Creating consistent, valuable blog content is a challenge for most businesses and marketers. Missed deadlines, writer’s block, and uncertainty around what you should be blogging about can stop your productivity. Thankfully, Sarah Panus shares how to use SEO and her FED method to generate an editorial calendar that will drive your content creation for a long time to come.
Rich: My guest today is a brand storytelling strategist, podcast host of Marketing with Empathy, and owner of Kindred Speak consulting. She’s on a mission to make people’s days better by creating useful and more meaningful connections between brands and consumers. How? By using the power of empathy and data infused storytelling to improve the lives of content marketing professionals and the people their brands serve.
Pulling from 20 years’ experience helping billion-dollar brands drive leading ROI through brand storytelling, she helps content marketers attract top funnel leads that drive bottom funnel results. She works with clients either by doing the work for them through her agency services, or she trains content marketers how to think like an editorial director themselves in one of her online courses, like her Brand Storytelling Academy program.
She’s worked with Sleep Number, Nestle Waters North America, Starbucks, Lindt Chocolate, American Heart Association, Pet Safe, Game Crazy, Christos Bridal, and more. And today we’re going to discover how to leverage your SEO to inform your editorial content with Sarah Panus. Sarah, welcome to the show.
Sarah: Hey, Rich, thank you so much. Glad to be here.
Rich: So your podcast is called, Marketing with Empathy. Why is empathy important in marketing, from your perspective?
Sarah: Yeah, so throughout my years of experience there and when I see things performing well, and both from a metrics perspective but also just from like my own personal satisfaction of yeah, this feels really good. I know we’re making a difference. We’re seeing positive feedback. It’s really always boiled down to when the brand is truly listening and trying to get into the hearts and minds of their audience. And so that is really the soul of marketing with empathy. Which is companies, professionals that want to connect with their audiences through brand storytelling, but they just need help doing it better. And that humanization is really where we can really help make a bigger difference.
So empathy is this buzzword now. A lot of people have been talking about it. I’ve been talking about it longer than before it became like this buzzword. But it really boils down to doing good work, helping more people, and feeling really good about it all at the end of the day. Because I think that brands have this huge opportunity. And people who work at brands, whether it’s your own company or you’re working for a larger company, I think that brands are the new editor in chief. And I think that because they have the resources, they have the people, they have the partnerships, they have the audiences, there’s so much opportunity to scale. And as traditional newsrooms are getting smaller, company content teams and resources are getting bigger. And so it’s that combination of the two. But that’s really why I just think we’re in, you know, all the statistics are showing there’s increases in anxiety and depression and loneliness of all ages, right? During Covid you saw these huge spikes of all those things from teenagers, as an example, but it’s all ages. And so people are really craving these connections. And so empathy is a great way to connect heart to heart, mind to mind. That’s the brand with your audience.
Rich: Okay. So as I mentioned in the intro, today we’re going to be talking about how to leverage SEO to inform your editorial calendar. How do we get started with that?
Sarah: Yeah, so the preface I want to start here is when I talk about leveraging SEO, this is not going to be an episode where I’m like this SEO detailed Meta expert coming on telling you what to do all on the backend with the codes and all those things. I actually love looking at SEO to inform from an insights perspective, to inform your annual content plans. So I’ve just learned through the years and had lots of partnerships with just different SEO teams to be like, holy cow, I always originally thought that SEO was like website optimization and article a few keywords here and there, and stuff like that. And there’s such a gold mind.
In SEO, search engine optimization, when someone’s going on Google and they’re doing a search for something. Think of it like a humongous focus group. Because you’re getting tons of insights on, well, what the heck are people asking about, caring about, worrying about, searching for, wondering. You know? And as content professionals, if you’re in charge of developing content strategy or editorial articles – and when I say editorial, I’m talking about narrative stories – so non-promotional content, upper funnel, mid-funnel. Sometimes you don’t always know what to write about. You don’t always know what to create. So I love to have an approach. My method is called the “FED Method”. It’s focus, plus empathy, plus data. And SEO is a huge input into that data piece because it is this humongous focus group of people searching online.
