In the late ’90s, Andy Crestodina had just graduated with a degree in Mandarin and landed a job as a recruiter. However, as he watched the internet continue to grow, he quickly realized he was destined for a more creative path.
Working on personal projects by night and creating interactive comic books with a friend in his spare time, he realized this was the essence of what he wanted to be doing full time.
His goal? To combine the art of creativity and technology.
Today, Andy Crestodina is doing just that. As co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Orbit Media, an award-winning web design company in Chicago, Andy is a globally recognized marketing expert, author and entrepreneur, accumulating numerous accolades over the past 17 years.
PowerPost’s Natalie Boyd was lucky enough to get his expert insight into the content marketing industry, how to succeed in its crowded space and what to expect in the years to come.
Content Marketing vs. Brand Journalism
PowerPost: Considering you’ve written hundreds of articles about content strategy and social media. What kinds of publishing or journalistic processes do you follow when you create your own content?
Content marketing, and I totally respect the brand journalism side, but the difference is in quality—and the word should kind of say it all.
Journalism is more than just regular content. Everything is content—but journalism has to meet a standard of credibility and authority.
One of the ways in which I use that all the time is to borrow the credibility of experts, as any journalist would, by including contributors in my content. So as a journalist, I would never publish an article without a source.
As a content marketer, I almost never publish without a contributor. One of the ways in which I try to aspire to true brand journalism is by reaching out to people, including them in my articles, asking for contributor quotes, getting insights from experts—and the results are awesome. It’s a totally different outcome, and I highly recommend it.
PowerPost: With that, is there anything else you’d like to add about what the term “brand journalism” means to you?
The specifics are when you really get to the results.
If you include sources or contributors in your content, the way a journalist would contribute sources, what you end up doing is creating content that’s higher quality. And that’s a huge plus because that’s the game. That’s the whole job. You are producing content that reaches farther in social, assuming you work with a contributor who is generous and active on social media and you grew your network.
Journalists ended up with tons of relationships and it’s really one of the big differences between a cub reporter and a senior journalist—it’s who they know and who they can reach out to. So for the content marketer, it’s the same thing.
Of course, we now call this “influencer marketing.” That term kind of blew up the last four or five years, and it’s what a lot of us had been doing for a long time, which is just putting outside sources in your work. So, you end up in a completely different space if you take this one tactic to heart and embrace that idea of collaborative content or journalistic content or expert sources and contributions.
PowerPost: Would you say there are any journalistic elements you’ve seen enter content marketing as content becomes more long form?
Definitely. Journalists have limited space because of paper, originally, right? Well, they’ve given that up, and they have all sort of come to know that we have plenty of room in the digital context.
I think what journalists missed and what content marketers know very well, is that formatting is all powerful and important in your content. Where journalists are writing for an audience that is used to crawling through dense blocks of copy, content marketers live in fear that their audience—who might have come from social media—isn’t paying attention. So, unlike a journalist, I will break up my content into shorter paragraphs and bulleted lists and subheaders. All content marketers are using sub-headers, whereas journalists tend not to, or often don’t.
But, where content marketers and journalists have a lot in common could be on the headline side, because journalists don’t write their headlines. In fact, it’s the editors who will write the headline for a journalistic article. Content marketers should learn from this and not trust themselves to just write one headline.
There are actually rooms filled with people who are having committee meetings on what to name things, what kind of headlines to try right now, and it’s hard. It’s hard work but it’s so important.
So to the content marketer, take a tip from journalists: Collaborate with your editor on what they think the best headline might be. Then try writing three or five or 10 headlines before choosing one. That’s what news media has always done and one thing that most content marketers have not yet learned.
PowerPost: What do you think makes a blog or piece of content high quality?
Probably when I say that, “People picture different things.” Whatever you pictured when I said that is correct.
There are lots of answers to that question, and they are all correct answers. But a few might be that it answers more questions and is more thorough and detailed. Therefore, it’s also probably longer or more visual—it has images, diagrams, movement, video.
Or, it’s just more authoritative. For example, there are better insights from more experts and contributions, which is a journalistic tactic.
It could also be more provocative or emotional and less watered down. That’s a way to make a better article—don’t make it longer, just cut out all the fluff. And then you have a shorter, more powerful article.
A lot of content starts with three sentences of throat clearing. And I think that in some cases, that doesn’t really mean anything. Your job is not to qualify every sentence so that it’s 100 percent accurate. Your job is to break through and reach someone’s inner brain to really connect on a different level.
