Barbells vs. Treadmills: A Fresh Take on Content Strategy

Janessa Lantz
Aug 15, 2016 · 10 min read

Classic Content Strategy: The Treadmill

The content treadmill is the classic content marketing strategy. You create a content calendar that identifies topics your audience cares about, you hire content marketers, then you churn out content and promote it. If you need more content, you hire more content marketers. Repeat this until you hit your lead goal.

Why The Content Treadmill is Fundamentally Flawed

There are three big reasons why the content treadmill is fundamentally flawed:

  1. The content treadmill doesn’t scale. Classic content strategy says more content = more leads, but this falls apart if the only people that can create quality, strategic content are senior people.
  2. It’s built on a faulty assumption. The content treadmill assumes that more content gets more results. Not only did this prove to be 100% untrue for us at RJMetrics (and other teams out there), I would go so far as to suggest that creating volumes of content not only does not help, it actually hurts your brand. Here’s the secret: the quality of your content has an exponentially greater impact than quantity. This means you likely need far less content to achieve your goals than you think. Meet the content marketing power law.

The Content Marketing Power Law

The power law is more commonly known as the 80–20 rule. At its most rudimentary, it’s the idea that a small number of things generate the highest impact. Let’s take a look at how this plays out in content marketing.

(Visualization from RJMetrics CloudBI)
  • Microsite: We maintained five microsites around key terms our audience cared about (only one of them was actually created in 2015).

New Content Strategy: The Barbell

The barbell strategy is the content marketing power law + content “atomization.” Content atomization is an idea popularized by Jay Baer, others call it content recycling. The basic gist is that you extract as much possible value out of a single piece of content as possible by breaking it down into smaller parts or different formats.

The Barbell Content Strategy

The Barbell Content Strategy in Practice

Let’s leave content theory aside for a moment and look at how this actually played out in real life. In late 2012 and 2013 we wrote our first benchmark reports. They weren’t great, containing a few charts and a few key metrics that mattered to ecommerce companies — customer lifetime value, growth rates, that kind of thing. But they showed some very promising signs. I can’t speak much to the 2012 report because it was produced before I was on the team. But I do know that by 2014, our latest benchmark report was our best-performing PPC campaign, and we had good success using it to pitch guest posts to industry blogs.

  • 10,000+ quality leads
  • Guest blogging/backlinks: We conducted a wave of outreach to industry blogs that resulted in 100+ backlinks.
  • Webinars: We used this research to form the basis of our webinar strategy; partnering with companies like Zendesk, Hubspot, and Bounce Exchange to lend fresh perspective to the data. These events created another roughly 3000 new leads.
  • Blog: And, of course, we wrote blog posts on our on blog. We used blog posts to give further context to the data, editorialize, and optimize for new search terms. Several of those posts are in that top 25 chart I showed at the beginning, generating over 5,000 page views all on their own.
  • Presentations: This content also got us in at industry events. Thanks to this research, we landed our CEO a speaking spot at IRCE (not a paid sponsorship!), the biggest ecommerce event in the US.
  • SEO: But my favorite result is the SEO impact. The thing with great content is that it actually has a very long shelf-life. Anytime you release a new piece of content you’ll see a bump at the beginning and then it tails off. High quality, SEO-optimized content will see a bump at the beginning, then it tails off, then about three-six months later, you’ll start seeing it rise in search rank. And with that, a new steady lead flow.

How to Make the Barbell Strategy Work for You

The barbell strategy works because it is laser focused on creating something that people want. While I can’t see their numbers, I have seen evidence of other companies using this strategy:

  1. Customers love seeing how they stack up
  2. Prospects love having data to show their boss and colleagues
  3. Companies love partnering with companies that have a data-driven perspective
  4. Having data positions you as an expert. You have “insider info.” That’s a tough message to convey on thought leadership content alone.

Now Get off the Damn Treadmill

The content marketing power law + atomization + data completely changed the way I thought about content marketing, and I want to see more SaaS companies adopting the data-driven barbell strategy. You don’t need reams of content to achieve your goals. You don’t need three blog posts a week or a whitepaper a month. If your content calendar is holding you to production goals, you’re doing it wrong.


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Thanks to Tristan Handy.

Janessa Lantz

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Reader // Writer // Editor

Startup Grind

The life, work, and tactics of entrepreneurs around the world. Welcoming submissions on technology trends, product design, growth strategies, and venture investing. Learn more about how you can get involved at startupgrind.com.