How to Take Your Content Upmarket When You Take Your SaaS Business Upmarket
Nearly all SaaS businesses aspire to move upmarket.
Moving upmarket means acquiring larger customers who spend more money. There’s a financial incentive to move upmarket … you can make more money with fewer customers. The revenue is also more stable because large companies tend to change SaaS tools less frequently.
This is also how innovators disrupt. We’ve all heard the story of upstart steel manufacturers producing low-end steel in mini-mills, then slowly eating up the market that had so long been dominated by the integrated steel companies. (And if you haven’t, it’s time you read Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma.)
The desire to move upmarket is hard-coded in the DNA of most SaaS companies. The pay-as-you-go model combined with the efficiency of software means that cost- and time-savings can eat away at all kinds of other businesses. It’s only natural that these companies want to inch their way towards the bigger pockets of enterprise companies.
The transition from selling to SMBs to the enterprise is a gradual one. It’s not one that happens overnight and it tends to bring all kinds of unforeseen friction. It’s worth considering whether you truly want to move upmarket—i.e., hire an outside sales team, bring on account execs, optimize the product for the enterprise, etc.—or if you’d just like to close some bigger deals with lower churn risk. There is overlap in the strategies, but these are distinctly different business models.
Still, if moving upmarket is part of your plans, you will need to adjust your content strategy accordingly. We have plenty of advice on the topic, but let this post serve as a reality check as well. Is moving upmarket really the right move for the business? Assuming you’re ready to proceed, here’s how you’ll need to rework your content strategy.
Expand Your Footprint
In the early-stage companies, content creation is limited by available resources. There is a small marketing budget, therefore founders and early employees take on the responsibility of writing blog posts and ebooks themselves. This constraint is a good filter on quality. There’s no time to write blog posts that aren’t worth writing. It’s easy to keep quality high when you only write when you feel you have something interesting to say.
— Brian Corcoran (@brianc13) September 13, 2018
Scaling content is hard whether you’re trying to move upmarket or not, but you’ll almost certainly need to create more content if you’re planning to target large companies. This happens for a few reasons:
- The content you’ve already created is targeted at different personas.
- You’ve established a brand and acquired customers by covering related topics like company culture, transparency, business lessons learned, etc.
- You’ve focused on distribution channels that may not be relevant any longer.
- You’ve primarily created content in-house or with a few trusted contractors.
All of this changes when you’re targeting larger customers. You’ll need content that addresses your new personas from the top of the bottom of the funnel. You’ll also need to rethink your SEO strategy since you may need to start competing for different keywords. You may even need to supplement with paid search to figure out what kind of content resonates with your new audience.
It’s really easy to let quality slip as you scale. Don’t assume it will be easy, and don’t hesitate to rein in quantity until you’ve got good processes in place to ensure quality. Here are a few suggestions to make that happen faster and more easily:
- Put an experienced content person in charge. Hire someone who knows how to run a content marketing operation, then let them decide if you should hire content creators in-house, find contractors, or partner with an agency. Scaling is easier when (1) a dedicated content marketer or editor runs the show and (2) that person can come up with the vision and execute it.
- Break content into tracks with their own cadences. It might look something like this: one benchmark report per year, one whitepaper per quarter, one ebook per month, two blog posts per week. You’ll need to start planning your editorial calendar months in advance to assign out the work, so use tracks like this to plan and budget content. It also decreases project management, which becomes a challenge when teams start publishing more often.
- Don’t overspend on content creation. If you don’t spend enough on content, you’ll never get the quality needed to stand out. If you spend too much, you’ll create overhead for your team and quality will actually decline. Keep your operation lean with a strict emphasis on quality and results.
Content marketing often works because it engenders trust and goodwill with readers. That’s lost if you publish low-quality content. If you’ve built a brand with content, don’t turn all of your attention to distribution and pageviews—keep the authenticity of the content intact.
Address the Bottom of the Funnel
Enterprise sales cycles are measured in months, not weeks. The larger the deal, the longer it takes to close. Here are some rough estimates courtesy of Jason Lemkin:
- Deals < $2,000 in ACV (annual contract value) should close on average within 14 days.
- Deals < $5,000 in ACV should close on average within 30 days.
- Deals < $25,000 in ACV should close on average within 90 days.
- Deals < $100,000 in ACV should close on average within 90-180 days depending on # of stakeholders and gates.
- Deals > $100,000 in ACV will take on average 3-6 months to close. Of course, some faster, some shorter.
When you’re selling to SMBs, a great product and self-serve sales process work well—and quickly. As the sales cycle expands, content can fill gaps between meetings and emails. Content that addresses the bottom of the funnel is exceedingly useful in long sales cycles.
Content for the bottom of the funnel is optimized for purchases, not search engines, email or any other channel. It’s created for prospects that have passed the “awareness” phase and have moved onto interest, desire and action.
Here are just a few bottom of funnel content types that can work well in a long sales cycle:
- Case studies: By the time a prospect is interested in your product, they will also want to see how it’s worked for others.
- Webinars: Popular in sales-focused organizations, webinars can be semi-automated to work over and over again.
- Industry/benchmark reports: In addition to driving top of funnel awareness, reports can be used as sales collateral during long sales cycles.
- Whitepapers and ebooks: Premium, gated assets are a great way to engage prospects that are considering where, how and why to deploy your software.
- Product updates: Have you taken measures to improve security, boost uptime or better the product? Don’t be shy about writing about it.
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas for bottom of funnel content, talk with your sales teams. They need (1) reasons to reach out to prospects during the sales process (“Have you seen the industry report we just released?”) and (2) good fodder for discussion topics during meetings (“Another customer increased productivity by 15%, I’ll send you the case study.”)
In our experience, bottom of the funnel content is sorely underutilized. It can be used to move prospects from the top of the funnel to middle, and can also be used to upsell customers months or even years after they come onboard. It won’t rack up tons of pageviews and it may be difficult to directly attribute sales to it, but your sales team will be able to tell you whether or not it’s working.
As a general rule, have at least one piece of content for each week in the sales cycle. That doesn’t mean you have to send it, but you should have it available.
|Deal Size (ACV)||Length of Sales Cycle||BoF Content Pieces|
|<$,2000||14 days||2 to 4|
|<$5,000||30 days||4 to 8|
|<$25,000||90 days||12 to 20|
As we often say, make sure you have a way to measure content in a way that aligns with the value it provides. These articles, PDFs, and videos are very unlikely to rack up pageviews, so put another mechanism in place to monitor conversions and check in with your sales team to find out how useful each piece is.
Keep It Genuine
There are a number of small start-ups that have earned a great reputation for excellent content. There are very few large companies that regularly produce good content. Why is that?
Smaller companies, often due to budgetary constraints, look to their founding team and early employees to create content. These people have something to say. Instead of targeting keywords and worrying about pageview growth, they write essays, thought leadership pieces and share their personal experiences growing the company. We call this movement-first content. The primary goal of movement-first content is to inspire, not necessarily to inform.
As content operations scale, it’s very easy to let movement-first content fade into the background. After all, there are metrics to track, keyword opportunities to tackle, and distribution channels to capitalize on.
We encourage you not to let this happen. Content with a personal touch will stand out even more as you move upmarket. The increased focused on data means there are fewer genuine, interesting thought leadership posts floating around the enterprise space. It’s a consumer-grade style of content that resonates with all buyers, regardless of the size of their company.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where movement-first fits into a content strategy. Is it meant for the top of the funnel or the bottom? Will anyone sign up for a free trial after reading it? Should we try to optimize the posts for search? You may very well have to answer those questions in order to move forward. It’s worth it. The best content builds trust and galvanizes readers. Allow time and space in your strategy for writers to get creative and for readers to be inspired.
Movement-First: How to Scale Content Without Sacrificing Quality
When Apple first launched the iPhone in 2007, it was a tightly controlled experience. Demand far exceeded supply. You could only buy the devices at Apple and AT&T stores. There was no App Store and therefore no third-party apps.
Things have changed a little in the last eleven years.
Today, you can buy an iPhone at Costco or Walmart. That was inconceivable a decade ago. An iPhone was too high-end to be sold in a discount box store. In order to establish the product as premium, Apple had to keep its focus on building a great experience and getting it into the hands of early adopters. Distribution would become a sales tool later on—only when the brand was firmly established.
But imagine if Apple’s go-to-market strategy was centered on distribution instead of experience. Would people have camped outside of a Walmart for two weeks to get a phone? Would the device have appealed to the hardcore tech community? And if the initial sales were a disappointment, could Apple have undone the damage to its brand?
The answer in each case is a hard “no.” The success of the iPhone is due, in part, to a launch that set it on a trajectory that has allowed them to scale while maintaining credibility. Apple can now take advantage of Costco and Walmart’s massive distribution without worrying that the buying experience will detract from its hard-won branding.
This example perfectly illustrates a problem that we see over and over again in content marketing: To grow a blog, you have to establish credibility before you start reaching for growth.
Movement-First Content Marketing
If Apple wanted to launch the first iPhone at Walmart, it would have needed to sell a cheaper phone with fewer features so that it could have produced more phones for a different target customer.
