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How I Designed My Own Inbound Strategy

By Blake Reichenbach

Introduction

Prior to working at HubSpot or launching BlakeWrites, I worked full-time as a freelance Content Marketer and Copywriter for local nonprofits and small businesses. Every time I sat down with a client to discuss their goals, I had to run through my usual routine of mental gymnastics to get a grip on how I was going to logistically pull off what I needed to– 30% would be completed in Wordpress, 30% in Google Docs, 10% in Hootsuite, and the remaining 30% would be broken up between Adsense, Google Analytics, Gmail, Excel, and some good ol’ fashioned legal pads.

In a nutshell, I knew how to rig together a content strategy implementation plan for them using a hodge-podge of tools that fit the model of SEO at the time. Even though that was only a few years ago, the SEO landscape has changed dramatically, and I haven't managed a client's full content strategy since then.

I was worried that I was getting rusty and wanted to do something about it.

So, back in October 2018, I started to think critically about what it would mean to put together a fully fleshed out content strategy plan for my own website, and wanted to use this blog post as an opportunity to provide a high-level overview of that process and some of my conclusions. Since this is a topic that I get very into and could talk about ad nauseam, I'm going to stick to what's pretty much a bird's eye view and not get into the minutiae of things like content optimization hypotheses and tests, SMART goals, and the like.

Designing BlakeWrites' Content Strategy

In order to outline my own content strategy, I decided to start by analyzing the data that I had already gathered over the first nine months of 2018. I launched BlakeWrites on January 1, 2018, and had been using the first several months to publish a wide range of loosely related content to see what would stick with my audience. I should give a quick disclaimer and say that if you were one of my freelance clients, I would 10000% not recommend approaching your content that way. Starting from a clear customer persona and catering very specific content to that persona is still the best bet for ensuring that the content you're publishing is on-brand and contributing to your success. As I was starting out, however, I was going into it with less of a success-focused mindset and more of an curiosity mindset. So, I put together three loose categories of wellness, fashion, and lifestyle, and published content within those categories indiscriminately. Some of it was quite serious (such as the culture of violence that's inherent to toxic masculinity) and other topics were quite light and fun (such as this quiz to let you know what type of underwear matches your personality). 

As I began to pivot and set my sights on growing my traffic enough to be able to meaningfully monetize my website, I wanted to use my first 9 months of data collecting to get insights into:

  • what type of content was performing well
  • what type of content was not performing well
  • how organic traffic was arriving at my site

In order to gather this data in a clear way, I turned to Google Search Console (GSC). 

What Worked

Using GSC, I learned two key pieces of information about my content that performed well organically. First, interactive content– like quizzes– had the best click through rate. Second, content about specific brands of underwear garnered the most impressions. 

A Year in Review, and the Year Ahead (1)

In retrospect, this makes perfect sense. Not only was this content relevant to keywords that generate a moderate amount of traffic but aren't amongst the impossible to rank for, but there was also a variety of content that that connected to these pieces and worked to support them. Without having intentionality behind it, I had created a topic cluster about underwear, and as specific pieces did better organically, so did the other pieces within that cluster.

While it was exciting to see that some of my content had a nearly 17% click-through-rate (CTR), it was disheartening to know that fluff pieces I had written in thirty minutes were performing really well when pieces that I felt were important and meaningful for our target audience might as well have been invisible in SERPs. So, I decided to do a bit of data analysis on the content on my website that was not generating traffic. 

What Did Not Work

When it came to content that did not perform well, I quickly realized that it had three things in common. 

  1. The content that barely got any views was content that wasn't clearly tied to a given category. 
    1. Typically, I had bucketed this content under the generic “lifestyle”
  2. I wasn't clear on my purpose for writing these pieces; on the surface, they were designed to inform, but the only traffic they were likely to generate was from people who were already informed on the topic, making them redundant.
  3. These posts did not follow current best practices for SEO in terms of on-page setup (h1 tags, content length, etc) or relevance to core topics.