And in my career whenever I’ve leaned into great SEO insights like long tail questions, people are searching for that content always. Being in like the top 10 performing content for the year because it’s so validated by, yeah, there’s a lot of people searching for this. And as a brand, if it aligns to one of your storytelling pillars, one of your three storytelling pillars, great. Lean into that. So that’s kind of the backstory of the SEO part.
So how do you get started? So there’s two approaches you can take with this. I personally like to do a combo when I’m consulting with my corporate clients, but there are options. So the first thing is the DIY approach. And then the second is like partnering with your SEO agencies or experts at your company. So like I said, I like to do a combo of the two. So I can talk, Rich, about the DIY kind of aspect first.
And so essentially what you want to do first and foremost, I’m just going to assume, I’ll make some assumptions here. So everyone listening, my assumption here would be at this point you already have three storytelling pillars. So editorially there’s the benefit…
Rich: I’m going to pause you for one second. So talk to me before you dive into this. Tell me about these three storytelling pillars, because I’m not sure what they are. And are these the same for everybody, or we have, as content creators, we should have chosen three pillars?
Sarah: So with editorial storytelling as a company, as a content marketing professional, you always want to make sure you have your blueprint and you’re grounded first. What the heck are we going to be putting in this editorial calendar? What do we want to talk about for the whole entire year? So it should not be willy-nilly, it should not be reactive and just oh yeah, well this is coming up, we’re going to talk about X. So what you want to do is you want to make sure that you have very focused storytelling pillars first. So narratively, editorially, what are things upper mid-funnel that you can talk about. And so I call it your ‘brand storytelling blueprint’. And I recommend having three storytelling pillars.
These are umbrellas, overarching things that you’ve decided for your own specific brand that matter to you and are things that you’re going to talk about all year long. So I always say pretend you’re magazine and you’re like the publisher of a magazine and you’re talking to someone and you’re like, “Yeah, we have X magazine and in this magazine we talk about A, B, and C.” So it’s going to be different for every single brand it should be, because otherwise all the brands are going to start selling the same, which you don’t want. And my recommendation is that the third pillar is a little bit of a wild card. It’s a differentiator for your brand of what makes you.
So a really great example, a couple examples then to bring that to life. Like for my own personal brand, my personal Kindred Speak consulting company, my storytelling pillars are content marketing, creativity, and child trafficking. So child trafficking is my wild card. So content marketing, creativity, and what I do around brand storytelling strategy. That’s like on the nose of what I do for my clients and what I talk about. Child trafficking is something unique to me because I donate a portion of all of my profits to help fund child trafficking rescue missions. It’s something with this amazing non-profit called International Justice Mission, and that’s something very specific to me. It’s near and dear to me. I’m a mom, I’m just appalled that people do abuse children in the way that they do. And unfortunately, there’s actually more kids and adults trapped in slavery today than there ever has been in the history of our world. And so it’s really unsettling, right? And so I share content about that. I talk about these great stories of these kids being rescued, and the hope, and what people can do. That’s different for me. There’s a lot of brand storytelling strategists that are out there. Just like for every other company, you have competitors. There’s a sea of people and brands and services that people can pick.
When I was working with Sleep Number, I used to run their in-house content marketing strategy and have consulted within the last couple of years. But like with them, it’s a sleep company and their wild card actually was ‘sleep science’. So sleep number beds are all smart beds. There’s technology. They’re doing this amazing research with Mayo Clinic and all these different people. So that’s a differentiator in the mattress category. You know, they’re not generally talking about science. So it’s kind of, you want to think of that. So that’s just grounding of, you want to think of what are your three storytelling pillars.
And how you get to those is you want to be thinking about doing like empathy filters. I call them empathy filters, which are what are the things that are connecting heart to heart, mind to mind with your audience. And then data. And SEO is a huge, the data. There’s a lot of other things, but I would really love to just hone in on the SEO piece for this conversation, in the spirit of time. But if people are interested, you can check out my marketing with them for the podcast. I talk about a lot of these other things.
