Career Growth

Content Marketing Classics Reading List

Cierra Loflin
August 23, 2022

Content marketing has come a long way from the 500-word blog posts of the 2000s. As the industry has transformed, we’ve gone from keyword-stuffed, unsubstantial posts to content packed with so much data it helps you make major life decisions; opinions so profound they can change your career.

There have been several key resources, people, and moments narrating the different phases of content marketing. This reading list highlights those key moments and important people in the industry. These articles are ‘classics’ that anyone working in content marketing should read for strategy, writing, or career help.

Here’s a quick look at our criteria for choosing articles in this list:

  • Old but still applies
  • Foundational skills and reading
  • Articles that show how the industry has evolved through the years
  • No new trends or experimental

This is by no means an exhaustive list, though we think it’s a pretty good starting point as well as a nod to the individuals who have established industry-standard concepts. Let’s get started!

Content strategy

1. 1,000 True Fans (@kevin2kelly)

1,000 True Fans is a real classic, technically geared towards anyone who is building an audience like entrepreneurs, artists, and singers.

Though content marketers might not have been Kevin Kelly’s intended readers, the role of content marketers by default is to build and grow an audience. By creating content that people want to read, we (hopefully) help grow businesses with leads, traffic, and other metrics.

“The most obscure under-selling book, song, or idea, is only one click away from the best selling book, song or idea,” he says to describe the “Long Tail” effect. In other words, there are so many potential true fans out there that you can be yourself and advocate for your unique ideas as a content marketer.

Key takeaway: You don’t have to attract the masses, just 1000 ‘True Fans’ that genuinely appreciate you and your work.

2. 1,000 True Fans? Try 100 (@ljin18, @future)

This is the updated version of 1000 True Fans, written a decade after it was published. Li Jin explains how you can get more money with fewer fans by focusing on a very niche audience’s pain points and needs.

Instead of building 1000 true fans, you can have a general audience that pays less and a smaller segment that pays more. She provides a model for segmenting your audience into three sections—free audience, donors, and subscribers.

You can earn $1000 per fan by creating premium content and community, providing tangible results, giving people accountability (more money spent means fans are more mentally invested), and giving ‘true fans’ higher ‘status’ or exclusive access.

Key takeaway: The creator economy has shifted. Instead of having one bucket of true fans that will buy anything you create, it’s better to have subsegments and tiered pricing. A major change is the creator mentality starts with people’s problems and not the product or creation.

3. How (some) good corporate engineering blogs are written (@danluu)

In this piece, Dan Luu explains ‘the recipe’ to creating a good corporate engineering blog—a simple approvals process with only a few key people involved, high-level leadership support for blogging, and few non-engineering people involved. He gives real-life examples from companies like Cloudflare and Heap that have good blogs.

He then contrasts these examples with not-so-good corporate engineering blogs which have a lengthy, complicated approvals process with too many stakeholders. The process mainly ‘de-risks’ posts which makes them less interesting to readers.

Key takeaway: When subject matter experts are given an easy process to write and publish, the content is high-quality and engaging. It’s also motivating for SMEs to keep creating content. Leadership needs to understand this so they can give engineers and other technical writers the space and process they need to succeed.

4. Strategy should be painful (@every)

This article explains that there are two reasons businesses plateau—their strategy is wrong or fuzzy. Most of the time though, the content strategy is fuzzy. If the company would just stay the course and focus on their original strategy, they would see growth.

Why is this so hard to implement? Because it’s tough to say no to exciting (though tangential) opportunities. Though it’s painful, you need to say no to anything that doesn’t fit the plan. There are caveats—sometimes tangents do produce growth—but overall it’s better to have focus.

Key takeaway: Even though it’s hard to say no to tempting opportunities, the company will plateau if the strategy is all over the place. To paraphrase the article, ‘give yourself the best shot at winning the game you set out to play.’

5. The Two Archetypal Marketing Messages: “Bags Fly Free” and “Soup is Good Food.” (@Kellblog)

In this classic read, Dave talks about value-based messaging in cold markets (Campbell’s Soup is Good Food) versus differentiation messaging in hot markets (Southwest’s Bags Fly Free).

“The hotter your market, the less you need to message around value. The cooler your market, the less you need to message around differentiation,” he explains.

Key takeaway: It’s really important to know where your product falls (hot versus cold) so you can talk to potential customers in a way that resonates. You will get nowhere talking about how great your X machine is if no one is convinced they need an X machine.

