The HubSpot Content Playbook: Knowing What to Reject & Adopt

Although HubSpot is a content powerhouse, you shouldn’t follow them blindly. Here’s a breakdown of what you should accept and reject from their content playbook.

Jeremiah Ajayi

May 17, 2022

Jeremiah Ajayi

May 17, 2022

Hubspot Content Playbook

“One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist…”

Although these words were said in a science documentary, Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, they relate to B2B marketing. 

Here’s how. 

No matter how brilliant a content marketing strategy is, there’s always room for improvement. Robert Rose, Chief Strategist at the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), confirmed this. 

Speaking at the 2021 Content Marketing World Conference, he said:

“There is no perfect content strategy…”

Robert, like Stephen Hawking, is right. Perfection doesn’t exist, not even in content marketing. And not even the greatest brands are exempted from this fact. 

Take HubSpot. 

Their rocketship growth trajectory is the average SaaS CMO’s dream. As far back as 2013, they were generating more leads than even Salesforce. All thanks to their brilliant content strategy. 

It’s 2022, and HubSpot is still waxing strong. 

According to the company’s Q3 2021 Investor Presentation, Google (26%) and blog (13%) are among the top three ways they attract new users:

HubSpot's Q3 2021 Investor Presentation

They still have a highly engaged audience:

HubSpot's Testimonial

Their revenue keeps growing:

HubSpot's Revenue Q4 Report[Source]

Their organic traffic numbers are off the charts:

HubSpot's Blog Results

These desirable results get most CMOs to base their strategy on HubSpot’s tactics. After all, if HubSpot’s content strategy could lead to the above mouthwatering results, it should do the same for them. 

But as Robert said, there is no perfect content strategy, and the same applies to HubSpot. 

Despite being a content juggernaut, HubSpot has made certain mistakes, such as prioritizing high-volume but irrelevant keywords, which has led them to create irrelevant articles, too. 

One on shrug emojis:

HubSpot's Article on Shrug Emoji

Another on resignation letter:

HubSpot's Article on Professional Resignation Letter

Indeed, these articles generated lots of traffic:

HubSpot's Shrug Emoji Article Results

HubSpot's Shrug Emoji Article Results

But the bulk of that traffic would be unqualified as there’s no way to show readers how HubSpot’s marketing automation software and CRM solves the problem of creating an emoji, for instance. 

Little wonder Tim Suolo, Ahrefs’ CMO, critiqued (in a rather sarcastic tone) the piece on shrug emoji while speaking at Grow with HubSpot. 

In his words:

“Traffic means nothing if you can’t convert it into sales and customers for your business… It blows my mind how you can take a person who searches on Google’ how to type the shrug emoji’ and then make them convert into a customer of a marketing software.”

If you follow HubSpot’s footstep of writing articles with no business value, you risk prioritizing vanity metrics at the expense of building a quality pipeline (PQLs). And unlike HubSpot, which is a first mover, your company, and eventually you, might not survive the resulting effect. 

Ryan Law illuminated my point in an article on creating a second-mover advantage. 

According to Ryan

“Content marketing today is radically different from five or ten years ago. The strategy that HubSpot used to gain domination is not the same strategy that will help a new company, a decade later, achieve the same goal.”

Am I saying you should stop looking to HubSpot for inspiration as you improve the content marketing strategy of your company? 

Not at all. 

Instead, I recommend thinking of HubSpot’s content playbook as a grain farm. Just as you would separate the grain kernel from their hull before harvesting, you must separate HubSpot’s good tactics from their bad tactics before basing your strategy on their content playbook. 

An example of their bad tactics is writing articles with no business value. 

In contrast, the good tactics comprise building a strategic narrative, creating a Topic Content Cluster, and executing with the Product-Led Storytelling approach.

We drink from our wine at VEC as we’ve learned to adopt HubSpot’s good tactics while ignoring the bad ones, leading to amazing feedback like this:

VEC's booking confirmation

Do you also want to drive demand directly from content?  

Then you’ll love this guide as I’ll show you how to adopt and implement the good aspects of HubSpot’s content strategy in a way that earns you mindshare, captures and fuels demand, and builds a qualified pipeline (PQLs). 

Ideate/Modify Your Strategic Narrative

What brand comes to your mind whenever you hear “inbound marketing?” 

HubSpot! 

That’s how much HubSpot has ingrained its strategic narrative in your mind. Hearing those two words alone, you already have a picture of the aspirational outcome the HubSpot marketing automation and CRM tool makes possible. This effect is majorly owed to HubSpot’s fierce content marketing efforts. 

Dave Orechchio, Owner of Bristol Strategy and HubSpot Gold partner, puts it best:

“When they [Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah] founded HubSpot, they positioned it as an inbound marketing solution that would help businesses evolve and adapt to the changes that were taking place. Soon after it was founded, HubSpot became an authoritative platform that focused on offering thought leadership, tutorials, and more on the inbound marketing strategy.”

A crucial thing to learn here is this: For your content strategy to work, you need a strategic Narrative, SN, that captures your brand’s essence. 

Typically, creating a SN is typically not a marketer’s responsibility. 

Strategic Narratives are at the heart of what a company does and what it aspires to do, so it’s the CEO’s job, as it’s their job to define the company’s vision. However, knowing the success of your content marketing efforts depends on this, you must insist on getting it defined or modified.  

The Illumine8 team observed this in this article

“A CMO that can empower an organization sets the strategy and then trusts his or her team members to do their jobs at a high level, encouraging countervailing opinions, inspiring innovation and letting staff do what they were hired to do.”

Here’s how you can work with your team to come up with a compelling strategic narrative. 

Interview Key Stakeholders to Learn More About Your Company’s Vision and Agree On A Central Theme

You’re likely to create a SN everyone in your company will embody if you carry key stakeholders along. This article by the Engage For Success team advanced this point. In their words:

“Leaders are far more likely to co-own the narrative if they have had an opportunity to contribute to its creation. Identify the key leaders that need to own the narrative and involve them from the start – ideally through individual interviews.” 

And so, you need to use your influence as a marketing leader to secure one-on-one interviews with key decision makers. These interviews will help you have a sense of what they think about the company’s vision and the key themes they’ll like to see in the SN. 

Think About Your ICP’s Aspirations, Goals, and Obstacles

Dissecting your ICPs to understand their aspirations, goals, and obstacles in relation to your product/service is a crucial step to creating a strategic narrative that resonates with them. 

To achieve best results, begin by getting your team to analyze your current customers and studying the profiles of customers who have gotten the most value from your product. They should listen to sales calls to discover pressing pain points and obstacles. While doing these, they should ask themselves: 

“What are the commonalities here?” 

Therein lies the answers they need to know about ICP’s aspirations, goals, and obstacles. 

Once they’re done connecting the dots, they should fill in your company’s ICP StoryScript to have a birdeye’s view and clearer understanding of ICPs. 

Here’s an example:

VEC Founder's ICP Storyscript

Leverage Sentiment Analysis to Understand Your Product’s Unique Selling Point 

Now it’s time to ask: 

“Why do customers find my SaaS product valuable and relevant?” 

Sentiment analysis is an excellent way to find answers to that question. And here’s how your customer service and content team can collaborate to help with this. 

Your customer service team can visit a popular review page like G2 to note what customers love about your products. Their findings will then serve as a useful repository for your content team even as they execute the next steps in this guide. 

This came to play when we were crafting a Strategic Narrative for WriterZen, a B2B SaaS client of ours. 

We looked through G2 reviews to understand what customers really liked about the product. Here, we discovered the term ‘content workflow’ appeared several times in positive reviews. 

We even looked at it from the perspective of WriterZen’s features (individually and collectively). Again, one thing still stood out: The workflows that make these features produce results for users: 

WriterZen's Preferred Features

These, alongside the steps highlighted below, helped us arrive at a compelling strategic narrative for WriterZen:

Simplified Content Workflow Software.

Write One Sentence/Phrase Summarizing An Irresistible Value Prop 

Once your team has a better understanding of your company’s ICPs and what they love the most about your product, brainstorm at least 10 words/concepts relevant to your business. 

Afterward, examine the list and prune until you arrive at just one sentence. You can do this review with your CEO or any other available executive.

You want to ensure this sentence/phrase is written in a clear, everyday language that captures your value proposition, resonates with your target ICPs, and is different from how competing companies talk about their products. 

Subject Your Proposed Strategic Narrative to Public Review

Show the final version of your strategic narrative to cross-functional teams such as sales and product, existing customers, and those similar to your ICPs. Pay attention to their responses. If they’re not convinced by the proposed strategic narrative, then it’s time to… 

Reiterate Until You Get It Right

Go through steps 3 and 4 repeatedly until you get positive responses. Interestingly, you don’t have to show the entire world your SN before you know if it’s right or not. You and your founder will always know deep down in your souls. But the litmus test is when your customers also love it. 

Once you’ve coined a strategic narrative capable of resonating with your ICPs and forming a great foundation for your content strategy, ensure you get buy-in from other executives, and move to the next step…

Develop a SaaS Topic Clusters Content Strategy

As mentioned earlier, a strong strategic narrative supported by consistent content marketing efforts has been instrumental to HubSpot’s success. 

Unfortunately, that success was initially threatened when HubSpot’s content strategy wasn’t supported by a topic cluster content strategy. 

Sophia Bernazzani, Founder and Manager of the HubSpot Service Blog, explained this better in this article detailing how a pillar-cluster model transformed HubSpot’s blog. 

In her words:

“While we had thousands and thousands of blog posts about everything marketing, sales, and advertising under the sun, they weren’t organized — and some of the posts were even competing with each other because they were so similar.” 

She went further to illustrate her point:

“Think about it — when we had 10 different blog posts about “Instagram tips,” some of them had overlapping content and similar URL structures that started to compete with each other in search engine results pages (SERPs).”

Here’s a visualization of this disorganization:

HubSpot's Disorganised Content

[Source]

It wasn’t until Matthew Barby, their Director of Acquisition, introduced the HubSpot team to the idea of topic clusters that they had a more organized information structure, creating a great user experience and helping their content rank more effectively:

HubSpot's Content Cluster

[Source]

And the results of this transition? 

A positive growth. Sophia confirmed this:

“We’ve already started to see improvement in search rankings for various keywords across the HubSpot Blogs that we’re tracking. In our most recent analysis, we’re experiencing positive month-over-month growth in the number of keywords we have ranking on the first page of Google SERPs, and we have hundreds more keywords closing in on the second and third pages — with projected growth expected in the future.”

What does this mean for your business? 

Your content team needs to cluster articles (anchored on a Strategic Narrative) around topics if you want to achieve steady growth. Our Lead Strategist, Victor Eduoh, puts this concisely:

“To unlock long-term growth rhythms, your content team should always cluster new articles they create around topics. And that’s where the topic clusters content strategy comes in.”

Our team simplified HubSpot’s original content clustering idea by aligning each clustered piece to the typical customer journey stages. The result of this is a framework we call the Topic Cluster Content Strategy (TCCS)

Topic Clusters' Content Strategy Framework (TCCS)

Here’s how to take your content strategy one step above HubSpot’s clustering tactic, using the TCCS framework. 

Identify the Main Topics and Subtopics Relevant to Your Strategic Narrative and Product Offerings

Highlighting the topics relevant to your product offerings and strategic narrative is the first step when building a topic cluster content strategy. And while this might sound like a lot of work for your content strategist, with the help of tools like WriterZen, it doesn’t have to. 

All they have to do is insert 1-3 keywords into the product’s Topic Discovery tool, and in a few seconds, it reveals crucial topics: 

Writerzen's Topic Discovery Feature

Not just that. 

