When Contently launched in 2010, it was a dwarf among giants. The fledgling firm set out to help brands tell their stories more fully by ramping up high-quality content — namely blog posts and articles that didn’t sound like they were robo-generated based on keywords. At the time, their primary competitor was goliath Demand Media, which was doing exactly that. The tide changed when Google released its Panda algorithm in 2011, effectively shutting off traffic to the junky, sponsored content that littered the web. Demand Media crashed as Contently bloomed.
Incidentally, this is exactly what Contently advises its clients to do today: Focus on quality to win long-term. But as trendy and gabbed-about as “content marketing” is these days, Contently CEO Joe Coleman says he’s continually surprised by how many companies of all sizes (including the Fortune 500) don’t know what to write, what to track, or what their objective is, even as they pour millions into content production.
“I think we’re actually seeing a correction right now in content marketing. Brands are starting to step back and ask, ‘What are we getting out of content? Is it working or not?’” says Coleman. “This has made it a bigger challenge for the people who call themselves content marketers, but is also raising the bar in good ways across the board.”
In short, it’s no longer going to fly to create content marketing material because you think you should. “Too many people were approaching it purely as an art. Now, to succeed, you have to take that art and apply a much more scientific, data-driven framework to it,” says Coleman. At the same time he acknowledges that it’s still a young field lacking in institutional knowledge. So, in this exclusive article, he provides the commandments for content marketing he’s seen work again and again so we can start building this knowledge together.
1ST COMMANDMENT: Don’t expect magic overnight. Plant the seed and be patient.
“If you’re coming in as the first content marketer at a company, it’s all about setting the right expectations,” says Coleman. “Building traffic with content can be a very long very difficult process. Once you get there, the rewards are great, but we see a lot of impatience.”
When Contently works with clients, it creates alignment by drawing up a full content plan, complete with proposed initial publishing schedule and the milestones that make sense. For example, at month two, the milestone probably won’t be that you’re driving thousands of new conversions. Instead, it’ll be engagement levels around the content you have produced so far. “You can look at newsletter subscriptions, page views, whatever. You just need to establish milestones that you know you can hit that are on the road to generating business. This will keep people from freaking out.”
Founders and CEOs are always going to want immediate success, but content marketers should rest assured that they’ve been called in because they have rarefied knowledge and skills. They have the latitude and license to create their own smart milestones, as long as they are aggressive and aimed toward company growth. And they should demand the minimum resources they need to spin something up. Content success doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Create metrics around levers, not output. Just put points up on the board and see what happens.
Make it your objective to have a certain amount of content produced. Set benchmarks for the type of engagement you want to see. For example, make it a goal to increase the number of return visitors to your blog by a certain percentage. If you don’t, change what you’re doing and try again. It’s about progress, not perfection.
Most content marketing efforts fail not because the content was bad, but because there were no clear goals to determine if it was working or not. On top of that, a surprising number of brands end up scrapping content as a whole at the first sign of failure.
“Every content marketer should get six months to make something happen before their work is questioned,” says Coleman. “A three month trial doesn’t work. You have to remember you’re dependent on other people, experiment constantly, pull a lot of levers, and wait for momentum to build on itself. After six months of this, you should have something to show for it.”
2ND COMMANDMENT: Make sure you have an audience. Then learn everything you can about them.
Identifying your audience is not as simple as looking at the demographics of your customer base and saying: “These people.” There’s all the people who aren’t yet buying your product, who have never heard of you, who may encounter a piece of content way before they ever discover your company. Your audience has to be inherently aspirational, and you have to quantitatively define these aspirations to get to them.
“You need to have clearly defined metrics around the type of people you’re wanting to get in front of and draw in,” says Coleman. “How old are they? Where do they live? What kind of sites do they frequent? What kind of content do they even want to engage with? How often do they see something like an ad or a tweet, or whatever, before making a purchasing decision?” You want to know these people by the numbers — as intimately as you possibly can.
