Content Crafters is an interview series where we de-construct the tools, tips, and tactics that top bloggers use to get so much work done. you’ll walk away in mere minutes with actionable takeaways you can try out right away. Let’s dive in!
Derek Gleason is the content lead at CXL.
CXL, through CXL Institute, trains marketers through online courses on digital marketing, conversion optimization, digital analytics, and customer acquisition.
More pertinently here, their blog is one of the most renowned in digital marketing (particularly CRO). If something is published on CXL’s blog, you know it’s good.
Since Derek runs content over there, we figured we’d chat with him about content quality, working with technical subject matter experts, and also about his personal background and thoughts on content.
How did you get into content marketing? What’s your origin story?
I used to edit encyclopedias. Over time, the money drained out (just as it was flowing into content marketing).
In short, I think there’s more potential now to create something great in content marketing than as part of a reference publishing company.
Whether that potential is ever realized (or realized consistently) is another story.
Is there anything particular to your background, personality or skill set that you believe makes you a great content marketer?
I don’t like “content marketing.”
Mostly, I think it’s a liability: Blogs are assumed to be poorly edited, derivative, not trustworthy, etc. Most of the associations with “content marketing” are things to be overcome, not celebrated.
In my experience, people who “love content marketing” aren’t usually producing great content. Because the editorial shortcomings of content marketing annoy me, I find myself working constantly to improve the standards of the content project I’m working on.
When you have to write a piece on a complex or relatively new subject, what’s your research process look like?
I learned to be a generalist during my years editing an encyclopedia. Mostly, it’s about pairing a native curiosity and desire to learn (about pretty much anything) with an understanding of how to identify a high-quality source.
The former is something someone either has or doesn’t have. The latter is a product of experience and some learned research tactics (e.g. site:.gov, looking only at the sources for Wikipedia articles, etc.).
How are you able to condense difficult subject matter (such that CXL publishes) into something digestible and understandable?
For most of the encyclopedia content I worked on, we used the same source material to create a version for lay adults, high school students, middle school students, and elementary school students.
That opportunity was a great exercise in trying to distill complex, sometimes controversial topics (e.g. climate, the Iranian nuclear program) for a range of audiences.
At the same time, I don’t think I do the best job of this for CXL. Others do it far better. My personal learning preference for more context and walls of text is an enduring (and unhelpful) bias.
What’s your process like for finding and working with subject matter experts? Again, in a niche and complex field like conversion optimization, how are you able to consistently find, edit, and publish content from great industry leaders?
I love “top of their field” people as much as anyone else, but the truth is that few of them are active practitioners anymore, and even fewer have the time (or motivation) to write a blog post.
I’ve had some of the best luck by getting those people to refer others to me. That’s put me in contact with people who are rising in their field. Usually, they have great, new ideas and are excited to write for us (i.e. will hit their deadlines).
Finding them can be challenging, and I’m still working on a process to identify them more effectively.
One way potentially to do it (that I’ve been working on) is to grab a list of, say, the top 20 practitioners in a field, scrape a list of everyone whom they follow, identify people that are followed by at least two of those practitioners, then filter that list for people who have between 500 and 5,000 followers.
What’s your view on content promotion? What role does it play in a mature content program (or an emerging/new content program)? Are some promotional tactics more worthwhile than others (which ones if so)?
CXL is still heavily dependent on organic traffic, as are plenty of other sites. Our advantage is there: We have a really strong domain and can rank for a lot of stuff quickly.
Of course, a heavy focus on one channel is a liability, too—We have to pay a lot of attention to search engine changes and are constrained by the need to write about topics that have search volume (which, quite often, are more introductory in nature).
In my experience, and in conversations I’ve had with others, outreach to earn links and shares requires a pretty substantial roster of people who send emails all day every day. It’s difficult to get many wins if outreach is a side project for someone with other priorities.
That doesn’t make it less important, but I think people should know that most companies with “viral” success either (1) already had a huge and active social media following or (2) had a dozen people sending 1,000 outreach emails to (mostly) known contacts.
How do you judge the ROI of a piece of content? How about the ROI of a content program as a whole? Related, can you briefly explain change-point analysis and how marketers can use it in analyzing content?
Beyond the recurring mantras of “set your goals” (e.g. links, shares, traffic) and “know the value of a view/email lead” (either you do or don’t have that data), the two things we usually neglect to control for are (1) the site and (2) time.
As far as controlling for the site, we use a quartile dashboard that buckets all posts into one of four quartiles based on the median number of users per month. The median helps control for outliers in a way that the average doesn’t, and looking at quartiles rather than explicit rankings (e.g. 10th best versus 40th best) keeps us from getting hung up on only writing about topics with tons of search volume. Basically, if a post is in Quartile 4 (better than 75% of all posts), we can claim success and feel good about ourselves. Since the dashboard constantly updates itself, it also continues to push us forward—every “better than median” post also pushes the median slightly higher.
With regard to time, that’s the value of change-point analysis.
Change-point analysis compares the performance of a post (for any metric) against the average of a site at the time it was published. (That last part is missing from most analyses.)
To give an example: Everything that gets published on Ahrefs now earns around 1,000 shares. If I’m looking only at the absolute number of shares, my analysis will tell me that everything they’re publishing now is their best stuff. But what if they stay at 1,000 shares forever? What about the posts that took them from 0 to 1,000?
Absolute numbers alone are misleading if you don’t have the context of what was “average” for the site at the time a post was published.
Change-point analysis helps control for “parasitic” posts that earn high marks for an absolute metric but aren’t improving the average for a site.
What’s your advice for an ambitious junior content marketer looking to grow their career?
Reading about “content marketing” will help you learn how to get more business value from the content you produce, but it really won’t help you get any better at producing “great content.”
Pay more attention to outlets that have to sell their information—they’re the ones focused on delivering tons of value in their content.
Also, you’re almost certainly spending too much time on content production and not enough time on research or distribution.
How does a piece of content stand out in a crowded space (like digital marketing/CRO)? What specifically makes a piece of content “great” versus one of the many, noisy articles out there on a given topic?
I call content that’s a mash-up of the top 10 results on Google “derivative content.”
To go beyond that, you have two main options: original research or interviews. Interviews are usually quicker and cheaper. Both guarantee that you’ll have information in your article that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
Alternatively, consistent publishing standards can help you stand out. If I want to learn about “value propositions,” pretty much every article will make the same key points. But if I know that content on, for example, CXL will be (1) up to date, (2) well copy edited, (3) credibly sourced, etc., that can be a differentiator even though none of the information is novel. This strategy can be great if you’re relatively new and hanging out around the bottom of Page 1—if your content brand has user trust, I’ll choose you over the top result.
If you weren’t doing content marketing, what would you be doing?
My mantra is, “If you’re creating the best version of something, I’m interested.” Content marketing is where that happens now. If that shifts somewhere else in ten years, I’ll meet you there.
Gimme three tips to improve my writing? Or rather, three tips anyone can use to write better.
1. If you’re unsure about the usage of a phrase or word, just Google the word/phrase along with “site:newyorker.com” or “site:nytimes.com.” See how they’ve used it in the past and follow their lead.
2. Reduce the length of every “final” draft by at least 20%.
3. When reading through a draft, keep asking yourself, “What do I really mean?” It’ll reduce your prose to its most direct and easily understandable version. (So, for example, if I were rewriting this last answer, I would change the sentence “It’ll reduce your prose…” to “It’ll make your copy clearer.”)