Most people fundamentally misunderstand content marketing for startups.
They look at big brands like HubSpot and try to apply the same approach and playbooks.
Like I wrote in my piece on enterprise content marketing, the core understanding is of the core battles each type of company faces:
Startups are fighting against external obstacles. Enterprises are fighting against internal ones.
This fact completely alters what you should focus on and how you should plan your content strategy for startups.
This piece will correct some bad advice from people who have never grown a startup through content.
Does Your Startup Need to Do Content Marketing?
Don’t let anyone proselytize you into thinking that you, right now at this moment in time, need to invest in content marketing.
It might be a good idea. It might not.
It depends on your constraints, strengths and opportunities.
Do you have enough runway to invest in a long term channel? Are you in a heavily competitive niche? Are there channels by which you can reach your target customers quickly and efficiently? Do you have the skills and experience to orchestrate an organic traffic play?
To put it bluntly, if you need leads in a week, and you have no extra dinero to put into “expensive content” (more on that later), it just ain’t gonna work for you.
That’s not to say you can’t start laying the foundation for content.
But by no means are you required to invest in any channel that isn’t the highest impact activity for you. You’re a startup; you’re here to survive.
When Your Startup Should Invest in Content Marketing
While content marketing can be used to test messaging and experiment in the early days, you should wait to invest heavily in the program until you have the following in place:
Product / Market Fit
Product market fit refers to the process of ensuring that a product satisfies a specific market need or demand. It is the stage at which a startup has validated that its product is desirable, feasible, and viable in the marketplace.
Achieving product market fit means that a company has found a profitable business model and is ready to scale.
One of the best ways to identify this, for the context of content marketing, is whether or not you can drive conversions through cold channels like advertisements or outbound emails.
At the very least, this means you’ve identified a customer segment, messaging that resonates, and a conversion funnel that drives ROI.
Positioning refers to the process of creating a unique image and identity for a startup’s product or service in the minds of its target market.
It involves identifying the unique features and benefits of the product, as well as the target market’s needs and pain points.
The goal of positioning is to differentiate the startup’s offering from its competitors and communicate its value proposition to potential customers. This will help the startup to identify its target market and communicate effectively with its potential customers, which can lead to faster market penetration and increased sales.
You don’t need a style guide, personas, a complex content calendar, or any too robust.
But you do need to know who you want to reach and how you want to talk to them.
As I’ll explain, it’s harder to generate ROI with content marketing for startups. That’s the reality.
So you need to consider whether or not you have the resources required to move the needle in a meaningful way.
I can’t tell you how many prospects I’ve talked to that are going up against behemoths like Intercom and Drift, but only have the marketing budget to write 1-2 blog posts per month.
I have to have the tough conversation of telling them that by investing that little, they’ll only be wasting money. They won’t get results, and they’ll just be incurring an opportunity cost.
Of course, you don’t always need to sprint out of the gates. If you have a long game vision of where content can go, you can always start building the foundations.
But don’t expect to rank for something like “best CRM” if you’re only willing to pay $200 for a blog post every 4 weeks.
Content Marketing For Startups (Why It’s Different Than Enterprises)
The biggest fallacy in SEO and content marketing is that it’s free traffic.
This might be true in the sense that you don’t have to pay an ad network for CPMs. But that content doesn’t appear out of thin air.
You have to factor in:
- The time it takes to produce the content
- The opportunity cost of not doing something else
- The real cost it requires to pay freelancers, agencies, or employees to write, edit, and optimize the content
- Design, development, and any other resources required to maintain your blog and architecture.
Here’s another cost most people don’t think about: as a startup, your content generally needs to be orders of magnitude more “expensive” than that of an enterprise.
Why? Isn’t that unfair?
Yes, but enterprises have embedded advantages that lower the “marginal cost of content.”
When marginal costs decrease, all things considered, “marginal utility” increases – meaning they get more ROI from the same efforts that you put in.
They have an established brand (which tends to increase click-through-rates on search engines and social media content). They have an audience and email list – people to launch their content to right away. They have high domain ratings, making it easier to rank content that is subjectively lower quality than other content.
They can write 5 blog posts a week and rank 4 of them by next week.
Try doing that at a startup, and you’re apt to waste a ton of time.
For further reading, check out my piece on content economics. This explains the journey your content needs to take in order to build a flywheel, starting out expensive and differentiated and eventually scaling out into templatized, revenue producing content.
There are distinct advantages you have as a startup, and you’ll need to lean heavily on those. Things like less red tape, founder-led content and authenticity, focus, and leverage.
Back Up…What is Content Marketing?
Say “content marketing,” and 5 different people will have 5 different ideas of what you mean.
While some include only blogging in the mix, I broaden the scope to include other channels and efforts like podcasts, social media posts, video content, content for partnerships, sales enablement, advertising content, guest posts / guest blogging, and more.
In that sense, you probably do need to invest in content marketing. It’s just a question as to whether content marketing is a standalone revenue generating function, or if it’s a supporting function for another revenue stream like sales or advertising.
