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The Content Marketing Handbook (priceonomics.com)
291 points by gedrap on Dec 9, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

One assumption that goes more or less unchallenged is that "content marketing" == "writing blog posts". It's what they are really good at and what they've optimized and hired for.

However, for developers, I think there is a much easier path in the form of building online tools and mini experiences that just destroy "blogging" in terms of ROI and traffic generation.

This is things like WPEngine's speed test, Site Checker's, Buffer's Pablo Image tool, ForAGoodStrftime.com, etc. purposeful, useful tools that people love to share as they are genuinely helpful.

Definitely agree with this. I'm surprised so many companies still bother to produce content in the form of crappy articles on beat the horse to death topics.

It feels like having a blog is a must-have to be a legit company these days so a lot of companies hire someone to churn out $30 articles just to have one.

I definitely think companies need to reimagine content. First by moving away from the incredibly boring blog format.


Beautifully designed beginner SEO guide (almost feels like a choose your adventure book): https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo

Interactive visualizations: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/02/13/us/politics/20...

Collection of email templates: http://www.artofemails.com/sales-follow-up

>>> First by moving away from the incredibly boring blog format.

There is nothing wrong with the blog format per se. The problem is, as you correctly identified, crappy articles.

What your examples have in common is that they provide value to the user. That's the key no matter what's the medium you are using to do so. There's nothing wrong with the blog format that prevents you from providing value.

But blogs do tend towards presentism, by virtue of how they present their information... and those in the know are well aware of how easy it is to set up a blog, making the medium a little contemptible compared to a well-done "roll-your-own" webpage.

Disclaimer -- I work at Moz

Another great resource on, and as, content marketing similar in depth to the aforementioned Beginner's Guide to SEO:


One company whose content I really admire is HelpScout.net

They do incredible stuff, especially with their design and presentation. The content itself isn't as compelling as, say, Priceonomics, but it is still very, very good.

I'm a big fan of the Helpscout content. It's an almost guaranteed click from me every time they send an email.

Building such tools and making them successful is not at all easy. People assume they'll just throw some code and make it open source and this will bring loads of traffic.

Unfortunately things don't work this way - even a free tool needs to be marketed, and if marketing is your weakness this is not an easy task.

Full 100% agreement that even a free tool needs to be marketed, but if we're comparing apples to apples, so does a blog article.

My experience has been that it's much much easier to market a free mini-service than it is to get somebody to pay attention to a blog article as it's just a better "frame" to put the content in.

As opposed to "talking at people" marketing, I just really like the tool creation approach as it feels much more like "helping people" marketing.

Totally agree. You don't even need to invest in building engineered "tools." You can simply build guides, wikis, etc. that are "content tools."

In fact, building evergreen resources like that can be incredibly powerful because it doesn't necessarily have a date stamp on it, and can build quite a lot of backlinks as a definitive resource for something.

Case in point, Google for "beginners guide to SEO" and see how high Moz ranks. Rand and the Moz team get content marketing, and SEO-related terms are some of the hardest out there to rank for. Now go look at how they organize/structure that content and what they are actually writing about. It is largely evergreen.


This is a good point though I hear that written content is king from a long tail SEO standpoint.

We've done a few of these "tools" at Open Listings and haven't had much luck with them in terms of SEO but the initial mini-launch traffic can be nice and we've been able to use them to introduce our main offering to new audiences. Shitty Listings helped us find an audience in the small-time real estate investment community for instance [0]. The advice I'd give from our experience with these mini-launches is to make sure they tie in well with the larger product and make sure not to let these traffic spikes mask underlying problems with retention in your main business. Especially when you're small, it's easy for the whole team to get distracted by shiny launches and getting signups when the real growth opportunities are usually "boring" stuff like tweaking transactional emails.

[0]: http://www.shittylistings.com

Text is king for SEO because search engines have been most strongly optimized for text content. Google is much better at finding high quality written content than it is at finding high quality data visualizations.

BUT, the key insight is that there is a lot more to content marketing than SEO. In fact social channels eclipsed search engines a long time ago for a lot of content marketing programs. And cool apps/images/visualizations/games tend to do better on social than just straight text, no matter how well written.

Well said, and you just inspired me to start thinking about some new ways to look at "content". I feel like I just had an epiphany. Thanks for sharing!

Edit: to expand on this, and idea I've been chewing on for a while, but haven't had time to implement, is to setup a Moodle or Sakai server, and build some interactive course content that relates to our domain, and offer free online courses. Note: Not talking about a MOOC or anything that general. Just a free online class on a specific issue / topic that relates to what we do. The idea is to offer something genuinely valuable tough, not something that's just a thinly disguised sales pitch for our products. Of course we want it to help raise awareness of our name and our products, but I don't think people want to sign up for something that's just pure marketing. I mean, I wouldn't.

