Barbells vs. Treadmills: A Fresh Take on Content Strategy

When I started building the content marketing team at RJMetrics I did so on the same assumption many content teams are started on: I would hire great people, we would write amazing content that our target market loved. Say hello to search rank and leads!

It didn’t take long for me to realize how painfully flawed this idea was. I coached and trained. I watched my writers struggle through round after round after round of edits, all of us growing frustrated. To their credit, they suffered bravely through the process with me.

Every piece we got out the door was painful. It took long, it involved 5–10 rounds of editing, and it still frequently ended in big chunks of a piece being rewritten. Every now and then we would have a post that would hit. This post about free shipping by Anna Kegler was shared over 400 times and viewed over 5,000 times in 2015. Daniel Levine mastered the expert input roundup like this one, doing two that received over 2,000 page views each. But for the most part we struggled to get the kind of eyeballs we wanted. We were on the content treadmill.

At this point, I’ve talked to enough marketing leaders to know this experience is not unique to my team. Once I started admitting out loud how hard this was for us, I started hearing their admissions as well: “Yeah, I rewrite 80% of what my freelancers do.” “I don’t let anyone do writing for our blog but me, it’s never right.”

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. You cannot outsource your thinking. Many times while working through a presentation or blog post, you’ll find that you’re developing new thoughts and adding clarity to the thoughts that have been bouncing around in your brain. This happens because you have a deep understanding of your product, market, and customer. People that lack that deep, strategic understanding of your business simply can’t do this. And really, it’s unfair to expect that a content marketer (or anyone for that matter) should do your thinking for you.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The chart below shows all of the traffic to our blog in 2015.

The top post got over 22,000 unique page views (and it was written in 2013). Then there’s a slice of posts getting between 3,000–7,000 page views, and then the long tail…many of them getting fewer than 100 page views. The top 25 blog posts got more pageviews than the next 225 combined. Or, to put it another way, the top 10% of posts got more pageviews than the next 90% combined.

This same trend played out in our lead flow:

(Visualization from RJMetrics CloudBI)

Let me break what these categories mean:

  • Benchmark: We released four benchmark reports in 2015. These reports were the cornerstone of our content strategy.
  • Microsite: We maintained five microsites around key terms our audience cared about (only one of them was actually created in 2015).

That’s a total of nine pieces of content generating over 55% of our leads. On top of that, in each of these content categories, you see another power law playing out. Our top two benchmark reports performed nearly 3x better than the average report. Our best microsite generated nearly 2x the number of Sales Qualified Leads.

You can see this same rule play out publicly on social. One easy example, search “content marketing” on Buzzsumo and you’ll see the top two pieces of content have nearly 3x the number of Twitter shares.

I’m certainly not the first person to spot the power law at play. Walter Chen wrote about the content marketing power law back in 2014, and has some great data on how it played out for them. Larry Kim saw this same rule play out in landing pages, with 80% of the traffic going to the top 10% of pages.

People have seen this power law at work in marketing before, but the general consensus seems to be “get better at identifying what makes a viral hit and do more of them.” I’m not ok with this answer. This thinking just puts marketers back onto the grind of the treadmill. Sure, this time you’re taking a more scientific approach to predicting what will be a big hit (a step in the right direction), but you’re back to asking essentially the same question, “How can we produce more content?” That’s the wrong question.

The right question is something like, “What is the best possible content we are positioned to create that will add the highest value to the lives of our target audience?” In other words, the power law indicates that marketers should be thinking a lot more like product people than factory managers. Any product manager good at their job knows more features do not equal happy customers. So why do we assume more content will lead to happier prospects?

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.

Separate these concepts and you end up with a lopsided strategy. If you only create a piece of “big hit” content, you waste a lot of potential value. If you overemphasize atomization, you end up churning out reams of derivative content. Combine the two ideas and you have what I’ve started calling the barbell strategy.

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.

So in 2015, we went all in on the barbell strategy. We put out a survey to our list of 35k+ asking them what they wanted to learn about. We looked at our data set and spent time thinking about the insights we could extract from it. We did SEO research to find the terms we wanted to optimize for. We spent hours doing the analysis. In the end, we wrote a report that was over 3,000 words and contained 14 interactive charts. The results over the next year speak for themselves:

  • 50,000 unique pageviews
  • 10,000+ quality leads

That was the “1 big thing” side of the barbell. The atomization side of the barbell was doing all the little supporting activities around this massive piece. Here’s what the other side looked like:

  • PR strategy: Our press campaign around this content landed coverage in The Huffington Post, Retail Touchpoints, Internet Retailer.
  • 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.

Here’s a look at our page views for the Ecommerce Growth Benchmark:

Over a year later and this piece is still responsible for the same number of monthly pageviews that it was bringing in 4 months after launch.

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:

For us it was the benchmarking reports, and I believe that proprietary research is the most predictable way to make the barbell strategy work. If you’re a SaaS company, you’re sitting on a proprietary data set. You have unique insights into your industry, and if you’re not using this in your marketing — you’re missing a massive opportunity. There are a few good reasons why data adds an enormous amount of predictability to your barbell strategy:

  1. The press loves data
  2. Customers love seeing how they stack up
  3. Prospects love having data to show their boss and colleagues
  4. Companies love partnering with companies that have a data-driven perspective
  5. 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.

I know it’s uncomfortable. Even after I saw the data proving this strategy works, I kept trying to do treadmill activities. It’s hard to break the content marketing habits of always producing. But it’s time to stop.

We have reached Peak Content. We’re in a world where volumes of isn’t only useless, it’s actually harmful. But Erica Berger offers hope in her wonderful missive on the topic of Peak Content:

As we come down from our peak [content], we’ll get the chance to reimagine how we should be creating and distributing the news and content that matters, as well as the stuff that inspires, delights, and even distracts us…

It’s time, content marketers. It’s time to get off the damn treadmill. There’s a better way to do content marketing, and honestly? It’s a whole lot more fun.


If you want to go a little deeper on this topic, I’m going to be talking about this on an upcoming webinar with Adhere. You can sign up here.

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