The All-in-One Guide to Planning and Launching a Content Marketing Strategy
Update 1: This post is now available as a PDF eBook! You can grab it here.
Update 2: I conducted a webinar on August 4th, 2016, on content marketing! You can see the replay here.
Update 3: This is Part 1 of our content marketing series. See Part 2, which is all about promoting your published content, here.
There are 2 types of people in the world:
- those who have launched a content marketing campaign, and;
- those who haven’t.
If you haven’t yet, it’s likely that you either don’t know why you should, or don’t know how.
If you have, maybe your campaign isn’t going all that well, or perhaps you have no idea whether it’s performing well or not.
Whatever your case may be, I wrote this guide is for you. It provides an overview and the benefits of content marketing, covers how to plan your content strategy, and dives into how to launch your content strategy.
Ready to get started with a content marketing strategy? Here we go!
Table of Contents
Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a little bit biased when it comes to content marketing. I’ve used content marketing for myself, for my clients, and I’ve proclaimed its benefits and practicality for many years. So it shouldn’t come to a shock to you when I say that your business should invest in a content marketing campaign.
But the problem here isn’t usually businesses that aren’t aware of the power of content marketing, or even businesses that don’t want to engage in content marketing. Instead, the problem is usually that entrepreneurs and marketers don’t know what they’re doing. They’re too intimidated to start a content marketing campaign from scratch, and even if they muster the guts to try to launch one, they aren’t really sure where to begin.
This guide is meant to address this problem, outlining exactly what you need to create a content marketing strategy, and why you need to create one. It’s designed specifically with newcomers in mind, though even if you’ve been in the content marketing game a while, there are some important exercises, considerations, and takeaways that may help you improve your own campaign.
Feel free to skip around to the sections you need the most, or read straight through from start to finish.
Before you can create an effective content marketing strategy for your business, you need to know exactly what content marketing is—and isn’t—and what potential benefits you could stand to gain from it.
Content Marketing Overview
I’m going to start with a general outline of what content marketing is from a theoretical standpoint. There are many different ways to approach content marketing, and many different tactics you can employ along the way, but the basic concept is the same no matter who you are or what individual strategic elements you choose to adopt.
Basically, the idea is to create pieces of content (written, visual, audio, etc.) that people want to read, view, or listen to, and tie those pieces of content to your brand to build awareness, equity, and authority. Rather than directly advertising a product or service, your content will carry a value of its own to consumers, which will make your brand more visible, more authoritative, and more familiar to consumers.
As your content strategy matures, you’ll earn more inbound traffic, build better customer relationships, and ultimately attract more paying customers (not to mention retaining them for a longer period of time).
This all sounds good, but the variables are intimidatingly complex. What type of content do you need to produce? How are you going to produce it? What do you do if your target audience isn’t responding? How are you going to grow over time?
These are the questions that a content strategy can help you answer, but first let’s evaluate content marketing in a more practical context.
Who needs a content marketing strategy? Who can benefit from one?
Content marketing can be used by any business with an online presence. Any customer base you can imagine needs some kind of content—even if it’s just more information about a product or service. If you can provide that content, your brand will be the one those customers first engage with.
Content also serves a variety of different functions, so even if your business can’t benefit from one of the functions, it can probably benefit from at least some of the others. For example, if your customers don’t frequently read in-depth reviews before making a choice (such as in choosing a restaurant), you can still use the search engine optimization (SEO) power of content marketing to drive more traffic to your restaurant’s website, increasing foot traffic and sales.
To illustrate further, I’m going to introduce SMB Sam, a character we’ll be using frequently at AudienceBloom. SMB Sam has two businesses, a small independent café and retail coffee outlet called Red Diamond Coffee, and a mid-sized consulting business called 6 Point Consulting.
Sam can use content marketing for either business to attract clientele, but in different ways. He might use content marketing to boost his website’s local SEO so Red Diamond Coffee appears in more search results for people in the local area searching for “coffee shops around here,” while he’ll use strategic manuals and how-to guides to promote his consulting business. We’ll be touching in with Sam throughout the piece to see some of my exercises and practical tips in action.
The point here is that any kind of business can benefit from content marketing—as long as you have the right goals and strategy in place.
What if I choose not to implement a content marketing strategy?
You could argue that content marketing is a practical necessity for the modern age of online marketing, much like having a website in general. However, it’s certainly possible to get by as a business without one—you aren’t going to close your doors merely because you haven’t started a blog. Hell, there are still lots of businesses that are doing just fine who don’t even have a website.
There are, however, real risks of not pursuing a content marketing strategy, and the biggest one is the opportunity cost. You’re going to miss out on traffic, leads, and reputation benefits—so your business might be profitable without a content marketing strategy, but how much better could profits be if you did have one?
Plus, either your competitors are already pursuing content strategies of their own (or if they’re not, it’s just a matter of time); how long will it take before their momentum starts to eat away at your market share due to inaction? Your implementation of a content strategy could actually be a defensive maneuver.
Finally, don’t forget that content marketing campaigns increase dramatically in value over time, due to their compounding returns, so the longer you wait to get involved, the more potential growth you’ll sacrifice and the stiffer competition you’ll have to face eventually.
Now let’s take a closer look at the individual benefits content marketing offers.
First up is brand visibility. This is an almost intangible quality in your target audience, but it’s vital if you want to increase your customer base. Producing, distributing, and syndicating content all help your brand get more exposure to potential customers, which increases the number of people familiar with your brand and increases that degree of familiarity. As people become more familiar with your brand, they’ll be naturally more inclined to purchase from you when the need arises, or to recommend you to someone who has a need for your products or services.
Let’s say SMB Sam starts promoting his blog for Red Diamond Coffee, and he gradually starts getting his brand featured in outside publications that coffee drinkers regularly read. The outskirts of his customer base will go through four distinct stages of familiarity:
- Unawareness. First, these potential customers are wholly unaware that Red Diamond Coffee exists. They don’t recognize the logo, or the company, and have never shopped there.
- Awareness. Next, these customers may read a piece or two that Red Diamond Coffee has promoted, and they’ll become exposed to the brand (or at least the name). They may recognize it in the future, strengthening their recognition. If there’s an external prompt to buy, such as an ad, or if they’re driving by a physical location, they’ll be more likely to buy.
- Recognition. After seeing the brand in multiple contexts, customers will become vaguely familiar with the brand—enough to talk about it, and enough to start considering making a purchase there (without any external prompt).
- Familiarity. With enough exposure, customers will become highly familiar with the brand, including its mission and vision. If they like the brand, they’ll start buying from it regularly, but even if they don’t, they’ll still be able to recommend it to friends and family.
Content marketing helps you achieve this progression with wider and wider audiences.
Of course, merely being visible isn’t enough. If you want people to buy from your brand, they need to be able to trust it. The best way to earn that trust is through a demonstration of your authority, knowledge, expertise, or history, and as you may have guessed, content is a perfect outlet for this.
How you go about this depends on your company and your customer base, but HubSpot is a perfect example. HubSpot sells marketing and sales software, so its clientele is clearly interested in marketing and sales. They may know what they’re doing, to various degrees, but they’ll probably need partners to help them get the job done, and they aren’t going to choose just anybody. They want someone who’s a major authority in the space.
To address this, HubSpot gradually built up a massive content archive—one of the most impressive online (and to which I have contributed)—of how-to guides, tutorials, and case studies related to sales and marketing. They became known as one of the biggest authorities in the industry, and as a result, their brand is recognized by most online users as being both trustworthy and authoritative. Their sales patterns continue to grow because of this reputation, and it’s all thanks to content.
