What So Many Companies Get Wrong About Content Marketing [Podcast Episode]

There’s a chance your brand may need to look at content marketing a bit differently.


, What So Many Companies Get Wrong About Content Marketing [Podcast Episode]


Not everyone agrees on the way content marketing should fit into the overall digital marketing picture.

That’s why Rand Fishkin, founder of SparkToro and Moz, came on the show to talk about the structural issues often found in companies that prohibit them from making the best marketing decisions.

, What So Many Companies Get Wrong About Content Marketing [Podcast Episode]


In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • Common mistakes people make when implementing a content strategy
  • Misconceptions around digital marketing attribution
  • The importance of time series and geographic tracking
  • How a flywheel marketing structure can be so effective

Related resources/links:


Amanda: You know him as the founder of Moz, the author of Lost and Founder, and now the creator of the fantastic new tools SparkToro. He’s one of the most well-known and well-respected leaders in our industry. I’m very pleased to say that our guest this week is the one and only Rand Fishkin. Welcome to the show, Rand.

Rand: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, Amanda.

Amanda: I’m really excited about our topic today because you want to cover some of the structural issues that companies face that keep them from choosing the right marketing tactics and understanding the ROI of their work, which is a pretty big issue; I think that comes up a lot. So, just to dive right in maybe, I’ll start with more of a top-level question which is, what do you think are some of the most common mistakes that you see businesses make when it comes to content marketing?

Rand: Yeah, I think there are quite a number. But one of the biggest ones for sure is sort of a, I want to say a misunderstanding of the overall strategy behind content marketing and where it fits into the marketing picture, why you’re doing it, right? So, I think that unfortunately, due to, I don’t want to particularly blame like marketers for creating the wrong impression, but for some reason out in the media environment of what businesses and business owners consume, there’s this belief that content marketing is something where you produce content on a blog or through a news section on your website, and you then get that content ranking in Google and earning social shares and then magic happens, right? People come to your website and some of them buy and then you just work on improving the conversion rate and consistently putting out, you know, good, unique content, and that’s the strategy. And that is at the core, just completely flawed. It is– it’s going to lead you down a very ineffective road, it’s not the right way to think about how to make the investment, it’s not the right way to consider whether content marketing is right for your business and audience, it will bias you to make short term decisions and decisions that are based on faulty metrics and faulty understanding. So, yeah, that’s the big one. 

Amanda: And you mentioned the bias about like, short term gains or short-term strategies, and I’ve definitely seen that too. Is that one of the more common biases you’ve seen, or are there others you think, especially maybe among leadership in an organization that come up a lot?

Rand: Yeah, I mean, one of the other really, really painful ones is this belief in perfect attribution, right? So, if it’s on the web, it must be perfectly attributable, because our Google ads and our Facebook ads are perfectly attributable so, why isn’t your content marketing? And of course, Google and Facebook intentionally make it very, very difficult to track and measure the performance of content, right? They’ve even been key lobbyists behind efforts like GDPR, and the California Privacy Law to make sure that browsers and that cookies can’t track people effectively so that the only way to effectively track, you know, a marketing channel is with Google and Facebook ads. Shocking, I know. You know, the issue of measurability is a brutal one, right? So, if someone, for example, this was very, very common in my days at Moz, right? And this is back when you could track all kinds of cookies over longer periods than you can today and easier than you can today, with less of the privacy law restrictions. It was very true that many times people would come they’d consider five, six, seven, ten pieces of content on our site, right? They’d come visit the blog, they’d go visit the resources section, they’d check out some of the guides, and then later, they would do a search for our brand name or one of our tools and they’d see an ad, and they’d click that ad because it ranks at the top, right? The ad is above the rest of the organic results, takes them where they want to go, it’s easy, and when they land there, the attribution doesn’t say, “Ah, you know, 80%…”, since you know, they visited the site eight times before, “…80% of the attribution should go to content marketing, and maybe we’ll give 20% to the ad, but we really, we shouldn’t give it to the ad at all. Because if we hadn’t been running that ad, they would have clicked on the organic listing that was right below it and so, the ad really is just a, you know, slight boost that you might have gotten.”. That’s not how its measured, right? The way it’s measured, unfortunately, is 100% attribution of the ad, how come contact marketing is working for us?

