Content marketing has exploded in popularity over the last few years with seemingly every business kicking up their own blog or publishing guides and ebooks. In practice, content marketing involves generating valuable content that subtly promotes your brand and attracts an audience, who will hopefully one day become customers. While some businesses have a knack for creating content readers love, others, however, fall short, particularly on content that "attracts an audience."
What separates the content marketing winners from the losers? I chatted with five top marketers heading up established blogs to find out what helps to set them apart from the rest.
If you’re involved in content marketing or social media, you’ve probably heard of Buffer, the tool that helps you post to your social accounts more regularly. The collection of Buffer blogs (yep, they have more than one) has been a huge driving force for the company with their articles regularly syndicated on sites like Fast Company and The Next Web.
1. Set a Clear Focus
If you were an avid reader of the Buffer blog a year ago, you were just as likely to be reading about the science of self-control as you were marketing. This created a bit of confusion for their audience—you never really knew what kind of content would be showing up that particular day.
Buffer’s main product is focused on social media. So, they decided to narrow their focus to one topic. Now, their main blog, Buffer Social, is focused on social media and content marketing. But, since culture is so important to the core values of Buffer, they created a second blog, Buffer Open, the "home for all things related to transparency and workplace culture," Courtney explains. Now, when someone signs up to follow either of their blogs (they have different email lists), they know exactly what kind of content they can expect to receive in their inbox.
Think about your company’s blog from your reader’s perspective. Looking at your last five posts, could you guess the focus of the blog or what type of content was likely to come next? If the answer is "no", your blog is likely suffering from an identity problem. Take a step back to identify what content your readers are looking for and focus your effort on that area.
2. Create Immense Value
If you read through Buffer’s most-read posts of 2014, you’ll notice a handful of commonalities including detailed research, practical application tips, and eye-catching visuals. These details take time to gather and develop, but they ensure the posts are just as valuable six months down the road as they are immediately after publishing.
Courtney explains that adding value is the ultimate goal for their content. "Really our only goal with any of the content we produce is to be the most helpful resource we can be." To do this, the Buffer team asks themselves one question before posting says Seite. "We ask ourselves whether someone would email the post to a friend, the answer should be: ‘Yes!’"
Balancing posting frequency with depth can be tricky. When in doubt, always choose depth. Readers visit your site because they get value out of what you’re writing, not because you publish a post every day of the week.
Just a year ago, the blog of helpdesk software Groove was struggling. The content didn’t have a particular identity, and it wasn’t attracting leads for their business. CEO Alex Turnbull decided to do a full reboot. Since that time, the blog has exploded in popularity with hundreds of thousands of shares and comments. The blog is now their number one driver for growth helping the company move from $30k in revenue to over $100k. Alex spoke with us to share the two important factors that made the 180 degree shift possible.
3. Either Challenge a "B" or Solve a Problem
When Turnbull reflects on the most popular posts published on the Groove blog, he noticed each had one of two characteristics:
It challenged one of the three B’s: Behavior, Beliefs, or Belongings.
It solved a deep, burning problem.
Turnbull and the team now aim to hit one of those two elements with every one of their posts.
"There are other, less widespread trends among some of our posts that have done well, like story-driven intros and deep, personal and emotional posts about my own struggles as a founder. But those two elements…are by far the most dependable indicators, and they're approaches that anybody can take," he explains.
Take a look at their post titled "How We Got 1,000+ Subscribers from a Single Blog Post in 24 Hours", for example. This post fits well into the "deep, burning problem" category. Gaining traction and attracting email subscribers are problems that literally every content marketer has faced. In that post, Alex lays out the exact steps—each actionable by the reader—that Groove used to build its subscriber list. Anyone could read that post and replicate the process.
4. Get Insight from Those that Know Best
Alex sends an email, referred to as the "You’re in" email, to every new customer that signs up for their service. The email highlights one main question: Why did you sign up for Groove?
The responses have helped Groove shape their product even further. "The insights we've gotten from the responses to that email have been huge. We've learned what our most critical conversion triggers are, we've gotten word-for-word explanations of how people see Groove (which we now use in our marketing copy), and we've gained a much deeper understanding of our customers," Alex explains.
