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How to Use How-To Content to Create and Retain Loyal Customers


Does your team focus on the top of the marketing funnel, developing most of your content to create brand awareness and nurture leads? If so, you may miss the rewards that come from focusing on the bottom or (depending on how you define your funnel) below.

I’m talking about focusing on the content needs of people who are on the verge of buying what you sell, people who have just bought, and people who are between purchases.

One company that’s doing just that – with gusto – is outdoor-gear retailer REI. Its library of how-to content, which contains over 500 in-depth articles and videos, is proving that how-to content (aka utility content) can create and retain loyal customers. So says Eric Hess, senior program manager for content marketing at REI, who presented REI’s How-To Guide to How-To Content at Content Marketing World.

.@REI proves how-to #content can create and retain loyal customers, says @HessinSeattle. Share on X

REI, according to Eric, aims to become the Khan Academy or of outdoor education. As Marcus Sheridan (who created a blog sometimes called the Wikipedia of Fiberglas swimming pools) might say, REI is committed to “being the best teacher in the world in their niche.”

And REI’s approach is paying off in sales of mountain bikes, backpacks, tents, hiking boots, and everything else fans of nature love this brand for.

Want to become the Khan Academy or of your field in a way that boosts your bottom line? Read on to learn from a pro. This article summarizes Eric’s Content Marketing World talk. All images come from his slides.

How to launch a program of how-to content

If you’re starting to develop how-to content as part of your marketing strategy, “focus on the questions and topics most core to your business first,” Eric says. Specifically, he suggests developing your how-to content in this order:

Focus on the questions & topics most core to your business first, says @HessinSeattle. Share on X
  1. Create shopping-related content.
  2. Create post-purchase content.
  3. Create between-purchase content.


These three content areas parallel three of the four primary reasons – as listed in a recent CMI article – for companies to use content marketing:

  • Shopping-related content builds an interested and engaged audience.
  • Post-purchase content increases sales with new customers.
  • Between-purchase content builds loyalty and increases revenue with existing customers.

Eric’s approach doesn’t explicitly address the fourth primary reason to use content marketing – to create brand awareness (the top stage of the funnel) – but you can bet awareness comes along for the ride at REI. As Todd Wheatland put it in his Content Marketing World presentation, Marketing Below the Funnel, a passionate, engaged customer base becomes “a legion of fans who race to the top of the funnel and pull in new people.”

Here’s how Todd illustrates this point in one of his slides. (I’ve added Eric’s labels.)


In other words, when you meet people’s needs low on or below the funnel, as REI does with its how-to content, you attract new people at the top as well.

When you market below the funnel, fans race to the top & pull in new people, says @ToddWheatland. Share on X

1. Create shopping-related content

Eric suggests developing how-to content by starting at the core – shopping content. “Focus first on conversion,” he says. “Dig in with content that’s most important to driving your business forward.”

In Google lingo, Eric points out, this is content that addresses people’s I-want-to-buy moments.

Here are some content types that appeal to REI’s shoppers (think “buyers,” all you B2B readers out there):

  • Product reviews (left)
  • Buying guides (center)
  • Product comparisons (right)


2. Create post-purchase content

You’ve made your start with shopping-related content – “and, to be honest, that’s a lot of work,” Eric says. Now follow by answering your customers’ questions about the types of things they’ve bought from you. You want to “build loyalty by helping customers use your products and services.”

In Google lingo, this post-purchase content may address I-want-to-know, I-want-to-go, or I-want-to-do moments.

Here are some content types that REI’s customers appreciate after they buy:

  • Care and maintenance instructions (left)
  • Set-up guides (center)
  • Repair help (right)


As an REI customer who buys a new tent every couple of years, Eric says he appreciates the thorough set-up instructions that come with each tent.

There are always little clips and loops and stuff. I work for REI, and I have no idea what those are for! You want your content to help demystify your products. You want to demystify the things that are obvious to the people who developed the product and may be underused by the people who buy the product.

Create #content that demystifies what you sell, says @HessInSeattle. Share on X

3. Create between-purchase content

Finally, after you have your shopping-related and post-purchase content rolling, answer the questions that come up for your customers when they have – gasp – stopped thinking about you.

The opportunity? To create content that creates tomorrow’s repeat customers.

Like post-purchase content, this content addresses people’s I-want-to-know, I-want-to-go, or I-want-to-do moments, but is less directly tied to a product or service. It brings your brand back to mind in ways that your customers appreciate in the moment – ways that also just might bring your brand back to mind when it’s time to buy again.

Here are some content types that REI’s between-purchases customers appreciate:

  • Activity hacks/tips (left)
  • Location guides (middle)
  • Skills and knowledge (right)


This last content area – skills and knowledge – has been a big area of growth for REI, Eric says. For example, REI recently began providing videos of camp recipes like this one:

Even though these recipe videos don’t relate directly to purchasing decisions, they support sales. The videos are not totally detached from product, Eric says. “All those things we show are available to buy at REI – even the little squeeze tube for the hot sauce.”

What could between-purchases content do for your company? Here’s Eric’s take:

Our customers turn to search engines or other sites to find camping recipes to impress their friends. REI’s recipe videos inject our brand into the conversation; they nurture the relationship with our customers. When we answer questions at this point in their journey, we add to the sequence of touchpoints that can mean conversions later on.

Put a bear in it (Keep it interesting)

Eric’s final plea – yes, he says “plea” – is that marketers create how-to content that’s direct, thorough, efficient, effective … and not boring.

People sometimes assume that how-to content has to be boring. This year we launched a new video series to get people stoked about starting out an activity or just considering trying an activity. We’ve seen some big wins out of this content.

Marketers need to create how-to #content that’s efficient, effective, and not boring, says @HessInSeattle. Share on X

For example, this enactment of a couple of first-time backpackers could entice even the slickest of city slickers to consider heading for the deep woods, if only in the hopes of running across fellow hikers as endearing as Anna and Colin:


Here’s Eric’s central message: Your customers have questions. You have answers. Tell people what they want to know, and they’ll come back for more. And they’ll bring their friends.

What is your organization doing to become the REI of your industry? Let us know in a comment.

Here’s an excerpt from Eric’s talk:

Make plans today to gain how-to content for your content strategy. Register to attend the Intelligent Content Conference March 20-22 in Las Vegas.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute