If you don’t research keywords, how exactly are you doing “content marketing”?

There has been some debate in content marketing / inbound marketing circles about keyword research of late, with SEO demi-god Rand Fishkin even doing a ‘Whiteboard Friday’ a few weeks on MOZ on the idea of ‘keywords’ vs. ‘topics’ in content planning.

A lot more marketers are embracing content marketing right now, although there are a number of problems with the way — the process — they choose to embrace it. I outline a few key content marketing problems here. Some of the bigger ones tend to include:

  • Supply-demand (a lot of people are producing, but that doesn’t mean how much an individual can consume in one day is changing)
  • Marketing content vs. actual content (marketers think too much in terms of ‘brand guidelines’ and the like, and not in terms of telling actual stories)
  • The ROI problem (if we can’t eventually get content marketing over to a balance sheet, no executive will really care about it)
  • The ‘does it work?’ problem (everyone’s trying it, but … does it drive sales/growth/business?)

Maybe one of the biggest problems, though, is how we do content marketing without keyword research.

Why is content marketing keyword research important?

A lot of middle managers I’ve worked with in the marketing space will talk about “wanting to do content,” right? And then they’ll come up with some topic idea. Let’s say:

X-Reasons To Buy Our Widget

First off, that’s a terrible content idea because it’s set up to sell, not educate — and the goal of content or inbound marketing is to educate. But still, this is where a lot of bosses begin the process. So let’s go with that.

What happens a lot — in my experience — is that because said manager has been to a bunch of conferences or heard their peers discuss this idea of content marketing, they think … “X or Y topic is going to pop!” This typically takes a few forms:

  • “It’ll blow up on social!”
  • “We’ll definitely reach the people we need on e-mail!”
  • “This is a hot topic!”

This is marketing management in a vacuum. Here’s the reality:

When people think like the above, what happens is basic: an industry or vertical has a ton of the same topic flooding its e-mail and social channels, which is content overload, content fatigue, or low-ROI content. It is not, however, content marketing.

This is why keyword research in content marketing is important. For something to have a long life — to continually drive returns — it needs to be tied to things people are actually searching. And dependent on the size and reach of your site, it should usually fall into this sweet spot:

  • Long-tail (extended reach)
  • Low to medium SEO competition

This means one post, long after it’s dead and gone on social and long after it’s been deleted or ignored from people’s e-mails, can continually drive visitors and interests — and hopefully potential customer leads — to your website.

In a nutshell, this is why content marketing and keyword research matters. It provides a much-longer window for cultivating customers and leads.

How do you get better at content marketing keyword research?

You need to understand volume and competition levels for various keywords, which you can do at about 1 million places around the Internet. These would include:

  • Google Keyword Planner
  • WordStream
  • SEMRush
  • Moz
  • KeywordTool.io
  • BuzzSumo

There are dozens of others; here’s a good list of keyword research tools.

Like I said, you’re looking for long-tail, low-competition keywords relevant to the product or service you provide. This is going to be the gift that keeps on giving, as opposed to social or e-mail — which are essentially one or two or three time quick-hits that mostly seem attractive from a cost/margin perspective.

I myself use Google Keyword Planner, although admittedly I treated my blog as kind of a fun thing for 18 months and only started trying to business-it-up a few months ago — around the time I got fired.

For example, let’s discuss this post. I decided to target ‘content marketing keyword research,’ which in and of itself isn’t amazing. A keyword like ‘AdWords keyword tool,’ though — it has about 14,800 monthly searches (not bad) with low competition. So that’s something to target, as a small example.

The evolution of content marketing keyword research and SEO

Conventional SEO — old-school to many — can be kind of dumb. It’s mostly based on loading up keywords to rank high. Thankfully, that’s evolved over time — which is why Rand Fishkin is able to talk about an area like ‘topics vs. keywords,’ because Google’s search algorithms have evolved to prioritize good content as opposed to keyword-laden vomit buckets.

That said, content marketing needs to begin with keyword research. If you read the comments on Fishkin’s post, most argue for a middle ground of considering topics + quality of content as well as keyword research, but I’ll tell you from working with a lot of different people and marketing departments that …

… most begin with tossing a post idea into the ether, and do nothing beyond that. The assumption, as I said above, is that it will “pop” on Facebook, or automatically be of great interest to your target market.

In reality, those things usually aren’t true — and that, again, goes back to the supply and demand problem. If you have 10 competitors and all of you write a post about your widgets through some prism, that’s 11 things that a potential consumer could read. That same potential consumer has a job of their own (probably), a family, and other commitments. They’re probably not going to read all 11, and since people are often inherently lazy, they’ll probably read the thing that’s highest in Google or appears before them on social (pay for it, baby!).

The easiest way to rise above this supply-demand problem, IMHO, is using keyword research as the backbone of your content marketing strategy. I myself am also still evolving in this regard, but I understand how crucial it is.

What’s your take on content marketing keyword research? Overblown, or still crucially important?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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