Conversion metrics and A/B testing can help you to identify what marketing copy or triggers work best on paper, but the only real way to know for sure is to ask your customers directly. This could be as simple as asking new email subscribers what content they would love to see next on your blog. Or, you could ask new customers why they signed up for your service. Both interactions create deeper connections with your users and give you some direct insight from the people you’re trying to reach.
Vero, a company focused on re-engaging customers with focused emails, is always examining and learning from their blog. They published detailed insights in 2014, comprising of 10 specific lessons they learned over the year complete with statistics for all of their posts. Those learning points helped them to grow their blog from 5,000 visits a month to over 43,000.
Jimmy Daly, head of content at Vero, chatted with us about two particular tactics that had a huge impact on their success.
5. Tie in Your Product
Vero’s product is email-based, so it’s natural that their blog content is targeted towards email marketers. However, they’ve noticed that email marketers aren’t their only audience.
"We find, for example, that email marketers are also content marketers, social media marketers and entrepreneurs," Jimmy explains. As a result, they’ve continued to evolve and expand their topics to hit all of these various markets. However, while the topics evolve, there’s still a common thread through each post.
"Our main goal is for the content to tee up a conversation about our product," Jimmy explains. "When someone reads a post on our blog, is there a practical segue to our product?" Articles that hit the mark are home runs on the blog and great sales drivers.
You obviously don’t want your content to come across as sales-focused. However, your product should be a natural fit with your blog content. For example, Vero published a post in 2014 that racked up over 35,000 views titled "20 Tips for Dramatically Better Emails". The post featured a shining example for each of the 20 tips. Though Vero didn’t use its own emails as an example, their product is a natural fit for someone that’s curious about sending better email.
6. Write Content You’re Proud to Promote
Many times, Jimmy knows whether a post will be a hit before it even goes up. "It may sound odd, but our most successful posts were the ones I was most proud of before we even hit publish," he explains. Jimmy knows he’s publishing something the whole team believes in and stands behind. As a result, it influences their willingness to share the post with others.
"I knew in my gut that those articles were fantastic resources, so I had the confidence to reach out to major influencers in our industry and say ‘I've got something great to share with you,’" Jimmy says.
Promotion is a huge driver of traffic to most blogs. When team members aren’t excited to stand behind a particular blog post, there’s a high chance it will be a flop. Jimmy and his team have experienced this side of the coin as well after publishing easier content pieces like weekly roundups. "A weekly roundup of content can work but, again, you've got to own it and be proud of it. We didn't do that and as a result, they didn't work."
When publishing content to your blog, take a moment to ask yourself if this is really the best writing you can put forward. If the answer is "yes", hit publish. If the answer is "no", take some time to reconsider the post..
My first interaction with the Inside Intercom blog was when I came across their post "Start with a cupcake". Alongside of valuable content the post had an amazing graphic to go along with the information.
Meaningful graphics have been a major element to many Intercom blog posts. They instantly give the reader a sort of Tl;dr (To long; didn’t read) summary of the content and provide a cool image to share alongside the post on social media. John Collins, the blog's managing editor spoke with us about two other key elements that have led to huge payoffs including a 13% increase in pages per session.
7. Don’t be Afraid to be Controversial
One of the most popular blog posts on the Intercom blog this past year was titled "The End of Apps as We Know Them." Another was even more provocative. Both titles immediately caught my attention since they went against the typical way of thinking. As John points out, these posts aren’t just click-bait items to generate traffic. They’re thought-provoking pieces written by leaders in the industry. For example, the author of the app piece, Paul Adams, is someone qualified to write on the topic. "(He) has held senior design and product roles at Google and Facebook, wrote a bestseller on social design, 'Grouped', and thinks deeply about how the web is changing and the implications for designers and product people," explains John.
Alongside the typical "go with the flow" type of content, posts that take an alternative stance tend to stick out and attract attention, especially when they’re well-written. The Crew blog provides another shining example, publishing "Why I killed my standing desk" at a time when everyone else was raving about the benefits of standing at work. The point isn’t to always support the unpopular opinion. However, if you notice everyone heading right when you think left is the better choice, don’t be afraid to speak up. Just make sure you’re qualified to write on the subject and have arguments to back up your position.
8. Showcase Your Archives
Readers will often head to your blog looking for the most recent thing you’ve published. However, if you’re constantly focused on creating valuable content, your archives are often just as important as the latest and greatest. While they were publishing content more frequently, Intercom still wanted readers to find their older posts.
"We’d gone from publishing once a week to an average of three times a week and had a huge archive of articles that were still relevant," explains John.
To solve this problem, Intercom unveiled a refreshed look for their site that helped to showcase their archives alongside their new material. According to John, the change has paid off. "We’ve seen a significant spike in reader engagement, as measured by pages visited per session."
Readers will always be looking for fresh, new content. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t highlight your older stuff every once in awhile. Yearly review posts are the perfect time to showcase your blockbuster hits. You can also create a related post section at the bottom of every article. Both offer an opportunity for readers already enjoying your work to find more of it.
Thanks to their Backstage Writing Dispatches, I’ve been able to watch the Crew blog grow and develop since early on. In February, for example, the blog had around 30,000 pageviews. Since then, the site has grown by leaps and bounds (over 141,000 pageviews in October). Editor Jory Mackay elaborated on two key factors that has made the growth possible.
9. Be Consistent
It isn’t that hard to come up with one great blog post or maybe even two. Having great ideas hit you week after week is a completely different story. When Jory joined Crew as editor, the blog was all over the place in terms of consistency. Some weeks, you would see one or two posts go up while other weeks there would be three to four. As a reader, you didn’t know what to expect.
With a background in print publishing, Jory noticed this issue immediately and set out to establish a rhythm. "Now we publish 5 articles per week on our blog and Backstage (where we write about behind-the-scenes of Crew and our other projects)," he explains. The consistency has paid off. "Not only have our page views steadily increased, but we're not dealing with erratic spikes in traffic anymore (unless we get a story that goes viral)," says Jory. In October, for example, their traffic levels went up 56% from the previous month.
To build a following, you need to constantly have readers coming back to your site. Consistency is one commonality across all of the blogs I looked at for this piece. They publish great content regularly, not once a week or once a month. So, rather than publishing only when you have something to say, lay out an editorial calendar and make sure you have something going up regularly, even if it’s just once a week.
10. Track Meaningful Metrics.
Most websites on the internet live and die by pageviews. It seems to be one of the most widely accepted measures of success. More pageviews mean better content. The Crew team wanted to evaluate the success of their blog by a different measure though, one that represented their core values of honesty, transparency, and trust. Although they still look at normal metrics, they settled on two important values.
Email subscription rate – Jory elaborates, "I live in my inbox and there's nothing I hate more than spam, so the few newsletters I sign up for have to…provide enough value for me to want to see them week after week. We want people to feel that way about our posts—that they're valuable enough that our readers don't want to miss out on anything and will let us send them directly to their inbox."
Average time on page – "We track the time people spend reading our posts because we want to know if we are providing the value we want to and if people trust us that if an article has a slow start, they're going to get something out of it in the end," he says.
With these new metrics in mind, they can evaluate the success of their blog differently than if they were to just look at pageviews. For example, in November, they noticed readers that came to their page from syndication partners like The Next Web stayed on for 120% more time than the site average. Readers that came to the blog from their Backstage blog (their behind-the-scenes look at the company) stayed 225% longer.
While tracking pageviews is necessary and shouldn’t be overlooked, those numbers can only provide a shallow understanding of your readers and how well your content is doing. Instead, look for other metrics that might provide a better indicator for your specific blog. It might be email subscription numbers like Crew or product conversions. Both give you a more detailed understanding of how well your content is resonating with readers.
Bonus: Constantly Experiment
The best content marketers are constantly experimenting and looking for growth opportunities. The above examples are some of our favorites, but you don’t have to look far for other inventive ideas. The team at brand monitoring app Mention, for example, led their first #mentionchat Twitter chats in 2014 to engage new customers. Wistia held an AMA (Ask Me Anything) with Moz’s Rand Fishkin. Help Scout gave customers a peek behind-the-scenes in a "How They Work" video.
There’s no shortage of ways to grow your content marketing efforts. What ideas have you tried that have led to a huge success?
Related: "Write the Perfect Blog Post: 4 Tips from 24 Months of Content Marketing" by Belle Beth Cooper