The previous posts in our larcenous ‘Let’s Steal From’ series were about technique – the creative decisions that lead to great content. This one is mostly about tactics: how a sound strategy, a simple idea and total commitment to an audience can lead to sheer brilliance and a massive impact.
We’re talking about Whiteboard Friday, the weekly video series by Rand Fishkin and the team at Moz.
Moz makes many of the market’s best SEO tools , so their marketing strategy (as extrapolated by… me) is to produce the most comprehensive free education program you’re likely to find in any market anywhere. Whiteboard Friday is just one part of that.
Even though no single Whiteboard Friday would win a Gold Lion at Cannes, the series itself is one of my all-time favourite examples of great content marketing. To find out more about it, I asked Rand if he’d do a Skype call to answer some questions about Whiteboard Friday and he, as-graciously-as-you’d-expect, agreed.
Goals & target audience
Like all the best content, Whiteboard Friday has a clear goal and a laser-focused target audience. Its mission is to bring beginner-to-intermediate SEOs into the Moz community so they move on to using the Moz tools and… paying for them.
It’s part of a wider Moz mission to make the web a better place and it’s a near-perfect example of their published values: Transparent, Authentic, Generous, Fun, Empathetic, and Exceptional (They call it their TAGFEE Code and, while I’m no fan of values statements (or dodgy acronyms), these work because Moz walks the talk, then goes back and walks it again just to make sure. Their talk has been well and truly walked. TAGFEE is real.).
The format of Whiteboard Friday couldn’t be simpler. It’s Rand (or another Mozzer or a guest, but usually Rand) standing in front of a pre-drawn whiteboard, talking to camera and moving his hands a lot. They tend to run about 8-12 minutes each but can go up to 20. They’re shot in one take, with the ums and ahs left in (Rand worked with a coach to minimise these disfluencies but says he doesn’t want the talks to be too slick. A few stumbles signals authenticity (without which TAGFEE would be unpronounceable).)
Occasionally, Rand turns to interact with the whiteboard – maybe underlining a word or drawing an arrow between two islands – but he doesn’t draw the main content as he talks. He tried that and it was too slow and distracting. There are a very few people who are great at this choreographed, chalk-as-you-talk technique (like the UPS Whiteboard Guy back in 2007), but if you don’t have that weird talent, it’s better to keep it simple and let nothing get in the way of the content.
The average Whiteboard Friday post gets between 15-20,000 unique views. The highest got over 200,000 (How Google’s Panda Update Changed SEO Forever, from June 2011).
Those are some bodacious B2B numbers. The series has become one of Moz’s most successful content programs, right up there with their big-ass Guides and their innovative Mozcast, the daily ‘Google weather report’. Rand says the series also out-performs pretty much all other content on engagement metrics, by about 20-30%.
The series has become one of the best-known and best-respected content franchises in the digital marketing world and a top source for easy-to-understand answers on just about any and every SEO topic. It’s become the water cooler of the professional SEO community (I just checked the last post and it already has 40 comments in the first few days).
You couldn’t buy this kind of market impact with all the ad budget in the world. You have to earn it.
But it wasn’t always this way. Whiteboard Friday actually took a looooooong time to hit its stride and to reach this level of performance.
The first ever Whiteboard Friday was posted on the “SEOmoz” blog on March 29th, 2007 (by co-originator Scott Willoughby). It’s like a foetal version of the beast it would grow to become. Shitty camera, lighting and sound. A cheap-ass whiteboard (a poor imitation of the high-end porcelain wonder in use today). Samsung-made titles. And a pre-dandy Rand in an old T-shirt (no mustache wax, no cool haircut, no props). But it still has every ingredient that makes the series so damn good. Check it out:
What’s weird is not how much the show has changed. What’s weird is how much it hasn’t. What’s even weirder is that the advice Rand gives about the importance of metatags is still pretty much true. Nine years later. That makes evergreens look positively deciduous.
Another remarkable thing about the birth of WBF is that it kind of failed. If the Moz marketers had judged the early WBFs purely on their hard metrics, they would have pulled the plug. (This first show has still only racked up 3,200 views in nine years – not exactly Kardashianic).
In fact, the early WBF posts earned only 20-25% of the views of the average blog at the time. With way lower engagement metrics. In fact, Rand says that (and I’m giving this statement some space and boldness to simulate its utter gobsmackingness):
It took 2-3 years before the average Whiteboard Friday out-performed the average Moz blog post.
(Nope. Not emphatic enough.)
IT TOOK 2-3 YEARS BEFORE THE AVERAGE WHITEBOARD FRIDAY OUT-PERFORMED THE AVERAGE MOZ BLOG POST.
