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Think Lean to Win at Content Marketing


Content marketing is not typically aligned with lean production – a scientific method of eliminating waste within a manufacturing system – but thinking lean has strategic advantages for content marketers. Lean methodology, formalized in the book The Lean Startup by Eric Reis, applies to organizations of all sizes and all levels of sophistication. The only requirement is the will to innovate and improve.

How can brands apply this theory to their content marketing efforts in the context of their need for more interactive, responsive, and unique content? Read on! In this article, I talk you through why lean thinking is essential to today’s winning content strategies.

First, I discuss the lean approach and how it gets you ready to win. Then, I discuss how to set up your strategies with the following approach:

  • Decide what to measure.
  • Create a minimal test.
  • Use your test data – especially failure data – to drive your results.

The lean approach: Getting ready to win

At the heart of a lean approach is the need to learn from everything you do. To learn from your content activity, you need three things: a hypothesis, performance data, and analytical skills.

  • A hypothesis. You need an assumption that you think is correct. Example: I assume that my piece of sports content will drive massive engagement among 16- to 18-year-olds because they’re into sports.
  • Performance data. To test your hypothesis, you need to be able to collect, collate, and understand the most important metrics related to what you’re doing: reach among 16- to 18-year-olds, their level of interaction with the content, their feelings about the content, how often they share it, etc.
  • Analytical skills. To bring everything together, you need to be able to analyze the data from an impartial viewpoint to come to clear conclusions. Example: While our content reached a significant number of 16- to 18-year-olds, their engagement with it was five times less than the average engagement level on similar content pieces, and sentiment analysis shows that they were not impressed. Therefore our hypothesis has not held true.

By learning what works and what doesn’t, you can improve. The key is to learn what’s working as quickly as possible so that you can invest in the right areas and scale up your content based on what’s working. There’s no point in creating a batch of content and spending weeks polishing it if it’s not going to engage your audience, so you need to prove what is going to work before you make the leap.


Learning is the most important part of a lean process.

Next, we’ll go into how you can take action in your business.


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Decide what to measure

The key to being lean with your content is measurement. If you can’t track what’s happening and how your content is performing, then it’s not possible to learn what does and doesn’t work.

Think about what you want to find out, what to measure, and how to measure those things.

What you want to measure will depend on your overall goal for your content. For most marketers, overall goals include brand awareness, engagement, and, ultimately, conversions and sales later down the line.  Map out key metrics based on your goals. If you’re focused on engagement you may want to track metrics like social shares across multiple platforms, time spent using your content, and the sentiment of those who use the content.


Taking the above metrics as an example, you need to plan out how to capture this data in an efficient way. Here are some ideas based on the above metrics:

  • For sentiment metrics, such as positive and negative comments and people’s views on the content, you can use social listening platforms like Radian6 or Crimson Hexagon – or, better, survey users who use your content with a clear set of questions to understand their impressions of it.
  • For social shares, a useful tool is Like Explorer, which displays the number of “likes” a content piece has had. Also consider setting up columns in Hootsuite or TweetDeck to track mentions of your content.
  • For time spent by user, simply use a web analytics platform like Google Analytics – as long as your content piece is on its own page. You’ll be able to get average time on the page, bounce rate, and so on. To be smart, set up event tags for each step of your content (particularly if it’s a quiz or multi-load piece of content) so that you can see how far users get and how they interact.

Avoid tracking too many metrics. The more you track, the more confusing your conclusion may be. Any more than five metrics is likely to be too many for this kind of test. By the end of your content test, you need to be in a position to determine whether you should proceed with your strategy or whether to start over.

To decide what to track, focus on what you want to find out. Come up with a statement that you want to prove or disprove. Example: We believe that our sports content will perform best amongst 18- to 24-year-olds.

After you have this hypothesis, you can decide which metrics will help you prove or disprove it as quickly as possible. The faster you determine the validity of your hypothesis, the faster you can focus your efforts on what works and stop wasting time on elements of content that aren’t working for your audience.

Create a minimal test

Consider using the minimum viable product (MVP) approach in your content efforts. In short, to get value from an MVP, you need to create your content in the most efficient way and get your piece out to a selected audience at the earliest possible moment – even if that means it’s not polished and may not function fully.

That may sound scary, but it’s the best way to learn.

With a blog, this could mean posting content quickly in short form, and then expanding on it when you know that your headline works. With our earlier example of sports content for 18- to 24-year-olds, it might be beneficial to create some initial content as quickly as possible for this demographic to see if the hypothesis holds true.

To stick with our example, you might post branded sports-related content on Facebook, and use Facebook ad targeting and news feed ads to reach your target demographic.


This screenshot shows a few of the options available – location, age, gender, language, etc. – for targeting ads on Facebook.

This kind of minimal test can teach you a lot quickly because the ads guarantee your reach among a relevant audience. How is the click-through rate compared to other campaigns or compared to the same content among other age groups? Is there a difference between males and females? And so on. This approach can help you prove the relevance of a content strand.

After you know what you are going to talk about, you also need to prove the best way to talk about it. Again, Facebook ads are a great way to do this. You can create many options with different creative angles, imagery, and headlines. Then measure click-through rate and engagement and get a feel for what works best for your audience before creating a larger piece, such as an interactive piece of content or video campaign. The role of the ads here is to enable you to test various angles, headlines, and creative options in a controlled environment. The ads enable you to see what will work best when creating larger pieces of content.

To give an example of something going through this process right now, take a look at Recently, the government in the U.K. released data on all the names people have given their newborns over the last few years. As a prototype of an interactive piece, we quickly put together a basic interactive tool as a minimum viable piece of content, as illustrated below.


Our team quickly put together this prototype of an interactive piece as an example of a minimum viable piece of content – an MVP in lean lingo.

This piece is not designed or polished yet, and it doesn’t have much in the way of data or functionality. There’s just enough to find out whether people are interested. What we would do next is advertise this piece to new parents (Facebook has a feature for targeting this demographic), and test to see how many users get from the first step to the last and then whether they share it. If we find that users use this piece as intended and share it, we will brand it for a client we have in mind, fully designed and properly distributed to achieve high levels of reach.

This took us only four hours to put together since we used pre-existing code from a piece we had built before; all responsiveness and question-based technology was already built in. All we needed to do was analyze and format the data, build in the data functions, and change the text questions.

By taking this approach – creating content as a test with minimal effort (in this case four hours) – we can find out whether this content concept will work in terms of user interaction with the piece. If the concept is not a hit, we avoid wasting the time we would have spent if we had jumped straight into creating the full piece, such as a series of interactive tools with supporting articles, which might have taken a week or so depending on how complicated we made it.

Use your test data – especially failure data – to drive your results

The most important part of working lean in content marketing is that you and your business need to accept failure as part of the process. The point of testing hypotheses and creating MVP pieces of content is that we want to find the failures. When we do, we need to decide whether to discard the idea completely or rework it.

The worst-case scenario is not failure, then, but becoming so tied to a content idea that you run it anyway despite data that tells you not to, or wasting time testing an idea over and over despite getting the same results. Not every idea is a good idea. Sometimes you need to let ideas go and start over.


Today’s content marketing projects can require a big investment of time and money. By applying lean methodology – testing your content ideas early, focusing on your test data, and rejecting ideas that don’t work as well as you hoped – the content in which you do invest will serve your organization better. You’ll learn and improve your content strategies in a way that reduces wasted effort so that you can put more of your resources into ideas that win.

Want more? Sign up for the Intelligent Content weekly email newsletter. When you do, every Saturday we’ll send you an email pointing to our latest posts on intelligent content and content strategy topics along with an exclusive letter from Robert Rose, chief strategy officer for the Content Marketing Institute.

Please note:  All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team.  No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Cover image by Jeff Sheldon via Unsplash