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  1. The Ultimate Guide to Measuring and Analyzing ROI On Your Content Marketing Campaign

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    Update 1: This post is now available as a PDF download! You can get it here.

    You’ve got a content marketing strategy, but is it working? How can you tell?

    If you’re looking for answers, this is the guide for you.

    content marketing analysis

    Table of Contents

    + Why Analysis Is Important
    + Identifying Successes and Failures
    + Generating New Ideas
    + 6 Keys to Success in Measurement and Analysis
    + 6 Key Content Marketing Metrics to Analyze
    + Content Marketing ROI
    + Calculating conversion value
    + Finalizing Quantitative ROI
    + Special Considerations
    + Email marketing performance
    + Other Tools for Success
    + Conclusion

    If you want to be a successful content marketer, it’s not enough to do what you think is effective—you need to objectively measure whether what you’re doing is effective or not, and then take the appropriate corrective actions.

    Many marketers don’t understand what’s necessary in measuring and analyzing a content marketing campaign—and even if they do, they may have trouble interpreting the data. In our 2016 What Works in Online Marketing survey, 40% of respondents (114 out of 284) indicated that they were not sure about their ROI from on-site content marketing efforts, and 43% (123 out of 289) weren’t sure about ROI from their off-site efforts. Clearly, many marketers find it challenging to measure ROI from their content marketing efforts.

    When you’re first starting out, measurement and analysis can be intimidating, but data measurement and analysis are objective and complex. I’ve written this guide to help you better understand the importance of measurement and analysis—and how to do it effectively for your content marketing campaign.

    Why Analysis Is Important

    Before I dig into the details of measurement and analysis, I want to explain the importance of analysis in the first place. Why is this phase of the process so important to the success and health of your campaign?

    Setting and Measuring Goals

    content marketing goals

    First, analysis can help you define, set, and eventually measure your content goals.

    • Defining success. There are many possible types of goals your brand can set for its content marketing campaign, and there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to go about it. For example, you could focus exclusively on building a better reputation for your brand, and work on getting featured in high-authority publishers. Or, you could focus on customer retention and drive your efforts toward your help and support content. You could focus more on generating traffic, or getting more conversions, or just reaching a wider social audience so you can attract more followers.

    How can analysis help you figure out what goals you want to set? When you’re first starting out, most of your goals will be speculative, or based on preliminary forms of research like market research or competitive research. But once you get rolling, you’ll have access to far more in-depth and brand-specific pools of data, which can tell you exactly how your content is performing. Here, you’ll be able to see where your strengths and weaknesses are; for example, if you see that your conversion rates are at an all-time high, but your traffic is lackluster, you can adjust your goals to focus on attracting more traffic. You’ll also have a baseline for comparison here; if you know you’re getting 1,000 visitors a month with your current strategy, 1,200 next month is a pretty realistic target.

    • Goal criteria. When you’re setting goals to measure and analyze, you’ll want to keep some important criteria in mind. The SMART criteria is always a good standby here, even though there’s some variability in what “SMART” can actually stand for (Wikipedia says they stand for specific, measurable, achievable, relevance, and time-bound). Your goals should be specific, so you can have an objectively comparable number for your data. They should be measurable, obviously, so make sure your goals are relevant to something you can measure in your analytics platforms. Make them achievable and relevant, so they’re actually going to matter for your brand, and set a limit when it comes to timing (give yourself at least a month to make any kind of meaningful progress). Once you know your goals, you can establish what you’re actually going to measure—and how you’re going to measure it.
    • Ongoing development. Remember that the process of setting and achieving goals is an ongoing one. It’s something that should be revisited, modified, and adjusted as you gather more information about your campaign. For example, you might start with a goal of increasing traffic, and consistently move your targets up as you build more and more momentum, but as you reach a plateau, you may have to shift your focus or rein in your ambitions to hit more feasible, meaningful targets.

    Identifying Successes and Failures

    Identifying Successes and Failures

    Experimentation in marketing is vital to the long-term success of your campaign. If you keep things too consistent or predictable, your campaign will end up becoming stagnant. Experiments, however, are risky; conceptually, you might identify them as strong opportunities for development, but in practice they may see very different results. Analytics is your tool to find out which of your experiments are working and which ones aren’t.

    Depending on how you approach the problem, you can set up an AB test to compare two variations of a campaign independently. For example, you might launch two eBooks at a similar time and in a similar way to determine which one is more appealing to your target audience.

    AB Testing

    (Image Source: VWO)

    But you might also decide to simply change something about your campaign—such as targeting a new niche or ramping up the frequency at which you publish new content. In these cases, you’ll need to compare large swaths of data with others from a different time period.

    In any case, analytics is the only way to know for sure whether one of your new strategies is working or not. Otherwise, you’re shooting blind, and you could end up wasting your time and money on strategies that aren’t effective.

    Generating New Ideas

    new ideas

    If you’re gathering enough data, you can use analytics to strategically generate new ideas for your content campaign. For example, let’s say you’re evaluating how effective various pieces of content have been in terms of attracting links and holding user interest once they’re on-site. You’ve developed a series of infographics that seems to be generating a lot of attention, and you’ve also written a new blog post about the history of the pogo stick that has seen a huge influx of visitors. Knowing these two trends, you could come up with a hybrid piece—like an infographic about pogo sticks history.

    Looking more broadly, you could also identify key opportunities based on the types of traffic you’re attracting or other metrics that inspire you to pursue another line of development. For example, let’s say you notice there’s a surprising number of people from Twitter visiting your site, but you don’t use Twitter for promotion very much. You could take advantage of this by increasing your efforts on Twitter, but also catering to that audience by writing snappier, Twitter-optimized headlines. Peruse data sets you wouldn’t normally think about, and see if there are any outliers that stand out to you or give you inspiration to try something new.

    6 Keys to Success in Measurement and Analysis

    Next, let’s take a look at some of the key principles that will lead you to success when measuring and analyzing your content campaign. Throughout this guide, I’ll be digging deep into the process of measuring, how to interpret data, and what data sets to pay attention to, but first, you need to understand the following six high-level “rules” of the analysis game:

    1. Measure everything. First, make it a point to measure everything you possibly can. Fortunately, we live in a digital age where most systems will track your performance for you. For example, if you syndicate your content on Facebook, Facebook will happily tell you how many impressions, views, and click-throughs it received, sparing you the trouble of any formal setup process. However, other systems require some degree of preparatory work; for example, before you can start taking advantage of Google Analytics, you’ll need to install a tracking script. Even if you have specific goals or specific platforms in mind when building your campaign, it’s a good idea to measure data with the broadest funnel possible—it’s always better to have more data than you need than to come up short or overlook something.

    2. Measure consistently. Some marketers set up their analytic systems with the best intentions, believing they’ll be dutiful about checking in regularly. Others only set up tracking systems because that’s what they’re told to do. In both cases, it’s common for marketers to neglect establishing a pattern of consistent measurement. You need to be consistent in terms of when and how you measure; you’ll want to check in at the same time every month, or every two weeks, or whatever you decide, and you’ll need to be consistent in terms of what data you evaluate. This consistency will help keep you accountable for your goals, but will also allow you to have an “apples to apples” comparison, giving you more accurate insights and conclusions.

    3. Choose the right tools. There are hundreds of marketing analytics tools available on the market these days, and new ones seem to be emerging all the time. Many of them are quite good. Most of them could probably help you. But only a handful of them will track exactly what you need them to track in a format that’s convenient and relevant for your brand. It’s going to take some time for you to run evaluations and figure out what the best platforms are for your brand; thankfully, most platforms offer free trials so you can figure it out quickly. Google Analytics is going to be a major help to you (and I’ll be exploring it in detail a bit later), but there are a number of other strong tools to consider. I’ll be exploring several of these in the final section of this guide.