(Image Source: Hubspot)
SEO and Organic Search Traffic
Next, we can take a look at the ways content marketing can affect your rankings in search engines through SEO (search engine optimization). SEO itself is a complex strategy, demanding frequent revision and work both on and off your website.
The basics of content marketing, however, are relatively simple. Google looks at two things when it evaluates how to rank sites for a given user query: authority and relevance.
The higher these two factors are for a given site or individual piece of content, the higher it will rank in search results, and the more traffic it’s going to receive. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to maximize these two factors for relevant user queries. Content can help you do both.
- Linkable assets. First, let’s take a look at the “authority” portion of the equation. Though the process is crazy complicated, the bottom line for authority measurement comes down to the quality and quantity of inbound links to a given URL. The more links you have pointing to your website, and the more trustworthy those origin sources are, the higher authority your website is going to have. On-site content helps you create “linkable” assets on your site to attract these links, (I think of them as “link magnets”) while off-site content helps you build inbound links using a more controlled, manual approach.
- Online “real estate.” Producing more content also helps you achieve higher relevance for more search queries. By writing content that serves common user needs or addresses common user queries, you’ll put yourself in front of more potential searchers. To use a fishing analogy, every new piece of content you create is like putting another hook in the water. To take this analogy one step further, the quality of that content is like the deliciousness of the bait on that hook. It’s pretty useless to have a hook in a water without bait, and still useless to use ineffective bait. But once you have many hooks in the water with delicious bait, you’ll catch lots of fish.
When you’re creating off-site content—in any context—you have the possibility of generating referral traffic. In some cases, this is due to your own link building efforts; you’ll manually include a link pointing back to your site in an effort to boost your rankings, but readers can click that link and get to your site directly. Even if stories are written about you, such as press releases or other third-party coverage of your business, you’ll usually get a linked mention of your brand name that users can follow to get to your site.
Take, for example, this viral story posted on BuzzFeed about a pet owner’s dog’s final day of life. Emotionally powerful and visually engaging, eventually almost 7 million people viewed the story. Note that there’s a link to the owner’s photography blog as a header to the piece. Now imagine that only 5 percent of users ended up clicking that link—that’s about 350,000 new visitors thanks to just one new published piece of content.
(Image Source: BuzzFeed)
I’m not saying you should expect 350,000 new visitors (or anywhere near that number) every time you publish content off-site; this is an extreme example. However, it’s not unreasonable to expect hundreds, or in some cases thousands, consistently, when you’re publishing on high-authority, highly relevant, high-traffic sources. It’s a major benefit to the content marketing game.
Social Media Traffic and Following
Social media marketing and content marketing are inextricably intertwined. You can use your content to help build a bigger, more relevant following on social media, and you can use your social media following to generate more traffic to your content, thereby making it more effective. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and one you should be taking advantage of.
The bottom line benefit here is that the more you engage in content marketing, the bigger your social media following is going to grow. You’ll get more social traffic as a direct flow of visitors, and you’ll have more potential consumers to reach when you have promotions or sales to advertise.
To illustrate the possibilities here, let’s take a look at the same story of our last example. This particular story was picked up by a number of different publications, including Huffington Post. There alone, the piece managed to generate 26,000 social shares (definitely contributing to its millions of eventual views).
(Image Source: Huffington Post)
But take a look at how this affected the owner’s photography page on Facebook. It now sports more than 20,000 likes. How many likes do you think it had before this post went viral? My guess is that, like most other small photography businesses, they numbered in the hundreds.
(Image Source: Facebook)
Your on-site content has another potential power, if you choose to take advantage of it. Improvements in brand visibility and reputation can help you close more sales for your brand in a general sense, but what about the web visitors who are coming to your site for the first time? What about the visitors in the middle stages of brand awareness, who may not be fully convinced that your solution is the right one? How do you close the deal?
Content gives you a platform to highlight why your company is the right one for the job. An impressive piece of content that outlines your expertise in your industry is likely to leave a significant impression on an interested prospect, giving them confidence in working with you as opposed to your competitors.
But content doesn’t just help with closing sales; it also helps with other sorts of conversions, such as building your email list, getting phone calls, or contact form submissions from your audience. Within your content, you can include calls-to-action like “to learn more about this topic, download our comprehensive guide,” and exchange a digital asset (such as a whitepaper or PDF eBook) for an email address.
I also highly recommend site-wide offers, which display a pop-up, floating bar, or fly-in offer to your visitors to encourage them to sign up for your email list or exchange their email address to get their hands on your latest report, eBook, or other digital asset. OptinMonster and HelloBar are two fantastic options for setting up this sort of offer.
Traffic and conversion rates go hand-in-hand; if one is consistent and the other increases, you’ll see more revenue, but if you can manage to increase both at the same time, you’ll see rapid revenue growth.
So far, most of the benefits I’ve outlined on content marketing have been focused on customer acquisition, which you might consider content marketing’s specialty. Because it does such a good job of increasing visibility, awareness, and action potential in new, unfamiliar audiences, it’s naturally inclined to favor the attraction of new customers. However, depending on how you use it, you can also leverage its power to retain the customers you’ve already attracted, which for some businesses, is even more important.
For example, you can use your content as an exclusive value-add that keeps your customers around for a longer period of time. You may send out an exclusive email newsletter, or provide exclusive eBooks to people who have signed up for your service. This makes it harder for them to leave your brand, especially if none of your competitors are currently offering a similar benefit. You could also use content to increase your customers’ satisfaction with your products. For example, you might include more help guides, tutorials, and ideas on how to use your products and services to keep users around for longer. Many SaaS companies like ZenDesk take advantage of this strategy to increase user satisfaction, while more physical-based product companies and organizations like Raspberry Pi use new projects and creative inspiration to keep their active users engaged.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of content marketing is actually a modifier for all the other benefits; it’s the power of compounding returns that content marketing offers. Content marketing isn’t a strategy that scales linearly; instead, you’ll see a slow build at the beginning, followed by an exponential explosion of results.
Why is this? For starters, content marketing is about creating valuable assets which exist permanently. When you publish a landmark piece of content off-site, that doesn’t go away—it continues to add value in terms of referral traffic, domain authority, and brand visibility over time. The “dog” piece from earlier was written in 2014, yet it’s still popular and still generating traffic and shares. Because you’re adding new pieces consistently, every new piece you add contributes more long-term value; think of it as buying new stocks in a company that pays dividends consistently.
Another factor is the nature of visibility and reputation, both of which will affect the impact of your campaign. The more visible and reputable your brand is, the more you’ll stand to benefit from each new piece of content you publish. It takes a while to build these from scratch, which is why you generally don’t see results right away, but once you hit a certain threshold, everything you create instantly starts to carry more value. Think of how many shares and views every article gets from a major site like Mashable or TechCrunch – it doesn’t even really matter how good the content is – it’ll get tons of shares and views.
The longer you engage in a content marketing strategy, the better results you’re going to see. It’s not like a paid advertising campaign, where you only pay for what you get in the moment.
Okay, so at this point you have a pretty good understanding of the robust benefits content marketing offers, and a general understanding of how you might go about achieving those benefits. In this section, I’ll help you understand how to whittle those benefits down to the ones most important to your brand, establish goals and a direction for your campaign, and work on a blueprint for production so you can launch your campaign smoothly and keep it running indefinitely. This is how to plan your content strategy.
Why You Need to Plan a Content Marketing Strategy in Advance
At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, why would I even need a strategy? Aren’t I supposed to just write good content? And I’ll admit, it’s true that a handful of marketers have been successful just by “winging it,” writing about topics on which they’re knowledgeable and gradually picking up steam. There’s also a component to learning as you go, measuring and adjusting over time, that would almost seem to negate the effectiveness of writing up a thorough content strategy in advance.
