If you work in digital marketing or own a website then this post is for you. Its the first part in a series of posts about exactly what you need to do to create an effective content marketing strategy. Anyone can create content and its not that hard to create great content. It is however not so easy to create the right content that is presented in the best way possible at the most appropriate time to make people do what you want them to do. That takes some skill so, if you want to increase your skills and get better results have a read of this.
When you are confident that you have developed an effective content strategy for marketing your website you will feel awesome. It will feel almost as good as it does sitting on this chair; not quite as chilled but hey, you can’t have everything.
As with all effective strategies, you need a framework to work within so you don’t mess up. And its all too easy to mess up if you don’t keep focused on the right things. The aim of this post is to provide a high level overview of an actionable process or framework that will help you create a plan you can have confidence in.
I’ll set out the steps as we have developed them at Strategy in a multi-part post, as even with long form content enjoying renewed popularity, this was pretty damn long before I chopped it up.
Building the strategy is based around three main stages: preparation, implementation and evaluation. I’ll run through each step in enough detail to make them actionable. People have written books on many of steps here so there is a lot more to be said. I’d love to hear from anyone working on developing a framework for content marketing so that we can compare notes.
What is ‘content strategy’ in this context?
Let’s make sure we are on the same page as there is so much content out there covering the topic of content strategy that its worth making sure that we are clear about our definition. This kind of content strategy will help you devise a plan to achieve two goals:
- create content that your target audience will value and will meet their needs to help them buy more stuff, whether consciously or unconsciously
- create awesome shareable content that will be liked, shared and linked to because the content itself is worthy of that outcome. This in turn will raise brand awareness and improve exposure through search, bringing more traffic who are your target audience
With the emphasis on genuine marketing practices and building brand awareness, websites can no longer just increase the volume of links they get to push them up the SERPs. Websites need to provide a valuable, engaging and satisfying online experience for their visitors in order to continue to develop their customer base through online search.
The Framework of an Effective Content Marketing Strategy
Creating the right strategy means doing the right ground work. Creating content can be perceived as being an easier task than it actually is, but why is it so hard? Because this is not just any old content, this is content that will help you sell more stuff. And no, it’s not just good copywriting. Excellent copy is essential, but what I am learning every day is that great content taps into consumer psychology and behaviour to add value which not only helps to attract visitors, it creates consumers and helps them buy more of your products and services.
You need different types of content to advance people along the buying process and having an effective strategy means you recognise the need for the right kinds of content presented in the right way at the right time. So you spend your time wisely.
This is not an overnight job. Do the right preparation and you’ll be creating better content, I guarantee it. Measure the effectiveness of what you create against your goals and intentions then do it even better the next time.
the preparation stage
Most of this is one-off work that needs completing thoroughly at the beginning but it’s advisable to revisit probably every six months to tweak and refocus as progress, good or bad, may have an affect on the strategic direction.
Define business objectives and goals
I’m sure I’m preaching to the converted here so this is a short but essential point. A strategy is basically knowing where you are going and working out how you are going to get there. Having clear goals not only about what you want to achieve but also understanding why you want to achieve what you are setting out to do means you maintain a clear focus.
Its all too easy for a content strategy to go off at tangents but in our experience, having clear objectives and goals combined with the practicalities of excellent briefs means the whole team stays really focused and results are better.
Conduct a content audit
You can spend a lot of time conducting a detailed content audit, assessing each page against a long list of metrics but for this purpose we suggest you make a sensible decision about how much time to spend against the benefits you’ll get from that effort. It’s likely to result in diminishing returns, especially if you have limited resources for making a difference in the future.
At a minimum you want to build a spreadsheet of the website URLs and collate a number of performance metrics. Don’t do this manually, though, or you will quickly lose the will to live. Start with the output of a crawl report such as Xenu or Screaming Frog and then use vlookup to add data from an Analytics export (do at least the last three months of data, or a different period if seasonality could affect the information you’re looking at). Finally, add data from an Open Site Explorer report which will provide useful insight on social shares, links and page authority.
