When I was a little girl, I loved to go fishing with my daddy. Until he became obsessed with fly fishing, that is. I just couldn’t get into it. And I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t let me use my trusty rod and reel while he used his fly rod and flies (both of which he made by hand). Looking back, I understand what he already knew: You need different tools and methods for different situations. My rod and reel wouldn’t have been very effective in the places he wanted to fish.
What’s that got to do with content marketing? A lot, especially when it comes to keywords.
There are a ton of experts on keyword research, and they publish guides that are so detailed they make my head spin. And they’re not wrong. I wouldn’t even attempt to refute their advice, because that’s not my area of expertise. My area of expertise is, however, writing content that serves a client’s purpose, and I can tell you with certainty that no one is going to search for a product or service if they don’t know it exists or what to call it. So, while keyword research best practices might be perfect for people toward the bottom of the sales funnel, they’re far less useful when it comes to people hovering around the top of the funnel — much less people who haven’t even seen the funnel yet.
To get back to the fishing analogy, it’s no more effective to target people at the top of the funnel with expert-level topics and keywords than it is to use a surface lure to catch bottom-dwellers.
This is one of those situations where examples really help, so let’s take a look:
Product/service: IEP advocacy
Target audience: Parents who need help getting educational services for their special needs child
Unless you have a child with special needs or know someone who does, you probably aren’t aware that being an IEP advocate is even a thing. But, if you’re in that niche market, it’s a lifesaver. The problem is that a lot of experts write content for people who already know they need their services. So an IEP advocate might focus on keywords like IEP advocate, IEP advocacy, IEP strategies, etc. And they’d probably write about topics like:
- How an IEP advocate can help you secure the accommodations and modifications your child needs
- How an IEP advocate can help you defend against a school’s attempts to deny your requests
- How an IEP advocate can help you build your case for a personal aide
Those are great topics for parents who have made it that far. But what about parents who have just received a diagnosis for their child? Take it from someone who’s been there: Those parents are still in a state of shock and are trying to realign their thinking so that they can parent the child they have rather than the child they thought they were going to have. IEP isn’t even in their vocabulary yet. In fact, for many of them, their vocabulary doesn’t include much more than “Oh, cr*p!”
Top of the funnel
So what’s an IEP advocate to do? Two things:
- Educate their audience on both available resources and the laws that guarantee their child access to those resources
- Resist the urge to bet all their money on IEP as a keyword (not yet, at least).
Instead, topics should address the many questions swirling through a parent’s mind at this stage:
- What does this mean for my child — and for the whole family?
- Will my child be able to have a “normal” life?
- Will my child be able to attend school?
- Will my child need extra help in school? And, if so, how will I afford it?
Most parents at this stage in the game don’t even know there is such a thing as an IEP, much less an IEP advocate; they’re just trying to wrap their brains around their new reality. And if they don’t even know that there are resources available to help their child, it won’t occur to them to ask how to get those resources.
For example, a lot of parents don’t know that children with a wide range of diagnoses are eligible for public preschool beginning at age 3 — or that, legally, it’s the school’s responsibility to seek them out, not the parents’ responsibility to demand enrollment.
For parents who are just coming to grips with a new reality, the best topics would be those that answer questions like the ones above. So someone who’s conducting keyword research should start with things like diagnosis, disability, special needs, special child, special education, etc. And don’t forget longtail keywords — Google values them when it comes to determining user intent. Those could include things like, “My child was just diagnosed with X,” or “How do I get help for my child diagnosed with X”
Middle of the funnel
A few weeks later — after the shock has worn off and they’re ready to take action — their questions (and, therefore, your topics and keywords) will change. They won’t think of it as moving through the sales funnel, but, from a marketer’s perspective, that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re starting to ask questions like:
- What resources are available to help my child?
- How do I access those resources?
- What obstacles might I encounter in obtaining these resources?
- Who pays for these resources, and how does that affect my chances of securing them?
- What rules do I have to follow, and what rules does the school have to follow?
This would be the time to introduce topics (and, of course, keywords) relevant to parents’ questions: IDEA, IEP, 504, accommodations, modifications, etc. You’ve already let these parents know that there are resources available; now it’s time to show them the path and start them on their way — with a reminder that there are plenty of people (hint, hint) who can help if they encounter problems.
Bottom of the funnel
Next, it’s time to get down in the weeds. Many people assume that it will be easy to obtain the assistance their child needs to succeed — that’s what schools are for, after all — but the reality is that educating children with special needs can wreak havoc on a school’s budget. It’s hard to get an exact figure, but when you consider that an IEP can include things like a personal aide who attends every class with a student or even sending the student to a private school (paid for by the public school), you can see why parents sometimes meet resistance. So, at this point, topics and keywords become more specific:
- What’s the difference between a 504 and an IEP?
- Which one is best for my child, and how do I get it?
- How long does it take from getting a doctor’s diagnosis to signing an IEP?
- Why won’t my child’s school accept the doctor’s diagnosis?
- What are the most common excuses schools give for refusing to include an accommodation or modification in an IEP?
- What can you do if individual teachers refuse to comply with the IEP?
- Should you call out an administrator whose claims/excuses are untrue, even if you’ll be at that school for several more years?
- Are you allowed to bring outside experts to an IEP meeting with you?
- How can an IEP advocate help your child get the best possible education?
- How do you know when it’s time to call in an IEP advocate?
- What’s the difference between an IEP advocate and a lawyer, and how do you know which one you need?
Did you notice that we were at the bottom of the sales funnel before we focused on IEP as a keyword, even though it would be perfectly natural for an IEP advocate to focus on it from the beginning? And it would have worked out just fine for people familiar with the term, but it wouldn’t have done a thing for parents who just received a diagnosis and didn’t even know the term existed.
I did a deep dive on IEPs and special education because it’s a topic near and dear to my heart. So we’ll just do a quick overview on another example: data security.
Product: Data and payment security
Target audience: Small and medium businesses
Data security providers are true experts. They’re very proud of what they do, and they should be: They don’t just defend their clients against existing threats; they have to anticipate and stay on top of evolving threats, too. So it only seems natural to focus on topics and keywords that demonstrate that expertise: access control, DDOS, zero day, CHAP, PCI, GDPR, etc. After all, not just anybody can sling those words around, right?
Right. And most small and medium businesses fall right into that “not just anybody” category. So developing content based on those terms might make a data security business look good to its competitors (and might inadvertently teach them a thing or two), but few small and medium businesses would ever see it, because they’re not searching for those terms. They’re searching for things like:
- How do I keep payment data safe?
- Am I liable if someone steals my customers’ personal data?
- How do I know the system/provider I use to process payments is safe?
- What regulations do I need to comply with?
- What happens if I’m caught being non-compliant?
- Somebody just hacked my system. What do I need to do?
Notice what all of those questions have in common? Not one of them includes any of those fancy keywords, because the people asking the questions don’t know what those terms mean.
Google has a good track record of nudging the internet in the direction it wants things to go. So we’re starting to see more advice based on things like semantic search and user intent. In reality, though, it couldn’t be simpler. If you’re targeting people at the top of the sales funnel, don’t focus on keywords they’d never search for, no matter what your keyword research tells you. Otherwise, all your traffic will come from either people who do what you do or from people who already know they need what you do. That leaves an awful lot of people still in need of a solution because they don’t know what to call it.