This article kicks off a 3-part series in which I share my entire content marketing strategy.
Part two: How to Research and Plan Your Content for Success
Part three: coming soon.
Like most marketers with an intense focus on content, I have my own content strategy and process.
The strategy below has helped me build a presence in some of the most competitive markets and niches, through content and content only.
I decided I’d put my entire process out there. At the very least, it allows me to document the way I’m doing things in 2019. Hopefully, some will find value at the same time.
Splitting your content strategy
It makes sense to split your content strategy into three (very obvious) sections: ideating, writing, promoting.
A proper content strategy must include each of these three parts.
I then further break each of these sections into sub-sections:
- In progress
- Ready to publish
- Review & link building
As you can see, there is a lot to cover!
I tried to make this post highly actionable. In fact, the first thing I’ll give you is the Trello board I use
Using Trello for content strategy
I’ve tried loads of processes and none of them have it all.
I tried a lightweight version with Trello. I tried Evernote. I tried Basecamp. I even tried spreadsheets.
There are four reasons why I went back to Trello.
- It’s a beautiful and easy to use platform.
- Swimlanes make progress visible, which is motivating.
- It’s easy to collaborate.
- I can have an overview of the work achieved and the pipeline.
My content strategy revolves around a series of steps between inspiration and finally publishing the content. Trello’s swimlanes are perfect for that.
I can see exactly which piece is in which state, which piece needs my attention, which lanes seem a bit skinny (probably means I need to work on them), which lanes seem a bit fat (also probably means I need to work on them), etc.
Trello isn’t perfect
There are a few things that do annoy me using Trello to organise my content strategy:
- I don’t like the way to-dos look within cards.
- I need to create an ‘INSTRUCTION’ card at the top of each swimlane.
- There’s no easy way to mass-update cards.
- The notification/due date feature is bad, I always miss them.
Honestly, it’s a bit nitpicky. If the pros I mentioned above are good enough for you, you’ll get over the cons I just presented.
Alright, enough — let’s get to the real reason you’re reading this!
Key content strategy concept: cadence
I like to add a cadence to my content marketing strategy.
I use two types of cadences.
1. Due dates
Due dates keep things moving. Most cards will have a due date that you must stick to.
It’s easy to get lost trying to make something perfect. You could always do more keyword research, more competitor research, write more, proof more, create more backlinks.
We’re all precious about our content (and that’s a good thing) but sometimes you need that kick up the butt and move on.
2. Minimum card requirements per swimlane
I found this one invaluable — and hardly anyone I know does it.
I force myself to have a minimum number of cards in specific swimlanes. You’ll notice that in ‘Ideas’, ‘Needs’, and ‘Keywords’ (keep reading for specifics).
The purpose is, again, to keep things going. Your Trello board should constantly be full of actionable cards. There is nothing more counter-productive than ’emptying’ your board and having to re-fill it.
In all honesty, if you are out of ideas, if your colleagues are out of needs, and if you’re out of keywords; there’s probably something deeply wrong that needs to be addressed.
Is sticking to a content schedule to please Google still a thing?
Back in the old days, a big part of content marketing was sticking to a publishing cadence. The idea was that Google ‘learned’ when you publish articles (i.e. every Monday at 5 PM). It would then send its spiders to crawl your website every Monday at 5:05 PM and be very happy to find new content.
However, if one random Monday Google sent its spiders and didn’t find any new content, they would get real angry and bump your ranking down.
I don’t believe this is true (FYI, not sure anyone ever knew that to be true). Today more than ever, Google values quality over quantity. Don’t stick to a schedule, publishing shit week in week out just because you believe Google will be happier. Even if the theory about it is still true, this is a bad long-term strategy.
Of course, if you can publish amazing content on a regular schedule, please do.
Alright, so how do I come up with content ideas?
Phase one: ideating
The ideating phase is the solid concrete on which your content strategy resides. Fuck this up and you’ll end up with no results, or worse, the wrong results.
There should be no shortage of inspiration when it comes to content.
If you are part of a business that inspires you, it should quite literally flow out of you. If you are not, or you feel like you can’t come up with good ideas, the processes below should help.
I recently wrote Start With Doing, in which I urge a reader to start writing about what she knows. It’s a short article, I recommend you give it a quick read.
Inspiration can come from all places.
I am fortunate enough to now manage a fairly popular blog in my niche. This means I get almost daily enquiries in my inbox, from journalists or readers asking for my thoughts on topics XYZ.
When I do, I log my answers in this Trello swimlane:
Don’t forget to copy the Trello board.
‘Ok great, but I don’t have journalists banging on my door with questions’
No worries. Inspiration can come from reading other people’s content as well.
In this swimlane, I also log great articles, downloadable PDFs, landing pages, even tweets I find around my niche.
Think of ‘inspiration’ as a backlog you can dip into when you’re out of ideas. Anything that makes its way to you across the internet and that is relevant to your market, log it.
Extra brownie point: the very best stuff to put in there are controversial thoughts on something a competitor has put out there. I sometimes log an article and add a couple sentences about why I think their point is wrong.
The productivity hack for content ideation
If you are answering a question related to what you do via email in more than two sentences, make it a blog post.
I constantly think about this one. I honestly can’t remember who said it (I think it was Seth Godin… or Paul Graham?) but it is extremely valuable.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it helps you think about content. Everything is content. If you see yourself answering the same questions over and over again. If you see yourself writing a three-paragraph email to this person you’ve never met.
Turn. It. Into. Content.
Hint: the article I mentioned above, Start With Doing.
Inspiration comes from others. Ideas come from within.
I use this swimlane specifically for things I come up with, bits that I believe my content strategy could use.
In ideas, I put things like:
- ‘Video version of article X’
- ‘Make this bit a downloadable PDF’
- ‘An article about this concept I talked about last night’
Some of you may choose to merge inspiration and ideas. That’s completely fine.
I like to keep them separate because they stem from different parts of my content-business brain.
Inspiration comes from others, which means I almost need to be reactive. I ask myself, ‘how has this piece of content inspired me and what will I do about it?’.
Ideas come from within, which means I can be a bit more cryptic. I tell myself ‘this could be cool to make/write about’. I can literally put a sentence in there and ‘freestyle’ it.
If you work within a company or with a team, your colleagues will appreciate this swimlane.
In ‘Needs’, I put everything my business needs in terms of content. This isn’t the place for random ideas, fluffy inspirations, and cool things you want to try.
This is the place for pieces of content your business needs now, almost vitally.
Why will your team love this swimlane? Two reasons:
1. Your colleagues are allowed to add their own requests to this swimlane. It’s is a free-for-all, though you will have to explain the rules to them because…
2. In ‘Needs’ cards are a ticking time bomb. As a rule of thumb, each new card added to ‘Needs’ must have a set ‘X-day’ due date. You must have started on this piece of content within that period of time. Remember, these are pieces of content that are vital to your business. Can’t sleep on them! I’ve given myself 7 days in this particular swimlane, but really it’s up to you.
The format of a card in ‘Needs’.
- Title: [Department] [Individual] [Name]
- Description: a full and comprehensive description of what needs to be done.
- Due date: seven days
It should look like this:
Important: please, please, please lay the rules down to your team nice and clear. ‘Needs’ are for imperative pieces of content. For instance, if your head of sales needs a PDF version of your tech stack for a presentation to a big client, that’s a need. If she needs an ‘article about this feature one client said he liked’, it’s probably not a need.
Remember, there’s a due date on these. You want to make sure the time you spend on them is highly valuable.
Ideating: To refactor
Refactoring content is the common practice of tweaking and adapting an old piece of content.
Content goes out of date all the time. You may have written a fantastic piece of 13 locally-sourced coffee shops in your area, but that was two years ago. Things have changed, and you need to update it.
Some pieces need an update because you realise you’ve completely butchered the article back then. It’s a bit like shamefully reading your teenage Facebook status and feeling the urge to hit delete (and punch yourself in the face).
Whatever the reason, you will always need to refactor content. Rather unconventionally, I place this bit in my ideation phase. I believe it breathes a beautiful new life into your content, turning your strategy from linear:
How to find articles that need refactoring
Short answer: content auditing.
