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The Right Way to Experiment With Content Marketing

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One of the best ways to approach marketing, in general, is to treat it like an experiment. You’ll form a hypothesis, tweak the variables, and test your idea in a live environment. Using data and observational analyses, you can determine whether your hypothesis was correct, form new assumptions, and incorporate them into your campaign.

Unfortunately, while most content marketers know that experimentation is important, they end up experimenting in ways that limit their true potential – or are detrimental to their bottom line.

So what’s the “right” way to experiment with content marketing?

The Purpose of Content Marketing Experimentation

First, let’s establish what the purpose of experimentation is.

For most content marketers, there are a few goals in play simultaneously. We want to:

        Test our ideas (and remain objective). Marketers are an interesting bunch. In some ways, we’re creative, artistic, and subjectively minded; we come up with inventive new ideas to market businesses and tackle problems in nontraditional ways. But in other ways, we’re pragmatic, logical, and objectively minded; we rely on data and cold logic to dictate what we do. Experimentation is a way to get the best of both worlds. We can get creative, then test our ideas to ensure the data supports their inclusion in our main campaigns.
        Cut problematic or wasteful tactics. Experimentation is also a useful way to “trim the fat” of your content marketing campaign. Chances are, there’s a certain type of post or a certain approach that isn’t quite as valuable for your bottom line as another. If it’s costing you more money than it’s worth, you’ll need to get rid of it as soon as possible. A solid experiment can help you prove that it needs to be removed.
        Double down on successful tactics. Conversely, a set of experiments could help you invest more heavily in tactics that have proven themselves to be successful. If there’s a certain type of content that’s performing well with a certain segment of your audience, you can justify doubling your rollout of that content. Remember the Pareto principle; about 80 percent of your content marketing results will come from 20 percent of your produced content, so it pays to spend more time and effort on that highly performing content.
        Incorporate new, better tactics. Experiments should also lead you to the discovery and eventual incorporation of new and better tactics for your overall content marketing campaign. It’s a great way to discover new mediums, new audience targeting techniques, and even new styles of writing that are worth dabbling in. Without experiments and an ongoing willingness to change and adapt, you might be stuck with the same stagnant pattern of posts.
        Stay up to date. Content marketing and consumer preferences are almost constantly changing. If you want to keep up with the competition and stay relevant with the fast pace of our society, you’ll need to remain adaptable. Ongoing experimentation allows you to do this, helping you test your previous assumptions and discover new potential approaches as they gain popularity.

How We Can Be Better at Content Marketing Experiments

There are several ways that content marketing experiments can go wrong – and plenty of strategies that can help you become a better content marketing experimenter:

        Come up with a diverse range of ideas. In content marketing, diversification is important – and for the same reasons it’s important for your investment portfolio. With a diverse assortment of different types of content covering different topics and getting syndicated across different channels, you’ll appeal to a wider audience. You’ll be less vulnerable to a sudden loss of interest in a particular topic. And you’ll stand to make more consistent gains over time. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try some crazy ideas; you might be surprised to find out what works.
        Compare apples to apples. One of the most important elements of any experiment is comparing to a test group. In a pharmaceutical trial, it’s not enough to give a group of medication; you also need a group to give a placebo so you can compare the groups and form accurate conclusions. In content marketing, it’s important to test content with similar audiences and in similar settings if you want your results to become meaningful.
        Start with data-backed ideas. Experiments are designed to help you figure out what works and what doesn’t, but it’s still important to start with decent ideas – otherwise, your experiments could be a waste of time. Do some research before committing to any idea in one of your experiments. Is there any existing evidence that suggests it’s going to pay off? Were you inspired by someone else who’s already using this tactic successfully?
        Ensure a decent test run. Statisticians will tell you that it’s important to get the right sample size; in the content marketing experiment field, this holds true. It’s important to have a decent number of people reviewing your content, and to test your content for a long enough time. If you don’t give your new content experiments a fair chance to perform, they’re always going to be disappointing. If possible, get hundreds of people to read your content – and make sure it remains in syndication for a long enough time to attract attention.
        Tweak any and all variables. Be open to tinkering with all variables of your content marketing strategy. Think about the topics you’re choosing, the mediums you’re using, the length of your content, the tone, the angle, the illustrations, the publication timing, the syndication schedule – pretty much anything you can name. Sometimes, even small adjustments to seemingly miniscule details can have a big impact on your bottom line; you don’t want to abandon that potential by focusing on too narrow a range of variables.
        Tweak variables one at a time. That said, it’s important to avoid going overboard with your experiments. You might be tempted to change many variables at once in hopes of making a bigger impact, but this could interfere with the conclusions you can draw from the effort. Instead, it’s typically better to change your variables one at a time; this way, you can isolate the variable and say definitively whether that variable had an impact on your bottom-line results.
        Utilize fast experimentation cycles. Good content marketing experiments are iterative and consistent, meaning it pays to use fast experimentation cycles. While it’s important to allow your content to be published and syndicated for days, or even weeks, you can’t afford to take a month for each of your new ideas and experiments. Try to deliver new experiments on a rapid-fire basis, and keep track of multiple active experiments simultaneously. When you discover something new that works well for your brand, integrate it into your campaign immediately.
        Challenge your confirmation bias. Many content marketing experimenters suffer from confirmation bias – the propensity to highly value evidence that aligns with your preconceived notions and dismiss evidence that contradicts them. If you have an assumption that a new trick or new medium is going to work well for you, go out of your way to prove yourself wrong; look for contradicting evidence, rather than just supporting evidence when conducting your analyses.
        Revisit old ideas. If you really like one idea, but it doesn’t perform well in an experiment, don’t abandon hope yet. Sometimes, you can find inspiration from your past content marketing ideas or reuse them in a new context in the future. Keep a list of your rejected, obsolete, or otherwise underperforming ideas – and revisit it occasionally.

In some ways, you’ll have to experiment with experimentation. You won’t have the mechanics of your AB testing down with the first iteration; it’s going to take time to gain the experience and perspective necessary for smoother testing and execution. Remain committed to your long-term vision and keep the success of your content strategy as your top priority. 

Nate Nead

Nate Nead is the CEO & Managing Member of Nead, LLC, a consulting company that provides strategic advisory services across multiple disciplines including finance, marketing and software development. For over a decade Nate had provided strategic guidance on M&A, capital procurement, technology and marketing solutions for some of the most well-known online brands. He and his team advise Fortune 500 and SMB clients alike. The team is based in Seattle, Washington; El Paso, Texas and West Palm Beach, Florida.

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