Hiten Shah on the Marriage of Data and Content [PODCAST]

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If data isn’t driving your content strategy, then it’s time to renew your vows with Google Analytics. Image source.

When you work on a marketing team, the right hand doesn’t always know what the left is doing. The analytics people work on their stuff, the content people work on theirs. But could they tell you what the other is working on, and why it’s important?

Not always. Which is a shame, because analytics and content marketing aren’t as far apart on the marketing spectrum as you might think. Or at least they shouldn’t be.

In this episode of the Call to Action podcast, Hiten Shah, co-founder of Kissmetrics and Crazy Egg (to name a few), makes the case for why more content folks should spend more time thinking about data, and vice versa.

You’ll learn:

  • The framework Hiten uses to determine which content pieces should be optimized for conversion.
  • Why Hiten thinks you shouldn’t focus on converting people through content until you have at least 100,000 visits a month.
  • How to talk to your analytics person if you suspect they don’t quite get the value of the content you create.

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In this episode: Dan Levy, Unbounce’s Content Strategist, interviews Hiten Shah, Co-founder of KISSmetrics and Crazy Egg.

Stephanie Saretsky: Hey everyone, it’s Stephanie Saretsky here from Unbounce and you’re listening to Call to Action, the podcast about creating better marketing experiences.

In the last month on the podcast, we’ve talked quite a bit about the relationship between quantity vs. quality in your content marketing. We wanted to take this question a step further and look at the role that analytics play in creating strong content.

Unbounce’s Content Strategist, Dan Levy spoke with Hiten Shah, co-founder of KISSmetrics and Crazy Egg (to name a few) about the complex, and sometimes fraught relationship between content marketing and analytics, and why some marketers are still choosing one over the other. Keep listening to hear Hiten answer the question that’s been plaguing the internet: “Why not both?”

Dan Levy: So you’re one of the few people who can actually say they’re an expert in both content marketing and analytics. But why do you think these two disciplines are often seen as being on different sides of the marketing spectrum?

Hiten Shah: When it comes to content and analytics – especially content marketing or online marketing, maybe you can even say marketing as a whole – I wouldn’t say anybody’s an expert. So I would first like to dispel that myth. The reason I think my companies are great at it is because we don’t really believe we’re experts, and we’re always trying to get better. So we’re always trying to look for new ways to do marketing for our software. And so content marketing happens to be one of the best tactics today, and I’m sure I’ll dive deeper into that as we talk.

And in terms of analytics, just to add some context, the software company that I started that actually worked, the first one, was called Crazy Egg. It’s still around, and it creates heat maps for people who are clicking on a page, and the whole thesis of that business was “analytics is difficult, analytics is a bunch of numbers.” So how can we make a visual and extremely easy to understand so anybody, even somebody who doesn’t have a website, could look at this and understand it?

So I think my perspective comes from: 1) seeing the value of content marketing for my businesses, and then 2) constantly trying to create better ways for people to understand data. I think people tend to make things very complicated when it comes to marketing and analytics, and I’ll share something really simple. Marketing allows you to get traffic and then analytics helps you measure it. I can boil down any marketing channel, any marketing tactic, into those two simple things, which is get traffic and make people do something you want them to do.

Dan Levy: So you said that only 32 percent of marketers think they’re producing enough content, but the companies you’ve been involved with (and you personally) have put out a ton of it. How do you strike a balance though between content quality and quantity? Is more content always better?

Hiten Shah: Better quality with more content or with more quantity is always better. The things I see today – and this just happened yesterday actually – somebody mentioned a company to me and they were like, “Hey, look, they do content marketing really well. They have blog posts, they post them on Facebook, and then they get people to their site and people sign up for their software.”

I’m like, “Yeah, that’s cool.” I mean I’ve seen it and I’ve done it, but the person was talking to me about it like it was a big deal. And then I tried to think about why I didn’t think it was a big deal. And what I realized about that company specifically is they didn’t spend the time to build a brand. So when you look at their content and the work process they have, it’s like really good images for Facebook.

And I would say from a scale of zero (being really awful content) to ten (being amazing content), they’re probably sitting in a five or a six range. And so what I’ve noticed when it comes to content, especially content marketing, is that unless the quality is really high for your audience, you tend not to be able to build a brand. And if you don’t build a brand you won’t get visitors for no reason. What I mean by no reason is unattributable visitors who came from nowhere and it was like a direct visitor. So one tactical thing you can do is see if you’re seeing growth in the direct visitors that are coming to your site. Just look in analytics you can find this, and if you are then it’s likely you’re building a brand. And if you’re not and that tends to be flat or growing very slowly, it’s likely you might need to improve your content so that people start remembering it more and coming back organically to your blog or your site.

So I’m one of those people that always goes for quality first, and the argument I hear as well is as we create more, we cannot maintain the quality. So what I tend to do is have people create high quality content even if it’s just like one or two a month, and then if they know their process of creating that high quality content, it’s honestly as simply as figuring out how to make that repeatable. Where are your biggest bottlenecks in it and how do you get help making it repeatable? So my philosophy today – because I think content marketing helps you build – is that you need quality first, and then you need quantity, and you need to be able to maintain the quality as you increase the amount.

Dan Levy: I guess this is really hard to do. I know that HubSpot and Moz recently both ran tests on their blogs to see what decreasing frequency would do in terms of adding traffic and conversions and stuff like that. And I think what they saw was reducing quantity didn’t necessarily mean more quality, and that’s because sometimes it’s really hard to tell what posts are actually gonna resonate with people, and convert them down the line. So to some extent I do think you have to throw things at the wall and see what sticks. At the same time, you can’t compromise the quality of those things because that will damage your brand as you say.

Hiten Shah: There’s a couple of things, right, you have to look at these things not in a vacuum but holistically, and if you look at content out there today, there’s more content than ever. So being able to stand out and build a brand around the content is really critical for you to actually have sustainable growth. One of the things with some of these studies is like until someone can show me like the 90-day, 180-day results of these efforts, I don’t put a lot of weight on their data. And the reason being – in my experience it’s two things: quantity helps you learn, quality helps you build a brand, and then the long-term impact is really what helps you measure whether you’re being successful. For example, if you don’t write enough posts that are high quality and you start reducing the amount, it’s very likely your search traffic is gonna suffer in the long run, not just your brand.

So just some things to keep in mind when people do some of this research is to make sure that they’re accounting for long-term effect, and I say that because I’ve had business blogs around the same space, multiple ones, running for like – I bet the number’s like seven or eight years now, maybe even 10. And the one thing that we always come back to is that if we have the best content or what we consider the best, what our audience thinks is the best for them, then we end up building a long-term brand and lot of long-term traffic including a ton of traffic from search. So the one thing, again, people forget, is that the majority of your traffic in the long-run is probably still gonna come from search.

Dan Levy: That’s a really good point. When people say the word brand, it sounds like we’re talking about something more fluffy, but it all starts with quality search. You’re not gonna rank if it’s not quality content, so it’s all connected.

I wanted to ask you a little bit more about search down the line, but first, something that you said a little bit earlier was: find out what content is working and do more of it. But you said that people actually often argue with you when you say that, that they take issue with it. Why do you think marketers are hesitant to do more of what they know works?

Hiten Shah: Yeah, I’ve probably just been in too many marketing plan review meetings honestly, and it comes from this thing where it’s like I look at a company, and they’re on this slide – like someone in marketing is presenting – and they’re on this slide and they’re like, “Oh yeah, here are all the things we’re gonna do,” and they’ve got PR, SEO, social media, email campaigns, even TV ads, and phone numbers, and outbound calls, which sometimes is considered marketing in some businesses. And I’m looking at all this, and I’m like, the simple question I ask is, “What are we doing today that’s already working? Can we start there?” And then I reprioritize the list because sometimes they’re like well actually SEO is kind of working for us, it’s converting, or you know, every time we do PR we actually get a ton of signups, right?

So I usually ask the question and then I get answers like that, and I’m like okay, great, so are we confident we can repeat and scale those initiatives? And nine times out of ten the answer is no, so then that’s where I go, “Hey, you’re already doing this stuff. Why don’t you get really good at doing that stuff because you already know it works?” So make is scalable, make it repeatable before you move on to new tactics.

I’d say that the Unbounce blog, the KISSmetrics blog, to some extent Quick Sprout, as well as Crazy Egg (which are all sort of different blogs targeting similar audiences), they all encourage marketers to learn, do more, right? So it’s easy for a marketer to get distracted by tactics that just don’t matter to them right now because there’s so much information on these tactics.