Shameless plug: I wrote an article about how simple marketing tools brought more backlinks than blog posts for some marketers.


The conclusion was the same: these tools were incredibly easy to build, and each of them got 2-10x more backlinks, shares and leads than equivalent blog posts.

How do you market your online tool: if you build it, will they come?

A more useful mental model is "your website will only get the traffic you drive to it." Substitute app, software, tool, etc. for "website" if necessary.

But this makes the reality more clear: building it is not enough. You must take active, focused marketing action to build an audience or customer base.

That doesn't have to mean running ads, although I would not rule out ads. It can include PR, SEO, events, social media, etc. The point is that if you want a product to succeed, you have to be ready to spend time and money to make it succeed.

Now, it's true that a few special products are so awesome that they take off on their own. But most products don't. And if you happen to build one that does, it certainly won't be hurt by some marketing.

I believe the movie Field of Dreams existing had the single most detrimental effect amongst app developers and executive producers than any other movie, because they keep thinking if only they build a good app, then the audience will come to them. NOT TRUE.

Neil Patel wrote a nice article along those lines you'd probably enjoy: https://www.quicksprout.com/2013/10/14/move-over-content-mar...

I'm normally skeptical about these types of articles (every SEO website has one) but the intro is very interesting, and they hit on some fundamental issues with content marketing right off of the bat i.e. every company blogs because they "have" to, but very few get traction out of it.

The other issue they hit on was that half of the companies that pay for their service never actually published anything. To negate this they decided to "make content for companies based on their data and then just charge them based on the performance."

While they are still charging for the content, I really like the concept of paying for performance (and not in some shady black-hat SEO way that gets your website banned from Google). No content marketing firms that I have ever worked with have even had this as an option...

>>> I'm normally skeptical about these types of articles (every SEO website has one) but the intro is very interesting, and they hit on some fundamental issues with content marketing right off of the bat i.e. every company blogs because they "have" to, but very few get traction out of it.

Me too. A lot of startups have annoying popups offering me a FREE ebook on marketing/sales/whatever in exchange for my email address. Emphasis on FREE. Please, write good content regularly and I will definitely remember your brand (DigitalOcean did this right with tutorials) and maybe subscribe to your newsletter, or even become a customer. In other words, provide me with value.

Reminds me of a trend a few years ago, companies offering their FREE smartphone apps all over the place which used to provide no value whatsoever. These strategies might have been effective for the first few players but I seriously doubt about their effectiveness when everyone was doing it.

So, normally I'd have totally ignored a headline like this but in priceonomics I trust :)

Rohin Dhar highlighted a very critical issue in this industry: that marketers hire writers who don't really have any stake in the company's success, or an understanding of its core product.

If you're writing content for a CRO tool, you need to know CRO yourself.

If you're writing content for a data analytics tool, you need to have a basic understanding of data analysis.

Those $50/article writers don't have that. If they did, they wouldn't be writing $50 articles.

I feel content marketing has to evolve from mere "content" to "expertise" marketing.

Sure, a great writer can research, but you need hands-on experience to write something that truly stands out.

>>> I feel content marketing has to evolve from mere "content" to "expertise" marketing.

I totally agree with this point.

The most trusted, shared, reputable content is either written by practitioners or, like Priceonomics says, about a company's data or industry or people.

I am a content marketer for a CRO tool and make it a point to run A/B tests on our marketing site and blog as often as possible so I know what I'm talking about. It's my editorial duty to know as much as possible about the subject I'm writing about.

Do you think there's a difference between what's described here and "performance" and those of us who are just doing blogs?

I feel that I'm marketing awareness that I exist and am in some way at least professionally interested in my work. But I don't generate any revenue from it. I don't make professional contacts (people rarely contact me saying they read an article of mine).

But I do want more exposure, because why not?

> Facebook is the New Television

> The phone has replaced the television set, and Facebook is the channel guide that tells you what content to consume.

This popped out to me given that this article (http://nautil.us/issue/31/stress/is-facebook-luring-you-into...) about social media effects on mental health popped up on HN today and still lingers in my mind.

I've lost the ability to focus on a single task for hours at a time like I used to as a kid. Even if it excites me. My attention has been completely ruined by social media and I don't know how to recover.

Always some sort of chat or something in the background. I really don't know what to do, should I get counselling or something?

I was the same way, and still am to a certain degree, but I've been experimenting a bit.

I started out by trying the pomodoro thing again. 25 minutes of uninterrupted time. Ringer off, chat off, focused on the task at hand. I played around with a few different tools, but I've got at least a handful of machines that I work on, and it was a pain in the ass to try to find a cross-platform solution.

What I ended up settling on was to use my phone as the timer, and a spreadsheet to keep a list of what I'd accomplished and what I had left to do. I used Smartsheets, but google docs or whatever would work fine too. And here's where the interesting part came in!

For the first week or two, I followed it pretty closely. 25 minutes of work, 5 minute rest, repeat. And then... one day I realized that my phone was upstairs, I was feeling pretty good about doing some work, and so I figured I'd start a task and just keep an eye on the clock. Hour and a half of productive time goes by before I even look down at the clock again! On crappy days, I'm not anywhere near the point where I can stay focused for long stretches, and in those cases I fall back onto the 25-5 routine, but for good days I seem to have gotten my ability to focus back quite well!

I've lost my ability to focus on a single task for hours like I could when I was in my teens, but I don't blame it on social media. I blame it on adulthood. The sheer amount of crap we have to deal with day in, day out, starting with having to go to work to earn a living, pretty much precludes me from being able to invest any significant amount of time into anything - there's this constant worry that I need to be doing something else.

Absolutely this. It is oftentimes just so damn hard to clear my mind enough to focus on anything at all.

I don't think anything is wrong with you. I've talked with lots of friends (devs and not), who have noticed their attentions have changed over time. I don't think it's causation that your attention has eroded with the rise of social media, just a correlation from the times you happen to live in. I suspect people in the 50's lamented vinyl eroding their ability to practice music for hours on end.

I think the ability to concentrate on one task singularly is really a gift the young get. I can't think of a single friend who has ever said it has gotten better over time. Enjoy the positive changes that come with age though. The ability to reason more objectively, the ability to control your emotions, the ability handle defeat and disappointment with grace, and the ability to plan larger things. Your body and mind change with age.

Everyone ages cognitively at a different rate, but unless you're approaching 70, which I doubt, that loss of ability to concentrate you're experiencing is unlikely to be physical. If you're under 30 and you're feeling you've already lost significant ability to concentrate you probably want to do a deep rethink on how you allow web/mobile/social media/etc to impact you. It's hard to cut back, because those distractions are an actual addiction.

Thanks for this post. It's really comforting as a young adult.

I'm working through a mindfulness meditation book (The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1590308476/ref=as_li_tl?ie=... ) which helps me regain some of the focus that I feel as though I've lost. I've been at it for about two days, and I feel as though I've been helped a huge amount-- I bet it'll be helpful for others, even if they don't have ADHD, as it offers a lot of tools to address the constant zig-zagging of attention resulting from our super-stimulated environment.

If meditation practices fail at helping improve your focus, there's always stimulants. I enjoy brewing up the beans from Stumptown.

Try something as follows:

First, don't worry too much if you think your attention and focus is not good or it's getting worse because this act of (constant) worrying itself keeps you in the very same (worry) loop you want to avoid/escape at the very first place. Just keep in mind, an average amount of lack of attention is common as it happens to most of us because of our aging, work, life style, and the environment (both real and digital). Try to avoid doing unnecessary tasks as much as you can and don't push yourselves too hard. Focus on the progress and not the results alone to improve your chances.

Second, exercise and meditate besides having good sleep and a balanced diet (this part is pretty common advice as most of us already know about it). In addition, I would suggest you also include some sports performance psychology books in your reading list as they often contain some really good applied research to improve the performance of professional sport-man. I think, in some way, a technical (or business) person is not very different from those sport-men when it comes to attention, focus and performing under pressures in work/business settings. The visible aspects of tasks and their execution (a sport-man and technical/business person perform) are different but the mental aspects of these tasks are very similar to those tasks one has to carry out in a technical/business context.

Last, you can consider counseling and more serious help, if above-mentioned self-help methods doesn't work in your case. Most of the time we don't need to think about this step if we keep working on the first two points regularly unless we've some strong evidence that we must consider this last step.



I'm not an expert in any mental health and performance related field (like psychology etc.). I'm just a normal technical person like most of other HN community member.

Set some increasingly harder concentration and focus targets. Try to achieve these targets when you are not tired, i.e. not when you come back from work. It's not just social networks btw. The fact that we imprison our children in home does not help with our ability to concentrate either.

Start reading books. Find something you like and with practice you'll find that you can recover your focus.

Delete facebook, hit the gym. Pretty much all it takes.

