“I need a way to stay connected with clients and prospects.”
That very thought, in the spring of 2007, was our first step on the long road of content marketing.
‘Content marketing’ wasn’t really a thing yet. But blogging was becoming popular. And a lot of companies were launching ‘e-newsletters’ and sending ‘email blasts.’
“Maybe if I write an article and send it in an email, they’ll think of us when they need a new site.”
I knew that an article, sent to our short list of clients, prospects and friends, could bring visitors to our site and maybe help keep us top-of-mind. We do web development which is something you only need every 3-5 years. The goal was to stay relevant in the interim.
So we started building a content program, one that would eventually involve various formats and publishing frequencies. Here you can see just how it evolved over the span of 15 years.
There have been plenty of missteps and failures along the way. But overall it’s been very successful. This strategy has not just attracted millions of visitors, but hundreds of qualified leads per year, leading to millions in sales, directly attributable to this program.
Orbit generates $7M in annual revenue, supports 48 Orbiteers and their families, all with a 100% content-driven approach to marketing.
We do not advertise.
There are many businesses with similar strategies and results. This isn’t an uncommon story. This is the evolution of one B2B content strategy.
Phase 1: Small potatoes
2007-2010: Blog Posts, Newsletter
We needed an efficient way to keep in touch with dozens of clients and leads over time.
So on a sunny afternoon in 2007, I sat down and wrote three articles. We began publishing a few months later starting with this little article. Yes, it’s still live.
This was not a very strategic effort. It wasn’t really a plan at all. But it did have some of the basic elements of content strategy: topics, formats and frequency.
Blog posts (irregular intervals)
These were short posts, published every month or two, mostly on website related topics: website planning, mobile websites, etc. Naturally, these topics were directly related to our services, but never promotional.
The list started with the 250 addresses we had from our direct connections: clients, friends, family, people we’d met at networking events. We had personally met everyone on this list, so email open rates were amazing. 70% of recipients opened the first emails.
This was sufficient. It met the goal of staying connected with existing contacts. Even if they didn’t click to read the article, sending an email helped keep us top of mind. We weren’t investing a lot of time, so we were thrilled to see any feedback from the audience.
Align your expectations with your efforts and you won’t be disappointed.
What we learned in phase one
When your goal is to stay visible to a small group of people, pageviews don’t matter. If you send an article and it starts a conversation with a few contacts, that’s success. A few clients responded? Success! An old friend commented? Success!
Content marketing on this scale is about staying visible to a small group and starting conversations.
Traffic was never the only goal. The goal has always been relationships and lead gen. But traffic is easy to report, here is our monthly website traffic since we first started blogging in 2007.
Phase 2: Double down
2011 – 2014: Higher frequency, new events and guest blogging
A big change at Orbit led to a big change in our marketing. In 2011, Todd Gettelfinger joined us as CEO. He promptly built a team of strategists, so I no longer needed to do sales all day. This freed up around 20+ hours per week of my time. I plowed all of that time and energy into marketing.
This was a key inflection point.
First, we increased our publishing frequency from kind-of-monthly to always-bi-weekly. The topics changed too. We shifted from website-related topics to marketing-related topics. We knew that we couldn’t hold the attention of marketing leaders if we only talked about web design.
We also added the following formats:
Monthly in-person event, Wine & Web
The highest-touch content format is the face-to-face presentation. And since we need to build trust with our prospects, a live teaching event was a perfect fit.
Our biggest conference room can fit around 30 people. So we sent an invite, ordered pizzas, uncorked some wine and kicked off Wine & Web. 11 years later, it’s still going strong, but in a different form. You’ll see below.
The benefits have been enormous. Many of the attendees came regularly, some attending dozens of times (looking at you, Kyle!). Enduring friendships have formed. We have hired people we met in that room. And we have been hired by people we met in that room.
Wine & Web circa 2013. Yes, that’s Sean D. Francis on the right, nine years before he joined our team!
Speaking at events
Our in-house event was also a place to try new presentations, some of which made it to bigger stages. Our tour of marketing conferences started in this era. Eventually, we were presenting at 40-50 events per year all over the country. This was good for visibility …and amazing for many other reasons. We learned so much and met so many great speakers and marketers.
Social media begins
Around 2012, we got active on social media: Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn. Of course, Google+ died and we gave up on Facebook. But we stuck with Twitter and LinkedIn. These are content promotion channels (eventually we partially automated these using CoSchedule) but also a way to keep in touch with our network.
100+ guest posts
This was also our era of guest blogging. We realized that guest posts had far greater reach than content on our own site. And the links were helping to build our site’s Domain Authority.
During this era, we published 130 guest posts over four years, far more than we published on our own site. These days, we write fewer guest posts, but we’ll never stop guest blogging. Why would we?
By mid-2012, we had published around 100 articles. As a body of work, they weren’t well connected.
Like every blog, it was a pile of articles, in reverse chronological order. But we saw an opportunity to give them structure by putting them together into a book. A book would lead to more speaking opportunities, but more importantly, it would be a great leave-behind for sales meetings.
We self-published Content Chemistry later that year, borrowing a theme from our most popular blog post at that time. Just like the blog doesn’t need tons of traffic to meet the goal, the book doesn’t need to sell a lot of copies. The goal is to deepen some high-value relationships. So self-publishing was just fine. But you do still need a distributor. We recommend IPG.
What we learned in phase two
A very small scrappy team might be all you need. Two people can get a lot done, even when neither of whom are dedicated to marketing. Amanda and I have other roles: sales, service, support. All of the above was basically handled by two part-time marketers.
You also don’t need a lot of technology. We do not use marketing automation. Because it’s not necessary. You can do everything here with a CMS, an ESP and Analytics.
We also learned the power of PR and guest blogging. When a content program is young, most of the content should be published on other websites. This is where it will have a greater impact on the Domain Authority of the company website. And besides, when your audience is small, these guest posts will have far greater reach.
Finally, we learned the power of community. There is simply no replacement for the mutual value of bringing good people together. Beyond marketing and business, these people care about each other on many levels. It is priceless.
Phase 3: Move toward 10x content
2015 – 2019: Conferences, original research and content updates
There are so many marketing blogs. So many posts. It was getting harder to stand out. There are two basic approaches to differentiation:
“If everyone is doing X, you need to do 10X …or do Y.”
Our plan was to do 10X content. So we pushed deeper into our topics with more detailed articles, always starting with our content marketing template. Each article was basically a complete guide on its subject. We added more charts, diagrams and contributor quotes to every article.
The feedback was good and the email list was growing, but the effort was huge. In this phase, the time to create a typical post grew to 8-10 hours. So increasing our bi-weekly frequency was out of the question.
Along with these search-optimized how-to blog posts, we also made some adjustments to the content mix:
In 2014, we launched our first annual blogger survey. By getting 1000 bloggers to answer some questions, we were able to publish some “missing stats” such as How long does it take to write a blog post? It was a 10X effort (more than one hundred hours) but got 100x results (thousands of links over the next 8 years).
We’ve been conducting and publishing original research ever since.
Update old articles
We realized that we had a growing body of older articles, with declining rankings and traffic, but authoritative URLs. They’d attracted links at the time, but they’d gone out of date. So we started rewriting old posts and discovered how strong the results could be.
Eventually around half of our “new” posts would be rewritten old posts.
The book was also out of date, filled with tools and tactics that were no longer relevant. But it was still a great sales support tool. Rather than let it die, we updated it …and then updated it again. The book would be updated and rewritten five times over the next 10 years, growing from a trim 130 pages to 280 pages.
Version 6 of Content Chemistry will launch this summer.
This is a rare format for content that generates revenue.
Annual conference, Content Jam
Like the book, an annual conference is an example of Big Content. Like the blog, it started very small.
Content Jam was originally four teachers in four conference rooms, all giving presentations for an afternoon. Over the next seven years, it grew into a two-day, 500-person multi-track event, leveraging our content, event promotion skills and network of top marketing speakers.
A conference is an expensive and risky endeavor. It (almost) always broke even …until 2020 when the pandemic shut it down and we lost a $25k deposit on an event venue.
Content Jam at its peak in 2019
After a dozen great conversations with content pro Barry Feldman, we decided to hit the record button and launch a podcast. It wasn’t an interview show. It was just two guys, discussing content marketing topics. It had a good run of 39 episodes over two years, but like a lot of podcasts, we ran out of energy.
What we learned in phase three
When you’ve been publishing for a while, you can be opportunistic and build on what you have. Take the things you’ve already created and repurpose them. Turn your top articles into videos. Embed videos on high-ranking posts. Turn videos into presentations. Turn your best articles into a guide or a book.
And rather than always publishing something new, look for opportunities to update something old, leveraging old URLs with article rewrites.
“You don’t need 1000 articles. You need 100 great articles.”
Also, know when to set something aside. You don’t have to do everything. If something isn’t working, ditch it. Put those hours into a different part of your program.
Finally, You don’t need to name your blog. We used to call ours “The Orbiter” but we dropped the name in 2016. No one noticed.
Phase 4: Adapt
2020 – Present: Pandemic-driven shifts in content strategy
The virus forced us to change, especially because of our focus on events. So the disruptions of 2020 affected our content strategy, and the mix of formats changed again.
Wine & Webinar
Our little monthly event was actually easy to move into webinar mode. It’s now a BYOB event that attracts around twice as many attendees. But it’s not the same. Webinars don’t have those friendship-making networking benefits.
It’s strong on direct benefits (stay visible, demonstrate expertise) but weak on indirect benefits (community, connections, fun).
With no conferences or out-of-office meetings, travel time dropped to zero. This freed up 15% of my time. Videos are the next best thing to an in-person presentation, so we started turning presentations into an active YouTube channel.
Whenever a video was relevant to an article, it was embedded at the top. If it was a high-ranking article, that video naturally got a lot of views. This is one element of an automatically successful YouTube strategy.
When LinkedIn started offering newsletters, we watched the growth of some of the early players and decided to jump in. This was totally against the “don’t build on rented land” idea. Like a lot of content marketers, we wanted to host our own content and own our own email list. But the opportunity was too big to pass up.
It would be a weekly newsletter, alternating between the newly written bi-weekly article and an older post from the archives. We gave it the boring but specific name “Digital Marketing Tips.” It grew quickly.
Account-Based (Content) Marketing
The content and search rankings drive a lot of visibility, but only a small percentage of this audience is qualified traffic. Like every content strategy, it creates a ton of noise. We knew there was another way: Account Based Marketing (ABM). Time to fish with a spear, rather than a net.
Within a year we had a strategy that was driving revenue. It combined original research with past presentations for the content and leveraged our social networks for the promotion. Here is our ABM playbook.
What we learned in phase four
When disrupted, stay calm and flexible. Reconsider the things that you always held to be absolute. The teams that adapt are positioned to come out on top.
Find new opportunities and experiment with new programs. This is the path to growth. It will feel different. It will be uncomfortable at first, but the results may be far better than you imagined.
A brief analysis of this content strategy
This milestone merits a moment of reflection. Let’s use the SWOT framework for a high-level view.
* These items are common to almost all content strategies.
The newsletter has been bi-weekly for 11 years, almost without fail. The baseline for quality has remained high. No compromises.
Two people, working half-time, drive 1M+ visits per year and hundreds of qualified leads, without an ad budget. It’s me and the amazing Amanda Gant, the editor of the blog and the producer of the events. We also get a lot of help from Jantzen Loza, who makes our images shine. The rhythm of the programs means that very little time is wasted. Even the annual blogger survey, a 100-hour effort, doesn’t require a single meeting.
At this point, it would be possible to stop marketing completely but still generate leads for years, especially because of the search rankings of key pages. Or the program could be throttled back to lower activity levels and results would still likely be strong. This isn’t possible with ad-based marketing.
- Too few contributors
The program is over-reliant on myself to write and give presentations. We regularly publish posts from guest contributors, and several Orbiteers do contribute, but there is still a lack of balance in workload and lack of diversity of perspectives.
- Blind spots and narrow thinking
We rarely consider big strategic changes. Our biases against certain approaches make innovation unlikely and slow. TikTok is silly. Facebook is creepy. Ads are expensive. Popups are annoying. Automation is overrated. Traditional isn’t trackable. …but what if we’re wrong?
A large part of the audience will never use our services. Many of our leads are unqualified for us. Only a small minority of the people we reach and submissions to our form are financially qualified for our services, financially or otherwise.
- Bring back Content Jam
People ask about it all the time. Live events are back. Amazing speakers have offered to present. It isn’t necessary to meet our goals, but it’s high value over the long term. And it’s fun.
- Create an online course
The body of work can be adapted into an actual online course. We have created popular courses for other brands, including the CXL Content Strategy Class and the Marketing Profs SEO Masterclass.
- Thought leadership*
Very few content strategies publish strong, counter-narrative opinions. But that is the definition of true thought leadership. In other words, if no one disagrees with you, you are not a thought leader. Ours has always been strictly a practical blog with how-to content, but there is always the opportunity to take a stand.
- Over reliance on search
Clickthrough rates from search continue to fall. Just look at the side-by-side screenshots of Google over the years. And since such a large percentage of our traffic is from search, our overall traffic will continue to decline. We aren’t alarmed since our most meaningful traffic is holding steady.
- Difficult to sustain at this level
Live events and out of office meetings are back. So going forward some time will be lost to travel. Also, the company is busier than ever and service and sales come before marketing. So what will be the first to give? Probably a lot of the YouTube activity.
- Huge digital players*
Ours is a tiny team. But we compete with some huge teams for the same visitor, same topics and same keyphrases. Companies like Hubspot have dozens of marketers. Large software companies with big teams and high margins will gradually overpower small service companies like ours.
“Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle”
That’s a quote from Jon Acuff and it may help keep you from getting discouraged if this summary was overwhelming. Remember, we started very small. Everyone does!
And here’s a fun example of a content strategy that really started as a personal blog and grew to 1M+ visitors per year. This is a summary of that evolution from content marketing veteran Michael Brenner.
Michael Brenner Marketing Insider
“In 2009, I started writing one “marketing insider” perspective article every week sharing the things that I learned, key insights, busting myths, solving big challenges. It really started as a personal blog of reflections and learnings for my peers in corporate roles. I started focusing on B2B marketing strategies, then evolved into more specifics around digital marketing and content marketing.
Today, I focus on a tighter niche and a much more specific audience. I’ve also expanded my publishing schedule from 1 to 2 articles per week and they are mostly much more educational and less reflective. Interestingly, it was the success of the blog that led me to paid speaking gigs, writing 2 books, and ultimately to starting the agency.
We now publish 3-4 times per week with employee contributions and a few guest posts. We get more traffic and leads from our website than most of our (larger company) clients do.
I wish I had started earlier focusing on our content marketing niche, on using keyword research as a way to understand buyer needs, and had done thought leadership guest posts a little sooner.”
Bonus! Henneke Duistermaat, founder of Enchanting Marketing, shares her story of how her content strategy changed over the years …
Henneke Duistermaat Enchanting Marketing
“The first phase: 2012 – 2015
The aim of this first phase was to raise my profile, gain credibility, and practice my writing skills. I had just quit my corporate career and was figuring out what I wanted to do next.
I started guest posting even before I started my own blog, and those guest posts helped me get known, start my email list, and (unexpectedly!) I was asked to write for other businesses. I also published two books that are continuing to sell on Amazon.
The guest post that generated the most leads was a detailed analysis of Apple’s copy: How to Write Seductive Sales Copy Like Apple (originally published on Kissmetrics).
Towards the end of this phase, I created my snackable writing course for busy people, which increased signups to my email list. Each snack shares a persuasive writing tip in fewer than 200 words.
The second phase: 2015 – 2019
The aim of content marketing in this second phase was to grow my list. I started to pay more attention to keyword strategy, and my organic traffic was growing fast. The only link-building I did was through a couple of infographics.
Early 2014, I had already created my own cartoon character, Henrietta. She featured on my infographics which were published on sites like HubSpot, MarketingProfs, and Inc.com. My most popular one was about how to write faster.
I started working part-time (15 – 20 hours per week). So, I stopped guest posting and freelance writing, and I focused on running group coaching programs on blogging and copywriting.
Through my coaching I learned how important mindset is to writing, and how many people struggled with getting their thoughts on paper (just like I had in the beginning). So, I started to write about topics like the writing process, writer’s block, and how to make peace with your inner critic.
The third phase: 2019 –
In 2019, I had to reduce my working hours to 10 hours per week and my content strategy has been built around that. I stopped coaching and I developed self-study courses so my income would become less dependent on the hours I could put into my business.
I stopped posting on Instagram and LinkedIn but maintained a low presence on Twitter. I’ve never had a Facebook account. My blog publishing schedule went down to once every three weeks, sometimes less, and I relied more heavily on autoresponder series to engage subscribers.
These autoresponder series (e.g., on copywriting, storytelling, blog writing) drive traffic to my most helpful old blog posts and remind people of my courses. Each series has between 10 and 15 emails, and the average open rate per series is 51 – 57%, the click rate is 24 – 29%.
The aim of content marketing in this period has been mostly to keep my email list (of just under 25,000 subscribers) warm—to keep in touch with my readers. The blog posts that created the most interaction were a post about gratitude (not my core topic at all!) and one about how I became a writer in my 40s.”
Have you ever written your own content strategy? If so, please share with a link in the comments. We’d love to see it.