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How a Pillar and Branch Strategy Can Grow Your Content Ecosystem

pillars

One of the chief struggles of any content marketer is generating new content ideas. The issue is that content can’t just be interesting to read, or helpful—it needs to drive traffic, and the people who read the content need to be the kinds of people you want to sell to. If your audience isn’t reading your content, then your content is not doing its job.

One way to ensure content will attract attention—and from the people whose attention you want most—is a content strategy called “pillar and branch.” Let’s talk about:

  • What a pillar and branch strategy is
  • What pillar content looks like
  • What branch content looks like
  • How to choose what topics to write about in pillar and branch content, and
  • Why pillar and branch content works

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What is a pillar and branch content strategy?

The pillar and branch content strategy is a concept built around broadly but completely addressing core topics—”pillars”—that your audience cares deeply about, and then going into greater depth into related sub-topics—”branches”—to investigate them in detail. The pillars tend to exist as long-form web pages within your site, and the branches tend to exist as content like blog posts.

It’s an SEO-focused strategy, but it works in a bit of a different way from usual. Rather than worrying about keywords first, you think more about the more general topics that you want to rank for. Then, once you have those in mind, that’s when you dive into blog topic ideas based on more specific keywords that are related to the broader pillar topic. By making sure every part of the story is told on your website, and by linking the branches back to the pillar page so search engines know they’re closely related, you don’t just build thought leadership—you build search engine authority. That means great content, and the means to put it in front of the right readers.

So what exactly are these pillars and branches?

The pillar piece of content

As the name suggests, the pillar piece is the center of the strategy, and all the rest is built around it. The pillar content covers all the different aspects of the topic you want to rank for, typically in a more general fashion. This isn’t where you want to get in the weeds with the deep details—that comes later. That said, the pillar concept can’t be too broad; if it is, then the chances of being able to break through the noise and get attention are slim. For example, your pillar probably shouldn’t be “marketing.” Think “brand development” instead. It’s broad enough to have a lot to cover, but narrow enough that you aren’t going to be competing with practically everyone on the internet for attention.

There are a couple of different types of pillar page—the main ones are the 10x content page and the resource page.

10x content pillar page

This will be a fairly large page, because the idea behind 10x content is to create something that’s ten times better than what already exists on the web. You want to cover the concept at hand as comprehensively as possible, and that means a lot of content. In practice, it’s probably going to look more like an ungated e-book in terms of length and depth than it will a blog post.

For an example of what I mean, check out this guide to brand development that we created (and yes, I’ll admit that this is the main reason I chose “brand development” as my example in the last section). A typical Element Three blog is between 700-1,000 words; this pillar page is about double that, so that should give you a decent idea of the minimum baseline for depth that we’re talking about here.

Candidly, I actually think this is a better display of the structure of a pillar page than the content. I think we could do better at increasing the depth of the content and the range of brand development ideas that it covers, and I also think we could do a better job of making it a bit more general to brand development as a concept rather than talking about how we at Element Three develop brands.

That said, it is a good example of how a 10x pillar page should be structured. It hits the most important parts of the brand development process, explains how they work together, and walks through the process basically from start to finish.

If you’re curious to see another example, here’s one from HubSpot on Instagram marketing.

Resource pillar page

This is kind of like an FAQ page on steroids. A resource pillar page is designed to direct your readers to all the best possible information on a topic from around the web, even if that means taking them away from your site. It’s pretty simple—a list of links to great content, divided by the subtopics they fall into under the larger topic you’re trying to rank for.

In general, if you have content around the topic you should try to link to it here, in order to keep readers interested in your content. If you don’t, you should consider creating some, but again, don’t be afraid to link to other industry experts and even your competitors. The goal is to create the go-to repository for content on your chosen topic, an information hub that people who want to learn can return to again and again.

There are two important considerations when developing a resource pillar page. One is user experience. A poorly organized list of links isn’t good for anyone, and it’s unlikely to bring anyone at all back to your site again. Make sure you structure the page in a way that makes sense and is easy to navigate, so people can find what they’re looking for. The other is outreach. It’s a good idea to let your included sources know that your resource exists, and they’re in it. You might get a link back, and that’s always nice.

Branch content

Okay, your pillar is in place, so what’s next? It’s time to get into the details, and start building content around the more targeted keywords that surround the pillar topic. This is “branch” content, named as such because the way we envision this content ecosystem is like a cluster—the pillar at the center, and the branches arrayed around it.

Each branch should address a specific keyword related to your core pillar topic in an in-depth fashion. Don’t be afraid of going into too much detail or getting into the weeds—that’s kind of the point. While the pillar really hits as many notes as possible but at a 10,000-foot view, this is where you get as deep as you can into the specifics.

Each branch should be strong enough to stand on its own as a sub-topic, in content like a blog post or a video. If we go back to our “brand development” example, a good branch to that pillar might be something like a blog about “brand development mistakes your team might be making.” Think about the questions your audience might be asking when they’re thinking about your pillar topic, and answer them in the branches.

What topics should be covered in pillar and branch?

Good news: this is actually something that we’ve covered in some depth in the past. The answer is that you make these decisions by following a process called topic modeling. To summarize, topic modeling is the process of analyzing the relationships between words and phrases—that is, keywords, keyword variants, and related topics—as they pertain to specific content topics.

You can build the topic clusters you need to execute the pillar and branch strategy through a pretty simple three-step process. First, talk to your audience. Brand and audience research are super critical here—it’s hard to know what questions are being asked by the people you want to sell to if you aren’t listening to them. Once you have that data in hand, the next step is to organize and analyze it closely. Tons of technology is available to help here, including artificial intelligence and keyword tools that can begin to reveal the relationships between the topics and subtopics that are most important to your audience. Finally, trust your instincts. Marketing is not simply color-by-numbers, and your own knowledge of your audience and marketer’s intuition are the final pieces of the puzzle as you assemble your pillar and branch strategy.

Why is a pillar and branch content strategy worth the effort?

Since pillar and branch is an SEO strategy, your linking strategy here is really, really important—it’s why this strategy can really drive tons of targeted traffic to your site. When you publish branch content, it has to link back to the pillar somewhere. Ideally, your branches will also link to each other.

It’s not necessary to link every single blog post to every other blog post, but if you can build a web where each branch links to a couple others in the same cluster, it will be very easy for Google and other search engines to scan all the content and understand the semantic relationships between the pages when they crawl your website. It also signals that there’s real depth and breadth to how you cover that topic, which is a great route to building authority on your pillar topic and the keywords you’re focusing on in your branch content. Taken together, your linking strategy and the comprehensive nature of the pillar content boost your site’s search rankings, generally but also specifically for these relevant topics.

Build and grow your content ecosystem over time

One of the great things about the pillar and branch content strategy is the fact that there’s no real “end.” It’s not static: once you publish your pillar page, you can always update it as things change in your industry to keep it on the cutting edge. And obviously, you can also continue adding new branches over time to increase the detail and depth of coverage—and to stay ahead of your content competition.

Pillar and branch content can boost traffic and increase the quality of the traffic you’re attracting to your website, now and far into your website’s future. It’s a great way to take your brand’s content ecosystem to the next level.

Thomas Wachtel Team Photo at Element Three

Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.