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Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect changes in the current state of content marketing.
Today, it's easier than ever for smaller businesses to reach customers. On the flip side, because of this ease, people are bombarded with advertisements, leading them to distrust traditional marketing. To become more competitive, brands must develop quality content.
It's estimated that more than 42% of web users have an ad blocker installed. As such, content marketing has become increasingly popular, with Hubspot reporting that 82% of marketers currently have a content marketing strategy (registration required for report).
Despite this shift towards content-driven tactics, many marketers don’t have a clear plan they’re following. A 2021 report revealed that only 43% of marketers have a documented strategy in place.
Having a clear content strategy is a critical component of success. So, we've turned to the experts to learn what a content strategy is, why businesses need one and what steps they can take to develop their own.
We cover nine key steps to follow when building a new content marketing strategy for your brand, whether you're running a side hustle or growing enterprise.
Lauren Reed, editorial services manager at Honolulu, HI-based iQ 360, defined a content strategy as "your business's approach to creating and distributing content for your target audience."
A brand's content strategy doesn't have to be complicated, just clearly defined. One of the most common issues brands have is deciding what content is relevant to their target audience.
It's essential to document a content strategy that focuses on providing value to your audience. "A successful content strategy," Reed continued, "is one that seeks to understand what your audience wants and needs and focuses on developing content that is useful, educational, relevant or otherwise valuable to them."
Understanding the type of content that will excite your audience is essential because, even though many organizations focus on the creation and distribution stage, your audience will determine your ultimate success.
Content strategies can be applied not just to marketing, but also to the overall user experience. The usability experts at Usability.gov describe the Content Strategy Quad as content- and people-oriented components that brands should focus on to offer their users, or customers, the best possible experience.
The quad covers:
While Usability.gov focuses more on websites as a general tool, the same principles can be applied to social media, mailing lists and other ways of engaging with a target audience.
Daniela Andreevska, marketing director at Mashvisor, explained, "Businesses need a content strategy in order to make sure that they attract the right users who will convert into customers, educate them on the benefits of using their product, convert them into customers and retain them as customers." You need a content strategy to bring potential leads down the sales funnel and to keep them coming back.
While Reed agrees on the benefits of content marketing, she added, "Creating content without purpose, simply for the sake of putting something out there, can be a costly and time-consuming mistake." Knowing your strategy before you start producing content will allow your brand to create more relevant content, which converts to greater trust and a better ROI for content marketing efforts.
Camden Gaspar, Content Marketing Manager at MarketMuse, stresses the importance of relevance in content marketing. Gaspar explains that MarketMuse's target audience is content teams, SEO specialists and digital marketers. He added, "We don't publish content about social media marketing because it doesn't align with the use of our product. Anything we post on that topic would quickly lose relevance for our audience, even if it is sound."
Knowing what a content strategy is and why you need one is important, but what can you achieve by spending the time to create one?
Here are some benefits of creating a content strategy:
Even though there are some general guidelines for what a content strategy is, it ultimately depends on the needs of your business. Yes, you do want to bring leads down the funnel and keep them coming back, but to what end?
All content created should be to help you achieve your business objectives. According to Marcus Ho, Managing Director at Singapore-based Brew Interactive, “Content strategy should do a number of things, but ultimately, it should help you achieve core business goals.” The objective for most businesses should be to increase sales, but depending on the product or service you're selling, a content strategy may look different from one company to another.
For one brand, a content strategy may focus on written content that hits many SEO keywords. For another, their strategy may focus on video content or podcasts. At the end of the day, a content strategy should be unique to your business.
As Neil Morton, Chief Marketing Director at StudioPTBO explained, “A highly effective content strategy should give you both brand lift and generate leads to your business, which you have a method of converting seamlessly to new customers.”
Here are seven steps to follow if you’re ready to develop your business’s content strategy:
Reed recommended you start with an objective. "Starting with the end business goal helps keep you focused," she said. "Otherwise it can be easy to get distracted." Without concentrating on business objectives, you could end up publishing content just for the sake of it.
“At this point, make sure you have your analytics all set up,” suggested Taras Prystatsky, content marketing strategist at Respect.Studio. Potential metrics to track in your analytics tools could include page views, social media shares or ecommerce conversions.
A brand can have more than one goal for content marketing. For example, a marketing team may run several campaigns to:
Each of the above goals would require a different strategy and different metrics. Gaspar explained, "Content can be an effective tool to educate, train and teach customers." He also noted that it can be used for sales embellishment, helping customers build their own case for purchasing a product or service.
A good content strategy covers each of those goals and has a clear vision of how to measure the performance of each campaign.
"Get to know your target audience," said Andreevska. You want to know where they spend their time online, what they spend their money on and how you can solve their problems.
