Risk vs. Reward: How to Build a Diversified Content Portfolio

Great content marketing looks a lot like a diversified investment portfolio.

Smart investors realize that different types of investments serve different purposes. Index funds, for example, offer a slow-but-steady return. And while they’ll never surprise you with stunning overnight returns, they’re virtually guaranteed to pay off in the long-term. Individual stocks are a higher risk, sure, but the potential upside is far greater.

Crucially, these investors also know that different classes of investment are strongest when used in combination. The strengths of one offset the weaknesses of another, and vice versa. There is no universal “best investment opportunity.” The right choices depend entirely on the goals you’re looking to achieve.

The same is true of content marketing. There is no “best type of content marketing”: each content lane, from search content to sales enablement to thought leadership, is stronger in some areas and weaker in others. Focusing solely on the latest marketing hack du jour is like slamming all of your disposable income into shares of the first tech company you stumble across. While there’s a chance it’ll work, there’s a far larger chance that it will fizzle out to nothing.

Instead, great content marketing strategies ensure that:

  • Content lanes are paired with specific business objectives, and content allocation changes in response to the changing needs of your business.
  • There is no over-reliance on any single content type. The weaknesses of one content type are offset by the strengths of another.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the relative strengths of the three pillars of a diversified content marketing strategy: search content, thought leadership and sales enablement.

1. Search Content: The Traffic Engine

Search-optimized content is like our index fund. Publish two search-optimized articles each week, fast-forward a year or two, and you’re virtually guaranteed to be sitting on a pile of keyword rankings and organic search traffic.

For that reason, search content is the primary growth engine behind most content marketing strategies. By systemically targeting relevant keywords with content, companies can ween themselves from an over-reliance on paid traffic and begin to grow their website traffic in a predictable, sustainable way. For many companies, this is where content marketing strategy starts and ends.

But while search content is great for generating traffic, it’s no panacea. The same traits that make "How to’s” and listicles so effective at ranking for keywords and matching search intent also limit their ability to provide ongoing value. Search content is, very often, too boring and situational to build a sizable audience or generate a significant number of backlinks.

Well-Suited For:

  • Compounding traffic. The performance of search content generally improves over time. In our own research, we’ve found that articles often generate as much as 90% of their traffic only once the article has been live for six months. Stack enough of these long-lived posts on top of each other, and you create a virtuous cycle of growth, where traffic improves month-on-month.
  • Generating leads. Targeting long-tailed keywords (like “how to integrate slack and crm” instead of the short-tail "crm") makes it possible to reach would-be buyers at key inflection points. Solve their problem, and you can offer a natural segue to an e-book download or a free product trial.

Ill-Suited For:

  • Building links. 94% of the world’s published articles have zero backlinks, and with good reason. The majority of the web’s content is utilitarian, consisting of “how to” articles and listicles. These tried-and-true formats are useful but not always interesting. Simply put, most search articles aren’t remarkable enough to warrant linking to.
  • Codifying messaging. Search content is constrained by the search query it’s optimized for. “Matching intent” is the primary objective, often leaving little room to share your brand’s vision or differentiate from competing articles.
  • Growing an audience. Many great blogs experience bounce rates in the region of 80-90%. This isn’t a failing of the author; it’s a nearly unavoidable side effect of search traffic. Search visitors are myopically focused on answering their queries. When they click through to your article, they’ll either find the answer they’re looking for, or they won’t. In both cases, hitting the “back” button is the most likely outcome. To quote our own Jimmy Daly:

“Your readers are likely not part of a growing audience, but rather a continuous stream of people with a problem to solve. At the moment they need an answer, they search Google and find you. Your ‘audience’ is actually a different group of people each day.“

2. Thought Leadership: The Storyteller

Thought leadership refers to content created by people or brands with the intention of increasing their authority in an industry. It’s articles that share experiences, opinions and data. A VC explaining their investment thesis. A founder telling the story of how flat structure failed his company. A research company arguing that the consulting industry is doomed.

Where search content is weak, thought leadership is strong. It provides excitement and intrigue that SEO is hard-pressed to deliver. It builds brand affinity and creates a human connection between the reader and the business. In some cases, it even can go viral and provide a much-needed shot in the arm.

Blogs driven by thought leadership look like mountain ranges: alternating peaks-and-valleys of traffic, gradually trending upward over time. For many companies, that’s enough. But if you’re looking to build a predictable growth engine, churning out an ever-increasing number of leads each and every month, thought leadership alone might not be the answer.

Well-Suited For:

  • Codifying messaging. Thought leadership content functions like a North Star, succinctly defining a company’s guiding principles in a way that employees, customers and prospects alike can understand and interact with. Taken to the extreme, entire categories can be created with thought leadership content, like Zuora’s “subscription economy” or Drift’s “conversational marketing.”
  • Building links. Articles that court controversy or share novel perspectives provide clear incentives for people to link to and reference your piece, be it discussions on sites like Hacker News and Reddit, citations from admiring readers, or even rebuttal articles written by critics. Case in point: our article on the BLUF principle generated 439 backlinks from 118 referring domains, thanks primarily to a lengthy discussion on Hacker News.
  • Growing an audience.Thought leadership allows companies to write about big, meaty issues—like the pitfalls of investment or the reasons behind company failures—without worrying about the constraints of search optimization. While “how to” articles are a dime-a-dozen, it’s these interesting leadership angles that make a lasting impression on readers.

Ill-Suited For:

  • Compounding traffic. Most traffic to thought leadership comes from non-compounding sources, like social media or email newsletters, and thought leadership articles rarely map one-for-one onto high-volume keywords. That isn’t to say that thought leadership can’t generate traffic—our BLUF article garnered 40,000+ pageviews in a matter of days—just that traffic usually drops off after an initial spike.
  • Generating leads. Articles about your industry or beliefs don’t provide a clear pathway to lead generation or product sales. Instead, thought leadership is better viewed as a loss leader. While it’s hard to pin down a precise ROI from huge traffic spikes, the longer-term, qualitative benefits—like brand awareness and repeat engagement with content—are where the payoff comes.

3. Sales Enablement: The Persuader

Sales enablement content is designed to accelerate the sales process using case studies, product comparisons and customer stories to address common questions and lend social proof to the decision-making process. In the same way that search content and thought leadership have distinct primary distribution channels (SEO and social sharing, respectively), sales enablement is distributed primarily by your sales team or through lead-nurturing sequences for self-service products.

Search content and thought leadership are focused primarily on education and storytelling. These are crucial objectives, but for content to deliver an ROI, it needs to result in sales. That’s where sales enablement is strongest. It’s the closer that capitalizes on the goodwill resulting from the rest of your content.

Crucially though, sales enablement content will rarely have an audience outside of your current prospects. Its usefulness depends on having an existing flow of inbound prospects, allowing you to convert, engage and nurture them towards sales. On its own, it’s unlikely to generate much in the way of traffic.

Well-Suited For:

  • Codifying messaging. Sales teams hear the same handful of questions and concerns day in and day out. Committing these challenges—and your own rebuttal—to paper makes it easy for sellers to share polished, professional and consistent messaging with prospects.
  • Generating leads. Conversion rates on case studies and customer stories are often sky-high, as the audience for sales enablement content is typically qualified and nearing sales-readiness.A case study or customer story is a natural next step for any website visitors that have expressed interest in your product, offering a stepping stone between visitor and customer.

Ill-Suited For:

  • Compounding traffic. Sales enablement content is based on customer success stories or competing products and not keyword targeting. In the rare instances where sales enablement content is keyword targeted (“product x vs. product y” keywords are a good example), total search volume is likely to be low—often fewer than 100 searches per month.
  • Building backlinks. The niche, situational nature of sales enablement provides little incentive for people to reference and link to it. It’s useful to a handful of very particular people—prospects in a particular situation or weighing up a particular competitor—and the benefit comes from reading, not widely sharing, the content.
  • Growing an audience. A case study’s usefulness is short-lived. It can help a prospect navigate towards a better purchasing decision, but earlier (or later) in the buying process, and it becomes less interesting. Once a decision is made, there’s little benefit to be had from engaging with more sales enablement content.

Creating a Diversified Content Marketing Strategy

In the same way that only naive investors pile their capital into the latest hot tip, be wary of anyone who advocates for a one-size-fits-all approach to content marketing. The right mix of content marketing types is unique to your company, at the current moment in time, and it’s influenced by a host of factors:

  • Your business goals: Is traffic growth your biggest priority? Brand awareness? Better conversion rates?
  • Your current strengths: Do you already have great social proof? Are you already sitting on a ton of organic traffic?
  • Your business model: Is your sales process high-touch and drawn out or self-service and immediate?
  • Your personality: Is content marketing a medium for sharing your philosophy or just a marketing channel?

Some companies might be best served by going all-in on thought leadership. Others might need search content to build brand awareness or sales enablement to convert existing traffic. Some companies can afford to justify all three.

The “right“ content marketing strategy will change as your company grows, your priorities shift, and you learn from your market. In fact, the only “wrong” approach is to pick a single type of content and assume it will achieve every ambition. Like investments, content marketing should be diversified.