The Content Value Curve

Ever wish you could carry a spare bottle of water around in your underwear? If you do, then the 2005 Evian Water Bra was designed with you in mind. The garment, meant to serve as a cooling alternative to traditional bras during summer, also featured a small pouch in which the wearer could stash a bottle of mineral water.

There was just one problem with Evian’s Water Bra: No one needs their underwear to carry both body parts and beverages. The Water Bra was discontinued right after launch, brought low by its putative value prop—its multi-functionality as both garment and drinks-holder.

The same rule applies to content marketing. For a piece of content to be successful, it must avoid trying to fulfill multiple objectives for its audience. Instead, that piece of content should focus on enabling its target audience to do one thing—not two things or many things.

The Content Value Curve

Content adds value to the reader by enabling that reader to do something or to think something; it can add tactical value (do something) or strategic value (think something). Generally, the more strategic value a piece of content adds, the less likely it is to add tactical value, and vice versa. This is because:

  • Tactical content is situationally relevant. This kind of content is helpful for one person trying to solve a particular problem, but it isn’t very interesting to anyone who doesn’t have that particular problem. The more comprehensive a solution to that problem offered by the tactical piece of content, the less opportunity the piece has to expound the type of ideas that add strategic value to a reader.
  • Tactical and strategic content speak to radically different audiences. Tactical content reaches tactical readers or folks lower down the marketing food chain. These people are, to quote Animalz alum Jimmy Daly, “implementors who need instructions on writing email subject lines or growing a Twitter following.” The more actionable you can make your content, the better for these readers. Strategic readers—executives and decision-makers—need frameworks and first principles, not instructions on how to do their job.

These two factors create an inverse relationship between strategic and tactical content, in which we see the tactical value of a piece fall as its strategic value rises. If we graph that inverse strategic-tactical relationship out, we get the content value curve:

Different types of content can be mapped closely to this value curve, depending on the quantity of strategic or tactical value they offer. But before looking at examples, let’s dig into those strategic versus tactical value axes for a moment.

Tactical Value

Content adds tactical value when it educates the target reader on how to solve a problem or carry out a process. If you’re pursuing an SEO-driven content strategy, you may find that much of your content skews towards “tactical,” as most keywords answer a “how-to” search intent. This is the kind of content that serves many informational keywords and drives a lot of compounding traffic in the form of unique visits.

Sharing a piece of content with tactical value on social media will garner little engagement—few folks on Twitter care that you just learned how to do a tactical part of your job. That’s why tactical content isn’t very helpful if your objective is to build brand or buzz: It has situational relevance when you need to solve a discrete problem but often isn’t interesting or widely relevant enough to come back and read once you’ve solved that problem or share with others.

Wistia’s How Long Should Your Next Video Be? is a great example of tactical content. With over 30,000 views and a page 1 ranking for “video length,” it’s smart and empirical but also unashamedly tactical. It tells video content creators how to optimize one granular part of the jobs, not how to rethink a concept or approach.

Strategic Value

Content adds strategic value when it equips the reader with a new conceptual framework, a new first principle, or a new perspective. This kind of content is often ill-served by search traffic, as ideas that challenge the status quo rarely map neatly onto high-volume keywords.

Unlike tactical content, content with strategic value has the potential to succeed on social platforms and build the brand. And you don’t even actually have to write content with strategic value to get a brand boost: Just sharing something of strategic value can still cache among followers, as it positions the sharer as part of an intellectual avant-garde.

Take a look at Your Blog Is Not a Publication, a classic example of a post with high strategic value. It’s one of the most backlinked pieces of content on the Animalz blog, and it comes up more often than any other post during our sales process. It changed how a lot of content marketers thought about their content organization and their blog strategy as a whole. What this piece doesn’t do is rank for any good keywords—its top keyword is “not a blog,” at position 18—and for a strategic piece like this, that’s OK.

Mapping Content Along the Value Curve

Different content lanes fall in different spots along the curve, depending on whether they add strategic or tactical value:

At the far left of the curve, with high strategic value and low tactical, we have counter-narrative thought leadership. This type of content aims to challenge industry truisms and commonly held opinions. It shares frameworks that you can apply to solve problems or sparks heated discussion. What it doesn’t do is necessarily tell you how to apply that concept day to day.

Basecamp’s Meetings Are Toxic is a great case in point: At fewer than 500 words, this post shares a different way to think about work communication, but it has scant information on how to actually move beyond work meetings to something different.

At the other end of the value curve, hard-right, we have things like knowledge bases. These have high tactical value, but they rarely introduce innovative concepts or principles. Truework’s knowledge base does a great job of explaining the granular details of employment verification forms and how to carry out processes like verifying Uber drivers. There are no big ideas here, just solid actionable advice for tactically minded readers.

Counter-narrative thought leadership and knowledge bases bookend the rest of the standard content lanes used by content marketers, which fall somewhere between these two on the value curve.

Use Both Ends of The Content Value Curve

In the same way that bras weren’t made to carry water bottles, the best pieces of content eschew the multifunctional. Successful content aims to provide one single type of value—tactical or strategic—and optimizes both distribution and style depending on where that content falls on the value curve. An optimal content strategy mixes content optimized for different types of value throughout its funnel, but never in the same piece.

Several factors influence whether your content skews toward the tactical end of the curve or the strategic:

  • Marketing goals: If your main marketing goal revolves around building trust and credibility, skew strategic. Content with strategic value demonstrates your expertise and authority in your space and positions your brand as a high-leverage partner for buyers. If, on the other hand, you aim to generate leads or strengthen product-led growth, favor tactical content that directly speaks to the pain points your product solves.
  • Target audience: If you want to attract junior titles on the frontline of product adoption, you need tactical content. Strategic content is better suited to reaching senior managers and decision-makers, the type of people who can advocate for top-down adoption of your product.
  • Vertical maturity: In verticals where content marketing is not yet an established marketing tactic, tactical content can provide an early traffic bump, allowing you to dominate unserved search queries before competitors. In industries already reaching content saturation, it’s hard to get brand visibility just through tactical content that shows up in SERPs. In those kinds of mature content verticals, strategic content might be a good area of focus.

The truth is, most mature content strategies will leverage both strategic content and tactical content to reach different audiences and achieve various business goals. The most successful content marketers position their content at various points along the value curve, changing the emphasis as the vertical, audience, and marketing goals mature.

What they won’t do is try to reach tactical and strategic readers in the same piece of content. We’ll leave that to the folks over at Evian.