Almost everybody loves best practices.
They let you learn what’s worked for someone else. They save you time because you don’t have to do research to understand the best way to proceed.
But many people erroneously equate “best” with “infallible” or “in every circumstance.” That’s not the best thinking for best practices.
But some best practices get repeated so often they’re followed without question – and that’s where the trouble begins. Let’s look at five seemingly harmless best practices you should start to question. (Many of the items on this list were suggested by CMI community members Luke O’Neill, a writer and content consultant in the fintech and financial services industry, and Amy Brennen, brand manager at Rapyd.)
1. Create content your audience wants
I like this one. Frankly, too many businesses think only about themselves when creating content. They create content to put the company, product, services, and employees in the best light. But in doing so, they fail to consider the interests and needs of the audience outside their business.
So, I’m all for creating content that the audience wants. But if you stop at that idea, you’ll miss out. What about the content the audience doesn’t yet know it wants?
For example, let’s say a governing body quietly passes a new regulation that will affect your industry. Your audience may not realize anything has happened. Wouldn’t it make sense to create information the audience doesn’t know they want or need?
Or, what if your content marketing team interprets data to help your audience in a way they didn’t know was possible?
If you only create content you know your audience wants, you’ll cover the same old ground and may eventually bore them. Leave room in your plan for content experiments, surprises, and education. Finding new helpful information or presenting fresh angles can reinvigorate your content’s usefulness for your audience.
For example, you may not offer audio versions of your company’s blog articles because the audience hasn’t clamored for them. But if you added the feature, you might learn that a segment of the audience appreciates that audio option.
2. Evaluate engagement metrics, not just views
Most advice about content performance analytics pushes you to focus on how the audience interacts with the content, not how many people saw the content. Views, impressions, and reach often get disparaged as “vanity” metrics.
But narrowing your analysis to look only at engagement is a mistake. Luke O’Neill explains it this way: “Some of the audience is invisible. They don’t comment. They don’t share. They don’t sign up for emails. And yet this invisible audience is often still paying attention at different times – waiting in the wings. They can become customers or clients years later. They may be missing from many metrics, but we still need to serve them.”
3. Write content to rank at the top of search engine results pages
Fortunately, the days of keyword stuffing are long gone (or at least the days of rewarding keyword-stuffed content are.) But writing for SEO remains a best practice for many content marketing teams. You prioritize appearing on the first page or front screen (for results with Google’s newer scrolling results). You devote a ton of content development time to searches for volumes for keywords, alternative keywords where your content could stand out, analyzing your content competitors’ rankings, etc.
But a top ranking in search results may not be the best for your content marketing strategy. Google increasingly delivers answers to searchers’ questions on the SERP so they don’t have to visit the website. A featured snippet or top ranking may only lead to awareness of your brand at best.
Instead of making a top ranking the goal, realign your objectives to focus on content that will help you achieve the company’s business goals.
4. Use content metrics to understand your audience
Content consumption metrics can help you understand what content your audience responds to. But don’t stop there in your quest to understand them.
What if the audience that consumes your content isn’t made up of people who would buy what your brand sells? Yes, I know, not every person who consumes your content will turn into a buyer (or give a referral), but many should.
Take the extra step to connect consumption metrics to conversion metrics, and you’ll learn much more about your audience. You may not be able to connect them directly to a purchase, but you can spot behavior more likely to lead to a purchase.
By incorporating consumption and conversion metrics, you can now better understand the audience segment that’s likely to convert and develop content that will resonate best with them.
5. If you want leads, gate your content
Content marketers charged with lead generation often follow this best practice – they put the most valuable content behind a gate. The key to that gate is the audience member’s contact information. Then, both the content marketers and sales team can follow up with the newly recognized prospect.
Gated content can be a good option for lead generation, especially if your team is measured on the quantity of marketing-qualified leads (MQLs) generated. But it’s not necessarily the best or only way to create leads.
A Gartner study found that B2B buyers spend about 27% of the buying process conducting independent research online. How much of that research time leads to gated content that prospects dismiss because they don’t want to be hit up with a subsequent sales call or email outreach?
Instead, strike a balance in your gating strategy. Limit gating to those content pieces targeted for the lowest parts of the sales funnel. The audience for those pieces is ready to evaluate products and services, so they’ll be more likely to respond to sales outreach.
Your sales team will appreciate the change, too, because leads from bottom-of-the-funnel content are more qualified than leads generated from top- and middle-of-funnel content.
Including key details from the gated content on the landing page can whet the whistle for those who want to go deeper while providing a bit of information for those who only want the gist. (I like this option as a writer who often downloads research reports to get the overview data with no intention of buying from the brand.)
Mid-gating is another option. As Foleon explains: “A reader who has started reading before deciding to fill out the form is more likely to be genuinely interested than someone who blindly fills out a form, downloads a piece of content, and promptly forgets it.”
If you’re going to do that, let the reader know what to expect before they start reading. Your audience won’t be thrilled if you dupe them into thinking it’s a “free” read-only to be confronted by a “register-to-read-further” note when they’re mid-way through the content.
The only best practice you should follow
Every time you hear a best practice that you think sounds great, take a pause to think critically. Consider these questions:
- How well would this best practice work for my company’s content marketing, given our resources, processes, culture, etc.?
- What does this best practice omit? What potential disadvantages would it present?
- Is it worth modifying this best practice to fit our content marketing strategy?
In the end, you may decide the practice truly is the best, and that’s OK. What’s important is that you didn’t just do it because you heard it was the “best.” And that really is the best practice of all.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute