Issue #5. Why Andy Crestodina Would Spend 150 Hours on a Single Piece of Content

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Andy Crestodina is an 18-year veteran of the digital marketing space, co-founding the web design company.

He writes blog posts, newsletters, records videos, conducts webinars, and gives presentations around the country on content strategy, search, and analytics. He even finds time to teach at Northwestern and in Barcelona.

Here’s why he believes most people measure the wrong marketing metrics, why the stuff that used to be good enough a decade ago isn’t today, how to balance content quality vs. quantity, and how to make content promotion exponentially easier.

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Why most measure the wrong metrics (and what to watch instead)

Data isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

In fact, it’s often flat-out wrong.

There are several problems. First, raw data is virtually meaningless. Only context brings it to life. And second, many of the most popular metrics are commonly underreported or overreported, because it’s set up incorrectly or the analytics packages we rely on don’t take everything into account.

Andy says that there’s a gap between what people need and what the world is publishing.

Otherwise, you’d probably see marketers make better decisions.

“So it’s definitely true that the most powerful effective tactics, those that correlate most strongly with results are also the least common tactics,” confirms Andy. “Maybe just counterintuitive. Maybe that’s just like obvious to people because the things that fewer people do are the things that get better results. But there’s no reason why more people couldn’t do these things.”

There’s rampant misalignment, in other words, from what people are doing (currently or historically) with what they should be doing (to get better results).

“So, for example, bloggers who do guest posting tend to report stronger results. Bloggers who work with multiple editors or have a formal editing process get stronger results. Bloggers who consistently check analytics, bloggers who publish original research, bloggers who publish more frequently, bloggers who spend more time on each post, bloggers who write longer posts. Basically, hard work correlates with results, and that’s not a shocking finding. But when you connect to the data and you see just how more effective the bloggers are who use these tactics, it’s a pretty stark difference. It’s basically one in five bloggers do six or seven things that lead to much better results than the rest of content marketers. And the difference is big. It’s a big difference.”

Andy’s data suggests that the majority of marketers get it wrong, with only a tiny minority (~20%) who’re doing it correctly.

Why? Are marketers dumb? Or lazy?

“Marketers are just busy,” explains Andy. “I’m not gonna say lazy. Inherently, people are lazy. It’s human to not want to put in more effort than is necessary to get the desired outcome. In fact, it’s a waste. Technically, it’s a waste to put in more effort than is necessary to see the incremental benefit. Why would you do that? It needs more calories than you burn and you don’t need more… you know like we’re just inherently trying to efficiently manage time in our lives. But what is not obvious until you’ve been doing it for a little while is that effort is linear, but results are exponential. So working twice as hard on something sounds crazy. But, actually, if you get four times the results by working twice as hard, it is efficient. You know, working ten times as hard on something? Why would I do that? Because marketers that put in 10x effort get like 100x the results. You’ve seen this a million times, Brad. Every curve in digital has an exponential curve, right? There are no straight lines.”

Turns out, life ain’t fair after all. ‘Hard work’ is just table stakes todays.

Average work gets rewarded with average results. Amazing work gets rewarded not linearly (to cover the costs invested), but 100X better than the people working half as hard. Doesn’t matter which field we’re talking.

“One percent of YouTubers get all the views. One percent of Twitter users get all the followers. One percentage of pages ranked on page one in Google or whatever, like everything has an exponential curve. So the goal is to be as far over on that curve as possible using whatever tactic gets you over there, whether it’s 10x frequency or 10x quality or 10x, you know, the topic or depth or whatever your angle is. So once you realize that, what I did was I didn’t increase my publishing. I stayed twice a week, or once every two weeks. I’m a biweekly publisher. That’s it. That’s all I do. But I can still drive 1.3 million visitors a year, 1,200 qualified leads a year. You’d think that would be impossible to be able to do that. Not impossible at all. It’s just that each specific effort is like many times more than what a normal marketer or a typical competitor would do.”

Not only do you get outsized returns at the top, but growth rates also compound over time. So it’s like double the pleasure, double the fun.

You might see 100x in the first year. But in the years to come, it scales to 300X, 500X and higher. It’s a flywheel.

“So the mechanics there that people don’t realize is that the results are all durable. You create durable competitive advantages for yourself. Link popularity, social followers, email list growth, these are things that really like shrink. If you win them, you tend to keep them. But the people who put in way bigger efforts see much, much greater rewards because this era is a race and people who know it’s a race or had known it’s a race and have been running it for longer will put in great, you know…working harder now knowing that a lot of the benefits that they’re winning will be durable and stay with them for years to come.”

Why a 2005-level effort won’t cut it today

A decade or two ago, everyone told you to “create content.”

The world needs more information. More stuff. More opinions.

Well, guess what? Those days are firmly over. The world doesn’t need more stuff. Not when millions of posts are published daily.

What the world needs now is insight. Not info.

Especially when winner-take-all markets, like a Google SERP, are only getting more cutthroat. The wealth gap, for those at the top and everyone else, is only becoming more skewed.

How should you respond to this?

One of Andy’s solutions is to go deeper, not broader.

“Well, it’s definitely true that for some niches, it’s almost just too late. You have to go much more specific. If you want to do personal finance, well, I’m doing personal finance for architects. Okay, I can win that battle without, you know, 20,000 hours of foundation building. But no matter what the niche, I think even new players, small brands, young marketers can actually just launch themselves to much greater results in one of probably three different ways.”

The second solution is to piggyback on others. (You know, in a way that won’t get you #MeToo’d.)

“One of them is just to simply write for the publications where your audience is reading. That’s a huge shortcut. You don’t have to build up domain authority or email list or social following. If you build a relationship with an editor, you’ve proven there’s at least some stuff on your site that shows that you’re legit, right, and you put that publication in front of that audience, instant visibility. So get off of your own site. Another is to collaborate with other people, you and I are doing it right now. Huge shortcut. All you need is one or two relationships to get people to agree to an interview or to get contributor quotes into your stuff or make, you know, a creative format like this one, making stuff together.”

Last but certainly not least, is to make news, not report on it.

Here’s what I mean:

Go look at most marketing content today.

It’s like reporting in a sense. You talk about other people’s tactics. You talk about the latest Google announcement that basically contradicts itself. You talk about other people’s bullshit, made up stolen marketing tactics.

The antidote is original research. You actually create something new. Something, well, original. That hasn’t already been rehashed millions of times over.

“But the third is like one of the just atomic bombs of marketing. The original research piece. The blogger survey is, of course, an example of itself, but 58% of marketers that create and publish original research are reporting strong results. But only 25% of marketers are doing it. So even a small-ish brand, even a young content program that’s only been off the ground relatively recently can do big outreach, giant survey or a study, or find some correlation data, or pull something, you know… Publish a stat that you own, make yourself the primary source, that is an unbelievable acceleration for the flywheel. That’s a really powerful one.”

The problem is that original research is both hard and easy. It’s hard in execution. It’s easy in that it’s the most direct path to profits.

“People are always like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to stand apart. I don’t know how to differentiate myself. I don’t know how to make something original. It sounds really hard.’ Find that sound-bite statistic that hasn’t been created in your space. For us, it was like, ‘how long does it take to write a blog post?’ It takes 3 hours and 28 minutes to write a blog post. That’s 40% longer than four years ago. That’s original data. Did not exist prior to the survey. And you publish that and then it’s useful, right? Literally, Wikipedia links to this because it’s now part of the body of human knowledge. You contributed to your field. But it’s probably powerful because very few people will use it. And that’s your other point, shitty click-through rates. It’s not gonna get easier. Even that tactic, it’s gonna get louder, noisier, more crowded. One good example for that right now, I think LinkedIn video is just an incredible opportunity. The results are crazy. It’s so effective. I feel like I’m cheating. That can’t last, right?”

The age-old content marketing debate: quality or quantity?

The biggest data point that jumps out from Andy’s research is that most people spend basically half as much time on content creation as they should.

Most spend around three hours, while the people who report the best results spend about six.

The question comes down to resource allocation. How do you prioritize it? Do you chase quality or quantity?

The imperfect yet realistic answer is that it’s somewhere in the middle.

“If you try to just apply every one of these tactics to your own marketing, your own content program, you would die. I don’t think you could possibly try to be the guy that does all of them because you’d be publishing 2,000-word articles twice a day, you know, working with multiple editors and influencers on each piece, upgrading each piece of content to video. It’s like you’d need to be…I mean, as a content program, hypothetically, you know, you could include all of those things, and there are some that do, you know, like LinkedIn, HubSpot. There’s giant brands that actually keep things at that pace and that depth in those formats and that level. But it’s pick and choose, you know? Like I said, I mean, the results show that bloggers who publish more than weekly are far more likely to report strong results. I told you, I’m once every two weeks. It’s what I got. That’s my program. And I don’t need to do more than that. It’s not really about doing everything. The goal is to meet your goals. The goal is to get results. So nowhere does it say that you must do all the things that are the best things to do, you know. You work backwards from success and pick your battles.”

Andy does once every two weeks. But he’s also been doing this for 18 years. So his starting point is much, much further than most. (Which means ‘most’ would have to do a lot more to keep up.)

Let’s bring it back to resource allocation.

Imagine you’re hiring a writer. What’s a ‘fair’ rate? A few cents a word? A few hundred bucks? Well, depends on your goals. Any old content writing service might set you back less than a hundred bucks a post. At that rate, you could do like, hundreds a month! But does that give you the original research and insight you’re after? (Spoiler: nope.)

Ok. Ask it another way. The average hourly rate for U.S. agencies is somewhere between $100-250 according to one report. Andy’s data tells you to spend six hours per post. Quick math puts that cost per piece closer to $600 and $1,500.  Divide your monthly content budget by that range and back into the potential content pieces you can afford. Way more expensive, but a much better shot at actually creating stuff that delivers a strong ROI.

“Yeah. I mean, that’s the balance,” affirms Andy. “So I’m the opposite. I’m a brand-side marketer because I’m not doing content for clients. So what I always used to say was you can tune your frequency to the buying interval. We’re web design, so it’s every three or four years, and the sales cycle, which is a high consideration decision. So it’s like two or three months people take to decide if they’ll hire for their website. So if people buy from us every three or four years and it takes two to three months to decide whether or not to hire us, I don’t need to publish every day. That would be crazy.”

The slower sales cycle in Andy’s business means lower frequency is perfectly fine! Whereas those with much shorter sales cycles, like SaaS, would probably need a lot more than two posts per month.

You can also get creative with budget to stretch it further. For example, heavy SEO-based content plays, like an industry glossary of popular terms, could probably be produced by less experienced (read: cheaper) writers because the content is a bunch of short definitions.

So… you’re supposed to spend more time creating each piece of content.

You’re supposed to do more time-intensive content, like original research.

Is it, like, OK to sleep once in awhile then? How else can you fit it all in?

The short answer is that you don’t. You can (and should) spend more time repurposing the stuff you’re creating. In other words, creating multiple assets for fewer pieces. As opposed to chasing after every single new tactic under the sun.

“Well, I think it’s a mistake if that’s your plan is to…like I’m gonna make a Live Facebook thing. But if your plan is to have a conversation with someone on an interesting topic and have it streamed live for anyone who’s there and to capture it and to make it a video that goes in this other piece over here, and you take the transcription and pull out interesting quotes and use them in these other places and do ten of those. And then, you know, you asked all ten the same question, and now you have a ‘6 out of 10 of these people think this,’ you know, and to find even a data point from that and make visual memes or turn… So, content marketers make a thing. Great content marketers make a series of things or make a reformattable, repeatable thing or repurposable thing.

Refreshing old content is in the same boat.

For instance, Andy’s three main tactics to recommend include (1) collaborate with other people, (2) publish original research, and (3) stop writing new articles.

“Go back and find the almost high ranking things, the things that are declining in rank, the things that have high conversion rates, the things that have high page authority, and rewrite those.”

Andy’s data showed that only “38% of marketers will update old content,” even though all of those people are “literally twice as likely to report strong results.” It might just be the biggest bang for your buck on this list.

