It has finally happened.
After months (or years) of publishing your blog and working your content marketing magic, you finally have a smash hit. A post takes off, and the page views, social shares and comments start racking up. All of a sudden, that one post has twice as many page views as your previous No. 1, seemingly everyone who reads the post is liking, sharing and retweeting, and there’s a spirited, good-natured debate happening in the comments section.
Congratulations, you have captured content lightning in a bottle. Now, the temptation comes: That quiet voice inside your head (or the gleeful voice of your boss), immediately insisting, “We’ve done it once; we can do it again! Let’s find out what caused that spike and make it happen again! And again! Bigger! Better! More!”
It’s alluring. There is pressure, from yourself or from your bosses or their bosses, to scramble to make that lightning strike twice, to turn that Washington Monument-like spike on your metrics graph into a range of highs to rival the Rocky Mountains. To abandon your previous roadmap and set out on a misguided quest for the next “viral” hit.
From experience, I know that fruitless viral voyage well. Chasing that next high page view mark, trying unsuccessfully to replicate a metrics-busting fluke, can become a time-sucking, relentlessly discouraging slog. This mission can become so all-encompassing, in fact, that it may even seem like it’s a strategy.
But, beware: It’s not. At the risk of sounding like Admiral Ackbar in “Return of the Jedi,” It’s a trap!
In my work as the manager of the Digital Content Team at Allstate, I, too, have fallen into this trap — what I like to call “unicorn hunting.” I define a “unicorn” as that elusive, nearly mythical, piece of content that breaks through the din of all the countless, attention-clamoring posts shouting for attention – and enjoys a shining, if fleeting, moment in the sun.
But, the problem with a “unicorn” is its sheer unpredictability – and therein lies the problem in shaping a content strategy around the hunt. To understand why, you first have to understand the fundamentals of content strategy.
What makes a good Content Strategy?
According to Usability.gov, content strategy is “the planning, creation, delivery and governance of content,” including text, images and multimedia. From my perspective, it’s the true north that guides everything a content team does. It is the soul of your content. The two main things you need for a content strategy are the answers to the questions “Why?” and “How?”
The first question, “Why?” is vital to being able to answer the “How?” You must ask yourself, what is your objective? What are you trying to achieve through content? (Hint: There are wrong answers to this question. More on that in a second.)
You absolutely should not start (or move further) down this crazy path we call content marketing without knowing what your “why” is. Try thinking through the below without knowing the answer to, “Why are we doing this?”
- Should we create an on-platform blog or a YouTube channel, or post everything on Snapchat?
- Should we create a variety of content types, or focus only on videos?
- Who’s our audience?
- How do we get the right people to look at our content?
- What about measurement? How will we know if we’re successful?
Not so easy, is it? If you can’t answer the question, “Why?” there’s no point in proceeding with any planning – no jumping to the fun brainstorms or the social media plans or the video outlines — until you figure it out.
Good answers to the question, “Why?” are things that you hope to achieve through content. Some examples include (but are not limited to):
- More traffic to your website
- Positive brand sentiment
- Increased domain authority
- Connecting with a new audience
Not-so-great answers to this question, however, are things like:
- “Everyone else has a blog, so we feel like we need to, as well.”
- “We’ve always done it.”
- “[Burgeoning social platform] is the new, cool thing, so our brand has to be there!”
- “[Competitor] went viral last month by doing X, so we need to do it too!”
Why are these answers not so great? Because they don’t give a soul to your content marketing program. They are reactionary or tactical, rather than strategic.
Once you know the “why,” then you can focus on the “how” – the planning, creation, delivery and governance part of the equation. In this phase, you need to think of things like:
- Who is the audience/target market?
- What are we planning to create?
- Where will the content live?
- How often/when will the content go live?
- How will people find the content?
- What action do we want the user to take after consuming the content?
- Who’s going to create the content, and how?
- What approval processes need to be implemented?
- How are we going to measure the success of the content (tie it back to the “Why?”)?
