Go back many years ago, and we as digital marketers and consultants had the ability to target specific keywords and know from Google what the search volume of those would be, and we could track the traffic by keyword in analytics.
Nowadays, those things for the most part aren't true. And I'd posit that that's a good thing.
Keywords were never what it was about. Messages and content were where we should have been. And thankfully, it's where the industry is finally starting to move towards. So how do we go from the tactical keyword research to a strategic messaging and content calendar successfully? How can we use the tools and techniques we understand to deliver something of value? Well it starts with...
Before we can get into advising what you as a client should look to do, we need to understand the context that your messages will reside in. What messages are currently resonating in your industry, and how competitive is the landscape?
The important thing is that you're looking here for online competitors specifically. Obviously digital messages don't exist in a vacuum, and offline messages matter too, but from our research, offline messages tend to reflect the online messaging a brand puts out pretty closely, so by looking at one, you're also seeing the other. Also, increasingly there's brands that only compete online, and offline research would miss those, which we can't afford to do.
When it comes to businesses, I like to break them down into a simple three-dimensional matrix for categorisation, so I can filter any data at a later date easily. The dimensions are:
Mode of Retailing
Type of Consideration
- Product sold
- Service rendered
- Monetised publishing
This means we could have something like Xero, the accounting software, which respectively is online/product/service, or Mercedes, which is offline/brand/product, or the retailer John Lewis, which would be both/hybrid/product.
This is the key for our research being based in online messages - we'll find adverts, obviously, but we'll also find discussion around a brand, the content they're putting out organically, and what the community related to a brand's business area are discussing.
As a result, I use ahrefs for competitor research for links and discussion directly relating to a client. However, SEMrush, Moz or anything else that does the job is fine - it's more about the process than the tool. As long as you are able to look at who's ranking for similar subjects, and do a gap analysis on what else might be useful with it, that's what matters. This gives the initial data on who's linking to a site and the other domains that rank for terms that our client site ranks for. It also gives the ability to understand the velocity at which any domain is acquiring links (read: the amount the brand is being discussed on the non-social web). I'll also use Twitter, Reddit, and anything that's niche-relevant. For example, if I'm consulting for a pram retailer, I'd be looking at Mumsnet, YouTube and Facebook groups. If it's a car dealer, I'd be looking at Drivetribe and YouTube. For a board games company, it'd be the niche board games sites like boardgamegeek and Board Game Quest.
Using that information, we can curate a list of brands who are actively pushing out content and being discussed, and break down that content by what type of user it's attracting, where in the purchase funnel that user is, and what traffic value that topic might have. Because remember, content serves more purposes than just attracting traffic and links. This is going to be most valuable when we get to the mid and end stages of the buying funnel, but depending on the niche, may also be useful for top of funnel content ideation too.
To make this live a little, let's pick a site and a niche, and see how this might work.
Our Example Site - Indigo Furniture
I'm currently shopping for furniture, so I thought we'd use Indigo Furniture as a case study. They're a furniture retailer who specialise in heavy wooden and leather furniture. This would place them into the client matrix as both/product/product.
We can then look for direct and indirect competitors. For example, Loaf and sofa.com would be direct competitors, whilst John Lewis and Bang & Olufsen would be indirect. Loaf and sofa.com target the same consumers for the similar product ranges, whilst John Lewis targets similar consumers as part of a larger group, and sells similar product, as part of a much larger offering. B&O on the other hand are targeting the same market, but with product in a different area, competing for attention.
Digging into what Indigo rank for, we've got a few obvious product related phrases like reclaimed furniture, beds, and solid wood dining table, but not a lot beyond that. This isn't particularly surprising - they're a retailer, not a community. But what could be done to broaden their brand awareness and attract more interest? How could we grow their audience and scope? Well, let's look at who else competes with them...
There's a lot of companies who compete directly with Indigo. DFS, Oak Furniture Land, Loaf and sofa.com and John Lewis as we've mentioned, or if we were looking in the US, it'd be brands like Macy's, Ashley Furniture Home Stores, Pottery Barn, West Elm...
However, almost all of these simply sell product, advertise in the usual places in the usual ways, and have most have outlets to allow you to see the product and try it out. All very normal and ordinary. But a few do things a little differently.
Ikea would be the first, most obvious example. By encouraging the IKEA hacking community, they've helped grow a social aspect to their business, which helps support and differentiate the brand. They also have produced one of the most interesting, creative and effective marketing campaigns over the past few years with Mother London: "The Wonderful Everyday". They've effectively positioned themselves as a brand doing something different from the normal furniture retailing crowd.
However, even IKEA are still mostly only targeting consumers at the end of the purchaser funnel. They can afford to - they're well known enough that they just need to remind you now and then that they exist, and they'll be fine. John Lewis and Macy's are similar in that regard, although obviously with a very different product offering. But what if you don't have that level of market penetration and mindshare?