Once you have your data collated into one master spreadsheet the next step is to add in some qualitative analysis. At the bear minimum you want to categorise your URLs by three different criteria:
- page type – mark up pages so you can filter by the type of page it is e.g. product or category pages, blog posts, customer service, FAQs, ‘about us’ pages, forms and so on. You can speed this up a little by sorting your data sheet by URL, which should group pages together by the URL structure.
- content type – we work with five categories that correspond to the stages in the buying process. By doing this you can filter to see if you have content that sufficiently meets the needs of your target audience. You can work on improving content you already have and also more easily identify gaps where certain types of content would significantly help advance people through from the early stages of awareness through to conversion and loyalty.
- quality score – this is a very subjective process so to make this easy we keep the scale really simple. I suggest using 1 = awful; 2 = room for improvement and 3 = perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect page, of course, but we need to prioritise here so this analysis will help narrow down priorities later in the process.
Understand the target audience buying personas
[Hat tip to Mike King for all the inspiration he has provided over the years] Website owners will have a very good idea of who their target audience is. If not, then there are other things you need to be reading before you get into establishing a content strategy. Aim at creating four buying personas and while again you could go into an awful lot of detail here, you want the output to be a working document, so getting all this info onto one page of A4 is much more likely to see it actually used.
Each persona should have a stereotypical picture, an iterative name/title, a specific age, needs and goals and a personal story that helps the content creators and designers identify with them. Try to get an idea of how much of your target audience is covered by each persona; some personas may make up 40-60% of the target audience, for example. If this is the case then you should note this on this document to keep the focus clear.
Agency tip: if you have content creators who write for a number of clients then they can have these personas on their pin boards for easy reference and inspiration.
Establish a communication hierarchy
I read a fabulous book called ‘Content Strategy at Work’ by Margot Bloomstein, which talked in detail about how consistency in messaging throughout every contact point can add to the positive experience a visitor has of your brand. Imagine if you looked at your website from the consumer’s perspective, from their very first contact with your site, through the navigation, calls to action, supporting materials, product descriptions, basket, checkout, confirmation email, thank you page, follow up newsletters etc. Ask yourself if the words and messaging as well as the content reflect your brand values in the order of priority you would afford them?
The book recommends doing a card sorting exercise, which we have performed with a number of clients and the insight we gain from running this is quite phenomenal. There is no way that we could have asked questions that would have given us the answers and knowledge that we gleaned from observing clients taking part in this exercise.The impact of the exercise can also be eye-opening for the client as it takes them through a logical yet progressive process or sorting cards with attributes written on them into groups of what you are now and what you want to be as a result of the work we are doing. There is also a group for what you are not.
For detail on how to run a card sorting session for this purpose I’d recommend that you read the book mentioned above, but to give you a rough idea this is what happens:
- the website stakeholders sort the cards into the three piles
- then they take the attributes from the ‘who we are now’ pile and move them into the ‘who we want to be’ pile according to what attributes they want to hang onto moving forward
- as these attributes are moved we ask them to group the cards together into natural groupings or themes – this usually ends up with four-six groups of cards
- the next step is to prioritise the cards within each group and then prioritise the groups against each other
- finally, to round this up, we ask the client to tell us the story of why they sorted, grouped and prioritised as they did
Listening first hand to this story is so valuable in helping us understand the client’s priorities in terms of what they want to achieve. Often the client will also comment on how interesting and valuable the process is for them. The deliverable from this process is a video of the final roundup and a written document summarising the groupings and priority attributes. These become reference points for the team working on the account to help keep them focused and anchored on what we need to work towards.
Get creative through brainstorming and research
The last part of the jigsaw you need to prepare before you start pulling it all together is conducting some research on what is going on out there in your sector already so you know what you are up against. Learn who the influencers are in your sector and understand what they like, share, value and link to.
Years ago I remember learning that you didn’t need the prefect page, you just needed your page to beat the competition. In a sense that is still true, but those who are embracing really effective content marketing are not being lazy by being just one step ahead, they are setting new heights in quality that is putting them streets ahead. If you can afford it then I’d recommend striving to be the very best you can possibly be. At least that means it should be longer before you have to up your game again, which will save you time and money in the longer term.
