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Content Marketing for Bootstrapped Startups

There are very few marketing strategies where your budget is practically guaranteed to provide a compound investment, but when done right, content marketing is one of them.

I started writing blog posts for Draft.dev two years ago and initially, they’d bring in just a handful of visitors each per month. But, I kept at it and even hired other people to write for me, and now we get some 12,000 visitors a month through organic channels alone. 

We’re paying nothing to receive these visits, whereas our competitors who run paid ads would have to pay close to $24,000 to get the same traffic. What’s more, the more you invest in content marketing and the longer you keep at it, the better your results get and the cheaper it is to acheive those results.

Content marketing may take time to get going, but it generates much higher ROI in the long term than most other channels. As I’ll explore in this article, this makes content an ideal strategy for ‘bootstrapped’ or self-funded companies who have a longer time horizon than venture-backed startups.

Why Content Is Ideal for Bootstrapped Startups

Venture capital funding leads to some interesting spending patterns. By taking cash from investors, founders are committing to show very fast results. This makes channels like paid ads or cold outreach more appealing as they tend to generate more short-term results.

The problem with paid ads is that the results scale linearly until you reach market penetration, making them less efficient than other channels in the long run. Let’s say you spend $2000 a month on paid ads and get 1000 visitors. If you want 2000 visitors, you now have to spend at least $4000. Often, as you spend more, you’ll have to stretch into less relevant results and end up lowering your conversion rate, making paid ads less economical as they scale.

Now let’s say you spend $5000 a month on a targeted content marketing strategy. Within four to six months, you could easily reach 1000 visitors every month, even if you stop creating content for a month or two. Organic traffic has a tendency to compound over time (assuming you don’t wait too long as eventually, it will get stale).

Content takes longer to pay off, but after a certain point, it consistently generates traffic that you no longer have to work or pay for. 

Having said that, content works best when there is a sizable audience to read it.

According to Carly Cais, Founder at RevvSpark, content marketing is an effective customer acquisition strategy for startups that have at least 10 customers and have demonstrated initial product-market fit. “I would not recommend diving into content creation beyond a simple website until a startup has customers that they can learn from.”

Benefits of Content Marketing

While the long-term ROI is excellent, this return is just one among a multitude of reasons you should consider content marketing for your business.

1. Content Helps You Build a Following

Quality content has the ability to educate, entertain, and create positive experiences for your readers. This prompts them to keep coming back for more and even share your pieces on their channels. Persisting with thoughtful, original content can help you build a large following of potential customers.

2. Improves Visibility for Your Business

SEO-optimized content is a no-brainer for a lot of reasons. It educates your existing readers, but also helps new readers discover your content through the keywords you’ve embedded in it. It also helps improve the domain authority and search ranking of your website as a whole, making it easier for people to find you. 

3. Generates Better Quality Leads

Content is excellent for driving leads and customers for your brand. You can do this either by placing calls-to-action (CTAs) directly in your content or targeting your readers via email. What’s more, inbound marketing helps generate much better quality leads than outbound, since content helps you earn trust before the sales call.

4. Positions You as an Authority in the Industry

A great blog can help build credibility, helping readers find information on the subject and positioning you as an industry expert. Sometimes trading off this reputation is enough to win you customers or at least traffic from other industry experts who respect you.

Tips for Effective Content Marketing

Marketing is much closer to a science than an art. There are simple, repeatable frameworks you can rely on to build a content marketing engine that delivers consistently. I built thisisgoodmarketing.com in partnership with Manuel Weiss to help startups do just that.

In our in-depth courses, we break down content marketing into a basic formula that you can implement to drive measurable results. In short:

1. Define Your Business Objectives

The first step to executing a successful content strategy is defining your business objectives. It sounds like basic advice, but you’d be surprised at how many companies make the mistake of publishing random pieces without a coherent strategy behind them. This will likely get you limited results even in the long term. 

Decide what you’re aiming for — brand awareness, search ranking, or leads — and then set achievable targets for it. This will then inform all your downstream decisions, including your topics, the kind of content you create, where you publish it, how often you publish it, and so on. 

2. Be Strategic About Keywords 

A keyword strategy is a cornerstone of your SEO efforts and will determine the direction in which your business grows. 

Let’s say you run a fintech startup that offers banking solutions for Zoomers. Presumably, solutions like simplified retail payments and access to credit would be key. Life insurance and mortgages — not so much. Before you push out content, you’ll need to embed it with keywords that target these specific pain points. What’s more, your keywords groups will need to be fairly consistent across all your content, including your website, blogs, and guest posts. This:

  1. ensures that all your content efforts are pulling in the same direction; and
  2. teaches the search algorithm what your business is exactly about and helps improve your ranking for those keywords. 

In general, keyword strategy tends to be a mix of good research and technical skills and a basic grasp of human psychology. Let’s consider the example of a company that builds cooking processors. Now the keyword “cooking robot” can be quite competitive within the industry. However, a street-smart marketer might divine that other keywords, such as “home chef” or “daily meals delivery,” are likely users searching for a solution to the same problem — assisted cooking; they’ve just never heard of a cooking robot before. 

