Too often, content marketing strategies follow one of two paths: Keyword driven or driven based on what the writer thinks makes an interesting topic. The path to success is somewhere in between those two strategies.
Today’s guest is Brad Smith from Wordable, Codeless, and uSERP. He talks about how to create data-backed and ROI-driven content strategies that blend both approaches for maximum results.
- Brad Smith on LinkedIn
- Seth Godin
- Ben Sailer on LinkedIn
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Ben: How’s it going, Brad?
Brad: Good, Ben. Thanks. Thanks for having me. How’s it going?
Ben: It’s going great. It sounds like it’s in the early morning hours where you’re at in Hawaii right now.
Brad: Yeah, it’s not too bad. It’s 10:00 AM which is actually pretty good, but one downside of living in Hawaii—if there is any—is usually I have to go at 5:00 AM to phone calls with people in Europe and the East Coast. This is like noon to me.
Ben: I’ve definitely pulled some early mornings to talk to people in Europe before. so I think I know a little bit about how that goes. You’re probably much more familiar than I was, the quirks of the nature of time zones when podcasting.
Before we get too far along, would you mind taking a moment to introduce yourself and explain what you do, both at Wordable. I also believe you run a couple of agencies, too.
Brad: Definitely. My name is Brad Smith. We bought Wordable a little less than a year ago, rebuilt it. I’m sure we’ll get into more detail on Wordable, specifically. My main business is called Codeless. We are a content production agency. We work with monday.com and a bunch of other big SaaS companies in the finance space, then marketing and technology and anything that’s competitive, where it’s really difficult to rank and produce content is usually where we are operating.
I’m also a partner at uSERP, which is a PR and link building agency, too, which helps a lot with content distribution, as you can imagine. They’re all related and they all work together in one way or another, so it makes a little easier on the mind.
Ben: If you’re not making too many sharp pivots between—
Brad: For sure. I look at it as one large process and each entity is filling in gaps at different places.
Ben: That makes sense. Something we’re going to talk about is creating ROI-driven B2B content marketing strategies. First off, a lot of companies focus their content strategies around keywords. What are some potential problems that can stem from being too narrowly focused on just very old school keyword-driven SEO strategies?
Brad: There’s a few at different levels. For instance, the SERPS are incredibly competitive today compared to 2, 5, 10 years ago. What that means is if you’re relatively small, relatively new, not well-funded, and don’t have a name for yourself or brand yet, that excludes 70% of the good stuff from keyword perspective that you want to rank for ultimately, that’s going to bring in ROI. It’s almost right off the bat you’re at a disadvantage, where you’re probably not going to be able to rank for any of that, and you come up with an alternative strategy.
On the other side of the spectrum, we also work in affiliate spaces and other things. Especially in the affiliate space, for instance—I don’t know—70% of someone’s revenue might come from two or three pages on their site because it’s two or three keywords. Not a fluctuation in those two or three keywords is probably a lot because you’re also competing against massive publishers and other big brands. Again, it’s like the other end of the spectrum where your whole business model is tied to five URLs on your sites or something that. It’s incredibly volatile and I don’t know how they sleep at night because that would drive me crazy.
On both ends of the spectrum, you become priced-out—in a way—from the market, from you in accessing that kind of stuff, and you have to come up with alternative strategies that we’ll bring into. And then on the other side of the spectrum, you’re 100% relying on it, and there’s all these other things you should be doing like PR, brand building, and other stuff to bring people to you, that you aren’t so reliant on one simple ongoing update, waking up tomorrow and your half your revenues going away.
Ben: It sounds dramatic, but that’s a very common reality that a lot of companies or maybe too many companies often find themselves faced with. Conversely, approaching this from a different school of thought, it’s also very common to see companies ignore SEO in favor of at least what they consider to just be interesting content ideas. They follow this approach of, if you just create great content it will find an audience somehow. What are some of the problems with that approach that can also present?
Brad: The biggest that I think of is even if you do have success with that kind of content, it’s temporary. It’s almost like Snapchat but magnified when you’re talking about a blog, where you might have a piece of content that works—most of it’s not going to work, by the way—and you’re relying on outside factors to influence success. We always write content that I think is amazing and other people hate, or vice-versa where I’m like, oh that’s not that good, and people love it. From a strategy perspective, I can’t plan or predict that.
When you’re following this method of let’s just create “good content,” you’re completely 100% relying on what other people find interesting. You’re hoping for a few of those to break out. If and when that happens, you’re 100% reliant on referral and social traffic that might spike for three days or a week, then it all goes away and everyone forgets about you again. In theory, you could be layering and retargeting, but if you’re not thinking of all the stuff holistically, you’re probably not doing that, too.
