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5 Steps for Getting Started With a Pillar Content Strategy

inbound marketing
5 Steps for Getting Started With a Pillar Content Strategy

Inbound marketing is all about answering questions and solving problems. So it’s no surprise that HubSpot, the company that coined the term inbound marketing, answered and solved a lot of big ones when it began to champion the pillar content strategy back in 2017.

Namely:

  • “Now that I understand how content can help me grow my brand and my business, what sort of content should I create?”
  • “I’ve published tons of content. Why isn’t it ranking higher?”
  • “The content on my website is a disorganized mess. How can I bring order to it?”
  • “How can I create a content marketing strategy that’s both efficient and effective?”

For businesses overwhelmed by content overload, HubSpot’s pillar content strategy provided both a lifeline and a way forward. And yet, here we are, nearly three years later, and many companies have yet to launch their first pillar page.

Admittedly, creating pillar content can be time-consuming. (But—it doesn’t necessarily have to be.) And yes, the sheer size of a pillar page is intimidating.

But there’s no reason to let the scope of the project prevent your brand from getting all the superpowered SEO benefits of the best content marketing strategy out there. A pillar content strategy is manageable. It’s just a matter of creating a step-by-step plan and following through on each step.

In today’s post, I’ll walk you through getting started on your first pillar page. But before I do, let me offer a brief explanation of what a pillar content strategy is and how it can lift your content to the top of the search engine results.

What Is a Pillar Content Strategy?

The pillar content strategy — also known as the topic cluster strategy — is a content strategy built around topics rather than keywords.

The idea is to attract search engine crawlers (and through them, actual humans) to your site by creating a few authoritative and exhaustive content pieces about topics potential customers are looking for and that your brand knows really well. These are your pillar pages.

For example, if you run a dental practice, you might launch pillar pages about proper daily dental hygiene and “everything you need to know about fillings.” If your business is a dog grooming shop, your first pillar page might be “dog grooming 101,” with sections on nail trimming, bath products and treatments, grooming tools, and so on.

I think HubSpot uses the pillar metaphor because the pages are the “pillars” that support the content strategy. But it might be better to think of a pillar page as a tree trunk or river, with shorter, more keyword-oriented content flowing (or branching) into and out of it.

A pillar page and all its associated, interlinked articles make up a web (or cluster) of content revolving around a single overarching topic.

I think this is important to emphasize because you need both types of content to attract attention from search engines and people.

If you have written and published a pillar page, but have not linked it to a series of related blog posts that dig deeper on specific details—hold up! Let's get you properly following a pillar content strategy.

The Two Key Content Elements of a Pillar Content Strategy

Pillar Page

  • Lengthy, covers all aspects of a broad topic at a high level
  • Includes many links for further reading about specific details
  • Helps brands rank well for topics, regardless of keywords

 

Cluster Content

  • Typical blog-post length, covers specific aspects of a broader topic in detail
  • Links back to a pillar page
  • Helps brands rank well for long-tail keywords

 

Why the Pillar Content Strategy Works

HubSpot came up with the topic cluster model in response to two realizations:

  • The way people search for information has changed.
  • Search engine algorithms (Google’s, in particular) are switching from a keyword to a topic focus.

A decade ago, you might have typed into the Google search box, “Sushi restaurant Minneapolis.” Nowadays, you’re just as likely to type, “Where can I get the best spicy tuna roll near me?” (You might not even bother typing; voice search is on the rise.)

Search engines are getting better and better at responding to conversational queries. Instead of scouring the web for specific keywords, search engines have learned how to determine what a piece of content is about and how well it answers a searcher’s question.

HubSpot’s researchers figured out that interconnected clusters of content revolving around a single broad topic tended to perform better in this new world of search than individual, isolated posts. From this finding, the pillar content strategy was born.

“…[Y]our pillar page will start ranking in search for the particular topic you're focusing on, which will help other blog posts rank as well -- the expression ‘the rising tide lifts all ships’ applies here. Instead of writing blog post after blog post focusing on different keyword variations of the same topic, you'll have an organized site infrastructure made up of one pillar page and specific, in-depth blog posts that address content gaps about the topics.” — HubSpot, “How to Create a Pillar Page

In my experience, the pillar approach has some non-technical benefits, as well. The pillars give focus and organization to your content-creation efforts.

I’ve seen so many content initiatives fizzle out because writers aren’t sure what to write about, and strategists aren’t sure how to direct their writers. Once your pillar pages are in place, you’ll never have that problem.

Don’t have an idea for your blog post? No worries. Just pick an unexplored detail from a pillar page and write a post that expands on it. (Just be sure to link your new post to the pillar page and vice-versa.)

Finally, pillar pages and cluster content keep website visitors engaged.

You can imagine a prospect landing on a pillar page through a Google search, following a link to an in-depth blog post, heading back to the pillar page for more, clicking on another link, and so on. All the while, the prospect’s good feelings about your brand skyrocket — assuming the content answers their questions.

How to Develop Your First Pillar Page and Cluster Content

It is my hope that you are beginning to feel confident in your understanding of the pillar content strategy, and that you’ve bought-in to the new age of topic-focused search. Even more so, I hope you’re inspired to try the strategy for yourself.

If you’re ready to get started, here’s what to do:

1. Choose Your Topic

HubSpot says the ideal topic for a pillar page is “broad enough that it can generate more related blog posts that will serve as cluster content, but not so broad that you can't cover the entire topic on a single pillar page.”

In other words, you want to go big with your pillar page, but you’re not writing a book here. Think more in terms of a comprehensive Wikipedia article. “Vehicle repair” might be biting off more than you can chew. “Choosing and replacing your tires” hits the sweet spot.

Your pillar topics should be areas your ideal buyers are interested in learning about. These can be problems they’re struggling with or repetitive questions they’re asking.

You might get topic ideas from the buyer personas you’ve developed or other branding assets, such as a StoryBrand BrandScript.

Here are a few more tips on choosing a topic for your pillar page:

  • Choose a topic you and your team know well. It is extremely difficult to write with authority about a topic you don’t know much about. When you know a topic inside and out, the words (or the instructions you give outsourced writers) come easily. Plus, Google can tell the difference between authoritative content and glorified fluff.
  • Make sure the search volume is there. You don’t want to waste your time writing thousands and thousands of words about a topic no one is interested in. An SEO specialist can help you determine whether a topic is worth targeting or not.
  • You may already have the start of a pillar page in your existing content. Look for something on the long side that takes an overview of a broad topic. You may have to reformat the article, add to it, and insert links to cluster content, but at least it’s a start. 
  • Think beyond the pillar page. Remember: You will have to create keyword-oriented cluster content for your pillar page to link to — the strategy won’t work without them. Make sure you choose a topic that offers plenty of opportunities to drill down.

2. Make an Outline of Your Pillar Page

Pillar pages are big — really big. If you just start writing with no direction, you’ll get bogged down pretty quickly. You’ll end up with a jumbled mess of content that will turn away readers and discourage you as a writer.

Just like you would wireframe a new website design before you start building it out, outline your pillar page before you write it.

Keep in mind that very few (if any) people will read your pillar page from start to finish. It’s much more likely that people will skim your page, looking for the information they need and saving the rest for later. So, make your page skimmable by:

  • Break it up into chapters and subsections, with a table of contents at the beginning.
  • Emphasize quotes visually and use bullet points, images, and charts liberally.
  • Highlight key takeaways from the content for your readers to take action on (like we've done here 👀).

Also, mark on your outline sections that can link out to detailed blog posts. If you can’t find at least ten cluster content opportunities in your outline, you may have to revisit your choice of pillar topic.

3. Start Writing

This is the part you’ve been dreading: sitting down to actually write your pillar post. Considering pillar pages can stretch well past 5,000 words (sometimes, twice that length or more), writing one is a daunting task even for a full-time writer.

Because you did your outline, you won’t have to worry about structure, only content. The writing may go more smoothly than you expect — especially since you chose a topic you know really well. Still, if your company can spare the people, it may be more efficient to divvy out the chapters of your pillar page among members of a writing team.

Alternatively, you can hire a professional writer or a content agency to turn your outline into a reality.

An outsourced writer or writing team will not know your chosen topic as intimately as you do, however. You can overcome that hurdle by providing your writers with transcripts or recordings of interviews of subject matter experts at your company. Each interview should correspond to a section of your pillar page.

While you write your pillar page, also make a plan to compose some topic cluster content to go with your page. I recommend launching your pillar content with at least five to eight associated blog posts right off the bat. (And then, of course, growing the topic cluster from there.)

Pro Tip: Don’t overlook the fact that the web can be an audio/visual medium. I highly recommend you spend some time looking for images and videos that are relevant to your topic. These elements will make your pillar page that much more in-depth and comprehensive, and they will also break up the monotony of the text.

4. Create a PDF of Your Pillar Page

This is going to sound contradictory because earlier I said you’re not writing a book—but you kind of are. By that, I mean a pillar page is a valuable piece of content, and some people may want a copy of their very own they can save on their devices and print.

A PDF version of a pillar page makes a great content offer. Use calls-to-action and landing pages to promote the offer and capture leads for automated email marketing.

5. Never Be Satisfied

Just because your pillar page and the associated content has been written, edited, optimized, and published, it doesn’t mean you’re done with your pillar content strategy. 

For starters, there is plenty more cluster content to write and publish.

Then there is the matter of keeping your pillar page up to date. Your industry will change, and when it does, some of the content on your pillar page may become outdated. Or, you may have new insights you want to add to your page.

Think of each pillar page as a work-in-progress that evolves with time.

And as with everything in digital marketing, keep an eye on the data.

You’ll want to use tools like HubSpot to monitor the performance of your pillar page and cluster content in terms of search engine results, site visits, and leads. You can use this valuable information to adjust your strategy, add related content, or come up with whole new ideas for pillar pages.

I hope this article has helped you understand what a pillar content strategy entails and how you can start to take action on creating one of your very own. Looking for expert help launching your first pillar content strategy? Let’s talk!

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