28 September 2022 |

Content should drive leads

By Tracey Wallace

Within five days of me joining the content team at BigCommerce in 2014, the founder and then-CEO laid everyone on that team off except for me. I was convinced he didn’t know they had just hired me. I didn’t even have the Wordpress password yet. 

It was viewed as a harsh move by the larger marketing team, and I also wasn’t feeling great about the decision. I’d wanted to join a content marketing team, not just a one-woman show.

After all, I’d only been in content marketing for nine months at that point. I was a journalist more than anything, and I wanted to learn how to do this job. 

I never got that. All self-taught over here! 

Anyway, when I did get the Wordpress password and Google Analytics access, it became clear to me why the team had been laid off. They were driving a ton of sessions to the site––but primarily through Outbrain, a content distribution tool a lot like Taboola. In fact, BigCommerce was, at the time, Outbrain’s largest customer. 

The problem with Outbrain traffic, though, was that it bounced from the site pretty quickly, and basically never came back. If it was real people at all clicking through, you wouldn’t be able to tell their behavior from bot traffic. 

Now, it was 2014. Content marketing was in its infancy at the time.

Hubspot had only invented the term “inbound marketing” two years earlier. It’s entirely possible they, too, were doing what BigCommerce was doing––writing a bunch of shorter form blogs and sending traffic there from content distribution tools primarily located as ad space on media websites. 

Media sites were still where the big bucks were, and where the eyeballs were. But I knew that was changing, even that early in my career. 

That’s because I worked at ELLE.com and got access to their Google Analytics, and noticed immediately that they weren’t driving anywhere near the amount of traffic to their site as my previous employer––NaturallyCurly, a niche curly hair education website that also sold product. 

Not only was NaturallyCurly driving 1M sessions per month, the website was also converting around 10% of those sessions into sales, in addition to selling advertising space on the website. This means NaturallyCurly was an incredibly early adopter of the content to commerce model––in which you use content to drive sales for your product (much like Glossier does today).

Better yet, NaturallyCurly was double dipping. Not only were they selling product off of the content they created, they were also selling ads based on impressions. And if any of the larger beauty publications were anything like ELLE.com and struggling to drive traffic to their sites, then NaturallyCurly was likely one of the largest drivers of online ad impressions in the beauty industry at the time. 

In other words, the content at NaturallyCurly, which I ran, was a cash cow. 

This is important because no website is going to let you publish content just to publish it. Content needs to be monetized to support a business. Media like newspapers and eventually online publications, and even email newsletters today all use advertising to drive revenue and keep the business afloat. 

In fact, content is media’s business model: use content to drive impressions for advertising CPM, and even better, get that audience to click on those ads so that advertisers want to keep spending an ever-increasing amount on your site. 

As Scott Galloway just said in his recent essay, “Attention is the new oil.” And that’s what content sells––attention. 

Now, the media cash cow that was began to break down in the 2010s with the digital revolution and suddenly, big name publications like ELLE.com couldn’t get the eyeballs that a site like NaturallyCurly could, and that was a huge problem for Hearst, Conde Nast, and any other major media conglomerate. 

I won’t detail the history of advertising and media––but it is a fascinating one over the last decade or so, and relevant to content marketing, especially as more and more content marketers become influencers in their own right, or put forward “media plans” as content marketing strategy. 

I’m not here to say whether those are good or bad ideas. From my point of view, they are neither. As long as you have an understanding of the history of media and how it drove revenue, there’s no harm in testing any content marketing theory out. We’re all basically winging it beyond the foundations. 

But, content driving revenue for your brand is a foundational aspect of content marketing. 

Getting eyeballs and impressions is not enough because your website does not sell ads. Your product is the ad. It is the end game. It is the reason you are employed. And you better figure out a way to drive leads that then turn into MQLs and later into revenue if you want to stay employed for the product. 

Here is how Daniel Murray broke it down in his recent Marketing Millennials newsletter:

High level view: 

  • Website Visitor → MQL << This part right here is where content can and should have the most impact [Emphasis mine]
  • MQL → Booked Meeting 
  • Booked Meeting → Sales Qualified Opportunity 
  • Sales Qualified Opportunity → Sales

The Journey:

  • Increase Website Visitors → Form Fill << This part right here is where content can and should have the most impact [Emphasis mine]
  • MGL → MQL (Leads → Qualified Leads)
  • Increase Speed to Lead (Time it takes to call a lead)
  • Increase Form Fill → Booked Meeting (Meetings Booked)
  • Increase Booked Meeting → Meeting Ran (Stick Rate)
  • Increase Meeting Ran → Qualified Opportunities 
  • Increase Qualified Opportunities → Sales 
  • Shorten Sales Cycle 
  • Disqualified Rate (DQ rate)

This isn’t revolutionary. This is how content has always worked, in media or in business. Content must generate revenue. 