Creative keyword targeting like this can get you traffic your rivals aren’t even competing for. This is important because keywords with high search volumes and high difficulty aren’t a realistic match for startups with low domain authority. It’s easier to rank your website for keywords which are less competitive. 

Semrush and Ahrefs both have tools that you can use to gauge various keyword metrics. You can also use them to explore keyword ideas for your brand and strike a balance between attracting traffic and easily ranking your website. 

People often find backlining a stressful process. There are many reasons link building campaigns fail, but there are two main ones:

  1. Your content is simply not good enough. 
  2. It’s not relevant to the needs of top webmasters in your space.  

Moz’s classic ‘How to Rank’ guide recommends that you should focus 50% of your time creating the content and 50% promoting it. 

If you really want to rank for something, first ask yourself: How is your content better than that which is currently ranking for a specific keyword? Is it providing genuine value to the reader in exchange for the potential traffic?

Next, add information in your piece that makes it likely to be picked up by relevant websites. Backlinks from random websites which aren’t connected to your business won’t do you much good. This is because content “usefulness” (indicated by domain authority and popularity of the page) is believed to be Google’s overarching criteria for ranking a page. The more people share your content contextually, the more “useful” it is.

If you’re in the middle of scaling your startup and don’t have a lot of time or money to spend on premium backlinks, there are some tried-and-tested fallbacks for you. Early on at Draft.dev, our solve for this was publishing a lot of guest posts on relevant forums and pitching quotes to journalists on HARO

This was a good starting point and helped improve our domain authority and grow our traffic. Once we were ready to start ranking specific articles (usually a tricker prospect), we hired an outreach specialist to help us build quality backlinks for each piece.

4. Adapt Content to Suit Your Needs

Different types of content have different strengths and weaknesses. 

Blog articles are a staple of most content strategies. They’re a top-of-the-funnel (ToFu) mechanism perfect for a range of things, including SEO, starting a conversation with your audience, educating them, and thought leadership. With every article, it’s important to be really intentional about what you want it to do in relation to the buyer journey.

“We have a spreadsheet that maps all of this out for every article we have. It says where in the buyer journey and where in the funnel [that article] is so that we can align calls-to-action, whether that’s ‘Start a Trial’, ‘Join an Email List’, or ‘Here’s a Download.’ The goal of every piece is not to convert somebody to some kind of event; there can be pieces that are just for [backlinks].

Early-stage, especially bootstrapped, startups should just focus on bottom-of-the-funnel pieces, just because it’s so much easier to see the benefit and business impact of those” - Craig Hewitt, Founder at Castos

Bottom-of-the-funnel (BoFu) pieces such as case studies, product demos, onboarding content, FAQs, and worksheets are typically targeted to users who are ready to make a purchase decision. Also called sales enablement content, it’s perfect for startups that are in a niche space where there aren’t a lot of online searches for your product. In these situations, an organic strategy is often redundant, but targeted content can still support your sales team’s efforts and help convert your prospects. 

5. Partner With Experts

The key to creating good content is having a great strategist at the helm who is also a savvy budgeter for these initiatives. If you have deep experience executing a content strategy, you might be able to manage everything in-house. This comes with associated costs, including continuous research on industry trends, SEO alignment, hiring writers, graphics, and so on. 

If you’re light on time or expertise in-house, you could outsource it, as Cais advocates, “If the Head of Marketing needs some assistance with strategy, custom graphics, measurement, brand voice, and meeting the technical requirements for a piece of content (SEO keywording and content structure best practices, for example), then working with an agency will be extremely effective. It will also help provide an operational process to content creation that may not yet exist at the company. Why reinvent the wheel when you can piggyback off of SOPs that are dialed in already?”

Roundup: Common Mistakes to Avoid

There are lots of reasons why content marketing fails for companies, but they usually stem from inconsistency and a failure to understand how content works. Here are some of the common pitfalls to avoid: 

1. Not Sticking With It

When you pull out of content too early, you don’t reap the benefits and you create sunk costs. According to Hewitt, it takes at least a year to start seeing solid returns, but the wait is worth it, “We’ve been writing about podcasting for about seven years and now we can rank for things with medium keyword difficulty like 20 in about a month.” 

2. Lacking a Strategy 

There has to be a reason, driven by strategic intent, for every piece you create, whether that’s to rank for a keyword, drive link equity, educate your prospects, prompt a conversion, and so on. You can’t afford the time and money you’ll waste creating random content.  

3. Ignoring Distribution 

Content needs a distribution mechanism. Often, once people have created a great piece of content and managed to get half a dozen websites to link to it, they’ll think their job is done. Track your page traffic and ranking once you’ve built your links. If it doesn’t improve in two months, you know you need to build better quality links. Keep sharing and resharing your pieces on your social channels so that they get picked up by more people.

Content can deliver outstanding results for bootstrapped startups, but you have to do it right. A lot of startups who realize the benefits of content fail at execution. If you’re uncertain of how to go about it, consult an expert.

Karl Hughes

By Karl Hughes

Karl is a former startup CTO and the founder of Draft.dev. He writes about technical blogging and content management.