If you have SEO, you’re probably also not doing retargeting. You’re probably also not coming up with clever ways to bring people back once they do hit your site. It’s a crapshoot and you’re really almost playing roulette in a way.
Ben: A very expensive game of roulette also.
Brad: For sure. Usually what happens in these cases is you do that for a little while, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t, it loses steam, you claim it doesn’t work or the company claims it doesn’t work and then they stop investing in it, then they turn back to ads. Ads are auction-based, so they only get more expensive next year, next month, whatever. It’s a broader, strategic problem that really does have ramifications on some of these companies because they turn to other channels that are much less profitable, much more competitive, much more difficult over the long-term.
Ben: For sure. Very oftentimes, marketers tend to be very committed to one approach and be very skeptical toward the other. Why should marketers consider setting that cynicism aside in actually merging both of those approaches so that they can leverage the advantages of both and mitigate the downsides of both as well at the same time?
Brad: I think that’s exactly the point, the last thing you said. You’re maximizing the opportunity and what each channel’s good at while minimizing the downside. SEO is amazing. It takes forever. It does and doesn’t have a large percentage of the value or results that are out of your control. You can influence it a lot if you know what you’re doing and if you’re good at it, but it might take 6, 12, 18 months to see that ROI, to see that payback period.
That’s where advertising, that’s where referral traffic, that’s where these other social things are going to be a lot more beneficial shorter-term. Over the long-term, it’s just about scale. How do I get from 6 figures in revenue to 7, to 8, to 10, to 100? You do that usually through some holistic way where these things work together. It’s unsustainable to spend a crazy amount of money on any one channel forever.
For example, a long time ago before I worked at software companies’ other stuff, we worked with local companies, like insurance brokers and that sort of thing. At the time, these insurance brokers found a really good market where they could bid on 3–5 money keywords in their space, just use 100% Google Ads, and still make a good amount of money.
The problem with that is you have huge insurance companies who could easily outbid you. There are only so many searches per month on each of those, so you’re going to hit a point where you can only bring in 100 leads a month, and you’re never going to be able to bring on 1000 leads a month, 10,000 leads a month just relying on that one thing. You’re going to have to look at this more holistically and pull things together to achieve scale.
Ben: For sure. Once marketers have bought into this idea of blending original and your creative content concepts with more keyword-driven SEO, and they’re integrating that or they’re at least bought into the idea of integrating those things with other channels on their tactics or not, putting all their eggs in one basket so to speak, how would you recommend they begin laying out an effective content game plan? How would they put together the basic framework of a strategy that they can execute repeatability, so that this whole idea of doing content marketing and doing SEO doesn’t just kind of peter out on them because they don’t see results, or just because the workflow is unscalable, or whatever the case may be?
Brad: I think it involves a couple of things. It’s like the old stupid analogy of measure twice, cut once. Instead of just thinking about keywords in isolation or content pieces in isolation, what is the thing that’s going to move you in this direction over the long haul and what are the components you need?
For instance, off the top of my head, the whole ranking thing is like chicken and the egg. I can’t rank for big keywords until I’m big, but I’m not going to be big until I rank for some keywords. Today, your expectations might need to be smaller and they might need to be, ‘actually, I could probably only get into the top five for anything with a keyword difficulty of under whatever, pick an arbitrary number.’
The reason for that (as you know) is SERP’s a winner-take-all. If you’re not in the top five at any given search engine results page, you are losing out on 90% traffic, therefore why am I trying to rank for that? I might as well go adjust my expectations, rank for something that I can actually rank for today, so a year from now I can revisit the bigger stuff. Part of it is that. When we’re doing that is then thinking broader of content in batches or projects that are going to encompass different spaces for different reasons.
Some of this easier top of the funnel content is a ton of volume, little less relevance, competition’s okay. Commercially it’s less relevant, but it’s going to give me a ton of traffic today, so I’m going to do that. I’m also going to do these case studies because that’s what’s going to help me actually get these people back and convert them into paying customers today again.
As you grow over time and, as you say, from where I’m at now versus 12 months from now, versus 24 months from now, the goal post changes a lot but it’s about thinking of producing content differently. When you dial all this back to most teams and what they’re doing now, you see this obvious problem of this company wants to hire two freelancers, they’re going to do two articles a week, and then call it a day.
