Content Pillars to Guide Your Marketing Strategy
Content pillars are one of the first things I talk about when I check in on new clients–because, without knowing the containers they’ve chosen, it’s hard to talk about the rest of their content strategy.
Most companies don’t have a clear marketing message. They confuse social media with brand building, and they have no direction for their messaging strategy.
Marketing is not about posting on Facebook or Twitter. It’s not even about advertising anymore—it’s all about creating content that your audience wants to consume. Content that solves their problems and engages them in a way that makes them want to buy from you rather than from your competitors.
What Is A Content Pillar?
But first, what are content pillars? It’s a bit of a jargony term for most businesses, whether that’s established and profitable course creators or the service business that runs more like a micro business. I like to think of them more as containers. What are the containers of things you talk about in your marketing and in your content on a regular basis.
If your brand is your reputation and brand strategy is actively trying to shape that reputation, then content pillars are the categories you want to be known for.
This is one of the reasons I refer to them as content buckets in my business, along with:
- A pillar is foundational, and content pillars are the foundation of your content strategy. But, your core values are the pillars on which your business stands. Those sound too much like content pillars, and I don’t want to confuse people as I talk about core and content pillars.
- Pillars are immovable. Does the Parthenon have a famous reputation for leaning like the Tower of Pisa? No. The Parthenon has stood the test of time because its pillars are solid. Buckets, however, can be poured out and refilled–which is exactly what we’re doing with content topics as we weave in and out of your content plan.
- Most solid structures have a whole lot of pillars, and I like to aim for three content pillars in most content calendars for online micro businesses. Again, when I think of a pillar, I envision The Parthenon, not a tripod.
How does a small online business use content pillars?
A content pillar is a category of topics related to your service or product. That is true across all industries. But what about most online businesses, like course creators, small agencies, and service providers? I refer to them as micro businesses because they’re usually tiny teams–and they’re very niched. This isn’t like shoes.com creating pillar content on the many varieties of shoes out there–this is your specific service.
Pillar content for a micro online business helps you stay on brand in your marketing. If you look at your three content pillars and a topic you’re considering doesn’t easily fit in one (or sometimes multiple!) pillar, it’s often a clue you’re about to go off-brand in messaging. It’s a great final check for each piece of content you create–does this content fit in one of my buckets?
How To Use Content Pillars In Your Content Marketing Strategy
If you continue thinking of pillars as containers, fill your buckets with topics your best client is thinking about, needs to know before they’re a good fit for your services, or are already searching online.
Since we’re on the container and bucket visual already, what happens when a bucket overflows? It spills out and spreads. That’s what we want your content pillars to do as well, we want them to branch out into smaller and smaller topics that get more and more finger-pointy specific to the problems your best client is currently facing. Those smaller, micro-niched topics do very well on social media.
Content pillars inform your social media strategy
Most profitable online businesses run on a content engine based on long-form content that they then redistribute into short-form content on social media. Thus, content marketing that keeps your pillar content top-of-mind will also keep your social media on-brand. It’s the good side of a self-perpetuating cycle!
If you’ve followed my old, new, borrowed, and blue Chaos-Free Content Creation plan, you know there’s still room for personality and off-the-cuff content that doesn’t technically fall in your chosen content bucket. (If you haven’t heard of this before, it’s a free, five-day email course that helps you balance what types of content to post on a daily basis.)
Content pillar strategy helps SEO
A pillar content strategy, of course, must consider search engine optimization. Pillars help you stay on-topic and and on-brand, which in turn will help your site rank well. Creating content that ranks well shouldn’t be difficult if you keep to your pillar containers, because you’ll have a “family tree” of topics that all stem from that first category in your content pillar. Standard SEO practices suggest interlinking related topics on your website, and that means we need to move beyond the family tree visual and into a visual of interconnectedness–a web.
Pillar pages are key to good SEO rankings, so it’s worth looking at the competitiveness for keywords in your content pillar name.
A hidden benefit to content pillar strategy in social media content
Content webbing isn’t a common term, but it’s one of my favorite ways to organize thoughts and brainstorm content ideas. Particularly when we get down to the granular level with social media content, content webbing can help you step out of that sea of sameness and really begin building authority.
If you think of a spider’s web, you’ve got the right idea–your content pillar is at the center of that web. Each topic you create floats around it, but is also connected to other topics.
Where content webbing differs from a spider’s web is that the topics around your content pillar may also have connections to other topics (or subtopics) in different content buckets–and you’ll connect those as well.
When you have a subtopic that refers to another topic in social media, you create an open loop. This will increase the likelihood of you stopping the doomscroll most social media users fight against. Pique their curiosity, get them to click on through other topics in your profile, and your web of content will do its job bringing the viewer back to your website where they can start the buyer’s journey.
Pre-Work Before Choosing High-Performing Content Pillars
Many content creators sit down and attack their journals with vigor, only to come up with an empty page–or a scribble of notes. They know they need solid buckets, but there’s a bit of analysis paralysis going on. This is because they haven’t done the content pillar pre-work.
You’ll need to know a few things before you create your content pillars.
- What are you known for?
- Who is your audience, and what do they want to know about the most from a results standpoint
- The type of content that has been successful in driving traffic to your site if you have an existing business
And finally, it is far easier to do this if you have a strong opinion about your subject. This is hard when you’re first starting out! But following someone else’s framework without making any changes on your own is an okay way to start out creating, and not a great way to attract a following as you grow in your thought leadership. How do you do this? Answer these questions:
- What fires you up?
- What pisses you off?
