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Hiring for marketing is the toughest job in startups. It can make or break your startup.
When starting content marketing operations, you have two choices: Build a team in-house or Hire an external party (can be freelancers or agencies).
I’ve been helping startup founders to start their content marketing programs for many years. The first question that I usually encounter from them is whether they should build an in-house team from scratch, hire freelancers, or work with an agency.
Some other variations of this question are:
If you are thinking about whether to hire a full-time employee or an agency or freelancer to do content marketing for your B2B SaaS product, you are in the right place. I’ve been where you are now.
While I was looking for help running content marketing during my last job, I explored all these options. I’ve worked with many freelancers as well as many well-known agencies across the world, and I think you’ll benefit from my experience.
Hiring can definitely work, but it is tough. Since most of the founders and even marketing heads are not from content backgrounds, it is difficult to judge if the person you are hiring possesses the right set of skills.
Want to build an in-house team, you can take our content team-building service.
Who is involved in running content marketing operations?
Before you go about building your content marketing team, let’s see who is involved in running content marketing operations.
We have discussed this in detail in this post. Here is a summary of the post.
Earlier (till a few years ago), a content writer was sufficient to run content marketing operations at small companies. Now, after the funding boom in the SaaS space, every startup wants to do content marketing because of the huge benefits it offers.
Because of this, the competition is very high. Now, just hiring a writer is not enough. To cut through the noise, you should be able to distribute it.
You have to be very strategic in your approach. It requires huge planning and someone experienced to plan for different situations and get the results quickly because content marketing is a slow channel. So, having content marketers and strategists is a must. It’s not optional anymore.
If you are going this way, keep in mind the following things.
Hiring is time-consuming. It takes months to build a content marketing team. As content marketing takes a good amount of time to show results, waiting to build a full content team from the start can prove to be a wrong decision.
Moreover, a significant amount of time goes into training them. They need to train about the product, market, and target audience. Until they get a complete understanding of all these, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll produce content that brings leads.
Even if you build a complete team there is a good chance that things won’t work out if you don’t have previous experience in content marketing or you won’t take the help of experts in hiring.
Most companies don’t provide training to writers about products and target audiences. So writers fail to contextually include the product in posts.
Not only that it is hard to build authority or trust among the target audience if your writers don’t know about them, the disconnect heavily impacts the conversion rate for sign-up/demo.
Outsourcing is not about throwing money and getting results. Content marketing is not a money problem. If you don’t have the right strategy and execution, you will fail even after spending a considerable amount of money on content marketing.
This is one of the main reasons why we like content marketing. Unlike paid ads, the guy with deep pockets does not always win!
There are two cases where you want to outsource.
Now, let’s see the pros and cons of two main outsourcing options: freelancers and marketing agencies.
When it comes to outsourcing, it’s extremely rare to find a freelancer who can take care of your content marketing end to end. You can at most outsource the content writing part.
Here are the key points you need to know about outsourcing to freelancers.
Today, there are hundreds of digital marketing agencies in the world. Let’s see what to expect when you go out to work with a digital marketing agency.
As you can see there are pros and cons to each option. There is another option, i.e working with a specialized agency. We (Product Led Content) faced these issues at the beginning of our career and hence started our content marketing agency.
Now, I’d like to give you a glance at what it is like to work with us.
We (Product Led Content) are a specialized B2B SaaS content marketing agency that works with only a handful of clients. We only work with clients if we see there is a mutual fit.
We take responsibility from strategizing to creating content to distribution to analytics and improvement—basically, we are accountable for getting leads, sales, and revenue from content.
We have a full team of specialists:
Further, we have access to all the important tools needed for running robust content marketing operations.
Our approach is very collaborative. We work together as an extension of your marketing team. We don’t work as an outside third-party vendor.
We have deep insights that can save you months or even years. We specialize and work with multiple clients, so we have data, and we can find insights quickly. We can see patterns in what is working and what is not.
I've helped a lot of startup founders and marketing heads build a content marketing team over the last few years. One of the biggest mistakes I see them making is hiring a content writer to run their content marketing operations.
While a writer can write well, they may not be the best person to include the substance. The writers are not subject matter experts.
While a writer can and should promote their articles, it doesn’t mean they are the best person to do so. The majority of them don’t have distribution skills.
These are the people you need for your content team to work efficiently:
As a general rule, seed-stage startups should have 3 roles in full-time positions to run content marketing operations: writer, marketer, and strategist.
At series A, you can add 1-2 more writers and full-time designers to your content marketing team. For example, if you have any gap in your content marketing team, you can hire for that position, like a dedicated editor, social media specialist, or SEO specialist.
When building a team from scratch, it will take months to hire for these roles, and you can’t judge them if you have not done content marketing yourself/don’t have first-hand experience running content marketing.