Taking a look back at my content from this perspective, it became less disheartening and more of an "oh duh" moment. Had I thought about my content in terms of being a part of a topic cluster and had related content to support it and establish its authority, it likely would have done quite a bit better. Instead, I had published them as stand alone pieces as my website was still in its "throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks" stage. 

As we introduced our own Content Strategy tools (now named SEO tools), I leaned into the underlying theory a bit more and asked myself how it could further inform my understanding of why my underperforming content was indeed underperforming.

TAKEAWAY

Topic clusters are your friend. If customers are wondering why their content is underperforming, advise them to think about how their content fits together. Does it build off of each other and fit together as clearly related? Or is it more of a generic "this is what my business does, so I'm going to publish a bunch of disjointed content in this category" approach?

Using This Data To Form Goals

Looking at the data surrounding how my website had performed during its preliminary phase, I decided to actually formalize my own marketing goals and objectives. I suppose that I could summarize them by saying that I've decided to utilize 2019 as an opportunity to really focus in on who my target audience is and publish engaging content for them. But, as any good HubSpotter will let you know, that goal is far too broad and doesn't really provide insights into what deliverables need to be completed or how to do so. 

So, I drilled into this more and decided to create the following goals: 

Goal 1: Eliminate Non-Intentional Content

As a part of getting clear on the definition of my target audience, no more throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Rather than unanimously accepting pitches from my contributing writers for content that I think sounds interesting, I'm restricting all publications to content that has a clear tie in to one of my four core topics and is easily linked back to the pillar page for those topics. 

Goal 2: Improve Consistency of Publication Schedule

For most of 2018, I was hit-or-miss on publishing three times per week. For 2019, I'm publishing Monday, Wednesday, and Friday/Saturday (I'm doing some testing to see how articles published on the weekend perform), and rotating through core topics as I go. In order to accomplish this, my editorial calendar has moved from Google Sheets to Asana (if any engineers read this and have an urge to build an integration between Asana and the HubSpot marketing calendar... I may propose to you) and I've structured the editorial calendar in a way to ensure that all articles my contributing writers and I submit are scheduled two weeks in advance of the publication deadline. 

TAKEAWAY

Inbound and Content Marketing don't have to involve blog posts. The Inbound content your customer should be using is going to depend entirely upon their customer persona(s).

Goal 3: Create More Types of Content

In addition to generating written content that is more closely aligned to my customer persona, I decided that I also needed to experiment with creating more types of content. The written blog post is a tried and true method, and when done right it can do wonders for one's SEO, but it's also a pretty... matured medium. With my target audience being males/ masc-identifying individuals between 18 and 35, I wasn't exactly looking at an audience that's known to be huge blog readers, magazine subscribers, or RSS feed curators. So, while my personal medium of preference may be written content and written content is still a huge part of BlakeWrites' current successes, it's not the medium that's likely to really allow for high-impact growth. As a result, I've been collaborating with one of my contributors to record a BlakeWrites podcast, and currently plan on publishing the first season of it in March. 

Goal 4: Tie Organic Traffic Growth to Engagement, Not Vanity Metrics

While it's great to see more traffic arriving on certain pages, if the traffic is just getting there but not resulting in a subscriber or recurring reader, there isn't a long-term payoff in it. It's easy to get excited about raw numbers of views (especially for a blogger, when impressions can translate directly into ad revenue), but as someone who does not run PPI or PPC ads, it doesn't do much for me. 

Instead, I'm far more interested in focusing on engagement. In particular, I'm wanting to see more readers (a) interacting with blog subscription emails, (b) commenting on blog posts, and (c) sharing/promoting BlakeWrites content on social media as phase one of engagement. Once this is occurring on a consistent basis, I'll shift the focus of my engagement efforts over to focusing on conversions on affiliate marketing links. 

To achieve this, I'm focusing on two efforts: (1) creating a community forum in which engagement and interaction is more organic than just one person reading a blog post, and (2) beginning to publish content like product reviews, gift guides, and "best of" roundups to begin to get my readers acquainted with product/affiliate-based content. 

Goal 5: Leverage BlakeWrites Content to Promote and Grow the BlakeWrites Community

Stemming directly from Goal 4, I decided that a forum (think Reddit but if it was designed in a way to help people live better lives). 

If you can indulge me in a bit of shameless self-promotion, I think the BlakeWrites community is pretty rad, and will be awesome once it gets off the ground. I'm building it out using a cloud-based forum software called vBulletin, which has horrific UI and subpar customer support (our employer has spoiled me, y'all), but it gets the job done. 

My thought process is that by having a forum component to BlakeWrites, I'm able to more clearly set it aside as a community, and utilize the forum as a location for more in-depth back and forth discussion and collaboration than what's currently available within my HubSpot-hosted pages. The main downside to this is that I'm currently pushing for growth on two primary fronts– one on the blog, and the other on the forum. 

At the same time, the way that I see it is that even though it requires me to think about two modes of content and two fronts simultaneously, the entire forum is really a sub-goal of Goal 4; it's all about generating engagement and turning readers into brand ambassadors. 

(But also, you can sign up for the BlakeWrites Community at https://community.blakewrites.com/register ... just saying. I mean look– there's a fancy iframe just below that you could use to click on the "login or signup" button.)

Translating Goals into an Implementation Plan

Pillar Pages, Topic Clusters, and Subtopics

By now, you're likely familiar with pillar pages and topic clusters, and their usefulness for organizing your content, so I won't go into a ton of detail on that. One thing I do want to note, however, is that one thing I see fairly frequently amongst customers– and which I also did for quite a while– is to think of topic clusters as convenient ways of organizing your content for you. What I mean by this is that oftentimes it's tempting to put together topic clusters for the sake of having a topic cluster, and in order to avoid extensive manual setup, you try to cast a wide net. This is what I was doing with my original "lifestyle" category. It was incredibly broad, and it included content about finance, dating, toxic masculinity, hobbies, travel, drinking, and so much more.

While I may have linked this content together within the lifestyle topic, the links were really only there on a technicality– from a logical perspective, there was nothing to link all of this content. So, as I audited all of my content to see what was currently performing best and what my existing readers indicated that they were interested in based upon a few surveys I had sent out, I decided to completely throw out my three-pronged approach of fashion, wellness, and lifestyle and replace it with four core topic clusters. 

 

Since this chart is massive and difficult to read when zoomed out (but it's also my favorite thing, and I created it using draw.io), I'll clarify: with it, I broke my website into four core topics (diversity and inclusion, wellness for men, underwear, and self-improvement), outlined a pillar page for each topic, and then used that pillar page outline to break each of these core topics into their primary subtopics. The oblong shapes trailing each subtopic represent individual blog posts I'll publish throughout the year; their orientation/ color fill is just a part of my system for identifying which posts have been placed on my editorial calendar already or not at the time that I downloaded this image. 

As an example of what this change looked like, under my Diversity and Inclusion core topic, I outlined (and am in the process of building) a pillar page that focuses on the range of masculinity that we typically see represented. This topic was essentially the catalyst that led me to creating BlakeWrites, but oddly enough isn't one I've written about all that much on my website, so it seems like another "oh duh" moment to create this pillar page. Within this pillar page, I include sections on (a) the role of media representation, (b) the intersection of race and masculinity, (c) the intersection of sexuality and masculinity, and (d) how restrictive ideas of masculinity can become toxic. As a result, I've broken this topic cluster down into the following subtopics: feature articles about people who challenge ideas and perceptions of masculinity, recent events that illustrate the changing representation of masculinity, LGBTQ+ and masculinity, PoC and masculinity, and toxic masculinity. Each of these categories is touched on in the pillar page, and each post is linked back to the pillar page in a uniform way. 

While leveraging content strategy is something I'm doing intentionally in 2019, I've already started to see some benefits from this approach. Specifically, when I inadvertently created a rough topic cluster about underwear– of all things– last year, I had already constructed a base for building my organic growth. 

My topic cluster about underwear had around five pieces of content included in it by mid-June. Between June and July, I saw a pretty significant jump in organic traffic, and organic traffic to that topic continued throughout the rest of the year. Publishing content within the cluster inconsistently and not being intentional about these clusters definitely contributed to some fluctuation in organic traffic.

Screen Shot 2019-01-16 at 10.59.09 AM

Now, however, organic traffic is continuing to grow month over month. It has officially passed social media as my primary source of traffic, contributing to about 56% of all traffic to my website; that was even alongside running a paid Facebook ad to promote the BlakeWrites Community forum. 

I anticipate that continued investment in my pillar pages and topic clusters will allow for this trend to continue to increase. 

Net New Content Offers

Within my giant Content Strategy chart above, you'll notice that coming out of each core topic, there's a circle and a stacked rectangle that is connected. The circles represents my pillar pages, and the stacked rectangles represent content offers. 

One of my biggest shortcomings- in my opinion– for effectively engaging with my readers has been that I've left posts at a "here's the content" phase without answering a "so what?" question. 

Because of this, I'm going to be doing some experimentation throughout the year in which I begin to introduce content offers that are catered to each topic cluster (namely e-books, guides, tutorials, and special offers if I can get some brands onboard to collaborate with). From there, I'll use multivariate CTA testing to present these offers to readers within the appropriate content for the sake of encouraging engagement beyond just reading the content. 

As I create these offers and introduce landing pages for them, I also intend to integrate reader interactions into my workflows as a way of nurturing them into engagement with the BlakeWrites Community. For example, if someone downloads my "20 Daily Habits to Build a Better Life" e-book, I'll put them in nurturing drip workflows that send them content about the ways in which leveraging the Self-Improvement forum in the community could be of benefit for them or encourages them to interact with pre-existing posts there similar to the way in which Quora will periodically send emails to say "X Person asked Question" to encourage their members to engage and respond. 

By utilizing content offers in this way, I'm hoping to begin to make the transition from just having content available to having a means of encouraging readers to progress down my funnel, so to speak. 

I'm also looking into repurposing content offers, such as using them to create larger, more thorough e-books, to publish and distribute through Amazon as a way of (a) accessing new channels for acquisitions and (b) opening up the opportunity to leverage content for monetization, but I'll say more about monetization efforts in a moment. 

Creating a Growth Cycle A Year in Review, and the Year Ahead (2)

At the heart of my goals for 2019, I'm hoping to leverage organic growth and engagement so that I can set a growth cycle into motion. 

With my blog and podcast, my goal is to capture and convert casual readers into engaged community members. 

With my community members, my goal is to create brand ambassadors. 

As I acquire more brand ambassadors and continue to grow my readership, I'll be able to look into opportunities for monetization whether that's through affiliate marketing, sponsored content, or direct reader support through Patreon.

As revenue starts to trickle in and I'm not paying for everything out of my own paychecks, I'll be able to: 

  • Beef up paid social campaigns
  • Bring in new contributing writers to increase the diversity of voices represented
  • Enable my contributing writers to write more content each month, freeing up time for me to step away from creating content and allowing me to focus on actually being a managing editor and looking for opportunities for growth rather than putting 85% of my free time into being a content creator so that I can meet my publication frequency goals.  

Monetization

For me, monetization has been my biggest headache in terms of figuring out what I want to do and how I want to approach my website in the long term. As of right now, I have three contributors who submit pieces to me each month, and I pay them out of my pocket at a per-word rate. Frankly, this isn't going to be sustainable for me forever. At the launch of my website in the start of 2018, I had been thinking that after a few months, I'd be at a point where I could look into using Adsense to include Ads on my pages as a means of generating a bit of income. Boy oh boy was that naive. If you're not familiar with how Adsense pays out, their complex equations can basically be summed up as this: you have to have massive traffic to generate any revenue. Unless you're consistently hitting in the tens of thousands of views month over month, Adsense does not present any real opportunity to make money off of a blog. 

