How to Create Your Content Strategy From Scratch
Any brand can increase awareness here or there, but the ones that stand out over time have a plan in place to guide smarter decision-making.
Content strategy boils down to figuring out what content will help your target audience and inspire them to take actions that boost your business. Doing that successfully requires melding together some moving parts. To name just a few, you need to set goals, research your audience, and map out how buyers will interact with your content.
How you craft a content strategy will ultimately be unique to your situation. There is no grand solution that every brand can copy to triple their revenue. However, there are a few core tactics that will put you on the right path.
Here are the seven tasks to focus on before you start creating content.
1. Set a mission, goals, and KPIs
A few years ago, athenahealth debuted athenaInsight, its data-driven news publication, to make a serious investment in content marketing. According to executive director of content and communications John Fox, the marketing team made a choice to adjust the brand’s point of view as they prepped for the launch.
“At various points in our history, we’ve talked a lot about what’s wrong with healthcare, what’s broken. We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that in terms of thought leadership,” Fox said. But we’ve made a conscious move to point the way toward a solution, being that voice of hope and optimism to help doctors and others.”
Your mission should align your team and make it easier to eventually talk about your brand’s products organically. The goals and metrics will follow.
Since athenahealth’s initial goal was building an audience, the team was “obsessed over growth metrics like unique visitors.” But they also operated with a long-term view of business metrics, so their plan also accounted for pageviews per visit and visits per reader—data points tied to loyalty.
Let athenahealth’s early steps serve as a framework for getting your content program off to a clear start. “You can’t stand for ten things,” Fox said. “You need to stand for one thing and have a clear message for what you’re putting out in marketing. Align everything behind that as much as possible.”
2. Study your audience
In content chaos, the first mistake marketers make is leaning too heavily on intuition. They either try to reach everyone, or they trim their focus too narrowly on the person who has the most purchasing power. Gut instinct has a place in content marketing, but not if it goes unchecked.
“When I work with large technology companies, all they want to do is reach the CMO. And all they’ll ever tell me is their audience is the CMO,” said Rebecca Lieb, a research analyst and strategic advisor who co-founded Kaleido Insights. . “I push back. It’s not [just] the CMO. It’s the VP of marketing, it’s the SVP of marketing, it’s the assistant to those people, and the interns. They can be so laser-focused on the final decision-maker that they ignore everyone else in the decision-making process.”
The fix here is simple: Do research to find out more about your primary and secondary audiences. And don’t be afraid to weave together qualitative and quantitative data.
You need to define your own audience before you can own it.
Interview your existing customers to find out more about their demographics, habits, and preferences. What publications do they read on a regular basis? What level of education do they have? What are their biggest problems? What topics interest them the most?
For a general audience, you’ll also want to gather high-level data on age, industry, company name, title, etc. Contently conducts an annual survey at the end of every year to test assumptions about our audience. Sure, we want to reach the CMO, but we also want to help editors, managers, and other senior marketers who care about content marketing on a more granular level.
3. Perform SEO analysis
Once you have a better picture of your audience, you can lock on in on what topics they care about the most. Enter: Google.
Search algorithms used to have this weird, mystical quality in marketing because everyone was supposed to care about them but very few people actually knew how they worked. Thankfully, that changed over the years. Third-party tools like Moz and BuzzSumo now offer data on valuable search engine optimization data like keyword volume, difficulty, and click-through rates.
Gather all of this information and compile a list of primary and secondary keywords. For us, a primary keyword is “content marketing resources”–it’s a frequent search term that just about everyone in our audience cares about. A secondary keyword is “brand voice”—it’s important for part of our audience, but it’s a bit more niche and probably isn’t what a buyer would search when they’re ready to make a purchase.
How you rank for keywords related to your business could ultimately be the difference between good or bad brand awareness. Today, it’s not uncommon for brands to expect a majority of their traffic to come from search—up to 70 or 80 percent in some cases.
As Monster VP of marketing Margaret Magnarelli put it, “Search traffic is underrated. It’s so important because it can be the first opening for brand awareness. They’re not looking for your company. They’re tripping over your company because you happen to be providing the information that they’re looking for.”
4. Conduct a gap analysis
Now that brands are operating like publishers, they’re competing against them as well. A company like Marriott, for example, isn’t just battling other hotel chains for consumer attention. It’s now contending with Travel + Leisure and National Geographic. For your company to offer a unique experience and increase brand awareness, it has to know what it’s up against.
Before you spend a dollar on a new story, you need to lay out what your audience wants against what they’re already getting. The gaps form your sweet spot for content production.
“I think the problem with a lot of stuff that’s called thought leadership is it’s really not differentiating or original, and it’s not gonna break through,” Fox said. “If you have a unique data asset or you have some knowledge based on the work you do and the service that you provide, double down on that.”
A formal gap analysis can be done manually in a spreadsheet or with the aid of scraping tools like BuzzSumo. Either way, your goal is to track how competitors approach content, which subjects they cover, and how the content performs. When you’re done compiling data, we recommend illustrating it with a grid that highlights your biggest creative opportunities.
