Even in the face of the proliferation of podcasts, video, and interactive content, Brian Dean is still a fan of the good old blog post.
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Why? Its influence has the kind of longevity and durability that viral video clips can only dream of. It's also self-contained and hosted on your own site, which means your audience doesn't have to overcome the reluctance of leaving YouTube or Facebook to get there.
On blog posts, quality reigns, Brian says. Skyscrapers, pillar pages... they're all the same thing.
"Creating a piece of cornerstone content on your site...has a special name because it's kind of impossible to do that with everything you publish," he says. "Pick your battles." And most of those battles should involve an SEO traffic suite, Google's "People Also Ask" feature, and tools such as Answer the Public.
Brian's further wisdom focuses on getting your content in front of the people who are already looking for it. "What do people search for when they're not searching for what you sell?" he says.
Paying attention to where your people hang out is as good as reverse-engineering content that converts.
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George Thomas: We are in for a treat today. I am super duper excited about the dense content and conversation that we have today. When I say we, I mean Brian Dean and myself.
Brian Dean’s work has been featured in Inc, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, US News and World Report, Success Magazine, Vox, Forbes, Fox News, The Next Web, Huffington Post, Tech Crunch, and dozens more major media outlets. He’s the founder of Backlinko, which was acquired by Semrush, and the co-founder of Exploding Topics. Ladies and gentlemen, I am going to tell you, buckle up, get your notepads ready, get your paper and pen ready, your iPad, your iPhone, charcoal a wall, whatever you can use to write notes, because it is a fantastic voyage today.
Without further ado, let’s get into this great conversation that could dramatically impact your quality traffic, the leads that come from it, and the sales that your team will make because of it. Let’s get into the good stuff…
As you know, I’m always excited. Let’s get this party started. Brian, let’s go ahead and dive into the first question. In your mind, when we think about the subject of generating quality traffic that equals leads and sales, should marketers have the sale at the front of their minds? Should they, shouldn’t they, and if they should, why?
Brian Dean: I would say yes and no. I hate to cop out on the question, especially the first question. I would say most marketers probably don’t focus enough on the sale. The reason for that is just as marketers there are so many other numbers to keep in mind, so many metrics. You have impressions, likes, followers, leads, email subscribers, open rate, click through rate. There’s a million metrics to keep in mind and to try to juggle, and it can be difficult to understand how they actually connect to sales. On the other hand, if you don’t pay attention to sales and you only pay attention to these vanity metrics, then it’s going to be difficult to actually get any business results from all of the marketing that you’re doing.
On the other hand, if you just focus on sales, you’re going to miss out on a lot of sales, ironically, because a lot of this marketing is brand awareness, bringing people to your site, getting people into your sales cycle. Maybe they convert six months down the road, but they’re not going to show up on any analytics. They’re not going to show up in your Google Analytics to say they visited this page, signed up as a lead, and converted into a sale. Some will, but many won’t. In fact, if you look at numbers in B-to-B especially, it can take six to 12 months for someone to actually convert, and by that time cookies have expired and analytics don’t track that kind of stuff. They’re on their phone, then they’re on their browser, then they’re at work, it’s very difficult to track that stuff.
I would say, yes, you should have sales, I wouldn’t say at the front of your mind, but definitely in the back of your mind as you do your marketing.
George: I love that answer. I don’t know about you, Marketing Smarts listeners, but it was almost like a Brian tennis match, Brian was over here, Brian was over there, Brian was over here. It was absolutely amazing, and a master class in understanding technology and the buyer’s journey when you dove into cookies and tracking, and all of that good stuff. Obviously, we are trying to get around this conversation of generating quality traffic. We do have to have sales in the back of our mind, because in between that sale and that traffic is the lead. How can marketers truly know for them what equals a quality lead? What should they be paying attention to, in your mind, on this topic?
Brian: There are two things that you can use to evaluate lead quality. The best is your existing customers, and try to figure out the characteristics that they tend to have, and use that when evaluating your leads that come in.
For example, in the startup that I’m running now, our best customers are VCs. We have customers of all different types, but it’s important to look at your best customers. When a new trial comes in and it’s a VC or someone that works at a firm, we get all excited because this is someone who is very likely to convert, and that turns out to be the case. That’s the number one thing is to look at your existing customer base in terms of where they work, what types of companies do they work at. We even look at what type of credit card they use to sign up. In our experience, an AmEx is almost an automatic conversion for a trial.
For a lead, it can be different because they’re just filling out a form. What role do they play? How big is their company? That’s why if you sign up as a lead yourself, you probably notice that these companies are asking how many employees you have, what is your approximate revenue, what industry are you in. That’s not really so much, in my experience, to size you up individually. It’s more to look at you versus their existing customer base to say how well does this person fit into it or not. You’re going to be a higher priority, you’re getting the best salesperson, you’re going to get whatever.
Which leads me to my second factor for evaluating a lead is information about that lead. The more data you have, the better. That’s why tools like HubSpot specialize in this. Where you have someone’s email address only, then you’re like, “Do you want to get this free report about how to optimize your title tags? Enter your role at you company, what company you work at, and how many people.” That way, the more information you have about the lead, the more you’re going to be able to score them and the better you’re going to be able to evaluate the likelihood of them turning into a sale.
In fact, some companies that I know actually have a prescreening process where if there is a sales call they’ll have the lead hop on a prescreening call. They don’t call it that, but it’s more or less to size up the lead to say is this even worth sending to our sales team for a demo. Maybe they’re in such a good position that they’re getting so many leads that they can’t just go by demographic information and basic stuff, they have to talk to the person to understand their wants and needs and whether they’re a good fit for the product before having a salesperson get on a sales call with someone who may not be a good fit.
At the end of the day, it really comes down to who the person is and using information that they’re willing to give you to evaluate that lead.
George: I love this idea on both sides of your answer. Listeners, you’ll have to let us know if you went in this direction, too, of capturing and understanding the micros at different levels. You went into if we see an AmEx card, that’s a micro thing to pay attention to. Also, I love this idea of the discovery call, that might be your precursor to the demo or whatever. I love as a marketer leaning into this are they question qualified, have we asked them the 12 questions that we need to know before we get them to the next stage of going past a lead to whatever that is in your business.
As we’re unpacking this, I want to get into your big brain idea about how to reverse engineer this back of the mind sales mentality and understanding a quality lead looks like this to us, to start building the right content that then generates the right traffic. Because that literally was the title that we were trying to get the listeners into is the quality traffic, the content that you need to make to be able to pay attention to the first two things that we talked about. Just unpack that for us a little bit.
Brian: It’s a really good point. I think some people put the cart before the horse when it comes to creating content designed for leads. A lot of people will create thought leadership content or whitepapers. Not to say these are formats that are bad. The problem is if your prospect reads this thought leadership content and it’s really good, they’re more likely to become a customer because they’re going to see you as an expert, or they’re more likely to take the action that you want them to take, like actually sign up for a lead or fill in more information if they’re already in your CRM.
The challenge is if you create it and no one sees it, it doesn’t really do any good. I think the emphasis should be on figuring out where these people hang out online, and specifically what they search for online, and how you can get in front of them with any content, whether it’s a podcast like this, a YouTube video, an info graphic, a blog post, a whitepaper, an ebook. The important thing is to understand where these people are online so that you can get in front of them. It’s kind of like the old advertising adage, it doesn’t matter how good your ad is, if you’re selling dog treats to people that don’t have dogs, it’s not going to convert. You could have the best dog treat ad ever, but if you try to get it in front of people that don’t own a dog, it’s not going to convert.
It’s the same idea here. You can create the best content in your niche that has ever existed, but if it doesn’t get in front of people who are your ideal customers, it’s not going to do anything for you. For me, the first step is finding these things that they search for online, even if it’s not just searching for your product or service, just what they tend to search for online, and using content as a way to get in front of them.