    4. Relate everything back to goals. Your data is only useful if you’re capable of tying it back to something significant for your campaign. The conduits you’ll use most often here are your goals. So let’s say one of your blog posts has attracted 20 percent more traffic than your other posts; how has this helped you reach your main goal? What can you learn from this increase that can help you reach your next goal? It sounds redundant, but data without purpose has no meaning. Frame everything in a context that leads back to bigger-picture thinking.

    5. Avoid the temptation of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a common and deadly threat to the average content marketer. The idea is pretty simple; we tend to seek out and/or overvalue information that already falls in line with what we believe. This is true even if we’re not fully conscious of our own beliefs. How does this relate to content marketing analysis? Let’s say you’ve launched a new strategy that you believe will increase reader engagement with your brand. With this belief in mind, you cruise your data sets, looking specifically for information to justify this belief. You see a handful of extra comments from readers and voila—your belief is (unjustly) verified. However, you may neglect other important indicators, such as bounce rates, exit rates, or social shares, that contradict that evidence, because you weren’t looking for it. Try to remain as neutral as possible when running your analysis, hard as it may be.

    facts and beliefs

    (Image Source: James Clear)

    6. Make your insights actionable. This is the hardest step for many marketers. They’ll be able to give you lots of numbers, objective takeaways, and maybe even plot a few graphs to project the data, and those insights will all be true. But what are you supposed to actually do with those insights? Remember, your data is only useful if it leads to some kind of change. Aim for all of your insights to connect to some formal action.

    6 Key Content Marketing Metrics to Analyze

    content marketing metrics

    You may find yourself seeking information on a number of different metrics, depending on your goals and the nature of your brand, but these six key areas of analysis are some of the most important for understanding the effectiveness of your content marketing efforts:

    1. Traffic. Content marketing is an inbound strategy, and one of its biggest goals is to bring more people to your website. Depending on your area of expertise, or how you’re developing content, you may attract different types of traffic or attract it in different ways, but traffic is still a vital measure for the health of your campaign. For example, posting content off of your website with links pointing back to it will generate referral traffic, which you can use as a way to gauge off-site reader interest. Similarly, you can use social traffic to gauge your audience’s content interest on various social media platforms, or organic traffic to see how your content affects your search rankings. You’ll also be able to evaluate your traffic qualitatively; who’s coming to your site, and why?

    2. Conversions. There are dozens of online marketing strategies, but almost all of them boil down to one goal: increasing conversions. A conversion is a successful user interaction—such as a user making a purchase, completing a form, or downloading a piece of content—and for most companies, this translates to revenue (or at least a measurable value). In some cases, conversions will be a way to value the traffic that your content earns, and in others, you’ll be using conversions to track your content’s success at converting readers.

    3. Popularity. You’ll also want to measure the popularity of your content, in ways that transcend traffic or conversions. Some of your articles are going to be more popular than others, earning more shares, comments, engagements, and inbound links; obviously, there’s something you’ll want to learn from these outstanding pieces. You’ll also need to learn which of your strategiesor topics are ineffective, so you can weed those out of your lineup. Popularity can’t be tied to an objective value, the way that conversions or traffic can, but it’s an important qualitative measure to help you improve your content marketing efforts.

    4. Brand awareness. Brand awareness is a notoriously difficult data point to measure, and there’s no universally agreed-on way to measure it. You could use social listening software (such as Hootsuite, SproutSocial, or SocialMention) to see how often your brand is mentioned on social media channels, news articles, or blogs, or you could conduct a wide-scale survey to see who has heard of your brand before and who hasn’t, but these are indirect measures of a qualitative characteristic. You won’t find “brand awareness” in any online analytics dashboard, but it’s still important to gauge how effective you are in promoting your brand.

    5. Consumer engagement. Engagement is similar to popularity in that it can’t be tied to an objective value, but it’s a great way to gauge the health of your campaign. Getting more engagements means you’re selecting good topics, covering them appropriately, and most importantly, keeping yourself highly relevant to a specific target audience. Comments, interactions, tweets, shares, downloads, and discussions are all various forms of engagement you can look at to tell you how well you’re doing.

    6. Reputation. Brand reputation is another finicky measurement, but fortunately this one has a handful of practical, objective measurements to point you in the right direction. For example, you can measure your site’s domain authority to determine how “authoritative” Google probably views your website. You may also want to go deeper by determining how users feel about your content specifically, such as conducting reader satisfaction surveys or asking for feedback.

    I’ll be digging deeper into all these topics in the next few sections, but I wanted to give you the high-level view for context before we start measuring and analyzing each of these data points. The next two sections will be focusing on the concept of ROI, boiling complex data points down to objective measurements, and on qualitative measures of campaign effectiveness, which are beneficial but are tough to reduce to concrete takeaways.

    Content Marketing ROI

    Content Marketing ROI

    For this brief section, we’re going to be focusing on the fundamentals of ROI, and to do that, we’ll be focusing on objective, quantitative data as much as possible.

    What is ROI?

    First, let’s define ROI—it’s an acronym that stands for “return on investment,” and most marketers will tell you it’s one of, if not the most important metric you need to know to determine your campaign’s effectiveness (in content or for any other strategy). If your ROI is positive, you’re doing something right – keep working to improve it. If your ROI is negative, you know that something isn’t working and it needs to change.

    There are a few problems with ROI when it comes to content marketing, however:

    • Content affects many areas. One of the reasons why content marketing is so powerful in the first place is because it doesn’t rest alone in any one area. It affects your domain authority and the amount of virtual real estate your website has, it facilitates social media marketing and email marketing, and can be used for countless other channels—it can even be used for client retention in addition to or instead of client acquisition.
    • Not all content effects are easy to measure. Some content benefits are terribly difficult to quantify. An increase in brand reputation can increase your conversion rates and may push users further along the buy cycle when they get to your site, but you can’t quantify these things with any degree of certainty.
    • It’s a slow building strategy. It takes a long time to see the true benefits from content marketing. As you grow your strategy from nothing, you’ll almost certainly start with a neutral or negative ROI, which can only become positive after months or even years of effort.

    Despite these weaknesses, understanding your ROI as well as possible is crucial, so I still highly encourage you to keep it as one of your top priorities for gauging campaign success.

    Google Analytics

    Google Analytics

    When it comes to quantitative data for your content campaign, there’s no better general tool than Google Analytics. It will help you track almost any data point you can imagine related to your content or your site, and it’s pretty easy to use. It even integrates with a number of third-party dashboards. Best of all, it’s completely free—all you need is a Google account, and you can grab a tracking script to place within the code of your site. There may be other platforms that can serve your specific needs better, or ones that are easier for you to use personally, but Google Analytics can work for almost anybody, so it’s the most universal platform I can offer or suggest.

    Throughout this section, I’ll be exploring the different areas of Google Analytics you can use to evaluate your content marketing campaign, where to find it, and what your key takeaways should be from the information you find. I’ve organized this section in broad categories of data—such as “traffic” and “conversions,” so even if you don’t plan on using Google Analytics, you can still learn about the key metrics you need to measure and why they’re so important. I’ll be exploring alternative and complementary tools in the final section of this guide, so keep these metrics in mind for those as well.

