Bootstrapped startups can get incredible results from content marketing. Often, content marketing campaigns start as a founder sharing the story of their startup and engaging with their audience. As the business grows so do the demands of the content marketing campaign; it often becomes too much for the founder to handle alone.
In this case study, I’ll explain how I took the WP Curve blog from a small operation dependent on the founders to a scaleable and sustainable engine for growth. I’ll outline the systems I put in place to capture the style, process and purpose of the brand, so it could continue to grow without depending on the founders.
Revising the content strategy
Many startups approach content strategies in exactly the same as a direct response strategy. Define the customer avatar, hit the pain point, close. The reality is, content marketing does not work that way. It’s about building a relationship with an audience over time. Some of your audience may be your ideal customer, some may not. It’s almost impossible to predict how your relationship with your audience will unfold.
How do you create a strategy to anticipate this? Instead of trying to directly attract customers through your content, you can fulfill a purpose with your content. The purpose should solve a problem that is parallel to your product or service but does not always reference what you are selling.
Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute and a thought leader in the industry is always challenging content marketers to dig deeper into their content and strive to create content that makes a difference in people’s lives. He believes purpose and authenticity can have a much bigger impact than boosting sales.
Define your content’s purpose by answering these 3 questions:
- Why are you investing in content marketing?
- Why does your audience want to read your content?
- What value does your audience get out of your content?
You can read more on content purpose in Content marketing: setting a purpose and measuring success.
This didn’t immediately make sense to me. What’s the point of marketing if you’re not trying to sell your product? What made it click was noticing the subliminal benefits of content marketing. It certainly was driving growth for our business, but more was at play.
With content marketing, startups attract more talented team members, cofounders and even investors. Brilliant people engage with their stories and become excited to play a part in it. The purpose of content is to build a brand that people want to be a part of. Instead of developing a customer avatar, you should write to inspire your future team members. Whether they’re just a lurker that occasionally tweets your content or a unicorn investor, they are on your team. This would not happen if you were just trying to sell your product with the content you create.
For more on inspiring team members with your content, check out How to optimize for the hidden ROI of content marketing
How to find content creation opportunities
In the early stages of working for WP Curve, I had to learn to use a new set of tools to keep our remote team running and the business growing. I found that the best way to master a tool was to write a post about it and explain how we used it at WP Curve.
Each new tool and process to master was an opportunity for content. These often turned out to be some of the best performing pieces of content. Explaining a certain aspect of a popular online tool or app tends to attract a lot of organic search traffic and generates lots of comments over time.
We’ll use my post on Trello as an example. Since its publishing in February, it has been one of the top traffic drivers on our site.
To get context for this post and understand where to focus, I began by reading posts explaining how other startups are using Trello. I compared that to how we used it. I tried to pick out the differences and similarities in approaches to the tool. This comparison quickly built context and provided me with lots of different links to place within the content.
I would first explain the basic elements of the tool, what features they had and how to use them properly.
As I uncovered different applications for using Trello, I would build on the basic features that I explained and show how they were applied to different tasks such as editorial calendars, software development or even customer interaction.
Some teams would find some features, such as the labeling systems, incredibly valuable, while others would reject features entirely. I tried to explain the reasoning behind it so that other’s could decide for themselves if that was a good strategy for them.
I found that creating a small animated GIF to demonstrate 1 way to use the tool always caught people’s attention. I would get lots of follow up emails and tweets asking me how I did that. I’ll explain how to do it in the images section.
This approach resulted in a very comprehensive piece of content.
Core problem areas
Though our content was performing well, it lacked organization. We solved this by defining and focusing on several core problems that we wanted to solve, instead of a singular purpose.
Outlining 6 core problems helped us develop lead magnets that had broad appeal across many different posts. Each problem created a thread between different posts that allowed our visitors to dig deeper in the areas that interested them.
We developed email sequences for each lead magnet that would follow up with suggestions for some of our best content that targets the same core problem area. This gave us a good way to showcase some of our best content that had not been getting direct traffic.
