AMA with Ryan Law, Director of Content Marketing at Ahrefs

Jimmy Daly
November 3, 2023

Welcome to our AMA with Ryan Law, Director of Content Marketing at Ahrefs.

Ryan is one of the very best content marketers I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. He's the Director of Content at Ahrefs and still writing all kinds of good stuff. He's also released courses on How to Write Thought Leadership and How to Edit. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

We just published a "State of Content" report and almost 50% of people said SEO has become more important to their strategy over the last year. But a lot of people were surprised by this. I'm curious what you think? You've written a lot about AI and i'm curious how you think about SEO + AI. I hear a lot of uncertainty from people i talk to, but that's not reflected in this data. Also, if you can help explain the results of this question, that'd be great.

I saw that stat and thought about it a bunch!

Something i have to remind myself (a lot) is that i am a content marketer surrounded by other content marketers, and usually marketing to other content marketerswe spend all our time thinking about this stuff, and after a few years, i think we all get pretty tired and jaded with the foundational parts of content - like writing for search and I think about our marketing at Animalz - our "thing" was basically that we were the content vanguard, the people right at the edge, seeing the cool trends as they appeared, thinking about thought leadership and media content so SEO seems dead to us - but all of us are really the bleeding edge of the bleeding edge and for the vast majority of businesses, SEO is going to be the type of content that pays their bills, and stuff like gen AI is just serving to reiterate that for whatever part of the market hasn't cottoned on yet

How has your approach to content changed (if at all) joining a company like Ahrefs that already has such an established brand and huge legacy of content?

It has been super interesting joining a company that (unsurprisingly) cares a LOT about search. It's a super mature operation too, tons of great articles generating tons of traffic, and there is really very little low-hanging fruit. My approach hasn't changed, in the sense that i was probably hired very specifically for my approach. I think my goal is basically: how do we reconcile a huge powerhouse SEO operation with content that is actually interesting?every SERP Ahrefs cares about is contested by half a dozen huge brands, and those few new opportunities we find are virtually guaranteed to be contested in short-order, so if anything, I care less about building a moat at the strategy level (finding topics, keywords, etc) and more about building a moat at the article level (how can we execute on this idea in such a way that other companies can't compete? How can we bring something new to the table, something hard to copy?)

It's fun: i started out in content as a die-hard skyscraper SEO writer, pivoted 180 at Animalz into thought leadership, and now i'm trying to smush those two concepts together in a way that doesn't feel contrived or cost too much

What is you biggest B2B content pet peeve?

I have many many manyI think i am just very tired with people thinking that they can write helpful content purely by reading other content marketing articles on the same topicthere are so many easy ways to create information gain: quick social media polls, interviews, reading non-marketing resources, collecting data, running experimentsi understand why people do it, and i used to do it myself - but we need to strive for better.

Also the word "utilize"

What are your thoughts on gated vs. ungated content? How often does Ahrefs create gated content?

Personally, i think content gating is a hangover from old school "demand gen" playbooks and its last holdout is big enterprise companies that a) thrive on "concrete" performance data, even when they know it's nonsense, and b) are big enough to survive the inefficiencies it brings (i.e. losing prospects b/c no-one likes content gating)

I basically think that as soon as another company is willing to give away the thing you want to lock behind an email signup, content gating is done so there's an arms-race to provide value, and the most generous company will probably win.

You can justify it a little more if you're willing to create some best-in-class original data research report, but for most companies, you'd be better served just publishing the thing and trying to generate as much brand awareness as possible from it.

I’ve worked mostly with companies that deal in low volume, high dollar contracts ($MM+) with long, high-touch sales cycles. In my experience, our corner of the industry isn’t very sophisticated around content measurement and attribution — we’re not selling the kinds of products that you buy through clicking a CTA at the bottom of a blog post. What advice/tactics/best practices might you offer us to create more data-driven content strategies?

I am probably not the best person to talk about data-driven content (and one of the reasons I joined Ahrefs was their ethos to content attribution: they don't bother. They know it works!)

My personal belief is that if you need to worry about content attribution, then your content marketing probably isn't working very well. At every company i worked at (and with) that had a great content marketing operation, the impact of content was totally undeniable - everyone knew it and felt it.

If people need persuading of the value, if you spend a ton of time trying to back into ROI figures, I'd almost rather spend that time working out how to improve the content operation such that becomes unneccesary.

Something i learned fromthough was the importance of collecting qualitative feedback and treating it almost like quantitative data: count the number people that mention your blog posts on sales calls, save social media posts that use the language you coined in your writing, etc.

When a company asks you to devise a content strategy, what's the first thing you look at? What content is already driving leads/revenue? If there is sufficient overlap between the top-converting buyer personas and the content available (in the formats that the buyers want)? Something else? I know this is a bit general, but I'm interested in whatever comes to mind for you first.

Good question, probably some combination of:

  • acquisition channels: where does our target audience hang out, where do we hang out, where are the gaps in that?
  • paths to conversion: how easy it for people to convert from content? do we need intermediary things to help people get to the point of sale?
  • points of leverage: what could we do that no one else is doing? are there interesting parallels in other industries we could adopt? what are 1-2 moonshots we could think about?
  • qualitative stuff: do i like the content? what would i do to improve it? where does it feel strong/weak?

So you're Director-level. Pretty senior title. But I feel like all content roles—no matter how senior—still have a large component of individual-contributor-ness to them. How much time do you personally spend writing/creating content (vs. editing someone else's/strategy/etc.)? Or asked another way: what's some part of the content process you hang onto just because you provide a lot of value there?

When i was job hunting, i specifically focused on jobs where i could keep writing. I've realized over the years that that's the part of the job i really enjoy, and I never want to give it up! Thankfully it was easy to find companies willing to accommodate it, because:

  • companies are more budget-conscious now and seem less willing to add "just" managerial headcount, and
  • I think people with skin in the game make for better managers. i will only take writing advice from people that are great writers themselves!

How do you plan content strategy knowing you’re targeting both SMBs and enterprise companies?

I think because Ahrefs has taken such a product-led approach to content (we generally only write articles that have a clear and obvious tie-in to the product), a lot of our content is basically agnostic to SMB/enterprise.

In the sense that most of the core processes, technologies, workflows, etc. we've written about can usually be useful for individual people at both stages. keyword research is largely keyword research.

That said, we did recently start an enterprise-specific line of content:

My 2c, these articles offer largely the same core advice in terms of process, but they are framed slightly differently and sometimes focus on slightly different nuances.

tl;dr - i think we write largely about problems, processes and people, and there is a lot of overlap for those between SMB/enterprise.

I'm familiar with and really enjoy your Blog Roast video series (thanks for featuring my post, by the way! But on a broader note, which B2B blogs do you appreciate for their strategy & execution, not because of individual articles, but as a content surface?

I actually just shared some of my absolute favourites in this article:

Some stuff i love in particular:

  • reforge's artifacts: it's a template library (yawn) but every template is sourced specfiically from real-world product/marketing/sales people that have actually used those processes in big successful companies (not yawn!)
  • the builtformars blog: THE best example of content UX i've ever seen, and i think most good blogs will look like that ~5 years from now
  • the manual by compound: just a perfect example of hub-and-spoke execution, not so much from an SEO perspective, but from the perspective of content organisation

I liked your recent piece on content briefs! But none of the example brief templates included much in the way of brand tone of voice. How do you ensure that the content is on-brand? And how do you help freelance writers (or new staff) deliver content that doesn’t leave you in editing armageddon?

Personally, i care more about each writer doing a good job at bringing out their own sense of voice and personality than i do thinking about brand voice.

It's probably a bias of mine from working with smaller/less corporate companies (although many animalz's customers had very detailed style guides that we had to adhere to).

As long as we mention product names consistently, we use screenshots in a consistent format, etc., i pay very little attention to brand voice.

I like the idea of brand being a composite of the personal brands of its employees.

What do you think was relevant in content 5 years ago but now is BS? And on the other hand, what was relevant 5 years ago and still holds?

Now BS:

  • voice search
  • content gating
  • funnel stages
  • microsites
  • omnichannel marketing (i still don't understand this)
  • following brand pages on social media
  • skyscraper content (not quite total BS, but google is getting better at rewarding more differentiated content)

Still holds:

  • everything else

You were a strong voice in the LLM space when they started gaining popularity roughly a year ago. Now that the dust has settled a little bit, what are the ways that AI has stuck with you? and what are the things that you hoped it could do, but it hasn’t delivered so far?

I use ChatGPT and Midjourney/Dalle literally every day:

  • brainstorming titles, subject lines, short-form copy
  • kicking off basic research/answering quick contextual questions
  • writing spreadsheet formula
  • querying data
  • generating hero images
  • synthesising transcripts
  • reformatting text

And the obvious omission there is "long-form writing". i think you can, totally, 100% write functional, rankable SEO content with AI very very quickly.

(And i have, for some personal projects: i built a website for my brother-in-law, a carpet fitter, and wrote ~40 pages of content for it using AI)

But the company i'm at now, the type of content i'm focused on, it's not so much the writing that matters as the idera, the research, the hook and angle. so i don't use it much for that.

What were the biggest challenges for you in terms of switching from agency work to an in-house role? How are you dealing with them?

Honestly: in-house has been simpler and easier so far.

There is so much added complexity at an agency, so many problems in addition to the actual content marketing part.

What individuals or companies are putting out content that you regularly consume/enjoy?

Few people that come to mind:

  • Fio Dossetto
  • Tracey Wallace
  • Amanda Natividad
  • Wes Kao
  • Peep Laja
  • Tim Soulo
  • Patrick Stox
  • Bryan Casey
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