    Traffic

    First, let’s take a look at traffic, the number of people who visit your site. Obviously, the more people who visit your site, the better—more incoming people means you’ll have more opportunities for conversions, and even if they don’t convert, you’ll at least build more brand familiarity. One of the primary functions of content is to attract new users in the first place, and you can use the Acquisition section of Google Analytics to see how well your content performs this function.

    Find the Acquisition section on the left-hand side of the dashboard, and click into the “Overview.” This will give you a detailed breakdown of how many visitors have come to your site during the time period you’ve selected, and where those users came from.

    top channels

    There are four main potential sources of traffic here (you may also see paid advertising, or other peripheral routes), all of which tie back to your content in some way. You can view this from a high level, or click into each individual traffic “channel” to get more detailed information.

    • Organic Traffic. First, take a look at your organic traffic. This is a measure of all the traffic your site has received from organic searches in search engines like Google and Bing. You can break this down by search engine, and look at the keyword used for each search (though Google doesn’t provide much keyword information through Google Analytics anymore), but the big number to pay attention to here is the number of sessions you received. If you’re using content as part of an SEO strategy, this is the most comprehensive measure you can use to gauge its effectiveness. The more authority and visibility online you generate through your campaign, the higher this number will climb; just keep in mind this figure is also influenced by your SEO efforts (the lines are blurry here). If you see this number stagnating or dwindling, you’ll have to readjust the keyword focus and authoritative strength of your content.

    organic traffic

    • Referral Traffic. Your referral traffic will give you another measure of your content’s specific influence. Referral traffic measures people who came to your site by clicking on an external link. Since many of your external links will be built in content you’ve submitted to off-site publishers (if you’re following my guide to link building), you’ll have clear insight not only into which publishers are sending you the most traffic, but what types of topics are generating the most visitors. Be sure to drill into this one, as it also includes referral traffic from links independent from your content marketing strategy. Take inventory of what parts of your off-site content strategy are succeeding or failing, and make adjustments accordingly.
    • Social Traffic. Next, you’ll want to take a look at the social traffic you’ve been able to generate. As you might imagine, this collects all the inbound traffic you’ve received from your social media channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn—and you can even look to see specifically which channels are generating the most traffic. From there, you can click into each individual platform and see what links syndicated on those platforms are responsible for what share of traffic you’re getting. It’s a fantastic way to gauge how your content is reaching the different segments of your social audience.

    social traffic

    • Direct Traffic. Finally, we have direct traffic, which is a bit harder to dissect. Direct traffic is comprised of several different potential sources:
      • Typing in your website address in the URL bar
      • Clicking a link from an email
      • Clicking a link from a chat software
      • Clicking a link from a shortened URL (such as bit.ly)
      • Clicking a link from a mobile social media app such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn (phone apps usually don’t pass referrer information).
      • Clicking a link from a secure site (https) that leads to a non-secure site (http). Watch out for this, because some major publications, such as Entrepreneur.com, use https. So, if your site isn’t secure (http), then any referral traffic you get from it will actually show up in the “direct traffic” bucket in Google Analytics.
      • Organic search (some of it, anyway). A study by Groupon found that up to 60% of traffic being reported as “direct” was actually organic search traffic. It’s not yet known why some organic search traffic is dumped into the wrong bucket, but it’s worth knowing about.

    There’s no easy way to tell how many users who accessed your site directly did so because they’ve been exposed to your content in the past, but there are ways to evaluate how many visitors are new versus how many have been here before—I’ll be touching on that in a later section. Don’t write off direct traffic entirely, but it’s usually not as closely related to your content strategy as these other channels.

    Custom reports

    One of the lesser-known and utilized features of Google Analytics is custom reports. My favorite custom report shows full referring URLs for every referral visit, along with the destination URL on your website. So, for example, if a reader reads one of my Forbes articles and clicks a link within the article that takes them to a specific page on my website, Google Analytics allows me to see the URL of the Forbes article, along with the page on my website that the user landed on when they clicked the link:

    custom reports

    This is actionable intelligence because it shows you which specific external assets/media are generating the most traffic, and to which specific pages. Furthermore, when compared to conversion data, it’s possible to see which external publishers drive the most conversions, allowing you to refine and optimize your future outreach efforts.

    Follow these steps to set up this custom report:

    1. Log into your Google Analytics account and select your website’s profile.
    2. Click the “Customization” tab at the top of Google Analytics
    3. Click “New Custom Report”
    4. Click “Flat Table” when you’re asked to select the “type”
    5. Click “Dimensions” then select “Full Referrer” under “Behavior” as well as “Destination Page”
    6. Click “Add Metric” under the “Metrics” section, then add “Visitors” and/or “Unique Visitors.” Feel free to experiment with adding other metrics here as well, such as bounce rate or pages / session.
    7. Click “Save”
    8. Click “Add to Dashboard” (optional)

    Visit your dashboard and you’ll see the report, or visit the “Customization” tab and then select the custom report name from the left side to see it any time.

    Referring to the image above, I can see that I get a lot of traffic from Forbes articles that I’ve published; particularly ones that relate to social media and how to drive traffic to your website. More content on Forbes that covers these angles could be helpful in my content strategy.

    Conversion tracking

    Traffic is all well and good, but what is that traffic doing once it gets to your site? Are these people who are buying products from you, or just passersby who kicked the tires and moved on? Conversions will be able to tell you the difference, and it’s important to know exactly how many you’re getting—and how much they’re worth.

    1. Defining conversions. First, you need to know what qualifies as a conversion and what doesn’t. The potential definition is pretty broad; any type of meaningful user activity could be theoretically counted as a conversion. By most standard definitions, a conversion would be considered to take place during a monetary transaction, such as a purchase, or an action that could potentially lead to such a transaction, such as signing up for a webinar or filling out a form.

    2. Measuring conversions. Conversion opportunities are nice, but of course you’ll need to measure how often those conversions are made. Your site may have a feature in the backend to measure and analyze your conversion opportunities—especially if you use a common content management system like WordPress—so feel free to use that. Otherwise, Google Analytics has a useful section called Goals that can help you track almost any kind of conversion you can imagine. Head to the Admin tab of your account, and you’ll find Goals as one of the main options.

    Google Analytics Goals

    Here, you’ll be able to create a separate “Goal” for every conversion opportunity you have. Google is super helpful, and has a number of templates you can choose from, including “contact us” and “place an order,” which are two common variants.

    Follow the instructions here—Google walks you through every step of the process. Then, you’ll be able to track all your Goals in the same section, or access Goal data on individual report pages. For example, you’ll be able to see how each segment of traffic (referral, organic, social, etc.) converts compared to the others.

    Calculating conversion value

    You can calculate exactly how much one of your conversions is worth. This is more straightforward for some types of conversion than it is for others. For example, if you have historical data on your customers’ past purchases, you can easily calculate the approximate value of a customer purchase. However, if you count a conversion as a lead, you’ll need to factor in the expected lifetime value of a client, your close rate, and other variables that could influence the full equation. The more precise you can be, the better, but an estimate is okay.

    Calculating Quantitative Revenue

    Calculating Quantitative Revenue

    Once you have your goal tracking set up in Google Analytics, you can calculate the total revenue from your content marketing campaign in two separate dimensions:

    1. Conversions as a measure of traffic value. First, you can use your conversion rate and conversion value to estimate the approximate worth of each new visitor. For example, let’s say you have a conversion rate of 2 percent with 1,000 monthly visitors and a $1,000 conversion value. You’d get 20 conversions, with a total value of $20,000. Therefore, the average value of a visitor to your site is $20. You can apply this math however you like; you can look at your site’s “average” visitor from any direction, or drill down to visitors from one specific channel or another (as long as you use the appropriate data sets for your variables).

