As you embark on creating your content strategy, it’s fairly natural to look towards the quick wins on what can generate your business the most traffic and leads, right? From keyword research to buyer personas, and a bullet proof(ish) plan to creating the content conveyer belt, there are plenty of lessons that many have learned, but aren’t so forthcoming with sharing them.
Based on my own wins and losses when it comes to pillar content, here’s all that I wish I knew about the world of pillar and cluster content – and you will before creating your own, with a little help from content marketing super powers Rand Fishkin and Neil Patel.
Recapping the basics
Let’s not waste any time. Let’s get into the weeds straight away.
Pillar and cluster marketing isn’t as simple as putting pen to paper.
As you should remember, pillar and cluster content is an extension of modern marketing.
The idea is that you create a page which is the A-Z of a topic which resonates with your audience, offering education, advice, templates etc. which will help establish a relationship of trust between you and prospective customers.
That’s it, in a nutshell.
It sounds all too simple, in honesty. It’s a shiny headline that businesses are attracted to – more leads for free?! Sign me up.
But it’s our job to help you realise that it isn’t quite as straightforward as the above. There is a long list of tasks and research which must be completed before you can truly roll out your pillar and cluster content strategy.
So, without further ado let’s share some advice on getting the most out of your pillar and clusters.
Lesson 1: Everything must lead to your product or service
In a past role, I had the opportunity to be part of the digital transformation of a global brand. Having acquired and merged 4 businesses into 1, the CMO set out to change the way the business and its respective units went to market.
First up was the introduction of inbound marketing.
The business delivered digital and physical services and products, and had roughly a third of the market share, but had solely relied on cold calling to generate leads and business.
The CMO boldly proclaimed that the business was moving into the inbound marketing space and we would see a massive reduction in our cost to acquire new business.
They sought out a London-based digital agency to create a strategy to support this claim. The result was the introduction of HubSpot, WordPress and other marketing tools, alongside a content plan which revolved around pillar and clusters.
Unfortunately, the content plan was created in isolation from the Sales, Product and Customer Service functions.
Why does that matter? Well, it meant that the agency had developed a plan which, while it would generate traffic in-essence, wasn’t A) creating traffic from our target audience and B) creating content bore related to the products and services the company sold.
Being in a junior role and exposed to pillars and clusters at the time I was simply excited to be supporting something so innovative. However, in hindsight, I should have questioned the direction we were going in.
Yes, a yellow brick road is fantastic and alluring, but if it doesn’t lead you to a treasure chest of gold at the end (your leads and new business), then it’s a fruitless journey. Keep that in mind.
Lesson 2: Set out objectives and metrics to measure performance
We’ve all been there. Set with the tasks of generating more leads and business for your company. It can look daunting, and it can even cause stress and harm to your physical and mental health.
But it needn’t.
Step back for a second, ask yourself what are you going to achieve from creating content.
Now, unless your business sells content and the content you create for marketing is a preview of what you can get from the content you sell, it’s unlikely that your content marketing is going to immediately create a sale.
That’s the reality of content. Now, the content can match up to different stages of a buyer’s journey (i.e. researching a topic, then an issue, then a provider to resolve the issue), but on its own it won’t create a sale.
That’s why I have recoiled in fear when asked how many new customers a pillar page will create. It isn’t a linear journey.
The real question is to look towards conversion rates.
For example, if you create 50 customers a month from 100 opportunities, how many leads do you need to get you towards 100 opportunities and the 50 customers?
That calculation can then put you in a position to say that if you generate 1000 visits to your pillar page and associated clusters, you can create 150 leads.
These sorts of objectives are crucial in positioning the role of content.
Furthermore, establish some metrics that you’ll look at each month to assess the performance of your pillars and clusters. Consider:
- Time on page
- Bounce rate
- Pages per session
- Downloads / sign ups
These small steps will ensure you’re on the right path.
Lesson 3: Don’t just create content for the sake of it
An analogy can be drawn here from the origins of sales. In the 50s the business world was all about supply and demand. If you build enough toasters, they’ll sell themselves.
We’ve undergone a massive shift in buyer behaviour since then, meaning that we’re more selective on who we talk to when buying, and we know when we’re being manipulated.
That’s why content marketing has gained such traction. When executed correctly, it has the power to speak to your prospective customers with power, emotion and establish a long-term relationship.
So, the lesson here is that you *must* build buyer personas.
