The world has shifted some. You know the story – the digital revolution bought new channels such as web, social, smart TVs, podcasts and email, and access to these channels is so widespread on powerful devices and computers with lightning-fast internet that we are ‘always on’.
This connectedness means audiences are now in charge of what content they consume, and the myriad of new channels make it easy to avoid marketing messages or even block them altogether. Customers who used to turn to salespeople or advertising materials to learn about products now educate themselves by searching the internet and their own channels for freely available information or recommendations from friends and peers. It is into this void that content marketing steps, providing relevant, timely and valuable content for customers to consume when and where they want.
The content sweet spot
It’s vital that content talks to the brand’s objectives and satisfies the needs of the audience by informing, entertaining or educating them with timely content that reaches them when and where they want it. Be relevant or be obsolete.
What is content marketing?
Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action. – Joe Pulizzi, Founder, Content Marketing Institute.
Content marketing is the approach and execution of the content strategy and includes all the formats and types of content plus the channels they are distributed on. Some of the more common types of content marketing include video, blogs, whitepapers and podcasts. Popular channels are search, website, social, native advertising and apps.
From outbound to inbound marketing
By informing, entertaining or educating customers, content marketing increases brand recognition and ensures your brand is front of mind when customers are at the point of purchase. That’s content marketing at play, replacing traditional push marketing tactics with pull marketing – content that is so valuable and relevant to customers that they come to you – or inbound marketing. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it’s not, but unless you have a plan, you can waste a lot of time, money and people producing content that goes nowhere and adds to the sea of junk content orbiting the interweb.
Avoid junk content with a content marketing strategy
Content marketing has been refined and developed over the years, but the spray-and-pray technique of publishing for its own sake has proved expensive, with very few actual benefits. Content strategy is a robust, systematic approach for researching and developing measurable content marketing tactics that provide ROI, such as increased sales or brand reach.
The methodology starts with overarching business strategic goals and objectives and aligns content marketing activities to deliver against those goals by understanding and attracting the right audiences (customers, employees, influencers or investors) for the business.
A content strategy will answer why you are publishing content, and then provide what, when and who to publish to, to accelerate your brand’s growth. The following methodology is scalable from small business to global enterprise and works across B2B or B2C.
How to develop your content strategy
The first stage is focused on developing a clear picture of the business by running an internal and external audit before you look to your customers and the market. Your audit should answer the following questions:
- What are the business’s strategic goals and objectives?
- What is the business trying to achieve – vision, mission and brand?
- What are the marketing goals and objectives?
- What do you want from a content marketing program?
- What content and channels do you have, and what is working for you?
- Who makes up your audience?
- Where are they, and in which channels?
- What does your audience want and how can content help them?
- Who are your product and content competitors?
- What stories are your competitors telling?
- What are the content opportunities?
How deep you dive into these questions is the scalable part. Research can be light, with desk reviews and quick-and-dirty analytics, or you can use more involved techniques such as running internal workshops to lock down vision, mission and brand stories.
You can find rich data for developing the strategy from multiple sources, including:
- Traditional qualitative market and brand research.
- Stakeholder and customer interviews.
- Audience surveys.
- Quantitative research, using tools such as Google Analytics, Moz Keyword Explorer, BuzzSumo and Facebook Topic Data
- Social listening tools such as Social Studio.
- Competitor analysis tools like RivalIQ.
There are a lot of analytics platforms out there, you just need to pick the analytics stack that will deliver the data you need.
Brand story, pillars and personas
Once you have the data from your chosen platforms, the next step is to analyse the data and develop out your brand story, content pillars and content personas. Data is great, but on its own it’s as ineffective as spray-and-pray content marketing; when crunching the numbers, the ‘so what’ will provide the gold.
Your brand story is an articulation of the brand itself – it defines how you want people to think of your brand. It can be tough capturing the essence of a brand in a sentence or two, but it’s an invaluable way to anchor how employees, executives, customers and the public view the brand.
Content pillars sit directly underneath a brand story and are the stories that your audiences are looking for. Content personas come to life from the audience research. They are a great way for content marketers to focus on a real person as they produce content. These pillars and personas are a vital tactical tool to ensure that any stories that are developed are on strategy.
If you can’t measure it, don’t do it
Finally (for the strategy component), establish the objectives of the content program – are you looking for more leads or brand awareness, and how will that be measured?
Typical brand awareness metrics can include growth in audience numbers across social channels or email subscriptions, or you may just measure the increase in new traffic to your website or app. Of course, traditional brand tracking research can also give you a clear understanding of the growth in brand awareness.
If sales are your ultimate goal, then increased revenue, increase in customer numbers or increased volume can illustrate overall success. Objectives to measure along the way could include increased conversions on your website, number of leads attributed to content marketing, shorter buyer journeys and increased retention rates. These are some of the measurables you will need in order to show ROI on your program and build the case for an increase in the content budget.