For more on our strategy around our core problem areas, take a look at How to base your content strategy around your customer’s problem areas.
Once I was consistently hitting 10 posts a month for content, I started focusing on creating lead magnets for the WP Curve blog. We wanted to capture more emails without damaging our relationship with our audience. So instead of adding pop-ups or other disruptive tactics, we created lead magnets to enhance our content. This gave our readers the chance to dig deeper into our content.
What to make?
An easy way to create a few lead magnets is to make “content upgrades” for some of your top performing posts. I recommend starting with posts that are driving good organic traffic. Create a checklist, template or a cheat sheet based off the main points in your article, that a visitor can download after reading.
If you have the pain points or problem areas of your audience defined in your content strategy, then you can develop a lead magnet that will target that problem area and can be used as a relevant opt-in for an entire category of your content. See if you can take one of your content upgrades and add some additional information or combine it with other content upgrades to make it broad enough to be useful as a download for several pieces of your content.
Where to display your lead magnets
We found that the most effective place for an opt-in box was in the sidebar of our blog. We would use the Q2W3 Fixed Widget to make the opt in box follow you as you scrolled up or down. This is not too intrusive or distracting, and it makes good use of that white space which used to just be wasted with our long form posts.
Each core problem area has a category associated with it. To match our lead magnets to our content categories, we used the Widget Logic plugin. This made the sidebar opt-ins only appear in posts in relevant categories.
Lead magnet life cycle
Each lead magnet followed a system we developed to engage the visitor, introduce them to related content and give them the opportunity to share the lead magnet.
We use Lead Pages for our landing pages and opt-in boxes. Our sidebar opt-in button would make a lightbox appear giving a little more detail on the download.
Once they opted-in, they were taken to a “thank-you” page that let them know their lead magnet was on the way and gave a few suggestions for other content they could read while they were waiting.
We also included a “click to tweet” on the page. On our content, we use Better Click To Tweet, but that plugin does not work in this case, because it only allows you to link to the page that the “click to tweet” is on. We didn’t want to drive traffic to our “thank you” pages.
We used the Click To Tweet website to generate a clickable tweet that would point to a landing page for the lead magnet. The landing page would be an expanded version of the in-post light box with more details and copy about what the visitor would get if they downloaded the lead magnet. Since we were expecting new eyes to be looking at these pages, we wanted to give them more context on our offer to them.
We would deliver the lead magnet via a link in Infusionsoft. The first email would thank them for their interest, give them the download and include another “click to tweet” (usually the same as what we have on the “thank you” page).
Every 3 days, we would follow up with a slight reminder about the lead magnet, give them another chance to download it if they missed the first email and add value by suggesting an article related to the lead magnet that might help them use it better.
We’d send 2-3 follow up emails, each with fresh content related to the lead magnet.
We had a few lightweight, yet very effective, retargeting campaigns running that helped us get more traction on our lead magnets.
Posts with a good flow of organic traffic and a content upgrade were perfect for retargeting campaigns. We would simply create ads for the content upgrade and retarget anyone that visited the post. Since it was organic traffic, we knew they were searching for a solution related to what our content was discussing, so conversions were high for our content upgrades.
The problem with this is, even with several thousand views a month and a small daily budget, our visitors were seeing our ads too often. So we could only run these campaigns intermittently.
We found a good balance running ads for our best lead magnet and retargeting anyone that visited the site instead of a specific post. Cost per conversion was a bit higher than with the “content upgrades,” but we had enough fresh traffic to run the ads consistently.
We also tried driving cold traffic to some of our best content that had high-converting lead magnets. But the amount of traffic we were able to drive for the price was miniscule compared to what we could achieve with organic.
Quality and attention to detail
Dan Norris had a good feel for the quality and style of the blog, but it had not been precisely documented. Creating the style guide for the blog was a process of trial and error. I would create a post and receive feedback from Dan on where improvements could be made.
