How to Make Your Small Business Content Marketing Successful (and Profitable)

April 28, 2016
By Pam Berg

While content marketing is a hot topic and 80% of small businesses currently use it, only 30% report seeing results. That means that 50% of companies that are putting time, energy, and money into content marketing are wasting all of their efforts. What! We need to fix our small business content marketing.

Damian and I recently had the opportunity to attend Social Media Marketing World, a conference featuring a star-studded cast of the top social media and content marketers in — you guessed it — the world.


One of the most inspiring and educational sessions for me was “Content Marketing for Small Businesses”, with speaker Joe Pulizzi. Here’s what we learned, and how you can use it to grow your business.

What most small business content marketing does wrong

An obvious yet often ignored takeaway from that session, and from the conference in general, was that creating content of any kind — video, text, visuals, blogs, social media — without a plan is a major mistake. Small businesses that chase every emerging network and medium without a strategy are putting the horse way before the cart.

You don’t start to build a house without a blueprint, and you certainly shouldn’t just start spewing random content out into the world without a goal in mind — a content marketing strategy.

Once upon a time, websites were a place where businesses would dump every shiny piece of promotional material they had about their company. They were basically brochures.

Then social media emerged, and marketers eagerly tossed all of their promotional content there, too.

The truth is that nobody cares about what you have to say about your business, no matter how true your words or how noble your intentions. Coming from you, it’s just noise. You need to focus all of your small business content marketing efforts on the needs of your audience. Helping them will help you, by building trust and credibility.

Customers have hundreds of ways to find out about you, so they ignore your blatant attempts. “Don’t get the lead and then call them 10 minutes later,” Pulizzi said of marketers’ desperate conversion-chasing.

Content marketing is about creating content that attracts and engages a target audience, guides them along the buyers’ journey, and helps them make a decision. Content marketing has a purpose: to elicit a profitable reaction in the reader.

Get that content marketing underway with How to Write a Business Blog!

Content strategy, on the other hand, is closely related to user experience, and is about planning how your business will create, deliver, and maintain content that resonates with your audience and solves their problems. It includes planning who will create the content, voice and tone style guides, and managing content throughout its lifecycle for a consistent customer experience.

Pulizzi laid out a clear, actionable plan to help businesses successfully build an audience through content marketing. Here’s what we learned.

6 steps to successful content marketing

Successful businesses know this to be true: build an audience first, then monetize it. Pulizzi believes that this can be accomplished in six crucial steps.

1. Find the sweet spot

Think about what your business is knowledgeable and skilled at doing. Then think about what you’re passionate about, and what your target audience needs. The intersection between the two is your sweet spot, and that’s what you should produce content about.

It’s important to make sure that your goal is to be helpful, and to solve problems. If you cram promotions into blogs and posts on social media from the get-go, you won’t build an audience.

John Deere’s sweet spot is the intersection between their knowledge of agriculture and manufacturing, and their audience’s need for help with day-to-day farming challenges. They’ve published their newsletter, “The Furrow”, for over 120 years. In that time, they’ve talked about their products and services in that publication less than 20 times.

2. Content tilt

This is where it gets serious.

The way to level up and get the edge on your competitors is to go beyond just finding the sweet spot and tilt your content.

You need to do something different than everyone else competing for your target audience, or you’ll get lost in the noise. What successful businesses do that companies with struggling content do not is create a content marketing mission statement: who is your core target audience, what will be delivered, and what is the outcome for the audience.

A great tool for figuring out how to tilt your content is Google Trends. This is how you can really take your topics from broad to specific, and see immediate ROI.

Google Trends is the most under-utilized tool that small businesses aren’t using,” Pulizzi stated. “If you have two audiences you’ll be irrelevant. You need to be that specific. You cannot go niche enough.”

Ask yourself if your business could be the world’s leading experts on your subject. If you laugh, you’re probably not niche enough.

Let’s use Forge and Smith as an example of how to get niche-y. A broad Google Trends search for “web design” — one of our primary services — shows a huge drop in interest over the last decade.

Web design interest

But a further search shows that “responsive web design” is on the rise with people searching for exactly what we do, making it a topic worth creating content about.

Responsive web design rising

3. Building the base

The most effective base for all successful businesses consists of four key ingredients: one type of content, one main platform, consistent delivery, and a long period of time.

Consistency — creating a schedule and sticking to it — was another mantra at Social Media Marketing World. Your schedule is your promise to your customers. If you set out to publish content every day, once per week, bi-weekly, or monthly, you must deliver.

And you have to be prepared to wait a long time, sometimes 15-18 months, to see results. Content marketing isn’t a race, it’s an endurance challenge.

4. Harvesting your audience

The algorithms are always going to change on every social network, and there’s nothing marketers can do about it. That’s why paying to add followers or get likes on a post is a waste of money.

“We can’t put up a house on rented land, and that’s basically what we’re doing,” Pulizzi said of this style of audience-building.

Email subscribers are the most important metric for measuring content’s success, while “fans” are the very bottom of Pulizzi’s list.

Your email subscribers can become some of your best customers, because they’ve agreed to have your content delivered to their personal inboxes on a regular basis. That’s a huge compliment!

Small business content marketing plan must-haves are an amazing, high-quality email newsletter, an exchange of value (e-books or research reports), and the open rate should be 15-20%. The content should be so good that they need to open it.

5. Diversification

Once worked hard at your small business content marketing and built up a solid subscriber list, you’re ready to diversify. There are three primary routes to take: print, in-person, and digital.

When should you do it? That depends on your goals. But if you diversify too soon, you might undo all of your hard work.

“You’re on a date, you’re not ready to propose,” as Pulizzi put it.

Content Marketing Institute set an audience size goal, and for the first 24 months they focused solely on blogging. After the goal was reached, they launched their annual event (Content Marketing World), followed later by a magazine (Chief Content Officer) and podcast.

Set an audience goal, and don’t try to sell them anything or to diversify until you’ve hit that point. But once you’ve hit it, it’s time to move on and “wrap them in content love” with more ways to access what you offer!

6. Monetization

Of course, at the end of the day you need to drive profit to stay in business.

The easiest way to figure out how you can start making money, according to Pulizzi, is to compare your email subscription list to your customer database. Look at the differences in behaviour. Do the subscribers buy more? Do they stay longer on your site? What is the profitable thing that they do with your content?

Your loyal subscriber behaviours can point to you many types of profit: advertising, sponsorship, events, paid subscriptions, data, not to mention contribute increased product sales and more loyal, repeat customers as a result of building that solid foundation.

The two most important things to remember are to create your strategy around building an audience, and to not attempt to extract the value too soon.

If you’re a small business trying to make profit from content, it’s important that you start with a content marketing strategy. Remember that 50% of small businesses are losing money on content marketing because they’re just producing content for the sake of having content.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to build an audience. Good luck!

Pam Berg

Pam has backgrounds in journalism, computer forensics, and public libraries, which add up to the perfect mindset for digital strategy. She's been a professional content writer for over 20 years, and working with clients in SEO and analytics for 8 years. Her Instagram feed is equal parts horses, waffles, and drag performers.

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