Beating incumbents at content in competitive spaces

Beating incumbents at content in competitive spaces

Edd Wilson asks: How do you plan content investment for new companies/brands in competitive spaces?

  • I assume we’re talking about a SaaS company because ecommerce or marketplaces have different dynamics (see aggregators vs integrators).
  • I also assume “content investment” is about the creation of editorial content instead of the unit economics behind content.

Over the last decade, I’ve Led SEO and content teams across companies like Shopify, G2 and Atlassian and advised companies like Ramp or Snapchat in content strategy.

🔑 In my journey, I came across 4 key mistakes when planning content in competitive spaces:

  1. Underestimate what it takes to create really good content
  2. Have no content strategy
  3. Don’t assess competitors
  4. Ignore product advantage

Why it matters: It takes time to catch up with incumbents. Choosing the wrong strategy or having none wastes time, capital and gives incumbents time to build defenses.

The problem: going heads-on with incumbents who have more resources, an established brand, and topical authority is a losing battle. You need a strategy that focuses on key insights, weak points and leverage. Jumping into keyword research and content creation too quickly wastes time and resources.

Here is how to solve it better:

➡️Find the key insight

Effective strategies are built around key insights (about the market, competitors or customers), guiding policies and coherent actions. Most marketers tend to jump straight into coherent actions without paying attention to key insights, leading them to miss important factors.

Key insights (for content strategies):

  • Content and target keywords of incumbents
  • Problems your audience faces
  • Use cases of your products
  • Market trends

Dive into their content inventory and target keywords to get a topic map of opportunities and challenges:

  1. Crawl their site or XML sitemap
  2. Alternatively, export pages and keywords in Semrush (Organic Research → Pages) or Ahrefs (Site Explorer → Top Pages)
  3. Map pages to keywords (if not exported already) and look at where incumbents are winning
  4. Research keywords that fit the topics incumbents target and your product but are not covered by the incumbent
  5. Match the results with customer research

Next, find your competitive advantage:

➡️Define your content strategy around your product advantage

An uncomfortable truth: most search-focused content is a commodity and not very defensible.

  • The idea of the skyscraper method, creating marginally better content than what’s ranking, is still very popular. It worked for a long time - and still does. But it also causes trench wars. Incumbents improve their content to fight off attackers who, in return, improve their content. The only way around it is to build content moats.

To build content moats, you need to answer the question, “how is your product better than the competition?”.

  • If your product is not differentiated, all the SEO traffic in the world isn’t going to help you because customers won’t stick around long enough to build a meaningful business. On the other hand, the way your product is differentiated shows you the way to building content.

A differentiated product can:

  • Be faster
  • Be cheaper
  • Have better features
  • Have a better user experience
  • Have better distribution
  • Go after a different target audience
  • Have a mix of all of the above

💡 Building your content strategy around your product advantage allows you to go after relevant longtail keywords that appeal to your ICP (Ideal Customer Profile) and lead to better converting traffic.

  • Example: your product is a faster database. Instead of going after “relational database”, which has high search demand but also high competition, go after keywords like “fast database” with much lower search demand but also less competition, to lean into your product advantage.
  • Another example: your product makes project management super simple by rolling tasks up into roadmap. Instead of going after the hypercompetitive keyword “task management”, target the more suitable “project management roadmap”.

⚔️ Attack where opponents are weak and you’re strong, not where you’re weak, and they’re strong:

  • Focus on product-relevant longtail keywords. They’re less competitive and establish topical authority from the bottom up. As you grow, you can target more competitive terms. Consider that the faster you drive organic traffic, the quicker you can validate whether the traffic drives customers.
  • Go deep where incumbents have to stay broad. Large brands often cover many topics but focus on high-search volume keywords. Small keywords are not impactful enough, which means they drive lots of organic traffic but stay vulnerable for sites that specialize in one of the topics. As a newcomer, you want to cover all keywords within a topic before moving on to the next, starting with the least competitive ones.
  • Prioritize keywords that are gaining search volume. Industries and consumer behavior change. By identifying growing topics, you get a head start. Logically, stay away from keywords with shrinking search volume. Jumping on trending topics / newsworthy keywords can be another way to compete in an equal playing field.

After you’ve found advantages and weak points, build leverage:

➡️Build points of leverage

If you’re the challenger, you likely cannot compete on resources. Leverage is getting big returns for small efforts. A good content strategy leans into actions that are hard to replicate and give you bigger returns for your investments.

🏗️ You can build leverage across four dimensions:

  • Attack incumbents by focusing on different types of content than them. Invest in a mix of search-focused content, data stories and editorial content to grow your brand and backlinks.
  • You can out-execute competitors by building out more or deeper content and creating it at a faster rate. However, it’s one of the hardest paths since incumbents often have higher budgets and more resources.
  • Build on a better tech stack (CMS) and / or design, enabling you to create better content and ship faster. Platform migrations can be long and painful, meaning incumbents are much slower to adapt.
  • Partner with or hire experts to create content on your blog and highlight them with bylines and author pages.

Beating incumbents is not a matter of a single factor, like longer content, but a series of decisions.

➡️Putting it all together

Your content strategy should live in a written document you can use to inform and align everyone involved in the process. You can customize it, but make sure it includes:

  1. Competitor strengths & weaknesses
  2. Your product advantage and leverage
  3. Where and how you want to compete
  4. Actions you want to take

Avoid these traps:

  1. Don’t scale output before getting quality right
  2. Define very clearly how you stand out from the competition
  3. Know your target audience
  4. Embrace brand guidelines in your content
  5. Consistency: don’t start hot out the gates and then slow down