This transcript has been edited for length. To get the full measure, listen to the podcast.
Michelle Huff: Andy, can you tell us more about yourself and Orbit Media Studios?
Andy Crestodina: I’m the cofounder of Orbit. We’re here in Chicago. And Orbit is a web design company. We do just one thing: web design and web development. But a few weeks ago was my 10th anniversary as a content marketer. I’ve done lots and lots of writing, and publishing, and teaching, and speaking, and making videos. And if anyone here has heard of me, it would be because I do a lot on the topics of Google Analytics and search engine optimization. I make my rounds at a lot of the conferences. I’m one of the many out there who just teaches everything I can about content marketing.
Role of Content Marketing for B2B businesses
Michelle: How did content marketing become such a big part of your role today?
Andy: Well, this is probably relevant to a lot of listeners because web design is something you don’t need that often. It’s a classic B2B service. It has multiple decision makers. It’s a complicated decision. It takes you sometimes months to decide who to hire for your website. And you only need it, like, every three or four or five years. So how can I possibly keep in touch with a large enough audience to stay relevant with them in that long sales cycle and long buying interval? The answer is content.
I realized early on, I need to have some way to try to put all this content on autopilot, in a way. I need to have a newsletter, and I need to have a blog. And the newsletter just invited people to read the blog. So that was 10 years ago. And it’s just a way to stay relevant and top of mind with people over long periods of time. Because, like a lot of B2B services, you just don’t need this stuff every day.
Blogging Trends and Best Practices
Michelle: What are some of the blogging trends you’re seeing about best practices today?
Andy: It’s changed a lot. I went back and looked at some of my old posts recently, like the first ones I wrote. Have you ever done this? I dare you. Go back and look at the first thing you ever wrote online. It hurts your eyes.
Comparing then to now, basically, there’s a lot more competition, and it’s a war for attention. To stand out in that, people do things that are both more concise and attention-grabbing ‒ and also deeper and taking kind of a thought-leadership position. When you combine that you get headlines that are very benefit-driven and indicate you’ll get value at a glance … like this: ‘16 things about marketing automation best practices.’
But then when you open the article and you get into it, it’s got multiple images, it’s formatted for scan readers, but it goes deep, deep into the topic. The classic blog post now is longer than before, includes more media than before, and multiple images, sometimes video, lots of formatting, lists, bullet points, sub-headers.
It’s become a more formal tactic and more serious endeavor for people who are going big and trying hard to both grab attention and then to keep attention by writing much longer, more in-depth detailed posts than we used to write 10 years ago.
Short or Long-Form Content?
Michelle: Is it because it’s working? Or do you think people are testing it out? You see contradictory statistics out there sometimes, where some they don’t have enough time and attention, and so they’re not going to read all the long-form content; you need to be quick, you need to be simple and scannable. Why do you think the trend towards more of the deeper, long-form content then?
Andy: It’s a good question. And it’s an apparent contradiction. But I don’t find any difficulty in balancing those things. Part of what you created is to get attention. And then part of what you created is to keep attention. To grab attention, we’re looking for benefit-driven headlines that suggest you’re going to get an answer to your question or a solution to your problem. Also, a number in a headline will indicate the content is going to be scannable or that it’s formatted to be easy to consume.
The headline’s goal is to just get you to click, whether it’s in the social stream or a busy inbox or in a search result. Now that we’re on the page, the top of the article, you could almost say the first paragraph’s job is to get people to read the second paragraph. And the second paragraph’s job is to get people to read the third paragraph. We are formatting for scanners. And that means short paragraphs, sub-headers, bullet lists, bolding, multiple images, internal links, and so forth. But there’s no reason to stop after 500 words. If the person is engaging with the content, they’ll continue to engage.
If you wrote something that’s good, even though it’s totally scannable, and they’re glancing and getting value, and it’s really good and detailed and in-depth, it might turn out to be … a lot of the things I write now are like 2,000-3,000 words. I use very short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. But I never try to write a short article. It has to be as long as it needs to be to cover the topic in depth from every possible angle. My content gets longer and more scannable every year that I blog.
Trends in Websites, and How Businesses Can Improve
Michelle: In some sense, it kind of reminds me of journalism. You write the catchy title, and then every beginning paragraph stands on its own, so you can stop and kind of get the news, and you just kind of keep reading more. It seems like we’re starting to follow some of those past best practices, as well.
What have you been seeing for a trend in websites? Where and how are businesses failing today with their websites?
Andy: There are different kinds of pages on websites. And each type of page is also becoming a bit more formulaic or codified in its approach. Blog content, and blog pages, and articles, and white papers, are becoming a little bit more like a medium. We’re seeing more often just simple formatting and less visual noise. And these are just long, easy-to-scan pages, kind of like medium.com. And those articles are designed even more specifically. The design of the blogs is even more specifically intending to get the person to follow, or share, or subscribe. We’re also seeing way more pop-ups than we used to. And they’re still working.
Sales pages are the other type of page. And it’s a totally different goal. There it’s become single-column layouts that have less visual noise at every scroll depth. The classic sales page on a website looks more like a landing page than it used to. It’s going to have one most visually prominent thing at every scroll depth, and it’s going to do a more deliberate job of guiding the eye through a series of messages that answer visitors’ tough questions and supply evidence to support those answers. There are more calls to action. Web design now is much more about telling a story or controlling the eye more deliberately. We started in 2001. Back in the day we used to have three-column layouts with a right-rail and left-side navigation. Now, things look a bit more like mobile first or like a tablet-type design, with much less visual noise, and more deliberate control of the visitor’s attention and messaging.
