This post is one of a series on my content production system, developed over 10 years and designed to scale content end-to-end in 6 months as an acquisition channel.
Here are the other posts in the series:
- Why the winner takes all in Content Marketing
- What everyone gets wrong about Content Strategy
- Building Your Keyword Universe
- Minimum Viable Technical SEO Audit
- Recruiting good Freelance Writers
- How to write blog content at scale (this post)
- Growth engineering for SEO
- Link building for authority
The very best content requires domain expertise For example the posts I wrote myself at Ladder often became the most popular, potentially because they were more authentic and showcased deeper expertise. However, that’s an expensive proposition, because we have a lot of other demands on our time. So how do you scale the impact of domain expertise without losing quality?
The trick we found was hiring a professional writer to interview the domain expert, much like a journalist would interview you for a news article. So you still get the substance of the post directly from an expert, but the writer professionalizes the post and makes the story more interesting and relatable. We found this worked particularly well for non-native speakers: for example we had a 25 person office in Poland, and this method unlocked a lot of knowledge that otherwise would remain hidden behind a language barrier. Here’s how the process worked:
A. Identify a Topic to Target
You want a healthy mix between checking off keywords on your targeted list, and being open to serendipity when your domain experts get an idea. Usually the ideas that work best from domain experts are the ones that arise from being asked the same question 3x, and thinking “I really need a post to send to the next person that asks me this”.
Make sure you still go through the keyword research process to select a primary keyword for the post, ideally within your targeted parameters, for example a post I sent the team on UTM tracking, a popular topic I got asked about all the time, but the keyword “url builder” made more sense to target having more traffic and less competition, so that’s what we went with.
If you’re going for virality in order to attract links, look for trending topics with a low killer / filler ratio: where demand has outstripped supply. For example the day before a big announcement - people want to know what's happening, but there's no news yet, so they keep publishing ‘filler’ content, and are desperate for anything relevant that can fill the space - that’s your opportunity. Grammarly are the masters of this, getting thousands of high quality backlinks before the election with a study showing Trump supporters have worse grammar.
B. Research What’s Ranking
Now you’ve got your keyword, it’s research time: have your SEO lead do the research to see what else is ranking for that topic. Typically I’d look in a keyword research tool so I’m not getting biased (Google serves personalised results to each user). Then I’d click through on each result and read it to see what angle they took and how high quality the post is. You might conclude at this stage these posts are too hard to beat, and go back to the drawing board to pick another topic.
C. Find a Strategic Angle
After reading each post that currently ranks for your target topic, you should have a good idea of where they’re strong and weak, and be thinking about how you can differentiate. If everyone else's posts are short, can you make yours long? If the others are mostly text, can yours be an image? Could you offer a contrarian opinion? Or is there something else you can change about your approach? For example, for the keyword “reddit ads” the main ranking pages are Reddit themselves, and the rest are “how to” guides. So at Ladder we spent $250 on Reddit and shared the results of our campaign: that helped us rank on the first page amongst much more authoritative sites.
D. Create a Unique Asset
It's hard as a new company to win head on in SEO against established incumbents. So we have to differentiate to change the game by differentiating our content vs what's already ranking. There are some ideas for assets below:
- White paper
- Process doc
- Animated Gifs
- Slide deck
There are lots of different ways you could differentiate, but you typically only want to choose one asset per post. Every additional thing you call attention to dilutes the main message of the post, and gives your reader too much to remember.
E. Map Idea to a Persona
What happens immediately before and after someone is in the market for your product? What are the trigger points? When do they drop out of the market and what takes their focus instead? What emotional states are they likely to be in during these trigger moments (they might be in different states at the same trigger point, depending on persona)? Map out these stages and attach emotional states and quotes to them, and decide what stage that keyword and content piece is targeting. This helps significantly in aligning the writer with the audience that they should be writing for, and keeps style consistent across writers.
F. Select and Brief Writer
If you’ve followed the recruiting writer advice, you should have no problem building a list of people who you can call on: as a rule of thumb I’d say you need 60% more writers than the number of posts you plan to publish each week, so 5 writers to consistently deliver 3 posts per week. In order to get the best work out of them you need to write a brief. Luckily you have most of what you need already, if you’ve been following along so far.