Think about that. Imagine doing something every week — doing something 104 to 156 times – before it started out-performing your blog posts.
What kept them at it? Rand says that, although few people engaged with the WBF content, those that did were really enthusiastic. Remember, this was back before every brand had its own in-house Zoella. Before any B2B brand or any SEO shop was using video at all, much less using it weekly.
Rand admits that if SEOmoz hadn’t been a small startup that could do whatever it wanted, it would have been very tough to justify continuing to produce Whiteboard Friday. When I hear that, I grieve for the countless ideas that are killed too early for very sensible, data-driven reasons reasons that are actually WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.
As Rand put it, “That’s how most great projects start. Belief and instinct.”
(I don’t know about you, but as we enter the Data Ice Age, those two words, ‘belief’ and ‘instinct’, feel like a line from a poem I once loved but thought I’d forgotten.) (Pause for nostalgia rush. Breathe. Shake head like wet dog.) (Anyhoo:)
Doing this every week
Whiteboard Friday has been presented every Friday for over nine years. For those too lazy to count on their fingers with their tongues out, I did the math: 468 shows.
That’s 52 a year — not 50. They release through Christmas and New Year’s Day too. In nine years, they’ve only missed one Friday once. Harry gave me all kinds of shit for not asking Rand WHY they missed that one, so Rand, if you’re reading this, do tell (unless it’s a personal thing or a tragic thing or a not very interesting thing).
To deliver with such consistency, the Moz team tries to keep a few WBFs in the bank in case Rand is on the road or whatever. When I spoke with him, the bank was empty and the pressure was on. But still, they always keep their promise to their audience.
The consistent, predictable delivery of Whiteboard Friday is, without a doubt, a major reason for its success. Joe Pulizzi in his excellent book, Content Inc, hits this point really, really hard (as he does pretty much everywhere else, too). Know your audience, pick a medium and deliver consistently.
[This makes me ashamed that Let’s Steal From is an occasional series that comes out whenever the hell I feel like doing a new one. This is a shame that I’ll have to live with, because I am a commitment-phobe and the idea of telling the world I’ll do ANYTHING every week triggers my Premier-League-Excuse-Generator™ — the best money can buy].
[This is bad marketing, so, please do as I say and avoid ‘as I do’ like the plague.]
Return on Effort
To be fair, when Rand says it took 2-3 years for WBF to out-gun an average blog post, he doesn’t mean one of my blog posts. He’s comparing it to the average Moz post, which is a long, well-researched, data-rich mini-course on a topic that SEOs care about. When WBF came along, they’d already been blogging for four years and were really, really good at it.
And if you assume that WBFs are much harder to produce than a blog post, that would be wrong too (your assumptions aren’t faring very well, are they?). Rand says the average blog post takes about four hours to create while a WBF session takes about an hour: 35 minutes to draw up the board, 15 to film (the bastard does it in one take), and 10 to shoot the intro promotional still (a big part of each post’s success, apparently).
Yes, his team spends a bit more time than that preparing, editing and publishing, but still: now that the studio is set up, this is a really efficient, low-cost content factory that created and serves a massive, super-loyal audience.
If Joe Pulizzi is the Pope of Content Marketing, he’s sprinkling rosewater and wafting incense all over this stuff.
Each Whiteboard Friday does one thing well: presents solid, best-practice advice, backed by data. Not cutting-edge research, industry news or speculative tactics – just trustworthy techniques.
Rand knows his stuff (duh), so can talk about each topic with confidence and authority. That’s the crux of the biscuit.
One out of every four or five shows are presented by a guest host (including the annoyingly smart Will Critchlow from Distilled). This weaves Moz into the SEO community (Mafia?) and helps spread the love. It’s also a fresh source of ideas.
The video itself is the core of the content, but each WBF is also a rich, search-optimised blog post. A transcript of the narration is put underneath the video, illustrated by the entire whiteboard and close-up details of parts of the board. A very cool tweak to the video-plus-transcript format. The details look like this:
The video chalk-talk is a really simple format. It doesn’t require a fancy production. But if you compare the first WBF with any of the most recent, you’ll see the value of getting your production values right.
Over the years, WBF has improved every aspect of its production: camera, lighting, sound, the whiteboard itself, the intro sting, the graphics… And the result is a much more enjoyable show. Instead of adding layers of slickness, each improvement essentially removes an obstacle between the content and the viewer. If you care about your audience, these are the kinds of things you do.
Completely characteristically, the Moz team has even shared the details of their production set-up in this WBF show, “Tips for Filming Whiteboard Presentations”. (If they got any more TAGFEE, they’d come over and produce the damn things for you.)
Rand makes his WBFs feel so natural that the word ‘performance’ seems inappropriate. But these really are performances, with an emphasis on clarity rather than pure entertainment.
