I’m going to say it. The content marketing industry is too heavily obsessed with blog posts.
Blog posts are a solid part of any content marketing strategy, but they’re not the only way to achieve results, and they arguably don’t even need to be central to it, either.
A truly powerful content marketing strategy puts two things front and center: backlinks and email subscriptions.
And the reality of the situation is that blog posts aren’t the best form of content for capturing either of those, at least not in isolation.
Make no mistake, blog posts are great, and they are the best way to capture long tail traffic. But, if you want your content marketing strategy to shine, what you really need are linkable assets and lead magnets.
So, I’m not going to talk about blog posts today. I’m also going to put aside video and infographics, because I think most of you already know real well that we as content marketers need to embrace visual media, and that doesn’t really need to be restated here.
What I’m talking about are 4 pinnacles of content marketing that earn links and generate leads:
Let’s talk about what makes these great, how to put them together, and how to promote them to gain maximal effect.
What Makes Them Great
Conducting a survey gives you an access to information that you can’t find anywhere else. Content based on an original survey is completely original. The results of a survey are concrete. They make you a “primary source,” which every good journalist and author knows is the source you should cite if you could. Being cited means earning exposure, links, and referral traffic, and all of that is a good thing.
For all the same reasons, surveys make for great lead magnets that you can use, to draw people to sign up for an email list.
You will find that most of the types of content we explore in this post both work great as lead magnets and as “link bait.” There will always be a tradeoff between using something as a lead magnet and using it as a way to attract links, since lead magnets aren’t public and are thus less likely to pick up links from authors and journalists. But even as a lead magnet, original surveys tend to attract quite a few links, not to mention email subscriptions from authors, journalists, and bloggers, the best audience to have if you want to continue growing your exposure.
How To Conduct A Survey
Conducting an original survey might sound like the kind of thing only big brands can do, but modern technology makes conducting surveys a possibility for small businesses and even, to some extent, individual bloggers.
Start by picking a platform to conduct your survey. If you already have a large email list, and it’s not necessarily important for you to get a representative sample for your survey, you can simply survey your own email list with a tool like Wufoo or Google Forms.
If you don’t have a big enough email list, or you need your survey sample to be more representative of the general population or a specific demographic, you can use a platform like Google Surveys (not to be confused with Google Forms) or SurveyMonkey
Both platforms can provide you with an audience for your surveys, and are fairly inexpensive. You can survey the general population for between $0.10 and $1.50 per person with Google Surveys, and you can get 1000 responses per month for $35 with Survey Monkey (or even survey 100 people for free).
Consider the following when conducting an interview:
- Include a dummy question to ensure that the respondents are paying attention to the survey and answering the questions accurately, since sometimes respondents will give “troll” answers or answer as quickly as possible without considering the questions. The dummy question should only have one right answer and should be buried in the middle of the survey somewhere to weed out answers that aren’t given seriously.
- Keep the survey short enough that respondents will be willing to finish it while still taking the questions seriously. Remember that respondents are under no obligation to finish the survey and have any number of other things they might rather be doing.
- Choose questions that will give enlightening answers. Don’t survey your audience for something that is already widely known. Consider questions that will tell your target audience something that they can put to practical use.
- Make sure that it will be easy to analyze the results of your survey. It should not be too open-ended. Multiple-choice questions should be truly mutually exclusive, or respondents should have the option of checking multiple responses.
To make the most out of your survey, use the following methods to promote your survey:
- Search for statistics-related phrases and identify similar surveys that have been conducted in the past, as well as any pieces of content about those surveys that are doing well in the search results.
- Sort the backlinks by the most authoritative domain and manually review the pages to see if the links were given editorially and within Google’s Guidelines.
- If they were, contact the sites that linked to those pages and mention that you noticed they mentioned the older piece of content and that you thought they would be interested in your survey since it is more recent and, ideally, is on a slightly different but related topic.
- Search for the words “survey” and phrases related to your survey to identify any sites that have either published a survey similar to yours or discussed a survey similar to yours.
- Contact the sites that have and let them know that you came across their post and thought they might be interested in your survey because of that.
- Search for queries related to the questions your survey asks and answers and identify any sites, forums, discussion groups, Q&As, and so on that are related to your survey, even if they aren’t necessarily statistically-oriented, and let them know about your survey, making sure to abide by any guidelines about self-promotion and other community rules.
- Contact top blogs and publications in your industry and those related to the survey with an offer to write a guest post about the survey and any implications it might have, especially practical implications that will be meaningful for the audiences of those publications.
- Make a slideshow of your survey and publish it on Slideshare.
- Make a video version of that Slideshow and publish it to YouTube.
- Contact podcasters and offer to discuss the survey and its implications in an interview.
- Put out a press release about the survey discussing its implications, placing a special emphasis on the most newsworthy aspects of the survey and how they relate to public events and current trends as well as ongoing narratives that the press are following or taking part in.
2. Case Studies
There are several different ways to approach case studies, and all of them will be net gain for your content marketing efforts, but all of the approaches have advantages and disadvantages compared to one another.
Arguably, the most traditional type of case study, at least from a content marketing perspective, is what amounts to essentially an in-depth testimonial/advertorial for the services you provide. This type of case study walks your audience through a specific problem or problems that one of your clients or customers was dealing with, the specific actions you took to resolve those problems, and the goals that you helped your client or customer achieve as a result.
This type of case study most directly sells your service as a solution to a specific problem and does a great job of drawing attention to your unique selling proposition, as well as placing all of that in a story format that is more likely to resonate emotionally with your audience.
The downside of this type of case study compared to the others is that it is most likely to look self-promotional, and can earn fewer backlinks and less press as a result.
An approach that is more likely to earn press and backlinks is to publish a case study that is less directly related to your products and services. This may be a case study about a specific obstacle you overcame that speaks more to your industry than to your target consumers, or it may be a story about a client or customer that takes a more “how to” approach as opposed to a “look what we did” approach.
This approach has the advantage of being more practically applicable to your audience, with less of a focus on selling your products, and as a result it is more likely to get cited, linked to, and shared by influencers. The obvious downside is that this approach puts more distance between the case study and your services, meaning that you are targeting people further up the sales funnel who will require more nurturing in order to achieve a sale.
Finally, there is the approach of using “case studies” that you were not directly involved in. For example, it’s not uncommon for authors in the marketing industry to publish blog posts about various landing pages and their conversion rates, ad campaigns and their profitability, or site tweaks and their effect on organic traffic, based on publicly available data, or even just to analyze these things as they are and say what was done “right” and “wrong”, based on personal expertise.
This approach has the benefit of allowing you to use a wider variety of examples, and hence part more information to the network, without needing to invest as much in digging through your own data or in getting approval from your clients. For those reasons you can publish more of these more quickly without sacrificing value to your audience.
How To Build A Case Study
As we mentioned above, there are at least three different types of case studies, and each of them requires a slightly different strategy for research and construction.
Rather than starting with the assumption that a particular type of case study is the best fit for you, it’s better to start with some topic research to arrive at this answer naturally. Here is some advice on how to go about doing that:
- Write a list of broad topics related to the services you provide or products you sell
- Visit discussion groups, Q&A sites, and similar locations where people are discussing these topics
- Take note of any questions you see are asked more than once
- Test out the questions in keyword tool of choice, to verify interest
- Manually prioritize the questions based on how close they are tied to your services, how much interest they are likely to earn from authors, journalists, and influencers.
- Consider whether you have recently done any work with clients that plays right into these questions and related
- If so, prioritize some examples of work you have done with clients based on how likely you suspect those clients will be to let you tell the story, how impressive the results are, and how useful the results would be, as actionable content for your target audience
- Assuming you have identified a case study with a client who is willing to have the story told, you will now need to make some judgement calls about how promotional the case study should be. The more in depth you explain your process for addressing the client’s problem, the more practically useful the guide will be for your audience. This is the road most likely to lead to trust and earning links, but it may also give your readership a reason to forgo using your services in an attempt to solve the problem on their own.
- In contrast, taking a more self-promotional approach means you can frustrate your users by holding back information that they would find practically useful. This can moderately hurt your ability to establish long term trust with an audience and make it more difficult to earn press, but it can also create scarcity and mystery around your services, as well as make paying for them seem like a more convenient option.
- If you don’t have any client stories that are a good fit, or if none of your clients are willing to go public, you will clearly need to go with the third route. If so, your primary concern is creating piece of content that is more valuable than any of the individual case studies you are borrowing from, in isolation.
- Even if you do have a client with a case study you can use, you may want to consider incorporating case studies from others in order to further hit home with your points. This is another example of sacrificing some self-promotion for more actionable content and exposure.
No matter which direction you choose to go, here are some things that audiences will be expecting from any case study that you put together:
- A very clear indication of the problems that were faced at the beginning, the associated goals, and especially the challenges that needed to be overcome
- At least in B2B circles, some statistics to drive home how big the challenge was and what the goals were are basically essential
- An at least moderately concrete explanation of the strategy for tackling the problems needs to be stated. The clearer this is, the more practically useful your case study will be.
