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How to Create Content That Earns Engagement, Trust, and Loyalty for Your Brand

Posted by ronell-smith

[Estimated read time: 17 minutes]

A couple of years back, I received a call from the CMO of a small but popular and growing startup about taking on the brand as a content strategist. While I was initially lukewarm to the idea, they were adamant about working together, feeling that I “could help them reach their goals.”

Before hanging up the phone, I asked him to email me the main priority for the onsite content:

“Engaging content (e.g., shares, likes, tweets, etc.),” she wrote.

I thought, I can do engaging.

I reasoned I’d stick with how-to information content, in-depth evergreen content, and maybe a few interviews. In the online marketing vertical, these are what I call “can’t miss elements” for brands looking to create onsite engagement.

But not long after I started working with the brand, I saw some problems that should have been red flags from the beginning:

  • The type of content they wanted for the blog didn’t garner traffic
  • The type of content that did garner traffic didn’t garner engagement
  • When I talked to the CMO, her words were equally confusing: “Conversions are up, but we need to see engagement improve to continue the relationship.”

I was confused.

Is there EVER a scenario where increased conversions was a negative?

Shortly thereafter, the relationship dissolved. The culprit wasn’t a lack of engaging content, though.

Engagement, alone, is a poor choice for a goal

This likely sounds familiar to folks reading this post. Maybe someone says, “We have a shiny new website, so now we need to blog.”

The next question is “Who’s going to blog?”

Then, typically, the question after that is “What do we blog about?”

Someone always, and I do mean always, says, “About what we do. You know… stuff that will get folks talking about our brand.”

The next question and answer dooms us: “What’s the goal?”

  • One blog/week
  • To drive people to our website
  • To increase conversions

Inevitably, the main goal for the content itself, though, is engagement.

The biggest problem brands have in the move to content marketing is creating engaging content.

Why do you think that is?

  • Because it’s hard?
  • Because they don’t have writers who can produce it?
  • Because when they do produce it, folks still don’t engage with it?
  • Because they’re marketing to the wrong audience?

Nope!

Creating engaging content is a nice-to-have, first-step goal. But as the client I talked about earlier found out, engagement alone isn’t going to move your brand forward in what is now a sea of content.

Engagement is a goal; it shouldn’t be the goal.

First, engagement simply means people noticed your content and interacted with it in some, typically small, way. That could mean a social share, leaving a comment, sharing a link, etc. And for those of us just starting on the content marketing journey, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Where the problem comes is when we use engagement as an all-important Key Performance Indicator (KPI) of how your brand’s content is performing.

I think Avinash Kaushik, Google’s digital marketing evangelist, says about all there is to say about engagement with this quote, taken from his blog:

“Even as creating engaging experiences on the web is mandatory, the metric called Engagement is simply an excuse for an unwillingness to sit down and identify why a site exists. An excuse for an unwillingness to identify real metrics that measure if your web presence is productive. An excuse for taking a short cut…”

He goes further, saying the only people who use engagement as a metric are those who are too lazy to discern the real reason for being for their website.

They refuse to ask “Why does it exist?”

So they assign value to something that is all but impossible to measure in a tangible way.

My experience mirrors those comments. Engagement is an easy, feel-good metric used by brands who lack clear purpose for their content marketing.

My core problem with using engagement as a metric of significance is it’s hard to measure, next to impossible to sustain and, worst of all, easy to copy.

In five simple steps, competitors can kill your engagement strategy:

  1. Visit your website and see which content is doing well: See the Facebook, Twitter ands Google Plus number, and that gets them to thinking…
  2. They go to Google, do a site:search and see what your top-performing content is. Then they tell their copywriting staff to take this idea and expound upon it — more details, richer graphics, etc.
  3. Then they use a tool such as Open Site Explorer to view your site’s backlinks to see where they are coming from and what content is getting the most links.
  4. They’ll reach out to those same brands and say, “We see you’re linking to this content. We created a similar post that has even more details.” They’re likely to add the competitor’s link, but they’re just as likely to unlink to your content.
  5. Your stellar content piece is likely to take a tumble in the SERPs and your site will miss out on traffic.

All because you chased the wrong goal.

I’ll add a huge “however” here: If you’re just starting out, OR if all you really truly care about is creating some potentially engaging content, you can do exactly what we outlined regarding the competition. You find a popular brand in your vertical and copy the content they’re creating, only you make it better: better written, better text, and you commit to outreach. I can tell you that of all the companies I’ve worked with and for — from mom and pop cupcake shops to, moving companies, fitness brands, apparel manufacturers and software companies — this is where the content creation process begins and, sadly, sometimes ends. So copy it. Use it. At least until you get better, see better, and know better what the audience wants.

But never hang your hat singularly on engagement.

What comes easily is just as easily taken.

Brand trust is essential for content marketing success

If engagement is a blind date, trust is going steady. It has to be in place before things get too serious.

In the strictest sense, trust is about how prospects and customers view your brand, how they view the people who represent your brand, what you stand for and how you make them feel.

(Image source)

While asking for prospects to trust your brand this much is definitely pushing it, brand trust is an imperative in today’s online marketplace.

When trust is in place, people come to see your brand as not simply a reliable option, but the reliable option; they feel good about association with it; and, most importantly, they seek out those interactions.

To get there, people need to see your brand and brand representative in lots of places, online and offline, to develop familiarity and form a positive association with the brand. (I call this positive ubiquity.)

That’s why making too big of a deal about onsite content is a mistake. It’s important. But, let’s be honest, if there are only three people reading your blog, your impact is going to be very limited. Wouldn’t you agree?

In addition to writing posts and sharing your brand’s content, you should also be sharing valuable content from other non-competing brands; engaging in meaningful online conversations surround your vertical; interviewing influencers in your space; and creating a presence that moves seamlessly between online and offline, social and content, human to human.

The fact of the matter, though, is that people respond best to people. Not words or images or fancy design. And as reluctant as you might be to have public faces for your brand, you need it to make your content marketing efforts work.

People are what lead prospects to build an affinity, not simply an association, with your brand. It’s akin to going from an encounter to being noticed.

Think…

  • Apple and Steve Jobs
  • All State Insurance and the Mayhem man
  • Blendtec and its zany CEO (shown below)

(Image source)

Make this work for your brand.

Why not highlight subject-matter experts (SMEs) inside the company?

Instead of simply forcing everyone to blog, find out what individual team members are good at and have a passion for, then allow them to express their creativity for the brand in their own way.

  • Maybe another team member is passionate about radio. Why not have her do a podcast for the site, but also share it via iTunes, SoundCloud, or wherever else it makes sense to share it?
  • Every office has the resident know-it-all. Why not create a Twitter handle and associated hashtag for this person, and allow them to spend 30 minutes a day online answering questions for the brand?
  • Maybe you find that someone hates writing blogs, but is interested in theatre and would love doing vblogs for the site as well as posting them on YouTube or Wistia.

(Image source)

And while you’re building that brand affinity, people who aren’t even in the market for your product or service will take note, realizing that your brand cares.

You aren’t out for simply earning a dollar. You’re really helping people, even when those people aren’t likely to buy anything from you.

I know what you’re thinking: “Ronell, who has time or resources for that?”

My answer is, “You don’t have to do any of this. Really, you don’t.”

But I’ll add that if you do at least some of this, consistently, you will be more successful than you likely assume, in large part because most of the competition is unwilling to do it.

Whenever I hear people talking about how difficult it is to find success in content marketing, it reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite strength coaches.

One of his clients said, “Squatting hurts my knees.” After witnessing a demonstration of what the client called a squat, the coach said, “Squats don’t hurt your knees. What you’re doing and calling squats hurts your knees.”

Content marketers are a lot like this, right? We throw ideas at the wall, then call what sticks a success.

We’re better than this.

The path to content marketing success leads to loyalty

Typically, when we set out on this content marketing journey, we, as a team, set these arbitrary goals: We need X number of tweets, X number of Likes and shares on Facebook, Google Plus and so on.

A better way to do it was exposed by Buzzfeed.

Yes, that Buzzfeed.

The site might post an inordinate amount of dumb stuff, but has an amazing data science team. That team studied how content is shared across the web and uncovered some interesting findings.

Leading to what we now know as P.O.U.N.D.: the Process of Optimizing and Understanding Network Diffusion.

We tend to think that a Facebook Like leads to a Facebook Share, which leads to more Facebook Likes and Shares. And a tweet leads to more tweets, etc., etc., for the other social networks.

What they found is network diffusion doesn’t happen in a linear fashion.

Basically, people jump between social networks and links and back again. For example, a Facebook Like might lead to a Facebook Share that leads to a Twitter Share that bounces to a website via a link then back to Facebook as a Like or Share.

This petri dish-looking thing below is really is a graphic depiction of network diffusion, where the dark blue areas are Facebook, the light blue areas are Twitter and the white areas are links.

What Buzzfeed found is that they get links as a byproduct of network diffusion. They don’t need to optimize for links or make link building a focus. The lesson for them, as it should be for us, is that the more they optimize for network diffusion, the more links they’re going to see.

This is not just fascinating; it’s instructive.

Instead of concerning ourselves with link building and outreach and hoping we get links, if we simply optimize our efforts at creating and sharing content, links naturally occur.

Previously, the thinking was to create a piece of content, then build links to it.

But now, with what we know about network diffusion, we’re going to focus on publishing all of our content to the right streams and to the right audience. We’re optimizing for which social streams move the fastest for the specific topic.

As a content marketer, this information should excite you, especially if your team is ready to commit to the right, and best, goal, which is content loyalty.

If that’s not your goal, scrap your goal and adopt this one.

Content loyalty means you aren’t having to work so hard for your content. Your content is working for you.

  • Folks are avid fans, actively seeking out each and every piece of content you create.
  • Instead of you having to carry the load with sharing and promotion, these fans are sharing and promoting like crazy.
  • Instead of worrying about what content to create, your fans, followers, prospects and customers are actively involved helping you via comments on the blog, questions and responses on social media, interactions with the help desk, and sundry other touch points whereby they interact with the brand.

“The shortest path to break through the noise and create a sustainable content strategy is to create content loyalty,” says Moz’s Matthew J. Brown, who is chief of product strategy and design.

It’s difficult but doable.

Parse.ly, an audience insight platform for digital publishers, found that 2.6 days is the median pageview peak for any single piece of content. Pageviews basically fall off a cliff shortly thereafter.

If you get 20% of your traffic from social, things are a little bit better: 3.2 days

But by and large your window is two to three days.

But the biggest takeaway from their research, which looked at hundreds of sites and billions of pageviews, showed that the average site sees only 11 percent of its visitors returning at least once in a 30-day period.

You heard right: 11%.

That number might sound low, and it is. But it highlights an opportunity.

If you can get that number up to 20%, you’re doing 2X better than the competition.

So how do you get there?

A content marketing playbook

Vulture.com conducted a study with Chartbeat to find what on-page content attributes led to content loyalty. They wanted to figure out what led readers to return to their site.

They found that if they could get their readers to return to the first page of their site 5 times, the readers would be what they term “loyal visitors” of their site, returning frequently to consume information.

In other words, five days was their core loyalty metric, and the primary starting place for the brand’s content efforts.

They looked at factors ranging from text length to images and the number of ads on the page, and what they found was surprising and illuminating: For them, the key was the amount of text above the fold.

That is, loyal readers expected to consume a certain amount of content above-the-fold. (Click the link above for the details, which are quite interesting.)

Armed with this information, Vulture.com could focus on a targeted attribute that led to their 5X, loyal, readers.

Nothing is stopping you from doing the same.

Making content loyalty work for your brand

Your first step toward content loyalty, is to define your goal post (e.g., visits per an allotted amount of time), then optimize for the attributes that lead to that goal.

For your brand, it might be content length or number of ads or GIFs or videos.

The key is to dial in those attributes that are specific to your site, then continue to optimize for them.

You likely have some inkling of what content types help earn loyalty in your vertical, based on popularity and such. Same thing for content types. We know that for many industries, blogs, videos, infographics, and the like are the most shared and most linked to types of content.

Your brand can do the same, provided you have the heart and the patience to do so.

One of the reasons brands are struggling with content marketing is they aren’t giving it enough time. Create a program, set a plan, and let it run.

It’s not a 90 day thing.

“The sheer majority of brands will continue to crash and burn with their content creation and distribution efforts. Simply put, most brands resist telling a truly differentiated story, and even those that do tell one aren’t consistent or patient enough to build loyal audiences over time,” says Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi.

If you’re willing to put in the work, though, you can have success.

The natural starting place is a content audit.

I know many of you cringe upon seeing that word. But you have to start somewhere, and the content audit is the best somewhere.

Besides, before you get started producing content, you need to know what you have and how well it’s performing.

If, like me, you’ve done content audits, you know they can be a time-consuming chore, especially when done from scratch.

Luckily, you don’t have to start from scratch.

Using the template found in Mike King’s deck from Authority Rainmaker, you can get an excellent snapshot of the strongest-performing content on your site. Then you simply aggregate that data to see what’s resonating with your readers, what’s creating that network diffusion for your brand.

For example, you can find the most shares for various types of content, which can help you better discern what types of content you should be creating and sharing more of.

Once you have your content audit in hand, the next step you want to take, before execution on your new content strategy, is to calculate your ROI. This Content Marketing ROI Calculator from Siege Media allows you to plug in the costs associated with creation, including how many links and shares and loyal visitors, which makes it easier to make the case for your boss or your clients. This is a must-have when you’re trying to not only get buy-in but also get the time you need to execute your plan.

If your brand is like many of those I’ve worked with in the past, meaning you don’t have a wide base of content from which to pull a great deal of data from during the audit, I suggest using tool like BuzzSumo, which is a newcomer that has become very popular very fast in content marketing circles.

And for good reason.

It can help you get up and running really fast, and you can learn a great deal about how your content is performing along the way.

BuzzSumo allows you to view the social landscape across myriad topics for the entirety of your competitive landscape.

So, by the time you get started, you can have a complete list of targets and categories to optimize for, even if you don’t have a strong content inventory.

One of the coolest parts about working with Moz — aside from the Roger notepads and pens — is the great people who are always designing and creating tools for us to use, then share with the audience.

For a while now, we’ve been privileged to play with something called One Metric.

Created by our audience and data teams, it allows us to weight social sharing, traffic and links and on-page attention, and reader engagement to create a more organic content score that ensures we’re looking at the entire picture.

Earlier this year, Moz released Moz Content, which is basically One Metric plus 10 and times one million.

With Moz Content, you can crawl your site, then integrate the various bits of information, including content types, your author performance, your social sharing, your links, etc. Even better, you can create, track, and save multiple content audits, making it possible to see how well your content is doing over time, and with ease.

The goal is to make that first step when performing a content audit much easier.

Even better, using the newly created Moz Context API, you’re able to extract the most relevant topics for your site. It can tell you what topics and what keywords are the most relevant for your site and across the web.

This allows you to create a topic inventory for your site.

Let’s say, based on performance, visitors are engaging with these content types and topics most on your site. That way you don’t have to guess about what content to create.

You can then focus on optimizing for creating and sharing the right content in the right places for the right audience, instead of blindly creating content with the hope that it performs optimally.

Maybe my favorite feature, and the one that I can see many brands using most to position themselves favorably against the competition, is the Content Search feature. It allows you to see topics — -your topics — across the web, enabling you to harness information on what’s getting the most shares, what’s gaining social traction, what’s resonating with your audience.

With this view, you’re getting a bird’s-eye view across the web, so you can see what’s working for the competition, what they’re having success with and what, maybe, you should consider trying.

Full disclosure: Since Moz Content is new, I still rely on BuzzSumo for getting a quick, easy, and clean snapshot at the topical level, then use Moz Content to get a deeper look at the content landscape I’m hoping to track, whether for myself or for a client or prospect. And because both platforms offer a level of free service, I’d suggest using them in tandem, especially at first, to get a feel for which has the features better suited for your needs.

Take your content marketing to the next level

Hopefully, you have a better sense of how to be successful, in addition to having a more in-depth understanding of what it takes to attain long-term success in content marketing. The overall goal for this post, however, was to make it clear that, with regard to the content you create, share and promote, loyalty is THE goal, not a goal.

Remember, content is meant to support your marketing efforts; it should not define them. If the content you create can draw readers to your site consistently, your team can then set about ensuring that the various messaging needed to call attention to or sell additional products are in place, even as you further optimize the content to increase views and viewers.

By making content loyalty your goal, you make it palatable that more of your brand’s goals are attainable.

What are your thoughts? Do you think loyalty is the right goal for your content?

[Ed. note: A big shout-out to Moz teammates Matthew J. Brown and Jay Leary for the insight they provided as I was pulling together the information for this post.]

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When Data Just Isn’t Enough: The Hidden Context that’s Key to Content Loyalty

Posted by ronell-smith

(Image source)

When the client asked to “go mute” during our monthly client call, there was no reason to sound the alarm. After all, being able to talk through what they’ve heard as a team, in private, was normal. But when the always-skeptical global marketing director said the COO (who has been in the room for the 10 minutes of analytics discussion) wants to take the discussion offline for a bit, but wants you to hold on, I knew things had likely gone off the rails.

“Thanks for holding, you guys,” says the head of marketing upon taking the phone off mute after what seemed like an eternity. “Tim was just in here, and he had some questions about the data. He expressed concern that it appears [the team] is simply regurgitating a bunch of numbers.”

After it was explained that the numbers actually exceeded everyone’s expectations for how the site would perform after the redesign, the link detox and having new content in place, she made things crystal clear.

“Let me cut to the chase,” she said. “The numbers are great. We’re happy with the numbers. But this the same thing our last agency provided us: great data. What we’re looking for is someone to share what the data is telling us about what to do in the future, so we can focus only on those areas that are likely to benefit the brand. We’d like to know what will help us attain success in the future, not what [your team] thinks will lead to success in the future.”

What this client needed was the Oracle of Delphi, not someone to analyze their data.

But she was right. They were looking for all-important insight, insight that could not be gleaned from data alone. However, this agency and all the others she’d worked with had led her to believe the data is gospel. Follow it to the Promised Land.

She knew better.

Data alone is never enough.

Though many in online marketing prefer to see data as the be-all and end-all, at best data alone tells us what’s likely to be effective in the future. It does not provide the “if this, then that” clarity we crave.

The more we share “according-to-the-data” insight, the more we walk a tightrope that never ends. Data tells us what happened, can yield great insight into what’s likely to happen, and is at its best when used to discern what is happening.

However, in the real world, things change constantly and often without warning, a fact that cannot be accounted for via data alone.

“[Data] is an abstract description of reality,” writes Jim Harris on his blog, Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality. ”…The inconvenient truth is that the real world is not the same thing as these abstract descriptions of it—not even when we believe that data perfection is possible (or have managed to convince ourselves that our data is perfect).”

To be sure, data is integral to attaining success in the information-rich online marketing arena. Everything from our websites to our campaigns to conversions depends on it. In fact, data is a large part of what sets online marketing apart from traditional marketing, which can, at times, feel like so much guesswork.

But over the course of the last two years, through interviews with more than 300 folks in the content marketing/inbound marketing space, I’ve come to realize that many wonder if data (insofar as how it’s used to make decisions) isn’t as much a curse as it is a blessing.

(Image source)

In conversation after conversation, I’ve heard CEOs, SEOs, CMOs, PPC nerds, and content folks say the same things, which is summed up nicely by these comments from a director-level SEO at one of the most successful agencies in the US: “Even in those cases where we deliver to clients data that far exceeds their expectations, they often fire us. Heck, especially when we deliver those amazing results, they fire us.”

I think this occurs for one of two reasons:

  1. They realize data doesn’t yield the solution they’d hoped for, or
  2. They falsely believe data highlights the end-game, meaning they can now thrive on autopilot.

As any of us working in online marketing can attest, nothing could be further from the truth.

Data is an important part of a large picture, one that is as nuanced and as varied as it is ever-changing.

Because of that, we need context.

“Data doesn’t come with context,” says Tim Gillman, an analytics nerd at Portent Interactive in Seattle. “For example: measuring content. If your data says people spend ~15 mins reading your post, there’s always the chance that they simply left their computer for awhile. You don’t know for certain they were loving your content.”

I struggled with this reality for months, wondering what, if anything, could be done to bridge this gap, which would allow us to (a) be given the time to do quality work for our clients and (b) have clients realize the efficacy of our efforts.

I read big data and data science books, started following the words and works of big data nerds active on social media, in addition to listening to podcasts, watching YouTube videos, and talking to as many people as I could to discern how we, as online marketers, can be successful.

Training ourselves to think about data differently

In the end, it was the sage words from Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen that helped me gain some clarity.

Data, at best, can only tell us about the past, he writes. It cannot help us see into the future.

For that, he adds, we need a theory for helping to explain what’s likely to happen. Taken together, both data and theory, serve to provide us with the building blocks of what can become the framework for success we crave.

To make this work, he says, we must go “dumpster diving” — hanging out in the real world, observing and noticing how things occur in real life — which will lead us to more effectively posit the hows (things really work) and whys (they work as they do).

Then, once we have the data, we use it to empirically assess the observed behavior, devoid of emotion.

The framework looks a lot like this:

  • Observe – Dumpster-diving in the real world
  • Theorize – Posit the how and the why
  • Test – Assess and compile data
  • Construct – Develop a framework for future efforts

With this model, we’re training ourselves to think about data in a different, but no less valuable, way. In the above scenario, data is an important part of the equation; it is not treated as the equation in its entirety.

This, to my mind, gets us closer to seeing data in the proper context. That is a part of the solution. But changing how we think about data won’t allow us to keep clients any better, won’t immediately make us better marketers and cannot, by itself, lead to better overall decisions being made.

For that to occur, we have to change two things: the data we act upon, and how we choose to act upon it.

A framework for finding your data goalposts

(Image source)

Without knowing it, Matthew Brown at MozCon 2015 provided us with the veritable playbook for how to use data to improve our content marketing efforts. During his talk, which was one of the best of the entire event, he highlighted the key to content marketing success: content loyalty.

The more loyal our audiences, the better able we are to sustain our content marketing efforts. (A loyal audience comprises the folks who most frequently visit your site.)

The key, Brown said during the talk, is to find the goalpost that helps you determine content loyalty for your brand, then optimize for that metric. So, instead of chasing Likes, shares, or links to your content, you’re focused on creating loyal visitors to your site.

This is important because one of the reasons content marketers end up getting lost down the data rabbit hole is we too often chase the wrong metrics (e.g., they highlight activity but don’t lead to conversions) or we attempt to track too many metrics, most of which don’t lead to the goal we, or our clients, are hoping for.

Here’s how such an effort could work for your brand, using the OTTC framework borrowed from Christensen’s work:

  • Observe
    Determine what comprises “loyal visitors” for your brand. It could be visits per day, per week, or per month. This is the crucial first step. Get this wrong and nothing else matters. What you’re looking for is the metric that correlates with visitors becoming loyal to your site. Put simply, you’re looking for the gotcha that says “These folks are now loyal visitors.”
  • Theorize
    Gather the team and spend some time thinking through what it is about your site and/or content that likely leads to these audience members becoming loyal fans and followers. Is it the length of the content? The number of images? The author? The amount of content above the fold? The number of ads?
  • Test
    Use the information gleaned from that meeting with the team to begin testing the various on-page elements until you have a good idea of what it is that leads folks to become loyal. This is the fun part. To make it even more rewarding, you can rest assured that many of your competitors won’t be following suit, as many of them are content to guess at what works, then throw more of the same at the wall.
  • Construct
    Develop a process by which you continue to optimize for content loyalty, in large part by creating the types and formats of content that you’ve uncovered as leading to content loyalty. Keep in mind, however, that this process is not static, as your audience’s needs are likely to change with time. But by analyzing the data, dumpster diving by interacting with the audience via emails, polls, Q&A, and sundry other methods of staying connected, your brand will be in great shape to continue putting the ball through the uprights.

Summation

This is a post I thought long and hard about writing. During this quest to better understand data and shine a light on how to make it work for us and not against us, I’ve developed a deep, sincere fascination for big data and the role it can play in answering some of our biggest questions.

I’m in no way anti-data. Hardly. What I’m against is the “data-tells-us-all-we-need-to-know” mindset I so often encounter.

I’m hopeful that, in the future, more and more of us are willing to be honest with ourselves and our clients, acknowledging what we know to be true: the data alone won’t save us.

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Setting Up 4 Key Customer Loyalty Metrics in Google Analytics

Posted by Tom.Capper

Customer loyalty is one of the strongest assets a business can have, and one that any can aim to improve. However, improvement requires iteration and testing, and iteration and testing require measurement.

Traditionally, customer loyalty has been measured using customer surveys. The
Net Promoter Score, for example, is based on the question (on a scale of one to ten) “How likely is it that you would recommend our company/product/service to a friend or colleague?”. Regularly monitoring metrics like this with any accuracy is going to get expensive (and/or annoying to customers), and is never going to be hugely meaningful, as advocacy is only one dimension of customer loyalty. Even with a wider range of questions, there’s also some risk that you end up tracking what your customers claim about their loyalty rather than their actual loyalty, although you might expect the two to be strongly correlated.