The typical definition of content goes like this:
Content marketing is a type of digital marketing where you create and distribute valuable content to attract and engage potential customers. This content takes many forms including blog posts, videos, podcasts, infographics, and more. The main goal is to create helpful content that provides value to your readers and helps them solve their problems. By doing so, you establish yourself as an authority in your industry which will help you build credibility with potential customers.
Content, done effectively, can build trust, shorten deal cycles, and generate standalone revenue.
What’s Your Price Point?
Given content marketing includes all these various formats, the question is…which is the right content format for my startup?
This depends on a few factors, one of the most important being your price point.
Generally speaking, search engine optimization (SEO) works best for low touch sales and product-led growth. That’s because you can drive direct purchases.
It also works for high price points, but it’s typically harder to attribute specific revenue value on content, and you’ll have to build out more robust and complex funnels to capture value.
When you have a high price point and a high touch sales, content marketing indexes on events, webinars, high touch campaigns, account-based marketing content, thought leadership content, and generally things that evoke trust in your brand.
How To Get Started With Content Marketing For Startups?
The first step in getting started with content marketing for startups is developing a content strategy that outlines what type of content you’ll be creating and how often you’ll be creating it.
A strategy is just a hypothesis. No need to spend months crafting the perfect plan, but get really, really clear about your big vision and the KPIs (key performance indicators or key metrics) that will determine if you’re making progress.
After that, you’ll want to identify which channels are the best fit for your target audience such as blogs or social media accounts like Twitter or Instagram.
From there you can start creating high-quality content tailored specifically to your target audience that adds value and solves their problems.
You should also pay attention to SEO best practices such as keyword research so your content reaches more potential customers via search engines like Google or Bing.
It’s generally a best practice to build a content strategy that includes both short term promotion channels like social media and sales enablement (this allows for fast feedback and quick wins) as well as long term compounding promotion (like SEO and email marketing, which reduce your marginal cost over time).
Content Marketing for Startups Foundations
If you’re starting from scratch, do the following:
- Get a blog platform
- SWOT analysis and basic content strategy
- Generate fast feedback
- Lay the foundations for long term compounding channels
- Produce amazing content and focus on distribution
1. Get a blog platform
Whether or not SEO is a core part of your startup content marketing strategy, you’ll need a platform to house all of your owned assets and creative.
Blog platforms are a dime a dozen these days, but some of my favorites are the following:
I like these because they balance power with simplicity. Marketers can easily upload content, but they’re also endlessly customizable with the help of developers.
What you want to avoid is any platform that bottlenecks your content production flow. I’ve seen way too many enterprises prevent their content team from generating ROI simply because they can’t upload and publish a damn blog post.
You might need some other marketing tools, too, but keep it simple in the beginning. Use only what you need to execute on your content marketing plan, publish and promote your content pieces, and hit your content marketing goals / business goals.
2. SWOT analysis and basic content strategy
While you don’t need to map out your next 5 years of content topics, you should do two things:
- A content SWOT analysis
- A basic content strategy and plan
Your SWOT analysis will help you identify which particular channels, topics, and tactics you’ll rely on.
You’ve gotta be honest here.
For example, if you’re a new startup with zero funding and your biggest competitors are HubSpot, Intercom, and Drift, then you face some clear weaknesses and threats. Your content marketing strategy probably shouldn’t be aimed at targeting high traffic keywords at the top of the funnel.
Perhaps, however, your product is much lower cost and people can sign up directly for a freemium version. It serves unique pain points or audiences that the others don’t. And your founder is well known in the community you’re selling to.
These are strengths, and your content strategy could index on them by doing a combination of founder-lead thought leadership, influencer marketing collaborations with members of your community, and BOFU content to drive direct sales and freemium signups.
Pick things others will have trouble replicating or competing with.
3. Generate fast feedback
In the early days, you don’t actually know what’s going to work and what’s going to fail. While you want to play the long game, make sure you have methods by which you can identify what resonates and why.
Two of the best ways to do this are through sales and social media platforms.
Sharing content on social media quickly validates if a topic or message resonates. If it does, double down on that. If it doesn’t, rework it. Be agile.
Sales is another way to capture immediate value with content. If your sales team is asking for case studies, ebooks, white papers, or blog posts, you can bet that it’s going to be valuable.
The most cost-effective way to do effective content marketing at an early-stage startup is to make sure it’s going to have some positive business value, and attaching yourself to sales efforts is such an easy way to do that.
4. Lay the foundations for long term compounding channels
No content marketing strategy should solely index on short term feedback. Otherwise you’ll constantly be on the value treadmill and you’ll be at the whims of other teams’ requests.
Almost always, you’ll want to lay the foundations for two long term efforts:
- Email marketing
They synergize. The more SEO traffic you generate, the more verified email addresses you can collect, and the bigger your cumulative audience gets.
Laying the foundations for SEO includes two key things:
- Producing absolute top tier content in a narrow niche (building topical authority)
- Building backlinks
Link building is a complex topic that includes both passive link acquisition as well as manual link building.
