How to Get Value from Your Low-Performing Content
Remember the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty? Placed under a curse by an evil fairy (I hate when that happens!), a princess falls into perpetual slumber, from which she can be awakened only by the kiss of a prince.
If you regularly produce content for your website, inevitably you’ll have some Sleeping Beauties of your own.
What is Sleeping Beauty content? It’s any content that you know is really good:
- It’s unique: Whatever its topic, you’ve brought new light or a new angle on it.
- It’s aligned: It matches up well with both your target audience and your brand promise.
- It’s highly useful: Users get something out of it, and they’re likely to remember it.
But for whatever reason, it hasn’t taken off.
Despite your best efforts, it lies sleeping in the woods, and no one sees it (except maybe adorable Disney animals, who are unlikely to become customers). It doesn’t get the views, shares, or links you know it deserves.
That content needs a Handsome Prince to wake it up.
I’m going to show you how to do that, but first, let’s deal with an important issue.
Viral Content or Bust?
From hundreds of hours of analyzing content on a great many sites, I know that there are a lot of Sleeping Beauties out there. I get sad when I see content that is exceptional and deserves to be seen that has only a handful of views, shares, or engagement.
Perhaps the bigger tragedy though is that most content marketers just sigh and move on. They do nothing further with those SB’s (as I’ll call Sleeping Beauties from here forward).
Either they figure the piece wasn’t as good as they thought it was, or they’ve forgotten about it and already moved on to the next project. It didn’t go viral, so it was a failure. Oh well.
There are at least two false assumptions in that thinking:
- That virality happens mostly by chance, and you get only one shot at it. If the content roulette wheel didn’t hit your number this time, you’re out of luck.
- That there is only one chance for a piece of content to hit: when it is first published. If it falls flat then, game over.
Neither of those are true.
Virality sometimes happens by chance, but:
- Most viral content went viral as a result of planned, coordinated, targeted efforts. See for example the story of the Harlem Shake phenomenon.
- A great many viral posts or campaigns went big at some point well after their initial publication. Overnight virality is actually rare.
So viral (or just plain old popular) content can happen from careful planning and execution, and it can happen at virtually any time after initial publication (for at least as long as the content is relevant).
I’ll add a few more observations from my experience:
- Viral or popular doesn’t have to be explosive. That is, it doesn’t have to happen in a compressed time period. Some SB content that awakens gets lots of views spread out over a long time.
- Some content needs a “spark” that sets it off on the viral trajectory. For example, our first-ever viral post, The Great Knowledge Box Showdown, only took off after Search Engine Land Contributing Editor Greg Stirling wrote about it. That story led to writers in a number of major publications writing about, and linking to, our post.
- Sometimes you can “goose” a piece of content into virality by your own promotion of it, through outreach to influencers and media people, or just from your own paid and/or organic social promotions getting before the right people.
- Some SB content awakens as “workhorse” content. It’s never going to win any races or show prizes, but it does good work for your site over time, bringing in its share of regular views and a new audience.
My Own Sleeping Beauty Story
My post How Does Social Media Affect SEO? is my favorite example of my own SB content at work. It first published in January 2014. As you can see in the analytics graph below, the post had pretty slow traffic for the first year-and-a-half of its existence*. Then suddenly in August 2015, it took off and stayed at a much higher level. Yet another leap occurred in June 2016, and the post has performed at an even higher level ever since.
Why was this piece a Sleeping Beauty? How did I awaken it? Why did it have a second great awakening? I’ll get into all that below!
*Transparency note: I cut off a short portion of the left side of this graph because the post did have a three-day spike of 2500 views about a month after it published, but since those views did not result in any lasting effect, they would have simply skewed the perspective of this graph. Those views were nearly all attributed to “Direct/None” by Google Analytics, so I have no idea where they came from, and they obviously had no lasting effect on traffic.
How to Awaken Sleeping Content
You probably don’t have a Handsome Prince on staff, and even if you did, princes aren’t known for their content marketing skills.
So how do you wake up your Sleeping Beauty content?
Step 1: Identify your sleeper content
If you’ve been creating content for your site for a while, and you worked hard to make sure that content is as good as it can be, then chances are good you have some SB’s lying around. Before you can wake them up you have to find them.
Here’s how to identify your potential SB’s.
- Page view drops off. In your analytics software, choose a reasonable time frame (perhaps the past year) and then sort your content by page views. You’ll probably see a certain number of posts with high numbers, and then at some point, there’s a distinct drop-off. Start with the content near the top of that drop-off point as your first Sleeping Beauty candidates.
These posts showed that they could draw some audience, but they never quite rose to the level of high performers. It may be that they deserved a bigger audience, but for any of a number of reasons (which I’ll get into below), they never reached it.
