Content Marketing Tips: The 5 Principles of Content That Converts

Bonus Material: Sumo's Content Marketing Metrics Dashboard

This is Ted. 

Picture of the most photogenic guy in the world

“Zeddie for short”

Ted owns an ecommerce business. It makes $30,000/year in revenue. He heard Seth Godin say “content marketing is the only marketing left”, so he:

  • Started a blog on his site
  • Published a few posts about his products, how they’re made, and his company’s story
  • Tweeted the blog posts and publish it on his Facebook page
  • Wait for traffic and sales to come in. 

When traffic and sales didn’t start pouring in, Ted said “content marketing doesn’t work”. 

Then, Ted sat back and watched his company be obliterated by competitors who did content marketing properly and got results like this

Graph showing users and other conversion data for a page

Don’t be like Ted. 

In this guide, I’ll show you… 

Ready? Let’s go. 

Why Content Marketing? 

Blog content has been one of the main marketing channels for Sumo since 2015, driving a huge portion of our leads, sales and email subscribers. 

Traffic to our blog pages accounts for 50%+ of our total traffic. 

That traffic comes from: 

  • Social media when people share the articles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc 
  • Search engines, as content marketing allows us to rank for keywords our product pages wouldn’t allow us to rank for.

“But Sarah, I don't have a blog business. I’m an ecommerce business!” 

And Sumo is a SaaS business. That doesn’t mean we aren’t winning with content marketing. Almost all types of businesses have an enormous opportunity with content marketing. 


Because content marketing is about educating your customers -- either educating them about your product, or educating them about your industry.

“If you can define the problem better than your target customer, they will automatically assume you have the solution.” —Jay Abraham

Whether you’re selling a digital product or physical one, you want visitors to assume that you have the solution to their problems. 

The solution? Your product

But there’s so much content online that there’s no point creating any if it’s not going to be the best. 

So how do you create the best of the best content online about your topic?

Here’s how:  

Principle #1: Have a Goal

“But wait… 

I thought you said content marketing brings in traffic, email subscribers, and sales?”

Yup, that’s true. Perfect content drives all three.

But at Sumo, despite publishing at least once per week in 2016 (often 2x or more), perfect content only made up a small portion of the content we published:

Screenshot showing a list of content pieces

Top 20 sales-driving stories from 2016. Activated sites = how many people installed Sumo from the article.  

Of the top 20 sales-driving pieces of content published on the site in 2016, just four were in the top 10 articles with the highest traffic (highlighted in orange). 

Your content needs a specific goal. 

Start with taking a look at what’s working for you:

  • If email marketing works for you, make the goal to collect emails
  • If you convert search traffic, make traffic your goal. 

If you have Goals set up in Google Analytics, get this data from your Conversions section, under Goals > Overview: 

Screenshot showing traffic sources for a page

In this ecommerce example above, search engine traffic and email (which is mostly categorized under “direct”) converts very well, so we’re aiming for email collection with the content. 

We’re not as concerned with social shares since the content is search optimized and will lead to search engine traffic. 

If you don’t already have Google Analytics Goals set up, do it now. Go to Google Analytics > Admin > Goals (under View) > New Goal. 

Screenshot showing the goal setup page on google analytics

Add a Destination goal, with the destination being your order confirmation page: 

Screenshot showing google analytics goals page

Make sure to verify your goal before pressing save.

Voila! From now on, you’ll begin to collect data on where your conversions are coming from. 

Protip: If you sell premium products (like a $500 watch) or more expensive products (like a $300 handmade leather bag), it’s rare that you’ll be able to sell directly from content. Make your goal email collection from your content and convert your subscribers.

tl;dr: If you don’t have a goal, you have no way of determining whether your content is working. Choose a goal (traffic, emails, or sales) based on what channel is the highest converting for you.

Click here to access Sumo’s Content Marketing Metrics Dashboard

Principle #2: Answer a Question or Solve a Problem

Content marketing = education. 

We recently analyzed 175 million visits to the most popular blog content on some of the biggest websites online, and we found that by far the most popular content type is the How To post:

Pie chart showing content type by traffic

Driving nearly 23% of traffic. 

This makes sense. This type of article answers a common question or solves a problem. 

So do the six content types that drive 61% of the traffic (the ultimate guide, FAQ post, expanded list post, warning post, explanatory post, how to post). 

Check out how all of the most popular content on the ecommerce store, Bulletproof’s blog answers a question or solves a problem:  

Screenshot showing buzzsumo results

So how do you find out what questions or problems your audience has? 

Content Topic Strategy #1: Keyword Research 

The last time you had a question about something, where did you go to find the answer?

Google, right? 

How many people are searching for a specific term (search volume) is a synonym for how many people have that question or also experience that problem.

So to find these problems, you need to know what search terms (or keywords) people in your industry are looking for. 

But if you’re new to keyword research you may have no idea how to do it. So the best place to start is by taking a look at what your online competitors are doing. 

If you can’t think of any competitors, think of the top content-creating site in your topic that reaches the audience you want to reach.

You want to come up with 4-5 competitors, so if you need more, type a keyword into Google. Let’s say you were an ecommerce store selling paleo protein powder: 

Screenshot showing google search results

Then you can find who is cornering the results on that keyword (ie your content competitors). 

With a few competitors in hand, find out what keywords they are targeting. 

Use your favorite keyword research tool (for example, SEM Rush). I use Ahrefs. Type in their URL in Site Explorer (or equivalent):

Screenshot showing information about a website on Ahrefs

If you’re using another tool, look for the top pages from organic search. 

Go to “Top Pages” (or equivalent):

Screenshot showing top pages for a website

And check out the keywords they’re ranking for. You’ll see in my example above that this site is ranking for “paleo diet”, “guacamole recipe easy” “paleo recipes” “nightshade” and “mct oil”. 

You can see the search volume, and the position the site is in (in the far right column). 

Click onto the “Top Keyword” to find more detailed information about each keyword:

Screenshot showing search analytics about a certain query

Create a list of keywords your competitor is ranking for that would also answer your audience’s questions. 

Start to generate a list of content that solves a problem or answers a question by finding out what your competitors are doing (and doing it better than them). 

Protip: Wondering how to prioritize the topics? Use search volume and keyword difficulty as your guide. If you don’t already have a lot of traffic and domain authority, choose the keywords that have a decent amount of search traffic but a difficulty that’s fairly low. For example, go for “paleo snacks” rather than the more competitive “what is the paleo diet”:

Screenshot showing search data about paleo snacks
Screenshot showing search data for a certain query

Content Topic Strategy #2: Search Reddit 

Content marketing is solving problems or answering questions your audience has in your industry. Check. 

So beyond finding search terms in your industry to answer those questions and analyzing what your competitors are doing, you can also get blog post ideas directly from your target audience’s mouths (or… fingers, in this case). 

There are two ways you can use Reddit to do just this: 

1. Use the Silver Platter Technique. Type in your niche/keyword on the /r/explainlikeimfive (a subreddit where people can ask questions and have subject matter experts explain it to them in simple terms).

Let’s say you were an ecommerce store that sold sleep products. Type in a keyword or two into the search bar:

Screenshot showing "explain like im five" search results

Note the amount of upvotes. In this example, 13,072 people are interested in the topic.

Each of those questions is like a mind-reading tool given to you on a silver platter.

Protip: The topics in /r/explainlikeimfive are also usually well searched online and usually have a search term associated with them.

Screenshot showing search data on "sleep positions"

Making reddit a great place to find potential keyword targets, too.

2. Use the subreddit’s Wiki. Most topics have a subreddit (for example, the topic of sleep is at

You can find subreddits related to your industry by using the search box on Reddit’s homepage:

Screenshot showing reddit search results for "sleep"

Within those subreddits, most have a wiki. For example, check out the /r/sleep subreddit’s wiki:

Screenshot showing a page on reddit

The topics in this wiki are comprised of all of the most common posts and frequently asked questions in the subreddit. This is content marketing gold. Since we’re solving problems and answering questions, the human-curated wiki section of each subreddit is the ideal place to find them.  Each section could be a topic for your content strategy. 

Content Topic Strategy #3: Find Common Questions on Quora

Quora is also a great place to find topics to build out your content strategy. 

Quora is a question-based platform - it’s literally people asking questions about every topic imaginable. 

Start by using Quora’s search function to type in some of the keywords you selected previously related to your industry. Let’s say you sold Photoshop templates or presets. I’d type in “photoshop” into the search bar:

Screenshot showing quora recommendations for search query "photoshop"

Choose the topic, and read through the questions that come up.

Then, go to Related Topics (on the right-hand side). Choose a related topic for more questions. In this case, I chose “photo editing”.

Screenshot showing a category on Quora

Click on Topic FAQ: 

Screenshot showing a topic page on Quora

These are the questions that crop up constantly in the topic. Add these to your content strategy. 

Principle #3: Go Deep and Narrow (Rather than Wide and Shallow)

Content that converts is an inch wide and a mile deep. 

