How to Create Content Unicorns and Ignore the Donkeys

Are you producing content unicorns and, if you are, are you leveraging that content to make unicorn babies?

Larry Kim doubts you’re doing either, but is willing to tell you how you can.

In this episode of the Rethink Podcast, we talk with Kim, founder of WordStream and CEO of Mobile Monkey, about his new company and about what he calls “Content Marketing Moneyball.”

If you’ve seen Moneyball, the Brad Pitt movie about the Oakland A’s 2002 season (or read the book by Michael Lewis, or his latest book, The Undoing Project), you will get a sense of the subconscious biases that affect how we make decisions and, in Kim’s view, how content marketers are unable to reliably produce and leverage what he calls “unicorn content.”

Don’t worry though. Kim has a few tips on how you can create your own unicorn content and then leverage it to make unicorn babies.

Enjoy the conversation, and we hope you get one or two takeaways that you can bring to your business.

This transcript has been edited for length. To get the full measure, listen to the podcast.

What is Mobile Monkey?

NATHAN ISAACS:  Larry, can you tell me more about your new endeavor, Mobile Monkey, and what it does and who it does it for?

LARRY KIM: It’s a new startup I started a couple months ago. It’s very early stage right now. It’s only five people and maybe 50 or so customers. It’s in the chatbot AI space, like a gazillion other companies these days. It seems to be like the flavor of the month. But I really do think that there are some interesting technologies there for marketers. And I’m looking to try to build something kind of interesting and innovative in that space.

What is Content Marketing Moneyball?

NATHAN: You’ve been talking about Content Marketing Moneyball. Can you tell me more about that? What does that mean?

LARRY: The challenge here is that content marketers, I think, are very clueless when it comes to defining what exactly quality content is. There are basically two types of people. A lot of people are biased and they define quality content as content that they produced. And another group of people, they’ll define quality content in terms of a checklist of attributes ― Does it have 1,000 words? Does it have three graphics? Does it have high school-level English? Does it have a video embed?

My point is that it’s neither. Quality content isn’t defined by our own biased opinions. It’s based on the outcomes. So, thinking back on the Moneyball movie, back in the day baseball scouts would make their decisions to bring on free agents based on things like: Did the player have a lot of confidence? or Does he look great? or Is he great with the press? … and all sorts of stupid meaningless attributes. And, basically, the question Billy Beane asked was: If he’s such a great hitter, why can’t he get on base? So, the question here is: If this content is such great quality, why does 99.9 percent of it go nowhere?

And the answer is: It’s not quality. It actually stinks. I believe we need to be a little more concrete about ― specifically ― what are we talking about when we talk about the need for great quality content.

Is it a checklist of attributes or what? I’m saying it should be defined by outcomes, like what your audience has to think about your content. Like: Did they read it or not, or did they convert to a sale or not? Usually, there’s some kind of desired outcome when we’re doing content marketing. We’re trying to sell products and services. Try to be a little bit more intentional around those metrics and figuring out how that impacts your strategy.

This is a pull quote graphic asking whether you have a content unicorn or a content donkey

What Metric Can Tell Us Our Content is a Unicorn?

NATHAN: What are the metrics you’re going to use for the content to know whether it’s quality?

LARRY: Great question. In baseball, you’ve got hundreds of different metrics. Same thing in marketing. There are hundreds of different possible metrics for your content. However, when I think about the objectives of marketers and why they’re producing all this content in the first place, they typically fall into one of four categories.

Category one would be they’re trying to drive awareness. So, this is your typical blog content. You’re just trying to get a lot of people to be familiar with your brand. Another one could be they’re trying to drive conversions. It could be like a special offer or something like this, so that it’s very compelling and turns leads into actual sales and customers. Another one is advertising. So, content could be like a really great ad. And another one could just be SEO and social, like just trying to rank really great in either Google search or to generate a lot of engagement in Facebook.

