For this blog post, I’ll be breaking from the royal “We” and writing as myself. Hi, I’m Meg! I’m Grow With Studio’s friendly neighborhood content strategist.

Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of joining some of the students in NYU’s MS in Professional Writing program to talk about my experiences in the field of SEO and content strategy. I didn’t have time to cover all the great questions the students had, so I wanted to tackle the remainder in this blog post.  

Almost all of these questions are relevant for our clients and merchants too, so if you fall into the latter category and want to learn more about SEO and content strategy, follow along. If you run an ecommerce store and have a question I haven’t addressed, email us and I’ll happily answer it in another post. 

To the students: it was a joy to work with you, sorry for all the “ums,” and I hope this post can supplement some of what you learned. Thanks for having me! 

Questions about SEO

Can SEO keywords be updated over time?

Yes! It can be useful to schedule periodic “keyword refreshes” for priority pages on your site, at which point you can re-run your keyword research and make sure the keywords you’re targeting are still the best opportunities for the page. You can schedule something like this annually, or tackle it on an as-needed basis if you notice that your organic traffic is lackluster or slipping for a priority page. 

However, there’s a major caveat: if the page is bringing in significant organic traffic, it’s important to know which keywords are currently attracting visitors so you don’t accidentally remove a high-value keyword by changing your page. You can access that information by setting up an account with Google’s Search Console and connecting it to your site. 

Search Console is the yang to Google Analytics’ yin, and both (free!) tools are vital for performance-tracking. Set this up even if you won’t be starting an SEO or content strategy immediately; the information can only help you. 

I’ve heard that you can bury words in white on white backgrounds, and this helps your SEO. Is that right?

I covered this question in the webinar, but the answer (no!) bears repeating for curious merchants because it used to be true. Way back when we were still visiting AOL chat rooms while our parents yelled at us to stop tying up the phone lines, this was exactly the sort of thing websites could do to rank. Early search algorithms relied on simple metrics, like how often a keyword was repeated on the page, to measure a site’s relevance for that keyword. So people would repeatedly copy and paste every keyword they could imagine onto their page, then make the text white to hide the whole eyesore from their visitors. 

This is one of the earliest examples of the cat-and-mouse game that started between Google and SEO strategists and continued until…well, right this second. People discover increasingly novel ways to manipulate the search results; Google catches on and updates its algorithm; the sites that relied on those tactics take a hit; and everyone freaks out because they never could have seen such a change coming [narrator: they could have]. It’s the circle of life! 

Today’s search algorithm is so advanced that if you approach SEO with the idea that you’re “tricking” Google, you’re actually just tricking yourself into running a proper marketing strategy. That’s bad news for people who want to pay $5 for a bundle of backlinks (don’t ever do that), and great news for people who actually care about the content they produce.

If you’re a writer, then you’re probably driven by the desire to create work that connects, informs, moves, inspires, helps, or makes the reader feel seen. Conveniently, Google wants to serve content that connects (informs, moves, inspires, etc). Today’s algorithm favors you. This is your moment.

In a highly competitive industry, how can you stand out and rise in the Google search results?

This advice is given so frequently that it’s practically a cliche, but it’s true so I’m doing it: find your niche. The product or industry really doesn’t matter as much as you might think; it’s the story you tell that matters. What sets you apart? Is it your obsessive level of knowledge about the industry? Your hilarious brand voice? Your commitment to quality, the environment, or ethical sourcing? 

Once you’ve answered that question, who do you want to reach? Why is that community important to you? In what ways do you hope your products will help your target audience? Whenever possible, see your product as a means — a vehicle for human connection — rather than an end. 

That was a crafty way to tell you to build a brand, and branding is another area where writers really shine. You’re used to accepting boilerplate assignments, like 1,000-word essays, and doing your best to deliver work that stands out. That’s what you need to do here too. 

What is the future on the Amazon platform for a small business?

I’ve worked with lots of small businesses who use Amazon as a platform for their products, and I’ve seen some things, y’all. Between the cut Amazon takes, their ridiculously restrictive MAP policies, and their unprecedented control over your sales data (is one of your products selling like hotcakes? Get ready to compete with a cheap duplicate from Amazon’s house brand!), Amazon is short on compassion for small businesses. And that’s why it genuinely pains me to tell you that it’s probably in your best interest to sell your products on the Amazon platform in addition to building out your own ecommerce site.  

The fact is, products get found on Amazon. Google might be the largest search engine in the world, but Amazon has 54% of the market share for product searches. That makes Amazon, not Google, the largest ecommerce search engine in the world. So if you decide to stay off Amazon because you don’t want to be trampled, you have my full support; just make sure you’re not cutting off your nose to spite your face. Until there’s a critical mass of people and businesses making that choice, you’re rendering yourself invisible to the 54% of shoppers who turn to Amazon first. 

The most successful businesses I’ve worked with are almost always fully omnichannel: in addition to running their own brand and ecommerce site, they host their products on the other platforms used by their audience (Amazon, Facebook and Instagram shops, Etsy, brick and mortar retail, etc). Meanwhile, they do their best to drive traffic to their website first and adjust their prices to compensate for Amazon fees. 

Websites with a strong brand tend to thrive without Amazon, and those with a weaker brand often depend on Amazon to survive (a brand’s ability to differentiate on Amazon is limited, which levels the playing field between strong and weak brands to some extent). Strengthen your brand so the choice is yours to make. 

How do you think COVID-19 is affecting the marketing business?

Hmm. Well, the experiences of in-house marketers will vary based on their industry; not every industry has taken a hit during COVID, and some industries (healthcare, cleaning supplies, stay-at-home products) are booming.  

If you’re asking if COVID has changed how we market, that has changed immensely. We spend a lot of time listening and empathizing, and we try to avoid hogging the conversational spotlight when other people need to be heard. Many of our clients have needed to double down on their communication with their customers to address concerns about safety precautions, supply chain or shipping delays, and more. 

The people who run brands are people too, and we’re feeling the weight of all this just like everyone else. That’s creating an interesting phenomenon wherein the people who work behind pristine brand identities are experiencing an urgent need to peel back the facade and act like real people.

Messages are a little less perky and slick, a little more raw. We find ourselves ready to take a stand on issues that were previously deemed too controversial to be brand-friendly. The brands that are really connecting with customers right now are the ones managed by people who ask themselves, “What do I really want to say?” and share what’s in their hearts. 

Questions about Content Strategy

How do you develop a content strategy?

Good content strategies start with deeply understanding your brand. What problem does your product or service address? What makes your brand different? Who is your target audience? What personality attributes do you want your brand to have? What values motivate your brand? All of your content is going to flow from this story, so the more fully you can realize it, the better. It’s just like with people: if you don’t know who you are, you risk creating a fragmented and inconsistent identity with your words. 

Once your brand is nailed down, identify the different groups of people who would be a perfect fit for your products and personality. Write these down. If you want, you can turn each one into a “persona,” which is a single character that sums up the needs, behaviors and motivations of that user group. 

Then start brainstorming ideas for each persona separately. What is that person interested in? What questions do they have? What are their pain points? What qualities are they searching for? If they participate in certain communities on Facebook or Reddit, join those communities and pay attention to the questions people ask frequently. For example, I follow some entrepreneurial subreddits that occasionally fuel topic ideas for the Grow With Studio blog. 

I also love AnswerThePublic, a tool that pairs your topic keyword with common queries (who, what, when, etc) and prepositions (to, vs, with, etc) and shows you Google’s autosuggest results for each variation. Topic ideas for days! 

When you have your list of ideas, determine your blog posting frequency (1-2 posts per week? 1-2 per month? Choose a realistic number for the resources you have available) and identify any other types of content you want to produce, like white papers. Then add your ideas to a content calendar that also includes promotions, holidays, and other events that might shift the subject matter for that interval. For me, this is the hardest part — I get overwhelmed by all the possibilities, and even with keyword data it’s hard to commit to a single idea. If you’re the same way, remind yourself that “done” is better than “perfect” and throw something on there. 

Once your calendar is mapped out for the next couple of months, you’re golden. Treat each post like an assignment and build a workflow that makes sense to you. Try keeping your calendar mapped out with topic ideas two months in advance at all times, while allowing yourself the flexibility to add/change/bump ideas as needed. Aim to complete each post a little early too, then go easy on yourself when that never happens ever (I’m projecting). 

Finally, measure your performance on an ongoing basis so you can observe what’s popular and plan future content accordingly. Your content strategy is an ongoing experiment; you will have hits and misses, so approach your results with curiosity and don’t turn them into a value judgement on your work. The post that took the least effort will probably end up being your most popular one, and the one you really cared about will fall into the void, and it’s going to make you question everything. Shhh. Let it happen. 

Believe it or not, that was a truncated overview of content strategy — but it’s plenty for you to sink your teeth into as you lay out your beautiful content plan. 

Should content only focus on one thing or can it be multiple?

