Companies are far more similar than they should be. That’s because they are attempting to be all things to all people. Each one has the same business model, the same marketing message, the same customer service, and so on.
It feels natural that they would publish the same type of content too.
Take a step back and look at the companies in a given market – for example, by reading their blog, or watching what they tweet. Try to search on Google for “top tools for content marketers” or browse tweets related to “content marketing”.
Most offer no meaningful differentiation but instead say pretty much the same thing. They talk about being “leaders” or “best of class” without having any real basis for those claims.
This is a tough nut for companies to crack. All businesses need to be good at the basics: they need to deliver what they promise, they need to be reliable and professional, they need to be easy to deal with. But this still doesn’t distinguish them from their competitors; all of them can do this.
What differentiates companies from each other is their value proposition: how they deliver value that no one else does.
The theory is that people will be more likely to purchase your product or service if you are different from your competition in some way. You can achieve this by having something special about your product and adding unique value through the content you are creating.
So we know we need to differentiate. But how?
In this article, we’ll explore:
- Why a content differentiation strategy is hard to execute because of saturated markets and the SEO trap (jump to section);
- How you can identify bad content right from the first draft (jump to section);
- Ways to implement a content differentiation strategy (jump to section).
Why a content differentiation strategy is hard to execute
Markets are getting more saturated
There’s a lot of noise out there. The barrier to entry to starting a business has never been lower.
It’s an uphill battle just to have a voice in the marketplace, let alone become a brand leader.
There are also “challenger brands” who believe their biggest threat is market saturation.
Challenger brands believe they can win by creating products that differentiate themselves from all other products in the marketplace.
They believe that their best chance of success lies in creating new and unique content that when communicated through multiple channels will resonate with customers and lead them to try the product and then purchase it again and again.
Challenger brands understand they don’t compete for keywords like “marketing” or established brands like Hubspot. Rather, they compete with the next generation of startups and don’t ignore new, risky topics that have long-term potential.
However, not all brands want to get out of their comfort zone, thus keeping themselves under the radar and following the crowd.
The SEO trap
Trap is a big word. So, let me explain.
As your site grows and more similar content gets indexed on Google, there are fewer chances for you to rank higher because a lot of similar information already exists out there.
The SEO trap will force you to over-focus on optimizing for the search engines while forgetting about what your audience wants and how you can create better, more relevant content to outrank the competition.
The biggest challenge is not the algorithm; it’s how we choose to use it.
Topical relevance, keyword density, page length, and even originality are all important considerations when crafting SEO content. However, these factors are not nearly as influential in determining the content’s true value to readers.
The factors that will determine whether or not a post is valuable to readers are more complex than meets the eye. It’s not just about originality—it’s about analysis.
Google considers the information on the top of any search results page to be the best content available for that query. The problems with it are not the result of some few low-quality outliers; they are endemic to the entire industry.
There is no solution in sight. There is no silver bullet, no new algorithm, no content quality variable that can solve this problem.
Instead of trying to game Google’s algorithm and focus too much on the competition, marketers need to take a step back. They need to focus on original content and learn what makes it inherently bad in order to avoid it.
4 types of bad content
Fluffy, irrelevant intros
Here’s an introduction example from an article on calculating your budget for SEO:
And here’s another one:
Which one would you think is more relevant for someone looking for an estimation?
If you answered #2, you’re right.
The first intro is what I’d call an “essay intro”. An introduction that gives an overview of the main topic of the article.
But people looking for information on SEO budget don’t care that SEO has become a vital part of digital marketing. They already know that, that’s why they’re browsing for a budget. It makes them feel like you don’t get them, therefore they shouldn’t keep reading or trying your product or service.
On the other hand, the second intro considers their audience’s knowledge level and goes straight to the point.
It is difficult to make content marketing work because it involves a balancing act. You have to use a call to action to prompt readers to convert, but you have to be subtle about it so as not to turn them off.
If you don’t use any CTAs, you might not have anyone convert. But if you use too many, or if they are too obvious, then people will just ignore them and even stop reading.
The key is being subtle.
When someone hands you a piece of paper with a bunch of features and benefits listed, you get the feeling you’ve been sold to. But when someone inspires you to want to pursue a goal that has been described, and then naturally suggests that the product will help you achieve that goal, you don’t feel like you were sold anything. You feel like the decision was yours.
A good example of this is the way Ahrefs creates content. In this article, they explain the steps needed to do keyword research by featuring their product and how to use it.
Be sure that when you mention your product, people know it’s intentional. Don’t wait for something else to come up in conversation, and then mention it obliquely in a way that makes it seem like an afterthought. That has the opposite effect of what you want.
Instead, make explicit that you are talking about your product or service when you are mentioning it.
A lot of what you’ll find on the internet is empty words: jargon and buzzwords and empty praise for things that don’t lead to anything.
This kind of writing doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But it makes you feel like something does—like you know something, or like the writer knows something, or like some new technology is interesting, or like some new company is important.
This kind of writing is easy to write and hard to resist.
Instead of writing stories, try to approach content like an instruction manual. An instruction manual doesn’t describe a subject, it tries to help someone do something.
A blog post that summarizes a long piece of work might be useful if it explains some part of the process in more detail, or points out a new application or implication. But if you just restate the original information in different words, the same way a Wikipedia article does, then what you have is a waste of time.
And if no one reads your post or converts, then not only have you wasted your time but you have also made the world worse: now there is one less page that presents original information about your topic to everyone who might find it valuable.
Not having an answer to “why”
Whenever you find yourself writing too descriptive and not enough actionable content, consider asking “why” after each sentence that fits this criterion.
The term “5 Whys” was developed in the 1960s by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries. It is derived from the simple principle that in order to get to the root of a problem, you must keep asking “why” until you get to the crux of the matter. It was originally developed for use in production processes, where a problem with a machine or process can often be traced back to an operator error.
The five whys technique was used to investigate and solve problems in situations where traditional problem-solving methods did not give satisfactory results.
How to implement content differentiation strategies
Invest in thought leadership
Opinions are valuable. In the age of Google, every website has access to the same data. But not every website can tell you why it matters, or what it means for you.
Thought leadership is a content differentiation strategy that focuses on sharing insights and perspectives to position your company as an authority in its industry.
Copycats can already write basic how-to content, but they have trouble with more complex forms of content marketing. For example, copycats might struggle with opinion pieces—like blog posts that have a strong point of view.
The same goes for narratives—the kind of stories you might find in an ebook or marketing whitepaper. These forms of marketing content are much harder to reproduce because they require domain expertise, research, and creativity.
Thought leadership can take many forms:
- Contrarian pieces – sharing why you should approach certain frameworks or concepts differently;
- Personal stories – sharing your own experiences and those of your employees;
- Industry analysis and case studies – undergoing experiments and sharing the learnings.
Propose a unique angle
How does Google determine which article ranks highest in its search results?
If it considers only the text of each article other elements such as links or keywords, then it will probably rank yours higher because your article is “highly optimized”.
But if Google has access to information gain scores for each article, it will rank the second writer’s article higher than yours. Because while your articles both contain roughly equal amounts of original information, your competitor adds more value by introducing new information about topics not covered in yours.
Information gain is not only about originality; it’s about usefulness too. Wikipedia articles are not original, but they can be useful. This means that if you are trying to rank well in search engines, you should not be trying to write an article like no other; instead, try to find something unique within the topic you are covering.
The simplest way to find information gain is to be an expert in the subject you’re writing about.
But what happens if you’re not a subject matter expert?
That’s where primary research (or interviews) comes in.
Primary research has been a long-time favorite tactic of mine, from my Shopify app days where I would interview and speak to merchants about their habits, and answer questions on Quora or Reddit.
It allows you to capture a snapshot of a specific audience—which you can then write about in a way that people will find very valuable and relatable.
Primary research also allows you to address parts of a topic that others haven’t yet covered. If you’re writing about one aspect of marketing automation that was never covered before, then what better way to capture attention than by questioning that exact audience?
Content differentiation requires a balance
The difference between good content and copycat content lies in the amount of effort and time you put into them.
Having a framework in mind helps you avoid the tendency to over-write, or to generate filler content that detracts from your brand.
You will also find that a content differentiation strategy leads you to think about what types of content are more likely to resonate with your audience. And when you finish writing your piece, it will be easier for you to get feedback from an audience who actually resonates with you.
If you want to know more about how we apply content differentiation strategies, head over to Our Process.