3 Content Marketing ‘Best Practices’ that Small Businesses Should Ignore


As much as we may hate to admit it, the rules are always different for small businesses.

content marketing for small business

Most of our clients fit in the small-to-medium-sized bucket, and hey, we’re right there in that bucket with you. So it’s worthwhile to acknowledge when the best practices that work for big brands don’t really apply to us little guys.

Today I’ll be discussing some content marketing “rules” that it’s OK for small businesses to break.

Supposed Best Practice #1: You Need a Content Marketing Strategy

This is the content marketing rule I hear over and over again, and it’s starting to grate on me as much as “content is king” and other hackneyed marketing clichés. (Apologies to my strategy wonk friends.)

There are a few problems with the “you need a content strategy” refrain. First, it’s completely vague and not actionable. What does it even mean? It’s like if you said, “Babe, I’m making tacos tonight” and your husband answered, “OK, but you’re going to need a taco strategy.” I guess, if it makes you feel better to frame it that way, but when I make tacos I don’t draw up a battle plan; I just make tacos.

content marketing strategies

But the real problem with the idea of content marketing strategy – in particular if you’re a small business and you’re just trying to get started with content marketing – is that the strategy phase takes time and money, and is generally based on hopes and expectations rather than data and real-world results. If you worry too much about your “content strategy,” you could end up wasting a lot of resources developing a content strategy for the web only to discover that:

  1. Your team doesn’t have the ability to execute on that strategy, or
  2. That strategy doesn’t resonate with your audience.

For the same reason, I don’t advocate building out a content calendar months in advance – it’s not agile, it’s not responsive, and it often leads to wasted effort when your business goals change.

Content Marketing Strategy Is Emergent

Let me clarify: It’s not that you don’t need a content strategy, but that your strategy should emerge as you go.

content marketing feedback

Image via Smashing Magazine

Strategy is a living thing that should evolve as you execute. Think of it as a feedback loop – as you create, publish, and promote your content, pay attention to what is working and what isn’t. Then, do more of what’s working and scrap the stuff that didn’t work. But you won’t know what’s working until you actually start creating content.

I’ve been at WordStream for over five years, so I’ve seen a lot of strategies come and go. For example:

  • We used to do a weekly “Friday round-up” post (and by “we” I mean “I”). The strategy here was to keep our readers informed of industry news as well as to build relationships with other bloggers in the industry by linking out and sharing their best content. The problems? These posts never did very well, traffic-wise, because Friday is a slow traffic day. And often, we were responding to news that happened on Monday or Tuesday … by the time Friday rolled around, it wasn’t “hot” anymore. So we abandoned that plan. New strategy: We respond to news when it happens, and get great results this way.
  • We used to do a lot of “AdWords explainer” type posts. They explained how to use a specific feature or tab in AdWords. The thinking was, our prospects are using AdWords, so this content should be valuable to them. The problems? They were basically glorified AdWords documentation. They didn’t add enough value. New strategy: We go out of our way to provide expertise and perspective you won’t find elsewhere. We use our own internal data to refute received wisdom. We share non-obvious strategies. We dig in and deliver close analysis of industry news.

The best way to learn is by doing, so jump right into the water with content marketing, then measure your results so you know what’s worth your time and what isn’t.

Supposed Best Practice #2: Your Content Needs to Tell a Story

As my colleague Dan pointed out recently, “storytelling” has become a big buzzword in the content marketing world. And sure, it’s true that people like stories. They also like special effects. That doesn’t mean your content needs explosions to succeed.

Business storytelling (and explosions) can be powerful, but it isn’t necessarily what people are coming to your brand for. If you worry too much about spinning a great yarn, you’re in danger of forgetting why you’re doing this in the first place: it’s a marketing channel.

Big brands have huge captive audiences and equally huge budgets, so they can afford to tell sweeping stories and do sexy stuff like data science. As a small business, you have every reason to start with content that’s a little more humble, and you’ll probably find that it’s way more effective than elaborate “stories.” Start here:

Just answer questions

Your prospects have questions. You have answers. Do keyword research to figure out what those questions are, then provide the best answers. Showing people how to do something is the most powerful way to build trust and demonstrate expertise.

keyword research for content marketing

Wield the awesome power of the list

Go ahead and bang your head on your desk all day trying to organize your content into a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Your competitor just published a list that took 1/10 the time to structure and got 10 times more traction.

Love it or hate it, people love lists. Almost half of Buzzfeed headlines start with a number.

content best practices

And it’s not just Buzzfeed – below are the headlines of our top 3 best-performing blog posts so far this year:

Yep, they’re all formatted as lists. And it’s not only that lists are easily digestible and so more likely to be read and shared when you first hit publish – I suspect that list headlines also get higher click-through rates from the Google search page, and that’s why all of these posts continue to drive tons of evergreen organic traffic.

Focus on Measurable Value

A final problem with the nebulous recommendation to tell stories with your content: it’s hard to know if you’ve actually succeeded or not.

Last year, I wrote about some of the qualities of great content marketing, such as usability and readability. Most of these qualities are actually measurable. You’ll know your content is shareable if it gets a lot of social engagement. You’ll know your content is usable if time on site and bounce rate metrics are good. You’ll know your content is memorable if it has repeat visitors. You’ll know your content is findable if it ranks in search and drives organic traffic over time. As such these qualities make better yardsticks for success.

MORE: 11 Ways to Repurpose Your Content

Supposed Best Practice #3: Content Marketing Should Lead Directly to Leads/Sales

People think this is how content marketing works: You publish a great blog post, your prospect finds it, and he’s so excited about your damn blog, he calls you straight up and says “MAKE ME A CUSTOMER!”

That’s not how it works. For the most part, content marketing happens at the top of the funnel. Good content builds brand awareness and trust so that people come to you willingly when they’re ready to buy. The path that leads from the first interaction with your content to the eventual conversion could be indirect and twisted.

how content marketing works

Via Rand Fishkin’s presentation “Why Content Marketing Fails

For example, here’s a peek at what our top conversion paths looked like during one time period this year. (You can find this view in Google Analytics under Conversion > Multi-Channel Funnels > Top Conversion Paths.)

content marketing conversion paths

A ton of people find our content through organic search. But they usually don’t convert immediately. Instead, they remember our brand and come back as a direct visitor later. Or, they see one of our remarketing banners after visiting our site and convert then. Or, they click on a paid search ad after Googling something with more commercial intent – but we can see from the cookie that they previously visited our site organically. Sometimes people visit our site directly four or five times – probably in the research phase – before they finally convert.

The point is, especially if you’re marketing a product with a longer sales cycle, like software, you shouldn’t expect content marketing to convert visitors immediately. In fact, being too pushy or self-promotional can kill the very trust you’re trying to build – one study found that “signing off an otherwise objective blog post or newsletter with a product pitch will bring the content’s credibility level down by 29 percent” (Contently).

In Conclusion

Best practices are only ever a rough starting point. Only experience will tell you what is actually realistic for your marketing team and effective at helping you meet your goals. So, to quote Axl Rose, stop strategizing and get in the ring.


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Sep 25, 2014

It all comes down to how and what your audience's feedbacks are. Because we can't just have more content and not knowing what the audience needs and wants to see and read. By paying attention to those feedbacks, we can scratch those things that are not working with the system anymore and add more what interests the audience.

Elisa Gabbert
Sep 26, 2014

Hi Natalie, audience feedback and engagement levels are hugely important! If people are telling you they love your blog, that's a great sign.

Amit Khanna
Sep 26, 2014

Cool information Stuff

Edwin Sydney
Sep 29, 2014

That is quite inspiring and great article for businessess.Well informing.

Elisa Gabbert
Sep 30, 2014

Thanks Edwin

Megan Marrs
Sep 30, 2014

Awesome post! I think people get so wrapped up in "I'm supposed to do A, B, and C" that they forget to step back and consider why they're doing those things. Also, that video me LOL all over the place.I wonder if we will ever get to the point where lists lose their luster. I already get a mental eye-roll when I see list after list like the pic you posted above....but then again, I need to know what 10 fall shows I should be excited about !!!

Elisa Gabbert
Sep 30, 2014

I know, right? I keep expecting lists to die but they sure haven't yet!!

John Abrena
Oct 02, 2014

Lists, together with jaw-dropping and mind-numbing headlines, often grab readers' attentions since they trigger this thought of "why-do-i-have-to-settle-on-just-one-info-and-search-again-if-i-can-read-10-in-one-go". Especially true when the number of people with ADHD that uses the internet are steadily rising.

But seriously, great post. I love that you refute these 'best practices' while showing hard data.

Jason Schaffer
Oct 21, 2014

This is an excellent post and one I couldn't agree with more.  When the plan is to try and connect every single post to the generation of new leads, the overall content quality suffers and you end up with a spammy looking site.  And the content schedule (i.e. regularity of posting) suffers.  At some point you just need to write.

Reginald Chan
Nov 17, 2014

Hi Elisa,Great article and came across this when I was trying to plan my content marketing in 2015. I got to agree with #2. Basically, story telling is good but it is NOT the only option. I always believe a nice mix is always great to attract all types of readers.Thanks for sharing!

Elisa Gabbert
Nov 18, 2014

Thanks Reginald, glad you found it helpful!

Dec 18, 2014

Elisa, I just "discovered" you yesterday and here I am back again today - good job!  I like the way you write your articles; you present your topics clearly and concisely, you have a friendly informative tone that keeps me reading the entire article rather than skimming when I get halfway down the page and then losing interest.  I think in general attention spans are getting shorter due to the constant barrage of information and I applaud your ability to keep the reader engaged.

Elisa Gabbert
Dec 18, 2014

Wow, thanks Julie, I appreciate the compliment!

Feb 23, 2016

I agree with you, answering questions is a lot more useful and important than telling stories. You can be the best storyteller, but if visitors come on your website and don't find what they were hoping to find, the odds of buying from you decrease significantly.

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