Even someone from a marketing background but with no hands-on experience in the content will most likely fail.
Going with the cheapest option while building your content team only leads to time, money, and effort wastage. Is demoralizing. We’ve seen companies back to square one after months of working in this way.
One of our customers did not choose to work with us because they have found a less expensive option but came back to us months later only to do the whole work from scratch. When they came back, they had already published over 100 articles on their blog but it had generated 0 leads in 7 months.
Check out my post on hiring a content writer if you are doing it for the first time.
We are always looking for good content writers and markets and are in touch with them via many communities. If you need our help, you can take our content writer hiring service.
Let us see the responsibilities of each role:
Technical content writers are foot soldiers of your content marketing operations. They write articles for your blog.
Note that these writers should be dedicated to content marketing work. If you need content for other marketing or sales activities like newsletters, knowledge base, website revamp, or landing pages and copy for paid adverts, you will need another writer.
The content writers in the content marketing team must be well versed in the 3 key pillars of content writing for marketing purposes: target audience (TA), product, and market.
Awareness of the target audience is required because articles must be written considering your ideal customers. Though it may seem obvious, I’ve seen many content writers lose awareness of their target audience while writing content.
In effect, this means:
Writing for B2B is very different than writing for B2C. Most companies hire generalists or creative writers. As a result, the content is poor. The writer struggles to write.
Writing for travel or health niches is not very difficult as you can relate to these. We all have some experience in our personal lives. But when it comes to B2B, it is not easy to relate with decision-makers unless you have been in the position yourself.
We have seen such content writers making weird analogies. For example, when we were working with a freelance writer in our early days, the writer was explaining a point about getting discounts when buying assets for their company in bulk.
She explained that by giving an example of buying vegetables in bulk. Though there is nothing wrong with logic, since our target audience was procurement teams in enterprises, it was not an appropriate example.
This was not the only instance. Even after a lot of training, it is very difficult for someone to get this if they have never worked in a B2B setting.
We had constantly seen variations of such instances with many writers where we were frightened that if it went unnoticed, it would have posed the risk of losing credibility in front of the target audience.
Most content writers have little to no knowledge about the product the company sells. Most companies don’t provide product training to their content writers.
This is why we see writers not being able to sell the product in blog posts. Product expertise helps in weaving products in the blog post naturally—so that it doesn’t look forced at the bottom.
For example, take this article on employee retention.
This article discusses ways to improve employee retention.
In the best case, they would do something like this:
There is no mention of the product in this entire article. If this product helps with employee retention, why did they not show it?
If it is one of the product use cases, then this is a lost chance of showing the product in action. I think it is because the writer doesn’t have a deep product understanding.
But you cannot sell the product unless you know the product very well. If your goal is to sell a product, then product training is very important. If your content writer doesn’t know the product, they cannot sell it via content.
Contextual product appearance in the blog suits well with selling the product.
At PLC, we only work with companies who have nailed their positioning and messaging. That means you know your strengths and weaknesses compared to other products in the market.
At the beginning of our work with any client, we discuss and get comparisons with competitors so we can include them in the article.
So, we provide our content writers with product battle cards, positioning, and other product marketing collaterals that are generally used during sales (sales enablement content) to show not only that your product can solve the target audience’s problem but it can solve it in the best way in the market.
In fact, it is very easy for the target audience to smell the fakeness in such selling.
Note that content writers who are a part of a B2B content marketing team are very different from general writers, like those who write for hobby or social media, newsletters, copywriters, and B2C writers. It’s writing with a goal.
Normally, everyone thinks they can write. But it is a job that requires creative and analytical skills. It requires immense research skills and a truth-seeking attitude.
SaaS products are more complex than other products and the writing requires technical (domain-expertise) understanding. I’ve seen many writers having fear when it comes to going into technical details. But you cannot write good articles and convince the TA without having in-depth knowledge/ understanding of the problem, product and competitors.
It requires storytelling skills. You cannot engage people for long.
They are marketers at the core. They are well versed in consumer psychology. Many people have misconceptions about this role. They think content marketers mean content writers. But they are very different.
Till a few years ago, (till 2018) a content writer was sufficient to run content marketing.
Earlier, just writing anything used to get a lot of attention because very few companies were leveraging content marketing. Just writing “top 10 tips” or “20 ways to improve your employee engagement” was enough.
Now, after the funding boom in the SaaS space, every startup wants to do content marketing because of the huge benefits it offers.
Because of this content supply is now more than content demand. So, there are dedicated efforts required to distribute content.
Because of this, the competition is very high. Now, just hiring a writer is not enough. To cut through the noise, you should be able to distribute it. So, having a content marketer and strategist is a must. It’s not optional anymore.
Earlier there was less/no competition, so people have no/fewer choices. Now the competition is more, to attract people you have to work with a distribution strategy.