"Map out their journey from the discovery phase to the consideration phase, to the point of purchase to hopefully becoming a repeat customer," Reed recommended. You want to develop content that attracts your target audience and leads them every step of the way to a purchase.
Defining the target audience means more than just knowing what they're interested in. Many marketers use the idea of user personas to describe different types of customers. Patrick Faller of Adobe said, "User personas are archetypical users whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a larger group of users."
A user persona may include several attributes, such as:
A product may appeal to multiple demographics, but marketing to a busy professional would require a different approach than reaching a college student or retired person.
Having a clear idea of the types of people you want to reach is essential. Faller explained, "User personas help a team find the answers to one of their most important questions, 'Who are we designing for?'"
After you've determined your target audience, Andreevska said, “You have to carefully research the keywords relevant to your audience," as these will become "the backbone of your content development." Many tools can help with keyword research, including Ahrefs and Google Keyword Planner. You can create content around these keywords that drives traffic and increases SEO rankings for your website.
Keyword research helps marketers understand what their target audience is interested in. It can be difficult for a brand to rank well for a short, high-competition keyword, but through targeting long-tail keywords, it's possible to generate traffic from website visitors who are likely to convert into subscribers or customers.
HubSpot writer Rebecca Riserbato explained long-tail marketing as using “low demand products to 'make money.'" She added, "The theory is that the combined profit from low demand product sales will be similar to that of the popular products. A greater variety of products could generate more sales and reach more customers."
The long tail in keyword research is similar. Instead of trying to rank for "cheap laptops," a search phrase that sees a huge volume of searches but also has a lot of competition, look for more focused search phrases. For example, "affordable laptops for word processing" or "cheap laptop for college students."
These long-tail searches are less likely to have a lot of competition and could even provide some ideas for lists, guides or blog articles that could be a part of an ongoing content marketing strategy.
Related Article: How to Improve SEO Through Keyword Mapping
Once you understand what your target audience and keywords are, it's a great idea to examine your competitors' content, along with the areas and keywords they rank for.
"Look at what your competitors are doing, but more importantly, look at what they're not doing," Reed said. Study the topics, keywords and length of the content on their website or other distribution channels. If you find areas where your competitors have content that's lacking, you can fill in the gaps and provide better value to your target market.
Marketing is something that should be an ongoing effort, and successful marketers are always looking for untapped opportunities. The Content Marketing Institute recommends doing a competitive content market analysis to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your competitor's strategies.
When analyzing your competitors, start by taking inventory of their content. Look at the type of content they offer, such as webinars, blog posts and white papers, as well as what those content pieces are about, how long they are and how much engagement they get.
Next, consider the volume of content and its overall quality. Are your competitors posting a high volume of short-form blog posts or just a couple of much longer articles? Do they produce brief reels for Instagram or much longer educational videos for YouTube? What sort of engagement is this content getting?
Finally, look at how much time they devote to each topic. Taking the example of laptops once again, are your competitors writing for a mainstream audience, gaming enthusiasts or tech-savvy people? Consider your user personas and whether there's a gap in the market where you can target an under-served audience.
Don't let the endless amount of distribution channels overwhelm your teams. Prystatsky believes brands should choose a small handful of channels for content distribution, such as a blog and a YouTube channel, allowing the company to "focus on distribution to the right people through the right channels."
Building up a good base of content on your brand's website is a good start. That content can be shared across social media to reach as wide an audience as possible. Many brands also post to Medium, an open online publishing platform, as a way of reaching a wider audience. Others use sites like Substack, which assist brands in generating paid newsletters.
Michael Brenner of Marketing Insider Group recommends that marketers perform an SEO audit on their competitors as part of building their marketing strategy. He added, "There is still power in links for higher ranking," explaining, "the key is knowing where the most powerful links are coming from for your competitors, so you can target those sites."
Social media is a useful way of distributing your content, and influencer marketing is becoming increasingly popular. However, partnerships with related but noncompeting brands can be an even more useful way of raising awareness.
Related Article: How to Unleash Your Omnichannel Content Strategy
Attracting customers to your brand with top-of-the-funnel content is beneficial. However, what happens after you’ve got them there? You need to provide content that piques their interest but also has the potential to solve their problems.
“Many companies I see place too much emphasis on the top of the funnel, but fail to create content assets that help convert at the bottom of the funnel,” said Ho. He claimed it’s important that a brand have assets like “case studies, testimonials or videos convincing why they're a good fit to work for you.”
HubSpot's Amanda Sellers explained the buyer's journey and the importance of catering to users at each stage. "With the exception of impulse buys, an individual begins their journey in an 'unaware stage'. This individual likely fits the demographic of your ideal client (also known as your buyer persona), but they are not aware of your product or in need of it."
