Looking to invest in content marketing for your startup?
When done right, few marketing channels are more effective and scalable.
But you already know that.
What you aren’t so sure of is how to do content marketing “right” for your startup.
That, my friend, is what I’ll help you with today.
At Rank Tree, we’ve worked with startups over the past 5+ years to build content marketing campaigns that fuel 7-figure brands.
And in this post, I’m gonna reveal our process step-by-step so you can swipe it for your startup.
Why Content Marketing is CRITICAL for Startups
Before we dive in, I want to paint a picture for you:
Imagine a world where you have thousands upon thousands of targeted visitors streaming into your funnel every month on autopilot (without paying for ads).
Those visitors already:
- Know who you are
- Experienced your expertise in your subject matter
- Have developed some amount of trust with your brand
What would that do for your startup?
If I had to guess based on what I’ve seen with startups we’ve helped already, I’d say it would change the game.
It would allow you to:
- Sell to leads who already know, like, and trust you
- Invest more of your marketing budget in creating more content which sends you more of these visitors (creating an endless feedback loop of awesomeness)
- Further establish your authority and thought leadership
Each of these benefits feeds into each other and creates this incredible marketing machine from your content.
That’s what we’re talking about here—not deciding to invest in content marketing “because everyone else is” and throwing up a few blog posts and videos.
You have to build the machine before the machine can work for you.
With that picture and context, here is our proven process for building a startup content marketing strategy.
Startup Content Marketing: Creating Your Content Machine in 6 Steps
- Set Meaningful Goals and KPIs
- Map Out Your Customer Journey
- Create a “Bank” of Target-Customer-Centered Content Ideas
- Build a Content Calendar with Content for Each Stage of Your Customer Journey
- Create Free Offers for Each Stage of Your Customer Journey
- Create a Content Promotion Process (and Stick With It)
1. Set Meaningful Goals and KPIs
The whole reason you’re exploring content marketing for your startup is so you can increase revenue
That’s why it’s critical to start the content strategy creation process by setting rock-solid goals.
If you don’t, you’ll have no idea how to measure your progress and no clear definition of success.
How to Set Your Content Goals
I recommend making big-picture SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals for:
- Traffic (users or sessions, not pageviews)
- Leads (new users or trials from your content efforts)
You can set goals for year-end targets or whatever else makes sense for your startup, but I highly recommend setting goals around running monthly averages.
(For example, I might say I want to increase my average monthly organic sessions from 10,000 to 20,000 by the end of 2021.)
That way, you aren’t focused on month-to-month changes in traffic from seasonal trends or ranking fluctuations you can’t control—you’re looking at your long-term rate of growth.
I recommend setting your content marketing goals quarterly and adjusting them as you grow so you’re always pushing to increase these numbers.
How to Choose Your KPIs
When it comes to KPIs, there are about 1,000 things you could look at—most of which don’t immediately tell you what you want to know (a.k.a. how you’re doing).
That’s why I recommend 4 total KPIs related to traffic and leads:
- Average sessions per month (broken down by year so you can compare annual growth)
- Average new leads per month (broken down by year so you can compare annual growth)
- Sessions over the last 30 days compared to the previous year
- New leads over the last 30 days compared to the previous year
These will help you measure long-term AND short-term growth.
2. Map Out Your Customer Journey
Generally speaking, there are 3 main stages your prospects go through no matter what you’re selling:
- Awareness (Top of Funnel)
- Consideration (Middle of Funnel)
- Conversion (Bottom of Funnel)
…But the specifics of each stage vary from business to business.
Your job in this step is figuring out what problems, pain points, and questions your potential customers ask during each phase.
Because once you know that, you’ll know exactly what kind of content to create for each stage so you can generate more leads AND nurture existing ones at the same time.
2 Strategies for Understanding Your Customers at Each Stage of Your Funnel
If you don’t already have this information somewhere, here are two really effective ways to get it:
1. Survey your customers.
The easiest (and best) way to get a deeper understanding of your customer journey is by talking to your current customers via a survey or Zoom call.
