Explore v. Exploit: How to Find the Perfect Content Marketing Formula

“The joy of the young is discovering. The joy of the old is relishing.” — Stewart Brand

In 1944, a friend invited Arthur Lydiard on a five-mile run. The 27-year-old figured he could keep up with his older friend but instead struggled through the run and was exhausted by the end. That day catalyzed Lydiard—over the next 60 years he revolutionized the way runners train, published volumes on his philosophy, coached 17 athletes to Olympic medals, and influenced countless coaches around the world.

Using himself as the chief guinea pig, Lydiard spent a decade creating a formula that included just the right amount of long runs, hills, intervals, and rest. (At one point, he logged 250 miles in a week in the name of experimentation.) Once he nailed the formula, he spent 50 years sharing it with the world.

His transition from learning to executing reflects a common psychological concept known as explore/exploit. Once you recognize the pattern, you see it everywhere.

  • You explore music until you find a genre or band you like, and then you listen to it all the time. It's why your dad still loves the Rolling Stones.
  • You try new restaurants until you find a few you like, and then you visit them repeatedly. It's why you're more likely to go Chipotle again instead of the new Thai place next door.
  • You try a few different business ideas, and when one resonates, you pour everything into it. It's why many entrepreneurs don't succeed until their third or fourth try.

It's possible that explore/exploit works against us in some cases. If you're willing to break your Chipotle habit, you might find that the Thai place is really good. On the other hand, there's no issue with relishing the music you love. In a business context, explore/exploit is the same double-edged sword:

But in content marketing, the risk of disruption is far lower than the risk of failed execution. You're much more likely to fail because you abandoned a strategy too quickly than because the marketing landscape is changing. Content marketing is changing, but not that fast.

Lydiard's formula wasn't static in the 50 years that he “exploited” it—he continually refined it. But he invested far more time in execution than in learning, once the concept was solid. The explore/exploit idea is especially relevant in content marketing. As we've written before, the thing that makes a blog great is usually the thing that makes it hard to replicate. Creating a formula that attracts readers requires a lot of exploring and near-perfect execution. Here are some guidelines for using the explore/exploit idea with your content:

1. Don't copy the formula of another successful site.

Unless, of course, your market is new or not competitive. A formulaic content strategy can win only if the competition for keywords and attention is wide open. Otherwise, you'll need to come up with a way to differentiate your site. Your formula is what sets your site apart. It took Lydiard 10 years to nail his formula. It can take you far less time, but you should anticipate investing time in a strategy that is worth pouring resources into.

2. Find your unfair advantage.

Intercom's unfair advantage is an unwavering commitment to featuring subject-matter experts on the blog. That means content workflow is largely geared toward coaching and editing, not writing. Buffer's unfair advantage is a willingness to share anything and everything. It means they have to occasionally share news they'd prefer to keep private. In each case, content is baked into the culture. The commitment is obvious. It could be that your unfair advantage is a willingness to explore until you find it. It's easiest to find your unfair advantage from within. Take something your company is already excelling at or excited about—then, build a content strategy around it.

3. Focus on readers, not audiences.

Publications have audiences, libraries have readers. Audiences are overrated in content marketing. The term itself is borrowed from media—and if you're working in SaaS, you need your own framework for growth. Effort is best spent making content as discoverable and consumable as possible. Focus on readers—individual people who need what you have to offer—to refine a strategy that serves people, not demographics.

4. Distill your strategy into a single sentence.

Complete this sentence: We publish articles on [x] every [y] for [z].
Our strategy here at Animalz is:
We publish articles on content marketing strategy every week for content managers and CMOs.
Your strategy may vary slightly from the formula above, but it needs to be distilled into its most concise form. Here's a look at the strategies of a few other successful blogs:

  • Intercom: We feature content written by subject-matter experts on all areas of SaaS.
  • First Round Review: We turn interviews into highly actionable long-form content.
  • Buffer: We share everything we know about growing an SaaS company.
  • Wistia: We use video and written content to showcase our people and our energy.
  • Airtable: We make workflow exciting by showing you how to build yours from scratch.

If you can't articulate your content strategy, you don't have one.

5. Stick with it long enough to see a return.

Lydiard spent 50 years sharing his message with the world. Even toward the end of his life, he was giving talks and writing. The “exploit” half of the equation should represent an enormous amount of effort and time. Executing a strategy is the unsexy-yet-effective secret to growing a site and a business. Stick with it.