Content marketers are people who can do the distribution. Content promotion is their key role. So, things like SEO, social media, and community promotion are done by them. Their goal is to get the content in front of the target audience. If you fail at this, no matter how good your content is, it is bound to fail.
SEO is a vast and technical field. So, you can’t leave it to content writers.
In SEO, one main task could be building topical authority. A few other things that search engine optimizers will do:
Apart from this, content marketers collaborate with designers to get the distribution materials:
They repurpose the content for distribution on various other platforms. Find opportunities for promoting every article:
Content strategists own the entire content marketing outcomes. This is a managerial role. They are the ones who make the strategy, come up with new ideas, and talk to content writers and marketers internally to get things done.
A content strategist hire and trains writers. They also work as editors in small teams.
They talk to various stakeholders to make KPIs and work on the same to deliver that. First, they work with CMO to finalize the KPIs, and then they report on the same.
They also enable insights from other departments. They are the one who talks with other people like product managers, sales managers, account executives, customer success, and support. They enable the flow of information from these people to content writers and marketers.
Content writers need to make a lot of decisions while working on a content piece. They need context. A proper content brief includes all these things which are required to make good decisions. Good decisions are a function of what information you have.
Some of the key tasks that a content strategist does:
A content strategist is not a project manager though it requires project management skills. Being a content strategist requires deep knowledge of content marketing to complete things on time (deadline).
Content writers without a content strategist (manager) are like an engineering team without a product manager and senior developers. First, they can execute many tasks, but these things don’t add up because of no clear direction.
Running content marketing operations without a content strategist leads to content debt (similar to technical debt for engineering teams.)
A content strategist can start with a raw idea and turn it into a thought leadership article. There is a lot of thinking required that a content writer can’t just do on their own. Before content writer starts writing, they need a lot of context and substance.
They are the pillars of content marketing operations. If the overall content marketing fails, they are responsible for it.
Content editors’ main job is to ensure the quality of the content. They are a very essential part of the entire content creation process. They give feedback to writers.
If you look at the profiles of most content writers, they are not from a writing background (especially in India). They are engineers (or from any other field/domain) turned writers. Hence, they don’t know the techniques of writing.
Even when someone says they are experienced writers, it means they have been writing for a long time, but writing techniques would be the same as those of beginner writers.
Why does this happen? Because they are not getting the feedback. Writing practice is a different thing than working on the techniques of writing.
For example, content editors help improve clarity. Help create a better narrative. But when writers don’t work on their techniques, their feedback is limited to improving the word choice and sentence structure. In the best case, they would work on improving the paragraph structure.
But great editors who have learned the techniques of writing will ultimately help you improve your communication, not just proofread your articles.
Examples of a few writing techniques:
Editing is a science because there are techniques involved. Most writers working on the company’s blog claim to be creative writers. But if you are working in content marketing, you need to be analytical as well. This is a very important skill for anyone working in the content team—content writers, editors, strategists, and marketers.
|Writing style/Editor||Substance (SME+ Research)||Distribution/Promote|
|Narrative||Matter: Claims backups|
Audience + technical + product
|SEO, social media marketers, email + HARO + paid ads|
|Word choice||Jargons, word make sense to the audience||Understanding of channels|
|Sentence structure: simple, compound, complex||Communication with other teams: product, sales, support, customer success||Audience + technical + product|
|Paragraph structure||Choice of arguments||Outreach + writing for outreach|
|Good command over the writing, grammar||Good command over the subject matter||Requires command over the channel|
|Content writer||Content Strategist/ Editor and Manager||Content marketer|
|Customer research||Market research|
Whatever roles we have discussed till now would be working full time on the content marketing team. There are a few others that play an equally important role. We are calling them a supporting role because they are not involved full-time in content marketing.
SMEs provide substance. Here we mean SMEs in a general sense, not necessarily someone who has experience working in the industry (or they themselves are the part of target audience).
That means anybody and everybody in the company that has consumer and market insights is SME for the content marketing team.
Weekly meetings with them are required, at least for the first few months. SMEs play the following roles:
SMEs may write too for content marketing if they are interested in writing but their main job is to provide inputs (by giving interviews, pointing to right resources, connecting with the right person, etc.)
If they are doing webinars or podcasts for the company, that content can also be repurposed for the purpose of content marketing.
SMEs also include people & teams who have the data or information that will be useful for the content marketing team, like salespeople and people in the customer service/support and success team.
People in the product and engineering team can also act as SMEs as they can have unique and deep insights into the product, customers, and market.
You don’t need to hire SMEs just for content marketing; just need to act smartly and work with other teams in collaboration. At Product Led Content, we develop our own expertise over time, but there is a good dependency on SMEs in the beginning.
Content marketing doesn’t mean just written content. There is a good amount of images required. Thus designers are an integral part of the content marketing team. The reason we include them in the supporting role is they may be working with other teams as well.