Now you need a plan
With the apex of your strategy work in place, the next stage is to articulate the strategy into an implementation plan that details the tactical execution of the strategy recommendations. This plan will include recommendations about the types of content, frequency and volume, what channels to publish and amplify on, and KPIs.
An overarching content calendar will detail when you are publishing. It can be channelled down into social and editorial calendars that show in detail when, where and what to publish, to move people through the sales funnel.
The Sales Funnel
Successfully implementing a content marketing program will require both big-picture thinking and a champion high enough in the organisation that they can drive change from the top down. The program and the shift in cultural mindset will struggle unless there’s buy-in at the C-suite level.
Small wins can be a great way to demonstrate success and gain buy-in, so it’s vital to set realistic KPIs, otherwise, you’re building failure into the program and you won’t be able to show evidence of success, making it difficult to win more budget and buy-in.
Executive buy-in is important. I’ve seen businesses jump into content marketing with vigour, but fall back to traditional push marketing quick smart as they look to promotions, discounts and campaigns to deliver the yearly spikes in sales that most businesses and budgets are used to. Content marketing is a long game.
Chiefs and unicorns
A content marketing approach takes a consistent commitment from both the business and the individuals involved. Building and developing the right team is vital to consistently publish quality content, so people and budget need to be allocated if you are to expect any results.
One of the most effective ways to drive the change is to establish an Editorial Board with a content budget to execute the content calendars. The board should be made up of key stakeholders from across the business who assist with program buy-in, and who also source story ideas from all over the business. Essentially, they input content ideas into the board and sell the program back out through the business.
Overseen by a Chief Content Officer or Head of Editorial, the board prioritises content opportunities against the strategy and then decides which ones go into production. They also decide whether the content is created internally, curated, or commissioned to an agency or freelancer.
The board has responsibility for the quality of the content going to market, so they need to ensure that not only is the plan being executed on, but that content is careful and creative. This means finding the right skills and people within the business, hiring them in or outsourcing to a content marketing agency. The mix of marketer, journalist, PR, designer, writer, producer and data analyst is a difficult unicorn to find or make.
The content strategy methodology has certainly taken a lead from IT agile approaches, and encourages a test and learn, measure and change, report and optimise culture to continually improve content and results for the business.
If you’re not getting the results you were hoping for, then something is not right. Start from the bottom up and check if you are on the song:
- Are you publishing under content pillars and a brand story?
- Are you developing content and using appropriate channels to reach personas that you’ve developed out of your research?
- Are you being consistent and publishing under a well-thought-through content calendar?
- Have you set realistic KPIs?
- Are you measuring the right things to assess whether your content is working to deliver against overall marketing goals?
Watch, learn and adapt to continually improve the content and the program.
Once the content program is running effectively and results are showing success, the next phase is to look towards automating as much of the process as possible, with marketing automation. Your people will still oversee the program, ensuring creativity and quality. A marketing automation platform can automate some of the more manual processes like sending and replying to emails, data capture and amplification.
Marketo defines marketing automation as “a category of technology that allows companies to streamline, automate, and measure marketing tasks and workflows, so they can increase operational efficiency and grow revenue faster.”
When you’re developing your content strategy, it’s enough to consider what the future might look like, so that the change won’t be drastic when you’re ready to implement and build your marketing technology stack.
There are many platforms available in the market, and the landscape is complex, so don’t start down the automation path without expert advice. When done well, platforms such as HubSpot, Eloqua, Pardot or Marketo can save you time and money. When done badly, you will have an expensive platform that sits on the shelf gathering dust.
Content is the lifeblood that feeds into each component; the strategy sits above the whole ecosystem providing life to the automation.
Marketing automation ecosystem
There are several other tools you will need to successfully run an automation program, including:
- A CRM like Salesforce to centralise your customer data
- A social media scheduling and publishing platforms like Hootsuite or Buffer.
- A content marketing platform such or Google Analytics to optimise search.
Having the right marketing stack is only part of the sandwich – you’re going to need the right smarts to make it all work together. The strategy can provide the framework, but you will need to outsource to experts or train your team on how to implement it. I’d suggest starting with an outsourced model and KPI-ing the team to learn fast, and then bringing some of it in-house when they’re ready.
There’s a host of channels at your disposal, and new ones appearing constantly. Customers pick and choose what they consume and when. The market is flooded with a wall of content noise. All this means you are going to need relevant, quality content to cut through and reach your target audience.
Developing a content strategy is a proven way to accelerate the way your brand grows, and will drive the change from the old world of marketing to the new. A robust strategy will also integrate your marketing efforts across the business so that your content is at every customer touchpoint.
Content marketing provides the added value that consumers are looking for in a homogenised world with little product differentiation. Content strategy is about attracting the right people to your business whether they be employees, customers or even investors.