We’ve spoken about this before, but without knowing who you are talking to, why you’re talking to them, what they care about in relation to your business, and the challenges they face each day, you’ll end up supplying content that there certainly is no demand for.
For example, go and talk to your customers. Ask them what they struggle with each day, what they wish they knew about before starting in their career, and where they go for information and how that information is presented (blog, lists, videos, infographics, webinars etc.).
The beauty here is that you can gather intelligence on the subjects and format your content should take. And that feeds into your keyword research
Lesson 4: Keyword research, keyword research, keyword research
It can never be said enough. You have to research the search engine traffic for the topics you want to talk about.
As in the CMO example before, this was obviously done to great extent, but not with the buyer personas and core products and services in mind.
So, begin by looking at your personas and what topics they said they’re interested in. Those will serve as the basis for looking at the search volume (how many people search for that topic) each month.
You can use tools like SEMRush, Moz, Ahrefs and Google Ads to review this information. It’ll help you understand how many people are searching for the topic each month. Aim for around 2,000 people a month.
From there you can use the pain points to establish the subtopics (the clusters) of the pillar page. The pillar page will talk, top line, about those pain points and then link out to cluster content covering that information (and back to the pillar).
If I know that my core persona, the Office Manager, is struggling with the new working conditions brought on by COVID-19, I know my head term (the main topic for the pillar page) could be around safe office working conditions in 2021.
I then conduct keyword research to see if there are enough people interested in this issue, and also to see what my competitors are saying on the topic.
From there I’ve heard that they’re unsure about sanitisation, how to support remote workers, sourcing PPE and they’ve got to consolidate their service providers as their budgets are being cut.
All that research will help you to structure your page and form cluster content to reinforce you’re talking to Office Managers about safe office working conditions in 2021.
Lesson 5: Building your pillar plan
The last lesson for today is a big one. Plan. Your. Pillar. Page.
Don’t assume that a pillar and cluster strategy is something you can just begin and be done with in around a week.
This is a commitment to educating your prospective buyers. You want them to engage with your content and become leads, and eventually business, so don’t half heartedly execute this.
Begin by drawing out what your pillar page will have on it. So, think:
- On-page SEO (page title, meta description, alt tags, inbound and outbound links)
- Content list for ease of navigation
- The topics you’ll address on the pillar page
- Imagery, icons and other multimedia on the page
- Where it will appear on your site’s navigation
- Who is going to write this
Typically, this will take 4-6 weeks from researching to writing and then building (either yourself or someone else, such as a web developer) until you can go live.
Add into that you must have a steady release of cluster content once the page is live, meaning a content calendar that you can maintain to ensure that you sustain your relevance in search engines for your topic.
Again, you need to consider the form your content will take too. If you’re able to write, fantastic, but remember your content has to be well researched. Likewise, if you’re going to have infographics and video, you’ll need support there.
And then consider the use of web forms to gate higher value content such as an eBook or webinar related to the topic, and ensure if connects to your CRM.
Some advice from the SEO super powers
Whilst my words come from the highs and lows of content marketing, I’m not alone.
Rand Fishkin (founder of Moz) and Neil Patel (HubSpot guru) are super powers in the world of SEO and content marketing, but they too have felt the pains we’ve talked about when it comes to getting started with pillar and clusters:
“It’s far better to create your pillar page correctly the first time than it is to mess it up and then try to fix it later…My advice is to set aside several hours to write as much content as possible. Really immerse yourself in the process.”
Neil Patel on the investment you must make
“The only way to get good at this, the only way to get good is experimentation and practice. You do this over and over again, and you start to develop a sixth sense for how you can uncover that unique element, how you can present it in a unique fashion, and how you can make it sing on the Web.”
Rand Fishkin on the importance of evolving your pillar page and clusters
Getting started with a pillar page really doesn’t begin with pen on paper.
No. In fact, it’s a process that begins with research. Understanding your products, your buyers and what they care about.
The build of the page itself and the cluster content is more straightforward once you know what you’re trying to achieve here.
Business owners, CMOs and the like can get carried away with the headlines of what this approach can take, forgetting that it’s actually a discipline of science and art over years.
You needn’t get caught in the traps presented here. This is an exciting approach to organising the content you create and giving it real structure that relates back to what your audience truly cares about.
There is no mystery to be solved. Take a mindful approach to this content strategy and your pillar and resulting clusters will generate traffic, leads, more opportunities and ultimately sales.
Let’s get to it!