How to Apply Lean Marketing to Your Content Based Business
Almost every entrepreneur has made this mistake…
They spend months or even years building a product or a feature they think is going to change the world.
And then the day comes to release their work to the world. Guess what happens?
Turns out, people didn’t really want a Tinder for cats. Who knew?
Some ideas seem great to us but turn out to be total duds.
And it doesn’t just happen with the obviously crazy ideas either. It can happen even with those that seem logical and feel like sure things.
There is a solution you can use to avoid this problem as long as you actually put it into action.
It’s called the lean business model.
Learn from Toyota: The whole concept of “lean” business came from lean manufacturing, which was actually derived from Toyota’s infamous production system.
You and I don’t own a factory, though, so we can’t apply those principles directly.
However, a clever guy by the name of Eric Ries figured out that those principles, with a few small adjustments, could be applied incredibly well to startups.
And so the Lean Startup was born (a great book if you get the time to read it).
If you own a business, it’s a great guide.
But I’d like to take these lean principles even further by applying them to your content marketing.
I see many parallels between a startup as a whole and content marketing, and taking a lean approach to marketing could yield several benefits.
Most importantly, you’ll be able to get:
- a better return on investment (ROI)
- more consistent results from your marketing
- less stress and frustration
In this post, I’m going to break down all the different ways that you can apply lean principles to your marketing—lean marketing.
The principles of lean marketing
The “lean” concept revolves around 3 basic stages.
They have been called many different things, but they all mean the same.
Sometimes they are called “experiment, track, improve”, and other times they are called “build, measure, learn”.
The names don’t really matter much, but the concepts do.
It’s also important to recognize that lean marketing is all about iteration.
The idea is to quickly fail or succeed on a small aspect of marketing and then improve the process until it’s successful enough to invest more effort in.
Let’s quickly look at the 3 main stages:
- Build – No matter what type of product you’re considering building, never build the entire thing without getting feedback. Instead, build only the essential parts of it.
- Measure – Once you have an initial product built, you need to get feedback. More precisely, you need to track how users interact with it by using metrics.
- Learn – By analyzing the data, you can see what went right and what went wrong. Then, you will know how to improve the product.
Don’t worry if you don’t see exactly how this applies to your content marketing yet. I’ll be going into each of these stages in a lot more detail in the sections to come.
Create content MVPs
The ROI of creating content is incredibly difficult to figure out.
First, there’s a big time gap between the time you publish something and the time a person who reads that becomes a customer.
In addition, one piece of content rarely leads to a sale. Instead, customers typically touch through several pieces of content first.
Even more importantly, it also depends on how effective your sales funnels are.
Getting approval to create a thousand-dollar piece of content or deciding to invest in one yourself is not easy.
You usually won’t know what results it will produce.
What if you spend all the money and effort on your new shiny piece of content only to see that it produced just a few hundred or thousand visitors?
It’s a very valid concern.
Eliminate risk with MVPs: The term MVP is often used when discussing lean business. It stands for minimum viable product.
The idea is to forget about all the frills and “nice to have” features of a product and focus only on the necessary features.
You build an initial product that consists of only the basic functionality, which is your MVP.
The reason why you do this is to avoid wasting any further time and resources in case your users don’t actually care about that functionality. If they don’t like those basic functions, they won’t care about extra features either.
But if your testing metrics are promising, you can improve the product based on the initial feedback.
Enter content MVPs: There’s no reason why the philosophy behind MVPs can’t be applied to content creation.
First, consider why these concepts might be useful.
Have you seen my advanced guides on Quick Sprout?
They are all professionally designed and have content co-written by myself and some of the smartest people in their fields.
They are incredibly in-depth. The goal was to create a resource that would be the most detailed and useful for each topic.
Even though I published most of them years ago, they remain some of the best pieces of content out there on their respective topics.
The Advanced Guide to SEO, for example, consists of 9 detailed chapters of advanced concepts and walk-throughs:
Beautiful layouts, custom images, and top-notch content.
It’s not cheap…
If you wanted to produce a similar guide, it would probably cost you at least a thousand dollars to do it right.
Imagine you spent all that time and money, and it just bombed.
You’d rightfully be devastated.
So let’s revisit the concept of an MVP, but this time from a content perspective.
Before you create an “advanced guide to cat toys,” you’d better make sure that your audience cares about the subject.
To do that, you can create a shorter, standard-length article, addressing one small part of what would go into that advanced guide. How about an article on the types of cat toys?