Create at least one question for each of the three stages that essentially ask them:
- What was your life like during this stage?
- If you could’ve solved one problem during this stage, what would it have been?
- What was your life like before this stage?
Dig deeper into their responses to get as much detail as possible on their emotions and specific questions they asked each step along the way.
2. Spy on your competitors.
Your competitors are trying to grow their companies (like you), so it’s reasonable to think that if they’re successful their content and funnels are working to some extent.
So going through their funnels and looking at the topics and keywords they’re writing content on can give you invaluable insights into how you should create your content strategy.
You can use tools like SEMrush (affiliate link) to easily find this information.
Mapping Content Ideas to the Customer Journey
People in each stage of the customer journey will be interested in very different content because they have very different problems.
So, before we start generating content ideas, it’s crucial to know the differences in what content will resonate with which stage.
Here’s a list of some of the most effective kinds of content I’ve seen for each stage of a funnel:
Top of Funnel (Awareness)
- In-depth guides (example: “How to write a blog post”)
- Listicles (example: “SEO tips”)
- Q&A posts (example: “How long does it take to write a blog post?”)
Middle of Funnel (Consideration)
- Alternative posts (example: “SEMrush alternatives”)
- Comparison posts (example: “Ahrefs vs SEMrush”)
- Review posts (example: “SEMrush review”)
- Best products posts (example: “Best SEO tools”)
Bottom of Funnel (Conversion)
- Posts about pricing (example: “SEMrush pricing”)
- Case studies (example: “How Tom increased traffic by 300% with SEMrush”)
- FAQ posts (example: “The 10 most common questions asked about SEMrush”)
- Use cases (example: “How to use SEMrush to build backlinks”)
3. Create a “Bank” of Target-Customer-Centered Content Ideas
Now, take your insights from Step 2 and create a Google Sheet to serve as your “content bank”—the place you’ll go to find pre-validated content ideas.
Categorize your sheet by TOFU, MOFU, and BOFU (top, middle, and bottom of funnel) and add your content ideas to their respective category.
This resource will be the starting point of your content pipeline.
So, you need to make sure it’s always adequately stocked so you don’t cause a delay down the line.
To do this, I recommend doing these 4 main things at least monthly:
1. Keyword research
Use tools like Topic Research and The Keyword Magic Tool in SEMrush to explore new topics and find the best keywords to target with them.
These tools are great because you can use a “seed” keyword (a broad topic) and find long and medium-tail variations you can target with good traffic and low competition.
2. Content gap analysis
In the Ahrefs Site Explorer, you can easily find your top SEO competitors and see what they’re ranking for that you aren’t.
To find this, put your URL in the search bar, click “Competing domains”, then click on the number under “Keywords unique to competitor” for whichever competitor you want to compare yourself to.
This is a killer strategy for finding really good keywords to create content around.
3. Trend analysis
I don’t use this strategy as often as the other two, but it’s still useful for deposits in your content bank.
See what I did there?
4. Competitor analysis
What kind of content are your competitors making?
Do they lean heavily towards video? Podcasts? Blog posts?
Do they focus on specific topics or are they pretty general?
These are all questions you need to answer every month.
You can use a handful of different tools to help you spy on your competition:
- Ahrefs for figuring out what keywords your competitors are trying to rank for (put each competing site into the site explorer and look at the keywords they’re ranking for)
- feedly for easily seeing what blog posts, social posts, and emails your competitors are creating
- And the good ole’ method of manually subscribing to newsletters, YouTube channels, and podcasts
The Next *Critical* Step in Validating and Prioritizing Your Content Ideas
Before you move on to reaching out to every writer you know to get content written, you have to validate your ideas.
Each topic in your content bank has to either have at least some search volume, social interest, or views.
Because if you make content around any that don’t, you run the risk of creating content that collects dust in the attic of your website.
That’s why the keyword research and content gap analysis steps above are so critical—they tell you what the interest is around a topic (you can also use a tool like Buzzsumo for social interest).
But just knowing numbers isn’t enough to help you—you need to know how to prioritize content based on those numbers.
I normally prioritize content ideas by doing keyword research and asking these questions about each keyword I find:
- Is this keyword relevant? You can figure out by searching it in Google and seeing what kinds of results come up. It should quickly become clear if it’s related to your business or the name of some random pop star.
- Can you reasonably expect to rank for this keyword? Check the keyword difficulty score to see whether a keyword is low (<39% in SEMrush), medium (40%-59% in SEMrush), or high (60%+ in SEMrush). Whether you can rank for medium or high competition keywords mainly depends on your site’s authority and topical relevance. I usually recommend going after low competition keywords first (almost exclusively) unless you’re a main player in your niche already.
- Is the amount of search traffic worth it? I consider this last for two reasons: 1) a low volume of high-quality traffic will make you more money than a high volume of low-quality traffic and 2) your content will show up for many variations of your target keyword, so thinking only about a single keyword’s volume isn’t truly an accurate way to judge potential traffic. If there is enough interest around a topic, it’ll send you great leads, and you can rank for it, you’re golden.
If a content idea doesn’t pass the keyword test, then I use the Ahrefs Content Explorer, Buzzsumo, or a quick YouTube search to see the general interest around it.
If there’s even a little bit of interest around a topic that comes directly from your customer research, go ahead and label it “validated”.
This is a quality > quantity game.
4. Build a Content Calendar with Content for Each Stage of Your Customer Journey
Here’s where the rubber meets the road.
We’re finally going to start creating and publishing content.
Funny how we just now started making stuff in Step 4, right?
The key to creating a great content calendar is finding the right balance between your goals and your resources.
In other words, you want to figure out how to reach the goals you set in Step 1 with the budget, writers, and bandwidth you have.
There really isn’t a perfect balance here—it’s something you’ll have to define for your company over time.
The main thing to keep in mind when creating your content calendar is consistency.
The specific amount of content you create doesn’t matter outside of how it impacts your goals.
But momentum is a big part of content marketing, and creating a consistent schedule (whether that’s weekly, bi-weekly, or even monthly content) is key.
You can’t get great results from your startup content marketing campaign without consistency.
Planning Content for Each Stage of Your Funnel
Once you get a feel for how much content you need to create, and how often you need to create it, the final step is determining the proportion of top, middle, and bottom of funnel content you’ll make on average every month.
Again, this will vary depending on your industry and goals, but a good rule of thumb is focusing as much effort as possible on middle and bottom of funnel content.
Usually, this means 75%+ of your content is focused here.
Because these will be your biggest money-making opportunities. They’ll attract prospects to your site who are the most likely to become paying customers.
Top of funnel content has its place, don’t get me wrong.
It’s just much harder to move someone through the entire funnel than it is to move them one or two steps.
Where to Create Your Content Calendar
I’ve used about 1,000 different tools over the years to build my content calendars.
There isn’t a “best” tool in my opinion. It depends on your use case and the integrations you want.
Here are several I’ve used and recommend checking out (all of which are free or have free versions):
5. Create Free Offers for Each Stage of Your Customer Journey (Lead Magnets)
Your content strategy is just beginning when you start putting out content on your blog or YouTube channel…
That’s just to get people in the door.
Now, you have to convince them to stay awhile. ?
And you can do that by creating highly targeted lead magnets for each stage of your funnel.
“I have to make three???” you ask.
Yes, because the logical “next step” for your prospects will be different depending on where they are in the customer journey.
And in most cases, you can’t move people down the funnel with a single lead magnet.
How to Make Lead Magnets That Move Your Prospects Closer to Conversion
There are 4 main principles behind all great lead magnets. If you miss even one of these, you run the risk of investing in lead magnets that attract bad (or no) leads.
Principle #1: It offers “next level” content.
You want to think through the questions your prospects ask at the top, middle, and bottom of your funnel, then create a free (or low dollar) offer that lays out the next logical step to solving their problem right in front of them.
Every lead magnets’ goal is moving your prospect to the next stage in the customer journey—that’s it.
So you have to get really specific with your offers and try to give your prospect another “element” of the solution to their problem.