You get excited because you read a 2000-word post about LinkedIn and how you should be using LinkedIn Groups or whatever, right? And then you get all excited, and you’re like, “Yeah I’m B2B. I can use LinkedIn Groups.” But guess what? If you go jump to every new tactic that you hear about, then you’ll never actually make what’s working better.

Dan Levy: So to get into the search stuff a little bit, there’s a lot of speculation that SEO is dead or it’s not as important as it used to be. But you’ve talked about how the majority of traffic for some of the biggest blogs out there is still coming from search. So why the disconnect here between perception and reality do you think?

Hiten Shah: Yeah. I recently had to make a deck that was 10 lessons in 10 years of content marketing I looked at the five blogs I have access to, and for all of them the number one source was either search or direct depending on the level of brand they had. And so I think that SEO is still, I mean, up from a search term in search perspective. SEO I believe is still bigger than content marketing from like just the amount of attention it gets. I mean there used to be and there’s still TV ads talking about SEO and getting your site found on Google especially if you watch late at night or right around primetime on certain channels, you’ll see them trying to target small business owners.

Dan Levy: In between the phone sex commercials and the ShamWow?

Hiten Shah: Yeah, exactly, you got it. And back when I first started on the internet in 2003, the consulting company we built was first built around SEO and helping people with it. And even today there’s really large firms helping people, and I know there are other new things like social, which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little bit later. But to me it’s like the oldest channel on the internet. It’s the oldest channel that we have the most information about, and that’s still very relevant because of the whatever billions of searches that are happening every day. As Google has evolved, I think it’s gotten to be more of a battle. People say it’s harder to get ranked and stuff like that. But at the end of the day we have this beautiful thing called content marketing now, that even Google is starting to embrace in a big way. We can write great content and get a lot of traffic for it even before it hits search engines.

I mean the whole thing is sort of connected now where it’s like if you write a blog post, first you’ll probably get a bunch of shares on it. Because of those shares, the blog post is really good, you’ll get a bunch of links to the blog post, and then give your – depending on how old your site is and other factors – within 30 days or a little bit longer you’ll start getting search traffic for it, if not like right away. I think this might go to your first question about content marketing versus analytics and how people just don’t look at the data. Just looking at the data it becomes evident, it becomes super clear that search is such a big driver. I’m just speaking based on the data.

Dan Levy: You make a really good point there. It seems like that conversation about SEO has been superseded by the conversation about content marketing, but we’re talking about the same thing ultimately, aren’t we?

Hiten Shah: Yes. No content, no search traffic.

Dan Levy: So should SEO just be a bigger part of the content marketing conversation there? Should these two roles be intertwined, or should SEOs and content marketers just learn how to play nicely together?

Hiten Shah: I think we’re seeing a paradigm shift because content marketing in its modern form of blogging and sort of all these social channels is definitely a newer thing, let’s say in the last five years. Let’s just put a tag on it. That content is converging with the people doing SEO, so a lot of the folks doing SEO realize that one of the most scalable ways to build back links, which really helps with SEO, is to do content marketing. So what I’m seeing is that SEOs are getting more into content marketing. Content marketers as a result of being educated by that are actually starting to lean towards, “Okay, I get how SEO works and how my efforts are helping with that.”

So I see a paradigm shift of like it becoming kind of complimentary, and the skill sets in marketing being really fuzzy around like, “Are you a content marketer, are you doing SEO or what?” So at some point we’re probably gonna lose some level of specialization. It’ll all converge to being back to, “Oh. This is online marketing.”

Dan Levy: Right, right back to where we started.

Hiten Shah: Pretty much.

Dan Levy: So we’ve talked about SEO, we’ve talked about traffic, let’s talk a little bit about conversions. You say that you shouldn’t focus too much on getting people to convert through your content until you get at least 100,000 visits per month. Why is that?

Hiten Shah: There’s a very simple thing and I think the knowledge is better now, so you could lower the bar a little bit maybe, maybe to 50,000, but in general it’s just math again. So let’s say if you have 100,000 visitors, the most I’ve seen with like zero effort just like standard best practices if you want to call them that, is that you can get up to basically half a percent or a percent of that traffic to convert to like emails. I’ve seen one company that’s up to like 10+ percent on collecting emails from every visit, or every visit ten percent of them convert and I’ve seen a little bit higher. But that requires a lot more work and tricks, so I think in the beginning you really need to get a good idea of your audience, and you really need to get a good idea of what resonates with them and what’s gonna help you build traffic.

