The Ultimate Guide to Competing with Content

I have some depressing news for you. Your prospects, customers, and leads do not wake up every morning in breathless anticipation of your blog posts or ebooks. Nope, that kind of anticipation is reserved for Jay-Z albums and J.K. Rowling novels, so you can’t just craft a single blog post or video and think you’re done with your content strategy and execution.

Winning with content starts with the recognition that you need to earn people’s attention, not rent it. To earn attention, you need a content strategy that is truly remarkable, deeply relevant, and easily accessible to your target audience.

In other words, you need to win the battle for eyeballs and engagement, and doing so requires an understanding of what your audience needs, reads, and shares on a regular basis. To get started, here are some tips to keep in mind before, during, and after launching your content strategy.

Stage 1: Identifying Your Audience

Don’t Try to Boil the Ocean

If you try to be all things to all people from a content perspective, you’ll end up being relevant to no one. Develop target personas that make it clear to everyone in your organization (not just your marketing team) who you are developing content for on an ongoing basis.

This sounds obvious, but at some point in your evolution as a brand publisher, you’ll be asked to focus on something that simply isn’t a good fit for your prospects, customers, and leads. A clear, concise persona definition keeps your entire team rooted in who your target customers are (and aren’t), and prevents you from wasting valuable time, money, and energy targeting people or companies who will never buy from you.

Channel Your Inner Nancy Drew

Before you start publishing, you need to conduct a formal investigation. A good audit has two distinct components: customer due diligence and competitor due diligence. I recommend you start with your customers first, even if you don’t have any just yet. Rooting your strategy in understanding what they find most valuable online is the very best way to approach your content.

Ideally, you’ll identify ten customers you can interview about their content consumption habits, but if you don’t have ten customers, choose ten people who fit your persona profile and invest the time to truly understand where, when, how, and why they consume content.

In my experience, you really want to avoid leading the witness in these interviews. In other words, you don’t want to ask “Would you read our ebooks if we produce them?”

You don’t want to bias the interviews toward your hypothesis, you truly want to understand what motivates your target customer, so I find these interviews are best done in person and with open-ended questions, such as:

  • What websites do you read every day and why?
  • How, if at all, do you organize the sites and blogs you read every day?
  • When do you typically have time to consume content during the day?
  • Where and how do you typically hear about new websites to read for content?
  • What websites (if any) currently help you do your job more effectively?
  • Is there any content you really wish someone would do a better job of creating to make your life easier?

These customer interviews may sound like a lot of work (and they are), but it’s well worth it to hear what your customers do every day in their own words. If at all possible, I recommend asking every member of your team to conduct one of these interviews: doing so forces everyone to challenge their own perceptions of what your customer wants and needs each day and will keep them more focused when they are creative, approving, designing, or publishing content on an ongoing basis.

Stage 2: Assessing the Landscape

Know Your Opponents

After you’ve spoken with your customers, take the time to understand your competitive landscape. At HubSpot, we realize this can be a tedious process, so we built a competitors tool into our application that allows you to pull traffic rank, social media follower-ship, indexed pages, and linking domains within minutes. If you don’t want to use software for this task, you can pull the numbers yourself from a few different sources, it will just require a bit more elbow grease.

Beyond the core metrics I mentioned, you’ll also want to understand what types of content your competitors produce, how often they produce it, the quality and formats of the content they generate, and how often it is shared. This is a significant investment of time as well, but the time you spend up front investigating what’s out there will save you considerable time and energy once you start publishing more frequently.

You could spend weeks and months doing a full-on content audit. If you want to go deeper our blog team goes into serious detail here, so in the spirit of expediency, here’s where I recommend expending the most time and energy:

  • The types of content thriving on your competitors’ sites: Is one of your competitors the king of the morning blog roundup? A connoisseur of the modern e-book? A SlideShare ninja? By investing the time to look through the company’s blog, case studies, resources, and library pages you can often identify specific genres, types, or titles of content that thrive with their audience. Also take note of the types of content that are getting any media pickup or garnering massive numbers of social shares–doing so can help inform your publishing playbook. Track Maven (disclosure: Track Maven is a HubSpot customer) is a good source of help for this type of competitive intelligence.
  • The nature of content failing on competitor sites: Similarly, take note of what content falls flat–this is harder to do with content behind forms, of course, but easier to do when you take a look at social sharing buttons or blog comments as possible proxies for hard numbers. If it’s impossible to get any context on what is not working, not to fear–you can get a bit more context when we get into keyword research later on.
  • The factors that seem to contribute to the hits and misses: Hundreds of factors contribute to content’s success (or lack thereof) but give some thought to whether any patterns exist in their hits and misses. For example, is most of their content created by a single author who is a true thought leader in the space? Is it on one very narrow topic where the company has developed a devoted following? Is it during a specific time of day or shared by a specific geographic of industry-based audience?

There are thousands of variables that go into any given content strategy. The point of diving into how your competitors are approaching publishing is not to replicate their strategy, but rather to avoid duplicating their exact plan and repeating their missteps. Similarly, if you identify meaningful trends in what inspires hits and misses (guest columns from thought leaders, specific types of titles, etc) you can put that insight to work when planning your own content hiring and execution plan.

