The BCG matrix for content marketers

Solomon Radley18/02/2019

Deciding which content initiatives to prioritise, which to wind down and which you should milk for all they’re worth is easy with this game-changing content strategy framework.

Boston Consulting Group’s Bruce Henderson first proposed the growth‐share matrix in 1970 to help companies allocate their resources more efficiently. Today, it’s one of the first concepts you’ll encounter on any marketing or brand management course.

At its peak, the BCG matrix was used by half of all Fortune 500 companies. In 2014, Harvard Business Review named it one of the strategy frameworks that changed the world.

But what most marketing grads remember it for is the way it divides the brands a company owns into four distinct categories – ‘cash cows’, ‘stars’, ‘pets’ and ‘question marks’.

While the business world has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, the BCG matrix itself is as relevant as ever. In fact, it’s perfect for visualising the potential of the different content initiatives you use to promote your business and the role they should play in your marketing strategy.

What’s more, it provides a simple and effective tool to help you strike the right balance between exploiting mature content ventures and exploring new opportunities to secure future growth. So today, we’ll look at two ways you can use this famous matrix to allocate resources efficiently between your company’s content initiatives.

To be successful, a company should have a portfolio of products with different growth rates and different market shares
Bruce Henderson, Boston Consulting Group

Henderson’s basic idea was that companies generate the best results when they invest in high growth, high return markets. But that, to grow sustainably you need to divide your resources between nurturing current and future star performers and reaping the rewards of your mature ventures.

He built his matrix to help companies make rational choices about their portfolios based on each brand’s relative market share and growth rate. Plotting a graph with these two drivers as axes and dividing it into four quadrants reveals which brands fall into each of his four categories.

Low‐growth, high‐share ‘cash cows’ should be milked for cash to reinvest in high‐growth, high‐share ‘stars’ with high future potential.

High‐growth, low‐share ‘question marks’ should be invested in or discarded, depending on their chances of becoming stars. While low‐growth, low‐share ‘pets’ are generally viewed as prime candidates for liquidation or repositioning, given that their current position is unlikely to generate cash.

As you’re about to see, this same reasoning can yield great results when applied to your content creation strategy. With a few small tweaks, Henderson’s matrix becomes a powerful tool for making decisions about the types of content you create.

Creating a BCG matrix for content

While it’s easy enough to create a Google Analytics report summarising your top performing content pieces, knowing what to do with that information is another thing altogether.

Sure, you can see what your average page views, scroll depth or dwell time stats are and set yourself targets for the future. But when it comes to drawing conclusions about how best to achieve those targets, you need to visualise exactly which formats and themes your audience responds to best.

The key is to think of the different content pieces that make up your editorial calendar as individual elements in your content portfolio.

Colour code your existing content types by theme and plot them onto a BCG matrix charting their relative effectiveness against how expensive each of them is to create.

Of course, how you measure the effectiveness of a specific piece of content may vary depending on your goals. A good white paper is one that gets lots of ideal prospect downloads, while a good blog post attracts lots of views and a good buyer guide will generate demo or proposal requests.

For the purposes of this exercise, plot every type of content you create onto the same matrix. If your business produces large quantities of content, it might make sense to focus on your top ten best and worst performing content pieces from the past 12 months to begin with.

The resulting chart will reveal clear recommendations about the resources you should allocate to each project.

How to use your content creation matrix

In the top left of your matrix are your star performers. These are your flagship reports, videos and research pieces that contain great content on themes your audience loves. They take time and effort to produce, but the engagement and trust you get back in return makes it all worthwhile.

Your cash cows are in the bottom left. These are typically bitesize content pieces that resonate well with your audience. Often, they will be created using repurposed sections of a larger content piece, saving you time and effort.

For most companies, blogs, infographics and assets for social media posts make up the bulk of this ‘cash cow’ content. These pieces are important because they’re accessible enough to draw in new readers and keep your audience engaged while you’re developing flagship content pieces.

Be on the lookout for original content pieces in this quadrant that may be worth building out into a larger report or guide.

It’s probably not worth your time investing in or promoting your ‘pet’ content projects

The picture isn’t so rosy for content in the top right quadrant. These are resource‐intensive projects that aren’t working, for whatever reason. Anything that falls into this category either needs to be reimagined or discontinued. Which option you should choose depends on how you diagnose the problem.

If the idea is sound but the execution is lacking, look for ways to replace poor editorial, improve shoddy design elements and test bold new titles or headlines to draw your audience in. At the same time, consider whether your distribution strategy is putting this content in front of the right people.

However, if the issue is the idea itself then the project is a drain on valuable resources that can be better spent elsewhere.

Finally, the bottom right quadrant is reserved for your pet projects. This content doesn’t take up too many resources. Perhaps you create it for company‐political reasons. But your audience doesn’t really care about the themes or ideas this content addresses.

Ideally, you should aim to phase out pet projects so you can focus on more meaningful pursuits. You certainly shouldn’t prioritise promoting or distributing any existing content you identify that falls into this quadrant.

Putting your findings into practice

Once you’ve used your content creation matrix to categorise the different elements of your content calendar, you can then apply the 70/30 rule to prioritise your activities going forwards.

Remember Henderson’s original advice: milk the cows to feed the stars. Dedicate around 70 per cent of your resources to creating more of your best performing content types, positioning them prominently in the customer journey and optimising the process as much as possible.

The remaining 30 per cent of your resource budget is for experimentation. Depending on your appetite for risk, you might split this allocation further between moderate‐ and high‐risk activities.

Successful companies continually measure and manage the number and costs of the question marks they generate to ensure their pipeline stays filled
Boston Consulting Group

The time you dedicate to this will be spent doing three things: 1) trying completely new ideas, 2) attempting to improve any content with a question mark hanging over it and 3) repositioning or culling pet projects.

As you do this, look to your competitors and the broader editorial landscape for new content formats to test and themes to explore. Then, use the insights in your matrix to judge how likely they are to succeed.

BCG experts Martin Reeves, Sandy Moose and Thijs Venema say these calculated risks are vital in today’s fast‐paced business environment.

“Has the matrix lost its value?” they ask. “No, on the contrary. However, its significance has changed: it needs to be applied with greater speed and with more of a focus on strategic experimentation.”

They add: “This new experimental approach requires companies to invest in more question marks, experiment with them in a quicker and more economical way than competitors and systematically select promising ones to grow.”

In this way, you can curate a balanced content portfolio that makes the most of your most successful initiatives right now, avoids the mistakes of the past and invests sustainably in the future.

Not everything you test will work, but that’s fine. The ideas that do will become the future star performers that will underpin your strategy for years to come.

Key takeaways

  • Use the BGC matrix to visualise your content’s performance and identify which projects you should prioritise going forwards.
  • Allocate the bulk of your resources to your most effective activities, optimising your best content and creating more in the same vein.
  • Dedicate a portion of your resource budget to experimenting with new ideas, so you can build a strong pipeline of future star performers.