They can filter the results by relevance or search volume, analyze ideas under each topic, and select those relevant to your business: 

Writerzen's Topic Discovery Feature

Chosen topics should be broad enough to write about 30 different blog posts on, but not so generic a pillar page can’t deep-dive into it. 

Conduct Keyword Research to Uncover Long-Tail Keyword Ideas

Next, your SEO manager should conduct extended keyword gap analysis to uncover opportunities your organization might be missing out on under each of the topics identified earlier. 

But keyword research shouldn’t stop there. 

Instead, your team should take it a step further by re-listening to customer success, customer support, and sales calls with prospects and customers alike. This will give them a goldmine of ideas to explore in-depth under each of the topics chosen earlier.

Conduct Content Audit 

Next, your content manager should audit your content database and map your blog posts under the specific topics earlier identified. While doing this audit, they should:

  • Ask themselves, “have we written any blog post that covers any of our chosen topics thoroughly and broadly?” If yes, your company has pillar pages for the chosen topics. If not, then your team needs to create one. 
  • Look through to choose keywords relating to the topic with the highest search volume. Afterward, confirm if you have written a blog post about that keyword or if you need to write a new one. 
  • See if your company has content pieces ranking for the same keywords and competing against each other. Once they identify these pieces, they should look for the one with the highest-ranking URL, and redirect the remaining pieces to it.  

Assess the Business Potential of Keywords and Queries

Remember the keywords and queries from the extended gap analysis conducted earlier and pain points from real prospects? 

Your content strategist should determine their business potential and prioritize accordingly. This is what guides the editorial direction of brands like Ahrefs. Here’s how Tim puts it:

“We don’t care about TOFU/MOFU/BOFU. All we care about is business potential. To assess the business potential of each keyword and topic, we’ve developed something we call the Business Potential Score. And we only try to target topics where our product is an almost irreplaceable solution to the problem:”

Ahref's Business Potential Score

Your content strategists and managers shouldn’t simply map keywords into buyer journey stages. Instead, they should let business potential guide them.  

For example, if there is some search volume for search queries your product can help solve, your content team should focus on crafting content to answer those queries. 

Create Your Execution Plan 

After your team has done a detailed keyword gap analysis, performed a content audit, singled out buyer pain points, and identified their business potential score, oversee the creation of an execution plan. 

At VEC, we have an organized way of creating the execution plan. First, we  we work together with the client to prioritize what keywords, search queries, and pain points we should start with: 

Then we use those prioritized keywords to create a 6- or 9- month plan, depending on what the client signs up to. We focus on one topic a month. 

Here’s a sample:

VEC's 6-month Content Plan Sample

But if you’d prefer to handle it in-house, you don’t have to do it our way. Just ensure you stick to one topic per month, creating 1-2 articles per week. 

Here’s our detailed guide expounding more on creating a topic clusters content strategy. 

I’ve shown you how to build a topic cluster content strategy that creates a solid site structure and makes it easier for prospects to understand your value proposition quicker. Now, let’s see how you can execute it brilliantly. 

Execute Your TCCS with Product-Led Storytelling

Clustering your blog posts around topics/features and anchoring them on a strategy narrative would mean nothing if your writers don’t weave your product into those posts or, in simpler terms, apply Product-Led Storytelling. 

It’s something HubSpot aren’t doing yet.

And it explains why they still publish content like “shrug emojis” with no ways of weaving their product into them. But, with the Product-Led Storytelling, 9-step content marketing approach, you can do better.

Combined with a Strategic Narrative and a well-thought-out topic cluster strategy, Product-Led Storytelling helps our clients earn more mindshare, fuel demand, and acquire a qualified pipeline. 

Take HoneyCart, a former B2B client of ours. 

To develop their content marketing strategy, we clustered content around topics relevant to how prospects research their business. 

Next, we aligned those topics to a Strategic Narrative, which we also designed. 

We created a content plan for them and executed it with our 9-step Product Led Storytelling formula. 

Here’s a breakdown of one of their blog posts where we leveraged all 9 steps of the Product-Led Storytelling formula. 

HoneyCart's Product-Led Storytelling Headline

[This illustrates the 1st step of the Product-Led Storytelling formula: Craft a specific, benefit-driven title for your Product-Led Story].

HoneyCart's Product-Led Storytelling Step 1

[This illustrates the 2nd step of the Product-Led Storytelling formula: Use story-driven introductory paragraphs to hook target readers and filter out irrelevant ICPs].

HoneyCart's Product-Led Storytelling Step 2

[This illustrates the third step of the Product-Led Storytelling formula: Use media to augment your intro paragraphs and show your tool in action].

HoneyCart's Product-Led Storytelling Step 3

[This illustrates the 4th step of the Product-Led Storytelling formula: Follow up with more story-driven paragraphs and add your point of view (PoV) or social proof to distinguish your brand].

HoneyCart's Product-Led Storytelling Step 4

[This illustrates the 5th step of the Product-Led Storytelling formula: Insert media of your product solving the problem for an ICP similar to the one your content targets].

HoneyCart's Product-Led Storytelling Step 5

[This illustrates the 6th step of the Product-Led Storytelling formula: Invite readers to trial/demo your product with a first, subtle CTA].

HoneyCart's Product-Led Storytelling Step 6

[This illustrates the 7th step of the Product-Led Storytelling formula: Including a relevant testimonial (with outcomes) of a client similar to your content’s target ICP].

HoneyCart's Product-Led Storytelling Step 7

[This illustrates the 8th step of the Product-Led Storytelling formula: Inviting your ICP to start solving the problem addressed in the article with your product].

HoneyCart's Product-Led Storytelling Step 8

[This illustrates the 9th step of the Product-Led Storytelling formula: Leverage your copywriting chops to persuade your engaged audience to trial/demo your product].

And the result of this execution? 

Top positions for the overarching Strategic Narrative we designed: “commission-free catering automation:”

Also, it fueled demand as HoneyCart increased organic clicks by over 800% (~580 to over 4,850). Impressions went up by over 400%, and click-through rates doubled. 

All in just six (6) months: 

Even HubSpot applies parts of the Product-Led Storytelling formula in their content pieces. 

Take this post on ABM, for instance. 

Some of the 9 steps in the Product-Led Storytelling Formula came to play in the article.

Here’s a breakdown: 

Step 2 (Use story-driven introductory paragraphs to hook target readers and filter out irrelevant ICPs)

HubSpot's Product-Led Storytelling Step 2

Step 3 (Follow up with more story-driven paragraphs and add your point of view (PoV) or social proof to distinguish your brand)

HubSpot's Product-Led Storytelling Step 3

Step 5 (Insert media of your product solving the problem for an ICP similar to the one your content targets)

HubSpot's Product-Led Storytelling Step 5

Step 6 (Invite readers to trial/demo your product with a first, subtle CTA)

HubSpot's Product-Led Storytelling Step 7

Step 8 (Invite your ICP to start solving the problem addressed in the article with your product)

HubSpot's Product-Led Storytelling Step 8

Separate the Wheat from the Chaff: Know What to Copy From HubSpot’s Content Playbook 

While HubSpot’s content playbook is worthy of emulation, you shouldn’t make your team emulate all its aspects. Instead, know what to copy and what to discard. 

Writing articles with zero business potential is an aspect you should ignore completely. 

On the other hand, aspects like having a compelling strategic narrative and a topic cluster content strategy are areas you should take cues from. 

And to get the best results from those recommended aspects of HubSpot’s content playbook? 

Execute with Product-Led Storytelling. 

Doing this will help you achieve results similar to Andrew Woo’s, Co-Founder & CEO at HoneyCart: 

Andrew Woo's testimonial

Ready to go full force on executing Product-Led Storytelling?

Product-Led Storytelling Newsletter

Jeremiah Ajayi is a Product-Led content strategist with passion for engaging storytelling and creative ideation.

Outside of work, he loves deconstructing ideas that help people blossom into the best versions of themselves.

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