Here’s an example that focuses on conversations about artificial intelligence:
Instead of limiting your analysis to your brand’s own history, this critical step reveals the context you’ll need to truly stand out.
5. Map the buyer’s journey
Brand awareness is the first impression. But the relationship doesn’t end there.
Any content marketer worth her paycheck has to create with the entire marketing funnel in mind since the ultimate goal is to drive revenue. Brand awareness occupies the top layer of the funnel, establishing trust through blog posts, infographics, videos, and social posts that avoid self-promotion. Eventually, though, content needs to connect to consideration, purchasing decisions, and retention.
Here’s an overview of the marketing funnel for reference:
Sometimes, brand awareness content gets a bad rap. Critics dismiss it as trivial and empty because it doesn’t directly fuel conversions. But think of it this way: Before you make any high consideration purchase, you do research and look for reputable sources that can help you form an opinion. If you’re getting a new car, you wouldn’t just go to the closest dealership to your house, right? You’d probably pay attention to TV commercials, look up new features online, and compare prices. There’s a natural progression until you find a few brands or products that speak to you the most.
“Address the customer’s pain points, not your own wants and needs,” Lieb said. “Address [them] during each point in that journey, and then you can say. ‘We can help.’ But ‘we can help’ is a very different message from ‘click here, buy now, and add to cart.'”
“We can help” is a very different message from “click here, buy now, and add to cart.”
As you’re planning future content, aim for a balance across the funnel. If you have millions of readers and great SEO but none of your content converts, you’re making a mistake. Alternatively, if you have persuasive case studies backed by compelling data, but nobody cares about your brand, that’s a problem as well.
RBC, a Contently client you’ll read more about later in the series, conducted an audit across the funnel before it decided where to invest in its content program. After crunching the data, one takeaway stood out from the rest. While only 19 percent of what RBC had in market was top funnel, and 27 percent fell in the middle of the funnel, more than half of all content was classified as bottom funnel.
The top two rungs of the funnel encompassed news, stories, and utility tools like a mortgage payment calculator. The bottom of the funnel is where brands make offers for acquisition. In other words, RBC had a huge opportunity to educate and entertain consumers before promoting its products.
“We like to use the analogy: Rather than going straight to marriage, how do we go on a date first and guide you along the path?” said Caroline Paxton, RBC’s senior director of social media, content & strategic initiatives. “Let’s not throw that acquisition offer at you right away.”
6. Develop a distribution strategy
One of the biggest misconceptions about content marketing is that good stories thrive on their own. Marketers just throw an article on a blog and expect everyone to show up. That’s not a strategy; it’s just wishful thinking.
Content distribution requires just as much planning and foresight as content creation. Part of your audience analysis should include where they spend their time. If your audience works in finance, they may be active on LinkedIn. For those of us in media and marketing, Twitter is a popular hangout. Retail companies probably want to explore Instagram. And Facebook—that seems to reach most audiences.
Distributing your content on social media will help you attract an audience and start interacting with them. Stick with organic distribution in the beginning instead of jumping straight into paid distribution.
As Felicity Blance, one of Contently’s content strategists, explained in a 2018 article, “Jumping for more targeted distribution tactics or hyper-focused content too early in the customer journey might backfire. Not only could it lead to poor results, but it could also waste your budget if you’re investing in paid distribution for an audience that isn’t there yet.”
In terms of cadence, distribution efforts for our own content gradually ramped up. When we started The Content Strategist, it was more like one post per day on Facebook and LinkedIn, with three or four on Twitter. We currently post twice a day on LinkedIn, three times on Facebook, and seven on Twitter. You can always iterate over time, so monitor how many clicks your stories get before you start posting dozens of times per day.
7. Create a content calendar
This last step bridges the gap between strategy and creation. To ensure your output stays true to your strategy, schedule the foundational content you’ll create over the first two or three months in a calendar that your entire team can access.
“Once the why of content marketing has been defined on this strategic level, you then get into the weeds with how,” Lieb explained. “How are we going to keep the ships running on time? Think of the strategy as a blueprint that would be used by an architect. It’s having the tactical, fundamentals in place like a content calendar.”
The first stories on this calendar should incorporate all of the research on topics, formats, keywords, etc. Given that the first goal is to capture attention and build loyalty, populate the calendar with core pieces of content. We’ve already established that mediocre content won’t move the needle for SEO. So go after big topics and thoroughly address any pain points your readers will have.
“When I first got to Monster, I was new to content marketing … [and] we used to do a ton of news content.” Magnarelli said. “Then we found that wasn’t what resonated most with our audience. Ultimately we’re serving the audience, so do what works best for them.”
Lastly, be honest about resources. It’s tempting to overcommit to publishing every day from the get go. But athenaInsight has been live for over two years, and the content team publishes three or four high-quality pieces per week instead of churning out multiple stories per day. We’ve taken a similar approach with TCS. Quality over quantity is a cliche, but when it comes to building out a content calendar, it’s always easier to increase production over time when things go well than to tell your boss you have to slow down because your strategy isn’t working.
To learn more about crafting your content strategy, click here to read The Content Marketer’s Playbook: Brand Awareness & Thought Leadership.Image by Cesar Carlevarino / Unsplash
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