George: So good. You started to list out content types, which leads me to the question of have you historically seen is there a best-in-class type of content that marketers should be focused on creating, especially leaning back into our first two questions, with this kind of sales and leads first mentality?
Brian: Definitely. The blog post. Nothing beats the old blog post, in my experience. It seems so simple and kind of antiquated at this point when we have TikTok and podcasts, but the reason the blog post tends to be the best format for most companies is because it just has a certain durability to it that can last for years. You can create a piece of content that will get people reading it for years, and you can always update it.
Plus, it’s really easy to turn that reader into a lead, or at least a subscriber that you can turn into a lead and then a sale down the road, because you can have all the calls to action on that page and you own the platform. As opposed to a YouTube video, which has the power of being video where it’s dynamic and people are watching you, and it's a powerful medium, but to get someone to leave YouTube to go to your site is tricky. Or a podcast, great format for teaching and for people on the go, but right now if someone is at the supermarket checkout line and we’re like now you need to do this, it’s difficult sometimes for them to do that.
So, the reason I like the blog post is just because it’s a format that once you publish it and keep it updated, it can bring in traffic for years. Also, it tends to convert a little bit higher, in my experience, than some other content formats.
George: I love that you brought up the old tried and true blog post. I do want to go off the beaten path for a second. Obviously, people have been blogging, but obviously in the other direction, there are people who maybe haven’t been blogging yet. Are there one or two tips that you would say if you are blogging, make sure you’re doing this, and if you’re getting ready to start blogging, same thing, make sure you’re doing these things?
Brian: Yes. For both, it’s almost the same pieces of advice, whether you’re starting or already have a blog. The number one thing is I’d really focus on SEO with your blog. It’s sort of like the days of a blog post going viral, it’s a lot harder than it used to be. There’s just more content out than ever. I’m someone who has been blogging since 2008, and I’ve just seen the difference of how difficult it can be to get that organic viral loop on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or wherever.
It’s possible still, and you should still aim for it, but that can’t be the goal with your content because it usually doesn’t work out that way and it’s kind of a craps shoot. As opposed to optimizing your blog content around specific keywords that people are searching for and giving them exactly what they want, that has a much higher likelihood of success. Plus, even if you did go viral, over the long term, a blog posts that ranks in Google is typically going to bring in more traffic over the long term than a viral piece. That would be the number one thing.
The second is I would raise the content bar of all of the content that you produce, because there is a lot more content than ever and for your content to perform on social media, in Google, or wherever, it has to be at a ridiculously high standard. It really has to be best-in-class to have a chance. Especially if you’re new, you have to go really above because you’re competing with bigger brands that already have established authority, have an established audience. For you to compete, it has to be insane.
When I first started my last business, Backlinko, I would spend a month on every blog post. Most people at that time were publishing once a day with these short blog posts. But I was already seeing that wasn’t as effective, so I was like let me flip the script a little bit and try to create these huge ultimate guides, these long list posts, these long case studies. It worked. It took a month to publish something, but it ended up paying off. In the short term, people were kind of wowed by it, so I got some social media traction. Over the long term, those pieces of content have ranked in Google, still rank in Google, and are probably bringing in traffic as we’re recording this podcast, which is why I love the humble blog post.
The point is that the standard needs to be really high. I wouldn’t worry about a cadence of publishing once a week or once every whatever. You can get to a point where that is important and you can scale. When you’re first starting out, it’s really all about quality.
George: I love your response to this. That you started with blogs and then all of a sudden in this deeper dive question we got into you started creating these larger guides. I think you call them skyscrapers. In my circle, we call them pillar pages. When you think about blogs and these longer pieces of content, talk me through what marketers should be thinking about, or not thinking about, pertaining to pillar pages, content clusters, and SEO. How does that all fit in this content for quality traffic conversation that we’re having?