Designers start working on the image once the idea is conceptualized by the content marketers. They make images for blog posts and their distribution.
Now, you can’t use free stock images on your blog posts directly. You need to customize it to convey your message.
For images, we suggest buying access to premium stock image sites that aren’t available for free for everybody’s use (a good way of differentiation), for example, Shutterstock, iStockPhoto, PixaBay, and Evanto.
Here the main thing is to provide developers resources to your content marketing team when required. When there is no marketing buy-in from company founders, content marketing suffers whenever you need to make any changes to the website.
CTO has authority over developers and usually, they don’t allocate resources toward marketing. Therefore, it’s the job of business founders to make sure that the content team gets the necessary developer’s help as per requirement.
Usually, developers’ help is required for the following tasks:
These people—CMO or founder marketer—don’t take part in the day-to-day operations of the content marketing team.
Their job is to:
Founders also have good insights into the product, customers, and market. So, they are almost always the SMEs as well.
After talking with so many founders, I feel the core reason why startups struggle to build a content marketing team is because of a lack of awareness of content marketing operations.
I’ve seen people struggle to build a content marketing team are of these roles:
In all these situations, the common issue is no first-hand experience running a content operations.
Moreover, whatever advice you see on the internet is mostly obsolete information that doesn’t work in the current scenario. That’s why most startups just hire writers to run their content marketing.
So, there is low awareness about these roles. The main problem is not about money. We have seen even the funded startups making this mistake. There is no reason why they won’t invest. Content marketing is a key channel for B2B SaaS startups. It also acts as insurance in case of funding winter or any other negative market scenario.
At Product Led Content, every piece of content passes through at least one person other than the writer himself for quality purposes. This is because you cannot eliminate all errors by yourself. You need another pair of eyes for that.
For self-editing, our writers leave that piece for a week and start working on other things so that their mind is occupied with other things and they get a refresh. Then they can see the article with a fresh pair of eyes.
Writers can only perform when they are given support. Just like, foot soldiers can win or lose a battle depending on the leaders who make strategy, and provide equipment and morale, the same applies to foot soldiers of the content team.
This is our approach to content marketing at Product Led Content. When working with us, you get all of these things.
Just hiring a writer and thinking you will achieve the same results you heard a unicorn startup got will only lead to disappointing results.
To get the best results, you need to hire the right people and empower them to do their job. Support them in all ways. It is not cost-saving thinking you just need a writer. In fact, it is time wastage as well. This is similar to hiring a backend developer to do all the jobs.
The cost of a writer running your entire content marketing is very high. This is not obvious to many founders in the early stages. Only after a few months or a year, do they think that content marketing is not generating enough value that they have expected. By the time, you reach your growth stage; you need to have at least one marketing channel working that you can double down on.
At the seed stage, this pain may not be visible because you need a few clients that you can get via other channels, like paid ads or word of mouth, or references. But these are not highly scalable. They reach a plateau after a while and don’t help you much post series B and C growth stages when you actually need them.
Content marketing could be that channel. But if not taken the right approach, it fails.
Content marketing is a good channel, the one that will definitely work even if other channels fail. But it requires seriousness (involvement) from the founders to get the best from it.
We started working with Zluri just after they raised their seed funding. The startup was founded only a few months ago. We were the first marketers on the team.
They were doing PoC with a few companies at that time and actively working on the product.
The co-founders—Ritish and Sethu—believed in content marketing as a growth channel and were ready to invest early on.
Zluri is a SaaS Management Platform (SMP) that helps software asset managers and IT teams manage the SaaS stack of their company.
The product helps IT teams optimize their SaaS spending. It also helps reduce security and compliance risks by identifying risky apps and users.
The problem Zluri was trying to solve for
Though the on-premise to SaaS migration was going on for a long time after companies shifted to the remote work model (due to the pandemic), there was a rapid growth in the adoption and usage of SaaS apps. But as is true with everything, too much SaaS also has its set of challenges.
SaaS apps help people improve their productivity and do their job better, but they can also lead to SaaS sprawl. SaaS sprawl means you have many more SaaS apps in your organization than required. Instead of helping you, SaaS apps start hampering employees’ productivity, causing overspending and bringing security and compliance issues.
Now there are SaaS apps for every niche task. Because now anyone can sign up for any app with a few clicks and a corporate credit card, there is the risk of overspending.
For example, take these two examples:
Additionally, since there is no visibility into what SaaS apps were being used (a phenomenon called shadow IT) inside the company, there is no control of data residing in those apps. This leads to security and compliance nightmares for IT and security teams.
The average contract value was high since it was enterprise software (SaaS). So, they don’t need tonnes of search traffic. The goal from the beginning was to generate business for the company.
As VC-funded startups have to achieve milestones to graduate to the next round, we asked for the series A milestone and focused on achieving that.
