Every time you turn around, someone is going to tell you something different about content marketing and content strategy. From the old and often repeated adage that “content is king” to the seemingly annual cries of “content marketing is dead” the debate seems to rage on. To debunk all of those things is to take a middle of the road stance. While not always popular, it does seem to prove to be true.
That middle of the road strategy says a few key things:
- For some websites, a blog is not essential, especially product or store sites. These should be updated and optimized often enough that a blog is not critical to rankings, but it might still be useful.
- For most service websites, a blog is a critical tool in improving search engine rankings, primarily because the blog itself can bring organic traffic, and it provides linkable content that entices other sites to organically link to it.
- A link building campaign is nearly useless without good, linkable content.
- A PPC campaign is virtually useless without good landing pages and calls to action.
- Goals are essential to content strategy success.
What is content strategy really? Instead of just starting your blog and putting random posts on it, usually whatever you feel like at the moment, you intentionally plan your blog structure to draw traffic through something called Google gravity.
What is this blog structure, what is it made up of, and how does it work? Here are all of the moving parts.
The Pillar Approach
This approach has been called by other names and has been used extensively in various forms. So while not entirely original, the pillar approach for content creation by Unbound Media is unique in the way we approach things. This is based on a thought process actually born in the museum world.
When analyzing museum visitors, or shoppers, or any number of customers, you will essentially observer four types of people. These types also correlate with internet users as well. The types have some general characteristics and for your blog to be effective, you must understand them.
These users are typically looking for quick answers to questions or short blog posts, general product descriptions, or simple instructions. They will visit your website, but only specific posts or pages to get the information they are looking for.
If they do spend any time on other pages, it is usually because they did not find the information they wanted on the first page they landed on. If they don’t find the answers they are looking for within a couple of pages, they will move on to your competitors or another website.
The best content for streakers is short-form content, usually under 500 words, photos, short videos, and simple FAQ pages with a search feature.
Strollers are looking for a bit more than streakers. While streakers usually have nearly made up their minds or are looking for specific answers, usually a stroller knows they have a need or a want, but they have no idea how to solve it. They are strolling around, shopping for answers. It’s similar to someone new to running looking for running shoes in a shoe store: they know they need running shoes, but they are trying to match the type of shoes available with the type of running they will be doing.
Often, these users do not know the definition of various terms, they are just learning what certain styles and sizes mean, and they need some education. They aren’t at the point where they are studying a product or service in particular. They are at the curiosity stage of the sales funnel and are looking for answers.
Mid-length content does best for these users, along with product descriptions with a secondary description of features and specifications. By far, this is the most common type of internet visitor: the curious, strolling around looking for solutions.
While most internet users stop at the streaker or stroller stage and make a purchase or end a search based on the information they find there, a studier is quite the opposite. They are looking for deeper answers, white papers, case studies, customer reviews, and more.
Literally this kind of user is studying the various solutions to their need or want. Often this user arrives on your site as a part of a multi-thread search maybe even through strategically placed links or your part, or even PPC ads.
This type of user is often looking to make a major purchase, commit to a long-term service relationship, or is frugal and looking to thoroughly ferret out the best value for their money. Most often these are the users who will fill out contact forms with questions, comment on long form articles, and watch longer informational videos. They will also subscribe to your blog (if it is good) and listen to podcasts.
Thus long form content, detailed videos, descriptions of not only features but benefits and in-depth specifications will appeal to these users. Studiers are more likely to share your content with others in their network.
While rarer that strollers or streakers, studiers will be your most engaged audience most of the time. This is an often-neglected area of content strategy, but one that draws a lot of organic traffic over a long period of time.
It is essential that most of these pieces be as evergreen as possible, as they take the longest to create and cost your company the most. However, they also often offer the greatest return. If you don’t believe long-form content is relevant and useful in a world of mobile devices and smaller screens, read Neal Patel’s article on Why 3000+ Word Blog Posts Get More Traffic. The answer is not drive just by supposition, but by hard earned data.
The rarest type of internet users, researchers like some of the same material studiers do. They are often looking at it for different reasons though. Researchers are often academics, students, journalists, or others looking for definitive studies, white papers, and academic material to prove a certain position.
The good thing about this user is that they will credit your work, share it with friends and colleagues, and often link to your website from reputable domains. The downside is that most websites don’t even have this type of content on them at all.
This is because case studies and controlled academic studies are expensive and challenging to do. However, this can be solved by creating your own synopsis of these types of studies in your field. They can still be cited, and they build your expertise as you show both users and search engines that you know your stuff.
What do all of these user types have to do with the pillar approach to content strategy? Here is where we get to the nuts and bolts portion of building a pillar, essentially a digital structure made up of content that appeals to all of these kinds of users.
The overall goal is to write compelling content that turns streakers into strollers, strollers into studiers, and results in higher conversion rates, more engagement, and in the long run more organic traffic.
What is a Pillar?
The pillar approach has also been called cornerstone content, island building, and others. The point is that in a pillar, you have a central piece of long-form content, kind of like this piece here. One that piece is constructed, you create little posts around it designed to support the pillar. These pieces, besides containing external links to authoritative sites, also contain internal links pointing to other content in the pillar, and perhaps other content on your website.
