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How to build a content machine
Many market segments thrive on content. For some companies, more content equals more growth
Regardless of whether you are writing a blog or book – good content takes patience, dedication, and persistence. I once tweeted about how the time to write something ok went down from more than a day to a few hours. But I don’t have enough of these time units for it to scale to 5 or even 3 per week, nor is it the best use of my available capacity.
If content is relevant to your customer acquisition and education, you'll need a system that predictably cranks out top-notch content that attracts the interest of readers. And here is how you do that.
Quality vs. quantity
Before we go into the mechanics, let me point out that a content machine doesn’t come up with the next Hamlet. The framework I will present won’t automatically lead to material that is as original, witty, or deep as something that you might write on your own. So if your primary goal is to get an original thought out into the world, it’s probably best if you just go at it yourself.
If you go into content production for strategic reasons, i.e. to attract potential customers, you can use this framework to optimize this process. This, in turn, will give you a tad bit more breathing room for quality assurance – if you make it a priority. And despite all SEO tactics that content is good for: The best content will eventually grow and persist.
The key to your content machine is to have a system in place. How the system looks is entirely up to you. In the following, I am presenting the one that got our company blog from zero views to thousands each week.
Especially when starting out, finding keywords can be overwhelming. But there is a method to the madness and you will soon find out what works for you.
If you have around $100 to spare per month, it’s a good idea to invest in something like Ahrefs, Moz, or Majestic. These tools help you better understand three things:
What keywords and phrases are related to the keywords that you already know?
What works for your competitor?
Where are the low-hanging fruits?
You will also get analyses for your SEO and ranking performance in one place. How practical.
The point of starting from keywords is not to kill your creativity but they are meant to help you decide which kind of article to write and to stay on theme. You need to know what kind of search query you are trying to answer.
The title is what usually grabs the attention of readers. They also set the tone and topic on your blog: Buzzfeed for SaaS? Nature for Beauty? The Onion for carrots? But more importantly, they tell you (and later your freelancer) what to talk about. It is important to stay on topic – when I am writing an article on how to build a content machine, I won't spend much time on SEO details because that's not why you clicked.
It is a good idea to have many titles to choose from. The more, the merrier. Once you have a good number of titles, select the ones you like most or that you think you should tackle first.
The first thing you can do is brainstorm about the subject. What do you already know? Oftentimes, you already have lots of ideas for the text you wish to create so just write them down in a somewhat structured manner.
It's a good idea to Google the titles: You will see what competition you are up against and get more ideas about how to structure your masterpiece. More importantly, you get a better feel for what you need to consider and what others are lacking. The last aspect only works when you have done the brainstorm above; because after reading other people's thoughts, you will be influenced by them.
Another hint: Put all sources and text fragments into the text but don't fall into the writing trap just yet. That comes later.
Here is an example outline for an article one of our writers did for Levity:
The sanity check
Now is a good time to remember the keywords and title. Is every section relevant to the message? Are you addressing all points that you deem important? If fully drafted out, would this be an article you would want to read?
At some point, all these questions will come naturally to you. You know it when you see it. But regardless how obsessed you are with this point, it is a good idea to separate the planning and writing.
For me, the best way to get the initial writing for content-machine-worthy content is having someone else write it. I don't like research that much and the writing itself requires long stretches of uninterrupted time that I usually don't have.
When outside work isn't available, there are many ways to breathe life into an article, one of them being:
If someone else does the writing, strive for an "I would post that on my own blog" quality level on the first draft. For some reason, many writers seem to prefer not getting hired again or doing several revisions rather than doing a proper job on the first draft. And I am not talking about style but grammar, spelling, and logic.
The final check
If you did a good job communicating the process and expectations, and if you have given sufficient feedback on the outline, this one should go down rather easily. When working with new writers, I like to reject early and provide extensive feedback rather than returning a fully reworked version. As the editor, think of yourself as the coach rather than a player.
A few things that I always look at:
Accurate but simple language
Overall look & feel
This is the stage where you approve an article for further processing. It is always possible to go back to posted articles but this usually requires extra steps that are unnecessary. Measure twice, cut once.
The initial distribution
The main part is done, the article is out. Nevertheless, the sole production is usually not enough. You want your work to be seen by others and you might want to promote your piece of art to these by the right people. There are countless ways how to do this and you will have your own set of tools and strategies for how to do that.
If you remember nothing else about this part: A good product wit bad distribution often loses to a mediocre product with good distribution.
