Webinar: How to Win at Content Marketing

This joint webinar titled “How to Win at Content Marketing” features Rand Fishkin, cofounder & former CEO of Moz and cofounder & CEO of SparkToro, and Carlos Meza, CEO & President of Crowd Content.

Rand Fishkin’s presentation, “How to Win at Content Marketing: Powerful Tips for Content Creation, Distribution and Amplification to Help Boost Your Content’s ROI,” offers great advice for writing content that hooks readers and sharing content via distribution channels & influencers to amplify your brand. 

Carlos Meza’s presentation, “How to Win at Content Marketing: People-First Content and Modern SEO,” offers excellent tips & tricks for creating content that appeals to both search engines & people alike and optimizing your content strategy for organic traffic.

Below are the transcripts of both presentations.

How to Win at Content Marketing: Powerful Tips for Content Creation, Distribution and Amplification to Help Boost Your Content’s ROI

Today, we’re going to talk about how to win at content marketing. We’ll start with the design of content and then get into some of the production & distribution tactics you can use in your business.

How to Design Better-Performing Content

First, we’re going to look at how to design better-performing content—before you write, film or create anything.

1. Tie Your Content Goals to Your Business Goals

My first tip for designing better-performing content is to tie your content goals to your business goals.

For example, one of your business goals might be to increase the buyer conversion rate. The content team might look at this goal and decide to write pieces that bring lots of traffic to the blog. All of this traffic might have a small impact on conversion rates, but probably not.

This is frustrating for a content team. If you have executive buy-in for content production—whether you’re an in-house marketer, an agency, a consultant or a creator of any kind—it’s infuriating to be very successful at the thing you do but still not produce the kind of success that the business was actually looking for.

The key? Make sure that your business goals and content goals are tied together.

Let’s say you have the business goal to build brand awareness in your core audience. Would it help to have a content goal to get lots of social media views, likes and shares?

Maybe. You’re almost there.

A better option would be to say, “What we’re going to do is get high social engagement from people who match our ideal customer profiles because that will get the brand in front of the core audience.”

Now you have a match between business goals and content goals. There are always ways to align the two—just make sure you do it before you start producing content.

Image showing how to tie content goals to business goals

2. Target the Right Audience in the Right Places

In terms of designing content, I really like to use a model from behavioral psychology. It’s called an influence map, and it looks something like this:

Influence map

An influence map is a visual framework of how an audience interacts with the problem your business solves and the factors that influence their behavior.

For example, the National Park Service in the United States might want to figure out how to get people to stop behaviors that could cause wildfires—smoking, setting up campfires or setting off fireworks.

They might have behavioral psychologists map out:

  • Where does the problem originate?
  • How can we have an impact on all the people who might experience national parks?
  • What will actually influence their behavior?

As a marketer, this behavioral map may be familiar; it’s like the buyer journey. You discover that there’s a problem, then you figure out how to build awareness, educate and get solutions in front of customers. At each of these stages, you have a set of opportunities to impact behavior.

If you work for the National Park Service, you could have a media campaign; you’d try to get the news media to get a bunch of stories out. Or you could send visitors home with pamphlets so they can tell their friends and family about wildfire dangers.

In the end, the Park Service discovered that the most successful strategy was for the park ranger at the entrance booth to have a conversation with visitors. They’d say things like, “Hey, do you have anything flammable? Are you planning to set off any fireworks? Do you smoke? Are you planning to have a campfire today?”

The Park Service realized that a brief conversation with a ranger was where they could affect the most change—more so than signs or burn bans. It turns out that almost all national-park visitors want to do the right thing; they just need a reminder.

Targeting Customers With Your Content

It’s the same with your content. No matter what behavior you’re trying to influence—brand awareness, conversions or getting people to try a free tool or join a webinar—you want to target the right people in the right places.

This is fundamental marketing. Unfortunately, many companies fail to define it strategically or tactically before a content campaign, so they miss out on the idea of business goals versus content goals.

Target the right audience in the right places

If what you really need to succeed in the problem discovery phase are friends and family, news articles, emails and podcasts, don’t target your content to channels like Reddit and Discord. It’s a fundamental mismatch.

You’ve got to figure out where in the cycle you need to have influence—then, target your content there.

Influence-Map Example: Personal Finance

For example, I made a personal finance influence map:

Image showing personal finance influence map

In the problem-discovery phase, I might realize that I have a lot of money in my checking account. Then, I might wonder if I should learn about investing. Maybe I’ll ask friends and family, read some news articles or do some Google searching.

Or maybe I get an email from my bank that’s like, “Hello, friend, we see that you have money in your checking account and savings account. Would you like to open a retirement savings or an investment account?”

And then, brand awareness might kick in. I’m reading all these articles and watching videos, and they’re recommending different funds. Those sources of influence are fundamentally different than they are in the problem-discovery phase—I might run searches, start following some accounts on social media or read Fool.com, Bankrate and Forbes.

Now, I’d try to further my education; maybe I’d join a few Subreddits and subscribe to some folks on Twitter. Maybe I’d sign up for Nerdwallet’s email newsletter.

Then, when I’m solution-seeking, I would visit the websites of online investment firms to figure out which one I’m going to do.

So very different types of content targeted at different sources of influence to impact people at different steps along the journey.

Trying to get people to consider alternative forms of investing probably happens in the problem-discovery phase. Trying to sell them on your solution happens in the solution-seeking phase and has different sources of influence.

Influence-Map Example: Ad-Agency Selection

We can do this for B2B, too.

Ad agency selection influence map

Let’s say you’re trying to choose an ad agency to craft ads, place brand ad campaigns and run paid search. Where does that problem discovery come from? Usually, internally and from the top down, from C-level execs, a new director of a brand or an industry conference.

Then there’s brand awareness. You have some recommendations and you’re trying to put together an RFP. Maybe you use social media or maybe you’re looking for people who have won awards in the ad world. Maybe you’re doing some internet searching.

For further education, you’ve found some sources, such as Ad Age, Adweek, and the Digiday podcast. You follow some people on Twitter and you’re learning from them.

As you’re solution-seeking, you might turn to the in-person pitch, the webinar and the blog posts that have been put out by a specific agency. You might look at their portfolio and video reel.

Again, we have different content influencing different people at different stages of the buying process. If you align this with the content you’re creating, you’re going to be more effective.

It’s a very different approach to the usual: “Okay, I need to write a blog post targeting these keywords and I’m going to push that out there.” That kind of content marketing doesn’t really work any more.

Start with the strategy. These questions are quick and easy to answer. You could just write them down in an email. Even without any input, it would be better than starting from nothing.

3. Position for the Kind of Amplification You Need

So you’ve got your business goals, and you’ve got the audience you want to reach. Now, for nearly every type of content, you will need to amplify it to reach an audience.

What people do you need to amplify your content?

Is it Instagram influencers? Is it a conference organizer? Is it bloggers who write about the topic or industry news publications with email newsletters? Maybe it’s YouTubers, or maybe it’s a mainstream media outlet.

It’s important to know who you need. That way, you don’t end up creating for mainstream media when you really need YouTube folks to help you succeed. Again, that would be a fundamental mismatch.

You need to create for the amplification audience you want to reach.

4. Write a Killer Headline

Write a headline that matches:

  • Your content and business goals
  • The area of the influence map you’re trying to reach (the phase of the buyer journey)
  • The people you need to amplify the content

Why write the headline first? When you do, it’s easier to figure out whether the content will accomplish your goals.

For example, you might have two key goals:

  • Goal A: Earn high social engagement from folks who are researching how to invest money.
  • Goal B: Earn links from sources of influence in the financial world that can help you get more brand attention and awareness. Those links would also be nice for Google rankings and SEO.

You might use a headline like:

“We analyzed returns of the largest crypto-stock index and real-estate investment trust funds over the last decade.”

That headline is pretty likely to accomplish those two goals. It’s a good starting point to plan the content itself.

You could make it even better with some data. Maybe you could think about whether it provokes an emotional reaction; maybe putting some of the data in the headline would accomplish that.

Then ask yourself if there’s anything else that should be included. Who predicted this? Could we reach out to them and get their input? Is the conclusion going to be exciting?

Writing the headline first allows you to ask all these questions before you start to build content.

NPR has a really good checklist for headline writing. Headlines should be specific, easy to understand, inspire a reaction, capture the spirit of the story and should not be overly clever.

If you nail these, you have a relatively solid headline. Then you just have to make sure it matches up to your goals.

How To Create Better-Performing Content

Let’s talk about the creation of content.

1. Answer the Question: Who Will Amplify This and Why?

My top tip for creating content is to ask the question as you are creating: who will help amplify this content and why will they do it? What is it that this content contains that’s going to make people want to amplify it to their audiences?

You might hope that people will amplify your content on Twitter and LinkedIn or a specific Subreddit is going to upvote it. Or maybe your goal is to get a YouTuber to invite you on to talk about it or to get a specific podcast host to ask you to be a guest..

Why? Why are they going to do that? If you have a great answer, it’s easier to be successful.

I recommend starting with the “why”—it will lead you to the “who.”

So maybe your answer is, “Our work is extremely novel. We’ve done research no one’s ever done before.” Or it could be, “This is research that has been done lots of times but it reinforces a belief. It proves something that a lot of people feel.” Or it could be surprising: “I’m shocked it doesn’t reinforce a belief. It opens up a whole new area or plays to someone’s ego.”

Maybe you have existing relationships with a bunch of these people so you can predict who’s going to amplify it. Maybe your content addresses or creates fear, controversy, reciprocation or reward.

All of these work—the key here is not to assume. A trigger that works in one sector or one type of audience, especially an amplifier audience, isn’t necessarily going to work with another.

For example, Photography Instagram and Economics Twitter do not have the same motivations around what they share.

You have to know your audience when you’re asking this question.

There are bad answers, too. “Some of my marketing friends will help me,” or, “Folks with a specific job title, people who like XYZ or my social media followers will help.” These answers are not good enough.

A good answer is more specific. Build a list of people and write down the reasons they’re likely to amplify your content.

2. Outline the Hook, Line, and Sinker

When creating content, I really like the model of hook, line and sinker.

  • Hook: The hook is the headline or the title of the piece, and maybe the first sentence. The job of the hook is to grab attention and make a promise of the content to come. It entices the visitor to engage further.
  • Line: This is the first meaningful part of the content: the first paragraph, the first couple sentences or the first visual. It could be the first five–ten seconds of a video or podcast. This piece is supposed to deliver on the content’s earlier promise and earn some kind of emotional reaction. You’re trying to maintain engagement with the visitor.
  • Sinker: This is what makes the content stay with the reader after they leave. It’s designed to inspire sharing, comments, engagement and memory. It builds the association between the content and the brand and the problem it’s solving.

News articles do this all the time. For example:

News articles example

A few months ago, my wife, Geraldine, wrote a blog post that was incredibly successful. It got millions of visitors and almost crashed her website.

The title was, “Bros., Lecce: We Eat at the Worst Michelin-Starred Restaurant, Ever.”

It grabs attention and makes a promise of content to come. You automatically think, “Oh, how bad could it really be?” It entices the visitor to further engage. Then it’s followed by a picture of me and two of our friends, and we have expressions that say there’s something weird going on at this restaurant.

Right below that is the line that delivers on the earlier promise and earns the emotional reaction:

I’ve tried to come up with hypotheses for what happened. Maybe the staff just ran out of food that night. Maybe they confused our table with that of their ex-lover’s. Maybe they were drunk. But we got twelve kinds of foam, something that I can only describe as “an oyster loaf that tasted like Newark airport,” and a teaspoon of savory ice cream that was olive-flavored.

You know after sentence one and sentence two of the piece exactly what kind of content you’re going to get and it creates an emotion, probably empathy, like, “Oh, I have also been to an expensive restaurant and had a terrible time.”

Then, we have the sinker, which really resonated with people and made them share it:

Another course—a citrus foam—was served in a plaster cast of the chef’s mouth. Absent utensils, we were told to lick it out of the chef’s mouth in a scene that I’m pretty sure was stolen from an eastern European horror film.

That inspires shares, comments and engagement. The content stays with the reader, forever.