Don’t get me wrong, the content still needs to be top-notch, but you won’t have to worry about advanced design work and producing tens of thousands of words of content.
If that initial article gets interest, you can use the feedback you get to improve that article or learn the related topics that your readers might be interested in.
After that, you could create another article on a related topic (that falls under that advanced guide idea)—for example, an article about cat toy materials.
If that goes well and you get a decent level of attention and traffic, you’re onto something.
You’ve validated the presence of interest in the topic.
Now you can create your bigger guide without fearing it’ll be a dud.
A shortcut for established bloggers: Publishing those initial articles as content MVPs will take a bit of work (likely about a week).
Although it will take much less time than the full guide, you might not need to spend that time at all.
If you’ve been blogging for some time, you can just look at which of your posts have been the most successful. Those past blog posts are all content MVPs even if you didn’t know it at the time.
This is actually what I did with my guides.
I noticed that past posts, like on SEO, were getting a ton of traffic and comments. My readers loved them:
Once I knew that my readers loved SEO and were eager to learn how to apply it, I knew I could create an ultimate resource or two that would really blow their socks off.
In particular, I saw that posts about advanced SEO attracted the most attention.
And that’s how The Advanced Guide to SEO was born.
It only takes a few minutes to look through your old posts and find patterns.
Start by going to Google Analytics and navigating to “Behavior > Site Content > All Pages”.
Your past posts should be arranged by pageviews.
Out of your 10-20 most popular posts, look for common themes that show that your audience loves a certain topic.
These are the topics that you should create more advanced content on because you know that they will produce a consistent ROI.
Minimize your content buildup
One of the biggest concepts behind being lean is to “move fast.”
You want to fail fast and succeed fast.
This means that you want to know whether something works as soon as possible.
This is the primary concept that the MVP is based on. Get something out there, get feedback on it, and then improve it.
But you should apply this concept to more than just a content MVP to validate a big idea.
Instead, you should keep all your content moving “fast.”
Planning content the smart way: Creating an editorial calendar is a great idea.
The main benefits of it are: you minimize the risk of not having something to publish, and you can see how all your content fits together.
But there’s also a potential drawback…
If you have all your content planned for a long time, let’s say 6 months, you’re not moving “fast.”
Imagine if my readers all of a sudden became less interested in SEO, but I had 40 SEO posts planned for the next 6 months.
While you can change an editorial calendar once it’s made, it defeats a lot of the purpose of making it in the first place.
You might think, “My audience could never change that fast.”
It might not be likely, but it is definitely possible. A great example of this is the Buffer blog, which has continuously pivoted on its topics.
If you’re not basing your future content on the most recent feedback your audience is giving you, you’re not improving.
The takeaway here is simple:
Feel free to plan your content ahead of time, but limit it to 2-4 weeks ahead (depending on publishing frequency). Use metrics and reader feedback on recent posts to come up with new topic ideas that you can publish in the near future.
Go narrow and deep, not broad and shallow
Another crucial aspect of lean marketing is to focus on the things that work.
With the MVP, you focus only on the most vital features of a product.
The idea isn’t to create the best product overall but to get it out as fast as possible so that you can find out how to spend your time effectively.
The parallels between this and content marketing are a bit tougher to see, but they are still there.
I’ll break them down for you in a second.
But first, understand the Pareto principle: The Pareto principle is often called the 80/20 rule.
It’s a simple but incredible observation about results in just about all aspects of life.
The rule states that approximately 20% of the effort will yield 80% of the results.
This makes sense when you think about it because not all activities are equal when it comes to productivity.
Sometimes it’s a 20/80 split; other times it’s a 10/90 split. The point is that if you have a big enough sample size, there will always be a small percentage of activities that produce most of the results.
The 80/20 rule and content promotion: How many content promotion tactics do you know?
If you know more than a few and regularly use them on a regular basis, you should notice that some are much more effective than others.
This is where the “measurement” phase of lean marketing comes in.
To use the 80/20 rule, you need to record the metrics of both your efforts and results and then analyze them.
I’ll show you a very simplistic hypothetical set of results:
What you see here is that effort was tracked as hours spent on each activity, and traffic was the main result metric.
In order to compare results, they need to be put into the right context, so the result (traffic) needs to be divided by the effort (hours).
By dividing each one of those traffic per hour values by the total traffic per hour (1,466), we get the percentage of results that each activity is responsible for.
You probably have more than four activities. The more you have, the closer you’ll get to that 80/20 ratio in most cases.
