Topic research follows similar lines as keyword research, but it demands a closer focus on user behavior and content trends than search trends, specifically. For this reason alone, topic research should be treated as a separate entity.
While keyword research is valuable for a standalone SEO campaign, topic research can benefit you in far more areas; your content campaign, social media marketing campaign, and customer retention strategies can all benefit more from topic research.
There’s some overlap, because both keyword and topic research are designed to bring people to your site, but topic research has a greater likelihood of keeping people on your site.
From a pure customer acquisition perspective, topic research can help you take advantage of the semantic search that Google has been using since it launched its Hummingbird algorithm. Because one-to-one keyword matching can’t guarantee that keyword inclusion will help you rise for specific keyword queries, topic research helps you understand—and meet—user needs, essentially getting in front of more people out of necessity.
As an illustrative example, take the search phrase “skin shows acne sign.” Google interprets this phrase semantically, understanding that you have acne problem, and provides content that doesn’t contain these exact keywords (i.e., “skin shows acne sign”), but does interpret and address your need. Topic research helps you find and solve these user needs.
Factors for Success
The factors for success in a topic are slightly different than the success factors for keyword research, because you’re after a qualitative user experience rather than quantitative benefits.
- Interest. The first major factor is interest. Your users need to have a vested interest in the topics you produce. What does that mean for your brand? There are a few fundamentals, but ultimately every brand and every audience will have a different answer. For example, one of the most important qualities of “interesting” content is that it’s unique. Your topics can’t be ones that competitors have already covered. You can publish new versions, or different angles, or follow-ups, but it needs to be original. Beyond that, you’ll have to rely on what you know about your demographics, including their wants or needs.
- Value. Another important factor is value, and oftentimes this translates to practicality. Your topics should serve some kind of function for your users, giving them instructions they need in a certain situation, or information they need to consider some broader ideas. How-to articles and tutorials are exceptionally popular, but remember, these need to be unique. Also keep in mind that your topics don’t have to be practical to be valuable—the best example of non-practical, valuable content is entertaining content, though obviously this won’t work for just any brand.
- Timeliness. Unlike the interest and value factors, timeliness isn’t an absolute necessity, but it can be helpful. New topics, such as those covering a recent event or update in your industry, tend to be highly popular in the first few days and weeks after their release. Trending topics can also be taken advantage of for additional search visibility. However, “new” topics and appropriately timed topics shouldn’t make up the entirety of your focus; you’ll also need “evergreen” topics that will presumably stay relevant indefinitely. Balancing your topic spread between these two types of content timeliness will give you the widest possible spread, helping you take advantage of news topics without sacrificing the longevity of your campaign.
- Catchiness. Again, this isn’t a necessity, but it helps if you find topics that are “catchy”—that is to say, topics that have a high likelihood of getting shared or going viral. Content pieces that are shared virally tend to attract far more backlinks, helping them earn more authority and rank even higher for your SEO campaign. A major factor for catchiness is uniqueness, which you’ve hopefully already covered in the “interest” category. Beyond that, you need some kind of emotional “hook,” such as something surprising, or something otherwise emotionally charged.
Phase I: Market research
When you first start the topic research process, you’ll need to dig deep to gain a thorough understanding of the types of people who will be viewing your content. Remember, keyword research allows you to be more quantitative in your approach, calculating things like competition and search volume, but topic research demands a more qualitative approach, forcing you to understand the hows and whys of customer interaction with your material.
- Buyer personas. One of the best ways to start is by developing specific “buyer personas” that represent the main demographics you intend to target with your content. Rather than making assumptions or guesses about your audience’s needs, this method will force you to sketch out a portrait of your “average” customer, including their basic information, disposition, interests, family life, professional life, wants and needs. Treat it like you’re developing a fictional character, and interview some of your existing customers to get a better feel for who you’re working with. If you need a good template to build your buyer personas, Hubspot has a great one.
(Image Source: Hubspot)
- Buying cycle. In addition to buyer personas, you’ll need to get a better understanding for the buying cycle of your average customer. What are your customers thinking when they first start the research process? Where do their interests turn as they become more familiar with your brand? You can use this information in several ways in the course of your topic research. For example, if you want to specialize in one area—such as finalizing potential customers already familiar with your brand, or merely increasing brand familiarity among people unfamiliar with your brand—you can do so by favoring those topics. You can also opt for a more homogenous blend of different target topics.
- Social listening. Social listening will help you kill multiple birds with one stone. The basic idea is to “plug in” to social media channels to find out what your key demographics are talking about—what topics they seem to be sharing, what keywords they seem to be including in their posts, and what hashtags are trending. On one level, you’ll be able to learn more about your target demographics—how they behave, what’s important to them, and what they’re interested in. You’ll also get a peek at what types of topics might be good to start producing.
(Image Source: SmartInsights)
- Blogs and forums. Similar to social listening, you can browse blogs and forums to get a feel for what your target market is talking about and interested, and milk them for topics directly. You can use a blog reader for this, but it’s easier to run a quick search for blogs and forums in your industry and go through them manually—you’ll comb through the topics in finer detail that way. BuzzSumo is one of the best tools to use here. With it, you’ll be able to find some of the most shared and linked-to articles in the central topic of your choice. All you have to do is enter a topic and hit search:
You can then use the “sort by” function in the upper-right corner to filter by total shares, or specific types of shares. You can also use advanced search functions (under the search bar) to rule out certain phrase, narrow down your domain criteria, or filter by domains, and use the “content type” filter on the left-hand side to look for specific types of content:
Phase II: Competitive research
Next up, you’ll need to perform some competitive research. When you performed competitive research for keywords, you took a look at the titles and descriptions of their main pages (and possibly used a third party tool to spy on their current rankings).
Here, you can rely on similar tactics to identify your competitors in the first place. For example, you can run a domain search for your own domain in SEMRush and get a list of some of your fiercest organic search competitors.
(Image source: SEMRush)
Then, you can drill into individual domains to see what they’re ranking for, and what keywords they’re targeting.
You could also use Moz Keyword Explorer to generate a list of people ranking above you in the SERPs for a given topic query:
Take a look at your competitors’ content marketing strategies and see what’s working and what’s not.
You can use BuzzSumo for this. Just enter your domain to see what content is performing the best on your website, and enter your competitors’ domains to see their top-performing content:
BuzzSumo also allows you to see the most popular content that links back to your site as well as your competitors’. This can be useful for assessing the value of your competition’s off-site content marketing efforts. Just use the “Backlinks” tab in Buzzsumo, then type in the domain/URL of your site or a competitor site.
(Image source: BuzzSumo)
Use these tools to identify competitors and find out some of their biggest strengths and weaknesses, then rely on your qualitative analysis to make further conclusions.
Browse through your competitors’ blog content, and see how many comments and shares each of their articles are getting. Take note of their most popular content topics, as well as any topics they have that seem to generate no momentum.
Don’t copy these topics directly; instead, use them as jumping-off points to guide your own work. For example, if a competitor seems to get lots of popularity with “how to” articles, consider creating some of your own.
You can also look for topics that seem to be underexplored or underutilized, such as exploratory topics that don’t tell the full story, or articles with inaccuracies or those that lack substance. These are key opportunities for you to create your own versions, hopefully generating more attention and more links, and giving you the opportunity to outrank your competitor for those related inbound queries.
Phase III: Establish regular and evergreen features
At this point, you’ll have insights into the behavioral patterns of your average customer, social media, blog, and forum trends, and a glimpse into your competitors’ strategies.
You don’t want to repeat yourself, but you can leverage certain frameworks multiple times for different facets of your brand. For example, in the online marketing industry, if you find that “top 10” lists are popular and underutilized (this isn’t the best example because top 10 lists are overused, but it works), you could write up a series like “the top 10 benefits of content marketing,” “the top 10 benefits of seo,” and so on.
The key here is to find some frameworks that are repeatable as evergreen content. When your topics are semi-repeatable, you’ll be able to produce a greater volume of content to increase your relevance for those terms, and when they’re evergreen, you know they’ll stay relevant indefinitely, rising in rank as your overall domain authority grows.
Phase IV: Set up news monitoring
With some threads of evergreen content in place, your next step is to set up some kind of news monitoring program. Your goal here is to receive regular updates about what’s happening in your industry or geographic area.
