Content marketing is often seen as a way to bring eyeballs to a webpage, but most of the time, we think that it stops short of actually converting visitors into buyers.
However, in my experience, this isn’t the case.
Content can convert users.
If you look at it strategically, you can build a complete funnel with content to continuously brings in customers or users.
I’m not even saying that you need to go through the prototypical content strategy: write something that brings in lots of traffic, collect some percentage of email addresses, set up a drip campaign, and slowly convert some smaller percentage of these people over time.
You could do that. You could also just convert visitors directly into users or customers.
I’ll go through several steps that any business can use to do this, and along the way, I’ll give concrete examples and walkthroughs from projects I’ve done.
Build an Acquisition-Centered Content Strategy
You can try to game Google News or viral social sharing triggers by writing content about Jay Z and Beyonce’s new album, but if it’s not going to help you sell car parts (or software, or whatever you sell), then why bother?
Traffic on a website is worthless if it is irrelevant. Don’t buy the line that “any awareness is good, and maybe these people will eventually sign up for our email list.” This is story telling. It’s easy to justify any effort if it comes attached with a believable story, and especially if Google Analytics shows numbers going upwards (doesn’t even matter which numbers!).
All of this is to say: center your content strategy around user intent and the true buyer’s journey. When in doubt, start at the center of the bullseye: your product page. This is what you want people to buy or sign up for.
Let’s pretend you sell customer feedback software. You customer feedback software page would be the star of the show.
Now, that’s a confusing chart if you’re seeing it for the first time. Let me break it down a bit.
Obviously, the star in the middle is our product page. It’s where visitors go to become customers. It’s important. We want it to rank.
However, Google likes websites with topical authority. It would be hard for me to write something about EMDR therapy on my personal site, because I’ve never written about the topic before, and therefore have not exemplified any outward displays of expertise.
So, to get your really important pages ranking, you need to build up some topical authority. To do that in the simplest way possible, I like to follow HubSpot’s pillar and cluster model.
That graphic should explain pretty well what’s going on, but let me elaborate further.
Your Pillar content is going to be big, evergreen pieces that attempt to capture high traffic keywords. For our customer satisfaction software example, we would want to write a Pillar page on a related topic, something with high search volume, like this page we created to hit the term “customer satisfaction.”
Downstream from there, you can write several longer-tail (lower traffic and more specific, topic-wise) pieces that support your Pillar content. These could be blog posts like “how to measure customer satisfaction,” and “what is net promoter score?”
The Pillar and Cluster model represents both a content strategy as well as a model for website architecture. It’s a way to thematically plan your content approach. However, it shouldn’t be constructed in isolation; plan it with your business pages at the center.
Sell an online form builder? There’s your product page, then you can build a Pillar page on the “ultimate guide to web forms,” and write supporting cluster blog posts on “form design” and “mobile forms.”
See, it’s not too complicated:
H/t Scott Tousley for the image
Now, you can’t just create content and hope people pick it up (most people can’t, anyway). You’ll likely have to do some content promotion or link building to get traction.
Pre-Promotion: Think About Promotion Before Creating Content
Before you put pen to paper, you should have an action plan as to who is going to share or link to your content.
I like to build out a spreadsheet of these link building targets and assign each target site a tier.
- Tier 1: high relevance/high authority
- Tier 2: medium relevance/medium authority
- Tier 3: low relevance/low authority
Yep, another bullseye. Anyway, the center of this bullseye is going to be hard to hit. It’s going to include big sites (high authority) and they’re going to be highly relevant, so most likely competitors. But if you nab a link from here, it’s worth gold. Just don’t get your hopes up.
Tier 2 is a good place to spend a lot of time. It’s filled with valuable links and they’ll be relevant enough to matter, but not so much they’re competitive. If you’re selling A/B testing software, maybe this category would include companies like Moz, Unbounce, and KissMetrics. Pretty relevant, but not quite exact.
Tier 3 is going to be a much easier place to get links, but less worthy. Still, no reason not to fill this part out. Every bit counts, especially if you’re just starting out.
Gather these link/promotion targets through various means:
- Comb through your first hand knowledge. You should know the main blogs in your space.
