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Why Content Marketing Is Essential for Early-Stage Startup Growth

By Kathryn Hawkins. Content Strategy
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Early-stage and seed-funded startups should focus on developing content marketing strategies for scalable, organic business growth.

So you’ve got a startup and things are moving fast—but not fast enough for your liking. Maybe you’ve already been through an accelerator program, and you’ve gotten some bites from investors. You’ve gotten seed or angel funding, or a Series A round, and now you’ve got somewhere between $500,000 and a few million in investments—enough to finance office space and bankroll a couple of salaries for core employees like developers, but not enough to go on a hiring spree or spend millions on online marketing.

Nonetheless, once you’ve got your MVP in place, you want to start building a buzz about your company and getting on your prospects’ radar.

So how do you do it? Focus on content marketing.

In this article, we’ll give you a clear path for generating organic traffic by developing quality content that your potential customers will love. Developing a strong content marketing strategy will help you build awareness and trust among your target audience, and help you develop an organic SEO presence that doesn’t rely on a big budget for social media influencers or Google ads.

What is content marketing?

First of all, let’s break down what content marketing is. It’s a form of marketing focused not on selling to your target audience, but on engaging them with useful and informative content. To do this well, you don’t want to talk too much about your product or solution itself—you want to think about the needs and concerns of your audience, and then build a dedicated content strategy that caters to answering their questions. It’s an approach focused on deep empathy and optimizing for the user experience—much as your product itself should be.

You know your product better than anyone—but how well do you really know your target audience? If you want to build a truly impactful content strategy, it helps to begin with research. When we’re developing a content strategy for a startup client, we focus on:

  • Buyer personas
    Who are your potential customers? Break them down into segments based on key criteria such as job function, and give each persona a name and distinct identity—Ira, the IT guy, for instance. What is Ira’s professional goal, and where does he struggle? What type of messaging will resonate with him? How does he make a decision about new technology, and who else is involved in the process? You may be able to glean a lot of information by conducting online research about your target users, but the best way to truly understand them is to ask: Set up user discovery interviews with current customers and with the types of people you’d like to buy your product. You’ll get lots of useful data that will help you understand how to create truly valuable content for them, as well as what channels to use to reach them.
  • Industry and competitive research
    Who’s creating great content in your space already? You can use a tool like BuzzSumo or SpyFu to conduct research on a specific competitor or on a relevant industry keyword and understand what’s working. For instance, let’s say you have an app focused on VR for physicians—research can help you to understand the trending terms in the healthcare VR space, and also give you a picture of how other companies are effectively using content marketing, showing you how many social shares your competitors’ content pieces have and where they rank in Google search results. The goal isn’t to copy what your competitors are doing, but to learn from it and use this as a foundation to create your own valuable content that differentiates your brand.
  • SEO research
    There’s no question that search engine rankings are important, and focusing on SEO as part of an overall content strategy will help you yield strong results. You can draw from what you’ve learned in your buyer persona and competitive research to identify a set of terms that your target audience is searching for, and integrate them into your content marketing calendar. The key is to take a human-first approach to your content—make sure that you’re developing engaging and highly relevant content that your readers will enjoy. Making sure you include relevant SEO terms, particularly in your headlines, will ensure that your readers will find it in the first place.
  • A distribution strategy
    As you build your content strategy, don’t forget about distribution. Search engines aren’t likely to discover your content right away—so how will you get it out there? Think about which social media channels to use for promotion, which might include Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest—the specifics depend on your brand and where your buyers spend time (so go back to your personas to build a plan here). You can spend time building your platform organically, but it can also be helpful to budget for sponsorship on your most valuable platforms, which will let you target your ideal audiences. In addition to publishing content on your own site and social channels, you can also look at guest blogging as a way to boost your audience even further.
  • An editorial content calendar
    Finally, once you’ve mapped out your content strategy in detail, you’ll want to put together an editorial calendar showcasing your plan. Your content marketing strategy can include blog content, ebooks, webinars, visual content like infographics, and even podcasts. The common thread is that it’s high-quality content designed to appeal to your target audience, not sell to them. The calendar should also include a distribution plan: Where and how often will the content be shared, and who’s responsible?

