Producing Great Content with No Budget

This post could alternatively be titled “The Equity of Content Production”.

One of the most common questions I hear in Internet Marketing circles when talking about content is “But what about when you do not have a budget?” This is usually preceded by “But you can’t create content without a budget!”

I do not believe this to be so. Today let’s talk about how you can create content depending on the resources available to you.

Three Types of Equity

There are three types of equity that you can spend to produce anything:
  • Money
  • Time
  • Talent
You need at least one of these, and usually two put together in order to create anything of value. Also, the point should be made that you don’t need to have all of these. Hiring a firm with talent gets the job done just as well.

Here are the intersections:

Three of the four permutuations here do involve money, yes. But this is not equal shares of money and the other factor. Sometimes, the circles can look thus:

Let’s drill down into each of the three and also look at some examples of content that have been produced by the different combinations of time, talent, and money. The point is not that you don’t need any money at all ever. The point is that no matter what, you are spending some sort of equity on everything you produce, and not everything requires money.

Time + Talent + Money

This trio is undeniably the holy grail of production and will make your life the easiest. With time to invest into the work, as well as the talent to do it well, and money to spend, you can produce content that is well research (time), well designed (talent), and and can hire people to do both of those and potentially push it out as well.

We should also note that the same person does not have to expend all three. In many cases, the client will pay the money, the designer/creator will expend time and talent, and someone (possibly the client or the creator, but probably a marketer/SEO) will push the content out. Money can knock down the amount of time needed, and it can undeniably purchase someone with a lot of talent.

Some examples:

Dollar Shave Club (produced expensively, took time to film but not as much as it would have if they had not had any money, took money to push through BBH)

The New York Times released a series of visualizations around the US election back in November. One of my favorites was the Electoral Map visualization  -

Time + Talent

Needed when: you do not have money

Another combination of equity is time and talent. If you possess both of these, you’ll be able to create anything that is within your talent wheelhouse. There’s no need to spend money on external resources, since you or your team possess all the required skills to produce as well as push the piece.

The kicker with this combination, of course, is that it will take considerably more time to produce this content than if you had money as well, because you will need to be doing other work that pays the bills while you produce it.

We should note, though, that the more talented the producer is, the quicker it can be produced. If you, an inexperienced graphic designer, set out to produce a logo, you’ll take longer to produce it and will probably need to go through multiple iterations. If you are an experienced logo graphic designer, you will be able to do it faster and will probably have fewer iterations before it is right.

Some examples:

I’ll use our own Excel Guide here, because it took Mike Pantoliano 30+ hours of blood, sweat, and tears:

Or, we could cite the OKcupid blog, OKtrends, which for a while produced posts full of data and great writing. These posts, according to this Quora thread, took 50+ hours each. Time is money, and time is equity:

Content like this may take longer to get the same return as content that has an outreach budget behind it, but it can still get there in regards to links and visibility.

Remember that a lot of outreach channels don’t require money either, just investment of time to leverage those channels well. You can leverage social media, email marketing, SEO, and any of the other inbound marketing channels with enough time on your hands. The biggest expenditure of time will be building these audiences, such as an email list or social following. But you can leverage content to do this as well, and each time you do another campaign you have a greater chance of success for a cheaper time cost.

Time + Money

Needed when: you don’t have talent.

If you have time and money, you don’t need the talent yourself. You can hire that talent from an outside source to produce it for you. Or, you can take the time to develop the talent yourself.

If you have enough budget and a set amount of time, you can produce a lot of quality content as long as you’re willing to pay for it. You can also make the content to further quicker, as you’ll be able to leverage multiple channels like:

  • SEO
  • Email
  • Social
  • Paid discovery (Outbrain, FB ads, StumbleUpon, Paid Search)
Of course, as you smart readers are undoubtedly thinking, you can do some of the paid channels cheaper than others. So what’s your budget?

Let’s say you have $100. You can’t get something decent done for that, but you can buy 1000s of Stumbles for that amount of money, which gets your content in front of more eyes. And if you have $100 a month moving forward, you can leverage a couple different channels and extend the longevity of the content (as long as it’s evergreen, which is a good idea for low budget content).

One example to get your thinking going is Sortable, who have found a way to make product reviews sexy, which makes their money go further as it has been done in a scaleable way by investing in good design, not a one-off piece of content. Basically, every product page is a data visualization:

Money + Talent

Needed when: you don’t have time but need to get a quality piece out.

Money and talent are the two types of equity you can use when you don’t have time, and you’ll need both in plentiful amounts to minimize the amount of time needed to get the content out with decent quality.

In this configuration, money allows you to buy whatever resources you need both for production and promotion of content. With a large budget, you’re able to:

  • Produce more (if time is not a factor) or better content
  • Promote on more channels and quicker
Talent allows you to up the quality and speed with which your content is produced. The higher your talent, or your hired gun’s, the faster you’ll be able to produce content of the same quality as a lesser skilled individual.

Some of my favorite examples of content that took money and talent:

The Simply Business guide to Wordpress for small businesses:

Or how about this visualization from the Washington Post:

By the way, has a great collection of election visualizations that had to be produced in a very timely manner.

An Attitude of Risk

Will Critchlow talked at Searchlove Boston (his talk was the impetus for this post) about Inbound Marketing On A Shoestring. One of his points was that to produce awesome content without a budget, you have to have “balls”, otherwise known as an attitude of taking risks that could have an outsized return but might not work.

Risk is a different sort of equity than money or time. It’s more akin to talent, and is an attitude. When you are constrained by time, money, and talent (or access to talent), you must dream big to take a risk.

One example of this is, who run experiences for groups in the UK. They have pulled many stunts over the past few months, including offering a fake lunch with British Prime Minister David Cameron for £250K. Their most recent stunt, which was covered by the Daily Mail has caused a lot of controvery because they allow people to practice fighting riot police.

If you’re an SEO, you’ll like this link graph:

I’d also like to city WePay here for their PR stunt pulled at the Paypal Developer’s conference (which I talked about here on slide 19 in relation to content marketing). That one took gall:

What do you think? Does this jive with how you think, or am I way off the mark?

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  1. Lewis

    Great article! Always love the Distilled blog posts.

    Just a little note though... the British Prime Minister you were looking for was David Cameron, rather than James.

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  2. John,

    Great article with excellent examples for bigger businesses.

    I suspect that a lot of Distilled blog readers are looking at the examples you've provided and are currently thinking:

    Wow, they are fantastic but my {insert small-medium business type} can't really produce that type of content.

    I'm imagining that as many times as you've heard that content can't be produced without a budget, that you've equally heard that the Kung Foo Panda awesomeness you've described above can't be produced without an interesting angle.

    Do you think you could produce the same blog post, in essence, if it was aimed at various different verticals for small-medium businesses? For example, plumbing, gardening services, paint supplies, car smash repairs, coffee shop and so forth.

    I raise it only because the content development opportunites if you're a national newspaper are wide and varied, compared to that of a large (25-50 employee plumbing business).


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    • John Doherty

      This is exactly the kind of thing I was trying to address here. While I may not have given many examples from small businesses, you can apply the principles I've laid out here to ANY business. Distilled was at about 25 people when the Excel Guide was made. It just took Mike thinking it up and taking the time to create it.

      A plumbing business could do so much. A resource guide (videos) about DIY plumbing repair. Resources about different types of parts required for plumbing. What happens when the wrong parts are used (show a toilet exploding, something cool like that).

      I guess the one kind of equity I left out is - creativity. I can't give you a plug-and-play method of what to create. At the end of the day, it's your own ingenuity/creativity that gets you through.

      Also, competitor research will make up for a lack of creativity. What else are competitors doing, or not doing? What common questions are you asked day in and day out that you could create a resource for? Do some keyword research (or just type "my toilet " into and don't hit enter. Boom, content ideas.) to generate ideas.

      Yes, I do think I could create the same article with small business examples. The principles don't change.

    • A plumbing business could do so much. A resource guide (videos) about DIY plumbing repair. Resources about different types of parts required for plumbing. What happens when the wrong parts are used (show a toilet exploding, something cool like that).

      If you did find angles for these businesses what benefit would it be to them? Sure their search traffic for "how to install my own toilet without getting crap all over myself" will increase, but I'm pretty sure their bottom line wouldn't budge. That traffic isn't geo specific and it's people who want to do the work themselves.

      @John, and for the OKCupid example, is that really helping their business and signups or just driving pointless readers who enjoy fun content?

      I'm just really confused about the link to business objectives with this kind of content strategy.

      I really do understand, for example, in verticals like SEO how important it is to produce and teach people and be the expert in such a specialized field. It will land you clients. However, I want my plumber to be fair and perform great work, so I read reviews. I also look at the company site to read about company size, locality, years in business, etc. and for that info I would search "plumbers in (location)"

      Not trying to be cynical, just trying to understand better.
      Thanks in advance.

  3. Nice examples Jon, I always like the way you back up statements with these.

    I actually touched on something relevant to this in my latest blog post ( Most market segments are getting past the early adopter stage at this point and for me that means you need internal resources if you want to scale a content strategy (which is really all 3, Time, Talent + Money). For example, you mentioned Time + Money. For me, this doesn't work if you don't have some type of internal talent. Who is managing the 3rd party agency producing this content? Who is setting the goal?. Who is measuring them? I certainly don't think any company should be leaving this up to an agency if they are spending a significant chunk of your marketing budget on content? You need to have someone internally who understands this (again, this would be for those spending big in content).
    I suppose it also depends on what we are talking about in terms of content. You gave an example of product pages, this could be certainly be done inhouse as most online companies are going to have design + developers. That's going to be a lot different from a content strategy that involves multiple pieces in different formats published across platforms on a monthly basis. This may require a mix of all 3 + Talent both internally & externally.
    I agree companies can and will need to be a lot smarter about how they produce content as more and more people invest in this area over the coming year.
    Good post, really enjoyed reading.

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    • John Doherty

      Thanks for the comment, Kieran! I always appreciate your insights.

      I love your point about the product pages. Actually, that sort of thing IS content strategy at its finest. Take a look at slide 18 in this presentation - Content strategy is about cross-platform. It's about making your content accessible no matter which platform the consumer is using to consume it.

      Content marketing is what you're talking about - multiple pieces in different formats published across platforms on a monthly basis.

  4. Sorry Jon, not sure how I can reply to your comment, doesn't seem to have an option. My comment wasn't clear. I actually meant both product pages, plus content across platforms (e.g. your blog, mobile, etc etc) are examples of content strategy. I just meant, there is so much that falls under this umbrella.

    Totally agree with your slideshare and actually called it out in a presentation I gave recently in London :)

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    • John Doherty

      Ah understood! Yeah I agree with you. Often people (especially those who view SEO as just linkbuilding) think about content as content on other sites. Actually, I think it should (almost) always be on your own site. Manually build one link by giving away an awesome piece of content, or attract lots of links by having it on your site. It's an easy choice.

      Would love to see the presentation you gave if you can share it publicly. Is it online?

  5. Nice post John. I always love the examples you back your points with. One thing I've noticed in my experience is that the size of the time and money circles changes greatly dependent on the type of content.

    When companies are willing to invest in content, they tend to be more willing to invest their time and money into safe content (blogs, articles, typical infographics) or content that is more closely tied to their products/business. While that content is valuable, it doesn't provide the return that riskier content pieces like the examples you provided do.
    I find that this is larger problem behind content production today which has caused an influx of mediocre content pushed out by companies or agencies constrained by their client's risk aversion. While I think it's fairly easy to get buy in from SEOs and creative teams for larger content pieces, educating management on the value of it is tough.

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    • Joe Robison

      Well said my good man, you're a gentleman AND a scholar. What types of no-holds-barred content would you like to see more of from those pesky clients?

  6. Mike Tekula

    Excellent post, John, as usual.

    Interesting to frame OKCupid's 50+ man hours per post in terms of the links they built as a result. See Mark's post on infographic link building here (scroll down a bit) which Will cited in his talk about Scalable White Hat Link Building here. 60% of the OKtrends posts gained at least 50+ linking root domains, each. Suddenly that 50+ hours per post snaps into context.

    Interestingly, in that Quora thread, Chris Coyne claimed they had no way to determine whether their blogging effort was worth it, "since direct signups from the blog posts were just a few thousand people each" - guess they either weren't tracking inbound links as a success metric for their blog (or they've been smartly coy about discussing it publicly).

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  7. Joe Robison

    Love this breakdown of the different ways of pushing a piece - I find myself reading all about content and it's greatness but not being able to push a single good piece out myself, I think "content block" can be a name for SEOs who talk about content all the time but don't do anything about it.

    What are your favorite guides for creating content from Brainstorm to Placement and every step in between? Have you seen anything on doing it cheaply by working with freelance/outsourced contractors?

