Ranking in Content Marketing

Content marketing rests on a simple premise: Great content will attract interest from readers.  It sounds simple — but the ingredients of great content, on closer inspection, seem ineffable.  We can come up with any number of criteria necessary for great content.  But satisfying these criteria won’t necessarily result in lots of people finding your content, and using it.  It is possible to have great writing about useful topics that is promoted diligently, and still find that the content fails to generate expected interest.  Hard work alone doesn’t explain outcomes.

How then does content marketing rank highly? I’m not an SEO, so I’m not going to offer SEO advice here.  I’m using the SEO term “ranking” in a more general sense of gaining visibility based on audience expressions of interest.  It may be  ranking in SERPs, or in social media shares, or bookmarks, or another metric that indicates how people vote for what content they find most useful.  The key to the ranking question is to think about online content as a market, where there are buyers and sellers.  Unfortunately, it is not a simple market, where there is a perfect match for everyone.  Some sellers never find buyers, and some buyers never find the right seller either, and have to settle for something less than optimal.  Online content is sometimes efficient, but very often is prone to market failure.

Navigating through the Content Glut

Like many other people who work with online content, I believe we face a content glut.  There’s too much content online. Too much content is ignored by audiences.   Many organizations consider it acceptable to create content that only receives one or two hundred views.  A shocking amount of content that’s created is never viewed at all!  It would be easy to dismiss all this content as low quality content, but that would not capture the full story.  It’s more accurate to say that this content doesn’t match the needs of audiences.  Not all content needs to generate high numbers of views — if it is intended for a narrow, specific audience.  But most content that’s created has a potential audience that’s far larger than the actual audience it attracts.  It gets lost in the content glut.

To understand how audiences select content, it helps to consider content as being traded in one of two different markets.  One market involves people who all have the same opinion about what is great.  The other market involves people who have different ideas about what is great.  It’s vitally important not confuse which group you are writing for, and hoping to attract.

More formally, I will describe these two markets as a “winner-takes-all” market, and as an “auction” market. I’m borrowing (and repurposing) these terms from Cal Newport, a Georgetown computer science professor who wrote a career advice book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. His distinction between winner-takes-all verses auction markets is very relevant to how online content is accessed, and valued, by audiences.

Winner-Takes-All Markets

When a large audience segment all want the same thing — applying the same standards —  it can create a race to determine who provides the best offering.  It gives rise of a winners-take-all market.  

Let’s illustrate the concept with a non-content example. Sport stars are a classic winner-takes-all market.  Fans like players who score exceptionally, so the player who scores most generally win the most fans.  The top players make much more money than those who are just short of being as good as them.  Fans only want so many stars.

Many content topics have a homogenous user preference profile.  Nearly everyone seeking health information wants up-to-date, accurate, comprehensive, authoritative information.  The US National Institutes of Health is the gold standard for that kind of information.  Other online publishers, such as the Mayo Clinic or WebMD, are being judged in comparison to the NIH.  They may be able to provide slightly friendlier information, or present emerging advice that isn’t yet orthodox.   But they need to have thoroughness and credibility to compete.  Lesser known sources of health information will be at a disadvantage.  Health information is a winner-takes-all market.  The best-regarded sources get the lion’s share of views.  Breaking into the field is difficult for newly established brands.  When everyone wants the same kind of information, and all the content is trying to supply the same kind of information, only the best content will preferred.  Why settle for second best?

 How do you know when a topic is a winners-takes-all market? A strong signal is when all content about the topic, no matter by whom it is published, has the same basic information, and often even sounds the same.  It is hard to be different under such circumstances, and to rank more highly than others.

Another example of a winner-takes-all market for content is SEO advice.  If you want to learn about (say) the latest changes Google announced last month, you will find hundreds of blog posts by different local SEO agencies, all of which will have the same information.  Only a few sources will rank highly, such as Moz or Search Engine Land.  The rest will be add to the content glut.

It is extremely hard to win the game of becoming the most authoritative source of information about a topic that is widely covered and has a uniformity of views.  Generally, the first-movers in such a topic gain a sustained advantage, as they develop a reputation of being the go-to source of information.  

There are a couple of tactics sellers of content use in winner-takes-all markets.  The first is to set-up a franchise, so that the publisher develops a network of contributors to increase their scale and visibility.  This is the approach used, for example, by Moz and other large SEO websites.  Contributors get some visibility, and build some reputation, but may not develop solid brand recognition.