Many marketers think they need hundreds of thousands of traffic for content marketing to work. So, they churn hundreds of blog posts in order to hit their traffic goal, assuming the higher the traffic they get, the larger the number of leads/sign-ups would be.
But it leads to setting and chasing goals that don’t help business. More traffic doesn’t mean more leads. You can end up bringing a lot of irrelevant traffic to the website, and since those are not the people who will use your product, they wouldn’t convert either.
Neither you need millions of traffic, nor do you need to churn out 10-20 content pieces every month at the early stages.
I think the reason behind such expectation is stories that regularly do roundups in the startup community. When founders and marketers hear inspirational stories of companies getting millions of traffic, they think they also need to do the same.
Traffic doesn’t matter if your content is giving you leads. Marketers who optimize for traffic without considering leads always feel the need for more traffic.
The first thing we did was take them through a positioning exercise and improve the homepage messaging. This is an important lesson if you want to start with content marketing.
If your positioning and messaging are not working, content marketing will fail. Whatever traffic you bring to your website will not convert.
Incidentally, I had recently read a new positioning framework in the book ‘Obviously Awesome’, and was eager to apply what I had learned in practice.
We had gone on a call and discussed who we were really against. Since the SaaS management space was an emerging market at that time—and most companies were still using spreadsheets for managing their SaaS, we knew our real competition was not with other SaaS management companies but with the spreadsheets, the traditional way of doing things.
Content strategy include which target segment to prioritize, what content to create, and how to distribute the content.
This is a key part of our strategy. Most marketers just rely on market research but don’t do customer research. We also regularly connected with product and engineering teams for knowledge transfer on new products.
Introduced DUAAS framework: In this post, we discussed the five types of SaaS wastage—duplicate apps, un/underused licenses, auto-renewal of subscriptions, abandoned apps, and suitable licenses—and how to get rid of them.
Since the product helps eliminate SaaS wastage, a software asset manager will naturally find our helpful product to solve their problem.
Though this post is not a bottom-of-funnel post, it still helps our target audience understand how we can optimize their SaaS stack.
Giving framework and models is an excellent way to engage decision-makers. On the other hand, coining your terms help with distribution. This makes the piece memorable.
Leveraged the market leaders: BetterCloud was the market leader in the SaaS management category. So, we knew whoever was searching for its alternatives was in very much need of the solution.
At the time of writing this post, we are ranking #1 for the term BetterCloud alternatives.
Thought leadership: How SaaS is Powering the Next Big Revolution (based on interview).
An article on top SaaS management platforms. This is the audience looking for SaaS management solutions. This helped us in reaching the right audience at the right time.
We rank #1 for the key term SaaS platform platforms.
SaaS buying Service: They also introduced a new service of SaaS procurement and wanted our help in getting leads for this offering.
We helped them with a landing page and a post. Currently, we rank #2 for the keyword ‘SaaS buying’.
Show the better way of doing old things: We discussed why Zluri was better than traditional solutions like SAM (software asset management). SAM was mostly focused on on-premise software.
After the pandemic, many companies shifted from traditional software asset management to SaaS. The timing was right, and we captured this demand.
Help solve problems and offer the product as an upgrade: Created spreadsheet for manual tracking and content upgrade with Zluri. Since a large portion of the market was still using spreadsheets for managing SaaS apps, we offered a template and Zluri as a better way of doing the same job.
ROI calculator (this is a must if you are selling to an enterprise). IT teams (or any other teams) have to get the finance approval for the budget. To make the case helpful, we made an ROI calculator. Further, this report was downloadable, so IT teams could present it to the other stakeholders.
Product use case: How to Optimize Your Microsoft 365 Licenses with Zluri. The launch was timed very well, with Microsoft announcing they would increase their Office 365 license price. So, we offered a solution to this to our prospective customers.
Tackling Customer Objections: When discussing with the sales team, we found that many prospects had this question: Do they need an SMP if they were using SSO?
Answering this required a good level of technical understanding. So, we went on a call with the CTO, Chaitanya, took his interview, and created a blog post comparing Zluri with SSOs. And it converts very well.
We couldn’t have found this topic by doing keyword research. Only because we were doing consumer research did we find that buyers had this problem.
Relied on SEO for long-term and compounded growth. Yes, content marketing is a slow channel. But it gives compounded results.
As they say, the distribution gets easy once a channel is developed. It took us just 2 months to achieve what we achieved in the previous 5 months and 9 months previous to that.
SEO is very complicated, and there are over 200 factors that affect your website’s ranking in search engines. So, it is easy to get confused.
We had just focussed on these three things:
For short-term growth, the content was used by different teams for various purposes. This requires the help of other team members.
We started to rank on the first page from the 3rd month, after our engagement with them. Since the website was new (DR was 6), it took a few months for all the core posts to rank.
After 6 months, we were getting consistent results. Though small in quantity, we were consistently getting highly qualified customers ready to move to the PoC stage.
After 9the months, we had seen a good jump in both leads and close rate.
Our marketing was so good that one startup founder reached out to Sethu on how they were doing their marketing.
If the text in the image is too small to read, here is what it says:
“Thanks for the kind words man. Zluri has been popping up everywhere as well. Love your PMM. Serves as an inspiration to us.
Did you folks do everything in-house? (Content, PMM, etc).”
At that time, Zluri had not hired any product marketing manager (PMM). We were helping them with the product content as well.
The main keywords
Ranking on page 1 for high purchase intent keywords
On the SEO front, we had started beating companies like G2 and Gartner. (see the screenshot of SERP below)
Zluri ranking above G2, Capterra, and Gartner
The last non-direct click means the users read our articles before signing up for a demo. In such cases, our content directly leads to conversion.
Note that these numbers are lower bound. Tracking all leads from content is impossible due to the following attribution issues.
Now, let us see how Zluri compares with the top 3 players in the SaaS management space.
Note that the other 3 companies had been in the market for much longer than Zluri. Moreover, they have raised much more funding and thus have more resources (marketing budget, people, tools, etc.). Still, we have been able to beat them for many-core keywords.
It was only possible because of a very focused strategy, high-quality content, and optimum usage of resources.
A Special Mention to Relationship and Communications
When we call ourselves an extension of your marketing team, what we mean is you don’t treat us as an external agency. This is a unique approach that we take at Product Led Content. This makes us different from other agencies in the market.
We don’t promise the above results to everybody we work with. There are many reasons why this engagement was so good.
They were amazing people to work with. They even referred a few companies our way.
Nothing could compliment your work better than your clients referring you to others.
Most marketers know that at any time, only a small portion of the target audience in the market is actively looking for their product. Still, most marketers make the mistake of prioritizing that segment of the target audience that is not ready to buy when starting content marketing.
For content marketing purposes, we define in-market audience as that portion of your target audience ready to buy the product you sell.
In-market audience is a common term in performance marketing (i.e., marketers who run paid ads), but I’ve never seen anyone using this concept when it comes to content marketing.
Naturally, the search volume of the queries representing your in-market audience is a small fraction (< 5%) of the volume of the head keywords.
Head keywords means the main terms for your product.
The low volume of keywords of the in-market audience makes them less attractive for most in-house content marketers and agencies.
They follow this approach for content prioritization:
First, they type the most common keywords in the SEO tool like Ahref, Semrush, Moz, etc.
Then, they filter keywords with high volume and low KD
The driving factor for topic selection is keyword volume. Keyword difficulty (KD) is the second factor that acts as a guardrail for not going after too competitive keywords while still optimizing for the volume.
They think the more the traffic, the higher the number of conversions.
Let’s take VWO (a tool for running AB tests), for example.
With the driving factors being keyword volume, most content marketers and SEO will prioritize the keyword “AB testing”.
Or some smart search engine optimizers, knowing that it will be difficult to rank for the head keyword may apply a filter on KD (say 40) to find easy wins.
So, they will try to rank for terms such as ‘bayesian ab testing’ or ‘ab testing interview questions’.
To rank for this keyword, they will create something like “the ultimate guide to AB testing” or “the definitive guide to AB testing,” or “everything you need to know about AB testing.”
As you will hear from them, they are taking the funnel approach, also called the AIDA funnel. AIDA standards for awareness, interest, desire, and action.
The concept says, the consumer goes through different stages (awareness, interest, and desire) before they are ready to buy (take action.)
Further, you will hear that this nurturing process happens over multiple weeks or months before they finally convert to leads or customers.
You may also hear other variations of the AIDA funnel, like the top of funnel (ToFu), middle of the funnel (MoFu), and bottom of funnel (BoFu)—but the concept is the same of taking the prospects through multiple stages to make them purchase-ready.
As marketing evolves, tactics like ToFu, MoFu, BoFu, or AIDA may change but what doesn’t change is the fundamental—go after people who are ready to purchase.
Problem with this strategy: More traffic ≠ More leads
This would have been a good strategy if the goal was to drive website traffic but not generate qualified leads.
Most of the time, an increase in traffic is not correlated with an increase in leads.
The above thinking may lead to this kind of result.
Why is the above strategy bad?
Even if the funnel strategy works, this is not worth doing for early-stage startups. Because this process takes a long time, and startups cannot afford it.
The customer acquisition cost (CAC) also gets higher with this strategy because you are not optimizing for leads.
Even if you manage to get eyeballs on your website, your traffic won’t convert. You won’t get leads and sign-ups with these kinds of content.
With head terms like ‘ab testing’, you are not attracting the right kind of people to your website. Instead of people looking to buy a solution, you end up attracting people who are more interested in the information.