There might be more, but those are the big four I typically see. Now, what I’ve noticed is that when you look at the really, really high-performing content ― I’m not talking about just the stuff that you think is so great, I’m talking about every company ― if they’ve got 1,000 blog posts, there’s going to be like one or two that really stand head and shoulders beyond the other 999.

When you isolate those real outliers, they’re not just 5 percent better, 10 percent better; I’m talking about 10 times better kind of campaigns. They do have one thing in common, and that is they have high user engagement rates. So, user engagement rates … that could be things like in Facebook they’ll have a high engagement rate in terms of people clicking on the post, or liking, or commenting, or sharing it. In SEO, that could be a high ranking. And, by the way, Google SEO rankings take into consideration things like click-through rates. So, if you have an unusually high click-through rate for a given spot, Google will reward you with even better positioning.

We’ve also found that the content that converts best in terms of ads and offers tend to also have high click-through rates and low bounce rates. Because, quite frankly, if you can get people excited enough to click on something, that excitement tends to carry through to a purchase or a sale. My point here is, the metric, the one key metric that we should be focusing on more and more these days is engagement rates.

So basically click-through rates and engagement rates seem to be the key to unlocking all of those objectives, whatever your objective is. Why? It’s because all of these systems ― like the Facebook news feed algorithm, or the organic search algorithm, or Google AdWords quality score, or Facebook ads ― they all employ machine-learning algorithms that greatly reward content that has unusually high engagement rates with tremendous visibility within those platforms.

My point is, continuing the analogy, that engagement rate in content marketing is essentially the on-base percentage of baseball, which was the one key metric Billy Beane wanted to focus on. Because he believed that in order to win games, we need to get on base. Same idea here. In order for us to make our objectives, our content has to be consumed.

It seems simple, yet we still have 99 percent of these content marketers talking about checklists of what makes for great content and 10x content. It’s all attribute-based quality definitions, as opposed to outcomes.

What Do You Do Once You Recognize You Have a Unicorn?

NATHAN: Once you identify that outlier and you see the kind of content that the audience is engaging with, do you then just keep on doing that type of content and just make that sort of your standard at that point in time?

LARRY: We’re talking about strategy here. We’ve got this metric, what do we do with it? Well, you’ve got to optimize for it. There are two things you need to do in your strategy. The first thing is you need to spend less time with the donkeys. Because your time is finite. You only have certain amount of hours in the day and certain amount of resources to allocate towards content creation. And the big mistake that people are making is that in the past content marketers would get a lot of value just for showing up. Meaning, if you could just blog three times a week, or run Google AdWords, or Facebook five posts a day, or something like this, there was a certain value in just being present.

Now, what I’m saying is these new algorithms are kicking in, and you no longer get points for showing up. These posts get no shares, no links, no reads. It’s only the outliers that do. It’s basically you’re getting bigger winners and fewer of them. It’s like the difference between playing scratch tickets and Powerball. Fewer winners, but bigger jackpots.

What I’m saying is, you really need to stop wasting your time pushing donkeys. Donkeys are the opposite of unicorns. Unicorns are these great mythical things – your top 1 percent, your outliers. And the donkeys are basically everything else.

The mistake people make is they’ll keep pushing on the donkeys because they can’t overcome their own biases. They think that, ‘Oh well, this campaign didn’t do well on an email blast, but let’s do another email blast.’ Well, my point is just to say that if it didn’t do well in the first 5,000 emails, it’s not going to do any better in the next 10,000 emails.

What you really should do is just drop it and stop wasting time and energy on these things that are going nowhere, because it’s not going to change. The organic rankings aren’t going to improve. It’s not going to do any better if you share it again on Facebook, if it’s still a donkey. So just take a different shot.

The other mistake people make in terms of strategy when it comes to Moneyball is that when they do have a winner, they don’t milk it for all it’s worth. It would be like if we’re playing poker, and if I dealt you a very unusually strong hand ― like a full house or four aces ― are you going to play that hand in such a way just to grab the blinds and go to the next hand? That’s what a content calendar does. A content calendar says: We’ve got to just blog post every day, and there’s no flexibility because we scheduled the next month. But what I’m saying is, this one unicorn post, the one outlier, will generate 50 times, 100 times more value than all the other posts combined.

