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7 Effective Steps for a Robust Content Development Process

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7 Effective Steps for a Robust Content Development Process

Successfully creating and scaling content is tough without a defined and robust content development process.

Last year, the marketing team at Ahrefs published over 150 articles and 30 videos. While achieving those numbers is challenging for a lean marketing team, they did it without compromising on quality. How? By following a content development process.

In this guide, you’ll learn what content development is, why it’s important, and how to develop a robust content development process in seven steps:

But before diving into the steps, let’s first define what content development is and learn about its importance.

What is content development?

Content development is the combination of the different steps involved in the entire lifecycle of a content piece—right from its conception to distribution. It involves steps like audience research, brainstorming, planning, editing, and more.

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While you may confuse content development with content strategy, both are different. The latter focuses on the overall vision and plan for your content.

However, a robust content development process is a critical part of any content strategy.

Flowchart showing "Content Development Process" is one of three key aspects of "Content Strategy"

Why is it important to have a content development process?

I understand that creating and implementing a content development process may feel daunting. So here are three main benefits of why having a content development process is a necessity for anyone serious about content marketing:

  1. Scale content faster – Knowing the exact time and effort required to create different content pieces allows you to allocate resources and budget faster.
  2. Align content with business goals – A content development process ensures each content piece is created with the overall content and business goals in mind.
  3. Increase efficiency – Having a set process minimizes the effort required at each stage in the development process.

Seven steps to a robust content development process

While there’s no one-size-fits-all model, I’ve narrowed the process down to seven important steps that anyone can build upon to create a content development process for themselves. Let’s get into it.

1. Understanding your market

It’s simple. To create content that truly resonates with your target audience, you need to know them well. There’s no other way around it.

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If you’ve done any market research before, you should already have a lot of information about your target customers. Here are a few ways you can use it further to generate content ideas:

Analyzing your competitors’ top content

By analyzing the top content of your competitors, you can quickly understand what type of content and topics your target audience is most interested in reading about.

You can use Ahrefs’ Site Explorer to find the top pages. Enter a competitor’s blog URL and go to the Top pages report:

Top pages report results for Zendesk's blog Top pages report results for Zendesk's blog

What you now see are the best-performing pages by organic traffic.

Talking to customers

Before working on any content, talk to your existing or potential customers to understand their challenges and how they think your product can add value to their lives.

Nothing beats the insights gained by talking to customers.

For example, at Ahrefs, a lot of our customers are part of a closed Facebook community. Just by analyzing the conversations, the questions being asked, and conducting polls, we get a good understanding of what topics we can write about.

Tim's poll in Ahrefs Insider asking members who they are (in-house marketer, affiliate website owner, etc) Tim's poll in Ahrefs Insider asking members who they are (in-house marketer, affiliate website owner, etc)

Using audience intelligence tools

By leveraging audience intelligence tools like SparkToro, you can easily find the social accounts your target audience members follow, the websites they visit, the hashtags they use, and more.

SparkToro overview of people who fall under the "b2b marketing" audience group SparkToro overview of people who fall under the "b2b marketing" audience group

You can easily use this information to generate new content ideas, find distribution channels, and more.

2. Be clear on the purpose of your content

Every content piece should have a clear purpose. Whether it’s driving organic traffic, building thought leadership, or increasing product usage.

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Setting an objective helps you to track the right metrics that define the success of the content. It’s impossible to evaluate the content otherwise.

For example, for this post, one of our goals is to rank in the top three positions for the keyword “content development.” Thus, we’ll be tracking this keyword using Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker.

Here’s an excerpt from another Ahrefs article outline that defines the angle, goal, and unique selling point. This helps us write unique content with the objective in mind.

Ahrefs article outline covering key aspects such as title, article goal, article angle, etcAhrefs article outline covering key aspects such as title, article goal, article angle, etc

3. Content planning

You may have a lot of content ideas to work on. But you should start off with only a few. Here are metrics you should take into account for prioritization:

  • Business potential
  • Traffic Potential (TP)
  • Keyword Difficulty (KD)

Business potential

To attract the right audience and drive engagement, you need to focus on writing content that highlights your product as a solution. For business potential, here’s the scale the Ahrefs team uses:

Business potential: Table with scores 3 to 0. And explanation of criteria to meet each scoreBusiness potential: Table with scores 3 to 0. And explanation of criteria to meet each score

Traffic Potential

Just targeting a keyword with high search volume is not enough. You need to look at the overall TP because one piece of content can rank for thousands of different keywords. For example, the keyword “how to water a snake plant” has a keyword volume of 700, but its TP is almost five times the search volume (at 3,100).

Keyword Explorer overview of "how to water a snake plant"Keyword Explorer overview of "how to water a snake plant"

On the other hand, some keywords may have high search volumes, but the TP can be comparatively low.

Keyword Explorer overview of "dollar to euro" Keyword Explorer overview of "dollar to euro"

Keyword Difficulty

KD gives an estimation of how hard it is to rank a keyword in the top 10 SERP positions on a 100-point scale. Along with difficulty, Ahrefs also estimates the number of backlinks you’ll need to rank for a particular keyword.

KD score for "keyword difficulty"KD score for "keyword difficulty"

The lower the KD score, the easier it should be for you to rank high for the keyword rather quickly.

But generally, it’s best practice to target all the relevant keywords that you hope to rank for in the future—even if the KD is high. This will help you understand where you stand and constantly improve rankings as you update the content or build backlinks to it.

Matching the search intent

Creating content that aligns with search intent is incredibly important.

Search intent is the “why” behind a particular search query. It’s related to the content type, content format, and content angle.

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Matching search intent is critical because Google aims to provide users with the most relevant result for each query.

You can understand search intent by going through the top-ranking results for a particular keyword. It’s best if you do it right in the SERP overview section inside Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer because you can see all the relevant metrics there as well. 

For example, the intent of the keyword “content marketing examples” is list posts:

SERP overview for "content marketing examples" SERP overview for "content marketing examples"

Here, the intent for the keyword “install windows 11” is predominantly tutorial videos:

Google SERP of "install windows 11" Google SERP of "install windows 11"

Creating a content calendar

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of planning ahead and tracking content creation. And that’s where a content calendar comes in.

A content calendar gives you a bird’s-eye view of content planning and which content pieces are on track, delayed, and more.

At Ahrefs, the content is typically planned one to two months ahead. But you can choose to plan it according to what suits you best.

If you’re looking for platforms to create a content calendar on, try Notion, Trello, or Airtable. These are the most popular platforms content teams use.

Example of Ahrefs content team's blog calendar on NotionExample of Ahrefs content team's blog calendar on Notion

4. Content creation

Everyone approaches content creation differently. There’s no set process for this. However, there are definitely a few tactics you can implement to streamline the process.

Create a content style guide

A content style guide is a document that illustrates standards for content on a particular website. This helps in enforcing style rules for maintaining consistency and improving communication.

This is especially useful if you outsource your content creation to freelancers and agencies. For example, before writing this article, the Ahrefs team shared with me (as an external contributor) the:

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  • Contributor Guidelines (this explains the different steps for writing).
  • Blog Writing Guideline/SOPs (for creating an outline, formatting, etc.).

Recommended reading: How to Create a Content Style Guide

Templates

You don’t need to create every content piece from scratch. Most of the ones you create often fall into a certain type, e.g., list post, video, guide, etc.

For each type, you can create a template to use as the foundation. Then start working on the post. Here are a few blog post templates for your reference. 

SOPs

SOPs (standard operating procedures) are documents explaining how to do specific tasks within your organization for content creation. For example, you can create an SOP for publishing a video on YouTube or writing a blog headline.

Creating SOPs greatly increases the efficiency within the team and is also useful for new employees. It’s also great if you work with many external agencies and freelancers for content creation.

Gif of Ahrefs' "Image naming SOP" Gif of Ahrefs' "Image naming SOP"

PRO TIP

In a recent talk on “scaling content,” our head of content, Joshua Hardwick, spoke about the three S’s of content creation:

  • Systemize – This is setting a defined process for publishing content from the ideation stage. 
  • Standardize – Creating SOPs for different tasks. In Joshua’s own words, “You need SOPs. They are life.” 
  • Streamline – You should figure out a way to do everything better.
PPT slide showing three S's of content creationPPT slide showing three S's of content creation

Feel free to go through his slides of the talk here.

5. Get feedback on your content

To ensure every piece of published content is free of errors and aligns with your content guidelines, getting external feedback and content editing are necessary.

As content creators, it can be difficult to spot mistakes in our own content. And that’s where someone else’s feedback is critical. Your content needs to be subjected to the scrutiny of other experts.

Depending on the frequency of the content being produced, you can hire content editors, outsource editing, or use peer editing.

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At Ahrefs, every article is scrutinized by a second person on the team. They point out things like logical loopholes, choppy flow, unclear points, poorly phrased sentences, and so on. They’re also featured as contributors at the end of the article alongside the author.

Bio of Joshua, featuring Sam as contributor in top right-hand cornerBio of Joshua, featuring Sam as contributor in top right-hand corner

In addition to this, at Ahrefs, there’s a dedicated content editor whose responsibility is to proofread every article, align it with the house style, upload it to WordPress, and then update internal links.

You can also share content with people in different functions (e.g., sales, products) or industry leaders and connections to get an outside perspective. Remember, reviewers don’t have to be limited to people within the marketing or content teams.

6. Distribution

To ensure you meet your desired content goals, just creating great content is not enough. You need to have a content distribution strategy in place.

Again, there is no one-size-fits-all model. How you tweak your strategy depends on the objective of a content piece.

For example, if you’ve created a data-driven study with the objective to get links from publications like Forbes and Entrepreneur, your content needs to be seen by journalists or contributors—whether it’s via a cold email, social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, or paid advertisements. 

The distribution channels can be divided into owned, earned, and paid channels.

Examples of owned channels:

  • Website or blog 
  • Email list
  • Your accounts on social media platforms
  • YouTube

Examples of earned channels:

  • Reddit
  • Facebook groups and Slack communities
  • Twitter mentions
  • Forums

Examples of paid channels:

  • Twitter Ads
  • LinkedIn Ads
  • Sponsorships
  • Native advertising via platforms like Outbrain

There are definitely more ways to distribute your content, as these are just a few well-known examples. You don’t need to limit your distribution to these channels. For example, you can leverage email outreach and reach out to influencers in your industry who may be interested in sharing your content. 

Content repurposing

An underrated tactic to get more from your content distribution efforts is by focusing on content repurposing.

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Content repurposing is the process of taking a piece of content and turning it into different formats.

By repurposing content, you instantly unlock different distribution channels and audiences to whom you can promote your content. And the best part is that because the content is already created, you don’t need to put in a lot of effort to repurpose it into a different format.

For example, if you repurpose a blog article into a video, you can share it on video-sharing platforms like YouTube or TikTok. An often-used tactic that Ahrefs has leveraged on YouTube is to repurpose popular blog articles as YouTube videos, and it has proven to be effective.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMJQPqG2Uas

7. Monitoring results

The only way to understand whether your content is meeting the set goals is by monitoring it.

For example, for monitoring website traffic, you can use Google Analytics. Similarly, if your objective is to drive organic traffic, then you should use Rank Tracker to monitor keyword rankings, traffic, and search visibility.

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Here’s how you can get started:

Rank Tracker page where user can add keywords to trackRank Tracker page where user can add keywords to track
  • Next, specify the location. You can choose one or multiple locations.
  • Finally, you just need to click on “Add keywords” to submit your request.
  • That’s it. Now you’ll be able to track your keywords, as well as metrics like average position, traffic, position distribution, and more.
Rank Tracker overview Rank Tracker overview

Final thoughts

There’s no doubt that creating and implementing a content development process greatly helps in creating and scaling content faster.

Depending on the type of content you produce, a few steps will be more critical than others. However, you shouldn’t skip any step, as each has its own importance.

Got questions? Ping me on Twitter.

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How We Used a Video Course to Promote Ahrefs (And Got 500K+ Views)

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How We Used a Video Course to Promote Ahrefs (And Got 500K+ Views)

Creating and selling educational courses can be a lucrative business. But if you already have a product to sell, you can actually use courses as a marketing tool.

Back in 2017, about two years after joining Ahrefs, I decided to create a course on content marketing.

I had a very clear understanding of how an educational course would help me promote Ahrefs.

  • People like courses – Folks like Brian Dean and Glen Allsopp were selling theirs for $500 to $2,000 a pop (and rather successfully). So a free course of comparable quality was sure to get attention.
  • Courses allow for a deeper connection – You would basically be spending a few hours one on one with your students. And if you managed to win their trust, you’d get an opportunity to promote your product to them.

That was my raw thought process going into this venture.

And I absolutely didn’t expect that the lifespan of my course would be as interesting and nuanced as it turned out to be.

The lessons of my course have generated over 500K+ in total views, brought in mid-five-figures in revenue (without even trying), and turned out to be a very helpful resource for our various marketing purposes.

So here goes the story of my “Blogging for Business” course.

1. The creation

I won’t give you any tips on how to create a successful course (well, maybe just one). There are plenty of resources (courses?) on that topic already.

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All I want to say is that my own experience was quite grueling.

The 10 lessons of my course span some 40K words. I have never attempted the feat of writing a book, but I imagine creating such a lengthy course is as close as it gets.

Scripts of the course in Google Docs.

I spent a tremendous amount of time polishing each lesson. The course was going to be free, so it was critical that my content was riveting. If not, people would just bounce from it.

Paid courses are quite different in that sense. You pay money to watch them. So even if the content is boring at times, you’ll persevere anyway to ensure a return on your investment.

When I showed the draft version of the course to my friend, Ali Mese, he gave me a simple yet invaluable tip: “Break your lessons into smaller ones. Make each just three to four minutes long.”

How did I not think of this myself? 

Short, “snackable” lessons provide a better sense of completion and progress. You’re also more likely to finish a short lesson without getting distracted by something. 

I’m pretty sure that it is because of this simple tip that my course landed this Netflix comparison (i.e., best compliment ever):

2. The strategy

With the prices of similar courses ranging from $500 to $2,000, it was really tempting to make some profit with ours.

I think we had around 15,000 paying customers at Ahrefs at that time (and many more on the free plan). So if just 1% of them bought that course for $1K, that would be an easy $150K to pocket. And then we could keep upselling it to our future customers.

Alternatively, we thought about giving access to the course to our paying customers only. 

This might have boosted our sales, since the course was a cool addition to the Ahrefs subscription. 

And it could also improve user retention. The course was a great training resource for new employees, which our customers would lose access to if they canceled their Ahrefs subscription.

And yet, releasing it for free as a lead acquisition and lead nurturing play seemed to make a lot more sense than the other two options. So we stuck to that.

3. The waitlist

Teasing something to people before you let them get it seems like one of the fundamental rules of marketing.

  • Apple announces new products way before they’re available in stores. 
  • Movie studios publish trailers of upcoming movies months (sometimes years) before they hit the theaters. 
  • When you have a surprise for your significant other (or your kids), you can’t help but give them some hints before the reveal.

There’s something about “the wait” and the anticipation that we humans just love to experience.

So while I was toiling away and putting lessons of my course together, we launched a landing page to announce it and collect people’s emails.

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The landing page of the course.

In case someone hesitated to leave their email, we had two cool bonuses to nudge them:

  1. Access to the private Slack community
  2. Free two-week trial of Ahrefs

The latter appealed to freebie lovers so much that it soon “leaked” to Reddit and BlackHatWorld. In hindsight, this leak was actually a nice (unplanned) promo for the course.

4. The promotion

I don’t remember our exact promotion strategy. But I’m pretty sure it went something like this:

I also added a little “sharing loop” to the welcome email. I asked people to tell their friends about the course, justifying it with the fact that taking the course with others was more fun than doing it alone.

Welcome email with a "sharing loop."

I have no idea how effective that “growth hack” was, but there was no reason not to encourage sharing.

In total, we managed to get some 16,000 people on our waitlist by the day of the course launch.

5. The launch

On a set date, the following email went out to our waitlist:

Course launch email.

Did you notice the “note” saying that the videos were only available for free for 30 days? We did that to nudge people to watch them as soon as possible and not save them to the “Watch later” folder.

In retrospect, I wish we had used this angle from the very beginning: “FREE for 30 days. Then $799.”