Brian: The thing to keep in mind when you’re creating skyscraper content, pillar content, like you said, there’s a million names for it but it’s all more or less the same thing, which is creating a piece of cornerstone content on your site that is by far above and beyond the best out there. The reason that has a special name is because it’s kind of impossible to do that for everything that you publish. You sort of want to pick your battles with these.
Usually, when you’re just starting out or you don’t have a lot of traction with SEO yet, I would recommend picking lower competition keywords, a low competition topic that is maybe newer, a little bit trendy, that hasn’t been saturated yet, and creating the best-in-class on that. Maybe it doesn’t have a million people searching for it per month, but it can get you going. If it’s really that much better than everything else out there, then it does have a good chance to rank in Google eventually.
The key with the skyscraper content or pillar pages is really to look at the current landscape of what people have already written on that topic. It could also be a podcast to record, a video on YouTube or whatever, but it’s mostly related to blog content. Getting a feel for the landscape of what’s already ranking, what’s already done well, and how you can create something that is significantly better than what’s out there.
There’s a couple of ways to do it. You can create more up to date content. Say you look at the landscape of content and it’s all out of date, you’re looking at how to do something and all of the content is from 2018. You can go back and create something that is similar but more up to date. Up to date screenshots, up to date steps. Maybe it refers to a tool that no longer exists, you can create something there.
You can create something that is visually better. Content isn’t just written, even in a blog post. It can have graphics, info graphics, charts, visuals, just to spice it up a little bit and to make the content easier to digest for someone that is reading it.
It can be written by an expert. You’d be surprised how much content on the web is written by people that don’t have firsthand experience with that topic. You can go and create something that is written by an expert. Maybe you’re the expert, you can hire an expert, maybe you work with an expert or know an expert that can be the person that writes this content, or at least contributes to the content in a way that adds that level of expertise that’s not out there.
And there are a million other things. You could look at something and say this content is good, but it could use this, and that’s where the skyscraper comes in and that’s where you can add what is missing.
George: Marketing Smarts listener, I hope you realize we just hit the rewind point. That section right there was dense with information. I suggest you hit the rewind, get that pen and pad, iPad, chalk and wall, whatever you need. If you start to list down some of those main points that Brian was saying, it might even show you a little vision into a roadmap or a matrix that you might be able to use as you move forward.
Brian, one of the things I like to do for the listeners is give them some actionable tips that they can take away and either implement themselves or get team members to implement for them. This next question is to try to enable that. What are a couple of SEO or quality traffic tips that you would want to share with the Marketing Smarts listeners that are like you have to do this?
Brian: I’ll tell you a couple of things that are working really well for me right now. The first is looking for topic and keyword ideas in the ‘people also asked’ section of Google. If you Google something, pretty much every first page has this thing called ‘people also asked,’ and underneath are basically questions that people are asking around a topic. What I’ve noticed about these is that Google looks at searches that people are conducting online, I think they also look at online communities, they haven’t really been public about how they get these questions, but the point is that they tend to really have a finger on the pulse of what people are asking around your topic.
A lot of times, those topics are completely untapped. Or say you cover a topic, that could be a question that people still have about it and the content out there just isn’t answering that question and people are still asking. They’re searching, they’re Googling, they still don’t understand this one thing, so they’re Googling it, they’re asking on Reddit, they’re asking on LinkedIn. You can answer that question with a specific piece of content and that’s a low competition keyword, and people it’s in the ‘people also asked’ box, you know that it’s coming from some Google data that they’re finding people are asking this question.
The real pro tip is if you’re in a total brainstorming phase and don’t know what to write about, you can just Google different keywords in your niche and they’re going to show you the ‘people also asked’ box, but then open some of them to reveal the answers that Google has, and that will autogenerate more questions underneath. You can do that until infinity. By then, you should have plenty of questions that you can use as either a blog post or just as a basis of a piece of content or a section to add to your existing content. It’s sort of a keyword and topic goldmine that I don’t see a lot of people talking about. That’s one that comes to mind right away.