If you haven’t done it in a while, audit your content now. I use an extensive and in-depth auditing process which I’m not going to go into right now.
For this article, suffice to follow this process:
- Create a new spreadsheet
- List of all your published articles (I like to use Screaming Frog to crawl my blog and output a list of live articles).
- Associate their target keywords (you’ve targeted keywords, right?).
- Rate each keyword’s business relevancy from 1 (low) to 5 (very high).
- Read through each article and assess search intent satisfaction (yes/no is fine).
Warning: this is a long and tedious process but it is worth it — trust me. In a future article, I’ll go into the details of my process.
The number one reason to refactor content is that it doesn’t align to the search intent. Good news is, if you follow this series properly, this should hardly ever happen anymore.
Key concept: what is the ‘search intent’?
Search intent is the assumed reason behind a user’s internet search.
You could write articles all day long targeting keywords; if they don’t match the reason why a user would search for these keywords you’ll never rank.
Let’s pick the keyword ‘coffee beans’. You want to target that keyword and create a piece of content around it. What article title sounds like it would satisfy the user’s search intent?
- 12 Times Coffee Beans Looked Like A Celebrity
- The Guide to Buying the Right Coffee Beans for You
Probably the second one, right? Both articles target the same keyword, but the second one feels like it is what the searcher is looking for.
Do that for each piece of content on your website. Ponder your target keyword and imagine someone typing it in Google. Does your content fit what they are most likely looking for? Does it answer their question?
If not, refactor-time baby!
Planning your content refactoring
There is no way around it. If this is the first time you do this, you’ll have to spend time reviewing all your past content.
For each piece of content that needs work, create a new card following this structure:
- Written by:
- Publish date:
- Issue summary:
- Business relevancy:
- Search intent:
It should look like this:
‘Written by’ helps you catch trends. If the same person on your team keeps putting out shit content, you might want to have a word with them.
‘Publish date’ helps make you feel better. An old piece of content will always need refactoring. A new piece of content (i.e. 2mo old) needs a tweak? There may have been an issue in the process, talk to the writer.
‘Issue summary’ is where you describe what’s wrong with the piece. I urge you to be specific. Write it almost conversationally, talking to yourself. You may only get time to refactor this piece weeks from now, so you want to have clearly described what’s wrong with it.
‘Business relevancy’ helps you prioritise. A five means you desperately need to work on it. A one means you can probably focus on something else.
‘Search intent’ recentres your article. What is it really about? What are people looking for when they search for that keyword? Explain it, like ‘a case study about the impact of caffeine on productivity’ or ‘an infographic of the history of human beings’.
‘Satisfied?’ is another sense check. Is your piece satisfying the search intent? A simple yes or no will suffice. This helps you prioritise a bit as well. If it is satisfying the search intent but still needs refactoring, it probably means it’s aesthetic and can wait a bit. If it’s not, work on it now.
Sometimes it’s the article. Sometimes it’s the keyword.
You may have to re-write parts of an article to make sure it fits the user intent. But, sometimes, you may just have to target a different keyword.
It will happen that you write a fantastic piece of content only to realise you’ve targeted the wrong keyword. Let me explain.
I once wrote an article targeting a keyword similar to ‘Important marketing statistics’. I hit publish on a 2,000+ words article, I had done some decent keyword optimisation within the piece, the content was well written.
Couple months went past and, as I reviewed the piece, I realised three things:
- Though I was meant to write about ‘important statistics’, I covered a few but spent most of the article focusing on one I really found interesting. I guess it inspired me and I went on about that one more than others.
- The very small organic traffic I had going to that article came from people looking for information on those specific statistics.
- My article had 0 impressions for ‘important marketing statistics’.
Time to refactor, scrap all my content, and focus on ‘important marketing statistics’, right? Wrong!
My content was clearly attracting a specific search intent. Even though my content wasn’t optimised for it, I was still starting to rank for it, which is a very positive sign. I refactored my article around the keyword rather than the other way around and watched as the SERPs took off.
Be smart about this. Don’t throw all your hard work away.
Audit your content. Fill up that lane. Assess the importance of working on each of them and add due dates.