And that 100,000 – you can probably pull that off in anywhere from three to six months usually. And once you get that, then you generally have a system and what I would call a content marketing engine where you can repeatedly create more content that at least gets you that amount of traffic. Also about three to six months is when SEO starts kicking in, so you’ll start seeing like 10, 20, 30 percent of your traffic out of that 100,000 coming from search, which is residual, right? But the searchers have an even lower conversion rate to giving their email, so you have to do a lot of tricks there. So it’s really just about knowing what content is gonna resonate, and knowing that once you hit about 100,000 visits a month, you’re at a place where you actually have this core understanding of it and can repeat it. So it really comes out of just seeing a lot of things scale and realizing that 100,000 is a really easy number to focus on as an initial goal.

Dan Levy: Yeah, you’ve actually created kind of a framework to help marketers figure out how to optimize our content where the X axis is conversions and the Y axis is traffic. Can you walk us through that a little bit?

Hiten Shah: I created this framework and actually first shared it at HubSpot’s conference last year I believe, and I shared it but I really didn’t have this diagram, and then somebody actually drew the diagram. I turned that diagram into a slide in some presentations I’ve had. So basically just imagine in front of you (just because we’re visually thinking right now via voice), but imagine in front of you there’s like a sort of square box, and then you cut the box into four just by cutting the middle lines and there’s an axis. So there’s a top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right, and like you said the Y axis is traffic and the X is conversions, and so on the bottom left is basically your worst quadrant where it’s low traffic and low conversions. So if there’s channels that are in that quadrant, you basically need to figure out how to move it up one to the quadrant above it, which is the top left where it would be like you’re trying to get more traffic for it.

So what I do – just in short on how I would use this framework – is I would map all my channels or even all my landing pages to see where they fit. Are they high converting and high traffic? That’s the top right – that’s where we want to get everything to, and if they’re high converting and high traffic, all you’re worried about as a marketer is losing that. So you’re basically monitoring that and making sure that it’s working as well as it is, and making sure that you’re also constantly running tests to see if you can make it better. But it’s like you won’t be able to make it much better because it’s already at the highest point it can be. So it’s really just about maintenance. Then at the bottom right is an interesting one where it’s like you don’t have that much traffic but you have high conversions. So what you need to do is, again, get that one up. All you’re trying to do is get any quadrant to eventually get to the top right where it’s high converting and high traffic.

So if something is high traffic and low converting, you basically need to spend time figuring out how to improve the conversions. That’s the top left, and I believe high traffic-low conversion is bottom right, and you’re just trying to figure out how to convert it better. But in short, again, you’re just trying to map your channels, map your landing pages, and figure out where the opportunities are, what’s already working, and what’s not working. And it just goes back to the theory of like how do we simplify how we do marketing into its most basic form and get back to basics of marketing? It’s too easy to get caught up in all the tactics and all the ways to drive traffic when really looking at the traffic you’re currently driving and figuring out the opportunities is really the most important first thing that you should be doing.

Your testing “sweet spot” is represented in the upper left portion of this graph – pages where you have low conversions but high traffic. Image source.

Dan Levy: I’m wondering what do you think the bigger opportunity is: low traffic and high conversions or high traffic and low conversions?

Hiten Shah: The biggest opportunity is always when you have high traffic – low conversions because then you have enough traffic to run A/B tests to convert people. If you have low traffic and high conversions, you need to go find new channels that you can get high traffic and high conversions. If you have high traffic and low conversions, you’re just running A/B tests constantly trying to get that to be high traffic and high conversions.

Dan Levy: So where’s the best place for content marketers who might be intimidated by data and analytics to get started with this stuff?

Hiten Shah: Well, all of us use Google Analytics or can use it, and they have a bunch of videos, and there’s also a lot of blog posts. My advice would be force yourself to spend half hour to an hour in Google Analytics every day. One, you’ll probably learn a few things like some things are hard to find no matter how experienced you are with Google Analytics just because of the way that they make you find stuff. So you end up using bookmarks and stuff like that a lot. If you get really sophisticated, there’s a lot of cool custom reports that people have created and that you can copy and a lot are for content. You’ll also notice that there’s really cool hacks to add extra data like how long people are spending reading or how far they got on your pages, and you can pump that data pretty easily into Google Analytics, with just some extra scripts and stuff.

So that’s more sophisticated – but at the end of the day, I would spend a lot of time in Google Analytics because all the fundamentals of traffic, all the data, is sitting in Google Analytics and it’s free, and it’s very powerful. It’s just a little bit daunting, so just force yourself to spend time with it, and read up on what people have written about how to get value out of it for content marketing.

