The SEO of Tolstoy: A Guide to Effective Content Strategy
In order to run an effective content strategy for yourself or a client, you need to keep in mind that your audience requires specific, useful information in order to make an informed decision; but there also needs to be something that catches their eye and keeps them interested in you, your product, and what you have to say. This article does not attempt to provide a step-by-step guide to content strategy, but rather it discusses overarching themes and ideas of what to consider when beginning or enhancing a company’s content strategy.
Online Marketing is far more than simply finding and ranking for keywords. It is a holistic approach that requires research, hard work, trial and error, and a little bit of excitement. In developing a usable archetype for good content strategy, It seems that the perfect lens to look through is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Tolstoy provides a careful variety of romance, history, and instructional content in his epic nineteenth-century Russian novel. His novel is effective as a literary work, in that it tells a story as well as provides cogent commentary on farming, social structures, and the intricacies of its time period. But how does this make sense for SEO and Online Marketing?
Just as Tolstoy effectively created a literary commentary on his society in Anna Karenina, we can take the same literary constructs and principles and utilize them for effective content strategy and, in essence, create an accurate commentary on a company or a brand, hopefully leading to long-term customer conversion.
So why use literary devices?
This is simple: everyone loves a story. More than that, they want to be informed, they want to be included, and they want to have something that they can connect to.
By providing a careful balance of exclusivity and community in one’s content strategy, a company’s target market will feel both needed and wanted. This feeling plays on the hierarchical human need to belong and have a place in society, or, in this case, within what we know to be consumer culture. It also provides the customer with what they see as a tangible asset to their life.
Think about it — this is what consumers want. They want to belong to a company, but they also want to feel as if a little part of that company belongs to them. This is why pathetic (emotional) appeals work so well in conversion: it makes it personal. This is why sports fans have so much passion for their team, as evident in the use of personal pronouns such as “we” and “us” when referring to said team.
This emotional connection also exists within literature. This can be seen as Tolstoy provides an insight into the lives of his characters which then allows the reader to establish his or her own personal connection to the text. While doing this, Tolstoy is still able to remain detached enough to allow for logical criticism to take place. This is very important when producing content! Content should be passionate and interesting, but it needs to remain detached enough to be objective and relatable.
In addition to this built connection between the reader (consumer) and the story (brand), Tolstoy fills the pages with representational information about Russian society including: nobility, familial constructs, entertainment, and even farming.
When approaching SEO, one needs to focus on telling the story of their brand much like Tolstoy told the story of Anna Karenina. In addition to this, one must provide useful content that not only informs and instructs but also entertains its audience as Tolstoy does with his commentary on farming through his character Levin. By doing these things, the audience not only gets to know the voice of the company, but they also become a part of the story, eliciting a sense of togetherness with the brand. This feeling of togetherness not only leads to conversion, but it also creates a life-long advocate for the brand. And isn’t this really the main goal?
Establish a Voice
When developing a brand, it is essential that you understand your own voice. A voice needs to relate to the target market. Some companies use humor, others are sarcastic, and many companies simply present a professional and responsible voice, hoping to present credibility.
When establishing a voice, you cannot and should not try to appease everyone. Instead, find that one person you want to reach and speak to them, and only them. This not only defines your voice, but it also creates something that will relate to those who are interested in your product or service. By doing this, there is not room for a generic undertone that is unappealing, but rather you include those in your target market, making them feel that your brand is more than empty information.
Maintaining a consistent voice does not mean that one cannot utilize multiple characters or media. In fact, it would be a shame to pigeonhole your brand like that. Tolstoy’s novel represents the lives of numerous characters, all of whom speak and play key roles in the advancement of the story and each other’s individual character development. Regardless of the extreme differences between characters, Tolstoy remains consistent in the voice that is used. This is done by maintaining the overarching themes of the novel through the messages shared by each character. Tolstoy had a deliberate strategy and made sure that it was present in each part of his novel, even with different characters taking center stage. This is how it should be with the content that you produce. It should be different, and it should do different things, but it should all subscribe to the overall strategy and remain true to the brand that is being established.