This would’ve killed two birds with one stone: 

  1. Added an urgency to complete the course as soon as possible
  2. Made the course more desirable by assigning a specific (and rather high) monetary value to it

(If only we could be as smart about predicting the future as we are about reflecting on the past.) 

Once it was live, the course started to promote itself. I was seeing many super flattering tweets:

We then took the most prominent of those tweets and featured them on the course landing page for some social proof. (They’re still there, by the way.)

6. The paywall

Once the 30 days of free access ran out, we added a $799 paywall. And it didn’t take long for the first sale to arrive:

This early luck didn’t push us to focus on selling this course, though. We didn’t invest any effort into promoting it. It was just sitting passively in our Academy with a $799 price tag, and that was it.

And yet, despite the lack of promotion, that course was generating 8-10 sales every month—which were mostly coming from word of mouth.

A comment in TrafficThinkTank.
Eric Siu giving a shout-out about my course in TTT Slack.

Thanks to its hefty price, my course soon appeared on some popular websites with pirated courses. And we were actually glad that it did. Because that meant more people would learn about our content and product.

Then some people who were “late to the party” started asking me if I was ever going to reopen the course for free again. This actually seemed like a perfectly reasonable strategy at the time:

7. The giveaways

That $799 price tag also turned my free course into a pretty useful marketing tool. It was a perfect gift for all sorts of giveaways on Twitter, on podcasts, during live talks, and so on.

Giving away the course during a live talk.
Me giving away the course during a live talk.

And whenever we partnered with someone, they were super happy to get a few licenses of the course, which they could give out to their audience.

8. The relaunch

Despite my original plan to update and relaunch this course once a year, I got buried under other work and didn’t manage to find time for it.

And then the pandemic hit. 

That’s when we noticed a cool trend. Many companies were providing free access to their premium educational materials. This was done to support the “stay at home” narrative and help people learn new skills.

I think it was SQ who suggested that we should jump on that train with my “Blogging for Business” course. And so we did:

We couldn’t have hoped for a better timing for that relaunch. The buzz was absolutely insane. The announcement tweet alone has generated a staggering 278K+ impressions (not without some paid boosts, of course).

The statistics of the course announcement tweet.

We also went ahead and reposted that course on ProductHunt once again (because why not?).

All in all, that relaunch turned out to be even more successful than the original launch itself. 

In the course of their lifespan on Wistia, the 40 video lessons of my course generated a total of 372K plays.

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Play count from Wistia.

And this isn’t even the end of it.

9. The launch on YouTube

Because the course was now free, it no longer made sense to host it at Wistia. So we uploaded all lessons to YouTube and made them public.

To date, the 41 videos of my course have generated about 187K views on YouTube.

"Blogging for Business" course playlist.

It’s fair to mention that we had around 200,000 subscribers on our channel at the time of publishing my course there. A brand-new channel with no existing subscribers will likely generate fewer views.

10. The relaunch on YouTube [coming soon]

Here’s an interesting observation that both Sam and I made at around the same time. 

Many people were publishing their courses on YouTube as a single video spanning a few hours rather than cutting them into individual lessons like we did. And those long videos were generating millions of views!

Like these two, ranking at the top for “learn Python course,” which have 33M and 27M views, respectively:

"Learn python course" search on YouTube.

So we decided to run a test with Sam’s “SEO for Beginners” course. It was originally published on YouTube as 14 standalone video lessons and generated a total of 140K views.

Well, the “single video” version of that same course has blown it out of the water with over 1M views as of today.

I’m sure you can already tell where I’m going with this.

We’re soon going to republish my “Blogging for Business” course on YouTube as a single video. And hopefully, it will perform just as well.

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The end

So that’s the story of my “Blogging for Business” course. From the very beginning, it was planned as a promotional tool for Ahrefs. And judging by its performance, I guess it fulfilled its purpose rather successfully.

A screenshot of a Slack message.

Don’t get me wrong, though. 

The fact that my course was conceived as a promotional tool doesn’t mean that I didn’t pour my heart and soul into it. It was a perfectly genuine and honest attempt to create a super useful educational resource for content marketing newbies.

And I’m still hoping to work on the 2.0 version of it someday. In the past four years, I have accrued quite a bit more content marketing knowledge that I’m keen to share with everyone. So follow me on Twitter, and stay tuned.



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