Or the founder keeps getting involved in rewriting things because they don’t like how it sounds, but what that does is it prevents this company from publishing more than 4–5 articles a month. They’re almost like placing a glass ceiling on themselves because they’re never going to be able to do some of that earlier stuff we talked about, thinking of all these problems in a much bigger, broader way, and understanding the dynamics that they’re up against.
Ben: Yeah, it is very, very important to eliminate as much of that meddling and as much of the inefficiency as what you can.
Brad: For sure. I think marketers don’t need more ideas. They don’t need better ideas. They just need to execute better. And executing better comes from processes, boring systems, and operations.
That’s what is always funny. People that listen to this, some of them might believe me or think that. And you might. Anyone who’s done this at a really high level will but most people won’t. Most people will still look for 101 link building list posts because they think that’s what you need. You don’t need 100 link building list posts. You don’t need 100 link building ideas. You need two or three, and you just really execute them at a really high-level scale. That’s how you drive huge results and I think that’s where a lot of people fall down.
A lot of marketers fall down because they get too tied to what this echo chamber to what other people are doing, what people telling them they should be doing, what the dumb mansplaining you see on LinkedIn. They think they should be doing those comments. These ideas are so dumb when you actually step back and think about it. It just takes people’s attention away from the real things they should be doing.
Ben: Something that’s key to understand here is that your own data and intuition are often much more valuable than outside advice from strangers who have no knowledge of, nor insight into your own business or industry. It can be really easy to be scrolling on LinkedIn or Twitter, and see someone say something like XYZ tactic or channel is dead, or if you’re doing this thing you’re doing it wrong, and then you start to feel anxious that maybe they’re right and maybe you are doing things the wrong way.
But the only way that you’re going to know definitively—one way or the other—whether or not you are on the right path for you and your business, whether it’s with your content strategy or with anything else, is to start small, get scrappy, and test a lot of different ideas quickly to see what works for you. When you actually have your own data in hand, you can put a lot of that anxiety to rest and let your own customers guide what content strategy is best for you. That’s really what leads to real ROI. Now, back to Brad.
As marketers, as content creators, it can be very easy to get distracted by what other people are telling you to do. That at least partially informs how people fall into one of these two camps where they’re all gung-ho about SEO, almost to the exclusion of the human side of content. Or they maybe just have a very dim view of SEO for whatever reason. Probably because they heard somebody else tell them SEO doesn’t work, it’s too competitive, or some other such thing that they probably saw on a 500-word LinkedIn post from some influencer.
How can you guard yourself against that? What can you do? Maybe this is a mental exercise to just protect your own head space from being too overly influenced by outside ideas, from people who know nothing about the situation you’re in.
Brad: I personally take more extreme examples—I’ll give you that—but it’s almost like there’s no such thing as black and white in life. Everything is gray. What I mean by that is that you’re never on one poor eyesight of the other. You’re never 100% correct.
Take the coronavirus. We should either shut down all businesses so they can’t make any money and we put people out of work, or we should not govern people and no one should ever have to wear a mask ever. I personally have no idea what the answer is. It’s probably in the middle of those two extremes, I would guess. In an ideal world, it’s probably in the middle.
It’s no different in marketing. It’s no different in anything else. Should you be 100% any one thing? No, probably not. And you should also probably never subscribe to any one thing too dramatically, especially in the marketing space. I probably think a jaded view of this, too, because I was a freelance writer. I run a content company. We go straight for marketing influencers and have done all this kind of stuff. We create content.
Content in the marketing space is no different than content at CNN or Fox News or wherever you subscribe to. They’re just pandering to you, to tell you what they want you to hear, and get you to buy their stuff or get you to buy their own BS. It’s no different, so personally I don’t really follow marketing people. I don’t really read a ton of marketing or even software stuff. I’m aware of it all, but I try to take in every counterpoint and then don’t believe anything 100%, just try to follow my own path, if that makes any sense, and test. If in the course of the week I come across five ideas, I’m going to test all of them and see which one works for me, and then that’s the one I’m going to put more money and time behind. I never believe in any one thing 100% of the time.
That makes me a hypocrite sometimes, but I think that’s a good thing because you need to evolve. What Google used to prioritize or prioritizes now makes you a hypocrite, you just need to embrace that and know that there’s going to be a healthy amount of experimentation, skepticism, and sometimes you prove yourself wrong and that’s okay.
Ben: If you were to judge an SEO expert today for what they said two years ago, everybody comes out looking pretty bad.
Brad: For sure, yes. Let’s say even what they’re saying is correct—which is probably not because a writer probably wrote it—let’s say it did work, if you’re taking such a small, narrow snapshot of time where all these factors had to work together to produce this one result, it always lasts and then people subscribe or prescribed this halo effect.
In other words, HubSpot is not as amazing. Inbound marketing was actually called permission marketing […] code a decade before they came and stole that idea. They killed it, so now everything that Hubspot produces or people that come from HubSpot—this happens a lot—people think they’re geniuses.
What will we see on the other side of the spectrum is you see turnover really high in the tech field. You see people getting jobs, getting promoted to positions, but they probably shouldn’t have based on their skill level, and it’s usually because of these crazy biases or it comes from a place where something works amazingly well.
What you find over the long-term—I’ve been doing this for over a decade now—is what worked once for one company and one tactic in whatever, is not going to work for you. It’s not going to work the same for some other company listening to this. I think that’s where maybe people need to be a little more, not skeptical, but they just need to understand that their contexts and their nuances are different.
Ben: Absolutely. One last question I’ll throw your way, just kind of continuing along that train of thought. Something you mentioned there was this testing, just testing things out and just seeing what works, which is a really, really big part of any kind of ROI-driven strategy. If you’re going to be led by your own data and go where your data is telling you to go, then you have to do a lot of testing before you figure out what things work for you before you can learn how to replicate those things that appear to be working about test stuff.
But sometimes, it can be hard to get buy-in for things like that. I think it’s pretty common for marketers to run into all kinds of institutional resistance, maybe to new ideas, maybe just resistance to publishing something that might not be perfect, doing something scrappy. or something that looks really, really janky, but you’re testing an idea.
How can marketers maybe break through some of that resistance or get buy-in from stakeholders so they can move toward more testing based on maybe philosophy or approach, so that you can actually do more of what works and find what works for you rather than spending too much time worrying what the experts say you should do?
Brad: That’s a good question because it’s really difficult to do in reality. I’m trying to think back to when I worked at other companies. I had asked people to do these things because now that sounds interesting; let’s do it. Just throw money out and see if it works. It’s a very easy decision-making process.
I think it’s two things. Number one, it still needs to be grounded in what’s going to probably produce the best results. What I mean by that is if you’re looking at how do I grow sites, a blog, how do I grow a company, how do I grow traffic—that’s where I’m starting there—it’s often easier to grow traffic than it is to grow conversion rates.
I know that SEO is going to work long-term. It’s not going anywhere. I know that there are certain things with SEO and I need to focus on, so I need to make sure that my keyword opportunity that’s on targeting are legit, that they’re not going to be super competitive, out of my great range or out of my competitive range, but they’re not going to be so small either that it’s not worth doing from a traffic perspective.
Ideas needed to be grounded in some reality of what’s actually going to produce results. If someone came to me and was like, hey we should try this experiment with this brand new social network no one’s ever heard of and no B2B marketers are on it, I’ll tell him no because it’s not anywhere close to what’s actually are already working for us and where we are at, so it needs to be in that.
I think the other way is to try to find some ways to measure success in the short-term. Often, that’s going to be a leading indicator not a lagging indicator. If you’re trying to prove something, success is not going to be customers, trials, or conversion rates because that’s going to take weeks or months to play out. Even rankings are maybe where I would start, and even before that I might start to focus on content optimization. I’m going to show my higher ups that we’re going to do 20 pieces of content this month, we’re going to try to optimize those a little better by checking a content optimization tool.
Our average scores are going to go from whatever, to a B or something that. It doesn’t need to be A. It’s probably not not even worth going to A level yet because we need to figure all these things out. It cost too much to go from 90% to 100%, but I need to apply this to 20 articles. If I do it to just two there’s not going to be meaningful stuff to work with. It needs to be 20. I’m going to focus on this one specific area, and if that correlates to slightly better rankings across all those 20, or the 20 before, that’s probably a win.
It doesn’t mean it’s the only strategy I should pursue. It doesn’t mean I should forget about everything else. It just means how do we now start incorporating this into our broader process that we’re already doing and we’re already seeing success with. I think that’s where those gains come from. It’s like how do you take something that’s already working and make it better, not how do we just introduce all this new crap that’s going to freak our stakeholders and money people out.
Ben: You make small changes and make sure you have a method in place for measuring the impact.
