Brands are creating content like never before. And like never before, a tremendous amount of it is going to waste – often because of a failure to follow a cohesive content marketing strategy.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of creating a wonderfully readable blog, an infinitely watchable video, a positively listenable podcast – and then have next to nobody read, watch or listen to it.
It’s happened to anyone enrolled in the business of creating content. It’s crushing.
It’s probably happened to you. It’s definitely happened to me.
Every time it does happen, it can usually be traced back to one core flaw – a failure to develop a content marketing strategy for a) who we’re creating it for and/or b) how we’re going to get the content to them.
I spent a good few years developing an audience for a newspaper website with varying degrees of success. I used to revel in how my team of journalists got better and better at create content quickly, bespoke for the user – often reacting quickly to breaking news.
Developing content that would be perennially useful to the reader was far more difficult than reacting to the day-to-day business of news. And there’s nothing harder than watching a journalist slave over something for days only for it to bomb.
The problem was the same – a lack of strategy. The solution is the same – identify who is going to read it and build a plan for how to get the content to them. You have to have a plan.
I split my content plans into three manageable chunks – analysis, creation and promotion, and form individual objectives from there.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is the definition of content marketing?
If you came here by searching ‘what is content marketing’ then I salute your honesty. Everyone involved in content has probably searched for it as some point.
Put simply, it’s the practice of creating any tangible content that attracts, engages and (hopefully) converts audience (that’s you) into buyers. That’s my definition, but there are many, many others out there.
Content marketing can provide a bedrock of organic audience, shareable material and – crucially – leads, in a cost-efficient way. It will:
- Build your brand
- Increase your reach
- Help retain customers
- Build sales
Why do I need a content marketing strategy? Is there a template?
One piece of well constructed content, a well-written how-to guide or a sharply built video, could attract a steady flow of organic audience to your website for years – so it’s worth spending the time to do it properly rather than knocking off half a dozen blogs in your spare time.
A proper content marketing strategy can form the bedrock of an organisation’s inbound marketing, and be fully integrated with its ethos, objectives and the nuances of its brand. That however, takes time, and it’s a difficult concept to map out without experience.
Above is the Content Marketing Institute’s snapshot on how to follow a strategy – note the distinction between a content marketing strategy and a content strategy.
While content strategy is planning your content and how you’ll publish it, the marketing part takes in how exactly that content will help you achieve your goals and objectives.
Never before have brand’s be so in control of their own destiny when it comes to attracting, building and converting audience. They are now the publishers – but the practice of creating good content isn’t necessarily simple. But it is certainly valuable – according to research by the Content Marketing Association more than 50% of consumers say good content has had a positive impact on a buying decision.
Where do I start with content marketing? What’s the best strategy?
As with any good strategy, it should start with your goals. What do you want to achieve, who do you want to target? These crucial steps will inform the rest of the process. In simple terms, your content marketing strategy needs to consider the following points:
- What do we want to achieve? Awareness? Leads? Conversions?
- Who do we want to attract?
- How do these people think? What are they interested in?
- Where are they? What do they search for? What social platforms do they use?
- Why would they consume our content? What problem will it solve for them?
- What is the best format to create content, and how much should we generate?
- How do we distribute it, and when?
- How will it turn them into buyers?
Content marketers will use a whole range of techniques to achieve the above, but my favourites are split into three key areas. This is how it breaks down:
1. Analysis: The cornerstone of a good content marketing strategy
Start by identifying who it is you want to target with content
For this starts with a discussion around what the brand’s objectives are. They start with the broader objectives before breaking them into specific goals. Are they brand awareness? Lead generation? Engagement? Audience development? Of course, a brand is more than likely want to achieve more than one, and maybe all of them in a full campaign cycle.
To inform what those objectives should be, look inward at the data you have at your fingertips. Your site’s analytics will tell you want you’re missing.
Often, businesses prioritising content marketing are doing so because broadly organic search isn’t where they need it to be. Your research should be more nuanced than this – if bounce rate is high on key landing pages then longer form or more engaging and interactive content may be the solution. If bounce rate is strong, returning users steady but new users are weak, then a social media focused campaign may yield results.
