“Content marketing costs 62% less than traditional modes of advertising, and generates 3X more leads.” - Demand Metric
So we should all be doing more content marketing, then? Well, yes. As Michael Brenner puts it, “content marketing is critical to increasing your brand visibility in organic search, which in turn, is the biggest source of online conversions.” (FYI, there's more from Michael below.)
But it's easier said than done. Creating great content isn't just going to take an investment of money, but time too. And you can spend a long time creating the wrong content, as many companies do.
So, how do you ensure that the content you're creating is the right content? How do you give yourself the best chance of success before you create a single blog, podcast, or video? By creating proper content marketing strategies, of course.
Now, there's a lot to think about here so, to help you out, we asked some top content marketers what they do when creating their content marketing strategies so we could share the answers with you in this roundup article. Because we're very nice like that.
There's an absolutely huge amount of valuable insight in this one. So, read on, take it all in, and bookmark this page for future reference. That's an order.
Oh, and because this is such a mammoth article, we thought it would be useful to make it easier to navigate. Simply click the names below and you'll be taken to their contribution. And for those of you in a huge rush, we've also created a short summary of the most pertinent points at the bottom of the article, and you can access that by clicking here.
Global Editorial Strategy at Sage
Co-Founder and CEO at Growth Hackers
Founder of Converge
Content Marketing Manager at Seedrs
Head of Content Marketing at iwoca
Head of Content Marketing at Perkbox
Chief Marketing Officer at Marketing Insider Group
Content Marketing Manager at Informa
VP of Marketing at Content Marketing Institute
Great content marketing strategies start with great planning and that means - first and foremost - knowing your audience and what will resonate with them.
I'm a big fan of Pam Didner's “4 Ps” model: plan, produce, promote and perfect. This approach ensures strategy comes before execution and that the promotion and perfection (or optimisation) of content are also front of mind. It’s all too easy to skip straight to the second “P” and produce content across different formats without defining the audience, distribution channels or KPIs.
At Sage we use a range of tools to make sure our content is audience-centric ranging from keyword research to social listening to simple surveys. Tools like BuzzSumo also help us see which topics are saturated and where there is a growing tide of interest and engagement.
Taking a focused, audience-first approach to content planning and production at Sage has helped us grow our global content hub - Sage Advice - to over half a million organic visitors per month and drive a pipeline of high quality, engaged leads.
There are many tools and techniques available to help you produce audience-centric, data-driven content but even if you use just one you’ll get a better end result than through guesswork! Planning and research take time but without it, your content will likely end up being part of the estimated 60-70% that simply goes unused.
When we plan our content marketing strategies, we follow these steps:
We start by setting up the objective of the campaign and the metrics/KPIs we will focus on. Do we want to gain traffic? Do we want to generate leads? Do we want to increase our revenue? Do we want to promote a launch? It's crucial to know what your goals are before you even start drafting a plan.
Then we look at who it is we want to target. It's essential to know your audience in order to create the right content, be on the right platforms, decide on the types of format (blog posts, infographics, videos, e-books, etc.), and have the right tone and message. Creating audience personas at this stage can help when it comes to future campaigns.
Next, we come up with content ideas. What we do here is get a huge list of content topics and titles. We do this through a combination of brainstorming, typing keywords on search engines, studying competitors, and using tools like Google Trends.
Now it's time to create a calendar. You want your content to be organized. Will you publish one blog post a day? One per week? How many times a day will you post on social media? It's important to document all of this so your team has something to reference and stick to.
Create your content. Note that we've done four steps before even creating the content. Make sure your content is well written, scan-able, and fits with your overall strategy. By the way, it's always handy to have your content reviewed by your colleagues before publishing.
Distribute your content. A lot of businesses, marketers or entrepreneurs spend so much time and money creating content but so little when it comes to promoting it. I usually suggest spending 20% of your time creating content and 80% of the time distributing it.
Track results, gather data and check your KPIs. Did the content you create achieve its goals? What kind of content worked? What kind of content didn't? Optimize your content according to the results you got and prepare the next content campaign accordingly.
For us, planning and executing a content marketing strategy will take anywhere between three and six months. The plan is always flexible and isn't too rigid. Why? Because along the way we'll gather feedback and data and, based on the information, we'll change plans to make the strategy as effective as possible.
For me, content marketing is all about providing your audience with value, and I think a lot of that value can come from answering questions that your readers are asking. So that's where I'd start when it comes to creating content marketing strategies.
And fair warning, this bit takes time. But there's no short cut that can be taken if you want to do proper research (and you absolutely do need to do it if you want your content to have any sort of impact and success).
What is it that your audience and potential customers are searching for answers to? Go spend plenty of time using tools such as Google Trends and Answer The Public to find out your audience's most pressing concerns, and put that information into a spreadsheet that you can reference at any time.
