The Marketing Executive’s Guide to Content Strategy
Marketing executives make important decisions about high-level content strategy, budget, and personnel, but aren’t always content experts themselves.
To avoid creating unnecessary constraints for your content team, we’ve put together a few guiding principles that should help you make decisions about content’s role in your marketing org. These ideas are borne from our agency’s experience working with CMOs and marketing directors, as well as our personal experience running and growing content teams.
A content strategy needs to be tailored by organization, business model, market and industry. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so the goal of this post is to help you ask the right questions, not provide all the right answers.
- Understand the Core Problem That Content Is Addressing
- Incentivize Quality by Measuring the Right Numbers
- Invest in Quality via People and Process
- Get the Technical Stuff Right
- Eschew the Publication Approach
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1. Understand the Core Problem That Content Is Addressing
Content may or may not be the best way to address the top of the funnel. It really depends on your business model and your other acquisition channels. One of the biggest mistakes we see in the content world is that content is used to help a business rank for top of funnel keywords. This is expensive, time-consuming and often fruitless. Content marketing can be deployed in a number of different—and much more efficient—ways.
First, consider the primary challenges your business (or product) faces. Here are a few common challenges in the SaaS space:
- Product awareness: You are one of many tools in a competitive space (think CRM, marketing automation, customer support, etc.). Visibility is a growth constraint.
- Category awareness: You have a new approach to an old problem. People are excited when they find your product, but no one is looking for it.
- Conversion to paid: You have a lot of freemium users or plenty of free trial signups, but few people convert to become paying customers.
- Traffic to paid: You’ve done a good job growing top of funnel traffic, but few people convert. Traffic and conversions don’t increase proportionally.
- Lopsided marketplace: There’s plenty of supply, but little demand (or vice versa). Each side of the market requires its own content strategy.
- Long sales cycle: Enterprise-level deals take a long time to complete. Customers buy based on specs, integrations, and budget, not brand. Content should support the entire sales cycle.
- Multiple products for multiple buyers: Vertically integrated companies—think of HubSpot, which has products for marketing, sales and support, as well as a service component—need content strategies for each of the products.
You cannot put together a content strategy without considering the challenge you must overcome. Based on your analysis, you can make better decisions about how to allocate content. Instead of chasing competitive keywords, you might focus on bottom-of-the-funnel content to support a lengthy sales cycle, or user-generated content loops for acquisition.
As we often say on this blog, the oversimplification of content strategy is an expensive oversight. Carefully assess where content can make an impact, then deploy accordingly.
2. Incentivize Quality by Measuring the Right Numbers
Content marketing ROI is hard to measure, but it’s made harder by executives who outline an imprecise strategy, then measure the wrong metrics.
This commonly plays out as follows: a chief marketing officer want to leverage content to increase top of funnel traffic, but then measures conversions from content. The numbers stink. By definition, top of funnel traffic is not well-qualified, therefore conversions will be low. More importantly, conversions won’t scale in proportion to the growth in traffic—i.e., a ten percent growth in top of funnel traffic will never equate to a 10% increase in conversions.
If you ask your team to create content for the top of the funnel, you have to measure pageviews or new sessions. If you’d prefer to increase conversions, you should direct the content team to address the middle and bottom of the funnel and work with a designer to improve UX and calls to action.
Using Animalz as an example, ranking for “what is content marketing” would drive plenty of top of funnel traffic, but those readers are likely not in the market for a content agency that advises on high-level strategy. Creating niche content for marketing execs, on the other hand, drives very qualified traffic. 😉
3. Invest in Quality via People and Process
High-quality content is expensive. It’s difficult to find experienced content managers and subject matter experts. Agencies aren’t cheap. Freelancers, an option that nearly all companies experiment with, is less expensive but creates overhead since someone needs to assign, edit, and manage a pool of writers.
If you can find someone to run content marketing in-house (and you can afford it), it’s a great option. That person can set the strategy, find an agency to support them or source and manage freelancers. In our agency-side experience, companies with a dedicated and experienced person in charge of content have better results.
There are two ways to think about your investment in content.
- Strategy: You need someone to build a strategy and oversee its execution. In some cases, this comes from a marketing director or CMO. In most cases, it’s the result of a collaboration between an exec and an on-the-ground content manager. If there’s no one who can perform this role internally, hire an agency. It’s imperative that someone is charged with the creation and oversight of the content strategy.
- Execution: The strategy dictates the budgetary needs. Intercom, for example, chooses to source content from their in-house experts. They have ~10 people working on content full-time. Other companies may choose a strategy with simpler and less expensive needs. Regardless of who you hire to execute on the strategy, make sure they understand the vision. Freelancers, agencies, and in-house content creators can all do great work with the right tools and guidance.
Larger orgs have a problem that seems like a luxury to smaller companies: too much money. Yes, it is possible to overspend on content marketing. This happens when a budget calls for more content than can reasonably be created, edited and checked for quality. The notion that budgets must be spent so that they can be renewed next year creates long cycles of poor content. When it comes to a head, much of that content may end up being removed from the site.
Don’t scale content until you’re sure you can maintain quality. For most mid-market SaaS companies, this means a dedicated content hire who is supported by agencies and/or freelancers.
4. Get the Technical Stuff Right
Content teams need support from developers and designers. Many orgs publish great content on a wobbly foundation—i.e., the website has technical or navigational problems that prevent content from being indexed and discovered.
If you’re going to invest in content at all, provide your content team with some ongoing dev and design resources. They likely don’t need full-time hires (at least initially), but every content team benefits when the small, continuous improvements lift site performance. Tweaks in site structure, pageload speed, canonicalization, and structured data can make a big difference.
5. Eschew the Publication Approach
Bad content strategy often comes from the top. The publication approach is a “one-degree” problem. If a plane flying from New York to Los Angeles is one degree off course, it ends up 50 miles away from its destination.
The publication approach unintentionally incentivizes content creators to focus on volume and breadth (as opposed to quality and depth) in the name of “building an audience.” This is a common oversight that results in L.A.-bound planes ending up in Malibu—or, to firm up the analogy, Hong Kong.
We’ve written in depth about why you should favor a library approach instead, but here’s the gist. The publication approach doesn’t align with the way readers consume content written by SaaS companies. Readers come across problems, search for solutions and read content as needed. They don’t, as some execs seem to believe, eagerly await updates from their favorite SaaS blogs (with a few exceptions). By creating content that readers need, available whenever they need it, you can actually run a much more efficient—read: less expensive—content operation.
There are counterexamples. Intercom stands out for its dedication to tackling a range of topics that are of interest to those in the SaaS industry. Their blog is run like a publication and it’s excellent. They are an outlier. You may be able to replicate the strategy, but it will be expensive and time-consuming.
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Episode 8: Devin Bramhall on Earning a Senior Content Marketing Role
Learning to be a great content marketer is one thing. Earning yourself a senior role is another. On this episode of the
Episode 7: Library vs. Publication
In our humble opinion, your blog is not a publication.
Most SaaS blogs should emphasize quality, attack each topic they cover in-depth, and avoid chasing trends or timely news stories. On this episode of the
The Animalz Podcast
We couldn’t find a content marketing podcast that we really enjoyed, so we made our own.
The Animalz content marketing podcast is a weekly show that focuses on real content marketing strategy—no tips, tricks or hacks. We talk about how to create or refine a strategy, how to overcome common problems and tackle some advanced content marketing topics.
Click through the links below to listen to the podcast on our site, or use the links below to subscribe in your favorite podcast app:
- Episode 8: Devin Bramhall on Earning a Senior Content Marketing Role
- Episode 7: Library vs. Publication
- Episode 6: Taking Your Content Upmarket
- Episode 5: The Content Growth Cycle
- Episode 4: Bottom of Funnel Content
- Episode 3: The Shape of Successful Content
- Episode 2: Movement-First Content
- Episode 1: Content Pruning
If you have questions, feedback or suggestions, please get in touch.
Your Blog Is Not a Publication
In a recent conversation with Intercom content director John Collins, I mentioned how much Animalz customers admire the Intercom blog. A number have even asked that we help make their own blogs more like Intercom’s.
In his classic Irish brogue, he quipped, “They may feel differently if they saw the costs.”
And in that sentence, John summed up what so few seem to understand about content strategy, namely that you have to be able to afford your own content strategy. Intercom has raised $240 million, employs nine people on its content team and, perhaps most importantly, has deep buy-in from the executive team. It is the rare SaaS company that can run their blog like a publication and it’s a strategy that is nearly impossible to replicate.
For nearly all other SaaS companies, we recommend a different approach.
Publication vs. Library, Explained
The best content strategy is the one that prioritizes quality and depth, not volume and breadth. You may think you’re already doing this—but I encourage you to take a closer look.
When most content marketers think of a blog, they imagine a reverse chronological feed of posts. This is how Wikipedia defines the word blog, and it’s also how popular content management systems like WordPress organize content. As a result, the default behavior of many content marketers is inefficient at best and wasteful at worst.
It’s hard to overstate just how problematic this has become in content marketing. Here’s what a publication mindset looks like in practice:
- Topics are horizontally integrated, meaning that content creators cover a broad range of topics rather than the full range of depth.