At the end of the day, you should spend more time following your customers than your competitors, so take the time to understand what’s out there, but don’t give your competitors too much credit in the process.

Send A Search Party

You’ve now spoken to a small cross-section of your customer base and researched your competitors, but you’re still missing a massive component of how people will find you: via organic search. You could invest a lifetime (and a fortune) in competitive SEO strategy, but your best bet to start is to identify 12-15 short and long-tail keywords that leads and customers might search for on Bing or Google. Run each of them through both Bing and Google and take note of the results. Similarly, you should run your target keywords through Google Trends to observe patterns rooted in time, geography, or types of content.

For example, looking up “inbound marketing” as a search trend within Google Trends shows strong and growing interest within North America, but also a notable spike in interest in India around the topic of inbound. This context can be helpful to inform regional targets, track progress over time, and identified common related search terms that may not have been top of mind for your brand.

Now, a word of caution on the SEO front: the second you finish your analysis, you will be sorely tempted to think keywords around the clock, and to stock your pantry of content full with keyword-loaded titles and headings.

My best advice when it comes to SEO comes from HubSpot’s co-founder Dharmesh: he counsels businesses to “solve for humans, not robots,” and it is sage advice. Your keyword research should inform your strategy, but should not define it–create content people actually want to read and you’ll be rewarded in search and beyond.

Stage 3: World Domination (Okay Fine, Content Domination)

Set a Baseline and a Finish Line Goal

Publishing great content isn’t just great for your brand, it’s great for your business. But next year when you ask for more money or head count for content, you’ll need to demonstrate measurable improvements from where you started, so start your content strategy with a very clear picture of your current content efforts, including your baseline unique website visits, social media following by channel, bounce rates, average time on site, conversion rates, and engagement (average shares, comments, etc).

Then set measurable goals for the year ahead, scheduling a six month check-in halfway through the year to adapt based on what is and isn’t working. In addition to keeping your team focused on metrics that matter, create collective goals for the year to ensure your organization recognizes content is a marathon, not a sprint.

Find the Gaps

Now that you’ve invested so much time and energy into customer and competitor research, you will be tempted to follow the path of thousands of marketers before you. The point of understanding your competitors’ playbooks is not to duplicate them, but rather to identify gaps and opportunities to make your content strategy more creative, more effective, and more impactful than anyone else in your industry (and ideally in the world).

By way of example, you’ve just finished reading 50 ebooks on duck hunting. They were all a bit too long, a bit too verbose, and a bit hard to find on your competitor’s side. You will finish your content audit and want to immediately get to work on an improved version of said e-book, right?


There are millions of businesses who can make average content incrementally better; your job is to earn attention, and doing that requires a willingness to chart a new course. Instead of diligently drafting yet another e-book, here are some things to consider instead:

  • Create the best content in the most relevant format possible: Content, like fashion, follows clear trends, and marketers often overcompensate for every trend by producing too much of one type or form of content. Given that, don’t do an infographic or podcast just because it’s the latest trend–refer to how your customers consume content and experiment with a few forms and shapes. Do not follow what everyone else is doing; chart your own course. Need some inspiration? Check out GE’s six second science fair or this hysterical “World Cup of Everything Else” graphic for inspiration if you need it.
  • Estimate your reader’s attention span, then cut it in half: Every marketer, no matter how experienced, overestimates audience interest just a touch, so my recommendation is to take the amount of time you think someone can afford to invest in your content and subtract 50 percent. Doing so will ensure that you’re being as clear and concise as humanly possible, and make your content more conversational than didactic, which is helpful for everyone involved.
  • Watch Your Language: Everyone tries to be interesting in cocktail party conversations, but when we start crafting content, we default to business buzzwords and industry terminology that puts readers to sleep. Your copy should be appropriate and safe of course, but unlike your term papers in college (where your professor basically had to read the entire thing) your customers have options. Use copy that’s conversational in nature and inspires the reader to act. One of our customers, Cobalt, introduced their e-book on best practices in automotive advertising with “since the dawn of the billboard, car dealers have been in search of a magic metric to best measure marketing ROI.” Write copy people actually want to read, your audience will thank you for it.
  • Educate, Inspire, or Entertain: To get people to consume and share your content, you either need to educate, inspire, or entertain them (or some combination of the three). What your audience wants when it comes to your content is truth in advertising–in other words, if something is labeled as “introductory” it should be built to educate a truly beginner audience. If your blog titles is the “X best memes of 2014,” your reader doesn’t want to read a lecture about how to use social media, he or she wants an entertaining break in their day. Your content’s title, format, and positioning should reflect what consumers can expect from interacting with it and deliver accordingly.

At the end of the day, finding out what your audience wants to consume is easy. Using that insight to develop a successful content strategy from start to finish is where a lot of marketers lose their way. Crafting content with these tips at the top of your mind will help guide your strategy so your site earns its way into your audience’s Bookmarks tab. A blog post, SlideShare, or e-book won’t make or break your marketing, but crafting each with a persona, purpose, and plan in mind will set you and your business up for success.


Featured Image: Gonzalo Aragon via Shutterstock, other image via Shutterstock, used under license.