A not-so-brief guide to better content marketing

Expecting customers to succeed with your product without your help is expecting too much.

This is why I enjoy working in content marketing. My job boils down to proactive education that helps businesses succeed with our software.

About me? I’ve been a content strategist for quite a while now, focusing exclusively on software startups. I mostly did contract/freelance work for the first couple of years, but I’ve recently joined up with an amazing team full-time.

It’s a SaaS startup called Help Scout, and it provides an easy help desk/email support solution for small business owners.

So, throughout this guide I’ll try to focus on the basics, as this was primarily made for those startups who have not yet engaged in content marketing very much… consider it a ‘beginner’s guide’ more than an advanced analysis.

What is content marketing?

“Content marketing means creating and sharing informative, valuable, and free content to attract and convert prospects into customers, and customers into repeat buyers.”

The type of content you share needs to be closely related to what you sell; in other words, you’re educating people so that they know, like, and trust you enough to do business with you.

The primary goal with content marketing is not typically to make a direct sale (although it happens), it is to obtain permission to deliver content over an extended period of time, preferably through email (again, more on this later).

The secondary goal is to become a “thought leader” (buzzword, but I’ll explain) in your industry. The benefits of this is that your content gets you on the radar of larger publications, who will then link to you naturally.

When you are heading the charge in a certain field through content, you become a natural choice to link to in the mind of journalists and larger bloggers, and these links can obviously result in real revenue from new customers.

Why engage in content marketing?

People are naturally more inclined to shared content, after all, original content is what drives the Internet. Many potential consumers are looking for information that solves a problem, not an immediate sales pitch. The trust, credibility, and authority that content marketing creates knocks down sales resistance, all while providing a baseline introduction to the benefits of a particular product or service.

Content marketing solves the Know, Like and Trust problems in the following ways:

Know: People are often hesitant to do business with a company they’ve come across for the first time. Getting on their radar with free content that they are likely to come across on the web is a great way to give people a sense to “know” what your business is all about.

Like: Similarly, if this content is valuable, people will begin to like your business more. Reciprocity is a powerful force, and free content begins the process instantly.

Trust: After time (and preferably an email opt-in), those who consume your content will likely buy from you. Those who have already bought from you will trust you enough to jump at your latest releases or upgrades. Your business needs to keep providing utility outside of content of course, but getting to know your customers and providing them with valuable information can go a long way in getting people to trust what you put out.

Necessary tools (before you begin)

Content marketing starts with having a company blog, so you’ll need some sort of software that lets you create a blog in addition to your company’s homepage/sales page.

I personally recommend using a self-hosted WordPress blog (that’s WordPress.org) along with some solid WordPress hosting, my current favorite being WP Engine.

If your team doesn’t have a designer and you are using WordPress, I’d advise checking out r/WordPress for “theme” recommendations (I like StudioPress and WooThemes) or hire someone to whip up a simple design for you (I’ll go over conversion advice in a minute).

The other big tool that you’ll need is an email newsletter software. You MUST have this, it is essential for the content marketing process.

People are much more likely to buy via email than over social networks, it’s a much more private tool that is typically used to get stuff done, rather than check out articles and pictures from your friend’s BBQ. Focus on email above all else.

My two favorite offerings in this space are AWeber and MailChimp. Either one is fine, just know that MailChimp does not allow affiliate links in any form (on site or in your newsletter).

That’s honestly it! 🙂 There are obviously some other much more advanced tools to utilize (I love using VisualWebsiteOptimizer, HubSpot, SEOmoz suite, etc.), but I know that information overload can be paralyzing, so keep it simple at first!

The only other tools that you should familiarize yourself with are the Google Keyword Tool and Google Analytics.

I’ll say this one more time just to be sure: do NOT start your startup’s blog without a newsletter in place, trust me.

Defining your content marketing strategy

Okay, finally time to get into the good stuff!

So, the kind of content that you create needs to relate to your industry in a general sense, that’s a given.

As an example, over on the Mint blog, they talk about personal finance since that’s what the Mint software is related too. On the Help Scout blog, we talk about customer service, because we are an email support app. On places like SEOmoz, they talk about (surprise!) SEO.

Your topic needs to be broad enough that enough people will find it interesting. While having a variety of competitor’s may seem like a bad thing, it’s actually a good sign that you are getting near a popular topic: if a ton of blogs cover your topic, that means that there is a real interest in it, and that a lot of sites will be able to link to you.

It’s better to open a pizza place with a ton of competition than an asparagus restaurant with none, because although the asparagus restaurant is entirely unique, there is no demand for it.