The same is true of a blog. If you cater to the masses, you miss the opportunity to establish credibility with the smartest people in your industry. They’ll think of you as a discount content provider—and these are the people who can help you grow, refer customers and even sign up themselves. In fact, content built for large-scale consumption—think top-of-funnel content chasing short-tail keywords—has to be watered down to cater to the audience.
We recommend a movement-first approach to content. This phrase is borrowed from serial founder David Cummings who wrote about Product-First or Movement-First Startup on his blog. A product-first company is obsessed with creating a great product, while movement-first companies are driven to create awareness about a better way to do things. Neither is right or wrong; it’s simply a way to identify the way companies operate and grow.
In a follow-up to this article, Hiten Shah takes this idea a step further. He suggests that you can begin either way but, to become a successful, sustainable business, it’s important to become a product-next or movement-next company. As Hiten writes, “Whether you’re a product-first or movement-first company, eventually you have to completely refocus your strategy and become a “-next” company.”
This applies to content marketing as well—with one important caveat. We believe that it’s best to begin with a movement-first approach. In this case, the opposite would be a distribution-first approach. Just like Apple, distribution comes later once you’ve built an audience of early adopters.
Movement-first content is the best way to target your ideal reader. As you gain traction, you can leverage distribution channels to reach your total serviceable market (actual potential customers) then the total addressable market (anyone who might be interested in the topics you cover).
Before we go any further, let’s talk about what exactly “movement-first” content looks like.
What Is Movement-First Content?
You know movement-first content when you see it. It’s sometimes called thought leadership content. Some people call the posts ‘essays’ instead of articles. It looks and feels very different from content optimized for search since it isn’t beholden to any SEO tactics like word count and keyword density.
The word “first” is indicative of the strategy. The primary goal of movement-first content is to inspire, not necessarily to inform. We recommend it as a way to start a new blog, but you don’t have to create this type of content first in order to leverage it in your content marketing.
Movement-First Content Is Opinionated.
In order to create a movement in a crowded space—this is exactly what we’re trying to do here at Animalz—your content needs real substance. Catchy headlines and “built-in distribution” help, but for content to make waves, it has to pack a very real punch. We do this by offering contrarian takes on established best practices (see: You Don’t Need an Audience) and drawing lines around amorphous ideas (see: Top of Funnel Content Creates All Kinds of Problems—But You Should Create It Anyway).
That’s just our take. Other businesses have taken a different approach. Zuora, the company that coined the term “subscription economy” was writing about the movement way back in 2008. In one of the first ever blog posts, founder Tien Tzuo wrote, “What if subscriptions are not just the future of software, but the future of our entire economy?”
Copper, the G Suite CRM, is doing the same thing with a thought leadership series on the “Relationship Era.” Rather than compete for CRM-related keywords, they are first staking out territory with posts on the rise of the relationship era and relationship-first sales stacks. Groove invested heavily in its blog about the journey to $100,000 MRR before launching a separate customer support blog.
Movement-First Content Gets People Talking.
You can’t measure movement-first content based on pageviews alone.
Here’s another example from our experience at Animalz. We know that most content marketing advice is bad because it’s oversimplified. We want to dive into the nuances of a great content marketing strategy, everything from technical SEO to building a strategy within the constraints of your budget and resources. Anecdotal feedback—mentions, links, personal emails, tweets, etc.—tell us whether or not it’s working.
Feedback like this is the evidence we need to know our message is resonating:
— Adam Bockler (@adambockler) August 1, 2018
If you commit to movement-first, commit also to a form of measurement that does it justice. Measuring pageviews alone makes your strategy look like it’s failing even if it’s wildly successful.
Movement-First Content Is Optimized for Impact
In B2B content marketing, there’s an inverse relationship between the potential for impact and the probability of broad distribution.
There are exceptions to this rule, but in general, the narrower the audience, the more you need to rely on specific, non-obvious, insightful and opinionated content. As the audience widens, content becomes more about delivering information according to SEO best practices and less about the message.
The takeaway here is to focus on one or the other—it’s very difficult to kill two birds with one stone.
Distribution-Next Content Marketing
A movement-first approach does not mean a disregard for organic search, virality, email, or any other distribution platform.
Success in any channel takes time, especially organic search where most B2B SaaS companies focus energy. It’s a good idea to start investing in these channels early so they have time to mature. Here are answers to a few questions about the transition to a distribution-next strategy.
When should the transition to distribution-next be made?
Make the transition before you hit the wall.
Movement-first content can generate momentum. You want to start shifting to a distribution-next strategy before that momentum runs out. Ideally, you create a few pages built for organic search early on. Drive plenty of internal links to these resources and start building external links as well. It takes a while to gain traction especially if your site is relatively new, so don’t wait too long before investing in search.
What if my company chose distribution-first, but now wants to be movement-next?
