It’s a claim almost every digital marketer wishes they could make: Writing the book on how to integrate SEO, social media and content marketing strategies.
After Optimize was published in 2012, Lee Odden can say he was first to the finish.
Over the past 15 years, he has consulted for Fortune 500 companies while acting as CEO for TopRank Marketing – a firm based outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Publications such as The Economist and Wall Street Journal have recognized him for his marketing and public relations expertise. So has the industry itself, as he’s delivered speeches across Asia, Europe and North America.
Discussing the analytics and approaches behind social media and content marketing, this Lee Odden interview is the second entry in our marketing influencer interview series.
Table of Contents
Using SEO and Social Media Analytics
Keyhole: In your book, Optimize, you identify 3 phases of optimization: Planning, implementation, and scaling. How important are analytics throughout this process?
Lee Odden: Very important. Measurement and analytics are big parts of what informs strategy.
They also give you the information you need to determine if you’re on track, so that you can identify missteps or other optimization opportunities. Ultimately, measurement lets you know if you’ve reached your goals or not.
This is completely cyclical. In other words, optimization is a state of mind. You’re always looking for a hypothesis, implementing that hypothesis and collecting data. The data informs whether you’ve achieved results from that hypothesis or whether you need to adjust. If necessary, you go back to your premise and alter it.
That’s the cycle.
KH: There’s always room for trial and error throughout the cycle, correct?
LO: Yes. These days, the complexity of digital marketing requires there to be some allocation for experimentation. And I think that’s a big misstep for a lot of companies – they need to allocate for that.
KH: Would you say those companies are playing it too safely?
LO: Sometimes, people are singularly focused on the sure thing. And reasonable or responsible marketers are going to do what they can to satisfy that need.
But at the same time, the dynamic nature of the social web – digital, mobile, all those things – requires marketers to have their finger on the pulse of what’s going to be innovative. And you can only learn what’s innovative through direct observation and experimentation.
You could mimic other people. But the secret’s always going to come from the ability to experiment, collect data and iterate.
KH: On a day-to-day basis, how does your team at TopRank use analytics to guide your strategies?
LO: Analytics is present in every aspect of what we do. We collect data to inform our approaches and content ideation, as well as analyzing performance, optimizing ongoing activities and communicating the results of our programs.
Analytics is either performance- or research-based. In other words, we’re looking for signals of progress. We’re looking for signals of success. And we’re looking for signals of failure to inform our actions.
LO: We use several tools for what we call the “mechanical” or “technical” SEO side.
We also use Rival IQ for competitive social analysis and light SEO.
KH: Before so many digital analytics tools became widely available, how would you go about tracking the success of individual marketing campaigns?
LO: We would use traditional analytics, which these days is like saying Google Analytics.
Within each campaign, it really depends on what your approach is. Obviously, if there’s an email campaign, there are analytics inherent to an email distribution platform. Or if there’s paid search or paid social, there are analytics inherent to those platforms. And of course any traffic that arrives on content you have control over, you can use web analytics to track.
Now there are also more business intelligence, or aggregate, tools one might use to pull different data sources through feeds or APIs to visualize data in dashboard format – where social, search and other web analytics data are displayed together.
And those are how we communicate marketing campaigns and performance information to our team members and clients.
Explaining and Communicating the Value of Metrics
KH: As you just alluded to, tracking success is one thing. Explaining results to clients is another. For those freelancing, consulting or in an agency setting, what advice do you have when it comes to sharing and explaining analytics reports to clients?
LO: Anybody – and I mean anybody – can report tabular data and read ranking and traffic reports. It’s just reading numbers.
What differentiates and delivers value over saying “you’ve got more leads and you’ve got more traffic” is actually explaining why. Tell the story and provide insight.
From an executive level, when people report things to me, I’ll say “let’s stop here” if I see a grid.
I need to know what the trend is. Are we moving in the right direction? I think most executives who aren’t wearing their geek hats at the moment are interested in trend data.
If there’s a particularly-dramatic spike up or down, they want to understand why that happened and what we’re doing about it. At the same time, they want insights about trends that are going one way or another as well as insights about what we should do about them. Especially when it comes to any problems or opportunities.
Ideally, it’s great to say something like “we forecasted this type of performance and here’s what happened. And we think because of these correlations, if we take these steps, we can actually realize a certain percentage increase over what we anticipated” or “we’re not meeting what we forecasted, here’s what we’re doing to fix that. And based on our analyses, we’re making these choices to move us in the right direction.”
That’s communication that delivers value when it comes to analytics, not “last month we had 45,000 visitors and this month we have 47,000. And most of that came from organic search. We’re also ranking really well on your ego keyword phase.”
On the TopRank Blog and Content Marketing’s Future
KH: Your Online Marketing Blog has been going strong for more than 12 years and has picked up its fair share of awards along the way. Take us through that journey of how the blog started and evolved.
LO: 12 years of blogging in 30 seconds.
It started as an experiment. And when you do anything for a long time, you should get good at it. The feedback mechanism from the web was very inspirational for content ideas and kind of sensing – as you do as an optimistic marketer – what kind of information you could publish on a blogging platform that would actually attract buyers, candidates, partners and – in my case – speaking opportunities.
Going back to that cycle of optimization, it became a place where I could publish ideas, interact with people, polish my writing skills and actually use it as the connective tissue between how I represented myself digitally and the real-world experiences I would have when speaking at events.
While speaking at events, I would bring people with me and we would live blog for prospective clients. We would sit in on them giving presentations – or presentations from other smart people – and we would live blog what they had to say.
Those people at major brands or great websites would see what we wrote about them and they’d link to us. Back in the day, that was a wonderful method of earning high-quality links from major brand newsrooms that considered our live blog as media coverage.
There are so many dimensions to how we’ve used our blog to grow our business.
But it started as a way to network with other bloggers by writing about relevant topics, reacting to what was said and commenting on what was happening within the industry. We found out that by sharing expertise, people would actually visit us because of search or a link and say “hey, we’d like to hire you.”
That turned into becoming a publisher, so to speak. At that point, I noticed that conferences would partner with media properties like magazines and websites that have substantial mailing lists. And they would do media sponsorships.
In other words, there’d be a value exchange. The conference would say “we’ll mention your website in our publications and in our promotions as a sponsor. In turn, you’ll mail your list about our event to hopefully attract our registrations.” I saw that, and I wondered if conferences would do that with a blog like ours.
I convinced a major search conference to give us free passes and to give us exposure on signage at the event, as well as on their website and communications.
This was in exchange for us doing a couple of posts in advance of the conference. Then, I’d bring two or three people with me to live blog presentations. Doing this created a lot of content and exposure for us that no other agency in our category was doing or getting.
We were the first company that wasn’t a magazine or website with a huge mailing list to do this.
We had four conferences doing this with us at one time, and then I started to pull back because it was too much. But not only was I sending people to conferences without the expense of registration, my team members were getting educated and we were creating content while sitting in on presentations given by people we wanted to do business with.
By creating value for those prospective customers, we created a really great experience for them. Plus, they thought of us favourably without us trying to sell them anything. That led to inquiries about our services once they visited our blog and saw what we were able to do.
That’s just one angle of what our blog did for us. It was just a clever thing and led to many other wonderful outcomes, like more business and many smart people wanting to work for us.
KH: I like how you centred your answer around live blogging. With live-streaming apps such as Periscope becoming popular and similar programs being introduced, what does the future of content look like to you?
LO: There’s a phrase I used the other day: “The social web wants its close-up” in terms of real-time video. With Periscope and Facebook, that’s absolutely in place.
In terms of what content will look like, there’s still a place for text-based material. Certainly not the way there was before, because the expectations of consumers is now to be info-tained in a business sense.
I’ll give you an example: I was talking about a topic with one of my co-workers and said “look, we can do that analysis as a blog post, but what if we did it as a three-minute sitcom on video? What if we did it as a comic book or an infographic? Why not?” Because that’s going to totally stand out.
The other thing that I think is interesting in terms of what content will look like, is participation.
People are empowered to co-create with brands. If a brand makes that possible, I think consumers will be more interested than ever in co-creating content that serves mutual interests.
It’s kind of like tapping into the whole user-generated content phenomenon. There are so many ways to do it, especially because of mobile devices allowing people to participate at all times with brands on topics they’re passionate about. Content is an outcome with this type of participation, whether it’s a video, image or even text.
KH: Would it be too difficult to moderate some of the content that people create as they participate?
LO: It is.
But creating platforms for influencers and consumers to collaborate based on a common theme is the goal. You’re activating passionate people within an environment where they can co-create and participate.
The goal is engagement, but if great content comes out of that exercise, that’s icing on the cake. If the brand can actually use that content in a way that gives exposure to the co-creators, that’s icing on the cake for everybody.
Becoming a Social Media Influencer
KH: Let’s shift the focus to social media. Having built an impressive social presence and establishing yourself as a thought-leader online, what advice would you give to someone looking to become an influencer in their given field?
LO: Influence is given to you by others. It’s not something you get yourself. Any signal you give to the market in the pursuit of influence is all superficial, really.
When I say influencer, I mean the ability to affect action.
There’s a distinction between what I like to call “brand-dividuals” and influencers. Brand-dividuals are popular. When they talk about a given subject, people may take notice yet not necessarily act. But gosh – they certainly have high fan, friend and follower counts.
We do a lot of influencer marketing, and brand-dividuals certainly have their place. But as an individual, you have to earn your influence by being a subject-matter expert or authority. And you have to give evidence of that authority.
So, the ability to acquire influence is directly tied to your abilities to create and inspire action. In a way, the less you try to be influential, the more you can spend time on creating value and actually making great stuff with great people.
KH: Are there any opinions or bits of advice you’d like to leave us with?
LO: If you want your content to be great, ask people to participate.
It’s a little rhyme related to participation marketing. And I think, as we talked about with regards to the future of content, we’re going to see more of that. It’s a collaborative effort.
I would encourage people to check out marketingblog.com – a domain that’s even easier to remember than the rhyme. You can find thousands of articles about digital topics that we’ve covered over the last 12 years.
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