With more than 15 years of experience in the industry, Hannah Smith has worked with a range of well-known companies, and her creative work has won multiple awards. She knows her stuff when it comes to creative content. That’s why we decided to pick her brain and ask her a few questions about content strategy and how to create content that helps you achieve your goals.
The SEO industry agrees that having a good “content strategy” is critical. But what does that mean? What does that look like?
I think that part of the challenge here is the term “content strategy” itself. It’s a term that means different things to different people, right? There are a bunch of definitions out there, but the one Adria Saracino and I came up with when we were at Distilled (c. 2014) is still the one I use today:
“A content strategy is the high-level vision that guides future content development to deliver against a specific business objective.”
I like this definition because I believe all content should be goal-driven: i.e., what you create depends on what you want to achieve. As such, the first question you must answer when formulating your strategy is: what is your core objective for this content?
For example, if you want to increase your revenue, one way to do that might be to rank better in organic search for terms relating to your business. If that’s the direction you want to go in, then you’ll need to figure out what you think you’ll need to do to achieve that.
You may need to update and improve existing pages and/or create new pages. Plus, page content aside, you’ll also need to think about how you will help those pages rank. So you’ll need to think about internal links; and potentially external links too.
I like thinking about content strategy this way because it forces you to plan out your activity sensibly and think about measurement from the outset.
But back to your question – of what a “good” content strategy should look like – to my mind, a content strategy should have the following:
- A clear objective
- A well-researched hypothesis and a plan – i.e., what you’re going to do to achieve that objective
- Clearly outlines internal and external resources required, plus costs
- Explains how these efforts will be measured (i.e., appropriate tracking is in place)
- Includes key timelines and dates to review progress and results
- Is appropriate and realistic – i.e., this is something that the business can execute
How do you close the gap between “writing blog posts and articles” to producing creative stuff that’s more impactful, successful, etc.?
I get the sense that you’re talking about creating content designed to get coverage externally – e.g., from journalists and/or other high-authority sites in your niche.
First and foremost, I’d encourage people to think hard about their objectives before embarking on anything like this. Do you need to get coverage from journalists to achieve your objectives? Or might there be a different way to go about this?
Let’s assume that you’ve done your research and need linked coverage from journalists. Where do you begin? I suggest starting with 5-10 publications on which you’d like coverage. Look closely at the articles journalists are writing – which topics appear repeatedly? What sorts of emotions are those articles provoking? Why do you think journalists are writing those articles?
Then, based on this research, I’d encourage people to think about what sorts of things they might be able to create that could add to the articles that those journalists are writing.
What are the challenges and risks of this type of activity?
The main thing to note is that this type of activity fails at a pretty high rate. I recently benchmarked the performance of more than 2,000 digital PR pieces created by eleven agencies and in-house teams.
To give some context, asset-led digital PR pieces are those where there is something live on the client’s site that a journalist could link to, ranging from a blog post to a fully-interactive page. Only a press release is created for a digital PR piece without assets; there is no asset live on the client’s site for the journalist to link to:
|Number of pieces of Linked Coverage||% of Asset-Led Digital PR Pieces (1,398 pieces)||% of Digital PR Pieces without Assets(730 pieces)|
|0 pieces of linked coverage||5%||31%|
|1-9 pieces of linked coverage||35%||49%|
|10-29 pieces of linked coverage||31%||13%|
|30-49 pieces of linked coverage||11%||5%|
|50-99 pieces of linked coverage||10%||1%|
|100+ pieces of linked coverage||8%||1%|
If you’re new to this, I’d expect your failure rates to be higher than this. As such, you might consider using a freelancer or agency to do this work for you.
What about small businesses in particular? How can they stand out, get cut-through, and get coverage?
A digital PR tactic like offering expert commentary to journalists can be an excellent option for small businesses that want coverage but don’t have the budget or resources to create bespoke content.
You’ll likely have noticed #journorequest on Twitter, plus there are services like HARO (help a reporter out), to help you filter and keep track of requests like this. I’d strongly recommend taking a look at Surena Chande’s BrightonSEO talk. In her talk, she covers what journalists are looking for and how best to respond to requests like these.
Here’s a quick and dirty version. Resist the urge to sell or promote yourself or your products, and instead try to:
- Provide actual expertise (should go without saying, but doesn’t)
- Offer something unique: a new perspective or alternative take is better than the same old advice everyone spouts, and it will increase your chances of coverage
- Educate readers via unbiased, honest, useful, accurate, and up-to-date advice
All that said, I think it bears repeating that not all small businesses need to get coverage. I run a small business myself and don’t do any digital PR for my own company. Honestly, I don’t think it would make sense to me. Coverage is unlikely to get me the clients I want, which is my core objective. Instead, I focus on speaking at industry events, appearing on podcasts, writing for industry sites like this one, and my newsletter.
