Episode 40: Fail free content marketing with Lexi Mills

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In this episode you will hear a SearchNorwich recording of Lexi Mills giving her talk "Fail free content marketing that builds links and authority". Lexi takes us in detail behind the curtain of successful PR campaigns and why she doesn't feel that the "one hit wonder" PR approach is best for SEO.

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MC: Welcome to Episode 40 of the Search with Candour podcast! Recorded on Friday the 13th of December 2019. My name is Mark Williams-Cook and this week we're bringing you a fantastic Search Norwich talk by Lexi Mills and it’s titled ‘Fail free content marketing builds links and influence’. Now you'll probably know link buildings is one of my favorite subjects to talk about, Lexi's got some examples of projects she's worked on, some of the things she's done to get journalists on our side and that's obviously one of the biggest challenges in getting coverage sometimes, is actually getting the attention of journalists and getting them to open your emails, read them and buy into the ideas. However, Lexie has an interesting point of view that she doesn't think that aiming for one-hit wonders approach works with link building and she thinks that other tactics blended in and what produce actual ranking results. so really really great talk to listen to.

While I'm talking about Search Norwich, the next Search Norwich, if you're in the area, is on Wednesday the 15th of January, so it's a Wednesday, every other one's been on a Thursday, we're doing on a Wednesday because we're lucky enough, thanks to Optimisey, who managed to get Aleyda Solis to come down to Cambridge/ Norwich to talk at Search Norwich about marketplace SEO, or if you're nearer to Cambridge or want to hear her speak on a different subject, she's going to be talking about SEO for video in Cambridge and we are really really lucky as well to have Hannah Rampton who will be coming to Norwich, who will be showing off some of the SEO tools that she's put together and demoing them. She's brilliant for this, Hannah's one of those SEO’s that kind of works in the background and then just DMs me the most amazing stuff she's been working on. Details for all of that will be up soon,

Next week is going to be our final episode before Christmas; I did commit to it, it's gonna be going out on Monday the 23rd of December. I'll be joined by three guests that we haven't had on the show before, to discuss their SEO and PPC predictions for 2020. So I’m really looking forward to that - until then, enjoy Lexi's talk.

LM: I was really excited to come here because my parents fell in love in Norwich, but they've never taken me here, ever - I had to get a job and then give a speaking gig to get here, so I'm super happy to meet you all and it is a really beautiful city and if they weren't still together I would definitely think it was the city, not the relationship.

But it is great to be here, I'm a manager of a small PR / SEO agency; we have an office in London and, New York and my job is largely been to get coverage and links from places like this, but unlike other PR agencies, I do it for a whole bunch of different clients, everything from showers through to software and we kind of work a bit differently; sometimes we go in-house and we train the team, sometimes we build the teams, sometimes we work together, sometimes people just say take the problem away and come back. So I kind of know what it's like to be in-house and agency side, I've done both as well - both on PR and SEO sides, so hopefully what I tell you today is helpful, if it's not I will buy you a drink later.

So I'm going to be talking to you about fail free content marketing that builds links and influence today and I actually had a little bit of a spazz over this presentation, I built the whole thing and then I freaked out because I want to just go through media insights, I wanted to talk about the changes and how consumers behave, what we should be doing in the future and I was like but that doesn't feel honest, it doesn't feel like enough. now I don't know, have any of you seen the backwards bicycle video before? So the backwards bicycle was created by a guy called Dustin and if you turn left, it goes right, if you turn right, it goes left - so if you can ride a bike, you can't just ride this bike, you have to relearn. It kind of struck me, let's see if we can just have a little look at this guy learning to ride his bike - this will definitely put me over time by the way - okay he's gonna take too long about it, I'll cut it next time, but it actually takes eight months to learn how to ride this bike and when I'm doing content marketing and PR SEO I often feel like I'm on this wobbly ass bike, falling all over the place and it does take about eight months realistically to find new solutions, adjust your client contracts, sell differently and execute them, right if that's not unrealistic in a big or small firm.

