Should I Use SEM to Promote My Content?

Tim Johnson
Our Playbook

A lot of time, effort and resources go into creating high quality content for your business. Regardless of format – infographic, blog post, video or something else – you need to create, produce and publish every piece. You’re expending resources: Time, money or both.

After making that hefty initial investment you need to get it in front of your audiences, both real and prospective. You may’ve even heard the glib phrase:  Content is king, but distribution is queen, and she wears the pants.  

For results-driven digital marketers charged with getting the most out of every dollar, this often raises the question, “Should I use SEM to promote my content?”

Although SEM might seem like an old, familiar and trusted friend, the answer is a resounding “maybe.” Obviously you can, but should you really? Here are some ways to tell if you should use SEM to promote content and ways it can pay off.

The PPC Pitfall

Unfortunately, when people ask about SEM, they often mean “paid search network promotion”…aka Google AdWords. In nearly all such scenarios, the answer is ‘no.’ The cost of using a direct response channel for top-of-funnel awareness simply doesn’t pencil.

Do not abandon hope!

So you’ve run all the rest of your content promotion playbook

While a strategy that starts and ends with AdWords may not be the right fit, it doesn’t mean SEM is a bad idea. Selective use of SEM can actually be a great strategy to drive critical, early traction for your precious content. Before creating a plan that relies too heavily on paid search though, here are some other strategies and tactics that should be tried before you go to the PPC well. Disclaimer, I’m being a little rigid about what qualifies as “not-SEM” here.

Paid Social

Social sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are obvious places to start when trying to ignite a conversation around your content and to drive viral sharing. However, sparking this process organically is getting harder and harder. In fact, in today’s social platforms it is nearly impossible to gain any real visibility without paid promotion, and if done right, a little can go a long way. If you’re interested in brushing up, here’s a great Portent webinar recording on the Principles of Virality.


Your remarketing lists are a strong resource as well. The people on your lists have already shown interest in you by visiting your site, even if they’ve not yet converted. A great way to nurture that audience and to pull them closer is to make sure they get a chance to see your new, high quality content.

However, avoid using your “all list” if there’s any possible way around it. Remember, not everyone who has been to your site may be interested in this particular piece of content. In fact, if you’ve deliberately targeted a niche audience and interest with this content, which we’d heartily recommend, it won’t appeal to just anyone. And that’s a good thing.

Instead, be smart and selective with your retargeting, which itself can be plenty pricey. Target users based on their onsite actions, intent, smart lists, and in-market segments.

Content Promotion Platforms

Depending on the nature of your content you might also look to some popular content discovery platforms like Taboola, Outbrain, or StumbleUpon. There are tons of options out there so find a platform suited for your type of content and your goals.

A general rule of thumb: if you can’t target the group you’re after, move on. There are just too many spammy articles with clickbait titles and images to wade through if you can’t refine your results to an audience that can and should care.

Display Networks

Trying to reach new audiences via display networks like Google’s can get trickier. That said, using contextual targeting paired with well-designed, informative, clear banner ads is a good (and inexpensive) way to bring additional and potentially highly relevant traffic to your site. If you go this route also consider utilizing features like smart lists to attract a larger audience. Disclaimer: you need to prepare yourself and your CMO for low engagement rates and even lower conversion rates if your targeting is broad.

How to decide when it’s finally time to use SEM to promote content

Before you jump to develop any distribution strategy for your content, especially if you’re considering a higher-cost channel like PPC, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is your audience?
  • Where in the funnel are they? (Awareness, Consideration, or Decision)
  • Where will they be after they consume your content?
  • Are they close to a monetizable conversion, OR a micro-conversion with known value?  (Calculator: “What’s a Click Worth?”)
  • With brutal honesty: will seeing this content bring them enough closer to a conversion to warrant the high cost-per-click?

While this certainly isn’t exhaustive, asking these types of questions will help guide your decision making process. They’ll help you build a distribution strategy suited to your unique business, audience, and content.

Creating your distribution plan – An example

Status check:  You’ve asked the hard questions. You’ve identified the platforms. You know where to find the low hanging, easy-to-target fruit. And you’ll capitalize on that first.

But, how will you decide which platform mix is ultimately right for you? How should you allocate budget? How will you execute? When should you alter the tactical plan?

Depending on your industry, the type of content you are offering, and your target audience, there are a heap of different directions you can choose.

For the sake of getting to a real, actionable example, let’s look at a B2B tech company promoting a whitepaper.

Sadly it still isn’t as simple as saying “I have a whitepaper. That means I should run Playbook X.” There are a few other questions to ask yourself first:

  • Is the whitepaper good? (Be honest!)
  • Is it about your products?
  • Is it a sales pitch?
  • Does the reader learn something useful?
  • Would someone want to share it?

Let’s answer these questions for our hypothetical piece of content and look at a very high level distribution outline.

This whitepaper is strong and useful. It’s about an interesting topic that people in the industry and target audience care about. It also has some info that most people don’t know, and that they may be inclined to share with others. Basically, this whitepaper rocks. We definitely want to get it out there and to drum up some early buzz around it.

Step 1: Create a landing Page

The goal for this whitepaper is to collect basic contact information from potential customers for future marketing and nurturing. You will need a high-quality landing page with a lead capture form, using the whitepaper as a hook. In this case, high quality means simple, informative and with a low barrier to entry. Capturing name and email only on the form is preferable.

Pro Tip:  Create different landing page variations and A/B test them. A one percent change in conversion rate can have serious financial impact on an SEM or any other distribution campaign.

Watch the conversion rates carefully.

Step 2: Use Display network remarketing

Utilize Google Analytics smart lists to target a wide but relevant audience. These lists utilize your own conversion data to identify new users that are likely to convert. Put another way: you’re telling Google who your best leads are, and asking them, politely of course, to build you a lookalike audience.

Remember, you’re also going to use your existing remarketing lists to target people who have engaged with your site and content in the past, showing a certain level of intent around a related topic or interest. These are the type of people who will likely have a genuine interest in your whitepaper.

You’ll likely want a healthy portion of spend allocated here, despite the moderately high price point.

Again, watch the spend and performance carefully.

Step 3: Use paid social

Because we’re targeting a B2B audience and have determined that this whitepaper is share-worthy, paid social formats like LinkedIn Ads and Twitter Ads are worth a portion of the budget. This spend should be exploratory or experimental at first, unless and until you know how they perform for you consistently.

In each platform, you’ll have the ability to target users for things like their stated interests, profession, demographics, and a variety of other criteria. If you understand who your audience is you should be able to build custom audiences that are at very least directionally-targeted.

Yep, you guessed it:  watch the spend and performance carefully.

Don’t stop there – Try email and more remarketing

Now that we’ve spun up our go-to distribution channels, experimented with the targeting criteria and messaging, and we’re seeing the leads start to roll in, we can probably kick up our heels and call it a day…  WRONG!

The goal of promoting this whitepaper was to capture leads; true. But resting on our laurels after driving an initial conversion is the kind of silo’ed approach that gets marketing groups in trouble time and time again. A lead captured, is not a customer won.

As people convert they are giving you immensely valuable information. Both in the email addresses they provide, and in the cookie you’ve updated to reflect that this is a high-likelihood prospect.  

Your mission: use that newfound info to create new, and better remarketing audiences and email lists. You can then direct these eager, interested minds towards deeper, bottom-of-funnel content, and macro conversions that educate and delight your prospective customers, and are more likely to result in won business (Money!).

Have an open mind and measure

No matter how your content distribution plan shapes up at the outset of a campaign, it is crucial that you determine what success looks like before you commit your entire spend. What are your S.M.A.R.T. goals for the campaign? Above all else, know what these clicks and engagements are worth to you. And watch the ROI carefully.

In our example we were trying to obtain leads. Stepping back from the hypothetical example, you may actually be looking to simply drive traffic, build engagement, or improve brand awareness with your content. Whatever your goals, have measurable key performance indicators (KPIs) that allow you to learn and improve for future campaigns.

Finally, and you’ve heard us say it ad nauseum by now:  strategic experimentation and watchful measurement are your best friends as you work to build and refine a killer content distribution playbook.

Don’t be afraid of the unknown, and remember: tactics change, great marketing fundamentals don’t.

Tim Johnson
SMB Solutions Lead

Tim has been with Portent since September 2012. Currently, he manages the Small Business Solutions department at Portent. Additionally, he carries full Google AdWords, Bing Ads and Google Analytics certifications and has experience managing paid social account on a variety of platforms including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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  1. Interesting post. I totally agree that you need to define what success looks like for you (everyone has slightly different goals) before you start out with something new, especially if you are spending/investing money.

  2. A well thought out and actionable guide for promoting content with SEM.
    Couple this with solid on-page optimisation for organic traffic and you have the whole package.

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