You Need Cornerstone Content. Here’s How To Write It.

Are you looking for a new way to wow your readers — and Google, too?

Smart cat

This smart cat writes cornerstone content. How about you?

Consider writing cornerstone content. It’s an in-depth, authoritative piece of content that answers an important question in your industry better than anyone else does.

The advantage, according to Mike Allton of The Social Media Hat?

“These kinds of extensive posts get exponentially more shares than shorter posts, and that helps drive traffic which increases the already high ranking factor, bringing even more organic search traffic. Those visitors are just as compelled to share the post, thus continuing to feed the process.”

Let’s talk about how to make it happen.

What Makes Content “Cornerstone” and Why It Works

Cornerstone (or “pillar”) posts are usually about 5,000 words. They’re long enough to go into real depth on the topic but short enough to maintain focus.

Still, writing 5,000 words is no small project. — it’s like writing a short e-book or a long white paper. Plus, this isn’t the kind of piece you can just whip up off the top of your head in an hour or two. It takes a lot of research and planning — both for the construction of the post itself and for its promotion.

There are obvious SEO benefits that come with writing pillar posts. They’re a magnet for incoming links, and in terms of conversions, they can do a lot of the heavy lifting at the top of your sales funnel.

Google’s most recent Search Quality Raters’ Guidelines came out in late 2015 (with an update in March of 2016), so the emphasis on useful, authoritative, original content has never been more apparent.

Pillar posts are especially powerful in B2B content marketing because of the way the sales cycle is changing across a wide spectrum of industry verticals. A 2015 study by Forrester found that as many as 74% of B2B buyers do more than half their research online before making a major purchasing decision while a 2014 Accenture study found 83% of them specifically research supplier websites.

B2B vendors can’t afford to ignore these statistics. The majority of buyers aren’t calling vendor sales teams in the initial research stages — they’re going to vendor websites instead. This means that the top of the funnel — your content —  is your salesperson.

And it can’t just sell. Before it can get to talking benefits, your content has to do what the most effective salespeople do during the consultative sales process: build trust.

(Want more proof? In a recent interview, Mike Allton discussed the key role that authoritative, long-form content plays.)

Why Writing Cornerstone Content Isn’t as Hard as You Think

The sheer length of pillar posts is a big reason a lot of people don’t write them. The “10-times-better” benchmark can also be intimidating, even to those who know their stuff. If you do it yourself, it takes time. If you hire a professional, it won’t be cheap — and it shouldn’t be.

But there are a few things that make content creation easier.

For one thing, you don’t have to churn out a pillar post every week. Writing one a quarter can be enough, especially since writing less frequently means you can devote the time to getting it right — leading to a more effective piece in the long run.

In addition, pillar posts are a repurposing goldmine. Once you have one written, you can repurpose it for any number of content types, including:

  • Infographics;
  • Shorter blog posts on related subjects;
  • Webinars;
  • Slide decks;
  • E-books;
  • White papers;
  • Newsletter articles;
  • Interviews with prominent thought leaders.

Not to mention all the related social media and other promotional opportunities these bring with them.

Leverage it right, and a single pillar post can drive your content strategy for many months after the original piece was published. It might be a lot of work, but in the long run, it makes your future content strategy more efficient.

How to Choose the Right Topic

Of course, it’s essential to pick the right topic. It needs to be something your audience cares about. Something that keeps them up at night, that’s crucial to their job, and that’s not self-evident or easy to get right. It also should be a topic that isn’t already done to death.

Sometimes, the question or problem you need to answer is obvious. Other times,  it takes a little digging. And even if you think you know what you want to write about, it is essential to do the research.

Here are some places to get ideas for topics:

Keyphrase research. Check out Google Analytics, SEMRush, or another keyword research tool to see what terms people are searching for around the topics you’re considering. Pay particular attention to questions people ask in the search engines. Run an analysis on a typical question related to your industry, and see what other keyphrases and question phrases come up and which have the most volume – and the least competition.

Social media and forum discussions. Take a look at LinkedIn discussion groups, hashtags on Twitter, and hot topics in industry forums to see what questions seem to preoccupy people. Check out BuzzSumo to find out what content is already killing it in your industry and what topics seem to do well. BuzzSumo is also a great resource for finding influencers to target.

Other industry bloggers. It’s essential to be aware of what other people are publishing on a topic. First, you need to know what’s already heavily covered — no matter how long it is, your post isn’t likely to gain much traction if it’s already been done to death. Second, it’s crucial to look for the gaps in coverage — the questions that aren’t answered anywhere else. These are big opportunities.

Regulatory or industry changes. Are you in a heavily-regulated industry? Or one where the landscape is always changing with new technologies, platforms, and best practices, such as SEO and social media marketing? If that’s the case, you could gain a lot of traction if you’re the first to write about how your audience can solve new challenges around a recent regulatory or industry change.

Your customers. Even if you’ve spent hours researching online, it can be eye-opening to have a quick chat with an actual member of the audience you’re trying to reach. Your best source is often current customers: people who have a clear, proven need for whatever you’re ultimately promoting. Get them to tell you what topics they want to read about most, what problems keep them up at night, and what challenges you can help them solve.

