We Need a Slower, More Thoughtful Approach to Content Marketing

Waste is evil.

At least, that’s how it’s observed in the lean manufacturing world.

Toyota, in particular, has revolutionized manufacturing by distilling complex manufacturing concepts into single words. Collectively, these concepts form a philosophy that helps Toyota sell more cars than General Motors, Honda, and Ford at substantially higher margins.

Kaizen, for example, means “continuous improvement” and describes a system of empowering employees to suggest improvements on the assembly line. Kanban, the visual project management concept now built into tools like Airtable and Trello, was first created by an engineer at Toyota.

The software world has borrowed quite a few ideas from the manufacturing world, and we’d like to propose adopting another.

Waste Is Unacceptable

Muda is the word used to describe any activity that uses resources but doesn't generate value. It is the Toyota system for identifying and eliminating waste in all forms: time, energy, resources, waiting, unevenness, etc.

Waste is regarded as unacceptable and of its seven types, overproduction is the worst offender. Not only does excess inventory mean that time, people, and equipment were wasted producing products that aren't needed, but more resources are required to deal with off-loading it.

You can imagine senior management at Toyota looking at a warehouse full of unsold cars with a pit in their stomach. The waste is tangible and expensive.

Waste in SaaS is more abstract, but the idea is the same: the production of projects that use resources, but don't generate value. In marketing, we sometimes call these experiments, but the truth is that there's plenty of room for improvement. Nowhere is this truer than content marketing. The web is saturated with posts that didn't need to be written.

An editorial calendar required a post, so a post was created. Here are just a few of the problems caused by the over-production of content:

  • The more posts on a site, the harder it is for readers to find the good ones.
  • It reduces the potency of good links, whose PageRank is spread across more pages than necessary.
  • Readers find it easier to tune you out. When you do publish something great, they assume you're the “boy who cried wolf.”
  • Sites with more pages require more maintenance and are harder to optimize for search.
  • Content marketers spend too much time writing and not enough time promoting.
  • Most articles don't get traffic, leaving writers frustrated and stakeholders wondering if content is the right channel.

All that waste is expensive. We can do better. Here are a few suggestions to guide your thinking on content strategy.

Demand for content is low, so limit supply.

Content is typically free for readers. They “pay” with attention, so it's very difficult to estimate the demand. There are many millions of pages indexed by Google each month, but there are still only 24 hours in a day.

If every piece you publish is a hit, then keep on publishing. But if you're struggling to increase organic traffic by 10-15% month-over-month, it's time to consider limiting supply, i.e., publishing less often.

A good content marketer trusts their ability to write things people care about. It's a manager's job to give them time and resources to earn the traffic.

Traffic is the goal, so measure your team based on performance, not cadence.

Follow the unit economics.

If a company creates 1,000 blog posts, but only 100 drive traffic, the gross spend means that content could be operating at a net loss. Two posts that cost the same to produce could have wildly different effects on the business.

One could drive 10,000 pageviews and help convert 100 customers—it's money well-spent. The other could be seen by just a handful of people.

Throwing posts at the wall to see what sticks just isn't good enough. Traffic will never be evenly distributed across every page on your site.

There will always be high and low performers—the goal is to eliminate nonperfomers. Save experimentation for Facebook ads and pour your content resources into work that you have real confidence in.

Assume that less is more.

Unless you can prove otherwise, underproduction of content is a better strategy than overproduction. Why?

First, producing good content at scale is very difficult. Even if you have money to burn, there are all kinds of challenges to producing content people will actually read.

Second, a content team should spend as much time promoting their work, building links, and optimizing for conversion as they do writing. It's common to hand those duties off to another team or agency, but it nearly always works better to ask the content creators to sell their own work.

And lastly, the web is noisy enough.

A slower, more thoughtful approach to content marketing benefits the industry as a whole. It creates a better work environment for your team and better resources for the people and companies that are just getting started.

Content marketing is expensive because we make too damn much of it. If an article isn't worth someone's time to read, it's not worth your time to create.