This type of hook-line-sinker model is useful in many different places. You can even apply it to dry B2B segments. Here’s a promoted post from Monster that did really well on LinkedIn:

Promoted post example
  • Hook: It grabs the attention of hiring managers who are thinking about D&I; this is the content that is interesting to them. It’s useful and it’s solving their problem.
  • Line: Here’s why it’s good for business. The text cites research reports that hiring managers can pull data from if they need to make a business case to someone in their organization. There’s McKinsey, Forester and World Economic Forum, sources that corporate types trust.
  • Sinker: Here are a bunch of actionable things you can do, one of which is to work with Monster’s team.

It’s nothing magical, but it did the job. It aligned with the business goals, reached the right audience and earned some amplification. Despite being a paid and promoted post, it got shares, comments and likes on LinkedIn. In the end, it got lots of people to download the report, which then drove business.

This is content marketing doing its job and it uses the same structure as a hilarious blog post about a ridiculous dining experience.

Brainstorming Technique

When I’m trying to brainstorm what works in a particular field, I like to go to Google News and look at different subsections. You can dig into topics like technology, health, fitness and travel. Then you can see the top headlines.

If you click the “View Full Coverage” link on any single topic, it will show you the stories that get the most engagement. Google News shows the ones that essentially got the most clicks and long clicks (meaning people didn’t bounce back).

What’s great about that? You can learn from the headlines that worked. You can see the hook, line and sinker that worked on people and take inspiration back to your project.

3. Involve People Who’ll Help You Achieve Your Goal(s)

When you’re producing content, don’t be afraid to involve the people who are most likely to help you achieve a goal.

For example, if I want Ad Age to write about SparkToro, I’d want to get prepublication input from people who influence my readers, people who are followed by and engaged with the people I want to reach. If I can get pre-publication help and post-publication amplification from them, it will help me accomplish my goal.

That’s not the only option. When I worked with the LinkedIn team, we looked at NTT, a global organization based in Japan. Their most successful amplifiers come from a group of employees with big LinkedIn followings. They’re influential people inside their organization and they’re already reaching customers. It’s almost like a cheat code.

4. Make the Content Deliver on Your Killer Headline

You have a headline that matches your business goals and the audience you want to reach. Now your job is to build content that delivers on the headline’s promise. In that content-crafting process, I urge you to think like a consumer.

Here’s a recent headline from SparkToro:

“SparkToro & Followerwonk Joint Twitter Analysis: 19.42% of Active Accounts Are Fake or Spam.”

We published this a few days after Elon Musk tweeted about how his deal to acquire Twitter was in jeopardy because he didn’t believe Twitter’s spam numbers.

When I was thinking about delivering on the promise of the headline, I realized that the article needed to prove the methodology. Plus, if it’s going to have a chance of going viral, it would need a visual. Any time a number is presented like this, you need a chart or a graph—readers expect it.

We also needed clear definitions for all terms. What do you mean by active? What do you mean by fake? What do you mean by spam? I tried to build all of those things into the content.

I took the headline and imagined all of the possible criticism and questions. Then I figured out what people would expect the article to deliver based on the headline.

We didn’t do a perfect job but it was enough to start a very big conversation. Elon Musk and Parag Agrawal, the CEO of Twitter, had a big conversation around fake accounts and even referenced our study.

That was cool, but the article also did quite well on Twitter and shockingly well on LinkedIn. This is one of my top five all-time LinkedIn posts—and it’s a link, which is very unusual. Typically, posts with links aren’t shown to as many people; you need to have something very interesting for a post to do that well.

How To Distribute Better-Performing Content

So, we’ve talked about designing and building and creating the content. Now let’s talk about distributing content.

1. Plan the Distribution Channels

When you’re planning a piece of content, you should have distribution channels in mind. When you’ve done your research and you’re ready to publish, how are you going to get it to reach people?

2. Plan the Distribution Tactics

Once you have the channels in mind, you need to plan the tactics for each one.

Let’s say we have an article titled, “We analyzed returns of the 50 largest crypto, stock index and REIT funds over the last decade.”

We might want to reach Reddit. But how? We might identify a few communities that might care and figure out what to do on each one: r/crypto, r/investing, r/IAMA and r/stockmarket. On r/crypto, we might discuss the methods and results, but we wouldn’t promote ourselves with a link unless someone asks.