This is how you’ll make your initial content decisions. Will you just focus on text? Mix-media? How often? All of these answers stem from the audience you’re targeting. Your content is a product unto itself and you have to find out where it fits into the broader ecosystem of people’s needs and wants.
Good content marketing requires finding product-market fit all over again.
Talk to existing customers. What issues are top of mind for them all day? What are the main challenges or problems they face on a regular basis? While building Contently, Coleman and his team would field questions about publishing cadence, social sharing tools and SEO all day long. So that’s what they ended up writing about on their content property: The Content Strategist — now one of the most-read marketing blogs on the internet.
“Write down any question you hear from customers more than twice. That’s ripe for content,” he says. “Get your sales team involved. Have them constantly share the questions they get, or the challenges they people have, and build a heatmap. Really mine that data to figure out what you should be writing about.”
Part of this process might be figuring out you don’t need content at all, or that it’s not the right time. So audience analysis should probably precede bringing on someone to run it full time. If you don’t value digital marketing that much — or most of your customers aren’t coming through that channel — then save your money. If you’re pre-product-market fit as a company, don’t invest in content. That deserves all your focus, and if you pivot, you’ll waste a ton of work. Even the best content won’t help you.
“You have to be really honest with yourself at this stage,” Coleman says. “It’s not just whether you should and can produce content. It’s whether you can do it without half-assing it. Otherwise, you can do real damage to your brand.”
3RD COMMANDMENT: Be consistent. No really, we’re talking regular drumbeat.
Companies branching into content are tempted to run before they can walk. “They think, ‘Okay… content strategy. We need a blog, social media, an email list, all at the same time. Go!’” he says. “When really the first thought should be creating a plan you can 100% stick to. That’s usually one to two posts a week.”
Once you start seeing measurable traffic — and really, consider any traffic measurable at this point — figure out if they’re coming from your main company site or elsewhere. If so, where are they coming from? That’s your first priority. Second, start collecting email addresses right away.
“Email is your ticket to building a good feedback loop early on, even if you have 10 subscribers,” Coleman says. “You’ll start seeing who’s coming back to your site. You can start driving people back and building a bit of a machine. You can set up an email newsletter in 20-25 minutes and it gives you so much good data.”
In fact, email is almost always more valuable than social media. He’s seen brands pour their energy and resources into tweeting and posting to Facebook multiple times a day, when the best way to drive action is to have something land in your followers’ inbox. It’s personal. It’s put right in their path. And even if you can’t fathom who would actually open a marketing email, millions do. If you’re regular with your email sends, you’ll see your list gradually build organically as traffic begets traffic.
Content only works if you’re consistent — consistent in frequency, in look and style and tone.
“Regular cadence is really important to building an audience,” he says. “Think of it as being consistent in a relationship. You have to remind people that you’re there, you care, you’re adding value — as much as you can before you become annoying. People will start to expect to hear from you, and they feel like they know you.”
Consistency in timing also gives you, as a company or content marketer, more ability to test and try a lot of different things, like headlines, formatting, use of images, types of stories. You want to control timing as a variable to find out how these other attributes resonate one at a time. For example, try a long-form piece while keeping everything else as consistent as possible. How did it perform? You’ll only be able to draw conclusions if you publish on the same day and at the same time as you always do.
Using a similar tone when testing other elements is also important. And once you find the right tone for you, you should stick to it. Coleman points to a comment made by one of Contently’s freelancers: “If your brand was a person at a dinner party, who would they be? The gadget freak who snagged the iPhone 6 a week before it went on sale? The honest and kind friend you’d want to consult with before a date?”
If your audience can’t recognize you, how can they build a relationship with you?
Once you feel like you’ve found a voice that resonates with and is trusted by your target audience, you should codify it in a written style guide. Boil it down to its core components and directives and give many many examples. Anyone who writes for you going forward should be gifted a style guide and use it on a regular basis.
4TH COMMANDMENT: You must be different. No one wants more of the same.
The world keeps getting noisier. Don’t make it worse.
“It’s really easy to sit down and say, ‘Okay, well we’re a company that does X, so we should write about X, obviously,’” says Coleman. “If you don’t do any further analysis or see what competition is out there, you’re screwed. You need to find the white space where you can do something no one else is doing. A topic area you can truly own.”
To make sure you’re differentiating, he recommends a tool called BuzzSumo. It allows you to search for topics and calls up popular pieces and any competitors for a given subject area, what kind of content they’re producing, and more. You have to think critically about what’s left that no one has touched yet.
“Have a brainstorm session where a bunch of people in the room come up with a big list of any topics related to what you’re doing,” he says. “Look them up one by one and map out the areas they’re covering. It’s time consuming, but you’ll see the gaps emerge.”
Buffer is a supremely good example of this. “They’ve done a great job of finding their voice and sticking with it — it’s very conversational and relatable,” says Coleman. “What’s good about it is that it wouldn’t be right for every brand, but it works for them.” Even when they’re sharing important or serious company news, they still write this way. It makes them recognizable and memorable.
Ask yourself: What’s a voice that’s true to us that wouldn’t work for anyone else?
Finding your patch of white space isn’t just about topics or themes either. It goes deeper to people’s motivations to read what you produce. To an extent, you have to psychologize your prospective readers. Find a unique reason for people to come read your content. If their motive is unique in your field, you’ve got something.
5TH COMMANDMENT: Get people to show up. Don’t publish in a vacuum of your own making.
Too many startups are investing time and money in building their own content platform only to sit there without any readers. It’s like throwing a party and having no one show up. And it can be excruciating.
There are two ways to avoid this scenario. If you’re willing to go the distance a spend a bit more money, you can pay for traffic, and use it to learn how to retain readers organically. Or, if you’re on a budget, you can string together a series of hacks (publishing on Medium and LinkedIn where you already have some audience, chief among them), to try to kickstart your engine.
“Spending money is probably the fastest way to get to content marketing success — but only if you do it the right way,” says Coleman. “Paid reader acquisition (using Facebook, LinkedIn, Outbrain and the like) is fine as long as you’re maximizing your learning per dollar spent and rapidly iterating on what you do learn. This requires quickly coming up with hypotheses about what kind of content people want so you can validate and discard them every day.”
If you don’t have this luxury, you have to be pretty scrappy.
Starting with content is not that different from starting a company. You have to hustle to get traction on your idea.
Do a thorough inventory of the tools you have at your disposal. For example, Coleman’s co-founder in Contently, Shane Snow, was writing for Wired and Mashable when they first started, and he was able to not only mention, but also link to The Content Strategist in a couple stories. That drove some initial traffic.
“You really have to dig deep. Maybe you know a bunch of influential people with big followings. Have them tweet about you,” says Coleman. “Email your investors and tell them to share your content. They’re there to be useful to you. You can’t be shy or ashamed of asking for these things.”
Syndication is a major way to pull in readers early on. In this case, you’re creating a piece of content and then pitching it to existing publications with healthy traffic — ideally publications your brand has a lot in common with. Maybe you want to pitch a regular column written by your founder or CEO. Maybe it’s just a one-off article that dovetails with their current or most popular coverage. Regardless, it can’t focus exclusively on your company or read as too promotional. It should address a related or adjacent topic in a unique or entertaining way.
The other key to syndication is doing your research. Be brutally honest with yourself about whether a publication will run your content. If you’re aiming for The New York Times, Fortune or TechCrunch, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. When it was starting out, Contently focused on syndicating articles on marketing technology sites like MarTech Advisor and Digiday — blogs they knew were read by their ideal customers. “Have faith that if you start with the C-tier sites in your industry, you’ll have a higher hit rate, you’ll reach more of your core customers, and this momentum really does build,” says Coleman. “If you do well there, you can start pitching bigger and bigger sites.”
As you’re combing through potential syndication targets, make a spreadsheet where you capture stories that resemble the content you’d be offering. You want to find the most popular among them. That way, when you email the contributions or guest editors, you can start right off the bat with: “I see that X and Y articles on topic Z were very popular with your readers. I’m writing to you because we’re producing content that is very similar…” They’ll know you did your research and that you’re taking their interest into account.
Syndication can also refer to your content on external sites like Medium and LinkedIn. Because these sites draw on your existing followers and community, you know you won’t be shouting into the void. That’s a definite pro, but these options have their cons as well.
“Publishing outside of your site should be purely about raising awareness,” says Coleman. “It’s very hard to get people back to your site to sign up or buy if you publish a whole article on Medium or LinkedIn. You want to abridge every piece and point back to your mothership.” This will help you be ubiquitous. Prospective customers will feel like they’re running into you repeatedly, which keeps you top of mind for them.
6TH COMMANDMENT: You have to invest the time and energy in writing. And accept that it takes a long, long time to write something good.
If you’re not obsessed with creating really great premium content, you’re wasting your time.
Whether you’re writing or creating visual content, there’s always going to be the impulse to ship it fast. You want the SEO, you want the shares. You want content to start turning into conversions. But none of this will happen if you sacrifice quality for quantity. A lot of people say this. Very few internalize it. Even fewer execute on it.
“You can care about SEO, but don’t treat it as a primary goal. Focusing on it to intently can lead you to create crappy, keyword-driven content,” says Coleman. “SEO is actually, increasingly, about creating high-quality content. Ever since Google’s first Panda update, their goal has been to surface content that’s more relevant, provides more value, and that people actually want to read. They’re getting better at it all the time, so you want to ride that wave.”
Going all puppy mill with your content can actually work against you too — and it’s getting worse for the companies that do it. Given the choice between publishing two well-researched, well-crafted articles a month and pumping out two blog posts a week to “stay top of mind” with prospects, you should always go with the former, Coleman says. “Ultimately, producing content that’s helpful, that’s a pleasure to read, is what will get more people coming to your site, reading your newsletter, and sharing your links.”
This should be a priority from the start. The last thing you want to do is rack up “content quality debt” that has you going back to rewrite things so they don’t hurt your brand going forward.
Coleman points to digital learning platform Uncubed as a prime example of an org that has clearly prioritized quality. When you land on their blog, Wakefield, it’s clear they’ve invested in premium design and photography. It’s very clean and glossy. And their articles either dig deeper than expected into their topics or surface non-obvious, unique data. It’s clear that real time and thought was put into crafting each piece.
7TH COMMANDMENT: Track how you’re doing all the time. But only the few things that matter.
There are certain metrics that should be tracked no matter what you’re doing: unique readers, for instance, can’t really be ignored if you’re trying to drive growth. But engagement rate turns out to be just as vital.
If all you’re tracking is clicks and impressions, you’re leaving a ton of helpful data on the table.
Engagement is the combo of several other metrics: time on page (“dwell time”), for instance. Scroll behavior — whether people make it to the end of your pieces or close to it. Recurring readers — are people coming back for more? Referral power — does this piece of content encourage people to click to another piece or part of your site, or subscribe to get your email? If you can, track things like eBook or white paper downloads — conversion events are especially telling in this respect. You want to sort your content by engagement to bring the pieces that keep people around the longest to the top.
“By really digging into this data, you can understand which pieces really shine and do the most to build your audience,” says Coleman. “Then you have the choice to put paid spend behind them to really rev your engine, or start producing more content like them so you get better over time.”
Likewise, if you find out no one is spending time on some of your content, stop making it.
All that said, don’t underestimate the importance of qualitative feedback. You want to track that closely too.
“Early on, the stuff that should really get you excited is talking to a prospect who mentions how much they love your content,” says Coleman. “When Contently was first getting started, we’d talk to a lot of prospects who said they already knew about The Content Strategist and thought it was cool. It made conversations that much more productive. And as a CEO, it was something I really appreciated and took seriously. It showed we were on the right track separating ourselves from the competition.”
Contently ended up implementing a field in Salesforce to capture all of these remarks, and had the sales team poll inbound leads to see if they’d read The Content Strategist. Unsurprisingly, there was a very strong correlation between people who had engaged with the content, and those who were likely to become customers.
They also took their email subscription list and cross-referenced it with Salesforce to see what the overlap was between readers and closed deals. “These are all proof points that your audience is engaging and taking the action you want them to. Note and store all those connections somewhere,” says Coleman.
On the other end of the spectrum, let’s say you don’t have the sales traction or haven’t logged enough time to see significant engagement. Another way to prove the early value of content is to find the total number of impressions you’re generating and look up the dollars you would have spent on Facebook ads, etc. to get those eyeballs. This isn’t perfect or a long-term solution, but if you’re starting from scratch — and especially if you’re a content manager who needs to prove your value — this is a quick and dirty tactic to show impact.
“This works, but it isn’t indicative of ultimate success,” says Coleman. “Eventually you need to really figure out who those people are and what they’re doing on your site beyond clicking in or out. You want to make sure you graduate your measurement strategy from impressions to engagement as fast as possible.”
8TH COMMANDMENT: Maximize impact with design. Build it beautiful to be taken seriously.
Syndicating across channels has its benefits. But, as Coleman puts it: “To make your content truly effective, you have to have an owned hub or asset for content where people can come and engage with your brand directly.” This means building a blog, or a publication, or whatever you want to call it. There are a lot of ways to mess this up.
It needs to look good, but usability is always more important. “The way your site is optimized will make a huge difference for how your content performs,” he says. “Simple tweaks to layout, font size, etc. can get content read and shared more than it would be otherwise.” He points to sites that have instituted never-ending scrolling for articles. Once you finish one, another one begins. No need to click. Sites with this setup do in fact see that many more articles get read. Likewise, when social media icons scroll as you scroll, they’re much more likely to get clicked. WordPress is a good choice because it has the full array of plug-ins and an active support community to make sure you’re covering your bases, Coleman adds.
He advises making a checklist of all of the tactics that can be applied to maximize reads and shares. Then the rest of your site should be kept as monkishly simple and clean and, above all, as spacious as possible. It’s really easy to get in your own way, clutter the reading experience, and bake in too many CTAs. Do you want people to read? Share? Subscribe? Buy? Make sure these actions are prioritized according to the real estate you give them. If you ask too much of people, or present them with too much, they’ll bounce.
Design is also your best weapon for creating content that stands on its own and doesn’t oversell. Many sites, The Content Strategist among them, have had success designing what appears to be a property separate from the brand while still (though subtly) linking back to the homepage. This gives you several distinct advantages: It lets your content shed the mantle of “advertising” and be consumed purely as interesting storytelling; it shows how seriously you take producing great content; and it encourages them to treat you like any other publication they appreciate — tweeting stories, adding you to their RSS readers, emailing articles to their friends, etc. It prompts a subtle mental shift.
Sounds good, but don’t go overboard. You want the look and feel of this site to echo your core branding — just not replicate it. Use the same colors, visuals and font, for instance. You want to forge a subconscious link between what a person just read and your primary product. Use your logo sparingly, and make it easy to navigate back and forth between your site and content. If a reader is relying on you to be a valuable resource and they end up feeling pitched, you break their trust. It only takes one negative interaction.
Use design to blend your company and your content in a way where people can discover something legitimately cool, but also know where it came from.
One of the stickiest design questions concerns calls to action. Many brands are tempted to include an overt CTA or sell at the bottom of articles or posts. The idea of course is, “If someone is on this page, we should use that!” But an inelegant CTA is even the best content’s Achilles heel. “I’ve always found this practice to be tacky,” says Coleman. “I get why people do it, but there’s a better way.”
Before Contently and The Content Strategist were so well known, the team had great success with a very thin bar at the very top of article pages that said, “The Content Strategist is powered by Contently, the company that does X, Y and Z” — compactly emphasizing their three main value propositions. It worked because it didn’t sound or look like an ad. It objectively stated what the company did. And it didn’t interfere with any part of the reading experience. Companies that want to do something similar can also utilize the sidebar. As long as it’s simple, to the point and out of the way, you’re in good shape.
“Fold in one very light mention of your brand in a way that’s not obnoxious,” Coleman says. “The people who are high-intent, high-curiosity and inspired to work with you are the ones who will click through.”
9TH COMMANDMENT: Experiment with one eye fixed on the future.
Once you have version 1.0 of your content strategy up and running, what does 2.0 look like? 3.0?
Building a large, regularly-returning audience gave Coleman and his team the latitude to explore different, often more niche topics like legal snafus, growing enterprise challenges, stories that were relevant to only really huge or or really tiny companies. They no longer had to write broadly for one audience.
Use the size and character of your audience as a milestone. At a certain point, you have permission to evolve what you write about.
It’s helpful to stake out these milestones early on in your strategy. That way, you won’t forget to make changes. You won’t cling to the security of what you’ve been doing just because it works.
“Say to yourself, ‘Okay, when we have this many readers, we’ll think about doing X,’ ‘When we have this many more readers, we’ll move on to Y,’” says Coleman. “It’s very easy to get stuck on one type of content, when you should always ask, ‘How can we now serve segments of this audience in a better way?”
The more you can segment your audience and tightly tailor your content, the more you’ll reach people who are extremely interested in what you have to say. Thorough and constant testing will get you to these segments and what they want faster.
“A/B tests are the biggest needle movers for content success,” he says. “Once you have the traffic, you want to start testing headlines immediately. You want to figure out the type of language your readers respond to every time. Then test story types, which will take longer. Do they like in-depth pieces? Quizzes? Listicles? Create a conscious mix of their favorites.”
Other things to test include:
Different design features: You don’t want to test too many items at once in case you don’t know what made the difference, but Contently has actually overhauled The Content Strategist a number of times, and do so fairly frequently. Even when things are working, it’s good to keep hypothesizing how to get better. “Don’t be arbitrary about it,” says Coleman. “Be as data driven as you can, but don’t ever feel finished.”
Time of day and frequency for social posts and emails: Every single time Contently’s content team meets, they review the data of what they’ve tried in this area, what they saw, and what they’re going to try in the coming week that’s different based on this information.
Different contributors: Once you have the ability to supplement your content with freelancers or multiple authors, it’s important to track success by contributor. Internally, Contently has contributor analytics to help with this. You might figure out you have one writer who shines when writing pithy hot takes on breaking news and another whose wheelhouse is really long-form features. You want to use this data to ‘Moneyball’ your team and make sure everyone is leaning into their strengths.
On a broader level, Coleman says there are three areas where you should run experiments:
No matter what combination you land on, however, you shouldn’t waver from your commitment to quality. “When it comes to content, the word quality is synonymous with ‘delivering real value,’” Coleman says. What’s something your audience didn’t know before. Did a post change the way they looked at something or the world around them? Did it give them the tools to take on a challenge or knock down a roadblock? Did it induce some sort of positive change? That’s the real meaning of “premium” he says.
“These days you just see so many articles with titles like, ‘The 7 Core Elements of Content Strategy,’ and it’s like ‘#1: Plan.’ Ugh. It’s all been done, done and done again,” he says. “To get out of this cycle you have to backtrack all the way to why you’re creating content in the first place. Seriously, why?” Then as you answer it, take the unexpected, risky, less-traveled route to your destination.