The second tactic, advocated by some content marketing specialists, is to develop “pillar” content.  The goal of this tactic is to build up a massive amount of content about a topic, so that no one else has the opportunity to say something that you haven’t already addressed.  You can think of this approach as a “build your own Wikipedia”.  Some proponents advocate articles of 5000 words or more, cross-linked to other related articles.  It’s an expensive tactic to pursue, with no guarantees.  In certain cases, pillar content might work, for a topic that is not well covered currently, and for which there is a strong demand for extremely detailed information.  But otherwise, it can be a folly.  Pillar content tactics can trigger an arms race of trying to out-publish competitors with more and longer content.  In the race to become authoritative, the publisher can lose sight of what audiences want.  Do they really want 5000 word encyclopedic articles?  Generally they don’t.

Winner-takes-all applies to a competitive (non-captive) market.  If you have a captive audience (like your email list) you can be more successful with generic topics. But you will still be competing with the leaders.

Don’t forget: the characteristic of winner-takes-all markets is that there are few winners, and many losers.  Make sure you aren’t competing with a topic you are unprepared to win with.

Auction Markets

The defining characteristic of an auction market is that different people price stuff differently.  There’s no single definition of what the best is.  People value content differently, according to what they perceive as what’s unique or special about it.

A non-content example of an auction market is hiring an interior decorator.  It’s a very diverse market: decorators serve different segments of buyers (rich, budget, urban, suburban,…), and within segments people have widely different tastes (eclectic, mid-century modern, cutting edge, traditional…).  Different decorators are “right” for different people.  But that doesn’t mean there’s no competition.  Far more decorators want to design interiors that could be featured in Architectural Digest than there are clients looking to hire such decorators.  There’s an overabundance of decorators who favor the white sofa look that gets featured in Architectural Digest.  And budget buyers may have trouble finding a budget decorator who has sophisticated taste and who can hire affordable and reliable contractors.  It’s hard to get the niche right, where buyers want what you can offer.  

 The value that audiences assign to content in auctions depends on the parameters they most care about. A broad topic that has wide interest can potentially be discussed in different ways, by tailoring topic so that it is targeted at segment, offering a unique point of view (POV), or by accommodating a specific level of prior knowledge about the topic. 

Many areas of content marketing are auction markets.  Some consumers are enthusiastic about learning the details of  products;  others are reluctant buyers worried about costs or reliability.   For example, home repair is a topic of fascination for a handyman. It’s a chore and headache for an exasperated homeowner dealing with an emergency.  

Auction markets rank on the basis of differentiation.  Brands make an appeal: We are right for you! Others are wrong for you! And by extension: We are wrong for people who aren’t like you!  Brands aim for what  could be called the audience-content-brand fit.  The moment a brand tries to become a multi-audience pleaser, it risks losing relevance.  It is then playing the winner-takes-all strategy.

Audience segments most value content that addresses specific needs that seem unique, and is not offered by others.  This places a premium on differentiation.  Segmentation is based on approach.  How content addresses a topic will mirror how audience segments coalesce around themes, interests or motivations.

Many marketers have trouble addressing fuzzy segments.  Groups of people may be drawn to a combination of overlapping interests, be looking for fresh points of view, and have varying levels of knowledge.   Such segments are fiendishly hard to define quantitatively.  How many people fit in each box?  It can be more productive to define the box as a idea to test, rather than as a fixed number.  Auctions discover segments; they don’t impose them.  People vote their priorities in auctions.  One can’t know what people want in an auction before it happens.  By their nature, auctions are meant to surprise us.  

Auctions are fluid.  People’s interests shift.  Their knowledge may grow, or their willingness to learn may lessen.  It is even possible for an auction market to morph into a winner-takes-all market.  Today’s hottest debates can turn into tomorrow’s best practice orthodoxy. 

Matching the Content to the Audience

Ranking is fundamentally about being relevant.  Brands must offer content that is relevant.  Yet in the end, it is audiences who judge the relevance.

Marketers will find their content lost in the content glut if they fail to understand whether the audience segment they want to reach wants content that’s unique in some way, or wants the kind of content that everyone agrees is the best available.  

Brands should aim for share of mind, not just raw numbers.  Many marketers start by thinking about hypothetical reach.  They imagine all the people who, in theory, might be interested in the topic abstractly, and then work to improve their yield.  They create content they think a million people might want to read, without testing whether such an assumption is realistic.  They then try to improve on the minuscule portion of people viewing the content. That approach rarely builds a sustained audience. 

 It’s better to garner 20% of a potential audience of 1000 people, than 1% of a segment of 20,000 people, even if the raw numbers are the same (200 views).   A well-defined segment is essential to figure out how to improve what you offer them.  If everyone want exactly the same thing, then knowing what people want is that much easier.  But being the best when delivering to them is that much harder,

— Michael Andrews