How to Build an Amazing Content Marketing Machine for Half a Million Bucks

A very wise man once told me, “Wasting money is only a waste of money if you think wasting money’s a waste of money.” That generally sums up my personal philosophy toward cash. I pick up checks; I overtip; I shop for incredibly impractical cars. Unfortunately, this attitude doesn’t really fly in my professional life as Contently’s VP of content. Whenever budgets come up, I’m usually the guy who sticks his fingers in his ears and goes, “LALALALALALA I’m not listening.” Which goes over about as well as you can imagine.

Contently now has around 75 full-time employees, including a CEO and head of finance—both of whom are more interested in hearing about exactly how much money I’m planning to spend and how I’m going to spend it than how budgets aren’t cool. So instead of a spreadsheet, I convinced them I’d write this article. I don’t actually have half a $500K content budget (not YET, at least), but if I did, here’s how I’d spend it.

1. A full-time editor: $90K

Content strategy is nothing without the editorial workhorse in-house to make it spin. Your editor is the one who controls the daily flow of content, makes sure everything is on brand and interesting, and is responsible for attracting and maintaining your audience. They handle everything from story ideation to line edits to helping with social media copy. It’s possible that the editor you hire can be freelance, but it’s key that they not be remote. Having the editor in the office every day is priceless in helping said editor understand the business goals of your brand.

It’s important for editors to have creative freedom so they don’t have to worry about business peeps looking over their shoulders—but it’s equally important they understand exactly how their work helps drive your business forward.

2. Contently: $132K

(Editor’s note: Self-promotion alert.)

Duh. I’d want a software solution that lets me manage approvals, workflow, payments, calendars etc, and I’d prefer that it include an analytics suite that’s useful for a brand. If I were just starting out, I could use some combination of Google Analytics, Excel, Freshbooks, Trello, and the power of Crom to hack this together, but the hassle of working with multiple vendors comes with a huge opportunity cost.

In the long run, a solution like Contently is going to save me money and help me get my content out the door faster. I also like that I get an extra editor and a bunch of smart freelance writers through Contently—it just saves me the trouble of going out and finding them myself and the payroll costs of having to hire them. Trying to take on these tasks internally winds up costing significantly more in terms of money and resources. I should know—it’s part of the reason Contently was founded.

3. A content strategist: $20K

I’d want someone to come in and take a long-term strategic look at what content I should be producing and when I should be producing it. The content strategist straddles the business and editorial worlds and can create a valuable roadmap for my editor to follow. This would include things like a competitive analysis, a detailed editorial calendar, and some recommendations for what kind of creative professionals I should be looking for.

4. Longform content: $90K

I don’t really care about memes or snackable content. I’m running a B2B business, and my audience consists of professionals looking to learn something about their craft.

Ninety thousand dollars gives me the ability to produce 200 stories for $450 each. When we talk about building “high-value audiences,” this is how we do it—smart content, built by smart people, specifically for my target demographic. The CMO of a large brand isn’t interested in a Facebook post that says, “Like this post if you eat ice cream!” She wants nuanced, actionable intelligence that’s going to help her do her job better.

5. Daily content: $62.5K

I want to keep up with the daily drumbeat of industry news—whatever my industry is—but I’d like my content to stay original. That means publishing every day with a unique take on what’s going on so my readers have a reason to come back every day. With $62,500 allocated for daily content, I can produce approximately 250 stories at a $250 rate, which works out to one piece of content per weekday for a year.

Readers aren’t going to come to my site if they can read the same thing in The New York Times or in a trade magazine. My daily content would take a relevant story and tell my readers exactly what it means and how it will affect them.

6. Original images and art: $30K

To stand out, I can’t pair my original story with a stock image five other publishers are using. The second someone sees happy business people, they’re clicking away faster than a Rick Roll link. Opting for original art, photography, infographics, and design is a relatively minor investment that has a major impact.

7. Video: $30K

Video is poised to be a huge growth area for content marketing in 2015. It’s expensive to do at scale, but it’s a very effective way of spreading your content and differentiating yourself from competitors. If this article was on how to spend $1,000,000 on content, you’d see me putting a lot more stock in this area.

8. Audience development: $60K

Reaching an audience has never been easier if you have the cash to do it. Outbrain, Facebook, Twitter, and a number of other platforms offer access to huge audiences at an efficient CPC. It’s super easy to waste a lot of money here on “low-value” clicks—people who open an article once but are very unlikely to become return users (and even less likely to become customers). But it’s also possible to acquire high-value readers at a relatively small cost if you’re delivering awesome content and driving email signups. What channel works best for you will depend on your brand, your goals, and what kind of content you’re producing. But once you’ve figured out what works, this is a great area to efficiently increase your spend.

A couple of notes I’d like to add as we wrap up:

— I would also invest in a content platform, since you need somewhere for all this great content to live. This isn’t really a “content” expense per se, so I’m not including it in my budget, but you can really spend as much or as little as you like. We built The Content Strategist as a custom WordPress site, which didn’t cost us very much.

— If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice this adds up to $514,000. Like I said, I suck at budgets.

— This certainly isn’t the only way to spend $500,000 on content. You could blow it all on a really high-end Super Bowl ad or hire David Remnick away from The New Yorker to be your editor or dump the entire budget into native ads.

Got a better idea? A more nuanced breakdown? Tweet it at me at @samslaughter215. If we get enough responses, we’ll run a follow-up article.

Image by Casey Martin

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