5 Tips I Learned Building Shopify’s Multi-Million Dollar Content Marketing Program

A round-up of tips is helpful when it shakes up your thinking with a sample list of ideas to try, questions to ask, or things to reconsider.

It’s a shame that a quick search for content marketing tips often returns a bland, low-effort list of junk like “use Google Analytics” and “make sure to have a plan.” Thanks, what stunning insight. I’ll also remember to breathe and drink water, too.

I wanted to create a list of tips for content marketers—learned from my experience leading the multi-million dollar content marketing program at Shopify—that actually offers a new perspective on the work they’re doing today. And so I wrote this blog post, which is a loosely connected list of content marketing tips that anyone in the industry can learn from. Let’s dig in.

1. Ask questions to tailor-fit your content strategy

Content marketing strategy is an extension of your marketing strategy, which should be an extension of your business strategy. The approach you pursue needs to be grounded on how things are working today and where you see opportunities for the business in the future.

Anything I write on strategy in a holistic sense should be based on the questions I’d ask, not knowing the current state of your business. If you’re curious, here are some of the basic questions I run through when working with a new company.

How do you get customers today?

The way customers come in the door today should be one of the first inputs you look at before trying to pour gasoline on the fire. For example, do self-serve customers stick around and drive most of your current growth? Or is there often a long sales cycle involved before your product lands at larger companies?

If it’s the latter, and frontline feedback tells us that the Sales team is hurting for customer case studies, well, you have a critical input for your content strategy. And so, it would make little to no sense to plow right into keyword research and topic cluster planning. This sounds obvious, but an impactful strategy doesn’t need to be complicated.

How well understood is the product’s positioning?

Another question that’s valuable to ask is how well people actually understand what your product is and does. Broad strokes, there are two things you need to figure out here: is this a product in an established category or not, and how precise and potent is the current positioning?

The first matters because a product that offers a fundamentally new way to solve a problem is going to have a harder time capturing existing demand. If you fall into a clear category, for example, it often makes sense to jump right into bottom-of-funnel content and case studies and work your way up.

But if it’s a little harder to explain what your product does through the use of an existing category (e.g., “it’s a help desk”), that approach might not be as fruitful as stories that explain why the way existing products work is broken, and how your product is a fresh solution to long-standing problems. And in contrast, products that iterate on a problem will probably struggle with that style; “it’s a better to-do list” probably doesn’t need thought leadership, it needs trials.

What’s the maturity/trajectory of current tactics?

The way any tactic is deployed or evaluated needs to be based on how long it’s been tried and the current trajectory it’s on. At Shopify, we realized after the surge in 2020 that we had left too many tactics untried and underdeveloped in favor of outsized effort capturing demand. Once the winds change, the strategy needs to change too.

The early stage of any tactic is about exploration. Initially, you’re simply trying to prove if something works at all and if it’s worth investing in. People who are great at early-stage ideas know how to scope work well and tend to have great intuition around whether something is actually “good enough” to be considered an MVP.

The later stages of any tactic are about exploitation. What that means is you’re trying to squeeze more out of what is proven to work through scale and, potentially, through differentiation. For example, if a certain content format works extremely well, you might look to streamline the production process to create more of this format faster and invest in the execution itself by upleveling the production or bringing in more types of media.

2. Set opinionated metrics tied to your strategy

Marketing is a game best played with a scorecard. The trick is that you are the one setting the rules and parameters for success, so you have to choose carefully.

The calling card of a good set of metrics is that they are opinionated, relevant to how you execute, and, once in place, actively guide your decisions or even prompt you to change your approach. If they’re not doing that, they’re probably just numbers the team picked to appear data-driven.

What a lot of teams fail to do is to pick metrics that feel as opinionated as their strategy. At Shopify, we chose north star metrics of Gross Adds (leading) and RAC90 (lagging), the latter being a content marketing metric we created to measure Retained Active Customers, or customers we added from content marketing pages who stuck around for at least 90 days.

These two metrics might seem relatively standard at a glance, but they contain a lot of opinions baked in. Here are just a few:

  1. We were confident content could be held to self-serve customer adds but felt we needed Gross Adds, without a retention threshold, as a leading indicator to shorten our feedback loop.
  2. We were also confident we could add customers that would stick around, so we added the paired metric of RAC90 to keep us honest and avoid short-term decision-making (e.g., focusing too much on dropshipping customers who churned at a high rate).
  3. We weren’t going to hold ourselves to revenue because we were in the Growth Org and felt that net-new customers were where we added the most value to Shopify. Other teams cared about account size.
  4. We weren’t going to measure anything to do with cross-sell or upsell since there wasn’t a high meaningful correlation to net adds.

There was plenty more to consider, but that should give you a good idea. You might not be flush with data like we were at Shopify, but the same principle should apply to your approach: if your metrics don’t reveal a story of tradeoffs and even red-faced debates about what matters, they probably aren’t opinionated enough.

3. Use topic clusters for organization and projections

Topic clusters are an approach to roughly organizing content to inform search engines that your site is an archive of comprehensive, interlinking resources on any given topic.

Data and experience show that topic clusters aren’t some magical hack or unlock, but are a helpful model that fits best practices for ranking content quickly and for competitive terms; content that lives alone, dies alone.

Where I see most teams go wrong is that they don’t plan or prioritize around potential clusters. Topic clusters are actually a fantastic way to do opportunity sizing, so this is a missed opportunity.

Take the potential clusters you have in mind and use your own data along with some back-of-napkin estimates to figure out the range of results you can expect from creating, fleshing out, or updating a specific topic cluster. Here are some common considerations I use:

  1. Set an estimated ranking position based on the rankings your current articles achieve, e.g., Shopify was a very authoritative site, so we’d often assume we could rank for position 3 for almost any term. If you don’t have enough data for this, make a rough estimate and allow exceptions when your experience or intuition tells you otherwise.
  2. Know the average conversion rates for the metric you care about. At Shopify, we would use topic-wide conversion rates for both Gross Adds and RAC90. Put another way, we’d use our data on how well sessions on those pages turned into customers or RAC90 and assume new pages in the topic would perform roughly the same.
  3. Investigate the incremental opportunity of existing clusters by figuring out what the lift would be if pages that you updated increased to the position you use for projections (e.g., position 3) or if well-performing pages increased all the way to position 1. This is often a great way to justify investing in an existing topic rather than always chasing something net-new.

The final product of all this digging should be a much richer understanding of why you’ve chosen to pursue a specific topic for the next 6-week cycle, quarter, or half of the year. You’ll have a clear view of the opportunity and a crisp explanation as to why you’ve chosen to focus on one topic over another. You’ll both drive more impact this way and be better equipped to explain your approach to executives.

4. Build a repeatable framework for content creation

The groups or buckets your content falls in are a good foundation for a framework. For a lot of businesses that I work with, I start with my own universal framework, and then we refine and expand it so that it’s bespoke to the business.

But what does this mean, exactly? Although content creation can feel like an infinite canvas, the truth is that there are only so many reasons for a company to publish something. Broadly speaking, I classify those reasons into three groups:

Harvest Demand

  1. Education. Search-informed content that helps answer questions prospects seek out once they’ve encountered a problem.
    • harvests inbound demand from solution-seeking prospects
  1. Industry insight. Data-informed deep dives into “how things work” and what’s trending that earns links and coverage.
    • harvests demand by becoming a source of truth on a topic

Create Demand

  1. Influence. Changes the way people think about a specific idea or problem, along with what role your product can play in the solution.
    • drives demand by pushing stories/narrative into the market

That’s honestly the long and short of it. If we’re about to hit the publish button and we don’t clearly understand which category the story falls in within this framework, we really need to question why it’s being published at all.

Where additional work should be done is sharpening your approach within these categories. For example, you might go after competitor conquesting in “Education” because there’s so much opportunity at the bottom of the funnel for “alternative” and “vs” keywords, or you might focus on category creation within the Influence category. That’s something you’ll need to decide on, but keeping an updated framework like this is a cornerstone of a focused content marketing strategy.

5. Develop basic brand guidelines—but don’t obsess over them

The area where I see the wildest pendulum swings in content marketing has to be around brand and brand guidelines. Some teams think the very concept of “brand” doesn’t exist, and other teams seem to worship at the sacred altar of brand branding and use it as a shield to do whatever they want without measurement or accountability.

I try to avoid choosing the middle ground, porridge-just-right solution for the sake of it, but I honestly feel a balanced approach is what’s correct here. Here’s the thing about brand: If people love your product, the best thing you can do for your brand is to get more people to use your product.

That means “brand” is built in many ways, and exercises in brand building have less value in the early stages of a business. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t place value on a consistent look, feel, and—most important—bar for quality with every piece of content you create, however.

So you want some sort of guidance that defines and maintains your bar for quality so that new hires can catch up to speed quickly and that no customer is left feeling that your brand feels budget or inconsistent. But you also don’t want guidelines that are so comprehensive as to be oppressive or guidelines that stomp out nascent ideas or prevent you from chasing after impact because it feels “off-brand.”

Apply constraints here: limit yourself to building content guidelines that explain the value you’ll provide customers, your voice and tone, and what ways you’ll deliberately try to look and feel different from what’s out there. Give yourself two concise pages and no more. Then, get back to connecting more customers with your product—leave corporate brand building for after the IPO.

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is the executive editor on Shopify’s communications team, working on projects like Shopify Magazine. Before that, he led content marketing on Shopify’s growth team. Greg is a fan of simple websites, spicy food, and writing that’s clear as a country creek.

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