Common mistakes

Google Analytics and other similar platforms collect data that could give you more meaningful metrics for free. However, they don’t always make them completely obvious – before writing this post, I checked to be sure there weren’t any very similar ones already published, and I found some fairly dubious reoccurring recommendations. The most common of these was
using % of return visitors as a sole or primary metric for customer loyalty. If the percentage of visitors to your site who are return visitors drops, there are plenty of reasons that could be behind that besides a drop in loyalty—a large number of new visitors from a successful marketing campaign, for example. Similarly, if the absolute number of return visitors rises, this could be as easily caused by an increase in general traffic levels as by an increase in the loyalty of existing customers.

Visitor frequency is another easily misinterpreted metric; 
infrequent visits do not always indicate a lack of loyalty. If you were a loyal Mercedes customer, and never bought any car that wasn’t a new Mercedes, you wouldn’t necessarily visit their website on a weekly basis, and someone who did wouldn’t necessarily be a more loyal customer than you.

The metrics

Rather than starting with the metrics Google Analytics shows us and deciding what they mean about customer loyalty (or anything else), a better approach is to decide what metrics you want, then deciding how you can replicate them in Google Analytics.

To measure the various dimensions of (online) customer loyalty well, I felt the following metrics would make the most sense:

  • Proportion of visitors who want to hear more
  • Proportion of visitors who advocate
  • Proportion of visitors who return
  • Proportion of macro-converters who convert again

Note that a couple of these may not be what they initially seem. If your registration process contains an awkwardly worded checkbox for email signup, for example, it’s not a good measure of whether people want to hear more. Secondly, “proportion of visitors who return” is not the same as “proportion of visitors who are return visitors.”

1. Proportion of visitors who want to hear more

This is probably the simplest of the above metrics, especially if you’re already tracking newsletter signups as a micro-conversion. If you’re not, you probably should be, so see Google’s guidelines for event tracking using the
analytics.js tracking snippet or Google Tag Manager, and set your new event as a goal in Google Analytics.

2. Proportion of visitors who advocate

It’s never possible to track every public or private recommendation, but there are two main ways that customer advocacy can be measured in Google Analytics: social referrals and social interactions. Social referrals may be polluted as a customer loyalty metric by existing campaigns, but these can be segmented out if properly tracked, leaving the social acquisition channel measuring only organic referrals.

Social interactions can also be tracked in Google Analytics, although surprisingly, with the exception of Google+, tracking them does require additional code on your site. Again, this is probably worth tracking anyway, so if you aren’t already doing so, see Google’s guidelines for
analytics.js tracking snippets, or this excellent post for Google Tag Manager analytics implementations.

3. Proportion of visitors who return

As mentioned above, this isn’t the same as the proportion of visitors who are return visitors. Fortunately, Google Analytics does give us a feature to measure this.

Even though date of first session isn’t available as a dimension in reports, it can be used as a criteria for custom segments. This allows us to start building a data set for how many visitors who made their first visit in a given period have returned since.

There are a couple of caveats. First, we need to pick a sensible time period based on our frequency and recency data. Second, this data obviously takes a while to produce; I can’t tell how many of this month’s new visitors will make further visits at some point in the future.

In Distilled’s case, I chose 3 months as a sensible period within which I would expect the vast majority of loyal customers to visit the site at least once. Unfortunately, due to the 90-day limit on time periods for this segment, this required adding together the totals for two shorter periods. I was then able to compare the number of new visitors in each month with how many of those new visitors showed up again in the subsequent 3 months:

As ever with data analysis, the headline figure doesn’t tell the story. Instead, it’s something we should seek to explain. Looking at the above graph, it would be easy to conclude “Distilled’s customer loyalty has bombed recently; they suck.” However, the fluctuation in the above graph is mostly due to the enormous amount of organic traffic that’s been generated by
Hannah‘s excellent blog post 4 Types of Content Every Site Needs.

Although many new visitors who discovered the Distilled site through this blog post have returned since, the return rate is unsurprisingly lower than some of the most business-orientated pages on the site. This isn’t a bad thing—it’s what you’d expect from top-of-funnel content like blog posts—but it’s a good example of why it’s worth keeping an eye out for this sort of thing if you want to analyse these metrics. If I wanted to dig a little deeper, I might start by segmenting this data to get a more controlled view of how new visitors are reacting to Distilled’s site over time.

4. Proportion of macro-converters who convert again

While a standard Google Analytics implementation does allow you to view how many users have made multiple purchases, it doesn’t allow you to see how these fell across their sessions. Similarly, if you can see how many users have had two sessions and two goal conversions, but you can’t see whether those conversions were in different visits, it’s entirely possible that some had one accidental visit that bounced, and one visit with two different conversions (note that you cannot perform the same conversion twice in one session).

It would be possible to create custom dimensions for first (and/or second, third, etc.) purchase dates using internal data, but this is a complex and site-specific implementation. Unfortunately, for the time being, I know of no good way of documenting user conversion patterns over multiple sessions using only Google Analytics, despite the fact that it collects all the data required to do this.

Contribute

These are only my favourite customer loyalty metrics. If you have any that you’re already tracking or are unsure how to track, please explain in the comments below.

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Pandas And Loyalty

SEOs debate ranking metrics over and over, but if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that Google no longer works the same way it used to.

The fundamental shift in the past couple of years has been more emphasis on what could be characterized as engagement factors.

