In a sense, content marketing is simple:
- Write about what your audience cares about (through keywords, customer research, brainstorms, whatever)
- Attract them to your blog through some distribution channel and promotion
- Convert them to some offer (product, demo, email list, etc.).
- Repeat and scale
However, the above game is a game that is increasingly difficult to win.
Why Traditional Content Marketing Playbooks Are Broken
An absurd amount of content is published every day.
4.4 million new blog posts are published every day across all platforms. WordPress blogs host 70 million new posts per month (source).
It’s also getting more expensive to compete. Here’s Patrick Cambell from a Profitwell blog post:
“Compared to five years ago, we’re publishing over 300% more per month, we’re writing posts that are nearly 100% longer in word count, and we’re paying content marketers and creators nearly 25% more. Quality is increasing, but content effectiveness is dropping. The average number of shares per post has actually fallen by nearly 90% compared to two years ago.”
So content, as a channel, is getting more expensive and more crowded.
Now let me tell you a dirty little secret about content: the spoils go to the winners. The rich get richer.
Essentially, those who already get a ton of traffic will have an easier time getting more traffic with mediocre content. This is simply a matter of content economics. As your website authority grows, the quality of content (and therefore the cost) needed to rank decreases.
Those who need to write the highest quality, most expensive content (startups) have the least time, money, and resources to do so.
Reading all of this, you might be apt to think: well, we’re fucked. We can’t make content work.
That, however, isn’t true.
You just need to change the rules of the game. You can’t copy HubSpot’s approach and expect HubSpot’s results because they started 15 years ago. What you can do is play a game that they can’t play easily.
Decentralized Content Marketing: Cover More Space With Fewer Resources
If centralized content marketing is all about one team owning content and publishing and distributing through a company blog, decentralized content marketing is about empowering the “foot soldiers” of your company to become amplifiers and messengers themselves. It’s about enablement and support and democratization of brand, not silos and top down planning.
Express Writers wrote about this years ago, justifying the approach with a biology analogy:
“Any student of biology can easily tell you why plants have become such a successful part of the terrestrial biome. It’s because they get their seeds everywhere.
Plants have mastered the art of seed dispersion and you can find seeds from plants that use wind, water and even animals as medium for transport. That’s why you can have plants crossing oceans and taking root on deserted islands, floating on the currents of the ocean till they find a suitable spot to put down roots. This scattering effect, the ability to spread to distant shores, is at the heart of why you should consider decentralized content.”
- Centralized = content team owns blog and all publishing and messaging
- Decentralized = everyone in your company can be a personal brand and content messenger
If the centralized approach resembles the “command and control” strategy of warfare, the decentralized approach is more of the “segment your forces” approach (from Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War).
As you read this article, I want to make it clear: decentralized content marketing isn’t just social media marketing. It uses social media, sometimes, as distribution avenues. But at heart, it’s a strategic shift in how content marketing is governed, planned, and executed at a company.
Why Our Agency Stopped Playing The Standard Game and Went Decentralized
Before I dive into the decentralized content marketing playbook, let me tell you a story.
When we started our agency, we pretty much solely relied on our own networks for our first clients. Of course, this couldn’t last forever, so we began to think about client acquisition strategies.
Naturally, outbound sales and inbound marketing came up. The two are yin and yang, opposites only in theory (and in reality, much more synergistic).
When we began our own inbound marketing operation, we used the playbook we knew and used with our largest clients: pick high traffic keywords, form thematic clusters, write long form content, promote and prioritize SEO as a distribution channel.
Problem is, we were a new blog with low domain authority. We simply couldn’t beat others ranking for terms like “what is content marketing” — and frankly, in retrospect, we wouldn’t want to. These types of visitors are incredibly low intent.
So we switched up our strategy. Now, we were still going to do inbound marketing, but it would be focused on thought leadership and distributed via many decentralized channels to maximize reach.
We had already started podcasting, so when one of us wanted to write a piece and in doing so interview the others, we thought, “why not just record the conversation and publish on the podcast?”
