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Effective content marketing with Jakub Rudnik

An Interview with Jakub Rudnik

Welcome to E-Coffee with Experts, an interview series where we discuss all things online marketing with the best minds in the business.

In this episode, Dawood is in conversation with Jakub Rudnik, VP of Content at Shortlister.

Jakub shares his journey from being from a journalism background to a content and SEO expert and how his experience helped him to be an expert in marketing.

Jakub expresses his thoughts on automatic content generators, content outsourcing, and channels for content marketing. He also shares his content quality check process and the steps he follows to decide the adequate length of the content.

He strongly believes in leaving nothing and doing a bit of everything to promote content and the brand.

You get content that ranks, then it’s much easier to pick up organic links.

Jakub Rudnik
VP of Content, Shortlister
Content Marketing, Email Marketing
Hello everyone, how is it going? Today we have Jakub Rudnik, VP Content at Shortlister. Thank you so much for taking your time. It's really exciting to have you and talk to you about the amazing work you are doing and some SEO stuff as well. Before we start, it would be amazing if you could give us a little bit of introduction about yourself and your company.

I’m the VP of content and SEO over at Shortlister. We’re a startup. We look like a listing service similar to a G2 or a Capterra. We are in the wellness space originally, but we’ve expanded to benefits and HR technology. So anywhere under the HR umbrella, we’ve got different pockets. We’ve got lists, a list of wellness companies. You can search that term, find us and all the companies that work with us. That’s a bit of our company. We’ve got this public site. We work with brokers who sell large healthcare & wellness deals to Fortune 500. They procure them for a Fortune 500 company. That’s a little bit of what makes us different from something like G2.

We have a different customer. It’s the broker that we work with really closely, though, we also work with vendors and people who become leads. Prior to that, I was at G2 for four years. I started as a content specialist and ended up running a 20% to 22% content marketing team. I was responsible at the end for launching and then scaling our learn G2 blog, all of our top-of-funnel content.

I think the proudest metric that I’ve ever had is taking that from 10,000 or 15,000 people a month to 1.5 million people a month. This blog, doing that through content clustering, link building, good keyword research, having a team of writers who are really strong at SEO and crafting good storytelling.

I’m a journalist in a past life that’s why we got into this. I teach journalism classes at DePaul University for undergraduates now. I live in Chicago. So that’s me.

Having that writing background, the journalism background, and doing SEO, it's amazing. For G2, it’s an amazing metric to achieve. Let's talk a little bit more about it. How many roles did content play in that strategy that you did for G2? And how much role links play? Could you tell us a little bit more about that strategy that helped you achieve that metric?

The team, there are like 22 writers for email, people conversions. We had another 8 or so link builders, so we are 30 of us total. There was another manager, Levi Olmstead, who is leading marketing teams now. We were leading these two teams side by side and simultaneously. So first of all, we don’t get to 1.5 million without content, certainly. We don’t get to it without links. We wouldn’t have anything without content. But the links mattered so much for powering the overall domain.

Levi and his team were good at taking a brand new domain. First, we moved from blog.g2crowd.com to learn.g2crowd.com. We did a migration once. Towards the end of my tenure, they moved from G2crowd to G2. We’ve got these two different migrations and a brand new subdomain and all this stuff. Without the links, I think it would take us much longer to get where we were. For the first six months on learn.g2crowd.com, it went really slowly. The pace at which we picked up keywords and moved from 40 to 30 to 25, that was slow. After six or nine months, we had developed a lot of links and built that domain authority up a little bit.

It’s like the cart and the horse. You get content that ranks, then it’s much easier to pick up organic links. We write a really nice cluster. We write in that cluster, and rank pretty instantly. But the first one we wrote in that cluster took forever to really pick up. It’s a little bit of both.

I think the type of content that we’re writing is a lot of, “what is this?”, “how does this work?”, and all that type of funnel educational content. That’s where our bread and butter was. Some of those posts do need 10, 20, or 30 links but in general, a lot of that instructional type content only needed one or two links to really be a top-five or top ten articles.