You don’t necessarily have to do this over the phone, of course. You can also send out a quick survey using a service like SurveyMonkey to gauge interest in different topics, send out an email questionnaire, or ask the question on your own social media channels.

Your sales and customer service teams. With the exception of customers themselves, nobody will know more about the challenges your audience faces than the sales and customer service personnel who address them every day. If you work with a company that’s big enough to have these teams, it’s worth it to include them in the conversation when picking a topic.

How to structure cornerstone content

Plan cornerstone content

Ready to plan your cornerstone content? Let’s go!

Cornerstone content is too long and complex to write off the top of your head. It has to be properly structured, and that takes some thought and planning. You need a format that’s broad and meaty enough to merit this type of post, but short enough to provide focus. How-to and definition-type posts tend to do particularly well as formats for this type of content.

No matter which format you choose, however, you’ll have to create an outline before you write. Your outline can be simple or in-depth, but you’ll need to make sure your piece flows logically from one point to another, your thoughts are organized, and you break things up in a readable way.

Derek Halpern has a good suggestion for that: check out your existing blog categories and make a list of the four or five most important ones relevant to your topic. Use those as subhead groupings and expand on the content you’ve already written in this area. This technique not only helps you focus your thoughts and structure, but it gives you an easy template for linking your pillar posts to other posts on your blog — and that is great for SEO.

Since cornerstone content is evergreen (and, by definition, timeless,) set it up as a page on your site — not a post.

The Rules for Cornerstone Content SEO

Rule #1: Do your keyphrase research. It’s pretty trendy these days to think keyphrase research is dead. The thinking goes like this: because Google has gotten so much better at judging searchers’ intent, you don’t actually have to use keyphrases in your copy. You can just write phenomenal content around that subject, and the rankings will magically fall into place.

There’s a grain of truth to this. But mostly, it’s wrong.

Yes, it’s true that keyword stuffing is a very outdated technique. It’s even outdated to use all your keyphrases verbatim, especially when that results in stilted writing. Best practices are always to write naturally and put readability first.

However, as this recent post by Moz’s Rand Fishkin emphasizes, ignoring keyphrase research entirely amounts to shooting yourself in the foot. What you call something internally in your business and industry may not register at all with your audience. You have to know how your audience talks about these concepts in the real world, and you need to use this language in your content.

Beyond SEO, using the right keyphrases (and being findable in Google) positions you as someone who belongs in your readers’ world. If you don’t speak your readers’ language and use their terms, you’ll look out of touch — even if the information you offer is spot on. This is especially true for a B2B audience, which often uses very industry-specific, technical language and terms.

Rule #2: Leverage the questions people ask. When you did your research to pick a topic, you (hopefully) used a keyword research tool to find out what questions people are asking, the language they’re using, and the keyphrase competition. Give your on-page SEO a boost by using those question keyphrases as subheads. Using questions as subheads is also a very effective way to organize a longer post.

Rule #3: Link to other blog posts on your website. Do you have other, related posts? Link to them from your cornerstone content piece. That way, your one post becomes a stand-alone resource on your site.

Don’t Forget to Include Influencers 

Since the days of master copywriter David Ogilvy, it’s been said that the success of any content — even Talking to an influencerthe best, shiniest and most helpful content — is 20% writing and 80% promotion. Best practices for blog post promotion is a pillar post of its own. But since it’s so crucial to your post’s success, I’ve included the tactic I’ve found most helpful: when choosing a topic, give a lot of thought to its potential for influencer tie-in.

If you don’t already know who the influencers are in your industry — prominent journalists, bloggers, social media personalities, and thought leaders — find those people. Who among them has an audience most similar to yours? Who has an interest in the topics you discuss? Whose activities, services, or projects provide an interesting collaboration opportunity?

Especially if your audience isn’t already big or you’re a start-up in a market with some established competitors, getting an influencer to help promote your work can do a huge amount to build your audience and your credibility.

Sure, you can write a post and then send a quick email to a few influencers, asking them to tweet about what you’ve written. But that’s likely to fail, and miserably. You’ll get a lot more traction if you bake your influencer strategy in from the outset. That takes two steps: first, figure out an influencer tie-in strategy for the post at the topic selection and planning stage. And second, build a connection with that influencer well before you publish.

Sometimes, the most effective way to involve an influencer is to involve them directly. Ask them to do an interview or comment directly on the topic. If they’re directly cited or featured, they’ll (hopefully) share the article with their audience once it’s published — dramatically amplifying your promotional reach, and putting you on the map for a large number of new prospects.

Another way is to link to their work, discuss it in a meaningful way at some point in the article, or directly quote something they’ve written. Don’t forget to let the influencer know you cited her. Hopefully, she’ll amplify your message and share it with her audience.

As Stone Temple Consulting’s Eric Enge shared in his interview and SEO Copywriting Certification podcast on influencer marketing, you’ll be far more effective at this if you build up a relationship with an influencer ahead of time.

No, this doesn’t mean stroking or pestering them. It means connecting with them in a meaningful way, be it through social media, blog comments or otherwise engaging with them. It might mean sending a private message that asks for nothing, but instead gives them kudos for an accomplishment or provides some information of value. The idea is to start a conversation, not ask for a favor.

Closing Cornerstone Content Thoughts

The idea of writing cornerstone content pieces can often be intimidating, even for people who blog regularly. The good news is that you don’t have to publish them on a frequent basis. Pillar posts do take careful planning that goes beyond the writing—but they bring enormous benefits that extend long after the date of publication. With the right planning and an influencer marketing, SEO, and repurposing strategy that covers all your bases, you should be able to get a lot of mileage from every one of your pillar posts.

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Jen Williamson is a copywriter specializing in fun, fearless copy and content for software and B2B sales. She holds certifications from the SEO Content Institute, Meclabs, and Hubspot’s Inbound Sales program. When she’s not working (ha!), she can be found immersed in a good book, teaching herself to knit, or training for her next marathon. In real life, she lives in Brooklyn. Online, you can visit her at her copywriting website, or find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Photo thanks: © Barbara Helgason | Dreamstime.com

© Ivelinr | Dreamstime.com – Time to Plan

 

 

11 replies
  1. Blake Smith
    Blake Smith says:

    Hi Jen,

    Writing effective cornerstone content pages really comes down to knowing the audience (readers and influencers), as you clearly indicate in your post. You provide good tips for writing and promoting such content.

    You drew me in with the easy part. But then you hit me with “Cornerstone (or “pillar”) posts are usually about 5,000 words.” Oh no! That sounds more like an epic piece of biblical proportions. 🙂

    Seriously, though, cornerstone content is a lot of work. But they don’t have to be 5,000 words in length — at least in the beginning. I wrote three cornerstone content pages for my new site, and yes, they required much time conducting research and writing. But they are around 1,000 words each.

    They are a work in progress. As a proponent of agile content development, I like the idea of iterative and incremental progress. My cornerstone pages will grow over time as I write more detailed blog posts and link to them from those pages.

    I think that length is not so much a defining characteristic of cornerstone content. While long-form content has its advantages, cornerstone pages are characterized more by their comprehensiveness and quality of coverage.

    For me, cornerstone pages answer the most important questions my new site visitors have and provide them with the core information they need to interact with my business.

    Blake Smith
    Web Content Doctor

    Reply
  2. Jen Williamson
    Jen Williamson says:

    Hey Blake,
    Thanks for your comment! Yeah, I figured your extra zero was a typo. I think it depends on the topic you’re dealing with, how complex it is, what your competition is doing, and how in-depth you’re going. As long as you’re getting the right response and reaction, I think that’s more important than getting hung up on word counts, and I also think that “in-depth and very useful” is more important than “hits the 5k word counter.”

    I do think, though, that for a lot of topics 1,000 words may not be enough. That’s not to say you’re doing it wrong in particular–like I said, if you’re getting all the SEO and backlink benefits from content you write at that length, you’re doing it right. But 1,000 words isn’t that hard to hit for a lot of topics, and for many industries, the competition may also be writing guides and articles that long too. Not to say that “longer” automatically equals “better,” but if it’s well-written it should equal “more in-depth” and thus be higher value.

    I’m not the only opinion on this, of course; I’ve read advice that says between 3,000 and 5,000 words or even as short as 1,500 words works. But in general, all other things being equal, I’d err on the longer side as long as you can sustain organization and focus at that length.

    Reply
    • Blake Smith
      Blake Smith says:

      Jen,

      Good point. I have also been reading about how well-written long-form content performs better in social and search. But this depends, as you say, on other factors as well, such as the topic and what the competition is doing.

      Thank you for sharing your insights and explaining how to make cornerstone pages easier to write.

      Reply
  3. James Mawson
    James Mawson says:

    I kinda feel like 1,000 words is sort of the minimum point for most blog posts to be worth writing these days. Especially if you want to build links to it.

    I don’t think pillar content has to be an exact length, it should be as long as it needs to be. But 1,000 does seem rather on the bare side for a post to be considered a pillar post.

    Reply
  4. nandu web
    nandu web says:

    I think that length is not so much a defining characteristic of cornerstone content. While long-form content has its advantages, cornerstone pages are characterized more by their comprehensiveness and quality of coverage.
    Thanks for sharing this information.

    Reply
  5. Idris
    Idris says:

    Love this post!

    Especially love the point about research for keywords and topic freshness. 90% of the blogs out there don’t follow the path of researching the topic thoroughly and THEN getting to the writing. And because of that, we end up with the internet we have: bloated and way too fluffy. 😉

    Also, 3k+ posts feel a lot smaller when we work through an outline that gives us a narrower space to work in (and transition through). People often forget that great writers aren’t the folks with the best vocabulary, they’re the folks with the best plan.

    This post has sparked a lot of thoughts at the office. Thanks for sharing! -!dris

    Reply
    • Jen Williamson
      Jen Williamson says:

      Very true about research, and I agree–these long word counts can feel prohibitive, but I’ve also found that with some topics it’s actually harder to write less because there’s so much to say.

      Reply

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