Thus, our Kitchen Side series was born (by far the most popular and effective part of our podcast).
Now, instead of spending days and weeks producing a long form piece of content that goes nowhere in search, here’s how our process works
- The team maintains a growing backlog of content ideas (from all sorts of sources: keywords, books, random shower ideas, community threads, and client pain points and questions).
- We schedule “Kitchen Side” discussions every two weeks to discuss one of these ideas. Karissa, our content growth marketer, prepares questions, and the co-founders and I just talk and debate. This takes 45 minutes usually.
- This podcast gets edited, packaged, and published. Additionally, we create and publish a YouTube video from this.
- From the conversation, we produce a literal transcript as well as a narrative blog post (ghost written!). This blog post and content then gets splintered off into several Twitter threads and LinkedIn posts. We also get video and audiograms to post on social media.
- Simultaneously, each of our co-founders is using independent yet brand-consistent strategies to build up our own Twitter and LinkedIn engagement. We take the ideas that we talk about constantly in Kitchen Side episodes and blog posts, and distribute them via social.
There’s no standardized, shared content calendar with a planned cadence. We have a pool of ideas and principles and each of us takes it upon ourselves to share and create content from our own personal accounts. Thus, we are able to cover a ton more ground than large companies for two reasons:
- Each individual person is a vector into a unique audience. Each cumulative person multiplies the size and value of the total audience, especially when there is audience crossover.
- We’re not constrained by editorial calendars, style guidelines, or top down planning in general. We can move fast, test new ideas, and when something works, we can spring into action doubling down on it.
Contrast that to the traditional way of doing content marketing:
- Content marketers and SEOs work together quarterly to develop a list of keywords that feed into topics that generate content briefs and outlines.
- This is organized according to strategic priorities (volume, product launches, topics, etc.) and is passed for rounds of executive and cross-functional approval.
- Blog posts are assigned, outlined, written, edited, edited again, and queued for publication (maintaining order and cadence established in content strategy).
- New ideas are relegated to the backlog to be discussed and added to the plan for next quarter.
- Everything is centralized through one channel, the blog, and distributed primarily through the company social media channel. Individuals are encouraged to share, but not incentivized to do so or to build up their own audience.
In centralized models, other teams barely have a say in content marketing. In decentralized models, the content team acts as a center of excellence — owning guardrails, process, systems, enablement, and incentives, but they never bottleneck creation or distribution by centering it all within their own team and resources.
Decentralized Content Doesn’t Work For Everyone (Most Companies Can’t Do it)
Now, this works fantastically in some cases.
For large companies, having many rounds of approval and publication only from approved centralized channels is great: you’ve already got a huge surface area for promotion and a built in audience. You’ve got a lot to lose from rogue opinions and off-brand topics. Consistency and quality assurance are more important than speed and iteration.
But in small companies, playing this game is a great way to die a slow death. We startups and small giants need to be more agile, quick, and daring.
3 Examples of Decentralized Content Marketing
1. Ritholtz Wealth Management
This is the first example of decentralized content marketing I saw in the wild. It happened by accident.
I follow a ton of FinTwit accounts (finance Twitter). Slowly, over time, I realized many of them work for the same company (look at the insane cumulative follower count of their team):
Each of them also has their own blog they regularly write on:
Collectively, they have an insane reach – each tweeting, blogging, podcasting, and building up their own personal brand.
They’re clearly in the business of selling expertise and therefore trust, so having individual people to follow (in addition to a brand) helps make that case as well as creating a “surround sound” effect when you realize you’re following multiple experts from the same company. They must know their shit!
Speero, formerly CXL Agency, is also investing in decentralized content marketing. I know because their managing director told me so:
Again, Speero is in the business of selling expertise. You need to fundamentally trust that the person you hire for consulting (in this case, experimentation consulting) actually knows what they’re doing. Content in general is the way to go for that.
However, the reach of a given blog post isn’t what it used to be. And people want to follow personal brands, not company accounts.
