Our $10k content marketing mistakes over 6 years: How we generated from $0 to $5.7M in sales

Our $10k content marketing mistakes over 6 years: From market positioning to generating demand

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Our $10k content marketing mistakes over 6 years: From market positioning to generating demand

Author Candice Neo
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Most of you understand the value of content – and you are sold on using content marketing to build your authority and domain expertise. You just don't know how to do it yourself, to create content that can help you drive traffic and sales consistently.

There are way too many moving parts and you know it's easier to hire external expert help.

When we first started our digital travel media TripCanvas in 2014, we knew we couldn't write all the content ourselves; it wouldn't be scalable that way.

So we hired freelance writers. Many of them.

As both a content marketer for Academy T and an editor for TripCanvas, and having spent close to $10k working with freelance writers, I'm going to share with you the journey we have been through, so that you can avoid the mistakes we made and you can better understand what it really means to hire a content marketer or writer for your business.

If you've started hiring freelancers for your content marketing, you might be able to resonate with this journey:

1. We hired affordable freelancers with good writing but produced lousy quality article

When we first started creating content at TripCanvas, the digital travel media we run, we started looking at freelancer platforms like Upwork (it was the time before Fiverr, and now you've got many platforms like these) – and we started thinking, actually it's not that expensive to hire a freelance content writer for the content we wanted to produce.

I still remember the moment when our first writer came back to us with her article – it was a nightmare. The writing was very disorganised without a clear structure. This happened with another freelancer and another.

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Gradually, we learnt the importance of having a hiring procedure to screen our writers. We also created story briefs and provided a structure that our freelance writers can follow easily, such as what's required in an introduction, visuals' requirement, call to action and reference links to ensure they understand what we needed.

Here's our trial writing assignment and an example of a story brief we provided for our writers at TripCanvas.

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We also learnt that we also needed to hire designers and photo editors who understood our content requirements and could work with the writers to come up with the visuals.

2. After we clicked the publish button, we were hearing crickets because we were creating beginner content

After nailing all those processes, we thought we would be at least getting some traffic, but... nothing.

We started to realise why – our freelance writers were creating what we now call beginner-level content created from typically a few hours of Googling. Our readers were definitely not impressed with the 10,000th content they have seen.

We were creating cringeworthy articles like 'How you can holiday in Bali like Beckham', '8 magnificent sea temples in Bali where legends come alive' and so on. In fact, we are still keeping these articles on our page to remind us how far we've come.

Similarly, if you are creating articles like '10 investment tips every beginner investor should know', perhaps you might want to re-look at your content strategy.

Do you learn anything new from this beginner content? Tons of articles like this exist today.
Do you learn anything new from this beginner content? Tons of articles like this exist today.

This type of content only portrayed us like a rookie instead of an expert to our readers. Our readers wanted to see something refreshing, and our content wasn't offering unique insights.

We also ended up pointing out all the basic industry mistakes our writers made (that we assumed they "should already know") and spent time giving them industry lessons.

Over time, we slowly got the hang of having a "Specificity content strategy" (i.e. creating a content angle that's specific and for a targeted audience) that offers unique insights. (P.S. This is actually a term US-based content marketing agency Grow & Convert uses and we really resonate with it.)

And we decided that enough is enough, it's just not worth the time to do this and it's better to spend a little more to hire more seasoned writers who understood our industry and our audience.

For example, in 2016, we wanted to write an article on pool villas in Bali, but a generic article on "pool villas in Bali" was not specific enough. We asked ourselves – who are we targeting and what are our target audience's needs and demands?

As many of our readers are from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore (not to mention most of our writers are also from these countries and hence they would also be able to relate to this group of readers), we decided to zoom in on the needs of travellers from these countries.

When we did our research through chatting with readers and reading travellers' comments on pool villas in forums and community groups, we realised a few things:

  • Our readers from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore prefer villas with private pools instead of those with shared pools, as they valued privacy
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  • Many of them prefer those that were Instagrammable so they could post on their social media feed
  • Travellers from these countries generally have a budget for private pool villas – we found that if they are travelling as a couple, a one-bedroom private pool villa below USD $90 is considered quite affordable.
  • Those who are travelling in a group had a different budget, so we decided to create two different articles, one for couples (featuring one-bedroom private pool villas below $90) and another one for group travellers (featuring two-bedroom private pool villas).
  • At that time (it was around 2016-2017 when we first published it), the term 'private pool villas' was relatively unheard of in Southeast Asia, so it was a unique story angle.

The result?

This specificity content strategy enabled our 'Bali private pool villa for couples under $90' article to rank #1 on Page 1 on Google.