If your site publishes content on a variety of topical themes, it might be useful to do this exercise for each of those themes. See David Kutcher’s excellent guide to creating content groups in Google Analytics.
- Check social shares. For a different perspective, do the same exercise with social metrics. Buzzsumo is a good tool for this. In the Buzzsumo search window, enter your site’s domain to get your content sorted by total social shares over the past year. Again look for the cluster of top performers, and then find the drop-off point where there’s a gap and then all the other content. Take note of the top posts below the drop-off.
No drop-off? What if there is no discernible drop off point for either of the above metrics? For some sites, the number of page views and/or social shares may be evenly distributed across a wide range. For example, when I look at social shares for posts on Search Engine Land, there is a very steady decline from a high of over 8000 shares down to posts with a few hundred shares. There is no significant gap at any point in that range.
In such a case I would simply decide an arbitrary point at which to declare “below here, Sleeping Beauties lie.” You can’t really go wrong with this as the point of my tactics below is improving your content and its promotion, and that never hurts to do for any of your older content.
- Use Paid Social Media to Test. If you know what you’re doing with paid social, it can be a great place to test out SB content to see if there might be an audience for it. On Facebook, for example, first, post the older content you want to test to your brand’s page. Then use the Facebook Ad Manager to create an engagement ad with “existing content” (the organic post you created). Do this rather than just boosting the post from your page, as you get far more audience control and metrics from the Ad Manager. Test your ad with various audiences and see if it clicks with any of them (i.e., starts to get significant engagement). If it does, you’ve found a potential Sleeping Beauty to awaken.
- Special case: Sweet spot content. In a joint study we covered here, Moz and Buzzsumo teamed up to analyze the types of content that got either links or shares, or more rarely, both. Content that earns both good links and significant social shares is rare and valuable. You’re doing well if some of your top performing content fits that description, but for our purposes here, take some time to look for sweet spot content in the second tier you’ve identified using the methods above. Because that’s SB content, the links and shares are probably not going to be huge, but any content that has even a little bit of both should get your first priority.
Step 2: Content Triage
Triage in medicine is a protocol used in emergency situations where many illnesses or injuries present themselves in a short time, overwhelming available treatment staff. The triage protocol helps staff to assess priorities for the first treatment. It sounds maudlin, but the first task of triage is to identify the patients who are likely beyond saving. The thinking goes: when resources are limited, they have to be prioritized to those for whom they will do the most good.
Once you’ve identified your likely Sleeping Beauties, content that has done “ok” but should have performed better, determine a triage protocol for which posts get first attention (and which may not be worth saving after all).
The hard truth is that it’s possible some of your second-tier content needs to either die or be reincarnated. By rieincarnated, I mean put to a different use, and I’ll cover some methods for that in the section on improving your content.
Triage: Content is not worth saving (at least in its current form) if it:
- Is no longer relevant (i.e., it discusses a topic or method that is old news, or no longer applies, or is so outdated it can’t be updated)
- Is no longer in your topical wheelhouse (i.e., it’s about a subject or product area that your company no longer has a stake in)
- Has been covered better since (i.e., there is better content you’ve published more recently, and this post adds little or nothing)
- The content is thin or poor quality (consider writing a new, better post, if you haven’t already)
Step Three: Make Content Improvements
Once your triage is completed and you’ve eliminated content not worth rescuing, you’re ready to get positive and figure out how to upgrade the content that’s left. Often just updating and improving older content is enough to make it perform better, especially for SEO.
How to improve your Sleeping Beauty content:
- Update anything that has gone out of date.
- Search to see if there are any more up-to-date resources wherever you’ve stated data or facts and linked to an outside source to back them up.
- Find pop-culture or current events references that are now old, and replace them with more current ones.
- Update case studies with newer and/or better ones.
- Check all your outbound links and make sure the sources still exist and are credible.
- Add more depth.
- Don’t just add text to have more words, but look for places where you could flesh out something that was too brief in the original, or where more detail might be helpful.
- Add more examples and case studies.
- Take advantage of the knowledge and expertise you or your company has gained since the post was first written.
- Update keyword optimization.
- These older posts could be suffering SEO-wise either because they were not optimized for search at all, or optimized for the wrong keywords.
- If the post has been getting some organic traffic over time, with a little research you may find that it is ranking well for some long tail keywords, or that it ranks just below the “money” for some higher volume queries (perhaps high on page two). Reoptimize the text of the post with these discoveries in mind.
- Add or update images.
- Chances are your company has improved or at least changed its graphical look-and-feel since the post was published. If so, bring the images into line with those standards.
- Perhaps you’ve now hired or contracted with a better graphical artist. Put her or him to work improving the images for the old post. And if the post has no or too few images, think up some that could be added.