Founders don’t realize that educating your target market requires a lot of budget. This is not the job of startups. It requires changing people’s behavior, is very costly, and is generally done by large corporations or happens due to government regulations or major events, like pandemics.
Many startups falsely believe that they are category creators when they are not. Even if there are no or very few direct competitors, there are always traditional solutions. The old way of doing the job.
It is much easier to sell when there is demand for the category solutions because they are already sold off the importance of the category. You just need to convince them on why they need to choose you.
A problem faced by VP marketing: 10,000 traffic but not giving any leads
Once, a VP of marketing and growth reached out to us. At that time, they were selling a product that helps HR implement OKR in their companies.
They were getting 10,000 monthly traffic, which is a good number considering it just took them a year to reach this place.
But their problem was that the traffic was not converting at all. When I checked out their blog, I found most of their content was produced for creating awareness.
For example, an article was titled “A beginner guide to OKR.“
When I asked him the reason for creating this article, his response was that it was meant to drive awareness.
My reply was: “Do you really need make CHRO aware about what OKR is?” All CHROs already know this. You don’t need to make them aware of what it is.
Another issue with the traditional keyword-based approach for prioritizing content is that these content pieces don’t generate qualified leads.
Note that we are not saying to avoid creating awareness content at all. This is just a prioritization issue. We are saying, don’t start with awareness content when starting your content marketing operations.
Even if you get leads from your awareness content, the people who fill up the lead/demo form are not highly motivated to buy the product. You need to chase them a lot.
They may not even show up on the demo call. You may need to send them multiple emails saying they filled the form and if they are still interested in the product. Or you may find yourself bumping up the topic in their inbox.
To understand this, let’s continue with our ab testing example.
Look at the monthly searches for the query “ab testing.”
This means approx. 3400 people are searching for the term ‘ab testing’ in the USA. Searching for this means they want to know what ab testing is, not looking for a tool to help them run ab tests.
This is evident from the search results.
People searching for ‘ab testing’ may be of two types:
When leads come from these types of content, you will need to convince them a lot. I’ve seen this earlier in my career. People will come for a discussion, and it always felt like we were pushing them for sales.
It seemed like they were not much interested. When I was going through our sales call, I heard these lines multiple times:
Since multiple people were involved in the buying process, the deal would almost always get stuck.
The setup required some docs and info from them. Our sales team would share the plan for moving ahead and ownership for each step.
But each stage required us sending them multiple follow-ups.
They would be postponing the meeting multiple times. The sales velocity was extremely slow.
It always felt like an uphill battle.
This mostly happens when you hire an SEO to do your content marketing. When following this distribution first approach, you end up writing articles for the search engines and not actual people who will buy your product.
You are driven not by unique insights, purpose, or your mission but by distribution. The end result is the same boring listicles.
Further, the traditional (keyword-research) method for content prioritization is very easy to do. So, it leads to generic copycat content.
This is also a very common scenario among startups working with freelance writers.
Their working process looks like this: the content marketer or search engine optimizer (SEO) does keyword research and gives these keywords to writers to produce content.
Since, the writer doesn’t have any experience with the target audience, product, and market, they rewrite similar articles on the same topic. Content produced with this process doesn’t help at all with generating leads.
This is from two angles:
If you create generic keyword-based content throughout your blog, it’s very easy for your competitors to copy your strategy. Content is one of the few moats remaining that you can still create. But you can’t create a moat with such type of keyword-first content.
To create a content moat, you need to make a significant investment in content marketing. It requires a content culture which is nearly impossible without founders’ buy-in in content marketing.
You can’t create a content moat by totally outsourcing your content marketing to freelancers or bulk writing agencies.
SEO content is becoming a commodity. This is what most marketers and writers focus on. You can’t create differentiation based on this type of content.
Most content marketers who believe in this are inspired by Hubspot, Moz, etc. Though, this strategy was working till a few years ago, it doesn’t work now.
If you are marketing to an audience that is not ready to buy yet, you will have to nurture them till they are. When the time comes to purchase, though you may have a slight advantage, it is not necessary that they will buy from you. They may buy from others as well.
Marketers that follow this funnel approach have arguments like this: Most of the prospects are not ready to buy. So, we should make them aware of our brand via useful content so that they will buy from us when they are ready. So, they propose to get more eyeballs on your educational content and nurture people to the next stage.
Now, a lot has changed. But content marketers don’t have good resources to upskill themselves. So, they follow the same old traditional playbook.
You need content marketers, strategists, subject matter experts, and support from the design and development team in order to give a business impact.
The nurture approach also plays a role in delaying the bad results—waiting for months to nurture these audiences only to find that these are not converting.
Content marketers are supposed to give results ASAP. So, they are not given time to do customer research because there are no/less outputs. Without research, people will do templatized content and what they have familiarity with.