Not only can your content cover multiple things, but you’ll probably find it necessary. Choose five or so broad-ish topics that you want your brand to establish expertise in (you can also choose more than five; just be mindful of spreading yourself or your team too thin). Then build out more specific ideas that relate to those topics. You’ll end up with what we call topic clusters and pillar pages, which consolidate your site’s subject authority around your core topics. 

For the Grow With Studio blog, our five core topics are the five services we offer (SEO, paid search, social media, design and email marketing) in addition to business strategy. Almost all of our blog posts relate to one or more of these core topics. That helps each post, regardless of its individual performance, reinforce our subject authority in our focus areas. It’s kind of a “rising tide lifts all boats” situation. 

What advice do you have for a start-up business?

On average, you won’t be profitable for 2-3 years. I say this not to be discouraging, but because 1) Most people underestimate the amount of money they’ll need to save before launching into their endeavor head-first, and 2) If you see declining profit and/or revenue initially, it’s important to interpret that information as part of a bigger story instead of seeing it as a sign that you’re doomed to fail. 

So what do you do with that? First, it’s not a good idea for the average person to quit their job and start a business. I say this as an average person who quit her job and started a business.

I painstakingly saved enough to live on for a full year, mapped out my idea, and took the plunge. And hoo boy, was that an anxious year! I felt immensely guilty for allowing myself the luxury of squandering all my resources on a mere possibility, so I felt the need to work on my business all the time. I also coped with my financial anxiety by padding my reserves with freelance SEO and content strategy work, which grew in scope until it eclipsed my work on my business. Eventually, I had to cry uncle and get a real job again (thanks for having me back, Grow With Studio!). 

Now I only work on my business on the weekends (and not every weekend at that), but I’m able to approach it with full creativity and freedom because that mental load has been lifted. It’s also helpful that my business is no longer the center of my world, because that lets me get a better perspective on how my audience might honestly react to different messages and products — after all, my business isn’t the center of their world, either.

I’d love to run my business full-time again someday, but I went all-in way too early. Had I kept it a side hustle until I was absolutely ready, I would have given it the space it needed to thrive.

If you’re independently wealthy or an expert in securing funding, then ignore all of the above advice and go for it immediately, ya lucky dog. 

Second, don’t half-ass your financial forecasting. Map out exactly what you need to spend money on, how much you’ll need to sell to break even, and when you’ll break even if you meet your goals. Understanding your long-term picture will give you the context you need to weather short-term losses. It will also show you whether your business idea is even viable in the first place, which is way better than getting a year in and discovering that you need to rethink some of your fundamentals. 

What type of content strategy would you recommend for a small business that just started to promote its own brand?

Don’t overthink it or you’ll never get started. Instead of building out a full-blown content strategy, create a simple blog posting schedule and stick to it. One post per week would be a great goal to start with, but if your schedule only allows for one post per month, that’s still something. Choose the pace that will keep you consistent without burning you out. 

Post about (relevant) things that excite you — this will keep it fun for both you and your audience. Then pay attention to what people engage with. As your strategy grows, you’ll be one step ahead because you’ll have insight into what resonates with your audience. 

Is there any specific strategy for writing about the food industry?

Food is a consumer-friendly vertical, so there’s plenty of fun stuff to write about. It also has lots of potential for beautiful graphics and visuals — that’s a bonus because you can repurpose image-rich posts for social media. 

Within the realm of food writing, there’s a huge spectrum of topics and directions. Whole Foods’ blog is different from the blog for a restaurant supply website, which is different from the blog for a fish market. If I were you, I’d find a couple of “inspiration” blogs that match the style and subject matter your business is going for. Grow familiar with the topics, formats, and writing styles that strike a chord with you and the rest of the blog’s audience. 

For a CPG (consumer packaged good) brand, what is a healthy balance between owned content and user-generated content?

This is an “either/or” question in its own sneaky way, and those are difficult to answer when you’re comparing one marketing strategy (owned content) with another (user-generated content or UGC).  

In an ideal world, my answer would be, “As much of both as possible.” Realistically, though, different blends work for different businesses. While both owned content and UGC can be very successful for CPG brands, there’s a lot of variation depending on your audience and the individual strengths and weaknesses of your team. UGC is often more of a social media strategy, so lean into it if your social media game is strong. Start with a 50/50 blend and adjust your approach over time as you get a feel for which strategies work. 

…And That’s It! 

Sorry this post got to you later than intended; I legitimately didn’t realize we were nearing the end of your class because I’ve been caught in a time loop all summer. If y’all need anything, you know where to find me.

Stay the course, friends. Write without fear. Edit without mercy. And remember to vote.