Like almost every successful content marketing campaign we’ve ever run, at first nothing happened. But gradually, after hitting the front page of Hacker News, the post got in front of the right people. An industry blog called Skift, which focuses on travel technology, wrote about it. Larger blogs like Lifehacker, Gizmodo, and GigaOm wrote about it. Then the big guys started covering it: CNBC, The Financial Times, TIME, Businessweek, and The Huffington Post all wrote about our study and gave a nod to Priceonomics.

There are several examples of Hacker News providing an early boost to Priceonomics, after a blog post floated to the top and a journalist (or several) noticed. The inbound links helped them vault to the top of Google SERPs for certain terms, and they were able to build a business around helping other companies do the same thing--getting inbound links (and social shares) by publishing unique information.

They give a few examples, such as this one:

This same strategy can be applied to any industry. Say you own an ice cream shop. You know how many ice cream cones you sell per day. You can also look up the average temperature of each day. Create a chart with temperature on the x-axis and ice cream cone sales on the y-axis, and you’ve got excellent, data driven content.

Another content marketing tactic: Use stories:

One of the core tenets at Priceonomics is that everyone has an interesting story. Every person you come into contact with on a daily basis has a deep-rooted story about heartbreak, triumph, tragedy, or comedy.

The part about all of this that I find a little hard to swallow is the connection between publishing interesting data and stories and getting major online news sites and MSM to cover it. One of the examples mentions sending out an email to 50 Apple blogs about a Priceonomics blog post on depreciation of old iPhones, and no one responded. Then they contacted Josh at TechCrunch, who had covered Priceonomics launching a month before, and he wrote it up, with scads of follow-on coverage coming soon after. I think practically anyone else publishing the same bit of information would have been ignored.

To me, this suggests that luck, media connections, and submitting the right link to HN at the right time are key factors in early content marketing success. For organizations that don't have these benefits/skills, how much will the Priceonomics content marketing formula help them?

>>> luck

I believe we should define 'luck' in this context.

Luck is when you write once a year and it happens to get on the front page of HN (or large subreddit, etc) and it attracts the critical mass of customers. In this case, it's like flipping a coin (just the odds are not 50/50). Voting on HN is far from deterministic and it's often the case that a link gets no traction on the first couple of submissions and then gets on the frontpage the third time it's submitted. So, yes, quite a bit of luck is involved.

In case of priceonomics, they are writing good content consistently so it's hardly luck anymore. If you have 20% (or any other probability) to make the front page and do it often enough, eventually it will happen. And if you keep doing that, people will recognize your domain and more people will click on the link, etc. While chance is still involved, it's quite far from the typical definition of 'luck'.

To me, these sort of formulas should just be a jumping off point for how to create a process that works for your business.

For instance, I'm content marketing guy for an electronics manufacturing company. Target demo for our blog is supply chain & purchasing people, PCB designers and Electrical Engineers, etc. Every time we've gotten a post on reddit or wherever (3 or 4 times in the last year, can't remember), the traffic increases dramatically, but the quality of leads generated by said traffic decreases significantly. Whether or not you even want to get featured on sites with huge traffic is an open question.

I think people tend to overestimate the quality of their content as well. Creating content is easy, creating really good content isn't, especially in more niche fields. "You can also look up the average temperature of each day. Create a chart with temperature on the x-axis and ice cream cone sales on the y-axis, and you’ve got excellent, data driven content." The last word I would use to describe a post like that is excellent.

"In the current era of publishing, social networks are surpassing Google search as the primary way people find content." is a pretty deceptive quote, if you ask me. I'm sure that holds true for sites like BuzzFeed or whatever, but organic search absolutely dominates my traffic. Bypass capacitor placement or PCOLA/SOQ aren't exactly hot topics on social. Long tail keywords [1] are your friend, and your blog is a great way to take advantage of them.

My company has seen the most success in combining inbound marketing and outbound sales. Use the site/social/email/white papers/podcasts/etc. as a barometer of engagement, and once the user has completed X set of tasks, flag them for review by sales for direct outreach.

Love Priceonomics blog posts. Always high-quality. Always interesting.

I've also been using Tracker since the soft launch. It's a nice clean snapshot of day to day blog performance.

I'm interested to see how the Priceonomics Data Studio concept mentioned in the handbook intro works. It sounds like a good idea, but I do think there will be challenges with outsourcing the Priceonomics content marketing strategy to other businesses.

Someone from Priceonomics can chime in here, but it seems like they have the luxury of identifying diverse topics that are likely to go viral, then go out and acquire data specifically for that topic, tell a story, then move on to the next topic (and perhaps even a different audience).