Amanda: Right. Yeah, I feel like content marketing kind of starts with that disadvantage, like you said, compared to other marketing tactics, and you’ve said in the past that some of the best ROI you’ve seen, I think the quote is like from Non-Measurable Serendipitous Marketing. 

Rand: That’s right. 

Amanda: Do you still feel that way? And if that’s the case, like, what are some examples of how, not only that you’ve seen that, but how do you tell that story? Can you use those examples really to kind of bring it to life for other people?

Rand: Sure, yeah. So, one of the best ways to do this is with time series and geographic tracking. So, for example, this was maybe 2009/2010, I went and spoke at a conference in Norway, and later over the course of the next two quarters, watched our, essentially attraction in the Scandinavian market, right? Because most of the attendees there were Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, right? And so, watched how Moz’s traffic and adoption of you know, people subscribing to our blog and people signing up for our software, I watched that, and you could see the lift, right? The lift was like almost 50% growth from the previous two quarters, some of that granted, it was just the brand overall growing, right? We were growing it, but undoubtedly some of it was also attributable to the fact that a bunch of marketers, you know, 1000 marketers in those countries saw me speak there and many of them met me and– right, we had, it’s serendipitous, it’s nearly impossible to measure. You know, a person could say, “Well, you don’t know for sure that that was it. What if it was somebody you know, who spread around your blog posts in, whatever, Sweden and Norway and Denmark?”.  Okay, hard to– you’re right, hard to attribute. You can’t be sure, but probably it was that serendipitous event, right? So, that is a good example for me of that hard to measure stuff and I have consistently tried to put 20%, 25%, sometimes even more of my marketing efforts into hard to measure channels, the best part about them is, they’re very low competition, right? People just don’t try to invest in things intentionally that they can’t prove the value of, and that makes them really, really worth doing.

Amanda: What are some of those channels in your mind? I think in person events is a great example, but what are some of those others that you’re investing in?

Rand: Yeah, podcasts are a really good example actually. You know, podcasts are extremely hard to attribute you could, you know, sometimes people will publish the show notes, there’ll be a link and so you can see a little bit of it, but a lot of times people just listen and then they remember they have an association in their mind, right? That builds up some brand. But yeah, the ability to track is really poor. Another one for sure is content, right? So, content, you can see visits but it’s very hard to attribute you know, a ton of it is going to be dark traffic, right? Dark search and dark social are very significant, email tracking is challenging, not impossible, but challenging, and then the ability to see return visits, the ability to calculate, you know, the lift that content has created on your brand; that’s really tough. Another one is branded search, which drives so, so much traffic. And when you try and attribute something to branded search, really, something else has happened, right? Something influenced that person searching for your company name, for your product name, but you don’t know what, right? And so, that is a very hard to attribute channel as well; networking in general, right. So, helping people out over email and you know, sending emails back and forth and a lot of social media marketing that happens intra network, right? On the networks themselves, Twitter, DMing and replying to people, comment marketing, LinkedIn connections, very, very difficult to measure, absolutely has a lift effect.

Amanda: And when it comes to getting buy-in, this is one of the biggest hurdles because even as a content marketer, if you understand this, the value, even though you can’t measure it, do you have tips for people on how to get that sort of approval from leadership when it is harder to illustrate? Like, how can you argue for it?

Rand: The thing that I have found that really works with leadership is to tell them their competition is kicking their butt with it, right? So, for some reason, you know, when you pitch something as, “Hey, it’s hard to measure. But look, we’ll be able to show this lift and yada-yada, it can really transform our business, if we invest now, we can start to build a flywheel effect around this and yada-yada.”, people are like, “Uh-uh.”. And then you say, “Hey, the folks down the street are doing it.”. “What? What? I’m not going to let them beat us.”. I don’t know why; it just seems to be the case that a lot of business owners and C suite executives are very driven by this idea of not getting beat.