Everyone in the experimentation space knows Peep Laja, and his reach has helped grow the company. But to truly scale it, they’re investing in decentralized content, equipping each and every person at the agency with the tools to build a personal brand, audience, and platform to distribute their content.
Here’s how Peep himself put it:
“Brands should double down on building personal brands inside their companies. Not just encourage their people to be visible, but be personal brands first. People want to hear from people more than brands. And brands benefit from being associated with that person.
If you look at TikTok, all top accounts are personalities, not cat videos. Tesla does zero dollars in advertising and Elon has 50M followers. 100X more people want to hear from Dave Gerhardt than his previous employer, Privy. People want to watch Gordon Ramsey, not just a cooking show.”
Just look at my LinkedIn feed nowadays — it’s covered with Speero voices. Here’s Ben Labay, the managing director:
Often his ideas come from video interviews he conducts with experimentation leaders, which he translates into content, blog, and other formats.
Everyone at the company is incentivized and encouraged to put their learnings and thoughts out on social and on the blog as well:
This, again, creates a powerful surround sound effect. I think “wow, everyone at Speero is knowledgeable and a thought leader. They seem to be the best CRO agency.”
Here’s how Ross Hudgens, Founder at Siege Media, put it on a podcast with Peep Laja:
“I do think personal brand is a moat that is just hard to outpace. In terms of bets, we’re continuing to shift more to that personal brand mindset.
Even having content on the blog doesn’t get reach anymore as opposed to going all in on content that lives on social or LinkedIn. It’s going to get more reach than even a blog post. And we can’t compete with Ahrefs or Moz to rank for things, so we’ve been going to more social, video and text that lives there natively.”
The cool thing with Speero’s approach, like our own at Omniscient, is that they simultaneously do decentralized content marketing as well as account based marketing. They do this by getting target accounts and prospects on the podcast for interviews and generally in their media machine. This kills two birds with one stone and further increases the value of each piece of content:
KlientBoost is a super fast growing PPC firm. I’ve always admired their marketing. They actually started out with a very strong centralized content approach, as evidenced by their strong domain rating and thousands of keywords they rank for:
Now, however, I notice more and more personal brand building via social media, podcasts, and video content:
You’ll notice that employees at the company all comment and upvote each other’s posts, which increases traction and reach for the content. To me, it is reminiscent of a past content growth technique that leveraged communities like HackerNews, GrowthHackers, and Inbound.org (RIP).
Create and submit good content
Seed initial traction with a voting ring
Once initial traction occurs, content expands on its own merits
The same occurs on social media today. Get your team involved not only in creating their own content, but engaging with everyone else’s.
How to Do Decentralized Content Marketing
You’ll notice the above examples are all service businesses. They’re a natural fit for this approach for several reasons (small teams, many practitioners in the org, and TAM is limited and more targeted).
As Peep Laja put it in a podcast episode:
“Agencies in particular benefit from this as they get hired for their expertise. I want to hire the best expert. Most agencies would get 10X the results by promoting the personal brands inside a company rather than their company. In a way it’s a lot like pro sports. There’s the team brand and the athlete. Pro teams can build a brand of athletes, cash in on merchandising their brands, and top athletes can further build their brand of the team. I did it when I was growing my agency and Chris is doing the same now.”
But there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t work for other specialized organizations with strong opinions.
For example, if you sell account-based marketing software, it’s likely you have strong positions and stances as to how companies should do ABM. Sure, you could compete for keywords like “what is ABM software,” but the space is competitive and you’ll attract dilettantes and beginners.
Anytime you want to create a movement where demand doesn’t exist, cut uphill against a competitive landscape, or increase your spread with fewer resources, the decentralized approach can work.
To make it work at scale, though, you’ve got to have a few things in place:
- Bucket of Ideas
- Message Consistency Guardrails
- Channel / Message / Business Fit
- Production Capabilities and Incentives
- Repurposing and Reach Maximization
- Experimentation and Exploitation
1. Bucket of Ideas
Just like a content calendar or backlog, you need to create a rich reservoir of ideas your team can pull from to create content on various channels.
