In a recent conversation with Intercom content director John Collins, I mentioned how much Animalz customers admire the Intercom blog. A number have even asked that we help make their own blogs more like Intercom’s.
In his classic Irish brogue, he quipped, “They may feel differently if they saw the costs.”
And in that sentence, John summed up what so few seem to understand about content strategy, namely that you have to be able to afford your own content strategy. Intercom has raised $240 million, employs nine people on its content team and, perhaps most importantly, has deep buy-in from the executive team. It is the rare SaaS company that can run their blog like a publication and it's a strategy that is nearly impossible to replicate.
For nearly all other SaaS companies, we recommend a different approach.
Publication vs. Library, Explained
The best content strategy is the one that prioritizes quality and depth, not volume and breadth. You may think you're already doing this—but I encourage you to take a closer look.
When most content marketers think of a blog, they imagine a reverse chronological feed of posts. This is how Wikipedia defines the word blog, and it's also how popular content management systems like WordPress organize content. As a result, the default behavior of many content marketers is inefficient at best and wasteful at worst.
It's hard to overstate just how problematic this has become in content marketing. Here's what a publication mindset looks like in practice:
Topics are horizontally integrated, meaning that content creators cover a broad range of topics rather than the full range of depth.
Posts are published on a strict schedule, so it's hard to make time for content that requires additional time and energy.
Content serves an audience, therefore timeliness is prioritized.
And here's why those things are problematic:
Depth is almost always more useful to readers than breadth.
Content efforts that require a lot of effort (think benchmark reports, data analysis, etc.) often deliver 10x the results of a post that requires less effort.
The huge majority of readers are not regular visitors to your site. Instead, they seek out specific articles to solve specific problems.
This last point is a key driver of bad content strategy. We took a look at a few very successful SaaS blogs and found that, on those sites, only about 17% of visitors were returning. That means that 83% of visitors were new. You may have a negative reaction to this, but it's actually a good thing.
The more you rely on organic search—which is by far the best source of traffic for SaaS blogs—the less you need an audience. The word audience, just like the word publication, has been repurposed from other industries and neither fit well in the construct of modern content marketing. Trying to cater to the small percentage of people who are return visitors drives behavior—a wide variety of topics, a strict publishing schedule and an emphasis on timeliness—that makes for very inefficient content marketing.
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. Small oversights in a content strategy can have similar impacts. This library approach is a simple framework with a number of positive implications. The idea is that you address content by topic and depth. Here's how it works in practice:
Content is vertically integrated, meaning that each topic is addressed from the top of the funnel to the bottom.
Organic search is prioritized, therefore evergreen content is paramount. Time is allowed for content efforts that slow down production.
Content is built for people who need it, when they need it.
We call it the library approach because, done this way, a blog becomes an evergreen catalog of easy-to-access information rather than a feed of loosely related blog posts.
The 3 Principles of the Library Approach
The characteristics of a library approach exist on a spectrum. You do not necessarily need to create a new content strategy from scratch, ditch your CMS or rebuild your entire site. You can, however, learn from the principles below and apply them in varying degrees to your existing strategy.
1. Flat Site Architecture
One of the primary characteristics of a site run like a publication is a blog homepage that features a reverse-chronological feed of blog posts. This is the default WordPress setting and, as all marketers know, default settings are really powerful.
It's expensive and time-consuming to dream up a new way to present your content, but some sites choose to do it. Lattice, for example, recently redesigned their blog to (1) make it easier to feature content they wanted readers to see and (2) allow readers to easily filter content by topic and content type (blog post, ebooks, webinars, etc.). They even changed the URL to lattice.com/library to reinforce the library mindset.
But you don't have to overhaul your site to reap some of these benefits. You can also employ hub pages to collect resources on a specific topic. Hubs are usually created to target top-level keywords, then link out to posts on relevant, longer-tail topics. You can create the content in any order, but present it in an organized, hierarchical way rather than a feed.
2. Content Planned by Topic and Funnel Depth
One of the hesitations that content marketers have about the library approach is that topics have to be covered multiple times. In order for a library to be complete, each topic must be addressed from multiple angles for readers at the top, middle and bottom of the funnel.
Content marketers sometimes feel that readers won't want to see the same topic on the blog week after week. But that's a misinterpretation of how people consume content. Most people seek out content when they have a problem to solve (see principle #3 below) and won't even notice if the newest posts all cover similar things.
We suggest planning content by topic and funnel depth. When visualized, it looks like a heat map showing the areas where you already have content and areas where you need more content. One of the problems with traditional editorial calendars is that it's very hard to visualize content like this. When topics are ideated without a framework like this, content creators tend to favor breadth. This approach favors depth.
3. Audience as a Byproduct
To grow an audience, you need to continually add new people and retain old ones. It’s a singular group that’s always growing. It’s useful if you can pull it off, but it assumes that readers have an ongoing interest in what you have to say, which makes it difficult to favor depth. Most publications cater to audiences and, as a result, are forced to prioritize breadth to keep up with their editorial calendars.
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.
This isn't to say that growing an email list, adding social followers and building a brand aren't useful tactics—they absolutely are. But those are byproducts of a successful content operation, not the primary goals.
The truth is that most content marketers are operating without a deliberate strategy. Whether you're just getting started or have been investing in content for years, spend the time to create a strategy that makes for efficient, effective content marketing.