This is a guest post from Marijana Kay. Marijana writes long-form, actionable blog content for folks who know it pays off. She is a freelance writer and content strategist for awesome brands in the SaaS and marketing field, translating their story and expertise into content that brings qualified traffic, valuable leads, and a loyal community.
When you first start creating content, you often just want to get the word out about what you do and who you help. More often than not, it’s done with essential keyword research, but without a documented strategy.
And that’s okay—getting a content process off the ground takes quite some time.
And then you start getting into the magical concept of the customer journey. It manifests in many other terms, such as buyer’s journey or sales funnel, but the premise remains: people want to see different content in different stages of their research for solutions to their problems.
Sounds like the perfect path to reaching the right people at the right time and on the right channel.
But as with anything in marketing and business, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to content throughout the customer journey. What works for one industry won’t work for another; even what works for your competitor won’t guarantee success if you do the same.
In this guide, instead of giving you the exact formats and templates for various customer stages, I’ll show you how to explore what might work for you by diving into examples, formats, content usability, and goals.
The challenge of the standard funnel and its alternatives to consider
You don’t have to spend much time with a team of marketers or sales people to hear about the buyer’s journey or the funnel.
It’s been a while—according to Google Trends, over a decade at this point—since we’ve started using it to describe the actions of our customers from the moment they experience a problem through to finding a solution.
This approach involves the following:
- The awareness stage: a person starts experiencing a problem, so they research it to understand and find a name for it
- The consideration stage: a person is learning about their options to solve that problem
- The decision stage: a person is reviewing the list of possible solutions and considering the pros and cons of each
HubSpot was one of the trailblazers of this approach, represented with this industry-spread graphic:
While this is a great place to start, the real-life customer journey challenges this approach in two key ways.
1) The customer journey doesn’t end with decision
The typical funnel approach, visualized as an actual funnel, looks something like this:
By default, it makes the customer journey seemingly end with the conversion. The outcome that involves receiving money from a prospect becomes the sole focus of marketing efforts. Once that’s done, it’s back to a focus on getting as many people into the funnel through awareness.
If you only focus on acquiring new customers, you’re leaving lots of money on the table—and likely spending more than you should be.
In fact, it’s 16 times more expensive to build a long-term business relationship with a new customer than to cultivate the loyalty of an existing one.
The likelihood of selling to an existing customer is 60-70%, while the same metric goes down to 5-20% for new prospects.
In other words: loyal, repeat customers bring not only more revenue, but sell your product for you.
This is why content marketing efforts shouldn’t stop at brand awareness and consideration stages. Instead, content needs to keep bringing value to people who’ve trusted you with their money.
2) Customer journey isn’t that linear
Think about something you’ve purchased recently. Did you end up doing so by following a perfectly straight path to purchase?
The “perfect” path I’m talking about usually looks something like this:
- Google a question and end up reading a blog post that answers it
- See a pop-up or a similar form you can fill out to download an ebook to learn even more
- Receive multiple emails from that company with extra tips over the next few weeks
- Get an offer through email or a Facebook ad and purchase their product
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this purchase journey—I’ve experienced it many times.
But more often than that, I haven’t.
Instead, I’d gone back and forth between reading company’s blog posts, asking friends for their experience with that company, reading reviews, interacting with someone working there on Twitter, hearing their CEO on a podcast, and watching a video review of the CEO’s book on YouTube…
…and all of that over a 6-month period.
I can almost never pinpoint to the moment I initially learned about a company, nor the exact minute I’ve decided to give them my money.
But over time, their content worked its magic and built my trust in what the company has to offer.
Alternative ways to look at the funnel
Some more recent frameworks that have tried to define this process have done an excellent job of capturing its recurring nature.
First one is the flywheel, another HubSpot brainchild, focusing on the customers as the center of all decision-making and strategy, as well as the momentum that comes from making your customers successful to attract new customers:
The other one is the marketing lifecycle. As Julia McCoy explained it in Content Marketing Institute, the marketing lifecycle gives buyers the room to be human and choose between many open pathways. They move between stages fluidly, sometimes even skipping them or going through some of them multiple times:
As long as you’re aware that the customer journey isn’t a linear, one-off process, your framework of choice is less important.
Your content marketing goals shouldn’t be different from the goals of your audience
One of the biggest hurdles towards creating content your target audience genuinely craves to consume is the difference between your goal and their goal.
Your goal might sound something like: “We need to rank on page 1 for search terms related to making pancakes.”
Your audience’s goal sounds more like: “I really want to make delicious dairy-free pancakes for my in-laws when they visit this weekend.”
Your goal is all about the numbers; theirs is about real-life human relationships and being a great host that cares about dietary restrictions.
By focusing on vanity metrics such as rankings and traffic, you’ll lose sight of the deeper goal your readers have. You’ll dismiss their context and, despite following all the ‘best practices’ for getting your content to rank, they won’t feel like your content truly speaks to them.
“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”
This is a legendary quote from the Harvard Business School marketing professor, Theodore Levitt.
Let’s apply the difference between your goals and your audiences’ goals to see how it can lead to unhelpful content:
1) Your goal: Rank for search terms that contain ‘quarter-inch drill’
- Content topics you focus on: what are standard drill bit sizes, how to choose a drill bit, drill bit size chart
2) Their goal: Hang a shelf that will make their space clean, fresh, decluttered
- Content they’re searching for: how to safely hang a shelf, how to organize a living room shelf, how to style a bookshelf
Yes, you need to track and measure your content’s performance, but your big-picture goal for it must go deeper than the numbers and align with what your ideal reader/viewer wants to achieve.
There’s more to content marketing formats
Have you been looking at content marketing simply through its most often used formats, such as blog posts, ebooks, videos, and webinars?
Earlier, I mentioned how even small factors like Twitter interactions and third-party video reviews can make a huge impact on my purchases over a long period of time.
There’s a lot more to content than just what you create and publish directly to your blog or YouTube channel. Here’s an incomplete list of everything that counts as content for your customer’s journey:
- Blog posts
- Ebooks and whitepapers
- Case studies
- Customer testimonials
- Product pages
- Product category pages
- Social media posts
- Product onboarding emails
- Podcast guest appearances
- Guest blog appearances
- YouTube videos
- Videos embedded on your website
- Product demos
- Reviews on third-party websites
- User-generated content about you (blog posts, videos, social media posts, Instagram/Snapchat stories, forum threads and interactions)
- Interactive checklists
- Physical books
…and so on.
You can do so much with each one of these. The punchline? You need to know what your potential customer expects from you, your content, and your products each time they interact with something you’ve published.
Your audience probably wants to learn from you when they decide to listen to a podcast you appeared on as a guest. That’s likely their goal going into it.
If they search for a visual demo of your product, however, they want to see a deep dive into your software, or the unboxing and the real-life feel of your physical product.
The great thing about the 20ish formats listed earlier is that, once you understand why someone would interact with each of them, you can mix them up and make them richer.
For example, when I first looked for a protein pancake recipe a few years ago, I found this one and stuck with it ever since:
Why? Because it perfectly suits my expectations of a pancake recipe. More or less all I need to see to follow it fits on a single smartphone screen. Oh—and there’s a checklist that I can interact with as I add ingredients to my blender so I don’t forget any, or add them more than once.
There are no annoying pop ups, no scrolling through a ridiculously long intro, no forms I have to fill in just to make delicious pancakes. No affiliate links to click on or products to buy. When they created this, Food For Fitness kept the user experience of following a recipe in mind.
Another example I love comes from Birchbox. They run an educational magazine-style blog that goes beyond written content and includes videos, tutorials, embedded products, and more.
In their article on sun damage, they’ve gone into studies and the whys behind sun damage and the importance of SPF. At the end of it, they feature related products:
Does this mean this blog post isn’t an awareness-focused one?
Nope! It simply means that Birchbox understands the journey and the touchpoints that their customers experience before they purchase. In their case, adding products to a relevant story probably results in significant conversions, even if this is one of the first content pieces that a customer consumes.
Does this mean everyone should add shoppable products to a similar type of content they create? Definitely not. Let’s unpack that in the next section.