How can folks learn to be more creative? Are there tools, processes, resources, or shortcuts they can take?
Creativity is a skill, not a talent: it’s something you can learn 🙂
Here’s my process:
- You can’t come up with ideas in a vacuum, so I spend a lot of time seeking inspiration. I review the most shared articles on the client’s target publications to identify resonant topics, seek data sources, talk to humans, read books, etc.
- I do this bit quickly. Only one in twenty ideas I come up with is likely worth making, so if I’m trying to come up with four ideas for a client, I need to generate 80. The stuff I generate aren’t ideas yet; that stuff happens in the final stage.
- Development & validation
- Turning the seed of an idea I’ve generated into something which can be made.
An example of this in practice
I’m aware that in the abstract, this doesn’t make a heap of sense, so here’s an example of how “Grilled Cheese-us” (a phrase I wrote down during the generation process) eventually became Making Faces, a piece we created for one of our clients when I was at Verve Search.
What do I mean by “Grilled Cheese-us”? Our propensity to see faces in inanimate objects – e.g., when people see Jesus in a slice of cheese on toast. I wondered whether or not this was something that had been studied previously, and after a little googling, I found this BBC article. It was there that I discovered that there was a proper name for this propensity (it’s called pareidolia); plus, I learned tonnes more about it:
- There could be evolutionary reasons why we are especially prone to seeing faces. Human survival depends so heavily on others – whether we need their help or fear their violence – that we must react quickly and understand their motives. So the brain may be wired to detect others whenever it can quickly. If we occasionally make a mistake and see a face in tree bark, that’s less serious than failing to spot someone hiding in the bushes.
- According to other researchers, a more speculative view is that a similar mechanism could explain human spirituality. The idea is that the brain, being hard-wired to understand people and their motivations, tries to look for human-like intentions in everything around us – a thunderstorm, a plague, or a terrifying and abstract concept like death. To make sense of our fears, we begin to personify them, filling the world with gods and demons. Intriguingly, Tapani Riekki at the University of Helsinki in Finland and colleagues have found that religious people are likelier to see faces in ambiguous photos than atheists.
- Interesting about cars: in 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported that “cuter” cars, like the iconic Volkswagen Beetle, were experiencing falling sales – perhaps because their owners felt intimidated by the growing number of large SUVs. So designers decided to create cars with more dominant expressions. The Dodge Charger, for instance, was designed with thin, sloping headlights to give it a menacing look that could outstare the other cars. “The headlights seem to make eye contact the same way people do on the street,” said Chrysler designer Ralph Gilles. “A mean face is what we’re going for.”
- Stuff about honesty: Various studies have shown a simple picture of a pair of eyes can lead people to act more honestly – a “nudge” technique that has been shown to reduce bicycle theft by more than 60% in certain areas.
Finding out all of this stuff (in a very roundabout way) led me to propose that we:
- Create our own thing, allowing people to discover whether they’re more or less likely to see faces in inanimate objects than the Great British public.
- To do this, we took photos and then ran 2,000 survey respondents through the piece (we asked them a bunch of questions, plus for each image, we asked – “can you see a face here?”)
Are brainstorms evil?
Ha! I’m not a fan of brainstorms. I’m an introvert, and I do my best work alone. That’s not true for everyone, of course. But I think brainstorming without prior research into the publications you’re seeking to target is often a waste of time.
How do you think the relationships between content, strategy, campaigns, creativity, and link-building have changed over time? And what’s next?
I’m not sure it has! People are still buying links, and PR isn’t new.
I’d hope that digital PR becomes less siloed in the future. Many of us are doing stuff for links because that’s what our clients want us to do, but it’s often very disconnected from other types of SEO, content, and marketing activity. I’d love for that to change.
I’d also love to see more long-term thinking and investment. Most clients want an ‘x’ number of campaigns per quarter, and they want them all to be shiny new things. My concern is that there’s not much appetite to build stuff that lasts. I’m thinking something like the Michelin Guide (which was started in 1900!).
Hannah Smith bio
Hannah Smith is the founder of Worderist.com. She offers creative content consultancy, coaching, and training to agencies and in-house marketing teams. Her creative work for clients has won multiple awards, and she’s worked with various companies, including the BBC, Dyson, Expedia, GoCompare, MailChimp, Salesforce, and Zoopla. She has spoken at numerous conferences across Europe and the US, interviewed Google’s John Mueller live on stage in front of an audience of 3,000, and acted as a guest lecturer at the University of Greenwich.
If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read here, you might like to subscribe to Hannah’s fortnightly newsletter, Manufacturing Serendipity.
Enjoyed reading this interview and want to hear more of what Hannah has to say? You’re in luck! We recently hosted a news webinar where she and Jono Alderson discussed the SEO news in October.