However, there are some important reasons why you should plan a content strategy—by which I mean a formally written document—that outlines your plans for success. According to research from the Content Marketing Institute, there are four main factors responsible for differentiating self-described “successful” content marketers from self-described “unsuccessful” content marketers. Point one is about content marketing knowledge—which you have now. Point four is about team communication—which is important, but not explored in this guide. Points two and three are about formally documenting your content strategy and mission. Without those ingredients, you’re far less likely to be successful.
(Image Source: Content Marketing Institute)
Empirically, the data suggest a content strategy is important, but why? The way I see it, there are four main contributing factors here:
- Direction and foundation. The first point is mostly an ideological one. What is your campaign going to be about? That is to say, why would anyone want to read/view/listen to this content, and how are you going to make it available to them? When you answer these questions on the fly, you’re liable to go with the first thing that pops into your head, and that idea may change depending on what day you try to think of it. Attempting this, your campaign may end up disjointed, or at the very least, you’ll wind up going in a direction that isn’t the most efficient or the most appropriate for your brand. A content strategy, on the other hand, forces you to think through your options carefully, and set things like your tone, your angle, and your niche in stone, so you have an objective set of rules to follow as you shape your campaign.
- Data and “what not to do.” Drafting a content strategy also forces you to avoid relying on your intuition, which may be strong, but isn’t stronger or more reliable than objective consumer data. You need to dig deep here, looking at your target market and your competitors to find the types of content that work and the types that don’t.As a perfect example of the types of conclusions you can make here, take a look at the results of our What Works in Online Marketing survey (2016 Edition). We pulled a ton of conclusions about the online marketing industry in general—including the fact that content marketing budgets are set to increase over the next few years—but some of our most important takeaways were the types of content our readers wanted to see, and the topics they wanted to see covered by them.
Clearly, considering the majority of our audience asked for content marketing information in the form of a blog post, we’re doing our best to give you, our audience, exactly what you asked for with this very guide.
Without this information, we’d be pretty much flying blind. You may get lucky without a formalized strategy, but it’s unlikely.
- Roles and responsibilities. Even if you’re like SMB Sam and you’re only working with a handful of other people, you’ll still likely be dividing responsibilities among a number of different people. You’ll find that without a coherent and formally documented set of roles and responsibilities, your teammates will be stepping on one another’s toes. You’ll encounter instances of redundancy as two team members tackle the same task, and missed opportunities as team members each assume the other is handling it.A content strategy will, definitively, outline exactly what steps need to be taken, the order they need to be taken in, and who on your team is responsible for each. On some level, this is about securing a level of accountability for your team members to execute the work that needs to be done. But more importantly, this is a simple matter of clarification. Miscommunications are rarely intentional, but this will help you clear them up before you even begin.
- Metrics for success. A content strategy will help you become successful in content marketing—but what does “successful” even mean? Believe it or not, your content strategy will help you define that for yourself. Everyone will have a different reason for pursuing content marketing, and different ambitions when it comes to timelines and goals—and, as such, different definitions of “success”. When you draft your content strategy, you’ll be teasing out exactly what achievements are most important to realize, and specific targets you’ll want to reach.It’s tempting to simply target “everything,” doing as much as you can in as many directions as you can, and watching “all” of your metrics to see them rise. On some level, it’s important to take advantage of all content marketing has to offer. But don’t underestimate the complexity and sheer volume of metrics that are available to you, and possibilities for strategic development. If you want to have any kind of meaningful success, you’ll need to whittle those metrics down to the most meaningful for your brand.
The Research Phase
Let’s move on to the actual steps you’ll need to take to draft your content strategy. First, you’re going to need raw information. Remember what I said about needing to have more objective information, rather than relying on your own assumptions and instincts? This is the stage of the process you’ll use to get that information. There are several types of research you’ll need to perform, each with their own challenges and tactics. Your end goal is to walk away with enough raw material and data to inform your strategic decisions.
Let’s take a look at some of the most important research areas:
- Market research. Market research is what you’ll use to identify and understand your target audience. Your target audience will be the ones reading your content, supporting it through social sharing, and eventually becoming customers.Hopefully, you already have a solid idea of who your target audience is—but don’t make assumptions yet. Take your time evaluating different demographics and how they might relate to your brand. There are several ways you can do this; for example, you can rely on government-drawn census data to learn more about the buying habits and dispositions of your key demographics (and demographics you may not have previously considered), or you can leverage recent industry studies or market research companies to dig deeper into more specific information. But one of the best ways to capture information on your target market is through surveys, which you can create and distribute easily using a tool like Typeform. You can ask whatever questions you want and—hopefully—get some honest answers to fuel your campaign planning.There are many pieces of information you’ll need to look for here, including more specific demographic information (what is your customer’s education level, family life, and preferred level of socialization?), content preferences (including topics, mediums, and news outlets), and buying habits (how long is the sales cycle? How much information do they need before buying?). SMB Sam, for example, might ask a swath of 18-35 year old men and women about their coffee drinking habits, what information is important to them in choosing a coffee, and what types of coffee-related information they wish they had more of.
- Device usage. You’ll also need to pay attention to what types of devices your target audience is going to be using. For the most part, you’ll find that there’s a great diversity here. More users are opting for multi-platform access to content, switching between desktop devices, tablets, and smartphones throughout the day.
Image Source: ComScore (via smartinsights.com)
Still, you’ll find that your demographics and your industry likely favor one device more than the others. You’ll need to make your content compatible with all devices, but you might bear one in mind more than the others. For example, let’s say SMB Sam wants to target younger users, who frequently consume content on their smartphone rather than a desktop PC. He might use this information to tailor his strategy toward more mobile-friendly types of content.
- Preferred media types. There are many different types of media, and all of them qualify as content. Don’t get lost in thinking that “content marketing” is all about written content; it’s often a major constituent, but don’t neglect things like images, videos, and audio streams. Beyond that, there are multiple methods of serving these mediums, such as various channels and file types, and many formatting variables, such as length and overall presentation. Most content marketing strategies will benefit from using multiple of these media types simultaneously, but the only way to figure out which ones are best for you (and your audience) is to research it.
- Competitive research. Competitive research adds another layer of sophistication to your research phase. So far, you’ve been researching what audience segments you’ll be focusing on and what types of content they might like to see. This is good information, but it’s all theoretical. Competitive research helps you see content marketing in a live environment—and in your niche, no less. Make a list of your direct and indirect competitors, and take a look at what they’re doing for their own content marketing campaigns. Do they have a discernable content strategy? What types of content are they producing? How have these types changed over the years? How are users responding to them?This information will give you a sneak peek at what strategies work and which ones don’t for your target audience (assuming you share similar demographics). As an added bonus, you’ll learn various weak points in your competitors’ strategies; for example, let’s say SMB Sam notices that his rival, Darn Good Coffee, doesn’t produce any videos, yet his target market is crazy about video content—this is a key opportunity for SMB Sam to develop.
- Keyword research. Keyword research is specifically done for SEO, though even if you don’t plan on investing heavily in an independent SEO campaign, it’s worth doing. Here, your goal is to uncover various keywords and keyword phrases that might serve as good targets for content topics. Keywords, as they exist in SEO, have changed dramatically over the past several years, but they still serve an important role. Rather than stuffing high-traffic keywords into your content, over and over, you’ll be using these keywords as the basis for your article topics, in rotation, to help you better meet the needs of your target audience. I won’t dig too far into keyword research here, as that warrants a full guide in itself, so suffice it to say your research should examine two qualities in detail: the search volume and the level of competition. The higher the search volume, the more potential value the keyword has, and the lower the competition, the easier it will be for you to rank for it in search results.
