The Beginner’s Guide to Content Strategy
Everybody seems to be in love with content marketing these days. From traditional industries, to the smallest and most nimble of startups, marketers from all walks of industry say they plan to invest more in content in 2016 and beyond.
However, for many, content marketing remains perplexing. Understanding the basic logic is easy, but structuring your effort to get tangible results for your business is a whole different story.
If you are one of those looking to explore content marketing for your business, but not sure where to get started, our guide to content strategy will come in handy. We’ll cover everything you need to get started step by step.
The first and most important thing is to understand why you want to invest in content.
Define the Business Rationale
Many think all it takes to do this type of marketing is… to produce content. But before you even think about writing your first blog post, you have to be very clear about the business reasons for engaging in content marketing.
Defining your business rationale is what differentiates content marketing and blogging.
What are some of the business aspects you have to think through?
Why use content?
Why are you creating content in the first place and what do you hope to achieve with it? Many business owners set out, thinking their efforts in producing content will lead to direct sales, finding themselves disappointed when that doesn’t happen at scale.
Building trust is key in content marketing. Think of it as a long-term strategy that builds your general reputation and creates a bond with your audience that gets stronger as time goes by.
What is your unique proposition (competitive advantage)?
What is the one thing your business is offering that none of your competitors can hope to replicate? It could be anything from a superior product to having staff that are both extremely knowledgeable about your business and always willing to go above and beyond in helping your clients.
Building your content strategy around your competitive advantage is useful for your business, as over time your audience will come to associate your business with it.
Think of brands like Buffer and HelpScout and how they’ve tied what they want to be known for (superior customer service) to the content they produce, the topics they write on, and even the voice and tone they project across their communication channels.
What are your goals with content marketing?
Finally for this stage, think hard about the concrete business goals you want to achieve with content marketing. Here are some of the goals people typically have for content:
- Raise awareness about company and product
- Build a reputation
- Generate leads for a salesforce to work with
- Help in nurturing leads during sales cycle
- Educate potential or existing clients on how to use product/service to increase adoption/retention levels
- Generate new sales
Typically, your content strategy should focus on one or two of these goals. If you go beyond that, you risk becoming too unfocused in your efforts.
Figuring out how you are going to measure your progress is very important in this stage. After you come up with your high-level goals, spend some time to complement them with a set of key performance indicators (or KPIs) that you will be tracking.
To get a feel for what this whole step looks like in practice, here’s an example:
Most content marketing strategies are aimed at generating leads for the business they’re operating under. In the last few years, people have found that the most effective way to do this is by collecting emails, so we’ve seen an explosion in so-called ‘email harvesting techniques’ around the web (when was the last time you visited a website and weren’t asked for your email?).
If your content strategy falls under the same category, a good KPI to track is the size of your email list.
Now that you are done with the initial stages of your content marketing strategy, you are ready to dive deep into figuring out its technical details.
Figure Out Your Target Audience
Every content strategy should start with the audience. Every piece of content that you create as part of this strategy will be aimed at a specific audience. If you don’t know who this is, your efforts will fall flat because they will not be targeted.
Your content audience might be different from your existing customer base (especially if you want to target a new market segment with your content), but your current customers are a good place to start.
Create marketing personas
Marketing personas (sometimes also called ‘customer avatars’) are a great tool for marketers. Use them to create a stylized version of your dream customer/reader and keep them in mind when creating your content.
These avatars are great because they serve a two-fold purpose:
- They keep your whole organization on the same page — by looking at your avatar, every member of the team will know who it is they’re talking to — this will help you keep a consistent message and tone across all interactions with this given customer.
- They help you humanize your voice — when you have a clear picture of who you’re producing for, it is much easier to be talking like a human.
What are the needs of your audience?
Now that you have a clear understanding of your ideal audience member(s), figure out what their needs and pains are.
Creating content around those is the surest way to make a mark, attract your audience, and build trust with them (only if you can demonstrate your ability to solve those pains).
What is the buyer’s journey for your reader/customer?
The final element of discovering your audience is to get an excellent understanding of what the Buyer’s Journey looks like for your prospects. The main stages in this, as formulated by Hubspot, are Awareness, Consideration, and Decision.
Think about the topics and questions your audience has in each of these stages, and also where they would go to get these answered. The findings in this stage of the creation of your strategy will guide your decisions about what topic to produce content on and how to distribute it.
Now that you know why you want to use content marketing, and who it is you want to target with it, you can move to the implementation stage of your strategy. It starts with reviewing what content you have already produced and how well it serves the audience you want to reach.
Audit Your Existing Content
You could be thinking that as a beginner, this is a step you can legitimately skip. That might very well be the case, if you’ve just started your business and you don’t have a website yet.
If your company has been around for a while, and you have a website (even if it doesn’t contain a ‘Blog’ section), you already have some existing content. You need to have a clear understanding of where this content fits in your general strategy.
Perform a content audit and tie your existing content to the business goals, your audience, and the buyer’s journey — all of which we’ve discussed above.
If you already have experience with content marketing and have put some effort in it, a tool such as the content matrix, as described by Buffer, might be useful in order to understand which pieces are performing well, which need to be improved, and which should be scrapped altogether.