On r/investing, we’d do a post with author credentials, photo and a little cardboard sign that says, “Hi, I’m one of the researchers who worked on this project. Ask me anything.” Then we’d be sure to mention violent threats from “crypto bros” because the IAMA community loves that stuff.

3. Make a Promo Schedule

When you have the channels and tactics, make a promo schedule. Put it on your calendar—that way, you’ll be more likely to do it instead of just tweeting it out and hoping it gets picked up. (I’ve been guilty of this.)

If you’re promoting content that is viral-unlikely (a link to your blog, a report on D&I hiring), you can use viral–likely formats to promote it.

Here’s a brilliant example from Amanda Natividad, our VP of Marketing here at SparkToro:

Viral likely formats

This is pretty savvy—she’s tweeting in a viral-likely format. Twitter threads tend to do really well on Marketing Twitter. This is the stuff marketers love: case studies, comparisons of channels, etc.

Then, a few minutes later, after she finishes the thread, she says “Whoa. We now have 1,146 signups,” and gives the total count for Twitter and LinkedIn. And then, she posts the link.

This is so much better than saying, “Our upcoming webinar is on December 9th. Join us!” Amanda is thinking about how to distribute through viral-likely formats, even with viral-unlikely content.

5. Leverage Other People’s Publications

Go find sources of influence that your audience pays attention to and then work with them to amplify it.

For example, here’s the “Fear and Greed” index tool for crypto investments:

Leverage other people's publications

They went to a bunch of publications worldwide and basically pitched them on covering this content piece that they’d created. They knew which publications were going to be popular with their audience and it got picked up all over. Genius.

6. Listen, Watch, and Set Up Alerts for Promotional Opportunities

You should set up some alerts to watch for things related to the content that you will produce, are planning to produce and have produced. Set up those alerts so that you get notified. That way, when people are talking about the topic, you could potentially be part of the conversation. Or you could cite it in your work or use it later.

BuzzSumo is the alert system that I like best.

I have an alert for “audience research.” When people talk about audience research in news publications, I get an email digest. I go through it and look for interesting ones. Sometimes it will spark an idea for content creation or a conversation. Sometimes it inspires me to reach out to someone on LinkedIn or Twitter.

How to Win at Content Marketing: People-First Content and Modern SEO

Let’s stay with the theme of how to win at content marketing but look at it from the perspective of people-first content and modern SEO techniques.

There are different content formats, including visual and audio, but today we’re going to focus on written content. Within written content, there are many different types; these principles and techniques apply to all of them.

I’m going to cover three topics:

  • Algorithm updates around content
  • People-first content
  • The present and future of written content

Algorithm Changes Over the Years

We know that search engines keep improving over time, creating a better experience for the user. Many years ago, it was all about the keywords. Now, it’s all about the context—the meaning and the intent of the content.

“Intent” is a word you’ve probably been hearing a lot lately. The same goes for NLP, semantic search and semantic SEO. This is all related to how search engines have evolved to make a better user experience. It’s not about the search engines; it’s about the user.

Empathetic, People-First Content

Don’t write for search engines. What does that mean? Who are we supposed to write for?

You should write for humans now that search engines have evolved to understand how humans talk and communicate.

This is not just a feel-good statement about being empathetic; it’s something that can help elevate your content and improve the odds of it achieving the results you’re looking for. Rand talked about aligning the goals of the organization with your content strategy. With empathetic, people-first content, you’re going to achieve that.

Search Intent

Intent is the most important thing to keep in mind when writing for SEO. Search intent, or user intent, is the “why” behind the search query. There are four types:

  • Informational: This is when you’re trying to gain some knowledge about certain topics. How-to guides and blogs fall into this category.
  • Navigational: This happens when you know where you’re going but you don’t want to type the URL. Instead, you can type “YouTube” into the Google Search box.
  • Transactional: This is when somebody wants to make a purchase and they’re just looking for the right place to do it. For example, if I want to buy some Nike Jordans for myself, I’m going to type that into the search box and it will take me to a place where I can buy some shoes. Or if I want to subscribe to HubSpot, I’d type in “HubSpot subscription” and it’s going to take me exactly where I want to go.
  • Commercial: This is when the searcher is looking to make a purchase but hasn’t quite decided where to buy or exactly what to buy. For example, I can search for, “What is the best barbecue restaurant in Dallas?” or “What is the best social engagement tool?” The SERP is going to take me to content with some comparisons.

