Content marketing is a long-term investment, and when done right, can give you fantastic returns. It becomes more and more popular, as the cost of traditional, auction-based ad channels grows every day, and marketers look for cheaper ways to get customers.
Inspired by companies like Mint, Buffer, Blue Apron, and many more, fellow marketers look to replicate their success :
- Mint acquired it's initial 20K-30K sign-ups through content marketing
- Buffer, grew to 100,000 users in just 10 months using guest-posting
- Blue Apron used content marketing to multiply the number of its users by 500% in a year, delivering 5 million meals to subscribers per month
But like in any other long-term activity, sporadic activities won't take you far: you get best results when your efforts compound over time. Most marketers who failed in content marketing did so because they were doing the wrong actions (poor content, no content-market fit, poor distribution) or never did the right actions for long enough to put them to fruition.
That is why a clear and data-based content strategy is so important: you will know what is the right thing to do, what and when to expect. Among other benefits, you will also gain more confidence in your actions, so you can stay in the game for enough time to see the results.
In this article, I will give you a real methodology that we use at Expppand when working with SaaS clients, that has been tested and improved multiple times. Actually, this is an adapted version of our internal guideline for middle research experts. But before we jump into the step-by-step guideline, let's get in sync on how does the content marketing works.
How content marketing works
Let's agree on the basics.
Value Proposition. Something delivered by your SaaS / product / service.
Potential Customers. People who can benefit from your VP.
Needs. Potential benefits, curiosity, fears, daily tasks, and problems, that drive the customer online behavior. Example: need to stay up to date with new tools for keyword research; task to find best examples of content strategies; task to determine the best time to post on Instagram; fear linked to the increasing customer acquisition cost; etc.
Online Behavior. Actions that your potential customers do online to fulfull their needs, including:
- materials they read to fulfill their needs
- keywords they use to find them
- sites they read
- opinion leaders they follow
- quora and reddit conversations
- online groups and communities they participate in
- ratings and reviews they come across when looking for solutions
- dark matter - niche resources or tight-knit online communities which existence you can never realize, but where your Potential Customers share useful materials and solutions; for example, they can be Telegram and Slack chats.
All your potential cusotmers have one thing in common: they don't have your VP, should it be a product or a service, but they can benefit from having it.
The question is - how can we influence their online behavior, so they will eventually discover your VP (product or service) and would want to try it?
I use a simple "Awareness-Consideration-Decision" framework to segment all the Potential Customers accordingly to their stage in Buyer's Journey, i.e. how close they are to buying your product/service.
All potential customers can be segmented to four groups :
- non-Awareness - people that are not aware of the problem that you solve, but have it
- Awareness - people that realize they have a problem. Example: "I have not enough leads for my software development company"
- Consideration - people that not only realize the problem, but commited to solving it.
They are looking for possible solutions / types of solutions and compose a shortlist.
Example: "How do I get more leads for software development?", "How to run cold emailing campaigns to get more leads?", "What is the best tool for drip campaigns?"
- Decision-making - people who are deciding between several solutions.
Example: "what is better - Yesware or Reply.io?"
[example: Vintage] or [mint?] or [buffer?] need to find someone who uses D-stage and seeding
Important note: there are no strict definitions, focus more on producing materials that move your readers down the funnel rather than on scratching your head over the right category for each topic.
Client's behavior varies at each stage of Buyer's Journey. They react to different ads and headlines, use different keywords, read different articles.
Our goal is to bring leads. How do we do that? What we need is to capture clients at different stages with our content, develop a strong inclination towards our product/service, and move them one step forward in the Buyer's Journey.
To achieve that, we have to :
- produce useful materials - create materials, relevant to the clients' needs at each stage of their Buyer's Journey, so we can attract them and impact their decisions
- promote materials - get clients to consume these materials through SEO, targeted ads, seeding, etc
- impact customer behavior - move customers one step forward in the Buyer's Journey:
- non-Awareness stage clients: show materials that will develop the awareness about the problem they have and we solve
- Awareness stage clients: show materials that will push readers to look for a solution, so that we will get a chance to pitch ours
- Consideration stage clients: show materials that promote our type of solution / our solution, so they will include us in the shortlist
- Decision-making stage clients: show materials that compare our solution with others and highlight the advantages, so they will choose us from the shortlist
In other words, at each stage of Buyer's Journey, clients shall see content that moves them one step closer to purchasing your solution: not-aware customers become aware; aware customers start looking for a solution; those, who look for a solution - include yours in their shortlist; those, who have your solution in the shortlist choose it over the competition).
The tasks above require knowing your audience daily lives in-and-out, so you can easily pick up relevant topics that match with their needs and produce articles that actually deliver on these needs, not just another no-brainer pieces like "5 disruptive ways to get dramatically more leads".
And the last point - how exactly will people convert to leads?
There's a couple of different ways:
- Have their opinion influenced by Consideration and Decision-making stage articles, so they will realize a problem and would prefer to solve it with your solution. This is the most direct way and the one that we have the most control over
- People with an immediate need in what you do will bump into your communications, realize that you do exactly what they need, and reach out to you
- Come across your landing pages after their needs were developed by your articles and after they attained some level of trust in your brand
- Remember your brand so it will pop-up in their minds when the need arises
- Subscribe to your Social Media or Email Subscription and be nurtured by your communications until the need will arise and they will decide to contact you
- Check up who is the author of the article, perceive him as an expert in the field, and contact the author or his company asking for help / inquiring about the solution
The wrong way to think about content marketing :
- "Let's order as many inexpensive articles and backlinks as possible to get maximum traffic, and then use splash screens / remarketing / autogenerated emails to get these people to see our product"What's wrong with it: this approach turns out to have low ROI, as it misses the critical part: establishing trusting relationships with readers to be able to imact their decisions. There's no "traffic" - there are only people looking for value and insights. If you can't provide it, they look somewhere else.
- "Our target audience are managers. Let's write on management"What's wrong with it: this approach also falls short of bringing leads, as such an abstract understanding of the audience and such a broad topics selection doesn't add any value to the readers, even though can drive some random organic traffic.
Now, let's define what a good content marketing strategy should look like.
What makes a good content marketing strategy?
There's no single standard for anything in marketing, and surely, there's nothing pre-defined when it comes to content strategy. So how do you know that the strategy is good (before you try it for a year)? This question is especially important if you are going to order a content strategy from a research firm.
In general, a good strategy shall answer the following questions:
- what content shall you produce (your outcomes)
- how do you produce it (your process)
- how do you distribute it (your process)
- how does the whole thing works together to bring you leads (your logic)
Here are some more requirements that we use at Expppand when developing strategies for clients:
- actionable - the strategy indicates what to do at any given moment to achieve your goals
- effective - taking action on the strategy should lead to achieving these goals in an optimal way
- realistic - you can deliver on it with the team, expertise and budget available
- facts-based - no "magic pills"; no guesswork; no points the only proof of which is authors "expertise" or "creativity"
- be clear and make sense - the strategy can be easily understood by those who will implement and they can clearly see how their actions will deliver the results, step-by-step
- trackable - strategy should include clear measurable goals (e.g. getting 10 leads a month, 50 subscribers a month, and 10K traffic a month), so you can tell sucess from failure
- right granular level - don't try to specify too much in advance; there's no sense in describing dozens of different types of social media content and predict the number of engagement for each post if you had never posted anything before
- application examples - the strategy shall include an example of its application - for example, 10 article topics selected and one article example
- proper timeline - (adapted to your expectations; if you DA is zero and you need to get the first results in 3 mo, probably, you can't rely on SEO and shall invest more in ads)
Developing a content strategy
Now that's the most interesting part. Hope I still have your attention. It's easy to say what a perfect strategy should look like; the challenge is to make one.
Here are the main steps that one needs to work through to create a content strategy:
- define goals
- customers, their needs and behavior
- content: what do we produce
- distribution: how do we promote it
- implementation: how do we produce and promote it
- content plan / implementation plan for the first month
Don't look for templates. You can use these points to structure your insights / final document / slides, but there's no template to it, it's all custom, even though "content strategy template" is one of the most popular keywords on the topic. The word "template" doesn't make any sense when applied to content strategy, as it doesn't make any sense when applied to you calling your girlfriend or boyfriend: it's all about them (customers, loved ones), not about templates.
Developing a strategy is not about creating a fancy document but about talking to your audience, understanding their challenges, and figuring out how to help them. Focus on the substance, not on the form.
Now, as you are armed with the knowledge of what a good strategy should be like, let's go through the process of making it.
Clearly define what you are going after, as you can't be spending your time on something that's not exactly what you want. State what's important to you, define the direction and measurable parameters to make sure you are on the right track.
Content marketing goals shall derive from your business goals and your current knowledge of this channel.
Examples of goals for content marketing:
Business goal: grow free cash flow
Marketing goal: get more leads for your SaaS where you can make profit (where CAC < LTV)
Content goal: let's say that you have average LTV = $100. Then your goal for content marketing can be "get at least 6x300 leads in 6 months, while spending around $3K a month for content production and advertising", what balances your profit and loss (CAC = LTV). Any result that is better than this is a success.
After you achieve this goal, you can focus on growing your organic traffic and subscription base, - they are sources of free traffic, and they add up with time (law of increasing returns), so they can decrease your CAC dramatically, making the whole thing much more profitable.
Don't use "wishful thinking" for setting numerical goals when you have no actual data
Don't get bogged in imaginary numbers though. It's clear that you have to be going after cheap conversions, but until you get actual data (traffic, conversions, LTV), you can't build precise projections.
When working with Vintage, we relied on organic traffic only, so it took us 4 months to get our first client (who paid $35.000). As the doman name was new and with no reputation, it took a long time to get rankings in Google and enough traffic. We could adequately measure the CAC only after getting 10 clients a few months later, so only then we could put real numbers as our gloals. Eventually, we stopped thinking in terms of CAC, as it didn't make much sense - the types of requests that the company received varied a lot (from $10.000 to $500.000 worth of contracts), so did the profit, and we were willing to pay hundred times bigger CAC for a top-level client. We focused on finding ways to produce content that would attract even more luxurious clients and developed a new set of metrics for each segment that we targeted..
On other projects, especially, SaaS ones, we use ads to put potential customers into Content Funnels. Here we can measure CAC in just 4-8 weeks after the start, as we don't wait for organic traffic to kick in.
The direction and metrics are way more important than specific numerical goals
Think more about what is the right direction and how to measure it (getting more leads from already known segment? expanding to a new segment? just building brand awareness and not focusing on lead generation?) than into "what specific value of X metric shall we achieve", as:
- you never know for what is the ceiling - is it even possible? or maybe you can do 10x better?
- if you change this "specific value of X metric" even by +/- 50%, it won't impact your actions at all. You still will be testing article titles, optimizing the materials, track reading patterns, etc
Customers, their needs and behavior
In this paragraph, we will define :
- User personas (based on actual people you personally know)
- Insights (quotes from in-depth interviews that shed light on how your customers think)
- Online Behavior (remember the definition above?)
Getting these data is critically important to any content strategy, as content production is so long and expensive that we just can't be guessing and figuring out the right thing to do by trials and errors. We need to produce content that clearly matches with customer gains, pains, and jobs, and do it quick.
That's why we have to go through the customer development phase (yeah, just like in product management).
