The Unspoken Golden Rule of Content Marketing

Tim Soulo
Tim Soulo
Jun 27 · 9 min read

The question is asked loudly; eagerly.

Five hundred expectant pairs of eyes turn on where I sit onstage at the Melbourne Convention Center, microphone in hand.

I’ve known for a while now that my “breakthroughs” tend to occur in two specific situations: during shower time and when I’m struggling to fall asleep.

I can now expand that list to include times like this one — under immense stress, with awkward silence looming and no time to think.

At times like these, I sometimes surprise myself by coming up with an original insight that’s never occurred to me before.

This was definitely one of these times.

So I put that microphone to good use.

To be fair, that’s not quite a direct quote of what I said that day.

I think what actually happened was that I rambled on for three minutes, trying to put the concept that had struck me so suddenly into words.

But what I failed to express that day, I apparently managed to compensate for with my sheer excitement for the topic. Because the very next day, I got a bunch of LinkedIn invitations like this one:

Anyhow, I had plenty of time after that conference to think through the idea of “the most qualified person”.

So here we go!

The biggest problem of content marketing

Let’s start right at the bottom of things.

Seven years ago, I was put in charge of a photography blog called Photodoto.com (it was a sub-project of a larger company).

I had absolutely no knowledge in or passion for photography, but I decided to give it a shot anyway. I even announced the start of my journey in the very first article that I published at Photodoto.com:

Long story short, I quickly realized that I had zero interest in photography. Unsurprisingly, I ended up never learning anything about it — let alone sharing my knowledge on that blog.

On the other hand, I was very passionate about digital marketing and building online businesses…so I figured out a way to grow the blog despite my lack of interest in photography.

The secret: I hired a bunch of freelance photographers who were willing to earn an extra buck by writing articles for our blog.

Coupled with my experience in blogging and copywriting, their domain expertise resulted in some great articles that got traction within the community and brought quite a bit of traffic and notoriety to our blog.

Things were slowly starting to pick up, and Photodoto was starting to look like a viable online business with some real potential.

But when I checked out competing photography blogs, I started to realize that my lack of passion for photography was the biggest liability of that business. I didn’t understand the industry and I didn’t understand the market — hell, I couldn’t even tell if the freelance photographers I hired were doing a good job with their articles or not.

Meanwhile, our competitors were deep in the trenches; taking epic photos, testing newest gear, traveling to conferences…the whole gamut.

They were the thought leaders. We weren’t.

And I didn’t see us becoming one, given my lack of passion for the topic. So I left that project for good.

The conclusion?

I failed to turn that photography blog into a worldwide success not because I didn’t know any effective marketing or copywriting tricks.

The project failed because all those tricks meant nothing without actual domain expertise.

Looking back, the one thing I did right was hiring actual photographers to write content for our photography blog instead of copywriters.

This happens with far too many online businesses. They entrust their content marketing operation to “copywriters”: people with writing experience and vast knowledge of psychology and sales triggers.

But at the same time, these “content marketing rockstars” lack understanding of the niche they are writing for…not to mention the finer details and nuances of the business they are promoting with their content.

Here’s something to keep in mind:

The best copywriters I know won’t agree to do any work for you unless you allow them to connect with people in your company and ask all sorts of questions to help them better understand your business.

And yet in most cases (at least from my experience), content marketing departments are completely detached from the people who are building and running the business.

But let’s look at this problem from the standpoint of a reader.

We prefer to hear from authorities

I started this article with a scene from Melbourne Convention Center for two reasons. The first: to engage you with a cool story right off the bat.

The second: this scene portrays me as an “authority” — someone who is invited to speak at conferences all around the world. This gives me enough credibility to catch and hold your attention for the ten minutes that it takes you to finish this article (at least, I hope so!)

Same goes for my story about the Photodoto blog.

Other than sharing an important lesson in blogging, this story also tells you that I’ve been in the content marketing game for at least 7 years.

You wouldn’t want to spend your time reading content marketing advice from someone who published their first article yesterday, right?

Of course, this varies across each niche. Would you want to read an article I wrote on the topic of colonizing Mars, or would you rather listen to guys like Elon Musk or Neil Degrasse Tyson?

The answer is clear. When choosing content to consume, people gravitate towards content that was created by the most qualified person on a given topic.

So by the time I joined Ahrefs as CMO and started investing in content marketing, I’d already learned that I didn’t need any “experienced copywriters” to write for our blog.

Instead, I needed to have actual SEO/marketing practitioners write them, even if I had to invest in teaching them copywriting skills.

So I did. And I’m convinced that this is why articles on our blog get backlinks from hundreds of different websites, while other companies in our niche struggle to get someone to tweet out their articles — let alone link to them.

There is one catch, though.

Have a look at the screenshot above. The top 4 articles that you see (excluding the homepage of our blog) are credited to me.

But…doesn’t the CMO have better stuff to do, you ask? Like contemplating the overall strategy, managing the team, hiring people, making important decisions, bla-bla-bla…

Well, here’s the thing.

At Ahrefs, we understand the power of content marketing, and we want to beat our competitors at it. This means that we need to involve the most qualified people in the company to work on our content.

So even though the author listed on these articles is myself, there’s actually a whole team behind each of these posts.

I had to carve out time from our data science and development teams to write scripts and crunch numbers for me. I had to ask our blog editor to polish my wording and perfect the article flow. Quite often, our CEO himself will read our blog content and give us some criticism, especially when we talk about topics that are strategically important for our company.

In other words, if you’re a business owner looking to build a “hands-off content marketing team” that will deliver results without having to spend any of your own time on it…you’re going to end up completely dismantled by a fellow business owner who’s willing to invest his or her own time into creating content for their company.

So how do I hack this?

While it’s super important to involve your company’s most qualified people in your content marketing, it’s definitely easier said than done.

For one thing, chances are good that these people have too much on their plate to babysit your content team.

Plus, what happens if you don’t have a domain expert or thought leader in your team?

Don’t worry, you can still work around this and amazing content marketing. Here are a few tactics — or hacks, may I say? — that we practice in our own team.

1. Collaborate

Two heads are better than one.

Like I mentioned before, we get input from our colleagues for every single article that we publish at Ahrefs blog.

We’ve realized that the contributions from fellow team members are crucial to the end result, so much that we decided to reflect this in the article author box.

Here’s an example of credit where it’s due:

2. Be an Oprah

Think about how Oprah built her career.

Can’t involve a qualified person from your company? Look outside for some prominent people in your niche.

We do this every so often on our own blog:

The most striking example of this that I’ve seen so far is Tim Urban from WaitButWhy’s collaboration with Elon Musk.

They combined heads to create some crazy good articles on the topic of Artificial Intelligence — Part 1 & Part 2.

3. Walk the talk

If you can’t have a qualified person weigh in on your content, why not bring a new angle to strategies and tactics that other qualified people have talked about?

Way too many people resort to rehashing someone else’s ideas and conclusions without actually testing these concepts themselves and putting their own spin on things — not quite how you stand out from a crowd of look-alikes.

We definitely don’t do that at Ahrefs:

The lesson to learn here: nobody is born an expert.

But we can all become one by doing things that others are unwilling to do…and the more, the better.

4. Leverage your company’s proprietary data

This is something that we’ve been unconsciously doing at Ahrefs…almost from day 1. Yet I only realized this when I read The Content Marketing Handbook by Priceonomics.

The thing is, your company is likely to be sitting on a huge pile of data that may be of great interest to the rest of the world. All you need to do is figure out the right angle and present this data in a meaningful way.

Case in point:

Yes, it’s easy for me to give you this advice, given that Ahrefs is a company that invests the majority of our resources into data collection, processing and storage. We’re almost literally sitting on a huge pile of data waiting to be shared with the world.

But rather than spending more time trying to convince you that you too have proprietary data that can serve as a foundation for amazing content, I’d rather pitch you the amazing The Content Marketing Handbook by Priceonomics one more time.

And there you have it!

I’m convinced that this is the reason behind the Ahrefs blog’s tremendous growth over the last few years.

What about you? Did any of the points I mentioned resonate with you?

Will you be giving this “strategy” a go?

Let me know your thoughts below.

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Thanks for reading. For more in-depth marketing articles, visit the Ahrefs blog.

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Tim Soulo

Written by

Tim Soulo

Head of Marketing at Ahrefs.com

The Startup

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