When you see a topic trending, or a new topic emerging that’s relevant for your brand, you can jump on it.
There are three great ways to monitor news developments in your industry.
- News subscriptions. First, there’s straightforward content subscriptions. You can use an RSS feed, or subscribe to each brand’s content newsletter, but for me, the best thing to do is head to a blog reader site like Feedly and browse through sources related to your industry. You can go as broad or as specific as you’d like here, and segment your sources however you’d like. Then, whenever you want to look for news, you can head to this singular source and pull from major topics that seem to be trending.
(Image Source: Feedly)
- Social media lists. Next, you can create lists of major brands and influencers on your social media platform of choice. For example, on Twitter, you can create custom lists of certain types of accounts and access them to see what they’re talking about. This is a great way to collect your news sources in one area. In combination with your social listening practices, it’s highly effective for cultivating new potential topics from the news. Twitter offers one of the best ways to do this; click on “Lists” in the settings menu, and you’ll be able to create a new list in a few clicks.
- Competitive monitoring. You’ll also want to bookmark the blogs of your main competitors, and check back occasionally to see what types of new content they’re developing. Again, this isn’t so you can copy their strategy—instead, scout it for inspiration and for weaknesses that you can exploit in your own topic collection.
Phase V: Execution
By now, you’ve noticed that topic generation isn’t as precise as keyword generation. You won’t have as much quantitative data to work with, and you won’t be generating a list of exactly repeatable phrases.
So from here, it’s best to move straight to execution.
- Build an editorial calendar. One of the best ways to keep your topics fresh, organized, and visible to your entire team is to keep them confined to an editorial calendar. This doesn’t have to be a fancy or formal document; in fact, a simple spreadsheet works fine. If you’re looking for a template, I recommend the one that the Content Marketing Institute offers. It gives you enough space to list your headline, author, status, call to action, category, and any other notes you might have—and that’s really all you need to get started. Keep a close eye on your headlinese as you develop this calendar, both to draw inspiration from past posts and make sure you don’t ever repeat yourself.
(Image Source: Content Marketing Institute)
- Leaving space for news. Don’t schedule your content so far in advance that you can’t do anything when a news topic starts trending. Leave yourself some blank spaces, with the assumption that your near-constant news monitoring will allow you to fill in those gaps with timely posts. Remember that your timing is an important element in how your topics are received by a searching public.
- Targeting the right audience. When you start drafting your content, don’t forget that you’re writing for a very specific audience. Keep your brand voice consistent and make sure your tone, vocabulary, and structure are all appealing to the type of searcher you intended to target with your content topic. For example, if you’re writing a basic instructional article like “how to clean an air filter in an air conditioner,” you’ll want to avoid getting too technically complex.
- Content quality. You’ll also want to make sure that the content you create is “high quality,” which is a frustratingly vague term that refers to your level of depth, your style of writing, the types of media you include, and how much detail you bring your readers. The better your content, the more likely it’s going to be to rank for users’ queries, thanks to its propensity to earn more links and its adherence to Google’s content standards.
Phase VI: Ongoing Adjustments
Like with keyword research, it’s not enough to perform one round of topic research and be done with it. You’ll need to monitor your progress in your topics, and use that information to adjust your campaign in the future.
- Traffic. Use Google Analytics to see how much traffic your blog posts are generating. Though here, topic research is used mainly as a way to facilitate an SEO campaign, you can actually measure your articles’ popularity in terms of organic (search) traffic, referral traffic, and social traffic. Take a look at your top performers and ask yourself—why are these bringing in more traffic than the others? Similarly, take a look at your worst performers, and avoid topics like those in the future.
- Links and shares. You can use a tool like Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs, or URLProfiler to check and see how many inbound links each of your pieces of content has earned, and use your own website to check how many shares you’ve gotten. More links and shares will lead to higher organic search rankings for your individual content pieces and will boost the domain authority of your entire site, but more importantly, these are an indication of your topics’ popularity, effectiveness, and shareability.
- Engagements. Finally, take a look at the engagements your topics generate. How many are people responding to them? What kinds of comments are you getting? Are you sparking discussions? Are you inspiring rebuttals or follow-up posts?