Brad: For sure. If we took a piece of content, for example, I would almost look at it like a balance scorecard. You have the topic and how do we get this one URL to perform better. It’s part topic selection in the first place, it’s part actual writing, subject matter experts and people who know what they’re talking about. It’s part on-page optimization, it’s part site speed maybe, it’s part topical authority for your broader site, it’s part internal linking inside architecture, it’s part number of referring domains that you pointed to, and it’s part the quality of those referring domains. Almost all you have seven or eight variables that you need to experiment on.
Usually, you see success by moving all those in the right direction and figuring out scalable ways to do that. Maybe from a content perspective you’re killing it, but what’s holding you back is your link building sucks because you’re doing Facebook, you’re doing Instagram, you’re seeing these spikes in referral traffic, but you have no systematic way to drive 10 DR 50+ links to each URL that you’re coming out with. Until you figure that gap out, again you’re always going to have this hard cap on how quickly you can grow things. It’ll grow well in the long-term, but usually in short-term that’s what the money people care about. This quarter is usually where they’re focusing.
Ben: The faster you can get to revenue, the more likely your content marketing strategy is going to survive.
Brad: For sure. Then, if you can, not con other people, but if you can con other people into it. For example, if you can go to your paid departments and you’re like, hey guys can you help me out with some retargeting to these pages because they’re not that interesting, like these pages aren’t going to get us customers, but I think it’s going to get us some more traffic on the cheap. I think it could bring down your retargeting by 50¢ a click. If it does that and we’re spending tens of thousands of dollars, then you start to see that.
Another example I’ll give you is we ran all these tests internally, where we added video to an article, we used custom images and illustrations, and then we promoted all this stuff socially. We said, what brought our cost of distribution down on Facebook ads the most, based on ad type? It wasn’t clever copywriting. It was a better form of media, usually, or in this case, for this layout, it was a custom illustration versus over here, and on mobile, it was actually a short video clip. By doing those things, we brought down our cost per click, cost per acquisition by X.
Now, you’re armed with some data because you looped in your paid team who gave you that instant result. That’s often what content people are struggling with, is I can’t prove anything today or tomorrow. Can I con the paid people to help me out and give me some traffic to these things, and see if I can give you some good results by the end of the week?
Ben: You’re finding a way to find some kind of number that’s concrete that you can hold on to and show to your money people, we moved this metric in a positive direction.
Brad: Exactly, and prove it’s not a fluke. Can it be repeatable? I used to be on the other end of that, but as the person now spending the money, I don’t care if something worked one time. I care if it works 100 times in 100 different cases. The closer we get moved to that and the more certain we are, the more money I’m happy to throw in that direction.
Ben: For sure. Well, that does it for all the questions I had for you. Before I let you go, is there anything else that you’d like to add or anything else tangentially related to this topic that you’d really like to leave our listeners with?
Brad: For sure. I should probably talk about Wordable because I’m trying to promote that. We acquired Wordable, like I said, I think last year in the middle of summer sometime. We rebuilt it from scratch. We’re doing a lot of things with it. This might be an example of how, why, and what we’re doing, and I think it’s helpful for other people, especially those in a conference space.
We publish a couple of hundred articles a month under my agency. We have clients across all different CMSes, and each one has their own specifications to how they want images or links or whatever. We pay a lot of people internally—project managers, account managers, and VAs— to format, optimize, upload, publish content on back clients. We see it takes 30 minutes to an hour (roughly) to do that manually, and if you’re doing a couple of hundred that’s a lot of time and money that we’re spending, throwing at this kind of stuff.
When we talk about how do you scale things and how do you find success from an ROI perspective, I’m spending a couple of thousand dollars internally on people doing this stuff. If I had a tool that not just exported content for me but it did it across multiple CMSes, and it automatically started applying some of these settings, I could take that little cost savings from a couple of thousand down to like $100. It would free us and our resources up to go do more of what’s already working.
That’s what we’re trying to do at Wordable. We’re trying to automate a lot of those super time-consuming things, from upload to format, optimize to publish, trying to automate all that stuff so marketers can actually get back to what’s working and do the hard thing, which is writing, keyword research. Those are the hard things. Those are where you should be spending time not all the lame, tedious stuff.
Ben: For sure. Great stuff. Well, that’s all I’ve got for you. Thanks again so much for coming on the show and shedding some insights in some areas that I think anybody working in content can get some value out of some portion of this conversation, I’m sure.
Brad: Cool, yeah. Thanks for having me. I love talking about the stuff that (again) people don’t usually talk about because we’re forced to say stupid sound bites on LinkedIn and all that kind of stuff. I like actually having a real discussion about what works and what doesn’t versus all that, so thanks for having me.
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