If you’re a long-time reader, first-time caller to the IMPACT blog -- or you have the serious misfortune of running into me at networking events -- you know that I’m a little obsessed with pillar content and topic clusters.
(If this is your first experience with yours truly, I welcome you to our program, already in progress. Get caught up.)
As a result, I’ve spent the past few quarters building pillars and topic clusters, and then testing them and refining them, depending on what the data says is -- and isn't -- working.
(Psst! This is what I’m going to be talking about at IMPACT Live this year. Get your tickets before prices go up soon!)
While I’m still developing, executing, and tinkering with our pillar content strategy here at IMPACT, I’ve learned so much in just the past couple of months that I have to share at least a little bit of what I’ve found so far with you.
So, without further ado, here are two dos and don'ts to keep you on the right track with your pillar content strategy.
Do #1: Be as Obsessive About Link-Building as You Are About the Content Itself
Full disclosure, as someone who lives and breathes content creation, I used to snub my nose at tasks like keyword research and SEO.
I was basically like the Mariah Carey of marketing creatives.
I would be throwing temper tantrums about voice, radical honesty, and authentic storytelling from my all-white dressing room, all while acting as if those lesser optimization activities were beneath me.
In my mind, all they did was hinder my ability to focus on my craft. (Vomit.)
Yes, I was insufferable, but those days are behind me, ladies and gentlemen, and pillar content has made that easy.
Creating great content for your pillar does not guarantee amazing results. In fact, someone who isn’t so great with content -- but is also a maniacal link-builder -- will beat you every single time.
Being successful with pillar content and your topic cluster strategy is dependent upon you embracing two skill sets with equal fervor -- creating content and link-building.
Personally, I still refuse to sacrifice the quality of my content for results -- not that Justin was implying that I do that, of course.
However, our conversation made me realize how important it was that I step my game up in the area I had previously ignored.
So, I started tending to my topic cluster like a garden.
Wouldn’t you know, the more I took care of it -- building out links and purposefully expanding it -- the more it flourished. And by flourish, I mean we were ranking within the first three results on the front page for competitive search terms, and our organic traffic and conversions for those topic clusters increased.
So, if you're strong at content, focus equally on becoming a better link-builder and keyword strategist.
If, on the other hand, you're an SEO wiz, come hang out in my 'hood for awhile, and focus on improving your content skills. You don't want to be able to attract visitors, only to lose them because you've created garbage.
Speaking of which...
Don’t #1: Create Pillar Content No One Wants to Look at
This may sound naive, but I firmly believe that if you’re a business who is creating content, you should be doing so to help people.
Help them solve their problems.
Help them answer complex questions.
Help them make big decisions.
Help them by shedding light on what they don’t know.
In my mind, the sometimes overwhelming size and scope of pillar content doesn’t exempt us marketers from creating a pillar that’s also absurdly helpful in solving problems, answering questions, etc.
However, a critical part of being helpful through a piece of content (pillar or otherwise) goes beyond the words you choose. You also need to present that helpful content in a way that is visually easy to understand and navigate.
So, when I say you shouldn’t create a pillar no one wants to look at, I mean that literally.
Because, while you can create a piece of pillar content with terrible UX (user experience) and piss-poor navigation that will attract a lot of organic traffic, you’ll also have to say goodbye to any chance of users sticking around, if you go down that path.
The good news is that a lot of the “make it skimmable” principles of organization for short-form content also applies to pillar content:
Break up your content with headings and subheadings.
Use bulleted lists to call attention to important information.
Don’t create a wall of text that no one will want to read.
While there are plenty of beautifully-designed pillars out there, don’t worry. You don’t need to be a design wizard to create something gorgeous.
Not only have I seen a lot of stunning, but very minimalist, pillars floating around on the internet, I also got an interesting piece of feedback once, when we were first starting out with our own pillars.
"The more simple and stripped down a piece of pillar content looks, the more altruistic it seems."
Meaning, to some, the more you dress something up, the less likely they are to buy that you’re literally giving all of this amazing information away for free, without so much as asking for their email address.
While our pillars seem to perform well with a bit more of a design-y flair, it’s something to keep in mind.
Reducing the size of the form and altering the table of contents, because some visitors didn’t realize that the content was fully accessible below the form -- they thought it was a standard landing page.
Adding a more visible table of contents that flies out in the sidebar for better navigation on the entire page.
Both of those changes, while seemingly small, have made a huge difference in how visitors interact with our pillar content.
Which brings me to my next point.
Do #2: Adopt a Growth-Driven Mindset with your Clusters & Pillars
I like to think about our topic clusters and pillar content that way, too.
We hit publish on a minimum viable product (MVP) version of our pillar. Then, as soon as it goes live, we put on our growth-driven content caps and make our way down two parallel paths of continuous improvement.
Path #1: Keeping the Content Fresh
During the outlining phase of creating the initial version of a pillar, I’ll usually make a list at the bottom titled “future content.” In this list, I’ll typically include “nice to have” section expansions and chapters that we don’t need in order to publish a pillar that’s still really helpful and tells a full story.
Once we go live with that first version of the pillar, I’ll circle back to this list and begin work on making those additions.
Additionally, I watch our blog like a hawk, keeping an eye out for any new articles that relate to the pillar. When I spot one, I’ll add it to the cluster, ensure the pillar links to the new article, and that the article also links back to the pillar.
Path #2: Obsess About the Data
As I already alluded to, we use tools to monitor the health of our pillars and clusters. Specifically, HubSpot and LuckyOrange.
HubSpot gives me the overall traffic and conversion picture for clusters and pillars, while LuckyOrange gives me insights into how visitors interact with a piece of pillar content.
Using the data we collect from these reporting platforms, I am constantly looking for answers to the following questions under two categories:
Am I seeing steady organic traffic for a particular pillar?
Are there any spikes or sharp decreases for a particular cluster or pillar?
Which topic clusters are underperforming and need more work?
For a particular pillar, which chapters are the most and least popular?
Is a particular UX feature or function causing issues with visitor interaction?
Has a particular UX change had the desired effect in visitor interaction?
If you are vigilant in monitoring the health of your clusters from a traffic and user experience perspective, you’ll see better results.
And, whatever you do, don’t ignore your data, and don’t make changes based on unvalidated assumptions. Period.
Finally, Don’t #2: Get Overwhelmed; It’s Worth It
The first time I thought about making a pillar, I thought I was going to have a mild panic stroke. It seemed too hard, too big, too scary, too much work, blah blah blah.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a lot of work, and I do get a little freaked out when I’m just starting out with a brand piece of pillar content, from scratch.
(In fact, I'm spending my afternoon working on a pillar about content style, voice, and tone. I know the end result will be amazing, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit that, right now, I’m feeling a bit like a deer in the headlights.)
That said, although our hand was forced toward this architecture by our great Google overlords, I’m glad that they did.
It’s the first time the idea of a content strategy has felt so human and intuitive. It’s how we should have been doing things all along, and not just because it’s a great way to curry favor from search engines.
Most of all, however, when done right, your content will be developed in organized in such a way that genuinely helps people. Yes, I’m a broken record about being helpful, but at IMPACT, we believe that’s the most inbound-y thing you can do.