This is a really common situation. Sites invest heavily in content for search and other channels, then realize later on that the brand has no voice. It’s hard to transition to movement-next because your team will be used to creating and measuring content in a specific way. The legal and brand teams will get uneasy.
You need to create new processes for generating ideas, creating the content, and measuring it. If you try to jam movement-based content through the same principles, it will come out flat—and that defeats the purpose. Look to thought leaders in your company. They likely have strong opinions and might be interested in contributing to the blog. You could also interview them and ghostwrite on their behalf.
As a rule, go hard on your initial efforts. Make the opinions really strong, then walk them back as needed according to legal, brand, etc. It’s better to start strong and walk your posts back than it is to start lukewarm and try to increase the strength of movement content.
Should we maintain a balance of content designed for movement vs. distribution?
Yes. If your movement-first content is working, then don’t stop. Just add content for distribution as needed. This is roughly analogous to maintaining a balance of thought leadership content, SEO-driven or top-of-funnel content.
Consider also that most content that performs well in organic search is invisible—i.e., it doesn’t typically trigger shares, tweets, comments, etc. If you’re used to getting feedback on your movement content, this can be a hard transition to make. A well-rounded content strategy includes content for a variety of channels as well as useful information for every part of the funnel.
Distribution Isn’t Enough
At the core of the “movement-first, distribution-next” idea is the essential need for substance. It’s much easier to sell a product or grow a blog when there’s a thoughtful, convincing opinion behind it. Traffic from search is valuable, but it’s not enough to build a brand.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy in Content Marketing
Content marketing is an investment—until it’s not.
A blog watered down with content that no one reads is actually doing your website a disservice. Imagine that…the physical embodiment of your content marketing investment actually doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to do.
We recently shared the story of the QuickBooks Resource Center. SEO lead Will Waggoner deleted several hundred thousand dollars worth of posts—and traffic increased by 44%. They had to spend money to get rid of content they had spent a lot of money on. And while that sounds painful, content pruning is actually a necessary part of any content marketing operation. If you can’t conduct an objective autopsy of your existing content, you risk bloat.
Some content is an investment, some content was an investment.
The Hard Truth: You Must Abandon Some Content
Writer David McRaney does an excellent job of summing up the sunk cost fallacy in his post on the You Are Not So Smart blog:
The Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences.
The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.
The impact on content marketing is pretty clear. When companies invest a lot of time and money in content marketing, it’s really hard to say goodbye to hundreds or thousands of posts—even when it’s obvious that doing so is beneficial. The effect is compounded by the risk-averse nature of the modern workplace. Can you imagine telling your boss that the company’s investment in content is hurting the site? And what if you were the one that fought for the budget, hired the agency, or even wrote the posts? How many of us have the humility to eat the cost of those decisions and move forward?
A high-volume approach to content was an easy sell five or ten years ago. At the time, it would have been very difficult to foresee that decision creating problems later on. And while it’s hard to decouple our personal investment of time and what’s best for the company, it must be done.
Instead of thinking of content pruning as an occasional task, we should build it into our workflow and our budgets. It’s like regular maintenance. You wouldn’t buy a car, then get upset when you also have to pay for gas and oil changes. A similar mindset applies to content. The creation of the content is the upfront cost, but you have to maintain, repair, update, and remove too.
Why Content Pruning Works (or, How to Make the Case to Your Boss)
The mechanics of content pruning are simple, but often overlooked. It’s important to quantify how it works, so that you can better make the case that it’s worth doing.
Here are just a few of the ways that content pruning can benefit your site.
- Google can penalize an entire site for “cruft pages,” meaning that even really good content will struggle to rank. Pruning increases the density of high-quality content. This helps even out the content marketing power curve and makes for a more consistent reading experience.
- The less content you have, the more accessible it is. Part of content pruning is organizing content so that navigation is easy. Increasing engagement is correlated with better organic rankings.
- It’s forward-thinking. Content marketing has evolved quite a bit over the last few years. Outdated, lightweight content is not something you want associated with your site. You’re better off with no content than bad content.
And while that all sounds nice, the real benefit is more traffic. Content pruning can increase rankings. And small ranking improvements offer outsized traffic returns.
In a study of more than 1.6 million keywords, Advanced Web Ranking found that the first search result on a Google SERP was clicked 30% of the time. That’s more than double the pages that ranked second and nearly seven times more than the fifth result. As you move up in rankings, traffic growth isn’t quite exponential, but it’s definitely non-linear.
Using a baseline of 1,000 visits per month for ranking tenth, here’s how traffic growth can increase with better rankings:
|Rank||Traffic Increase||Monthly Visits|
That’s an average of 47% traffic growth per rank improvement. Yes, you can earn nearly 1.5x the traffic for every rank increase on the first page of a SERP. And you can more than double traffic by moving from the second to the first spot. Moving from 10 to 1 represents a 30x traffic increase.
