Content Creation

How to Identify Content Pillars for Your Marketing Ecosystem

By Liz Alton on September 15, 2021

If you're like many marketers, you work on a single project -- and then you move on. Content marketing is a high-production field, and getting content into the market drives results. However, stepping back to develop the larger framework can help you turn those individual content marketing efforts into high-return initiatives that move the needle on brand awareness and other high-benefit areas.

Let's explore content pillars and how they can help you build a stronger content marketing ecosystem.

Building Authority through Content Pillars

Building exposure and authority in a given field are often two of the key goals that inspire companies to invest in content marketing. Identifying pillars and building your library of content can help you gain traction quickly. But what is a content pillar -- and how can you determine which ones are right for your business?

Topic pillars are the broad topic areas your brand wants to be known for in the market. They define the topics and subtopics that content throughout your ecosystem will cover.

Let's look at some potential industries and the content pillars that businesses within them might try to cultivate:

  • Hair salon chain: Hair cut trends, coloring, styling, day-to-day hair care questions, and advice for different hair types.
  • Tax law: Filing returns, managing audits, paying back taxes, tax planning, and dealing with tax controversies.
  • Financial services: Debt management, savings, investing, frugal living tips, and managing long-term financial challenges.

The secret sauce of pillars is in more than just finding topics that relate to your business -- it's being clear about which topics showcase your unique point of view and help establish a strong message in the market that resonates with your ideal customers. This practice is also a great opportunity to showcase the answer to the question: "What do you want to be known for?"

For example, a bank that's focused on low-cost products to help communities without access to traditional banking services has a unique story and set of values, and those inform the way they talk about their products, services, and the customers they serve. By contrast, a digital-only bank that targets entrepreneurs has a powerful but completely different story and point of view, which opens up unique pillars for them to explore.

content pillars

Maximizing the Benefits of a Content Pillar Strategy

From the perspective of your content team, a pillar strategy for content carries broad benefits as well:

  • Focus: Pillars become themes that organize your content. When you have limited resources, content pillars help you strategically anchor your content around what matters most for your business.
  • SEO: Pillar topics also focus your keyword strategy. By researching the keyword phrases that ladder up to your pillar topics and subtopics, you ensure that you're content is optimized properly to build search visibility in priority areas.
  • Ideation: Ideation is one of the challenges most frequently cited by brands as they push their content marketing efforts forward. Content pillars offer a starting point for ideation and ensure that every aspect of a topic is eventually addressed.
  • Ecosystem: Often, an asset is created for a specific purpose, such as highlighting a product to a specific audience or recognizing an event. However, each individual piece builds a larger, interconnected body of content that works across different touchpoints and stages of the customer journey to help you build a high-impact content marketing ecosystem.
  • Key performance indicators: Having clearly defined pillars also helps brands develop effective KPIs. A specific content pillar offers the chance to look beyond basic metrics and understand how specific pieces of content are (or aren't) moving the needle on the brand's most important objectives.

Determining Your Content Pillars

Determining your key content pillars is an investment in your overall business plan. If you're a financial services brand, for example, you might want to be seen as an industry expert in debt management.

What process should you follow? Try these five steps to pinpoint your content pillars and map a comprehensive content strategy.

Step 1. Start with 3 Questions

Often, the insights needed to begin crafting coherent content pillars can be found in your company's brand team and search engine optimization (SEO) data. Using the insights of the professionals around you -- as well as a competitive knowledge of today's search landscape -- consider the following three questions:

  1. What does your brand want to be known for?
  2. Which topics must you rank well for in search engine results in order to succeed?
  3. Are there specific high-value keywords that you need (or want) to own?

Going back to our bank example, let's take the case study of the financial organization that caters to entrepreneurs and small businesses. They determine that their brand should be known as the destination for new entrepreneurs. Broadly, the bank knows that the topics and keywords they want to focus on center on business financing, starting a new business, managing debt, online banking, and funding lifestyle businesses.

Step 2. Focus In on Your Audience's Needs

From there, consider what value your content needs to deliver to audiences -- and be aware that this may include multiple audiences within your customer base. Consider:

  • Why do your customers come to you? What topics do they already ask about or interact with you around?
  • What areas do you have something valuable to add for that audience, even if they don't know you can help?
  • What challenges does this audience need to solve?
  • What type of solution interests them?

If you have different audience segments, go through this exercise for each of them. You're likely to find points of overlap as well as unique content opportunities within a segment.

The bank may consult their data analytics as well as talk to frontline staff; common topics might center on business financing, balancing life expenses with the financial demands of a new business, debt, personal finance topics, and retirement.

Step 3. Compare Your Lists

Once you've developed a dual list of potential topics, it's time to compare, prioritize, and explore. Ideally, your core content pillars should be those topics you want to be known for and that your audience cares about most. Start by parking topics that aren't on both lists. If you find four or five categories that overlap, this is a great starting point.

If you're left with longer lists, it's time to look for opportunities that bubble up to an umbrella topic. For example, the bank might find that customers are interested in discussing both credit cards and student loans. Those could be combined effectively under a "managing debt" category.

After comparing lists, the bank might find that their biggest areas of overlap include business financing, managing debt, and entrepreneurial personal finance.

Step 4. Determine Priority

It's also important to run topics through a lens of ownership -- which ones you must own, which ones you should own, and which ones are more "nice to have." Anything that's "nice to have" can likely be added to your parking lot for exploration later down the line.

The "must-own" topics become your core content pillars where you invest most of your energy. Keep your "should-own" and "nice-to-own" lists close by, though; content pillars may need to shift over time as business priorities evolve. As you scale content operations and start to own your core areas, you may decide it makes sense to add additional content pillars.

Step 5. Build Out Your Supporting Topics

Once you have set up your content pillars, you can build out the subtopics under each pillar. Aim for mid-level topics -- you'll eventually break them down even further into specific topics as you build out your content streams. Take the time to go through the process and ensure that each subtopic aligns with both your goals and your audience's interests.

At this point, it's a great time to test your ideas against some internal and external benchmarks. Questions to ask or explore include:

  • How does this map to the brand's business priorities?
  • Does this topic tie out to a core product?
  • What's the competitive landscape look like on this topic?
  • What does the search data show for this?

With your content pillars in place, you're finally ready to begin ideating specific content ideas. These may connect back to internal data you want to showcase, industry trends, keyword data, competitive analysis, and other factors -- however, ensuring that each idea has a place within your content pillar framework helps ensure you're developing content with the highest return. From here, you can use organic ranking insights to find keywords that help refine story angles.

Taking the Next Step Forward

Defining your brand's content pillars gives structure to your content marketing efforts, helping you realize more value from standalone initiatives. Content pillars are just one crucial aspect of building a self-sustaining content ecosystem that can help your business really grow. If you're ready to learn more, download the Ultimate Guide to Building a Content Ecosystem today.

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Featured image attribution: Alexey Derevtsov on Unsplash


Liz Alton

Liz Alton is a technology and marketing writer, and content strategist, for Fortune 500 brands and creative agencies. Her specialties include marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud, and mobility. She's worked with clients including Adobe, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Twitter, ADP, and Google. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA. She is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism from Harvard University.