I became convinced that Panda is really the public face of a much deeper switch towards user engagement. While the Panda score is sitewide the engagement “penalty” or weighting effect on also occurs at the individual page. The pages or content areas that were hurt less by Panda seem to be the ones that were not also being hurt by the engagement issue.

Inbound links to a page still count, as inbound links are engagement factors. How about a keyword in the title tag? On-page text? They are certainly basic requirements, but of low importance when it comes to determining ranking. This is because the web is not short of content, so there will always likely to be on-topic content to serve against a query. Rather, Google refines in order to deliver the most relevant content.

Google does so by checking a range of metrics to see what people really think about the content Google is serving, and the oldest form of this check is an inbound link, which is a form of vote by users. Engagement metrics are just a logical extension of the same idea.

Brands appear to have an advantage, not because they fit into an arbitrary category marked “brand,” but because of signals that define them as being more relevant i.e. a brand keyword search likely results in a high number of click-thrus, and few click-backs. This factor, when combined with other metrics, such as their name in the backlink, helps define relevance.

Social signals are also playing a part, and likely measured in the same way as brands. If enough people talk about something, associate terms with it, and point to it, and users don’t click-back in sufficient number, then it’s plausible that activity results in higher relevance scores.

We don’t know for sure, of course. We can only speculate based on limited blackbox testing which will always be incomplete. However, even if some SEOs don’t accept the ranking boost that comes from engagement metrics, there’s still a sound business reason to pay attention to the main difference between brand and non-brand sites.

Loyalty

Investing In The Return

Typically, internet marketers place a lot of emphasis, and spend, on getting a new visitor to a site. They may also place emphasis on converting the buyer, using conversion optimization and other persuasion techniques.

But how much effort are they investing to ensure the visitor comes back?

Some may say ensuring the visitor comes back isn’t SEO, but in a post-Panda environment, SEO is about a lot more than the first click. As you build up brand searches, bookmarking, and word-of-mouth metrics, you’ll likely create the type of signals Google favours.

Focusing on the returning visitor also makes sense from a business point of view. Selling to existing customers – whether you’re selling a physical thing or a point of view – is cheaper than selling to a new customer.

Acquiring new customers is expensive (five to ten times the cost of retaining an existing one), and the average spend of a repeat customer is a whopping 67 percent more than a new one

So, customer loyalty pays off on a number of levels.

Techniques To Foster Loyalty

Return purchasers, repeat purchasers and repeat visitors can often be missed in analytics, or their importance not well understood. According to the Q2 2012 Adobe analysis, “8% of site visitors, they generated a disproportionately high 41% of site sales. What’s more, return and repeat purchasers had higher average order values and conversion rates than shoppers with no previous purchase history

One obvious technique, if you’re selling products, is to use loyalty programs. Offer points, discounts and other monetary rewards. One drawback of this approach is is that giving rewards and pricing discounts is essentially purchasing loyalty. Customers will only be “loyal” so long as they think they’re getting a bargain, so this approach works best if you’re in a position to be price competitive. Contrast this with the deeper loyalty that can be achieved through an emotional loyalty to a brand, by the likes of Apple, Google and Coke.

Fostering deeper loyalty, then, is about finding out what really matters to people, hopefully something other than price.

Take a look at Zappos. What makes customers loyal to Zappos? Customers may get better prices elsewhere, but Zappos is mostly about service. Zappos is about ease of use. Zappos is about lowering the risk of purchase by offering free returns. Zappos have identified and provided what their market really wants – high service levels and reasonable pricing – so people keep coming back.

Does anyone think the engagement metrics of Zappos would be overlooked by Google? If Zappos were not seen as relevant by Google, then there would be something badly wrong – with Google. Zappos have high brand awareness in the shoe sector, built on solving a genuine problem for visitors. They offer high service levels, which keeps people coming back, and keeps customers talking about them.

Sure, they’re a well-funded, outlier internet success, but the metrics will still apply to all verticals. The brands who engage customers the most, and continue to do so, are, by definition, most relevant.

Another thing to consider, especially if you’re a small operator competing against big players, is closely related to service. Try going over-the-top in you attentiveness to customers. Paul Graham, of Y Combinator, talks about how start-ups should go well beyond what big companies do, and the payback is increased loyalty:

But perhaps the biggest thing preventing founders from realizing how attentive they could be to their users is that they’ve never experienced such attention themselves. Their standards for customer service have been set by the companies they’ve been customers of, which are mostly big ones. Tim Cook doesn’t send you a hand-written note after you buy a laptop. He can’t. But you can. That’s one advantage of being small: you can provide a level of service no big company can

That strategy syncs with Seth Godin’s Purple Cow notion of “being remarkable” i.e do something different – good different – so people remark upon it. These days, and in the context of SEO, that translates into social media mentions and links, and brand searches, all of which will help keep the Google Gods smiling, too.

The feedback loop of high engagement will also help you refine your relevance:

Over-engaging with early users is not just a permissible technique for getting growth rolling. For most successful startups it’s a necessary part of the feedback loop that makes the product good. Making a better mousetrap is not an atomic operation. Even if you start the way most successful startups have, by building something you yourself need, the first thing you build is never quite right…..