Look at your competitors and do a content audit on them. You wont have Analytics metrics but you will have Open Site Explorer and your experience to work from, so you’ll be able to make an educated guess regarding the effectiveness of their content. Most importantly, what content do they have that supports the buying process? Check it out to see how effective you think it is. How do you think you could improve it if you did something similar on your site? For example, if they have a useful buying guide, could it be made more effective by making it interactive?
Identify influencers who will love your content
To identify the influencers in your sector use the awesome Followerwonk to search twitter bios. From the reports produced you can make a list of the most relevant influencers. These not only become targets for your outreach but by working out what content they like, share and value you can get a much better idea of what kind of content is most likely to appeal to them. You want to get noticed, so work out what they currently notice and create that, only better. Always create something better than has been done before but don’t feel you have to be unique every time. You can steal good ideas, give credit where its due, but make sure that you do it better than it’s been done before by quite a margin.
Promoting your content successfully is what brings results. It’s not the content itself that will succeed on its own. Having a solid promotion plan for each piece of content is essential, so ensure that the preparation stage includes identifying who would care about your content.
Mind map your ideas
Brainstorm a list or even better create a mind map of all the different content marketing opportunities you can think of. We use XMind, which is perfect for this. I guarantee that no matter how dull and boring a sector might appear there is no end of interesting and engaging ideas that can be created. The problem tends to be narrowing them down and, as always, selecting the best and most relevant ones for your target audience.
Power tip 1:
The power of storytelling – storytelling in business is a buzz topic and rightly so. Marketing is about communicating messages effectively to influence someone to do something you want them to do. People respond to stories, so incorporating the principles of storytelling in your content can really help to increase the impact of what you do. I love TED talks, who doesn’t? So watch some TED Talks on storytelling, they are really inspirational. I particularly like the one embedded below.
Above: TED Talk by JJ Abrams: The Mystery Box. Watch this if you have time, you won’t regret it!
Think about how your website could use storytelling to help engage with visitors and turn prospects into customers, and not just any old customer but loyal customers who are advocates and will tell their friends and family how much they ought to become customers too. Start with simple story telling opportunities such as:
- case studies – tell the story of the problem, how you approached it, what solution you implemented and what the results were
- you could just outline a problem and demonstrate how your product or service could help solve that problem
- the story of your company and your brand, where it all started and how it’s grown. Help your customers understand your culture and what is important to you, explain how they are important to you
I’d love to hear how you are using storytelling in your content strategies if you’d like to comment below.
Power Tip 2:
The psychology of effective content – this is also a buzz topic for digital marketing because content strategists want their content to work as best it possibly can. Marketing and advertising have been using psychological triggers for years. However, digital marketing and SEO has achieved success through other routes and until recent years haven’t needed to be quite so clever as they do now.
The industry is growing up and learning from the grandparents of these disciplines. The principles are not new, they just needing a bit of translating into the digital marketing channel because digital marketers have perhaps been more technically inclined and process driven than creative and marketing driven. Someone who talks a lot of sense on this topic is Nathalie Nahai, whose book Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion is a must read if you want to understand how content can trigger decisions and influence online behaviour.
While I am on book recommendations to help develop an effective content marketing strategy, you should read these too:
- Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
- Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck by Chip and Dan Heath
- Contagious by Jonah Berger
A final word on preparation…
Don’t underestimate the value of doing this preparation. If you are an agency then you may need to scale it down a bit depending on the resources available for that account. Perhaps not all clients can have a card sorting exercise, for example, but no matter what the size of the client you need to be confident that the content you are creating is what the audience needs and that infuencers will care about it if you are wanting them to promote it. Be prepared to fail and never give up!
Okay, now you have done all the prep you need to do you can start work on creating your content strategy
Part Two of this series will look at the Implementation and Evaluation stages of Developing a Framework for an Effective Content Marketing Strategy.
Featured image courtesy of Shelley Walker