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Use Experiments to Improve Your Content Marketing Plan: 9 Ideas

testing lab image-white-suited guyLet’s gather round, fellow brand publishers, and join hands. It’s circle-of-trust time, and so we need to be honest with each other here:

When it comes down to it, we are in the business of selling stuff.

The purists among us (has content marketing been a thing long enough to separate purists from disruptors?) will argue that it is about story, narrative arc, integrity of journalistic principles… Yes, yes, and yes — quality certainly counts. But ultimately, it is about the business. We are employed to drive revenue.

The need to strike a balance between creativity and commerce in marketing isn’t new. For decades, organizational right brains have battled with the lefts. The Right Brains have their art; the Left Brains have their science, and the brand’s top management stands in the middle to referee and to sift the facts from the rest of the bickering well enough to make the right decisions.

As we develop and begin executing our content marketing plan at Dun & Bradstreet, it’s a balance we too are looking to strike. We want to compellingly tell the story of a company, an industry, and a client base in massive transformation. But we know we must do it in a way that enhances existing relationships and builds new ones — in a way that lets our work be a significant driver of an ambitious growth strategy.

How will we do this? How can you do it, too? We let testing and experimentation play a major role.

I was recently talking to leaders at two companies that excel at successful content creation. Josh Brandau, VP of Media Strategy and Distribution at hot creative shop Pereira & O’Dell, and Irene Lee, Director of Marketing at Refinery29, a fast-growing, digitally native publisher, both acknowledged the tension between metrics-minded ROI and unrestrained creative energy. Yet, both companies have been able to move past the tension by developing a culture of frequent experimentation — and by coming to the realization that even the best idea can be improved and that the digital/social age makes that process easier than ever before.

“What we believe in is very much to keep that rigor around creatively coming up with the core idea and ecosystem that surrounds it,” Brandau said when he and I spoke. “But then we find ways in which we should develop core competencies and testing structures that help make it better and push it even further.”

Similarly, at Refinery29 it is “almost an engineering mentality,” according to Lee, who says that they test their all-important emails every day.

Want to find the sweet spot between art and science when it comes to your organization’s content marketing plan? Here are nine experimentation-focused ideas that can help you find a balance and advance your business objectives.

1. Use the “10 percent rule” to drive innovation

Pereira’s success with high-impact storytelling (such as the agency’s work for Skype) is fueled in part by a big belief in the “10 percent rule:” When launching a campaign, the team takes 10 percent of the budget and tries something new with it — a new distribution tactic, a new technology, etc. For its Fiat client, that meant a partnership with Waze that helped drivers in Brazil deal with the notoriously awful traffic there. Brandau says that the experiments they do with this small piece of the budget pay off 65 to 70 percent of the time and inform future work.

2. Test quickly and at scale to max out every dollar

Thanks to social in particular and digital overall, it is easier and less expensive to test an idea with a statistically significant group of people than ever before. Before a brand goes all-in with a big idea and the money and logistics that can take, you can simply and easily try it out with a more limited subset of the audience. If you were buying a Super Bowl commercial, wouldn’t it be great to tweak that concept before it goes on the air based on how the audience was engaging with content on YouTube? Content can and should work the same way.

3. Push the limits of where your brand can go

We always want to be “on-brand” with our content, right? But we can’t let that hold us back, either. Refinery29 has seen some of its growth driven by content creation pilot projects, like creating content on topics (such as news, home, and wellness) that lie outside its core focus of fashion and beauty: “We ended up expanding into all these categories by just putting out a few articles and seeing how people responded to it,” said Lee.

Similarly, when the Pereira team experiments with new content concepts through brief test deployments, what they often find is that the target audience really likes aspects of the work that the client was most reticent about and didn’t want to do. So, done right, testing actually lets brands be more creative with the final products — not less.

4. Discover “minor fails” of a new content approach

Perhaps you want to start evolving your content from, say, a tips-oriented, how-to approach to more emotional, narrative storytelling; or, from more traditional product-centric content to thought leadership. We can test elements of a new approach in real time by introducing them occasionally and subtly while we are still producing the work under the previous scope. Pereira does this kind of bridge campaign all the time. Brandau says they are looking for “minor fails” when they trickle out samples of the new work, and these help make the final new campaign that much better.

5. Try to iterate, not perfect

In the ever-evolving digital industry, being perfect right out of the gate should never be the primary goal. We always have to be willing to put work out there, see how our audience reacts in social media and other areas, and improve the content from there. If we waited until something was perfect to hit send, we would never create anything.

We also have to realize that just because something doesn’t test well at first, that doesn’t mean we have to throw it away completely. The right testing will find aspects of a piece of content that are good and need to be emphasized moving forward — and aspects that need to be tweaked to make them more effective. “It’s not make or break,” Brandau said.

For Refinery29, email is hugely important, and each morning they segment a limited number of subscribers to receive as many as four or five variations on email subject lines, headlines, and images, so that they can measure which ones best engaged recipients. From there, when they are ready to send messages to their full list, they have a sense of how best to mix and match the assets, based on what performed best in that morning’s “test drive.”

6. Strive to achieve true personalization

At Refinery29, Lee says, “All these A/B testing things are trying to get us closer to understanding what people are interested in, but to truly have the one-to-one marketing is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” The more content you test across more channels, the more you can begin to personalize each individual client’s or prospect’s experience with your business — the emails they will receive, the links they will see first, the eBooks they should be offered. It is a difficult goal to achieve, but testing gets us closer to realizing it every day.

7. Understand that our jobs start after we publish

If we believe our jobs are over when we have created a piece of content, we are in huge trouble. Publishing something is only the beginning. For content to truly make a difference, we have to constantly evolve what we do with it after it is sent out there. Today, it’s easy to test how, when, and where we can promote our content most effectively and efficiently — and to do it in real time. The lessons learned about which promotions drove not just the most traffic but also the most conversions for a given piece of content will often translate to other pieces down the road. Remember: You’re not just testing ideas and concepts, you’re testing channels and delivery mechanisms, too.

8. Don’t worry about tests slowing you down

Our content organization is like most in that we want to be as nimble as we can be — we are always trying to avoid getting bogged down in heavy, multi-layer approvals or other processes that can slow us down. It is natural to worry that testing would do this, but it doesn’t have to. If you know what the goal of the test is, and it’s clear who owns what we do with the test data when we get it — i.e., who owns the reaction and resulting next steps — it shouldn’t slow you down at all.

9. Be inclusive

Testing can’t be important to just Mr. Right Brain, Ms. Left Brain, and the manager in the middle. To build a culture where testing and experimentation helps you determine the direction of your content marketing plan, leaders have to help the product team apply what they’ve learned to the UX strategy; help the mobile team apply it to what they’re doing, and on. To help build momentum for your plan, look for a couple of quick, small wins that will let you talk around the building about how effectively tested content marketing drove some real results.

What testing approaches have yielded results for you? How have you built a culture of experimentation? Let us know in the comments.

Looking for more guidance on ways to experiment with new techniques and test the results? Check out Content Marketing World 2014, September 8–11, 2014. Time is running out, so register today!


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