Rand doesn’t just look into the camera as he explains things, he leans in and drills the ideas into the viewer, punching up the important words like a TV newsreader. The topics on the board are colour-coded and Rand uses the red marker to add little emphasis marks when needed – tick-marks, underlines, brackets…
Here’s a recent example:
A note on video hosting
WBF videos are hosted on Wistia, the business video hosting platform. Rand speaks very, very highly of Wistia, saying it’s the ideal platform for this kind of series.
Hosting on Wistia means you don’t get the bonus audience that YouTube delivers, but you do control your own destiny — and can always post on YouTube later (see Promotion, below).
Rand likes Wistia’s analytics a lot, saying it gives him ‘phenomenal stats’, like when viewers started, stopped or re-watched; data on uniques and embeds….
Today, WBF is a juggernaut content brand and would succeed with little or no promotion. But Moz still wants the widest possible audience, so does promote it – primarily on social media and in other Moz posts and pages. Rand and other Moz speakers might also mention the series or specific shows in their talks to the many cult-like SEO events out there (picture ComicCon but with more nerds). (Kidding).
They also test all sorts of content ads, in social channels or wherever. But paid advertising is not the main driver of new views.
Four or five months after each show is posted on Moz.com, they release it on YouTube to hoover up that bonus audience. But they wait long enough so that their own post will always rank above the YouTube one on SERPs (these guys seem to understand this SEO stuff).
What we can all steal from Whiteboard Friday
There’s a hell of a lot to learn from this series. I’ve touched on most of the lessons in the body of the post but here are some key nuggets to guide your own efforts at creating a hit content series:
- Commit – If you want a hit as big as WBF, you have to be all in. Do it for the long haul. Be stubborn when people want to kill it before it hits its stride. Fight for it.
- Be generous – (The G in TAGFEE) – This entire idea is built on generosity: giving everything you’ve got to your audience. That spirit comes through the content and makes a real impression – which is why so many of the many, many comments that WBF earns start with some variation of “THANKS!”.
- Be focused – To make your own chalk-talk series, you need to get the size and scope of the topic just right and be laser-focused on a very specific audience. Then stick to your strategy, so everyone always knows just what they’ll be getting.
- Think like a media company – WBF is essentially a long-running TV program. Everything starts with the audience (not with Moz’s product portfolio or short-term promotional needs). That’s why it works.
- Listen and iterate – Don’t worry about perfection out of the gate. Just start, then make it better as you go along, by listening to your audience.
- Track the key metrics – The data will tell you what’s working and what isn’t. But only if you capture and analyse it, regularly.
- Go for authority over style – Your presenter needs to be comfortable and natural – but even more important is that they’re a real expert on the topic. Sacrifice some of the former but never budge on the latter. If you’re tempted to get a slick presenter and write a script, sit down and let that feeling pass. That’s not what the whiteboard format is all about.
So there you have it. My exhaustive (and no doubt exhausting) look at one of the most successful and longest-running B2B content marketing programs ever made.
Creating an ‘owned media’ play like this takes hard work over years and years. Very few marketing teams are willing to commit to this. The few that are willing are the ones that reap the rewards: a huge audience that you don’t need to pay to access; and a measurable revenue-generating machine. (For another example of this, see my interview with Tim Moran, founding editor of CMO.com).
Other posts from the Let’s Steal From series…
Go forth and rip this off.
Google Cardboard – the lowest-tech high-tech thin you’ll ever see.
The Beatles – or should we say the B2Beatles…
Holiday movies – Yeah, those. Polarizing but lesson-packed.
The Simpsons – The most successful TV show of all time has lots to teach.
17th Century Explorers – And you thought marketers had a rough time convincing their audience.
The NBA – It was just basketball, then it took over the world.
Iceland air – How emphasising experience can make the middle of nowhere the destination.
The New York Times – You could do worse than stealing from the very best.
The MarTech Supergraphic – You too can build your own content powerhouse. Maybe.
The Democratic Mid-Term campaigns – Whatever you think about her politics, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez sure is doing marketing right.
Follow The Frog – Making people feel bad is not the only way to raise money for charity.
Paths of Flight – Soothing plane videos from GE Aviation.
The Greatest Infographic Ever – From 1869. See it and weep.
Epic Split – Jean-Claude van Damme teams up with Volvo Trucks and they both come out of it very well.
Great First Lines of Novels – Incisive content from the likes of Orwell, Salinger and Garcia Marquez.
Rand Fishkin and Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays – Only one of the most successful and longest-running B2B content franchises ever made.
Airbnb City Guides – Crowdsourcing your way to content greatness.
TED Talks – SO much to steal here…
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