Product-Led Content: The Easiest Way to Make Content a Performance Channel

Content marketing is often looked at as a “brand” channel.

In opposition to a “performance” channel, brand channels tend to be unmeasurable, emotional, and yet, still perceived as important (especially in larger companies and in consumer spaces).

Despite this clearly being a false dichotomy (why can’t performance channels build the brand, too?), it’s also directionally wrong.

Content can, and should, lead to directly attributable conversion goals as well as building your brand, audience, and thought leadership.

I’ve written about how to make content convert before, and while I covered many critical points (creating a content strategy that exploits your strengths, building out content clusters, leaning in on high-intent content, leveraging “expensive” content to be able to rank “cheap” content later, optimizing your lead magnets and A/B testing conversion points, mapping critical behavioral points in your analytics, etc.), I left out one incredibly obvious point:

Your product or service should play an integral role in your content strategy as well as creation.

This sounds so unimaginative that I can already sense your skepticism. It goes straight to the planning and creation stage of content, without even considering optimization points like what lead magnet you use. However, having worked with dozens of brands across many industries, I can tell you it’s not so straightforward.

Some brands are clunky, and just throw their product out in irrelevant places. It’s awkward, annoying, and ineffective. They’re too pushy.

Some are on the other end of the spectrum. They tiptoe around their content, afraid their audience is so averse to sales that the mere mention of a product will make them flee to other blogs (probably those that use words like ‘compelling content’ and ‘storytelling’ and care more about tone than substance).

There’s a balance, folks, and I’m gonna tell you how to pull it off and massively increase both your content ROI and your readers’ experience.

This is another long article, so let’s do the table of contents thing:

“Product Led Content” and how it fits into the traditional funnel

Think of the traditional buyer’s journey.

Usually, we split it into three (or more) discrete stages, each one moving progressively closer to the point of purchase (higher intent) as the volume of people in each stage decreases. The three stages are usually:

  • Awareness – has problem, doesn’t know what to do about it
  • Consideration – problem crystallizes, now heavily researching solutions
  • Decision – choosing the best solution among those found

These map onto the colloquial marketing funnel stages that pretty much everyone uses as a model to discuss high knowledge/propensity prospects from low ones: top, middle, and bottom funnel content (TOFU, MOFU, BOFU).

The whole point of search-driven content is to align the expectations or intent of the reader with the content you produce (perhaps also adding a little wow factor so you actually stand out from the mass of similarly produced Skyscraper-technique pillar pages).

If you can best answer their query, not only do you position yourself as a URL for Google to rank, but you usually satisfy the searcher’s curiosity as well. At this point, you can convert the searcher into an email list subscriber, customer, lead, etc. (depending on the query, the content, and your business).

Given the goal of user intent alignment, what I call “Product Led Content” maps almost perfectly onto the bottom of the funnel and also reaches up towards more introductory topics.

The name Product Led Content is both deliberately derivative and earnestly useful; each piece of content you plan and create in the name of this strategy is done so with your actual product in mind. You can ask the question “can we hinge this piece on our product?” and if the answer is “no,” it’s not product led.

I further segment Product Led Content into three subcategories. I like to visualize it like a bullseye, or a cross section of the TOFU > BOFU funnel if you cut it right about in the middle:

In the Product Led Content framework, here’s how I think about the subcategories:

  • Awareness – “What is customer churn” or “kettlebell swing benefits” or “coffee vs tea caffeine”
  • Action – “how to collect customer feedback” or “customer feedback survey template” or “landing page examples”
  • Decision – “best customer feedback tools” or “HubSpot live chat integrations” or “HubSpot vs Marketo” or “buy red wine online”

In each of these stages, you can and should drive conversions. Though of course, it gets easier and easier to do that the closer you are to the center of the bullseye.

The people in the outer ring probably won’t buy today, but they could in a few months. You should drive awareness of your solution, but hope to convert them to an email list.

The middle ring – action – knows what kind of problems they have. You can still drive email list or lead conversions, but it’s also highly possible to snap them up as customers if you make it easier to try your solution (here is the stage freemium and low touch models can really excel at).

Think of the queries “landing page template,” – if you build out a page with templates and make it easy to sign up for your tool with these templates, that’s some product led content.

Decision is the bread and butter of a product led content strategy. If you can’t drive a conversion here, you can at least put a pixel on the page and do some remarketing and audience building.

The outer rings of the product led bullseye, however, have much more traffic potential, but lower targeting for purchase propensity/intent. It’s a broader audience.

Way more people are searching for “Rooibos benefits” than “best rooibos tea,” though the latter is far more likely to convert than the former. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t throw a mention of your rooibos tea in the former and bring them into your world early on (last touch models won’t capture this, though first touch might).

Advertising requires both reach and frequency, so why would it be any different with content marketing? The more times someone hears about your product, the more likely they are to purchase.

Don’t wait until the bottom of the funnel to start teaching people that, yes, there is indeed a solution to your problem, and we, the authors of this article, do indeed sell one.

Again, what your primary goal is can change based on the intent or the ‘temperature’ of the query and page, but your product can play a role in any funnel stage of content.

Demand gen marketers know this, and again, it feels silly to even write about. That’s where helpful models like Johnathan Dane’s PPC Temperature framework are helpful:

You shouldn’t start pushing your expensive kettlebells on an article titled “6 tips to lose weight in 2019.” You should still offer your ebook or weight loss program checklist or whatever and convert and nurture that lead from the top of the funnel on down.

But! Why not throw in an example of a kettlebell workout you can do on point #3 on that list? Well, that wouldn’t be too pushy would it? Might even add some value to the reader’s life.

If you’re already writing about “how to collect customer feedback,” for example and you sell a customer feedback tool, why not use your tool to demonstrate how to do it? Would it help the reader any more to use a competitive tool, just to avoid appearing biased or salesy?

The answer is obvious: the reader just wants their problem solved, and they probably understand that you, as a business, exist to sell products. They’re probably quite forgiving if you try to do that in a helpful way.

Where does Product Led Content Fit in a holistic content marketing plan?

I don’t think product led content should be the entirety of your strategy, because that would be quite boring, and the bullseye above only represents a tiny fraction of what could be your total addressable audience. That’s why I build out content strategy using the barbell approach (taken from NN Taleb and the finance world):

In terms of content, that means I allocate about 65-85% of my portfolio to low volatility, predictable wins like the product led content keywords. I know with a degree of certainty that as long as I execute the proper playbook, I can bring in traffic and conversions with this part of the portfolio, but it probably won’t exceed a certain threshold.

As Derek Gleason wrote, we probably won’t build a brand based on the topics in this bucket, but we can still cover them in an interesting way.

The remaining part of the portfolio is there to capture the upside. It’s the thought leadership, opinion pieces, and the experimental content. It’s the stuff that general wins the hearts as opposed to the minds of readers (which usually wins backlinks, too), yet has almost no predictable business output. The meta-point in the barbell approach is that every piece of content is mindfully produced with a clear intention in mind.

Someday I’ll take these graphics more seriously probably

Despite the dichotomy I’m setting up here, you can also add some flavor to your low-volatility (read: keyword and conversion driven content). HubSpot, for example, is almost entirely search-driven strategically, but we also have a strong editorial voice and guidelines that make it obvious you’re reading a HubSpot article.

How to Do Product Led Content at Each Stage

If you’re selling behavioral email software, and you write an article on the “best behavioral email software in 2019,” it should be obvious that it’s entirely okay to sell your own product via that list.

If not, you should take a step back and think about why you’re doing content marketing and what your goals are (crudely, are you trying to get rich or just famous?).

Now, move up the funnel and things become less obvious. It really would feel strange for HiSmile to plug their teeth whitening kit in an article about teeth sensitivity.

That is, it would be strange if they plugged it clumsily and like a pushy salesman. But why is that necessary? Why can’t we both mention our product AND help out the reader?

In this case, it’s clearly the case that one common cause of sensitive teeth is whitening kits (normally the poorly made ones, but it’s a common complaint of Crest 3D white strips, too).

This would be the perfect case to mention that, explain why that occurs, and then in turn, explain why their kit doesn’t succumb to that problem. That’d be genuinely educational, and it would help create a seed of wonder in the reader’s brain – “I wonder if I should look into HiSmile instead of my current whitening kit?”

It needn’t be cumbersome, pushy, or obvious, but if you can find a way to weave your product into the narrative in your blog posts, you should do it.

It’s possible that the reader, in these cases, will simply check out your product and buy it or signup. That’s unlikely though. More likely is that, through repeated exposure and more research, your product will rise to a position of salience in the buyer’s mind.

If you’re writing a “how to…” article, for instance “how to build an email list,” and you sell a SaaS tool that helps collect email leads, it only helps the reader to know to build an email list using your tool. Especially if you have a freemium solution, why not explain how to create a form using your own solution?

But won’t that look “salesy” or “pushy?” No, and if your content isn’t terrible, people won’t mind if a business tries to tell them about their product in a free blog post.

Just make the content is not horrible and it won’t be a problem at all, I promise you. In fact, aim to make the content fucking epic, and not just acceptable to publish, and you might even make some fans as well as customers.

How to Do Product-Led Content in 4 Steps

There are two ways to do Product Led Content. You can either go back and update old posts, or you can proactively make new content Product Led.

Proactively Planning Product Led Content

This is wildly easy. Four steps:

  1. Ideate content based on customer pain points
  2. Map it to buyer’s journey stages
  3. Wherever possible, use your own product as a demonstration in the content
  4. Continue using whatever CTAs and lead magnets work the best for conversion (no need to change these)

If you use a document or editorial calendar to communicate the plan with a team of writers or freelancers, just make a notes column or section where you explain which product to use in the article.

Auditing and Optimizing Existing Content

Or, just go back and audit and optimize all of your current content that ranks and brings in consistent traffic and see if you can add a small section demonstrating the topic through your own product.

