Notes from Priceonomics' 2017 Content Marketing Conference
I’ve been a fan of Priceonomics for a long time. They publish thoughtful, data-heavy content and they’ve written some fun books. This post is a collection of my notes from the 2017 Priceonomics Content Marketing Conference, which was held a few weeks ago. The content was very high quality – not surprising given the theme of the conference – and included a lot of useful advice on creating content, scaling content teams, and building an audience.
Table of Contents
Audience Growth: The Little Things that Work by Sam Parr, Founder of The Hustle
The Hustle is an 18-month-old media company. It’s like WSJ meets Daily Show. The company is profitable and has a team of 18.
The main product is a newsletter that has 500k subscribers. The website is just an email signup page.
How did the Hustle grow? By doing small things very well.
Everything is content. Creative copy is optimized for everything, including pop-ups (which convert at >5% for The Hustle vs. <1% industry average), welcome emails, Thank You pages, and so on. Writing fun, memorable copy for all of these “little things” keeps people much more engaged. Your email subscriber flow is Sign Up Page -> Welcome Email -> Thank You Page, and you should make those three pieces of content exceptional.
Do unscalable things like replying to reader emails. The Hustle gets about 100-1000 emails per day. Along with making users happy, replying to emails also moves you from Gmail’s Spam or Promotions tabs into the regular tab. “It’s almost like SEO, but for email.”
Create a community. The Hustle has 4k ambassadors, who invite others to The Hustle. (Sam recommended checking out this article as a good example of implementing a referral program.) Every few weeks, subscribers get an email with a referral URL, and if they share it with people then they get gifts like stickers, t-shirts, and hoodies. There’s also an online private FB group for Hustle ambassadors where the company asks them for feedback on new ideas. Each Hustle ambassador refers an average of twenty-seven people.
How to Scale a Content Team by Maggie Leung, VP of Content at NerdWallet
NerdWallet helps people with personal finance decisions (credit cards, taxes, student loans, etc). Maggie previously worked at WSJ and CNN.
NerdWallet’s mission: provide clarity for all of life’s financial decisions. Their main product is content and they have $100m+ in annual revenue.
The content team is 100 people, mostly remote. Being remote helps ensure that they have a diverse team – i.e. not everyone lives in the Silicon Valley bubble.
Before building a content team, you need to be crystal clear on your business. Specifically, you need to understand how content might drive results for you.
Tactics for building (content) teams:
Specialist vs. generalist – most teams start with generalists, then shift to specialists once they figure out what they need specifically.
If you do heavy lifting at the beginning, you’ll save lots of time later. For example, NerdWallet tests everyone – even very experienced people – and only hires the top 1%. That saves NerdWallet from a lot of trouble later on.
Avoid hiring people who you think can do today’s job but not what the job will look like next month. No one wants to hire people only to have to fire them shortly thereafter.
Look for people who can adapt, not people who refuse to step out of their comfort zone.
Up-level quality: every new hire has to be better than at least 50% of the existing team.
Things you can’t teach: intellectual curiosity, team player/not an asshole, someone who can deal with unexpected challenges instead of shying away from them.
BuzzFeed: How We Data Science by Gilad Lotan, VP of Data Science at BuzzFeed
BuzzFeed does investigative news, social news, entertainment content and shows, and now has a new news show on Twitter.
Stats: 100s of millions of readers, content in 6 languages that’s published on 30 platforms.
BuzzFeed has a culture of experimentation. They track core KPIs, then run experiments and compare new KPIs to baselines to see what works well. For example, BuzzFeed started making Tasty videos. Those performed well, BuzzFeed doubled down, and now Tasty is one of the most followed pages on Facebook (90m followers).
When you see an experiment working, put more resources behind it.
BuzzFeed cares about how its content affects the audience. They use ML to analyze content and comments in order to understand why people are sharing and what they get out of a piece of content.
Optimization (personalized feeds and notifications, headline/image optimization, etc) is better than manipulation (buying traffic, buying followers, etc).
Indeed Hiring Lab’s mission is to help lead the global labor market conversation, build the Indeed brand, and create a public service.
The strategy is research and engagement using Indeed’s proprietary data + public data. The channels are blogging, social media, media requests, and speaking. The audiences are media, policymakers, and employers and job seekers.
Why should you do public-facing research in-house?
You can rapidly respond to news. For example during the last US presidential election, Indeed saw a big spike in US users searching for jobs in Canada, and they were able to write a post about that quickly.
Broader public voice/thought leadership.
More credibility for the company (this might be the most important benefit).
PR is not the only benefit of a research team. Other benefits include:
Internal data quality (because you need good data for research).
Core product experience (sometimes insights from research teams affect product design).
Client/customer engagement (in Indeed’s case, they can help large employers understand what’s going on in the labor market).
Corporate strategy (research can suggest which parts of the business Indeed should grow, who they should try to acquire, etc).
Build a public research team if:
You have unique data that tells us about the world.
You’re in an industry that’s of broad public interest (jobs, housing, etc).
You have a public-minded mission.
You are committed to maintaining high-quality data.
You aren’t in a high stakes public battle. (If you are in such a battle, people will be skeptical that your published results are impartial.)
Attract, Capture + Convert Customers by Shafqat Islam, CEO of NewsCred
NewsCred powers content marketing for brands and works with companies like Microsoft and Bank of America.
Content powers the customer experience. NewsCred believes content is the single most effective way to deliver more engaged, better-qualified buyers to digital experiences.
Stats: 84% of people expect brands to product content, but 60% of content is poor or irrelevant.
How to think about content: content has to be valuable to you (brand purpose) and valuable to your audience.
Content has many forms: blog posts, videos, infographics, podcasts, social media, email newsletters, events (offline content), etc.
Content creates value for your brand by driving marketing-influenced revenue (more leads, conversions, upsell and cross-sell) and increasing brand equity (awareness, loyalty, value of brand).
Stat: the average NewsCred prospect reads 20 pieces of content before becoming a customer.
NewsCred’s 3-step model for content: attract the right audience, capture/keep your audience, and convert the audience to a desired action.
You need a strategy. Marketers with a documented content marketing strategy are 5x more likely to succeed. The strategy should cover your objectives, the resources you need, how you plan to curate and distribute content, and how you’ll measure and optimize performance.
Make sure you have a mission statement and define your target audience.
Identify topics your users are interested in by looking at keyword search volume and other signs of demand.
For content to be effective, brands must meet audiences where they are. But content on other sites must always lead back to an owned content hub (i.e. your website).
NewsCred has a pop-up lightbox that triggers halfway down a page. They’ve found that lightboxes outperform other CTA placements by up to 10x. (NewsCred uses OptinMonster for the lightbox.)
To convert people, NewsCred sends 4 newsletters per week. These have no promotional message other than links to high-value content. This makes people come back.
For NewsCred, the conversion rate for people nurtured via emails is 3x higher vs. those who just come to their website to sign up.
Articles should never be dead ends. There should always be a CTA or links to more content.
The Anatomy of a Viral Video by Grant Marek, Editorial Director at Chubbies Shorts
Chubbies makes “clothing and content geared for the weekend.”
They’ve produced 48 videos with 1m+ views, 13 with 10m+ views, 6 with 20m+ views.
Viral videos don’t need celebrities or expensive production values. A lot of Chubbies’ videos take one day and <$1k to produce.
Viral video strategies that have worked for Chubbies:
Relatability. Your audience should be able to relate to the video content.
An understanding of your audience: what they like, what they think is cool, and what they aspire to. If your content doesn’t appeal to your target audience, it’s useless. For example, Chubbies’ audience skews younger, so when they tried making videos that made cultural references from the early 90s and before, those videos didn’t perform well.
Timeliness. People see the same content all of the time, and if you can make something timely to an event or a holiday then your content will stand out.
Something unexpected. People are bombarded with content. If you want to produce something viral, it has to be unique and surprising.
Make the videos fun. People burn out on serious content, news, and politics. Videos that are fun are an antidote, and much more likely to be shared.
Finally, you need to know your metrics. One good metric for videos is the ratio of shares to views. A great goal would be 1 share per 100 views.
The POPSUGAR Formula by Lisa Sugar, Founder of POPSUGAR
POPSUGAR’s mission: power the optimism and dreams of women around the world. They have 3.1b monthly content views, a global audience of 100m, and they’re the #1 lifestyle brand for women. The company started in 2005.
The POPSUGAR formula for content is data (trends and sentiment) + aesthetic (beautiful and inspirational) + voice (positive and entertaining) + storytelling (smart, well-researched, fun).
There’s so much potential content, so how do you filter it for your audience? First, understand the audience. POPSUGAR’s audience is women in their 20s. They’re optimistic and encountering many ‘firsts’, like living alone or getting married. The goal is to inspire and motivate these women, and the attitude of the content is positive, purposeful, playful, and passionate.
POPSUGAR’s content engine is consists of many teams:
The Trending team (which identifies topics to write about)
The Social team (which creates social-only content)
The Audience team (which analyzes audience traffic and behavior)
Teams that generate content for specific topic areas (fashion, beauty, lifestyle, etc).
The company publishes 1,000 articles and 10 original videos per week and sees about 1 million shares/day.
POPSUGAR’s content workflow:
Start with an idea (inspired by trends, events, brand relationship, etc)
Apply a format to it (event coverage, social content, original feature, quiz, etc)
Produce the content (headline, body, images (front page, social, and Pinterest-optimized), image and product sourcing, tags, SEO title, social text, etc)
Content is reviewed by an editor and copy editor.
Finally, content is distributed (scheduling, social marketing, push notifications, feeds, referral links and editorial partnerships, newsletter, etc)
Fireside Chat: Marketing for Startups with Michael Seibel, CEO of Y Combinator
YC’s biggest marketing secret is to put you in the same room as lots of other people who are trying to grow because that makes you try to grow even harder.
It’s better to have a few customers that love you instead of a lot that merely like you.
Good cold email is a core strategy for 50%-60% of YC founders. “If you have a big problem and some young company emails you and offers to solve your problem, that could be the highlight of your day!”
People think about launches as significant moments, but no one remembers the day that Amazon or Google launched. So your launch day isn’t important. Just get the product out ASAP and don’t wait for perfection.
For launching, you should post on HackerNews, Product Hunt, TechCrunch. But none of those will make your company. Just try to get users.
Good trick for early traction: get other friendly companies to use your product (e.g. companies in your coworking space, your accelerator’s batch, your investor’s portfolio, etc.)
YC has a history of content, starting with Paul Graham’s essays. After Paul Graham retired, YC started writing blog posts and doing podcasts.
“Content marketing keeps you relevant.”
Tip for posting on HackerNews: don’t use marketing language. HN readers hate marketing language.
From Zero to Five Million Pageviews by Courtland Allen, Founder of Indie Hackers
Courtland was always a CTO/coder and had never done content before. He shared tips on how he grew Indie Hackers into a high-traffic site.
Courtland wanted to do something impactful, profitable, and fun. He decided to see what other people were doing. He looked at a lot of ideas, and that helped him figure out what he wanted to work on. He realized he liked finding stories of entrepreneurs, sprucing them up, and publishing them online.
Good stories are transparent and honest.
Courtland started interviewing entrepreneurs, but he was worried that his early interviews weren’t very good. He launched anyway, and got 100k pageviews on Day 1 from HackerNews, Reddit, and Product Hunt.
Lesson 1: Go to where your audience already hangs out. After launch day, Courtland tried newsletters and other growth channels but none really worked. Finally, he went back to his initial channels (HackerNews/Reddit/Product Hunt), and those worked very well.
Lesson 2: Systematize variety. Courtland tried to send the same questions to all interviewees, but the answers were often boring. So he started adding tips to questions – up to 20 tips per question on how to write better answers. After a few months, Courtland could get a good interview without any follow-up questions.
Lesson 3: Content can look like anything. It can be blogs, newsletters, a recipe list, a spreadsheet of tourist attractions, etc. A good goal is that your content should be good enough to be its own product or startup. In fact, a lot of startup advice applies to content, too: work on (write about) what you know; launch (publish) quickly; do things that don’t scale (learn as you go); talk to users (readers); make something people want; etc.
Connecting with Journalists by Ricky Yean, CEO of Upbeat
News reporting is shifting and there’s now less investigative reporting.
More and more, reporters are generalists who have to write about many different topics that they’re not super deep on. This is stressful for reporters.
Reporters often get 100s or 1000s of emails per day. Email pitches are not manageable. Competition for attention is intense.
Tip #1: if you want a journalist’s attention, you have to be the journalist: offer multiple sources, fact check, package insights, etc. Your email subject line should look like a headline, you should create high-quality graphics, photography, data, video, etc. Media organizations have fewer and fewer resources to do these things themselves. You can also de-risk pitches by posting on Reddit/HackerNews and showing that they’re getting traffic.
Tip #3: PR pitching is unpredictable, so don’t be discouraged. Take more shots on goal.
BuzzSumo is a good tool to help de-risk the popularity of a specific topic.
Hard-to-Make Data-Driven Content by Amber Thomas and Matt Daniels of Polygraph
Polygraph produces pudding.cool, which is a journal for visual essays.
Creating an evergreen piece of content with lots of data and visuals is very hard, and Polygraph has developed an editorial process to help mitigate common risks (e.g. overly ambitious projects) and encourage good practices like collaboration and sticking to deadlines.
The process is 5 steps:
Idea generation – the team generates ideas all of the time. Once a week, a member of the team will pick 3 ideas and present them to the team for Q&A and reactions. At this stage, ideas are just concept stage. All ideas discussed at these meetings are added to an idea backlog so that anyone can review past ideas at any time.
Idea selection – there are two requirements for deciding whether to pursue an idea: 1) would a visual data-heavy essay answer a publicly divisive question or improve public discourse in some way? and 2) is the idea something the author passionate about (litmus test: would they work on this story for 1-2 months even if they weren’t being paid?)
The pitch – a pitch helps articulate and flesh out the idea. At Polygraph, the team picks a story angle, a headline (that helps frame what you want the readers to get from your story), and does some preliminary data collection to validate that data is available and can support the desired story.
Pre-production – the team finds a project lead who is accountable to push the project through to the end. They also make a rough outline of the story and scope how much work the story will take in terms of data and graphics and time. At this point, the team is fully committed to making the story and adds it to the editorial calendar.
Production – the team starts working on the full story until it’s done. Tips for this part of the process are to do weekly check-ins with the editor, to vet the project with people outside of your organization, and to have a weekly meeting where people show what they’re working on, so that they can get feedback from others on the team.
On a completely unrelated note, I’ve spent hours on Polygraph’s visualization of evolving music tastes. It’s amazing.
Content that Caters to Multiple Tiers of Media by Issi Romem, Chief Economist at BuildZoom
BuildZoom helps people find contractors.
Why does BuildZoom produce content? 1) brand awareness, 2) SEO improves as you become an authority in your space, 3) qualifying web traffic (helps people associate your name with your industry).
What kind of content does BuildZoom produce? Guides for things like how much roofs cost, news-relevant posts (e.g. cost of building Apple’s campus), and other analyses (e.g. curbing urban sprawl in the US).
Credibility is very important when talking to reporters because their attention is spread so thin. How do you build credibility?
Do great research.
Seek external validation. Work with independent/academic coauthors if possible.
Avoid topics with vested interest. For example, if you’re Airbnb, then publishing studies about how you help the housing market will hurt your credibility.
Be transparent. It’s okay to make assumptions, but be clear about them. If you aren’t comfortable sharing your assumptions, maybe you shouldn’t share your piece.
Posts can have different levels of appeal: national, national + some metros, etc. Examples: a study about national trends is unlikely to appeal to individual metros; a post about a single metro probably only appeals to that metro; and a ranking of metros nationwide mostly appeals to top and bottom ranked metros. If you want to appeal to every metro you’ll probably need deep content for each locale.
Igniting Curiosity by Benjamin Solomon, Director of Creative Development at Vox
Curiosity is why we click, view, and opt-in.
Some content is shallow: you’re curious, do a quick scan of the content, and you’re satisfied. Other content is deeper, and the more you read the more you want to learn.
Vox’s learnings for building deeper content:
Respect your audience. Don’t just focus on content length or metrics or how many people click on something. Data can help you optimize, but fundamentally you need to understand your audience. If you create content that your audience is interested in, they will want to consume it and engage more deeply.
Foster obsessive creators. Let creators tell stories they’re authentically passionate about. Vox just launched Explainer Studio: when you view their content, you can see the explainer really puts themselves into each video. It’s not just a job for them, it’s something they’re passionate about. “Don’t think of content as a series of assets and think of it as human.”
Champion overdelivery. It’s not about giving the audience what they wanted, it’s about giving them so much more that they leave your content wanting to immerse themselves in a topic.
“Focus on the story, not the shape. If you’re focusing on the length, you’re focusing on the wrong thing.”