(Image Source: ahrefs)
Again, keep any keyword insights you find here in balance; your primary goal is to produce good content. Write for readers, not for search engines.
Setting Goals and Establishing a Timeline
Once you’ve done enough research to give you a broad understanding of your audience, your competitive position, and your niche, you can start drawing up the main goals of your campaign—as well as a timeline in which you’ll meet those goals.
- The long-term nature of content marketing. Before you get too ambitious, you need to realize the long-term nature of content marketing. You can’t use content marketing as a get-rich-quick scheme, nor can you use it as a short-term boost for your brand. If you’re going to get involved with content, you need to have a long-term focus. Accordingly, I highly recommend avoiding setting any measurable goals any sooner than six months out. Six months is a long time, but it will probably take you at least that long to develop a foundational reputation.In many ways, content marketing serves as a kind of microcosm for business development. When you first start out, you’ll be operating in the red, putting more effort and money into the strategy than it yields in returns. But over time, you’ll start to break even, and eventually, you’ll start earning a far higher ROI on your efforts. You are planting seeds for a garden, knowing full well how long it will take for even the first plant to sprout. With this long-term focus in mind, you’ll be able to set more realistic goals and expectations for your campaign, and you’ll be able to make a plan that takes advantage of this slow build.
- Budgetary considerations. Ideally, you’d have plenty of resources with which to fund and grow your content campaign. It’s technically possible to start a campaign with no upfront investment; you can start a blog for free, spend your own time to do your research and draft your strategy, and spend your free time producing content to get you started. However, as you scale, you’ll likely find yourself in need of more resources, and don’t forget—time is money. Every minute you spend doing something that’s not something only you can do is value lost to your business.Additionally, there’s a correlation between the amount of time and money you invest and the results you’ll see. It’s a long-term strategy either way, but generally, if you produce more and better content, you’ll start seeing results sooner and at a faster pace. If you have a small budget, you can’t expect to see fast results. Or, conversely, if you want to see faster or bigger results, you need to find a way to increase your budget. Keep this in mind when you’re setting your goals—it’s also going to become important when you work on documenting the execution phase.
- Types of goals to set (traffic, conversions, etc.). When it comes to setting goals, you’re going to have to consider a number of different areas. Merely stating that you want to “increase brand visibility” or “earn more revenue” isn’t enough. You’ll need to drill down to individual dimensions of performance. You can decide these for yourself, but there are a handful most will want to keep as high priorities:
- Traffic. Traffic can come from a number of different areas; organic traffic involves traffic coming from search engines, referral traffic is traffic from outside sources, and social traffic is traffic from social media syndication. All three stem from the quality of your content, and all three types of traffic can drive more revenue to your site through sheer volume. If you already have a solid conversion rate, this should be a top priority.
- Engagement. Engagement comes in many forms, and once again, you’ll need to consider which forms are most appropriate and most impactful for your business. The simplest definition of “engagement” is a user’s direct interaction with your brand. It could be a comment on your article, a subscription to your newsletter, or even a follow on social media. Engagement serves as both an indication of content success and a driver of value (since it brings a user closer to your brand), and is perfect for encouraging brand visibility and authority.
- Conversions. Traffic and engagements are nice, but conversions are the real goal. If you aren’t concerned about the amount of traffic you’re getting, or if your hardline desire is strictly focused on getting more immediate revenue, conversions should be your main focus.
- SMART goals. Within these individual categories, you’ll need to set goals that fall into the SMART criteria, which have become so popular they have their own Wikipedia page (with an extensive list of alternative interpretations of the acronym).
(Image Source: Wikipedia)
For the purposes of your content strategy document, the original criteria will do just fine. Be specific; don’t just aim for an “increase,” aim for an increase of a specific number or percentage. Make it measurable; understand exactly how and where you’ll measure your success. Make it achievable; set the bar high, but not so high that it’s outside your budget and resources’ capacity. Make it relevant; don’t venture into other areas, like customer service satisfaction or company profitability. And make it time-bound; attach a deadline to every goal you set.
After you’ve set your goals, you can start working on how you’re going to execute your campaign. One of the most important considerations you’ll need to bear in mind are those related to the brand (or brands) you plan to use.
- The importance of brand consistency. There are some benefits of content marketing that exist in isolation, but the majority are directly tied to your brand’s consistency—how visible, recognizable, and familiar your brand is at every point of engagement. This is what will build familiarity among your target audience. Let’s use SMB Sam and Red Diamond Coffee as examples. SMB Sam wants to appeal to college students, so he writes a number of on-site posts in a casual style, with examples focused on things like getting up early for class or staying awake for a late-night cram session. What if he suddenly starts producing posts that are overly formal, or ones that venture outside the realm of coffee entirely? This has a jarring effect on your audience, so avoid it however you can.
It’s important to have a formalized and consistent set of brand standards independent of your content strategy; if this is the case, you can draw upon them to inform your prospective campaign. If not, that’s a good place to start.
- Personal brands. Corporate brands aren’t the only type of brand you can use in your campaign. In fact, personal brands (as a substitute for or extension of your core brand campaign) can be quite powerful. The idea here is that corporate distrust is at an all-time high; people see companies as unreliable, manipulative, and impersonal—and that trend can affect your business’s brand, too.Personal brands adhere to a set of characteristics and values, consistently across multiple channels to build a reputation. However, they’re tied to an actual person (in this case, an author) rather than a corporation. Personal brands can drive traffic to the main corporate page, so you see all the same benefits as you would using a corporate brand, except with an additional layer of public trust and engagement.For example, Elon Musk tweets his own thoughts that relate to his corporate brands, like Tesla, Solar City and SpaceX. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg is a well-known personal brand even though he’s the brain behind Facebook (which is a much larger brand). SMB Sam may publish articles as “Red Diamond Coffee,” but also as “SMB Sam.” Both can generate interest for the Red Diamond Coffee brand.If and how you use personal brands is up to you; while beneficial across the board, they’re more beneficial for some companies (especially ones with charismatic CEOs or small, tight-knit teams) than others.
- Brand voice. Regardless of which brands you choose to use, the main conduit for your brand’s consistency in content is going to be your voice. Your tone and your style (in writing as well as visual mediums) is going to be your signature. It needs to be capable of displaying all your characteristics and values, subtly, for an audience, without ever explicitly stating them. It takes refinement and practice to perfect this, so spend some time honing your approach here—and formally document it once you come up with a list of “key traits” for your voice (such as “formal,” or “casual,” or “educated”).
Targeting a Market
Now, you’ve already come up with a target market, and you have a general idea what that target market likes and dislikes, and what their values are. Now it’s time to formalize this information in the context of your content strategy. The best way to do this is with a customer persona (or multiple personas, if you have multiple demographics). This persona is essentially a fictional character you’ll be creating as the “average” customer you want to target.
To start, come up with a list of traits that define your average customer, whether those are demographic (age, sex, geographic location), environmental (family, education, career), or behavioral (disposition, buying habits, typical brand relationships). Then, put a name and a face to that description. This will help you solidify the way you think about your target audience, and think about it in a more human, approachable way. Once defined, you’ll be able to picture this persona in your mind when writing content, helping you to write specifically for this given audience.
The persona is also powerful because it’s transferrable; any member of your team will be able to review this information at any time and apply it to their own responsibilities. You can also update these personas as you learn more about your audience, but it helps to have a strong starting point.
As you might have guessed, SMB Sam represents one persona who I believe fits AudienceBloom’s target market. You might be an SMB owner or a member of the marketing team. If not, shoot me an email at personas [at] audiencebloom.com and let me know what you do. I’ll create a new persona character for you if there are at least 10 readers like you!