But we live in this world of accelerating technology, so this graph here just shows how much technology is going up; mobile devices and access is going up - I just got an Apple watch, I don't know how to work it, but I believe it connects to the internet and we have Google using AI machine learning and I think there is a direct conflict between the client briefs and the actual reality of how fast things are changing and that's why we get asked to do things like this.

Now I don't think getting links from podcasts notes is a bad idea, I think it's part of a whole strategy, it can be a good way to get a couple of extra links, but if you ask someone to do this 24/7 that's like asking them to slam their hand in a car door - how many of you think you would do a good job with your hand shut in a car door? and I would legit rather slam my hand in the car door then do that 24/7, no one's gonna be kick-ass like that and hiring isn't easy, we do it for a lot of clients it's really really hard. If you're asking people to ride backwards bicycles with the hand shut in the door, I think you're asking too much.

We also get asked to chase really bizarre metrics, now this here shows a 33% spam factor for a link that a client got, and they didn't give us spam factors in our metrics and our contracts, but of course clients like to invent new metrics to test you on, as you start to build links and I said to them - hey, okay I understand, but can I ask you to just step back just a wincy bit? That link is from Forbes, nobody knows who you are, you just got one of the best pieces of coverage of your life and you're focusing on the 33% spam factor. You've got a look at metrics from a wider perspective.

Now typically I just get up and I talk about tactics, I talk about media insight and I talk about what we should be thinking about in the future. And in light of all of these weird questions about spam factors and odd briefs we've been given over the last two years, I realised that actually I might be the problem. I go around the world, talking at conferences about these three things, but these three things don't work just on their own, they did at one point, they really did, but not anymore. A true formula for content marketing has to be agile, it has to be able to adapt to the one constant thing and that is change. And that means if we're trying to create fail free content marketing, we actually have to look at the whole picture, we have to assess are the clients right, do we have the right briefs, the right success metrics and the right points of contact. All of this is fairly pointless unless you get that right and that's what I've been slowly adjusting over the last sort of two years with my business, but I just hadn't put it into words until about 1:00 this morning when I shredded the presentation and rebuilt it all for you.

So I wanted to give you some ideas of what works for us. I find that SMEs, anybody under 500 people are at an advantage, they can be flexible, there's more knowledge, there are people more willing to get in and like be on the frontline. We also find that we tend to write wider SoWs now, we don't just do blog content or PR stunts or creative content campaigns, we find that doing a mixture tends to be the most effective and we have scaled success metrics. So we have four month metrics that we target because everyone needs to measure something right, they've got to know if you're doing anything at all and then we change those metrics. We sit down after four months and say, hey we've been measuring this but we've also been measuring all of this, this data isn't relevant but in six months it will be, so let's start looking at these too and we set this as a standard before we sign a contract, that the metrics will change. We still monitor everything constantly, so they always have a backlog but you've got to have metrics that evolve otherwise you get stuck in these ruts. And you've got to have varied points of content; true PR SEO works well when you've got lots of people to bug, if you're bugging the same person all the time, it doesn't work.

So with that in mind we're going to go back to the agenda and I'm gonna tell you that this is a formula ,it's not the only formula but it is a formula and it's working pretty consistently for us. So let's have a look at the media industry because we think we have it hard, it's pretty rough out there. we have more job losses than ever before, in fact more job losses in the media this year then since the last recession, it's pretty bleak and these job losses are coming from everywhere, like you know we're seeing them in business, but we're seeing the Sun cut people, but for the first time we're seeing millennial media cut staff and that's a big deal because I've never seen that happen, they've been growing whilst everyone else has been firing and letting people go. But they're using AI to help this, I don't know how many of you remember Penguin wiping out all of our regional newspapers in Britain.

Anyone from Interflora here? No? Okay good. It's over a thousand UK newspapers are now using a system called radar, that auto generates coverage to pull into their systems, not typically this used to happen from the Press Association, they'd send out wires of base stories that would either get edited or just published, but now they've got AI generating this which might actually be a new breath of life, it gives them a second opportunity right. we're also seeing that about a third of the content at Bloomberg has something to do with AI. Now let's keep in mind that Bloomberg is one of the most solvent publications out there and if they're staying solvent, they're doing something right. They have about 5,000 engineers and almost half of them are working on AI, follow the money guys, you work in eCommerce.

They have this technology now for a media agency they decided to call it cyborg, because I just decided to unleash all the creativity there and what this does is, it goes on to for example the Apple's website and it will scrape all its new business data and then we'll create multiple headlines and a bullet point story, automatically and you can see them here. This is why we need to start hosting stuff on our clients sites. They're starting to do this as Apple and all the big companies right now, but they're going to scale this out, we just need to be ready. I know getting in the dev queue for something like a Media Center isn't easy, but if you get there now and you just bug people every month for the next year, you'll be ready for when this algorithm is more sophisticated. And if you're looking for a really cool newsroom and a nice afternoon, check out NASA's website. NASA has a truly rockin’ newsroom, this is actually the old site, but what you'll see is that they break everything down into all the news topics, where their releases are, their speeches, their transcripts; AI can be coded for this. There is no way they're not going to start coding for websites that are well structured.

This is their new media centre and this was interesting - they've got all the social buttons on it, which they didn't have on the old one. Well there's a lot of AI that already searches social media, it's being used, they look for things like fired, assassination and then it triggers alerts to journalists to go and have another look, so it's partly human, partly AI but if NASA is putting social media buttons on there, I think those two things combined say that this algorithm is going to spread quite far and we're going to have AI that’s going to be scraping social, so we want newsrooms to be social. And then I noticed this, which I haven't truly played with enough, but they post all the phone numbers and email addresses of everybody who you need to contact at NASA for the different departments, that means you can get drunk and call NASA, how cool is that? Time zones, also really good for us, we could do it tonight.

But it's interesting because as journalists are taking phones out of the newsroom, disconnecting email, working completely on AI, we have to do the complete opposite, because sometimes we follow media, sometimes we have to do the inverse and in this instance, what we need to do is make ourselves more contactable. I also think Glassdoor has a pretty good newsroom and for one main reason; they have all their specialists listed on their site. The first thing you notice when you click on it is, oh look they have decent headshots, I bet they have those in high-res, and they've got all the details about the person and in some instances, it'll click through to a page about them, which you can build links to. This is super important and it's not hard to do, we already have these pages on our sites, we're just adjusting the content to be linked to or available in the press centre.

The one thing with AI that kind of blew my mind and Bloomberg have openly said this, is that speed is more important than accuracy, and that's why you see a lot of stories, more often now, have updated timestamps on them and sometimes they'll have two or three and it's because they see an error and they'll go back in and change it and that used to happen in traditional news, but with AI news it happens a little bit more. But AI that's designed for speed lacks one thing, that gives us as content marketers a real opportunity - commentary and analysis - that's where we can really win, but we need speed teams in order to do it. So I was trying to figure this out and I was like, well if I never slept I could monitor everything, you know that's probably durable for a week, but then what I decided to do was to get a bunch of people across the world and just have them constantly monitoring HARO, journo request, all the systems; we have a bunch of paid for and freed ones, and we monitor them for all sorts of things, like the subjects that clients can comment on, things that are relevant to them and then we immediately, once we've got those through, we email the journalist. Once we see something, the person monitoring it says, hey we've got the perfect person for you; here's their name, here's the heads shot, here's their BIO, that buys us some time. Then one of the journalists on our team crafts our quote because clients don't like to do that much work and if you're doing this a lot it becomes quite a lot of work and it’s a lot easier to edit than it is to write from scratch. So one of our journalists drafts a comment, we send it to the client and if you've got multiple points of contact, there's multiple chances for a quick sign-off, they sign it off, you send it back to the journalist and you follow up. Like well over a third of our coverage is coming through the system now and some of our clients only use this, that's all they need. They just want a couple dribble of links and comments out there.

But let's have a look at some consumer trends because consumers have gotten a little bit weird right, we look at all the cuts in journalism and what I see is that we've grown fatigued with both long-form content and clickbait but the millennial media tells us clickbait and long-form content. I mean even four or five years ago, the experiments that publications were doing were showing that people rarely read beyond the first paragraph. We’re exhausted and we don't trust anyone, like over a third of crypto publications will take money for press articles and actually I'm pretty sure that if I was given a mission, I could go out and find someone at every publication that I could pay in some way, shape or form, to put coverage up. We don't trust our media.

Now this is an old study, but it shows that people on Facebook don't click on things they don't like - kind of obvious, but it means we end up trapped in these bubbles of our own data worlds and we were doing this unconsciously for quite a long time. Have any of you people heard of the Brexit breakfast app? Or the snake people app? Let me show you something great, so you can get a Chrome extension that changes all words of Brexit to breakfast, now I like breakfast, pretty sick of Brexit, but you can also, if you're getting a bit sick of Millennials, you can use another app that will change the word millennials to snake people, that is great and it just makes it that I can still absorb the news, but I am blocking it out. I'm consciously choosing to do, so we're building tech to filter things out consciously and we're doing it unconsciously now, and I think it's just because we're so exhausted with repetition of subject matter. and I think this is why we're seeing people like Darren Ravel, he is a sports journalist and he got paid a big sum of money to go to Action Network and go be one of their journalists, like he does their blog but it's because people follow him, they trust him.

This word ‘influences’ gives me the heebie jeebies, it's bit like mommy bloggers, but there is a reason for it, we're locking ourselves into these worlds out of choice and it makes a lot of sense to watch who the people in the hard industries are hiring and it's not hard you can just go on all the job websites, you can go on any of them, Total Jobs, Glassdoor, see who they are hiring, if they're working in gambling's, they're working in toe fungus cream, I guarantee you they're ahead of the curve because it ain’t easy there.

So the real question is, how do we respond? We've got all this information and it's pretty useless unless we know what to do with it and it is kind of tough, pretty much everything is broken and constantly moving and constantly breaking, how do we deal with that? Well the good news is, it is possible. This is a client graph from 2018, the blue line - I'm just going to show you my finger - goes up, this is year on year traffic, this was with them getting all their team to do stuff together and this is a mixture of tech, working together, this is tech SEO, content, everybody pulling together social and there are tools and the great thing is, the market for PR tools at least, is getting a bit more competitive.

I used to be a huge Gorkana fan and I am still, but Roxhill has just launched which means they're going to be a little bit more tug-of-war, we're not going to be at the mercy of Gorkana for their pricing in the same way and Cision, Cision actually owns Gorkana and the two platforms are going to merge, which I'm a bit bleak about because the interface on Gorkana is really lovely, and in Cision, it's a bit meh. But, there's a lot more people out there now and there are things like Readly is the new app that we just started using, because what we found is that the relationship between when things go in print and when it goes online has slowed down and this is kind of good because if there's an error in print, which not that many people read anymore, then you can get it fixed before it goes online and Readly is like 9 bucks a month and you can check all your print coverage, it's so helpful because I've spent ages waiting for back issues to come through to be able to check it, but and then it goes live and then you have to get an edit after it's live, it's just no fun.

Boomerang, you've got to keep hammering down journalists walls, you know and boomerang is good for that. My favorite is Buzzstream. Buzzstream allows you to program sequences, so if this journalist doesn't reply, on Tuesday send him this, if he doesn't reply send him this, and then this and then I can go and focus on something else and presence still kind of work. Now, I'm not saying you should spam people, definitely not, but we had a client who really wants to be in data centre knowledge, like really wanted it and we just couldn't get hold of them, they just weren't responding and the American team said to me, Lexi can the London team help? and I was like you know what British people do really well? Tea and biscuits. So it's quite expensive to send Fortnum and Mason biscuits from London to America and they take forever, because you know customs investigates them, especially if the tin winds up like a carousel and then plays music, but it eventually got there, we got no thank you, no response, other than email this person and make sure you do this, this and this. That's fine, don't need to speak to you any more than that.

But we also need Avengers. We're a small company, I can't afford to hire someone in every single country, in every single industry, with every single skill set, but I decided I could probably build a team of these people, so I have a mixture of journalists and PRs that we have on a roster, we do pay them a retainer so that I can get to them when I need to, but it means that I can have picks on who is a specialist in data centres, a specialist in toe fungus, whatever it might be, but someone who really knows their stuff because low level quality just doesn't cut it anymore.

This is super helpful, this is up the quality of the work we do but it's still not enough. so I decided to go back, I went all the way back like

10 years in time and I had a look at what has consistently had an impact on SEO, delivers PR results and grew revenue. Now this is one of my first projects, it was for Thompson travel, we made an infographic it was animated of how music travels. I mean this got over 2 million views, I mean it says a hundred one thousand eight hundred links here but it got more than that. We also launched a solid-gold phone for HTC that got global coverage and on TV. We made a chocolate bathroom to promote a bathroom suite. I even delivered a fake mini bath, well it was actually a real mini bath but it worked better for champagne, to the hospital when Kate was giving birth and then more recently, I made a robotic handbag that locked shut when your peak spending times and so that you can't get in and impulse spend, to promote more financial awareness for a client called

The thing is, these PR stunts are just getting too hard to do, even with a team of Avengers, even if you've got every part right, and so I started to move into multi phase launches and I got the idea from NerdWallet because they have this credit card debt page and they update it every year and they just get crap tons of links, just crap tons. I was like, oh it's because they're doing the same thing repeatedly, so I decided that we'd go out and do the cost of Halloween, how much do Americans spend on Halloween? because it's a lot and then I was like that was quite effective, let's do the cost of Thanksgiving and then we did how much do people spend on unwanted Christmas presents and it gave us a list that we could keep building to go out with over and over again and it got some great results. Then we did the same thing for a client called Syndicate Room, they had a report they've done a few years ago and we just updated, it went out to the same people and a few more and it works, it is better than going for the one-hit wonder.

Then more recently we work with Wistia and they launched 110 100, which is where they spent one thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand on an advert and then released them into the wild to see which ones would perform the best, right ‘do you need to spend money in order to compete?’ and it did pretty well. The first launch went pretty well and then they decided to do a showing at brighton SEO and they wanted us to get journalists down, but this is like six months later, right you know the whole thing about news is, it's usually new but we did it, but we didn't do it through any sordid tactics, we did it because we recognised something, we stood back and looked at the bigger picture and what I realised was there was this hotel that I remembered in Brighton it's called the Pelle Rocko, if you ever go to BrightonSEO, I highly recommend it. Firstly, it has the latest night bar and the whole of Brighton. I started my career in nightlife and I can tell you that for sure. It is always open and but it was has these really cool themed rooms and it's not super expensive, so I just booked half the hotel out and then I messaged all the journalists that I knew wanted to come to Brighton SEO but typically work in Manchester, I have to wake up at like 6:00 in the morning and trek all the way to Brighton SEO and feel like rubbish all day and then get the last train home. I was like, we'll cover your hotel room, because I knew I could sit and sell them in loads of stuff because the bar is gonna be open late and I know exactly where they're gonna be and it worked. In fact we've got some really lovely tweets - ‘you know, for the first time ever, I'm down the day before Brighton SEO and staying at a hotel, thank you. It was just recognising what they needed and these were specifically targeted journalists that hadn't covered 110 100 before and so it made a lot more sense, it's a long term investment, these are still journalists covering our future news.

But when I look back over all of these campaigns, the thing that I really battled with and I've never really wanted to say publicly, is that I cannot categorically say that any of these changed rankings. I really can't, I never saw a direct spike off the back of any of these. I don't think one-hit wonder campaigns do that, I'm not saying they shouldn't be part of the mix, but if it's the option of having a one-hit wonder or mix of other activities I would go with the mix. We don't do them in isolation anymore, we don't take those briefs, if someone wants us to come up with campaign ideas we'll do it and give them to them, but I will not launch a one-hit wonder campaign because I don't believe that it can be risk-free, I don't believe it's going to make the client happy and I don't believe that they, in isolation, change rankings. I could be proven to be wrong, I've only been in the industry five/ten years and I don't have all the metrics for every single project and you don't ever really know because so much is going on. But it is too high-risk and it's hard on teams and it's hard on client relationships and breaking up with your SEO is hard, like you don't want to do that unless you have to, so we've gone for a lot more of a drumbeat type approach. We always start off with trade and business press and then we go to consumer and there's a reason for this. So when you do trade in business the consumer press becomes more aware of you so when you ring them they know who you are, we also go local and international because that's the link part, right? If you take going local and internationally, you can get loads of links and you can still influence brand. You don't need to do it for any reason other than links. This is one of our clients that's in probably the toughest industry, they've got 58 linking root domains just to their business news page, they’re consumer-facing brand, those 58 linking root domains do not hurt, I promise, they only help and they're consistently flowing in.

But I took another look at some of my old campaigns, when I looked at I started to notice that actually yes, we did some wild stunts but we're consistently building this trade press, same with syndicate room and even when I go five/ six years back to a client called Zappa and then I been doing this weird metric thing, okay, it's not science, but it's better than anything else I've come up with in the last five years. I take the amount of links a client has and I divide it by domain points, and I've been doing this for five/ six maybe even ten years now, across all campaigns were we've done business and trade consistently we have to build half the amount of links to move Domain Authority and I've tracked this over six to twelve months, across all clients. I'm not saying this is an absolute certainty, I'm certainly not saying the maths is rock-solid, but I do think there might be something to trade in business press and the way that Google sees it and maybe it's not just about doing it to get yourself known to the consumer journalists and to give the consumer press to reach your consumers, but maybe it's actually doing a different type of PR to Google.

So we've gone through everything except for the future and I'm a little bit over time, but bear with me. right now the the whole internet is pretty much the Wild West, we have a couple of silly laws that come in place, like the cookie law, I mean that was pretty stupid let's be honest, gdpr - what a pain in the ass was that, and these problems are breeding like bunnies - all I can think about GDPR is why didn't we have this ten years ago, I was getting emails for Viagra when I was seven, this was clearly a problem. You need to start thinking ahead, it's so much easier to prepare ahead of these laws than to implement them retrospectively and it's boring to do as well. Reactive policy just doesn't make any sense, it's dangerous - if you look at Facebook shares when Mark Zuckerberg is testifying, you can see that it is not good for business, so whether you do it out of a moral obligation for yourself and for clients, you should be doing it for a business reason for them as well because this isn't going away.

This little graph over here has a circle about that big of people who it doesn't surprise that their data is abused and their little spot of people who you think maybe their data isn't abuse, Then, more recently, is anyone aware that Google develops an ethics board, anyone know how long it lasted? It made it a week, they gave it a full run, I mean they maybe had to have a tour around the building or something, but one of the ladies who left the ethics board said that we need to start accepting that Google is a global power, the internet is the fastest and largest growing human territory on earth - it is not going to stay ungoverned and we're kind of the only people riding around on the horses other than Google who owns the land at the moment, we need to fix that.

So some final thoughts. We need sustainable formulas that can grow and change. We need to look at what the hard industries are doing because they will give us a heads up and we need to look at the bigger picture, both with our day-to-day work but also the future of the internet and more importantly, I quite liked how you ended because I feel the same, we need to look after our people, that has to be at the center of everything because these laws are going to come in and loads of people won't be ready and we're going to end up in a huge pickle - I did put a pickle on the slide it looked a bit rude so I took it off - but SEOs are going to be the only people you can unpick this, we really need them. Thank you very much.

MC: So that was Lexi Mills, you can get all of the show notes for this episode, along with Lexi's presentation and the video of her presenting this talk, at I hope you will have a great week and I hope you'll tune in next week for our final episode before the Christmas break.

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