Improving the user journey: Answers to 3 common content planning questions

During a recent webinar, Understanding the Data Behind Your Traffic, Engagement, and Content Strategy, I joined MarketMuse Chief Product Officer Jeff Coyle to answer some burning questions facing content creators around the world. The most frequently posed of these is: What is the best way to interpret data to influence content planning and strategy?

Below, see some highlights on how to do this — ways for teams to answer pressing questions through clear-cut, data-informed tactics, and ways in which data enlivens and empowers you to create successful strategies that engage and win over loyal followings.

(If you’d like to skip ahead to the webinar recap video, you can watch here)

1. How do we build an engagement strategy?

A major part of the process transcends organization type — simply, having the ability to undergo a significant cultural shift in how data is viewed. With the volume of work that editorial and content teams are asked to do, it becomes tempting to just hit “publish” and forget. Yes, you make the best decisions you can during the content creation process, but you won’t get it perfect. If, however, you have the right data on how your audience interacts with your content — then you can spot the problem and use that information to iterate and experiment after publication.

Armed with that information, you can evolve your strategy to more easily meet audiences where they are. Changing your culture based on data is difficult, but there’s a healthy balance. I always tell our partners: Metrics don’t tell you what to do; they help you ask better questions about what you’re doing.

More to know from this section

The democratization of data means making data and insights accessible to multiple stakeholders across an organization — rather than, say, restricting access to a small circle of analysts.

Content efficiency rate, according to our friends at MarketMuse, helps you pinpoint answers to questions like: How often are we getting content right the first time? Are we focusing on the content that drives toward the team’s KPIs? In many cases, success comes down to understanding data and making sense of the signals from your audience — not simply their initial pathways to content, but the diverse other interactions that you need to understand to achieve success.

We see the clearest path to success involves creating a culture in which people aren’t afraid of the bad numbers. Too often, content teams use data to celebrate the wins (e.g., more pageviews, subscribers, or conversions) and ignore the losses (e.g., higher bounce rates, low time spent and visitor loyalty). Even worse, some organizations use metrics as a cudgel. If your staff is afraid to say something didn’t go well, that points to more of a cultural issue.

It’s vital to keep staff focused on your audience’s north star: which metric are you trying to move — and most importantly, why? Teams who feel a connection to their metrics (which can span the spectrum, from the number of loyal readers to the lead conversion rate) will often find creative ways to reach them. 

These changes don’t happen by themselves. Leaders need to motivate and help their teams keep focus, and emphasize that even when you don’t get it right the first time, you can get where you want to be — in a place where there’s “democratization of data” across your organization

That said, I think there’s still value in data expertise — having someone who owns analytics performing deeper analysis, and conveying that information to the rest of the company to inform strategies moving forward. Why? Because when we’re talking about digital content, what were thought to be typical engagement patterns can shift in an instant, given how quickly audience habits change. By the time you’ve figured it out, readers will have moved on.

Recommendations for engagement strategies

Here are some recommendations to start building a stronger engagement strategy:

  • Be realistic about the people on the other side of the screen. You can track pageviews to your site, but that’s not enough. If we want readers to remember what they saw and build affinity with your content and brand, they need to engage with what you publish for more than 15 seconds. Reach should always be supplemented with quality metrics.
  • Begin to look at Engaged Time and loyalty metrics. As our Data Science team frequently reminds me: One metric alone will never give you the full picture. You need a few carefully-selected metrics working together to understand reader interactions.
  • Understand the full customer journey. How long does it take to get audiences back to your platform? What do you consider a conversion? And once that is determined, what is your target conversion rate, and should it be directly tied to how many pieces of content a person consumes before they’re ready to convert?
  • A multi-channel strategy is important. Readers who find you on Google do not behave the same way as readers who find you on social. For instance, we’ve found that mobile readers are more loyal than their peers on desktops, and they discover and interact with content in fundamentally different ways. 
  • You have to start somewhere and work your way up. It’s not about going from gut decisions to data-informed strategies on your first go. Narrow your list down to a couple of metrics, and as you become find your best practices through experimentation, you’ll feel more comfortable getting more sophisticated.

2. Is acquisition or retention more important?

Let’s face it, most content teams are way too focused on acquisition. In content marketing, that goal could very well be leads. In media or publishing, that goal could be new readers or loyal subscribers. Given that it costs much more to acquire a new reader than it costs to retain the people you already have, there’s a deep need to realign priorities to support the rest of the funnel. 