Once you’ve caught up, you’ll add a review process to each piece of content you publish (see ‘Review & link building’).
It’s the meaty one. The godfather of ideation.
Keyword research has been explained far and wide by authority figures, from AHREFs to HubSpot. There probably are as many keyword research strategies as there are SEO marketers.
And yet, I’m going to add to the noise. Seems like the right thing to do!
Not getting into the weeds
I’ll try to keep this section really actionable, all the while not adding another 3,000 words. Keyword research is extremely complex and probably 30% art.
Below is the process I use to fill my Trello board with business-valuable keywords. One day, I will write about my layered and pyramidal approach to SEO content.
Cadence: at least 50 keywords in this swimlane at any point in time.
My keyword research tool of choice is ahrefs. It’s a bit pricey but well worth the cost. It is an extremely thorough tool that allows you to do so much, I can’t cover it all.
I feel like most of the free keyword research methods have been explained 100 times, so I won’t do that. If you are desperate, please see:
- Google auto-suggestions
- Google Ads
- Answer the public
- Google Correlate
That should be enough. Below, I’ll explain my two favourite methods using paid software ahrefs.
Two keyword research methods
1. Competitor top pages
Chances are, you have competitors in your space.
One great way to find keywords to target is to study the keywords they are ranking for. Using ahrefs, you can find that out super easily.
Go to the Site Explorer
Enter your competitor’s domain, hit search.
On the lefthand side, click on ‘Organic keywords’. You’ll be presented with a list (more or less long, depending on your competitor) of keywords they are ranking for.
Perfect starting point and keyword opportunities!
Pro tip: filters
Make sure you use the filter features. Mainly, you want to filter out your competitor’s brand and branded names. For instance, if your competitor is Apple (good luck), you’ll want to filter out Apple, ipod, imac, mac etc.
It’s important to perform some manual research on this as well. Your competitor may be using a random keyword as a product name — you need to be aware of that.
Pro tip: 11-20 positions and KD
Using this set of additional filters will give you even better opportunities.
Look for keywords for which your competitor ranks position 11 to 20, and sort by ascending Keyword Difficulty.
This will show you the keywords your competitors are almost ranking first page for (first page being positions 1-10). The Keyword Difficulty (KD) number shows you how difficult it will be to rank on the first page of Google for that keyword.
You’re basically being handed a series of keywords your competitor is almost ranking for, along with the content they wrote to get there, ordered by the difficulty to beat them.
That’s insane knowledge. Look at their content, learn what you need to produce to beat them, and go do it!
Why not go after 1-10? You can, and should. However, most of the time content that ranks on position 1-10 already has a lot going for it (whether that is great content, lots of backlinks, trusted domain, etc.). By going after 11-20, you’re getting the easier wins to get you started.
2. Newly discovered keywords
I’m not sure how they do it, but this is now one of my favourite keyword research tools: the ‘newly discovered’ feature.
In ahrefs, go to Keyword explorer. Enter a main keyword or your niche.
On the left, click ‘Newly discovered’.
You’re now presented with a list of keywords ahrefs has found around your niche. The kicker is, they’re all brand new which means:
- Their KD is non-existent. Easy to rank!
- Your competitors don’t have their greasy hands all over them!
- You could be the very first to produce content for a keyword that may skyrocket in the coming months — first mover advantage!
Don’t be discouraged by the low search volume — this is a good thing! Follow my next point to a tee to understand the type of content you need to create for each keyword, and get ready to rank.
Defining the keyword types (before investing too much time)
In the ‘Keywords’ swimlane, I label each keyword with one of four attributes: main, supporting, topical long-tail keywords (TLTKW), and supplements.
Let’s explore what these mean.
Main, supporting, TLTKW, supplements
Before you write anything, you must define what type of keyword you are working on. I found they can only be one of four.
A ‘main’ keyword is one of the core keywords you are going after. It’s that shiny, hard-to-rank-for word you’d love to be position one for but may not get there.
If you are selling swimming goggles, one of your main keywords would be ‘swimming goggles’.
A supporting keyword is a keyword that supports your main keyword.