Next, I'd list the questions you want to answer in order of priority, with the most important at the top, and least important at the bottom. It will also help to know the search volume for some of the key questions and phrases that you find people searching for, and how competitive they are (the more competitive, the harder it'll be to rank for certain keywords and questions).
It's important to work out exactly what you want your content to do as well. Are you after more likes, shares, and impressions on social? Are you trying to direct traffic to additional content hidden behind an email gateway? Are you just looking to increase traffic to your website for more sales and subscribers? List the most crucial KPIs and then build content that you think will deliver great results.
Quality backlinks are still the most powerful thing to try and earn when it comes to content, so I'm always looking for guest blogging opportunities on relevant, high-authority websites. Part of my content marketing strategy involves identifying high-authority, relevant websites, reading the content on them to find out what sort of content they like, and then attempting to build a relationship with the website owner or blog editor.
Again, this takes time. But if you want fantastic link building opportunities, you need to put in the effort. Of course, Converge exists for businesses looking to save a lot of time and build valuable backlinks fast (yeah, shameless plug, I know).
In order to start a content marketing campaign, I first need to understand the goal(s) of the strategy (for example, drive brand awareness), which will inform the KPIs of the strategy (such as social media follows, likes, comments, and shares), measure performance once it’s been implemented, and where the content should sit within the buyer journey.
When it comes to the length of the strategy, for us that's situational - sometimes it’s ongoing, but other times it will be implemented for a set period until the KPIs are reached.
Subsequently, I look to define and understand the audience - the most time-consuming but critical step. Researching the audience, in a few different ways, from looking at the channels they interact with to immersing myself within their environment, will build my understanding of their needs, their pain points, the questions they ask, their personas and how they like to consume content.
This process is lengthy, initially a week or so, and ongoing throughout the strategy implementation to tweak or amend the strategy if needed (it’s important that my strategies remain adaptive and flexible).
To help create, organise and monitor our content marketing campaigns, there are several tools I use throughout my role; some of which are dependant on the type of content I’m producing.
For example, if the purpose of the content is traffic generation, I will use SEO and keyword analysis platforms as a starting point. Google Drive and Docs are great for collaborating with colleagues on copywriting and editing, and Grammarly Premium is great for editing (and it works with Google Docs!). Project management wise, I’m a fan of Notion to keep track of documents, to-dos, and weekly planners.
As Head of Content Marketing, I tend to avoid working on a campaign basis. Instead, our team identifies a number of objectives – including SEO, lead generation, hub content, and social media – and we focus very much on them. Steady focus is key.
I arrange the priority hierarchy of these workstreams on a quarterly basis, based on the company objectives and obstacles that we have already encountered, and that we will encounter along the way. The plan is then adjusted on a monthly basis as new information crops up. The team sticks to the plan through a combination of public updates and private 1:1s.
When it comes to the actual planning, we use the Google suite - Sheets, Doc, and Gmail in coordination with Slack and sometimes Trello—nothing fancy. If companies are looking to speed up the planning processes, then it's helpful to have a clear vision of what you need to achieve and why, before articulating this through a series of detailed briefs for the stakeholders you need to win over.
Often things can be delayed, in which case proactively looking for external solutions (agency or freelancer) to speed up the work. Generally, our plans are rigid in that they need to be done, but flexible in the order in which they are accomplished.
I’d make a distinction between content planning and strategy. Content marketing strategies – the deep stuff that spills out into many other areas of marketing – should be poured over, documented and pruned continuously. Whereas planning – the details and tactics behind how you're going to execute that strategy – I like to get done quickly.
On a practical level, I'll always have an eye on our strategy, often picking up new ideas from events, or stealing them from thought leaders or my Marketing Director. The plan, meanwhile, will take the direct input from all the people who will be doing the work. Every content activity is a cross-function to some degree, so you need to think about everyone’s schedules and get everyone on board.
We work with the campaigns team in monthly sprints towards a broader quarterly theme (though I'm unsure a sprint can last a month? Maybe a jog is a better term? Yes - monthly content jogs). This means getting together once a month and thrashing out ideas to fuel the campaigns calendar with content.
But it’s good to remain agile. For instance one of our more successful recent campaigns was based on the Game of Throne finale, not the type of thing people are thinking about three months in advance. (Actually, in this case, that’s probably untrue, but you see the point.)
It’s also symptomatic of your culture and nature of the business. As a fairly aggressive tech scale-up, Perkbox errs on the side of action. Conversely, I’ve worked in publishers where the content is itself the product, so editorial responsibility and credibility were paramount, and therefore planning rightly took longer.
I can get a tad peeved by the proliferation of marketing tools in circulation for anything and everything. I think lots of marketers are guilty of getting distracted by, and wasting time on, new and expensive tools. I wrote a long and self-righteous rant about it here.
However, I do use a project management tool called Monday.com to keep the team on the same page, but I think for my content planning purposes, one centralised live spreadsheet tends to suffice. The whole team just needs to adopt it.
