Building a long tail of evergreen content

Main illustration: Na Kim

The first law of content marketing is that publishing is an expensive business. No matter how hard you try to circumvent it, the first law will always come back and bite you.

One common approach is to outsource content production, which can be cheaper in pure monetary terms. But unless someone, preferably an editor or someone with editorial skills, is closely managing that process you’ll end up paying more for it in the long run.

That’s because the second law of content marketing is that crappy content generates crappy business. If the articles you’re publishing are just plain bad, then you won’t generate traffic. If they are good but only tangentially related to your business, then you’re going to be attracting readers who will never become your customers.

Just because you can publish to the world for free, doesn’t mean content is free

Lots of startups who start a blog approach content production as something that can be done in the founders’ “spare time” – at weekends or evenings. That might work for a while but it’s simply not a sustainable, scalable or sane strategy. And it requires massive discipline, because as a founder or early stage employee, time spent writing blog posts, hosting podcasts, or shooting videos is time you’re not doing other work that often seems more urgent or impactful.

Just because you can publish to the world for free with a Medium/Twitter/LinkedIn account doesn’t mean content is free. Content marketing should be approached and resourced in the same way that any other marketing function is, which means you have to invest in it if you want to break through the noise.

So how do you make sure you’re getting a return on your investment? Not in terms of how you measure success – the KPIs you need to measure will be unique to the circumstances of your business. But how can you ensure you’re getting the best return out of that expensively produced content?

Enter evergreen content

The strategy that has paid off – and continues to pay off at Intercom – is publishing evergreen content.

What is evergreen content? Put simply, it is content that addresses timeless themes and answers recurring questions people in your industry are going to have. Rather than reacting to recent events, it takes a broader perspective on topics. It is content that focuses on enduring ideas and advice that will have currency for weeks, months and years – evergreen content retains its relevance because it addresses universal themes.

When I worked as a journalist, evergreen had negative connotations. Real journalists were out breaking news, not reheating old themes at their desk. (Although that was before the internet ate their advertising revenues – but that’s a post for another blog and another day).

The content itself is highly temporal and has no value once the event has passed

Hardly surprising when most news organizations’ idea of evergreen content is “Everything you need to know about X event happening in our city” or “How to watch Y sports game that the whole country is talking about”.

The mistake is in mistaking an evergreen tactic for evergreen content – those articles will generate a nice bump in traffic in the day or two before X event as people figure out their travel plans, or when they are trapped at work instead of watching Y game, but the next day they’re trash littering your Google index.

At Intercom, the tactical equivalent would be to publish articles on how to survive this year’s Dreamforce or speculation on the next Facebook F8 announcement. The tactic might be age-old and recyclable (the preview, the round-up, etc), but the content itself is highly temporal and has no value once the event has passed.

A far more efficient and productive use of resources is to publish evergreen content that touches timeless topics and answers those recurring questions. (Sidenote: the rise of voice interfaces means if you want to improve your SEO you need to start thinking about answering questions not simply targeting keywords.)

Here’s just three examples of articles we’ve published that answer perennial questions:

Finding value in the long tail

Evergreen posts like these continue to generate traffic months and years after they’ve been published. In contrast, news or content tied to current events drops to zero the next day or whenever the event is over. Assuming both articles require a similar amount of work to create, it becomes pretty clear which is the more profitable strategy.

Not every article we publish here is evergreen but it’s certainly the bulk of our output. So much so that we actively monitor how much of our traffic is being generated by recently published articles versus evergreen content (defined as posts published more than 9 months ago).

The chart below shows how that panned out over the last 3 quarters – the bars are total traffic while the line is the contribution of evergreen content. This long tail effect means that 40-60 percent of our pageviews each month are generated by articles we produced at least 9 months ago.

Intercom Evergreen content
Intercom blog traffic over the past three quarters, with content older than 9 months indicated by the “line”

Tips for your evergreen content strategy

We’ve heard the argument that only well-resourced companies like Intercom can afford to follow this strategy. But actually it’s one that we’ve pursued since Intercom was a 4 person startup and was an early marketing success before we even had a marketing team. Don’t take my word for it: Tomasz Tunguz has done a compelling analysis of how an evergreen strategy can 3x your audience over a year.

If you think an evergreen strategy might be for you, here are our tips for implementing one:

  1. Don’t publish and forget Not to stretch the analogy too far, but just as a garden needs to be weeded and the dead foliage removed, evergreen content can’t be allowed get out of date. This is particularly an issue if you’re writing technology or business, where there’s a pretty relentless pace of change. You’ll need to ensure you have a program in place so that your older articles are periodically being reviewed and optimized.
  2. Hold your nerve You only get the compounding benefits of an evergreen strategy if you stick at it. Programs that run out of steam after a couple of quarters won’t reap the benefits.
  3. Shine a spotlight on it Evergreen is not just an SEO play. You should take every opportunity to get eyeballs on your best performing articles. New subscribers to our blog get a welcome email that includes classics from the vault, while our weekly newsletter includes an “In Case You Missed It” section where we highlight one of our previously published posts.
  4. Social is evergreen too You should also be comfortable sharing your evergreen content across your social networks. Some of our best performing social posts are when we share links to our older articles.
  5. Lean into it When we realised the power of evergreen we made the decision to double down on it. One small but telling example – we don’t put dates on our articles to make them more likely to be consumed long after their original publication date (although that puts additional pressure on us to ensure we are implementing tip #1)
  6. Convert visitors with CTAs Content isn’t free to create, so don’t give it away for free either! Make it clear what you think the next step for your readers should be, which will also nudge them down the funnel towards becoming a customer.

Evergreen is not the solution for everyone. But if your resources are limited (and whose aren’t?) it’s a powerful place to start.

Want to learn more about how to build your brand and sell more products in a non-spammy way? Download your copy of our book, Intercom on Marketing:

Intercom on Marketing – Desktop Article – horizontal 2019