Building an Award-Winning Content Marketing Strategy

By Morgan Karas, Tag Strategies

 

A couple of months ago, Healthline crowned its Best Palliative Care Blogs of the Year. Much to our delight, we found that our incredible client Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care was featured as one of the best blogs.

Our delight was not in passing – it was with intent. In it, we found a bit of justification and reward for a decade of working with Crossroads to build its brand, establish itself as an industry influencer in the digital space and, of course, help strategize and execute this noteworthy blog.

We couldn’t have done it all alone. In fact, an integral part of this process was assembling an integrated marketing team of specialists in branding, public relations, social media and SEO to create a sophisticated content marketing strategy. Here’s how it went down. 

How it all started.

When Tag got involved with Crossroads in 2007, we were presented with a hospice stuck in what we lovingly refer to as the sea of sameness.

“Without distinction, there is no differentiation and without differentiation you have a sea of sameness,” said brand strategist and Tag President Michelle Taglialatela. “We were faced with the challenge of learning the ins and outs of Crossroads, what makes them stand out from the rest, and aligning that with their mission and vision to develop a strong and cohesive brand, both internally and externally.”

Since 2007, digital marketing has evolved tremendously. It’s enabled the Tag team, along with our incredibly talented partners, to grow Crossroads’ marketing efforts into a very sophisticated program.

“We are the architects of the brand, the marketing plan and its execution,” said Michelle. “We assembled a team of professionals capable of creating a program of this scale and composure. For earned media, we looped in our existing partner SPRYTE Communications.”

Public Relations: SPRYTE Communications

“Public relations and earned media were a brand-new spoke on the integrated marketing wheel for Crossroads when we got involved in 2007,” said Lisa Simon, CEO of SPRYTE. “Educating the client on earned media implementation and what type of information we needed to be successful with this program was crucial to getting it up and running.”

Since then, SPRYTE has contributed heavily with their special talent to writing for the healthcare professional audience, Crossroads’ primary referral source.

At this point in time, social wasn’t even on the radar screen of most marketers, but we knew it was something Crossroads needed to get involved in. For social media expertise, strategy and content development, we tapped into ChatterBlast Media in 2013.

Social Media: ChatterBlast Media

“We worked with Tag to develop the initial strategy for blog content and social engagement. We were even involved in picking Crossroads’ social guru to lead the internal charge” says Matthew Ray, creative director and co-founder of ChatterBlast. “When we started, there was no blog, no social, no digital engagement – so we had a clean slate. I think our biggest challenges were understanding a very complicated and nuanced industry, and then finding the right mix of content to populate the blog.”

That mix turned out to be a success balance of both internal and external thought leaders, as well as collaboration between multiple stakeholders.

“Crossroads continues to be a leader in hospice and palliative care, and they continue to be a leader digitally as well. 5 years ago, there was no blog – now they have one of the best blogs,” said Matthew of the evolution of Crossroads’ content marketing program. “We’ve taken risks with ideas, we have pushed comfort zones, and we have given people hope, compassion, and understanding when there was none of that on the web.  Oh, and I think we were the first organization EVER to use social advertising to market hospice care.”

That’s being ahead of the curve.

We very quickly learned that integrating SEO into our content development process would be necessary to help push Crossroads’ blog even further – and to get it in front of the right people. In comes Arc Intermedia, a digital marketing shop focusing on customer acquisition.

SEO: Arc Intermedia

“Our first task was to learn about Crossroads, understand the different audiences, understand the marketing and web presence as it stood and then devise an integrated plan that married a strong web presence with support from digital tactics such as SEO, SEM, display advertising and retargeting,” said David Sonn, president and director of strategy at Arc, of their start with Crossroads in 2014. “SEO should always have a strong influence on the organization of content, what type of content you’re developing and how it’s delivered to the consumer.”

It was important for the established team of people working on the Crossroads content to start weaving SEO into their writing and understanding its positive impact on the blog.

“We’ve been very involved with getting all teams on board and helping everyone understand the balance between what the user wants and what the search engine wants. That balance is the key to growing the blog’s reach organically,” says Patrick Coyne, SEO and social strategy manager at Arc. “Tighter collaboration between the different shops has really been the biggest evolvement for the Crossroads social program. If social or PR is doing something that could benefit from SEO, we want to be a part of it.”

Each team is focused on the continuing growth of this very sophisticated model of content marketing. There a lot of moving parts and areas of expertise that continue to drive the evolution of Crossroads’ award-winning blog.

“We know content is king. We expect to continue to generate great story ideas and deliver upon them with outstanding content to maintain an award-winning blog for Crossroads,” said Lisa of the SPRYTE team.

“We are always talking about how we can begin to address the needs of different audiences,” says Matthew of ChatterBlast. “We want our content to evolve so that it engages our current audience, and also speaks to those who don’t know they need Crossroads’ help yet. I really love this team and organization and think that the Crossroads experience is an important story to tell.”

“The goal is to continue to evolve and keep providing exceptional content for healthcare professionals and consumers,” says Michelle of the Tag team.

Patrick of Arc agrees – “We always want to develop the best possible content that we know people want to read in a time of need. Always keeping an eye on what people expect from Crossroads and delivering on that expectation is what helps to keep our content exceptional.”

Earning Backlinks with Earned Media

Quick question: Do you remember who the coolest kids in your high school were? More importantly, do you remember who got to decide who the coolest kids in school were?

Sometimes it seems we’re never going to stop getting asked such questions – especially for those of us who do earned media and content marketing for a living.

The modern day version of that first question is: How do you know if your website is popular? The answer is simple: Because Google says so.

That’s only a slight exaggeration. Since its founding in 1998, when Google introduced the notion of using ranked backlinks to determine a website’s importance (as opposed to the then-predominant method of counting how many times a search term appeared on a given page) the importance of backlinks has continued to guide Google’s approach to website rankings and search engine optimization (SEO).

The Example of Earned Media

An underlying tenet of an effective earned media strategy is that gaining independent recognition and/or support for your company, product or service provides stronger and more effective validation than paid advertising. Who are you more likely to believe – an unaffiliated third-party who says positive things about a company, or a paid company spokesperson?

An effective backlink strategy starts from the same premise. Over the years, Google has developed and refined its algorithms so sites that utilize artificial SEO enhancement strategies (paying for backlinks, stacking keywords) are identified and penalized in Google rankings.

In short, backlinks must be earned – just like earned news media. In order to earn backlinks, your website needs to provide organic content that is good enough to earn backlinks. Without legitimate content, third parties have nothing to link to.

Even if your company has earned media recognition in a news story or posting, gaining the additional enhancement of a backlink to your website isn’t guaranteed.

What the News Media Wants

Policies concerning whether or not news entities will link to the websites of companies cited in articles vary from organization to organization. Generally speaking, news organizations tend to take a conservative approach. There are several reasons:

Financial: News organizations have been undergoing financial challenges for many years. Many have instituted strict paywalls that require readers to subscribe before accessing news from their sites. Unless/until such company links can be monetized, news entities may consider such links as “free advertising.”
Independence/Ethics: Providing links to companies’ websites may be viewed as implying an unwarranted relationship between the news source and the news outlet.
Technical/Time Constraints: Often decisions to include such links are at the discretion of the reporter (depending on the outlet’s policy). However, the actual creation of the link is done by the outlet’s technological team. Busy and harried reporters often don’t have the time to follow-up on such details.

Differing Approaches

Recently SPRYTE Communications surveyed a range of national, regional and local news entities to ascertain editorial policies about providing backlinks to company websites.

Among national news entities we surveyed, the predominant policy was that if a company appeared in a news story, then there may be links to other stories featuring the company or the main issue involved, but not back to the company website.

Regional news entities offered something of a mixed bag. Many followed the guideline noted above – by linking to other stories the news entity wrote about the company or the issue on which the article focused. In addition, it was noted that company backlinks potentially might be viewed as a form of (unpaid) advertising for the company covered – thereby casting suspicion on editorial independence or risking the wraith of paying advertisers.

Other regional news entities will link to specific information on a company’s website if it provides additional information that is directly relevant to the story. For example, a large Midwest city paper ran an online story about a volunteer recruiting effort by one of our clients, a national hospice provider. It included a link to a volunteer sign-up page on our client’s site, and one to the page of a national hospice nonprofit information group that described Medicare regulations concerning the percentage of hospice care that must be provided by volunteers.

Local news entities likewise offered mixed reactions. One local TV station in the Midwest noted that when possible, stories posted online will contain links to organizations and companies that feature prominently in their stories, particularly if it’s a local “good news” story. Other TV outlets, particularly in larger metropolitan markets, rotate their stories so quickly that incorporating backlinks would be too difficult and time-consuming.

Conclusion

Many news organizations are wary that providing a backlink to a company featured in a news story might appear to provide an undue commercial endorsement. At a time when many news organizations are facing serious financial challenges just to stay in business, it’s a consideration that can’t be ignored.

However, you can increase your chances of getting a backlink if you can point to content on your website that provides important additional information or details that enhance the earned media story that features your company.

If your content is worthy enough, a reporter may recognize its value and provide a sought-after backlink to that relevant information, thereby gaining the much-desired enhanced SEO creds.

Understanding and supplying what news outlets are looking for are routine tasks for experienced earned media professionals. Developing content that effectively balances what the media want while promoting the interests of our clients is where we earn our keep.