Everything you need to get your brand seen, bought and loved for its content.
The internet is overflowing with content. It’s everywhere—email, social media, message boards, phone apps, on tablets and computers.
The content marketer’s job is harder than ever. To reach your target customers, you must create content strong enough to cut through the noise.
That’s a tall order. To do it successfully requires mastering a specific set of skills—the least of which is SEO.
With this content marketing primer, you’ll understand what content marketing is, why it works (and why it doesn’t always work), what businesses get wrong and how to do it right.
There’s a lot of information here, but if you take home only one piece of advice, it’s this: create the best content you can produce.
Anything less will get buried deep in search engine results pages (SERP) and no one will find it.
Part 1: content marketing definition.
What is content marketing?
Content marketing, also called inbound marketing, is when a business creates content, using writing, images, video or audio, to nurture its target customers through the sales funnel, from attraction and consideration, through purchase to retention and advocacy.
What can you do with content marketing?
- Generate and spread brand awareness
- Create problem and solution awareness
- Promote customer retention
- Boost customer advocacy
- Improve SEO
Make content that helps your ideal customers achieve their goals and you will create content that does all of the above.
It sounds simple, but there are hundreds of ways to do this. We cover the main strategies here, but always remember that the most effective content marketing is the content that helps your unique niche of customers the most.
Content marketing doesn’t always work—here’s why.
Despite pumping out content daily, many companies don’t attract customers with their content and don’t increase sales.
There are two reasons for this failure:
Reason 1: it’s not written for the customer; it’s written for Google.
Many businesses don’t write for their customers—they write for Google’s web crawler. They believe that by stuffing their content with keywords, they’ll land a coveted position at the top of the SERP. That was how it worked until Google changed the rules.
Google’s algorithms have shifted. They no longer reward keyword-stuffed websites with higher rankings, or even ranking based primarily on inbound links (bye-bye link farming). SERP rankings are now primarily based on what Moz calls engagement metrics: traffic, page views, bounce rate, shares and time spent on site.
The idea behind these metrics is to let users determine the quality of content. Google reasons that the longer a person spends on a website, the more they’re reading and the more value they’re getting. The more they share and link to the content, the more valuable it will be.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to game this. You know the old saying ‘the cream will always rise to the top?’ Google is trying to ensure it does.
Reason 2: there’s a shocking amount of content being produced.
There is so much content, good and bad, it’s harder and harder to stand out. And, as businesses become more savvy as to how Google ranks content, the baseline for quality rises. We are content marketing at a time when good and even genuinely useful content just gives you parity.
Some say we’re heading toward Content Shock—the lopsided state of supply and demand where there is more content than demand for it. When supply overreaches demand, some experts say companies will have to pay consumers to consume their content.
Don’t worry—we’re not there yet! Far from it.
But it means you must step up your content game.
Why effective content marketing will always work.
It’s not as easy as it was to build a vast audience based on content. ‘If you build it, they will come’ used to apply to blogs and helpful business websites. It doesn’t anymore. Effective content marketing now must include:
- Understanding your target customers and tailoring content to them
- Producing great, original content that is helpful and engaging
- Distributing that content where your target audience will see it
Do these three things and you will garner the engagement metrics Google looks for:
- Time spent on site
- Low bounce rate
You’ll also build evergreen content that continues to attract your target customers. With useful and unique content, you’ll build relationships with your customers and nurture them through the sales cycle again and again. With your content, you’re giving prospects. Customers value information that builds good will and trust. It sets you up as the go-to source for your niche.
This applies to any business—B2B, B2C, e-commerce, SaaS, hospitality…you name it. Your customers have questions. You have the answers they’re searching for.
Part 2: content marketing strategies.
There are many different types of content marketing, but the main ones are:
- Email marketing
- Guest-blogging—including others guest-posting on your blog
- eBooks and White Papers
And many more.
The question to ask isn’t what kind of content to make, but who are you making it for and where are they in their buyer’s journey?
Strategy 1: map your content to the buyer’s journey and sales funnel.
What factor pushed you over the edge the last time you bought a service that you were really excited about?
It probably wasn’t a single piece of content. More than likely, it was your relationship with the company that developed over time, perhaps over the course of months of inspiring emails and newsletters, following the business’s blog or reading interviews with and articles by the founder.
