This is the first of three posts about content pillars. Links to posts two and three in the series are at the end of this post.

Connecting the values and ethos behind a brand to the performance of its content is difficult, particularly in a corporate environment focused on immediate returns. Publishers and content marketers are just now getting used to the idea that not every social post has to lead back to the website, that cross-channel content really is about content and not just words and images plugged in to fill space in a template and sell ads.

If you're looking to build audience, brand and a better case for digital content, you may want to adopt a strategy based on content pillars. Pillar strategies aren't necessarily new, but the below approach adapts to the 2020s content environment, one that's distinct from the success of individual social platforms. A cool thing about content pillars: they work for organizations of all sizes, including solo pubs like this one.

What are content pillars?

In content strategy, pillars are the topics and ideas for which you want to be known as a brand. Strong content pillars incorporate brand mission, vision and values; business model; and audience data into a finite set of subjects that provide a framework of a website or publication.

Not every content strategist calls these areas of core coverage pillars, but usually the metaphor is pretty similar: whether they're called themes or buckets or walls or even core competencies (gross), content pillars provide strategic direction for the subjects a brand or publication inhabits.

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Rather than editorial verticals or departments, which news and other print media use to define their beats and coverage areas, pillars support a brand as content adapts to the nuances of multiple formats, evolving channels and user preferences. Pillars provide do-this-not-that direction when the choices for content creation seem infinite.

Content pillars: Good vs. bad

Good content pillars:

  • Succinctly translate a content strategy into executional deliverables, turning the why into a what
  • Last for at least two years
  • Serve the needs of your audience and are guided by audience data
  • Are no fewer than three and no more than nine in number, no matter the size of your organization (ideally you have between four and six)
  • Steer editors, writers and other stakeholders into creating content that aligns with business priorities
  • Are part of an intentional process that involves team collaboration and multiple qualitative and quantitative audience data points
  • Keep branded content focused on the content's value as a whole
  • Ensure varied consistency in covered subjects to attract and keep audiences long-term
  • Make measurement and analysis far, far easier than a bunch of assorted pieces of content thrown into a folder
  • Turn a content strategy into an audience acquisition strategy
  • Can be totally secret from your audience and have nothing to do with your navigation, user experience, or hashtag strategies and still be successful
  • A major framework for how your brand and business brings content to market

Content pillars are not:

  • Single channel (i.e., only for the website or only for email)
  • Individual products or verticals
  • White papers or ebooks or other one-time ginormous content pieces that can be broken down for a super-dated COPE (create-once-publish-everywhere) strategy
  • A strategic initiative that only the content team knows about
  • An organization-wide mandate that only one person is in charge of enforcing (content cops make for unhappy businesses)
  • Individual departments or beats
  • A limit to creative expression
  • Something that only six people in a room decided, once, without any comprehensive review of data or input from outside stakeholders

Why spend time identifying content pillars?

A blank page is a beautiful possibility, but it fills with doodles quickly if you're not intentional. 

When you're starting a fresh new publishing project or prepping to rebrand, it's hard to see the horizon line for the content you'll create, and ambition can lead to wild directions. Six months into regularly publishing cross-channel content, however, and you'll be left with a bit of a mess on your hands as you're working to explain exactly what content hits the mark and what doesn't.*

Content pillars provide a topical structure for content decision-making, rather than a channel, calendar, or medium-specific approach. When using a pillar approach, you can measure and analyze cross-channel initiatives without relying on red herrings like real-time engagement metrics.* Pillars are brand- or product-wide and not campaign-driven, so there's no time limit or short-term performance goals. Campaigns can fall under content pillars, which ideally act as an umbrella for all content initiatives.

A pillar-first strategy determines the effectiveness and resonance of the content itself, regardless of channel or delivery. If you believe your content is thought leadership, a pillar framework can determine which of your thoughts are actually leading.

*Unless you're the slowest of B2B brands, which, I get it, sometimes good content and results take a while.

How content pillars are used in the wild

Because pillars are usually a behind-the-scenes tactic, it can be hard to spot good pillars in the wild. But if you consider the brands and publishers you feel connected with, the ones who produce consistent, varied, engaging content on brand-related topics across channels are probably using some sort of pillar strategy.

Cultural institutions like museums and university departments often incorporate pillar-esque strategies into their digital content operations, usually because strategic buckets act as an easy triage for knowing what to publish and what to avoid.

