Creating a solid content marketing strategy using content pillars

By now, we all know that content marketing needs to be strategic and focused to be effective; it’s not enough to simply push ad hoc content into the world and hope it works. When done well, content pillars become a key tool in making sure your program falls on the ‘success’ side of the ledger; they provide a strategic framework for your efforts, making sure that every piece of content has a clearly defined purpose and is working to help you meet your objectives. When done poorly – well, you might as well not have them at all.

So how do you make sure that your pillars will support a successful content marketing program? Here are some ideas.

A quick definition

Before we begin, though, just what are content pillars? A quick Google search demonstrates that there isn’t any shared definition, with commentators describing pillars as the different content formats (ebooks, videos and the like) or an in-depth piece of content that can be broken into smaller pieces.

At Great Minds, we see content pillars as the thematic ‘buckets’ that describe and define the content that your brand produces. For example, a fictional brand could have innovation, sustainability and people pillars. The pillars might only be used internally to shape the content creation process, or they might be reflected in website navigation, but they should always be thematic in approach.

Laying the foundation

An effective pillar has a strong foundation, right? Well, for your content pillars to work (that is, to shape and guide your content decisions to meet your objectives), they need to be based on solid research and strategic insight.

It is not enough to think ‘We want to provide education and business insights, so those will be our pillars’ or ‘Our business units will be our pillars’. Why are you talking about these themes? Will your audience want to consume content about them? Will they help you meet your objectives?

Start your process with a solid understanding of what you’re seeking to achieve through content marketing (is it building awareness or driving leads?), then conduct thorough research into your industry, your current content, your competitors and your audience. Your objectives and the insights that come from the research process should help you identify your strategic opportunities, which in turn will shape what your content pillars are.

I’m often asked about the ‘correct’ number of content pillars. While this really depends on your strategy, it’s worth bearing in mind that if you have too few pillars, they may be too broad and undifferentiated; too many, and they become fragmented and unwieldy. We typically find that between three and five pillars is the sweet spot.

Adding depth

So you know the broad themes that you’ll be talking about, but that’s not enough. For our fictional brand, for example, ‘innovation’ could mean many things; without further definition, your pillars will be too vague to provide any structure or guidance to your work.

Start by building out exactly what content in this pillar will be about; think of this as writing a blurb for the pillar. Always think about this from the audience’s perspective, as this will ensure you’re creating content that will be valuable and relevant. Make sure you clearly show how the pillars are differentiated; you shouldn’t have to think too hard about where a content item falls.

Consider the themes or broad topic areas that you will cover in this pillar – for example, the innovation pillar for our fictional brand could be talking about driverless technology and the Internet of Things, among other themes. Depending on the nature of your pillars, you may want to break them into sub-pillars, which are exactly as they sound – sub-themes that make up the broader pillar. This is particularly effective if your pillars are quite broad and need further structure, but isn’t always necessary. Again, the clearer you can be about the themes (or sub-pillars) you’ll cover, the stronger the framework you will have for effective content creation.

It may also be worth considering some other inputs at this stage to help build out your vision of the pillar. For example, what is the purpose of the pillar? Is it to inspire your audience, or to position the brand as an employer of choice? If you’re mapping content to the buyer journey, does this pillar relate to a specific stage of the journey? Does the pillar talk to a specific audience segment?

The relationship with navigation pillars

As soon as you begin talking about content pillars, the question of website navigation pillars is likely to come up. Are they the same thing? Should your content pillars be reflected in your navigation pillars? Or should you avoid this at all costs?

Opinions on this vary, but I would argue there isn’t a right answer or a wrong answer – it depends on your strategy and channel use. Typically, I’d say that if your content lives on a dedicated content hub or section of the website, it makes sense to use your content pillars as navigation; however, if the content is integrated across a website, then you may need different navigation pillars.

Making it stick

It’s all well and good to create detailed, insight-driven content pillars, but if they don’t direct and guide your content creation activities then you might as well have saved your time.

Every piece of content created should fall under a content pillar; it takes discipline to ignore the ideas that fall outside this framework, but by doing so you are giving your content marketing program the best chance of success.

So how do you make content pillars an ingrained part of your company’s content creation process? I’ve found that a well-designed one-pager that clearly explains each pillar and that can be stuck up on the wall is an easy way to keep pillars top of mind; also think about developing a ‘things to consider’ checklist for content creation that includes pillars, audiences and the like. But the simplest option is to include content pillars as a category within your content calendar; this ensures that every single item must be aligned to a pillar, and avoids sneaky non-pillar items.

Effective content pillars take time and thought to develop, but the results for your content marketing program mean it is well worth the effort.