I’m a self-taught content strategist, and the CEO of a content creation agency that has sold millions of dollars of worth in content services (blogs, web pages, content planning) – full-time for the past six years now. See the story behind Express Writers.
In my line of work, I’ve heard just about every complaint and frustration you could possibly hear from marketers and SEO practitioners:
- “I’m not sure this content is worth it.”
- “Where do you recommend I publish my content?”
- “I’m not sure I can do more than one month of blogging. I’ll look at the budget and get back to you.”
- “I can’t afford an industry specialist writer.”
This is a small percentage of the clients that come our way, but I’m still ready to pull my hair out, every time I hear these phrases.
Because I personally know the value that a great content marketing strategy, and consistent publishing, can bring.
But I also know what it takes to get there: the path isn’t easy. It requires investment, time, and most of all, commitment.
The skills involved in the workload of a content strategist aren’t easy to learn.
But here’s the cool news…
Content can truly bring you 100x what you put into it.
Are you interested in becoming a full-fledged, industry expert Content Strategist?
You can learn these skills! My Content Strategy Certification Course is open, but only for a limited time.
I’ll talk more about that in a moment, but first, here’s a look at what I’ve managed to achieve here at Express Writers solely through high quality, original content creation.
A Content Strategist Success Story: Express Writers, Fueled Completely By Organic Content
Today, under my direction and content creation as a self-taught content strategist and CEO, my little self-funded content creation agency and staff of 40 at Express Writers has managed to outrank competitors that have $9+ million in outside funding, by an immense 3%+ higher visibility in Google.
We rank organically for over 11,000 key terms, with a presence worth $57,000+ monthly in organic search.
And we haven’t paid a penny in ads—across six years—to gain the majority of our leads and clientele. They’ve come straight from these rankings.
How well does this content convert?
Because you can’t just have high-ranking content, right? It has to return.
After optimizing my strategy and increasing my content investment this year, we hit the highest sales month we’ve ever had this January. Now, we’re on track to break our first seven figure year as an agency.
99% of our leads come through organic content marketing.
I’ve never invested a single dollar in PPC.
The secret is all in how you go about it (your strategy), and your commitment. It’s not an overnight game, and it’s a steady, slow, but sure process.
It can feel like hard, low-return work in the beginning, but in the long run, content is the best marketing you’ll have ever done.
Content Strategists & The Proven Worth of Content to Advertisers
Today, SEO has basically merged as a part of the wider picture that is content marketing.
When you do SEO, you’re optimizing your content for high rankings in the search results: in content marketing, you market your product or service through high-value, audience-targeted content campaigns.
Optimizing your content for search (SEO) is a crucial, integrated part of content marketing itself. It’s a big part of the skillset of a great content strategist.
If you have the right strategy, the right SEO and the right content consistency in place, take a look at these success statistics that can happen.
- Per dollar spent, content marketing generates more than 3x the number of leads than paid search does. (Kapost/Eloqua)
- Content marketing costs between 31 and 41% less than paid search, depending on the organization’s size. (Kapost/Eloqua)
- Website conversion rate is nearly 6x higher for content marketing adopters than non-adopters (2.9% vs. 0.5%). (Aberdeen Group)
- Content creation ranks as the single most effective SEO technique. (Marketing Sherpa)
- 61% of U.S. online consumers have made a purchase based on recommendations from a blog. (FactBrowser)
- Small businesses that blog get 126% more lead growth than small businesses that do not blog. (ImpactBnd)
A Content Strategist Skillset Wheelhouse: 7 Keys to Success
Your content strategy is everything in achieving high-performing, high-ROI content.
Follow these critical steps, in order, for a baseline sense of how to navigate through and set up your strategy so that your content is knocked out of the park and you know you’re getting ROI when you publish content. (PSA: These steps take time. Don’t jump around or rush through them. PSA 2: This takes time. Don’t expect overnight success.)
1. Know your position of authority and differentiation in your field.
It all starts here. Know where your expertise lies, own it, and ten find your Content Differentiation Factor so you can officially stand out in your industry. To get to that, ask yourself, “what would make a customer choose me over my competitor?” Your answer is your CDF. Condense it to one or two key sentences to showcase on your home page (you may need a conversion copywriter to help you express this perfectly).
Brands that have a standout CDF in a variety of niches (scan their home pages—it should, quite literally, stand out there):
- Uber: ”Get there: Your day belongs to you”
- Stripe: “The new standard in online payments”
- Grammarly: “Your writing, at its best”
- Moz: “5 billion searches are performed every day. Be found.”
- Zuke’s Dog Blog: “Live life off leash”
- Better Bites Bakery: “All joy, no worries”
- My agency: “Better content in your marketing.”
This is the first step of a true content strategy, and this step is a discovery that could take some time. But it’s absolutely worth it. Too many brands starting out don’t take the time to make sure they have a standout factor.
To set yourself up for content success, you have to have a reason for the reader (buyer, audience member, lead) to choose you and your content. Don’t skimp here. Having a CDF will 10x the results you’ll get when leads start finding your content.
2. Know your content goals.
What do you want to get out of content? Bucket in three key areas: 1. SEO rankings (you’ll define your terms later in the strategy), 2. Sales and connections, and 3. Brand awareness.
Direct your efforts in content based on where you’re at in your business. If you have leads and customers, you may be able to afford more time and creativity with brand awareness content. If you’re starting out, focus on finding your keywords and creating comprehensive, awesome SEO content—months down the road, when your leads start coming in, you’ll be glad you did.
Go by goals, and every content idea you have, you should be able to bucket that topic or idea into your goal areas. This heavily narrows down the chances of you creating undirected, low-ROI content.
3. Know your audience and who you’re talking to.
Get to know your audience, their language, the conferences they attend and the publications they read. Think of it like “friendly-stalking” the people you want to do business with and earn as customers.
A surefire way to find out persona data is to use surveys and get real-time feedback (use and pay for a Google Survey if you don’t have an audience yet). Ask them to fill out a demographic survey in exchange for a reward (gift card, a free service from you). If you have an existing customer list, pick a customer on that list and offer to have coffee with them, on you, in exchange for a few minutes of their time—or pick up the phone and ask to interview them.
Get comfortable with who your ideal customer is, their likes, dislikes, and you’ll be able to create content that is just for them.
4. Build a persona and a style guidelines document for your brand.
Once you have survey results in and have profiled your ideal client, build a persona. Don’t set it in stone—people change, and traits vary so much (we’re all so unique). So, don’t idealize just one person with a persona. Think of it like getting familiar with their likes and interests, so you can create better content that caters to them.
Then, invest time and resources into building a style guidelines for your brand. Keep it simple – include your audience persona, specify how to use (and not use) your company brand name and colors, the preferred style and tone of voice you want to maintain, linking and content rules. You’ll find this document invaluable when you start investing in content creators. Brand style guidelines can stop hired writers and creators from assuming different tones, in their tracks. And it’s crucial in winning leads and building a loyal audience that you adhere to and use your tone throughout every piece of content you publish. Brand familiarity is ROI.
Check out how Skype specifies their tone of voice in their brand book: “If your mum couldn’t understand what is being written, then it’s not the Skype voice. Humour is an important part of the Skype voice. We don’t tell one liners, but employ a gentle wit to engage our users.”
5. Know your keywords, content topics, & investments to make.
Keyword discovery should be a part of every brand’s content strategy. Go for long-tail keywords and use tools like KWFinder and SEMrush to find your best keywords according to how well they’re scored. Avoid high competition keywords on authoritative sites—they will be much harder to write content around and rank for, if you’re competing against someone who has already done an amazing job at writing content for it and Google is ranking that content #1. Look for relevant, low competition keywords.
Be thorough with your keyword discovery. It takes me about an hour to find eight amazing long-tail keywords that have a real chance of ranking, if I create comprehensive content around them. I look for a score of 40 and below in the SEO difficulty scores.
Don’t just rely on keyword tools for content topics: use tools like BuzzSumo and question/answer platforms like Quora to discover trending topics in your industry. Choose a few you can write on with authority, and add your own thoughts on the subject.
Your topics can and should branch outside of SEO terms. For example:
- SEO-focused post: we found out that the keyword “hiring the best SEO content writers” was a long-tail keyword with slim competition, so we created a 1,500 word post titled “How to Hire Your Best SEO Content Writers: 4 Key Qualities to Look For.”
- Brand awareness-focused post: Outside of keyword research, I found that a common question on Quora was “how do I create a content marketing plan?” So, one of my blogs was a 2,000 word piece on that topic. The keyword had high competition, but since I have established rankings and leads, I wrote on the topic to focus on high level industry education, which can bring my agency more brand awareness.
Your content investments should be based on your commitment. Remember: it takes 12-24 months of consistent content creation to see results.
Hubspot did a study showing how much the effort of blogging can return 12 months down the road:
And, they did a study on why more is always better:
If you can’t write a consistent stream of content yourself, invest in an industry copywriter. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to find a writer that knows the industry they’re writing in—inside and out. Your reader is smart, savvy, and attracted to your brand/products because they’re in the same industry you’re in. Don’t leave the important process of writing the content your prospects actually read just up to any writer. Besides knowing the industry, your content writer should also know online optimization (keyword placement, format) and have engaging writing skills.
We’ve seen our clients 10x their rankings and results when they invested in an industry knowledgeable, authoritative copywriter!
6. Build your editorial calendar.
Keep this part simple so you focus on the other cores more (research, publishing, promoting). Guide your topics by the high-opportunity keywords you find and the brand awareness focused topics you discover from a web topic crawl (trending in Quora, BuzzSumo, etc.). Get creative and tie topics to seasons and dates (see next point). Use Google Sheets or Trello to store your editorial topics in one place, month after month.
7. Promote, maintain, and audit.
A content promotion strategy should be in your mind from the moment you create content.
For example: back in February this year I had the idea to write a list of women in marketing to follow, and tie it to International Women’s Day in March. I categorized that topic based on where I could best promote it, and ended up pitching it to Search Engine Journal, where it received the best reception in promotion and shares, out of all the publications I could have published it on.
Think of where you can place and promote your content, as you create it. Go outside the box and be creative and strategic. Tie topics to holidays, seasonal launches to guest publication feature dates, and more.
Content maintenance and auditing should be part of your strategy on a consistent basis.
Every month, I check my site positions in SEMrush, and ask three of my best agency copywriters to help me update the posts that start to rank. This has brought a serious return in the amount of lead inquiries we get.
The content I wrote back in 2013 that’s ranking #1 today isn’t nearly as good as the content I can write today, so it’s absolutely necessary for me to update content as it ranks. By improving the quality of that content, updating the meta description, etc., I can seriously improve the amount of visitors that turn into leads from finding these high-ranking posts on Google.
Content Strategist Skillsets: Success is In the Details
Remember: content marketing isn’t something that can be done once, or twice, or even for a few months.
In a podcast I recently recorded with Joe Pulizzi, he recommended 12-24 months as the typical turnaround to expect with a content investment. So, as a content strategist, once you invest in a blog schedule, you need to keep at it at least a year to start seeing return.
I’ve talked to influencers and content strategists that have shared their personal success stories, and it’s always a story about long-term success that translates to long term ROI—combined with a serious investment in “10x style” content (content that is 10x better than anything already out there).
The success is in the commitment, and in the details of how willing you are to get good at your strategy and content itself.
- Unbounce’ Content Director, Dan Levy: “Blogging was survival for Unbounce in the early days. It was the only way for us to raise awareness of our brand and the need for landing pages in general without spending a ton of money, which we didn’t have.” Unbounce blogged six months before their product launched. Today, they have over 9,800 paying customers—which they’ve acquired mostly through Oli Gardner’s amazing long-form content.
- Sujan Patel: “Content takes time, and people just see success stories and don’t realize it’s not overnight. It’s taken two and a half years for me. After that length of creating content for my own site consistently, I’m at a point of earning speaking gigs without even seeking them out.”
Yet, it works. At a Content Marketing World conference, the former senior director for data, content and media at Kraft, Julie Fleischer, said that content marketing ROI was 4x greater than their most targeted advertising.
Get a Visualized, Step-for-Step, 6-Week Content Strategist Certification & Training
This 2017, one of my biggest goals was to turn what I know into teachable, easy-to-digest knowledge in a course format.
I’d taken a few courses, and the ones I experienced all lacked one thing—the practical how-to of “what do I do next in my content?”
Personally, I learned content creation ROI the hard way, through trial and error. And after training dozens of writers with content I wrote just for internal education at my agency, I’ve seen firsthand how this industry is lacking in a practical, hands-on, high-ROI education.
The hows, what’s, and when’s of content creation and strategy as it applies to content marketing–where do you go to learn them?
So, over the last three months, I put hundreds of hours (and all the knowledge from my last six years in the industry) into creating an ultimate Content Strategy Certification Course.
It went live last week. The points I laid out in the six keys above are what I teach, step-by-step, visualized in video lesson demos and taught in hands-on exercises throughout six workbooks that accompany my course modules. In the course, my students learn how to build a working brand strategy, complete with personas, keyword reports, editorial calendars, and more: and my team and I personally review and mentor their results before they progress to certification.
Here’s to changing the industry—one complete, high-ROI content strategy at a time!