For example, let's say Rob, who works in the department of fictional examples at the local natural history museum, wants to publish a short video of his kids' painted rocks he uses for paperweights (Jim doesn't believe in computers or toys and only gives his children rocks, just go with me) on the department TikTok account. Documented content pillars can be an easy way to say, "These rocks are cute and practical for keeping paper from blowing around your office, but the video doesn't fit within our content pillars. Remember we want to keep our content focused on what's in our exhibits, and our Behind the Scenes pillar unfortunately doesn't cover employee desk décor."

But the natural history museum content director might also say, thrilled by Rob's enthusiasm for creating content, "Rob, one of our pillars is Why Local Rocks Are Rad, so maybe you could work with one of our content specialists on a tutorial for the best kinds of rocks to paint in our city and how to identify them."

Brands and publications can use pillars in a similar fashion to cultural institutions, although pillar-focused strategies are less common and harder to spot in both. Brands have a tendency to limit their pillars to only product-focused content, or they only produce limited non-product content. Publications can be too focused on old-school methods of rapidly drumming up traffic and selling advertisements by the eyeball to shift to newer approaches like pillars.

I'm pretty sure Netflix has a pillar-esque strategy for determining which titles are produced, based on the scant details they give in quarterly shareholder letters but they're far too competitive to ever tell.

So what makes content pillars different from topics again?

In legacy companies, there's a tendency to say "well, we already have that and it's called XYZ." Ok, yes, you may have had different editorial departments that covered different topics, broadly.

But the content pillars outlined in this post are designed for the 2020s cross-channel, measurable digital environment. The content pillars described in this post are distinct from their predecessors because the approach is:

  1. Tied to content at the brand level, meaning that they aren't restricted to editorial or marketing or any other single department. Pillars are for everyone, so all content and messaging is somewhat unified.
  2. Deeply connected to a brand's or publication's contemporary mission, vision and values, as well as their audience's views, meaning that they've been considered in the last couple of years and will be reconsidered in a few more. Pillars are relatively long-term in the world of fast content but also temporary and iterative.
  3. Measured and analyzed regularly across channels. I can't say this enough: a good pillar strategy means that you're measuring, monthly or quarterly, how each pillar is performing across channels and media. This distinction is challenging but crucial: determining resonance of the content itself, whether it's a tv spot or a series of tweets, is what makes a pillar strategy work.

To date, I've created pillars with clients but it's been a few years since I've seen the full picture of performance over time. The measurement piece is a comprehensive measurement project that requires a hefty initial lift, and for recent freelance projects my scope of work typically ends with the website launch. But tying content strategy to results is always the end goal with any pillar approach, even if a client can't execute on all steps.

Currently, in both publishing and content marketing, success is most often tied with easily gamed short-term metrics like leads/subscriptions generated, search ranking, or pageviews (yuck).

In an ideal execution, pillars connect the actual content — ideas, world-views, leading thoughts, humor, personality — to brand performance over time.

An example of content pillars

I can't share pillar strategies that I've used with clients because, well, like Netflix's, they're proprietary.

But I'm happy to be ultra-transparent about this newsletter, which has pillars that I mostly use for organization and ad-hoc analysis. I don't fully analyze pillars for my own work in the way I've mentioned above, because I'm pretty limited in my cross-channel output, but I'd like to.

The pillars also determine the color coding of each essay on the website. Why? It provides visual variety for the user, sure, but for me it's an easy way to tell whether I've hit all my pillars recently.

The Content Technologist's pillars are:

Content pillars keep my editorial focus aligned with my business goals and provide cohesion when I'm feeling all over the place and don't know what to write. I'm sticking with these for another year, with one exception: after this year, I don't know that I can be a full-time freelancer and give The Future of Content as much attention as it deserves. To use a silly corporate cliché, I'm putting a pin in that one for the moment.

Next in this series

Using audience and algorithmic data to build content pillars
Content pillars make incorporating audience data manageable for long-term organic growth. Read on for how and where to find that data.
Measuring content pillars | The Content Technology
Now that you’ve built your content pillars, here’s how to measure them. Hint: it’s not audience size.

“Feeding the beast” is a myth | The Content Technologist
What really works to make digital content successful in the 2020s? Realistic strategies for posting and navigating algorithms
Summer reading for content designers | The Content Technologist
Looking for new books on content design and communications theory? Here’s my reference bookshelf.
Measuring brand lift with organic GSC data | The Content Technologist
Measure PR and ad effectiveness without pricey brand lift studies. This brand media measurement approach uses free data your organization likely already has.