I think a lot of people could have better content simply with better editing or being more direct and removing all those extra qualifying words from their content—that’s another way to improve content, too.
Here’s a short list for creating high-quality content:
However, which one you choose depends on the strategy, it depends on the audience and it depends on the topic.
In my case, when I begin with a topic, I know what I want to create. My next effort is, for the next eight or 10 hours, to make the best piece of content on the Internet for that topic.
When I’m done, if Google was the judge and my audience was the jury, I could stand in front of them and point at the content and say, “This is why that’s a better piece. Look at this, look at this and look at this.” Then I could objectively make the case in court that, that is the best piece of content.
PowerPost: What is your opinion on repurposing content and making it more applicable and relevant?
Well, it might surprise some people but you really don’t need 1,000 articles. You need 100 great articles.
With that in mind, find the ones that are already good and upgrade them until they’re great. Find the ones that almost rank high and improve them until they do rank very well. Find the ones that were getting lots of traction on social and upgrade the format from social to visuals to video.
It’s really that the Internet is not waiting for another medium quality blog post. You don’t need to keep rewriting—take the dates off your blog and rewrite the old stuff. Put it back on top and promote it as if it’s new and watch the before and after.
It’s a faster way to get better results with less effort.
In an article, Content Repurposing Ideas: The Periodic Table of Content, Andy explains how thinking about content as particles can be the key to repurposing work. But, before you can start atomizing your content, you have to understand “what the content universe is made of.”
The Periodic Table of Content:
According to the article, here’s how to understand the chart:
PowerPost: What do you think would be the biggest roadblock for content marketing teams’ ability to scale up their publishing?
Roadblock #1: Your publishing calendar
Ironically, the publishing calendar is a roadblock for some people creating high-quality content.
Let’s say you are getting close to your deadline for your newsletter and you need to have something out there and your standards start to slip to get it out—you probably are going to be publishing something that’s not going to get great results and you’re going to erode a little bit of confidence in your audience.
If you’re a slave to your publishing calendar (and we all are a little bit), you need tools, first of all, to keep things on track—a tool like PowerPost, for example. Then, you need resources and plan B’s for how to fall back if your current team isn’t going to get it done, whether it’s a lack of staff, resources, etc.
For example, I have someone that I go to, which is Barry Feldman. When I absolutely cannot hit my deadline, Barry will step in for me and publish an article on my behalf on our site, and he always hits a home run.
Roadblock #2: Data
Another irony: Data sometimes can hurt results. I know I advocate for it, but leave room to do weird stuff and inject chaos into your analytics to see what might work. Try something totally different.
For example, maybe you change your publishing frequency, or I’ve seen several brands a few years ago that took a month off to see what would happen. My advice would really be just to double down and try a new format like launching a webinar or try influencer marketing.
Basically, look at the list of all the possible formats and ask yourself what you haven’t tried yet, then pick one of those.
Roadblock #3: Grit
Bravery, guts, being bold—these are also obstacles and common mistakes.
Sometimes, people can get into a comfort zone and they know something works so they do it and they’re good at it. But you might not ever be great if you stay in your safe zone of things you know will generally work.
Try something else.
PowerPost: Let’s say we don’t have a Barry Feldman to step up to bat. Are there other resources you could suggest that people might use if they were in a similar situation?
You probably could consider a resource that’s outside of the skill set you might have focused on.
Let’s say your writers are all busy because they’re working on a bigger piece. It’s going to launch next month. And yet you have a due date for something else. Look at what you have and see what can come from that.
You could also do a roundup using influencers as a way to save yourself time. For example, if you take the top question in your industry and send it to the top 10 influencers—then each sends you back an answer. Copy, paste, copy, paste. It’s an efficient way to produce high-quality work.
We should all, like a journalist, have lists of people that we would love to collaborate with and we’re slowly networking with. And, knowing that you’re going to have a dry spell coming up—whether you ran out of ideas or time—if you’ve been networking with those people as you’ve gone along and some of them are open to collaborating, try just sending an influencer five questions.
The responses you get back might make a really high-quality piece of content that your audience would love.
PowerPost: As far as the culture of creating that content—what values do you think brands should adopt to encourage a culture conducive for content creation?
Well, you need the safety for everyone to throw out crazy ideas. Statistically, high performing teams are those where everyone on the team feels safe to recommend anything, according to organizational research and psychology.
