Image by Roy Lichtenstein via Flickr.

Image by Roy Lichtenstein via Flickr.

With about 160 million blogs online and 4 billion hours of video being watched every month on YouTube, there is a huge opportunity for brands to connect with their consumers via compelling content.

The problem is that most content marketing initiatives underperform because big creative ideas are rarely integrated with a data-driven, performance-based approach.

In a recent post on CMI, Content Marketing vs. SEO: The Truth Behind a Ridiculous Debate, Barry Feldman of Feldman Creative rightly noted:

You could make the case that SEO is content marketing. Search engine optimization is a misnomer anyway. It seems to suggest you optimize the search engine. Clearly, you cannot and do not. You optimize online content.

In a world where 80 percent of consumers search online for a product before purchasing it, the goal of content marketers is to not only plan and create content, but also find a way to make it more discoverable in top search engine results.

Great content can go unnoticed without SEO, while SEO-led content can do poorly because it is not compelling.

That’s why brands need a holistic approach to content marketing that emphasizes creative and performance equally.

Recently, I sat down with three of the smartest inbound marketers in the industry at NYU, where I teach a graduate class on search marketing.

We did an interactive panel discussion for graduate students in the Integrated Marketing program about the major shifts in content marketing and SEO in 2013.

Here are some key insights and takeaways:

User first, algorithm second

Over the years, SEO practitioners have contributed to a massive amount of spam and poor-quality content on the web.

We broke directories, stuffed content with keywords, spammed the comments on blogs, and bought and traded links in order to game Google’s algorithm and push mediocre content toward the top in keyword rankings.

Those days are over. Recent Google algorithm updates such as Panda rendered most of the old SEO tactics obsolete.

Content marketers still need to understand how the search algorithm works to make their content perform on Google or on Facebook’s Graph Search.

The game change is that, as marketers, we can’t be merely concerned about “the keyword.” Instead, we must optimize our content to relate to “who” typed it into the search box.

In other words, marketers need to align their keyword strategy along the user journey, emphasizing the connection between content and intent (i.e. keyword) through methodical audience profiling, research and analysis.

Don’t chase the algorithm; get in front of it.

Publishing frequency matters, but only if content is good

The necessity of having a blog on your site is not really debatable. According to HubSpot, companies that blog receive 55 percent more website traffic, and B2C companies that blog receive 88 percent more leads than those who don’t.

The topic of content frequency is my pet peeve because it is often abused and taken to extremes, especially when it comes to blogging and branded content. It is either too frequent to retain a certain level of quality, or too infrequent to make any difference.

Follow iAcquire content strategist Devin Asaro’s advice and ask yourself, “How often can I create content that is good?” Content frequency does impact customer acquisition, but if the content is not good your audience will move away and your efforts will be counter-productive.

Content sells.

As the above chart shows, customer acquisition and blog content go hand-in-hand.

PR is your new best friend

In a world where bloggers are journalists and consumers look for news on Google and YouTube, SEO and PR teams need to be synced up and synergized.

Traditional link building is dead and needs to be replaced by innovative content-promotion strategies, centered on PR outreach and leveraging existing brand relationships.

Anybody who has ever done any SEO knows that outreach is a very effective content-promotion tool.

The problem with SEOs handling outreach is that they focus on getting a link at scale instead of designing the right pitch and building long-term relationships.

You should leverage your PR team to design a better outreach and have your SEO team prospect relevant sites with high PageRank to engage.

healthy hearbeat.

Content promotion strategies should include PR outreach and relatinoship building with sites that have high PageRank.

Engage SEO at the outset

The best time to engage SEO is when the website’s concept is being defined. One of the biggest issues at creative agencies is that SEOs are brought in late in the process: They are sent a sitemap to research and map keywords, write page titles and meta descriptions.

SEOs should be involved in strategic decisions from the beginning. These include picking the right CMS, defining the content strategy and site structure.

You need data-driven content marketing

If you engage in content marketing and you don’t have personas developed and validated by quantitative research, start over. You need to make content decisions based on data so that you build content with a built-in ROI. Measure and test everything.

Great content that is optimized and targeted towards pre-defined personas pulls your audience in naturally, so don’t get too pushy.

You want to limit choice and drive a user through your content towards your calls-to-action, aligning with user personas but avoiding overselling unless you target lower-funnel keywords.

Rand Fishkin, the founder and CEO of Moz, put it best: “A nudge is mightier than a sword.”