From here, more tangible goals can be identified to give the content marketing strategy definition. For example, an online sweet shop might identify engagement and lead generation as its objectives and define that as 50,000 social media followers and 100,000 visits to its website.
Take the time to work up a persona for your audience
With goals in mind, start to think about the kind of people that we want to attract, the people we think are most likely to interact with our brand and buy the product or service. An often neglected part of the process because by this point many will be thinking “just get on with creating the content already, I already know what’s going to work”.
You may well have a pretty well-formed idea of what’s going to work, but the process of creating personas will draw out the personality of the people you’re trying to target.
In short, buyer personas are fictional representations of your would-be audience. They are basically a description of the sort of person you identify as your market.
It should help you understand not just who they are and what their hopes, dreams and fears are – and crucially what problems they face. Designing your content around solving their problems will be a giant leap to making it useful and shareable. It will also help you figure out what platforms they use – are they on Facebook or LinkedIn? Or are they likely to be reading thought leadership pieces on Medium?
How to create them? Well, that’s a blog post for another time and there are plenty of guides and templates just a Google away. Templates will only take you so far though, and the key to making them successful will be the data that backs them up.
Of course, there will always be a degree of educated guesswork, but you’ll be surprised how much basic data you have at your fingertips, beyond engaging in some serious market research.
For starters – can you identify your target in your current customer database? How much do you know about them? What social accounts do they find you with. Back that up by using the functionality in your analytics software to identify the users on your site that already fit your objectives.
These personas (three is a good number to aim for, don’t overdo it for the sake of it) you help everyone in the business understand who they are looking for and why – the knock-on effect being that it becomes far easier to integrate your approach into your wider marketing goals. You might have a good idea of who your targeting – a persona makes sure everyone does.
Contain the persona in one Powerpoint slide. Too much information will start to make it impossible to pinpoint what exactly you need to create. Too little will make it far too broad.
Decide on your content topics
Your personas will tell you want your target audience is interested in, so that’s going to give a big clue as to what to write/film about.
But it still needs to be relevant to your brand (in my opinion – there’s a school of thought that you should just create content around your audience’s interests come what may, I’m not sold on the value of this).
Ask yourself what your expertise is. What’s your USP? How can you match that to your audience’s interests.
For example, you’re a garden centre that sells pot plants. Your target audience is people who have bought their first house with a garden who want to make it look stunning, but they have no idea how a plant goes from a bud to blooming. They spend lots of time on Instagram. So you write lots of blogs on the absolute basics of planting your first garden. That’s your topic area. And you tease out lots of lovely pictures on Instagram to grab your readers’ attention.
Match good SEO with your content marketing strategy
You now have a picture of the kind of people you want to target and an idea of what your topic area is. Now put yourself in their shoes, think about their challenges in life in relation to the space you are operating in. What will they be searching for?
This is harder than it sounds, and requires the ability to think beyond simply searching for related keywords. It is, in essence, the basis for good SEO practice and perhaps the most important step on the journey to improving organic search via content marketing.
There is an ever expanding library of knowledge out on keyword research that I won’t attempt to boil down into a few paragraphs on a blog post. Briefly though, I’ll sketch out the basics below. Try not to shoot for the stars – you can’t design a content marketing strategy around the keyword ‘garden’.
But if I plug ‘first garden’ into SEMrush (my keyword research tool of choice) I can find a whole host of search terms that give me all kinds of content ideas:
- planting a flower garden for the first time
- what is a perennial?
- easy plants to grow
- low maintenance outdoor potted plants
Target the low hanging fruit and build a content cluster
Some of those keywords in the above list are a bit competitive. If you’re just starting out, it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to hit the first page of Google for ‘What is a perennial?’. So order the SEMrush keyword results by difficulty (click on KD in the top menu), low to high. Click on those suggested keywords that are less difficult, and you’ll find more niche topics and search keywords within them.