George: On the flip side of action items, one of the things that we love to do is diagnose those potholes or those hurdles, or for some people it’s like that snake pit that they fall into and can just never get out of. What are some SEO or traffic gotchas or hurdles that Marketing Smarts listeners should be watching out for as they go down this content creation journey?
Brian: The number one would be focusing a lot on search volume when picking keywords. If you use any keyword research tool, whether it’s Semrush or something else, what a lot of people do – and I know this because I used to do this all the time – is you type a keyword into the tool, it generates a bunch of ideas around that, and then you look at the keywords with the most search volume. There’s a couple of issues with that approach. The first is that those search volumes are estimates. They’re relatively accurate, but they can be way off in some cases, especially newer keywords. It can be a mistake to just focus on higher volume keywords, because some of those lower volume keywords actually get a decent number of searches.
The other problem is, like the topic of this podcast, we’re interested in quality traffic. If you just want a quantity of traffic, then those keywords might be a good fit. If you want leads and sales from the traffic, then a lot of times you have to scroll way down to the bottom because as you get to these lower volume keywords, a lot of times that’s where the real action is because those are people that are searching for specific things.
For example, let’s say you sell CRM software. The keyword ‘CRM software’ on that topic is going to get the most searches of anything because people just type that into Google. But ‘CRM software for a SaaS startup’ is a lot more specific, it’s going to get literally 100 times fewer searches, but it’s going to convert much better, especially if you have a nice landing page about how you’re the perfect CRM for SaaS companies.
So, the number one pitfall I see is people focusing way too much on search volume and not enough on these lower competition keywords that are easier to rank for. Plus, as a bonus, when you do rank for them, the traffic is going to convert a lot better.
George: I think we’re brothers from another mother, to be honest with you. There have been so many times I’ve had the conversation of I know it says 15, but if all 15 of those actually bought your product for $50,000, would it be a good day, and they’re like yes. Then write the piece of content.
Along the way, you’ve mentioned a couple of tools here and there. Is there a tool belt, a Batman kit if you will, two or three, maybe more, when you think if I’m going to go to work for quality traffic, these are some of the SEO tools that I need to have, and therefore that the Marketing Smarts listeners should have?
Brian: A couple for coming up with content ideas and topic ideas that people are interested in that would actually convert. I would say the number one is a big SEO software suite. I prefer Semrush. There’s also Ahrefs or Moz. The point of having that is because those are the big three, so to speak, that have the data that you’ll need to make these sorts of decisions, or that will help you make some of those decisions.
For example, like you said, if it has 15 searches a month, you at least need to know that you can kind of hang your hat on that to know that it’s around 15. If you go with another tool, I’ve seen some overestimate search volume, and you’re going to maybe go with a keyword that doesn't make sense because you think it’s going to get 10 or 20 times more traffic than it actually does. Also, it gives you data on cost per click, which is another proxy indicator for how valuable that traffic is.
That keyword that has 15 searches a month, if advertisers have caught onto that, they’re going to be bidding on it and it’s going to have a cost per click. It can make sense for you to want to rank for that organically because you’re seeing this keyword is getting a $10 cost per click, you can get that traffic for free by ranking for it in Google. That’s another reason that these bigger tools are generally best, because they give you a lot of data around the keywords.
It’s easy to get analysis paralysis. Like you mentioned, at the end of the day, it’s really about keywords that your customers search for. But it is helpful to have the accurate data that you can hang your hat on, because you can only create so many pieces of content and you want to make sure that your bullets count. You don’t want to necessarily go into the details of this has this much search volume versus this much competition versus this cost per click, but you can look at the landscape and say this keyword makes sense for me and be confident that the data is accurate.
Another tool that I like is called Answer the Public. It’s sort of like that ‘people also asked’ tip that I mentioned earlier, but I think they get their data from a different place, I think they scrape different places. It’s just a different source of questions that people ask, and it’s a little bit more user-friendly because you can just put in a topic, like CRM software, and it will show you all of the questions that people have around CRM software, how much is it, Salesforce versus Pipedrive, whatever. It will basically give you everything that you need.