(Note: This data is based on Advanced Web Rankings June 2018 analysis of desktop searches in the US.)
This is the goal of content pruning. And while there’s no guarantee that deleting content results in more traffic, the opportunity exists. We believe that every site, regardless of size, should commit to some pruning on a regular basis. Large sites stand to benefit quite a bit. Small sites may not see the same impact, but pruning has a similar effect to reducing advisory fees on a 401(k)—the benefit of compounding interest (or, in this case, traffic) is more powerful.
How to Prune Your Site Without Deleting Content
You may have trouble getting buy-in to delete content. You also may not need to. (Check out the QuickBooks case study to learn what Will suggests trying before you delete any pages.)
Content pruning is most often associated with the de-indexing or deleting of pages, but it does come in other forms. Combing posts is often the best place to start. Most blogs have overlapping articles. Posts created by different writers, or different teams, cover the same topics. The content isn’t exactly duplicate, but it’s not necessary to have two or more posts that aren’t significantly differentiated.
Combining posts requires an eye for editorial. You have to carefully weave the posts together so the end result is a cohesive, useful piece. We suggest using the “Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive” framework. In the context of content marketing, this means that you want to identify all posts that overlap, then either combine them or separate them completely. Information is easier to process when ideas are clearly organized. The goal is to limit the number of posts while increasing the exclusive information within each.
This is common, but not always easy to fix since approaching the same topic from different angles can be useful to readers. Here’s an example of how this might look for a site like QuickBooks. If you write a post for every relevant search query, you end up with a lot of overlapping content.
- [what is a 1099?]
- [what are the different types of 1099s?]
- [how do I pay 1099 employees?]
- [1099 vs. W2]
- [common 1099 mistakes]
- [1099 taxes]
- [1099 instructions]
- [printable 1099 form]
QuickBooks did write a post for nearly every search query. (Several blogs run by different teams were combined, which exacerbated the problem.) This also happened with a number of other terms (W-2, W-4, 1040, etc.) To clean this up, they needed a simple framework. Each topic gets the same treatment:
- definition post (“What Is the 1099 Form?”)
- comparison post (“1099 vs. W-2”)
- explainer post (“How to Issue a 1099 Form to Your Contractors”)
All of the query variations can be adequately covered within those posts. If QuickBooks were to create a post like “The Ultimate Guide to Payroll,” which would obviously need to cover 1099s, they could link to these posts rather than repeat information.
Overlapping content can also be repurposed. If you have content that you believe to be high quality, but isn’t getting traffic, you can remove it from your site and repurpose it as a gated lead generation tool or include it in an email campaign. This is a much easier sell than simply deleting it altogether and may be a good place for most sites, especially smaller ones, to start.
Past Performance Is Not Indicative Of Future Results
Content pruning is something that every site, no matter how small, should be thinking about at least once each year.
Even if things are going well and your site is steadily growing, be on guard for bloat, hard to find articles, lightweight posts, and overlapping content. Plenty of B2B sites have uncovered a tactic that led to quick traffic, only to find that it created problems later on. Content is always evolving and in the future, you may very well have to toss a post that is currently performing well.
Content marketing is an investment—as long as it’s maintained over the long-term.
How QuickBooks Nearly Doubled Traffic by Deleting Half Its Content
Here’s a bold SEO move.
Will Waggoner, SEO lead at QuickBooks, decided to delete 2,000 blog posts to fight off a slow decline in organic traffic. Those 2,000 posts represented more than 40% of the QuickBooks Resource Center, tens of thousands of dollars in investment and countless hours of writing.
And while you might expect that traffic dropped—it didn’t. In fact, traffic was up 20% within a few weeks. And by the time peak season rolled around—tax prep creates a surge in search volume between January and May—traffic was up 44%. That extra traffic contributed to a 72% increase in signups as well.
Content pruning works. But before you delete half your blog, we have to remind you that deleting pages does not guarantee more traffic. Far from it, actually. There are many factors to consider. We sat down with Will to chat about those considerations and hear his thoughts on how other sites could benefit from a similar process.
How to Prune Content From a B2B SaaS Blog
“The sites that benefit most from pruning have thousands, if not 100,000 or more pages,” says Will.
Take Home Depot as an example. It carries hundreds of thousands of SKUs on its site, plus category pages, brand pages and much more. Google has indexed at least eight million pages. Many of these pages are generated automatically. You can imagine that even a minor bug could generate a few thousand cruft pages. If these pages get no traffic and generate no revenue, deleting them is an easy decision.
This is obviously not the situation that most B2B SaaS blogs find themselves in. Each page or post is the result of design and dev work, writing, editing, and promotion. The decision to prune has to be made very carefully.
Will found himself in a situation where several blogs had been merged to create the QuickBooks Resource Center. As a result, some of the posts were outdated, many covered the same topics and some were full of broken links pointing to their previous owners. Additionally, the content team was producing new, high-quality content. Deleting old, lightweight content made more sense the more he looked into it.
Step 1: Aggregate Data on Your Content
Will scraped the site in Screaming Frog, exported data from Google Analytics, then merged the two spreadsheets so he could see all the data in one place. Then, he exported conversion data from an internal tool to see how each URL assisted in conversions. He ignored new content that hadn’t gotten a chance to rank yet, then filtered out articles that had received less than 100 visits in the last six months and no conversions. That left him with just over 2,000 articles—and “a looooot of VLOOKUPs.”
Step 2: Make a Plan for Redirects, Broken Links and Sitemaps
This is where things started to get a little tricky. Some of the pages had external backlinks and many had internal links pointing to them. Even though they didn’t get much traffic, Will wanted to redirect the URLs to make sure readers didn’t get 404 errors if they clicked a link pointing to a deleted page. He went through the list of pages to be deleted and found places to redirect as many of the URLs as he could. For pages that didn’t have natural places to redirect to, he pointed to the Resource Center homepage.
The QuickBooks sitemap updates automatically when pages are deleted, but not all sitemaps are dynamic. Will points out that this isn’t always the case. If yours isn’t dynamic, make sure to update it so you avoid asking Google to crawl a bunch of nonexistent pages.
Step 3: Make Your Case, Over and Over Again
Will didn’t get much pushback on his plan to remove those 2,000+ posts, but cautions that others likely will. Assuming that each of those posts cost $250 (and that’s on the very low end), Will’s campaign erased half a million dollars’ worth of content.
Will made the case that this purge of old blog posts would substantially improve the site’s structure as well as the reader experience. Now that he’s proven it can work, he’s planning another purge to make room for newer, better content on topics that have previously been covered.
Content pruning can be like pushing a bill through Congress. You have to negotiate, bargain, plea, and fight to make it happen. The legislative facet of pruning is either Step 3 (apologize later), or Step 1 (ask permission). We’ll leave it to you to decide what’s best for your org.
Whichever you choose, execute carefully. Small mistakes can lead to drops in traffic that are hard to get back. Don’t create new problems with hasty execution.
3 Things to Try Before You Prune Content
Will’s decision to prune content was calculated. There were a number of factors that he considered. To recap:
- Several blogs had been merged, which created a lot of overlap.
- Many of the articles were out of date and included links to dead pages.
- The content team was actively creating new high-quality content and could fill any gaps created by deleting old posts.
Two additional factors that we didn’t mention above are that (1) QuickBooks has really strong domain authority—that means new posts have a good chance to rank well and to rank quickly— and (2) QuickBooks has a number of other acquisition channels in addition to organic search traffic. For a smaller site with fewer channels to lean on, the risk is significantly increased.
Which is exactly why Will recommends trying a few things before removing old content.
1. Make Content More Accessible
One reason that content doesn’t get traffic is because it’s difficult to find. The standard blog homepage is a reverse chronological feed of posts. It’s very difficult to discover content that wasn’t created recently. This is true for readers and search engines—you want to reduce the number of clicks it takes to reach every post so that content is easily navigated by readers and indexed by crawlers.
And this simply doesn’t qualify as “navigation.”
One way to think about this is flattening your site architecture. A feed of posts is deep—meaning that the older a post is, the further away from the homepage it is.
Flattening your site most often means creating hubs of content based on categories, use cases, products or target reader, then adjusting the navigation so that hubs are easy to find.
Content marketers can create the hubs, but will likely need help from design and/or dev to fix navigation issues. You could go as far as recreating your entire content homepage, or just add links to hubs on the sidebar, footer or header of your site.
2. Address Internal Links
One of the challenges with SEO is that problems can arise from various parts of the business. One common example, Will explains, is that designers will style H1s to look a certain way. Then, the content team uses H1s when they should be using H2s or H3s.
This happens all the time with internal links too, especially on larger sites. Front-end developers and designers carefully place links to improve the UX, then content marketers load up their posts with way too many internal links, watering down the effect of the site’s structure.
Luckily, content marketers can fix this problem. “There was another test that I did where I used Screaming Frog to find articles had about like 10 to 15 internal links each,” Will explains. “There were several hundred articles that were loaded with internal links. I cut them down to like two or three per article and made sure those links were pointing to pages that were within striking distance of page one. We saw movement almost right away. It helps that our domain is strong, but cutting down those internal links gave the remaining ones even more equity.”
It’s a good idea to clean up internal links at least once each year, especially if you have multiple contributors to your site. Be deliberate about where links point and be stingy about how many are in each article.
3. Update and Refresh Old Content
This is by far the least-sexy-but-most-effective alternative to pruning a site, especially for smaller sites with less than 1,000 articles. Content naturally decays over time and should be updated regularly so that the information is up-to-date and any minor on-page SEO issues can be cleaned up.
Start with on-page SEO. You’ll want to check page titles and H1s to address any duplicates. (Screaming Frog is great for this.) You can fix H2s and H3s to add more descriptive keywords (the Moz Bar makes this easy), fix broken links (this Chrome extension is great), replace old stock images (remember these?).
In doing this for our own site, I found a number of blog posts with duplicate meta descriptions.
If you’ve optimized as much as you can and still aren’t seeing results, you can refresh the content. There are a few ways to do this:
- Expand content to make it more in-depth.
- Update content to reflect the most up-to-date best practices, statistics, examples, etc.
- Create a completely new post on the same, but use the old URL.
You can also re-launch refreshed content via email or social to drive new visitors.
Back to Basics
This is content marketing 101, but it’s important to remember that basics are really effective. Pruning content is a big decision and not one to be taken lightly. Before you do it, make sure you’ve exhausted all of your less expensive, less risky, less irreversible options.
How Google Analytics Kills Great Blogs
If you remember the Animalz blog for just one thing, let it be this: The oversimplification of content marketing is a drag on the entire industry. A nuanced understanding of content marketing strategy, creation, and measurement is the thing that separates great blogs from the rest.
We’ve previously discussed oversimplification in the context of growth constraints. Content is most often used to increase top-of-funnel traffic—even if that isn’t the constraint on growth. We’ve also covered it in the context of timing, i.e., how do you write for topics that are trending up vs. down?
In these cases (and dozens of others), success is determined long before a single word is written, optimized, or shared. Content “works” only if the strategy is created to solve a real problem—one whose solution is easily tracked and measured. An oversimplified approach results in noise (and wasted budget) every single time.
In my nearly 10 years in content marketing, I’ve spent countless hours in Google Analytics trying to fine-tune a report that uses multichannel attribution to “prove” once and for all that content marketing is worth the spend. I’ve never managed to do it.
Google Analytics encourages an oversimplified approach to measuring content for three reasons:
- Content marketing ROI is incredibly difficult to measure. The numbers in Google Analytics measure small, specific things, but people tend to believe they are more comprehensive than they actually are.
- It’s free, so it’s used out-of-the-box, without any customization. This emphasizes the metrics that Google chooses to show, not the ones that are actually indicative of your success.
- Metrics are updated in real time, which means people check it often. This shortens the timeline that content marketer’s measure against.
This isn’t really about the problems with Google Analytics; it’s about the desire for near-term ROI that causes marketers to fiddle with strategies that will work, given enough time. We need a better way to measure content marketing.
To really drive this point home, let’s rewind the clock about 70 years. Content marketers, meet George Katona.
What Content Marketers Can Learn From the Consumer Sentiment Index
In 1946, the Federal Reserve approached Dr. George Katona, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, and asked him to help create a survey to measure Americans’ assets.
He took the job but proposed a twist: A trained psychologist, Katona believed that emotion played a key role in the economy, and he was keen to collect data to prove his theory. If he could find a way to measure the way people felt about money, he might be able to predict the way they spent it.
The Fed rejected his idea. After all, how do you measure feelings on a mass scale? But Katona found a way to get the data he needed from the survey anyway. Instead of asking people how they felt about their personal finances or the economy, he probed with broad, general questions like, “Are you better or worse off financially than you were a year ago?” and “Do you think you’ll be better or worse off in a year?” Optimism (or pessimism) turned out to be a really good predictor of where the economy was heading.
Katona collected this data for years before anyone cared about his “subjective” measurement. But when the idea caught on in the 1970s, he already had decades of data to map against the stock market. So was born the Consumer Sentiment Index.
Amazingly, consumer sentiment dropped—i.e., pessimism increased—just before each recession. The opposite was true, too. As optimism increased, GDP rose. The model worked.
Katona, of course, wasn’t surprised to find that consumers made decisions based on noneconomic motives. The markets rose and fell based on what economist John Maynard Keynes called “animal spirits.” In other words, pure emotion.
In his book Essays on Behavioral Economics (PDF), Katona concluded that
(a) changes in consumer attitudes and expectations are measurable;
(b) attitudes and expectations represent intervening variables modifying overt behavior;
(c) changes in optimism and pessimism and therefore in willingness to buy have a great impact on discretionary expenditures; and
(d) changes in consumer expenditures on durable goods have a substantial influence on general economic trends.
Not only did Katona prove that emotion was a driver of economic trends, but he also figured out how to measure it. Decades ago, Katona solved a problem that we in the SaaS marketing world are still wrestling with today. A blog doesn’t grow (or decline) because of raw emotion, but success (or failure) cannot be measured without a holistic set of data points. Google Analytics does not, for example, tell you how people feel about your content and your brand—and that is far more important than page views and bounce rates.
A Better Way to Measure Content Marketing
A few years ago, Moz founder Rand Fishkin published a slide deck that explained Why Content Marketing Fails. He apparently struck a chord—it’s been viewed more than 4.4. million times. The first reason he presents is that stakeholders want to draw a direct line between pageviews and sales. And as any content manager knows, it’s never that simple.
This is exactly the same line of thinking that Katona fought against. He wrote that “traditional economic analysis, not making use of [psychological] survey data, had at its disposal only aggregate data on consumer expenditures . . . and no quantitative data at all on economic motives or expectations.”
Economists before him measured the data they had—and it was incomplete. Marketers today follow the same path. They analyze the data they have, most often Google Analytics, without considering the metrics they haven’t yet measured.
No one sums up this problem better than Statuspage cofounder Danny Olinsky:
During every conversation with prospective customers, we always ask the question “How did you hear about us”? Many responses go something like this – “I think I may have seen a blog post of yours,” or “You guys wrote that post on reaching $5k in MRR, right?,” and “I honestly can’t remember, but I may have seen a post of yours or one of your customer’s status pages.” Ironically, it seems like the less people actually remember how they heard about you, the better job you’ve done at content marketing.
Our marketing director, Devin Bramhall, points out that nonpaid marketing campaigns are inherently difficult to measure. There isn’t a simple input/output equation that results in perfect data every time. Treating organic campaigns as if they were paid can and will ruin them. Instead, Devin suggests an index of metrics—not unlike the Consumer Sentiment Index—that paints a more comprehensive picture and helps you tune into some of the hard-to-measure benefits of content marketing.
Here are the numbers she suggests measuring:
You have to measure traffic—we’ll never suggest otherwise. But you have to keep it in perspective. “In the early days,” explains Devin, “traffic helps you track your growth. Later, it becomes more of a general health metric. It’s good to look at on a monthly basis at a high level, and also as a way to measure campaigns designed to drive traffic to individual posts.”
Here are the two things she suggests all SaaS blogs should be keeping tracking of:
- Total blog traffic on a monthly basis
- The percentage of traffic to “buy” pages (product/feature pages, pricing page, home page) coming from content
Other than that, look for specific metrics that measure your blog’s success. If, for example, you run calls to action alongside content, monitor clicks and conversions. If you use guest posts to build links, keep an eye on search traffic to the pages you’re linking back to. Find small, specific numbers, and then view them alongside longer-term traffic numbers—this how you incentivize healthy growth.
2. Email Open Rate and Click-Through Rate
Measuring the same content across different channels is really important.
When people reach your site via organic search, they are seeking information. They want answers and don’t care about your brand or reputation. When people opt into an email list, they are affirming that they like your brand and want more.
Email metrics tell an interesting story about readers’ continued interest. A drop in opens and clicks should be investigated. An increase should be celebrated. Perhaps more importantly, this data should be analyzed in conjunction with traffic. Some content will perform better in search, some will thrive in email, so measure accordingly. An SEO-driven post is unlikely to drive tons of interest in email, and a thought-leadership post that resonates in a newsletter may not drive sustained traffic.
Lastly, keep an eye out for replies. Readers do respond to emails with feedback and questions that can be indicative of broader trends.
3. Organic Social Engagement
Social media is a channel where you get granular feedback on content. If you share the same post more than once, you can see what angles resonate the most—is the post’s headline enough to drive clicks, or do people get excited about a quote or statistic that you’ve highlighted?
Not only do you get the chance to measure content on a third channel, but you also get the most accurate feel for whether or not people enjoy it. Social is where readers will do the most replying, commenting, re-sharing, etc. This data is hard to quantify, but it tells volumes about the effect your content has on people.
Anecdotal reporting—i.e., screenshots of tweets, comments, email replies, etc.—absolutely has a place in your measurement. Stakeholders want to see how real people are reacting to the content. Put this alongside your charts and graphs with context about who the people are and why their reaction is meaningful—it’s just as powerful as hard data.
Keep Google Analytics in Perspective
Google Analytics simply cannot measure the success or failure of your content marketing. Use it as a tool, but keep it in its place. Whether you use the metrics we suggested above or come up with your own, find a way to create an index that tells the whole story about content efforts. Hard data alone just doesn’t cut it.