The 7-Step Guide to Creating Amazing Cornerstone Content
From time to time, people ask me what my #1 content marketing tip is. Often, these people are new to content marketing – they have a new site or business, or they just haven’t tried to build traffic and an audience with content marketing yet. They want to know the single biggest action they can take to start building their brand with content.
When I get this question, I always say the same thing: My #1 tip is to create a cornerstone content piece.
What the heck does this even mean? Why is cornerstone content so important? And how do you actually do it? These are questions you’ll get the answers to today!
What is cornerstone content?
Cornerstone content is a high-value, foundational piece of content that is intended to help you start building traffic and brand awareness by showing people what you can offer. Your cornerstone content should be highly relevant to your business goals – it helps you establish authority in your industry and will bring in a steady stream of site visitors who are likely to be interested, sooner or later, in the products or services you offer.
However, keep in mind that a cornerstone content piece is usually pretty top-of-funnel – that means it should be open and free (not locked behind a paywall or registration form), and you shouldn’t expect everyone who visits this content to buy something or otherwise convert. The real goal of cornerstone content is to create a positive first impression, so people get a warm, fuzzy feeling about your brand. That way, when they are ready to convert, they’re much more likely to turn to you.
The metaphor of the cornerstone comes to us from masonry. As the folks at Dictionary.com define it, a cornerstone is:
1. a stone uniting two masonry walls at an intersection.
2. a stone representing the nominal starting place in the construction of a monumental building, usually carved with the date and laid with appropriate ceremonies.
3. something that is essential, indispensable, or basic: The cornerstone of democratic government is a free press.
4. the chief foundation on which something is constructed or developed: The cornerstone of his argument was that all people are created equal.
This definition is handy because your cornerstone content should do these things too – it should support the rest of your content as you build out your website, and form an essential part of your traffic base. (You might also want to take a page from that “appropriate ceremonies” bit – more on that when we get to content promotion.)
What are the benefits of a cornerstone content piece?
Cornerstone content has a number of benefits for your business:
- Raises your brand awareness
- Brings in relevant site visitors
- Builds natural links (which help the rest of your site’s SEO)
- Establishes authority, trust, and positive brand sentiment
- Feeds your funnel (helping you build an email list, for example)
If you’re asking me for help with content marketing, then I know you’re interested in all of these outcomes! And a cornerstone content piece is the single best way to focus all your initial content marketing efforts and resources on something that will drive compounding, evergreen value for your business.
Evergreen content is news that stays news
Examples of cornerstone content
If you’re still not totally sure what I mean, here are a few examples.
Moz is an SEO software company, so it makes sense that their cornerstone content piece would be a Beginner’s Guide to SEO. It’s a big, authoritative resource that you can either read online or get as a PDF. I often recommend it to people who are trying to learn SEO. It’s a big source of traffic, links, and leads for Moz, so they put effort into keeping it up-to-date. You’ll also notice that they promote it right on their home page.
That’s B2B, so what about a B2C example?
Paula’s Choice is a small skincare brand with a cult following – I’ve actually heard people say they belong to the “cult of Paula.” In addition to selling skincare, the site has as an ingredient dictionary that breaks down what all those weird chemical names in your face wash really mean and whether they’re good or bad for you. They also have a whole separate site called Beautypedia that posts expert and community reviews of products from other brands, breaking down which ingredients are legit vs. hype, products that are overpriced or potentially harmful and more. Genius!
Here’s another one: My colleague Allen was recently looking to move money from Etrade, and found a free risk assessment calculator from Wealthfront. He found the results so helpful that it sold him on their financial planning services. Nice work, Wealthfront! This is how giving something valuable away for free can pay off.
This also illustrates how a free tool can actually be a form of content. Take our own Free Keyword Tool – we launched it way back in the aughts, and today, it’s one of the top five most trafficked pages on our website (with over half a million visitors a year), as well as one of the most frequently linked, and it drives a huge portion of our first actions.
So when planning out what your cornerstone content will be, consider other forms of content beyond just articles and guides.
Another example of what I’d consider our own cornerstone content: our advertising benchmarks for Google AdWords and Facebook advertising. Since we sell software to help businesses manage their AdWords and Facebook campaigns, we tapped our wealth of customer data to provide some guidelines for advertisers on the averages they should be looking to beat when it comes to key metrics like click-through rate and conversion rate.
Again, these two content pieces drive a huge amount of traffic, links, and leads for us, because our target audience truly finds them helpful, and this data isn’t easy to find anywhere else.
Now that we’ve established what cornerstone content is and why you need it, let’s walk through the seven steps you’ll need to follow, in detail, to create your own cornerstone content.
Step 1: Choosing your content topic and format
The first step in this process is extremely important – in fact, I’d say choosing the right topic for your cornerstone content piece is actually just as important as the execution.
Start by putting yourself in your target audience’s shoes, since these are the people that you’re trying to reach with your content. Ask questions like:
- What big problems do my target customers have? What are the burning questions they need answers to?
- Of those problems, which ones aren’t already solved by existing content on the web? Are there important questions that they’re not getting adequate answers to?
- Of those problems, are there any that you’re uniquely positioned to address? Do you have special knowledge, insight, or data that could help people facing these problems?
Give yourself plenty of time to think about these questions. Gather ideas from everyone in your business. Talk to your actual customers! Your cornerstone content needs to be relevant to your audience.
When you find a meaty problem or question, do some competitive research to make sure you have something new to bring to the table. For example, you might think a mattress buying guide is a great idea for a cornerstone content piece – but that’s already a very crowded (and surprisingly controversial!) space, and you might not be able to create something unique or 10X better than what’s already available.
It’s hard to rank for competitive queries if you can’t create something much better than what’s already ranking
What you’re looking for here is a hole, a point of entry. The ideal topic for a cornerstone content piece is something that people are commonly searching for, without getting satisfying results. This way, you can swoop in and be the hero.
Once you’ve settled on a topic idea, think about the format that would best deliver what people are looking for:
- A long-form how-to guide? (like that SEO guide for beginners mentioned above)
- A video or series of videos? (like Home Depot’s DIY project series)
- Some kind of data visualization? (like a timeline or map)
- A searchable database of some type? (like that beauty review site)
- A free tool or app? (like a mortgage calculator or a photo editor)
Delivering super-helpful information or guidance in the right format is crucial to great cornerstone content.
Step 2: Keyword research
Once you’ve got your topic idea in mind, the next step is keyword research. You want to be sure that there’s healthy keyword search volume related to your topic of choice, because keyword volume is a sign of interest and demand. If a lot of people are searching for something in Google or other search engines, there’s a big opportunity for you to capture that traffic and create that great first impression of your brand.
Let’s say we’re hoping to create a great cornerstone content piece for a boutique men’s grooming shop, selling vintage-y shaving supplies, beard oil, mustache wax, all that hipster nonsense. From a quick check in WordStream’s Free Keyword Tool, I can see that the keyword “how to grow a beard faster” is VERY popular.
33K+ keyword searches a month is a LOT!
What happens if I google this keyword? Is the demand already being met? Let’s see:
Wikihow has the coveted featured snippet. (And a gross closeup of a hair follicle.) However, if you scroll down to where this guide is ranking, you’ll see that it’s got a pretty piss-poor rating from users (59% is a flunking grade):
That means people aren’t even satisfied with Wikihow’s answer. The intent of the query isn’t being met. Yet it’s still ranking in position zero.
You know what this smells like to me? OPPORTUNITY. If we can unseat Wikihow from that featured snippet, we could be getting tens of thousands of visits a month from prime potential customers. Pretty sweet, no?
Now let’s double-check that keyword in another keyword tool. SEM Rush provides a ton of related variations on the base “how to grow a beard” keyword. All of these related questions that wannabe beard-growers are asking can help us figure out what our cornerstone content piece should look like:
Listen up because these keyword searches speak volumes (pun intended, sorry not sorry). Your customers, in this imaginary scenario, are screaming for help with growing fuller, thicker, sexier beards, and they want those beards fast! You’re the beard expert, so it’s your job to step up to the plate and help them out.
To tackle this content topic, let’s create a nice, detailed guide that explains how to grow a kick-ass beard in ten steps. We’ll need to create some visuals to show people how it’s done, and maybe a nice video for anyone who prefers that format. (Bonus: You could rank for the same keyword searches in YouTube.)
Step 3: Content planning
DIY or outsource?
First, figure out if you’re going to produce all the content in-house or outsource it. This is largely going to depend on your current staff and resources. If you’ve got an actual marketing team, you can probably pull it off in-house. If you’re a one- or two-man/woman affair, it might be tricky to devote the necessary time and effort while also keeping the rest of your business running.
If you decide to hire out, check our 3-Step Guide to Hiring an Agency or Any Third-Party Vendor.
Keep in mind that you can also do it partially outsourced and partially in-house. For example, you could do all the research for your cornerstone content in-house, then hire a contractor to turn your research into a visual asset like an infographic, or a video.
Put some milestones in place
However you plan to create this thing, think like a project manager and put some milestones in place to keep the project moving. Remember, your cornerstone content piece needs to be truly awesome, so don’t expect it to come together in a matter of days.
I was not told there would be biology
A solid guide could take up to a month to produce. Anything that requires designers and developers (like a free tool) will take considerably longer. Be realistic, but then get moving. (If you feel totally lost, here are some tips on how to manage a project.)
Gather your resources
Estimate costs for your content piece and earmark that budget. These costs will vary pretty widely depending on what kind of content you’re trying to produce. Potential costs include:
- Fees for a freelance writer (don’t skimp here – a good freelance writer may charge up to a dollar per word)
- Design costs
- Development costs
- Promotion budget (social media promotion can be quite cost-effective for content amplification)
Don’t be afraid to spend some money on this! If you’re getting cold feet, go back and read that section on “benefits” again.
Step 4: Content creation
Now it’s finally time to roll up your sleeves (maybe use some sleeve braces, since you’re so dapper & hip) and create your content piece.
Bartenders sure do love to roll up their sleeves (source)
This process is going to look different depending on your topic and format, but whatever you decide on, here are some considerations to keep in mind:
- Quality really matters here. You want to stake your reputation as a brand on this content. It should be completely accurate, truly helpful, a real “Wow” experience for prospects. So hire the best talent you can afford to create it, and build in time for review and revision. Get an outside expert opinion before you launch it if you can.
- Quality encompasses a number of things. This content piece should be visually appealing as well as easy to use and navigate, no matter what device visitors are using.
- Keep your keyword research close at hand! Those keywords you surfaced earlier should be naturally occurring in the text of your content. Let them define the structure of what you create. For example, there should be a “chapter” or section in your beard guide about how long it takes to grow a beard.
- Intent, intent, intent. Matching intent is so crucial. Try to tackle a topic that you understand inside and out, and ensure that your content really and truly solves the problem and gets your visitor where they want to be. (You don’t want a 59% approval rating do you?)
Now that’s a happy customer
- Use your cornerstone content as an opportunity to display your brand voice. Show people what your values are. Connect on a human level – be real.
- Cornerstone content shouldn’t be too pushy – if your mattress guide just says “buy my mattress, it’s the best” nobody’s going to trust you. Why should they? The goal is to solve a problem in a brand-neutral way. Cornerstone content is top-of-funnel.
Throughout this part of the process, you should keep your target audience top of mind, and work to create something those people are going to love and want to share.
Step 5: Optimization
One of the goals of cornerstone content is to bring in new visitors, making it their first experience of your brand. Ideally, it’s a bookmarkable resource that people want to return to, but since you’re trying to grow, you need to make sure your content is optimized to be found in organic search. It should also be optimized for shareability, so people will stumble upon it when checking Twitter, Facebook, etc.
Optimizing your content for SEO
Fingers crossed this isn’t the first time you’ve thought about SEO. Your content is more likely to succeed if your site architecture is already SEO-friendly. (Check out our SEO basics guide if this isn’t ringing any bells.)
Today, we’ll mostly focus on how you can optimize your new content piece, in the hopes that the rest of your site is in order.
First, let’s put those keywords to work! The primary keyword – the one that has the highest volume while also being most relevant to the content as a whole – should appear in both the title of the piece and in the URL.
It’s important to optimize your title, or headline, for SEO, but it also needs to be appealing and clickable to humans. “How to Grow a Beard: Video” might do OK, but it’s not as exciting as “How to Grow a Full, Manly Beard in 4 Weeks.” Check out these tips on how to write a great headline.
Your keywords should also appear in the body of your content. I’m not talking about keyword stuffing, but don’t be so afraid of keyword stuffing that you don’t actually use your keywords. If you’re writing a long-form guide, they will fit right naturally into the headings that break up the sections. For example:
This way, both search engines and readers can clearly see that your content is relevant to their questions. It also helps them scan and skip around, which web readers are especially wont to do.
Don’t forget about image optimization – use relevant keywords in your image file names, use alt text, and keep your images light and fast-loading. (Also, use plenty of images in your content – one per every 100-200 words or so.)
If you’re creating a video or an infographic, make sure you provide some supplementary text that Google can “read” – like a transcript. Be wary of infographics in general – they don’t necessarily provide a great mobile experience. Consider responsive, even interactive forms of data visualization that aren’t just a giant image file.
In fact, whatever the content type, make sure it works just as well on mobile! The “mobile-first index” is a reality we can’t ignore.
These on-page elements are really important, but don’t forget about off-page SEO, AKA links. Create some internal links to your new cornerstone content piece, ideally from high-value, high-engagement pages on your site, like your homepage. You’ll also want to get some external links pointing in – more on that in the promotion section below.
Optimizing your content for social
Part of what makes content shareable is the content itself: Is it truly helpful? Does it make people feel something?
But once you’ve got that down, you also need to make it really easy for people to share your content. Here are some tips to get more shares out of your cornerstone content:
- Get some social buttons on there so people can share it with one click. There are lots of plugins available to make this easy, and if you have the resources you can customize or develop your own. Keep the buttons visible.
- When creating your content, don’t just think about who might read it – think about who might share it. Consider quoting or referencing influencers in your industry who might be inclined to share the content with their followers.
- Consider creating images or videos that encapsulate your content, optimized for different social platforms. For video, choose an appealing thumbnail image; smiling people tend to do well. An appealing featured image for Twitter, Facebook, etc. should be colorful and on-brand.
Finally, don’t just rely on organic social promotion – more on this in the next section.
Optimizing for action
Like I said above – your cornerstone content shouldn’t be sales-y. It’s OK if people visit your content and don’t immediately become customers. Don’t expect a bangin’ conversion rate at this stage of the funnel.
That said, don’t shut down the possibility of visitors becoming customers! There’s room in your content for some low-friction, next-step offers.
For example, you might want to implement an exit-banner campaign – don’t do it in a way that interrupts users, but when people are moving to leave your site, you can show them a pop-up that incents them to join your email list (maybe offering, say, 20% off their first order if they sign up).
Also, cookie your visitors so you can remarket to them later! Once you’ve used this awesome content to turn them into a fan of your brand, show them remarketing ads that will remind them you exist and force them to come back for more. You already know these people are trying to grow a beard – wouldn’t it be great if you could show them an ad for your best-selling shaving kit every time they log into Facebook?
Step 6: Promotion
It would be crazy to put this much effort into a content piece and then fall down on promoting it. You want it to make a splash. It takes time for new content to rank in organic search (especially if you’re a new business!), so you’ll need to pursue other avenues to get your content in front of people in the meantime.
Buzzsumo recently published a great case study on how they got a blog post leveraging internal data to “go viral.” Check it out, and try the below strategies:
If you’ve got an email list, use it! Send out a dedicated email announcing your awesome new content piece to your database. Top-of-funnel emails like this often see great open and click-through rates.
But don’t stop there – do a little targeted email outreach, writing personalized emails for specific people that you believe would be especially interested in reading your new content, sharing it, or – best of all – linking to it.
Here are some great tips for writing an awesome outreach email.
Making it personal always helps!
When thinking about how to target, look for those almighty influencers, but also look for related content that is already popular. If you run across a good list of resources for the well-dressed, well-groomed gentleman, reach out to the author and suggest they add a link to your great new beard-growing guide. (Try adding an incentive for them to link to you – mention that you’ll promote their post to return the favor.)
Social media promotion
Organic social promotion is a no-brainer. Of course you should post your new content to all your social networks, but it’ll take a little more work than that:
- Tailor your text, image, etc. for different social networks. Different content succeeds on different platforms. For example, videos tend to do well on Facebook, so you could make a video version of your content just for FB and then link to the full guide from there.
- Share more than once. WAY MORE THAN ONCE. Put your content into a rotation so it’s getting regular exposure to more, new, different people.
- Focus on the platforms that work best in your industry. If you’re in the grooming business, you’re going to want to create some beautiful images of bearded men (with the beards as the focal point, natch) for Instagram and Pinterest.
Sick beard content, bro
But hey. Hey. Organic social promotion might not be enough. Good news though – paid social promotion is pretty affordable! And it can really get the ball rolling, leading to more people reading and sharing your content for free.
Our founder Larry Kim is kind of the king of paid social promotion. Some of his best tips for content marketers using paid social promotion include:
- Promote to targeted audiences – don’t just broadcast. For example, on Facebook you could promote your new guide only to men between the ages of 18 and 29. On Twitter, you can promote your post to a certain hashtag.
- Optimize for relevance. Most social platforms have some kind of relevancy algorithm – on Facebook, it’s called Relevance Score. Basically, how it works is that higher engagement rates keep your ad in the rotation and lower the cost you pay per engagement. If you see that a certain headline or image is performing well with your audience, replicate it!
Set aside some money to promote your posts on social and make sure targeted users see it. In that Buzzsumo case study I mentioned above, Steve Rayson writes: “We spent $648.00 on Facebook ads that drove over 2,000 clicks and which also resulted in 3 new paying customers.” Not bad ROI there.
Notice his targeting strategy as well: “Our first ad targeted employees of big publishers like BuzzFeed, Refinery29, Quartz, and Mashable.” This got them some big links, which had a nice trickle-down effect, as more exposure tends to beget more links.
Step 7: Maintenance
The final ingredient in your cornerstone content is time – give your beautiful creation a few months to accrue attention, shares and links, while keeping an eye on performance. Most of the traffic will likely come from email and social sources at first, but over time, you want to see traffic coming in from organic search as well.
So let’s fast forward and say you’ve done everything right (is it hard being so perfect?) and you’re really happy with your content’s performance. Is it time to kick back and relax?
Don’t get cocky, outline man
Not exaaactly. You want your cornerstone content to be evergreen, so you should check in at least quarterly to make sure everything is working smoothly and look for opportunities to make it even better. Such as:
- Keep it impeccably up to date. If there’s suddenly a big new trend in beard-growing, your content should include it. If you recommend specific products, make sure they’re still available, the prices are accurate, and so on.
- If your cornerstone content is an app or tool, can you add new features? Can you improve the UX or make it faster?
- Try running some CRO tests to see if you can get a little more business value out of it. Test a different exit offer, or a different first email to send out to people who join your list.
- If years go by and you’re still seeing return value, consider giving your content a style refresh now and then. You don’t want it to look outdated even if the content is still fresh. Fonts, images, and layouts may need to be revisited for the times.
Nobody puts baby in a corner
4400 words later, I sincerely hope you are AMPED to create your site’s first cornerstone content piece. It’s going to be a lot of work, but man is it going to feel good when you’re finished.
Still have questions about how this works? Let me know in the comments.