    2. Conversions as an indicator of content success. Don’t forget your content has the potential value to encourage conversions through calls-to-action. You can also measure specific Goals related to the calls-to-action your content supports, and use that information to determine how effective your content is at generating new conversions.

    Accordingly, you may need to segregate your conversion efforts, measuring different Goals for each dimension. It may also be beneficial to work on conversion optimization as a strategy separate from content marketing, though the quality of your content (and your use of calls-to-action within it) can affect your conversion rates.

    Calculating Quantitative Costs

    Calculating Quantitative Costs

    Between knowing your traffic volume, conversion rates, and conversion value, you can sufficiently estimate the approximate value of your content marketing strategy—at least from a quantitative perspective (I’ll get into qualitative measurements in the next section). But don’t forget the other side of ROI—the amount you’re investing in your campaign.

    Most of these factors aren’t measurable through a dashboard or analytics platform, so you’ll need to rely on your company’s own internal financial data. Take a look at the following:

    • Agency & contractor spending. If you’re working with an agency or any contractors, calculating your costs will be simple. Agencies and contractors vary wildly on price due to different levels of expertise and different niches, but for the most part, their services are reduced to either an easy-to-understand monthly rate, or project-based payments. Set these costs aside, and combine them with your other expenditures (if you have any) to project a final cost for your content marketing efforts.
    • Employee time and cost. When you’re doing some of the content marketing work yourself, or you’re relying on your full-time staff members to do the work, it’s easy to forget that these forms of effort are costing you money as well. If you have a full-time employee dedicated to content marketing, all you’ll need to consider here is their full-time salary, but it gets complicated when different team members are investing different amounts of time at different rates of pay. Do your best to reduce these hours of invested time and effort into a quantifiable metric—and include your own time as well (here’s a handy calculator to help with that).
    • Tools and other resources. Finally, you’ll need to include the monthly costs for all the tools, dashboards, and services you subscribe to in order to make the magic happen. Think carefully here: Do you use any analytics platforms, syndication platforms, management tools, collaborative tools, or communication platforms exclusively for content marketing? Include their monthly fees in your total expenditures.

    Collect all these sources together to estimate how much you’re spending on your content marketing efforts. This is a good opportunity to assess where you’re spending the most time and money, and you may find that you pay more than you thought you did.

    Finalizing Quantitative ROI

    Finalizing Quantitative ROI

    Now that you have all the information on how much your content campaign is objectively returning to you and how much you’re spending, you can estimate your campaign’s total quantitative ROI (that is, your ROI before taking qualitative measurements into considerations). Take the average value of a conversion (along with your conversion rate), and use that to estimate the average value of a site visitor.

    Tally up all the visitors in a month that were influenced by your content strategy, and calculate a total value of those visitors. Compare this against what you spend in a month, and voila—you’ll have a rough figure for the ROI of your campaign (not including qualitative benefits).

    If your ROI is positive, congratulations! You’re doing a fine job, and you should keep it up. Pay special attention to the areas of your content strategy that are performing best—such as topics, syndication channels, or formats that are especially valuable—and keep refining those.

    If your ROI is steady or negative, you have some work to do (unless you’re just starting out with a new campaign). Take a critical look at where you’re underperforming, specifically, or where you’re overspending, and work to make corrections for subsequent months. You may need to aggressively experiment to achieve a positive change, but the worst thing you can do in a negative-ROI situation is nothing.

    There is one additional caveat to considering your ROI, however; you need to remember there are less measurable, qualitative benefits to your campaign as well.

    Qualitative Measurements

    Qualitative Measurements

    Now, we’re going to turn our attention toward the qualitative benefits and effects of your content marketing campaign. These are just as real, and just as effective for promoting your brand, but they’re not as numerically or as directly measurable as the quantitative factors we used to formulate ROI.

    Earlier, we focused on the Acquisition and Goals tabs in Google Analytics. Now, we’re going to be spending some time in the Behavior area, where you can gain insights about how users interact with your site.

    Brand Presence

    Our first stop is evaluating your brand presence. How effective is your content when it comes to promoting your brand and making it more visible to a wider audience? Answering this question can help you find weak points or strong points in your campaign; are there certain areas lagging behind others? Are there key opportunities for development?

    • On-site distribution. You produce a lot of content, but how much of that content is currently getting seen or interacted with? Which topics are getting more attention than others? We can find the answers to these questions in the Behavior tab. Take a look at the Site Content section, and pull up the full report by clicking “All Pages”.

    You’ll see a detailed list of every page of your site that has received at least one visit within the specified timeframe, by default ranked in order of traffic (Pageviews). Odds are, your homepage gets the lion’s share of traffic, which is represented by a slash (/), but if you drop down, you can take a look at how your actual content stacks up against each other in terms of popularity.

    page views

    • Off-site presence. Next, you’ll need to take a look at your off-site presence. You can do this through the Referral traffic custom report you created in the last section. What are your top sources for new traffic? What kind of reputation benefits is your brand getting from its affiliation with these sources? From which sources do you see the best conversion rates?
    • Brand mentions. You can also get a gauge for your current brand presence by seeing how often your brand is mentioned on social media. For platforms like Twitter and Instagram, you can easily see what users are mentioning you, or you could also do an in-app search for terms specifically related to your brand. But if you want to go the extra mile, you could use social listening software to help you figure out exactly how, when, and in what capacity people are referencing your brand.

    Brand Awareness

    Brand Awareness

    Brand awareness is loosely tied into your overall brand presence; after all, the more prominent your brand and content are, on-site and off-site, the more aware people are going to be of your brand. But we’re not just looking for the reach and value of your content here; we’re trying to figure out what people know about your brand. For example, you might have content on a dozen high-authority sites generating thousands of visitors to your site every month, but do those visitors know what your brand actually does, or how it fits into your industry? Are they going to remember your brand after they give your site a once-over?

    Brand awareness is tricky to measure. You can use indirect forms of measurement, such as how many new followers you’re able to attract or how informed your leads seem to be when you collect them, but if you want to be as accurate as possible, your best course of action is to conduct a survey. Ask people if they’ve heard about your brand, how they heard about your brand, and their subjective opinions on it. This can help you gauge how effective your content is at making your brand both positive and memorable.

    Reader Retention

    reader retention

    Earning lots of traffic through quality content is a great first step, but your long-term goals should be focused on building better customer relationships and keeping them around for as long as possible. As such, reader retention should be just as high a priority as new reader acquisition.

    There are several ways you can measure this (and gain insights that allow you to improve your approach):

    • Followers. Any social media marketing expert will tell you that the “follower” and “like” counts of social media profiles are somewhat overblown statistics for success. Just because a user followers your brand on a social media platform doesn’t mean they’re actively viewing what you’re posting, or that they have any meaningful connection to your brand. Chasing followers is often meaningless to your bottom line. However, measuring the growth of your followers (and future retention) based purely on the attractiveness of your own efforts is a good gauge of your campaign’s strength. If you find your follower counts slowing or falling backward, take a good look at the content you’re promoting, and whether your content’s quality and engagement has taken a nosedive. Fortunately, this is an easy metric to track and follow.
    • Subscribers. If you use an RSS feed, you can also measure the growth of your subscribers much in the same way that you measure the growth of your social media followers. Barring that, you can use your email newsletter subscribers as a gauge here. Pay careful attention to any spikes or valleys in your data—are they coincidentally timed with any new changes to your strategy? Are there any specific subscriber tendencies that you can optimize your campaign for? Users won’t subscribe unless they’re truly interested in your content.
    • Repeat traffic. Your volume of returning visitors should also suggest something about the sticking power of your content. Head to the Audience section of Google Analytics to find this, and look under Behavior to find the New vs. Returning report. Here, you’ll see a breakdown of all your site users who are new to your site against who’s returning for a second or subsequent visit. You can also filter this report by other factors; for example, you can isolate social or referral traffic. You’ll want to be careful of the balance here; new users are good for your acquisition efforts, while returning users are good for your retention efforts. Which one you choose ultimately boils down to your unique company goals.

    repeat traffic

    • Loyalists and evangelists. You can also subjectively view your content’s impact on people by observing how they behave in relation to your brand. For example, do you have any loyalists, who appear to like or share almost everything you post on social media? Do you have any brand evangelists who mention your brand often and recommend it to others? Both these types of users are indispensable for your content campaign in terms of further promotion of your material, but are also good indicators that your content is making a significant impact.

    Likes, Links, and Shares

    likes and shares

    Likes, links and shares are all important indicators for your content’s effectiveness as well, for more reasons than one. These three types of engagements are quite distinct, but all of them share a commonality; they require a reader to acknowledge your content as worthy of being spread to more people, which is usually a good thing. In increasing order of value are likes (or “favorites”), shares, and links. A like simply requires a click, while a share requires a click and an inherent endorsement, and a link is a broader endorsement of that content which persists indefinitely. Shares are especially important because they allow your content to be seen by more people, and links are especially important because they directly correlate with increased organic search visibility, which, in turn, drives more traffic to your website.

    If your website is on WordPress, you can use my favorite social sharing plugin, Social Warfare, to not only place social share buttons on your posts automatically, but also provide you with a breakdown of share counts for each post on your website.

    social shares

    You can monitor your likes and shares directly on their social media platforms. Take note not only of the types of content you produced, but when and how you syndicated them (for example, did you use a custom headline?).

    For links, you’ll have to use a tool like Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs, or Majestic, which allow you to list all the links you have pointing back to your site. This is especially helpful for monitoring what types of content earn the most links naturally.

    URLProfiler is another tool that I really like for content analysis. You can use it to create a list of URLs for every page on your site, and gather other metrics such as total shares for each URL, links for each, and much more. It outputs data in a spreadsheet so you can manipulate it to your heart’s content.

    Comments and Engagement

    Comments and Engagement

    So far, most of the qualitative metrics we’ve looked at have dealt with either a piece’s ability to attract clicks and brief interactions, or a campaign’s ability to retain readers. Now, let’s look at how your individual content pieces are able to hold a reader’s interest. These indications will tell you which of your pieces attract the most held interest, which is valuable because it leads to more invested customers/readers, and because it increases the likelihood of sharing and linking.

    • Time spent on page. For any piece of content on your site, you can look at the time spent on page metric to determine how long the average user stays on the page. Obviously, this can’t tell you whether or not these users actually read your material, but it’s a pretty good indirect indication of reader engagement. For example, if you have a blog post that’s 10,000 words long and your average user only spends 45 seconds on it, it might not be very informative, attention-grabbing or engaging in the beginning. On the other hand, if your time spent on page is several minutes, you know you have a keeper.
    • Discussions. Discussions are another good relative gauge of your content’s interactivity. You can artificially spur discussions by asking prompting questions, such as “what do you think? Let us know in the comments,” or by deliberately choosing a debatable or controversial issue. In any case, discussions about your work in the comments section or on social media are a good metric to gauge the influence of your material on your readers.
    • Reaction scale. This is a highly qualitative measurement, since it will require you to read individual comments and interactions, then draw a conclusion about how those users feel about your content. The more intense reactions you get out of people, the more successful you can consider your content to be (generally). For example, a phrase like “nice post,” isn’t as intense as one like “OMG, thank you for this! Exactly what I needed!” Eliciting stronger reactions usually means you’ll attract more discussions, gain more visibility (especially through shares), and affect a larger percentage of your readership.
    • Interactive elements. You can also measure your content’s interactivity by directly measuring the interactive elements within it. In fact, Google Analytics’s Goals section has a complete subsection dedicated to helping you track these modules. Calculators, information comparisons, or video plays can all be tracked separately—and obviously, the more users who interact with these features, the better.

    • Feedback. As an additional measure, it’s a good idea to collect reader feedback regularly, as directly as possible. Conduct surveys among your readership and ask them what they think about your content, including your topic selection, the quality of your material, and whether they have any suggestions for future entries. Sometimes, the best way to get the information you’re looking for is to ask for it directly.

    Special Considerations

    There are a handful of special situations and strategies that should be taken into account, beyond the basics of measuring a content marketing campaign’s effectiveness.

    eBook and whitepaper performance

    eBook and whitepaper performance

    For starters, you may be using eBooks or whitepapers as dedicated, long-form, “landmark” pieces above and beyond your “typical” blog and content strategy. These are frequently offered as downloadable PDFs, rather than on-site forms of content, and because they take more time and investment, you’ll need to be precise when measuring how much potential value they hold.

    • Downloads. The first metric you’ll want to track is the number of downloads your piece receives. This is a straightforward measurement that can tell you how interesting your topic is to your target audience; people generally won’t download a piece of content like this unless they have the intention of at least skimming it. If you notice your number of downloads decreasing from topic to topic, it could be an indication that your earlier work wasn’t as powerful or as effective as your audience thought it would be. On the other hand, if your download counts rise, it’s a sign of positive momentum building.
    • Landing page visits and conversions. One of the best ways to increase the return on your content investment is to establish separate landing pages for each of your content pieces, so you can target your audience with pinpoint accuracy. For each of these separate pages, you’ll need to track metrics like page visits and conversions separately. Treat each landing page as if it’s a separate, “mini” website in its own right. You can also track statistics like time spent on page, or if you want to get fancy, you can use heat map technology to determine exactly how your users interact with the landing page itself (but that veers into web design and conversion optimization territory, rather than content marketing measurement).
    • Different goals. I also want to point out that your whitepapers and eBooks will likely be written with different goals in mind than your foundational content strategy. Where your typical content strategy might revolve around getting people to your website or earning more conversions, these pieces might be linked to a paid advertising campaign to generate email addresses from potential leads, or you might even be selling them to your audience directly. Be sure to reevaluate what goals you’re setting, and how and why you’re setting them.

    Help and troubleshooting content

    Help and troubleshooting content

    You might also have a separate “wing” of your content strategy dedicated to help and troubleshooting content, guiding users through the use of your products and services, or otherwise lending them support in your area of expertise. This is an excellent strategy for customer retention, and is being increasingly used by major brands, but you’ll have to adjust how you measure and analyze your performance here.

    • It’s all about utility. You don’t need to worry about inbound traffic and conversions here to calculate the value of your work; instead, the value here is all about utility. Was your content able to solve an issue that a customer had? Was your content thorough and descriptive? “Usefulness” is an ambiguously defined quality here, but you’ll need to evaluate it if you want to gauge your effectiveness. The more useful your content is, the better job it will do at keeping your customers happy.
    • Types of user feedback. Since everything’s going to depend on user feedback here, you’ll need to collect that feedback in a number of different ways. For example, you could include a comments sections, which would help you qualitatively and indirectly gauge how satisfied your users seem to be, or you could use a more pointed system, like the question “was this article helpful?” at the end of the piece. Star rating systems and surveys are also effective. Google Support employs these tactics effectively, on multiple levels:

    user feedback

    (Image Source: Google)

    • The visibility factor. Though usability and user feedback are important factors of success while customers are engaging with your material, your help and troubleshooting content won’t do much good if nobody knows they’re there. Be sure to promote the existence of this support section on all the typical content syndication and promotion channels you use for the rest of your campaign—and measure your effectiveness accordingly.