Content marketers are just too eager to jump back on the content marketing treadmill to produce the next thing on the calendar rather than milking the hand that they should play for all it’s worth when it’s valuable. I call this ‘making unicorn babies.’ So, if you have a unicorn, what are you going to do with it? Are you just going to play it once and then move on to the next donkey? No. What you need to do is go all in on it and make unicorn babies. You’ve got this one outlier piece of content. You should spend all of your quarter’s budget on promoting that one piece in paid social. You should cancel all the webinars that you have planned for the month and just do this one topic.

It’s a little bit like how CNN goes all in whenever there’s like a plane crash that’s a mystery. They clear the decks. They don’t care what else was on the calendar. And they just go all in on that one really engaging topic. And you might think that this is like, ‘Well, duh, that makes sense.’ But that’s not how people actually do things. I’ll give you an example with paid social, Facebook advertising. A company will say, ‘Oh, I’ve got 10 posts a month, and I’ve got $1,000 to spend on social advertising. Let’s equally divide the budget $100 per post.’ That’s what 99 percent of these companies are doing.

What you really should be doing is just spend nothing. I guess this is kind of like having the budget stay on rollover, if you will, and spending nothing on any post. And when you finally find that post that’s like, you know, the outlier, you should then go all in. You should spend the entire year’s budget on that one post. That’s what you should be doing, but that’s not what content marketers are doing today.

Two Types of Unicorn Content

NATHAN: When you wring everything out that you can from that piece of content, what happens next? Do you then go back to the grind of creating 10 more pieces of content, or 100, or 1,000, to see what is the next unicorn? How do you get your next unicorn?

LARRY: There are two ideas here. One, there are two types of unicorns I’ve noticed. One is an evergreen unicorn and the other one is a temporal unicorn. A temporal unicorn could be like the time I did a story about the Facebook IPO that generated 10,000 pickups in, like, every newspaper. I created a news cycle, basically. I was interviewed by dozens of radio stations and television stations, and generated over 10,000 pickups. But I can’t talk about that story anymore, because it’s not news anymore. The reason why it did well was because it was new and novel. And the reason why it stopped doing well is because the news cycle moved on.

You can make unicorn babies like that by transposing the same idea to the next item. So, the Twitter IPO, or the Snapchat IPO. We basically took the same play, but generated content for every … insert big brand IPO. And we just recreated the story.

The other idea is, with these evergreen stories, there are certain types of content that just never die. They’re like zombies. They just keep on living forever. I’ll give you an example. I once created a piece called the most expensive keywords in Google AdWords. It’s a great topic for me because I sell AdWords and pay-per-click advertising. This thing just generates, like, a million clicks every year. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. And so, what do you do with this? You just keep sharing it. You instruct your social media manager: Once a week I want you to share this thing. And it’s like, ‘Really? It’s like five years old.’ And I’m like, ‘Yep.’ Because this five-year-old unicorn does substantially better, and, even today at five years old, will do better than the average new piece of content.

So we’re talking about not only maximizing the output, but also minimizing the effort. Because a known unicorn that’s evergreen will outperform an unproven new piece of content. So you just keep promoting it. You have an auto responder to all your new emails that come into the system. Send that evergreen unicorn to them forever. And send it to them twice ― once when they come in, and once at the six-month mark. For ad campaigns, just set a budget for $100 a day and just keep promoting it to that audience forever. These things are just so rare and so valuable that you really need to maximize the winnings when you have a winner.

NATHAN: Absolutely. If anybody wants to learn more about you or Mobile Monkey, what should they do?

LARRY: The easiest way to do this is to follow me on Twitter. Or go to my website, mobilemonkey.com. There isn’t a ton of information up there right now, but hopefully, God willing, we’ll close a round of venture financing sometime this summer and have more to share about that.

NATHAN: Well, we’re looking forward to it.

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