Types of Content
I’ve mentioned content types conceptually, but it’s time to define exactly how these will function in your campaign. Some of the key dimensions you’ll need to consider are:
- Mediums. There are tons of ways to create “good” content. You’ll need to consider written content, images, infographics, gifs, videos, audio content, and everything in between. Each of these mediums has different advantages and disadvantages for various target audiences, though in most cases, a blend of different choices will give you an edge.
- Formats. How your format your content also plays a role in how engaging it is, and how well it fits with your brand. For example, short-form posts are faster reads and are more shareable, but long-form posts are more authoritative and useful (as general rules).
- Archetypes. There’s no limit to the type of subjects you can choose for your work, but most content can be categorized in terms of archetypes, such as “how-to” posts, tutorials, listicles, opinion pieces, news, and so on. Use your competitive and market research to uncover which of these might work best for your brand, and try using them all to measure their effects.
The other big variable to consider, of course, is volume. How many of each type of content are you going to produce, and how often will you do it? With this information, you’ll be able to set up a rough editorial calendar, the last piece of the puzzle you’ll need before you actually start executing on your strategy. Your editorial calendar doesn’t need to be anything fancy—at least not at first. It can be a common spreadsheet with listings for your content title, medium, format, and publishing information.
(Image Source: Georgetown)
Distribution and Syndication
The final stage of your content strategy is distribution. Content generally isn’t seen unless you do some work to get eyeballs on it (unless you’ve already got a huge brand like Mashable or TechCrunch, in which case you probably aren’t interested in reading this guide), so you’ll need some sort of driving mechanism to help people find it. There are generally four dimensions to consider here:
- Off-site publishers,
- Social media,
- Paid aids,
- On-site support.
The “off-site publisher” side of your strategy will focus on where and how you’ll publish content that’s off your website (such as through guest posts). Often driven by personal brands, these are guest contributions on external publications where you’ll be able to reference or cite your on-site content in a way that adds value to the content. For example, after publishing our What Works in Online Marketing research report, I worked with numerous publications to publish guest articles that referenced the results of that report. Here are just a few of those articles:
- What Works in Online Marketing? 6 Big Takeaways From a Survey of 357 Marketers – Forbes
- 5 Reasons You Need to Invest in an SEO Campaign Right Now – Entrepreneur
- 6 Ways to Be a Better Online Marketing Agency for the Rest of 2016 – Agency Analytics
Over time, you’ll build your way to bigger and higher authority sources, but before you jump to that level, you’ll need a plan of attack, slowly ratcheting up your efforts and targets.
Social media involves sharing your content in relevant social media channels as well as through your email newsletter, and with other influencers (often via email or social media). You’ll need to figure out which social media channels are most visible or most engaging to your target market, how (and how often) to syndicate your posts, and how you’re going to grow your presence over time.
Paid ads includes paid traffic avenues such as:
- Google Adwords
- Bing Ads
- Facebook Ads
- LinkedIn Ads
- StumbleUpon Ads
- Reddit Ads
Paid ads can be a great way to get lots of eyeballs on your content very quickly, but it’ll come at a significant cost. In my own experience, I’ve found paid ads to be pretty disappointing in terms of engagement & shares, so I can’t really recommend them, but I’m sure there are many marketers who have had positive experiences with them.
On-site support includes internal links, navigation, notices, or ads that direct visitors on your website to a specific piece of content.
For a deep dive into content distribution, see Content Unleashed: The Ultimate Guide to Promoting Your Published Content.
With your vision, your goals, your customer personas, your editorial calendar, and your distribution paths solidified, you’ll have all the key components of your strategy aligned. Now comes the fun part.
Formally launching your content marketing strategy may be a bit scary, but keep in mind it’s a gradually evolving process.
Things won’t be perfect off the bat, but you’ll always have time to make adjustments and improve your performance.
First, you’ll need to consider how you’re allocating resources. If you’re following the steps in this guide, you have a general plan in place, including who’s responsible for what, but how exactly do you envision those responsibilities playing out?
Full-time employees, contractors, or an agency? One of the biggest questions you’ll have to answer is what type of human resources you’ll be working with in your content marketing efforts. Generally, you’ll have three options; hiring a team of full-time, in-house employees, leveraging the power of independent contractors, or hiring a specialized agency. There are some distinct advantages and disadvantages to consider here.
- In-house employees tend to give you the highest degree of control, transparency, and accountability, but they also tend to be the most expensive option (since you’re paying full-time salaries and, presumably, benefits, as well as employee taxes). In addition to monetary expenses, it takes a significant amount of time to manage a team of employees.
- Contractors give you a higher degree of flexibility since they require less management than full-time employees, a kind of “a la carte” menu of skill specialization, and they also tend to be less expensive than full-time employees overall (though they are commonly more expensive by the hour). However, building a team of solid contractors is difficult and relationships tend to be less stable as they are likely to come and go.
- An agency, compared to the other two options, is generally quite affordable. Hiring an agency gives you access to a team of specialists, allows you to tap into established relationships, and relegates project management and other administrative tasks to the agency, freeing up your time for other things. However, this usually means you’ll have less control and visibility into the processes, though this depends on the agency.Depending on the size and scope of your campaign, many companies opt for a hybrid model; for example, they may have one full-time team member who’s in charge of managing the agency relationship for the brand.
Time and cost considerations. Don’t forget to tally up all the costs you put into your content marketing campaign. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that your return on investment (ROI) depends directly on how much you’re investing in the strategy to begin with. This doesn’t mean you should artificially stifle your costs; on the contrary, if invested wisely, a greater investment will yield a greater return. However, you need to acquire this information so you can use it to judge the effectiveness of your campaign. Be sure to factor in everything you can here, including all employee costs and how much time you’re spending on executing each element of your strategy.
Establishing roles and responsibilities. You’ve already spent some time segmenting the roles and responsibilities of your individual team members (or other professional relationships) when drafting your strategy, but when you put it into practice, you may find yourself in need of adjustment. To some extent, your team members will be able to grow into their roles over time, but on the other hand, you may start noticing strengths and weaknesses that aren’t appropriate for the roles you’ve set—or you may see inefficiencies in your processes that didn’t arise when you conceived of them. Take some time to evaluate how your team engages, and make adjustments as necessary.
Your on-site content is going to serve as the backbone of your campaign, giving you creative control, attracting inbound links, and showcasing your value to prospective external publishers. Your editorial calendar might give you the plan of your content strategy, but don’t neglect the actual practice.
Creation, editing, and publication. There’s a ton of flexibility in how you actually create your content, since you’re in control. All that matters is that it’s eventually visible and accessible to your target audience, so the drafting process is up to you. Most people use a word processor like Microsoft Word (or Google Docs, if you’re more into team collaboration) for written content, having one person draft the material and at least one other revising and editing it. Track changes works wonderfully here.
(Image Source: FGCU)
Be sure you have checks and balances in place to evaluate your content for surface-level quality factors, such as detail, grammar, and syntax, but also brand-level quality factors, such as adherence to brand voice and proper formatting. Make sure your content adheres to the guidelines you established for yourself in your formal strategy.
Once you’re satisfied with the finished piece, publish it to your site. For written content, this usually involves copy/pasting and filling in some additional information (including any tags and descriptions for SEO you want to include). For images, this involves a simple uploading process. For videos, you can either host these yourself or publish them on YouTube and embed the finished product on your blog.
Content promotion and syndication. The next step, of course, is to promote and syndicate that content. First, before you do anything, make sure your site (usually the blog) has social share buttons; this will make it easy for your readers to share your article socially if they found it to be engaging. This, in turn, will increase your post’s visibility, and possibly spark a chain reaction that encourages your post to go viral.
