5 Golden Rules for Building an Audience in a Boring IndustryBy Jon Norris February 5th, 2015
Accounting is boring as hell. I can say that because it’s the industry I’ve been working in for the last four years as a content marketer. So when I suggested the idea that an accounting firm could become the most-read small business website in the U.K. to the founder of online accounting startup Crunch.co.uk, and saw his eyes light up in excitement, believe me when I say that I immediately regretted even hinting at the possibility.
But four years after taking on what I at first thought was a doomed project, we’re pretty much there. Through a combination of smart planning and targeting, old-fashioned technical SEO expertise, great PR, strategic partnerships, and lots of hard work, we’re now attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors per month, publishing on a schedule outstripping most trade press websites, and more than doubling the traffic of the largest small business websites in the U.K.
Our 2015 has already started with a bang: We recorded three new traffic records in the first four working days of the year, and three more record days since then.
How did we get here though? I could probably write a book on what I’ve learned plying my trade in this staid, challenging, and often bizarre industry—but for now, here are five fundamentals that I’ve relied on since day one.
Evergreen resources are your best friend
Every month, no matter how flat an experimental piece of content falls, how unengaging our new posts are or even if the entire team is killed in a freak accident, we’re guaranteed a huge chunk of traffic from our many articles, tools, and landing pages that we’ve honed over many years to rank well with extremely popular terms.
BuzzFeed, Upworthy and their ilk are—for my money—houses of sand. Sure, they get huge viral traffic spikes that can generate incredible returns, but I’d pick steady, reliable traffic over unknowable viral hits every day, particularly when it comes to industry blogs. It should be the cornerstone of any content marketing strategy and—especially in the early days—deserves a hefty time investment.
Lauren Pope from Brilliant Noise summarized this idea wonderfully a few years ago in her presentation “Bread and butter content.” You might also see it referred to as “the 80/20 rule” or the Pareto principle.
This doesn’t mean we don’t experiment with viral, shareable content—it just means we’re not reliant on it.
Rethink your remit
Accounting is quite a narrow topic to write about, right? Wrong. Go up a few layers of abstraction and accountancy encompasses almost everything to do with finance and running a business. In fact, the accountants I work with every day say they spend more time advising business owners on a huge range of issues than doing traditional accountancy work with calculators and spreadsheets.
So while the obvious thing to do when running an accountancy blog is to talk about balance sheets, corporation tax, and form-filling, we’ve allowed ourselves to write about almost anything we like—provided there is a tenuous link to finance or business.
One of our former writers, Josh, took this to its logical extreme with a vast exploratory post about the economic impact of the liquidation of Smaug’s wealth at the end of The Hobbit. Its publication resulted in confused mutters around the office as to why our small editorial department was being paid to write economic fan-fiction.
We were vindicated when the post was picked up on the Tolkien subreddit and duly debated and dissected through various economic conspiracy-theory lenses. It doubled our traffic for the week and generated a handful of new clients.
Ignore the incumbents
Accounting has a hard-earned reputation for excessive cost, monotony, and opaqueness. Many accountants are trying to tackle this stereotype head-on by marketing themselves as “not your average firm” or as “plain English speaking.”
Most fail to deliver on this promise because, frankly, and with apologies to my colleagues, they’re accountants. A perfect example: “Plain-speaking accountant without a grey suit!” proclaims the Twitter bio of British Accountancy Award winner Paul Donno—just beneath a lovely picture of Paul in a grey suit.
The editorial shortcomings in our market can be tidily summed up by the backlash from accountants against the U.K. government’s new Gov.uk website. Gov.uk was designed from the ground up to be accessible and usable by anyone and everyone. They have strict (and award-winning) style guides which dictate everything from user interaction to writing style.
For some accounting subjects, Gov.uk sacrificed absolute technical accuracy to ensure the material was understandable by everyone. Every metric showed the site was being used more, and was easier to use, than its predecessor. Tear it down, the accountants said.
While I won’t claim our publication comes close to the pristine output of Gov.uk, we’ve embraced the same principles: accessibility and engagement over bafflingly fastidious accuracy. We’re writing for our audience, not our competition.
PR, SEO, and Content Marketing are all different sides of the same coin
We haven’t accumulated such a large audience without help. We have external PR and SEO agencies (Fugu and We Are All Connected, if you’re wondering—they’re both great), who work together with us to make sure we’re maximizing absolutely everything.
Our site is regularly audited to identify technical tweaks which can increase speed, conversion rates, and search rankings. Our SEO agency works with our PRs so they know best linking practices, and to make our monthly fees go that much further.
When you tie everything together like this, nice things start to happen. One piece of coverage leads to another. Some opportunities for coverage might not pan out, but they build relationships with journalists who remembers us next time. Our CEO, Darren, is offered out as an industry expert on the back of an op-ed published on our blog, which then results in more coverage and organic links back to us.
It’s all about squeezing every ounce of value from every opportunity, and every result. Content, SEO and PR all contribute to, and enhance, one another.
Don’t give up
Every industry has hopped on, or will soon be hopping on, the content marketing bandwagon. When we started it was a relatively new discipline, but now it’s an incredibly crowded marketplace. Being heard is difficult. Building an audience which you can parlay into paying customers is nigh-on impossible. The road to content marketing nirvana is littered with the bodies of those who gave up along the way.
And you’ll want to give up.
After getting hit with a manual Google penalty a few years ago due to our old SEO agency operating beyond their remit, we considered packing it in and putting our content marketing budget into something else.
But we didn’t, and now we’ve recovered and we’re in the best shape we’ve ever been. We even branched out into interactive content and video this year. (Subscribe to us on YouTube here to make our video guy Gavin very happy.)
We, and other businesses that are are enjoying success in content marketing in traditionally dull industries, are the exception rather than the norm. As a result, we’re growing faster than our competition—and a growing business is a healthy business.
And most satisfyingly for me, we’ve proven that accounting can be more than meaningless marketing slogans—we speak in plain English and we’re definitely “not your average accountant.”
A good content strategy can work in any industry, provided it’s the right strategy. Examine your competitors in a vacuum: Are they interesting? Are they useful? Are they technically proficiency? If you answer “no” to any of these questions, there’s a huge opportunity. With some good ideas and a lot of hard work, you may well find yourself speeding past them on the road to content marketing nirvana.Image by 1000 Words