Blogging can seem deceptively easy.  You write a blog post about whatever’s on your mind whenever you feel like it.  Then, you sit back and wait for the inbound marketing to happen to you.

Heh, I wish.

Instead, reality intrudes.  Writing about whatever you feel like (which is often yourself) doesn’t work very well for building an audience.  And even forming a mission and writing about what your readers care about is no guarantee.  Things can still go wrong.  You might write content that does a really good job of building an audience, but the wrong audience—an audience that won’t buy from you.  There are plenty of ways that you can gain traction without making money.

So you can’t just write whatever you feel like.  And you can’t even just write whatever seems to get to eyeballs.  You need a content strategy.

The Elements of a Content Strategy

There are a few things that need to happen for your blog to succeed with inbound marketing.  Here’s a quick overview.

  • You produce content that attracts new readers to your blog/site — readers that would be a good fit for your offering.
  • You deliver enough value with this content that the readership comes to trust you.
  • Then you demonstrate that your offering would benefit them and be a good investment.
  • And finally, your readers become your customers.

At first blush, this might seem simple.  But there’s actually a lot of subtle complexity.

To understand what I mean, consider our blog and business at Hit Subscribe.  We sell content creation as a service to businesses at price points in the four figures per month.  Nobody wanders in from a google search for “google analytics wordpress,” reads a few paragraphs from us, and says “Yes! I will now give you $30,000 for a year of content.”

So we need to publish content that attracts new visitors, content that prompts them to keep coming back, content that gets them thinking about our offering/value, and content that causes them to trust us.  And the kicker is that this typically won’t all be the same content.  Our post about a blog mission statement would be likely to cast a wide net, whereas this one—a deeper dive into content strategy—will appeal more directly to our likely buyers.

How, then, do we address this?  Well, we think in terms of different types of blog posts with different goals.  And then we recommend a percentage of each type, customized according to client needs.

Let’s look at the different types of blog posts.

Understanding This Guide

I’ll get to a description of the blog posts very shortly, but I need to define some terms and offer some caveats first so that the guide makes sense.  Here are the pieces of information we’ll offer, along with what they mean.

  • Our name for the style of post.
  • The part of the marketing funnel the post helps with.
  • The primary goal of the post (there can be only one ?).
  • Any secondary goals/ancillary benefits of the post.
  • How labor intensive the post typically is.

Finally, let me speak to something briefly that I know folks will ask, after reading the taxonomy that follows: “Can’t a blog post be more than one of these types at once?  I mean, they’re not mutually exclusive, right?”

Yes, that’s true.  You might, for instance, write a how-to post that does well with search and gets lots of links. Or you may compose an indirect use case that goes viral.  In fact, it would be ideal if you could write blog posts that scratched all of these itches for everyone all the time.

But that’s not feasible or even (I would argue) possible.  So the best thing to do is shoot to write one of these types of posts, and let any additional benefits happen naturally, if they do.  If you try to write posts that do all of this stuff, they’ll tend to be unfocused and speak to no one.  Focus makes for substantially more valuable blog posts.

The Generic How-To Blog Post

  • Funnel Location: Top
  • Primary Goal: Attract new readers through organic search
  • Secondary Goal(s):  Improve the site’s domain authority
  • Labor Intensiveness: Moderate

This style of post is about as straightforward as it gets.   You pick an activity that people search the internet to learn how to do, and then you write a post that helps them. Here’s an example of such a post that Carlos, one of our authors, wrote for the Scaylr blog. It’s about how to get started with application logging in Java.

By solving a problem that people commonly look to the internet to solve, you’re going to attract new readers and help them, which is one of the main goals of content marketing.  As an ancillary benefit, search engines take notice when readers search for a problem, find your site, spend a long time on the page, and then stop searching.  This tells the search engines that you have good content, and they respond by generally featuring your site higher in rankings.

Typically, these posts involve a lot of detail and screenshots (and perhaps even an embedded video).

The What Is It Blog Post

  • Funnel Location: Top
  • Primary Goal: Attract new readers through organic search
  • Secondary Goal(s):  Improve the site’s domain authority
  • Labor Intensiveness: Low

The “what is it” blog post is very similar to the general “how-to” post, but less labor intensive.  Just as people will mount internet searches for something like “how to get started with Java logging,” they might also search for “what is Java logging.”  More generally, you’re going to help people that are googling a term to understand what it is.