If I click on ‘low maintenance outdoor potted plants’ (I’ll call this my root keyword) I get another related keywords report. If I expand that, some of the low difficulty suggestions include:
- low maintenance garden border ideas in uk
- small balcony privacy ideas
- potted plants that don’t need much sun
- dwarf evergreen shrubs for containers
Now we’re talking. I don’t even know what a dwarf evergreen shrub is, but you can bet I’ll be able to find out and write a decent blog about it. Do this for all your ‘root’ keywords and find blog topics of niche interest. The more you write about this niche subjects, you’ll be creating what’s known in the trade as a ‘cluster’. You’ll create lots of high ranking content for keywords with low search volume – which when added together equals lots of organic traffic to your site, boosting your domain authority. From there, you can start to target the more competitive keywords. It’s a process that takes time, but is extremely rewarding.
Hopefully I get a garden centre client one day, now I have invested time in how to grow a dwarf evergreen shrub.
Check out the competition
Before you throw yourself into making a step by step YouTube guide with complementary blog for growing shrubs to make your balcony private – have a look what the competition is doing.
What does their content on the same topic look like? What’s it lacking – how can yours be better and more useful? Aim to outrank it, and make yours more shareable. And then if anyone is linking to your competition, try convincing them yours’ is a far better source.
2. Creating your content
Discuss content ideas
Your keywords and personas are going to prepare you well for the next stage – the specific topics your content is going to target.
Now the next step is to talk about what you’re actually going to publish. Not necessarily ‘how’ at this stage but ‘what’.
There are tools which can assist in brainstorming that content – the most popular being Buzzsumo, which will tell you the most shared pieces of content around a topic and will help you identify what people enjoy. Secondly, when you find your desired keyword in SEMrush, it’ll give you a list of the top search results. There’s clearly nothing wrong with using this for inspiration.
Obviously outright copying is not going to get you far, but looking at what’s successful and talking about how you might improve on that content to outrank and outshare is a good place to start. For example, if a blog post ranks highly on Buzzsumo, can you find it in search? If not, why not? Can you apply some keyword intelligence to a similar piece of content that will rank?
Make it useful
People need a reason to consume your content, so it needs to be interesting. And if it’s and useful – the latter being absolutely vital. In my time as a news website editor, nothing gained more positive traction than content useful to the reader/viewer – both in terms of its value in search and share ability on social.
If you can create content that solves a problem, that effects your audience’s lives (even in the smallest way) you will go a long way to connection to the people you value the most. Whatever the platform, most people are on the internet to build their knowledge in some way and/or to be entertained.
Finding the sweet spot in-between is the gateway to engagement in its most pure and organic form. When you start to create content that strays away from that sweet spot – and commonly this is to more introverted, sales-focused or corporate objectives – engagement becomes harder to harness.
What content format will you use?
There are endless ways you can create your content. Take a look at Hubspot’s list above. The trick is making sure you’re picking the content format that’s going to fit your audience.
Remember – the content needs to be useful. Pick the format that best gives value to the value you’re trying to give to the user. If it’s a how to guide on how to pass an exam, then a blog is probably your best fit. How to change a bike tyre? Then a vlog’s the way to go.
Otherwise known as the endearing power of words. Blogs persist in their relevance because they are a clean way of presenting words and pictures. People want blogs that inform and entertain. The value of this blog post should live on – though blogs should be published regularly to keep attracting new users.
Consider their length and structure (listicle and how-to guides being the tried and tested formats) based on the subject matter and your target audience – generally ranging from 500 words to 2,000. This one is just over 3,500 words, to give you an idea. Before embarking on your blog ask yourself a few vital questions – is the content of my blog useful?
Will people want to share it? How am I going to break it up and keep it entertaining? Can I include or create a relevant video? How will I illustrate it? Keep in mind the importance of the latter, a strong lead picture is vital for when a reader hopefully comes to share the post.
Too many subjects to cover to get into a blog post? Go for an ebook. Think of the ebook as a celebration of the above. For readers who want more depth, or a collection of your blog posts, they can download an ebook. The upshot is that you’ll ask for their contact details in return.
Blogs and videos will generally be your go-to platforms and although the process will be totally different, you can get to generally the same result – useful information consumed in an engaging way.
Don’t shudder at the thought of the cost of video – if anything it’s harder to create pictures with the requisite value than it is video. There’s a litany of affordable (or free) video editing solutions out there and cost efficient ways of filming. Web-based software called Animoto will bring your clips and stills to life in a simple user friendly way.
And if you’re feeling experimental, try Live. It’s the best guarantee you’ll get for interacting with an audience at scale fast. There’s some advice on executing a Facebook Live here.