I would collect this feedback into a single document and over time, organized it into categories and action steps. We combined this with our style guide, which gave broad outlines to our audience and content. With each post I created, our guidelines became more clearly defined and it became easier and faster to produce the high quality content that is the trademark of the WP Curve Blog.
How to do this for your own business:
Whether or not you choose to have title caps or bold on your headers is less important than the fact that you are consistent. Define your style and your branding and stick with it.
Even if you don’t have a content manager on your team, you can replicate this process with guest writers. As you work with a few guest writers, collect any feedback you give them into a document. Make sections for headers, look and feel, images, related links, SEO, social sharing.
How to scale attention to detail
The highly-detailed action steps and checklists that we developed from this process had a huge impact on how quickly we could produce content. It made it easier to work with guest writers.
Our goal was to produce 10 pieces of content each month. We needed a team of guest writers to make this happen.
At first, working with a guest writer took about as long as producing the post myself. There were endless feedback cycles, posts were rushed to meet a deadline and most of the problems were caused by very common mistakes that I would have to repeat for each writer.
To solve this problem, I created a 10-step process with a timeline for creating a post for WP Curve. In each step, I would include the parts of the style guide that were relevant to the step and an expected timeframe for the step.
At first, it was not enough to simply have a great process. You need to defend it and enforce it ruthlessly. Each time I wrote a guest writer, I referenced the section of the process they needed to complete and set a firm deadline to reach the next step.
“Great, this post idea is ready for drafting, will you check step 4 of our guest writer process for the style guide? Please have the completed draft to me by December 4th.”
Though the process was lengthy and detailed, our guest writers had a much easier time creating content to the standard we expected.
For more on guest writers and a copy of our style guide, check out How to scale your content marketing with a process for guest writers.
How to create great visual content
Though our main form of content at WP Curve was written content, we made sure all of our written posts had plenty of visuals to accompany them.
Visuals are tough to get right however. There are a few variables that people don’t consider:
- File size of the image – It’s very common for people to upload huge image files that slow their load times down.
- File type of the image – Choosing the correct file type will make your image look better and your file sizes smaller.
- JPEG – Good for photos of people, places, or things, but bad for screenshots of apps and websites or text.
- PNG – Good for screenshots of apps and websites with gradients. It keeps text looking clean as well, but can be problematic for file sizes.
- GIF – Good for flat images with no gradients or a short animation. Watch out for small images inside a screenshot like a profile picture or a gradient like the top bar of a browser.
- The problems with resizing images – Resizing can lower the quality of your images, particularly when it comes to screenshots. Fine text becomes blurred with resizing and it diminishes the quality of your content.
- Pre-formatting the image – Often people upload a high-resolution image and just let their server do the work of making it fit into a blog post or web page. If you have your image pre-formatted and optimized before you upload it, it will keep your site running fast and prevent your images from getting distorted.
- Add value or context – An image should immediately make sense in the context of the post and add value to what you are saying in the content. Adding value can be clarifying an idea, adding emotion or humor, breaking up dense text, summarizing a concept, or introducing someone you talk about in your post.
For more on optimizing images, check out How to optimize images for WordPress speed
I found that quote images were some of the most versatile types of images to add into content. I would primarily use these in roundup posts like 14 surprising morning routines of entrepreneurs and creatives. I use Canva for these type of images.
I would take a high-impact quote from the person I interviewed for the roundup post and place it over a full-width image of the person who said it. This had 4 big benefits:
- Makes your content relatable – Having people in your posts makes it easier for people to identify with your content. It can give you the sense of a protagonist in a story.
- It makes the interviewee look good – If you can make people look and feel good with your content, you’ll have a good chance of getting them to help you again.
- Excellent social media content – These images were perfect to share on social media.
- It draws the reader in – I would put the quote image at the top of each interview, so it would be the first thing people see.
A second way I would use quote images is when I wanted to add some visual content, but I was not sure how I could add a screenshot or something actionable. This often happens when you’re talking about broad concepts or strategy.