But here, we see that email outreach and emailing subscribers produced the bulk of the results.
Here’s the useful part: Now that we know what works and what doesn’t work well, we can change our promotion approach.
Based on those results, you could eliminate social media promotion and forum posting altogether.
That frees up a bit over 50% of your time for promotional efforts.
Now, you can spend more time doing email outreach and emailing subscribers. Obviously, there’s a limit to the number of times you can email your own subscribers, but you could spend this extra time finding ways to get more subscribers (like improving your conversion rates).
Or you could just spend all that freed up time doing email outreach. If you did this, your total traffic would go up 40% overall (from 2,500 to 3,500).
This also illustrates that it doesn’t matter if there’s a perfect 80/20 ratio—you just want to see which activities are producing the least results.
Now it’s your turn…
Take the time to track your future content promotion as well as the most important results from that promotion (pick 1 or 2 metrics).
Then, analyze the results just like I showed you.
Using that analysis, identify the most efficient activities, and readjust your promotion strategy to incorporate more of them.
That doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with other tactics. You can and should. However, you should regularly evaluate the effectiveness of each tactic and cut out the ones that don’t produce results.
The 80/20 rule and marketing channels: Another great area to apply the 80/20 rule is to decide which marketing channels you should be focusing your efforts on.
Again, you want to make the same kind of chart as we did before, but now you’ll be looking at the effort spent on each channel.
If you do this, you’ll see that some channels barely produce any new subscribers or sales while others account for almost all of them.
For example, you might find that webinars and your blog posts produce nearly all of your sales while social media only accounts for a small fraction (but taking up a large portion of your time).
Therefore, you could spend more time on webinars and blog posts to maximize your results.
I hope you see how powerful the 80/20 rule can be when applied to lean marketing:
Start by measuring your efforts and results. Then, analyze that data to determine which 20% of effort produces 80% of your results. Cut out the least effective activities, and spend that gained time on those 20% of most effective activities.
Don’t be afraid to pivot
I mentioned it earlier, but I need to expand on pivoting further because it illustrates a very important principle of lean marketing.
I often talk about how important it is to create next level content.
Your content needs to be perceived by your readers as incredible. This is a relative term, so your content needs to be better than all the other similar content at the time.
But great content changes over time.
The preferences of audiences change as well as their expectations.
A great blog post from 5 years ago would be a pretty typical post today (in most cases). The bar has been raised.
Back to pivoting…
Pivoting involves changing the direction your content is headed. That typically involves one of the following:
- type of content
- quality of content
Sometimes, you’ll notice that your audience is no longer responding to certain types of posts you’re creating.
Or you may decide that you want to attract a different type of audience and therefore need to change topics you write about.
Buffer (the example I gave earlier) has gone through both of these changes over the past few years:
In addition, they’ve also noticed that certain types of posts do best.
They’ve adjusted their strategy based on this feedback in order to come up with a more effective blog content mix:
Then, it might also be that the results from one of your types of content are no longer sufficient.
If you’ve followed Quick Sprout for a long time, you know that I’ve produced a ton of infographics over the years.
These worked great in the past for increasing traffic and attracting links.
But I’ve noticed that they aren’t as useful any more. This is mainly due to my audience not viewing them as valuable as before because infographics are much more common.
Since I’m continually measuring results, I saw this and changed my content strategy. While you may not have noticed, I haven’t produced many infographics in the last few months.
Pivoting revolves around analyzing feedback: In the original lean model, the two stages are: measuring and learning.
That’s exactly what pivoting is.
It takes place after you’ve already established a good direction for your content.
You know where to post and what to post to get the results you’re looking for. You figure those things out after a bunch of initial testing (like content MVPs).
But once you get into a groove and figure most things out, it’s important to keep measuring.
For the most part, you don’t even have to do much as long as you have Google Analytics installed.
Schedule a few hours every one or two months to analyze the results of the content you’ve produced in that time period.
Break down the results by:
- type of content – e.g., blog post, infographic, video, slideshow, etc.
- type of post – e.g., in-depth tactics, overall strategy, opinion post, etc.
If you notice that the effectiveness of your content in any of those categories is declining, you need to learn from those results.
Start producing less of the content that isn’t working and more of the content that is.
It’s not rocket science, but you need to get in the habit of measuring and analyzing those results and continually learning and adjusting your content strategy.
Know the difference between actionable metrics and vanity metrics
One of the 3 major tenets of lean marketing is “measure.”
