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Content StrategyField Notes

Field Notes #070: Is Repurposing an Opportunity Cost?

Field Notes #070 Navigating the Organic Traffic Landscape

Spend some time on LinkedIn, and you might be convinced SEO is dead. 

The data disagrees.

Google sends the most website traffic by 500 miles (and perhaps even 500 more): 

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Bing, a search engine, sends another 7%, and YouTube (a mixture of a search engine and a feed) sends another 3.5%. 

The rest of the sites are left fighting for single digit scraps. 

(Note: the study doesn’t say whether this includes both paid and organic traffic, but I assume it does. Either way, it’s traffic sent from a search engine)

Now, the counterpoint to this is that where people spend time can differ from where website traffic comes from. I’ll get to that. 

I once argued that content marketers should focus more on repurposing. I called it “nose to tail” content strategy, effectively leveraging everything you create to squeeze the most juice out of it. 

By and large, I now think I was wrong.

There are two arguments: expected value and competitive leverage.  

First, if you can compete in search, you probably should. Expected value and opportunity costs make that argument obvious, at least at this point in time. 

Say it costs you $1000 to publish a nice, long form piece of content. 

And then maybe it costs you an additional $1000 to repurpose it to LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, a webinar, and a YouTube video (think time cost, not just money cost).

For many brands, it’s a huge opportunity cost not to spend that additional $1000 simply publishing another blog post suited for SEO. 

SEO is also a compound channel with superlinear returns. Traffic to content isn’t just an end, but a means by which Google establishes your site as trustworthy, and in turn, sends it more and more traffic. 

The other argument is basically Marshall McLuhan’s now ancient but forever prescient “the medium is the message.” 

What works on a podcast (nuance, humor, long form storytelling) doesn’t often translate to social media (where the algorithm is feeding you short form slop to numb your brain and sedate you).

If, by repurposing, you mean translating ideas to different channels, then yes. Repurposing is good. 

Buf if you mean slicing and dicing a piece of content to republish it everywhere, I really think for the amount of effort that goes into it, the returns are marginal. 

SEO-only isn’t the answer

If Google sends so much traffic to the web, why invest anywhere else? 

I can think of three smart countercases:

  • Time spent vs traffic sent
  • Future proofing
  • The nonlinear value of brand programs

I can also think of one obvious one that needs no explanation: good marketing is built on a mixture of channels and customer journey stages.

It’s going to be hard to reach new audiences, especially out-of-market audiences, if you only rely on search, which inherently answers a user’s ephemeral intent. 

Time spent vs traffic sent

Just because Google sends the most traffic doesn’t necessarily mean it represents the most value.

Search is literally set up to send traffic to other websites (despite Google’s encroaching zero click searches, SGE, etc. that I’ll talk about in future proofing). 10 blue links and all that.

Sparktoro also released data on where people spend time online vs traffic sent. You can clearly see people spend more time on social, productivity (think Slack and stuff), and video / audio than search.

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In the piece, Rand makes the argument that demand creation and traffic acquisition strategies should be separated, and in one section, argues that Google should receive zero attributional value for branded searches.

I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. 

To the extent that you can “create demand,” which I don’t believe you can in the common usage of the phrase, Google searches can also help you do that. You can drive brand awareness from appearing in search.

To use a really easy example, I can write a ton of posts on “competitor alternatives” or “best X software,” appear on those lists, and then the searcher may directly search my brand name. Search, very clearly, did the assist and the slam dunk here.

There are obvious cases for pain point SEO, too. Think about Masterclass’s SEO strategy, where you search “how to make a salad” or whatever, and you get a great article and find out it comes from a course they offer. 

I’m not saying you should be only focused on SEO. You shouldn’t. That’s silly and boring. 

But to relegate search only to navigational intent to me seems unfair. 

However, search is increasingly competitive, adhering more and more to the Matthew Effect.