So when I was stumped, I would search for quotes from influencers on the topic I was writing on. Once I found one, I would mention it in the writing and build a little bit of context around the quote. I would then find a good image of the influencer and add it in with the quote.
This adds some extra visual content, a little bit of credibility boost, an opportunity to share the post with that influencer and a chance they’ll share it.
I would link to the article where the influencer was quoted and I would also link to the source where I got the original image.
Some good tips for quote image design:
Keep them simple – I found that a simple font with simple colors worked best. You don’t want the design to be distracting from the idea.
Watch out for high-contrast backgrounds – It is very difficult to place a quote over a background that has a lot of light and dark spots. Your light text will bleed into the light spots and dark text into the dark. A consistent background is less distracting and easier to work with.
Don’t touch the face – Don’t let your text touch the face of the person in the quote image. It looks bad. So try to use an image where your subject is offset to the right or left a bit, which will give you more space to place your text.
I have found that animated GIF images are very underused in content (outside of Buzzfeed listicles about cats). As I mentioned earlier, I found that an animated gif demonstrating an action to take can add a lot of power to a written guide.
These images work for small actions you can do with a tool. It’s too short to make a good video, but it’s complex enough that an animation helps explain the idea quickly. The animation is not something people see too often and it captures their attention.
Be careful with the file size of animated GIFs. They tend to get big quickly. Too many of these animations on a post will slow down the load times and may hurt you. Make sure your file is trimmed to the essentials.
Full blown infographics were often difficult and expensive to produce. But using simple software like Lucid Chart made it possible to add micro infographics into content. They were easy and free to make and added a lot of value to the content.
I created processes for whatever tasks I did repeatedly and demanded most of my time.
I believe most entrepreneurs have trouble with processes because they don’t feel like they need them when they are just carrying out tasks on their own. By the time they need to make a hire to delegate some of these activities, they are already stretched thin and process creation is no longer feasible with their stretched schedules.
I recommend starting early to build a library of processes. As soon as you have someone to take over the processes, your perspective will change and you’ll quickly start to see opportunities. I recommend hiring a VA to begin testing your processes. Having someone available to run through the processes and give you feedback on the clarity of your processes will be worth their wages alone.
Here’s our 5 steps to create a process.
- Do the task yourself and take detailed notes for every action step
- Have a team member complete the process and give you feedback
- Add screenshots and videos for more clarity where necessary
- Try the process with a new team member (if possible)
- Automate the process where possible
For more detail on each of these steps and the tools we use, take a look at: The practical guide to creating bulletproof processes to scale your business
Some of the most valuable processes that I used over the year were:
Guest post guidelines – I explained the value of this one above.
Content promotion process – This allowed me to outsource some of the time consuming elements of promoting content. Remember that even though the posting can be automated, it’s important to keep a presence where you share your content and respond to comments if you get any. You need to keep up the relationships you develop.
Master process – When we were bringing on my replacement, I created a single document with links to all of the processes I used for content creation. It made it easy for Vinay to pick up where I left off and have access to everything he needed from the first day.
Most tasks that keep a business running are cyclical and repetitive. With tasks like this, there’s not only opportunity to delegate, but to automate some elements of the task.
When we have a process that we are happy with and that is producing predictable results, then we automate it. This most often takes the form of an automatic reminder triggering each week or at a certain time prompting one of our team members to carry it out.
The description we place in the Trello card contains instructions of the next steps and includes a link to the process in the description.
This automation is great for tasks like accounting, payroll processing, reporting and running checks to make sure everything is working properly.
A strong brand takes on a life of its own, but it needs processes and systems in place to direct its growth sustainably. With a well-defined strategy and style guide, I was able to scale up how much content we published on the WP Curve blog, without compromising on the quality that the audience had come to expect. With systems and processes in place, it made it easier to leverage our content to capture more leads and keep visitors coming back for more.
Any questions? Is there anything you would like more details on or that’s unclear?