How a Failed First Date Taught Me a Priceless Lesson About Content Marketing
Peter Panda

When I was a senior in high school, I planned the perfect first date. Or so I thought.

I made a reservation at an upscale restaurant and told my crush I’d pick her up at 7 p.m. on the dot. I polished my green Volvo, ironed my slacks, shined my shoes, and spritzed on cologne. I greeted the young lady’s parents, opened the door for her, and picked up the check after the meal was over. I checked all the boxes for everything a date was supposed to be, but something was off.

“I hope you had a good time tonight,” I said, hopefully.

“It was nice,” she replied. “But you didn’t have to do all that. I would’ve been totally cool with just grabbing ice cream and walking around the park.”

Great. In addition to burning through that week’s paycheck, my date was dissatisfied and my self esteem was shot. I didn’t score a second date, but I did learn a valuable lesson that would eventually apply to a seemingly disconnected topic: content marketing.

Let me explain.

The internet is teeming with so-called expert advice as to what “quality” or “high-performing” content should look like. I use quotation marks because what moves the needle for one audience can be a catastrophic failure for another. More on that later. For now, let’s talk about a little phrase that can derail any content strategy: optimize for SEO.

Just like 18-year-old me obsessed over planning that “perfect” first date, marketers often obsess over creating “perfect” blog posts, at least by SEO standards. Let’s break down what that’s supposed to entail:

  • 1,000-2,000 words
  • Choose a keyphrase you can rank for
  • Use that keyphrase in the introduction
  • Use that keyphrase multiple times throughout the article
  • Break up your article with H2 subheadings
  • Use that keyphrase in your H2 subheadings
  • Include outbound links to authoritative sites
  • …the list goes on

Obeying this checklist isn’t inherently wrong, just like planning a fancy first date isn’t inherently wrong. The problem arises when you worry about “best practices” instead of zeroing in on what your audience actually wants or needs. Forcing an article to be “SEO-friendly” can give it a veneer of artificiality, just like over-the-top chivalry can make a date awkward. When you haphazardly stuff keywords into sentences and lengthen your articles to make them more “authoritative” (AKA excessively long), your SEO plug-in will give you the green light, but your readers might groan.

Let’s say you have 1,000 loyal followers who enjoy narrative-style articles. What’s smarter: writing engaging stories that your readers are likely to share or writing an article that’s “optimized for SEO” on the off-chance that someone might stumble upon it from a Google search? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but when it comes to content, retention almost always trumps acquisition. Play the long game.

This very article I’m typing violates all kinds of SEO “rules.” It’s only 600-ish words, there’s no keyphrase in the introduction, no H2 subheaders, no outbound links, whatever. I don’t care. However, I do care that most of my readers enjoy irreverent thought pieces that take a stance on otherwise hackneyed topics—and that’s what I give them.

So, how can marketers escape the “optimize for SEO” trap and figure out what the hell their audience actually wants? Here’s a novel idea: ask them. Send a survey. Run a Twitter poll. Email people one by one. Do something besides work in a silo filled with your own assumptions. Content marketing—just like dating—is a two way street.

If only I would’ve realized that in 2014.

Peter Panda

Pioneering social media panda bear Tagawa “Peter” Panda was born on a Chinese game reserve in 1969. He emigrated to the United States in 1987 speaking no English, with only the fur on his back and $97 stored in a Jansport fanny-pack wrapped around his waist.

In 2003 while searching for food on the campus of Washington University, he discovered a computer lab where he would ultimately teach himself web development, graphic design, and immerse himself into the growing digital media evolution that was erupting at the time.

With his trademark surly demeanor developed during beatings on his boat ride from China to the U.S., as well as having a penchant for eating vast quantities of bamboo, and enjoying Scotch and cigars, Peter is broadly recognized for coining the phrase “social media” in 2004. He joined Elasticity in late 2009 as the agency’s director of social media strategy and wildlife relations. Friend him on Facebook here.

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