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Lost in the Content Marketing Forest

While most of our clients are larger now, I worked directly with a lot of founders at early-stage startups in my first few months at Draft.dev. I like working with founders; they are passionate, enthusiastic, and typically quick learners. On the flip side, they can be tough to please. Because they care about every detail and know their product better than anyone, some of them can be very hard to work with.

There’s a fine line between having trust issues and high standards, but founders who don’t learn to delegate will be a huge detriment to their business. I could talk about this problem in engineering, product development, and sales, but today I’m going to focus on marketing.

The Mind of a Founder

First, let me say that I empathize with founders who struggle to delegate. Many first-time founders are stepping into their very first management role, and even if they’ve led teams before, they might not have had good role models to guide them in the past.

Plus, a lot is on the line. When you start a business, that business is a piece of you. It’s really hard to sit back and watch other people screw little bits of it up.

Even if with a great team, most founders are used to being “the voice of the company.” This makes it especially hard to pass blogging, customer communication, and sales functions off to others who don’t have the same history and context.

The founders who struggle to scale their content marketing efforts tend to fall into one of the following buckets:

The Perfectionist

My background is in software engineering, so when I first started hiring other writers to produce technical content, it was a struggle. I would comb through every line of code and refactor it based on my preferences. I didn’t realize that nobody reading this tutorial would discount the whole thing if the writer preferred camelCase to snake_case.

Founders who fall into this same trap likely have a long backlog of blog posts to approve. They become the bottleneck, and while the content that finally makes it to the blog will undoubtedly be great, this strategy won’t work at scale.

The Ideator

Another common pitfall is having too many ideas with too little focus. It’s okay to be a little more scattered in your approach to content marketing in the early days, but if your posts randomly oscillate between 300-word release updates, video announcements, 2000-word tutorials, and short news commentary, it’s really hard for readers (or search engines) to know what to expect.

Ideator founders treat their startup’s blog like a personal blog with little focus on keywords, types of content, or formats. Again, it’s fine to do this when you’re early on and just finding your footing, but this is not a scalable content marketing strategy.

The DIYer

Finally, some founders just like doing everything themselves. Sometimes it’s a matter of money (I’ll admit, high-quality technical content is not cheap), and sometimes it’s therapeutic. Founders who are strong, prolific writers can pull this off for years, but it gets harder the bigger the company gets.

In the early days, I think it’s fantastic when founders are very involved in their company’s blog. In fact, they should probably be creating most of the content and testing lots of ideas and formats in the first year or two.

But, the story changes if you want to use content marketing as a sustainable, scalable growth channel. This is typically why startups transition away from founder-led blogs by the time they raise a Series A or B and why we usually don’t work with startups before that stage.

The Forest and the Trees in Content Marketing

While most move on, some founders get stuck in these unscalable content production patterns for way too long. There’s an expression common in the United States that describes them perfectly:

“They can’t see the forest for the trees.”

The forest and the trees in content marketing

The Forest: Consistent Content That Helps Our Audience

When it comes to building a scalable content marketing engine, your primary target should be producing helpful content consistently.

“When we create something, we think, is it really useful to our customers? Will they thank us for it? I think if you think of things through that lens, it just clarifies what you’re doing in such a simple, elegant way.” - Ann Handley

Founders who do manage to scale their content marketing efforts are the ones who face the challenge with this degree of pragmatism. They realize that plenty of people besides them can produce helpful, high-quality content.

Take DigitalOcean’s content marketing strategy. They’ve been running a community-writing program for over a decade where they’ve invested roughly $1000 per article to create dozens of articles per month. With over 5000 tutorials now on the site, they’re now generating something like 10 million visits per month.

Was every article they’ve produced the best piece ever? Did their founders painstakingly and lovingly approve each one?

No. Instead, they allow developers to pitch ideas that they think would be useful and interesting to write about. Over time, these unique pieces of content have snowballed into millions of monthly visitors and a steady stream of new customers. The founders helped set this in motion, but eventually, they stepped away and built processes that allowed their team to scale these content efforts.

While output is just one part of what has made DigitalOcean so successful (promoting their work and >$100 million in funding helped too), increasing your output of useful content is essential to content marketing success.

The Trees: Everything Else

So what holds some founders back when it comes to content marketing?

Usually, it’s the details:

There’s a lot to this whole content marketing thing, so rather than document and handoff all these processes, some founders think it will be easier to do it all themselves. In the short term, they’re right, but in the long-term, founders must let go of the trees to keep an eye on the forest.

How to Scale Your Content

If you see yourself in the descriptions above or you know a founder who’s having trouble letting someone else handle their content marketing efforts, here are a few things you can try:

1. Start Small

Let someone on your team write a few blog posts. Try hiring an external editor to do line editing and implement some editorial standards.

You don’t have to immediately outsource your whole content creation process, but you do need to get comfortable passing pieces of it off to other people. As you do, you’ll run into problems. Someone will write a post that isn’t very good or an error will slip by your team and make it to the blog. You’ll realize that 99.99% of these small mistakes don’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things.

2. Invest in a Plan

I typically steer early-stage startups away from consultants, but if you’re at the point where you want to take content marketing more seriously, working with a specialist is an excellent way to get started. A content marketing consultant will usually help you come up with some ideas, do keyword research, and help you implement tools to capture the most value out of each blog post.

We don’t do advising in this area, but I typically recommend Manuel Weiss or John-Henry Scherck to tech startups looking for content marketing advice.

3. Stay Connected to Readers

As you let go of the execution of your content marketing strategy, that doesn’t mean you have to disconnect from readers. Share content on your social media regularly and ask customers, subscribers, and people in your network if they’re reading your blog. Just because you’re not writing everything doesn’t mean you can’t use your blog to accelerate existing relationships.

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.