And this became our top-performing article that has consistently been generating 10% more conversions than other articles, even years after it was published (we simply update it regularly):

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3. We had inconsistent traffic due to a lack of positioning

We wondered why despite spending so much time and money hiring more seasoned writers, our content was still not bringing in consistently high traffic. Once in a blue moon, we got lucky from a high traffic post, but some other articles were simply not gaining eyeballs. At that time, it seemed like there was no definitive way to generate high traffic consistently for every article.

This was because we were using a "spray and pray" approach (i.e. just creating content randomly and praying that we would get lucky to gain traffic for every post), and our content was not speaking to our readers. We didn't know what our positioning was, and we were trying to speak to everyone who wanted to travel, instead of a specific audience.

If this sounds like what you're facing now, consider this: Imagine you are running a business with a physical shop. Are you hiring someone to distribute your shop's flyers for you, or are you hiring a salesperson who not only distributes flyers but convinces people to actually walk into your shop?

A content marketer who understands your customers' needs will be able to effectively generate consistent traffic for you through the content they create – just like a salesperson who understands what kind of customers would be interested in your products and services. This person would be able to zoom in on these potential customers, approach them and convince them to walk into your shop through an understanding of their needs and pain points, as opposed to a salesperson who approaches anyone and everyone to visit your shop.

Many people confuse their industry or products as their niche or positioning. For example, if you are in the real estate industry and you say "helping my clients buy a condo" is your niche, you are competing with every real estate agent in your industry. The same goes for if you are in the financial advisory industry and if you say "retirement planning" is your niche.

Positioning has more considerations.

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Here's our positioning framework: 1. Audience targeting: Who are you targeting? Example: A young family of 4 who wants a wholesome family financial planning 2. Pain points: Does your product/services solve their needs? Example: The challenges your clients are facing when planning their financial journey, such as having to support elderly parents and kids' university fees. 3. Unique selling point: What makes you different? Example: Your investment strategy 4. Proof: Are customers convinced you can solve their problems? Example: Your portfolio's returns *Examples given above are from the financial advisory industry.

Similarly for the travel industry, at TripCanvas, we realised that we needed to zoom in on specific target audiences, and we spent time to nail down our positioning for our Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand sites.

Soon enough, we saw the results.

Take a look at the change in the positioning of our article '9 Affordable Batam family beach resorts with family rooms/ interconnecting rooms that can fit up to 4 adults!'. From initially trying to target all our Singaporean readers who travel to Batam, we zoomed in on targeting those travelling in groups of 4 with their family and friends, and who wanted to stay in adjoining rooms so that they can better spend quality time together as a group. And even better if these rooms were by the beach with ocean views.

The result was a 34x difference in engagement and 60x difference in reach:

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Our positioning for most of our articles for TripCanvas Malaysia is featuring relatively lesser-known affordable luxury accommodation and dining options in Malaysia for Malaysians and Singaporeans through understanding these readers' needs and pain points. This has enabled our articles to receive tons of social media engagement and also be ranked highly on Google.

More specifically, below is an example of an article that targets specifically Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur in their 20s to 30s – many of them love fine dining experiences (they generally have higher purchasing power than Malaysians staying in other states) at relatively affordable prices (we found out that they were willing to pay around RM 100 per couple for special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries or Valentine's Day). Even better if their dining experiences come with beautiful or luxurious views in the heart of KL.

And so this was exactly the story angle we crafted and it was immensely popular when we published it:

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It's also one of our top-performing articles on our site, ranking Page 1 on Google for the keywords "romantic restaurants in KL":

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It was also a huge success on social media. We published the same article in a different form via a Facebook post and it garnered 2,400 shares.

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Below is another top-performing article of ours due to our market positioning of providing affordable luxury accommodation options across the causeway for Singaporeans.

It hits the pain points of our Singaporean readers, as many are not able to afford luxury staycations in Singapore. These options in Johor Bahru are only a short drive away from Singapore during pre-pandemic times, and are priced at a fraction of the rates of luxury hotels in Singapore.

Enjoying a luxurious staycation with a bathtub at an affordable price at such a convenient location is what many of our Singaporean readers would love to have, not to mention these hotels are located very near shopping and dining spots that are hugely popular among these readers.

When we published this article, it was hugely popular among this target audience.

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It's also currently ranking on Page 1 on Google for these keywords "JB luxury hotels":

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It also received tons of engagement on Facebook when we first shared it:

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This market positioning has enabled us to craft precise and specific story angles that hit right at the major pain points of our target audience.

These are content marketing strategies crafted with a strong market positioning and a deep understanding of our readers' pain points and behaviours. This requires the work of a content marketing or editorial team.

And we realised that freelance content writers, regardless of how good they are, won't spend time to give you advice on how to do your market positioning to this extent.

4. With positioning done right, our content generated traffic but not sales

After getting positioning right, we didn't know how to measure the return of investment (ROI) from our content. We had millions of traffic, but only generated 200 bookings a month.

To put it crudely, we were not milking the real value out of our content – the impact of our content (in generating leads and sales) would have been greatly amplified if we had a working sales-generating content-marketing funnel.

This was because our content writers didn't understand our products and services well, so they didn't exactly know the specific considerations our target audience would have before they made their purchase (which in our case, were hotel bookings).

How did we resolve this?

A. We created personas of our target audience through a questioning strategy, so that we could better understand them

At the start, most of us tend to create content for our target audience based on our own assumptions about our audience's behaviour.

This often led to a hit or miss.

What we realised has been effective is to spend time talking to our potential readers and customers to better understand them, their frustrations and their behaviour.

You don't need to survey a large number of people. You just need good conversations and qualitative data as a start.

Below is a snippet of a Malaysian family traveller's persona we came up with after interviewing a number of Malaysian families who travel domestically, which we used to craft targeted story angles at TripCanvas.

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How do you ask your clients/customers the right questions? Download our free template below.

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Download our "Customer Journey Questioning Strategy" Template

B. We utilised these personas to create a content strategy that builds demand for our products and services

Using these personas, we then created a content strategy with a good balance of top-of-funnel and bottom-of-funnel content.

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What is top-of-funnel and bottom-of-funnel content? Top-of-funnel content Content that generates a high volume of traffic but among audiences with lower purchase intent. This means your audience might not be ready to buy yet, but you are showing people the value of your product to create demand. Example (for financial advisors offering their services): 'How your $12k salary makes you poorer than your friends who earn $6k' Bottom-of-funnel content Content that generates a low volume of traffic but among audiences with higher purchase intent. This means using specific keywords that people who are already interested to buy your products or services would search for. Example (for financial advisors offering their services): 'Why investing in bonds right now is a bad investment decision'

Here's a case study of how we used this strategy to create a series of top-of-funnel and bottom-of-funnel content for one of our clients in the travel industry – a homestay management company managing this villa in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which raked in $30k in booking revenue from our content marketing alone:

And even during the lockdown in Malaysia in late 2020, we were still consistently receiving enquiries from potential customers about this villa almost every single day.

To generate consistent sales from content marketing, you need a good content marketing process like this. The lack of such processes is the main reason why most blogs generate little to no leads or sales.

And you can't expect a freelancer to do all these for you.

So how should you do your content marketing?

To sum up, if you are a business owner, consultant, advisor or coach looking to hire writers or content marketers for your business, remember to:

  1. Provide briefs and structure to your writers so that your content has good story angles, titles, visuals, storytelling and call-to action. This will grab eyeballs and sustain your readers' attention.
  2. Use a specificity content strategy to guide your writers instead of trying to target everyone with beginner-level content. Doing so will give you better traffic.
  3. Do market positioning and guide your writers to craft specific story angles that hits the pain points of your target audience. Doing so for your content will generate consistent traffic for you.
  4. Create personas of your target audience through a questioning strategy and use these personas to build your content strategy to build demand for your products and services. Doing so will generate sales from your traffic.

Also, you need to assess what your needs are. Do you just need a content marketer to build up content assets for you? Or do you actually need a sales-generating content marketing funnel?

First, you need to realise that the work of a freelance content marketer is to mostly generate content for you that sells. Usually, this only involves:

  1. Coming up with content ideas (not strategy)
  2. Researching and writing your articles or posts

However, if what you need is an entire sales-generating content marketing funnel, this is what you require:

  1. Creating a website with copywriting, design and UX that converts for you
  2. Creating a lead magnet (our example) that can generate qualified leads for you
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  4. Create a competitive analysis for you (analysing your competitors and their strategies) that will guide the content strategy
  5. Develop your marketing positioning through in-depth research of the pain points of your clients/customers, which includes (but not limited to) interviews with you and other experts in your field, interviews with your potential customers, research on the behaviours of your clients/customers
  6. Content strategy involving both top-of-funnel content and bottom-of-funnel content
  7. Content creation and publishing
  8. Ad strategy, audience targeting and promotion
  9. Generating content and ads' performance reports

And this is what you can achieve if you work with a content marketing agency.

If you're interested in working with us for an A-to-Z done-for-you content marketing for your business, reach out to us by filling in the form below.

If you are a content marketer, we want to empower you to level up your skills to become the top 1% in your trade, so you can generate not just traffic but sales for your clients and earn more than your peers.

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