On average, this is less labor intensive because you’re not going to be capturing screenshots, testing out your own process, or recording video.  You’re just giving an overview of something.

The Link-Building Blog Post

  • Funnel Location: Tippy-top
  • Primary Goal: Improve your site’s overall SEO/domain authority
  • Secondary Goal(s):  Entertain existing followers/readers, attract readers from a different audience
  • Labor Intensiveness: Low

This is a fundamentally different type of post.  So far, I’ve talked about how search engines help you rank better when you solve problems for your readers.  But there’s another important factor in how they rank you, which is inbound links.  This is, in fact, such an important factor that SEO companies have detailed guides on how to build more links.

There are a few strategies that you can employ to have a post earn links.  An extremely detailed or authoritative post might earn them.  Having charts or infographics is another excellent strategy.  And finally, interviewing interesting industry personalities can help as well, like Typemock did when they interviewed Bob Martin.

When you interview a person, that person will almost certainly link to your post from his or her site, and others might as well.  And when you have infographics or detailed information, you’ll build links over the course of time, as people refer to your content as an authority.

When you write posts like this, you want them to be interesting, obviously.  But I call this “tippy top” of the funnel because this isn’t necessarily aiming to get your readers to do anything as much as it is aiming to get search engines to do something.

The Skyscraper Blog Post

  • Funnel Location: Top
  • Primary Goal: Attract new readers through organic search
  • Secondary Goal(s):  Improve domain authority, get a leg up on your competition
  • Labor Intensiveness: Moderate

The term “skyscraper” is not one I coined.  I believe Brian Dean at Backlinko did it.

Skyscraper posts are a little mercenary, but hey, business is competition.  Here’s how it works.  You find good search terms that other sites (probably your competitors) are ranking for, and you study that content.  Then you write something even better, promote it, and encourage people to link to it.

You’re sort of like a goose flying at the back of a V when you do this.  Let your competitor do the hard work of finding good search terms, writing content for them, and ranking.  Then, relatively rested compared to them, you swoop in and one up them.

This is still somewhat labor intensive, however.  After all, you don’t have to do the SEO research, but you do need to write a really good post with a lot of detail or else you won’t one-up anyone.

The For-Future-Reference Blog Post

  • Funnel Location: Bottom (probably)
  • Primary Goal: Serve as a reference for interactions you have with people/prospects.
  • Secondary Goal(s):  Inform/entertain your readers.
  • Labor Intensiveness: Generally low, but might vary

The “for future reference” post is one you write specifically to get it on the public record for, well, reference.

We’re in the process of revising some of our offering tiers, and one of the important considerations as we create content plans for our clients is understanding which sorts of blog posts they need.  This post you’re reading right now is going to serve as a reference for that.  “Here,” we’ll say. “Check out this link to understand the blog posts we’re suggesting in more detail.”

Of course, we want you to find this post interesting and useful.  We’d also love to get linkbacks and good SEO on it. But this one falls into the “for future reference” bucket because it’s mainly aimed at our strong prospects and existing clients.

The Op-Ed Blog Post

  • Funnel Location: Top, mostly
  • Primary Goal: Attract interest and new readers via social share and possibly virality
  • Secondary Goal(s):  Entertain/inform existing readers
  • Labor Intensiveness: Low

This is a fairly straightforward proposition, and a lot of blog posts fall into this category.  It’s also the one you’ll probably write the most of by default if you don’t create a specific posting plan.  This is the blog post where you lay out and express opinions or your philosophies on how the world should work.

These sorts of posts will necessarily be opinionated.  I wrote a post for the Rollout blog where I declared that feature flag management needs to include a plan to retire the feature flags.  In another post, you can see me declare that some code comments are unhelpful.

Writing these styles of posts will often get attention when your regular readers take them in and share them.  They may even go viral.  These are easy and fun to write, and the only thing you really need to do is make sure that the opinion you’re expressing is harmonious with your value proposition and product/service.  If you have a SaaS product, for instance, you probably wouldn’t want to write a post about how people should roll their own version of what you offer.

The Pot-Stirring Blog Post

  • Funnel Location: Middle
  • Primary Goal: Form a stronger bond with your readers/prospects
  • Secondary Goal(s):  Attract new, like-minded readers
  • Labor Intensiveness: Low

A while ago, Moz wrote a post about how you can use making enemies as a content strategy.  So, yes, we’re going to make some enemies by promoting content we know will be controversial.  I did this for the NDepend blog, making my case against a design pattern that NDepend suggests you avoid, but I know this design pattern has its passionate defenders.

At first blush, the pot-stirring post seems like a special case of the op-ed post, but I’d argue that it’s subtly and importantly different.  Op-ed posts are about the top of the funnel—your readers enjoy, share, and bring in new readers.  And while that can happen with the pot-stirring post as well, that’s not your primary goal.  Instead, your primary goal is to create a stronger bond with your existing readers and prospects.

Here’s a hypothetical example of how this works.  Let’s say that I wrote a blog post for Hit Subscribe called, “If You Don’t Have a Blog, You’re Failing at Business Basics.”  This cleaves the corporate world in two: those who have decided to invest in blogs, and those who haven’t.  We’re taking a shot at one group: those without blogs and who wouldn’t probably ever buy our service.  But we’re calling the other group, which consists of our prospective customers, wise.

This is a simplistic hypothetical, but hopefully it conveys the idea.

The Discussion-Sparking Blog Post

  • Funnel Location: Middle
  • Primary Goal: Form a stronger bond with your readers/prospects
  • Secondary Goal(s):  Attract new readers
  • Labor Intensiveness: Low

Let’s back off the controversy a little at this point.  With the discussion-sparking blog post, we’re looking for friendly engagement across the board.

Simply put, you ask your readership a question.  I did that on the SubMain blog with a post called, “What’s Your Worst Experience With a Coding Standard?”  The idea is to provide your own take and some interesting and thoughtful content but also to encourage the readers to weigh in, discuss, and generally engage with you.

Posts like this foster a sense of community among readers, and it makes the blog feel more genuine and less like a transparent marketing tool.

The Indirect-Use-Case Blog Post

  • Funnel Location: Middle-bottom
  • Primary Goal: Convince your followers of a reason to buy your product
  • Secondary Goal(s):  Raise awareness of the product/attract new readers
  • Labor Intensiveness: High

Now we’re getting to more holistically labor-intensive things.  This kind of blog post takes a lot of work because it involves getting to know the company’s product very well.  You need to get to know it so well, in fact, that you can start to speak in detail about the problems that it solves.

For an example of this, check out this post that I wrote for the Scalyr blog about what to do when your log file is too big.  I offered a number of solutions and some general tips and tricks for dealing with the situation.  But it so happens that Scalyr’s offering is one of the ways that you can solve this problem.  So their readers, used to following the blog and learning in general about logging, suddenly find themselves learning about a use case for Scalyr’s paid offering.

This is where content marketing becomes pretty powerful in some senses.  Consider a non-tech example that I read about a while back.  Nestle would publish a cookie recipe book that just so happened to call for their chocolate in some of the recipes.  They’re giving readers a reason to buy their product by showing how their product can help solve various problems that readers have.

The Product How-To Post

  • Funnel Location: Bottom
  • Primary Goal: Demonstrate to strong prospects and existing customers how to use your product
  • Secondary Goal(s):  Show prospects higher up in the funnel that you have a cool product
  • Labor Intensiveness: High

This, for any author, the most labor intensive thing to do.  With the indirect use case, you need to get to know the product well enough to understand the problem it solves.  Here, you have to get to know it well enough to teach others to use it.  This is so labor intensive, in fact, that a lot of tech companies will skip it.  Their engineers are too busy and outside marketing agencies are not capable of understanding it on a deeply technical level (with the exception of Hit Subscribe, of course—our authors are all actual software developers).

Simply put, you write blog posts that dive into how to use your product, the way I did here with NDepend.  These types of posts may interest casual readers, but they’re really aimed at either retaining your existing customers or converting those on the precipice of buying.

Building Yourself a Plan

Alright, that’s a lot of information on a lot of different kinds of blog posts that you can write.  So what do you do with all of this?  How do you decide what to write?  Well, you could call us and we could help you. ?

Or you can do it on your own.  To do that, look at your current situation and start to ask what you need and where in the funnel you should aim.  Do you have a massive audience that doesn’t convert well?  Then you should probably work on middle and bottom of the funnel posts to better qualify your audience.  Do you convert really well but just don’t get a lot of eyeballs?  Then focus on the top of the funnel and look to do pot-stirring pieces and op-eds for more eyeballs.

But the important thing to understand is that you need a mix, notwithstanding the particulars of the mix.  In other words, you never want just one kind of blog post.  Vary it up to keep your funnel as healthy and functional as possible.