Questions and examples to inspire content for your entire customer journey
Here comes the fun part. To align your content with the journey your prospects go through before they become a paying customer, dive into two big questions:
- How and where do they consume content, in the context of a real-life problem you can solve for them?
- What is the next best action for them to take to continue receiving value from you?
For the question on how your audience consumes content, think about:
- Which channels are they researching on, and which channels are they buying on? Are they the same channels?
- What is their immediate context? Can they listen to Instagram stories with sound on, or would they rather read an in-depth tutorial with detailed photos? Would they rather learn from long podcasts, a video series, short blog posts, or on social media?
- What is their state of mind when they’re seeking this information? Are they stressed out, inspired, something else?
Let me tell you about a recent experience of mine, to paint a picture of how this applies in real life.
I travel about once a month, almost always on trips that are 3-7 days long, meaning I travel with carry-on luggage only. And packing cosmetics into the tiny airport security bags is a pain. I’ve recently managed to buy great 30 ml bottles, but the standard deodorant size remained an issue.
I was getting frustrated. So I asked Google to recommend some travel-size deodorants. When I did, I expected some sort of a ‘top [number] travel-size deodorant’ blog posts from a women’s magazine. I was ready to read through it to find the best one, and I was outdoors, searching on my phone.
Which is exactly what I thought this result will be:
But when I opened the link that this featured snippet was from, I landed on a Superdrug category page that I could directly shop from.
Which is exactly what I did.
If I got a 1-minute video or a listicle-style blog post, would I have consumed them? Probably. It would have still helped me out. But Superdrug optimized for the intent of purchasing the product because the category page on its own makes it clear that these are travel-size products, meaning I didn’t need any extra information before making a purchase.
Which brings us to the second question from the beginning of this section.
To better understand the next best action you want someone to take, which will deepen the value you just provided, ask yourself:
- What brought them to this piece of content in the first place?
- Do they know enough to buy, or do they need to learn more?
- Are they the sole decision maker for this purchase?
- Is the product you’re selling a rare purchase (for example, a mattress) and if so, what can you do to be the best option for the customer when the decision time comes?
- If you’re not the best option now, how can you remain on their radar?
My favorite example of this in action is the Ahrefs blog.
Ahrefs is a marketing tool that helps practitioners uncover content, keyword, and backlink opportunities. You read their stuff when you want to solve super-specific marketing challenges and get ahead of your competitors.
The trick is that Ahref’s guides are largely driven by practical application of their own tool! In the words of Tim Soulo, Ahref’s CMO and product advisor, from his SaaS Marketing Vlog:
“A person has a problem that they want to solve, they land on our blog, and we have a perfect article to solve their problem. We teach them how to do it with the help of Ahrefs. The article is effectively a sales page for our tool, which is tailored to the actual specific issue the person was searching for. So why would we interrupt that experience with a pop up or a lead magnet and take them away from an article that will likely turn them into the user of our software?”
And when you look at their guides, you can see they pull all their examples and tips from their tool…
…as well as showcase real-time stats of the article you’ve just read, pulled from their tool as well:
In other words, Ahrefs found that their articles are valuable enough that the next best action for someone that read them is to sign up for a trial of their software.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you might be a consumer-focused brand like Sephora. They often repost user-generated content like short video tutorials, which brings them awareness through video views and grows their following:
As a result, they can aim to be the go-to place for someone’s beauty shopping, because they’ve become a fun and educational resource on all things beauty.
That’s the power of knowing your audience’s context and the next best action they’ll want to take.
Make your content about more than just you
Becoming a relevant part of your audience’s lives is a challenge of its own. How do you provide the value they deserve without making it all about you?
The answer: go deep into what they’re experiencing when they’re going through an issue, and learn what moves them through it.
You can use the data and analytics you already have to answer some of these questions. And for those you can’t answer that way, don’t hesitate to go to the only people that can give you a qualitative insight into that: the people you’re trying to reach.
As a result, you won’t just uncover how they consume content and why—you’ll also hear the exact words they use to phrase their problems and the answers they’re looking for!