Principle #2: It’s hyper-relevant to the content you offer it on.
Building off the last principle, the lead magnet you offer has to be incredibly relevant to the content your prospect is reading/watching.
That means you need to make several lead magnets (takes a lot of time and I’m still working on it myself!) and offer different ones based on each category you create content around.
So, for instance, if you run a writing blog, you’d need AT LEAST one lead magnet for fiction and nonfiction writing for each stage in your funnel.
Principle #3: It’s incredibly in-depth.
You want your lead magnet to provide a quick win for your prospect related to their problem.
The easiest way I’ve found for figuring out what it will take to make a lead magnet “incredibly valuable” is putting yourself in your potential users’ shoes…
If you were them, would this lead magnet:
- Grab your attention—making you interested in opting-in?
- Clearly answer your questions or give you an easy-to-follow action plan?
- Solve a small problem as quickly as possible
Principle #4: It has a high perceived value.
The lead magnet needs to look sharp.
It doesn’t have to cost you $1,000s in design projects, it just needs to look high-quality.
Your copy also has to position your lead magnet as the easiest and best solution to the prospect’s problem.
You want to make downloading your lead magnet a complete no-brainer.
Lead Magnet Ideas by Customer Journey Stage
- Exclusive guide
- White paper
- Industry reports
- Free (or low dollar) trial
- Exclusive product tutorial/use case
- Free consultation or demo with an expert from your team
6. Create a Content Promotion Process (and Stick With It)
The final step in creating your rock-solid SaaS content marketing strategy is creating a detailed promotion process you follow with almost all of your content.
Because here’s the truth:
If you don’t promote your content, it won’t do anything for you.
You could create the best content in the world, but if no one comes to see it, does it really make a sound?
(Sorry, I had to.)
This isn’t a magnificent new insight, you’ve probably heard this a thousand times.
But the problem is: knowing the importance of content promotion doesn’t change the fact that it can be freakin’ hard.
To make matters worse, the vast majority of strategies people recommend generate little-to-no impact (especially for the time investment).
…And you won’t even know which ones are duds until you’ve already wasted your time.
Pretty encouraging, right?
That’s why I’ve put together this final part of the guide.
I’ve condensed my content promotion process into 4 main steps based on strategies that I’ve seen make the biggest impact.
And I’m giving it to you in hopes that you don’t waste the 100s of hours I did over the years!
My 80/20 Content Promotion Process
1. Share via your owned channels (duh).
You’ve heard about doing this a million times because it just makes sense. Some of your best customers are on your email list and follow you on social.
Just give ‘em the dang content.
2. Pay for targeted traffic.
After your initial wave from #1, I recommend spending as little as $50 – $100 (more will obviously do more for you) promoting your content via ads.
This will give your content even more momentum, and you’ll likely also pick up some shares.
I’ve found the best results with Twitter ads and Quuu promote from my tests, but other networks often work just as well.
3. Run a targeted link building campaign.
It’s critical to run a hyper-targeted link building campaign while you’re doing strategies #1-2 above.
You want your content to go ahead and start building authority in Google’s eyes. Because the faster you do so, the faster you’ll rank.
I recommend running a very specific campaign for each new blog post where you reach out to every quality site you can find who:
- Already links to similar content
- Already wrote a similar piece of content
I walk through the specifics of this process in steps 2 and 5 of this guest post.
You shouldn’t expect to rank immediately with new content, but it could happen as soon as a few months or even weeks depending on the quality of the links you build.
4. Share in any relevant communities you’re in (optional).
If you already have a presence in relevant online communities, definitely share your content there as well.
You have to be a pretty active and contributing member before you can do this, though.
If you aren’t, I recommend striving to become one before sharing so people respect you.
This will only get you short-term traffic…but hey, it’s traffic!
Startup Content Marketing Is a MUST
Creating and executing a proven startup content marketing strategy can change the game for your business (as my and others’ case studies prove time and time again).
If you take nothing else from this guide, remember that your content needs to be data-driven and funnel-focused.