- Posts are published on a strict schedule, so it’s hard to make time for content that requires additional time and energy.
- Content serves an audience, therefore timeliness is prioritized.
And here’s why those things are problematic:
- Depth is almost always more useful to readers than breadth.
- Content efforts that require a lot of effort (think benchmark reports, data analysis, etc.) often deliver 10x the results of a post that requires less effort.
- The huge majority of readers are not regular visitors to your site. Instead, they seek out specific articles to solve specific problems.
This last point is a key driver of bad content strategy. We took a look at a few very successful SaaS blogs and found that, on those sites, only about 17% of visitors were returning. That means that 83% of visitors were new. You may have a negative reaction to this, but it’s actually a good thing.
The more you rely on organic search—which is by far the best source of traffic for SaaS blogs—the less you need an audience. The word audience, just like the word publication, has been repurposed from other industries and neither fit well in the construct of modern content marketing. Trying to cater to the small percentage of people who are return visitors drives behavior—a wide variety of topics, a strict publishing schedule and an emphasis on timeliness—that makes for very inefficient content marketing.
The publication approach is a “one-degree” problem. If a plane flying from New York to Los Angeles is one degree off course, it ends up 50 miles away from its destination. Small oversights in a content strategy can have similar impacts.
This library approach is a simple framework with a number of positive implications. The idea is that you address content by topic and depth. Here’s how it works in practice:
- Content is vertically integrated, meaning that each topic is addressed from the top of the funnel to the bottom.
- Organic search is prioritized, therefore evergreen content is paramount. Time is allowed for content efforts that slow down production.
- Content is built for people who need it, when they need it.
We call it the library approach because, done this way, a blog becomes an evergreen catalog of easy-to-access information rather than a feed of loosely related blog posts.
The 3 Principles of the Library Approach
The characteristics of a library approach exist on a spectrum. You do not necessarily need to create a new content strategy from scratch, ditch your CMS or rebuild your entire site. You can, however, learn from the principles below and apply them in varying degrees to your existing strategy.
1. Flat Site Architecture
One of the primary characteristics of a site run like a publication is a blog homepage that features a reverse-chronological feed of blog posts. This is the default WordPress setting and, as all marketers know, default settings are really powerful.
It’s expensive and time-consuming to dream up a new way to present your content, but some sites choose to do it. Lattice, for example, recently redesigned their blog to (1) make it easier to feature content they wanted readers to see and (2) allow readers to easily filter content by topic and content type (blog post, ebooks, webinars, etc.). They even changed the URL to lattice.com/library to reinforce the library mindset.
Lattice’s approach has SEO benefits in addition to usability improvements. The site is “flatter”—i.e., content can be accessed in fewer clicks—which makes it easier for both people and search engines to find.
But you don’t have to overhaul your site to reap some of these benefits. You can also employ hub pages to collect resources on a specific topic. Hubs are usually created to target top-level keywords, then link out to posts on relevant, longer-tail topics. You can create the content in any order, but present it in an organized, hierarchical way rather than a feed.
2. Content Planned by Topic and Funnel Depth
One of the hesitations that content marketers have about the library approach is that topics have to be covered multiple times. In order for a library to be complete, each topic must be addressed from multiple angles for readers at the top, middle and bottom of the funnel.
Content marketers sometimes feel that readers won’t want to see the same topic on the blog week after week. But that’s a misinterpretation of how people consume content. Most people seek out content when they have a problem to solve (see principle #3 below) and won’t even notice if the newest posts all cover similar things.
We suggest planning content by topic and funnel depth. When visualized, it looks like a heat map showing the areas where you already have content and areas where you need more content. One of the problems with traditional editorial calendars is that it’s very hard to visualize content like this. When topics are ideated without a framework like this, content creators tend to favor breadth. This approach favors depth.
3. Audience as a Byproduct
To grow an audience, you need to continually add new people and retain old ones. It’s a singular group that’s always growing. It’s useful if you can pull it off, but it assumes that readers have an ongoing interest in what you have to say, which makes it difficult to favor depth. Most publications cater to audiences and, as a result, are forced to prioritize breadth to keep up with their editorial calendars.
Your readers are likely not part of a growing audience, but rather a continuous stream of people with a problem to solve. At the moment they need an answer, they search Google and find you. Your “audience” is actually a different group of people each day.
This isn’t to say that growing an email list, adding social followers and building a brand aren’t useful tactics—they absolutely are. But those are byproducts of a successful content operation, not the primary goals.
The truth is that most content marketers are operating without a deliberate strategy. Whether you’re just getting started or have been investing in content for years, spend the time to create a strategy that makes for efficient, effective content marketing.