We have a spreadsheet filled with topic ideas. Most of these are fodder for Kitchen Side conversations; some are just LI or Twitter thread ideas. Some are old school, long form blog posts (like this one!).
The way we collect these ideas is decentralized, cumulative, and off the cuff. Everyone in the company pitches ideas in a Slack channel for ideas:
2. Message Consistency Guardrails
In a jazz band, everyone can go off and improv during their solo, but they have to make sure they’re playing the same song.
Positioning and brand strategy still matter. You can’t have 10 different people at a company espousing completely different opinions about their industry.
There are many ways to establish messaging consistency. It’s more of an art form than a science. Here’s what we do:
- Create company principles
- Index heavily on message testing (use Wynter) and company positioning.
- Have clear “theses” about your industry (one of ours is “content should convert,” another is “content strategy should resemble portfolio planning.”)
- Create brand style guidelines if necessary (personally, I think these are overrated and stifle creativity, but as your company scales it could become necessary).
Make these documents living breathing pieces that are constantly talked about and easily accessible in the company.
3. Channel / Message / Business Fit
Find your channels! Go where the fish are.
For us, a premium content marketing agency selling $10k+ per month packages to businesses, these are basically LinkedIn and Twitter. We also have a podcast and post to YouTube, but optimizing for LinkedIn and Twitter are key for us.
This could be vastly different depending on your context as well as your own skill set. I’ve seen B2B influencers make it happen on TikTok and Instagram, too. All depends on where your audience is hanging out and how effectively you can reach them.
When you find your channel(s), go all in. Dispersion in channels actually limits your effectiveness; focus matters when it comes to picking your battles.
4. Production Capabilities and Incentives
Hardest part of this: incentivizing team members who’s job description doesn’t read “become a Twitter influencer.”
I still haven’t completely figured this one out yet, and I don’t think any of the example companies I’ve listed have either.
A couple things that I think matter:
- It has to be a priority from the top down. Ben Labay and I are both leading the charge at our respective companies, and leading by example seems to matter.
- You can hire people who are already active on a given channel or that have a blog. This is a good signal that they are already interested in building a personal brand and sharing content.
- Create bonus structures for growth and social engagement, or gamify it. I haven’t tried this yet, but I think it’s the way we’ll end up going.
5. Repurposing and Reach Maximization
While I mentioned focus matters in picking your channel, you do want to maximize the potential reach by repurposing your content. The trick here is to spend as little effort and money as possible repurposing what you’ve done to expand to different channels.
For example, if we’re already recording the conversation, we might as well throw our video on and post it to YouTube.
We’re already creating a blog post from this content, so we might as well also create a transcript for the episode.
If you can easily chip away a paragraph for LinkedIn or Twitter or Facebook, do so.
6. Experimentation and Exploitation
An underrated aspect to the decentralized content game: you can test ideas rapidly and double down on what works.
I do that with my Twitter. I tweet like 4 times a day (schedule via Buffer). Some tweets do well, some get nothing. Tweets that generate a ton of engagement and comments I can turn into LinkedIn threads. When those do well, we know we’ve struck on a concept, and then we can work to turn that into a long form piece (like this one!) or a podcast.
Look at your decentralized channels both as a way to increase reach but also as a way to test messaging before you double down on expensive assets like long form content and ebooks.
Decentralized content marketing isn’t a tactic, it’s a mental model or strategic approach to content. Instead of running everything through a siloed centralized content team and blog, you operate more like a center of excellence and promote many individual voices in your company.
To make this work, you need a lot of strong stances, employees willing to put themselves out there consistently, and a process/system that allows for easy leverage and repurposing of content.
Consistency and having interesting things to say are key. I’ll end with a quote from Peep from his podcast:
“You need to start putting yourself out there. Step one: be consistent. On social you want to be posting every single day or multiple times a day, depending on the channels. Where are the people you want to reach? Where are they hanging out? And choose the networks that make sense for you.
Obviously if you’re consistently boring that doesn’t help your cause. You want to be consistently interesting, which of course is a high bar.”