    Email marketing performance

    Email marketing performance

    Email marketing can be considered a branch of content marketing, since it’s usually either relying on content for the bulk of its promoted material (like with an email newsletter), or it’s providing the content itself. Accordingly, it’s a good idea to track your content performance over email marketing as well. Google Analytics can give you information about how many of your subscribers visited your site, but for more in-depth performance metrics, you’ll need to consult your email distribution platform of choice.

    MailChimp is a fantastic analytics platform to rely on here, especially since it can integrate with Google Analytics directly.

    mailchimp report

    • Symbiotic relationship with content. First, note that there’s a mutual, almost symbiotic relationship between email and content in general. Your email marketing campaign can be used to promote and improve the interactivity of your content campaign, while your content campaign can attract new, more interested subscribers for your email blasts. How you treat email marketing depends on the ultimate goals of your campaign; for example, if you’re mostly focused on generating new traffic and sales, email marketing should be focused on driving all traffic and attention to your blog, and you should be measuring how effective it is at this specific task.
    • Engagement factors. You’ll also want to look at engagement factors within the email itself (as a general rule). What types of headlines and content are causing people to open emails the most? How often are people interacting with or clicking on links within your email content? You can use heat maps and advanced analytics to determine these metrics, or stick to high-level factors like traffic flow, depending on how important email engagement is for your content campaign.
    • “Next-level” traffic. You’ll also want to take a look at the traffic you get from email within Google Analytics. Segment this traffic out and look at factors like time spent on page and conversion rates; this segment of traffic can be considered to be in the next phase of your buying cycle. Because they’re subscribers, they’re already at least somewhat familiar with and interested in your brand. How does this change the way they interact with your content? Are they more or less engaged by it? This information can help you develop a more refined strategy, depending on whether you’re more interested in the generation of new brand awareness, or the capturing of already-interested customers.

    Other Tools for Success

    tools

    For the majority of this guide, the main tool I’ve been suggesting to measure and analyze your content campaign has been Google Analytics, but there are dozens of other potential choices, each of which offers an area of specialty, and some advantages and disadvantages that could make it a better option (or complementary addition) for your analysis.

    Open Site Explorer

    Our first stop here is Moz’s Open Site Explorer, which I made reference to earlier in this article. This tool specializes in evaluating your inbound link profile (and the profiles of your competitors, should you choose). Enter your domain and it will give you a breakdown of some key facts about your website, including your domain authority, page authority, and how many links you have pointing to your website.

    There are two main takeaways here. First up is your domain authority, which is a proprietary, predictive measure of how well a site will rank in search engines. The quantity and quality of your inbound links are the factors that influence your domain authority, and this should increase over time as your website gains more (and better) inbound links. Second, you’ll use this tool to evaluate how successful your content is at generating inbound links. Input any page URL (including individual blog posts) to see what types of links it has—and from where. Combined with the knowledge you have about your content topics and promotion efforts, you should be able to draw some logical conclusions about the link-drawing power of not only your individual content, but also your campaign as a whole.

    open site explorer

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Key Benefits

    • Free (mostly). If you’re only looking up information on one or two URLs, Open Site Explorer is free to use. If you want to expand beyond that, it’s reasonably priced.
    • Evaluates authority. Google won’t tell you any measure of your “domain authority” or “page authority”, but this will; it’s just an estimate, granted, but it’s a solid and well-respected indicator of authority in the online marketing industry.
    • Evaluates content power. When it comes to evaluating individual content in terms of its potential reach through shares and links, and allowing you to compare those metrics with those of your competitors, there aren’t any better tools.
    • Allows off-site diversification. This tool can also help you probe for weak points in your off-site posting strategy by comparing your links with those of your competitors. Where are your competitors getting links that you aren’t? Can you replicate their successes? Are you relying on links from too many of the same sources? Have you diversified your efforts enough?

    Sprout Social

    Sprout Social is a tool that caters to, as you might imagine, social media marketing. There’s a whole host of functions to play with here. One of its main goals is to facilitate the effective management of your social media campaign, scheduling posts in advance across a wide variety of different platforms, but where it really stands out is its ability to facilitate research and analysis.

    The most important functions for your content analysis strategy are the social listening feature and the post performance feature. Through social listening, you’ll be able to put an ear to the ground and figure out what your followers are talking about—this is useful for seeing if your new topics have generated discussion, if your brand is increasing in visibility and reputation, or even just fishing for new topics in general. Social post analysis will help you learn how your syndicated pieces of content are performing on various channels.

    sprout social

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    Key Benefits

    • Allows social listening. Being able to tune into your audience’s conversations as they relate to your brand is a huge deal, whether you do it proactively or as a way of gauging your impact.
    • Evaluates content performance. Though each platform offers analytic tools separately, here you can track your posts’ reach, click-throughs, and engagements all in one place.

    ScoopIt

    ScoopIt is a platform for content curation and automation, designed to help make content marketers’ lives easier. In addition to supplying lines of research, preparation, and organization to help you execute your strategy effectively, ScoopIt also integrates with a number of platforms to help you gauge each of your pieces’ impacts on your audience. You’ll be able to look up both quantitative and qualitative factors, such as visits, shares, and even engagements and customer behaviors over time.

    The platform is especially valuable because it attempts to save you that all-too-important step of taking meaningful data and turning it into something significant and actionable for your brand. It takes a look at all the different factors your content contains, how it performed, and makes suggestions for changes or future content pieces.

    scoopit

    scoopit analytics

    (Image Source: ScoopIt)

    Key Benefits

    • Plan and measure a strategy in one place. Most content marketers end up scrapping together automation and efficiency services from dozens of different software platforms if for no other reason than so many platforms are available. ScoopIt helps you manage all these, plus measurement and analysis all in one place.
    • Get actionable insights. It’s hard to take data and use it to form truly actionable conclusions. ScoopIt spares you the work.
    • Adapt over time. ScoopIt also allows you a certain degree of customizability, giving you the freedom to adapt your strategy, approach, and analysis methods over time.

    KissMetrics

    KissMetrics is another popular content analysis platform (and the brand has an amazing content strategy that’s worth checking out). Rather than focusing on the content side of things, with statistics based on reach and influence, KissMetrics differentiates itself by focusing more on your target audience. How are your audience members responding to your content? What are they doing once they get to your website? Are you addressing their needs sufficiently, or is there more you can be doing to satisfy them?

    Truth be told, KissMetrics can be used for a variety of different online marketing functions, including conversion optimization and sales improvement. Its use as a content analysis tool taps only a portion of its potential, but it’s still highly valuable. With it, you’ll be able to see exactly who’s reading your content, what content they’re reading, and how they’re responding to it—in detail.

    KissMetrtics

    (Image Source: KissMetrics)

    Key Benefits

    • Learn more about your audience. With KissMetrics, you’ll find out way more about your target audience than Google Analytics would be able to tell you. This is effective not only as an analytical tool, but as a research tool.
    • Track customer behavior in detail. Furthermore, you’ll be able to learn more specifically how your customers interact with your content through features like heat maps.

