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Validating Your Content Marketing Business Case Using Lean Startup Methodologies

As ‘SEO is Dead’ posts continue to manifest themselves at increasingly regular intervals, and more tactics are ‘outed’ by Matt Cutts and his team – it’s never-endingly difficult to know how to approach the ‘right’ SEO tactics for your website. In fact, our very own Kate Morris made a very valid point that it is not necessarily the tactics themselves that should be vilified by the strategies and methodology behind them.

Content marketing has been a buzzword for the past 12/18 months but has often existed alongside SEO, with many not entirely understanding where one stops and the other starts. Is content marketing SEO? Is it social? What are the KPIs? What should I write? How does it fit in with my current marketing activity? What we do know is that with the most recent defamation of guest posts (and PR already struggling with right/wrong nofollow links), content marketing is likely to continue to play an important role (or at least remain some form of buzzword) in our brands and sites’ futures for the forseeable future. If you write it, they will come

So what is content marketing? Mighty good question, and one I’m not sure I have a complete answer to. I know what it isn’t:

  • A Field of Dreams style ‘If  you write it, they will magically come’ situation
  • Adding a blog to your site and fixing your SEO problems
  • Increasing your social presence and hashtag use and watching the traffic pour in
  • The magic pill that will replace all the SEO tactics that have been devalued or penalised by Google (a timely and I think very valid article/rant was written by Rae Hoffman on this point and can be read here.)

No matter the size of the site or brand name, any investment in a new marketing tactic requires some form of business case or at the very least anecdotal evidence to justify its existence. This is where I feel content marketing has managed to slip through the net and been hugely under researched and under invested in. This in turn has led to a painful amount of half thought out, partially invested in pieces of ‘content’ clogging up the web. Think poorly made infographics and pointless widgets. For many, the idea was simply to create a new ‘content idea’ and launch it as an addition to an existing site in order to generate backlinks. Is that really the point of content marketing? It can’t be if we want it to work.

So my thoughts on what ‘content marketing’ is (these are my own, don’t shoot me for them):

  • Content marketing is not a single project or piece of content, it is the entire approach of your website and brand to the way your voice communicates with your customers – this should include social media, email, PR, online and offline, blogs, seasonal content etc.
  • If you are not planning your content as a single cohesive voice that pulls all of these areas into one calendar and guidelines, you’re likely not getting the results you could or should
  • There should not be a focus on any direct push/pull relationship between content and links
  • Successful, engaging and converting content requires investment, time and co-ordination
  • Content will likely force different departments that don’t normally work together, to work together
  • Different departments have different KPIs
  • Content needs KPIs, it is not ‘fluffy’
  • KPIs require a business case and a strategy
  • Content requires a business case and a strategy

Where to begin with validating your content marketing with a relevant and well thought-out business case? I’ve been faced with this problem working agency-side for large brands as well as on a a far smaller scale in-house and have previously found myself drowning in hefty documentation and multiple complicated excels. That was until my rather brainy colleague mentioned the Lean Startup model to me from a product perspective. (if you haven’t, you should most definitely read the book by Eric Ries). It all started to make sense – how to get my content strategy signed off and launched with a far greater level of cohesion and buy-in from all involved.

Consider your content marketing as another ‘product’ that your company is looking to launch. At product level, that could be a whole new piece of functionality, a new CRM technique or a new marketing play – e.g. content marketing. There are pros/cons, different methodologies, start-up costs, target users, multiple possible revenue streams etc. You need to work your way through these in the same manner that you would if you were launching any product (or even entire startup) from scratch.

The Lean Startup principle focuses around the idea of getting your product to your customers faster, using a scientific approach to better understand where to focus your efforts and what your product specs should really be. A key element to this idea is the concept of the MVP, or Minimum Viable Product. This is the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop, with the idea being that if you can build that minimum product requirement as quickly as possible, this will leave you far greater opportunity to fine tune what is or isn’t working based on real actionable metrics. Oh and if that’s not enough, it gets a Moz endorsement too. 😉

The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and what your product should be. A useful tool for this stage of the process is the Lean Canvas (now part of the broader Lean Stack product), developed by Ash Maurya by reviewing Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas and then optimising it to become part of the Lean Startup model. It looks a little something like this:

Lean Canvas


As you can see the concepts behind the canvas are very simple – reduce your entire product business case down to one single page. Easier said than done! But the simplicity and effectiveness behind this tool is that you are not aiming to get it right first time. In fact, you should aim to complete your first canvas within a single 20 min sitting. You can leave fields blank  if you don’t yet have those answers but you want to get your first drawing board up and out of your brain as quickly and simply as possible. This then allows you to rapidly focus and develop those core ideas while minimising the distractions that naturally come with any new product.

Two recommendations that Maurya gives when filling in the canvas I think are particularly relevant its use as a launchpad for a content marketing product:

1. Think in the present

2. Use a customer-centric approach

Too many companies get bogged down in the great and wonderfully clever things they are going to do with content once they’ve got the basics up and running. This is why your content will fail. Understand what your customers want right now, what content would engage them, encourage them to return, make them want to share? What content is surplus to requirements and follows that ‘just another blog post’ style of content? How do your other marketing channels feed into this to holistically target the customer at the centre of the strategy?

“Perfection is not the goal. The goal is to sketch or baseline a snapshot of your current thinking.” Here’s a intro video to help you get started:

Let’s see if we can approach our content marketing (and therefore to some extent our SEO, digital marketing, customer acquisition and retention) with a little more science by sketching out our product with a scientific approach, rather than continuing to bog down the internet with yet more ‘Top Ten Pens To Buy Your Gran” pieces of content. Onwards!



Originally from the UK via France and Malaysia, Annabel Hodges is a digital marketer with long experience in the industry now residing in Sydney. She heads up the Digital Marketing at Next Commerce, working across an array of products, channels and brands.
  • Stefan Wolpers

    Kudos for merging both topics…

  • Great piece Annabel. Especially considering more and more traditional SEO’s are transforming themselves into content marketing agencies. They need to be able to credibly describe the reason for this change and this certainly helps to do that!

    • Thanks Justin, here’s hoping ‘content’ does continue to grow into a more accountable and part of integrated marketing strategies.