This focus on productivity and efficiency before effectiveness is a big reason marketers prioritize traffic over leads.
We believe that startups should focus on capturing the demand that is already there before they go for demand generation.
So, for us, searcher intent is the ultimate deciding factor when prioritizing any topic. We prioritize those topics that show customers are very near the purchasing cycle. When someone has an intent to purchase, your job is just to show them you can solve the problem better than other options.
Moreover, while using this approach, you don’t need to nurture the leads through different stages of the consumer journey.
Note that when you go after keywords with high purchase intent that have no or low volume, it can still bring a lot of traffic. You can promote it via other distribution channels like social media, community, email, etc.
Further, it may still receive SEO traffic.
People who have the problem/pain point and are actively looking for a product have much more chance of buying than those who are interested in the information.
So, while other content marketers are making the mistake of ignoring those low-volume, high-intent keywords, you can jump over them.
It also gives you a competitive advantage over startups educating the market. You can capture those leads after they are nurtured by other companies.
Let’s understand this with an analogy of football. In football, you get points only for kicking the ball in the nets. Who has brought the ball from one side to the other doesn’t matter.
Benji from Grow and Convert puts it best by saying, marketers think their company needs to be the one to educate all potential customers at every stage of the buyers’ journey, which is not true.
We agree that you get an advantage when there is a higher brand value. But most early-stage startups (seed and Series A) don’t have the luxury to build a brand. If you are okay not wanting leads, sales, and immediate revenue (or revenue in the short term), then go ahead with your branding goals.
While taking on new clients, we make sure we align with their goals. When we discuss with early-stage founders for most of them generating revenue is more important than branding.
VC-backed startups have to achieve their milestones (tied to revenue) within the next 12 -18 months. So, it doesn’t make sense to prioritize branding over sales.
Brand building is time taking process and it does not happen just based on marketing. It is formed based on everything your company does: right from culture, and hiring, to sales, marketing, product, customer service, etc.
The second thing is you will be educating about the category (and not your product, otherwise, it would be salesy and thus not helpful for customers).
We disagree with the claim that it’s not possible to intercept the ready-to-buy audience. We think it is possible.
There are mainly two ways of doing it:
First, from an SEO perspective, buyers’ goal is to evaluate what options they have. They usually shortlist 3-5 products among the hundreds of options in the market.
There are mainly 3 types of keywords
When the time comes for the purchase (commercial queries), people behave differently than when their goal is to get educated (information queries).
People who are ready to buy have specific searches, like category tools, alternatives, and comparisons (discussed further in the next section).
Most of the time, you would see companies running ads on these keywords, which shows how valuable these queries are. If these keywords were not giving customers, why would startups spend money on them?
Second, you can identify what the target audience searches when they are ready to buy and where they hang out for advice. That is why we don’t entirely rely on keyword research for topic ideation.
When we do consumer research, we look for specific things people search for when they are in-market.
When you prioritize an in-market audience, you get highly qualified traffic. This strategy goes well with remarketing strategy via display ads on Google and LinkedIn ads.
On the other hand, generic traffic inflates your customer acquisition cost (CAC) of paid channels. When you don’t have targeted traffic, there is a lot of budgets wasted while remarketing them.
If you cannot get into this consideration set, you won’t get the clients—no matter how good your product is.
But once you are in the race till now, your chances of winning the customer increases are high from here.Let’s see the Google results for Optimizely vs VWO. (both ab testing tools)
We can visualize the user journey till now like this: It is safe to assume that the person has first searched for top ab testing tools. Of all the tools, finally, they shortlisted two: Optimizely and VWO (for simplicity, let’s say it’s 2 here).Now, they want to know to choose the one which better suits their needs. Hence, highlight if you have low pricing, better features, etc.
When answering such questions, it’s very important to mention how your product/service can help. It fits very well naturally in the context.
Product use case: Look at this example from our client, Zluri (a SaaS management platform): How to Optimize Your Microsoft 365 Licenses?
People looking to optimize their Microsoft licenses will find value in the product.Note that the advice in this post is valuable even if we remove the product. Just that the product will solve it in a better way. This is our approach to content at Product Led Content.
Addressing an obstacle: Others are unpredictable topics for which you need to do consumer research. These can be found by interviewing existing customers.
Talk to salespeople and make note of objections, and questions they are asking so that you don’t lose any sales because of it.Consider this example we got after being part of a few sales calls.
When discussing with the sales team, we found that many prospects had this question: Do they need an SMP if they were using SSO?
Answering this required a good level of technical understanding. So, we went on a call with the CTO, Chaitanya, took his interview, and created a blog post comparing Zluri with SSOs. And it converts very well.
We couldn’t have found this topic by doing keyword research. Only because we were doing consumer research did we find that buyers had this problem.