But for the most part, if you want your post to get visibility, you’ll need to share and promote it yourself. Start by sharing a link to your latest post on all your social media channels. Then, you have a few options for further promotion. For example, you could build a few links (internal or external) pointing to your piece to give it an extra boost of authority and traffic, or you could use paid ads to funnel initial traffic to it.
Beyond that, you’ll want to save all your posts for future syndication (at least the evergreen pieces that will remain relevant indefinitely). What this means is, you’ll re-distribute the content on social media multiple times in the future, perhaps under a new title or lead-in, to reach people who might not have seen it the first time around.
For my full guide on content promotion, see Content Unleashed: The Ultimate Guide to Promoting Your Published Content.
Off-site content follows many of the same rules that on-site content does. The big difference here is that you’ll have to pay attention to the needs of the individual publications with whom you work, which can add a challenging variable.
Creation, editing, and publication. Ultimately, you’ll follow the same guidelines and procedures I outlined above, but with a few key differences. First, you’ll want to note your target publisher’s editorial requirements. They may mandate that you write posts in a specific format, or they may only accept certain types of subjects, or they may even require specific types of language to be used. Publishers can be finicky, so be sure to follow and respect their editorial guidelines.
The editing process for external publishers is also going to necessitate changes in your standard workflow. Some publishers may allow you to publish to the site as if it were your own, but this is rarely the case. It’s much more common for there to be a back-and-forth editing process; you’ll send a Word document over, they’ll respond with requested changes, and you’ll eventually hammer out an acceptable piece, or you’ll submit the piece online to be subjected to their own internal editorial process.
Respect your publishers, work with them, and eventually you’ll see your content featured on their site.
Note that this guide doesn’t tell you exactly how to find the right publishers or make the request to feature your content; if you’re interested in more information, be sure to check out our comprehensive guide to link building.
Content promotion and syndication. When it comes to promoting off-site content, your job is a little bit easier. You don’t have to worry about including social share icons (the publisher will do that for you), and your publisher will often promote your post on their own social networks. Still, it’s a good idea to do some promotion of your own, much in the same way you would your on-site posts.
Take SMB Sam as an example, posting about the latest piece he had featured on Star Roasters, a popular coffee blog.
Sometimes a simple post is enough to generate an influx of traffic. Don’t neglect this step.
Testing the Waters
No matter how thoroughly you’ve planned your campaign, remember that the early stages of your content marketing efforts are still just you testing the waters. By nature, your plans must change, but there are a few ways you can better prepare your brand and your strategy for these rough early stages.
- Don’t stray too far from your plan. This may seem counterintuitive, considering I just told you your plans will have to change, but in the early stages of your campaign, the best thing you can do is rigidly adhere to the plan you first set out. Otherwise, you’ll never know if your plans were a success or failure. Think of your content strategy as an ongoing, planned experiment; if you change too many variables at a time, you won’t know which variables were responsible for the effects you observed. Even if your campaign is failing, staying consistent with your plan can help you gather more meaningful information for your future efforts.
- Be prepared for rejection. This is especially important for the off-site elements of your campaign. If you’re just starting out, you’re going to have zero reputation. Few publishers are going to welcome your work, even on the lowest scales. You’ll have to start with specific niche publishers, local publishers, and other sites with relatively low authority, and work your way up—but even in those low levels, you’re going to face rejection. Be prepared for this, and don’t let it discourage you. Above all, be persistent.
- Adjust your processes through internal feedback. Eventually, you’re going to gather information about your campaign’s performance through things like Google Analytics, reader feedback, publisher feedback, and any other dashboards you have set up. But there’s one source of data you can tap immediately, and many content marketers neglect it.You need to request and listen to feedback from your own team if you want to build and preserve your momentum. Ask if your team members have different opinions about what type of content you should be producing. Listen if they express concerns about their workloads, or if they feel their strengths aren’t being utilized. This is probably a new experience for everyone involved, and this is one area where you can have some wiggle room on your plans early on. Don’t be afraid to redistribute responsibilities, and adjust your internal processes.
Building a Foundation
Though your content strategy covers a number of different areas at various stages of development, it’s a good idea to think of your first job as building a foundation for your brand. Building a foundation is like shaping a wheel you plan to roll downhill; the more time you spend perfecting the shape of your wheel, the more momentum that wheel will eventually build when released.
These are some of the key areas to which you’ll need to dedicate extra focus when developing your content strategy:
- Blog archive. Building up an archive of blog posts is important for several reasons; before you get too excited and start self-promoting, make sure you have at least a 10 posts on your company’s blog. Not only will this help you flesh out your on-site SEO strategy, it will serve as a kind of resume when you start reaching out to publishers to ask for guest contributions. When publishers are evaluating your credentials, this is the first place they’re going to look, so you want to have some impressive material there for them to see. This content archive will also provide resources for new visitors to your site, making them more likely to stick around on your site longer and eventually convert.
- Personal brands. You may also want to spend time shaping and developing personal brands within your organization. Select a handful of candidates you wish to promote as corporate brand ambassadors, and take note of any areas of expertise you want them to specialize in. Make a list of their previously existing credentials, have them flesh out their social media profiles, and help them understand the importance of staying in brand voice (though for personal brands, this involves their natural personality just as much as any formal brand considerations).
- Social media following. For both personal brands and your corporate accounts, work on building up your following; quality is more important than quantity here, but higher numbers of more dedicated followers will be a huge boon for your campaign. It means more potential eyes on every post you publish, more social sharing opportunities, and of course, a better reputation with which to woo publishers for your guest posting campaign. You can do this simply by engaging in more discussions, reaching out to new people, and posting quality content regularly. Social media marketing is far more complicated than this, but these tactics will get you started. For a comprehensive look at building a social media marketing strategy, grab my eBook, The Definitive Guide to Social Media Marketing.
- Initial publishers. Once you have a blog archive and a decent social following, you should be able to identify and get featured on a handful of small-time publishers. Look for ones that specialize in your niche, or ones that operate locally. They’ll have less competition, though less visibility is the tradeoff. Keep in mind these are only starting points, and treat these relationships the same way you would a relationship with a major publisher. Your job here is to work your way up the ladder, like this:
Scaling Your Campaign
Once your foundation is secure, you’ll work on scaling your campaign upward. You may or may not have accounted for this in your original content strategy, but it’s something you’ll need to prepare for.
- Start slow. Your first instinct may be to scale as fast as possible; after all, better publishers and more content means more readers and more revenue, right? Unfortunately, growing too quickly comes with its own dangers. Your resources may be spread too thin too quickly, preventing you from producing content efficiently. You may lose your brand voice in a frantic attempt for higher visibility. You may start investing too much before you know which directions are truly effective. In any case, it’s better to scale gradually. Only take forward steps when you’re sure you’re ready to take them.
- Settling into your niche. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments to your voice, your tone, your content formats, and your subjects as you learn more about your niche. Hopefully, you’ve gotten significant reader feedback—in the form of comments and shares if nothing else—so you should have enough information to really find a home for your brand. You may also find yourself wanting to expand your niche, cannibalizing another niche or simply generalizing your blog for a wider audience. As you grow, this too is acceptable. For example, SMB Sam might expand the focus of his posts gradually from college-age coffee drinkers to coffee drinkers of all kinds (as long as the transition isn’t jarring).
- Finding better publishers. Obviously, the bigger and more recognizable the publisher, the better it will be for your campaign; visibility, traffic, domain authority, and reputation by affiliation are just some of the benefits here. But you can’t go straight from a niche local publisher to a major national brand. Instead, you need to find “middle men,” gradually inching your way up the authority ladder, and citing your previous publishing opportunities as evidence of your abilities.
