Ask a Content Strategist

Ask a Content Strategist: How Do I Scale My Content Marketing Program?

By Joe Lazauskas December 5th, 2016

My buzzword of the year is “scale.”

At some point over the past 12 months, everyone seemed to simultaneously realize that simply saying the word “scale” would make them sound smart as hell in any meeting. When I wrote “scale” into the headline of this article, my first thought was that I’m an all-powerful god. My second thought was that this headline is going to absolutely kill it in search.

After all, scaling your content marketing program is on a lot of people’s minds right now. 2017 is approaching, so it’s time to plan how we’re going to kick ass next year. And there’s never a more optimistic time in content than when you’re planning your ideal budget. I almost talked myself into blowing 30 percent of our budget on VR cameras just now. (It’s the future!)

Unfortunately, figuring out how to scale your content efforts is a much more measured activity, especially when your VP of finance doesn’t see how a hoverboard and 17 GoPros will help the company sell more software. As the head of the edit and strategy teams here at Contently, it’s a challenge I think about a lot.

This month, it seemed to be on our readers’ minds too. I got a ton of questions about scaling a content marketing program in 2017, so this week, we’re sticking to just one topic. But it’s a damn good one.

We’re creating content and think we understand our audience. The bigger challenge is scaling. We use social media and SEO for organic search. What should we do to scale and reach more people?

—Kate, New York

Right now, a lot of brands are finishing up their “if we build it, they will come” content marketing strategy and … well, they’re realizing that no one came.

Far too often, I hear brands say their goal is to “build a content marketing hub.” It’s kind of like buying some land in a rural field, spending months building a community center on it, and then looking at it and saying, “Well, my work here is done. Time for people to start showing up!”

If someone asks you, “What did we get for that $500,000 you spent this year?” responding with “a content hub” is not a great answer. That’s not a result.

You could respond with something like this…

But it’s just not true. Content marketing is about a lot more than content.

In my July column, I talked a lot about the specific distribution tactics that work best, so I’m not going to rehash them all again. But as you finalize your growth plan for 2017, keep a few key principles in mind:

1. Document your strategy and forecast the compounding returns of your content.

We’ve all heard the stat: More than 60 percent of marketers still don’t have a documented content strategy heading into 2017. I still struggle to understand why.

Getting a budget and resources for your content marketing program without a content strategy is like applying for a bank loan without a business plan. The bank isn’t going to give you much money, and chances are, your CEO won’t either.

You need to show how your content efforts map to business goals and how you’re going to reach your target audience. Forecasting audience growth is always going to be an educated guess, but paid distribution helps make it fairly predictable.

Say that you’re starting a content marketing budget from scratch. Between staff, freelancers, and site maintenance fees, you’re going to spend $20,000 a month to produce content. Then you have another $20,000 to spend on paid distribution on Facebook, which allows you to hone in on your ideal audience thanks to its advanced targeting features.

If your content is good, it’s not hard to get a $0.25 cost per click on Facebook. That translates to around 60,000 unique visitors each month off the bat (assuming one-third of the clicks come from people who click twice). Let’s say 5 percent of those 60,000 visitors share your content, driving three new readers with each share. That’s another 9,000 visitors, bringing your total to 69,000.

But let’s say you use an email capture tool like SumoMe to entice 5 percent of those readers to become newsletter subscribers. That’s 3,000 subscribers right there, half of whom will likely visit again next month. You’ll start to see a gradual rise, particularly as your email list grows and long-tail search and social traffic give your publication a continued boost.

Month 1

Paid: 60,000

Social: 9,000

Total: 69,000

Month 2

Paid: 60,000

Social: 10,000

Email: 1,500

Search: 1,000

Total: 72,500

Month 3

Paid: 60,000

Social: 13,000

Email: 3,000

Search: 3,000

Total: 79,000

This is a simplified calculation, but it illustrates what venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz calls “the compounding returns of content marketing.” Basically, as you create and distribute more content, your audience naturally grows. You build a loyal audience through email and social. The content published in previous months attracts long-tail traffic.

This prediction doesn’t just hold for readers. It’s true for other conversion events, like newsletter subscribers (illustrated above), e-book downloads, leads, opps, etc. No matter your KPIs, the same dynamic tends to hold true.

scale content marketing

Pictured: One of my favorite charts ever

Of course, none of this works if you don’t do the next thing on the list.

2. Commit to creating freaking amazing content

In September, the marketing data platform Beckon announced a remarkable finding: The top 5 percent of branded content accounts for 90 percent of all engagement.

Some folks have taken that to mean that content marketing doesn’t work. I don’t see it that way. To me, the stat validates something obvious—that if you create something original and great, you have the opportunity to monopolize consumer attention and leave your competitors in the shadows. It’s proof that mediocre content just doesn’t work—on social or search.

When I interviewed Moz co-founder Rand Fishkin last year, this is what he had to say:

I think there’s still a lot of [misguided] belief around quantity over quality. The vast vast majority of links and shares and amplification signals of all kinds are going to only the top 5 or 10 percent of content that gets put out. There’s not a whole lot of value in writing a decent blog post anymore. [There’s not a lot of value] unless you can be pretty extraordinary.

Ask [this]: If they’re searching for an answer to a question, would they rather reach your piece of content than anything else on the Internet right now?

Unless the answer is a slam dunk, “Yes, this is 10 times better than anything else out there,” I’m not necessarily sure it’s worth publishing.

It’s true. Great stories are the only thing that breaks through.

3. Spend at least 25 percent of your budget on paid distribution

Or half. Or more, depending on your goals and what stage you’re in. Acquiring new readers in your target audience is what allows a content marketing program to grow. Content only matters if people see it.

Yes, you need to maintain a steady stream of content to keep your subscribers and followers engaged. But the winning formula in 2017 will be to push readers to amazing pieces of content through paid distribution platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Outbrain, YouTube, and LinkedIn. Do that and you will crush the meeting with your CEO next December.

Image by Omar Chatriwala / Getty
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