Why should startups focus on content marketing?

So there’s a basic run-through of how to build a content marketing plan—now, let’s look at the why. Having worked with hundreds of companies in the past decade, we’ve found it to be a remarkably adaptive strategy that can work well for any type of business—but is a particularly good fit for startups, which are aiming to build visibility quickly on a limited budget.

Content marketing is more effective and cheaper than traditional PR

The harsh truth is, unless you’re Google or Apple, no one really cares about your press release. It’s not likely to gain traction among the tech blogs, and spending thousands of dollars on press releases and distribution is almost always money poorly spent.

However, there is a much more direct path to getting coverage for your startup on tech blogs: developing a guest blog strategy. By developing informative, helpful articles that appeal to top tech blogs’ target audiences, we’ve helped our startup clients get published on top sites such as VentureBeat, Forbes.com, and KillerStartups.

These posts may not be directly focused on your company’s mission, but they go a long way towards getting your business on your prospects’ radar, and can help you build high-quality backlinks from authoritative sites, increasing your search engine rankings. Additionally, by developing opinionated “thought leadership” content, you’re far more likely to get on media publications’ and event planners’ radars for interviews and speaking opportunities, as the startup Groove has discovered.

Inbound marketing is the most affordable way to increase your business leads

Yes, you could pay for Google or Facebook advertising to generate new leads. But depending on your industry, you could end up paying more than $20 or $30 per click—“insurance,” for instance, costs more than $50 for each Google AdWords click. And even after those expenses, there’s no guarantee that lead is going to turn into a sale. Even worse, keyword advertising isn’t a self-sustaining solution: The only way to keep popping up at the top of the Google search results every month is to keep shelling out for those ads.

In contrast, by investing in developing high-quality, unique and insightful SEO-optimized content that generates discussion and links, you’ll build a site that Google loves, organically. That means that, over time, you’ll naturally rise to the top of the search results for many of your chosen keyword terms, without having to pay Google for the privilege—so your web traffic won’t vanish the next month if you decide to cut back your ad spend. In contrast, the more relevant your content is, the more likely it is to gain even more interest month after month, especially as credible sites begin to link to your content as a resource. In our own work, we’ve seen a $3K a month content marketing budget reap rewards in the form of organic SEO traffic valued at $30K in PPC ad clicks. It’s not an instant process, but when executed well, you’ll see solid results over time.

How can startups manage content marketing?

Many larger companies hire full-time content marketing directors to develop and manage their editorial strategy, but in your case, that’s probably not a good idea just yet. You don’t have the capital for non-essential hires at this point.

You can follow the steps mapped above for building a strategy on your own, but if you don’t have time or don’t feel comfortable with it, consider working with an agency or a consultant to map out your content marketing strategy and build an SEO-optimized editorial calendar. You can then keep working with an agency or group of freelance writers for content creation support, or bring it back in-house, asking each of your team members to contribute to the content marketing plan.

Make sure that whatever approach you take, you have a system for tracking success across the board. While content marketing can and often does lead to sales, that process may not be immediate. In addition to conversions, pay attention to other metrics, such as:

  • Social follower growth
  • Social follower engagement
  • Time spent on site
  • Number of pages viewed on site
  • Site traffic growth
  • Backlinks to site
  • Keyword ranking increases

Track these and other metrics over a period of months, not days, to measure the difference your content marketing efforts are making. With the exception of those rare viral pieces, content marketing is a slow and steady process that builds trust and awareness over time, not overnight.

However you do it, it’s important to maintain consistency and quality across the board: In order to build an audience through content marketing, you need to earn and keep your followers’ trust. By taking a deeply empathetic and thoughtful approach towards building a content strategy targeted to meet your potential customers’ needs, you’ll have the tools to build your brand’s awareness and become a leader in your space.

Want to learn more tips on mastering content marketing? Get our 19-page guide for content marketing for B2B tech companies.

Kathryn Hawkins

Kathryn Hawkins

Kathryn Hawkins is principal and chief content strategist of Eucalypt Media. She has worked as a freelance journalist for media publications and managed inbound marketing and content strategy for corporate and nonprofit clients for more than a decade.

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