The Pillar Cluster Model: how to build an effective Content Strategy that increases web visitors and generates better-qualified leads

by Marije Schreur, on Dec 23, 2020 4:27:43 PM

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Once upon a time, content creation was deeply rooted in keywords; in incorporating common search terms and phrases that were used to reach out to audiences through outbound marketing efforts. With the ongoing shift to inbound marketing, however, the ‘what’ that users are searching for is becoming less and less critical. In fact, it is increasingly being replaced with the ‘why’. The Pillar Cluster Model gives a framework for your audience to navigate through any questions they may have about a related content topic.

Marketers adopting the inbound methodology are becoming increasingly focused on intent-based content creation; on working to understand why audiences behave in the way they do, and what this tells us about their needs. As a result, content strategies have moved away from being structured around the business itself, and are beginning to be shaped by the customer, with ideas grouped together into three content funnel stages to aid the buyer journey. 

Introducing the Pillar Cluster Model

The pillar cluster model for content creation is a relatively new approach to developing a clean, clear, and transparent site navigation, with content organised by category. First introduced by HubSpot in response to changes to the Google ranking algorithm in a bid to improve SEO results, topic clusters have fast become the go-to method for streamlining content strategies and boosting campaign results.

The model, at its core, is simple:

Pillar pages act as a way to effectively summarise a wide umbrella topic, providing a basic overview of the idea as a whole. The pillar is designed as an introduction to a complex area, and provides readers with a comprehensive overview of a subject. 

Cluster pages provide more in-depth information about niche sub-topics that fall under the umbrella. They act as standalone pieces of content, but are linked back to the pillar page. Together, all clusters form a full and comprehensive look at the topic in question. 

The Benefits of Topic Clusters for the Inbound Marketer

Unlike outbound content, inbound content isn’t designed to convert all the time. The primary use of inbound content is to guide customers down the funnel, facilitating the buyer journey from awareness to consideration to conversion. The pillar and cluster model aligns well with this methodology, allowing marketers to use the extensive data they hold to say ‘if a customer is interested in this area, then they may be interested in this area’, creating topic clusters that keep all associated subjects connected, and helping to move audiences along naturally from one area to the next. 

The benefit in employing this model is that it helps audiences to answer all questions that they may have - in every stage of the funnel - without leaving a website. It exhausts one single idea, ensuring that audiences can identify a problem, evaluate solutions, and justify their decision all in one place, keeping them on your website for longer. It creates higher quality leads by nurturing each lead right through from start to finish. 

Pillar and cluster content can also work to boost web traffic, if done correctly. Changes to Google’s ranking algorithm under the Web 3.0 (or the ‘semantic web’) concept have placed more importance on context and meaning, with the search engine giant keen to deliver more relevant results to users. 

SEO expert Neil Patel says that “a major reason Google ranks one website or piece of content over another is that it can determine exactly what it’s about”, and with the pillar and cluster model, that happens naturally. Each cluster, linked to a pillar, leaves no question as to what the pillar is all about. There is also the added benefit that this wealth of naturally connected, logically organised content can be repurposed into other formats; perhaps forming a part of an email marketing strategy for example or feeding social media post creation.

Building an Effective Pillar and Cluster Strategy

There are four essential stages to developing a strong pillar and cluster content strategy:

1. Determine an Overall Topic

Determining the topic of your pillar means thinking up subject matters that are not only relevant to your business, and of interest to your audience, but which are also broad enough that you can easily break the idea down into 5-15 distinct, standalone areas. As an example, a good pillar would be ‘An Introduction to Inbound Marketing’. This pillar would provide a broad overview of inbound marketing as a whole, allowing readers to click through to in-depth niche aspects of inbound to learn more about it. 

2. Breakdown Topic Into Bite Size Chunks

Using the example above, the subject of inbound marketing can easily be broken down into a number of subcategories. This may include transitioning from outbound to inbound, the benefits of the inbound methodology, content creation, tools and technology, how to hire the right agency and so on. 

Each cluster must be able to stand alone - to appeal to audiences that have landed on the content without first reading the pillar - yet must also be easily linked back to the pillar, and connect effortlessly with other clusters. 

3. Create In-Depth Clusters

Each cluster must exhaust a particular niche subsection of the umbrella topic. This is an opportunity to go into great detail about a specific area, and answer all the questions that readers may have about the subject matter. The ultimate aim is that, when combined, all clusters come together to form a fully comprehensive guide to the topic. This is a chance for organisations to position themselves as an authority on the matter - as an opinion leader within the industry - to develop trust amongst potential customers. 

4. Summarise and Link

Once all clusters have been created, the general gist of each cluster can be summarised to form the overarching pillar. As a standalone piece of content itself, the subject matter of the pillar should effortlessly flow from one area to the next, although this should be simple as long as all clusters are closely connected to the topic area. 

Finally, each cluster should be linked to the relevant section of the pillar, making it easy for readers to navigate their way through the topic and absorb all the information.

Topics:Inbound MarketingMarketing Strategy

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