Steph Smith on The Orbit Shift Podcast

S02E17

Essential content strategy for startups with The Hustle’s Steph Smith

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Steph Smith from The Hustle newsletter breaks down how startups can plan their content strategy from generation to distribution.

Content can be a powerful way to grow your startup — whether it is to build a brand or acquire customers. What should a startup’s content strategy look like? How does one go about executing the strategy? How do you measure success and how long does it take for content to start paying off? In this episode, we discuss all this and more with Steph Smith, head of trends.co, the premium research wing of The Hustle, a newsletter with over a million readers. Steph’s book Doing Content Right is a great resource for content creators.

Edited Excerpts 

Q. Everybody is talking about different types of content- video, audio, text blogs. If I’m a startup, how should I plan my content strategy? 

Steph: People often ask me how they should start producing content. Should it be with a podcast, a blog, a newsletter, and so on. It is essential to keep in mind is these are all just forms of content. Content is a way to articulate ideas to an audience, and at the end of the day, there’s no correct answer to this.     

However, I do encourage people to start out with written content. This is because the written content ecosystem, although more competitive, is a lot more developed. And that means that you have many more ways to grow your content. It also has the best approaches to distribution and differentiation compared to something like podcasts that are often done by creators with already large audiences. 

Q. How does a company stand out and differentiate with its content in a competitive space? 

Steph: There are two ways to differentiate. The first way is to create something completely new. With content, that’s incredibly hard to do because of the low barrier to entry. There’s no topic that’s untouched and it’s incredibly difficult to find a niche that no one is writing about. 

The second way to differentiate is to do something that already exists, but at least 1% better. It sounds dismissive but it is how people differentiate. The Hustle for example talks about business and tech news. There’s a lot of other newsletters, blogs, and other forms of content that are also talking of business and tech news. The simple way we differentiate is through our voice and specifically, being a little funnier. Sam (the founder) describes it as your best friend reading the news, no BS, no jargon. 

The exercise that I encourage people to go through to find their differentiator is to first go through the things that they like. What are the newsletters that you subscribe to? The apps that you have on your phone? The shows that you watch. And write down what you’d like about them in a simple sentence. And then take that sentence and turn it into a single adjective. Is it funnier? More contrarian? More deeply researched? And that is the differentiator. 

A lot of people, when they’re going to write content, they’re trying to articulate what they’re writing about instead of how they’re writing about that thing differently. You need to clearly articulate how you’re writing about a thing or talking about a thing in a differentiated way because the way that you talk about something is your differentiator and how you find your niche. 

Q. What are some of the things that you consider basic hygiene factors when you’re trying to execute a content strategy?  

Steph: First start by defining your goals. I see people do this incorrectly all the time. They just start a blog because every other company has a blog. If you don’t have goals, you don’t have the correct mechanisms to think about how you’re going to grow and what topics you should be writing about. 

Then identify whether your content fits into a brand awareness play or a lead acquisition play. Once you’ve identified that think about the distribution channels that you need to reach your goals. The reason I say figure out distribution before identifying what topics you’re going to write about is because the distribution channels that you use to reach your goals will have an impact on the things that you choose to write about. 

For example, if you are doing a lead acquisition play, you are going to want to use Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) as a stronger part of your strategy than if you’re doing a brand play, in which case, you may focus on more viral articles. If you’re focusing more on SEO, your next step would be to look up different keywords that people in your target audience are searching for and based on your keyword research you would know what topics to write about.

As part of the goal-setting process, you can also set a content calendar to operationalise what you’re doing. 

Q. How do you go about getting your SEO right? What are some of the best practices that you’ve observed?

Steph: SEO, unlike most channels, has this bedrock element to it. If you write an article that goes viral, it gives you a great couple of days, but it does very little beyond that. With SEO, every article you write and which ranks is like a slab, and you’re building slab by slab, and it compounds over time. 

When you break down SEO, it ultimately boils down to three things that matter — relevance, credibility, and usability. Every other ranking factor bakes into these three things. What Google is looking for when ranking a site is – Is this site credible or not; can I trust this site; can users access the information on this site easily. 

For credibility, you want to invest in your domain authority, particularly link building. For usability, make sure your site loads in a second or less. It’s readable and mobile optimised. 

What people get wrong is relevance. Relevance is determined by intent, and people often don’t understand intent. There are four types of search intent – informational, navigational, transactional, and commercial. Make sure the keywords you want to rank for have the right intent. For example, if I want to rank an article about hiring a developer for the term ‘hire developer’, this is the wrong keyword because the intent for this keyword is transactional. People are not looking for how to hire a developer. Instead, they want to take action and hire one straight away. 

Q. When it comes to distribution, what are some things that have worked well for you? 

Steph: At the beginning, leverage other channels to work for you. Join communities and start sharing your work there. If you’re creating content that is a level above the rest, you can leverage some of these upvoting sites like Hacker News, Reddit, and Designer News. You can also build up your channels on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Pinterest is a great platform as well that is often underutilised.

The important thing is to identify what channels are correct for your brand. Figure out who your customers are and where they hang out. If you’re targetting developers, for example, they hang out on Hacker News, so that’s the channel you want to focus on. It’s important to identify who your customers are and where they hang out first. 

Q. How do you see newsletters as part of your content strategy? 

Steph: Certain platforms are owned and a newsletter is an owned platform. There’s certainly a benefit to having that. The best solution is to have a blog and a newsletter, and you can even repurpose the blog content in your newsletter. 

The benefit of non-owned platforms like social media is that you can take advantage of large communities and algorithms to make sure new people discover your content. You can use these platforms to drive traffic to your blog and make sure that you have an optimised page to capture emails and the intent of the people that are interested in your service. After acquiring these new readers, you can use newsletters and other owned platforms to engage them and retain them. 

Q. Your book ‘Doing Content Right’ was released recently. What strategy did you use for a successful launch? 

Steph: I launched the book in 2020. What drove a lot of awareness initially was the audience I built during the pre-sales period. I’ve been building in public, and I shared little snippets of the book, which drove a lot of awareness. 

Something fundamental is reducing the friction for someone to interact with your product. Often we buy books and info products, but we never use them. I made these adjustments to ensure that people interacted with the product. On the first page, I explain to people how to read the book, I wrote it like a textbook so people can jump to specific sections, and I generated smaller pieces of audio and video content from the book for people who may not have the time to read the entire book or for people who are visual learners. 

Many people ended up reading the book and promoting it, and later, when I launched it on Product Hunt, there were so many people who were advocates of the book that it made the launch that much more successful.  

Q. What’s your number one advice for early-stage companies trying to establish an inbound marketing strategy through content? 

Steph: It would be to differentiate themselves. A lot of people try to be everything for everyone, and instead, what people need to figure out is how can I be differentiated for a very specific group of people. 

The example I always use is Costco. They went into a very competitive space which is general retail. There were lots of other incumbents like Target and Walmart who didn’t differentiate. Costco knew that there are a group of retail shoppers for whom the only thing that matters is price, not the ambiance or the service but only price. And Costco decided to go after them. If you go to a Costco, it’s like a factory. The ambiance is terrible, there’s no service, you have to buy large sizes, but the customers don’t mind because the key differentiator for them is the price. 

Same thing for a newsletter. If you read a funny newsletter, you don’t necessarily care if the grammar is not perfect or their visuals aren’t top class. Because at the end it makes you laugh. 

Determine who and what is your differentiator. Imagine someone going to their friend and saying, “I love this company because it’s X’’. Because that’s how people share things, they talk about what they love. 

Q. If our listeners want to reach out to you, what’s the best way to do that?

Steph:  You can find me on Twitter or visit my website. I’ve also written a book that they can check out. 

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