Especially in the early days, before you’ve built a well-known brand, a bunch of backlinks, and corpus of content, you can probably reach your intended audience faster if you know how to capture attention on YouTube, LinkedIn, or another algorithm-centric channel where your audience hangs out. 

Or, sales or paid ads. Anyway, organic search is a long term play.  

Future proofing

I don’t predict the future. But I do prepare for it. 

For the last several years, organic click-through-rates have been suffering across many high traffic terms, especially those appearing at the top of the funnel. Google has invested in quick answers, featured snippets, tools and calculators, and other native features that keep people from clicking on your website. 

The next phase of this evolution is AI-generated answers with SGE, Gemini, ChatGPT, Claude, whatever. 

Will it eat traditional search’s lunch? My bet is no. I’m a power user of GPT and other AI tools, and I still primarily use Google search. 

In fact, I’ve heard many people say the same thing, including Will Critchlow on a recent episode of the Experts on the Wire podcast. 

He invoked the midwit meme (my favorite meme). Here’s my translation of his point:

My broader argument against the futurists is a little bit esoteric, but it relates to first principles. 

Effectively, Google is trying to optimize for the user (intent). You should too. Typically, this means creating great content that helps people. Do they always get it right? No. But the long arch of (search) history bends in that direction.

Similarly, AI-generated answers are synthesizing their data from somewhere. 

You know how you currently get mentioned or cited in them?

Creating great content that answers people’s questions. 

If you look at a slightly larger aperture, beyond the algorithm, and into the user’s eyes, and you try to optimize for the user, doing the stuff you would have done for SEO will probably be a good thing even if traditional SEO dies. 

And by the way, if it does die, you’re still neglecting the absolutely astonishing amount of traffic you could attain right now by trying to predict its eventual demise. 

The nonlinear value of brand programs

SEO can drive massive brand awareness, traffic acquisition, and customer acquisition at great unit economics. 

But even if you saturate search for your core keywords, it’s just not as sticky as other efforts, particularly branded campaigns, and particularly personal brands. 

For example, imagine a counterfactual where Tim Ferriss merely invested in SEO and website traffic. He’s got some traffic, but not much:

Even if you 10Xed that traffic value, his influence would surely drop if he hadn’t invested so heavily in his podcast, public relations, and other creative initiatives outside of search. 

Even his content creation mostly focuses on what his readers actually want, and most of it is not optimized for search. 

Thus, there’s a nonlinear and hard to quantify value in being a trusted source, specifically one that people seek out even if you’re not present in search results. 

The best, of course, is a blend of the two. That’s what we had going for us at CXL. Many people went direct to site. We had hundreds of thousands of email subscribers. And we had SO much search traffic. 

Same with HubSpot. They’re a search behemoth, but they’ve put out a stunning amount of brilliant thought leadership throughout the years. They aim more at the beginner audience, but at least half of our candidates who apply mention them as a great content resource. Reputation is hard to quantify. 

So how should you be investing in organic?

Not all brands are suited for SEO, and even if you are, it may not be the right time. I turn more than half of our prospects away. 

But if you have a propitious opportunity to build out a search distribution program, you should do it. The data, as well as my personal experience, is just so clearly in favor of search as a distribution channel. 

What about repurposing your content? You want to appear everywhere customers may be, right? 

Here’s my take: instead of merely looking at the possibility of repurposing a piece of content so you can publish it everywhere, look at the probability of a good outcome of doing so. And then balance your investment portfolio intentionally, indexing the highest percentage of your efforts on high expected value efforts, and a smaller portion on experimental channels and plays. 

This reduces wasted effort, opportunity costs, and cognitive biases (specifically the sunk cost fallacy). It keeps the main thing the main thing, and conserves your focus. And it lets you experiment to find the next hill to climb.

There’s a strategy paradox, wherein winning requires the same focused commitment that could lead to catastrophic failure. That’s a topic for another issue, but the way you mitigate that is NOT by diversifying your portfolio to the extent that it’s diluted. It’s by looking at growth on time horizons. 

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Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.