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.

  1. Understand the Core Problem That Content Is Addressing
  2. Incentivize Quality by Measuring the Right Numbers
  3. Invest in Quality via People and Process
  4. Get the Technical Stuff Right
  5. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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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