More importantly, your content needs to define your offering and have a small, unique “twist” that the competitors lack.

The best way to do this is to pick a popular topic related to your product, and then add your unique twist on top. If you look at my site Sparring Mind, you’ll notice it’s all about lifehacks + persuasion, but I added the “twist” of featuring behavioral psychology research, and this helps it stand out from the competition.

Having this unique twist is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT in creating a startup blog that is “citable”, as people will continue to refer and link to your site as the go-to place for a unique style of content. You can also stand-out by HOW you create content, such as focusing on videos if most people in your space write articles.

Your content strategy should also consist of “wheat-bread” content and “white-bread” content (discussed this with the HubSpot inbound marketing team, they swear by it).

Your wheat-bread content is going to be the in-depth stuff in your industry, when applicable. This isn’t going to be list post content, it’s going to dive in deeply into something in your industry, and really show readers that you know your stuff.

White-bread content is the “50 Ways to ____” kind of content. Consider it BuzzFeed style content that is in your industry: it’s bite-sized, snackable content that gets a lot of social shares. Generally, it should target a good search term as well for SEO purposes.

The other thing I’d recommend you implement into your content strategy is to create content for specific features that you think you can get. For instance, I’ve published certain posts that I knew would get featured on other sites because it was something that they’d love and would either link to or syndicate.

Companies who are great at content

Let this serve as a brief intermission and a great section to come back to for inspiration.

Here are a few cool startups who do content really well…

OKCupid (topic of online dating) — Now sold to Match.com, the OKCupid blog is the shining example of using content to it’s maximum potential.

Instead of focusing on a boring topic like “dating tips”, the team analyzed extensive sets of data from their actual users to come up with highly interesting, incredibly detailed and notoriously controversial articles such as:

Seriously, acquaint yourself with their best posts (and overall content strategy) to get a fantastic glimpse of how this content thing is done.

Some of their top posts were smash hits, saturating the internet like few articles are able to, and were a primary reason that the company was able to grow so fast.

The team picked a highly popular topic related to their product (dating), chose an amazing unique twist (using data to construct dating advice), and did a stellar job of writing enticing headlines and highly engaging content.

iDoneThis (topic of productivity) — I know that the OKCupid example was going to seem a bit intimidating, given that company’s success, so my next example comes from a team who’s just getting started with content but who are also killing it with their content strategy.

The iDoneThis software helps keep track of what you and your team members have… well, done throughout the day, and as such, they focused their content angle on productivity.

The thing they did differently was a quality + unique twist angle (sounds familiar by now, doesn’t it?) Instead of boring topics like “5 Dumbass Productivity Tips You’ll Forget by Tomorrow”, the team puts out great posts that deal with case studies that are actually unique and research that shakes up the typical productivity babble:

Great stuff from a relatively young team, showing that you don’t need 10,000 customers who attempt a content strategy as grand as the OKCupid guys.

In fact, that only thing the iDoneThis team does wrong (in my opinion) is that they use Tumblr instead of WordPress, but that’s just my personal preference.

Shopify (topic of eCommerce) — Shopify is recognized as an amazing product, and yet they still put their heart and soul into creating great content.

Anything that has to do with selling things online is usually very susceptible to the “online biz in a box” scam crowd, so Shopify took the opposite approach and decided to create astounding content surrounding eCommerce space & online selling without all nonsense.

The articles always address legitimate concerns that REAL online sellers have, and are always quite in depth.

Those are 3 of my random favorites, but there are many others.

One honorable mention: I didn’t mention this guy (that you’ve probably all heard of) because he doesn’t sell software anymore, but you can learn a ton about content marketing from Matthew Inman, creator of TheOatmeal.com

What you may not know was that Matt was a co-founder of SEOmoz and Mingle2, and a marketing consultant before that.

Despite his great sense of humor, he is very versed in online marketing knowledge (sensei level) and knows how to create content that the internet loves. Watch what he does closely, you can learn a lot more from him than grammar lessons and why you should be punching dolphins in the mouth.

Content funnel (Part 1: getting features)

The simplest way that I can explain content marketing “in a nutshell” is through what I like to call the Content Funnel.

Simply enough, it works as a 3-step process:

  • Incoming links & mentions
  • On-site content (your blog)
  • The newsletter

Since email marketing is your best bet for creating more sales (and is highly scalable), that is the end-goal of all of your content efforts. The bigger the list, the better.

While getting links & traffic is a topic covered to death and is talked about CONSTANTLY in this space, I wanted to give a quick overview on some of the best ways to get mentions back to your site.

A.) On-site content

This is actually the second phase of the content funnel, but it’s the primary way you’ll be getting links once your startup’s blog reaches a decent size (X,000 email subscribers).

Simply put, the content you create on your company blog will generate links as people mention your content in their own articles.

That’s why you need to expend plenty of time creating “citable” content that people in your space can easily reference (think: Ultimate Guides, Beginner’s Guide to [blank], etc.)

B.) Guest blogging

Guest blogging just means writing an article for someone else’s popular (preferably) blog.

These guest posts result in more exposure, links, and subscribers for your own startup’s blog because you should be able to score a “byline” at the end of the post that let’s you pitch your software/product/service etc.

They key with guest posting is to pick quality blogs that have a big audience that may be interested in what you are offering. Just remember that audience size does not predict results: it’s more about the quality/reach of your individual post, and how well the audience reacts to your post (plus the engagement of the audience).

For instance, we’ve had posts with thousands of shares underperform posts with only a few hundred shares.

Remember to track these features to see which sites work well for your startup, and try to get featured there often.

C.) Syndication / interviews / collaborations

The absolute BEST way to get links, as it’s far more scalable than guest blogging.

I happen to be syndicated with Lifehacker for my site Sparring Mind, which means that the contributions editor checks out my new posts, and if they are a match with the Lifehacker audience, she’ll republish them (example).

If you can pick up some sort of syndication with a larger blog, you are in the money.

Another thing you can do is collaborate with another popular site via a joint piece of content (a video) or through an interview (podcast or video style).

These usually take 30 minutes – 1 hour, and are usually done on the spot: much easier to do than spending 2-3 hours per guest post.

You’ve likely seen places like Mixergy do this full time, but many smaller sites would love to interview you about your product if you can provide some value to their audience… ALWAYS be on the lookout to do so. It’s also great because interviews make you look more knowledgeable.

Your end-goal here should be to land features on big-time publications: FastCompany, Forbes, TechCrunch, Gawker sites, etc.

Those sites send truckloads of traffic, so try to leverage a story and email appropriate journalists to get yourself featured.

Content funnel (Part 2: conversion optimization)

Getting your startup blog past that initial “hump” is pretty tough, you’ll find it a lot harder to hit your first 2,500 subscribers than your first 10,000 (starting from scratch is the hardest stage of all).

Once you’ve got a decent flow of visitors coming in (minimum 100 uniques/day), it’s time to really start focusing on conversion optimization.

There are a lot of things to optimization both on your homepage and your blog page, but today we are going to focus on the blog only, and for this guide, only on how you can optimization for more email subscribers.

To keep things simple, I’ll break it down in 3 step again…

A.) De-cluttering is your #1 priority

If you take anything away from this section on blog conversion rates, let it be this: clutter kills conversions!

Drop everything except for the stuff you ABSOLUTELY want customers to interact with/see.

Your sidebar is typically the area where this sort of stuff will get out of hand, here’s what I recommend you include there (in order):

  • Sign-up form for your newsletter
  • Your most preferred social media profile
  • Resources
  • Popular posts
  • Offer for your product

As a small startup blog, you don’t need to plug all of your social profiles, you don’t need categories or other garbage that nobody will ever click on (trust me).

KISS: keep it simple, stupid.

B.) Optimize email sign-up forms

One of the easiest (and most overlooked) things that you can do to increase newsletter sign-ups is to put the dang opt-in forms in the right place!

I go over this topic in my post for AWeber but I’ll give the breakdown below.

a.) Feature box / pop-up form

I know, “nobody” likes pop-up forms, but the data is pretty solid and it shows that they work and that most people will NOT complain about them (read more).

If you’re not down with a pop-up form, try a “feature box” instead, which is a large sign-up box that showcases what your startup’s blog is about, and why people should sign up.

You can find one at Sparring Mind as an example.

b. Top of the sidebar

Mentioned above, you should have an email sign-up form at the top-right (or top-left) of your sidebar, and make sure it’s above the fold.

This area attracts a lot of eye movement, and it’s prime real estate that should be used to build your newsletter.

c. Post footer

If someone takes the time to make it to the bottom of your article, you can pretty much GUARANTEE that they liked the post, or at least they are highly engaged with the post.

