How to Build an ROI-Driven Content Marketing Strategy

“How do we write an article that gets shared 10,000 times on Facebook, gets retweeted 20,000 times, generates 100 backlinks, and ranks #1 on Google for a search term with 5,000 search queries per month?”

Does this sound like the kind of discussion your team is having about content marketing?

It’s not rare.

Many teams think that they’re just one great piece of content away from meeting their goals or from their company becoming an overnight success story. If only they could find that single, golden, viral piece of content, things would be set.

But, I’ll save you a bit of suspense: This almost never happens.

Companies almost never write a single, blockbuster piece of content that propels them to success. I can tell you from experience that the vast majority of companies that are seeing real, tangible results from content marketing aren’t doing it on the strength of one or two rockstar pieces. Instead, it’s the product of consistent, disciplined, and strategic execution.

And this is also one of the reasons why so many companies never see results from content marketing. In many cases, it’s because they have no clue how to measure content marketing ROI in the first place. Most of them simply overthink it. They try to do too much with every piece of content, rather than simply breaking things down into a system that works together.

Breaking down your content marketing strategy

Pretty much any good content marketing strategy has some combination of these goals:

  • Raise brand awareness (drive traffic, generate social shares)
  • Generate more search traffic (target specific keywords)
  • Improve search rankings (get backlinks)
  • Drive email subscriptions / generate leads

Look familiar? If you’ve got a written content marketing strategy, it probably looks a lot like this.

And this is where things go wrong.

For some reason, marketing teams look at this list of goals and decide that every piece of content they produce needs to meet all of these goals. (Or most of them.)

That’s like expecting your sales guy to tick off every box with a single call.

It doesn’t make any sense.

Many marketing teams get stuck here. Either they stall out during the brainstorming process, trying to come up with this massive, end-all-be-all piece of content, they ditch their goals altogether and “just publish something,” or they cling to something that works (like finding keywords) and forget about the other parts of the strategy.

The point of a strategy isn’t to accomplish everything in one fell swoop. It’s to give you high-level direction that you then break down into tactics that will help you achieve your goals.

And that’s how you should approach content marketing. Focus on three or four main types of content:

  • Social-viral content (drives traffic, builds awareness)
  • Evergreen content (keyword-focused, performs well in search)
  • Link-earning content (generates links from other sites and publishers)
  • Lead-gen content (upgrades or downloadable pieces in exchange for email address)

Each piece you publish should help you achieve at least one of your goals, but it doesn’t have to accomplish all of them.

Generating social traffic, building brand awareness

You know what name almost everyone on the Internet knows?


That’s because they’re crazy good at publishing things that go viral. They’ve mastered the art of the click and the share. This content drives a ton of traffic and has built Buzzfeed’s brand awareness to epic proportions. But it’s not really built to perform well in search—or achieve any of the other goals from above. And that’s okay.

You can create the same kind of content within your market with pieces that are funny, sad, or exciting. Make them clickable, shareable, and give them a hint of mystery.

Casper does a beautiful job of this. Not only do they have their blog, which has funny and interesting content related to sleeping, but they’ve launched their own online magazine—packed full of nerdy, interesting, and weird things about sleeping and life.

This is a perfect example of the kind of top-of-funnel content that brings in readers. There’s no hard sell here, so people are more likely to engage with the content, share it, and keep coming back.

Over time this becomes a relationship, you build trust with your audience, and when they’re ready to buy a mattress—guess who’s top of their mind?

The key thing to remember here is that this content doesn’t have to generate sales or leads—that’s not its job. It exists to bring targeted traffic to your site, build brand awareness, and fill the top of your funnel.

Keys to remember for this kind of content:

  • Focus on attracting the right audience—not selling
  • Think about social channels first and foremost and measure performance in terms of engagement
  • Use social/viral triggers, like curiosity gaps, to improve performance
  • Pair this content with retargeting pixels to build a targeted list of prospects who are already familiar with your brand

Capturing search traffic

Evergreen content is purpose-built for search. It’s there to provide answers to search queries or give guidance on particular topics that are often searched by a target market.

“How to Tie a Double-Windsor,” may not be a sexy article—and it probably won’t go viral. But it can bring in a ton of relevant search traffic if it ranks near the top of Google. Evergreen content is a critical piece for getting your website to generate more traffic from search.

Best Buy does this really well with their comprehensive guides, like this one on buying a desktop PC:

Obviously it aligns perfectly with their products, and it brings in lots of targeted, high-intent search traffic because it does well in search:

In the ecommerce space, your product and category pages also serve as “evergreen” content in a way—they’re the ideal landing page for people searching for the products you sell.

Because of this, it’s absolutely imperative that your on-page SEO for these pages is really buttoned up and your site navigation and usability are top-notch.

Beardbrand has clean, well-optimized category pages for their beard oil and other products and it serves as a nice “evergreen” landing page—when people Google “beard oil,” they show up near the top of the results.

In general, you want to make sure that your title and heading tags are optimized for your target keywords and that you have some kind of explanatory text on the page (not just product names and prices). This helps Google understand the context of your page.

It’s also usually a good idea to have breadcrumbs or some kind of clear navigational structure—both for your users and for search engines.

Keys to remember for this kind of content:

  • Should be closely aligned with relevant search terms
  • May not be “sexy” or play well on social
  • Provides value to high-intent search traffic
  • Serves as the foundation for your SEO/organic inbound traffic

Increasing search visibility

One of the biggest reasons for investing in content marketing is the long-term payoff of stronger SEO. But simply having a lot of content on your site is not enough to achieve high rankings in search engines.

A fundamental part of the ranking equation is how many other sites link back to your own site. To get more links to your site—and raise the rankings of other pages—you should invest in content that is re-publishable by other websites and writers. Think about infographics, maps, data, and other kinds of content that regularly pop up across multiple websites within a short period of time.

This serves a really valuable strategic purpose because each link passes domain authority from other sites back to yours. And that domain authority is one of the most important factors of deciding how well you rank in organic search results.

Let’s take this example: “men’s ties.” Obviously, if you sell men’s ties, you want to show up as high in the search results as possible.

If we look at the results, we can see plenty of retailers vying for the top spot:

If we use MozBar, we can see that there is a strong correlation between the number of websites that link back to each domain (referring domains, shown as RD) and how high it appears in search results. This is domain authority at work.

And this is one of the reasons that creating content aimed specifically at building links is so vital. It works hand-in-hand with your evergreen content (or ecommerce product/category pages) to grow your search visibility and traffic.

Don’t be discouraged if you’re competing against big-name sites with thousands of links. This does make it more difficult to out-rank them. But as you can see in the above screenshot, the correlation between links and ranking is not perfectly 1:1.

Link building is an art and science all to itself, but there are a few proven ways to do it.

Things like infographics, maps, and data viz are all tried-and-true link building techniques. But so are lengthy and useful guides or resources. Don’t be afraid to curate a list of external resources to create something comprehensive—sometimes putting everything in one place is just as valuable (or even more so) than creating something from scratch that’s already been done.

Online dating site OKCupid has been a pioneer in this space, creating tons of incredible infographics, studies, and data visualizations based on how users interact on the website.

They’ve garnered massive media attention—and built a really healthy portfolio of backlinks, which helps them dominate the online dating space pretty much entirely via organic search traffic.

But don’t tie yourself to “traditional” ways of building links. ThinkGeek does some marvelous stuff—including their yearly geeky pumpkin carving template contest—that earns them a bunch of links each year.

Get creative and do something that works within your market.

Keys to remember for this kind of content:

  • Should be created with links in mind–may not be highly relevant to your target audience
  • Focus on creating things with visuals, data, maps, or an exceptionally thorough/helpful resource that’s worth linking to
  • Must be accompanied with link building outreach (e.g., don’t expect people to find your content and link to it–go out and do outreach to show it to the right people)

Generating leads

Last, but certainly not least, traffic to your site ultimately means very little unless it’s generating direct sales or leads. Many sales-focused companies use another form of content specifically to entice visitors into qualifying themselves as a potential sale.

This may be a checklist, guide, white paper, or ebook. It might be an email course. But, it’s almost always offered in exchange for an email address and some personal information. From a strategic standpoint, this brings your content marketing full circle and ties it back to actual sales and revenue.

HubSpot is the undisputed king of this content—every article or blog post is littered with offers for white papers and ebooks.

From an ecommerce standpoint, this may not play a huge role in your strategy. You could use it as a way to build your email list, but it’s generally a strategy that’s aimed at helping nurture leads for a sales team.

Keys to remember for this kind of content:

  • Make it valuable–something someone will give up an email address for
  • Take special care with what kind of emails you’re collecting, segment your list, and create buckets that make sense
  • Provide a clear call to action that drives users from your page to the offer

Building a strategy

Taken as individual parts, these three or four kinds of content accomplish very little. But, together, they form the basis for a cohesive strategy that can help you meet all of your stated goals and achieve real results.

You need all of these kinds of content to generate results.

But don’t overthink it. Break down your strategy into individual goals and create the content you need to meet each one. Sometimes these goals will overlap, but other times each piece of content will only be able to serve one purpose. And that’s okay–as long as it serves a purpose.

Create a strategic mix of this content to drive results over time. That’s how to do content marketing that doesn’t suck.

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