As each piece of content is created, the pillar piece is updated to link to those pieces as well. Essentially you are creating an ever-growing network around the pillar. The reason this is often called the island approach is because you are creating several islands around a central piece of content The links are like roads that make it easier for a user to travel between pieces of content. They also show Google that this content is important and create that oh-so-valuable Google gravity.
The pillar itself consists of the large, long-form content and all of the pieces surrounding it. Within the larger pillar, there can also be smaller pillars. For example, if you are creating a pillar around content strategy, you could have other smaller pillars about short and long form content and have articles under those smaller pillars that relate to both the sub-pillar and the long form pillar article.
What’s the Pillar About?
Typically, a pillar is about a key part of your business. For instance, if you are a Real Estate agent, one pillar on your blog might be about current market trends in your area. One local realtor sends out market updates as part of their ongoing newsletter. The update is a simple set of data: current months of inventory, average time of a home on the market, and average percentage of selling price the seller gets.
This information tells buyers and sellers what kind of market it is right now, and what the projections are for that market to continue. Links in the email newsletter lead to blog posts on the site that define what those numbers mean and have more detailed information.
The tactic is brilliant. It draws visitors to the site, but it also illustrates that the agency and presumably its agents are in touch with the market, and as a result can serve both sellers and buyers equally well. When thinking of listing a home or recommending a realtor, they are always top on my mind, because I constantly see them.
This is just one example. An integrated pillar with internal links, external links pointing to it, and a robust email list that sees frequent updates all work together for an inbound marketing strategy that focuses on one part of the expertise of the agency: the market.
They key takeaways are these:
- The subject of the pillar is a central part of your business
- Your website can (should) have more than one pillar
- Pillars are never really done. They are always being updated even after they are built
- Even if the pillar has a specific focus, it can link to other pillars and sub pillars to make it even more effective.
Remember, the goal of each pillar is to build Google gravity in a certain area of expertise to build your business and your website as an authority in that area. If you have more than one area of expertise you want to be known for, you need more than one pillar.
What is in the Pillar?
We talked already about the different types of internet users: streakers, strollers, studiers, and researchers. Your pillar should have content that appeals to all of them as much as possible. This means your content pillar will have several things (ideally)
This post is an example of long form content. It is over 2,000 words long and has a lot of data on a lot of different aspects of the same topic. This is an example of a pillar article, but you can within your pillar have other long form content that serves as a sub-pillar or a support for the main pillar.
For instance, there can be an entire article on long form content and why it is important, how to write it, etc. This can be a sub-pillar linked to by several smaller articles about specific aspects of long-form content.
As we stated before, this is the most common type of content on the web. Blog posts that are between 700 and 1200 words that focus on various aspects of a specific topic. For instance, on a tire blog you might find posts that compare on and off road tires, but also that talk about cars in general, like TireBuyer.com and their “Corvette Corner.”
The posts on their blog talk about various aspects of cars and automobiles, and is based on the principle that as long as we have cars, we will need tires (until they fly, and even then you will have to land sometime). The pillars surround different types of driving or different cars, intentionally appealing to specific buyers.
Of course, this is just one aspect of their blog and marketing strategy, but it is the largest and most common segment of posts. The reason is they are very digestible, contain something of value to the reader, and link to the other posts in the pillar, building valuable Google gravity.
This is something you can do with your site as well. These posts also are some of the most linkable content when you are conducting link-building campaigns (another topic entirely), but without content to link to, link building campaigns don’t do much for you unless you get an extremely high volume of links.
In the world of mobile devices and voice first speakers like Google Home, the Amazon Echo series, and the new Apple offering of the Home Pod, short form content makes sense for some things. For streakers, it is an essential part of your marketing strategy, and you should have a lot of this kind of content circling your pillar.
The good news is this type of content is the cheapest to produce. It is also relatively easy to ideate. Take questions your customers are asking, or ones that are common in your industry and answer them in under 300 words. Use a headline with a simple definition at the beginning, and you can easily rank high in voice search for those queries.
The key is to find common queries and those questions you can answer simply and provide the best answers you can. Even local sites with lower DA and traffic have ranked #1 in certain voice first searches and categories because they simply have the best answer around.
Photos, Video, and More
Yes, the three basic types of content are long form, mid-length, and short form, but there are of course other types of content. There are photo guides, video, audio, podcasting, infographics, and more. These all appeal to different types of users and are quite beneficial to traffic and conversions.
These elements, while cool, should be an integrated part of your pillar thinking. What are you trying to rank for? Make sure that video and other material can be tied to and linked to those elements and topics.
Remember, your pillar should be focused on a topic and area of expertise. You can and should have more than one pillar on your website. No matter what is in the pillar and how creative you are, it should appeal to as many users as possible, and you should intentionally build external links to it as well.
Content strategy is all about reaching goals. Without a target, you can’t hit it. A shotgun approach works sometimes, but results are hard to duplicate and it’s even harder to determine ROI. A pillar allows you to focus, set goals, reach them and keep building on them. At the same time, adding another pillar increases your ability to focus on the next goal, and so on.
In this way, inbound marketing becomes scalable, measurable, and manageable. It’s not magic, and expertise and Google gravity are something you can create and manage.
Inbound marketing and a pillar approach is not a replacement for the rest of your marketing strategy. It is simply one tool in the toolbox, but a very valuable one. Paid ads, PPC, and other campaigns can be structured around and because of your content.
Have questions? Want a content strategy consultation, or simply need some content for your current blog? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and get started today.
Also published on Medium.