For us, it was getting the content right, right away and then leave it delivering on one really good link from someone in his network. Hopefully, that explains that balance for us. Looking at the size of the team, 20 writers or something, and then 8 link builders also put into a scale where we put our emphasis. Three times the size of the amount of writing. I think over time, we went from pretty little content to content that was actually going to rank good.

We needed to build that base of content before we really emphasize the link. Over time, you’d probably see more of a balance. We looked at it more as a five-year plan. But once you have 1000 blog posts that have been optimized correctly and targeted towards the right keyword, you wouldn’t need to be writing 1000 articles a year. You can build the links, keep those at a high ranking or move them from 10 to 5 to 3 etc.

I think that’s just where we were as a kind of new content team despite being so big. That was our focus there.

Absolutely. Thank you so much for explaining it so perfectly. Talking about content, what are your thoughts on should content be outsourced?

I’ve done it both ways. At G2 we had 20 people writing and at Shortlister, we have a small writing team. I’ve got three writers. I’ve worked in an agency, we’ve outsourced. Even at G2 we used agencies at different points. It depends on your needs. G2 and even Shortlister have very different content needs than a traditional SaaS company that’s in one space. For G2, it’s a quantity play. G2 has 1000 different categories. In theory, you’re competing against 1000 categories of SaaS products. If you’re a Salesforce, you compete against every CRM, or every CRM adjacent thing for this top of funnel traffic. But for G2, you’re competing against Salesforce. You compete against HubSpot, you’re competing against Marketo. Any sort of social media platform or a data analytics platform. You’re competing against all of them. Even though they’re not your business competitors, they’re your content competitors. So for us, we just needed people who could create a lot of content. There was never going to be enough. If you’re a more traditional company where you have one or two or three products and you’re in a much smaller niche, your content needs aren’t as big from a quantity perspective but you do need quality. Either way, you need to guarantee that quality. That can be an agency if you find the right one. It can be internal if you hire the right people.

Often your content needs, quantity-wise, won’t be so big, so it makes more sense you need someone on a project-level basis than just constantly churning out blogs three times a week like G2 needs. If you’re not going to need a content writer for three years, an agency from a cost perspective probably makes more sense. If an agency has that experience in your niche, it’s great. If you have a small content team, one content manager or something like that, training new writers and your business, your product, your niche, you know all the conversion points, the pain points takes a lot of time and energy even if you have a great writer and have someone who knows SEO, which often isn’t the case, when you get a new writer especially if you’re paying like that entry-level or a second type of job level. That can be a really good reason to use an agency, especially if they have that niche and they know your business already. It can go both ways.

That would be my thoughts of using both with or without success too and have pain points on both sides, so very much case by case.

I can totally understand whenever you talk about G2 and the level of content and links needed. We worked with a client who competes with G2 not directly as a business but more the keywords and other phrases. I totally understand how it must have been.

It’s interesting that not many companies have that type of content scale and need. Just getting your brain in that like business competitors, first content competitors, that’s a thing I haven’t heard a lot, but really can matter when you’re depending on your type of business.

Long-form content is gaining popularity. What do you suggest as the average number of words per blog article? How do you look at it?

I don’t think there is one size fits all for a given blog. I think that’s an instinct for somebody. It’s just in publications in general. I have written for The Tribune for a while, and I always get 6800 words. Sometimes your story is a 450 word story. Sometimes the story needs 1500 words to really be told and you have only 600 to 800 words. I think it just comes from an editorial mindset. It’s just been a thing forever to want more word count. What we do is analyze what already exists on the search results for the topic. Type in the keyword that you’re looking to rank for, look at the top five or top 10 articles. Just look at the keywords from there and use one of those free keyword count tools, counter.io, or whatever it is. See what those counts are. You’ll typically see five, three, or four of them have roughly the same word count. It depends on the saturation, the difficulty of the keyword and how tightly Google knows what you’re looking for, if you type in that word. I think that gives you a good idea.

I’d say on average, we’re trying to put some sort of numbers down where most of our articles will be in that 800 to 1500 word count. That doesn’t mean we don’t do things longer, especially if you’re doing like a pillar page for saying, like “The Ultimate Guide to CRM”. If you write 800 words, you can’t get anything out of that. If you’re trying to write like “What is a CRM?”, you don’t need to write 5000 words because someone that’s searching for that literally doesn’t know what a CRM is, and they’re just trying to get that answer. They heard it in a webinar, or they saw it on Twitter or whatever it is, they just need to know what the CRM is. They need the basic answer. So give them 500 words and don’t overwhelm them. Give them that really quickly.

They’re definitely an emphasis on longer content and being more robust. At the same time, some people are even taking their big pillar pieces and ripping it into more specific articles and answering more deeper questions because the top of funnel stuff is really saturated. When companies like G2 are competing, it’s all the people in the market already. Sometimes it makes sense to go with that shorter snippet. It does really well at interlinking and giving people the next answer that they might need.

Most of your content like this falls in that 800 to 1500, maybe 2000 word range. That’s where I’d say our sweet spot generally is but will go up or down given the topic to write.

Also, Surfer SEO has come up with what I think has been there for almost a year now. They compare the top 10 articles for you. You can actually see not only the average number of words in those articles, but the various topics or words that have been used, So, you can utilize tools and actually see what the average number of words is for that particular keyword.

This is the biggest learning from my first day at G2 to till my last day. We used to write content based on what we, the writer and the editor thought should be in the content. Google tells you what the best content is. What’s the number one article there for a reason? That can be links. But, it’s also What’s the title of the article? What’s the header? What’s the content within? What is it linking to and what is the intent? You already know what Google thinks that search is. I’ve seen SEO people, and especially non-SEO people, want a certain page to rank for one thing. That’s not how it works. So for you, knowing that you want to rank for that keyword, seeing what’s already out there, emulate it to some extent. If you look at the top 10 search results and one header is in every single one, you have to have that, or you’re just not going to rank. You’re missing a key component.

If you go and type in “what is CRM?”, there are 10 blogs from 10 really good websites that are all run by SEO people behind them. They’re very smart and they know what they’re doing. If you write the exact same blog post, and you just write it newer, it won’t rank. You need to figure out what’s missing. What did the content writers miss? What is the question that someone would want answered? What’s the original research? What is that data point? If you can find how to make your article better than what it already exists, while also doing the same framework. Sometimes it’s easy in a low competition, newer content market, but something that’s much more mature, tons of competitors, that’s where it gets tough to set your content apart while still following the template that Google’s giving you.

Absolutely. There are so many AI tools and stuff now in the market that people are using, especially content generators. What are your thoughts on content generators in particular?

Yeah, it’s certainly new. Especially like G2 to scale or something, they use content generators. It’s something that G2 wanted to do. Writers cost a lot of money and content costs a lot of money to create. It’s just a time-intensive thing. It’s the number one thing content marketing is just getting copy created. So if you can do that through AI, you would be solving a massive business problem. It’d be a huge differentiator.

There is a lot of news. AI companies that are trying to attract the news, essentially local news created from an AI. I’ve seen case studies there. The one that’s standing out to me is local sports. That’s actually where my journalism side is. I’m interested in the sports world. You can have AI take in the set of data and spits out an article that looks at 85% like a human wrote it. You take an editorial touch on top of that. I think there will always need to be some sort of human editor, at least in the near to mid-term. We’re just not there with technology.

With a human editor, just sprucing things up, doing the SEO as well, figuring out the keywords and the interlinking and things, I think you can potentially do it now. I’ve never done it. I’ve seen this case study where it was done on the new side. I think that there are content applications, certainly. There is always a lot of overlap. But I think you’ll need that human to really not just create content, because an AI can do that right now, but create content that ranks and generates leads, and generates traffic. You’re going to need somebody to take just that final step.

When you're planning a content strategy, what role does user experience play in that?

Without the user, what’s the point of the content? I think that’s another thing we saw at G2 is we had at one point, just a number of blogs was the KPI like 500 blogs, this half. Those blogs generate no traffic. They weren’t thinking about who was reading them. How do we get to the person? If a user found this blog, what would they do? So it’s huge. You already mentioned user intent, but what does somebody who’s searching this term want to find when they get to our site? So, let’s give them the answers that they’re looking for and then let’s give them the next couple of answers. Maybe it’s a shortened version, and we link over to the full version of the article or something. But we want to give them what they’re expecting when they come in.

