When the gameffective team and I decided to get serious about content marketing back in June of 2014, we treaded carefully at first. The return on an investment of creativity and content creation was still somewhat of a mystery to us at that point. It was something people spoke about in guest posts, but like any team trying a new business approach, we were a little hesitant to implement it ourselves.

Our industry is enterprise gamification, which is exceptionally noisy in terms of marketing fluff. I must admit I was skeptical that content marketing was the best way to overcome the noise. On the other hand, we had very little SEO clout, our site wasn’t that big, and giving content marketing a try just made sense. Since it almost immediately provided real, Fortune-500 marketing qualified leads, we haven’t looked back.

We’ve been pretty prolific in terms of content generation since then — 34 posts and about 5-6 guest posts elsewhere — so we thought we’d share what we’ve learned.

9 Lessons From Our First 6 Months of Content Marketing

1) The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Maybe this sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. I’ll be honest: Our first blog posts were a struggle. A struggle to keep out the marketing fluff, a struggle to find something new to say, and a struggle to generate more ideas.

But nowadays, deciding we want to write a post is a very simple decision, and it’s getting fun over time. All it takes is some research, some brainstorming, and a sense of flow, and voilà: We have another blog post.

2) Avoid analysis paralysis.

Although content marketing is never done for its own sake, and we were constantly eyeing our actual MQL counts (about twice a day), we made a conscious choice not to over-analyze content marketing. Why? We wanted to avoid analysis paralysis.

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Let’s say that one of the guest posts we had from earlier in the transition generated a lead almost immediately. That’s great, right? Then, a week later, a similar post on our blog didn’t generate any leads. The conclusion could be that we shouldn’t use these posts on our site and only guest blog. … Or is it? Or, perhaps the whole set of data we were using — traffic to the guest post and traffic to the blog on site, along with the conversion ratio — is not statistically significant.

Also, we wanted to explore freely, to see for ourselves what worked and what didn’t. We decided to go analysis free for several months and only then to analyze content, channels and more.

Another decision we made was to consider all leads as coming from content marketing. Sure, we have PPC in place (accounting for about 40% of our MQLs). Some of the leads actually cost us money. Yet we decided to attribute all leads to content marketing, so as not to fall for the fallacy of “why invest x in blog post when paid lead costs less than x?”.

3) Calls-to-action really work.

Many content marketing writers I came across in my online research wrote about how placing CTAs on your blog will increase conversion rate. Although we were skeptical how well they’d work, we finally decided to implement a few CTAs on our own blog — and they worked very well. In fact, we were bringing in two times the MQLs once we implemented CTAs on the blog, and the pace hasn’t dropped since. Implementing slide-in newsletter subscription CTAs on our blog posts, for instance, has made our subscription numbers soar.

4) Find ways to stand out.

Since there is already a lot of content related to gamification out there, we had to figure out how to be special. So instead of just writing a lot of blog posts about gamification and competition, we asked questions like, “What works better, competition or completion?” We challenged conventional wisdom. We wrote about how you can gamify for free. We made a concerted effort to write about diverse but interesting topics.

But all the while, I was haunted by the fear that we were too being too different for our own good — that our voice, while unique, would also be odd and not engaging. But I remember one day when one of our salespeople came up to me and asked what was going on in the blog. He said that potential customers were asking him about the blog, and that they were saying we sound different and that they like what we say. This was a huge lesson for me about the value of authenticity.

5) Read about your industry.

Sometime in October, about four months after we started investing in content marketing, I started worrying that I was running out of content ideas. Then, I saw an ad for Walter Mischel’s book, The Marshmallow Test. It’s a great book about human motivation and human behavior. Something in it inspired this blog post about why trust matters — and the post was a hit. It generated a great LinkedIn discussion during which I learned, much to my surprise, that I had become somewhat of a thought leader.

The lesson here? It pays off to read good books and articles both about your industry and about business, management, and human behavior. They are bound to be great reading material, and they can even lead to original and thought-provoking blog posts down the line.

6) All guest posts aren’t created equal.

Some have written that guest blogging is a great way to build an audience and create more content in less time, while others have written that guest blogging for the sake of guest blogging isn’t beneficial for a site’s SEO. What’s the truth?

While I will not opine about SEO and search engine ranking, I will say this: Even when you guest blog for high quality sites, the results you get from it (as measured by MQLs) varies widely.

Here at gameffective, we learned that in terms of MQLs (in other words, excluding metrics like social share numbers), even our more popular external guest posts did not perform at all — as in, zero performance. The highest conversion rates (20%) came from guest posts we wrote for medium-traffic sites that had good existing content and a strong focus on the vertical we’re going after. Sites that generated tons of referral traffic and a barrage of retweets didn’t end up generating MQLs for us at all.

But here lies a cautionary tale about our avoidance of analysis paralysis. We were very pleased with the guest posts on the larger sites because we saw the referral traffic in our analytics. On the other hand, we were disappointed with the results of our high quality posts on the smaller sites with the niche vertical focuses. The referral traffic was so low that we assumed we hadn’t generated any MQLs from them — but, to our surprise, those guest posts had a 20% conversion rate — the highest of all our channels. The referral traffic from the larger site didn’t do a thing.

7) Stop using ineffective content promotion platforms.

Building a content machine takes a lot of time, so one key to success is stop using platforms that aren’t working for you. For example, we’ve found that Twitter doesn’t actually work for us — something we’ve felt guilty about. But the truth is, it doesn’t work for us: It brings in an influx of traffic, but the traffic bounces almost immediately and generates MQLs that are 5-10 times more expensive than our PPC traffic. This was an important discovery for us because now we can spend less time on Twitter and more time using the platforms that actually do work for us. On that note …

8) Do more of what works for you.

Find what works for you, and spend more time doing that (while spending less on the stuff that doesn’t work.)

While this won’t be true for every company, at least for us, LinkedIn — especially LinkedIn groups — generates more meaningful leads than the rest of the social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Figuring out how to work groups took some time, but now LinkedIn accounts for about 20% of our traffic, and it’s our highest converting online channel (which doesn’t include emails).

Email marketing has also been a great conversion channel for us — in fact, it’s by far our best converting channel at more than 20%. One great, low-effort way we leverage email marketing is by sending out recaps of our blog posts that include some CTAs. Creating that great consent is the hard part, but once it’s done, all we have to do is set up the email send. For us, the email truly is the cherry on top of the content marketing cake.

9) Repurposing content works.

A single blog post can be purposed into an infographic, a SlideShare, a podcast; multiple blog posts on similar topics can become an ebook. There are a million ways you can repurpose content so your audience can digest the same or similar information in different ways.

My favorite tip: Blog about a certain subject for a month (for instance, sales gamification), and then take all those blog posts and combine them into an ebook. (Learn more about turning blog posts into ebooks here.) If the material is informative and clear, you’ll see CTA engagement that makes a difference for your business.

What other tips do you have for businesses just starting out with content marketing?

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