My fellow content marketers will likely disagree with what I’m about to type, and it may very well be contrary to what you’ve heard, but…
Content marketing is not necessarily a long-term strategy, in the sense that you can see results in a obscenely short amount of time.
I know this for a fact, because I’ve done it multiple times.
Last year, I ranked a brand new piece of content for the keyword “Excel shortcuts,” which gets 8,100 monthly searches, just one day after publishing it.
The result? Site traffic increased the following month by a whopping 29 percent.
The startup I did this for had a domain authority (DA) of 25 at the time and is far from a brand-name “unicorn.”
That wasn’t a fluke either. Before that, I spearheaded a blog for SitePoint, increasing its traffic from nothing to 100,000 weekly uniques in three months through, again, content marketing.
Most startups struggle with content marketing and give up before they ever succeed at it, but I’m here to tell you, it works — it works like a freakin’ charm — when you do it right.
In this post, you’ll learn my step-by-step process for substantially increasing site traffic with content marketing.
Before we begin, please note content marketing is not a growth hack, in that it costs money. Content marketers who get results don’t come cheap, and they usually require a small budget for additional resources as well.
Now that we got that out of the way, moving forward!
Step 1: Identify an epic idea.
Your idea is the foundation of your content marketing campaign, so, like any good foundation, it must be solid to grow.
This is where a lot of people go wrong. They don’t spend enough time coming up with a good idea. Or they don’t know their audience well enough to know the difference between what their audience thinks is epic and what they — as the company founder — think is epic.
All I’m saying is spend some time, regardless of how well you think you know your audience/industry, confirming that this is in fact an epic idea.
The Anatomy of a Good Idea
A good idea is: popular, relevant to your business, easy to promote and better than everything else out there on the topic. Let me elaborate with my “Excel shortcuts” example.
The startup I did this for is a small online course provider. Its best-selling courses, by far, are its Microsoft Excel courses, so we knew anything around Excel would likely do well.
I confirmed this notion with Moz’s Keyword Explorer tool, which reported that “Excel shortcuts” was searched for 8,100 times per month.
Competitors were also having success with this keyword, so I knew there was opportunity there (Thanks again to Moz).
Not only did we choose this topic because it was popular, but also because it was strategically relevant to the business.
Its Excel courses are created by top Excel “gurus,” and they had a lot of success on Groupon and other daily deal sites, so if they had a reputation, it was surely for Excel.
Additionally, the startup wanted to sell more Excel courses, so it was an easy way to get highly targeted visitors, some of whom converted to customers.
Easy to Distribute
If I don’t think a piece of content is going to be easy to promote then I nix the idea.
You can’t, I repeat, CAN’T force people to digest your content. In fact, I just read a quote by Jerry Seinfeld that speaks to this perfectly:
“There is no such thing as an attention span. There is only the quality of what you are viewing.”
How to Know if Content will be Easy to Promote
Quora is a phenomenal way to identify desire and promote your content once it’s ready.
Look for questions that your piece of content could answer on Quora.
Have many people have asked about it? How recently? How many people are following the question?
Not only was there a lot of questions about “Excel shortcuts,” but they also had a healthy following.
I won’t lie… Reddit scares me. It’s so volatile and extremely unreliable.
With that being said, I have had some success on Reddit, especially when it came to this “Excel shortcuts” piece.
Before we created the content, I checked out the Excel subreddit. As it turns out, the subreddit was poppin’. Look at these numbers…
This looked like a perfect place to drop a link to the “Excel shortcuts” piece when it was ready, and as it turns out, it was! (I’ll explain how I did that later.)
Ask: What blogs or publications would syndicate this?
To get syndicated on [Insert publication] means to get a post on your site re-published on another site with a link back to your site in order to reach a larger audience.
In a perfect world, you’ll have a healthy mix of mainstream and niche blogs/publications on your outreach list.
From my research, I knew that places like Lifehacker and Business Insider LOVE the topic of Excel, and they also LOVE to syndicate really good content, so I figured I had a good chance of getting a “yes.”
I was pretty certain Lifehacker and Business Insider would be a good fit, but I confirmed my suspicions by visiting both sites and searching for “Excel.” You can see what I paid attention to in the below screenshots.
As you can see, I reviewed three things:
- The number of articles published on the topic. If they don’t publish on this topic often, it probably isn’t a good fit.
- The most recent date of content published on the topic. If they haven’t blogged about it since 2013, then they’re likely not a good fit.
- How popular the related content was. Some sites have a view counter, like Business Insider. Others have a like button. And you can always see the number of comments. Beware: Some sites inflate these numbers, so use good judgement.
You’ll also want to find the publication’s guest post/syndication policy.
I had been syndicated on Business Insider before so I knew Business Insider had a contributor program. Usually, you can find this out by googling some sort of the following:
- Your Keyword “contribute to our site”
- Your Keyword “guest column”
- Your Keyword “submit content”
- Your Keyword “submit your content”
Pay attention, and actually read the guidelines because your content must adhere to its editorial standards.
For example, while HubSpot writes about Excel content, its guest blog policy states that it won’t syndicate content.
While I know HubSpot makes exceptions to this rule for really big influencers, I didn’t think they’d make an exception for us and did not try to get our piece published here.
Above and beyond better
If there is a really phenomenal piece of content already out there on the topic, meaning its: comprehensive, well-written, visually appealing and there’s really not much you can do to improve it, don’t create it.
When I have a new idea, I conduct extensive research on the topic. I Google about nine different versions of the query. I look on page two, three… and click on just about every result.
I look at every link because, usually, pieces of content do some things well and other things poorly.
For example, one layout might be horrible to look at but have great content. Another piece of content might be poorly written, but looks beautiful.
Here are a few things to pay attention to when researching:
- The structure/flow of the content. Is the information presented in the most digestible order for readers?
- The quality of writing. Could you present something clearer or more compelling?
- The way it looks. Could you make your content look better than the content you find?
- The information presented. Is the information accurate, backed by reputable resources and relevant at this point in time? What’s missing or could be expanded upon?
By the end of step one, you should have a pitch document, which is a simple document that scopes out the content project and answers all the pertinent questions, including:
- Working title
- Content type/structure
- Brief overview
- Brief, bullet-point outline of what to cover
- Best examples
Step 2: Bring idea to life.
Consider all of the things you have to do in order to bring this piece to life, and type it out.
For example, with the Excel piece, based on the pitch example above, I had to do the following before I could share this piece of content.
- Research: Gather all the Excel shortcuts for Mac and PC while also collecting all of the other information I outlined.
- Write: Write the introduction and conclusion.
- Test: Fact check the shortcuts.
- Edit: Clean up copy, if needed. Plagiarism check.
- Format: Format/layout onsite content.
- Design: Design infographic and cheatsheet.
- Optimize: Make sure content is optimized for search engines.
Think about all the steps ahead of time so you know what resources you need from the onset. This way your production workflow is more efficient and your project is more likely to launch on time… or even early.
For this project, I acted more like a project manager than a “writer” or “content creator” because I was juggling a ton of projects at the time and had a budget to outsource.
Before I elaborate on how I outsourced/managed this project, I have a quick note: If this was a text-heavy piece, I would’ve done things differently. I’m much pickier when it comes to outsourcing text-heavy pieces because it must be truly amazing to hold readers’ attention, and most “writers” can’t deliver.
A Content Production Workflow Example
Our paid marketing intern conducted the research for this piece. He gathered all of the shortcuts, along with all the information I asked for, into an organized spreadsheet so it could be fact-checked quickly.
When you hire a VA or a paid intern, it helps if you’re very specific when you ask for what you need. I’m not saying micromanage. I’m just saying, be detailed in describing what you’re looking for. Don’t tell them how to accomplish it though, unless you’re training them.
Also, be sure to assign a deadline and hold the person to this deadline. Negotiate a stipulation for late content so they know you’re serious about it being delivered on-time.
A highly diligent, organized college student is perfect to complete a research task like this.
They’re affordable, hardworking and easy to communicate with.
How to Find Legit, Affordable College Students
I’ve tested a lot of ways to find affordable freelance students, but these are the student recruiting tactics that worked best for me.
Recruit journalism students.
Not only are journalism students trained to investigate (which means they’re killer researchers), but they’re also taught how to write well.
Most importantly though, they subscribe to an official Code of Ethics as a journalist.
Where do you find journalism students?
- College publications. Look for a list of college publications, and visit their websites. Email the editor, and ask them to forward your gig description to their contributor list. They usually will.
- Professors. Google for a list of the top journalism schools. Visit their sites, and find the right person to email on the faculty or directory page. Here’s Stanfords.
- College job boards. Some colleges have job boards, where you can post jobs for free, like Columbia.
- Other college blogs. Check out The Muse’s writers, who are sometimes students, and reach out. Also, scour college publications, like Her Campus and New York Times’ college student column, and reach out to a few of the writers you like.
The introduction and conclusion only needed to be a few sentences each, so I wrote those myself.
Once the research is done and the spreadsheet delivered, we moved onto testing every single shortcut in the spreadsheet.
One person with a Mac and another person with a PC (and up-to-date versions of Excel) verified each of these shortcuts before moving forward.
It’s always good to get a second pair of eyes on content before it goes out, but don’t be excessive. You know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen, right?
This step also includes a plagiarism check. I use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker tool.
As soon as the shortcuts were verified and the descriptions approved, I outsourced the infographic and cheatsheet to a designer on UpWork.
I found a great, affordable designer, who I loved working with and continued to work with for a long time after, on UpWork.
How to Find Good Designers on UpWork
After you post your exciting job description to UpWork, make sure you “Invite” freelancers to apply. This makes a big difference in the quality and quantity of proposals you receive.
Use the filter feature to find exactly who you’re looking for…
I decided who to invite based on:
- Portfolio of work
- Amount earned on the platform
- Job success rate
As you can see above, Viktor had earned a lot on UpWork and had a 100 percent success rate. That’s really good, so I hired him.
Look for affordable high-potentials.
I didn’t love everything in Viktor’s portfolio, but having worked as a freelancer on UpWork before, I knew a lot of clients have poor taste and ask for tacky things a lot.
I felt like this was the case with Viktor, and it was. His work continued to evolve the more we worked together.
Try to see the potential in people.
Provide a clear scope of work (SOW).
I gave Viktor the organized spreadsheet and provided examples of infographics I liked via a Pinterest board link.
Don’t do what’s convenient for you and send a million messages. Create a G-Doc that’s simple, to-the-point and includes links to styles you like. Make your freelancer’s life easy, and they’ll love you (i.e. move mountains for you).
Don’t nickel and dime them.
Viktor quoted me $175 for the infographic and cheatsheet.
In all our time working together, I’m proud to say, I never tried to bring his already super-low rates down more because his work was definitely worth the $175.
Format and Upload
Ideally, you should think of the microsite design earlier than now. Most of the steps overlap, so it’s bit difficult to order the steps perfectly.
How will your microsite look? How will your blog post be laid out?
This usually requires: dev, design and marketing, depending on how your team is organized, the size of the company and what type of content management system (CMS) you have.
In my example, the dev team coded the microsite because we have a custom CMS, and I don’t code.
I think marketing should’ve own design for this though since the visual layout is so vital to the success of a piece of content and whether or not it is optimized for conversions.
Once the formatting is determined, it’s time to upload your content to the CMS.
Last but not least, optimize your content by adding a:
- Meta title
- Meta description
- Focus keyword
Resources for writing good titles:
- Headline Hacks
In a perfect world, you’d have a plugin that allows you to A/B test titles.
Step 3: Distribute content.
Once your microsite is optimized and tested, it’s time to start promoting it!
A Distribution Strategy Example
This is the order in which I distributed the Excel piece.
Share on Social
According to KISSmetrics, a piece of content should produce 20+ snippets that you can share on social media throughout the next few weeks and even months.
Snippets can be anything from pull quotes to facts or tips extracted from the content.
Next, I create six image variations (which were optimized for each platform) so each post has a different (perfectly sized) image, and it doesn’t look like we’re promoting the same exact piece of content every time.
After I shared organically, I created a Facebook Ad campaign, using AdEspresso, which automatically optimizes your Facebook ads and tests different variations.
While I don’t have the specific ads we ran for the Excel content piece, I can tell you we tested 36 ad sets, ran it for 10 days and paid $223.25. The result? Sixty-eight leads, which cost $3.28 per lead.
Facebook was also our No. 1 referrer that month, which had never happened in the history of the company.
Submit to Reddit
This is where things really started to pick up for us.
I submitted our content to the bustling Excel subreddit, and it was quite popular, which gave me some leverage when I decided to email Business Insider.
By leverage, I mean that I had cold, hard proof that this would be a popular piece to syndicate to their enormous audience.
Reddit is a fickle beast though. Here’s how I approached it.
If you’re familiar with Reddit, you know that it’s wildly frowned upon to submit your own links or links you’re affiliated with.
With that in mind, I read the entire left sidebar on the subreddit.
Once I read every single link in the sidebar to learn the rules, etiquette, etc, I personally messaged the moderators of the subreddit, telling them about the piece of content we worked really hard on and how it would be invaluable to their audience.
I shared a link to the content piece so they could verify the quality of the content. Turns out, they liked it and said I could share it as long as I put “Advertisement” in my title.
The post did really well. It received 254 upvotes and 35 comments.
Email Business Insider
It was time to try to get this syndicated on Business Insider.
At 1:13 p.m., I sent the email below to the general contributors’ email:
By 1:17 p.m., I received this email.
Our content blew up on Business Insider:
This syndication opened the doors to also getting syndicated on Lifehacker Australia and Business Insider Australia, which sent a healthy dose of traffic as well.
The social bookmarking sites I usually submit to include:
There are Many Other Ways to Distribute Your Content
Every piece of content should have its own unique distribution strategy, which may or may not look similar to what I outlined above, so don’t blindly follow my tactics.
Utilize the ones that will work for your audience.
That is how you increase site traffic by 29% in 1 month.
So that’s everything — the step-by-step process we used to increase site traffic by 29 percent in one month.
It took a lot of hard work from multiple people to make this thing the success it was. And while I was confident this piece would do well, I *never* guaranteed that to my client. At the end of the day, the most important pieces of the puzzle were in the hands of other people –people I didn’t even know — so I couldn’t promise anything.
Before we shut this party down, let me say: Content marketing may not be right for you — it’s totally possible. Content marketing isn’t a universal panacea.
If you’re unsure if it is or isn’t, there are a few questions you can ask yourself.
- Do I have the budget to produce a phenomenal content marketing campaign?
- Can I think of any good content ideas that my audience might enjoy?
- Are people in my space (bloggers or competitors) already writing about this?
- Is there a demand for content in my industry?
Answer those questions, and use good judgement. Once you do, you should know which path to choose.