A small but mighty detail: When you are posting your articles to other content platforms, remember to set a canonical link to ensure you are determining the "root" of your article and not get punished by search engines. Most content hosts have this as a standard but many people don’t know about it.
That being said, also keep in mind that Buzzfeed has grown exponentially by ignoring SEO altogether and focusing entirely on content that people want to share1. I do not suggest that you build your growth strategy on top of cat videos but if your material is so good that people refer it to others, all you need is to reach the one person who triggers the process.
The second life: Repurposing
Some pieces of content are eligible to be used more than once. After all, you have done much of the heavy lifting prior to initial distribution: Brainstorming, messaging, research, fine-tuning.
If your starting point is a blog post, here are some ideas:
Make a YouTube video out of it
Illustrate the article as infographic
Shorten the article into a Twitter thread
On all these occasions, you can (and should) cross-reference different places where your work resides. It is just a tiny extra step that makes it that much simpler for interested people to stalk you and your offerings – if that's what you are after.
Inhouse vs. freelancers?
There is one principal decision that you need to ask yourself early on: Are we going to produce the content or do we get someone else to do it? There are lots of pros and cons but the main factors you need to consider for this decision are these:
Your available time
Whether you like writing
Your writing quality
Availability of writing talent
Regardless of these points, it is generally a good idea to strive for a close collaboration with every writer you decide to work with. Depending on the depth of your material, reaching a mutual understanding of what you want to put out into the world can take many iterations but once you find a trusted writer, their work will be near-perfect every time they submit a first draft.
Option 1: Inhouse production
In the very beginning, it is a good idea to write a few articles on your own. This way, you can set the tone, you will get a feel for the task, and you will become better at editing other people's work.
It is also a useful exercise to clear your thoughts around overall messaging. Writing long-form content for the public is especially helpful when just getting started on something since it shows gaps in your thinking without mercy.
Finally, there are some things that other people don't know as well as you do. You may think that there are thousands of people that know about your subject. While true, these are not necessarily available for hire as a writer for your business.
Option 2: Hiring freelancers
If you can afford it, freelancers are a fantastic way to leverage your time and improve the overall quality of your written output. Why? A good writer will run the process and add his or her own ideas. If you find one that even finds relevant keywords for you using all the right tools, bingo.
To find one, there are two ways: Freelancer platforms like Upwork and good ol' Google. Regardless of how you do it, first, think about what you want. Full-service, brainstorming, research, writing, or editing?
In case you are going for Upwork, you can use this template job post:
We run a [blog, podcast] for [B2B/B2C] businesses / [topic] experts.
We are looking for a writer with experience and interest in [topic] and [topic]. You will directly work with our [team] to create great content and to push the [blog, podcast] to the next level.
We want you to [what you want]. We will help you with [x] and take over again once [stage].
If things work out, this will be a long-term project. We have a long backlog of articles that you can immediately start working on.
Please note that we only consider your application if you post examples of your work that are relevant to this job.
All the best, [Name]
It is a good idea to go with a fixed price per article. Prices may differ depending on the length (don’t go over 1750 for standard ones; nobody reads a book on your site even if “SEO wizards” say otherwise). We usually ended up paying $200-$400 per piece. I don’t recommend paying per hour: If they can deliver your quality level in less than an hour, great for them! But you shouldn’t get punished for someone procrastinating.
When considering your budget, keep this in mind: You won’t always get what you paid for but it will never get what you haven’t paid for.
Lastly, prepare to get your fingers burned. Different people have different views on "great content" and until you found your writer(s) of choice, you will question the seriousness of some.
Everyone develops their own stack over time but there are a few things that you absolutely need in order to get going:
A blog (own website, Substack, Medium)
Social media for distribution
An SEO tool like Ahrefs (optional)
A collaboration tool (Notion, Google Docs, or similar)
Grammarly or similar2
The framework I just explained has proven successful for primarily written content. But you will find that the principles are just as applicable for other media types as well.
Writing just for fun?
I am not suggesting that building a content machine is not a fun thing to do – I love it so much that I am even writing about it. But I view the two as completely different things, one geared towards efficiency and the other being a leisure activity.
Writing just for fun – like the article you are reading right now – is always possible, and if it's something you like, go ahead and do it. You are not going to hire a freelancer to do the heavy lifting. Nor do you have to do extensive keyword and competitor research – unless you want to.
For a professional writer, perfect language is an absolute must. If the content itself is good but the language isn’t perfect, ask them to buy their own pro license.