Or maybe it was finding the information you needed, when you needed it.
Either way, we’re talking about content that supports the customers’ goals, but customers have different goals, depending on how much they know about their problem and your solution. This is why we map content to different levels of awareness.
Here’s a cheat sheet for which content tends to do best for each stage of the buyer’s journey. Note that much of the awareness-stage content can also be used to help existing customers achieve success with your product or service—which builds customer loyalty and retention.
Original graphic by Nichole Elizabeth Demeré.
Strategy 2: with customer research Ensure relevant, sharable content topics.
Just as your landing page copy targets one reader—your ideal client—your content topics must attract, help and convert that same reader.
Understanding your ideal customers, and the value you offer them, is what will generate the power and potency of your content marketing strategies. The question you need to ask, and answer in detail, is:
Who is your ideal customer?
Your ideal customer is someone who has a problem that you are uniquely equipped to solve, who is willing, able and happy to pay for that solution, and who is delighted to have found you.
To ensure that your content is attracting and serving your ideal customer, you have to know what their goals are and what obstacles are stopping them from achieving them. What do they want so much that they’ll buy your product if it helps them to do it?
How can you know what your customers hope for and what obstacles they face? Just like in product development, you have to ask them. To get the raw material for hundreds of blog posts, videos and educational content to fill the top of your sales funnel, here are seven questions you can use in a survey or interview to learn more about your customer:
7 Customer survey questions to ensure relevant content.
- What goals, inside and outside of work, are you hoping to accomplish today, this week, and this year?
- What frustrates and aggravates you regularly—what causes this?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how severe are each of these pain points?
- What motivated you to try this product in the first place? (Or if you haven’t yet launched your product, you can ask: Which of these pain points would most motivate you to try a product that does X,Y or Z?)
- What is at stake if you fail to accomplish your goals?
- What would you love to know that would make reaching your goal easier?
- (For current customers only) Have you experienced any confusion or frustration using our product? If so, what caused this?
These answers will become ‘content fodder’ for your content calendar, ensuring that every piece of content you create is on target, relevant and valuable enough to read, link to and share.
Strategy 3: use content to fill ‘success gaps’ to improve retention.
Content isn’t just about filling the top of your sales funnel. This is where a lot of businesses miss an opportunity. Content can also be used to help current customers enjoy greater success with your product, which improves retention (they don’t leave) and customer advocacy (they do your marketing for you by telling their friends).
How do you do this? You have to plan content that helps fill ‘success gaps’ so your clients can reach their ideal outcomes with your product.
What’s a ‘success gap’?
A success gap is the space between what your product does and the desired outcome your customer wants.
Let’s say your business makes yoga pants, for example. Your customer’s desired outcome is not to squeeze herself into them like a spandex sausage in a casing; your customer’s ideal outcome is go downward dog without fearing her pants will slide down and cause her to moon the person behind her. Her ideal outcome is to look in the studio mirror and feel strong and uplifted. Her ideal outcome is to feel confident.
That’s what you’re selling when you sell yoga pants.
Whatever you’re selling—whether it’s a budgeting app, a coaching program or handmade jewelry—your clients will use it to achieve their desired outcomes.
Content is one way you can help bridge ‘success gaps’ so your customers get what they want. For our Namaste gal, that might mean a podcast about personal improvement with guided meditations or an email series of butt-firming exercises you can do with just a yoga mat.
This ‘customer success’ content not only helps your current customers reach their goals, it also works on the other side of the funnel—the awareness stage—to attract prospects who want those outcomes too.
Strategy 4: Structure content around pillar pages.
The Topic-Cluster Model, or Pillar-Page structure, is a way to organize and interlink your blog posts so you become the go-to resource for your chosen topics. This system of organization tells Google’s algorithms that you’re an expert on your topic, so they’ll raise your SERP ranking and send more people your way.
How and why pillar pages work:
Decide what your main topics are. Each of these topics becomes a ‘pillar page.’
For example, you decide you are the go-to expert on e-commerce conversion copy, e-commerce website design and e-commerce marketing. Each of those broad topics has its own page, under which is a list of blog posts you’ve created that fall under those categories.