Gamification

Gamification has got a lot of press in the last few years as a means of fostering higher levels of engagement and return visits.

The concept is called gamification – that is, implementing design concepts from games, loyalty programs, and behavioral economics, to drive user engagement”. M2 research expects that US companies alone will be spending $ 3b per year on gamification technologies and services before the end of the decade

People have natural desires to be competitive, to achieve, to gain status, closure and feel altruistic. Incorporating game features helps fulfil these desires.

And games aren’t just for kids. According to The Gamification Revolution, by Zichermann and Linder – a great read on gamification strategy, BTW – the average “gamer” in the US is a 43 year old female. Gaming is one of the few channels where levels of attention are increasing. Contrast this with content-based advertising, which is often rendered invisible by repetition.

This is not to say everything must be turned into a game. Rather, pay attention to the desires that games fulfil, and try to incorporate those aspects into your site, where appropriate. Central to the idea of gamification is orienting around the deep desires of a visitor for some form of reward and status.

The user may want to buy product X, but if they can feel a sense of achievement in doing so, they’ll be engaging at a deeper level, which could then lead to brand loyalty.

eBay, a pure web e-commerce play dealing in stuff, have a “chief engagement officer”, someone who’s job it is to tweak eBay so it becomes more-gamelike. This, in turn, drives customer engagement and loyalty. If your selling history becomes a marker of achievement and status, then how likely are you to start anew at the competition?

This is one of the reasons eBay has remained so entrenched.

Gamification has also been used as a tool for customer engagement, and for encouraging desirable website usage behaviour. Additionally, gamification is readily applicable to increasing engagement on sites built on social network services. For example, in August 2010, one site, DevHub, announced that they have increased the number of users who completed their online tasks from 10% to 80% after adding gamification elements. On the programming question-and-answer site Stack Overflow users receive points and/or badges for performing a variety of actions, including spreading links to questions and answers via Facebook and Twitter. A large number of different badges are available, and when a user’s reputation points exceed various thresholds, he or she gains additional privileges, including at the higher end, the privilege of helping to moderate the site

Gamification, in terms of the web, is relatively new. It didn’t even appear in Google Trends until 2010. But it’s not just some buzzword, it has practical application, and it can help improve ranking by boosting engagement metrics through loyalty and referrals. Loyalty marketing guru Fredrick Reichheld has claimed a strong link between customer loyalty marketing and customer referral.

Obviously, this approach is highly user-centric. Google orient around this principle, too. “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

Google has always had the mantra of ‘focus on the user and all else will follow,’ so the company puts a significant amount of effort into researching its users. In fact, Au estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of her 200-strong worldwide user experience team is compromised of user researchers

Google fosters return visits and loyalty by giving the user what they want, and they use a lot of testing to ensure that happens. Websites that focus on keywords, but don’t give the user what they want, either due to a lack of focus, lack of depth, or by using deliberate bait-and-switch, are going against Google’s defining principles and will likely ultimately lose the SEO game.

The focus on the needs and desires of the user, both before their first click, to their return visits, should be stronger than ever.

Attention

According to Microsoft research, the average new visitor gives your site 10 seconds or less. Personally, I think ten seconds sounds somewhat generous! If a visitor makes it past 30 seconds, you’re lucky to get two minutes of their attention, in total. What does this do to your engagement metrics if Google is counting click backs, and clicks to other pages in the same domain?

And these metrics are even worse for mobile.

There’s been a lot of diversification in terms of platforms, and many users are stuck in gamified silo environments, like Facebook, so it’s getting harder and harder to attract people out of their comfort zone and to your brand.

So it’s no longer just about building brand, we also need to think about more ways to foster ongoing engagement and attention. We’ve seen that people are spending a lot of attention on games. In so doing, they have been conditioned to expect heightened rewards, stimulation and feedback as a reward for that attention.

Do you reward visitors for their attention?

If not, think about ways you can build reward and status for visitors into your site.

Sites like 99 Designs use a game to solicit engagement from suppliers as a point of differentiation for buyers. Challenges, such as “win the design” competition, delivers dozens of solutions at no extra cost to the user. The winners also receive a form of status, which is also a form of “payment” for their efforts. We could argue that this type of gamification is weighed heavily against the supplier, but there’s no doubting the heightened level of engagement and attraction for the buyer. Not only do they get multiple web design ideas for the price of one, they get to be the judge in a design version of the X-Factor.

Summary

Hopefully, this article has provided some food for thought. If we were going to measure success of loyalty and engagement campaigns, we might look at recency i.e. how long ago did the users last visit, frequency i.e. how often do they visit in a period of time, and duration i.e. when do they come, and how long do they stay. We could then map these metrics back against rankings, and look for patterns.

But even if we’re overestimating the effect of engagement on rankings, it still makes good sense from a business point of view. It costs a lot to get the first visit, but a whole lot less to keep happy visitors coming back, particularly on brand searches.

Think about ways to reward visitors for doing so.

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Loyalty Marketing: How to get customers to stick around (and keep buying)

Marketing is not just about selling; it’s also about building and fostering relationships with customers and your audience. In today’s blog post, we explain why brand loyalty is so important and provide some insight on how you can get your customers to stick around, for the long haul.
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