How to Succeed at Content Marketing: Do It Better, or Do It Differently

There are more than 780,000 games in Apple’s App Store. Nearly all rely on the same elements of habit-forming psychology to build addicting games. Some are massive hits, but most max out on downloads within just a few months.

If we understand the formula to make one successful game, why can't we create successful games every time? After all, the thinking goes, isn't success just something that comes when you've nailed down the machine, the formula, the system that gets you there? Here's veteran game maker Tadhg Kelly on why most mobile games still aren't successful:

Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride may have hit on something, but for the dozens of other developers who then made an endless runner, not so much. Zynga and Supercell may have hit the mother lode with a farming and a strategy game, but most of the other studios who tried to replicate this success failed. Their successes were not just about iteration, execution, and marketing.

Kelly's conclusion is that many game makers take a very conservative approach. Temple Run is successful, so other game makers create a similar game. They assume that Temple Run's success is formulaic, so they repeat it in hopes of similar results. Even if the new game is actually better, this rarely works. Formulaic thinking is usually too risk-averse to be effective. It's true in game development, it's true in business, and it's definitely true in content marketing.

The Formula Framework

Ask someone who works in SaaS which blogs they enjoy reading. You're almost certain to get answers like First Round Review and Intercom. Why?

Each has perfected an innovative formula. First Round Review turns interviews into great, long-form posts with plenty of actionable advice. Intercom is led by an editorial pro and manages to publish contributed posts written by genuine experts without sacrificing quality or volume. In both cases, they've executed extremely well. There are elements to be borrowed from each, but it's highly unlikely that a copycat blog could have anywhere near the same success.

In fact, the reason you hear so many people applauding their efforts is because the formulas feel fresh. The default content strategy is to borrow someone else's formula, but that contradicts the reason the strategy was appreciated in the first place. What made Temple Run successful is exactly what makes it hard to replicate.

That's not to say every site requires a unique formula to succeed with content marketing. There's plenty of opportunity for unsexy, but effective content marketing. Zapier is a good example. Their formula—writing SEO-driven content about apps and productivity—isn't particularly sexy, but it earns them an estimated 6 million visitors each month. They don't need any buzz about their content strategy because they've got what all content marketers really want: lots of organic traffic.

Here's the framework for thinking about this: If a formulaic approach can work, do it. But if a formulaic approach turns your blog into a commodity, you need to differentiate.

When competition is weak, do it better.

If your market is new or your competition is weak, you can take an existing formula and refine it. This typically means creating content that's similar to what's out there, just bigger, better, longer, etc. The key here is being way, way better. If you're going to borrow an existing formula, success depends almost entirely on distancing yourself from the competition.

AdEspresso, the Facebook ad optimization platform, published its first blog post in September 2012. That year, Facebook recorded $6 billion in ad revenue. That may seem like a lot, but that market for good content about Facebook advertising was fertile ground at the time.

The strategy was unsexy, but effective: write helpful posts targeting a number of related search terms. Facebook advertising revenue has increased 6.5x to $39 billion since then, and the demand for content has increased with it. Because AdEspresso started when the competition was low, a formulaic approach worked really well. The site has been rewarded with hundreds of thousands of visitors each month and the company has since been acquired by Hootsuite.

If you take the formulaic route, don't expect anyone to laud your efforts—at least, not in the early days. This approach is decidedly unprovocative and works best when your primary objective is capturing organic search.

When competition is strong, do it differently.

If your space is crowded, consider creating a new formula. Think of Buffer sharing their salaries, Mattermark's daily curation, or Ben Thompson's analysis. It's much easier to grow a site when you have a formula that breaks the mold. The elements of a content formula are as follows:

  • Channel - Where will you meet your readers?
  • Cadence - How often can you write without sacrificing quality?
  • Perspective - What's your angle? Are you a curious observer, an expert analyst, or a thoughtful curator?
  • Tone - How does your writing make people feel?
  • Execution - Can you actually meet the expectations you are setting?

Taking an approach that's different than your competition feels risky because it hasn't been validated yet. But maybe it's just the opposite. Staking out territory in an existing industry with a fresh take is actually less risky since you don't have to compete head-to-head with a number of other sites.

Intercom is one of only a few companies to successfully weave content directly into their company culture. This, along with an editorial team led by twenty-year veteran John Collins, gives them an edge. The content team facilitates the creation of great content from their internal design, engineering, product, support, and marketing teams.

The model is nearly impossible to replicate unless content is baked into the business. This is extremely difficult for established companies to do since it: 1) must come from the top down and 2) should be clear that new hires are expected to participate. Once rolling, the flywheel effect kicks in and attracts new employees that are interested in sharing their expertise.

Proven Formulas Are Fleeting

Creating your own formula requires much more work upfront, but can have a significant payoff later. Whichever route you choose, make sure your chances of success are reasonably high. There's no worse content strategy than underinvesting in content that never pays off.