6. We Don’t Sell Saddles Here (@stewart)

Slack sent this memo to their team two weeks before the launch of Slack’s ‘preview release’ to get everyone on board about messaging. This is a real-life example of value-based messaging from the “Bags Fly Free” article above.

At the time of the release, no one knew they wanted Slack. The job of the team was to “understand what people think they want, then translate the value of Slack on their terms.” Rather than selling Slack itself (the features, differentiating it from other team collaboration tools), they wanted to sell ‘Organizational Transformation.’

They drive the point with the analogy about the hypothetical Acme Saddle Company—the company is not selling the saddles, but the idea of horseriding. By thinking big, they’re able to have much more success.

Key takeaway: As a content marketer, understanding what kind of messaging the product needs is everything. Slack’s success wouldn’t have happened without getting everyone on the same page about value-based messaging.

Marketing the overarching idea of transforming organizations was what drove growth. Imagine if Slack had just talked about their product and its features—they probably would have stayed relatively small.

7. Building an efficient marketing machine: the fuel & the engine (@mkt1cap)

This article is super well known for a good reason—it provides a great framework for marketing activities. Emily Kramer and Kathleen Estreich explain why you need the fuel (great design, and accurate messaging) as well as the engine (channels, tools, and analytics). Both have to coexist and fit together for your strategy to work.

They also explain which roles on the team correspond to the fuel versus engine and why you need a good distribution of each within the company.

Key takeaway: Content strategy won’t work without content and distribution, which is more than just blog posts and social media channels. There is a whole ecosystem of fuel and engine components.

8. Stock and flow (@robinsloan, @snarkmarket, recommended by @SeanBlanda)

This piece is helpful for any content marketer wanting to build their own personal brand or run a content team. Robin Sloan highlights the importance of finding the balance between the ‘flow’ or short-term content (tweets, Instagram posts, TikTok videos, etc.) and ‘stock’ or long-term content (eBooks, long-form articles, etc).

Key takeaway: Creating ‘stock’ builds fans over time, while ‘flow’ reminds people you exist and keeps an open channel for communication.

9. The Old Content Marketing Playbook Doesn’t Work Anymore  (@ginnymineo, @NextViewVC, recommended by @thinking_slow)

In 2018, Ginny Mineo recognized that the industry was changing and laid out some new rules for content marketing. Today, we recognize her suggestions as industry-standard. For example, she recommends filling content gaps instead of just recreating dupes of other content online—now this is common practice but back then it wasn’t.

Another suggestion she gives is creating content tailored to each platform, not just reposting the same content and linking back to your site. A third tip she gives is going deep, not wide to attract the right audience.

Key takeaway: Content marketing isn’t necessarily a de-facto strategy for growth. It’s an option for growth that may give your company a competitive advantage. It’s important to match your content strategy to the business strategy, rather than follow the same recipe for content that everyone else does.

10. Movement-First: How to Scale Content Without Sacrificing Quality (@jimmy_daly, @AnimalzCo)

In this foundational article, Jimmy Daly stresses that companies should focus less on search traffic and more on building an audience. “To grow a blog, you have to establish credibility before you start reaching for growth,” he says. In 2018, a movement-first strategy wasn’t very popular, but today we see thought-leadership popping up in every corner.

‘Movement-First’ content creates momentum and builds recognition, while ‘distribution first’ content mainly just drives traffic. The key is to build momentum, then use that momentum to get easy SEO wins with distribution-focused content.

Key takeaway: You’ll reach a smaller audience by doing less distribution-first content and more thought-leadership style content, but you will attract more of the right audience.

11. Product-led growth (@OpenViewVenture)

The times have changed—PLG is now the growth model in the ‘Age of Connected Work.’ This article from OpenView sums up the market shift from the Cloud Era (2000s) to the End User Era (2010s) to the current era of PLG (2020s).

It’s no longer about heavy marketing-led growth with non-tech executives as the main buyer. The company’s focus is now on the end-user and the product is geared towards solving their problems as quickly as possible. PLG is about creating a scalable, bottom-up distribution model that leverages the user experience to drive growth.

Key takeaway: Content marketers working at SaaS companies (which seems like the majority of companies that hire CMs now) need to understand how the product solves users’ problems. Content should be focused on those problems and weave in the product as a solution.

12. An Expert Guide to Idea Curation: How to Get More Ideas for Great Content (@kevanlee, @buffer)

This is a must-read for anyone who needs to curate ideas. Buffer is super transparent about their process of coming up with ideas for posts, saving those posts in Trello, and finally writing, researching, and editing.

With all the duplicate content out there, it seems counterintuitive to read that Buffer takes inspiration from other posts and creators. But the key is that they don’t copy, they create a new idea based on the inspiration. They explain how they build their ‘lightning rod’ where creativity strikes by spending a lot of time reading, thinking, and sharing ideas (plus saving all ideas big and small).

Key takeaway: Every creator gets inspiration from other creators—the best thing you can do for your idea curation is to get better at seeking out sources of inspiration. Don’t duplicate, but rather dive deeper into topics and concepts you like, repurpose attention-grabbing headlines for different topics, and look at what’s worked in past posts.

13. Content marketing ≠ blog posts (@mkt1cap)

As many other foundational pieces mention, this article stresses how content should solve a problem (beyond the problem your product solves for).

This post is part of mkt1cap’s ‘Content as a Product’ series, which stresses that content should be differentiated (not duplicated) and repurposed to get as much ‘mileage’ out of it as possible.

This article includes some great questions to ask yourself before you decide to go forward with an article idea:

  • Does it add value to your audience?
  • Which of your ideas will drive a lot of traffic? Attract a lot of leads?
  • Is it something only your company can create?
  • Finally, maybe don’t create it?

Key takeaway: Don’t mechanically produce blog posts—think more strategically about content and the value it will provide for your audience. Try to repurpose content into different formats and assets like podcasts, surveys and results, Twitter threads, and more.

14. Marketing Exists to Make Sales Easier (@Kellblog)

In this post Dave Kellogg explains his mantra, “Marketing exists to make sales easier.” This idea changed his career and helped him advance from a product marketing manager to VP of product marketing and eventually the overall VP of marketing.

The role of marketing is to help the sales team, putting the ego aside. He explains how help can take many forms, like creating an ICP for sales, developing corporate strategy, bringing in leads, using industry-specific messaging, and more.

Key takeaway: Think about content marketing in a way that serves the sales team, and you’ll be much better aligned.

15. We Stopped Publishing New Blog Posts for One Month. Here’s What Happened (@kevanlee, @buffer)

Refreshing content was not very popular at the time (2015), so this post was a big deal. Kevan Lee explains how they didn’t publish any content for 30 days and only saw a four percent dip in overall traffic and an increase in organic traffic.

Instead of releasing new content, they updated old content with audio and infographics, created drip campaigns from old blog posts, republished content to Medium, added SlideShares to posts, and more.

Key takeaway: Buffer showed there are many ways to update and refresh content beyond just making a post longer. You can add media, republish content to different platforms, create new morphed content, and more. You don’t always have to create fresh content—updates can help drive traffic and grow the business too.

16. What Does the Future of Content Marketing Look Like? Spoiler: Far Less Content (@janessalantz)

Janessa wrote this piece around the time of ‘peak content.’ There was (and still is) too much content out there, making it hard to build an engaged audience. As companies would need to try harder to stand out, she made a few predictions for the future of content marketing.

  1. Content marketers will look more like product managers, being data-driven and prioritizing high-impact work.
  2. There will be a new bar for high-quality content. Content marketers need to ask questions like, would people pay for this content? Would they be bothered if we stopped publishing?
  3. Content will go from lead-gen style blog posts to branded editorial content that requires more resources and talent.

Key takeaway: The message still rings true 6 years later—the internet is saturated with content and the bar for quality is very high to be successful. Content marketers to be innovative and intentional about what they publish, even if it means fewer posts.

17. A SaaS Startup’s Journey to $100,000 a Month (@alexmturnbull)

Groove’s entire blog is a classic, not just this introductory post. Here Groove presents a fresh content strategy where they will be documenting their journey to making $100,000 MRR. This ‘show as you grow’ formula has been replicated by many startups since the debut of this blog.

Key takeaway: Documenting the lessons and growth of a startup in real time feels raw, personal, and exciting. It worked well because Groove was the only one that could have told its story, making the content feel super high value and interesting.

18. Your Blog Is Not a Publication (@jimmy_daly, @AnimalzCo)

Quality and depth are always better than breadth when it comes to B2B corporate blogs. Jimmy notes that most readers are new, not returning, so it’s okay (even good) to cover the same core topics more than once. It gives more depth to those repeated core verticals and people can dive deep into the answers they’re looking for.  

Jimmy also explains how a blog with topic clusters is better for readers than the typical reverse chronological list of different topics and ideas.