But so yeah, so that’s the storytelling pillars and how we get into then we know what our overarching things are. They’re long term, they’re big umbrellas, and all of your stories and all of your content that you’re going to create for the year needs to align to one of those three storytelling pillars. That’s your focus. If somebody comes to you with an idea outside of that, it’s either a no, or it’s let’s revise this idea until it makes sense. So that’s going to keep everyone on the same page.
Rich: Makes sense. All right, so now we know what our three pillars are, and we’re sitting down and what do we do? Now you’re talking about SEO. What are we doing with our SEO that’s going to help inform this?
Sarah: Yeah. So with SEO, look at it as a gigantic focus group where you can get just very top line insights about what people are talking about. So this is a great way because when people are typing things into Google it’s very unfiltered, right? You can get some great true insights because they’re not worried about someone’s watching what they’re searching for. So it’s a very true question or answer thing that they’re looking for. And so what I like to do is there’s several different free sites and resources that you can look at. And basically, I’ll share what those are. But what you’re looking for in those then is you’ll think about your three storytelling pillars and your topics and things that you want to talk about that makes sense for your brand, that your audience is interested in, and you start to just do searches for those types of words, those combos of words. And you just see what comes up in these free search tools.
And what you’re doing is you’re looking for higher search volume. Some of the tools give you that, some of them don’t. But you’re also looking for trends across these different free tools. What things are continuing to pop up, what are multiple iterations of the same type of question or the same kind of vibe. And that’s what you take into your content. You say, oh, what an amazing headline for a blog post. Let’s do a blog post with this or video series, and we’re going to answer this in a three-part series because our brand can totally talk about this, and we can help our audience.
So my absolute favorite free SEO site is called answerthepublic.com. And some of these have a paid version as well where you can go deeper, but answerthepublic.com, you can do a couple free searches every day if you want to just feel it out. It’s amazing because they give you so much depth around different queries and different combinations of things. And they give you this whole scatter chart if you like charts and are into that. But that’s my absolute favorite one because I get the richest insights, and you can search across different countries. So if you’re a global brand, you can look there. So answerthepublic.com. Amazing.
My second favorite is keywordtool.io. So that’s another one. I like to never just do one of these, I like to do all of them just to look again for those trends and those insights. The other thing is when you think Google is the biggest search engine, so there’s a couple things built within Google that can give you some insights for free, too. So just like the Google search bar when you’re typing in a search, you know when you type in below it starts to prepopulate all these other things that maybe are related to what you’re starting to type. That’s actually Google telling you that these are popular searches that have been happening. So next time you’re on Google, notice what those things are. So it’s basically Google sharing what other people have been typing.
And then on that note in Google, when you get to the first page of results for whatever you typed in for your keywords, scroll to the very bottom of page one and there’s a ‘related searches’ section. And that is another great insight of what Google is telling you based on popularity and volume. Are other searches related to this? So that’s additional insights from Google, just for free.
And then social channels can be a great insight. Pinterest is amazing to look at. Same thing, like kind of search bar and seeing what people have been searching for. If your audience is active on Pinterest, that could be a good place to get some early initial insights. And then TikTok, right? There was the recent news that came out that Gen Z is using TikTok more than Google for their searches. And so they’re searching and planning all sorts of stuff out on TikTok. So I think it’s interesting and it’ll be interesting to see how this continues to evolve. But the goal here is you’re just trying to get into the mind of people. What are they interested in, what are they talking about related to like your topics? So those are some free resources that people can check out.
Rich: Sounds good. And so once we’ve done this work, we start seeing some of these keywords pop up or these phrases pop up over and over again. What are the next steps? Are you basically building out your content calendar for the year, editorial calendar for the year from that, or are there other steps involved? How do you usually run it when you’re involved?
Sarah: Yeah. (15:46-17:11) So what I do, this is one piece of the pie, but it’s a great valuable piece of the pie. But what I like to do tactically is I would do that piece of it and look at all those insights, but then I’d also layer them in with some other data points that you have. So what other data points do you have through your own consumer insights research as a company? What is your social listening sharing on your channels, but maybe on some competitor channels as well, getting the vibe of what people are talking about and their sentiment and their reaction to things? Paid media results, what’s working well, what’s not. I love looking in like customer loyalty programs as well. So if you have a loyalty program and you can tap into your people who’ve already raised their hand to buy from you or work with you, ask them questions so you can get feedback that way or that sentiment.
So there’s a lot of things you can do to get tons of insights. So I call it actually putting your content investigator hat on. So one of my favorite things to do actually is looking at all of these insights that somebody like you has, and it can feel overwhelming at that point. And I would say don’t be overwhelmed. Because if that sounds overwhelming to do all those places, just pick a few. But I don’t recommend just doing one, because then you just get tunnel vision and you’re not necessarily always going to see the right insights. You need to look for these trends.
So what I do then is, you have all these insights. I literally get paper and I map it all out and then I’m doing just that. I’m going through and I circle things I keep seeing that ladder up to one of the storytelling pillars. I’m like, cool, I’ve seen this in three different places. And from an empathy perspective, empathy filters is another part of the method then. So this is what the data is showing. We also know different stats or things related to current cultural mindset of our target consumer and how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. And then you layer those two, and then basically what you’re looking for is that sweet spot in the middle where you’re focused on your pillars, you have your empathy filters, and you’ve identified and seen what matters to your audience, and then the data, and where those things overlap.
So then I’m highlighting those things. And then what you do is then you start to build out your content calendar. So you should have some monthly or quarterly themes generally in your content calendar that ladder up to those storytelling pillars. So again, think of this as the foundation, storytelling pillars, then you figure out what themes and things are throughout the year based on what your business wants to talk about. And then that’s where they can start to plug in. Oh, cool. Okay, well we know this month we’re really going to talk about temperatures a big deal. Well, it’s fall and temperatures are starting to drop, or it’s summer and temperatures are heating up, and there’s these SEO search queries around people are wondering, “why do I sweat when I sleep?” as an example, boom, that’s going to pull up into that month.
So you just literally, it’s like a puzzle. You just literally start piecing these things in, and/or you have these headlines, and then that gives your internal creator or external partners you’re working with to say, we have these insights, these are things we want to create around. So then you can start to ideate on that front.
The other piece of this obviously is those are like the DIY ways you can look at SEO. But if you have a SEO agency or if you have internal SEO experts, a hundred percent tap into them because they’re going to be the ones that go even deeper on search volume and the credibility metrics and backend stuff that they look at.
So I do have a podcast episode I did, episode 79 on Marketing with Empathy, where I go through a whole list of questions you can ask your SEO agency to inform your content insights throughout the year. Because it really is, I recommend meeting with them every quarter and specifically sharing with them, here’s our storytelling pillars, here’s some of the insights we’ve been seeing, help us go deeper into this and what else should we know. And every quarter looking at evergreen topics, but also seasonal topics that will spike. So it’s a combo.
Rich: So we’ll link to that episode that you just referenced. But can you give us an example or two of questions that you might, that, that probably are included in that podcast episode, but the kind of questions that we should be asking our SEO experts?
Sarah: Yeah, definitely. So the first thing I would say is make sure that you’re friends with them. So introduce yourself if you don’t know them. Do not think of SEO as like this like siloed team. Because that’s what my experience with big organizations and midsize organizations is, they tend to look at SEO as it’s this off to the side type thing – that’s for the website or that’s for optimizing later. Don’t look at it that way. You want to be really proactive. Think of them as your ally in your upfront planning.
So first thing is schedule an ongoing quarterly meeting with them. And in that meeting you’re going to want to ask them and say, “Hey, what are people searching for around this topic? Help us understand like the biggest nuggets here.” So you can do your free research and your initial stuff, but they’ll be able to go a lot deeper for you. So that’s one thing you’re going to have in those conversations.
