How to Build a Content Marketing flywheel for SaaS startups19 min well spent
Growing a SaaS startup with no money and people is really hard, especially when incumbents sit nice and tight.
In 2006, Princeton graduate Aaron faced exactly that challenge and overcame it – with a smart Content Marketing strategy.
He grew his company to a juicy exit only three years after launch.
In this article, I’m explaining how he did it and why many SaaS startups approach Content Marketing from the wrong angle: they start too big.
SaaS <3 Content Marketing
Aaron knew that Content Marketing can be a goldmine for SaaS startups, but it’s not a free win. Content Marketing can help you overcome three main challenges.
First, besides increasing competition, the environment for SaaS companies is becoming harsher. There is now more content and less attention than ever before. “There is now so much content that even producing great content is not enough”, BuzzSumo says. Google turns up the prominence of ads and direct answers while giving less to organic results. Double that on mobile devices. Hence, you have to step up your game, keep traffic on your site, establish a brand, and make every click count.
Second, it takes time to get the flywheel going, but Content Marketing can build rapport upfront to shorten sales cycles. Trust is an important driver of conversion and Content Marketing is a way to foster it.
Third, ads are getting more expensive (also a result of increasing competition). Apart from that, they are a bad growth channel for startups in the early stage. But Content Marketing can get you “free” traction, all you have to pay is time. According to HubSpot, 77% of customers conduct research about a brand before they sign up for anything.
Success with Content Marketing doesn’t come easy, which makes it even more important to get it right.
Start Content Marketing as lean as possible
Everything in a startup should be “lean”: development, analytics, and even the startup itself – why not Content Marketing?
Everybody thinks they have to go all-in, but Aaron started small and grew Content Marketing with the company. I work with lots of SaaS startups in my mentoring function at a Silicon Valley accelerator and I see it almost every time. But, unless you have millions of $$$, start Content Marketing at the smallest scale possible that still yields results.
I previously wrote, “Success with Content Marketing doesn’t come easy”. That’s why you have to start small: you can iterate along the way and use feedback to create something better than when you plan everything upfront. The cost of recalibrating a big strategy is higher. Aaron understood that.
Being on a tight budget, in the beginning, Aaron’s team had to hustle. His dad was a researcher and taught him the importance of talking to people to carve out their needs. Aaron put in the work until he knew exactly who his target audience was. He knew they were frustrated by the same problems as he was. So, he set up a blog to address those problems.
He created content around the main issues and questions in the space and added sign-up forms at the bottom (new back then).
His team invited experts from the industry to guest blog.
They distributed content through Digg and Reddit.
The blog got a weekly recurring content format that highlighted personal experiences, often from the audience, like a TV show.
They published interviews with experts and figured out a clever backlink strategy with badges (don’t copy that).
In the end, the team built the most popular blog in the space and a list of 20K Email subscribers before launching the actual product!
The lesson to take away from this is not that Content Marketing is great – you know that already – but that it must be scaled. You start small, iterate and then grow – like a startup. This is called “Minimum Viable Content Marketing”.
What is Minimum Viable Content Marketing?
Minimum Viable Content Marketing (MVCM) is the idea to start with the smallest amount of content possible and then iterate based on feedback as you scale it up.
It’s a term derived from Minimum Viable Product, an idea from the lean development base. The core concept is to release an early version of your product that provides the core value, so you can iterate and refine it with customer feedback. You develop the product with your users. Why not do that with content?
To illustrate the idea, take a moment to look at these 9 city grids. Can you spot the difference between American/Canadian and European cities?
American/Canadian city grids have straight lines forming right angles, while European cities are all over the place. In Europe, many cities grew organically over thousands of years, from a small village to full metropolis. In America, cities were planned by colonies. The idea of Minimum Viable Content Marketing is to grow organically like a European city.
Scaling Content Marketing with your company
Parallel to the growth of startups, Minimum Viable Content Marketing should be scaled in three stages:
- Early stage
- Traction stage
- Growth stage
Content Marketing grows with each stage and with it the number of pages, distribution and how you measure success. Before we look at each stage in-depth, let me clarify the components.
Content Marketing distribution channels and formats
Each stage in the development of Content Marketing has a strategy, content formats, and distribution channels. As you will see in the next chapter, each section has a list like this:
“Strategy” means the strategic focus at this stage.
“Formats” are a number of content formats you can pick from to target generic keywords (inspirational list below).
Every company needs some pages by default and some are optional.
- Product landing page
Those pages should rank for brand keywords, like “Slack”, “Stride download”, “Jira pricing” etc. Some SaaS companies have pages like pricing, “how it works”, security, API, and a couple of others on top of that.
Then there’s a list of optional page formats that tackle generic keywords, like “marketing automation tool” or “app monitoring”. Those should be targeted with the content formats I mentioned earlier and list below. You can mostly pick and choose which format you want to use to target a query. It can be a blog article or a solutions page, as long as you make sure to satisfy the User Intent, it doesn’t matter.
So, when I write, “early stage, content formats: 1-2”, I mean pick 1-2 content formats from the table below and do them really well. Don’t try to create all of these formats in the beginning, that’s overkill. It’s also much easier to rank for brand keywords, which I explain in Brand vs. generic keywords.
A list of content formats to inspire you:
Content format examples
Product landing page
“Distribution” means distributing your content (within reason) over these channels:
- Social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter)
- Q&A platforms (Quora, Reddit)
- Email list
- Co-Marketing/Influencers/Content syndication
- Niche communities/forums
- Cross-posting to Medium
“Measure” means what metric groups to look at. We’ll go over a full explanation with examples in How to measure content performance.
The 3 stages of Content Marketing for SaaS startups
Now, let’s look at how each of these components scales with the stages.
Early stage – Create the foundation around Core Product Value
- Strategy: Create a foundation to build on
- Formats: 1-2
- Distribution: Guest blogging + 1-2 channels
- Measure: Traffic, engagement
At an early stage, you don’t have enough time or people to execute a full-blown Content Marketing strategy. You want to do the smallest amount of Content Marketing that drives results. Most of your time should flow into finding strong product-market fit anyways! Focus on doing a few things really well: solution pages, blog, and product landing page.Minimum Viable Content Marketing means focusing on doing a few things really well, instead of everything mediocre. Click To Tweet
It’s helpful to expand your reach with guest posting. Your own site has the higher priority, but guest articles introduce your brand to other audiences. They might get you some backlinks, but that shouldn’t be the main goal of guest articles.
In this stage, you don’t need inhouse resources. You can start with a general marketer who builds out a network of freelance writers. Don’t be sloppy, but don’t let “perfect” stop you from execution either. It will take time to get Content Marketing and SEO going, so make sure you have a steady output.
Traction stage – Expand the foundation and fill holes
- Strategy: Expand the foundation
- Formats: 2-4
- Distribution: Guest blogging + 2-4 channels
- Measure: Traffic, business impact, engagement
It’s time to add more of everything at this stage: distribution channels, content formats, landing pages, and numbers to measure. In the early stage, you want to dominate one topic. Now, you want to add a couple more landing pages and reinforce trust with use case-studies, use-cases, and webinars.
In the traction stage, Product-Market Fit should be clearly visible otherwise you have to go back to the drawing board. You have a stable number of customers, see revenue coming in and traffic should be growing. Besides traffic and engagement, you should now also start to measure business impact. It’s the right time to expand your foundation, increase the number of generic keywords and hire a full-time Content Marketer.
Growth stage – Build a flywheel
- Strategy: String distribution channels and content formats together to form a flywheel
- Formats: 5+
- Distribution: 5+ channels
- Measure: Traffic, business impact, engagement
The third and last stage is the point at which you form everything into a holistic, branded strategy. It’s also the stage at which your company should be set out to grow at scale. Your goal is to build a flywheel, meaning your metrics grow in larger proportion than your efforts. You can measure it by comparing input with output over time.To measure how effective your flywheel is, compare input vs. output over time. If you output grows faster than input, you have a flywheel. Click To Tweet
Tying everything together into one coherent strategy is much more difficult than just “adding more” of everything. For example, you don’t need much guest posting anymore at this point. Your brand should be strong enough to grow by itself and you should have enough backlinks to compete for the keywords you want to rank for in most cases.
In the Growth Stage, you play the whole keyboard of Content Marketing. You cover all channels and should have all content formats on your site. That can’t be achieved with an army of freelancers, you need to bring “the engine” inhouse. At this point, you should have hired a social media manager, head of Content Marketing, SEO, writer(s), etc.
How to measure content performance
To measure Content Marketing performance, I suggest a dashboard for overview and one for ongoing monitoring. Both contain three groups of metrics: traffic, engagement, business impact.
Here’s what that would look like:
You can grab it here: Free example spreadsheet
And this is what it would look like with (fake) numbers in it:
The goal is to get an understanding of your content performance from multiple angles. The three groups represent the shape of a funnel: people come to the site, engage, and convert. When you look at these metrics, you want to pay attention to two things: drop-offs and trends and seasonality. Measure absolute + relative numbers (total share of traffic) and WoW + YoY to see if they trend up or down. For example, when you get lots of visitors, but they don’t engage, something is wrong. Or, when your weekly numbers are down WoW, but up YoY, you are probably dealing with seasonality.
The monitoring dashboard is more for in-depth measurement. It’s not great to get a quick overview, instead helps you dive deeper into things. I gave an example on the second tab of the Free spreadsheet (with fake URLs):
Your monitoring and tracking capabilities should grow more insightful over time. They expand from two groups of metrics to three from Early to Growth Stage. Why not start with all metrics from the beginning? The reason is that you don’t have enough volume of traffic and content to measure real business impact. When you start out and overload yourself with numbers, it just slows you down.
