So, you’ve come across this newfangled thing called content marketing that many huge companies swear by. Apparently, all you need to do is create a blog, post some articles, and voila! the traffic will come pouring in by the truckload.

You might even get some sales from that influx of visitors, too!

And then you check your website analytics a week later, and discover that there was no hockey stick growth – or anything resembling any sort of growth, really. Perhaps, just a tiny blip of activity, but that’s about it.

The problem is, content marketing, at first glance, appears to be easy. On the surface, all you see is an article going live, and all of a sudden big-time influencers are tweeting about it, huge publications are resharing it, people are writing case studies about it, and there are smiles all around. Looks easy enough.

The thing is, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A whole lot of work goes on behind the scene to help your content reach a wider audience, and generate a sustainable amount of traffic to your website.

great content marketing slow steady sustainable

What if, by sheer luck, your very first article happens to go viral? First off, I’d like to congratulate you on striking the content marketing lottery – the odds of this happening are a million to one (probably more). However, without proper planning, your website will likely not be able to reap long-term benefits from this surge of traffic.

This is probably how it’ll look like:

evergreen content

Virality, in and of itself, is not sustainable. As the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race.

There is, however, certainly still a place for viral content – but only with the right pieces in place. Let’s have a look at what are the fundamentals required to grow your website traffic sustainably with content marketing.

(Really) Understand your target audience

Having worked with many startups as both an employee and advisor over the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most potent killer of potentially great businesses are assumptions.

Many companies believe that they know exactly what their users want. When pressed, they might tell you that they “heard it from a few guys we talked to at a conference” or “read some articles online that said so.” Without talking to actual users, however, these are all just assumptions that they made based on third-party sources, and are almost never accurate.

Inevitably, this would result in content generated by the marketing team that does not resonate with their target audience whatsoever.

What are their problems?

As such, the first step towards really understanding your target audience is to find out what are the problems they face in their working lives (in some cases, maybe even in their personal lives). As Hubspot’s former Head of Content Jay Acunzo puts it:

“Content marketing is just solving the same customer problems as your product but through media you create and distribute.”

When I first started leading content marketing at Piktochart, we were producing a lot of marketer-focused content, based on the assumption that most of our users were using our software to create longform graphics for marketing.

After conducting a series of interviews, however, we found out that our users were looking to create great-looking materials not just for marketing, but for general communication purposes: lesson outlines, event posters, keynote presentation slides, and so on. More importantly, we discovered that most of them lacked the design expertise typically required to create these materials well.

We immediately switched our strategy to the following:

“Produce top-notch content—whether it be blog articles, ebooks, checklists, and so on—that empowers our readers to become excellent at communication while driving business value for Piktochart.”

With that, we began to produce content focusing on teaching and inspiring our readers to communicate better visually. And we started to see an uptick in engagement. For example, a SlideShare presentation we published, 24 Infographic Ideas to Inspire Your Next Beautiful Creation, attracted over 130,000 views and drove thousands of leads for us.

How to start gathering questions that your users are asking about? You can talk to your sales team – who interact with users regularly – or reach out to them directly, whether via email, live chat, or by organizing community meetups. For the latter, just make sure there’s lots of pizza and beer!

Where do they gather?

Another important bit of information that you need to know about your target audience is where they tend to frequent – both online and offline. The reason for this is that certain content formats work better for specific channels, and you want to be sure that you’re creating the right type of content for the community you’re looking to reach out to.

For instance, marketers such as myself love to huddle on marketer-specific online community platforms such as GrowthHackers and Inbound.org, and educational longform articles tend to do the best here. If you had a piece of in-depth content directed to marketers specifically, it would have a higher chance of meeting its mark on these platforms.

If you’re reaching out to the travel crowd, however, you might find them on relevant and popular Facebook groups such as the Ultimate Travel Group (UTG). Here, social media squares with inspirational quotes and beautiful landscapes would likely find more engagement than links or articles.