Lessons from a Technology Journalist by Kim-Mai Cutler, Partner at Initialized Capital
Kim worked at TechCrunch (where people could post short articles on whatever they wanted), WSJ (deep, research-based articles), and other publications.
The press is not a deus ex machina.
You have to re-iterate your goals before every press cycle.
What are your goals for PR? Do you want to launch a product and reach customers? Hire or attract talent? Attract investors? Those could be very different stories to emphasize.
Build long-term relationships w/reporters:
Do quarterly coffees or off-the-record meet-and-greets with reporters and influencers.
Aim for regular press cycles of 6-12 weeks so you stay top of mind with customers/investors/etc.
Have a longer term narrative arc about your vision that spans over your regular press cycles.
When you pitch something to a reporter, make it custom to them. Base it on what they’ve written in the last 3-6 months + the philosophy of their publication and how that publication views the world.
Story typologies, approximately sorted from easy-to-pitch to hard-to-pitch:
Funding round (used to be considered more important a decade ago, now less exciting).
Notable key hire you poached from someone else.
Key business partnership.
Momentum (i.e. “XYZ accelerates expansion into ___.” Numbers help here with stories like this, and this is a good way to set up fundraising).
Trend piece. Here the relationship with a reporter matters because it’s hard to become part of a piece on some trend. You already need to be in the reporter’s mindshare.
CEO/business profile. Even if you get a publication to do a profile on you or your business, the timing is tricky as these stories are often released a few months to a year after your conversations with the reporter.
The press landscape has changed. More than ever, the top 5 tech companies (Google et al.) suck up most of the attention. Despite there being lots of tech journalists, it’s harder for small companies to get coverage.
The Paradox of Great Content by Rand Fishkin, Founder of Moz
(The deck for this presentation is here.)
Search traffic matters a lot for companies, and content is a great way to build search traffic.
Rand did an analysis of ninety-nine pieces of remarkable content around the web. Rand calls these “10x content.”
On average, each of these 10x pieces has 900 links, 3k ranking keywords, and 80k Facebook shares.
8 big mistakes highlighted by separating the 10x pieces that perform vs. those that don’t:
Lack of keyword research and targeting. If you optimize the title and content for popular keywords, you’ll get way more search traffic.
Failure to optimize for SERP click-through rates. If you structure content in a certain way, like using tables instead of images of tables, that works much better in SERPs and can even get you a featured snippet on Google. You can get that snippet at the top of the page even if your page is no the top-ranked search result.
Poor Domain/URL segmentation. In terms of SEO, blog.website.com performs much worse than website.com/blog. Moving to a subfolder helps the blog, and also the whole domain which now benefits from the blog’s SEO juice.
Building on someone else’s platform. Don’t put incredible content on Medium and not your own website. It’s fine to put good content on Medium and your site, but don’t only put it on Medium. One tip is to publish on your site and use Medium’s import tool. Medium will even give your post a
rel="canonical"link, which is very nice of them. “Use 3rd party platforms for distribution, not the primary home.”
Lack of basic accessibility. Your site content should have shareable internal links and be easy to crawl, otherwise Google won’t be able to find your content – and your ability to rank for keywords will suffer.
Delightful but not useful. Users will link to things that are useful, but not as much to things that are fun but not useful. That means your content won’t rank highly for keywords. Make sure your content is useful.
Ignoring searchers’ intent. If someone does a search to learn something and your page tries to get them to buy something, they will bounce quickly and Google will learn from that and lower your search ranking.
Doesn’t create an incentive to create a link. Rand gave the example of a tool that lets visitors compare data on two cities. The tool output was interesting but didn’t create an incentive to link to the content, so it had very few external links despite having thousands of upvotes on Reddit.
Q&A with Rand:
Q: Google is taking more and more of Page 1 surface area. How do you keep search traffic high?
A: 1) Try to own the featured search snippet. 2) If a keyword search can be answered so briefly that people stop clicking on search results, then pursue more interesting/complex keywords instead.
Q: How do you balance headline quality/catchiness vs. SEO?
A: Usually, if there’s deep interest in a subject, adding relevant keywords to a headline will increase interest. If there’s a 2-3 word phrase that’s important to you, including it in your title usually helps with SEO and clickability. It’s more challenging if the keyword phrase is long.
Well, that’s it! If you liked these conference notes, you might also enjoy my notes from SalesConf in 2014.