Experiment, Systematize, Differentiate: The Content Strategy Maturity Model

We often criticize the use of ultimate guides and listicle content, and with good reason. Many companies operate in content-saturated industries where these “classic” content marketing tactics are tired and ineffective.

Many companies—but not all.

There are still many industries where those old-school tactics are effective, simply because they've not yet been used. After all, there's a reason these content formats evolved: an ultimate guide is a useful way to consolidate ideas and advice that would otherwise be fragmented across dozens of blog posts. A listicle is punchy and quicker to skim-read than a meandering essay.

In other words, the optimal types of content and the “best” content strategy for your business depend on your goals and audience, sure—but they also depend on the maturity of content marketing within your industry.

Some companies really do need to invest every cent in highly sophisticated, highly differentiated content just to stand out from the hundreds of competitors in their industry. But in other industries, many companies can employ simpler tactics to great effect. Overengineering their strategy would be a waste of resources.

The content strategy maturity model is a useful way for choosing the right approach to content marketing.

The Interdependency of Content Marketing

It’s easy to think of content as something you do—the keywords you target, the audience you engage, the links you build—but your content marketing strategy is also shaped by what other companies do.

We talk often of this game-theory-like nature of content marketing. The content published by your competitors changes the environment that your content lives in, and vice versa. A good idea on paper can become a bad idea in practice because of the response it elicits from others or because of how it changes the environment.

As a result, as soon as one company in a given industry publishes content, the incentive for competing companies to do the same increases:

  • A competitor’s decision to write about a particular topic implies that there’s a business case for doing so.
  • You’re incentivized to compete or else allow your competitor unhindered access to traffic and revenue.
  • As you create content, the pressure for other companies to compete grows—rinse and repeat.

As more companies are drawn into the content marketing fray, the information landscape as a whole changes, and once-profitable tactics lose their edge. If 500-word blog posts are the tactic du jour, creating a 5,000-word ultimate guide is a potent differentiator. Over time, other companies are incentivized to follow suit and create their own ultimate guides, until that becomes the status quo.

This cycle of adoption changes the best practices of content marketing in a predictable way, nudging the industry further along the maturity model. We've sketched this model out below:

The Content Marketing Maturity Model.png

As the aphorism goes, all models are wrong; some models are useful. It’s impossible to precisely plot the progression of content marketing within your industry. But it’s possible and useful to work out which of these three phases best matches your experience and the prevailing strategy you should pursue: experimentation, systematization, or differentiation.

Phase One: Experimentation

In phase one, content marketing is a novelty, unused by most companies. There are perhaps a handful of pioneers engaging in content creation in an ad hoc, unstructured way. Industries in phase one are often characterized by:

  • A content greenfield. There are no big, established blogs or resource centers; most content is published by small teams and individuals.
  • Ad hoc and unstructured content. Content marketing is usually tactical and lacks an overarching strategy. Articles and essays are published sporadically, and little thought is given to distribution.
  • Low to no competition for topics or keywords. The search results for core topics are relatively uncontested. Blogs with low domain authority can contest most keywords.

Ten years ago, most industries were in phase one. Today, when content marketing is regarded as low risk, high reward, phase one is primarily the haunt of laggard industries that have barriers to adoption: industries where the buying processes happens primarily “offline,” like call centers; where relevant, lucrative keywords aren’t as readily available, like commercial flooring; or where there’s a high knowledge barrier to overcome, like legal operations.

In phase one, content is the preserve of the pioneers, and there’s no playbook to follow. For companies in phase one, you can’t look to your competitors for inspiration, so your goal is to experiment and find the topics and content formats that resonate with your audience. Any content format is game—including those regarded as outmoded in other industries.

By way of example, the legal operations platform SimpleLegal has gained traction with content that wouldn’t work in later-stage industries, like these traffic-generating, high-ranking examples published within the last two years:

In phase one, the first-mover advantage is still readily available to any company willing to adopt content marketing, and high returns come from relatively simple tactics.

Phase Two: Systematization

Phase two marks the widespread adoption of content marketing, as the early benefits and disproportionate ROI achieved by content’s early adopters encourage more companies to participate. Industries in phase two are normally characterized by:

  • Early leaders. Content marketing becomes a popular tactic, and early successes have allowed a handful of companies to begin developing brand recognition.
  • Increasingly strategic approach to content. Articles become less ad hoc as companies begin to systematically create content and target keywords.
  • Moderate competition for topics or keywords. The most lucrative keyword opportunities attract attention and begin to grow more contested.

Today, phase two is populated by industries that weren’t among the vanguard of content marketing’s earliest adopters but were faster to adopt than the laggard industries. Most industries today fall into this phase. Examples might include education technology, fintech, and product management.

The Content Marketing Maturity Model (2).png

For companies in phase two, systemization is key to success. When multiple companies begin vying for the same topics and search terms, being the first to execute a coordinated, structured content marketing strategy pays dividends. In practice, that means moving away from ad hoc content creation and embracing:

  • Persona targeting, creating content geared specifically to the needs of potential customers
  • Hubs-and-spokes, systematically targeting relevant keywords and their variations with content series
  • Developing topical authority, focusing content creation on a handful of core product-related topics

Sporadic, ad hoc content marketing is no longer enough to win traffic and keyword rankings. As competition increases, companies that are methodical and organized have the edge.

Phase Three: Differentiation

In phase three, the industry is saturated with content marketing. Content has become a default marketing channel, and it’s rare to find companies without a content marketing strategy of some type. Phase three industries are characterized by:

  • Content oligopoly. One or two dominant players (like Shopify in ecommerce, HubSpot in marketing, and Close in sales) have built a moat of backlinks, keyword rankings, and brand recognition and forced myriad up-and-comers to compete over lower-volume keywords.
  • Playbooked content marketing. The strategies that differentiated companies in phase two are now commonplace; virtually every entrant is competing for similar keywords and similar audiences.
  • High competition for topics or keywords. With every company vying for the same keywords, domain authority carries the day. The companies with the greatest number of links generally win the search results.

These industries are relatively few, but they feel prevalent because they account for the majority of the world’s content marketing. Today’s phase three industries were the first to adopt content marketing; where content offers a clear and obvious path to revenue, with an abundance of relevant keywords and buying processes that happily happen online.

The Content Marketing Maturity Model (3).png

In phase three, differentiation wins. With the best keyword opportunities contested by big, established companies, and with every company following the same “best practices” playbook, companies need to differentiate themselves from the masses of existing content or else be lost in the noise. In practice, that means using tactics like:

New companies in mature industries need to make use of the second-mover advantage, avoiding direct competition with the industry behemoths and engineering a content strategy that’s strong where the competition is weak.

Content Strategy Is an Arms Race

Every strategy that provides an edge will, if possible, be copied by competitors. This arms race has continually pushed forward the “maturity” of content marketing strategy, from ad hoc personal essays to 5,000-word ultimate guides to opinionated thought-leadership content. As today’s cutting-edge tactics become old news, we’ll see another phase emerge.

Your industry falls somewhere along this maturity spectrum. Whether content is still a relative novelty or it’s become a default marketing tactic, your strategy needs to acknowledge the wider environment it finds itself in.