Based on these guidelines, you should be able to come up with many great content ideas to start with. But it’s also important to make sure that you have several pieces of content that are evergreen in nature. In other words, the topics that they address should continue to deliver value to your readers for an extended period of time, and as such bring in a constant flow of traffic in the long run. Which brings us to the next point.

Make the search engine gods happy

Now that you know what type of content you should be producing, it’s time to make sure that it goes the distance and brings back traffic sustainably. And a huge part of this involves making sure your content can be found on as many platforms as possible – especially search engines like Google, which people trust to find information and products that they need.

Topical authority over keyword density

First and foremost, your content should contain the keywords that you’re looking to be found for. However, you shouldn’t be too caught up in inserting those keywords wherever humanly possible, to the extent that it sounds unnatural.

Recent updates have allowed Google to understand the intent of the question typed into the search box, and return answers that address it rather than pages with the exact keyword match.

Instead, you should aim to address the topic of your article in an in-depth manner with easy-to-understand language, with a sprinkling of keywords to guide Google’s web crawlers along.

In the same article linked above, SEO expert Brian Dean found that pages with longer content ranked better than shorter ones which address the same topic. The average word count of a Google first page result, he says, is 1890 words, though you should use this as a guideline rather than the law.

Get lots of high-quality backlinks

Another major Google ranking factor is the number and quality of backlinks – incoming links from other websites – to the piece of content in question.

There are many ways to earn these backlinks, which Brian Dean covers extensively on his blog, but one of the methods I’ve used to a great degree of success is guest blogging. Find authoritative publications that cover the same space as the topic of your article, and pitch guest posts that cover adjacent and related topics so you can naturally insert a reference to it.

For example, visual marketing was one of the topics that we had covered extensively at Piktochart previously, and I had identified Crazy Egg as a relevant publication with a big and loyal following.

Since we had several articles covering basic design principles on our blog, I decided to pitch an article idea that would be able to reference those, as well as bring value to their audience, titled 10 Design Principles That Will Increase Your Email Newsletter Conversions. Happily, Crazy Egg’s VP of Inbound Sean Work, was more than happy to accept it!

A nice side effect of this guest blogging tactic is that you might get some referral traffic from people who click those links. However, don’t count on it too much, as recent research has found it to be an unreliable source of traffic.

Keep going, and going, and going

What I’ve outlined above probably isn’t anything new to you. In fact, you might even have tried them once or twice, to no avail. Which brings me to my final point, which is that it takes time. Sometimes, a lot of time.

Take my travel blog, Jayndee, for example. When my fiancée and I first started taking it seriously in September 2016, I thought I knew exactly what to do. Based on our most recent road trip, I began penning an ultimate road trip guide to Tasmania.

I did keyword research, throwing in the most popular terms where applicable. I made sure to internally link all the related articles on my blog back to the main piece. I reached out to several travel influencers, and managed to get promoted on one of the most popular Facebook groups in Tasmania, which drove a good number of clicks to the article. When that happened, I was certain that we were well on our way to blog stardom.

As you would expect, not long after our pageviews started sliding back down quickly. For months after, we had barely a handful of visitors, dropping to practically nothing earlier this year. While we were discouraged, we chose not to give up. We kept at it, publishing article after article, week after week, keeping to our editorial calendar and promoting the blog wherever we could.

And slowly but surely, Google started to take notice, and reward us for our efforts. Here’s how our graph looks like, from then till now:

great content marketing slow steady sustainable

It took close to 9 months before we began to see our blog traffic really take off, and a full year before it really became self-sustaining.

So here’s my concluding thought: don’t expect to see immediate results. If you want that, consider allocating some budget to paid marketing efforts instead. However, if you really want to see exponential, sustainable website traffic growth, I would say that there’s no better way to go than with content marketing.

Keep testing, publishing, analyzing, and repeating it all over again. Done well, the returns will be more than worth your time and effort.

Interested to talk more about content marketing? Let’s talk!

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