If you are selling swimming goggles, your supporting keywords could be ‘sea swimming goggles’, ‘women swimming goggles’, etc.
Topical long-tail keywords (TLTKW)
Long-tail keywords are often misunderstood. They often believe they are long search queries (5+ words) when, in fact, what defines a long-tail keyword is its low search traffic.
Is ‘swimming goggles for the sea’ a long-tail keyword? No respectable SEO would be able to tell you until they’ve looked at some data.
Based on ahrefs, it looks like it is:
It has 0-10 monthly traffic from Google US which, in my books, qualifies as a long-tail keyword.
So, what’s a topical long-tail keyword?
A topical long-tail keyword is a keyword that, although it is long-tail (very few searches), it stands on its own. It is not a supporting long-tail keyword (SLTKW). It’s easier to understand the difference with a real-world example.
Spotting the differences between TLTKWs and SLTKWs
So, if both are keywords that have very low search volumes, how do you spot whether a LTKW is supporting or topical?
This is made easy with a tool like ahrefs.
Example 1: stacking cheddars
In ahrefs, type your keyword in the ‘Keywords explorer’. I’m quite hungry, so let’s go for a food topic. I typed ‘how to make a grill cheese sandwich’.
As we can see, this keyword has only 50 searches per month. It’s a 11 KD, which isn’t super low but it’s still a fairly easy one to rank for.
Pretty long tail!
It becomes more interesting when you actually use Google to perform that search. You’ll spot a few things:
- The featured snippet doesn’t include the keywords at all.
- Only two of the three featured videos contain the keywords.
- Only two of the blue links include the keywords.
What’s going on here?
Back into ahrefs, if you scroll a bit you’ll notice the ‘Parent topic’ section. In there, ahrefs tell you whether this keyword ‘belongs’ to a bigger, overarching keyword. In this case…
Bingo! Almost all the Google results include ‘Grilled cheese’, which makes a lot of sense. Though not many people search for ‘how to make a grill cheese sandwich’ (only about 50 a month), many search for ‘grilled cheese’ with that intent in mind.
Unfortunately for us, ‘grilled cheese’ is a bloody beast of a keyword to rank for. Your ‘how to make a grill cheese sandwich’ piece of content on its own will struggle to compete against the more comprehensive ‘grilled cheese’ pieces of content already out there.
Conclusion: not a great long-tail keyword — it’s actually a supporting long-tail keyword.
Example 2: herbs herbs herbs
Let’s stay within our food topic. I typed in ‘herbed cheese and tomato sandwich’. This is what we see in ahrefs:
Only 60 searches, so far so good. 0 keyword difficulty, which is great. Seems like a very decent long-tail opportunity.
Now, is it topical or supporting?
Looking at its ‘Parent topic’, you can see it’s the exact same keyword. This is it! We’ve found ourselves a topical long-tail keyword.
Finding parent topics without ahrefs
If you don’t have ahrefs, this process is a bit more laborious but it is possible. Simply use the process I showed above and Google your keyword.
What do the top10 come out as? Do they contain your keyword or variants?
If you find a mix of variants, chances are one of them is cannibalising all the search results and you’re in the presence of an SLTKW.
If you find your keywords in each result, you may be dealing with a TLTKW.
Armed with all the tips and methods above, you should be able to keep your Keywords swimlane constantly filled up with at least 50 viable keywords.
Don’t forget to label them as Main, Supporting, or TLTKW while you enter them; saving you the time when you start writing.
During your research, you’ll inevitably encounter keywords that would fit a piece of content you’ve already written.
Let’s say you’ve already written a post about grilled cheese and stumble upon the long-tail ‘how to make a grilled cheese sandwich’. What does that make this keyword?
I add those to my keyword swimlane with the [Supplement] label and a note of which piece of content this keyword needs to be added to. When I come around that keyword, I go back to the piece of content I’ve already written and find a way to ‘supplement’ it with this new bit of information.
This keeps your content fresh, adding visibility and keyword breadth. It also pleases Google, often expecting related keywords to appear in an article (see section about TF-IDF).
This concludes our content ideation section. In the next, we’ll talk about actually writing the darn content.