We stick to the 20/80 rule of thumb - 20% planning, 80% executing. Don't get too caught up in organising lots of meetings to discuss the minutiae of the upcoming clever project, just break it up into micro-goals and start delivering.
By the way, breaking bigger projects up into micro-goals to achieve weekly wins is a good way to keep everyone interested and on track.
With content strategies, I think it's important to remain flexible whenever possible. Things change, workloads fluctuate, washing machines leak, and food poisoning strikes. As long as there's communication, and everyone in the team is aware of the situation and the ramifications it has, there's always a way around it. Very little in our line of work is worth putting people under genuine negative stress about. So don't worry (too much).
I plan out my content starting with a commitment to a defined schedule. Frequency and consistency deliver results more than any other factor. I try and publish content 4-5 times per week, with 2 posts being mine and 3 coming from guest writers.
To do this, I need to go out and find guest contributors who are willing to commit to a weekly schedule. If I want 3 posts per week, I need to find 3 people who can provide 1 post per week. Then I plan my own content out for an entire year based on SEO and keyword research. I re-visit the plan every quarter but I find this helps me to crank out the posts when I have the time.
I use simple content research tools that are mostly free and available to anyone. Google auto-fill is one of the best ways to instantly know what most people are searching for once you type in a starter phrase.
Google Trends can help you settle disputes about which terms are more important than others. AnswerThePublic.com helps you visualize the questions your audience is asking. And Buzzsumo will tell you what people are reading and sharing.
Content calendars are a great "forcing function" to keep your team on board with your plan. You don't need anything too fancy or expensive. We use a tool called DivvyHQ that allows us to track all the content for our clients across separate calendars. We even use it to allow our clients to download articles themselves, provide feedback, and then upload directly (to Wordpress).
There’s always a temptation to get caught up in the creative process and the stories we want to tell – after all, that’s why we’re content specialists! So when it comes to creating a content marketing strategy, my advice is to always start from your desired end result and work backwards. This should range from overall business goals – what financial, geographical or sector vertical areas are you looking to grow in? – to more marketing-specific aims, like organic search growth or increasing newsletter subscriptions.
Then ask yourself: what action do you want your reader to take? Whether it’s purchasing a product or simply going on to engage in further content, your content should always have an end goal, and this is what should shape each piece of content and how and where you share it. You need that goal in mind as you decide on subject matter, format, length and promotional tactics: keep circling back and asking yourself why.
My other major piece of advice is to fully embrace every piece of data you can get your hands on. It’s key at the planning stage, to make sure you don’t fall into the trap of doing something just because it’s “what you’ve always done” – but don’t just analyse performance at the end of a campaign to use in planning the next one. Keep monitoring it throughout, so you can optimise your content on an ongoing basis. This is how you really get to know your audience and get a real sense of just what it is they’re engaging with and how you can move them along down the engagement funnel.
At its core, our content marketing strategy is our “why.” Why we are creating content, who we are helping, and how we’ll help them in a way no one else can. Our content marketing (and subsequent strategy) is used to grow and nurture our audience and achieve profitable customer action eventually, so our planning falls into that lens: Is what we’re doing useful, relevant and consistent? And will it help us achieve our business and marketing goals? So that’s the beginning of our plan. Our annual planning takes up a substantial part of our fall (after Content Marketing World, of course), and our editorial, marketing, sales, and operations teams work together on this.
While there are no shortcuts to an effective content marketing plan, we do ensure that we have our analytics in order and available, whether it be Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics, BuzzSumo, Trackmaven or SEMrush, and use analytics from our social channels. We also use social listening and 1:1 customer interviews to help us with this. This gives us our most representative view of what our customers are digesting and in what format, where the industry is going, and where we can continue to develop our niche.
By having all of this information in our planning meetings, it makes for more efficient and strategic planning sessions.
We have many calendars at play at CMI, but know that even the best calendars are fluid, and should be to adapt to customer needs, industry trends, and even our team availability. With weekly meetings, team management systems such as Trello, and shared documents and folders, this ensures that our team is on the same page and sticking to the plan as best we can.
There's a lot of advice to take in above, so we thought we'd stick this handy summary in to give you a quick rundown of the most suggested actions:
Do your research. This takes time, but finding content ideas, creating audience personas and working out what KPIs to track is critical when it comes to creating a successful content strategy.
Track KPIs to analyse performance. You'll never know if your content strategy is working unless you track your KPIs. If your content isn't delivering what it's supposed to, then tweak it and try again. And keep on tweaking until it works.
Turn to your colleagues. A fresh pair of eyes on your latest blog before you hit publish is a must if you can get them. And getting input from other teams within your business helps too (sales, PR, operations, etc.).
Use the right tools. The Google Suite (Docs, Sheets, and Gmail), Google Trends, Google Autofill, Buzzsumo, and AnswerThePublic are your friends here.
Make a plan and stick to it. Make sure everyone knows what the plan is, no matter if it's a long or short term plan, you need to document it and reference it to stay on track. Making a content calendar is super useful.
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