- Increasing volume. Quality must come before quantity. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it 1,000 times more. But if you’re producing high-quality pieces, and you can keep that quality consistent, you can consider stepping up the quantity of your production in order to see better results. One good post is better than five decent posts, but five good posts is better than one good post. Don’t be afraid to escalate your volume, all other things being equal, to increase your readership and engagement.
Adjusting Your Campaign
After you’ve run your campaign for a few months according to your initial strategy, we can take a look at your performance and make adjustments to improve that strategy. Everything boils down to three steps: measuring your performance, analyzing its significance, and forming actionable takeaways that result in change.
- What to measure. There are tons of possible metrics to measure, and that can be intimidating for new content marketers. Fortunately, that’s why you’ve outlined your specific goals and “success” metrics early on in your content strategy. Use these as a basis for determining what you should measure; traffic, engagements, and conversions, are all important (as well as surrounding variables like bounce rates or time spent on page), but different metrics will be important to different brands.
- When to measure. Remember that content marketing is a long-term strategy. It’s tempting to dig into your metrics fast and often, especially during your enthusiastic beginnings, but it’s far better to wait a few months before checking in. Once a month is fine for most businesses starting out, and once a week is fine if you’ve already begun to scale your campaign.
- How to form actionable takeaways. Data alone can’t improve your campaign. Instead, you need to use that data to come up with meaningful insights about how and why your campaign has performed the way it has. The best way to do this is to ask a simple question of every significant metric: “what’s driving this?” For example, if there are dozens of comments on one of your posts, but none of the others, what is it about that post that made it more engaging? Can you apply this to your other posts? Or if one external publisher is driving far less referral traffic than the others, why is this the case? Can you adjust your publisher criteria in the future? I’ve written an article that covers measurement more in-depth, which you can find here: How to Use Google Analytics to Audit Your Content Strategy.
- Revisiting your strategy. After a few months of measurement and analysis, you should have ample information to revisit your strategy altogether. In some ways, you’ll almost be restarting from scratch, taking a look at your strategy with new eyes from the ground up. It can be painstaking, but it’s an important step; you need to change your campaign, but at the same time, you need formal documentation if you want to keep your experiment under control.
Specific Industry Considerations
As a final section, I’d like to explore some specific niches and industries that should bear additional considerations in mind when plotting, drafting, and revising their content marketing strategies.
- Startups. Startups face a few unique challenges that should be taken into considerations when drafting a content strategy. First, they have very limited resources (in most cases), so they need to rely on inexpensive, efficient tactics to get the job done, starting on a very small scale and working their way up. They also have no pre-existing brand exposure, so they may need to leverage the power of outside authorities to give themselves an early boost. A great example of this is startups leveraging a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter to give their content (and brand) more exposure early on. Aside from that, they generally have a competitive advantage since they’re new to the market, which can be played up for faster results.Startups also have a small publication advantage; even though they don’t have much of a brand reputation, our entrepreneurial society views startups as exciting, which makes their press releases and new submissions all the more appealing to publishers trying to achieve more public visibility.
- SMBs. Small- to mid-sized businesses also have a few unique challenges. Unlike startups, their brand standards are likely already in place, and they may have a pre-existing customer base. They have limited resources and limited teams, so a bold strategy out of the gates isn’t possible, but their existing customer base can provide a significant platform for early success. Use your customers for surveys to gather information to inform your direction, and use them to help build and support your early social following. SMBs may also face stiffer competition—established but not dominant, there are probably at least a handful of other businesses in your exact role, so dig deeper into your competitive research and try to offer your customers something that your competitors have never been able to. SMBs do have an advantage when it comes to off-site content and publishing, similar to startups; many local publishers and organizations favor SMBs because they view it as a way of supporting local economies.
- Large enterprises. Large enterprises have a number of advantages that should be taken advantage of. First, they have massive budgets and can build a content archive in a matter of days to weeks. Second, they have large teams, and can leverage the power of many personal brands simultaneously. Finally, they usually have huge audiences already, which gives them one particularly powerful edge—being able to rely on user-submitted content to bolster their positions. Take a look at how Home Depot does this by featuring both in-house and customer-submitted DIY jobs and ideas:
(Image Source: Home Depot)
- Marketing agencies. Marketing agencies are unique because in addition to drafting a content strategy for themselves, they may need to draft content strategies for all their clients. When it comes to supporting your own agency, be sure to prioritize yourself. Your potential customers will be looking at your content efforts to determine whether you’re good enough to be handling theirs, so there’s a lot on the line here.When it comes to drafting content strategies for other companies, there’s one piece of advice that matters more than any other; truly get to know the brand. Don’t just copy and paste the same strategies that worked for you or someone else, because the same strategy won’t work for everyone. Learn what their brand standards are. Learn what their values are. Immerse yourself in their target markets and competitive niches. Only then will you be able to create content strategies for them that truly resonate (and perform).
- SaaS companies. The software-as-a-service (SaaS) model has become incredibly popular, and content marketing strategies are exceedingly popular (and effective) for them. Rapidly scalable, inbound-focused, and purely digital, content serves SaaS marketing needs perfectly. Because of this, of course, there’s stiffer competition for new SaaS companies trying to break into the market. Unless you serve a truly novel function, you’ll have to use your wits with your competitive research to find weaknesses in your competitors’ strategies.You’ll also need to harness the power of content marketing in different ways. Rather than merely providing general information to your target markets, you’ll also need to provide content in the form of help or support. For example, SalesForce has risen to such prominence in part due to its massive and ever-expanding library of resources and support for its core product. This is because customer retention in SaaS companies is arguably far more important than customer acquisition.
(Image Source: SalesForce)
It’s one thing to talk about great content strategies, but another to actually create one for yourself. Since it’s better to see good content in action, I’ll to close this guide with a handful of strong examples of companies who have launched creative, targeted campaigns to increase both customer acquisition and retention. There are some fantastic blogs out there, some of which I’ve used as examples throughout this guide already, and some of which have become widely recognizable on their own as publishers, but for this section, I’m digging into some niche players whose strategic approach gives you something to learn from in your own online initiatives.
First up, there’s Buffer. Buffer is a social media management app, and a useful one at that—it allows you to schedule, manage, and analyze posts throughout a variety of different social media platforms. Its target demographics, then, are marketers and entrepreneurs who want to perform better in social media marketing.
If you take a look at their blog, they’ve managed to captivate this audience perfectly, with titles and mediums that would appeal to almost anyone eager to perform better in the social sphere.
(Image Source: Buffer)
Comments sections are typically full of lots of comments, showing great reach and engagement with their audience. Social share buttons are available on each post, and you’ll also notice that all of these posts are long, highly detailed, well-researched, and chock full of images and video. Their posts often include primary data with analysis, which they use to draw valuable and interesting insights for their target audience. These posts are very transparent, too, including information like how many posts they paid to promote, and how many impressions they received from paid ads:
(Image source: Buffer)
They also humanize their brand, showing off their team on their Twitter page, which has 574k followers at time of writing, as well as their Facebook page, which has over 61k likes.
These are solid tactics for any content strategy, but where Buffer really differentiates itself is its content distribution strategy; it focuses on generating a massive social media following (with shares, of course as well). This serves multiple purposes, giving them a powerful platform through which to send and support their greatest material and helping them build an even better reputation for themselves—after all, where better to look for a social media authority than social media?
(Image Source: Content Marketing Institute)
(Image Source: WaitButWhy)
WaitButWhy.com is my favorite blog on the Web – if you haven’t heard of it, you’re in for a treat. Though it’s just a blog written and illustrated by one guy (Tim Urban), it has exploded in popularity and visibility over the course of the past three years due to one thing that it does better than any other content strategy I’ve ever seen: Quality content.
The blog doesn’t have a specific target audience; it’s written for pretty much anyone, covering topics that (should) matter to everyone, such as artificial intelligence, cryonics, procrastination, and human ancestors. But even still, Urban manages to nail it with every post he writes, notably excelling in:
- Forming an emotional bond with the reader through his writing and hand-drawn illustrations.
- Exceptional attention to detail (I’ve never seen a single typo or grammatical error in his posts, and we’re talking about well over 100,000 words).
- Covering topics in such thorough detail that he leaves the reader with the sense of “there can’t possibly any more to say about this topic”, always covering both sides of arguments and points of view.
WaitButWhy has successfully built its email newsletter to over 374k subscribers at time of writing, which is phenomenal for a business that launched in July of 2013 without a formal marketing budget or even a plan other than simply posting great content. The newsletter is built through calls-to-action on the site that include an occasional pop-up. But even that pop-up is imbued with Urban’s humor, and is seemingly self-aware:
That email newsletter is used strategically, too: every new post is announced via the email newsletter as well as the social media channels, which “seeds” each post with literally hundreds of thousands of readers, many of whom in turn share that content on their own social networks to further increase each post’s reach. And each post’s engagement is through the roof; some posts have hundreds or even thousands of comments.
Perhaps most impressive, WaitButWhy is fully funded by its Patreon patrons, with over $13,000 in monthly pledges at the time of writing. Yes, I’m one of those patrons. That’s over $150,000 a year. Not bad for a guy who started a blog 3 years ago from a small apartment in New York.
WaitButWhy serves as an example of how content really is king. Its audience was built on the foundation of quality content, and that audience now acts as a distribution engine which has resulted in the kind of runaway success that most companies couldn’t even achieve with a multi-million-dollar marketing budget.
(Image source: BlondeNerd)
If you like video games, you should check out Brittney Brombacher’s online portfolio of content. Known as the Blonde Nerd, Brittney started blogging about video games on her website in early 2011 with no goal other than to simply participate and become a member of the industry.
She is the perfect example of how to build a personal brand and leverage the power of social media to build and nurture a loyal audience. Her Facebook page has over 126k likes at time of writing, while her Twitter page boasts 26.2k followers and her Youtube channel has over 13k followers.
Her content began mostly as written, text-based blog posts about video games, but over the last couple years has become far more video-heavy, to great effect. Her videos achieve much higher reach than her written content, and she seems to have embraced video as the form of content her audience responds best to. She still publishes text-based content occasionally, but she’s a great example of a brand adapting their content approach to cater to what their audience likes best.
(Image source: Youtube)
What I particularly admire about Brittney is how evident her love for her audience is. She responds to every single comment left for her by her audience, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, or on one of her blog posts. In doing so, she has fostered an audience that’s intensely loyal. Whereas most celebrities ignore outreach from their fans, Brittney makes each of her followers feel as though they are truly important to her – because they actually are.
I’ve never seen a brand invest more resources into developing a real, human, personal relationship with their audience as Brittney does. Consequently, she’s the picture-perfect example of not only how to use social media within a content marketing strategy, but also how to grow and nurture a brand while doing so.
Microsoft recently launched a segment of its content marketing campaign called Microsoft Stories, which as you can imagine, revolves around presenting stories to its readership. Covering many different angles, the key elements connecting all these stories in common are narratives, as each new piece tells some kind of story, and “personal” significance. I use personal in quotes because these are stories important to “Microsoft” as a brand (theoretically; in reality, they are important to Microsoft’s actual team members). You’ll find small biographies, developments of new technologies, and other inspirational, interesting points of coverage.
(Image Source: Microsoft Stories)
This is perfect to study because it goes a counterintuitive route; rather than producing listicles and ‘how-to’ articles about technology (as a typical tech business might), Microsoft developed a strategy that truly resonates with its customers, striking an emotional connection and differentiating itself from the competition.
GoPro has an amazing YouTube channel and an Instagram account to go with it. Serving a niche industry, GoPro’s exclusive function is to produce and sell its mobile video equipment. Accordingly, the company realized that simple written content probably wouldn’t attract their key clientele: photography and videography enthusiasts.
So instead, they went a more visual route, using two of the most visual-friendly platforms on the web to support their work. Furthermore, they aren’t just taking pictures and video randomly; they’re exploring the far corners of the world, going on adventures to resonate with their adventurous and mobile target market. So far, they’ve built an audience of millions, and they seem to keep growing as they produce more amazing material.
(Image Source: Instagram/GoPro)
I’ll use BirchBox as a fast example, since there’s one key feature here I want you to pay attention to. Most of their content is somewhat run-of-the-mill, centering on how-tos, tutorials, and other practical guides for their users. It’s well-developed, but the topics aren’t revolutionary by any means.
Where BirchBox really stands out is how the company targets its audience. Rather than writing general-use material, or sacrificing one segment of their audience to favor another, BirchBox simply made two blogs: one to target men and one to target women. It proves you don’t have to follow conventions, nor do you have to limit yourself in developing your content strategy; instead, you need to seek whatever alternative paths and developments will help you achieve engagement with a larger share of your ideal target market. Don’t be afraid to get creative, or even defy common practices in your experiments.
If you’re over the age of 25, you likely remember the Dummies series of books as being staples for learning everything from Spanish to early-stage computer programming. They had (and admittedly, probably still have) their own sections in bookstores, and their branding became instantly recognizable.
When content made the major shift of going online, Dummies could have easily fallen behind, or become obsolete in the modern era. Instead, they evolved, still offering their classic book series but also adapting by making online instructional articles available to what would be their same target market in an online context.
These articles, of course, are much shorter than the actual books, but they’ve helped the company maintain its authoritative reputation over the years. Even more interesting, Dummies has launched a new product line—a series of B2B services to help small businesses and startups find their footing in the online era of entrepreneurship and marketing. They’ve developed a specific wing of their content strategy around these demographics as well.
(Image Source: Dummies)
There are two powerful lessons to take away from Dummies; first, evolution is always possible. No matter how radically the game seems to change, there’s always room for you and your strategy to adapt to the new circumstances. If you don’t change, you’re going to suffer for it. Second, your content strategy doesn’t have to strictly follow your business outline and goals; as you learn more about your readership, you can adjust your business to serve them even better. It creates a perfect feedback loop, allowing you to remain relevant indefinitely with your ever-increasing target audience.
Conclusion and Key Takeaways
If you can successfully write up a content strategy, and put it to action during an initial launch, you’ll instantly be in a better position than the majority of content marketers currently competing for visibility. It would be almost impossible to condense the information I’ve presented in this guide to a simple list of “takeaways” so instead, I’ll leave you with one important thought that should help you create and manage your content strategy with a better perspective.
Content marketing is a recursive process. Every action you take will yield a reaction, and you can use that reaction in a feedback loop to improve your next set of actions. Because of this, you need a strong start and a strong foundation; without one, those reactions and that feedback will carry no significance for your brand. This foundation is both the impetus for and the measurement tool of these ongoing reader reactions, so don’t underestimate its importance by attempting to improvise your strategy.
If you want more in-depth resources on content marketing, be sure to check out these guides from Jayson DeMers:
- Content Unleashed: The Ultimate Guide to Promoting Your Published Content
- SEO Link Building: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide
- The Ultimate Guide to Measuring and Analyzing ROI on Your Content Marketing Campaign
- 101 Content Ideas for Your Website or Blog
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