    Cyfe

    Cyfe has become popular due to its universal utility; it claims to be an “all-in-one business dashboard,” collecting information from dozens of different areas to help you understand your marketing, branding, and overall online presence in one place. It offers infrastructural tools, such as time tracking and management, and plenty of widgets and customizable features so you can build out the platform to be whatever you need it to be.

    From a content tracking perspective, this is advantageous mostly because you can use it to track as much or as little as you want it to. You won’t find any data points here that can’t be tracked elsewhere, and it doesn’t specialize in any one feature or function, but the convenience factor can’t be overlooked.

    Cyfe

    (Image Source: Cyfe)

    Key Benefits

    • Cover anything. You can track almost any business metric you can think of using this platform, which is extraordinarily convenient.
    • Customize to your liking. If you’re even moderately tech-savvy, you’ll be able to turn this platform into any kind of performance tool you need.

    Bit.ly

    You’ve probably heard of Bit.ly before, but you most likely recognize it for its core functionality: serving as a link shortening tool. This feature is still as popular and as useful as ever—you can head to the site and, for free, enter any URL to get a shortened version you can then do anything you want with. It makes managing and sharing lengthy URLs much easier, and remains an important tool for content promotion and syndication.

    However, most people don’t realize that Bit.ly also offers some surprisingly in-depth analytics about user behavior related to those URLs. Once you’ve created a custom URL for a page of your site, you can use that URL signature to trace things like traffic and audience type.

    Bitly

    (Image Source: Bit.ly)

    Key Benefits

    • Free (mostly). You can use Bit.ly to create shortened URLs for you, but if you want custom shortening or full access to their analytics platform, you’ll have to pay for it.
    • Track custom links. The ability to create and track custom links is especially beneficial for content campaigns targeting different audience segments, or those running AB tests for visibility and growth.

    Clicky

    The last analytics platform I’ll mention is Clicky. Clicky is a somewhat simple-looking dashboard that offers a ton of information about your website, your visitors, and your content performance. In addition to monitoring important factors like site uptime and audience composition, Clicky lets you monitor various user actions and interactions with your site, and can help you easily visualize the popularity and performance of your content.

    Where Clicky specializes is the real-time projection of metrics. Google Analytics offers something similar, but Clicky can help you see how your site visitors are engaging with your material as they engage with it. It’s an especially impressive demonstration if you need to prove your campaign’s effectiveness to an outside party.

    clicky

    (Image Source: Clicky)

    Key Benefits

    • View real-time metrics. The big unique benefit here is the ability to view site interactions in real-time.
    • Use heat maps. Heat maps aren’t a default feature in most of the analytics apps I’ve mentioned so far, but they’re highly useful in evaluating user behavior and disposition.
    • Monitor links. Clicky also helps you monitor your off-site content and link building campaigns, much like Open Site Explorer.

    Conclusion

    conclusion

    As you’ve seen, measuring and analyzing the quality and effects of your content marketing campaign isn’t exactly straightforward. There are thousands of potential variables, and the ones you need to examine for your campaign won’t necessarily be the same for anyone else. Measuring effectively depends on having a clear vision, with specific goals, and a general understanding of what “success” means for your campaign. If you need help getting started with a campaign from scratch, be sure to check out my in-depth guide on planning and launching a content marketing campaign.

    Following the advice I’ve presented in this guide, you should be able to effectively track countless metrics important to the health and longevity of your content campaign, calculating your overall ROI and targeting key areas for development and improvement. The keys here, as with most marketing campaigns, are consistency and effort, so keep working hard toward measuring and achieving your goals.

    Further reading:

    If you want more in-depth resources on content marketing, be sure to check out these guides from Jayson DeMers:

    What can we help you with?

  2. The All-in-One Guide to Planning and Launching a Content Marketing Strategy

    8 Comments

    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:

    1. those who have launched a content marketing campaign, and;
    2. 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!

    Content Marketing Strategy Introduction

    Table of Contents

    + Introduction
    + Overview and Benefits of Content Marketing
    + How to Plan Your Content Strategy
    + Launching your Content Marketing Strategy
    + Great Examples of Content Marketing

    Introduction

    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.

    Overview and Benefits of Content Marketing

    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

    Overview and Benefits of Content Marketing

    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.

    SMB Sam Content Marketing Prospect

    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.

    Brand Visibility

    Brand Visibility

    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.

    Unawareness

    • 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.

    Awareness

    • 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).

    Recognition

    • 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.

    Familiarity

    Content marketing helps you achieve this progression with wider and wider audiences.

    Brand Reputation

    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.

    hubspot content marketing

    (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.

    Linkable Assets

    • 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.

    SEO and Organic Search Traffic

    Referral Traffic

    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.

    BuzzFeed

    (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).

    Huffington Post I Died Today

    (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.

    robyn arouty photography facebook page

    (Image Source: Facebook)

    Conversion Rate

    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.

    Customer Retention

    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.

    Compounding Returns

    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.

    Content Marketing ROI

    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.

    ROI: Content Marketing VS PPC

    How to Plan Your Content Strategy

    How to Plan Your Content Strategy

    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.

    effective content marketing strategy

    (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.

    topics to cover in 2016

     

    types of contents

     

    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

    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.

    Market Research

    • 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.

    device usage

    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.

    media types

    • 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.

    Competitive Research

    • 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.

    keyword research

    (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.

    nature of content marketing

    • 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).

    SMART Goals

    (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.

    Brand Considerations

    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.

    Brand Considerations

    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.personal brandingIf 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

    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.

    types of content

    (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:

    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
    • OutBrain

    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.

    Launching your Content Marketing Strategy

    Launching your Content Marketing Strategy

    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.

    Allocating Resources

    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.

    On-site Content

    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.

    editing

    (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

    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.

    content promotion and syndication

    Sometimes a simple post is enough to generate an influx of traffic. Don’t neglect this step.

    Testing the Waters

    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

    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:

    Initial Publishers

    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

    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:

    home depot blog

    (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.

    Salesforce

    (Image Source: SalesForce)

    Great Examples of Content Marketing

    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.

    Buffer

    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.

    Buffer Blog

    (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:

    Twitter Analytics Buffer

    (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.

    Buffer Twitter Profile

    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?

    content strategy

    (Image Source: Content Marketing Institute)

    WaitButWhy.com

    waitbutwhy

    (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:

    waitbutwhy popup

    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.

    BlondeNerd.com

    blondenerd

    (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.

    Youtube Blondenerd

    (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 Stories

    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.

    Microsoft Stories

    (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

    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.

    GoPro Instagram

     

    (Image Source: Instagram/GoPro)

    BirchBox

    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.

    Dummies

    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.

    dummies

    (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

    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.

    Further reading:

    If you want more in-depth resources on content marketing, be sure to check out these guides from Jayson DeMers:

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  3. The 5 Stages of Content Marketing Growth

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    The true power of a content marketing campaign only makes itself clear with a suitable investment of time. Initially, you won’t see much in the way of results; your readership will be small, your authority will be negligible, and your content archives will be scarce. However, each new piece you create will serve as a semi-permanent landmark, and each new reader you attract will feasibly stick around for the long haul. These features make content marketing a strategy with the potential for exponential growth—provided you’re able to grow your efforts proportionally.

    content marketing growth

    (Image Source: Portent)

    Most people “get” content marketing conceptually, and may even be able to piece a basic strategy together, but people really get thrown off when they try to devise a strategy for long-term growth. It’s a confusing process, often manifesting in fits and starts, but you need to be able to predictably control it if you want to eventually reap the benefits.

