The 1% rule of content marketing

By Quinn Whissen

Originally posted on MarketingLand.

Content marketing is a tough sell for many businesses. Why? Because it isn’t a quick win.

It takes time, effort, and serious persistence to play the long game, not the short game.

It takes courage to give away something of value without the expectation of immediate return. And even though this is the case, it’s been proven again and again that content marketing really does work.

But let’s assume the strength of your courage is starting to fade and your confidence that content marketing will bring you more business is waning. Maybe you’ve been doing content marketing for a while, and you’re just not seeing results you want.

How can you fix this? How can you make content marketing work for you like it has for hundreds of other businesses out there?

Why Your Content Marketing Fails

Let’s play a little game to get to the bottom of it. It’s called the “Five Whys,” and it will help us break down the issue and ask a series of five iterative questions that will reveal the root cause of the problem:

Issue: Our content marketing isn’t working.

  1. Why? — Why is your content marketing not working?

We haven’t seen any positive results.

  1. Why? — Why haven’t you seen any positive results?

Our content isn’t increasing traffic to our site so we aren’t getting more leads or customers.

  1. Why? — Why isn’t your content increasing traffic to your site so you get more leads and customers?

We don’t have a consistent content production schedule that helps us generate traffic.

  1. Why? — Why don’t you have a consistent content production schedule to help you generate more traffic?

We’re struggling internally to align our priorities and resources to keep up a content calendar.

  1. Why? — Why are you struggling internally to align your priorities and resources to keep up a content calendar?

We don’t have an internal process that facilitates successful implementation of our content marketing strategy.

This game could go on for more than Five Whys, but it tells us pretty quickly that the root cause of our issue is a process problem. I’ve seen this time and time again with businesses new to content marketing, or even mildly experienced: They have not set themselves up for success.

Why? They’re looking at things the wrong way…

Systems, Not Goals

Goals are great. I love goals, and so do you. But I think you can agree, what we most likely love so much about goals is reaching them. We did it! Gold star! Pop the champagne! And that’s all great — it never hurts to dream big, especially when we have an ROI to prove or revenue numbers to meet.

The problem is that we set goals for the far-off imaginary future and forget about the time in between — that empty space, the “boring” stuff before the shiny object at the end of the path.

We forget about all the hard work it will take us to reach our goal and the incremental actions we must start taking now so that in one year’s time, we have that ROI proven or those revenue numbers met. We don’t create a system to help us reach our goals.

Content marketing isn’t a rotisserie oven; we can’t “Set it, and forget it!” We must inject a little Zen into our business and embody the idea of kaizen, or continuous improvement that moves us towards our goals with consistent dedication.

Athletes already know the power of systems. They understand that if they are to reach a physical goal, setting benchmarks and small improvements must be taken over a span of time. Adding one pound every week over the course of a month to their lifting schedule means they just graduated to the next notch of the weight machine.

We, as content marketers, can learn from this approach. Because unlike goals, incremental system-based change is:

  • realistic and attainable;
  • encourages consistent progress;
  • can lead to significant results over time.

As we saw in our Five Whys example scenario, the root cause of poor results was a process problem that could be fixed with a shift to system-based thinking. We need a process for making content marketing progress, not just thinking about it.

We’re all good at setting goals, but we must remember, content marketing isn’t really about content at all. It’s about aligning our priorities, processes, and people to create a system that produces tangible results.

Read more on systems vs. goals in this great article from James Clear’s blog.

1% Rule Of Marginal Gains

Waiting for perfect is never as smart as making progress.

Seth Godin

Ah – that’s one of the best quotes for content marketers right there. It’s also the perfect complement to a system-based, internal content marketing strategy.

Progress is what systems are built on, and perfection is why they die. How can you make progress if you’re waiting for things to be just right? Get out of your heads, do the best you can, and get that content out into the world.

Of course, make sure what you’re producing is quality, but don’t sacrifice consistency for perfection. After all, the sweet spot for content marketing to start showing results is about six months in, so you want to be producing content consistently over that time period.

Progress is what systems are built on and perfection is why they die.

By being consistent and dedicated to getting your content out there over time, you’re making small marginal gains every single time you press Publish.

After all, content marketing is as much of a numbers game as it is a human one. The more pages and posts you have on your website, your traffic and leads start to exponentially grow as seen in the Hubspot graph below. You’ll see a hockey stick effect on the graph right around 300 total published blog posts, which doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen over time with progress, not perfection.

This strategy of small margin gains is often referred to as the 1% rule. The thinking is that if you can make 1% progress every single day, it can result in a significant impact over time.

One percent may sound small, but it adds up to be a lot, especially in a business environment. Most businesses involved in a content marketing strategy can benefit from shifting their thinking to a system-based strategy based on 1% marginal gains made every day.

Many businesses don’t think this way, and that’s one glaring reason they aren’t seeing results; they aren’t setting themselves up for success.

Impact of blog posts on inbound traffic

What are incremental changes you can make in your organization to help your content marketing system reach your goals? Here are some ideas:

  • Connecting with one influential person on Twitter every day;
  • Having your staff contribute one topic idea a week for content;
  • Encouraging your team to engage with one, then two, then three social posts from your brand each week;
  • Trying an A/B test of your email subject lines to see which is opened more;
  • Ensure you’re optimizing everything correctly on your website, even images;
  • Setting up a email so anyone can send content ideas at any time;
  • Writing 150 words more on that blog post to includes a call-to-action;
  • Testing your form fields to see what produces higher completions;
  • Shifting your content production schedule from one time a week to two times a week.

These things sound tiny, don’t they? But the fact of the matter is — that’s the point. Tiny little actions taken consistently add up to progress. Tiny little actions not taken consistently subtracts to stagnation.


What this also means is there are no excuses.

As you can see on the graph above, simple positive decisions and simple errors in judgment are level at first. But over time, just as compound interest increases the value of our investments, the positive decisions skyrocket while the negative judgments plunge.

Keeping up a consistent content calendar in the case of our Five Whys example is imperative toward making these 1% improvements that grow over time. There can be no excuse for letting one week slide, because you know the importance of that one week in the grand scheme of things.

Without those simple decisions taken every moment and every day, you’ll either stay the same or fall away. Which path will you choose?

The Importance Of Tracking

Marathon runners know how fast they run their route now and how fast they want to run it. They then plan out benchmarks to reach their personal records and track their time every single run. They are aware of their baseline, progress and goals simultaneously so they can speed up when they need to.

With content marketing, there are plenty of ways to track your baseline, find avenues for improvement, and carve out a system to help reach your goal.

With content marketing, there are plenty of ways to track your baseline, find avenues for improvement, and carve out a system to help reach your goal.

The worst type of marketers set a nebulous goal without knowing where they currently stand. You can’t say you want 20 leads a month within 60 days if you’ve only ever averaged five. You must set a realistic timeline and take incremental actions to increase your traffic, then your conversions, then your leads.

Maybe it’s about making 1% improvements to your submission forms, your site navigation, your content, and so on that makes the difference in producing those leads. If you track your progress all along, you will see what you can tweak for the better.

Maybe you’ll find your goal was unrealistic, but that’s OK. You didn’t lose yet. Adjust your goal based on real-world data and see about gaining small successes consistently rather than fighting the bigger battles.

What this all comes down is a lesson found in the children’s fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare.” The Hare was confident in his ability to win the race against the Tortoise, but took a nap before he crossed the finish line, never thinking the Tortoise would beat him as he ended up doing.

Creating a system based on 1% gains may feel like you’re moving at a turtle’s pace, but crawling slowly yet steadily will truly win the race when it comes to content marketing. Naps are nice, but winning is better.

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