Focus on the “Who” and “Why”

When you’re writing, don’t focus on the “what”—that’s an old technique of writing for keywords. Instead, you need to start with the “who.” Who is my audience? This could be persona-based or you could use an ideal-client profile. If you can get as specific as possible, it’s going to be better for your content.

For example, your audience could be SEO strategists or content marketers. You can go even further down; within content marketers there are many different types, including ecommerce content marketers, agency content marketers and brand content marketers.

Then we have the “why.” Why should they care about what you have to say? Why should they keep reading your content? What’s in it for them?

Think about those two things before starting your content.

Content Needs To Speak to Emotions

It’s very important to connect with your readers at an emotional level. You’re trying to help them solve a problem instead of show and tell.

For example, a writing service wouldn’t say “The #1 Content-Writing Service.” Instead, they should say, “Never Worry About Writing Again!”

We’re connecting to a problem they have. We’re connecting with them emotionally.

Benefit-driven copy is much better than feature-driven copy.

Here’s a great example about emotional connection from Wealthsimple:

Content to emotions (slide 1)
Content to emotions (slide 2)

This commercial is about being different. The intent of the content is to promote Wealthsimple Crypto. Crypto is a very new concept that some people think is pretty out there, so the commercial is connecting with those emotions of feeling different or being different.

How To Win at People-First Content

We’ve talked about the “who,” personalizing your content. Persona-based content is a great way to define your audience.

Tell a Story

Storytelling is a very important part of writing content. It helps us connect with readers at an emotional level. It has been scientifically proven that when you empathize with another human or connect on an emotional level, you generate oxytocin. That’s the happiness hormone.

Narratives also help us understand information. Humans need a narrative to be able to process information. Think about this common structure:

Once upon a time, there was ___. Every day, ___. One day, ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally, ___.

Let’s try it:

Once upon a time, there were many SEO professionals creating content for their audiences. Every day, they would write the same blocks using the same old keyword-stuffing techniques. One day, they attended an awesome seminar with Rand Fishkin, who’s actually our hero here in the story, and learned how to win at content marketing. Because of that, they learned how to create great content that connected with their audience. Because of that, lots of users wanted to read their content until finally they helped their organizations reach their business objectives. They all got raises, got promoted and were recognized as heroes by other marketing professionals.

Obviously, I’m joking, but this is a great way to structure your story. You can use this template in many different ways.

Strong Readability

Make sure that your content is readable; this makes it more user-friendly. What do we mean by that?

  • Write short sentences and short paragraphs
  • Write how you speak
  • Pick a font that’s easy to read; the recommended size is 16 points
  • Pick a font that makes sense; sans serif is easier on the eyes
  • Use proper layouts with headers, subheaders and bullet points
  • Use images when possible

Let’s talk about images and how they convey a message. I think the golden ratio of image to words is one image for every hundred words. That sounds like a lot but there are a couple of studies out there that support this. The idea is to put as many images as possible to help your content.

Provide Examples

In a presentation, audience members are going to remember 5% to 10% of the content. If you provide examples, they’ll retain more information.

Responsive Content Layout

Most of us are now consuming most of our content on our cell phones. There’s nothing worse than a page that is not optimized for mobile. You can have the best content in the world, but if it’s not mobile-responsive, readers are probably going to leave. It’s just too hard to consume.

Content: What Doesn’t Work?

Here’s an example of what doesn’t work:

Image showing what doesn't work

This is overly descriptive and just plain boring.

Here’s an example that does work, following the hook, line and sinker model:

Image showing what does work

It creates an emotional connection early on. Is inbound lead generation working for you or are you experiencing lots of sleepless nights? If you’re really worried about lead generation, you might want to learn a little more because you need to solve this problem.

