At some stage, usually after a big round of funding, you decide to develop a content marketing strategy.
However, if you’re like other startups, you dive in and write random blog posts rather than taking the time to craft a decent content strategy. It’s no wonder marketing is by far the biggest reason why startups fail. (56% according to Failory.)
“Deployed effectively, content can have an ROI in the thousands of percent over many years, but content with no purpose will never have any return.”Eli Schwartz, Product-led SEO
During the relatively short time I’ve been working with startups, either as an editor or writer, I’ve seen a bunch of problems with their content strategies.
In this article, I’ll break down the biggest problems I’ve seen, explore why they occur and suggest solutions for early-stage startups that want to invest in a promising content strategy for their website.
Why do startup content strategies fail?
When looking at the websites from startups I’ve worked with and their peers, it’s easy to notice the blog and other marketing content aren’t a priority for them. And that’s a shame.
Creating quality website content is like long-term investing. The sooner you start doing it well, the bigger the future returns.
Unfortunately, many startups treat their content like a day-trading platform, where they connect unrelated topics without long-term vision.
Not implementing a content strategy leads to four common mistakes:
1. Startups don’t think about content buckets
Too many startup blogs look like a random collection of ideas. Even the more important content pages seem like a loose connection of topics they feel they should write about.
It more than often looks like they’ve never heard of SEO or even Google.
So what they end up with is a bunch of content about a range of topics but without clear topic clusters. This doesn’t only affect their chances of being found by Google, it also reduces their brand authority. Moreover, the lack of strategy and content buckets affects the points below.
2. Startups don’t have a clear plan for internal links
Because startups don’t have a clear content plan, it’s hard to link different pages and blog posts to each other.
But that’s only part of the problem. Even without topic clusters, they could link some pages. Yet they rarely do. Mostly, they don’t even track what they’ve written previously.
And that’s a shame because internal linking is an easy and effective way to boost SEO and keep interested visitors on your website.
3.Startups don’t invest in high-quality content
The biggest problem I keep coming across is a lack of quality.
Since there’s no structure, startups struggle to select relevant content ideas. And even when they do find a unique topic, the writing is rarely executed well because they pick cheaper writers who don’t even get a good brief.
The content, as a result, doesn’t portray authority. Instead, it’s a remix of Google’s top 3 results on the topic.
Other content is often exclusively product-focused. Rahul Chawra, who has worked with startups for over 15 years as a brand strategist, has seen too many startups focus on features rather than on relationship-building through thoughtful content.
“Unlike other performance channels, which are designed to go direct to conversion, SEO is a hybrid between branding and performance traffic. Judging SEO purely as a brand channel overlooks the tremendous impact it produces for the bottom line. At the same time, SEO can’t be viewed as merely a performance channel.”Eli Schwartz, Product-led SEO
4. Startups don’t have a defined audience
A big reason why startups struggle to create quality content is because they don’t even know who they’re writing to.
“Most startups marketers I’ve met have never had a face to face authentic conversation with any of their actual or potential customers. What they do have is detailed reports, quantitative charts to explain who the audience is, persona’s, etc. This process reduces the audience to a number on the acquisition table—not a real person who has a life which is immensely greater than the product that is being sold to them.”Rahul Chawra, Decode Strategy Labs
You might say these personas represent their audience. But they’re robotic and too often based on assumptions, not facts.
And that’s not the only issue.
Startups rarely differentiate between TOFU, MOFU and BOFU content. Let alone levels of awareness…
The biggest problem for startups is that this entire content approach is a waste of money, time and energy. More often than not, they’ll realise it’s not working and start from scratch with a new content strategy after another funding round.
I sincerely hope they don’t make the same mistake twice, but I’ve seen it happen.
Why startup content strategies fail
Content isn’t usually a priority at startups unless one of the founders is a marketer at heart.
So many don’t invest in quality content until someday they maybe want to diversify acquisition.
But instead of doing some research and planning, they just dive in. And here’s why I think that happens:
- Content is low priority
- The person in charge isn’t knowledgeable enough
- Founders want immediate results
1. Content is low-priority
If the startup had been serious about content, they would’ve started creating from the start. But they didn’t and now it just feels like something they have to do.
That’s why we get the typical startup problem: 80% features, 20% marketing.
The content they do create, of course, is very related to the product. According to Rahul Chawra, it’s often mindless content that may help at the time of making the buying decision. But that’s not the best time to make a connection. “If they had created content thoughtfully, giving value to their audience at times when they least expected it and in ways they find useful, they could have an unfair advantage when customers are making a decision about which product to buy.”
Of course, there are some startups trying to create this connection. But they commit another, perhaps even more painful mistake. According to Ana Bibikova, who’s been helping early-stage startups with marketing for nearly 20 years, most startups fail to align their content goals with business goals.
And if you’re just creating unrelated content, not even one million website visitors will get you the revenue you need.
2. The founder in charge isn’t knowledgeable about content marketing
I’m not trying to blame the founder for a lack of knowledge here, they have other skills that move the startup forward. So they’re probably taking on content as yet another thing they need to do.
The problem is that they have no idea how to plan a successful content strategy, nor do they have the time to learn it.
And the problem doesn’t stop there. Because they don’t know how it works and because content isn’t a priority, they don’t hire skilled marketers or content writers. (I do blame them for this.)
Instead, they go with writers who produce lower quality. Moreover, they leave them pretty much unmanaged and whatever they write goes online without editing.
3. Founders want immediate results
The crazy part in all of this is the lack of patience. They’ve not given it priority, they’ve not hired the right type of people, yet they want immediate results.
I was hired at a startup in October to start from scratch. I was working with Rahul on the strategic side, and with a team of four part-time/freelance writers to produce the content. By the end of the quarter, the founder in charge wanted 80,000 page views.
If you’ve ever heard about SEO, you know this is simply impossible. New articles rarely rank that quickly, especially in a competitive field.
Next January, the project was abandoned…
How to fix your startup’s content strategy
Now, it wouldn’t be fair game of me to just tell startups where they go wrong without providing some tips to improve.
So here are four things you should start with to make your startup’s content strategy work.
- Identify a unique angle to create content that serves your audience
- Focus on SEO to get long-term benefits
- Create a strategy with content silos
- Hire quality writers and editors
1. Create unique content that fits your audience
Everyone’s creating content these days. But the competition isn’t as high as you’d think. As you’ll have noticed from the two sections above, most startups (and even billion-dollar companies) get it wrong.
You can’t just summarise the highest-ranking websites in your domain. That may have worked a few years ago, but not anymore.
Instead, you want to give it a different angle. What does your company think about the topic? How can you better match your audience’s search intent? How can you give more value than the ones before you?
We’ll get into more details about SEO below, but if you want a chance to rank for competitive content, you need to be different. And that’ll also help get your content shared on social media.
2. Put SEO at the centre of your strategy
If you create high-quality content, people will share. But you don’t want to rely on other people sharing your articles forever. That just won’t happen.
So you should always take SEO best practices into account when planning your content.
Start with keyword research to identify what people in your niche are looking for. And go deep. Don’t write one article about topic A and one about B and so on.
No, write one about topic A and find subtopics related to A.
That’s what you’ll need to create content silos that are made up of pillar and cluster pages. Pillar pages give readers a broad view of a topic and cluster pages zoom in on one specific aspect.
3. Plan first, write later
While it’s exciting to start creating content, it’s a waste of time without planning.
Strategising and doing keyword research was the first part of the plan. When you’ve got a unique strategy and relevant keywords in place, you can start thinking about individual content pieces for your websites.
This is where you’ll plan content silos, and create spreadsheets to keep track of articles, internal links, shares etc.
4. Don’t save on quality
If you want your strategy to work, you’ll need to pay for people who can make it work.
You may not have the budget to hire in-house writers and editors, but you don’t need to. Working with experienced freelancers has a couple of benefits:
- You don’t have to rush to create new briefings for articles.
- Freelancers bring experiences and best practices from other companies.
- Freelancers are more punctual than in-house writers (personal experience).
So when you’re looking for the right people, make sure they understand SEO. But don’t just base your decision on years of experience. Judge their portfolio and accomplishments instead.
And above all, hire an editor as well.
Startup content strategies summed up
Don’t waste your money on cheap content marketing efforts. Plan well in advance so you get it right from the start. It won’t only save you lots of money, but it will also put you years ahead of the competition when it comes to getting organic website visitors.
Thanks to Alejandra Cruz, Ana Bibikova, John Paul Hernadez and Rahul Chawra for their feedback and suggestions.