The broader the topic, the less it appeals to your target audience. 

For example, rather than trying to write an entire guide on everything about gut health, Kettle and Fire (which sells organic bone broth) wrote the best and worst foods for healing leaky gut: 

Screenshot showing a content piece on Kettle&Fire

It’s an inch wide (foods for leaky gut), but a mile deep. They focus on the foods to heal leaky gut, rather than every possible way to heal it.[*]

Hence the 2.6K shares. 

This is the “deep” part. 

Is deep a synonym for long content? Well, sort of. 

You can’t go deep into a topic in 300 words. Long-form content performs better in almost all instances… 

  • The average share count is much higher on longer content:

Graph showing average shares by content length

  • The number of words in the top five Google search results tends to run on the long side too:

Graph showing information about content total word count and google position

One article I published on in 2016 was over 13,000 words.[*][*] 

It was a guide to Instagram marketing that took me over 60 hours to create. But it also drove over 10,000 emails: 

Screenshot showing Sumo popup results

Plus the second most sales of all of the content in 2016 and got a ton of traffic.

Screenshot showing a list of different stories on the Sumo blog

All of Sumo’s top performing content in terms of sales from 2016 is long-form content, ranging from 2200 words to over 13,000. 

Protip: The Instagram marketing guide drove so many emails because of the content upgrade I offer with it. Because the article is so long, I acknowledge that up front (increasing the perceived value of the piece).

Because I know that people won’t read the article anyway (they’ll scan it at best), I offer an ebook so they can download it and read it later when it’s more convenient. You can use a tool like Beacon to create an ebook from your content in 5 minutes.

But long-form content isn’t just stuffing as many words as you possibly can into an article.

It’s about making sure that everything you include in the article is valuable information, and making sure you make it comprehensive - the ultimate ultimate guide. 

Here’s the blueprint on how to do that. 

Step #1: Find Out What You’re Competing Against

To create the best content on your topic on the internet, you need to first know what’s already out there. 

Take the keyword or topic you’re writing and… 

  1. Open the top 3-5 most shared articles using either Buzzsumo or Epicbeat (you can use the default filters for date, etc):

    Screenshot showing Buzzsumo results for a keyword

  2. Open the top 2-3 results in Google:

    Screenshot showing google search results

Read through them, make a note of what they’ve included (because you have to make yours better than theirs, and better means comprehensive).

If they’re listing 53 healthy paleo snacks, you need to list at least 54 better, healthier, easier paleo snacks. If they include the recipes, you need to include the recipes to your snacks plus downloadable shopping lists. 

Step #2: Use This Free Tool to Make Your Article Even Better

After you know what’s out there for your site’s competition, open Answer The Public.[*] 

Type in your keyword to find the questions people are asking around your topic: 

Image showing keywords about paleo snacks

This helps you target long tail keywords within your content. 

Make sure that you answer many of these questions in your content. 

If you were writing the guide on “What is the Paleo Diet”, you’d want to include how to get started, what types of foods you could eat, whether paleo is healthy, whether it works for weight loss. 

Secret protip: Download this as a CSV. Open the CSV and copy the “suggestion” column:

Screenshot showing a list on a Mac office software
Upload it into your keyword research tool:

Screenshot showing "keywords explorer"
It will rank the search volume for these long tail keywords, which will help you prioritize what to include in your content:

Screenshot showing keywords about paleo
In the example above, if you were writing a guide to paleo, you’d be smart to include information about how the paleo diet affects women, whether it’s useful for weight loss, how to do paleo for beginners, and the benefits for athletes and children.

You’ll have to click on some of the “Parent Topics” (the overarching keywords for the topic), but it will still give you a good view.

Step #3: Hit on the Points of the Most Popular Answers 

To make your content the best on the internet, it has to be the best of all content - including social media and community content. 

That means using the results from the most popular answers in your Reddit and Quora searches, and including those points as well. 

Screenshot showing an ELI5 thread on reddit

Don’t copy and paste the answer (that’s plagiarism). Just make sure to address the points the answerer included (you don’t have to agree, but address them). 

Peter Keller from Fringesport dropped this tip in my SumoCon content marketing breakout session:[*] 

Protip: If you loved the answer just as it is, message the user and ask if you can quote their answer (and give them credit) in your article. When it’s published, get them to share it with their friends on Facebook or submit it to reddit.

Repeat this over your Quora answers, /r/explainlikeimfive answers, and the answers to the FAQs in related subreddit wikis. This will help the content be the most comprehensive it can be.

Once you have these all in place, your job’s done!

Just kidding. There are still a couple more principles of content that converts to truly make your content the best. 

Principle #4: Include UX and Visual Elements

Articles with visuals get 94% more views than those without.[*]

And articles that include videos see almost 300% more inbound linking domains than a plain text post.[*]

Graph showing average number of in-linking domains vs media type

That’s because visual content and videos make content more in interactive and, most importantly, scannable. 

Nobody reads your content. Eye tracking studies show that your users don’t read your entire articles, but rather scan them.[*] 

You’ll see in the image below how the attention tends to go to lists, videos, and images rather than the text itself: 

Screenshot showing Sumo heat map in action on a page

And after analyzing 650,000 visits, we found that people read on average only about 25% of your content pieces. 

So that means you need to make sure of two things to make your content marketing more effective: 

  1. Your content is easily scannable
  2. You keep your audience on the page by making your content easily navigable. 

Here are a few ways you can do that. 

Protip: Activate Content Analytics on your site and put your calls to actions above the average read rate so more people see them.

Use Images or Visual Content 

Relevant images and visual content perform better than articles without these elements. 

But you shouldn’t just throw some stock images in your content. Include images and visual elements as long as they add value to the content. 

One example is Brian Dean’s video SEO guide. He has designed his entire guide with visuals in mind:

Screenshot showing a guide

This sets your content apart. But if you don’t have the resources (or desire) to go all out, you don’t have to. Check out how Physiqonomics uses simple drawings to simplify complex information: 

Screenshot showing a webpage about drinks

This engages the reader beyond hitting them with a block of text, and keeps them moving down the page. 

We use gifs and screenshots to add value to the content we’re using to educate our customers. 

You’re doing content marketing, not writing a boring textbook. 

Make the Article Navigable

Long-form content is long. Duh. So you need to make it easy to navigate. 

Break up the information into chapters or include a table of contents for your readers so they can quickly jump to the section they want to read. 

In the Backlinko guide I mentioned above, Brian uses images to display the chapters: 

Screenshot shownig the contents of an information product

You can easily do this in your longform content with a table of contents: 

Screenshot showing table of contents on a blog article

When we use a table of contents in articles at Sumo, we see a far higher average read rate in Content Analytics

Screenshot showing Sumo heat maps in action

Our average read rate on articles without a table of contents is around 20-25%. 

Screenshot showing sumo heat map in action

That’s because we’re allowing people to quickly get to the section they want (so they don’t even have to scan the article).  

Make Your Content Easy to Read

Have you ever stumbled upon an article that was difficult to read? You probably didn’t stick around for long. Your readers likely won’t either, if your content is hard to read. 

So that means… 

  • No fat paragraphs. Keep your paragraphs between 2-3 sentences long. Different point, different paragraph. Nobody will read huge chunks of text.
  • Narrow content width. Research has shown that shorter line lengths is not only preferred by users but understood more easily. Aim for a content width of between 480 and 600 pixels wide.[*]
  • Make sure your design is responsive. Mobile web browsing is outpacing desktop and you need to make sure mobile users can read along.[*]
  • Use a simple, easily recognizable font. Your readers shouldn’t have to squint at your font to make sense of it.
  • Use lists and other text breaks. I could have just included this list in this section without bulleting it, but that would have been silly and difficult for you to scan and navigate. Lists break up text and allow our eye to flow down the page. 
  • Break the article up using subheads. Subheadings make the article more scannable and break up the content into an organized process.

tl;dr: Written content doesn’t start and stop at text. To stand out and make your content the best, it needs to include UX elements.

Principle #5: Create Timeless Content

This type of content can take a significant time investment to create. 

You should plan on spending at least 12 hours creating this type of content, up to 60 hours (or even more). 

You don’t want to spend that much time creating content that will be outdated in a month or even a year. That’s why you want to create what content marketers call Evergreen Content

Time-bound content like the “Breaking News” post does well initially, but it’s not a lasting source of traffic, subscribers or sales. 

Even with evergreen content, update the content regularly. Replace old examples, update it with new research, stats, and expert quotes,  read and answer comments and always keep improving it. 

A good rule of thumb is to update your cornerstone content once a year. 

tl;dr: Create evergreen content that’s relevant as time passes, and update that content regularly.

If You’re Not Following These You’re Leaving Money On the Table

Content marketing is one of the best ways to increase your business’s visibility, get more traffic, grow your email list, and rake in more sales. 

If you’re… 

  1. Not doing content marketing or
  2. Not doing content marketing properly

You’re leaving revenue on the table. 

Start following these content marketing principles NOW.