- interview your existing customers (5-7)
- interview your potential customers (5-7
- including those who didn't buy from you or churned, so you can identify if the reason of their dropping out could have been solved by relevant content
How to interview: conduct in-depth interviews; look out for stories that explain the process of the purchase from the moment that the idea has been born nd up until now; dig out for real easons behind the decisions; ask "5 why's". Dig deep to get to their daily life problems, fears and frustrations. Another part to the interview is discovering their online behavior (here's the list of what you need to discover). Interviewing is both an art and a science, as it requires asking right questions (which sound weird for normal people) without being a creep, making people feel comfortable and and getting them talking. Identify knowledge gaps (what kind or type of information they'd like to have but they don't).
- Record all the interviews for private use.
- Talk to Sales and Customer Support teams to reveal client needs, problems and pain points
- look at support tickets to discover what paun your customers experience the most and emphahize
- listen to 3-5 sales calls of the best sales rep on your team to understand how he sells, what story he creates, what pain points he pushes the most
Your content shall act as a perfect sales rep - someone people trust and love talking to, someone who is resourceful and not needy, someone who brings pure value at each point in time, providing costumer with information and a reliable opinion that they can't get nowhere else online. He is never being pushy, what means he never proposes anything unless he is 100% confident that the client has got a paiful, urgent need in that thing that he's just about to suggest.
Please re-read the paragraph above and reflect on these words, as they are the essence of content marketing. If you something different from this, you won't get sales from content. If every marketer would heed to this advice, there would be much less salesy SEO-articles: remember those needy materials, the only purpose of which is to solicit you clicking on them and getting your email?
- Transcribe interviews
- Reveal Gains / Pains / Jobs, so you will understand what to write about (source for topic choosing) and how to create empathy (chemistry) with your customers in content
- Segment customers by their Gains / Pains / Jobs
- basically, people from same segment would have similar Gains / Pains / Jobs
- choose a typical representative of each segment, describe him as a person, and use him as User Persona (so you can write articles targeting certain person you know rather than mythical "top-level decision-makers"). Don't use "averaged" user personas
- Note down an archetypal Customer Journey (or Customer Journeys), so you will understand where to out
- Note down insights, daily life problems, fears and frustrations (source for topics choosing)
Checklist - how to check if you know your users well enough to produce content?
- Do you personally know at least 10 people who use your product?
- Can you remember how each one of them found you?
- What were search requests they used at each stage of their customer journey?
- What were some of the articles that they read and enjoyed? What specifically they like about them?
- Can you enumerate 10-15 specific problems that your customers face right now? Not "big turnover in the company" but "another great sales rep has been headhunted by a competitor X. He never really bought into the team, but we spent so fucking much on his education. If that trend continues, I will lose my job soon, and bye-bye dreams about Yale for my two sons"
After you gathered a critical mass of information about your clients, your head should be bursting at the seams from content ideas. It's time to systemize your ideas.
Content specification: what we produce
Things we are going to cover here:
- behavioral flow - how do we convert? what is our logic - how do we convert clients? how do we develop / nurture the demand? how exactly the content does bring leads? behavior flow map
- directions - topics (broad sections)
- come from SEO and Sales/Customer Support - client's problems
- types of content - by medium
- format, categories, structure, length - interviews, crash tests, etc
- visual style, (example - can be that RoboAdvisory service with crafted images / interviews)
- criteria. how to bring more value than the competition does? don't write articles based on "online research"
what is our logic / topics (broad sections)
acd model explained
cover gpj at different stages of a/c/d
move people through a/c/d
remarketing to capture and push forward
come from customer development and SEO
types of content
> derives from interviews
competitors and colleagues
each stage - can be different content. e.g. where people compare SaaS options can be different from where people keep themselves up to date
come up with yourself | look at best media | create novel formats | look at what's rising at the moment | look what content performs anomally good in SEO (high ranking and traffic, low DA)
how can you create 10x content? 10 times better than the competition? what does it mean?
look at what's up in medium on your topic. example: avg article on ICO and great article on ICO
dig deep to understand what content your customers read and what content they avoid.