“If you’ve been doing this for a little while, you know exactly where to look. Find those pages with high page authority. Calculate conversion rates per blog post. Or look for things that are slowly declining in rank. And I don’t mean just like little cosmetic updates. I’m not tweaking anything. I’m rewriting like 80% of this piece. Tomorrow, I’m publishing ‘How to Set Up Google Analytics.’ It’s an article I wrote in 2014. It had five little tiny videos, and they ranked high in Google for a long time. It no longer does. So I turned that into a 2,500-word article, the 25-minute video, ‘How to Set up Google Analytics in 52 Clicks.’ I counted the number of clicks. Worked my butt off on this thing, like 25 hours of work, right? So it’s going live, and it’s just so much better than the old one. And the page already has like 86 websites linked to it. So you basically have race cars in your driveway. Go get in them, and drive them around. Go soup up those…you know, go fix up those things. They’ve already won half the battle. They’re authoritative so give them more relevance.”

3 original research content plays (plus one bonus)

HubSpot was one of the first big marketing players to embrace free tools as lead gen unveiling the Website Grader nearly a decade ago.

That kicked off the tool-as-content for lead generation wave that saw other companies, like LeadPages, launch their company (with Welcome Mats).

Today, these are easier than ever to create. My company created this calculator for a Podia content piece that would help customers predict revenue.

Tools aren’t the only souped-up content example that sticks out in a crowded niche, though.

Here are Andy’s top three preferences for original research:

  1. Observation
  2. Aggregation
  3. Survey

“Observation is just like you’re just looking at things,” says Andy, starting with the first one. “You can delegate it to a virtual assistant almost. Like, an example is how long does a website last? I downloaded a list of the top 100 websites. I put them on a spreadsheet. I gave it to a virtual assistant to go look in archive.org to see when they had major redesigns. And the VA filled out the spreadsheet. I’ve calculated the numbers and the average website lives for three years and seven months.”

The second one, aggregation, is basically taking other people’s data and mashing it up.

“Aggregation is when you take other people’s data and combine it. So it’s like, I don’t know, 55 people have written about page speed. If you took those 55 articles and found their data about page speed and what percentage of websites have a page speed… or pick anything, any industry, right, not just marketing, and you aggregated those, and you show their number, your number would in some ways be more strategically relevant than each of the separate surveys.”

Which brings us to numero tres, the survey:

“But the survey, the actual outreach survey is one of the most powerful for a couple of reasons. You can answer questions that are otherwise unanswerable. So if you want to know like what percentage of content marketing programs have teams of eight or more, I don’t know, like whatever, or any industry. It’s like, you know, accountants who work in Fortune 500s have Master’s degrees. You’ll never gonna find that data. Well, that one maybe. But some things you just have to reach out to people and talk to them. The upside there is that the outreach benefits your brand. Just gathering the data benefits your brand, right, because it’s lots of touch points.”

The other upside of original research is that it’s insanely easy to promote. Seriously. It’s like you have built-in link building and social sharing almost guaranteed.

“But also, you can reach back out to those people after you publish the data. So let’s say I do 5-minute interviews with 50 CMOs. ‘Hey, what are your top concerns for the coming year?’ I publish the thing. I reach back out. I say, ‘Hey, your concerns were the same as 65% of the responses.’ The research can start conversations. It can be part of an account-based marketing program because it puts you in front of people that might be your target audience who might be referral sources. So observation, aggregation, and the survey are the three that I’ve done, and I can show you the post that gives examples to that. First, your goal is to first identify the missing statistic for your industry. What is the thing that people frequently say but rarely support with evidence? When you find that missing statistic, you know, that’s your goal is to create a missing statistic. That’s why it wins is because you just filled in a blank in human knowledge and in your industry’s content.’

The best part is that these opportunities don’t take a ton of in-depth research or years of experience to spot. You can pick up on these common threads by just talking to people.

“If you’re ever at a conference and everybody says, you know, ‘Oh, this…’ you know. I’m gonna just keep making up examples, you know. ‘Influencer marketing is hard because it’s very difficult to find qualified influencers to connect with.’ And then you respond with, ‘Oh, is it? How difficult is it? What percentage of influencer marketers find that difficult?’ You know? Or how about this? ‘Influencer relationship management is a skill.’ ‘Oh, is it? What percentage of people have influencer relationship management in their LinkedIn profile?’ I could find that quickly. I’m gonna do it again in a year. I’m gonna show a chart showing the growth of influencer relationship management as a skill or as a job title. So I think that it’s basically just like being creative, listening. And anything that you hear someone say, if they’re not supporting it with evidence, you’re trying to create something that helps people around you support their assertions. That’s the missing statistic. You know, frequently asserted but rarely supported.”