Dan Levy: So schedule some time in to look at it and dive into some of the resources that are out there, which we’ll post as well with this podcast.

Hiten Shah: Yeah, you’ve just got to get over that thing that it’s like data and I don’t understand it, and I know as human beings it’s like if we don’t understand something we tend to shy away from it. So I’m giving advice that like is probably the hardest to follow, but if your job is relying on it and you’re doing content marketing, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t understand the most popular analytics tool out there that you can use and it’s free.

Dan Levy: Fair enough, yeah, like you said if you don’t understand it you’re afraid of it, but also if you don’t force yourself to look at it you’re also afraid of the unknown. So just like spending time with it actually makes it less scary.

Hiten Shah: Yep.

Dan Levy: So on the other hand, what would you say to hardcore data people who maybe don’t get the value of quality content?

Hiten Shah: Oh yeah my favorite one. There’s a simple truth and it’s very simple and you might not buy it. The simple truth is if you’re not creating the best content for your audience, someone else is – which means long-run, it’s likely someone else is building a brand that you’re not. And that brand is what really drives a business long-term, all the word-of-mouth traffic when people are talking about their brand. Even if somebody’s like, “Oh yeah I created this LinkedIn Group” – I don’t know, I’m picking on LinkedIn today but – “I created this LinkedIn Group and it’s doing amazing.” And then someone asks, “How did you learn how to do that, or where can I go learn how to do that can you teach me?” And then they go link to a KISSmetrics blog post or an Unbounce blog post. That’s what you want and you don’t get that unless your content is high quality.

You don’t get that word of mouth unless your content is really high quality. Even if your less sub-par content is converting, that doesn’t mean you’re building a brand around that content so that you can have continual growth. So there is nothing wrong in my mind with creating content specifically for conversion. Just know that there’s likely a hit you’re taking on the long-term opportunity. And also, if there are competitors and/or alternatives (depending on how you view the world) to get the same information you’re sharing, and if they’re better than you, then it’s likely people will stop coming to you at some point.

Dan Levy: Everything that we’ve talked about from SEO to traffic to conversions… you have to have that quality content in the first place for people to care.

Hiten Shah: Yeah. Back in the day with search, we used to be able to do all kinds of weird stuff that really didn’t mean quality, whether it’s keyword stuffing and all this. But Google, our search engine overlord, is very sophisticated and at the end of the day the quality of the content and the quality of the people linking to it, even the shares and the tweets and all that, are really what impact what traffic you can get. So we basically went from a world of hacking SEO, SEO hacks, SEO optimization, and all these tricks to a world today where well quality content that actually gets shared tends to work the best. I think those are some of the things that have changed in the last sort of however many years – basically now there’s a channel besides search – we call it social – where you can get traffic prior to getting search traffic or prior to the search engine finding that piece of content and ranking it.

And social just helps with all the inbound links and all that. It’s really odd, but to me it’s almost like if we just had one pillar of a table – let’s say like one leg of a table – and it used to be SEO, and now there’s like these complementary legs that keep the table up. If you consider the table our marketing strategy or our content marketing strategy, then we have more likes, we have conversion, and now a lot of people are actually converting visitors to emails, right? And we have a lot of tools and systems to do that, so that’s one leg. Another leg is SEO. Another leg is social, and the fourth leg is obviously the content you create, right? So I think that we were missing some legs, and the table is wobbly. Now you have no excuse to not make content marketing work.

Dan Levy: That’s really exciting and I think a positive note to end on. You have all the tools at your disposable… go and use them!

Hiten Shah: That’s right.

Dan Levy: Cool. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Hiten, this was a great conversation.

Hiten Shah: Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.

Stephanie Saretsky: That was Hiten Shah, co-founder of KISSmetrics and Crazy Egg.

So we’ve ditched the intro portion at the beginning of the podcast, and I’d love to know what you think. Love it? Hate it? Let me know at podcast@unbounce.com,

That’s your Call to Action, thanks for listening!

Transcript by GMR Transcription.

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About Stephanie Saretsky
Stephanie Saretsky is a former multimedia producer at Unbounce. Producing projects like the Call to Action podcast and The Landing Page Sessions by day and a radio DJ by night, she is a lover of all things multimedia. Find her on Twitter: @msbeansie
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