So thinking about the user experience there, give them something that goes beyond the average content. I think people will go to a content piece, because they need an answer about which they are a little bit skeptical. Let’s give them the statistics and the research and the graphics that show that we know what we’re talking about. We’ve loved these interview experts, let’s go beyond and above what everybody else is doing. From an experience point, what would this be like? Conversions are really difficult. They’re the toughest part of content. It’s easy to get someone to your page, getting someone to turn into a lead when they don’t want to give you their email or phone number. I don’t want to do that when I go to a page. Giving them something through your gating, or whatever else your conversion is that they really want. Don’t force them into something. What would the person who came in for that specific question really want on the other end? Thinking about that, you won’t ever have, even 10% conversions on most things, but doubling what you normally do, just by giving something that they can actually use, and getting them into that sales cycle.

Think about your thing regarding user experience, and all those different levels. Your visuals, your flows, and all that stuff.

Driving engagement with an increasing number of channels available to connect with customers seems like a challenge. How do you tackle that?

Yeah, it’s tough. At G2, we had 30 people on content and 80 people on the marketing team. Even then it was difficult to hit all the channels we wanted to and do them well. We did fairly well. But still there were some places where we just couldn’t invest the resources. In places like Shortlister, we’re not even 30 full-time employees. Picking the right channels and then investing properly is really important. Think smartly and don’t go for too many.

The best advice is, I tell this to the journalism students too, is to be really strong in the number of channels that you can properly administer and operate. Interaction with customers is important. For us, it’s too hard and I don’t even know if we can do well. Now we have LinkedIn and Twitter, and social. We currently don’t even use a chatbot. We’re getting there.

From a pure resources standpoint, we can’t do more than that. I think most businesses will be in that kind of realm. It’s like everybody’s instinct to say well. TikTok is big. I saw one article on Business Week that said, you have to be on TikTok in a business and if you can’t do TikTok well, don’t do it. Don’t waste your time. It’s a lot of effort to create videos. It’s a lot of effort to create these ideas. If you’re trying to do six different social media plus email, plus every other new type of engagement or people are coming inbound, you’re not going to be able to do it well. If you have 10 accounts with 100 followers each, or you have one account with 5000 engaged users, do the one really well.

That will all depend on your resources, size of the company, all that and also knowing where your people are. For us, we’re B2B. We must be on LinkedIn and Twitter is kind of an afterthought. There is B2B chatter on Twitter but LinkedIn is where our customers live, so let’s just do LinkedIn really well.

If you are B2C, TikTok might be good for you, if you have a young demographic. Facebook is good if your demographic is older. Be awesome there. Don’t spread yourself too thin, because you won’t see results that reach a critical mass. That engagement takes a lot of effort. It doesn’t happen by posting three times a day and walking away.

A lot of people say email marketing is dead. I don't believe that. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s definitely not dead. It is another place where it’s certainly changing. Emails are like your inbox is more sacred than ever before. People are much slower to give their email. We are connected everywhere. If you have too many emails, you get overwhelmed and fall behind. So as far as email marketing. I think that there is a lot in all these channels.

A lot of people do it because they believe they have to do it. It’s a box to check. Every marketer should do this. They’re putting in 50% to 70% of the effort you need and send out their product or something, and then they wonder why they don’t have results. You need to do whatever you’re going to do, really well. If I’m thinking of the b2b, the retail type emails I get, I delete almost every one of them. It has to be like the best sale they’ve ever done for me to open it and go in. That’s the reason for the email. It should attract me.

I wouldn’t go back to the Nike outlet, unless you’re emailing me so that there are our use cases for more of like b2b software. So many try to do the educational email. But all that means is somebody on their email marketing team one day before this thing went out. So does anybody know of any good articles this week? They may have found one but there is no real thought to it. I don’t know why I’m getting these links. I don’t know what it is. I think all these people are doing like sub-stacks, and really hyper specific educational email newsletters. So people are subscribing to these and getting a lot of value from somebody who’s like deep diving in the niche. Email marketers generally were too broad and too high level. I don’t know why I’m getting this. It’s just a series of links, and then one promotion to their own product, or their own webinar or something.

I think that the substack lesson is, if you do really well, if you really get to somebody and like a need that they have, and something they want to learn, people are clicking and reading. I do a subs tack High School Sports one, but I’m getting 60% open rates. I’m getting 25% of people clicking the link. They’re not all to me, but because I’m five, I found a hole in the market. So if you can, as a business, figure out what that hole in your market is, lightly sprinkle in your own stuff but look for really good emails in your inbox. Which ones are the ones that you’re clicking? Which ones are the ones that you’re reading? Try to take the best pieces that they have, and see if any of them apply to your own product and your own niche.

A company or a business that is handling a huge volume of content. What do you suggest to keep a track of the quality?

From a process standpoint, the leadership level, I was determined with G2 like, “Okay, this month, it’ll be CRM related content, this month it’ll be this content. I’m looking at the high level speaking to business leaders and the sales team or business development or whatever. Where do we need more emphasis? Where do we need more traffic? That’s being determined there we had some team leads who were helping to go underneath that and pick more at the topic by topic level. They were working with writers. We wanted to train our writers to be able to identify a good topic to use, SEO tool to pick those and things.

We’ve spent a lot of emphasis on training for what’s good quality content. What’s the structure with the outline? How do we do featured snippets? Optimization? How do we select our headers? How do we write a headline? We’re doing workshops regularly to work on each element of the piece.

I think we’re just seeing a lift on the quality broadly. If we have 20 writers, the quality across the board is not exactly the same as we want it to be. So from there, we did a number of quality checks and ultimately, I would want some of these to come down. We had a peer review process, then we had an actual copy editor, then we had our SEO optimizer to do those final checks.

We had somebody working on graphics, especially with high importance pieces to have somebody doing that. I think, maybe that’s something that we should have done down the road and had gone backwards to when articles did start to rank. We had those multiple checks there.

So I think we operated like a newsroom would, with three or four layers of editorial. Now, if you have a three or four person team, it doesn’t work like that. Just the speed, we definitely slowed down to get some of that quality. But if our content doesn’t rank, because we didn’t put in the time, or it’s error filled, and people leave the page pretty quickly, it’s a big waste of time.

So I think even with that big editorial process, we still didn’t even amount to 10% of the whole process. It seems like a lot. But if it’s gonna make the difference at the end of the day, which I think it did. Especially on that SEO, the final edit, we had a woman who’s really good at the on-page stuff, looking at the keyword densities and different things. She understood on-page stuff really well. I think we saw huge results because those layers were out there.

You teach students at the university. How has that been? What do you actually teach them and how is the experience?

I started teaching right at the beginning of the pandemic. I’ve got a crash course in being a professor. I teach Digital Journalism classes. Two of them are just quick workshops. One is an Adobe Audition audio editing class and then another one is page design. So we teach InDesign, newspaper or magazine layout and some various other stuff. Those two classes actually have some PR, communications, and marketing students. They’re not journalism-specific.

The other one is an Introduction to Online Journalism. So it’s production and reporting. One-week we do WordPress, one week we do audio editing, one week video editing. So we want students to come out of it and say, “I’ve got this marketing experience, I’ve got this journalism experience”. So I can show them that these are the skills I use in content marketing, but I have a journalism degree. You could use this in communications or PR.
Giving somebody that ability to not just be a writer or a video producer, but then do a little bit of everything.

I think that’s how a lot of the jobs go, especially early career, both in the marketing and the journalism kind of fields. We did a little bit of everything when we started. I thought I was gonna be a writer, and you specialized on the road. One day you could be asked to make a graphic and the next one, you’re editing a podcast, and then you’re editing a report. It’s kind of all over the place. Teaching in a pandemic is a wild stuff but, it’s been really rewarding.

We had a lot of 22 to 25-year-olds and we’re kind of taking people in their first or second job and training. It’s just like one step before that. It’s interesting to see.

Sounds really exciting. Well, Jacob, thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure having you and hopefully, we'll catch up again.

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