How to make promotion easier: create better assets to promote

Andy’s updating old content with new information, but also new media like videos, along with original research.

Why so much effort? Because it creates a competitive ‘moat’ around his content.

“You can’t be Skyscraped. You know that technique, skyscraping? Find the thing that’s good and make it even better. Keep skyscraping yourself. Skyscrape yourself. Find your good stuff and make it great.”

The added bonus is that this extra effort makes your content easier to promote. That includes everything from social shares to the currency of the interwebs: links.

“One of the really powerful things about including original diagrams and charts in your content is that when you ever have the chance to write for someone else, you can include that image in your contribution to the other person’s thing. So like I’ve tried to contribute to roundups and interviews and other stuff. So if in that contribution you can put a chart that’s totally unique to you because it’s a diagram or it’s some kind of data point, and then below it, of course, they’re gonna leave this LinkedIn, image source, article title, comma, brand, people are not going to remove the image source link.”

Most people skimp on the asset (content) and spend more on the promotion. But that’s backwards when you consider Andy’s words.

Instead, you’d be better off investing more in the asset to make promotion exponentially easier. ‘Saving’ time or money on the frontend is a fool’s errand.

“Yeah. And if its original research, of course, they have to link to it, right? It’s like they learned in college how to do a bibliography. That’s what they’re doing. They’re gonna leave your LinkedIn because that’s what you do. You leave in your citations to support your freaking article. One of the problems is they’re trying to get links to stuff that it isn’t worthy of links. That’s one of the reasons to create original research is it is eminently link-worthy. It’s literally a citation. It is the reason why there are links.”

A bigger investment in the asset also makes it more repurposable. Adding things videos, custom images, audio, and more allows you to cross-pollinate in more channels to new audiences. All while cutting down on the need to constantly create new stuff.

“Like in image galleries, in guest posts, in interviews, in webinars, it becomes the topic. You’re not forced to have to constantly create new stuff either because, again, like if someone should be spending six plus hours and they’re not, they’re not doing that. Then you spend like 30% or 40% on one thing, but you talk about it for six months.

Don’t just invest 10% more, though. Because that often won’t cut it and deliver the exponential ROI you’re looking for. For instance, Andy’s spent 150 hours on this blogging statistics survey. He’s doing 100% more to get 1,000% the results.

“I don’t know if I mentioned it in the survey but it was like 150 hours. It takes 150 hours. So, if you go to a conference, you meet a marketer, you’re sitting next to someone on the plane, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ ‘I’m a marketer. A lot of what I do is blogging.’ ‘Oh, yeah? Cool. My friend has a blog. He writes about movies, you know?’ ‘No, I’m writing articles that take like 150 hours to create.’ ‘You’re insane. I can write an article in 15 minutes.’ ‘Yes, you could.’ Now, would I do this? Think about it. We’ve been doing this long enough, you know, that we know what’s… People like me and you wouldn’t do it this way if we didn’t know it to be exponentially more effective.”

Part of the problem we’ve both seen across clients is whether they call marketing a cost or an investment. People who think it’s a ‘cost’ will spend the least amount of time or money on something. Whereas those ‘investing’ are doing it to increase the value of an asset that will pay them back months down the line.

It’s no different than web design in that sense. You could spend $10, $1,000, or $100,000 on a new website.

What’s the difference?

It’s not pixels or aesthetic. It’s value.

Robert Rose of Content Advisory gave a presentation called ‘Smile, you’re about to get fired.’ And it’s a chart that looks like a parabola. High up is what people pay the most for and get the most value from. Low down, they don’t pay much. Its commodity. And on the left is like things at the beginning and then the right is things at the end. So its strategy, research, planning, making stuff, distribution, promotion, measurement. So the things that people pay the most for are strategy and measurement. They can’t be commoditized. When you also know the measurement piece and you connected the business goals, right, that’s how people get, you know…will build $50,000, $60,000, $100,000 websites. Why would anybody pay that much for a website? You can get websites for free. It’s because it’s aligned with business goals.”