Building an Evergreen Machine: How to Write Evergreen Content

Evergreen content; it just sounds calming. You can solve all your problems by simply saying: “Don’t worry, we’ll just create some evergreen content and then sit back and watch the traffic roll in forever.” Done.

Except, obviously, nothing is that simple in practice. How do you ensure the content you create will be evergreen and that it will generate enough interest to be worth your time?  After all, a piece of content that gets one view a week, every week, is technically evergreen, but I wouldn’t recommend writing it.

This piece aims to get a concrete handle on the vague idea of evergreen content, including how to recognise it, how to plan your content strategy around it, and how to compound your success into an ever-growing traffic level.

What makes content evergreen?

Evergreen content, just like trees that never lose their leaves, is content that never loses a residual level of traffic. It will consistently generate interest over time, and people will still come looking for it for a long time to come. Here at Distilled, we’ve had success from this in the past. One piece that stands out, simply because of its age and the volume of traffic it receives, is our Omniture guide. Since it was published in March 2015, over two years ago, it has received a total of 144,000 page views, with every month since it was published receiving between 6,800 and 2,700 views:

But what makes this evergreen? Well, the obvious answer is that the topic isn’t something time sensitive. However, there’s also the simple matter that it’s not something specific to our company. It’s not an update, or pat-on-the-back blog post. It’s a resource for many people working in digital marketing. However, most important, is that it’s really, really good. Without wanting to sound biased, no other resource we can find comes close*, and for your content to be truly evergreen, you need to be confident that a competitor won’t come along and make something better. I’ll come back to that problem later.

*Omniture has been renamed Adobe Analytics, Which means we’ll have to do some updating to the post to keep it evergreen. More on how to do that later on...

The ‘other’ kind of content

Content that isn’t evergreen can be classed as temporal content, in that it is time-related. Newspapers are a classic example of publishers creating temporal content; you want the most up-to-date content when you’re reading the news at your desk in the morning. There’s also plenty of other brands that rely on temporal content, such as fashion brands. A piece on the best summer fashion trends is a staple piece of fashion content, but there is no way to make that relevant more than three months from its publish date.

However, for most brands, temporal content is not a sustainable strategy for your content. The main problem is the strain on resources. The kind of newsworthy content that will gain attention is also the most likely to be covered extensively. There’s no allowance for your content calendar and other pressing tasks when a breaking news story hits, as the first-mover advantage will be gone very quickly, and the value of what you’re writing very suddenly diminishes. Even if this works, to grow traffic to your website, you need to create content at an increasing rate.

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On the other hand, evergreen content allows you to grow traffic levels while producing content at a steady rate, as the model I’m about to show you proves…

The compounding returns of content marketing

Evergreen content, when made on a consistent basis, essentially starts to layer the traffic from different pieces on top of each other. For example, if you publish a blog post on day one, and it generates 100 views, traffic on day one for your blog equals 100. If you publish a post on day two, and it gets 100 views, and the older post also generates 100 views, traffic for day two is 200, and so it goes.

Tomasz Tunguz,  a venture capitalist, has explored this idea in great depth and has done the best job I’ve seen of visualising an evergreen content strategy vs. a temporal content strategy - in the following two charts each coloured layer represents a single piece of content.

In the evergreen example below, you can see that ‘layering’ I talked about above. Even factoring in some decay, the results are obvious:

Source: Tomasz Tunguz

Conversely, temporal content looks a lot more ‘spiky’ with traffic levels fluctuating dramatically. Most significantly, in the following example, by publishing the same number of posts with the same number of first-day views, the temporal blog never gets above 70,000 visits per month (whereas the evergreen content model reaches just short of 200,000):

Source: Tomasz Tunguz

The above is a ‘perfect’ example, but you can see this on the Distilled blog too.  ‘Google to Announce that Links are no Longer a Major Ranking Factor’ is an example of a quite recent post that got high traffic levels when first published (16,500 page views in month one, most of those within one week or publishing). On the face of it, that’s better than the Omniture guide, which only got 6,800. However, if you look at the chart below, you can see that in the first ten months’ traffic for each post, and the value of evergreen content becomes more clear:

The evergreen post, shown in blue continued to get consistent traffic every month, resulting in 84,000 page views by the time it reached month ten, whereas the temporal piece of content only received 18,600. That’s only another 2,100 over the next nine months. On a pure traffic level, the evergreen piece is much more valuable, because of the ‘compounding effect’ of evergreen content, as you can see below:

As I have already touched on, in reality, doing this in a repeatable way is never this simple, but there are a number of tactics you can add to your content strategy to help in creating evergreen content.