And then you’re going to say, what are evergreen topics that consistently year after year seem to rank really well for this versus seasonally, what is something during this month that we tend to see spike? So I’ve noticed when I was working with these spike numbers, there’s seasonal spikes in the summer or just like lots of industries around travel, right? People are traveling, so I feel like there’s spikes like that. Or on the holidays there might be spikes. So you can then take those insights to inform into your plan.
And then you want to also be asking your SEO agency, if you haven’t been working with them before, share with them content. It’s already live and published, especially written content. So blog content, longer form stuff. Share that with them, and then every month ask for optimizations that you should be making to help it be better. And then ideally moving forward, they can help give you insights. Share your content calendar with them so they have access. Have them look at your titles for things and give input on is there an SEO tweak we should make to this to help it better reach more people? So those are really tactical things you can start to talk through. But it essentially then boils down to quarterly strategy discussions, but then monthly back and forth, to inform the monthly content calendar itself.
Rich: All right. So it sounds like we could start by doing some of the research ourselves based around those three pillars. Bring it over to our SEO team for vetting, but then they can also come back and give us more specific titles, headers, meta descriptions, keyword gap content, all that sort of stuff based on what some of our initial questions where.
Sarah: Yep, a hundred percent. Because it’s very empowering, as like in your job, right? When you actually know enough to ask good questions. So when you know more, you can ask better questions, and you can have a better dialogue and go even deeper than if you’re just not understanding anything and only just taking what they give you. Because your agency also, if it’s an agency or in house, but agencies aren’t in house generally and so they don’t know your brand as well as you do. And so you need to give them direction of this is even more nuanced, this is what we know. And then that will help them do better searches for you as well.
Rich: Makes a lot of sense. You earlier mentioned the FED Method, which includes focus, empathy, and data. We definitely talked about data. We definitely talked about empathy. I just want to make sure that we got focus taken care of too. Is there anything you wanted to add to focus or explain in a little bit more detail about the focus aspect of the FED Method?
Sarah: Yeah. Thank you. So really the only thing I would just add is, it’s sort of just as human beings I think we need three things to be nourished and healthy. We need food, exercise, and sleep. And so our storytelling plans are the same way, which is like this FED Method, which is focus and data. You need to be focused for your own sanity. And I have worked where we’ve had no fricking focus and it’s totally overwhelming and everyone is stressed out and things are coming at you. And especially when the economy and things are topsy tervy, all this stuff happens. That’s even more of a reason have focus because it’s going to allow you to drive better results. It’s going to allow you to have way more sanity and be way less overwhelmed. So that’s what I would just add with why focus is so incredibly important, because it empowers you to say ‘no’ in a very strategic way. “These are our three storytelling pillars, so it doesn’t align into that. But maybe there’s a way we could tweak it to make sense.” And then suddenly, instead of telling someone ‘no’, you’re having a very strategic conversation about how it could be a ‘yes’. Or if it’s not right for your channel, maybe it’s right for another channel. But it’s a more collaborative way, I think, and strategic way of looking at it.
Rich: Awesome. Sarah, this has been great. If people want to learn more about you, where can we send them?
Sarah: Yeah. So visit kindredspeak.com, which is my consulting site. I’m very active on LinkedIn, so you can find me there, Sarah Panus. And I would love it if this was interesting and you want to check out more, like I mentioned episode 79 of my podcast, Marketing with Empathy. That is really where if you are in the content space and do want to connect more with your brand storytelling and are just looking for some help to do it better, I have a nice mix of solo episodes myself, but then a ton of other brand experts that come on and share what they’re doing.
Rich: Awesome. And Sarah spells her last name, P A N U S. But if you forgot, we’ve got everything in the show notes, and you can find all those links there. Sarah, thanks again for stopping by today.
Sarah: Yes, it was great, Rich. Thanks. Great discussion.
Sarah Panus helps her clients attract high quality leads though empathy and data driven storytelling strategies. Head over to her website to see how she is helping businesses make a bigger impact with their clients. Get more great tips and ideas from her podcast. And connect with her on LinkedIn.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.