In fact, brands can be seen very much as standing archetypes of something that fulfills a need. Does your brand fulfill a need? If so, how does it do this? That is the message that you are trying to convey. And that is the idea behind the voice that should be present in your content strategy.
Nothing should be outside of your brand or your message. That being said, nothing should be outside of your voice either. According to Peter Barry, a thought leader in literary theory, “[branding] accepts Derrida’s view that there is nothing outside the text, in the special sense that everything about the past is only available to us in textualized form: it is ‘thrice-processed’, first through the ideology, or outlook, or discursive practices of its own time, then through those of ours, and finally through the distorting web of language itself” (Barry 175). Barry said this in regards to New Historicism, a school of thought that literature creates a realistic representation of the time-period that it was written in. This also true with content. Content is a realistic representation of the company and the brand that wrote/created it. There is nothing outside of the text (content,) but rather everything about the brand is available through the content, and for the purposes of this section, the voice.
A voice should convey information, rather than simply state facts (Ayala). But what is the difference? I like to look at it as “showing” and not “telling.” Instead of simply telling your target market your message, you should show it to them. This can be done in any medium (text, graphics, video, social, etc.). This is where the voice comes in. Tolstoy depicts nineteenth-century Russia through his characters. It is through the voice of the characters that the landscape and politics are shown to the reader. A good voice is not a company telling what they are, but rather it is a character, or characters, who make up your brand and convey information to your target market.
A voice is personal. I have tried to share foundational concepts to help one construct a voice and not simply imitate what may or may not be effective for a given niche. If it feels right, then that is probably a good place to start. At first, it is okay to test out different voices before choosing one. But once you commit, make sure to be consistent.
So now that you have your voice, or are on your way to defining it, what kind of content should one create? As previously stated, content should instruct, excite, and connect. This works on many levels. People want to learn how to do things and what they can expect from a brand. They also want to be entertained. And more than all, they want to belong. To do this, a brand should create content that does at least one of these things.
Create Content that Instructs
Of the many characters in Anna Karenina perhaps one of the simplest is Konstantin Levin. Levin is a land-owner who prefers to live in the country and oversee his land than move to the city and participate in high-society. And while Levin does play a key role in one of the three romances in the novel, much of his storyline revolves around his simple life in the country.
Tolstoy uses the character of Levin to provide instructional content. In fact, whole chapters are dedicated to the minute farming tasks taken on by Levin and his servants. This informative content is very instructive, and while it may not excite in the same way as the adulterous love affairs of other characters, it stands as a very important piece to the novel.
Unlike the Whiteness of the Whale in Melville’s Moby Dick, Tolstoy uses his chapters on farming as a way to step back from the world of high society. It grounds Levin as a character and provides a representation of the the lower and middle-class of nineteenth century Russia. In addition to this realistic reprieve, one learns a lot about farming land and threshing clover. This instructive content teaches as well as establishes an earthy undertone to a novel excited with adulterous passion, bringing a balance of content to the novel and providing a realistic representation or what some might call “a touch of the real.”
This “touch of the real” is what your instructional content will bring to your branded voice. Rather than playing off of incredibly visual or flashy content, instructional content provides foundational knowledge about your industry. It makes you an authority that your target market can turn to in order to not only learn about your products, but they will also be able to learn about everything there is to know about your industry. By having a strong content base of instructional material, you become more than a business, you become a resource.
But remember, instructional content does not need to be bland or uninspiring. In fact, instructional content can often be very visually pleasing. It is also a perfect place to do product plugs!
Create Content that Excites
In addition to content that instructs, content should be entertaining. With so many websites and so much fresh content being posted every day, you will need to make content that stands out. You need content that excites.
This can become difficult in industries that are not very exciting — hearing aids, for example. If this is you, there are still opportunities for creating compelling content that will not only get views and shares, but can lead to conversion.
Returning to Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s entire novel is about three separate romances. Two of these are adulterous. The main character (debatebly so) is Anna. She is a married woman who allows herself to be wooed away from her husband by a young cavalry officer named Vronsky. Their relationship is not discreet, and it leads serious societal and familial repercussions. Nevertheless, this romance is filled with scenes that excite.