Three Ways to Define Your Content Pillars:
1. Attention, Interest, Trust
One of the ways to define your content pillars is centering on attention, interest, and trust. Your attention bucket is all about the content that engages and starts a conversation with your audience. Once you’ve got their attention, we move to interest. What bucket would capture–and keep–their interest? This is typically going to be the sticky content that helps them think differently about their problem. The third bucket is all about authority–what makes you the authority on this subject, so they trust you? You can gain attention and interest without building trust, so what content are you going to create to bridge the trust gap?
Attention is what first draws your audience in by offering something that stands out or appeals to them. This can be done through a catchy headline, an interesting image, or a bold statement. It’s commonly referred to as a hook. It’s why subject lines are so important for emails.
Interest keeps them engaged by providing well-crafted, relevant, and useful content to their needs. This is why really knowing your best client in and out helps you create better content on the whole. It’s what separates you from another brand’s social media content. Knowing the right stories, the right details, and honing your voice is key here.
Finally trust builds credibility with your audience as they come to depend on you as a reliable source of information.
By building content pillars around these three elements, you can create compelling and engaging content that will draw people in and keep them coming back for more. But–what if you simply created a pillar for each of these elements instead of just “keeping them in mind” as you create the pillars?
An example business using AIT to create a content pillar:
Let’s use a life coach as an example. In this case, a life coach who helps post-grads figure out the next step in their life. Maybe they’re 25 and figuring out the cubicle life isn’t for them, maybe they’re trying to decide if law school is a good idea.
Attention: Your 20’s Aren’t All They Were Cracked Up To Be. I’d put a lot of engaging content in this bucket. A fun quiz; where are you post-college? Which Schitt’s Creek character represents your work life–something like that. I’d also put testimonials from happy clients in this category. A few more topic ideas for this pillar:
- Using your personality to get ahead in life.
- Using Strengths Finder to get a promotion.
Interest: Turning Your Quarter-Life Into Your Best Life. This bucket is all about keeping their attention. So many people out there create way too much engaging content and not nearly enough that goes to that next level and gets the best client thinking more deeply about their problem–this is where you transform your Schitt’s Creek quiz taker into someone who realizes, their character isn’t what they want to be, AND they have other options. This is sticky content all the way through. Case studies that show similar situations your best client is facing so they start thinking about you as the solution will be key here, as will sharing how-to content that provides a quick win on social media channels.
Trust: Your Sweet Spot. This bucket is not only about the client finding their sweet spot, it’s about you demonstrating your own! Comb through past client testimonials–is there a common theme? Is there something you’re so good at, you can’t help it–even if it feels natural to you? Your sweet spot will showcase your services and lead to selling content, but also showcase the transformation you offer clients. I’d expect to see topics like:
- The 3 things ____ did that landed her a career change a sweet promotion
- Which personal development tools are best for 20-somethings to see real results
2. Using a 3-part message in your content pillar strategy
I’ve taught different ways to create a three-part message, but if you really want an in-depth way to do this I’d suggest checking out Dr. Michelle Mazur‘s Three Word Rebellion. I’ve never seen a better training, and I don’t want to try to make one!
An example of a three-part message in my own business is either Know, Like, and Trust, or Make, Measure, Multiply. I named my podcast The Know, Like & Trust Show for a reason, and it’s because those three words very simply outlay the entire content marketing process. It’s clear, it’s succinct, and I stand by it.
My content creation and content planning process follows the 3 M’s: make, measure, and multiply. You’ve got to make content, but simply making it means you’re on the content creation hamster wheel forever. To get off the hamster wheel, you need to hone your process and make your content do some heavy lifting for you–that depends on measuring–so you can multiply your efforts. Using these content pillars, I can divide up my topics clearly–if it’s about creating strategic content or planning that content out, it falls into the make pillar. If it’s about repurposing, it goes into multiply.
3. Your expertise, what you stand for, and what separates you from the next ___.
For this option, your expertise is going to be very similar to the trust portion of AIT. What is it that you’re skilled at? What you stand for is your battle cry. It’s going to answer that question, what really pisses you off about your industry, and how can YOU do it better, so you’re a natural choice. And as for what separates you from the next person, that’s up to you. If someone has the same schooling, training, and location as you, what’s in it for a client to choose you over that person?
One of my clients cohosts a boy parenting podcast. She’s a homeschooling mom of four boys and a registered nurse. She’s written for countless publications. Her expertise is bringing the worlds of health, parenting, and education together for a unique take on raising boys. Her battle cry? There’s no such thing as a “typical boy.” And what separates her from most parenting experts is that she’s in the thick of it but has the health education to back up her real-world anecdotes–so she’s creating relevant content for them.
And for the record? I haven’t created a content plan for her, I’m helping her build a funnel right now–I just spouted this off on the fly. When you know your business, your offer, and your people, it’s easy to do that.
Build Your Content Pillars
Now is the time for you to take action! Knowing what content pillars do for you and some content pillar examples for other businesses is the first step, doing the pre-work above is the next step–then it’s time to create yours and start using your content pillars in social media to test them out. Spend a week or two talking about topics in each of your content pillars. (Testing doesn’t mean calling them out and asking what people think, it means using them in real-life content!)
Yes–marketing is a test. So test well and test often!
Once you’ve tested the response to your new buckets, you’ve got the guideposts in place for the rest of your content marketing strategy.
Creating content isn’t optional anymore. The benefits of a content-rich business are many:
- Create an emotional bond with your audience that drives action
- Stop losing leads by using creative and compelling content
- Failproof content that helps build trust with potential customers
- Grow your business exponentially through intelligent marketing
- Approach marketing strategically, not tactically
And finally, confidence that you’re putting out high-quality content and that the time you’ve poured into it is worth it. This guide to content pillars for established, profitable online businesses will boost that confidence and marketability at the same time.
Need help with a pillar strategy that works or creating a social media content calendar based on strategic content?