5 content tips young startups should know

What you don't hear about content marketing

Since 2018, we’ve spent an increasing amount of time, energy, and resources on the content we produce.

Some days, when graphs are up and to the right, or leads come through, we feel like we’re really getting somewhere. 🚀

....other days, we wonder if we’re shooting posts into an internet black hole. Hellooooo out thereeee?? 💬

Content marketing is hard.

And today, I want to dig into what many articles don’t: the messy side of content marketing for young startups.

The stuff that doesn’t have easy answers. The stuff that makes us put our head down on our keyboards and consider teaching our dogs that whole wine-carrying trick. 🍷

The stuff early-stage founders should definitely know about. If you’re eyeing content as part of your marketing arsenal, here are 5 things you need to know.

Quick note: There are really awesome articles out there about how to start content marketing from scratch. We’re not covering that here. But if you want links, hit reply and lemme know!

1. It all comes back to the customer, and content is hard if you don’t know them 👭 #

Content marketing, like any other marketing, is most effective when it helps your customer make progress in their lives. This means you have to know:

  • who your customers are
  • what their lives look like
  • what kind of progress they want to make

The trouble is, when you’re early-stage or have a small pool of customers, this is hard. In fact, without a lot of interviews and sleuthing, it’s mostly guesswork. That’s normal, but it means a lot of your content is guesswork too. 🤔

For example, when you hit questions like

  • Which headline will resonate more?
  • What topic matters the most to your reader?
  • Should this angle or that angle drive the post?

You won’t have a clear answer. There are plenty of ways to make progress on these questions (e.g. formulas for the headlines), but the fact of the matter is, you’re doing a lot of guessing until you get a clear idea who the heck is on the other side of the screen.

This is especially difficult if you have multiple audiences and value propositions, which we do. 😅

2. Content that stands out—really stands out—takes more time than you think 😯 #

The average blog post is 1,236 words long, and it takes 3hrs 57 min to write.

And these are probably posts folks just sit down to write—I’m guessing that time doesn’t include planning, outlining, research, and editing. It also doesn’t mean the post is even any good. In fact, 43% of marketers think their content is just “meh”, so chances are it’s probably not good. 🙈

To produce something that really stands out, you’ve got to really dig in.

Take one of our most popular posts last year on no-code. That one took around 25 hours to pull together—and that’s just my time. Andrew spent additional hours meeting with me, reviewing what I wrote, and helping promote the piece.

And while we’re really proud of that one, it’s a small fry next to FYI’s remote work report by Hiten Shah and Marie Prokopets. Hiten and Marie wanted to provide the best possible insights on remote work, and they did. But it took some crazy effort.

Via https://usefyi.com/remote-work-report/

For that one piece, they built a Ruby on Rails tip directory, spent 5-7 days on design, sent 400 emails, and analyzed 500 qualitative responses. The thing took so much friggin’ work, Hiten said he and Marie would charge a quarter of a million dollars to do it for someone else. A quarter of a million!

Incredible content doesn’t have to cost that much, but it sure isn’t cheap. 💰

3. Content is a great swiss army knife, but it makes terrible concrete 🙃 #

Content does some things really well. You can hire it to:

  • earn organic traffic
  • reach a wider audience
  • boost brand name recognition
  • establish your authority in an industry
  • build an email list
  • increase customer willingness-to-pay

And more. It’s a wonderfully versatile swiss army knife. But that doesn’t mean content does every job well.

For example, content is pretty bad at figuring out the concrete stuff of your business: your positioning, audience, or product/market fit. This is a big point of confusion.

As Grow and Convert discovered: “...the reality is that content marketing is like any other marketing channel, if you’re executing on the channel properly, a lack of conversions typically signals a product/market fit issue or a positioning issue.”

Content can help you experiment with foundational stuff, and that’s certainly useful. But content can rarely (if ever) lay your business foundation for you. That’s a big reason we’ve been working on our positioning lately.

4. Good content marketing requires holding a lot of ideas in tension (and that ain’t easy for humans) 🤜🤛 #

At the front of my work-day journal (where I scribble to-dos and learnings), I keep a table of contents. This table helps me quickly find ideas I want to revisit. Most of the items are what I call “tension” items: complacency vs. contentment, enough vs. excellent, and so on. They’re ideas you have to hold in tension to make progress.

With content marketing in particular, there are many ideas you have to hold in tension. To name a few key ones:

  • Quality vs. Quantity: We need both for our content to perform.
  • Good Enough vs. Done: We can’t wait until every piece is done (aka damn-near perfect) to publish, but we also can’t put out shoddy work. We have to balance these.
  • Utility vs. Inspiration: While some of our best work feels inspired, chasing whims is a poor substitute for strategy. The best content is full of utility and inspiration. Too much of either is rarely ideal.

It’s probably healthiest to think of these as spectrums. And each business has to decide where they land on each one, according to their audience and goals. For example, we slide toward quality, done, and inspiration.

5. “Is our content working?” can be tricky to answer 🤔 #

First, there are lots of ways to define “working,” and none of them are as straightforward as they sound.

Take a question like, “Is our content doing a good job engaging people?”

To answer that, you could pull up Google Analytics and check out average time on page. If it’s abysmal...say, 30 seconds or less for 1.5k+ words…it’s not engaging.

Or is it?

When we ask, “is it engaging people?” what we really mean is, “is it engaging the right people?” Namely, those who purchase or refer. So, it could be that the content isn’t engaging people because it sucks. OR it could be the content is brilliant, but it’s in front of the wrong people.

In other words, you may not have a quality problem—you may have a distribution problem.

For us, some traffic sources like Designer News drive consistently low time on page metrics. And that’s not because the piece is bad (it performs well for organic and other channels), it’s because that traffic source isn’t our customers. They hang out somewhere else.

You can see how this gets even murkier with big questions like, “is content doing a good job driving more revenue?” For B2B businesses like us that sell high-ticket, high touchpoint services, this is extra challenging to answer:

  • Is an actual sale due to content driving the lead?
  • Or the sales pitch when they come through?
  • Is it both and, if so, how do you measure that?
  • What about the team’s incredible work for half a decade that’s beautifully showcased across the site and demo’ed in pitches?

For this reason and others (like statistical significance), some of the most experienced content marketers look at “soft metrics” for younger companies and low-traffic sites. They look for things like whether respected people in the community are sharing and talking about the post. Or whether it’s getting shared by newsletters in their space.

Personally, we use a combination of hard and soft metrics (all of which we could track better!). We have a #win-wall in Slack where we share qualitative content wins like praise from some person we respect, a client retweet, or a newsletter share. And then we have a dashboard where we look at quantitative conversion numbers including:

  • Time on page. For over 3k+ word posts, we love seeing an average of 5 minutes or more from organic traffic. This is a strong quality indicator for us.
  • Conversions. On sales pages, we’re aiming for a 2% conversion rate. On posts, we’d like to drive more newsletter sign ups but we admittedly haven’t tracked this well.
  • Organic traffic. This quarter, we’re looking to grow organic traffic by 15%. Just over half of our overall site traffic comes from organic right now.

Anyhow, as I said, we’re still sorting all this out ourselves. And there aren’t many shoo-in answers. Progress with content, like with many other things, isn’t perfectly linear.

See “you might have progress totally backward” for more on this

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth talking about. Or worth doing. 🙂

We’ve traced over $300k of business back to content we produce and receive good qualitative feedback from the community. So, that tells us we’re on the right track. Now, we’re trying to get better at understanding what’s working (so we can do more of it) and what isn’t (so we can fix or drop it).