Since they are now done, this is the perfect spot to place a “What’s next?” opportunity, and since your newsletter is what you care about, a subtle opt-in form will work really well here.

d. A dedicated newsletter / freebie page

Ah, “landing pages”, the scourge of the internet. Fortunately, you can make them work honestly, not like those scam-infested, yellow highlighter POS pages that snake oil salesman use.

Really all you need is a dedicated newsletter page that you should frame like a landing page, that is, no sidebars or distractions. See a great example of this here.

This page can be your about page, a freebie page (a download), or just a basic newsletter sign-up page, just make sure you have one, and feature it prominently on your blog in some way.

C.) Resources galore

This part is so important that I decided it deserves it’s own section.

Before you read further, check out our resource page as an example (if you aren’t sure what a typical one looks like).

A “resource” is a free piece of content on something relating to your space and that your prospective customers might enjoy.

It’s entirely free, and can either be downloaded with an opt-in or without one. I recommend you at least make a few resources opt-in only and feature them on your blog sidebar, they work INCREDIBLY well and I can’t help but recommend them.

Here’s a resource of ours, paired with an infographic.

That download/opt-in box? It’s helped generated hundreds of new newsletter sign-ups, and will likely result in 1,000+ new subscribers in the next week or so.

Take the time to craft a well-designed resource on a topic relating to your product and you’ll likely find it replaying you back 10-fold.

Search + other inbound channels

Okay, so this is where this guide could get really out of hand, because these topics could be covered forever, so I’ll just give the briefest of overviews for this stuff.

First, let’s start with other inbound “channels”, or places to create content (besides your blog and guest posting) to generate more traffic.

A.) Inbound marketing channels

a.) YouTube

I’ll be honest, video is where it’s at right now, and that’s because videos can be easily embedded and are REALLY hard to do well, that’s why so few startups engage in this form of content.

YouTube can drive a ton of traffic if done well though. One great example is this Grasshopper video, which is a spoof of the formerly viral Shit [Blank] People Say trend.

If you can’t do video well, there’s always the possibility of teaming up with folks who can, and who you can offer something.

For instance, I’m helped to write a new video for ASAPScience, who handled the production part of the video, and the results were fantastic:

b.) SlideShare

If your startup is in the B2B space, you must try out SlideShare, it’s done wonders for us.

Check out this image of how well it’s performed vs. Twitter & Facebook.

Even with far less visitors, SlideShare outperforms on visitor quality by a large margin.

c. iTunes

Podcasting can take you a long way if you manage to hit the top of your section in iTunes for a few days.

With a decent sized email list (1000 or more), that shouldn’t be a huge problem.

I love how the 37signals guys do their podcasting, it’s a great example of a podcast that performs well and is highly interesting.

B.) Demystifying SEO

For all things SEO related, I recommend heading over to SEOmoz, starting with their Beginner’s Guide to SEO if you know nothing about the topic.

As stated, this is just going to be a really basic take to get you started.

In essence, your SEO strategy should target 3 levels of “keywords” (things people type into search engines) that vary by difficulty:

  • Head keyword (your homepage)
  • Body keyword (your resource pages)
  • Tail keywords (your blog posts & individual pages)

Your head keyword, simply put, is what you want to rank for on your homepage. For Help Scout, we’d prefer to show up for things like “help desk software”, so I’ll occasionally link to us with that anchor text in order to help our rankings. We also include that term in our home page’s title tag.

For body keywords, you want to create a great resource page that digs into a topic that your business is all about. These are a big more difficult to describe, but you can check out this great example by Copyblogger.

They obviously want to rank for the actual term “content marketing”, so they made a resource page to target this keyword (since it’s quite difficult) that includes links to all of their best posts on the topic, a free resource to download, and a killer design. You don’t have to go all out like this page, but resource pages like this are AMAZING ways to rank for tougher terms.

The last type of keyword to target are the tail keywords, sometimes referred to as the “long tail”. These will be easier keywords to grab, but will result in far fewer search traffic. They are best left for individual blog posts and certain pages that you wish to appear in search.

For instance, this post of ours is going after the term ‘exceptional customer service’, because we wanted to write about it and it’s better to adjust the language to pick up a good keyword ranking if you can.

What I mean is, don’t write for search engines, write for people, but for each blog post, do a little bit of research in the Google Keyword Tool afterwards to try to pick up a decent keyword as well.

For instance, I could have titled the post “astounding customer service”, but “exceptional” had more searches, so I adjusted (with no loss of quality).


About the author: Gregory Ciotti is a marketer and (embarrassingly infrequent) writer. Previously, he led content marketing on Shopify’s growth team and was executive editor on the communications team.