- The results of the case study should be stated with extreme concreteness. In the B2B case, statistics are not at all optional, and even in the consumer case, statistics should be used if at all possible.
- A call-to-action, whether it’s to join your email list, for a free trial, or to contact you, is all but expected by audiences when it comes to case studies, so don’t be shy about including one.
Everything that applies to surveys above will apply here with some changes, and the same goes for the other types of content we’ll address in this guide. Here are a few tweaks that apply more specifically to case studies:
- Perform a search for case studies on similar topics that have been published before yours, analyze the backlinks to those pages, and contact the sites that editorially linked to those case studies.
- Search for sites that have mentioned case studies in the past and contact them.
- Make multimedia versions of your case study and publish them to the appropriate platforms as discussed above.
- Publish a press release about the case study.
- Take part in any existing discussions related to the topic of the case study.
- Have your client or customer publicize the case study if they are willing.
- Contact any other companies or influencers you mentioned in your case study, or list of case studies.
What Makes Whitepapers Awesome
The definition of a whitepaper is somewhat fluid, which makes it difficult to define exactly what makes them so powerful, but their strength as both lead magnets and promotional efforts is undeniable.
What makes a whitepaper powerful is essentially the differences that separate it from a blog post, article, or news story. While the typical blog post takes at most a week to produce, the typical whitepaper takes at least a week to produce, and generally a month or more of production time is expected.
That isn’t to say a whitepaper actually needs to take a month to produce, but there is a level of production, research, and investment expected from a whitepaper that goes above and beyond the call of duty.
It is precisely that level of quality and investment that makes a whitepaper something worth citing in a blog post and giving away an email address for.
To accomplish those goals, then, a whitepaper also needs to make very concrete promises to its target audience that can be made with clarity in a landing page, and it needs to deliver on those promises in order to earn the links and keep the subscribers.
Building A Whitepaper
The following should be considered the standards expected of a whitepaper in most industries:
- Always download a few whitepapers by well-known and trusted platforms in your industry or topic to get an idea of what is expected in your corner of the information marketplace
- It should be at least 6 pages in length if the words were roughly placed in 12-point font, double-spaced. If you are speaking to industry experts, seeking advanced technical knowledge; whitepapers up to 50 pages in length might be an expectation.
- Whitepapers should be structured as such, meaning that they have a title page, a table of contents, an optional executive summary (especially useful for longer whitepapers), an introduction to the problem, and in-depth exploration of the solution, results of any real world examples or experiments, and a conclusion.
- A whitepaper usually is not particularly easy to breeze through and is intended to be used as a reference that will be viewed multiple times. It should be easy to browse through for information, but the information density should be quite high.
- Whitepapers are usually formatted as PDFs.
- Stylistically, whitepapers have a fairly academic tone and may use more passive voice and third person than you are used to when writing blog posts, although this is something you will need to carefully consider with your industry and your target audience in mind.
- Graphic design is not optional. You can go to a site like Upwork or Fiverr (they’re not limited to $5 projects any more if you were wondering) to find freelancers to produce the graphic design for your whitepaper, or you can hire a creative agency. Either way, make sure you view previous examples of their work, which ideally should already include whitepapers, and have an in depth discussion with some prototypes involved about what you are looking for, before the work on the final product gets started.
- Professional typesetting and typography are also non-optional. Many creative agencies and many freelance graphic designers can handle this, but this is not always the case. Never assume that any one agency or individual can do both unless they have examples of work that they handled both for.
- When all is said and done, a whitepaper should feel more like a featured article in a monthly or quarterly industry magazine than a news article or blog post. This is the feel you are going for, and if it fails to achieve those standards, it is unlikely to achieve its goals.
For the reasons above, a level of research is expected from a whitepaper that isn’t expected from most other online publications. That includes:
- MLA or similar citations.
- Very authoritative sources, such as industry studies and surveys, academic studies and surveys, scientific experiments, other sources of public data, and any proprietary raw data that you have access to.
- Quotes from experts in the field will be expected. Capturing these from the public domain is good, capturing them from something a bit more private like a book, magazine, or academic paper is better, and getting quotes directly from the primary source by emailing them or calling them is ideal.
- Any original research you can conduct should be included.
- Google Scholar is your friend. Your local library is your friend.
- Primary sources for any statistics should be included if possible.
- Real world examples will typically be expected.
While expectations on the level of research will vary by industry, falling too short of the standards listed here will lead to people feeling that, whatever this is, it’s not a whitepaper.
