When Apple first launched the iPhone in 2007, it was a tightly controlled experience. Demand far exceeded supply. You could only buy the devices at Apple and AT&T stores. There was no App Store and therefore no third-party apps.
Things have changed a little in the last eleven years.
Today, you can buy an iPhone at Costco or Walmart. That was inconceivable a decade ago. An iPhone was too high-end to be sold in a discount box store. In order to establish the product as premium, Apple had to keep its focus on building a great experience and getting it into the hands of early adopters. Distribution would become a sales tool later on—only when the brand was firmly established.
But imagine if Apple’s go-to-market strategy was centered on distribution instead of experience. Would people have camped outside of a Walmart for two weeks to get a phone? Would the device have appealed to the hardcore tech community? And if the initial sales were a disappointment, could Apple have undone the damage to its brand?
The answer in each case is a hard “no.” The success of the iPhone is due, in part, to a launch that set it on a trajectory that has allowed them to scale while maintaining credibility. Apple can now take advantage of Costco and Walmart’s massive distribution without worrying that the buying experience will detract from its hard-won branding.
This example perfectly illustrates a problem that we see over and over again in content marketing: To grow a blog, you have to establish credibility before you start reaching for growth.
Movement-First Content Marketing
If Apple wanted to launch the first iPhone at Walmart, it would have needed to sell a cheaper phone with fewer features so that it could have produced more phones for a different target customer.
The same is true of a blog. If you cater to the masses, you miss the opportunity to establish credibility with the smartest people in your industry. They’ll think of you as a discount content provider—and these are the people who can help you grow, refer customers and even sign up themselves. In fact, content built for large-scale consumption—think top-of-funnel content chasing short-tail keywords—has to be watered down to cater to the audience.
We recommend a movement-first approach to content. This phrase is borrowed from serial founder David Cummings who wrote about Product-First or Movement-First Startup on his blog. A product-first company is obsessed with creating a great product, while movement-first companies are driven to create awareness about a better way to do things. Neither is right or wrong; it’s simply a way to identify the way companies operate and grow.
In a follow-up to this article, Hiten Shah takes this idea a step further. He suggests that you can begin either way but, to become a successful, sustainable business, it’s important to become a product-next or movement-next company. As Hiten writes, “Whether you’re a product-first or movement-first company, eventually you have to completely refocus your strategy and become a “-next” company.”
This applies to content marketing as well—with one important caveat. We believe that it’s best to begin with a movement-first approach. In this case, the opposite would be a distribution-first approach. Just like Apple, distribution comes later once you’ve built an audience of early adopters.
Movement-first content is the best way to target your ideal reader. As you gain traction, you can leverage distribution channels to reach your total serviceable market (actual potential customers) then the total addressable market (anyone who might be interested in the topics you cover).
Before we go any further, let’s talk about what exactly “movement-first” content looks like.
What Is Movement-First Content?
You know movement-first content when you see it. It’s sometimes called thought leadership content. Some people call the posts ‘essays’ instead of articles. It looks and feels very different from content optimized for search since it isn’t beholden to any SEO tactics like word count and keyword density.
The word “first” is indicative of the strategy. The primary goal of movement-first content is to inspire, not necessarily to inform. We recommend it as a way to start a new blog, but you don’t have to create this type of content first in order to leverage it in your content marketing.
Movement-First Content Is Opinionated.
In order to create a movement in a crowded space—this is exactly what we’re trying to do here at Animalz—your content needs real substance. Catchy headlines and “built-in distribution” help, but for content to make waves, it has to pack a very real punch. We do this by offering contrarian takes on established best practices (see: You Don’t Need an Audience) and drawing lines around amorphous ideas (see: Top of Funnel Content Creates All Kinds of Problems—But You Should Create It Anyway).
That’s just our take. Other businesses have taken a different approach. Zuora, the company that coined the term “subscription economy” was writing about the movement way back in 2008. In one of the first ever blog posts, founder Tien Tzuo wrote, “What if subscriptions are not just the future of software, but the future of our entire economy?”
Copper, the G Suite CRM, is doing the same thing with a thought leadership series on the “Relationship Era.” Rather than compete for CRM-related keywords, they are first staking out territory with posts on the rise of the relationship era and relationship-first sales stacks. Groove invested heavily in its blog about the journey to $100,000 MRR before launching a separate customer support blog.
Movement-First Content Gets People Talking.
You can’t measure movement-first content based on pageviews alone.
Here’s another example from our experience at Animalz. We know that most content marketing advice is bad because it’s oversimplified. We want to dive into the nuances of a great content marketing strategy, everything from technical SEO to building a strategy within the constraints of your budget and resources. Anecdotal feedback—mentions, links, personal emails, tweets, etc.—tell us whether or not it’s working.
Feedback like this is the evidence we need to know our message is resonating:
— Adam Bockler (@adambockler) August 1, 2018
If you commit to movement-first, commit also to a form of measurement that does it justice. Measuring pageviews alone makes your strategy look like it’s failing even if it’s wildly successful.
Movement-First Content Is Optimized for Impact
In B2B content marketing, there’s an inverse relationship between the potential for impact and the probability of broad distribution.
There are exceptions to this rule, but in general, the narrower the audience, the more you need to rely on specific, non-obvious, insightful and opinionated content. As the audience widens, content becomes more about delivering information according to SEO best practices and less about the message.
The takeaway here is to focus on one or the other—it’s very difficult to kill two birds with one stone.
Distribution-Next Content Marketing
A movement-first approach does not mean a disregard for organic search, virality, email, or any other distribution platform.
Success in any channel takes time, especially organic search where most B2B SaaS companies focus energy. It’s a good idea to start investing in these channels early so they have time to mature. Here are answers to a few questions about the transition to a distribution-next strategy.
When should the transition to distribution-next be made?
Make the transition before you hit the wall.
Movement-first content can generate momentum. You want to start shifting to a distribution-next strategy before that momentum runs out. Ideally, you create a few pages built for organic search early on. Drive plenty of internal links to these resources and start building external links as well. It takes a while to gain traction especially if your site is relatively new, so don’t wait too long before investing in search.
What if my company chose distribution-first, but now wants to be movement-next?
This is a really common situation. Sites invest heavily in content for search and other channels, then realize later on that the brand has no voice. It’s hard to transition to movement-next because your team will be used to creating and measuring content in a specific way. The legal and brand teams will get uneasy.
You need to create new processes for generating ideas, creating the content, and measuring it. If you try to jam movement-based content through the same principles, it will come out flat—and that defeats the purpose. Look to thought leaders in your company. They likely have strong opinions and might be interested in contributing to the blog. You could also interview them and ghostwrite on their behalf.
As a rule, go hard on your initial efforts. Make the opinions really strong, then walk them back as needed according to legal, brand, etc. It’s better to start strong and walk your posts back than it is to start lukewarm and try to increase the strength of movement content.
Should we maintain a balance of content designed for movement vs. distribution?
Yes. If your movement-first content is working, then don’t stop. Just add content for distribution as needed. This is roughly analogous to maintaining a balance of thought leadership content, SEO-driven or top-of-funnel content.
Consider also that most content that performs well in organic search is invisible—i.e., it doesn’t typically trigger shares, tweets, comments, etc. If you’re used to getting feedback on your movement content, this can be a hard transition to make. A well-rounded content strategy includes content for a variety of channels as well as useful information for every part of the funnel.
Distribution Isn’t Enough
At the core of the “movement-first, distribution-next” idea is the essential need for substance. It’s much easier to sell a product or grow a blog when there’s a thoughtful, convincing opinion behind it. Traffic from search is valuable, but it’s not enough to build a brand.