Amanda: And that kind of leads into another question I was going to ask, which was, do you see a difference between like, the levels of leadership and what they’re looking for? So, you just mentioned the C suite? Like, are there different metrics that like VP’s versus C suite versus investors, you know, what they’re looking for? Or do you see kind of the same trends across the board?

Rand: I bet there are, you know, some statistical differences between those levels of management. But to be honest, I don’t know that it’s consistent enough to say, “Oh, investors always do X or consistently do X, and C suite does Y and VP’s do Z, and middle management does A.”. I don’t have a great sense of that.

Amanda: Yeah, that’s totally fair. I’ve wondered that myself. I was like, maybe everybody– it’s got to mostly be a case by case basis. I know a lot them are the same.

Rand: Yeah, I think it’s a little more personal than it is by role.

Amanda: Yeah. That makes a lot sense and you mentioned the flywheel, the content marketing flywheel, I know you’ve presented on this, it’s kind of a really fascinating way to distill it down. Can you get into that a little bit? How you describe that?

Rand: Sure. Yeah. The idea of a flywheel is that it– it’s a system that scales with decreasing friction, right? So, essentially, you make an investment, I just wrote a blog post about this, right, and I called it You Do a Marketing Thing, right? You run an ad or you, whatever, you know, send a social share, you post a tweet, you publish a blog post, you speak at a conference, you go on a podcast, you sponsor a YouTube channel, whatever it is, right? Like, you do a marketing thing, and then you promote that marketing thing, right? To amplify it so it reaches more people, and then you kind of get this, assuming that you are using the flywheel model, you get more people to pay attention to you the next time you do it, right? Because hopefully more people have, whatever, subscribed to your YouTube channel or, you know, found your brand or heard about you or, you know, subscribed to your blog or followed you on Twitter, whatever it is. And then you benefit from some algorithmic elements, right? So, Twitter sees that your tweet was engaging and so, your next tweet will be shown to more people. Google sees that your ad had, you know, good click through rate and high engagement so, your next ad costs a little less, or is shown to more people. Your blog post earned some links and so, now all the content on your site ranks a little bit better. Your Facebook page, right? All these algorithmic elements. And so, now next time you do the same marketing thing, it is more effective. And this– the idea behind the flywheel is that each revolution, with each revolution, you are getting slightly better, and maybe it’s only every 10 revolutions that you improve, but still, those 10 revolutions mean that the, you know, two years from now, we’re doing incredible things with the same, you know, with this marketing tactic, this system that works better and better, it scales with decreasing friction, we’re improving the return on investment by either acquiring customers for a lower cost, or improving the lifetime value of the customers we do acquire, or by making the revolution of the tactic, right, the process easier and easier.

Amanda: You, I think in a previous presentation, you, relevant to this, talked about how creating this type of content, you kind of used the similar tactic to making people have like, follow about what their competitors are doing. Like, they’re not keeping up, and you phrased it by saying like, “Okay, people do a search and you’re not appearing in the search results, or people look at this top 10 list and your software is not there, or you know, you talk to your friend but they don’t know about you to recommend you.”. I really thought that was compelling in terms of a way to talk about some of these aspects to leadership or really anybody because like, even though you can’t measure it, you’re just absent from a lot of these spaces. And, you know, with the buyer’s journey being so long, do you think that, speaking about the buyer’s journey, do you think that the fact that it is so much longer now is what contributes to a lot of these misunderstandings about content and its value, but there are so many aspects to it?

Rand: You know, my sense is that the buyer’s journey has not gotten all that much longer or more complex, but rather that in the early days of content marketing, and SEO and web marketing and advertising overall, it was just such a competitive advantage because there was so little competition, right? So, relatively speaking, you could sort of do the most basic things, right? My whatever, my lawyer website could put up a few blog posts and suddenly like, oh, my gosh, we’re ranking in Google and we’re getting traffic and yeah, eventually some of those clicks are turning into conversions, because there’s just nobody else, right? There’s no other law firm in Oklahoma that is blogging about Oklahoma state laws and so, suddenly we’re just winning, and we don’t, you know, we don’t have to get sophisticated about a lot of things because it’s working. And then of course, everyone does this and agencies get good at it, marketers get good at it, the tracking gets harder, right? The ability to do targeting outside of ad platforms gets harder, a lot of the data and information that Google and Facebook and other providers previously shared, they start to hide and so, now, yeah, all this stuff is much more difficult. And that yeah, that’s– I think that’s what more so than buyer journey changing, right? I don’t think consumer behavior has changed that massively in the last 12-15 years. People are obviously more online, they’re more web centric, they’re more mobile centric, but yeah, this competition issue and then the race for attention and the race to keep you on platforms, right? Google working incredibly hard to make sure you never leave Google, Facebook working incredibly hard to make sure you never leave Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, all of them doing the same thing, has only increased that problem.

Amanda: Is that part of why you talked about how brand positioning alone can be, it’s even more powerful than some of the other types of ROI like links and rankings? Is that something you still think is true, that brand positioning alone can have so much value when you do content marketing?

Rand: Yeah, as long as it’s combined with brand awareness, right? So, positioning would be, “Here is the problem that people have and here is how our solution solves it in this unique way versus the rest of the field.”, right? And the rest of the field could be doing, you know, solving this problem manually in Excel, having an intern do it, ignoring the problem and not investing in it at all, doing it yourself manually, you know, whatever it is, and that’s true if If it’s consumer or B2B. But that has to be combined with brand awareness, which is, people know of you, they understand what you do and how you help solve the problem. 

Amanda: Yeah, that makes sense. So, if somebody is listening now, is there anything that you wish you could tell, like, the executive at every company, like something that they should all know about content that they don’t? 

Rand: Yeah, well, let’s see. So, first off, I would say, when you decide to invest in content, make sure that you measure it correctly, right? And think about measuring it correctly. So, content is a long term strategy, where you are going to invest and you should not expect to see early returns in the first three to six months and maybe not even nine months, but over time, you should see increasing early signals in terms of the content itself is generating more traffic and more awareness and you know, nine months in, you should see things like, “Gosh, our branded search looks like it’s growing.”, right? Searches for our brand name, and “Oh yeah, a few people are signing up to get our emails…”, right? “…and the content itself is improving in quality.”, those are all good signals that you are building machine that’s going to work well for you in the future. But if you instead, measure it as, “Okay, how many people who read our blog posts signed up as customers…”, right? “…bought from us?”, you’re defeating yourself, right? You’re putting yourself in a no-win situation, you’re putting your content team in a no-win situation, you are going to be beat by people who think about this more strategically and long term. And I would encourage those folks who think about it that short term way and are locked into that mindset, content is not for you, don’t invest in content, put that– put those dollars and effort, put it into ads; ads are going to have the short term returns that you want to see and the super measurability that you want to see, and yes, they’re extremely expensive, it’s hard to build a competitive advantage there but, if that’s your mindset, that’s where you want to make the investment.

Amanda: Right. And I mean, you’ve had, obviously with your experience at Moz and now SparkToro, you know, you can talk about features and products and that sort of thing, but you’ve spoken on the kind of the power of the story, like the brand, the emotional brand story, and you know, I think that buckets in with content a lot in terms of how you tell that narrative, and people might push back on that because it’s like, what’s the point of this? It’s not talking about, you know, what we’re selling. What do you see as the value of telling that kind of a brand story?

Rand: Yeah. I think that storytelling is extraordinarily powerful because it’s so memorable, right? Human beings are bad at remembering a list of product features, they’re generally bad at recalling, you know, whatever your unique value proposition, or your comparison versus competitors, but they’re really good at remembering stories and stories tend to resonate, right? I think people are shockingly familiar with a lot more business stories than they think they are, right? And they have these narratives in their head and storytelling by virtue of this, you know, memory boosting device is also a great way to elicit emotion and emotion around brand is the primary way people buy, right? We want to believe that we are logical, rational creatures, we are so far from it, right? We are anything but that, right? We do not, you know, even though, you know, voting is a good example of this, right? Voting, that’s probably the thing that affects your life more than anything else and more than you know, anyone ever realizes, in a million ways big and small all day, every day, what do we do? Yeah, we don’t take it very seriously, right? Most people in most democracies don’t take voting very seriously, we don’t, you know, carefully consider it. We put more thought into which dishwasher detergent to get than who to vote for and that, you know, that is, this is just human nature. However, I think that the ability to story tell and elicit emotion can vary much as a result of this human behavior can very much bias people toward your brand in really powerful ways. A lot of times folks will look across this, I think, especially entrepreneurs in technology have this immense frustration all the time, right? They look out across the field, and they go, “Zoom isn’t even the best conference software. Why is it so popular? Why is everyone using it? Look at these three alternatives that are so much better, and here’s all these reasons why.”. Yeah, guess what? We don’t buy rationally, my friend, we buy emotionally, and Zoom has resonated emotionally, right? They’ve told the right brand story, at the right time and they had the right evangelism and the right marketing, and their story is the one that worked, right? So, that’s just how it is.

Amanda: That’s a great recent example. I feel like I’ve seen that on Twitter like 15 times. People are questioning that but yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s just how people feel about brands, that’s what matters. So, there’s a question I asked at the end of every episode, which is, what do you think is the biggest mistake people make when they go to pitch a content strategy? 

Rand: Some people try to be rational, right? I think that just like everyone else, right? You know, if you’re an agency or a consultant, or if you’re on a content team or a marketing team, you’re the VP of Marketing, you’re pitching your C suite, it’s okay to have– you should have rational arguments in there as well, you should have data, but you should tell it in a story way, you should tell it in a way that elicits the emotions of, “Oh, this is new and interesting.”. Oh, our competitors are doing this, that that builds up my emotion around competition and around jealousy, and around a desire to not be left behind, that builds up my fear that someone else will beat us at this game, right? And those types of emotions, those are very, very powerful, especially, to be totally honest, right? In brutal economic times, like the one that we’re in right now and what we’ll be experiencing the next 6-18 months, probably at the least, folks are very, very focused on saving money and on not being left behind. And so, you know, fortunately or unfortunately, marketers have to play to that fear, right? And I think that being able to assuage someone’s fears is, not only, it’s not only an emotionally kind thing to do, it’s also a great resonant way to reach them, to break through their barriers and their objections.

Amanda: Yeah, I think you’re, that’s a good point about especially now, for anybody listening, we’re recording this during the COVID-19 quarantine. And you know, I didn’t even think about that, in this current context, but the topic of emotion has come up in other ways, I think on previous episodes, people talking about how, maybe they report on smaller wins, like just seeing your name in media or, you know, like things like that, really, I mean, you feel something when you see that. 

Rand: Yeah, I think that playing to pride, fear of missing out, playing to people’s, you know, preconceived notions of bias and what they want to see, what they don’t want to see, that’s really powerful.

Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. So, the other question I ask people is, knowing the objective of this show, do you have any recommendations on who should be future guests?

Rand: Ooh, great question. Yes, absolutely. So, two things I can do, I can email you a list of some folks but some people that I’ve been really impressed by include April Dunford who wrote Obviously Awesome, which is, in my opinion, the book on positioning, absolutely amazing piece there. I don’t know, you know, if PR and those kinds of things are something that you want to talk about, I really recommend Sarah Evans. She’s helped us a bunch with it, she’s a really, really smart and talented, wonderful person. Yeah, the former CMO of Tableau, Elissa Fink, she is, I think she she left there, she’s now teaching at the University of Washington and I was on a few calls with her recently, brilliant, really thoughtful, you know, marketer who’s obviously seen an incredible growth, right? During Tableau’s lifespan. She was there from you know, when it was a few people, all the way up to thousands. Yeah.

Amanda: Awesome. I really appreciate those recommendations, and I appreciate you taking the time to be on this show and share your insights.

Rand: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *