The stages of content marketing
By Tracey Wallace
Building a great content marketing organization is a lot like building a house. You need a solid foundation, and then walls, all before you begin to decorate––but the decoration is definitely important!
Without a foundation, your walls will crack. And without walls, you have nothing to decorate. It looks a little something like this:
This is important level-setting information for both your team, and also for your executives.
Because while content marketers need to be great communicators with your prospects and external audiences, your internal audience is just as important. In fact, it is your internal audience who will determine your career growth at any given organization, and approve any specific plans. Ultimately, the internal audience is more important than your external one, because they decide what gets produced for that external audience.
Don’t overlook this.
Oftentimes, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, executives and founders want to go after those shiny, new, cool-looking content experiences. They use the word “viral” a lot. That makes sense. Execs and founders are on the hook for business success, and it behooves them to turn over every rock.
They are not expected to channel experts for every marketing function, and that’s OK. Because they have you! A content marketing expert who can teach them how content marketing works, why it works in this way, and how you and your team are going to build a content marketing flywheel that drives long-lasting improvements in brand, lead gen, and revenue.
I look at each of these layers as such:
- Foundation: Foundational layer
- Walls: Structural layer
- Decoration: Decorative layer
Let’s get to it.
What is the foundational layer of content marketing?
This encompasses core site infrastructure and overall company strategy including:
- The company’s unique point of view, its vision.
- Site-mapping to tell that story and support the vision
- UX to convert on that story
- A strong funnel to convert leads through channels
Most of this work isn’t the content marketing team’s job, but without it, just how effective a content marketing team can be is severely limited. All of these things provide the foundational elements for building a strong, high converting content marketing strategy. Let’s look at how:
The company’s unique point of view, its vision.
The company’s unique point of view and its vision will direct which keywords you go after, and moreover, the point of view in each of your pieces. This is important because everyone is playing an SEO game.
The worst thing you can do is produce content solely to produce it––without adding to the conversation. Historically, this was just bad practice (but a common one). Now, with Google’s Helpful Content update, producing for the sake of producing won’t get you to rank.
You need to know your company’s point of view in order to determine what content you will produce, on what topics, in which order, what you will say, and why.
Site-mapping to tell that story and support the vision.
Site-mapping tells you where your content will live, and helps you visualize how each page on your website tells different parts of a larger story, and how you piece together the buyer journey.
In some organizations, depending on the site map, you and your team might need to spend more time writing long-form content for landing pages before you launch blogs. This is especially true at start ups.
Or, you’ll need a specific strategy for blog content based on your landing pages, so that you can link over to that content from those landing pages––and build solid internal linking from core conversion pages. Even most larger companies that have structured content marketing teams and programs have overlooked this.
Here’s an example from my time at MarketerHire. We need to relaunch our role pages––for which there were ~11 different roles. We wanted those roles to rank for key terms like “email marketing expert,” for instance. (P.S. it now ranks on page 1 for that term. Though, it took about 6 months.)
From a sitemap perspective, we needed something that looked like this:
- Parent page: /roles
- Child page: /roles/[the-role’s-discipline]: For example: /roles/email-marketing
- On each child page, we needed a downloaded asset to capture conversion traffic. You can see that in the middle of each page.
- Then, each child page had a long-form content section that answered key questions for folks looking to hire in this area. All pages are the same set of questions, but as you may imagine, the answers were all very different.
- Blog page: /blog/[skills-for-that-role] and /blog/[when-to-hire-for-that-role]:
- But, we couldn’t exactly go as in-depth as we wanted to on these pages for some of these topics. So, we did more of an overview for each section, and then for two of them (“Skills needed for the role” and “When / how to hire for the role”) we published long-form blogs and linked over to them for more information.
This meant, that for 11 roles, we needed:
- 11 landing pages
- 11 decks
- 11 long-form content sections
- 2 blogs per each of the 11 roles (22 blogs)
For four months, this is the only work we did for the blog. This was foundation setting, and we knew to do it because the sitemap was visualized, and we educated the founders on the importance of foundation setting so that the core business units and functions were covered from a content point of view before we began to move up funnel.