Use Canva to bring professionalism and finishing touches to your stills and adapt them into Animoto’s drag and drop slideshow functionality. Try Wistia as a free hosting platform. And be open to the prospect of live video – experiment with it on your personal social media accounts and ork up the courage to use it for your brand.
Be creative, but don’t waste your time
I’m going to leave it at these two key formats. The number of formats is only limited by your creativity (and budget). My biggest tip is not to limit yourself by the confines of your experience. Experiment with podcasts, infographics, live streams, surveys and quizzes – but do your research around the type of audience you’re likely to reach and cross check that with your personas. A good content marketing consultant will help you think you outside the box but stop you from wasting your time with formats that won’t touch the people you’re trying to reach.
What tone should my content take?
You should take your cue from your personas here – make sure you think audience first. Think about the voice in which they will prefer to consume your content, rather than the tone you believe your brand should take. If in doubt, try to make it conversational.
Organise your content marketing strategy using a calendar
Behind every successful creative is a robust administrative set-up.
Don’t overcomplicate your planner. Use a platform that’s simple and accessible – I find Google Sheets is best. Include the metrics that is most important to your organisation. For example, if you think your audience is most comfortable with video, make sure you have a video column.
Simply speaking, your sheet’s headings should have date, content creator, headline, which campaign it belongs to, category, format, progress. After that, it’s up for you how much extra detail you want to add – planned PR placements and suggested keywords are helpful. Once you get well practised, use the calendar to revisit previous pieces of content and how well they have performed, as well as using it as a tool for tracking evergreen content that will need to be updated.
3. Promote your content
Decide how you are going to promote your content
The obvious answer here is social media and the choices here should be relatively simple if your persona research is detailed enough. You should know by this point how you believe your audience wants to consume your content.
I’m not going to detail the intricacies of a social media marketing campaign, but I believe if your content is well researched and planned your social media activity should be an organic extension of this. If your content is useful, interesting and entertaining then chances are it will prove engaging and shareable on social. If it dull, corporate and self-entitled, well, it won’t.
Think about how you present it on your own site
Your keyword research should come into its own here. If you’re publishing a blog, then you’ll be looking to include your keywords in your headline and high up your body text. But remember – it isn’t 2008 anymore. Stick to making it read well and designed around the keywords. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader, if it’s obvious you’ve tried to bait them to your site with unnatural keywords, then you’re going to notice it in your bounce rate.
I generally play by these rules:
- Your focus keyword goes in the title. Always
- Try to get it into your opening paragraph
- Try to get it into the subheads with H2 tags
- Aim to put into H3 subheads, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t
- Include it in your body copy where possible, but only if it flows. If it doesn’t, ditch it.
Consider how your content could be repackaged
Brands are increasingly using content marketing strategy as the central plank around which to build all aspects of their activity. Can PR be an extension of your content marketing strategy? Could it easily be repackaged? Or should your PR activity support the publication of your content?
Two key approaches here – either your PR activity is supported by content marketing, or vice versa. This might depend on whether your priority is for brand awareness or tangible leads. Either way, give careful thought to how you integrate your content planning and PR strategy – in smaller teams this is likely to happen organically, in a larger corporate environment it can be harder.
I’ve worked with a client whose blog posts formed the basis of a successful PR pitch and were later collated into a print product, which proudly sits on the coffee table of their customers and is available as an ebook. What’s more these blog posts were essentially reboots of evergreen content which had been previously produced poorly on their site, and was picked up during a content audit.
There’s a reason email is still as strong as ever. It’s because despite the emergence of new forms of corporate communication like Slack, 99% of offices still function via email. If you’ve created content that people are interested in, the likelihood is that some of that audience will sign up for more of it.
Keep it engaging and relevant, and they will be more than happy to receive your content occasionally direct to their inbox, making it a happy bedfellow for your content marketing strategy. A well worked email strategy is another blog post, but needless to say it’s one of the most sure fire ways to retain customers.
Are you ready?
Analysis, Creation and Promotion – the three steps to content marketing strategy success. Like a three legged table, take one away and it falls down. Don’t underestimate the value of consultancy and outside expertise in guiding your team and training through the process.