This is why I am always so taken aback by content marketers who say they “hate gated assets” or “won’t do any type of downloadable.” They want to “give all the value away to the user, and that will make them come back.” 

On that last point, a few years ago, you’d probably find me in the “this is neither a good nor bad idea” camp. These days, giving it all away to the user up front for absolutely everything you publish is a bad idea. It also isn’t the way most people buy products online, anyway, at least for tech companies. 

You typically want a demo at some point, and depending on the size of your company, you will need to have a new tool go through procurement. And to go through procurement, or to get more than just one person on any team to agree on using this tool, you need case studies, and payment terms, and feature outlines, esp. in comparison to your competitors. 

This is considered the mid-funnel to low-funnel of someone’s buying journey, and this is where relationship building becomes important. Because while content and education on these topics (which you or your sales enablement team may create, depending on your business size and content production model) is important––trust trumps basically everything. 

It’s like the old adage: “Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM.” Or, perhaps more relatable to the ecommerce tech world these days, “Nobody ever got fired for choosing Shopify.” 

Why? Because everyone else was using them, and just as most of us in the content marketing world are “just winging it,” so are business people at every level and in every role. We are social creatures. We are easily swayed by what others do because it builds trust in that path as a good model to follow. 

That’s a lot of backstory to get you here, which is the way I think about content: 

The content funnel, in which your content has the most impact on the lines with a *, but can impact all of them if you strategize properly and work cross-functionally:

  • Sessions > Lead* 
  • Lead > MQL*
  • MQL > SQL* 
  • SQL > Opportunity 
  • Opportunity > Revenue 

How to improve this funnel

  • Sessions: Publish high quality content across at least two various types:
  • Long-form that is optimized for search: These pieces of content should be optimized for search, but not written for it. Use tools like Ahrefs and Clearscope, and interview folks for this content, too––ideally at least three. Just because you want something to rank doesn’t mean it shouldn’t follow good editorial practices. In many cases, it should follow them far more closely. 
  • Human interest customer stories: These pieces typically get picked up by newsletters and are shared more on social. They don’t have the SEO long-tail, but folks love them and they add balance to your publishing cadence. 
  • Leads: Offer downloadables on this content in various types:
  • A download of the exact same content but in PDF form: Folks don’t love reading long form content on the internet (Hurts your eyes!), and up to 20% of website visitors will download this content even if it is published 100% free on your site already. That 20% stat is from my own experience at BigCommerce and Klaviyo. 
  • An executive summary download which is a shorter version of the content, pulling out the main points with key findings. This is the modern TL;DR and people *love* these, including your internal team (i.e. sales and performance!) 
  • A bonus item like a checklist or a new POV related to the topic, but not included in the article. Aaron Orendorff is the actual GOAT at these types of offers.  
  • MQLs: You should have folks in the funnel by now, so work with your lifecycle team to create a content lead > MQL stream:
  • At least three emails long 
  • All should include clear CTAs to MQL (whatever that is for you) 
  • All should focus on a specific piece of additional content, ideally a report, case studies, or an online tool that your company offers. This Is a great place to reuse those human interest customer stories. Remember, these folks came in on content––give them more! 
  • SQL: This is the territory of your sales team, but even sales folks need content to talk to folks about! 
  • Make sure you create an easy to navigate content repository where your entire company can go to pull the best content you offer in a variety of forms (PDFs, blogs, case studies, etc.). I make mine in Google Sheets. 
  • Include sales as part of content go-to-markets, so that they know what content is coming up and can use it to re-engage with the leads they are working. 
  • Opportunity: Sales owns this, and most of the content they use here will be sales enablement (one-pagers about features, competitors, etc.). 
  • Case studies still matter here
  • As does trust building: Your content team’s work with high-profile folks can help sway prospect execs who are on the fence about various products. Don’t leave these people out of your content planning. 
  • Revenue: You want to track which assets of yours help to drive revenue both in the form of:
  • Content lead > revenue: This is where a lead was generated first with content and later became a customer. What does this sales cycle look like? Is it faster or slower without content? Which content pieces drive the most revenue?  
  • Content-assist > revenue: This is where your content was used by other teams throughout the sales cycle to help close a deal. Same questions as above: What does this sales cycle look like? Is it faster or slower without content? Which content pieces drive the most revenue?  

All right, so you’ve made it all the way down here. Does your team do this? Do you, or can you, track all of this? Do you build your content strategy around the funnel in this way?

I’d love to hear from y’all!