The reason that I like that tool is because it doesn’t just give questions, it also gives versus terms. Versus terms are just like they sound, Salesforce versus Pipedrive, MailChimp versus ConvertKit. All these versus terms of your competitors are great keywords to target. They tend to be low competition and they will convert relatively high because that person is in this buying stage, they’re debating between two different products, and then you have a chance to present yours as a third option that might be a good fit for them. The reason I like Answer the Public is because it has a dedicated section just for versus keywords when you type in a topic.
George: I absolutely love the tool. Yes to everything that Brian just said. My favorite part of that tool is scrolling all the way down to the bottom and having an alphabetized list of potential keyword topics that you might want to write about. There’s so much good about that.
We’ve talked about a lot. We’ve talked about keeping sales in the back of your mind, understanding as a marketer what a quality lead is, and then really the majority of our conversation has been you have to get the quality traffic and here are some things to think about along the way.
If you had to boil it down, you’re in an elevator, maybe first floor to twelfth floor, and you have the opportunity to give the listeners some wisdom, what are some final words of wisdom that you would give them around this topic today?
Brian: The number one thing, I would say the most important thing, is to understand what your customers are looking for online when they’re not looking for what you sell. In your space, you’re going to know all of the ways that people search for your product or service. It’s usually pretty straightforward. If you sell business coaching, people are searching for business coaching and variations around that. Using some of the tools and tactics that I went over on this podcast, you can find some hidden gems in there, but for the most part they’re going to be saturated.
The real gold when it comes to creating content that drives quality traffic is figuring out terms that people search for when they’re not searching for what you sell. It’s your perfect customer in every way. Usually, in the course of their life, they’re going to search for millions and millions of things, they’re going to search for your product one or two times. It’s kind of high pressure to be able to think that you have to be in front of them those one or two times to have a chance to convert, versus all those other times that you have a chance to get in front of them. They can sign up for your newsletter, maybe they can become a lead. The key is understanding it.
To give you a real life example from my startup Exploding Topics, people are searching for trend software and trend analysis. Those are the straightforward. What’s not so straightforward is that because our target customers are VCs, they’re also searching for startups, electric vehicle startups, SaaS startups, B-to-B startups. So, we created all these lists of startups to get in front of them.
Even though at that time they’re not searching for trends whatsoever, we’re still getting in front of the right type of person, getting them on the email list, and then down the road because we’re sending them valuable content via email, they’re likely to covert. We get 100 times more leads and traffic from those than we do from the content that is specifically targeting those keywords where people are searching for exactly what we do.
George: Golden words of wisdom. Brian, this has been absolutely amazing, tons of value for the listeners. If people have questions, if they want to reach out, if they want to buy you a steak dinner because now all of a sudden they’re getting the most amazing traffic ever, where do you want to send them?
Brian: The best place is probably Twitter, @BrianEDean.
George: Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast? Make sure you reach out and let us know either in my inbox or on Twitter using the hashtag #MPB2B.
I know for me one of the most mind-blowing sections of this episode was know what your customers are looking for online before they need to buy from you. Being there 5, 10, 32 times, and then them finally needing to purchase is a way different relationship and a way different conversation at the time of sale.
We’d like it if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we’d love it if you would share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet in the next episode where we talk with Sally Hogshead, I hope you do just a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversations you’d like to listen in to next. Two, focus on getting 1% better at your craft each and every day. Finally, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble human. We’ll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.
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Published on June 16, 2022
Brian Dean, founder of Backlinko (acquired by Semrush) and a co-founder of Exploding Topics. Brian's work has been featured in Inc., Fast Company, Entrepreneur, U.S. News & World Report, Success Magazine, Vox, Forbes, Fox News, The Next Web, HuffPost, TechCrunch, and dozens more major media outlets.
LinkedIn: Brian Dean
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