Other businesses are less flexible. They have to start with a limited amount of data, then use it to tell many stories, week after week.

Not saying it won't work. I'm sure it will. Just interested to see how the data gathering, analysis, and storytelling sides of things all come together in the Priceonomics Data Studio offering.

It's not that hard to stretch this strategy to other businesses.

If you're running, say, a plumbing business, you could teach your blog readers so much about plumbing. Answer their questions and teach them real, useful stuff - everything from fixing a leaky faucet to setting up plumbing for a new house.

Unfortunately, most businesses think that writing a blog post means writing 100 posts on "10 reasons why you need to hire a plumber".

That's useless to readers.

Help readers learn something actually useful about your business and they'll reward you with their loyalty.

Yes. Good point. I don't mean to suggest the content marketing won't work.

Priceonmonics' bests posts (say, over 30k views) have a strong data-driven component combined with great writing.

One of Priceonomics' tag lines is "DATA. LONGFORM CONTENT. ANALYSIS." They excel at data crawling and visualization. Combine that capability with talented storytellers, give those writers the freedom to explore a variety of topics, and you've got a winning recipe for repeated virality.

A plumbing company is a great example. You can write great plumbing content, (and definitely still accomplish your goal of getting people with plumbing-related pain points into your funnel or driving awareness for your business) but it's tough to make that type of content spread consistently, even when well-crafted.

Combining the data gathering + analysis/visualization + great writing for homerun content that generates leads on a consistent basis is the challenge I'm talking about specifically. Moreover, the plumbing company does not likely have a marketing department with all 3 of those skills sets represented.

Priceonomics just announced their 'Data Studio' offering to help companies in that position (and there are plenty of them!).

btw, not sure if anyone posted the 6-page summary of the Content Marketing Handbook yet: https://s3.amazonaws.com/pix-media/The+Content+Marketing+Han...

Obviously a great guide for duplicating what Priceonomics does at your own company. Interested to see how the Data Studio works as an outsourced content service.

This is a pretty good piece, but it did surprise me that they are casting themselves as non-"traditional" PR while espousing more or less verbatim the genera of paths to success in public relations as outlined by the father of PR, Eddie Bernays. Most of the ideas discussed here bring 21st century updates and explanation of platforms and propagation of information for profit, but are comfortably within the Platonic forms espoused in Bernays masterpiece, Crystallizing Public Opinion, [0] which I highly suggest anyone interested in content marketing in this style to read.

[0]: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/193543926X/ref=as_li_tl?ie=...

And if we're going for PR classics, there's always "Sweet Smell of Success", too. Inspired by Walter Winchell. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051036/

Content aside, I am amazed that they didn't force the reader to click through to a hundred different pages to read all of the content, like so many other sites do. Good job.

Wow amazing post, did not have a chance to read yet but this is definitely "print worthy" material. What I mean by that is when I run across really good posts, I print them so I can read on paper outside etc.

Anyway, I did a skim and found this excerpt:

"You should write about information."

And can really relate to that. I've been blogging for about 7 years now, mostly failing but the last year I've had a few big "hits" even one here on HN.

Almost every one of my blogging successes were data driven. What I mean by success is they went viral on their own without any artificial boosting other than basic sharing with my followers.

If you paraphrase that to "You should write about insight" I would more readily agree. Data needs to be digested and that requires varying degrees of effort. If you give away knowledge, people will take notice.

This is a good overview and closely matches what I've been telling (and putting in place for) my clients.

It does lean a bit too much to the data side, which isn't surprising since that's what _they_ know and understand well. However, don't take that to mean that every blog post has to be about data and must contain some kind of chart.

Anecdotal stories, how-to's, and personal realizations can all make for very interesting and successful articles.

Some interesting stuff, although confusing how it keeps conflating PR and content marketing. They're very much not the same thing.

There seem to be swathes of this article that are about online PR and getting coverage from tech journalists, rather than actually doing content marketing.

Anyone looking for real content marketing advice should check out resources like Moz and the (excellent) Content Marketing Institute blog.

"Marketing" includes all aspects of the price, promotion, product, and placement of a company's offerings. PR is the "promotion" slice of that mix. They aren't two independent. In fact, picking stories without considering the audience (which includes journalists who would cover it) seems like bad content marketing.

I agree journalists are a potential audience for materials produced by marketing, but that's not the same thing as PR.

If you ever want a free firework display, tell any PR professional that their role is a subset of marketing... don't forget to stand well back when you light that particular touchpaper though!

Very insightful, because of this article it's easier to connect the dots for a content marketing newb like me.

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