In order to measure the results of something, you typically need to choose appropriate metrics.
But this is actually harder than it seems at first because it’s easy to choose the wrong kind of metric—a vanity metric.
Vanity metrics measure something that doesn’t impact anything important.
For example, if you were trying to measure the success of your social media marketing on Twitter, you might choose to measure the number of followers you have.
That would be a mistake.
The number of followers doesn’t mean anything really.
You could have a million followers but still not be able to sell a damn thing.
Those followers might be untargeted or be bots, or they might not like you enough to click on any links you post.
Of course, a million followers could be great too. The point is that it’s not a reliable metric.
Suppose you measured the extend to which different social media marketing tactics improved your follower count.
Could you improve based on that?
Why? Because you might end up saying that one tactic is more effective than another (because it gets more followers), but those followers may all suck and be worthless.
You need to be able to distinguish between vanity metrics and actionable metrics.
It’s not always clear, and it can depend on your specific situation.
For example, traffic is a common metric.
It can be both a vanity metric in some cases and a useful metric in other cases.
When you’re trying to measure the ROI of your content marketing, it’s a vanity metric. You could have millions of visitors, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get a ton of sales.
However, if you’re trying to gauge the general interest of your audience in a topic (like we did earlier with content MVPs), it is a good metric to use.
Context is important.
Choosing the right metric to measure: That’s where the challenge is. I can’t give you a list of every metric to choose for every situation, but I can give you some examples and provide some direction so that you understand how to choose your own.
Example goal: Determine what produces a better ROI—content marketing or PPC
- Actionable metric: Sales ($) over a fair time period.
Example goal: Determine whether your readers like your content.
- Actionable metric(s): Time on page (take content length into account), bounce rate.
Example goal: Improve search engine rankings of content through promotion.
- Actionable metric: Rankings – test each tactic on their own posts to fairly compare their effectiveness.
- Vanity metric: Number of backlinks – quality is more important than quantity.
No matter what your goal is, you want to choose a metric that directly measures that goal as closely as possible.
Want to improve sales? Measure sales.
Want to improve conversion rate to email subscribers? Measure the rate of new subscriptions.
If there’s a situation where a metric could move in a positive direction in a misleading way, it is a vanity metric for that situation.
Pick the right metrics, or you might end up making incorrect decisions based on flawed data.
Lean marketing depends on feedback
The final aspect of lean marketing that I want to emphasize is the importance of feedback.
Without feedback, you cannot iterate quickly. You won’t be able to tell what is and isn’t working.
Metrics are a huge part of feedback.
Ideally, you want to pick a metric that represents your goal, and then you evaluate your projects, content, and tactics based on that metric.
But you can’t always get feedback through metrics.
What if your goal was to create an impact in your readers’ lives? I mean to get them to take action based on your blog posts.
It’s going to be virtually impossible to come up with a metric that reflects that.
Because it’s a qualitative thing you’re trying to achieve, quantitative measurement is impossible.
Instead, you need to find other sources of feedback.
For a business, this might be a focus group of some sort or a survey.
For a content marketer, this feedback comes from comments on your blog or on social media as well as emails you get from your readers.
It’s important to write about certain topics in a certain way so that you achieve those quantitative targets.
But once you meet those targets, you probably want more if you truly care about your audience.
I encourage comments at the end of every single post I make.
That’s because I want to know whether readers actually read a post and get something real out of it.
The posts that make me the happiest are the ones that are filled with several comments like the one above.
To see people benefiting from your work is the most fulfilling feeling you can have as a content producer of any kind.
I could have two posts that both have a 5-minute average time on page, which is great. However, one post could have 20 comments like the one above, and the other could have zero.
The only way to get this type of qualitative feedback is to examine the feedback itself.
The result is either “yes, this was the outcome I was going for” or “no, this is not impacting my audience the way I hoped.”
Then, as always in the lean model, you learn.
You apply these findings and write more about the things that impact your readers’ lives.
The lean model of business is a fantastic way to approach building a successful business.
It eliminates the wasting of the resources, most importantly time and money, and maximizes your chances of growing and becoming profitable.
However, the lean model can also be applied to content marketing.
I’ve shown you the parallels between the two so that you know how to create your own version of “lean marketing.”
My hope is that you implement at least some, if not all, of these principles into your content strategy. If you do, I’m certain you will achieve a better ROI than you would without it.
If you have any thoughts or questions on lean marketing, I’d love to hear from you in a comment below.
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