Improving Your Website & Content for Conversions
Michelle: How do I optimize my content and my website to improve conversion ‒ not just having it out there, but driving the next behavior.
Andy: Barry Feldman has a great quote that I always use. He says that if the website is a mousetrap, the content is the cheese. In a way, a great page is both the cheese and the mousetrap. So, it’s a search-optimized page to rank for the phrase and attract the visitor ‒ that’s cheese. And it’s a conversion optimized page to trigger action to get the visitor to convert and become a lead or subscribe ‒ and that’s the mousetrap. If the goal is conversion optimization, then the page has to align with the psychology of the visitor. If you think about why your visitor is on your page, they’re trying to solve a problem, or they have a question they’re trying to get answered.
Our first job is to understand what the audience has in terms of questions and to make sure we supply an answer to every question. It goes from questions to answer. Then we want to give them what they want. The next goal is to give them what we want them to have, which is evidence, and marketing, and support for those answers. A lot of websites, especially years ago, but still today, have lots of unsupported marketing claims. There’s no evidence. So, it’s a weakness on websites and it’s something people can easily fix just by adding testimonials. Add evidence to support all your marketing claims.
The final ingredient is a call to action. You go from question, to answer, to evidence, to action. That’s a content-based approach toward conversions. And a page without calls to action is weak. A page without evidence is unsatisfying. A page without answers, rather, would be unsatisfying.
It’s really just mixing all these ingredients together and making sure that page is answering their most important questions, supplying evidence to support our claims, and then giving clear, compelling calls to action. Sometimes it’s in several places on the page. So many websites miss just those few things. It’s very common.
Look at a lot of sales pages. They end with nothing. There’s a dead end at the bottom of the page. But they have five claims and they never supply any evidence. There are bad websites and poorly converting pages all over the Internet. And it’s not that hard to fix.
The Role of Marketing Automation with Content Marketing
Michelle: So much about what we talk about and what we’re trying to help marketers do is continuing that conversation. If you have longer sales cycles, you need to stay in touch, and people are kind of at different spots along that journey. What’s your take on marketing automation and how it fits into content marketing? Is it for everyone? How do you think about it?
Andy: There are lots of listeners and lots of companies and types of service that have very complex offerings with multiple decision makers. It’s something the buyer is not going to jump in with both feet immediately. There’s middle-of-funnel conversions that are very powerful. So, downloading something, or attending a webinar, or subscribing to the podcast, or even the emails, and subscribe to the newsletter. It’s kind of throwing the long bomb, if this were football, and if you’re expecting visitors to just become a lead on their visit. It’s just not that likely. There are too many offerings, and it’s too complex of a transaction.
The beauty and the power part of it – this is my take on it anyway, you guys have experts in-house – but the value of marketing automation is that you have a way to keep people in your information pipeline. You can keep in touch with people. You can give them micro conversions. You connect all the dots. So, you’re running an event, a webinar, and you’ve got a download, an email. All of those things now can keep that person sort of in your sphere of influence or begin to build thought leadership, awareness, demonstrate expertise. Because content marketing is really a contest to see who can be the most generous. They’re not going to become a lead immediately. You have to give away a lot of useful information until that person has enough trust to take action and get out their checkbook.
I love the power of marketing automation as a way to deliver middle-of-funnel content and keep and grow the audience in that undecided category until they’re ready. Because it’s just way too much to expect the first visitor to become a lead for any significant type of transaction.
Michelle: Exactly, right. And for middle of the funnel, you’re just wanting to nurture them along the way. Orbit recently completed its fourth annual survey of 1,000 bloggers. Any initial results you can share with listeners?
Orbit’s Annual Survey of 1,000 Bloggers
Andy: Yes, we have 12 questions every year. This is the fourth year. And the original goal was to find out how long it takes to write a blog post. And the first time we did it, it was like two hours and 15 minutes. Now it’s closer to three-and-a-half hours.
People are spending a lot more time on their content. The other results ‒ people are adding more imagery to their blog posts. Email and influencer marketing are both on the rise. A greater percentage of bloggers are using editors. A greater percentage of bloggers are checking their analytics more often.
These all suggest the industry has become a bit more formalized, a bit more professionalized. Blogging is less casual and ad hoc and a ‘whatever’ kind of thing. People are more serious about this, partly because of tools like Act-On.
We’re playing this game to win. We’re trying to help people as much as we can. I know from my data, I know from marketing automation, I know from my research, that not everything is performing equally well, and that over time people move toward getting more serious about their content. That’s the biggest finding, is just that all these things suggest that people are taking this much, much more seriously. It’s sort of a war for attention.
It has all kinds of interesting information about the trends in blogging now that we have four years of data. You can really see trends in promotion, and creation, and different tactics, and different media. And talking to you makes me think we should really be adding a question about marketing automation. Because that’s another key component for a lot of content marketers.
Michelle: Andy, I love this conversation; it was really insightful. How could people who are listening to this learn more about you and Orbit Media?
Andy: Well, orbitmedia.com/blog is where I write an article every two weeks. I wrote a book called Content Chemistry. You can find it on Amazon. It’s an illustrated guide to content marketing. LinkedIn is a good network to connect with me on. Connect with me anywhere and ask me anything. Anyone who’s listening is welcome to reach out to me on any topic, any time they like. I’ll personally respond as soon as I can.