UX to convert on that story
If you’ve been following my newsletter, you know I’m a real stickler for UX. It is one of the most crucial aspects to content marketing success. It, and it alone, can be the cause for high or low conversion, and improving or declining SEO. This means that if your UX is poor, you’re in a rough spot as a content organization. No matter your content quality, you will struggle to deliver on your goals for SEO and conversion. And when you don’t hit those goals, you fail.
Now, this doesn’t just apply to content marketing, and it’d be wrong to think that your blog or any content you produce exists in a silo. Your landing pages should feed into your content pages, and vice versa. Pages targeting upper funnel, high-volume keywords should probably look different than those targeting lower-funnel, long-tail keywords (which are almost always more focused on conversion).
UX and CRO makes or breaks organizations. And look, I’m a B2B marketer. UX doesn’t have to be pretty to work (though it helps). But it does need to follow baseline best practices, and a lot of UX creativity in industries at large right now gets far away from those best practices. That can be great––if you’ve already tested the best practices and have a clear baseline you are working to beat.
Do not try to reinvent the wheel if you haven’t even built the wheel itself. Start with best practices, and A/B test your way up from there.
A strong funnel to convert leads through channels.
Finally for the foundation section, let’s talk about the funnel. You can drive content leads all day long, but if you don’t have a fantastic lead > MQL funnel, or even visibility into measuring that funnel, you can’t prove that your content produces revenue. And when you can’t prove that, you and your team get less resources and, in the case of layoffs, can be on the chopping block.
Mapping content to revenue is how to protect your organization, and grow it by getting more money to produce even more revenue.
And trust me, your content is likely driving revenue in two ways:
- Content lead gen: This is through gated assets and downloads.
- Content-assist lead gen: This is when other teams use your content to drive lead gen.
You want to track both of these, but in order to do that, your larger marketing and sales team needs a clear funnel––from lead, to MQL, to SQL, opportunity and so on. This all should be in the same CRM so that the team can track conversion rates between funnel stages, and spot where improvements can be made.
This is step one. Once that is in place, and so many organizations never even get to this part which is just sad for efficiency and prioritization efforts, you now need to look at how each channel performs.
You’ll likely want several views:
- First-touch attribution: This is where you will get your content lead gen visibility
- Last–touch attribution: This will likely be all attributed to sales, unless you have a very strong self-service function.
- Multi-touch attribution: This is where you will get your content-assist visibility
Work with your larger marketing team and your executives to make this a priority. You cannot effectively measure marketing to revenue, any channel, without it.
What is the structural layer of content marketing?
This encompasses content specific strategies, team go-to-market motions, and setting & hitting regular KPIs. Here’s a few steps / stages:
- Content strategy and keyword strategy
- Production strategy
- Repurposing strategy
- Lead gen strategy
- Distribution strategy & GTM
**The above includes a strong project management tool and clear KPIs.
These are mostly documented and agreed upon strategies and plans, and should be roadshow throughout your marketing organization given the go-to-market requirements (i.e. if you need people that aren’t you and your team to help to bring something to market, you better get their buy-in before you do it).
Let’s look at each of these:
Content strategy and keyword strategy
Remember: This doesn’t include just blogs, but it is likely mostly that.
In this stage, you’ll want to identify the keywords you’ll go after, the potential volume those will drive for your organization, and expected conversion rate (your UX CRO in the foundational stage should give you a baseline).
Ahrefs is my primary tool for this kind of work. I also like to include who our competitors are for each keyword, and highlight them if they are a competitor in our industry (which may signal increased priority).
Note that it is also a good idea here to sync with your paid/SEM team before you do this. They likely have data on which keywords are converting best from a paid perspective. Those would be great keywords to go after first given they have a proven conversion history.
This is where you lay out your editorial guidelines and processes by which content gets produced at your organization. This is a quality setting stage and expectation setting. Your team can’t do it all––nor should you. The more content you produce in a given timeframe, the less quality it will be. I like to stick to two blogs per month, and then repurpose those, which is the next strategy.
