call to action. It will usually work best as a feature box at the top of the page that draws attention to the product you offer in exchange for an email address, but this isn’t necessarily always the case. Either way, you will certainly want to test the message and appearance of your feature box in order to maximize sign ups.

In addition, it’s a good idea to use a survey tool like Qualaroo to find out what might be preventing your visitors for subscribing, and address those objections in your feature box or your landing page.

You Need to Segment Your Audience

Once you’ve grown an audience of significant size, you need to start segmenting it. Here’s why:

  • When you segment your audience, you can target them with content that they are more likely to be interested in, rather than fatigue them with too many emails and push them to unsubscribe.
  • If you don’t send out that much content, segmentation is still important when it comes to marketing messages. Whether a marketing message results in a sale or an unsubscription all comes down to relevance. When you segment your audience, sales messages can be tailored to your user’s specific problems.
  • Audience segmentation also teaches you about how different types of users interact with your site, and which segments may be more valuable to you.

That said, segmentation should go deeper than basic things like gender and other demographic information. While this can sometimes be useful, it’s typically more of a throwback to traditional marketing, when more granular information wasn’t available.

To make the most of content marketing, these are the kinds of things you want to segment by:

  • Types of content they have viewed
  • Amount of time they have spent on particular types of content
  • Products they have bought
  • Amount of time they have spent on the site
  • Order of content they have viewed
  • Original referral source

At the same time, it’s also important not to get myopia or to find only the outcomes you’re looking for. Here are some things to watch out for:

  • Attributing your most popular content to more conversions simply because more people have seen it, rather than because people who have seen it were more likely to convert.
  • Attributing an original referral source to higher revenue simply because it sends more traffic, rather than because the conversion rates are higher.
  • Attributing an original referral source to higher conversion rates, when in fact it may be the content they are viewing that is boosting the conversions, since that referral source tends to send people to specific content.
  • The reverse of the above: attributing content to higher conversions when in fact the referral source is responsible.
  • Attributing the popularity of a piece of content to its inherent value, when in fact it is because of the way it was promoted or placed on the site.

As you can see, things can get complicated and confused with one another very easily if you aren’t careful, or if you aren’t tracking things carefully.

Here are a few ways you can use this data to improve your content marketing strategy:

  • If you find a correlation between the amount of time spent on a particular piece of content and sales for a certain product, you can target people who have spent a significant amount of time looking at that content with that specific product.
  • If you find a correlation between a particular traffic source and a product, you can target that segment of your audience with that product.
  • If you find a correlation between certain pieces of content and ultimate sales, you can experiment with using that content in a lead nurturing campaign to see if it increases sales.
  • If you find a correlation between time spent on two pieces of content, you can try pointing users who saw one piece of content to another related piece of content to see if this increases click rates and, more usefully, lifetime value.

If your audience is large enough, it’s also a good idea to test these assumptions on a small portion of your audience. Even better if you split test it against your general audience. This might seem like overkill to a lot of content marketers, and in some circumstances that’s certainly the case. Just be aware that you don’t really know if your efforts are having an impact on lifetime value (beyond aggregate statistics) unless you’re performing tests like these.

This might sound like a lot of pointless bean counting to some content marketers, but you’ll see things differently after analyzing your content and using the results to build a lead nurturing campaign that cuts the time from first visit to first sale in half.

These kinds of insights don’t just allow you to send more targeted sales letters or build lead nurturing campaigns. They also allow you to gain insights about what kind of content is really boosting lifetime value, and which sources are truly valuable.

By comparing your least and most valuable content, you’ll start to develop an intuitive sense for how to improve your content strategy, and by comparing your least and most valuable channels, you’ll start to get a sense for where you should be seeking traffic. This allows you to make more strategic decisions about how to approach your future efforts, and test whether the changes are effective.

Anybody who thinks metrics are the enemy of content either doesn’t use metrics properly, or doesn’t understand content.

You Need a Variety of Content

By now it should be abundantly clear that content marketing can and should be a data-driven strategy, and that it can be very useful for conversions. That said, in many ways it is the opposite of traditional CRO.

Here’s why: traditional CRO is about testing pages against each other to find the version that results in the most revenue (at least when it’s done right). Content marketing, on the other hand, is about creating a large number of pages, each which should add additional value. In other words, you don’t split test two pages, see which works best, and keep the best.

With content marketing, you simply publish both pages, betting on the idea that both of them will create value.

This would be a terrible way to approach sales page optimization, but it is actually incredibly useful for a content marketing strategy.

The reason this works once again comes down to targeting. It’s not typically possible to build one piece of content that is everything to everybody. Every piece of content you produce will be more useful for one type of user than it will be for another.

Please don’t get me wrong. You need a consistent brand identity and unique selling proposition to define the way that you approach your content marketing strategy. If you try to appeal to literally everybody, you will never set yourself apart, and your audience is likely to find you either hypocritical or stale.

At the same time, you need to have a wide enough variety of content to satisfy:

  • The different kinds of moods that people have when they visit your site
  • The different kinds of people who would share (or at least respect) your brand’s values
  • The fact that even the most obsessive people still want a bit of variety in their lives
  • The fact that creativity is almost always the result of combining insights from different sources, and that creativity is the source of unique content, which you need in order to stand out
  • The fact that people have different learning styles
  • The fact that people’s attention span can change depending on the situation
  • The fact that you can have a stronger effect on people if you engage their minds in different ways, by using different forms of content

There are three essential kinds of variety you need to keep in mind:

  1. Variety of topics
  2. Variety of media
  3. Variety of audiences

Variety of Topics

So, how can you approach a wide variety of topics without sacrificing your brand identity?

  • It all comes down to your values and tone. If your values and tone stay consistent, you are free to explore a wider variety of topics.
  • You can and should revisit a few core topics, and even give those topics names or “brands” so that they are attributed to you. These days, if you think about Cyrus Shepard, you’re probably going to think about linkable assets, and if somebody mentions linkable assets, they’re probably going to mention Cyrus Shepard. He has created a personal brand around the term. Notice, however, that he can keep revisiting the subject in new ways, tying it to new ideas.
  • In most cases, you can tie your subject matter back to the mainstream. Almost every subject has some connection with one of the BIG NICHES, like Entertainment, Business, Self-Help, Parenting, Dating, Gadgets, or News. I urge you to look for these connections and explore them frequently. They can help you reach a broader audience and help people discover an interest in your subject matter that they didn’t even know they had.
  • Think about context. Your blog may have earned a reputation as an in-depth source for hardcore knowledge, but you can expand your reach into other realms as long as you approach them as different contexts. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to share bite-size, light-hearted pieces of content on social media, as long as you aren’t contradicting your values. Likewise, you can create a subdomain with a slightly different tone meant for a slightly different audience, as long as your values stay the same. You shouldn’t be the exact same thing in all places. We all act differently around our parents, compared to our friends, compared to on the job. This is normal.
  • A little bit of brand tension is actually intriguing. Stephen Denny has a great blog post about this, pointing out how brand tension has helped Method and 42Below become more interesting brands. Human beings are multiple things; they can’t be boiled down to a single personality trait. A good brand is the same way. It is multifaceted. It has depth.

Variety of Media

Here are a few examples of the kinds of media you can experiment with:

  • Tools/apps. These are by far the most underrated kind of content on the web. As I’ve pointed out many times before, all of the most successful sites on the web are built around tools and applications: Facebook, Amazon, Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Blogger…these are all interactive in some way and would not have a unique selling proposition if it weren’t for the unique tools that they have to offer. Present your audience with a free tool or application and they will reward you with repeat visits, media exposure, links, social media activity, and email subscriptions.
  • Videos. Talking head videos cost next to nothing and they are an incredibly powerful way to connect with your audience and to reach visual learners who wouldn’t spend their time reading blogs. They also help put a face to your brand. Videos are more likely to turn up in search results and far more likely to show up in Facebook news feeds.
  • Images. Nothing spreads on social networks the way that images do, especially if they are appropriately sized for the platform in question. Just take a look at your own Facebook feed and you’ll develop a sense for the kinds of images I’m talking about. Take a look at Interesting Things and you’ll see an example of a Facebook Page that knows what kinds of images will go viral. You will obviously need to consider branding more than a Page like this in order to have business success with Facebook, but if you don’t understand why this Page is so successful, you won’t succeed on Facebook. Another example is a Page like Just Girly Things.
  • WhitePapers/Ebooks. These are great as resources that you can refer people back to over and over, because they are so comprehensive. When you create content that people will revisit, you become an invaluable resource yourself. These work great as a “bribe to subscribe” for two reasons. First, they are worth paying for, and that’s the kind of value you need to offer in order to convince somebody to give away their email address. Second, they serve as the perfect introduction to your brand, giving users the knowledge they need to understand everything else on your site, and giving them a sense for the kind of value you have to offer.

Variety of Audiences

Not every consumer that finds your brand interesting or that identifies with its core values and image is necessarily going to be interested in the same kind of content. I’ve already talked about audience segmentation, and that’s a crucial part of this. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • Some users will be more interested in light content like images, videos, and light blog posts.
  • Some users will be more interested in in-depth content like extended posts, whitepapers, long videos, and hard data.
  • Some users see your blog from a mainstream perspective and will want things presented to them free of jargon, with no prior knowledge, and with some connection to more a more mainstream topic.
  • Some users see your blog from a “hardcore” perspective, and they will want unique knowledge from somebody who speaks their language, knows the subject in and out, and lives and breathes it.
  • Some users are looking for knowledge that they can act on and use in their daily life, but others are just looking for something to entertain them by making them laugh, inspiring them, or making them care about something. These are very different kinds of users and while some blog posts can and should do both, it’s good to realize that more entertaining posts are usually less useful, and vice versa. I do believe that almost every post should have some element of both, but you shouldn’t always take a complete middle of the road approach on this.
  • Some users just want to absorb a piece of content, but others are looking for a more interactive experience like a conversation on a forum or a tool that they can use.

You Need Real Talent

Your success as a content marketer comes down to two things:

  1. Your ability to produce content for a specific audience, and connect people with that audience
  2. Your ability to impress that audience with the content

Segmentation, tracking, and correlations with revenue are all about that first point. The second point is an absolute must, however, if you want to attract attention from influencers and keep your audience’s attention.

Talent is a difficult thing to define, and by no means do all content marketers need to embody the same kinds of talent. But you must, without question, have it. Here are some examples of what I mean:

Writing

  • Tell captivating stories
  • Present complex ideas in as few words as possible
  • Make your readers feel an emotion
  • Create suspense
  • Infuse writing with personality
  • Use the active voice (usually)
  • Address your readers directly
  • Speak informally, but watch your grammar carefully. Try to only break the rules on purpose.

Research

  • Use data from original research, such as studies you conduct yourself, or insider data
  • Use data from “difficult” sources like peer-reviewed studies, raw data, and dense academic books
  • Reference mainstream books
  • Email and speak with practicing experts
  • Uncover an insider story
  • Cite well known influencers
  • Talk to well know influencers and quote them

Creativity

  • Use information from other industries and try to draw parallels
  • Use analogies
  • Mix and match ideas with each other
  • Write down as many ideas as possible, regardless of how bizarre they may sound, and pick one that you think will resonate with your audience (or one of your audiences)
  • Allow yourself to daydream

Art and Design

  • Sketch out how you want the end product to look on paper before going all out
  • Design is meant to put the user in control and clarify things for them more than to make things pretty
  • Art is meant to draw attention, entertain, and send a message (perhaps one that is up to the user)
  • If you are designing an interface, perform user tests on paper prototypes
  • Design should be simple and shouldn’t require explanation to understand
  • Art may be complex, but it should never be more complex than the skill of the artist

That last point actually applies in general to everything else. Failed complexity makes you look like an amateur, while elegant simplicity usually looks professional and modern, or at least genuine. It’s better to use plain language than to botch a metaphor. It’s better to use simple shapes than to fail at elaborate designs. A cartoony doodle looks better than a failed attempt at high art. It’s better to make a more comprehensive version of something that’s already been done than it is to make something outlandish in an attempt to seem creative.

The only one you can’t really overdo is research. There is simply no such thing as too much research, as long as you can translate what you have learned into plain English.

To Recap

For content marketing to be a true source of conversions and informed growth, you need to:

  • Use a tool that can trace sales back to the earlier actions that ultimately created revenue
  • Build an email list using high traffic channels and a free product worth paying for
  • Segment your audience based on their actions in order to target them and learn from them
  • Produce content based on a wide variety of relevant topics, using a wide variety of media, and meant for a wide variety of people
  • Cultivate or pay for talent in writing, research, creativity, art and design

If you learned one valuable lesson from this guide, we hope you’ll pass it along to somebody else. I want to thank you for reading. Leave us a comment below if you want to get something off your chest, and contact us if you want to talk business. Thanks again.