As a result, I've been operating at a loss since I launched the site, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Still, my goal is to conduct testing throughout the year (particular this Spring and Summer after I've had some time to observe the impact that my content strategy play is going to have on my organic traffic growth trajectory) to determine a means of integrating monetization into my website, podcast, and forum. Not only do I want to start offsetting my own expenses so that I can have more cash on hand to pamper my pooch and buy books that will take me a year to get to (and expand my weekly diet beyond frozen chicken and canned black beans), but I want to be able to generate enough income that I can look to incrementally increase the amount that I'm spending on BlakeWrites each month. I've broken this down into stages as follows. 

(How I've I've pitched monetization stages to my current contributing writers)

EARLY STAGE

MID STAGE

  • E-book Sales and Promotion
      • Target: $50-$200/ month
    • Marketing Consulting-
      • Bespoke digital marketing coaching and consulting for Small Businesses and startups through blakereichenbach.com
        • Target: $500-$1500/month in revenue
      • Community Advertising-
        • Sponsored community-exclusive content and affiliate marketing within the BlakeWrites community
          • Target: $150-$250/month
        • Partnerships
          • Target: $150-$250/month

A Year in Review, and the Year Ahead (3)

With monetization, my current pain points have been: 

  • I honestly don't like promoting my Patreon page and haven't actually done so yet– definitely some mental hangups about asking for monetary support that I just have to get over
  • Given my audience's current size isn't enough to generate much revenue through sponsored posts and partnerships, many of the efforts I've thought of for raising money require me taking on new freelance writing, editing, and consulting work, which is very time consuming and takes me away from creating and managing content (which I already don't have enough time to do my best work at it while also creating content offers and building pillar pages)
  • Similar to the above points, creating the collateral needed to distribute e-books in paid channels requires time (a resource I don't have much of) to create them myself or money (a resource I have even less of) to pay someone else to create them. 

While monetization in this way may not be the most relevant to the ways in which our customers leverage their content in their marketing and sales efforts, it has still definitely made me think about some of the pain points they may encounter with conceptualizing the ways in which their content ties back in to their sales. In particular, I'm thinking about some of the conversations I've had with our customers who are operating small businesses that don't have a dedicated marketing team or whose marketing "team" is a one woman effort in which a dozen people are constantly trying to pull her in different directions.  

TAKEAWAY

Effective Inbound can be a huge time commitment, especially if you're just getting started. I often see this in clients who are getting frustrated about how to best repurpose content they already have or those who just aren't seeing sales resulting from the blog posts they've been publishing. Often, they don't have the time or money to put into creating a fully fleshed out content marketing implementation plan, or they feel that they don't have the means to do so. As a result, looking for opportunities to trim the fat and focusing on high ROI efforts (AKA what I'm hoping to figure out for my own side hustle through my testing over the first 2.5 quarters of 2019 are critical in these instances.

Lessons Learned and Helpful Resources

Going through this entire process has not only helped to reinvigorate my own excitement about my website. It has also been a great refresher on what clients/ potential clients are going through when creating a content strategy plan and some of the pain points they may encounter while going through a similar process. 

Up front, there are a few important key details to keep in mind: 

  • I am not operating a B2B or B2C business; my marketing goals look quite different from those of most marketers and SMBs. 
  • Because BlakeWrites.com is not my primary source of income (or any income at this point), I've been able to approach this from a more casual, experimental perspective. For many businesses, especially independently operated ones, being casual and experimental is a luxury that they don't have. 

With that being said, here's how I would summarize my insights into Marketing Mary's HubSpot Journey:

  1. First and foremost, in addition to HubSpot as my primary CMS, I used an array of other platforms and tools to create content, analyze data, and get a grip on my topic clusters. 
    1. Editorial Calendar- for my editorial calendar, I had to use Asana. I manage three contributing writers to create and publish content for BlakeWrites. In Asana, we're able to place every article on a calendar to clearly indicate its due date and as we go we can attach drafts, leave comments, and show updates on when everything has been scheduled in HubSpot. Plus, Asana integrates with Slack, so I get a notification every time someone submits an article or posts a question.
    2. Quizzes/ Interactive Content- for non-blog post content, I turned to Interact. Interact's main selling point is that it's easy to use it to create "Buzzfeed-style" quizzes that can easily be embedded on your website or shared on social media. Plus, with one of their middle-tiered paid accounts (I think around $53/month), you're able to integrate with HubSpot and can update contact properties or sort contacts into lists based upon how they respond to quizzes or what results they got. Additionally, it's easy to add in a Facebook pixel to use quiz data for behavioral retargeting efforts. All of that being said, it's quite expensive and once my contract with them is up, I'll likely look into using a Surveymonkey Pro account.
    3. Long-form Content- creating e-books and other content offers has required a combination of Reedsy, Canva, and Beacon. Beacon integrates with HubSpot in the sense that it can import blog posts to use within content offers, but it doesn't have the word processing power of something like Reedsy to write out new content to use, plus Beacon's free options are pretty limited. Canva is my go-to for creating featured images, social media graphics, infographics, and covers. Reedsy operates a lot like a standard word processor, but they also make it easy to export your manuscripts pre-formatted for e-pub since they primarily market themselves to self-published authors. 
    4. Topic Cluster Mind Map- to put together my monstrous topic clusters, I wanted to be able to see everything at a glance and understand how the pieces all fit together. I also wanted to have the flexibility to add in more than just linked pages, such as my notes about planned content offers, outlines for pages that don't yet exist, and a general notepad for having a to-do list as I went. To create this, I turned to draw.io, a web app that is free to use and easily connects to Google drive to allow you to create basically any sort of graph, chart, flowchart, mind map, or diagram.
    5. User Forum- Creating a user forum was the hardest for me to figure out.  At this time, my primary CMS just doesn't have the functionality to accommodate this. As a result, I turned to vBulletin as the technological backbone of my forum-based site. This has been one of the biggest pain points thus far. vBulletin is a cumbersome, rigid platform with poor support and poorer documentation. I use their cloud-based version, which still runs me close to $350 per year and, since I'm not a python developer, I'm pretty limited in the types of customizations and integrations I'm able to implement, meaning that there is a lot of manual work transferring data in and out of HubSpot. To be honest, I probably shouldn't complain that much. There was better forum software out there I could have used, but it either was way beyond my budget or would have had to have been built off of a branded platform, meaning that I wouldn't have the ideal amount of control over it. 
  2. Creating a killer content strategy requires being able to think about the micro and the macro simultaneously. One thing that's really tempting to do when planning out your content is to think about what's hot and what's going to drive traffic quickly. Often, even if these articles are successful in driving traffic in the short term, they peter out in the long run. Creating a strong content strategy is about putting together a plan for creating content that works together and buoys each other up, relying on evergreen content– pieces that are going to be useful for more than the lifespan of a meme. This isn't to say that there isn't a place for yanny-laurel debates, yodeling kids in WalMart, or dresses of an undetermined color thanks to the way that light and exposure work. Instead, it's important to think about how these timely pieces can fit into broader strategy, and in these cases, it's often best to take a cross-channel marketing approach to conceptualize the ways in which you can connect trending topics within your industry to your broader marketing funnel, perhaps as an entry point (similar to the way I'm treating underwear content– it trends well, gets clicks, and has converted more visitors to leads than any of my other content even though it's not the core focus or mission of the site). 
 

Bonus Fun Stuff

I did a full presentation with my contributing writers going over our content strategy plans for 2019, and wanted to share that below. Be forewarned, however, the presentation does include a looping GIF of David Hasselhoff in a speedo. 

Full, hour-long recording of this presentation:  https://share.vidyard.com/watch/JDGVb6Sd2i3fTFQe7pD74

Tags: Inbound Marketing, Content Marketing, Marketing

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