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.
- if you sell a employee engagement tool, like Empuls, Lattice, so the head keyword would be ’employee engagement’
- if you sell a compliance automation tool, like Sprinto, Drata, etc, the head keywords would be ‘compliance automation’, ISO 27001, GDPR, SOC 2, etc
- if you sell a product analytics tool, like MixPanel, Amplitude, etc, the head keywords would be ‘product analytics’, etc
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.)
- Awareness: The goal is to create awareness via these ultimate/definitive/beginners guides. These guides help you capture the prospects’ attention.
- Interest: At this stage, the prospects are aware of the brand and the goal is to create interest in your product.
- Desire: At the desire stage, the prospects are serious about making a decision but not sure whether to choose you or not.
- Action: The action you expect them to take. It could be buying your product, filling up the lead or demo form, signing up for the free trial, etc.
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.
What is the Problem with Creating Content based on the Traditional (Keyword-Based) Approach?
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.
1. You need to wait for weeks or months before converting the traffic
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.
2. Even if you get the leads, you need to chase them
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:
- Either they don’t know what AB testing is. So, in the search results, we see results like ‘what is ab testing’, ‘a refresher on a/b testing’, and “a beginner’s guide to ab testing.
- Though some of this audience may also want to move to the next step, so, we see posts ranking like ‘how to do AB testing.’ But this would be a great leap forward for someone to move from wanting to know about what is ab testing to actually purchasing the tool.
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:
- I don’t remember filling up the form.
- Which company are you from?
- How did you get my number?
- I’m not interested.
- I was just testing.
- I filled by mistake.
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.
3. It leads to uninteresting content
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.
4. You are at a competitive disadvantage
This is from two angles:
You are not creating any moat, so your rankings are not stable
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.
Others end up converting the prospects that you have nurtured
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.
Then Why Do Most Content Marketers Take This Approach?
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.
- Learning from common sources: Most marketers have learned content marketing via commonly available courses like HubSpot academy, Ahrefs blogging for business, etc. Though these courses are good to get started, they were made many years ago. The content is based on what worked for them.
Further, these courses were mainly made for selling their own product. Hence, the marketers who learn from these sources have an overreliance on tools. So, the thinking prevails that this new tool will solve our marketing problems.
Now, a lot has changed. But content marketers don’t have good resources to upskill themselves. So, they follow the same old traditional playbook.
- No support from founders/leadership team. Content marketing is a collaborative process. When done rightly, it can generate leads and sales. But doing it correctly requires the involvement of other departments, like sales, customer support and success, and product.
When there is no buy-in from founders, it is difficult to get the necessary data, and access to people from different departments also gets difficult. Naturally, it requires much more work and investment than founders think. They just hire a writer and expect them to give leads. While in reality, you need more than that.
You need content marketers, strategists, subject matter experts, and support from the design and development team in order to give a business impact.
- Easier to be accountable for traffic than leads: Most marketers have a playbook for growing traffic. Growing traffic is much easier than growing leads.
Another issue is that most content marketers are not confident in their abilities to drive sales and leads. So, they focus on something safe and easy.
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.
- Startups incentivize the wrong metrics: After working with many startups, we found that almost always, founders and marketers have a temptation to grow traffic. They have this misconception that more traffic will result in more leads.
Even worse, many startups focus on outputs, like the number of words written daily or the number of posts created. This quantity over quality and outputs over outcomes approach forces content strategists to go in the wrong direction.
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.
- Attribution Problem: Marketers say, accurate attribution is not possible as it is not possible to measure every customer touchpoint. So, there is no point in measuring it. This leads to constantly going in the wrong direction.
We strongly disagree. Just because you cannot measure correctly, doesn’t mean you don’t need to measure at all. Since most marketers don’t measure leads from content, they cannot optimize for it.
- Not possible to intercept the ready-to-buy audience: Another objection by these marketers is that you don’t know when they would be ready to buy and cannot reach them then.
Our Solution to These Problems: Forget Traffic, Go With Intent
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.
Why We Prioritize In-Market Audience
1. Time is not on your side. You can’t wait months for leads
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).
2. Customer behavior is not that unpredictable
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
- Information keywords
- Transaction/commercial keywords
- Navigational 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.
3. This strategy works well with paid marketing and retargeting
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.
Examples of Content Pieces That Target In-Market Audience
- Category tools/solutions: These people are already searching for tools/software to solve their problems. Most probably they have a budget carved out for the solution. At this stage, people are evaluating what options are available in the market. Buyers usually shortlist 3-5 products. Your job is to just get in that consideration set. Now, let’s continue with our AB testing example.
- Alternatives to famous tools in the space: Another way of finding your in-market audience is by creating alternative posts. These are people who just know a famous brand in the category but want other options to evaluate.
They are aware of the problem and solution (your category). What you need to do is make them aware of your product and then position it as the best option for their problem (assuming the product really solves the problem. i.e., you really do what you claim).
- Comparison posts: This is targeted toward people who are very near the purchasing decision and have already shortlisted a few options and are now comparing which one is better. You can compare yourself to other options showing what unique benefits prospects are set to get by choosing you.
Note, how many tools one shortlist depends on are called consideration set—on their individual preferences. It can range from 2-5 tools for most people.For startups, is very important to get into this consideration set. This separates you from all the other 100s of tools that exist in the market.
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.
- Solving for pain points: Identify what are the customer’s pain points and help them with solutions. In such articles, you naturally find a way to introduce your articles thus teasing people to sign up for your product.
Take this example on setting up ESOP, from our client Qapita. (ranking #2 for the term esop setup)
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.