As with case studies, anything we mentioned in the sections on promotion above still applies here, with minimal changes. A few things more specific to whitepapers include:
- Ask any contacts you get in touch with, using the methods mentioned in the other sections on promotion if they would like you to send them the whitepaper.
- Do not send them the whitepaper in your initial email. Unsolicited emails with attachments may end up in spam filters, and may have recipients worrying about viruses regardless. Even if they aren’t concerned about viruses, an unsolicited email with an attachment is simply too presumptuous. It’s always more tactful to ask.
- Do not ask them to fill out your signup form or join your mailing list to get the whitepaper, or at least don’t make this the only option. Always offer to send them the whitepaper, at most mentioning that they could also download it from the landing page if that is their preference. You are already contacting them and they will not appreciate you trying to push them into joining your mailing list in an unsolicited email.
- Always give context for contacting them. This applies to all outreach, but in this particular case it’s important to stress that the context should draw a clear connection between something you have seen them work on and the whitepaper. If you can’t point to a specific blog post, tweet, or video they have made that led you to think they would be interested in seeing your whitepaper, you shouldn’t be contacting them.
Why Checklists Have Incredible Power
Checklists are to the consumer market what whitepapers are to the B2B sector. While you can produce either type of content for either type of audience, this is probably the clearest way to get right to the point of what makes checklists powerful.
A checklist is an incredibly actionable series of steps that you offer to your target audience that will have a real impact on their life and make them an active participant with your content. Other names that checklists may go by:
- 30 Day (1 week, 1 month, 3 month, 6 month, 365 day, etc.) Challenge
- Daily (Weekly, Monthly, etc.) Planner
- [Insert Lifestyle Here] Calendar
- Activity Worksheet
- Task List
- Spreadsheet [This is a slightly different form of content but a similar
- mindset is behind it]
- Template [Again, not quite the same thing, but similar idea]
You can probably think of others in a similar vein.
The pioneers of this kind of content are the “lifestyle bloggers” and the “self-help” industry, but by no means is this kind of content limited to businesses that make products for the lifestyle business or New Age crowds.
By providing your audience with a checklist of activities that they will be actively engaged in, you elevate your content from something that they are consuming to something that they are doing. This is a very powerful technique that makes your content an important, if not central, part of their life.
Needless to say, the branding impact of this is incredible, and the long-term trust it builds with your audience is invaluable.
Building A Checklist
One great thing about checklists is that they don’t necessarily need to be heavily researched, as long as the activities they provide will keep your audience active in a way that they will be satisfied with. This is industry and topic specific, of course, but since the primary focus of a checklist is really to get your audience out of their heads and to work on the thing they really want to be committed to, research isn’t typically expected or necessary.
A solid checklist does speak from experience, however, with a strong emphasis on practicing and executing the activities that helped you reach your current level of expertise.
The more people involved in the process of developing such a checklist, provided they have all had experience with the subject matter, the better.
There’s also no shame in borrowing ideas from other checklists and expanding on them.
Here are some things that are expected from a checklist:
- A very concrete, step-by-step procedure.
- A clear schedule.
- Spaces for your audience to write in their own ideas, tick marks to check off, and tasks to cross off.
- Placeholders, templates, and examples to help your audience complete their tasks.
- Brand and topic appropriate graphic design; not as crucial here as it is for whitepapers, but very good to have, especially for a front cover.
- The perfect balance between giving your target audience tasks that are specific enough for them to follow without confusion, and loose enough that they feel like active participants. This will be different for every brand, audience, and industry, but it is something you will need to hone carefully.
- The checklist should encourage your audience to reward themselves in some way for completing each task, and especially for completing the entire thing.
- A call to action at the end of the checklist is to be expected, but make sure it doesn’t read too cynically or in way that will undercut their sense of accomplishment for finishing the checklist.
In addition to what has been said in the promotion sections for the other three kinds of content:
- Search for “resource lists” in your industry and contact them. Sites that have lists of resources are most likely to link to a checklist. These links also tend to be a very evergreen source of referral traffic, on top of the SEO value.
- You are looking for vaguely educational websites that offer “homework” for their audiences. The guidelines on context and tact mentioned for whitepapers apply similarly here.
- Search for sites that offer lots of activities for their audience such as personality tests, quizzes, and so on.
- Search for sites that have a “lifestyle” or “self-help” approach to topics related to yours.
A solid content marketing strategy is built to earn links and leads. Make these four content formats central to your strategy and you will achieve content marketing greatness.