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Forget content marketing, SEO content, and whatever else as you know them. We need to fundamentally change our approach to content. It’s not an add-on or a separate thing. It’s an inseparable part of the user experience.Let’s act that way.

Content: the silent epidemic

Your site’s infested.

Most organizations treat content like some kind of horrific disease. They try to shove it as far away as possible from the “real” web site, like a bad case of body lice.

Where do they put it? The blog, of course:

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Don’t worry, this isn’t another put-the-blog-on-the-site-dammit rant. Hopefully, you already understand that blog.site.com isn’t as good as site.com/blog.

They also incorrectly define “content.” Content isn’t “stuff we write to rank higher” or “infographics” or “longform articles.”

Content is anything that communicates a message to the audience. Anything.

Product descriptions? Content.

The company story? Content.

Images? Content.

That video of your company picnic that someone posted to your site three years ago and shows everyone dressed as Muppets? Content.

If it says something, shows something, or otherwise communicates, it’s content.

Change your approach

We all need to change our entire approach to content. Treat it as part of the user experience, instead of a nasty skin disease:

  1. Integrate content that can enhance the user experience
  2. Optimize what you already have

Integrate content that can enhance the user experience

Interlink and integrate related information. That includes connecting promotional to informational and showing related visuals and text on promotional pages.

“Promotional” means product descriptions or anything else that “sells” an idea or makes a call to action to the visitor.

Companies are terrified of this. They believe it’ll send customers away. But it doesn’t happen.

I have never seen revenue drop because of interlinking or other integration. I have seen it generate long-term customer relationships, increase referrals and increase near-term conversions.

Link to the blog

If nothing else, link to relevant blog posts. People intent on making a purchase aren’t going to click away never to return. Check out how Surly Bikes does it:

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(By the way, that bike’s a steal at $2,700, if anyone’s trying to figure out what to get me for Hanukkah this year.)

Linking to a relevant post allows really interested visitors to drill down an additional layer of detail. They can get impressions, learn why one product might be better for them than another, and maybe even (gasp) realize that the folks behind the product are just like them.

Embed related social content

Urban Outfitters does so much right. They have an amazing  Instagram account:

But, for some reason, they don’t link to it from product pages.

It’s OK. I’m not cool enough for their stuff anyway. But why hide all those attractive people using their products? That’ll encourage all sorts of purchasers.

Also, link to related social content right from your product pages. Ideally, you want to embed examples right in the page. At the very least, link prominently to the relevant account (but seriously, embed the examples).

Here’s another example. I’m definitely a Democrat, but I have to offer a tip to the other side of the aisle here: If you have someone with decent YouTube videos, include ’em. Representative DeSantis has an entire YouTube channel. Why not show a few videos here?

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If you want to see someone do it right, have a look at top10.com. They’re pulling Instagram images straight into their hotel information.

You can do this with any social platform that lets you: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Vine, etc. So what’s stopping you?

Optimize what you already have

Your site is already stuffed with content.

You might deny it. But it’s true.

So why not optimize what you’ve got?

Write decent descriptions

Whatever you’re selling/promoting, write a decent description. That includes category pages. I’m not sure what to say about the following top-of-category page “description,” so I’ll go with hysterical, bitter laughter:

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By the way, for those who think this kind of content is a great SEO tactic, this site’s on page 2 for “jeans.”

I’m not thrilled with this one, as it’s buried at the bottom of the category page and a little keyword stuffed, but compared to the previous, it’s a shining light in the darkness:

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That site ranks #3 for “jeans.”

Even if you care only about rankings, better descriptions are a better strategy.

At this time, the #1 site for “jeans” has a description buried at the bottom of their category page that’s so awful I cried. I’ll dig into that another time, but I doubt that travesty is helping them much, and more importantly, it sure doesn’t make me want to buy anything.

Don’t be ashamed

Your content is not a zit. Show it proudly. I like the way Juicy Couture does it. I can actually read the product description:

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This, on the other hand, makes me think I need bifocals.

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That’s actual size, by the way.

Follow the same rules of typography you would anywhere else. Make sure your type is high-contrast and readable. Put it somewhere that I’ll actually see it. At the very least, don’t hide it, for heaven’s sake.

Guide me when I’m lost

Please don’t redirect me to a category page without any explanation. I’m not bashing a pinata.

Blindfolding me, spinning me around 8 times and then sending me on my way is not entertaining. It’s annoying as hell.

If I search for a product you no longer sell, and click the description:

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  1. Show me the product page with a “Sorry, this product is no longer available. But you might like…” and send me along
  2. Or show me a note explaining what just happened

Urban Outfitters does it right:

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Nice!

You might be thinking, “Hey, that’s not content!”

Yeah, it is. When content disappears, send me to stuff you’ve got. Content UX 101.

Oh, and that technology thing…

One last step: You need to enable all of this through technology. You have to be able to do all the stuff I listed above. That requires the right tools.

This is the source of teeth-grinding frustration for many content folks. If you can’t edit the site, you can’t do any of this stuff, right? Weellll yes and no. Here are things I’ve tried, and the result:

  1. Screaming. Generally a turn-off. Never gets the desired result.
  2. Demanding. See screaming.
  3. Asking, with a justification. Ask for the features you need, explaining why and how they might help. If you can, show competitors who are doing the same thing. This can take…. a….. long……. time. But it works.
  4. Getting small wins. Can’t add a new page? Edit a product description. Can’t add a new chunk of content to a product page? Add a little bit to the existing description, or edit it as desired. This one works pretty well, but keep asking for the other features, or you’ll never make progress.
  5. Move off the site. You can set up a separate blog, social media account, whatever. I usually punch myself in the spleen right about then, but this can get results, especially for a big brand. Record the results and use that to advocate for more. Best if used in tandem with #3. Runs directly counter to half this article, but what’re you gonna do?

I’m sorry I don’t have an easier solution here. Just remember you’re not the only person asking the IT team for stuff, or telling your boss you’re being prevented from doing a good job, and proceed accordingly.

If you are the boss or IT team, and you’re reading this, please: Don’t sacrifice content or shove it off the site. Listen to your marketers. They want to succeed. “Helped triple revenue” looks a lot better on a resume than “Proposed worthless ideas.” So they’ve got significant incentive.

OK, but is this legit?

I have to admit, I don’t have data on all of this. Know what? Not all marketing is data-driven. But look at some real-life examples of user experience optimization through content:

In the “real world,” the environment is the content:

  • Starbucks doesn’t just operate a bunch of walk-in, walk-out coffee shops. They provide music, comfy chairs and nice people. An experience. Not a transaction.
  • New car dealers have completely transformed from big lots with cheesy pitches to mini-museums.
  • Airlines attempt to sell an experience. Some do it better than others. And it’s not about money. “Low fare” airlines like Southwest have been particularly successful.

Online, features and… well, content are the content.

  • Amazon feels like a purely transactional site at first. But in-depth reviews, editors’ comments, lists of recently-viewed items and other gadgetry transform the site.
  • Woot.com lives and breathes cool content. It’s their brand, and it’s an intimate part of the user experience.
  • And check out Surly, as I said above.

These brands all do pretty well, yes? Good content UX sure doesn’t hurt.

Another example: We worked with a major fashion brand. We got them thinking about the content user experience. They integrated, and optimized their product descriptions. Our technical recommendations had to wait for release cycles. It didn’t matter. They immediately hit number one for the most competitive phrases in their industry. Coincidence? I think not. So, even if rankings are your only goal, content UX is a powerful tool.

Get to work

Practice user experience optimization through content. By “optimization,” I don’t mean “stuffing in keywords until readers want to puke.” I mean “optimal combination of promotional and informational content.”

Content optimization drives interest, engagement and yes, rankings. It also takes visitors from transactional to loyal.

About wrttnwrd — Ian Lurie is CEO at Portent, an internet marketing agency he started in 1995 on the honest belief that great marketing can save the world. At Portent, he leads and trains a team that covers SEO, PPC, social media and marketing strategy. Ian writes on the Portent Blog and speaks at various conferences, including MozCon, SMX, SES, Ad::Tech and Pubcon. He recently co-authored the 2nd Edition of the Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies.