6 Lessons Learned from a Year of Content Strategy

Our team of content strategists spend all day, every day, creating content strategies.

They partner with dozens of customers in dozens of industries. They experiment with all kinds of weird and wonderful content. They live in keyword spreadsheets, sitemaps, and Google Analytics reports. They’ve brainstormed enough articles to keep a content calendar full for several decades.

In other words, they have a lot of experience to share, so I asked our team of content strategists—Allie, Cassie, Goran, Katie, Mark, and Whitney—to share their greatest lesson learned from a year spent in the trenches of content marketing.

1) Learn from Netflix: Ditch Failures and Double Down on Successes

New blogs need to take a "Netflix" approach to content, rather than an "HBO" approach.

Netflix is known for casting a wide net and producing a lot of different TV shows. If you browse through Netflix, you’ll notice a ton of shows with only one season. That’s because if Netflix produces a show that isn’t a hit, they abandon it. But once Netflix finds a show that’s popular, they double down on it. They promote it harder, they create new seasons of it, and they even produce spin-offs of it.

HBO takes a more conservative approach. They tend to only produce shows they know have a good chance of being successful. This results in less content, but higher quality content overall.

That doesn’t mean content marketers should focus on producing low-quality content. Instead, you need to simply cast a wide net.

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In content marketing, you really never know what will be successful until you start producing content. This is especially true for new blogs with low brand awareness. It’s risky to invest too heavily in an idea that hasn’t been tested.

For that reason, you need to try a number of different types of content. Look for leading indicators of success. When you find one, double down on it, and then switch to your HBO approach.

Analytics governance tool Avo is a great example of this in action. The company tried a few different approaches with blog content. They covered data governance, data debt, tracking plans, interview-based content, and philosophical content.

But when they saw an opportunity to succeed with tracking-plan content, they leaned hard into it. The first tracking-plan post was Our Definitive Guide to Tracking Plans. With some leading indicators of success, they then produced seven additional posts about tracking plans.

2) Great Content Strategy Is Just Great Business Strategy

When you launch your blog or content strategy, there’s one big question you need to ask yourself: Am I Amazon or Ben & Jerry’s?

That question’s been on my mind since I read Joel Spolsky’s article Strategy Letter I: Ben and Jerry’s vs. Amazon. In it, Spolsky breaks down the difference between the two radically different business approaches taken by early-stage Bezos and early-days Ben and Jerry: the former chose to get big fast, no matter the costs; the latter chose slow and steady growth over decades.

Both strategies are valid, but not for everyone.

This same dichotomy informs content strategy. Content marketers can either choose to grow an audience over months and years of niche content creation, or they can stage an Amazon-style “land grab,” targeting all relevant keywords in a vertical and investing in rapid SERP domination.

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Again, both are valid, but not for everyone. Choose the right one and you’ll see growth that impacts the bottom line. Choose the wrong one and you risk seeing little growth at all.

How do you figure out which is right for your business’s content? For each of the 20+ content strategies I’ve built over the last 12 months, that’s what I’ve tried to figure out.

By combining Joel Spolsky’s business wisdom with a little Animalz magic, I came up with a rough matrix that can help you decide whether to go big or go boutique.

Be Amazon if... Be Ben & Jerry if...
New technology, no competition at first Lots of established competitors
Your product has strong lock-in once users sign up Your product has low network effects and barriers to abandonment
You have lots of capital to invest in content You're short on capital
Industry is fast-moving enough to continually throw open new keywords Industry moves slowly, little change in terminology
You have no earned secrets to exploit You have an earned secret your can exploit
Unexpected event opens up wide new applications for your product Few new applications for your product

In a fast-moving sector like ecommerce, in which new keywords and pain points appear all the time, content marketers should build their strategies around rolling “land grabs” of keywords, riding every new wave at the top of SERPs. Content teams in less rapidly developing sectors—think legal operations or nonprofits—will want to reduce investment in keyword grabs and instead create boutique content that creates returning site visitors.

And watch out—you may be Ben & Jerry’s one year and Amazon the next.

One of the most exciting parts of this topsy-turvy year has been watching the explosion of investment and opportunity in EdTech (Education Technology). Content marketers in that vertical should have already made the switch from Ben & Jerry’s to Amazon; if they haven’t, now is the time.

3) High Traffic Comes from Topical Authority, Not Individual Keywords

Since I joined Animalz in March, I’ve focused on helping companies generate qualified SEO traffic. Working with both startup and enterprise-level customers has allowed me to test multiple hypotheses and experiment with lots of frameworks across different audiences and different markets.

My biggest takeaway: It’s time to rethink how we build SEO traffic.

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Instead of chasing single keyword opportunities, brands should shift their focus to building topical authority. From my experience, the key to getting “seen” organically in search today is demonstrating great expertise in a specific topic.

Many companies today fixate on high-volume keywords. We’ve seen better results with a "bottom to top" approach: targeting everything from the highest-volume to the lowest-volume keyword variations, and tapping into niche-specific angles as well.

For instance, we work with one customer that offers a lead-generation product for small businesses. Instead of exclusively targeting "small business lead generation" keywords, we’ve expanded our SEO strategy to the verticals where they're most successful: automotive, healthcare, legal, and so on.

We've decided to go as granular as possible, targeting verticals within verticals—as well as keywords like "healthcare lead generation." We're also building content for terms like "dental lead generation" and "assisted living lead generation."

4) Developers Are Allergic to Marketing

The more technical your audience is, the more conversational (and less market-y) you need to be.

I’ve spent 2020 helping developer-focused companies create technical content for both SEO and thought-leadership purposes. In talking with (and being edited by) subject-matter experts within the developer tools space, I’ve seen over and over again that developers are allergic to anything that feels like marketing. The more discerning the reader, technically speaking, the more conversational and opinionated you need to be.

As marketers, we have to fight the tendency to lean into jargon and marketing “fluff” when in unfamiliar waters. Misused terminology, labored jokes and references, unrealistic anecdotes, overt product CTAs, and too much polish all make content feel promotional.

To resonate with dev communities (and to avoid your content getting torn apart on Reddit and Hacker News), you have to talk to your readers like you would talk to your grandma—if your grandma understood how servers worked and had a favorite CLI.

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This is neatly summed up by dev community guru Danielle Morrill: “Developers are really good at knowing when they're being manipulated. That's a unique problem you have.”

Being conversational and flexing your opinion is what separates bad technical writing and lackluster marketing from the gold that gains respect in D2D (developer to developer) communities. Behind every cutting-edge technical product is a bleeding, human pain point. Dev content marketing should be able to express this clearly to the audiences that matter.

5) Make Every Blog Post Work a Little Harder

Ideas, money, time, resources, approval. Whatever it is you need, chances are, you don’t have it. But you can get around that by finding ways to make what you do have go further.

  • Pull a well-performing article into a hub and spoke to lend link equity to related content that’s struggling to rank in search results.
  • Plan for your one-off interview with an industry leader to inform many pieces of content, not just the article you’re interviewing for.
  • Use a co-marketing engagement as a jumping-off point for a long-term product, marketing, or sales relationship.
  • Repurpose your pillar piece into talking points for your sales team, an email or retargeting campaign, a gated resource, a tweetstorm (or five), or even just a bunch of bite-sized blog posts. (The reverse works, too.)
  • Expand on your existing content, creating new middle- and bottom-of-funnel content for the top-of-funnel articles your audience is reading. And use that ToFu article to drive your readers into this new content.
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With every piece, take a step back and think, how else can I leverage this content to get closer to my goals?

6) Remember that “Best Practices” Lag Behind the Real World

Let’s face it: marketers love more than a good framework. The content marketing landscape is swarming with templates and best practices. Follow these steps, apply this template, and you’ll see success, guaranteed.

But this year has taught me (or, rather, confirmed) that while these kinds of categories may be useful in a sort of academic Content Marketing 101 sense to teach you the different functions that content can perform, in the real world, they get jumbled up really quickly.

ToFu/MoFu/BoFu—who cares, as long as it’s useful, interesting, and exciting to your reader, and they know it came from you? Search content has to be separate from thought leadership? Why, if your brand has a strongly differentiated point of view that also answers a searcher’s question?

We experienced this ourselves firsthand on the Animalz blog this year.

We have strong opinions about the right (and wrong) way to approach thought-leadership content. So we wrote about it, and now that post is a top-ranking result for the search terms “thought leadership” and “thought leadership content” and comes up during sales conversations and informs new opportunities for existing customers. And we barely glanced at the articles that were ranking at the time.

Try this for yourself as you’re planning content for next year.

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Instead of following the same old “best practice” of starting with a list of keywords you think you should own and then letting the results for those keywords drive your writing, start by brainstorming the subjects your team is genuinely passionate about. Let the strength of your ideas guide your keywords, not the other way around.

The thing about “best practices” is that by the time you’ve heard of them, by the time they’ve been codified as “the way,” they’re no longer effective. The goal of marketing is to get attention, to stand out. And if you are doing the exact same thing, following the exact same steps as every other B2B SaaS brand out there, then you are, by definition, not doing that.

You get the gist: Learn the rules so you can break them. Identify the spots where you can bend and break the best practices of content marketing in a way that makes room for you and your brand; that’s where you’ll do your most exciting—and effective—work.