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3 content marketing lessons from startups

3 content marketing lessons from startups Josh Breinlinger

At a recent summit hosted by Sigma West, leaders of startup technology companies met to share best practices for sales and marketing. One of the topics was content marketing and several leaders shared what brought their company success. Here are the top three best practices:

  1. Hire great storytellers (e.g., ex-journalists, PR folks)

  2. Segment your audience and create targeted content

  3. Treat content distribution like mini product launches

Hire the storyteller

Authentic and interesting stories engage us. Hiring a journalist gives you a leg up on content creation -- not necessarily an "old-school" journalist, but a budding journalist a few years out of school who really knows how to tell a story. Other sources are PR folks who are accustomed to pitching the press and also know how to craft and customize stories.

Startup companies that recognize the need for authentic and engaging content have moved in the past year to hire some of the best reporters in the industry.

  • Hamish McKenzie formerly of Pando Daily left to join Tesla

  • Rafe Needleman tech reporter jumped to Evernote and now Yahoo

  • David Pogue formerly of NY Times left to join Yahoo

  • Tomio Geron formerly of Forbes left to join ExitRound

  • Dan Lyons, formerly of Newsweek joined Hubspot

  • Ben Worthen formerly of WSJ joined Sequoia

While you may not be able to hire a reporter away from Forbes, it is worthwhile to seek a journalist mind-set in your content marketing strategist. "Domain expertise is easier to teach than storytelling. We just interviewed 50 candidates and honed that down to 5. We gave these candidates five key words and asked them to write a story -- it was a good test for content creation ability," said Gary Sevounts CMO of Zetta, cloud back up and disaster recovery company.

You may only need one in-house content marketer as a startup, but you can leverage contract writers to fill the gaps. And, as you grow, use a service like Contently for a robust content marketing program.

Create varied and targeted content

Content can fall into three categories: timely, seasonal, and evergreen. Timely is only relevant in the moment and is often reactionary to larger world events. Seasonal can last a few months and is relevant to a topic -- such as tax tips around April. Evergreen are stories that don't fade in relevance and are often about human success.

Zetta has a scientific approach to analyzing their audiences. They study who comes to their website, how they got there, and what words they are searching. That has led them to create 7 distinct audience types and they create targeted content for each one.  The goal is to be in one of the top 3 positions in search for common search phrases from each of the audience types.

Clark Newby, VP of marketing at Intacct, cloud accounting software provider, said, "We need to engage with potential customers before they come looking for a solution and content marketing allows us to do that."  The audience for Intacct content is CFOs and the company's marketing team knows everything about their online habits: where they visit and what key words they use for search. "You really need to fight the tendency to use common content on landing pages; the material must be very specific to the person searching," added Newby.

Plan like a product launch

"We treat content marketing like mini product launches," commented Gary Sevounts, Zetta.

In order to be successful, content marketing needs to be an ongoing effort. By planning production and scheduling release of content, the process becomes ingrained in the business. Every time you are thinking about a new feature release, think about the relevant content, who cares about that content, and where they are searching. Then, develop a plan for creating and disseminating content around the same timing.

Part of that planning is getting the most out of the content you create. Good customized content takes time and resources to create, so utilizing it well is important for startup companies. Once you have a powerful story, you can create several variations of it for distribution in different places and in different mediums.

"We create a long-form white paper for use on a particular website, then make it into an eBook and create an infographic, and then place the content in all the right places," Clark Newby, Intacct. Intacct also took a video from a conference and used it long-form in one place and then clipped pieces and used it elsewhere.

There are distinct marketing advantages of getting the right information to the right people at the right time. These lessons learned from startups in the trenches can help you achieve that goal. The big take away at our summit was that content marketing is like exercise -- it takes a while to see the results and you have to keep up the effort over the long haul.

Josh Breinlinger is a VC at Sigma West.

On Twitter? Follow Josh at @jbreinlinger and iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Josh is a VC with Sigma West. He knows marketplaces, online marketing, and crowdsourcing. He was the 4th employee at oDesk, head of product and marketing at AdRoll and joined Sigma in 2010. He started his career after MIT as a consultant with Arthur...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Justin Belmont

2014, October 01

I enjoyed reading your article, Josh. I liked how you divided the topic into three parts, especially the one about creating varied and targeted content. Creating excellent content is one thing, (which I try to do assiduously at www.prosemedia.com) but having your audience find your content in online searches is truly a science in itself!