- Enhance the appearance and readability.
- Here at Perficient Digital, we’ve learned a lot over the years about writing for the web. Reading on the web, especially on smaller mobile devices as more and more people are, is a different experience from reading traditional printed material. Our older posts tended to be long blocks of text with little to break them up. Now we go for shorter paragraphs and include subheadings and bullet points to break up the text and keep the reader’s interest. Click here for some good tips on writing for the web.
- Add internal links to your best content (where relevant) and create links to this content from other pages on your site that make reference to what this page is about.
Learn More: The Three Marks of Great Content
Step Four: Repromote and Repurpose (But Better This Time!)
If you’ve been growing as a digital marketer, then you probably know more about how to promote content than you did when your Sleeping Beauty content first published. In addition, the ways, methods, and platforms for promotion have certainly changed and improved over the years.
- Practice evergreen re-sharing. In my experience, the vast majority of content publishing sites only share their content on social media a few times, all when it first comes out. But we’ve proven that regularly resharing your evergreen content (content that remains relevant and useful) brings a lot of extra traffic that would be missed otherwise. See “Why Social Sharing Is Not a One-and-Done Activity.”
- Do more outreach. If you do PR outreach to media and/or influencers for your major content, it may be worth trying another round of outreach for some of your improved Sleeping Beauties, especially if you’ve improved any of them significantly. You may find newer outreach prospects or publications, or reawaken interest from a writer or influencer who didn’t bite the first time around.
- Do paid social promotion. Maybe you only started using paid social promotion (creating targeted ads for content on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites) since your Sleeping Beauty was first published. Or maybe you’ve become more skilled at it. Or maybe this is a good first opportunity to try it out! If you know how to use the targeting options, paid social can help you expose your oldies-but-goodies to whole new audiences, and perhaps to more receptive ones than saw your original promotions.
- Repurpose. Think of other ways you could use the content on other platforms.
- Turn it into a slide deck and post it on Slideshare.
- Write a summary post on LinkedIn Publisher or Medium with a “learn more” link back to your original post.
- Take individual sections of your content and turn them into their own posts elsewhere, whether on the places mentioned above or as social media posts. Again, include a link back to the original to “learn more.”
- Create a video based on the content and embed it in the original post.
Meanwhile, Back at My Own Sleeping Beauty Story…
So how did I turn my social media and SEO post from an 18-month sleeping beauty into a take-charge princess that is now one of the biggest traffic-drivers ever on our site?
You usually won’t have to use all of the techniques I outlined in this article, and I didn’t to awaken that post. Here is what I did do in this case:
- In August 2015 I did a major update to the content. The original post was actually more about Matt Cutts’ comments on how hard it was to verify identity on the social web. By mid-2015 the topic of author authority in search was old hat, but there was a lot of controversy over whether or not social media directly affects search rankings. I realized that Matt’s comments were also about that, and so re-centered the post on that topic.
- We also began more consistently sharing the post on a regular rotation on social media at that time.
- In June 2016 I did another major overhaul to the content, rewriting large parts of it with more up-to-date information, and things I’d learned since the post was originally created. I also improved the formatting and images at this time.
That’s it! As you can see in the graph below, which shows only traffic from Google organic search, the biggest effect of these changes was in organic search. Compare it to the all-traffic graph earlier in this post, and you can see that each refresh of the content got Google to pay new attention to the post, and each time Google decided the post was now much more relevant and useful for some high-volume queries, for which it began to rank highly. For example, as of this writing, my post is #1 on Google for “does social media affect google rankings” and has been there for a long time.
One More Thing…
Regularly practicing the methods above should almost certainly bring you rewards of increased traffic as well as better and bigger audiences for your brand. But despite your best efforts, some content, even content that survived your triage and has been improved and re-promoted, will just never become a major traffic attractor.
It’s hard to say why, but the important thing to focus on is that even that content can still have value. For example, it may be a piece that your salespeople can use to reinforce a point to a prospect, or it may serve as a good reference point to be linked to from your other content.
- To learn more about the lifetime value of your content and how to maximize the value of your evergreen content, see David Kutcher’s Content Strategy, Life Cycles, and Types of Evergreen Content.
- Harnessing the Power of Other People’s Audiences by Eric Enge.
- Why Non-Viral Content Can Still Be a Big Win by Mark Traphagen (video).
- The Surprising Reason Why Short vs Long Form Content Is the Wrong Debate by Mark Traphagen
- How Perficient Digital Can Take Your Content Marketing to the Next Level
- Talk to us and find out how we can accelerate your digital marketing!
Mark Traphagen was our Content Strategy Director for Perficient Digital until February of 2019. He has been named one of the most influential content and social media authors in numerous industry listings.