Did Fake News Reveal a Winning SEO Strategy and Content Marketing Formula?

December 3, 2016 Kyle Harper

Line of newspaper kiosks

2016 has been a crazy year for social media.

A near three-fourths of users are getting their social media fixes via mobile, Twitter is making moves to sell, and Snapchat has unleashed bots that want to use your eyes to create content. But considering the other social media storms we’ve seen over the past year, the fake news story is perhaps the least understood. Critics have spent hours debating the effect these sites had on voters during the election, while Facebook scrambles to filter out these stories under pressure from its users.

What few people are talking about, however, is how impressive it is that these websites were able to appear out of utter obscurity, take over newsfeeds, and drive enormous traffic while competing with considerably larger, better funded, and comparatively more reputable media giants. This is a technical feat that many marketers would love to emulate, but it comes wrapped in unethical practices and short-sighted tactics that don’t fit for the overwhelming majority of brands.

If we’re able to peel back the layers of deceit, is there anything left for respectable marketers to take away?

News paper sitting on a coffee table

Understanding the Beast

First things first, it’s important to understand what we mean when we refer to “fake news pages” in this article. Given the particularly tense nature of this past election cycle, many Americans have come away with personal opinions about the reputability of various, long-standing news outlets. False news isn’t a term that applies here, however.

Rather, false news pages are created with the express intent of disseminating intentionally false, inflammatory information for the purpose of driving web traffic and social sharing. This goes well beyond anyone’s perceived biases in popular reporting: this is malicious lying dressed up as content.

Needless to say, your brand should be operating on a much, much higher standard with its material.

Ethics aside, the false news formula isn’t too far from a standard marketing mix: you have content of interest to your audience, a wide range of material to grab search real estate, targeted promotion to get dissemination rolling, and social media presence to serve as a backbone for ongoing visibility.

There are two key advantages for fake news however. The first is an inherently shortened funnel. False newsters aren’t looking to convert people in the same way that most brands are, they’re just looking to drive high volumes of web traffic to monetize as ad revenue. As such, these pages are able to cut out a lot of the complex calls to action and conversions that brand websites typically serve.

The more fundamental difference, however, is that false news embraces simplicity and emotion as its primary focuses—and in doing so, it’s able to quickly engage audiences who aren’t looking to discover something new, but rather find quick vindication for something they already know.

Applying the News Funnel

With a website likely built on an inherently different goal and a sense of prudence that (hopefully) keeps your content within ethical bounds, what is left for your brand to learn from the false news formula? Here are a few key points:

  • Focus on a single emotion. This will help you accomplish a few things. First, emotional reactions serve as a primary driver behind how people interact with your content, so focusing on one throughout can be a great way to encourage a sign-up, social share, or inquisitive second click into your website.Perhaps more importantly, emotion can help you narrow down keywords to match both content and sentiment to what your audience are searching for. The connection between emotion and search is strong, and something marketers should take advantage of.
  • Identify a single goal for every piece of content. Content shouldn’t try to inform, lead into the overall website, drive a lead, and drive a sale at the same time. Every single page your visitor lands on should ideally have a cohesive goal that is implicitly understood by the user, simple to achieve, and in line with their expectations for the page.
  • Shorten your conversion cycles wherever possible. This can be done by removing steps, or by introducing easy ways for your audience to step out of a conversion and come back to it later. This will help your SEO strategy, too.
  • Encourage and incentive your users to share with their own networks, following whatever channel you know to be most popular with your audience. It can be easy for a brand to lose reach in an attempt to spread its efforts thin over a range of channels. But focusing on handful of spaces and encouraging people to continue interacting in that space in a creative way can make it rewarding for people to continually come back and bring others with them. Take for instance non-fake editorial news site The Daily Pnut, which found an excellent way to encourage interaction and growth within its newsletter audience through a referral program.

Image of the referral program for the daily PNUT

Ultimately, fake news sites serve as excellent case studies for content marketers looking to return to simplicity and include emotion in their equations for funnel design and SEO competitiveness. While there’s plenty of opportunity to be had in expanding your platform across a wide range of channels, it’s difficult to work simplicity in later, rather than scaling it from the start. Try to reevaluate what sort of feelings attract your audience to your brand, what language these feelings entail for keywords and your SEO strategy, and what sort of follow-up action couples most readily with that feeling.

Oh, and make sure you accomplish this without fabricating information and inciting the more bestial of human reactions. Your brand—and the social media community as a whole—is counting on you.

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