CT No.2: Luke Skywalker is nobody's favorite.

Let's tell better stories with content data.

Welcome to issue #2.

Internet writers, particularly those who were reared in the heyday of alt-weekly and magazine journalism, often cringe at the words “metrics” and “data,” and for good reason. Leaderboards based on “uniques,” bonuses and job security contingent on clicks… truly, those VC-backed newsrooms sound like stresspools and creativity killers. (They are the reason I did not choose to make my living as a professional blogger or web editor.)

Although writers generally have an aversion to numbers (math is hard), performance metrics aren’t the creator’s enemy.* Most creators’ anxiety stems overly complex interfaces of content data reporting paired with with a business leaders’ immensely oversimplified interpretation of data stories. And the fact that subpar publishers have tied those super-basic “popularity” metrics to job security.

“These five types of stories get the most clicks! Let’s do as many of them as we can!” has been the content model for myriad ad-supported websites. (Even websites that don’t overproduce clickbait content make a share of revenue from clickbait networks, but that is another story to be told another time.)

As any scriptwriter can tell you, the “let’s do more of what people clearly like” model doesn’t keep an audience captive for long. That’s like summarizing Star Wars as “Luke Skywalker is good. Darth Vader is bad.” There is no point in making the effort to set up and collect content data if your conclusion is “Luke Skywalker is good.” You wouldn’t watch Star Wars if it were just “Luke Skywalker is good.” Luke Skywalker is whiny. Luke Skywalker is entitled. Luke Skywalker is the necessary annoyance that drives the rest of the story. And if you’re over the age of 12, the best scenes are the ones with Leia and Han.

*“Metrics” isn’t the right word to use if you’re talking numbers; the term describes a unit of measurement. Bounce rate, impressions and time on page are metrics. If you want to be a real jerk, when some frazzled publisher or sales rep asks, “What are the metrics?” you can say “bounce rate and impressions!" and hope you won’t be decked or sacked.

Data stories should be less Luke, more Leia

As peak tv has taught us over the past two decades, everyone loves an antihero. That doesn’t mean that we all need to start spewing plotless content marketing like we’re Hunter S. Thompson or something (please, anything but that).

But content data — literally, looking at what audiences like, search and share and figuring out why — helps us create better stories. With a good grasp of the content landscape its surrounding forests of data, we can create a more intriguing B-plot than “I have to write an article with this one keyword in the title and six more keywords in the body, exactly as I was directed.”

Looking at content data gets creators out of their own head and into their audiences. Start by incorporating three or more data points — quantitative and qualitative — when building an editorial calendar.

  1. What does the audience want to see? That can come from search data or social listening or some combination of the two. How do people talk about your product or your competitor’s product? They are literally using the internet to tell you what they like; you should probably listen.

  2. What flavor of story does your audience like? You can do a survey. You can look at the most popular content on your site. And really, the most basic audience intelligence tool will give you a few mass media brands, shows, or platforms they also like. Even if the content your audience likes isn’t to your taste, it’s up to you to understand why your audience likes it. People aren’t stupid because they like insipid things sometimes. We have all laughed at C-3PO’s jokes.

  3. What do you have that they don’t have? Look other popular content about your selected topic and figure out what it’s missing. It’s astonishing how many creators stop after the first or second step. But the third step is where you hook users.

  4. Then… well, you’re the creative.

    Now… Luke Skywalker’s ancient but reliable tech deflects all the silly blaster gunshots. And Han Solo’s super-fast beater can outrun all of the Star Destroyers. Similarly, more targeted tools allow more flexibility and speed than the Microsofts and Salesforces of the world. So, onto the review!


Content data for content people: Ceralytics

Content Intelligence tools aggregate data from search results, competitor websites or publicly available social data, then present it back for editors and marketers in one form or another. The best of these organize their data with custom KPIs that incorporates several different metrics and present it back clearly. The worst spit out a word cloud and poor, void-of-context strategic advice like “write more posts.”

Ceralytics is one of the best. It aggregates Google Analytics, social shares, and competitor website data to help you understand current content performance and opportunities to stand out. The design is clean, bright and clear. You’re not drowning in a sea of charts.

The tool looks at years of your historical data, which in my experience is far more useful than real-time analytics. It tells you where you’ve gone and where you are, without obsessing over viral hits.

At a glance: Ceralytics

To keep reviews digestible, The Content Technologist uses an icon-based review system. Find the full legend here.

Ceralytics consolidates common analytics sources and competitive intelligence into strategic dashboards that can form the building blocks for a content calendar. It would take a good content analyst a few days to put together the same high-quality report. The tool also:

  • separates which content drives awareness and which content converts, since both are key to creating a strong editorial calendar

  • provides custom metrics like average sessions per page, which helps teams understand content that is drawing quality traffic and might need a paid boost*

  • provides topic-level insight for cornerstone, pillar and brick content

  • is intuitive… as long as you have an understanding of Google Analytics and social media metrics

  • offers significant support from customer support reps if you’re just embarking on your content analytics journey and want an expert to interpret the data for you.

I’d recommend Ceralytics for businesses that have a year or two of content in their libraries and are looking to take the next step in their content marketing efforts. It only monitors a limited set of competitors, so you’ll need to keep your eyes out for fresh ideas and more disruptive competitors with other tools.

Like all analytics tools, good writers and editors will be crucial to give life to the data stories Ceralytics tells. In the hands of the right creative team, the tool could turn weeks of agonizing over content planning into a few very efficient days. It’s not the cheapest tool on the market, but it’s worth the money — especially since they’re looking to add more SEO-focused capabilities in the near future. (And in the “it’s the cost of a computer” continuum, it’s the price of a good netbook vs. a new Mac Pro.)

And finally… they have one of the best content marketing newsletters from any tool on the market. Highly recommended.

*Google Analytics provides pages per session as a default, but this metric would need custom setup in a standard GA implementation.

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Free strategic advice for the week

If I were you, I wouldn’t be investing in more organic Facebook posts in 2020, unless you’re planning on cultivating a group.


Housekeeping

  • I’m approaching my reviews as a journalist, so at the moment I don’t take affiliate commissions or join reseller programs. I want to remain as impartial as possible for as long as I am financially able.

  • My primary income comes from consulting projects. So, if you’re on a team that’s considering a new content technology, or wants to get more from their tech stack, please reach out. I’d love to work with you.

  • If you want me to review a product — especially if you’re a user who just LOVES a piece of software — drop me a line. I’ll check it out.

  • Privacy notes: As with most (all?) email newsletter software, Substack reports on which individual users click into each email. However, I’m not into surveillance and frankly don’t have the time or care to monitor whether you personally have been reading, and I’m not intending to review any analytics besides aggregate open rates and link click rates.

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