This is one of the most difficult cases to make for marketing leaders around the world — but for Chartbeat, the most successful strategies have had a clear balance between acquisition and retention activities. 

More to know from this section

We’ve found that on mobile homepages, the average visitor spends 40% more time actively engaging than their desktop counterpart. They are also 20% more likely to click. This is why content curation is so important, which we go into deeper below.

For more information on mobile homepage engagement, see our previous article here.

For the past few years, we’ve been observing a similar shift to retention in our clients’ strategies. A focus on retention allows for flexibility, to try different approaches and tactics. From there, you can figure out what’s working and what is not. 

Recommendations for device-based journeys

  • Two out of every three content visits happen on a phone, introducing new platforms into the discovery funnel, and new ways to grow retention. Here’s how you can optimize those experiences:
  • Experiment with mobile layouts that encourage deeper journeys. For instance, think about how you would change the user experience if the conversion happens on a phone, as versus a desktop site.
  • The shift to working from home didn’t change device patterns much. Audiences still tend to use a desktop as their primary device during working hours, even if that work is taking place at home.
  • There’s also a tendency to think that content for mobile needs to be short. However, we’ve collected a lot of data that shows mobile readers are willing to engage for long periods of time — if it’s the right content. Stronger audience engagement comes with adjustments to image placement, content curation, and layouts that are specifically optimizing that mobile experience.
  • Keep an eye on the Google content ecosystem. Despite being a very mature platform, Google continues to iterate and grow in unexpected ways. For example, Google Chrome Suggestions and other mobile aggregators drive more traffic than Twitter. I would bet that most people have a Twitter strategy, but few have a Chrome Suggestions strategy.
  • As we build our SEO and SEM strategies, a key question remains: How do we use those channels to create onward journeys? Namely, how do we create a journey where there’s higher engagement across more pieces of content? We see that the more pages and pieces of content readers view, the more likely they are to return and potentially convert.
  • On the note above, if you’re only getting a single pageview on visits from platforms like search and social, you will have a hard time seeing conversions. For me, especially with platform-referred visitors, I try to think about moving readers on to something else that keeps them more in touch with the company.

3. How do we encourage deeper reading?

We view deeper reading through a lens called Recirculation — what is next for your reader and how it’s chosen. Our data has shown that for search traffic, recommended content needs to be closely related to the topic that brought them in.

If the visit initiates on social audiences are a little more willing to follow you down the rabbit role. In either case, it’s always valuable to look back at your content to determine pieces that have been successful from that specific search or social platform.

More from this section

Ways to think about your search traffic = Readers that are more interested in “news you can use.”

Ways to think about your social media traffic = Readers choose content that is more emotional and respond to the human angle of a story.

That distinction gives you a stronger level of content differentiation and allows you to leverage your archives and keep your best pieces alive. Once you have chosen related content, think carefully about placement and positioning. Scroll-depth metrics can help you find the right place for a link to drive the most Recirculation. And you can’t just plug any text in the link itself. Clearly state the value of that related content to give readers confidence that you’re offering relevant information and not clickbait.

Recommendations for deeper reading

Let’s discuss the ways in which you can encourage deeper reading across your content.

  • Guide users through the next stage of their journey to answer their questions and keep them more informed.
  • Determine which information structure appeals most to your audience. For instance, was the first sentence (known in media as the “lede”) factual or anecdotal? There are both engagement and SEO implications, but striking the right tone early on is important.
  • Is there something loyal readers prefer that’s uncommon to new readers? You can find greater success by using the metrics to segment those sets of content. Combine that with your experience to understand how the presentation appealed to these people.
  • Protect your high-trafficked pages with new content and optimizations. One way to think  about this is rehabbing zombie articles with new information or new links that can be updated to improve Recirculation.

Start constructing your onward visitor journeys

Here are three key steps to improving, streamlining, and optimizing your user journeys:

  1. Start by taking an objective look at your site from a reader perspective. How hard is it for your new or returning visitors to discover more content?
  2. Look at your metrics. How many content touches do you typically need to get someone to count as a conversion? It can give you a starting point and a goal for experimentation.
  3. Experiment and iterate. See what the metrics are telling you and construct controlled experiments that give you a path forward. This isn’t just a good idea, it’s the first step to guiding a cultural shift within your organization and democratizing data in a way that empowers your teams.

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