- Scrape software review sites like Capterra. Lots of good and underknown companies on these lists (and they have blogs).
- Look up the top influencers on BuzzSumo or Ahrefs.
- Google “top [X industry] blogs”
- Ask GrowthBot to give you organic competitors of a given company.
Overall, just build a big list of potential link targets. Then throw them into Ahrefs or another bulk domain authority checker:
Then put everything in a spreadsheet. Add in the domain rating (or domain authority, if you’re using Moz), the tier, and the contact information. This will all become useful once you launch your content.
Now, it’s one thing to have a big list of names on a piece of paper. It’s helpful – it gives you a sort of guiding light on what type of content to create.
Even better, however, is building out a plan on how to use this list to warm the oven before your content is live.
Can you work with these people to get some quotes for your articles? Can you survey them for some data you want to build for your reports?
I saw a great example of the survey tactic in a Slack group I’m in.
Orbit Media asked a ton of bloggers to take a survey and then published the data. The genius thing is that, of course, all of these bloggers, by their very nature, are capable of being promoters and people who can link to your content. The promo, for Orbit Media, is built into the content itself.
In any case, I can’t take all the creative leaps for you. The point is: have a plan in place before you create content. Warm the oven. You can’t just launch to an anonymous and cold audience and hope to get great results.
Create Awesome Content
You can’t skip this step. Your content has to be awesome.
Especially with the pillar page, and especially if you’re a new and smaller player with a smaller website authority, you need to outperform the competition.
Write awesome content with tons of the following “link hooks”:
- Original data
- Original images
- Graphics and charts
- Quotes from top experts
- Pros and cons tables
Basically, fill your content with notable and linkable things. Don’t just rewrite somebody else’s article and put your byline on it (the immorality of plagiarism aside, writing undifferentiated content just isn’t effective).
I won’t spend too much time telling you how to write your content, but try to do it well. There’s too much bad stuff out on the internet today, no need for anyone else to contribute to that noise.
Promote & Build Links
Once the content is published, it’s time to go to work on promotion. Start emailing all those people you added to that spreadsheet a few steps ago.
Five rules for email outreach:
- Talk like a human (don’t overthink it)
- Save time and automate things, but not at the expense of quality
- Don’t beat around the bush
- Don’t treat people like they’re stupid
- Follow up a few times but don’t be obnoxious
It takes time and experience to get good at email outreach, but it’s an important skill in content promotion.
You can’t really just expect automated sharing networks and social media to pick up the tab for you. Even at large companies, you have to do a good amount of manual link building to get things to work for you.
Content Optimization: Increase Your Rankings or Increase Conversions
When it comes to content acquisition, most of the battle is fought in the strategic arena: how you plan your content and what you produce has almost everything to do with the pliability and elasticity of your conversion optimization efforts.
In other words, some content simply won’t convert. It’s bringing in people with completely misaligned intent, so the best you can do is hope that it brings some backlinks and 1% of the people convert to your email list.
For example, HubSpot has an Email Templates product feature, and we have tons of “email templates” blog posts and pillar pages. Some have high-intent for product signups (e.g. a post on “sales email follow up templates”) and some are never going to convert many visitors (e.g. a post on “follow up emails after job interviews”).
It’s important to know which posts are ripe for optimization and which ones are problems that will require far too much effort to prioritize.
So, you have a list of pillar pages, blog posts, and product pages, and you want to optimize them to make sure you’re getting the maximum return on your investment. There are two ways you can look at content optimization:
- Increase traffic to pages that are almost ranking.
- Increase conversions on pages that are already high traffic.
The former is primarily the domain of an SEO practitioner; the latter uses the toolset of a conversion optimizer.
Of course, you have to bring traffic before you can run experiments (because math). So, to start, take a peak at which articles you have that are currently ranking from SERP position 6-10. You can do this if you’re running a regular rank tracking report (using something like Accuranker), or you can pull an ad-hoc report using Ahrefs.
Just go to Ahrefs and type in your domain. Click on “Organic Keywords” to see what you’re ranking for:
Filter for those that are in position 6 through 20 (or whatever you deem important for analysis):
And voila! You have a prime list of opportunities to optimize:
You can get further insights on a particular piece of content once you determine its a piece you’d like to optimize. Let’s take the top listing on the above report, a HubSpot article on “cover letter examples.”
Copy the article URL and paste that into Ahrefs site explorer. Look first to see which keywords you’re currently ranking for, and how you may be able to rewrite your content to better capture some of the top terms:
Finally, you can also get competitive insights for a specific keyword. Say you’ve determined you really want to capture “cover letter examples” as your core keyword (assuming you’ll capture the rest of the terms if you can get that one).
Navigate to Ahref’s Keyword Explorer and paste that keyword in. Scroll to the bottom of the page and you can get insights on which pages are currently ranking, how many backlinks they have, and how authoritative the sites are.
This gives you a good indication of how difficult it will be to rank, and how many links or how authoritative your content will need to be in order to compete:
Now, to dive into all the tactical ways to improve your ranking would be a fool’s endeavor (and would take the length of a book). But generally speaking, there are two things that solve most SEO problems:
- Beefing up the content and re-launching it.
- Building links.
This is vastly simplifying things, but those are generally the tactics I focus on.
The second part of content optimization is my favorite part: trying to get more visitors to convert into users: conversion optimization.
Conversion optimization, similarly, is a massive topic to just dive into. I recommend this not be your only reading into the topic, if you really want to get it right.
But anyway, a basic overview of conversion optimization is this:
- Conversion research and discovery of opportunity areas
- Building hypotheses and prioritizing experiments
- Running controlled experiments
- Analyzing those experiments
…and then you repeat that process, forever, because optimization is never truly done.
Like I said, this topic is big and this article won’t do it justice. But I’ll walk through an example of following these four steps for some recent A/B tests at HubSpot.
We have several high traffic “email templates” Pillar pages. They cover topics like “Sales Follow Up Emails,” “Follow Up Email After Networking Events,” etc. They all have examples email templates that used to look like this:
We realized that, although several of these were very high traffic posts, they didn’t bring in a reasonable amount of product signups. After doing a thorough heuristic analysis and some user behavior analysis, we hypothesized that visitors weren’t converting basically because they didn’t even know we had a product that could help them out.
There simply weren’t enough points of awareness or calls to action on the page.
We actually tested a few different iterations of this hypothesis. One such test changed the design of the email container to have a clearer “Save Template” CTA (as well as a revamped design):
Another test we ran used behavioral targeting to trigger a relevant CTA to visitors who copy and pasted the text from the email templates. Think about it: what clearer sign of intent could a user display regarding email templates that copying the text?
We figured this would be a fine moment to trigger a CTA that basically said “Template copied! But why waste so much time copying and pasting messages when HubSpot has a free tool for that.”
Both of these tests proved to be moderately successful (no blowaway 300% increases here). We’re continuing to learn more about our visitors through heat maps, on-site surveys, as well as through consistent A/B testing.
Sidenote, a quick “voice of customer” insights hack: if you have Ahrefs, plug in the URL of the page you’re optimizing to see what search terms are bringing people to the page (also, obviously, consider which page terms you’re using). This can help you craft more appropriate and relevant messaging on your CTAs.
Like I said, the conversion optimization process doesn’t end; there are always ways for you to improve the performance of your online experiences.
In addition, it’s usually a better idea to optimize closer to the point of purchase or conversion.
While we’re working with several high traffic content pages, we’re also consistently tweaking the product pages and the signup flow as well. Generally speaking, it’s a higher impact area to optimize closer to the money.
Content marketing is clearly a powerful way to grow a business. That’s not in dispute.
But I believe you can shortcut the commonly prescribed route of converting content readers to your email list. I think you can use content to directly acquire product users. It just takes a little effort and foresite:
- Build an acquisition-centered content strategy.
- Bake proper distribution into your content strategy.
- Take optimization seriously, and never stop doing it.
- Capture a “Surround Sound Effect,” where everywhere your prospect looks, your product appears.
Do those things, and I have no doubt you’ll be successful