Find Topics to Produce Content For
Too many marketers start here and skip the steps described in the previous sections. Next, they find themselves struggling to find meaningful topics or see little benefit from their energetic efforts to produce content.
Hopefully, if you’ve take the time to apply the methods for audience discovery, creating a strategy, and a plan to implement it, you’ll find this step much less challenging.
You’d still need to put in the time and effort though, if you are to find the topics your audience wants to consume.
Know the language of your audience
First of all, you need to know very well not just what problems your potential buyers want to have solved, but also how they talk about them. Using a language your audience understands is just as important as knowing the topics they care about.
Fortunately, there are numerous places online where you can meet your readers. Quora is one great place and a great tool for research, but there are many topical discussion forums, Reddit directories, and so on that you can use for research.
Do keyword research
SEO and organic traffic still play an important role in content marketing. It would be a grave mistake to ignore them.
Another mistake many marketers still make is to focus only on the most popular (and hence competitive) keywords. Plenty of evidence exists suggesting that long-tail keywords get a lot of traffic and are much easier to rank for:
Spending enough time on Quora, Reddit, and other similar forums will give you knowledge about the main terms people in your target audience use to talk about the topics they care about. It may even give you some ideas about concrete topics and questions you’d like to answer with your content.
Spy on your competitors
When thinking about competitors, you shouldn’t limit yourself to other companies offering the exact same product (or service) as you, but rather focus on everyone who’s aiming at the same audience and fighting for the same dollar as you. For example, if you’re a company offering support and tweaking for WordPress sites as a service (like WPCurve for example), your competition includes pretty much every freelance WordPress developer on Upwork.
Take the time to find out who your true competitors are. Take the top 5–10 keywords you’d want to rank for on Google and do an anonymized search to see who the top performers currently are. Analyze the top 10–20 search results carefully to see what they’re doing right and get ideas for your own content.
Keep an eye on what content your competitors are putting out on a regular basis (use feedly to keep everything in one place). While at it, create a control group of companies that are doing great with content marketing, such that you’d like to emulate with your own content, and read and analyze everything they publish.
If you need some inspiration, here are some of my favorites:
Map your topics to the Buyer’s Journey
Knowing your audience, the topics they care about, and the language they use is great, but being successful on the business side of content marketing means that you should be able to convert some of those readers into paying customers.
In order to do that, you should be aware of what their decision-making process looks like when deciding to pay for a new product/service and produce content in each of those stages.
Focusing solely on content that is aimed at ‘closing’ a deal is a grave mistake.
First, if you don’t have content aimed at the first 2 stages of the buying cycle (Awareness and Consideration), you probably don’t have a relationship with your readers, so you have to tell them everything about your awesome solution in a short span, meaning your content will probably sound really salesy (not a good thing).
Second, as we discussed in the beginning, content marketing is all about building trust before attempting any other goals – focusing only on the final stage of the buyer’s journey means you can’t even start to engage in this activity.
What this looks like in practice, is content marketing with very low performance and low ROI as a result.
Develop Your Strategic Plan
In this step of the process, you should plan the tactical aspects of your content strategy. An easy way to make sure you think everything through is to answer the following five questions.
When are we going to publish?
How often will you strive to put content out? Is it better to publish a blog post every workday, or is twice a week enough?
When choosing between quantity and quality, my advice is always to focus on the quality first. No matter how much material you produce, and how good you are at distributing it, quality is the most essential element of content marketing.
Moreover, it’s easier to scale for quantity once you’ve achieved it, rather than improving the quality once you’re rolling downhill, pumping out several pieces a week.
Whatever schedule you settle for, make sure you document it — create a calendar and stick to it. One of the best tools out there for this is CoSchedule, but you can create a great content calendar using the completely free version of Trello.
Who is involved in the content strategy?
Who’s owning the entire process? If it’s not the same person as the one who drew the strategy, how is the handoff going to take place, to ensure the content manager understands the goals, motivation, etc.?
In this stage, it is also important to figure out whether the rest of your team will participate, and if yes, how. Make expectations clear to the team, and answer any questions team members might have. Having a written strategy will ensure that all the knowledge about your audience, their needs, etc. is easily transferred to everyone who participates in the content marketing effort.
Sometimes you might prefer to outsource your content marketing at least partially. In this case, you need to figure out what tasks exactly you will hand out to external contributors, what skills you need them to have, where you’re going to find them, and what resources you need to set aside to do that. Numerous places exist online where you can find writers, editors, graphic artists, and even content strategists.
Where is your content going to live?
Once you get used to the notion that every single social media update your organization publishes is content, you understand that it also has numerous locations where it can live.
Planning the locations where you are going to place your content is also important because it will drive your audience’s response to this content, i.e. what are they going to do once they’re done consuming a single piece of content. Think about it this way: if you have a piece of video content, how is the behavior of a single viewer going to differ if they see it on your website vs. on YouTube?
No matter what the quality of your video is, YouTube offers so many distractions in the form of other video, that it is very likely that the viewer will not remember your brand just minutes later.