Once an individual hits a pain point or discovers a need for a product or service, they begin their buyer's journey.
Sellers stressed, "It's important to understand your audience: how they think, the answers they seek and the path they take to find a solution." All of this goes into creating a content marketing strategy. She added, "Developing a buyer's journey for your business is the first step to creating content that resonates with your buyer and building out your marketing funnel, so you can meet them at each stage of their journey."
The job of a marketer is to attract prospects and turn them into qualified leads that the sales team can engage with. Once a lead becomes a customer, the goal of the brand is to delight that customer with a top-quality product or service.
A customer who is delighted with a brand may even take another step along the journey, becoming a promoter or a brand advocate. The challenge for brands is working out how to reach prospects in the first place, and how to continue engaging with those prospects as they become more familiar with the company.
Blogs, search marketing and social media are the most common platforms used to reach prospective customers. These platforms are low friction. A prospective customer might see an ad on social media, or search for something and click on a result from paid search placements or at the top of the SERPs.
Sellers explains a customer at this stage is most likely "looking for top-level educational content to help direct them to a solution, like blog posts, social content and ebooks."
If a marketer can attract the attention of someone at this stage, they may engage with the brand by subscribing to a mailing list or following the brand's social profile. This allows brand owners to persuade that individual that their product or service is the solution to the problem at hand.
Retargeting can be valuable at this stage because it keeps the brand in the customer's mind. Repeated exposure to a brand identity can help seal a sale.
Sellers noted, "Marketing shouldn't stop once someone becomes a customer." Building an ongoing relationship with a customer can help increase their lifetime value. Ongoing promotions, special offers and value-added guides or information can help a brand retain customers.
Once you've chosen your distribution channels, "create an editorial calendar to iron out the nitty-gritty details of where and when this content will be made available," Reed said. An editorial calendar will help you track your content and ensure you're publishing consistently.
Having an editorial calendar allows brands to plan ahead, taking the stress out of preparing content. An editorial calendar is a place to map out things like:
An editorial calendar and a bank of content that's ready to go can be invaluable. Marketers can use tools to schedule posts and spend time during quieter periods of the year preparing fresh content.
Even with this editorial calendar, it’s important to stay flexible. Pay attention to current affairs and be ready to change plans if necessary.
“Deploy a mix of storytelling and soft sell,” explained Morton. Your content strategy shouldn’t just be focused on selling, but it shouldn’t just be about solving problems for free either.
“People buy solutions to whatever their pain point is, so you're trying to project confidence that you can solve their problem,” added Morton. Your first step should be providing content that educates them, and then showcases how your brand can help. He also recommended using a mix of content types to have the best effect.
One mistake some brand owners make, especially smaller business owners, is promoting their product or services based on their own interests or knowledge, rather than the needs of the customer.
For example, a software developer might promote their product by talking about how it uses a particularly fast or secure algorithm to get things done. While this may be true, it's not necessarily something a prospective customer will understand or care about. Customers are more likely to be interested in how easy the software is to use or how the software can save them time or money compared to alternatives.
John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing described problem-solving as "the golden ticket for your marketing efforts." He noted that successful entrepreneurs are obsessive about solving problems and only add the "cool" elements after they've achieved that goal.
Jantsch noted that customers "want to see a clear message that revolves around solving their problem." He emphasized that marketing should be clear and concise and include actionable advice. By combining these elements, it's possible to create a long-term content strategy that successfully sells.
Prystatsky concluded, "When it comes to B2B — it is much more important to build a credible image instead of catching hype." Following these steps will help you create a content strategy that provides real value to your audience and develops long-lasting trust for your brand.
Becoming a subject-matter expert can help small business owners achieve success. Even big brands use this tactic, by having someone act as the face of the company whose word is respected when it comes to a specific topic.
Google uses the term E-A-T (expertise, authority and trust) to describe how it considers authority on certain topics for SEO purposes. The search engine provides search quality guidelines to help people understand what evaluators are looking for when considering the credibility of a website.
Brand owners who consistently produce accurate, informative content complete with citations, or bylined by someone with verifiable credentials, should be well-positioned to benefit from high rankings.
This credibility is one of the reasons many major brands have their own knowledge hubs. Whether that's Google offering training courses or car insurance providers offering guides for new drivers on how insurance works.
Brand owners must find a balance between selling and educating. Providing high-quality, informative content is a good starting point; however, it's important to remind consumers that your products exist and how they can solve specific problems.
If you don’t have a clearly defined content strategy, now is the time to make one. Successful brands research who their target audience is and what they want, then push quality content — across multiple platforms — designed to entertain, educate and guide prospects along the sales funnel.
CMSWire's customer experience (CXM) channel gathers the latest news, advice and analysis about the evolving landscape of customer-first marketing, commerce and digital experience design.