Key takeaway: Challenges how content marketers think about their blog, shifting from the idea that you need to create a publication with a wide range of topics to the idea of creating a library with just a few topics. Complete the strategy by having posts at various funnel depths that expand on key verticals.

Content writing

19. Why the Best Content Happens Fast (@jimmy_daly, @AnimalzCo)

When you have a strong idea for an article, along with a solid title and outline, the actual writing should be pretty quick and painless.

On the flip side, when you have a shaky idea or unfocused one, the writing ends up being challenging and drawn-out.

Key takeaway: Developing a unique angle and coming up with better ideas is time well spent. That's not to say time-intensive pieces like a salary report with lots of original data are not worthwhile, but good content doesn’t take a long time to write when backed by a strong idea.

20. In praise of editing (@intercom)

This is a great explainer piece on the different types of editing—developmental or strategic, line editing, and copyediting. They also have helpful visuals and explain why all types of editing are useful.

Key takeaway: Content marketers who do a lot of writing should learn to appreciate their editors and see them as a partner, not a rival.

21. MECE: How to Think, Write & Persuade Like a McKinsey Consultant (@thinking_slow, @AnimalzCo)

The main lesson from Ryan Law in this piece is not to write as you think. This usually results in surface-level information in beginning, then the meaty stuff at the end. Instead, write for the reader by only including the meaty stuff (not the part where you are figuring out the topic).

Key takeaway: Write content that is mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive (MECE). It shouldn’t be repetitive and should completely answer the challenge, problem, or opinion of the piece.

22. Hook, Line, Sinker: How to Write an Introduction (@gmariethatsme, @AnimalzCo)

This piece by Gail Marie changed the way I think about writing introductions. I used to start most articles with a statistic or trope, or would use a metaphor without weaving it through the whole piece.

Gail uses the metaphor of fishing and catching the reader ‘hook line and sinker’ throughout the article to really make her point about 1) having a great intro and 2) not just stating it in the intro and forgetting about it.

Key takeaway: Hook the reader with something unexpected, provide enough context to keep them interested, and weave the hook throughout the piece until the conclusion.

23. Easy Reading is Damn Hard Writing (@gregoryciotti, @helpscout)

This article is packed with great writing tips like using the Paramedic Method to kill bloat, varying sentence length, mimicking authors you admire, and learning by example.

Key takeaway: Don’t be afraid to write a messy first draft then ruthlessly cut the excess. And here’s a key message every content marketer needs to understand—fancy writing with lots of descriptive, complicated words and clever phrases is not good writing.

24. Write Simply (@paulg, recommended by @parthi_logan)

This piece drives home the idea in the previous article, Easy Reading is Damn Hard Writing.

Paul Graham makes a good point—simple writing is easier to read, which means the reader will stick along for longer. As content marketers, our first goal is to get readers to open our content, and our second goal is to get them to read until the end.

Key takeaway: Paul takes a very basic foundational idea (no-fluff writing) and really drives the point home. The way he writes exemplifies the concept as well.

Career Advice

25. What I wish I knew five years ago about building a career in "content" (@SeanBlanda)

In this essay, Sean Blanda gives some gold career advice for mid-level marketers in a new business climate. He gives important tips like don’t brand yourself as a content writer since people will commoditize your work—instead call yourself a Content Marketer.

You’re not just making content, he stresses, you’re serving an audience and contributing to a business. Companies will value your work more and you can ask for more resources when you think this way.

Content marketers need to understand how the business works, what the business needs, and how their skills fit in. Companies in a hyper-competitive landscape need to have a unique point of view and a winner take all mindset—and for that they need experienced writers, editors, and marketers.

Key takeaway: Think like a strategist, not like a writer, and your career in content will reach new heights. Know the value of your work as a content marketer—engaging with the audience matters more than ever as tools are in flux and the competitive landscape is constantly changing.

26. The 7 Skills That Help Content Marketers Thrive at Work (@jimmy_daly)

In this piece, Jimmy covers seven core skills that content marketers should have to succeed—writing, storytelling, organization, analysis, communication, empathy, and the ability to get sh*t done. He found these skills were the common denominators after interviewing dozens of CMs in the Slack community, reading through $100K Club submissions, and reviewing job applications.

Key takeaway: Though content marketing has many different career tracks, including strategy, product marketing, and VP of content, these core skills are helpful whichever direction you go.

Have a content marketing classic you want to recommend? Tweet it to Jimmy so we can add it here.

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