Looking Beyond Product Competition
However, for as long as we just try and compete based on the strength of our product and its pricing, we're making it easy for new competitors to come into the marketplace and displace us, or existing companies to move on to our turf. We need to have other ways of reaching consumers, and building loyalty with them.
For this sort of work, we need to look at non-retail and retailer-publisher sites. This is always where content becomes more interesting, because these sites live or die based on their ability to create effective content and build community and brand equity.
To curate a swipe file of effective content, we'd use our same competitor analysis tools but look at sites that work through publishing. So keeping with Indigo as our sample client, I'd look at sites and publications like Ideal Home, Tatler, Grand Designs, Gardeners' World, Country Living and so on. Collectively, these can give us a huge range of subjects we know our audience are likely to be interested in, which we could then cover.
This is the power of modern digital competitor analysis tooling: can look at all the pages on publishing sites from a social and links point of view, to understand what the audience shares and cares about. This gives us the best possible hit rate for these subjects, as we want them to have not just some search volume, but also to resonate socially so people will reference them in future.
A Minor Side Note
I firmly believe that the best retailers in 2025 will be retailer-publishers, whom have developed a community around themselves, supporting and differentiating themselves in the marketplace. Think of Waterstones' success in the face of Amazon, or the ecosystem around niche topics like tabletop role playing games or coffee. If you want to be able to compete with the likes of Amazon and other massive retailers, you need to stand apart in ways beyond product, because long term, price and style alone cannot be enough. Community and a strong brand however, will always produce results.
Planning & Production
Having compiled a list of competitors and what they're doing well, we now start entering the messaging planning and content production phases. So, continuing our theme of planning a digital marketing strategy for Indigo, how would we go about planning and executing our content marketing and experience design work?
Top of Funnel
This is where our publisher/inbound marketing heavy site research comes in. Here we're producing content, not with the intention of selling, but simply building brand mindshare. Letting people know we exist, and pulling them in to our broader marketing efforts. Almost anything that counts as an inbound channel would sit here.
As a result, we're thinking here about blog posts, email list building, social media presence, webinars/podcasts/vlogs, SEO and so on. The important thing though is that these are all done with a specific purpose in mind. This is not mindless content creation simply in persuit of traffic. It's about getting relevant people aware of our brand, and bringing them into regular contact with us. It's about giving positive experiences to build trust.
At the point where people are starting to consider their purchase, we now want to deliver a different message - that we're the right retailer for them. Now we move from our more general interest content into content designed to sell our differentiators.
This involves appealing to people's sense of identity. Presenting who you are as a brand as the right people for them. At this point, we're not so much looking at content (although obviously that plays a part), as much as we're looking at message and tone and branding. Indigo is a great case study for this. Big, chunky furniture, so a big chunky font. Pictures of the furniture in context, which in this case means not just any room, but a kitchen with a flagstone floor, or a Georgian bedroom with shutters. Walls painted with colours you'd find in a Farrow and Ball or Little Greene. Credibility coming from a testimonial from Kate Humble. A video featuring a Land Rover Defender and an Aga.
An example of the header imagery from the site, reflecting the theme of the brand
It's a great presentation, and everything they put out has that aesthetic, telling you exactly what this furniture will be like, and reassuring that, if you're the kind of person who knows what the Burghley horse trials are, you're going to like what they do.
When it comes to content, we're now looking at something else. Guides to choosing furniture, how to lay out a room, how to achieve certain looks. We'd also look at creating content designed to push the brand's product awareness at specific times. For example, January and February are always good for dining room furniture, so having content ready to go for how to re-do your dining room for that period would be a obvious topics. If we were dealing with a clothing retailer, things like sizing guides to help people get the correct fit, or pieces covering and recapping the major events on the fashion calendar (provided we're selling to that sort of crowd) would work well.
End of Funnel
Now we get to the final part - content designed to appeal to and convince those about to purchase. On the off-site front, this is where ads come in - they're targetable at users specifically looking to buy. However, again there's on-site work to be done here too.
Keeping with Indigo as our example, we now start looking at the category and product pages, and the checkout and post-purchase processes. These are as much a part of the content experience as anything else. However, too often these get no time spent on them, despite the obvious value in time spent on optimising the UX of those types of pages for CRO benefit.
Think about what messages need to be delivered at this point. Shipping rates, returns policies, secure checkout messaging and so on. Things that say "it's okay to purchase here, we're going to look after you". It's also why the immediate follow-up post-purchase is so important. We need to validate that message and purchasing decision immediately, to reassure and again, provide a positive experience of the brand.
Messaging and content marketing isn't just the infographic nonsense that gets bandied around. It's every piece of digital content your brand puts out. It's every message that that content creates in the mind of the consumer.
More than that though, it's no longer enough to simply be passive in your approach to digital marketing, and SEO & content marketing especially. Every piece of content needs to pull its weight, serving a specific purpose, and being measured and refined in response to its success and failure criteria.
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