I had the blog idea rattling around in the back of my mind for a few months before actually sitting down and just doing it. The idea was simple: choose one Grateful Dead selection from their extensive live releases each day for a year and write about it. The project was called Dead For A Year. I went into the project with absolutely no expectations. It was just an excuse to listen to the Grateful Dead closely, keep up my writing chops, and provide something to do during slow periods at my day job.
A few days into the project an old high school friend pinged me and said he thought it was a great idea with a lot of potential. He helped build a website for the blog and answered myriad questions along the way. The content part – the main part – was up to me.
When I started I knew nothing about content marketing. I only knew that I could write. Now that that year is almost over, and I’ve started to poke around the fringes of content marketing I can list at least 10 things I learned over the past year, for better or worse.
- It takes dedication: There were plenty of times that I felt like packing it in or taking a break. But I didn’t. It helps that I naturally have a strong work ethic, but this was something I was doing for fun.
- It takes a lot more time than you realize: At first I just picked a song, posted a streaming version if I could find one, and wrote up a few thoughts. It took me a while to find a rhythm and consistent format for everything, but I did. My partner set up affiliate relationships with iTunes and Amazon so that added another layer. My work flow went something like this:
- Map out the selections for that month
- Locate and upload artwork for each selection
- Locate link for the show setlist for each selection
- Get affiliate data for both Amazon and iTunes for each selection (when available)
- Get streaming link for each selection
- Listen to each selection closely, writing a recap of what I find interesting about that particular version
- Write a post to contextualize the song and/or selection
- SEO can be tricky, but it could be worse: Perhaps this is a simplistic view. I don’t claim to be a SEO expert. I had a Yoast SEO plugin for my WordPress site and I found that to be very helpful. The tricky thing with my particular project is that an effective Google search for a Grateful Dead song may be a search string like ‘grateful dead dark star’. That would make an ideal keyword search phrase for SEO. Unfortunately there’s not a good way to naturally write that into the blog post of meta-description without sounding forced. Another issue is that if I selected more than one Dark Star over the course of the project, but used the same SEO keyword that reduced its effectiveness a bit, because of repeated use. For what I was trying to accomplish I wasn’t terribly worried about that, but it was certainly something that I thought about. Overall, it seems to me that if you know your subject and have an idea for what search strings people would likely use to find it, your keyword development should require less tinkering than if you’re out in the woods like I was when I started this.
- Email matters: This is perhaps the biggest oversight of the entire project. When we set up the site our focus was really on social media. So we put an emphasis on Twitter and Facebook. Email, it seemed, was less of a concern. When someone visited the site it would often prompt you to “like” the Facebook page. In hindsight, what I should have done instead is to have that pop-up be a request to sign up for an email list. The worst part was that I think there was an option to get daily email updates because one commentor on the site mentioned how much he looked forward to the daily post landing in his inbox. Of course, I didn’t realize this until mid-January, about 2 weeks from when I planned to wrap up the project. A lost opportunity.
- Find high traffic areas for niche content: I thought my site was doing okay, not great, but ok, until I poked around Inbound.org and got to talking to some folks over there. Around 1000 hits on a single blog post is one metric suggested to me to determine how well received a post was. Well, the entire site was getting hundreds of hits daily, but no single post hit 1000 the last time I checked. As I mentioned above our initial focus was on social so in addition to posting to Twitter and Facebook, I would post in the Grateful Dead subreddit daily. Reddit proved to be my best traffic source on a regular basis. Finding that type of online area can be a challenge, but you’re likely to get more traffic than you would if you didn’t. Finding a saturation balance in these areas takes a bit of time as well. I started posting every 2 to 3 days and worked my way up to a daily post on Reddit.
- Social media needs to be social: This is one area that I was hoping for more traction than I got. The comments on the blog itself had a few comments early on, and those trickled off as the project continued. Facebook didn’t seem to get a lot of attention. Once I automated reposting the blog content on Twitter, and linking that to Facebook with IFTTT the number of Facebook impressions increased, but engagement with the content didn’t. The same is true of Twitter. I tried various things over the year, prompts, contests, and other things to try to get people to engage, but it proved to be much more challenging than I anticipated. One thing I think that would have helped in this regard is if I simply had time to commit to focus on engagement full-time. Since this blog was something I did on nights, weekends, and slow times at work I didn’t have the time to experiment with different engagement options as I would have liked.
- Make sure page navigation is on point: This is something I thought about as time wore on and my bounce rate and time on site stats didn’t improve. I hoped that once there was more content on the site people would be more apt to poke around. However, this wasn’t always the case. There were several places on the home page to find past content, as well as in the site menu bar, and on each page. One thing that I believe did help some, although not drastically so was to list the previous selections for a given song, if there were any, at the end of each post. Kind of a “if you liked this one, try these” type of thing. Despite there being plenty of ways to get to the content around the site I question whether the setup was efficient or obvious enough. I think some more experimentation in that regard would have helped.
- Twitter moves fast, so move fast with it: When I started the site I didn’t want to be one of these in-your-face self-promotors. I’m from the Midwest and relatively humble in that regard, and I’m acutely aware of how annoying things can be on the internet so I tried to avoid doing that. However, then I read a piece that said something to the effect of only 10% of your Twitter followers are active at a given time so the more you re-post stuff the greater reach you’ll have. After reading this, I found a plugin for WordPress (Evergreen Post Tweeter) that would go through my post archive and re-post them to Twitter with a stock message, based on the post’s tags. I set up several different times every day to post things. These “from the archive” type of posts got more Twitter engagement (favorites, retweets) but click-throughs remained an issue.
- Not all content is Grade A, but you should still strive for it: It’s human nature, some days you have it and some days you don’t. Sometimes you can write a killer post that you think is one of your best and the number of page hits is disappointing, but another post that was simply average does much better. Since my blog was dealing with music and music is a very subjective thing that subjectivity may account for some of the difference in page hits. Oftentimes I would sit down and do three or four blog posts in a row in order to get ahead of the game. If I got to a point where I felt like my writing was being forced I would simply stop and come back to it fresh later. Not everything can be Grade A, but you certainly don’t want to publish lazy work either.
- Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come: Like I said at the beginning I started this project with no knowledge of content marketing and no expectations either. If it took off, great! If not, hey, it was fun and I learned some things along the way. The old adage “it takes money to make money” comes to mind. Everything we did with the blog was organic. I think there was one week where we threw $20 into a Facebook ad campaign at the very beginning, but that was it. The rest was all organic. While I know that organic is good for search engine ranking and SEO, if this was something that I had any hope of doing full time it would have been better to do more paid advertising, especially since Facebook, for example, really makes organic reach difficult.
After a year of writing Dead For A Year I decided that one year was enough. I could certainly keep it going and try to work what I’ve learned about content marketing into blog improvements, but to be honest I’d rather start fresh with something new and try to take what I’ve learned from this little experiment and apply it elsewhere. Although Dead For A Year wasn’t as successful as I had hoped I learned a lot during the process and feel I am much better equipped to tackle other projects going forward.