Then it sets expectations, explains the scope of ideas and delivers on the promise. At the end, there’s the sinker: “Inbound marketing attracts customers who have already started the buyer’s journey.” It’s a much better experience for the reader.

Write for Humans

Humans respond to narratives, stories, brands and information—and so do search-engine algorithms. Search algorithms are now designed to respond to natural language, semantics and context.

This is an old tweet from Dennis Solomon that’s still relevant:

Write for humans

Topic Clustering

A technique we like to use is topic clustering. Here’s an easy way to understand it:

Topic clustering

Here, the topic would be “meal” or maybe “dinner.” The topics within our topic cluster would be fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, etc.

We can even break those topics down into subtopics. When we’re talking about fruits, we could talk about bananas, strawberries and avocados (yes, they’re a fruit).

A topic cluster is a number of related topics that you can break down even further.

What’s the Point of Topic Clustering?

Topic clustering delivers a better experience for the reader. It attempts to answer not just one question, but all the questions.

Why Use Topics and Not Keywords?

  • Future-proofing SEO
  • Topic-based SEO strategy is scalable
  • Great for internal linking
  • Attracts backlinks
  • Increases web engagement
  • Increases conversion

At the end of the day, you want to keep your reader engaged. Topic clustering helps solve their problem; it also provides answers they didn’t even realize they needed. It’s also a great SEO strategy for internal linking.

Here’s an example:

Topic clustering example

It’s all about wine basics, so I can come to this topic cluster and learn about wine: different grapes, different varieties and even how to taste wine. It’s a great example of how to take a big, broad topic and walk the reader through it. It keeps the reader engaged on your site instead of having to go to another site for other answers.

Here’s another example:

Topic clustering example (Semrush)

This is an SEO topic cluster. We break it down into technical SEO, local SEO and backlinks. Then we break it down further to Google algorithms and SEO best practices. Then there are tools, Google Analytics, Google Search Console and Google Business.

This graph also shows the interlinking for all of these subtopics. The idea, again, is to keep your readers engaged throughout the topic cluster.

The Future of Written Content

Let’s talk about the future: voice search and AI-generated content.

Is voice search still a thing? Martin Splitt of Google has said that voice search is not the future but we think that you should still optimize for it.

Why? The volume of voice-search assistance keeps growing every day. We have Alexa, Google Home and Siri. A lot of search queries are now coming from voice search.

Optimizing for voice is also going to help us write in a more conversational way. That’s how the algorithms have evolved, to understand how humans talk. By optimizing for voice, you’re bulletproofing your SEO. It’s a no-brainer.

It doesn’t take much additional effort. If you’re writing people-first content, you’re already writing in a conversational way.

AI-Generated Content

AI-generated content is another interesting topic that you’re probably hearing a lot about lately. Will there be a spam penalty? Can Google detect AI content?

John Mueller from Google said in a recent SEO Office Hours session, “I can’t claim that. But for us, if we see that something is automatically generated, then the webspam team can definitely take action on that.”

There’s already a tool that can detect AI-generated content; it’s called Hugging Face. We think eventually, Google is going to get there; they’re going to be able to understand and detect AI-generated content. So if you’re focusing heavily on AI-generated content, there might be trouble.

But is AI-generated content good or bad for SEO? People are talking about AI as the next dot-com revolution. AI is definitely here to stay; it’s still a tool you can use for many purposes.

We advise you to proceed with caution. Don’t rely heavily on AI to generate content, but if you’re generating non-SEO-driven content, there’s no harm in using it.

We also see AI as a way to help writers become more efficient or to overcome writer’s block. We just recently acquired a company that is using AI to produce content, but it’s paired with humans, so it doesn’t rely so heavily on the technology. We made that acquisition because we think AI is going to become more mainstream and we want to understand the technology and get in early.

We see it helping content writers be more efficient. Maybe you can use it for first drafts, to overcome writer’s block or auto-complete sentences and paragraphs. Then you have a human who’s going to make it into people-first content.

If a lot of people start using AI content, there’s going to be a tsunami of content out there. This is an opportunity for great content to rank well; excellent content will always push out lower-quality content.