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    • John Doherty

      Hey Joe - thanks for the comment. Sometimes, you just have to start shipping content. It gets better as you go. I've been blogging for 10+ years, and I write 200-250 words a day, every day, and I just now feel that I'm actually putting out good stuff. It takes a lot of practice. So start shipping. Everyone starts somewhere.

      I haven't seen a good end-to-end for creating content. I'm working on the Building A Content Strategy module for DistilledU right now which I hope will become that.

      Regarding outsourcing/freelancers, I haven't seen anything. That process has always been manual for me to vet writers, and it's worked out well.

  8. Great post. I love looking at successful examples. It's so hard to create quality content, we need inspiration! That got me fired up!

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  9. Nice post. Hadn't seen the dollar shave club one before - made me laugh! Its a good idea and well executed. Which sort of leads me onto my question.

    Has anybody had experience of doing SEO alongside creative ad agencies here? I used to work client side managing multi agency campaigns and there is a little tension over which side of the fence some of this stuff sits. As with most things digital, things are converging and there are turf wars for budget!

    In the digital realm you see content strategists, SEO's, inbound marketers all jockeying for position not to forget people who have been turning out and pushing content for quite a while now, namely with creative agencies, journalists, editors and PR agencies.

    Would be interested in hearing about any experiences pushing content ideas in multi disciplinary teams when (in some peoples eyes!) creative content is not necessarily the domain of the SEO's. Secondary question, 'if' creatives take the lead apart from the technical support how does SEO inform creative work - if at all?

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  10. First of all - that's an awesome article. I always have troubles creating quality content especially when I have to create a lot and I am low on budget. I am seriously trying hard but for some reason it is not happening. The biggest problem I have is coming up with a good title which I feel like is the most important thing when it comes to content.

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    • John Doherty

      Hey Totio - Thanks for the comment. I'm intrigued by your "quality content .... and a lot" statement. I guess if you're doing it for multiple clients, then ok. But when you're focused on quality and "big", you don't have to create a lot. That's kind of the point.

      Also, regarding titles. I wrote out about 20 titles for this post before deciding on one, and even then put the secondary title there because I liked it just as much. Start writing, and even talking, to brainstorm your titles. I use a voice dictation app and just start talking. That usually helps me find the right one.

  11. Excellent article John - great layout and easily digestible.

    A slight digression, but one which some may hopefully find useful. A lot of our small and startup business clients normally have limited budgets, and do not have the in-house talent or time for certain tasks, so we often recommend investing in the talents of university students (though companies such as

    This amazing group of individuals often come complete with boundless energy, cutting edge skills, and are eager to build up their portfolio. As their work experience is mostly minimal, you can often find very talented individuals at a fraction of their equivalent corporate cost.

    We love to support our local universities by providing opportunities to bright-eyed students, and they have in turn repaid us with good quality, thoughtful work and the ability to mould themselves to the task at hand.

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  12. As a small business owner I know only too well how difficult creating regular quality content is, but as you mentioned that's a time thing rather than a cost issue. I try and set aside 30 minutes a week regularly to work on content for my site each and every week.

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  13. Thanks John, it does come down to "Tallent, time and Money" as a small boutique agency we have to rely heavily on the skills of outsourced local writers that have the tallent and time. I really do think that it takes a certain typer of person "tallent" to come up with engaging good quality content. The dollar shave club video is an epic example of tallent, time and creativity on a low budget.

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  14. Admittedly I hadn't thought about this before reading your post -- but there is a 4th kind of equity -- influence. Now, in reality, this is potential time or money (just like water in a water tower can be viewed as potential energy.) When an organization or person has sufficient "influence", klout, social currency, or whatever you want to call it, they can sometimes get a certain amount of labor for free. We all know that non-profit organizations get volunteer labor as a matter of course -- but there are many non-monetary ways for other organizations to pay people for their services. Many internship programs pay little or nothing - the reward is the contacts and experience. I've done pro bono Social Media work for a not-for-profit university and a non-profit historical society. Sometimes the testimonials, potential referrals and just plain fun that comes out of these types of engagements is worth it -- not that I'm volunteering for anything at the moment :)

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  15. Luella Ben Aziza

    Love this - reminder that it's not about resource but resourcefulness.

    Agree with Glenn too, influence is another factor.

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  16. talent , time and money ! thanks john :)

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  17. what a master peice john , thanks ! :) will be very usefull around here.

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