One easy way to start building links if you’re a startup is to use HARO. Journalists are looking for expert sources, so just respond to a few every day and over time you’ll build up your website authority (making it easier and easier to rank your content in search engines).
5. Produce amazing content and focus on distribution
Like I said, your content has to be amazing. It has to be better than the incumbents.
In the early days, focus on producing fewer pieces of higher quality. Later, you can scale production.
And in the early days, overindex on content distribution. No one is going to care or hear about your content if you don’t reach them proactively. Manual outreach to influencers, guest blogging, social media marketing…all ways to get eyes on your content.
And join some communities where your target audience hangs out. It doubles as intel gathering as well as a content promotion pool.
5 Content Marketing Strategies for Startups
Facing the disadvantages of less budget, resources, and embedded audience / brand value, it’s important to find the edge that you uniquely can exploit.
Five of my favorite startup content marketing strategies:
- Founder-led content marketing
- Decentralized content marketing
- Leveraging influencers
- Foundation building for SEO
- Product-led SEO
1. Founder-Led Content Marketing
One unique advantage you have as a startup is your company was probably founded on a contrarian insight. You set out to solve a gap in the market. Therefore, you probably have some unique takes on what people should be doing differently.
Use this, as well as your unique and authentic experience as the company founder, to drive home the message your product is solving.
Use LinkedIn, Hacker News, Slack groups, your Medium blog…whatever. Write unpolished, stylistically horrendous pieces that only you could write. Experience is the most expensive asset. Use it.
Each individual piece of content at this stage should be epic, honest, and differentiated. Eventually, you won’t have time to spend on this stuff, but in the early days, you’re killing many birds with one stone: getting market validation, testing messaging, acquiring early customers through your network, and honing your thinking through writing.
2. Decentralized Content Marketing: Goliath vs an Army of Davids
When you employ some people, leverage your team to create a “surround sound effect.”
Take your centralized content marketing assets and messaging (probably via your podcast or your blog) and build a platform on which each and every individual employee can build a personal brand by promoting your message.
We use LinkedIn for this. Every week we three founders publish 5X per week and our team is incentivized to publish as much as they can. We incentivize the team through lead generation referral fees as well as silly gamification contests to see who reaches the most people.
This strategy is hard to operationalize, but it’s extremely effective for high ticket B2B companies like SaaS and services businesses. Further reading on the strategy here.
3. Leverage Influencers Early and Often
One disadvantage you’ll face is the lack of an embedded audience and low domain rating.
One way to overcome that is to leverage the networks of influencers.
Easy: include them in your content. Get them on your podcast. Invite them to your webinars.
Advanced: appear on podcasts, webinars, and guest posts at high traffic publications. Bring your message to their audiences and pull them over to you over time.
Use Sparktoro and your own painstaking research to see which influencers your target market listens to and trusts.
4. Building the Foundations of SEO Content Marketing
You either die a thought leader or live long enough to see yourself become an SEO.
Basically, you’re going to invest in search at some point. Search is a long term channel, like gardening or farming, so it’s best to plant the seeds earlier.
HubSpot, for example, has a massive moat because they started blogging in like 1932. Now they can write a blog post on crypto or some nonsense that they don’t even sell, and they’ll outrank you the next day.
So while you’re engaged in the other channels, do this: build links and create pillar pieces that correspond to your core company value propositions.
10X content for the pillar pieces. They shouldn’t target bullshit like “what is [keyword]” but something like “best [keyword] software.” You won’t rank immediately, but you’re building topical authority and planting seeds for the future.
Build links in a natural and low maintenance way. Don’t build spammy links through mass outreach. Respond to HARO and journalist requests. Take advantage of PR events like fundraising, feature launches, partnerships, and trends.
Leverage your partners and current customers for links.
Do things incrementally that add up over time, and then when you’re in a competitive position to invest in SEO, go hard and scale content creation. Commit.
5. Product-Led SEO
Product-Led SEO was coined by Eli Schwartz, and it’s a blue ocean strategy that uses your product’s unique features, value proposition, and assets to wedge your way into a scaled SEO play that others can’t easily compete with.
Think: Zapier’s recipe templates. These are largely user generated, so they benefit from scale, and you can sign up directly for the recipe in the product from each of the landing pages.
Not every product can do this well, and sometimes you need to layer on a product-led SEO initiative later. But the core tenets apply: seek out customer pain points and create content for those. Don’t just look at competitor keywords.
Content marketing for startups needs to follow a different playbook than the big guys follow.
Namely, index on your unique strengths that outflank the bigger competitors, who are generally sludgy and slow but benefit from economies of scale.
As a strategist, your job is to find ways to win. If you can’t win with a particular content marketing playbook, at least at this time, it’s fine not to invest in it. Don’t let content marketing influencers persuade you that everyone needs to be doing this or that tactic.
And you do have unique advantages. Lean into them to build a successful content marketing program at any growth stage.