What stops evergreen content from lasting forever?

Even the best evergreen content generally sees some decline over time. One reason for this is the work of competitors. Yes, you’re going to try and make the best piece of content for your topic and purpose, but you can’t stop somebody else coming along and doing the same thing. Even if yours is ‘better’, you will lose some traffic to a worse piece of content just by the virtue of it existing. Additionally, when you get better at producing content, especially if you find your niche, you’ll also find that you have to compete with yourself as topics will have some overlap. Even the Omniture guide, which I’ve used as our best example of evergreen content is slowly starting to lose traffic.

Bearing all of this in mind, I’ve put together a few ideas of how to start positioning your content to earn and keep more traffic with an evergreen mindset.

Putting everything into practice

Taking the theory, and the pitfalls, of evergreen content on board, the final part of this post aims to turn the concept into a series of actionable steps to help grow your brand’s residual traffic. I’ve broken it down into four actions.

Ship it and then tweak

When you set out to make a piece of evergreen content, it can be tempting to try and write ‘War & Peace’, leading to a behemoth piece of content that attempts to be all things to all people. And that’s if you ever manage to publish it. So, narrow your focus, and create something that serves a specific purpose.

When creating new content, remember the phrase “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”, by which I mean put the effort into shipping it as soon as possible.  Then, learn from the initial traffic and engagement, then focus on updating and repurposing, which brings us onto the next point.

Tip: Shipping and improving is essentially a pared down version of the minimum viable product methodology (MVP). Understanding this in more depth can really help you understand how to effectively measure and decide what to change.

Repurpose content

Despite best intentions, evergreen content will begin to age and start to give subtle cues to readers that it's old or out-of-date, which will lead to a drop in traffic. Was the post published on a blog with publish dates displayed anywhere? If so, consider republishing the post when it’s updated so it is moved back to the top. This is especially useful when you publish lots of content; you can’t expect readers to land on your blog/resources section and casually scroll to page 43.

For the URL sepcifically, we'd never recommend including the URL, with the only arguable exception of content that you want to show in Google News.

There’s also an opportunity to update the post to reflect changes. The Omniture Guide is technically now outdated as the software isn’t called Omniture anymore, but now Adobe Analytics. This actually increased the monthly traffic for a while, as people were still searching for ‘Omniture’, but the official page for the product had disappeared from many of the SERPs, and so our post was pushed to the top spot. However, that was only temporary, and we now plan to update and republish the post.

Tip: If you plan on replacing the old piece of content with the new one, then be sure to either use the same URL as the older piece, or 301 redirect to the new piece.

You should also consider if you can reformat the content. You could turn a blog post into a video, a Slideshare, a webinar or an email series. There are plenty of options that are relatively easy wins in this scenario. For relatively low effort, you can capitalise on successful pieces with additional “launch” traffic and increased authority with links back to the keystone piece.

Use temporal content to aid discovery

While I’ve mentioned some of the downsides of temporal content in terms of long-term traffic, it can be very useful in aiding discovery of your brand and other content when it goes viral. To help make this tactic effective, simply make sure there’s a useful CTA on each and every piece of temporal content. That CTA should direct the reader to a piece of evergreen content within the same topic. This should help to both keep the reader on your site for longer and increase the traffic levels of the associated content.

Tip: If you use the CTA to effectively gain email signups as you can then target the reader with content on a regular basis.

Wrap it up in a content calendar

Regardless of your exact content strategy, a content calendar is a must to organise your publishing schedule and make sure your content team is on track. Among the many benefits, you can organise your repurposing/republishing schedule to keep a smooth flow of content landing on your site.

Rounding up

Evergreen content is simultaneously an easy concept to grasp yet difficult to put into practice. I hope this guide has been useful in explaining the value of evergreen content, and giving you a jumping off point to creating your own, or even upgrading what you already have. While the strategy will never be 100% bulletproof, it’s satisfying to see the resulting effect of compounding returns, as you turn a bunch of individual bits of content into a traffic-driving machine.

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