For e-commerce conversion copy, that might look like:
E-Commerce Conversion Copy:
- How to write high-conversion header copy
- Value Propositions 101: How to communicate what you do best
- CTA Buttons: How to say a lot in a tiny box
And so on. You’ll list between 10 to 20 or more posts under each topic, and each of those posts will link back to the main Pillar Page. All of these interlinks tell Google what your website is about, while also inviting readers to keep reading—thus raising those engagement metrics Google cares about.
Anum Hussain and Cambria Davies from HubSpot launched a series of experiments to see whether this technique had an impact on their SERP ranking. They found that the more internal links, the higher the placement on search engine results pages, and the more views they had.
How to Construct Your Pillar Pages.
Beth Carter, founder of Clariant Creative, has been using the topic-cluster model for her own business and her clients. She says the best way to begin putting the pillar-cluster (aka. Topic-cluster) model into practice is to:
- Decide which topics you’re the authority on. What answers do your customers most need?
- Find the keywords people use to search for what you offer. These keywords become your pillar pages.
- Plan to write as many blog posts as it takes to make your pillar pages ‘complete’ resources for your chosen topics.
If you’ve already published good blog posts, then follow steps 1 and 2, and see which of your good posts fall under your new keyword categories. Then go back and link those related posts to each other, and to the pillar page, and link the pillar page to those posts. Delete any existing bad posts—they’re not helping you.
How to write your pillar page copy.
Choose a page title and link that contains the exact keywords people use. Then put your pillar pages under a ‘Resources’ tab in your main navigation menu, or have your pillar pages linked in your footer—each website is different, but ensure that people can find this new incredible resource.
On the pillar page itself, give an introductory overview of your topic with definitions and point readers to the first few posts they must read to get started.
Next, create a directory-like list of your related posts, including brief introduction blurbs about what the reader will find there. If you need a writing prompt for those blurbs, ask these questions: Why is this post useful to my reader? What will it help them do?
Start with no more than three pillars to build out, as each pillar will require a substantial amount of quality content.
As you add posts, link each sub-topic post back to the pillar page using the same anchor text for each one. That anchor text is your topic keyword phrase.
This is how Google knows your post is part of a cluster set.
Strategy 5: get your content seen.
It’s not enough to create great content—you must promote it and get it in front of your ideal customers. There are a lot of ways to do this, but here are my top five:
1. Make it easy for people to share your content
The goal of content marketing is to create ‘remarkable’ and shareable content. Make it as easy as possible for people to share your content. Try these:
- ‘Share this’ social media buttons on the tops and bottoms of posts.
- Click-to-tweet highlighted phrases in the body of your content.
- Modals that appear on screen (like a pop-up) with messages such as ‘Share this with your friends.’
- Sticky headers, or footers, that offer ways to share on pages with the most traffic.
Syndication isn’t just for popular advice columnists and radio personalities—anyone can do it if they know where to look and who to ask. Look for publications in your industry and pitch a few of your best-performing posts. Many understaffed publications look for free content that isn’t overly promotional.
3. Make your images work for you
Images are the unsung heroes of content. They draw attention, they’re easily shared and when they contain valuable information, like infographics, or are uncommonly well-designed, people will share them on Pinterest (potentially garnering you hundreds of views and more leads). Pinterest marketing works really well for some companies, depending on the type of product you offer and your target audience. Consider this post by Samuel Hulick of UserOnboard—it has less than 120 words, but it’s been shared over 60,000 times.
4. Leverage outside allies
Finding ‘sharing buddies’ is my personal favorite way of promoting great content. It gives you access to the audiences who’ve been cultivated by other people. There are a few ways to form these partnerships.
One way is to join a co-marketing Slack group for sharing and promoting each other’s content across social media. When you do this, choose your group carefully, so that your target audience and their target audiences overlap. You want to make sure you’re getting access to potential leads, not just anyone.
5. Find questions to answer
Once you publish a blog post, try this: Look for questions about your topic on Quora, Slideshare and LinkedIn, and answer them, using some (but not all) of the material from your post. Let people know they can read more about it if they click on the link to your post—but be sure to actually answer their question and be as helpful as you can. Then direct readers to your post to see examples and multiple strategies.