However, you still have to have the discipline with the culture, too. Look at the data. So, again, it’s both creative and technical. It’s qualitative and quantitative. There are both opinions and numbers, and these people should compliment each other on their skills.
It really is part of the fun. These teams have so many different skill sets, and even if there’s this very small team, each individual has different skills and can jump across and use both halves of their brain hour to hour, even minute to minute.
PowerPost: Are there any types of content you’ve seen that you think have untapped potential?
There is one type of content consistently outperformed by all others, and it is the piece of original research.
So let’s say, for example, we define brand journalism, as opposed to content marketing, as content that includes at least one source, was created with a workflow involving at least three people and it’s a minimum of a thousand words.
Now, we have a one-on-one group of people who are brand journalists and another group of people who are just content marketers, and we want to publish the difference in results between them.
So, we call 100 brand journalists and they call 100 content marketers, and we ask them how they’re getting strong, weak or no results. Then we publish that piece of data that says ‘brand journalists are 40 percent more likely to report strong results from their marketing.’
With that piece of content, that would make us the primary source. It’s original research. It was a survey involving outreach that created a data point or sound bite that no one else has.
Then, when people talk about brand journalism and its effectiveness, they would think of us—mention us, share us, link to us. That way, we get the word of mouth, we get the citations, links, etc., and most companies do not do original research.
PowerPost: You have been in the industry for 10 plus years now. What’s the single most common mistake you’ve seen made, whether it be with resources or workflow or strategy—what do you think is holding content marketers back these days?
I think a lot of content marketers are really just bloggers, and they blog about whatever they find interesting at the time.
I love inspiration, and I respect the place in marketing for new ideas and opinion and preference and just borrowing ideas from out there in the wild. But what great marketers do, and what’s missing from a lot of content programs, is consistent use of data to guide decisions about what to do next.
A lot of people use data to simply report and say: “Oh, these things got these results.” But that’s not analysis. There’s a lot of reporting in content marketing, but there’s not enough analysis— which are the two ways to use analytics.
Even most of the people who are listening to and reading this message now may not yet have fully adopted a practice of looking at analytics to see what’s performing and isn’t performing and deciding what to do next based on that insight.
Any of those tactics are a way to use data to decide what to do next. And, probably any single one of those would outperform what a standard mid-level blogger would create if they just made something up and posted whatever they were thinking about at the time.
In his article, How to do a Content Marketing Audit in 8 Steps, Andy shares a chart summarizing the actions and outcomes from conducting a content audit.
Further, he explains the importance of updating existing pages:
“Yes, you’ll find clues into what topics work well and what to write next. But all the actions and outcomes from this content audit suggested here are about improving existing pages.”
PowerPost: Do you think that the same factors that have contributed to content marketing success over the years and right now will continue to work? Or, what do you think is going to change in the next six months or even a year?
There are aspects of this entire strategy that looks unsustainable. But just because there are so many different formats and channels and marketers now doesn’t mean that there isn’t a greater success coming for the people who are good at this.
When I grew up, there were maybe five TV channels. And I remember before there was cable when I was a little kid, I would get home from grade school and there were one or two shows on and that was it. Not to mention, the TV had a dial on it.
Then, by the time I was in junior high, cable was around and then there were about 80 channels. Then digital cable by the time I was in college, and then satellite. Now, how many channels are there? Thousands?
So, if you talk to a technologist in the early ’80s who said, “Well there’s five channels and there are going to be 20,000, what’s going to happen?” That person would say, “Well there aren’t going to be enough viewers for each channel. The ratings will be low.” But, actually, the people who watch each channel and each show are hyper-targeted.
Seriously, how is it that the world supports shows just about cake? Because people only watch that. So, the reason why it still works is that there aren’t 20,000 general channels. There aren’t 20,000 NBC and ABC and CBS channels—there are 20,000 niche channels.
If you want to succeed now and you’re not succeeding yet, niche down one or two more levels until you get to a more specific audience. And when you find them, you’ve found your tribe—they know you, they love you, they know they’re paying attention to the right thing because you are that very specific thing.
For example, maybe yours is the Youtube channel, blog and newsletter that talks about refrigerator maintenance or whatever your micro-niche is. You could own that super specific niche, right?
Content will just continue to get more fractionalized, and the people who know that and embrace it will continue to grow their relevance in each niche.
PowerPost: Let’s say that people follow that advice. Will content marketing as we know it today still be recognizable?