- don't write articles based on "online research"
- base everything on real expertise, not your thoughts
- employees shall produce content, not writers. writers can structure, etc, but ... they just can't solve your customers problems, unless you can solve their problems by fairytales and telling funny stories, what writers are usually great at
- who approves the content (so we don't publish bullshit) - cbdo/sales?
Content Distribution: how we promote it
- seo strategy - keywords and linkbuilding
- communities - how to share there, how to engage - use a profile to comment and share posts from it etc
- ads - platforms, post formats, targeting (markers). look for something indirect
- media to reach out + how do we reach out
- channels synergy (update your behavioral flow)
take a look at ranking factors correlations and make use of them.
worry much more about content quality and backlinks than about keywords (?)
> derives from customer research
use search hints + answerthepublic to figure out good topics
create a long-long list of keywords; pick them when appropriate to add to articles
pick keywords for each stage - a/c/d - especially c and d
use a few articles to take over a keyword - for example, "real estate websites" = 3 articles, connected
select a few (10-20) important keywords that you'd like to take over in the first place
pick keywords that you can rank for on the first page
determine competitiveness score (DA PA of competing pages), if DA PA is bigger than yours by 10-20, it'd be impossible to compete
look for anomalies
put them in the article topics (content plan will derive from it, it will be a combination of GPJ and this)
generate and embed keyword while writing.
for every article, use google search hints to refine your keywords. you have to develop a feeling to understand where to embed a keyword. if there is a google hint - that's a good keyword.,
article structure should cover as much keywords as possible.
research facebook, linkedin groups | find active ones with clear, focused TA
quora and reddit channels. grow your quora subscription base
links prohibitied? produce content IN the group! engage from your profile (answer questions): linkedin -> some articles on your profile linking to your blog -> quality comments with no links
not easy. might be no
interviews should help you to target these people - markers such as complimentary products they use; sites they visit; google searches they used; - all that is availabe in adwords / fb
describe post formats to try (depends on who will handle it)
look for something indirect - platforms, targeting (example: toptal alternative for wp dev co)
media to reach out
how do we reach out: make sure the reader knows that your email is not autogenerated
ask for a permission
ask for what type of materials are they looking for (if they publish guest posts)
if they don't, there's still a way to become an author (media always look for great content. anyone wants Elon Musk exclusive interview. the question is why should they believe you can do it and spend their time on you? appeal to their own interests and differentiate yourself from the crowd that is pitching them with SEO articles using automation tools). 100 messages = 20 replies = 5 aritlces published (skift, awwwards, six revisions)
Implementation: how we produce and promote it
- people & budget - typical productivity
- where do we get insights from? internal experts, cases (from different angles; websites vintage: microinteractions, ux, backend, profitability, how to reach out to a developer etc), client stories and interviews about their business, experiments, crash tests, interviews
- people & budget
- who approves the content (so we don't publish bullshit) - cbdo
where do you get exclusive knowledge from?
look where you get in touch with customer problems. pms? support? sales? be included in these conversations as a listener, by any price.
where do we get insights from? internal experts, cases (from different angles; websites vintage: microinteractions, ux, backend, profitability, how to reach out to a developer etc), client stories and interviews about their business, experiments, crash tests,
Content plan / implementation plan for the first month
action plan and content plan that derives from the strategy (for the next mo - as an example)
don't produce noise. dig for insights. produce what your customers confirmed they need
biggest risk is overthinking and never actually executing
test & adapt continuously
keep in mind people who will execute it: you, VP of Marketing or an intern writer? how does it impact the complexity and detalization level? how much decisions you leave on the discretion of the executive?
never did it? do for 2-3 months (seo will kick off later, 4-5 mo if new domain)
care about the essence, not the form
treat articles as products; AARRR
albacross - who reads my blog
semrush - keywords / competition
how do I know it will work?
is there a standard?
Upgrade: get an example + more tools + more principles
CTA: run your strategy against our team / we can appoint weak points / feel free to send your strategy over to me so I can give you feedback
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