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17 Mar 2010

Content Strategy Interview with Expert Lawrence Coburn

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RateItAll.comIn the little over a year that I’ve been working here at Vertical Measures I must admit that I’ve been very lucky to meet and speak with some of the most interesting and influential people in the interactive space. I thought that it was about time to start sharing the fantastic information that I am able to derive from these interactions with the Vertical Measures blog readers.

Recently, I was able to interview Lawrence Coburn, an original founder of RateItAll, who has been obsessing about social media combined with consumer ratings since the 90’s. He is a frequent public speaker on topics related to user generated content, SEO, and social media distribution. He sat on a panel at the Online Marketing Summit in San Diego with our president, Arnie Kuenn, a couple of weeks ago, and his insight into content strategy in my opinion is invaluable. In this interview, Lawrence discusses content strategy, viral content curation and his organization RateitAll.
 
Elise Redlin-Cook: Let’s start with a general question.  We have always heard that content is king, but content strategy and development are truly gaining traction now.  What do you see happening over the next 2 or 3 years with respect to content strategies?Lawrence Colburn, RateItAll.com
 
Lawrence Coburn: For years now, we’ve been hearing that traditional organic search as provided by Google would be displaced by something.  Social search, social media, QA sites…. but it still hasn’t happened.  And from where I’m sitting, it’s showing no signs of happening – Google referrals seem as strong as ever.
 
So in my mind, twitter iconmaking sure your content strategy is aligned first and foremost with Google remains the top priority.  A lot of the classic content development strategies are as relevant today as they were a few years ago.  Creating compelling content around themes that are timely, frequently searched for, and/or unusually monetizable still seems like good strategy to me.

Over the next years, the format of that content is going to matter quite a bit.  For example, mobile internet browsing is skyrocketing – making sure your content is deliverable in a smaller footprint seems like a real basic thing every site is going to have to figure out soon, if they haven’t already.

Elise: What are some of the best ways to maximize content curation and engagement with the audience? (voting/commenting/etc)
Lawrence: This is a topic near and dear to my heart.  The biggest engagement win we’ve ever had on RateItAll is turning off the registration requirement on "liking" content.  We saw a 20x increase in engagement.  And as simple a "like" vote is, it’s critical to the UGC ecosystem.  Most people post on the internet because they like getting a reaction.  A "like" vote is a reaction, and one that can be packaged up in a digest or email alert which can bring folks back to the site.
 
Elise: Is there an applicable methodology to creating viral content, or does it just happen?
 
LawrenceIf only I knew.  I think there are definitely some principles that seem to work more than others.  Put all the content on one page and make sure people don’t have to click around to get the full impact.  Call out the most important sharing buttons: email, Facebook, and Twitter, in that order, and bury the hundreds of other sharing buttons.  Use lots of photos and/or video.  Don’t be afraid to use the Top Ten format, and check out the copy writing of celebrity and teen magazines for examples.  Oh yeah, have a syndicate of friends on places like Digg and StumbleUpon.  Beyond that it’s pretty much a crapshoot.
 
Elise: Facebook seems to be growing to be almost as large or important as Google.  Is there a recommended content strategy for Facebook?
 
Lawrence: Facebook Connect!  It’s fantastic – it gives you distribution via the Facebook newsfeed, lowers the sign up hurdle for new users, and gives you real ID on posts.  There is no reason for any site not to offer FB connect as a sign up option.  One thing I like is when sites try and get both – real email and name, and then a synch with Facebook.  This gives you ownership of the user AND the distribution might of FB.
 
Elise: Is there such a thing as a “social media expert/guru?” If so, would they better be described as “content strategist” since Content is what often drives Social Media?
 
Lawrence: Haha, I love gurus.  I can’t get enough of them.  I think I have something like 400 gurus following me on Twitter, and it makes me feel great. My advice to you if you are a guru is not to use the word "guru" anywhere near your bio.  The term has become a parody of itself.  Content is certainly big, but so is the distribution piece.  You need both to have success in this industry.
 
Elise: Since we are an SEO agency focused on building great links for clients, what have you found to be the most successful content strategy for gaining backlinks? Why?
 
Lawrencetwitter iconWidgets still work, and they’re pure gold from a link building perspective because you get to name your anchor text.  Awards and other Seals of Approval are great as well – who doesn’t like to win an award?  In general, tapping into people’s self expression or vanity are proven ways to get people to link to you.
 
Elise: Who are the three people (or companies, organizations, etc.) that everyone should be following?
 
Lawrence: My two favorite blogs are AVC and CDixon.org – oddly, both are New Yorkers and I’m in SF.  I guess it’s NOT an East Coast West Coast thing.  In terms of following on Twitter, I think David Weekly, founder of PB Works is really smart and funny.  I’m also a proud Rand fanboy – I think he’s brought a lot of credibility to the SEO space.  In terms of SEO posts, dig around Stuntdubl.com – Todd has some meaty posts in there.
 
Elise: What would you tell a senior in college who will be graduating this spring with a degree in journalism and really had their heart set on writing for a newspaper someday?
 
Lawrence: I would say, "Nice call!  Seriously!"  The ability to write is way underrated.  I find myself writing about 40 percent of my time at work, which is a staggering amount when you think about it.  Between blogging, representing my company on social media, sales approach letters, etc. – I find writing to be an absolutely crucial, and unusual skill.  And there are media companies that are growing – HuffPo is killing it I understand, as are a number of the big tech blogs.  I would definitely advise them to start building their personal brand as soon as possible… they will get hired based not only on their skills, but on their reach.
 
Elise: What inspired you to start RateItAll?
 
Lawrence:  Haha, that’s a good and easy question.  I put that site online in 1999 with some friends from school.  We saw how Amazon was allowing real people to write reviews of books and movies, and we wondered, over pitchers of beer at 3:30 a.m., why we couldn’t do that for everything.  So there you have it.
 
Elise: So, Lawrence it seems that you always have an exciting project in the works… what are you working on right now?

Lawrence: I’m glad you asked!  My company RateItAll, a consumer reviews site, is just wrapping up a project in an area that I think is the single most exciting thing on the Internet right now – geolocation, specifically, the universe of new business opportunities that exist when you know the physical location of the end user.  I think this has implications for virtually all aspects of online business, from SEM, to Ecommerce to advertising.

Our project is an iPhone App called DoubleDutch – it’s kind of a cross between Foursquare and Yelp and lets you "check in" to stay connected with your friends, and read and write reviews of the places around you.  The coolest thing about this app is that we are white labeling it, so any community around a geographic location can have their own social check-in app.  We think this could be huge for universities, conferences, hotels, and so forth.  It’s a very exciting time for us – if you have an iPhone, please try it out!