    To help you better understand this growth process, I’ve split the “typical” content marketing timeline into five key stages of growth:

    1. Incubation.

    During this stage, you’ll be laying the groundwork for your campaign. When it starts, most of your work will be conceptual, manifesting as plans, strategies, and outlined processes for success. From there, you’ll be creating the building blocks for your vision, such as designing your blog, filling out your social media profiles, establishing your author profiles, and filling up your website with a suitable archive of posts. You’ll need these materials to work with as you start building your strategy, so you’ll be moving forward, but don’t expect a huge influx of readers and fans from the start.

    2. Anchoring.

    The next phase of growth is all about establishing certain “anchor points” for your campaign—think of these as the main spokes of webbing a spider would use to build a web. These can come in a variety of forms; for example, you might build up an initial following of a few hundred people by tapping your close contacts. You might create one or two “landmark” pieces, like eBooks or comprehensive guides. You could start working with one or two major publishers, developing your own powerful outside channel. The point is to secure some major mechanisms for growth early on.

    3. Experimentation.

    Here, you’ll start playing around with the tropes, methods, and tactics you’ve started growing accustomed to. It’s probably the biggest and hardest leap for content marketers to make, since it’s so easy to get used to your initial series of habits. Once you start seeing decent results, it’s common for marketers to just keep doing what they’ve been doing, but if you want to grow, you need to strive for something bigger and better. Experimentation comes in a variety of forms, all of which can be helpful. For example, you might try to appeal to a new audience, tinker around with a new medium or channel, or get yourself featured in a new line of publishers. Think outside the box here, as the further outside your comfort zone you go, the more you’ll stand to learn about what’s possible in content marketing—and of course, measure everything to a rigorous degree.

    4. Stabilization.

    Experimentation is inherently volatile—you’ll get some major wins, some major losses, and some results you aren’t quite sure what to do with. The stabilization phase of growth is all about sorting out what does and doesn’t work, and piecing together a strategy that’s cohesive, and relatively stable. It’s not going to come quickly or easily, as experimentation offers much more flexibility, but what you want is a stable, secure line of revenue, so a stable, secure means of content production and promotion is what you need to complement it. First, cut off your experimentation for the time being (you can always come back to this later), then retain and refine any bits and pieces of strategies you found to be especially helpful. Mold these into a new wing of your strategy, and start keeping it consistent. As more readers grow used to this approach, you’ll earn more loyalty and a more predictable return.

    5. Scaling.

    After stabilizing your campaign, the final phase of growth is sheer scaling—taking what you have and making it “bigger” in some way. In concept, this is a simple matter of quantitative growth; if you produce five posts a week, shoot for seven. If you have a network of eight publishers, shoot for a dozen. You’ll want to step up your posts, your syndication channels, your following, and your publishers, all iteratively, and all with the strategies you’ve already proven to be successful. This demands significant investment, but the results are worth it.

    These five stages aren’t universal, and they aren’t as concretely divided as they would seem on the surface. As I mentioned earlier, it’s more likely that your path to content marketing growth will happen in fits and starts, launching forward when you least expect it and stagnating even when you pour extra effort in. You’ll also experience blurrier lines between each phase, sometimes skipping around, and sometimes repeating phases (especially phases three through five).

    What’s important here isn’t the order or precise boundaries of growth, but the general trends and influencing factors. These will help you set better priorities, aim for more specific goals, and ultimately push your content strategy toward the appropriate next stages.

    Want more information on content marketing? Head over to our comprehensive guide on content marketing here: The All-in-One Guide to Planning and Launching a Content Marketing Strategy.

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  4. 7 Strategies to Leverage Hummingbird and Related Topics

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    Let’s not kid ourselves; Hummingbird is amazing. It’s an algorithm that took Google’s basic keyword-based structure and turned it into something intuitive and more capable of linguistic understanding than most people you’ll ever meet. Now, Google can, for lack of a better phrase, guess what you’re thinking and give you the content that matches your intentions—even if none of your keywords are an exact match for the most relevant results.

    Similarly, RankBrain and other additions have allowed Google to come up with “related questions” and an advanced network of related topics to discern user intent from ambiguous queries, and provide links to helpful related information that similar searchers have required in the past.

    related questions google results

    (Image Source: Moz)

    So how can you take advantage of Hummingbird and related topics in your own content marketing campaign?

    1. Get specific. General topics aren’t going to cut it anymore. The more specific you get with your material, the more likely you’ll be to show up. If a user is searching for general information on a general subject, with a query like “maple trees,” they’re either going to get an immediate Knowledge Graph entry that gives them a breakdown of the subject, or they’ll get referred to a Wikipedia article. On the other hand, extremely specific queries with specific intents will have almost no competition, giving you the advantage when it comes to ranking. Search for specific topics, and write for specific audiences while you’re at it.
    2. Publish interrelated content features. Don’t post single instances of the topics you’re exploring; instead, develop them into a series of related features. For example, instead of just writing about “How to clean an air conditioner,” write that article and follow it up with, “how to repair an air conditioner that won’t run,” or “how to improve the lifespan of an air conditioner.” All of these questions are related topics, so you’ll stand to gain in two key ways. First, you’ll be seen as a greater authority in this space, and second, you’ll have a higher likelihood of showing up in “related questions” for users interested in these subjects.
    3. Go deeper with your content. This is an easy strategy, but it’s one you should have been doing a long time ago. When taking advantage of Hummingbird, thin content isn’t going to cut it. Hummingbird does a thorough evaluation of the phrases and details within the entire body of your content—the more details you include, and the more subtopics and related ideas you cover, the better the algorithm will be able to “understand” your work. It’s also a best practice for content in general—it makes you stand out from the crowd, gives people more information to peruse, and shows that you’ve done your research thoroughly.
    4. Check out Related Questions. Where better to learn how Google categorizes different topics than on Google itself? Run a sample search for a query related to some of your recent content, and see what pops up in the “related questions” section. Who’s covering those topics now? How are they covering them? Look for any opportunity to cover one of these related topics with your own work in the future, and try to capitalize on any weaknesses you see in the work that currently shows up for these queries.
    5. Forget about keywords (mostly). Keywords aren’t dead—at least not entirely. Even though Google isn’t using keywords on a strict, one-to-one basis, they can be good contextual clues for the subjects of your work. Keep keyword research as an element of your SEO campaign—take a look to see what keywords have the highest volume and the lowest competition rating, and include the most promising candidates throughout your work. However, stay away from picking content topics based solely on your keyword research, and as always, never stuff keywords into your content.
    6. Diversify your vocabulary. With more users relying on casual queries and vocal search, the range of vocabulary in user queries has expanded and become much more conversational. If you want your content to be indexed thoroughly, and for subjects peripherally related to your main targets, you’ll do well to diversify the type of vocabulary you use. Part of that means having a bigger list of potential keywords to target, and part of that means avoiding using the same phrases or terminologies over and over again. Shake things up!
    7. See what your competitors are up to. This is another strategy that’s good to adopt in general, but especially useful in the context of Hummingbird and semantic search. Take a look to see what types of content your competitors are publishing, and which pieces seem to be getting the best results. Are there any related topics that they aren’t taking advantage of, such as follow-up opportunities, alternative positions, or expansions? These could be a good way to get a competitive edge, especially since you already know the root subject has been popular with your shared demographics.

    Google’s search algorithm is now too sophisticated for any kind of measurable, predictable, one-to-one gain. That is to say, you’ll never be able to calculate, on paper, the potential visibility for one of your content ideas. However, by employing these tactics (in addition to standard content and SEO best practices), you’ll stand to benefit more from Google’s semantic understanding and desire to provide users with comprehensive information.

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