And though this romance provides excitement, it is not necessarily the main attraction to the novel. Rather, it is often a distraction and an annoyance to the actual readability, at least to this reader. Inasmuch as you trust my judgment, a successfully branded business can hang its hat on a piece of exciting content, but that is not going to sustain an effective content strategy. If all that exists on a website is simply a shell of the real, and a lack of substance, then a viewer may simply pass through and fail to stay around for conversion. Who hasn’t watched a great YouTube video only to move on immediately to something else? To avoid this, a selling hook may be introduced to the content, and often should be, but this is not always the best way. Rather, the best way seems to be to build content that connects with the viewer.
Create Content that Connects
Perhaps the most important content to create is that which connects with the customer. This does not mean that one should create something that manipulates emotions or seeks pity, but something that meets a need and creates a relationship between the brand and the individual.
Anna Karenina does not have many admirable characters. In fact, almost all of them are pompous members of high-society who lack virtue and understanding of what it means to be human. However, Tolstoy does a very effective job at keeping his novel grounded through the love story of Levin and Kitty.
Early on, Levin approaches Kitty with a proposal of marriage. Kitty is, however, infatuated with Vronsky and declines Levin’s invitation. This she later regrets as Vronsky pursues Anna rather than her; and thus ensues the difficult, yet relatable relationship between Kitty and Levin. These two characters represent a very intriguing minority in the story. They are not entirely innocent, but Tolstoy provides them as characters one can connect with and root for in a story filled with so many who are unrelatable.
This grounding that comes from Levin and Kitty provides a compelling romance that is filled with dissonance and real emotion and understanding. This ability to portray “a touch of the real,” or an accurate representation of what it is to be human is how Tolstoy creates a novel that connects. Yes, Anna is the main character, but she is not relatable. Tolstoy surrounds this character with other characters that truly make something that stands as a foundational piece of Russian literature.
In regards to content strategy, a brand needs to be inclusive. It needs to provide content that is engaging and allows for the reader to contribute or at least feel as if he or she is contributing. This feeling of inclusion, paired with a manufactured sense of exclusivity, makes your brand and your product or services a part of them. It means that when they go to purchase a product, they don’t have to choose between you and the other guy, because they have already chosen you. And more than that, once they have your product or service, they will refer their friends, and they will become an advocate for your brand. Isn’t this the purpose of marketing, to build relationships and create connections?
By staying grounded and creating content that connects, you not only increase your revenue, but you create an additional piece of marketing among the market you are targeting.
In an ideal situation, one could create content that instructs, excites, and connects all at once, while, of course, retaining the branded voice. Where possible, this should be done as both a service to your readers and to those creating the content. Though, in many industries, and situations, this is not possible. Therefore, one must often create these pieces of content individually, making sure to utilize them in a way that both brings them together and effectively serves the brand and overarching content strategy. As shown by Tolstoy, this can be done effectively through multiple characters or story-lines, while respecting the cohesive whole and retaining the original voice. But in order to do so, one must understand the content agenda and plan accordingly. As with the intricate familial ties and character connections in Anna Karenina, all of your content should be connected together, though it should also be able to stand alone, when necessary.
The magic of SEO comes from the content that you create. In order to effectively create and operate compelling content strategy, one must plan for their target market and then create informative, entertaining, and inclusive content that not only leads their audience to a one-time sales’ conversion but also invites them to be life-long, brand advocates.
By utilizing these concepts, you can start to develop your own content strategy, establish a consistent voice, and understand the types of content to create. As Tolstoy created an accurate representation of nineteenth-century Russia in his novel Anna Karenina, you can create an accurate representation of your company through effective content strategy and marketing.
TL;DR Read Anna Karenina and then use it as a model for content strategy.
Ayala, Chris. “SEO Writing: Using Rhetoric and Style to Create a Web Identity.” Graphic Fusion Design. 12 Aug. 2013. http://graphicfusiondesign.com/blog/search-engine-optimization/seo-writing-using-rhetoric-and-style-to-create-a-web-identity/
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press: Manchester. 2002. Print.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Print.