There are several ways to do this, but here’s how I run a PLC audit. First, scrape your website for all pages with Product Led keywords in the title. This will depend on your industry and approach, but for HubSpot, these tend to be things like ‘how to,’ ‘examples,’ ‘what is,’ and ‘templates’:

Scrape ‘em all with a tool like SEOQuake, then take the list of URLs and upload to Ahrefs’ batch analysis feature:

Now pull this data over to a Google Sheet, using a new tab for each different keyword (“how to,” “examples,” etc.). I delete all data columns except the URL, total keywords, and total traffic, and then I organize by traffic (high to low):

Create a new column next to “Target” and write =concatenate(“https://”,[target cell])to build out the full URL, and then create another column to pull in the page title using this formula =ImportXML([new URl cell], “//title”)

Like such:

Now manually go through, from top to bottom, and see if there is an opportunity to update the post with a product mention – whether that’s a fully developed content section explaining your tool or product or just an internal link.

If you have a smaller website, you can also just look at your “top pages” report in Ahrefs to see the most valuable pages (they combine CPC and traffic volume metrics, which makes a pretty good proxy for business value).

Like, I’m totally going to go back and show people how to create a signup form using HubSpot’s own free forms tool:

Big old side benefit here: the internal linking involved in this type of approach will undoubtedly help your product pages rank. That’s ROI positive enough on its own to think about doing Product Led Content.

Let’s escape the theoretical abyss and look at some examples in the wild…

4 Example of Product-Led Content

1. Ahrefs

Ahrefs is the king of Product-Led Content. Actually, you know that whole Product-Led Growth trend that is buzzy right now? Where a bunch of marketing-first SaaS companies changed nothing about their strategy or go-to-market and suddenly called themselves “Product-Led?”

Well, Ahrefs truly is one of those rare creatures who I truly consider product-first, and not simply because they have employees who want to be thought leaders and ride an emerging wave.

It’s absolutely no surprise, then, that their blog perfectly intertwines product education with topic education.

For example, here’s their most recent post, “9 Reasons Your Website Isn’t Showing Up On Google (and How to Fix It).” It’s long-form, super detailed, and about halfway through it, they should you how to use Ahrefs when talking about analyzing your backlink data:

Logic:

  1. You might not have enough backlinks
  2. Ahrefs has a tool that can help you determine that

Why tf wouldn’t you demonstrate how to find your backlink data using your tool? It helps the reader, and now, voila, a problem aware searcher is suddenly now solution aware as well.

2. HubSpot

We’re in the midst of an audit, but HubSpot has begun carving out a space in our content strategy for Product Led Content. A great example, recently published, is this post on “order confirmation email templates.”

It’s 100% educational, but towards the end of the post, mentions that we have a free tool with free templates to help you accomplish this feat:

We have a handful of posts like this now, and I can tell you that they convert quite well. Not as high as the massive amount of product listicles we publish (e.g. “best live chat software”), but almost.

3. Bulletproof

The B2B world is slowly warming up to Product Led Content – and in my opinion, is generally better at content marketing as an acquisition channel. The consumer marketing world still largely looks at content as a brand channel, and because of that, primarily creates lifestyle content for its current customer base.

Considering how lucrative affiliate is for the sleep space, I’d imagine Casper could take their content a bit more seriously as an acquisition channel:

Bulletproof is one of the best consumer companies at content marketing (and conversion optimization, too, but that’s another article).

 

They definitely use a version of “pain point” SEO to both hit upon problem areas their potential customers are experiencing and to make sure there is some level of search volume for the term.

Then, they write an article that is well-written and backed by a ton of studies, but they also always mention their products where applicable. And you know what? I think it’s actually helpful for the reader to do that. If I’m looking for ways to get over a cold, why wouldn’t I want to know that they make an immunity elixir?

4. Onnit

Onnit’s Academy is generally a great example of content marketing for a consumer brand. They have tons of lifestyle content (AKA non-search driven content), such as interviews with health and fitness celebrities and recipes.

They also have tons of search-driven content that helps visitors solve a specific health/wellness problem in their lives. For example, this article is about the best kettlebell weight to start with. Why in the world wouldn’t they weave their own kettlebells through the piece?

It’s done artfully. Now, thankfully, I know what weight to start with and, if I were so inclined, I could check out the products Onnit has (or continue shopping on another site – it’s not like they’re overly pushy).

Conclusion

Many times in life, there are tradeoffs. However, any time someone tells you it’s necessary to choose between this or that – in this case, brand vs performance content – it’s time to step back and reflect. In actuality, you can have the best of both worlds. Content can both convert and build a brand.

This article covered the planning and content creation portions of creating content that converts, but there’s a whole lot more you can do when it comes to lead generation strategy, lead magnet creation, CRO for your conversion points, and even personalization for your readers.

However, when it comes to Product Led Content, know this: your blog readers aren’t all going to bounce if you mention that you have a product. And if you use your product to show, demonstrate, or explain the topic of the article (particularly with “how to” content), well that’s just better for everybody.

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a Growth Marketer and Content Strategist based in Austin, Texas. He's a proud UW-Madison graduate and enjoys craft beer, lifting weights, and sailing.

Leave a Reply Text

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *