Newsletter #20

The Pareto principle in content marketing

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I've not published a newsletter in a while, and a moment of honest reflection helped me realise why: I was bored of the format. I don't want to write a newsletter that's a glorified RSS feed.

Thankfully, I've had a bunch of subscribers email me to say that they love one part of the newsletter more than the rest: the Opinions section.

Problem solved! From here on out, I'm applying the Pareto principle (more on that below), focusing in on the 20% of the newsletter than generates 80% of the value. That means one short-form opinion, idea or tutorial each week, and no more link round-ups and article summaries (they have a new home).

I'm hoping this will also encourage even more dialogue - I would love for you to share your feedback, criticism and suggestions each week. Just reply to the email!

- Ryan

The Pareto principle in content marketing

Content marketing isn't all that complicated, and most companies will be perfectly served by following through on three simple decisions:

  • Focus on top-of-the-funnel content.

  • Rely on search distribution.

  • Publish every week.

This is the Pareto principle in action: most results can be traced back to a handful of inputs.

From my experience, that "handful of inputs" is top-of-funnel search traffic. For most companies, the remaining constellation of content marketing projects - brand messaging content, social campaigns, PR, webinars, e-books, case studies, you name it - generate a small marginal improvement to performance. Search content does the heavy lifting.

Time to back-up my wild and reductionist claims. I spend my time creating new content marketing strategies, and critiquing (and hopefully, improving) existing ones. I work to understand a company's goals and their prioritisation; their available resources and constraints; and the performance of their existing content marketing.

These inputs can seem very complicated, especially for companies with complex positioning decks, half-a-dozen different go-to-market strategies, and hundreds of existing articles and content resources.

But with each customer I've collaborated with, the more I've realised that the same handful of challenges hide behind every branded "Vision for content marketing" slidedeck and RFP we come across:

  • Nobody knows that the company exists. Most companies have an awareness problem. They're trying to scale beyond a handful of proven-but-expensive channels - often paid advertising and referrals - and need a reliable way to get their company in front of thousands of new prospects.

  • Traffic is unpredictable. Those same acquisition channels create traffic that's sporadic and hugely variable; both anathema to growing a business, scaling headcount, and hitting month-on-month growth targets.

  • Competitors are beating them to the punch. Their competitors are starting to pull ahead, claiming lucrative SERPs and providing value to would-be customers before the company has even entered the fray.

This isn't to say that all companies have a beautifully optimised conversion process; just that awareness is the first and biggest problem they need to tackle, and a prerequisite to solving for conversion.

These challenges are very telling, and lend themselves to the single - very common, very un-sexy, and very effective - course of action outlined in the introduction:

  • Focus on top-of-the-funnel content. It's easier to 10x your traffic than it is to improve conversion rates by 10%.

    Even if your company sucks at converting prospects, most companies will see a larger net increase in customers by creating awareness content - educational articles and guides - than they would by optimising their existing funnel with case studies and drip campaigns.

  • Rely on search distribution. Search traffic is one of the few channels that actively compounds over time; like a savings account, the more you can invest now, the more you'll benefit in the future. Better yet, it compounds in a largely predictable way, solving the volatility problems posed by paid and referral.

    As I've written before: "It’s something we see often—a virtuous cycle of compounding growth where every new article improves the performance of the next, generating better and better results over time. Stick with it and content marketing becomes a sustainable growth engine."

  • Publish every week. Mess around with a compound growth calculatorand you'll quickly see why publishing frequency is the most potent tool at your disposal. Publishing regularly also has a huge qualitative benefit: it helps you iron out the kinks in your process, and work out tricky concepts like voice and messaging.

    I'm a huge fan of learning by doing; and while thoughtfulness is a boon to content marketing, endless philosophising is the enemy. Once you have a strategy in place, execute on it as often and as tenaciously as possible.

The takeaway here isn't that that top-of-funnel search content is a magic pill - just that most companies share the same big, gnarly problems, and the solution is usually simple and consistent.

If you're struggling with your own content marketing strategy - you're trying to make sense of funnel stages, persona types, and a host of other complicating factors - start with top-of-funnel search content, and take it from there.

Chances are you'll find yourself 80% of the way towards your goals, with only 20% of the effort.


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