1. Rand, how can people leverage SparkToro using the techniques you talked about?

If your goal is to find the people who can help you amplify content and better understand your audience, that’s what SparkToro is all about. Right now, our customers are primarily folks in content marketing: agencies and consultants.

When a customer has a new piece of content, a new client, a new campaign, a new audience they want to reach or a new publication they want to pitch, they use SparkToro to understand the audience.

For example, if I’m looking at audiences that are big fans of Disney+, I’d go and look at all the people who follow Disney+ on their social accounts: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, YouTube, etc.

Then SparkToro will show you a sample of a million people who follow Disney+ on one channel or another. For that group, you’ll see what they talk about, the hashtags they use their demographic data and geography, etc.

So then, I know that if I want to reach the Disney+ audience, I probably shouldn’t talk about topics that aren’t as popular anymore. But I could find the three most popular movies that people are talking about on social media right now.

You can essentially use that data when you’re developing a content strategy. What should we cover that this audience will be interested in? Where should we promote it?

In our example, it doesn’t look like Disney+ audiences listen to many podcasts, but they do subscribe to a lot of YouTube channels. We could identify the top YouTube channels and decide what types of content we could make that would get us featured on those channels.

If you want to try SparkToro, sign up for the forever-free version. Keep an eye on your email for even more free searches.

2. Rand, for B2B influencers, how do you go about spinning up tons of content before doing these influence exercises for the audience?

I’m not sure I would necessarily urge you to do lots of content. In fact, I think that in B2B, having just one or two pieces that do really well is a better way to go.

We’re an example of this. SparkToro is a B2B tool; we serve market researchers, audience researchers, boards of economic trade and development, universities and other similar organizations. I produce probably a tenth of the content that I did when I was at Moz.

We try to produce the right content to:

  • Tell our brand story,
  • Explain our value proposition,
  • Help people use the tool, and
  • Get our name out there for brand awareness.

I produce content every couple of weeks on the blog. I’ll make a video every other week and we do a webinar once a month. It’s not a ton of production but it’s what we think is going to be most effective, as opposed to just pounding out the content.

I think this speaks a little bit to the SEO vs. an audience-first strategy. On the SEO side, if you have a list of keywords you want to rank, you have to make content.

3. Rand, what are the strongest channels for influence?

This is a broad question, so there’s no one right answer. It’s why I think audience research is so crucial. You can run surveys, do interviews and use tools like SparkToro. At the enterprise level, Brandwatch is very good.

You’re essentially trying to figure out what your audience pays attention to. Every brand has a specific audience target. It might be, “I am looking for people who are big fans of Lord of the Rings,” or “I want to find people who are chemical engineers in the U.K.” or “I’m trying to reach interior designers in Los Angeles.”

You have a specific audience that you want to reach and you’re trying to figure out the right channels for them.

Be wary of anyone who tells you something like, “TikTok is a great channel for B2C.” TikTok makes sense for certain subsegments of the market with certain demographics and attributes. There are others where it makes terrible sense. You probably wouldn’t want to make a B2C play for retirement homes on TikTok, for example.

You have to do the research to find the right channels for your audience.

4. Is it as worthwhile to attempt to amplify refreshed content as it is for new content?

Ross Simmonds has this methodology where you publish once and distribute forever. You publish, you distribute and then you learn from your audience over time. Then you refresh the content and you promote & distribute it again because you now have something new to say.

I think it’s great—you don’t even have to update very often.

When we published the study about fake accounts on Twitter, we got tons of feedback the next day. So I updated the post to clarify a few things and add in a few small details. Then I promoted it again with the new data, which got a few thousand more visits. It’s a very effective tactic.

A Moz, we used to do this survey of search marketers about what they thought Google’s ranking factors were. We did it every two years. We would compare that against core ranking correlations and publish a big report. Refreshing it every two years meant that by year five or six, it was number one for “Google ranking factors.” It was a huge contributor to Moz’s growth over that early decade.

5. Carlos, now that you have the AI company, is the plan to use AI for all the content that you create or will it be a separate subset for individual target audiences?

For us, it’s really an experiment for learning. Human-driven content is still going to be the best bet. There might be a segment of the market where AI content might be worth exploring. Our primary goal is to find out how we can use AI to make humans more efficient.

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