But here, outline what you will produce, how many will be produced per month, the quality standards by which they will be produced, the timelines that they take to be produced, and the teams involved in that production. This is crucial for getting larger team sign off, and understanding on why content doesn’t just take a day to turn around.
For my teams, any piece of content takes 6-8 weeks on average from when we start to work on it.
Again, if you’ve followed me for a bit, you know I don’t think repurposing is a social media strategy only (or primarily). Content repurposing is how you take top of funnel SEO content you produce, and turn it into lower-funnel lead gen content (PDFs), one pages (sales enablement), case studies, email nurtures, and yes, social media posts.
How will this work? Who does that? What are the timelines for the repurposing processes? They likely differ based on the asset, so document that and share it out.
Lead gen strategy
All right, now that you are repurposing content into gated assets, how will get you get those gated assets downloaded? Will you promote them on your blog, and if so, which ones? Will your paid team use them for lead gen, and if so, which ones? What about your partner organization? Or, where will these live on your website (your sitemap should make this clear)?
You’ll likely want to work with your paid team and partner teams to get their take on how they’d like this to work and build that into your plan.
Distribution strategy & GTM
And finally, with so much else well-defined, you now need to tie it all together for everyone.
- What are the go-to-market functions for each type of content?
- Does that differ based on your audience?
- Who is responsible for which go to market activities?
- How will you hold them accountable?
- How will they know when something has been assigned to them?
- Will you have larger kickoffs for the big projects?
- What about for simple one-pagers?
- What about for blog posts?
Don’t discount your PR team, customer team, partner team or influencer marketing team here. All of these folks can help to promote content even further, beyond the GTM channels you may naturally think of (lifecycle, paid, social, etc).
Agreement here, and early on, will help to remove roadblocks and disagreements down the line.
What is the decorative layer of content marketing?
This encompasses expanding beyond blogs, white papers, and case studies (the mainstays if B2B content marketing) into newer––and sometimes perceived as more fun!––content types like:
- Video series
- Content drops
These decorative layers are often what executives or founders want to start with, because they see other brands already doing them. For instance, organizations like Hubspot, Shopify and Mailchimp all have a lot of these types of assets.
They have all also been producing content, white papers, and case studies for more than 10 years––and have a solid organic content flywheel in place.
Now, they need to drive even more top-of-funnel to drive folks back into that flywheel, where content, and gated asset conversion has been finessed to a level of excellence.
None of them started off with this kind of content, and some of them (Hubspot, namely) acquired these new channels (like, when Hubspot bought The Hustle). You are at a different stage of content marketing when you can do that.
Wrapping it all up
This was a long one, but I’m passionate about this. I’ve seen too many content teams get laid off for not clearly explaining this to execs––and as a result, those content teams aren’t able to do the work they know is most important. You have to lay the foundation and build the walls before you can expand into media work or what a lot of folks think is “viral” content.
Virality doesn’t drive flywheels, but it can feed them if you already have one built when you go viral. If not, you’ve wasted that virality, losing most of those impressions to the next viral thing.
Talk to your team and your executive team about content marketing stages, and make a plan for 2023 to focus on where you are at, and how you get to that next level. None of this stuff happens over night.
BigCommerce, for instance, was still very much in the structural phase after 4 years of dedicated work there, and 1 million monthly sessions. Six months before I left, we launched the Make It Big Conference, which was our very first attempt as something more decorative. It worked––really well. And now, Make It Big is the function by which BigCommerce has podcasts, and the online conference is an annually occurring event.
It did not happen overnight. We built that audience, and those high-conversion pages, painstakingly year over year over year. Not hitting our KPIs taught us where to focus, and how to plan better. Seeing conversion rates dip on new pages we thought looked really cool reminded us how important the best practices really are. Marketing, especially in B2B, is not rocket science. But so few teams take the time to recognize the stage they are at, and then address what needs to be fixed there to move to the next.
Be the team that leads that charge at your organization. Hopefully this newsletter can help!