Wrap the answers to “Why?” and “How?” together, and you’ve got yourself a content strategy. Now, it’s time to implement it, see how it does. And remember, this strategy is a living thing: You can’t just set it and forget it. Keep an eye on those metrics, and let your successes and failures guide the evolution of your strategy as you keep your eye on the “why.”
The unpredictability of unicorn hunting
That brings me back to the unicorn-hunting trap. You might be thinking, “You just said, watch the metrics and let your successes guide your strategy. So, why is ‘unicorn hunting’ bad? Am I not supposed to let big successes – unicorns – affect my strategy?”
The answer is, there’s nothing wrong with taking learnings from content “unicorns.” On the contrary, I firmly believe that you should always take a look at your most – and least – successful content in an attempt to understand your audience and use those learnings to your advantage, within your strategy. In that sense, unicorn hunting is legitimate.
However, unicorn hunting becomes a trap when you let it replace your guiding principle — your “why.” The reason? Some things about the Internet and content performance are relatively predictable, but a unicorn isn’t one of them.
I always say that if anyone on this planet could predict with a degree of certainty what combination of attributes would cause a piece of content to break out of the pack and enjoy Internet virality – not just decent performance, but true out-of-the-ballpark “Oreo Moment” level notoriety — that person would be rich.
But, we can’t. The truth is that, as content creators, we can (using our strategy as a guide!) use a combination of best practices and insights to guide our efforts, and we can succeed. We can create a cycle of implementation, measurement and learning that will serve us well.
But even if we’re lucky enough for our content to become a “unicorn,” it’s extremely difficult to create a formula that will consistently result in similar spikes.
Why? Internet content demand is an ever-changing landscape, and a multitude of factors can contribute to runaway success: Search rankings, trending topics, the news of the day, the season, the headline, the media type, the public sentiment or mood of the times, what some celebrity recently said about something or other — all of these factors and more can contribute to the perfect storm of the “viral” Internet sensation. And, there are only so many of these factors that a content creator can control.
Even if you create a formula based on that successful hit – you repeat the headline style, the topic area, the media type, the promotion plan, the hour of the day and the day of the week – it’s darn near impossible to truly replicate that perfect storm.
The tale of the backyard chickens
I know this, because it’s happened to me. A few years ago, our team posted this story about what it takes to raise chickens in a suburban backyard. We thought it would be an interesting little piece tying into the burgeoning popular interest in “urban homesteading,” but we didn’t have great expectations.
To our surprised delight, the story had unprecedented success for us: It scored more than 50 times the number of visits an average Allstate Blog post got at the time, in addition to reaping thousands of Facebook likes and hundreds of comments. It was a unicorn, and we wanted more.
Though we did have a documented strategy at the time, which focused on providing content on a wide variety of topics in order to reach a wide audience, efforts to replicate spikes like this tended to take us on detours – away from the “true north” of our content strategy.
In the instance of the backyard chickens, we subsequently spent a lot of effort to try to replicate the success. We created a formula:
Animal-related urban homesteading topic + article format + Allstate Blog + similar promotion plan = unicorn
And we implemented it. We did a post on keeping goats in your backyard, and bees. We also did a story on what the homeowners insurance implications might be if you keep goats or chickens in your backyard.
Since I’m writing an article on why this approach isn’t necessarily the best strategy, you can probably guess: These three new stories were not unicorns. Their performance was respectably average in terms of our traffic and engagement measurables, but they did not contribute to the growth of a new mountain range on the line graph charting our page views.
Why? Although we had done what we could to replicate the original “unicorn,” try as we might, we could not replicate the perfect storm. And, if the purpose of my content team’s efforts suddenly becomes “to create something that goes viral,” I have lost sight of my true north, the soul of my content. Had we spent our time instead in following our strategy, we would have had an equal (or possibly better) chance of finding the next unicorn – rather than trying to return to a point in time that had gone with the wind.
The moral of the story? Find your “why,” create a plan for the “how” and stick to it. You can adjust your “how” based on your learnings from unicorns and failures – and even your “why,” if your business needs demand it – but stay the course. The “why” is the cornerstone of your content strategy, and if you keep your eye on it, it can keep you on a course for success.