Brand vs. generic keywords
In the beginning, your domain is “naked”. It has no authority or trust in Google’s eyes. Hence, it doesn’t make sense to tackle very competitive keywords. Instead, start with brand keywords and then add more generic keywords to the mix as your grow. This progression takes the shape of an inverse pyramid.
Early Stage startups begin at the bottom of the pyramid and then fight their way up. In each stage, the ratio of generic vs. brand grows stronger towards generic keywords. That’s why I recommend starting with one topic for blog content. One topic should still provide enough keywords to fill a content calendar for 6-12 months.
That’s what I mean when I’m talking about “building a foundation”. The inverse pyramid can only stand on its head if the pillar is strong.
Lean Content Marketing quick start guide
Now that we understand how Content Marketing grows with a company, I want to provide a “quick start guide”, to make sure the concept is clear. It covers the first five steps when you start out with Content Marketing. Over time, I’ve become a big fan of this iterative process. You could call it “agile”. The idea is to start with basic content and then expand according to Google’s suggestions. “How does that work?”, you ask. “Let me show you”, I say.
Step 1: Start with Core Product Value
When you know the Core product Value of your product, you know the first topic to create content for. I mentioned earlier that you should start with one topic in the Early Stage, and then cover more as your company grows.
Say you are New Relic and your product application monitoring. Your core product value is helping companies to build better applications, so that should be your first topic. There’s so much to cover, not only “what is app development” and “why is app development important”. Those are the boring queries. The exciting ones are the space around “how to build an app”, around which you can create content for days and in the process create your own audience. But if that’s too SMB and not enterprise enough, how about “ios app development”, “android app development” and “cross-platform app development”? Those are juicy topics!
The benefit of starting with Core Product Value is that you create content that’s directly related to your product and easy to write for you.
Step 2: Do the research
Sure, when you create content, you should do some classic keyword research. But in this section, I’m talking more about customer interviews and surveys. Insert yourself in the process, listen to recordings, or reach out to customers yourself. Pay attention to recurring topics/questions/problems and use them for problem-driven keyword research. The better the research, the better the end result.The better the research, the better the end result. Click To Tweet
Step 3: Create blog articles for one topic
Remember how I said you should create content for only one topic in the Early Stage? This is the time to do it.
Blogging is a core part of Content Marketing, but a huge mistake you can make is to blog for blogging’s sake. Instead, you need a strategy. When you plan content for your blog, start with one topic and cover it completely before you move to the next one! Research all questions and problems around the topic and create one article for each of them. It’s easier to own a niche than attacking the whole market.Blogging is not Content Marketing Click To Tweet
In my article on keyword research, I explained what I mean with “topic”:
“If we’re thinking of “topic clusters” as invented by Hubspot, topics are perfect pillar pages and questions cluster content. […] A good content marketing strategy considers topics, problems, and queries.
A solid list of questions is vital to discover the most relevant queries and topics in your space. Starting the research with questions makes it easier to put the pieces together and uncover the underlying problems and bigger topics.
Group problems into a topic because Google measures topical relevance. It’s smarter to create content for one topic first and then advance to the next one to forge expertise. When trying to identify the topic, look at the connection between questions. Try to abstract the group they belong to. You could also replace topic with “entity” if you’re more familiar with that concept.”
When you publish content, make sure you can keep a certain frequency. Once every other day is too high for the Early Stage, once a month is too low, once a week is a good average. In best case, you can publish content at the same time of the day to make it a habit for readers to come to your blog. Almost like a TV show.
Don’t shy away from long and short content. A good blog has both. Make sure your articles link to each other and cover the topic in its entirety.
Next, you want to build content around your product, such as the product landing page, feature page, solution page(s).
You could also create solution pages for Core Product Value, but I’d rather focus them on value from specific features of your product. Our messenger “Stride” has video and screen sharing functionality, for example. So, we created solution pages for “video conferencing” and “screen sharing”.
Step 5: Iterate on content
After you’ve built out some content, let it guide you. Look what queries your pages get impressions in Google Search Console and build content for that.
This is an “agile” way of creating content: you start out with the basics and then iterate based on where Google guides you. Be aware, though, that at some point you have to cover other topics. You cannot use this iterative method infinitely.
Build a Content Marketing flywheel
Rome wasn’t built in a day. It was built brick by brick – and so should your Content Marketing strategy.
In the end, Aaron’s blog drove more traffic than competitors’ entire sites and became the #1 blog for personal finance on the web. He started building it 9 months before launching his product, Mint, which sold for $170M to Intuit. One of his earliest employees was Noah Kagan who has repeatedly written about how he grew Mint on his site.
Every SaaS company that wants to grow with Content Marketing should aim to build a flywheel, an engine that grows on a compound-basis. In so far, this article is a prequel to my piece on Land & Expand a.k.a. The SaaS Flywheel.