- Primary Keyword - traffic, difficulty
- Ranking Pages - links to the relevant pages ranking for that keyword
- Strategic Angle - how will you differentiate this post from those already ranking?
- Trigger Phase - what stage of their purchase journey would they search this term?
- Emotional State - what emotional state do you want to speak to for this persona?
It can also be helpful to link to any docs that explain more about your company, how you work and what your style is.
- About Us - what does your company do, and why?
- Get / To / By - what are you trying to do with your creative?
- Tone of Voice - how should your content sound? Give examples.
Finally you want to get your domain expert to record a 10 minute video using Loom on the topic, or schedule an interview on Zoom and record it. This is absolutely key because it’s the mechanism through which you make your post add value. Most other posts were written by professional writers with no real expertise in the topic: even 10 minutes of an expert explaining something will give your writer a lot to go on, and make the post more authentic and useful to the readers.
G. Optimize for Search Engines
You should always write for humans first, but you can edit for search engines to rank higher. It’s a lot easier to optimize a good piece of writing for Google than it is to take an SEO-optimized post and make it interesting. To optimize a post for SEO you can use a content optimization tool like ClearScope to suggest keywords to include. Alternatively just take a look at what’s already ranking, and see what secondary keywords these posts rank for with a normal keyword research tool like Ahrefs. Then include them wherever natural - in headlines if possible, and sprinkled through the post to match what people search for.
Once the post itself is well optimized, think about how it sits within your existing content hierarchy. Internal links are not just a good way for Google to understand what content is related, but also helps keep your users reading by giving them more relevant content to consume. I’ve had people tell me they read one Ladder blog post and end up with a laundry list of 6 other posts to read. One helpful framework is the Hub and Spoke model - connect subtopics to a master ‘hub’ topic so equity flows from niche pages to the important ones.
H. Editorial Review of First Draft
There should be one person or a dedicated team that’s ultimately responsible for what gets published. It’s important for them to feel ownership, establish consistency in the tone of voice and have responsibility over quality. At first that person might be you, but as you expand you can hire a part time editor, eventually building a full time editorial team. Make sure this person or team is bonused in part by actually getting content live and hitting traffic targets however, or the temptation to be perfectionist will slow things down.
I. Revise, Publish and Promote
There may be small or major revisions that need to be made before the piece can go live. Once these have been dealt with and the editor is happy, put the post live. But the work doesn’t stop there: make sure to put the post out on your social channels, tailoring each post to what works on that platform. For example go image-heavy on Instagram whereas threads work best on Twitter. Don’t forget direct messaging: your goal here is to send the post directly to people you know who are knowledgeable and influential, asking them to review the post if they have time, in a non-pushy way. Don’t feel like you have to ask for shares: ask for advice on making the post better and if they like it they’ll share.
J. Review, Remove or Republish
Just because the post is out there, doesn’t mean the job is done. Schedule a performance review 3 months after the post is published and check how it’s doing. If it didn’t get above a certain traffic threshold, it’s worth just merging it into another better post or deleting it. You want to do this because Google assigns a limited crawl budget to every site, and you don’t want to waste this budget on pages that don’t do well.
For posts that do well, it’s worth doubling down - most posts fail so when you find one that hits, don’t just sit back and watch. Rewrite the post from a new angle, make it better than the first time and republish. This can drive significant traffic boosts because Google likes to see frequently updated content.
K. Topic Dominance
If you have a post that’s performing, and republishing gave you a boost, why stop there? Keep going until you completely dominate the topic. Take a look at what else is ranking for that post: are there any second-hand SEO opportunities? Pages that rank for the term that you can get into, or get mentioned in. For example Hubspot would look at the top 10 pages ranking for “best CRM software” and partner with each of them, as part of their “surround sound strategy”. Alternatively if you already rank in a high position for a term, try to take up more real estate with the “P&G approach”. If you look on a supermarket shelf a high percent of the brands are actually all owned by the same company, Procter & Gamble. On your search term try building or buying another brand that takes another slot on the page, to get more traffic on a term you know works and edge out competitors.