I think there will still be blogs and newsletters and gated content. But one of the influences is that the companies that contained most of the audience attention and that own that market share is Facebook and Google—both of which are monopolies.
As they continue to do a better job of monetizing their audience by throttling back the organic reach of other content, it will get more and more difficult to compete for more valuable key phrases or organic traffic, visibility and noticeability in Facebook and Google.
However, when you niche down, that gets easier because you can do more microtargeting on Facebook and you can rank for more easily-targeted key phrases in Google. But getting free traffic from those sources isn’t going to get easier.
Paid will also become more and more effective and it’s going make sense for a lot of people. Five years from now there will be way more people doing paid content promotion.
PowerPost: How do you personally measure ROI for your content?
Different content performs (or doesn’t) at different jobs. And I think of different pieces of content as players on a team.
Top of the funnel content:
There is some content that’s really just designed to create a top of funnel awareness, and for those, you would measure things like social engagement or search rankings or social traffic or search traffic. Then, when you make something like that, you can know if it worked or not based on those numbers.
Social content is often very top of funnel search. For example, optimized blog posts are top of funnel, and those are designed to attract visitors, keeping people engaged.
Middle of funnel content:
Other types of content that are designed to create the middle of funnel engagement. For example, grow your email list. So now you’re looking at the conversion rate from landing pages.
You’re looking at the middle of funnel content, newsletters and other types of gated content. You’re also looking at conversion rates and email metrics.
Bottom of funnel content:
Bottom of funnel content is the performance of your sales pages. So you’re looking to add testimonials or add trust building videos. You’re answering people’s top questions and working with the sales team to know what they’re top concerns are for the audience.
Then, you might ask yourself, what do people care about or hope for or are worried about? Then, you add that information to your sales pages or service pages or products.
Further, tests on usability for product pages or service pages or changing the visual prominence of messages—that’s testing content, and all of that effort is designed to maximize the conversion rate.
In the end, I think of some content like cheese and some content like mouse traps. The metric would depend on what that content was designed to do and it’s job as a player on that team.
PowerPost: You have written hundreds of articles. How important do you think scale, or publishing volume, is to content marketing success?
I have written a lot less than people who have been writing for the same amount of time. But, to date, I have written 359 articles. It seems like a lot over 10 years, but that’s a lot less than a lot of other people.
If you count the average length of these pieces, which is about 1,500 or 2,000 words, maybe the total volume or word count is similar, but I only write an article every two weeks and yet we attract around 1 million or 1.2 million visitors to our blog every year.
So, how’s it possible to attract millions of visitors with an article that’s only biweekly?
The answer is quality.
So, how important is it to put out a high volume? It’s important if you’re not at least monthly, because how can you stay top of mind with an engaged audience? You really can’t. So there’s a minimum, but it’s not true that you have to publish three times a week.
In fact, I could easily make the case with data that you’ll get better results by publishing something really high quality, like in the top three or five percent, or even top one percent, of what your audience would expect to see compared to publishing frequently.
PowerPost: What do you think the biggest challenges for content marketers and publishers are today, and what advice do you have to overcome them?
Separate themselves from their audience by only looking at numbers and analytics or engagement metrics and social media. Maybe even listening in social or reading blog comments.
One of the biggest challenges is just being too far away from the people we’re trying to serve. So content marketers should go on sales calls. They should hold live events. They should call people on the phone or participate in other people’s content in ways that bring them closer to their target audience.
I think that a lot of marketers spend very little time as a percentage of their day actually interacting one-on-one with a member of their target audience, either on the phone or face to face. They might do a lot of it on social media, but you don’t really get the emotion and pain points of your audience. You don’t get the triggers that will help you create more engaging or higher converting content if you’re behind a piece of glass.
So the problem is empathy, and the solution is coffee and beer and lunch.
More about Andy Crestodina
Andy Crestodina is a co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Orbit Media, an award-winning 38-person digital agency in Chicago.
Over the past 18 years, Andy has provided digital marketing advice to 1,000+ businesses. He speaks at national marketing conferences, writes for big marketing blogs and hosts a little marketing podcast.
Andy has written hundreds of articles on content strategy, search engine optimization, influencer marketing, conversion and analytics.
More about PowerPost
PowerPost is a privately held company founded in 2015, headquartered in St. Louis, MO.
It combines intelligent content technology with a full-time team of brand journalists to transform the way brands create content.
This content was originally published here.