What types of content are you going to focus on?
Content types are another element in the strategic mix of your content marketing that merits careful consideration. They should be aligned with all other aspects of your strategy, not just what format is most appropriate for each type of content, but also what step in the buyer’s journey it is going to be used in, and who will be consuming it.
For example, a blog post is probably the most appropriate (and hence the most common) vehicle for your content in the awareness stage of the buyer’s journey, because it gives you the best mix between discoverability and the ability to impress and engage your audience.
However, this may look very different in later stages of the buyer’s journey. Consider the case of a company, selling a complicated (and expensive) product in a B2B setting. In this case, it’s very likely that the person doing the research on the client side (i.e. the content-consumer) is not the only/final decision-maker. They may love your product, but they need help convincing their managers to adopt it.
Your content type is the essential element you need to align to serve the business purpose of your content. In this example, a downloadable one-page cheat sheet comparing features and/or pricing is a great piece of content that your primary content consumer can print out and take to their busy manager.
How are you going to distribute your content?
Popularizing your production should take up at least half of the time/effort/money you put into content marketing (some marketers even say it should be the 80 part of the 80/20 split).
It may sound excessive, but think about it this way — 100% of the time you spend on producing your content is wasted if that content is not read by anyone.
Dedicate resources to develop an amplification plan and have a team in place to implement it.
Iron Out Your Content Marketing Brand
Since trust and relationship-building are such a major goal in content marketing, you need to also spend time to think about the elements that will make your content marketing brand memorable.
First of all, you need to provide a consistent and scalable experience. This will require involving multiple people, with some possibly being external members of your team.
Document all processes and conventions in process docs and a style guide. This will allow you to quickly expand your operations, onboard new members of the content team, and keep a consistent level of quality across all content pieces.
Another important element of your content brand is the voice and tone you use in your content. Your voice is the more general set of conventions about the type of vocabulary you use, how formal/informal it is, etc. while your tone governs how this varies across different reader segments (prospects, current clients, etc.) and situations (considering purchase, seeking help, complaining because of an issue with your product/service).
Produce Your Content
Finally, we have gotten to the point of actually sitting down and producing content for your website. Of course, this is quite symbolic as you can have the whole production stage of the process outsourced (whether to individual contributors or a content marketing agency).
What is important for you, as the content strategist, however, is to manage the process of content production, so that you have high-quality content delivered on schedule and on time.
I am not the only content marketer who finds Trello particularly useful for this purpose. It not only allows you to keep a bird-eye’s view of your whole operation, but it also has a great set of features that allow for collaborative work.
Trello’s team has put together a guide on how to use the tool as a content calendar.
Implement Your Amplification Plan
Forget “Build it and they will come” — the moment you have put out content, you need to start working towards getting it in front of as many people as possible.
Hopefully, you already have a documented plan for how you’re going to achieve that. Use your time and resources to implement this plan.
Measure Success, Adjust Your strategy, Repeat
Saying that you need to measure the success of your content marketing effort against a set of KPIs really isn’t groundbreaking, but few marketers take it far enough.
Every strategy, no matter how data-driven it is, relies on some assumptions — about who your customer is, about their pain points, etc. However, once you’ve closed the feedback loop with putting out content, you need to do your best to validate those assumptions and make sure your strategy holds true.
Go beyond site visits and social media shares when analyzing your performance. Whatever your goals are with content marketing, you need to have ways to measure them and to be tracking those goals with your analytics tools.
Then, you have to keep track and analyze how various aspects are affecting those — content types, the length of your assets, publishing time, etc.
As a minimum, you should be using the following tools:
Analytics has all the features you need to measure your performance. On top of that, Google is using the access it has to the data of millions of websites to give you information and features no other solution can offer. Just look at the Demographics report if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
And it’s free.
You need this tool to track the SEO performance of your website(s). You can link it to your Google Analytics account, getting additional data into it, but the Search Console is hugely useful even on its own, especially when it comes to tracking rankings, deciding what content assets to improve or build upon and so on.
Buzzsumo is particularly useful for doing research on your topics of interest and seeing what type of content clicks with the audience on each, but can also be used for analyzing your own content.
On the free version, it will give you information about your most shared content during a given time period. Useful, because it includes data about shares on Twitter, which most similar tools do not support anymore.
However, Buzzsumo gets really powerful on its paid plan (which, admittedly, is rather pricey at $99/month). You can download your social shares data and use it in your content performance analysis.
You can also see who are the people sharing your content, who are the influencers among them, and use that information to improve your amplification plan.
It’s Time to Get Down to Business
Content marketing doesn’t look so intimidating once you adopt a structured approach to it. Your only challenge is to take the time to create your strategy and implement it relentlessly.
Remember to always consider the following elements in your strategy:
- Why are you doing content marketing? What’s your business goal?
- Who are you creating content for? Who is your audience?
- What pains does your audience have? What topics you need to cover?
- How are you going to reach your audience with your content?
- How are you going to measure the success of your content marketing?
I hope you’ve found this primer useful. I would be happy to answer your questions and hear about your experience with content — please let me know in the comments.