Defined simply, content marketing is:
Content marketing includes both on and off-site content creation and on and off-site content promotion. And they’re almost never mutually exclusive.
For instance, the very video you create for Youtube would fit into both the created and promoted buckets.
You might create a quality blog post and then promote it by PR and link building outreach, then create more content off-site to link back to your original post.
In reality, content marketing may more appropriately look like this:
The who, what, when, where, why and how you create and promote your content is how one develops the ideal content marketing strategy for success.
In order to create and promote, you need to understand your ideal customer persona, where they are online and how to promote to them.
For instance, a Shopify ecommerce store will have a very different creation and promotion strategy than a local tax service business.
This guide is meant to address this problem, outlining exactly what you need to create a content marketing strategy, and why you need to create one. It’s designed specifically with newcomers in mind, though even if you’ve been in the content marketing game a while, there are some important exercises, considerations, and takeaways that may help you improve your own campaign.
Feel free to skip around to the sections you need the most, or read straight through from start to finish.
Before you can create an effective content marketing strategy for your business, you need to know exactly what content marketing is—and isn’t—and what potential benefits you could stand to gain from it.
Basically, the idea is to create pieces of content (written, visual, audio, etc.) that people want to read, view, or listen to, and tie those pieces of content to your brand to build awareness, equity, and authority. Rather than directly advertising a product or service, your content will carry a value of its own to consumers, which will make your brand more visible, more authoritative, and more familiar to consumers.
As your content strategy matures, you’ll earn more inbound traffic, build better customer relationships, and ultimately attract more paying customers (not to mention retaining them for a longer period of time).
This all sounds good, but the variables are intimidatingly complex. What type of content do you need to produce? How are you going to produce it? What do you do if your target audience isn’t responding? How are you going to grow over time?
These are the questions that a content strategy can help you answer, but first let’s evaluate content marketing in a more practical context.
Content marketing can be used by any business with an online presence. Any customer base you can imagine needs some kind of content—even if it’s just more information about a product or service. If you can provide that content, your brand will be the one those customers first engage with.
Content also serves a variety of different functions, so even if your business can’t benefit from one of the functions, it can probably benefit from at least some of the others. For example, if your customers don’t frequently read in-depth reviews before making a choice (such as in choosing a restaurant), you can still use the search engine optimization (SEO) power of content marketing to drive more traffic to your restaurant’s website, increasing foot traffic and sales.
First up is brand visibility. This is an almost intangible quality in your target audience, but it’s vital if you want to increase your customer base. Producing, distributing, and syndicating content all help your brand get more exposure to potential customers, which increases the number of people familiar with your brand and increases that degree of familiarity. As people become more familiar with your brand, they’ll be naturally more inclined to purchase from you when the need arises, or to recommend you to someone who has a need for your products or services.
Content marketing helps you achieve this progression with wider and wider audiences.
How you go about building brand rapport depends on your company and your customer base, but HubSpot is a perfect example. HubSpot sells marketing and sales software, so its clientele is clearly interested in marketing and sales. They may know what they’re doing, to various degrees, but they’ll probably need partners to help them get the job done, and they aren’t going to choose just anybody. They want someone who’s a major authority in the space.
To address this, HubSpot gradually built up a massive content archive—one of the most impressive online (and to which I have contributed)—of how-to guides, tutorials, and case studies related to sales and marketing. They became known as one of the biggest authorities in the industry, and as a result, their brand is recognized by most online users as being both trustworthy and authoritative. Their sales patterns continue to grow because of this reputation, and it’s all thanks to content.
(Image Source: Hubspot)
Next, we can take a look at the ways content marketing can affect your rankings in search engines through SEO (search engine optimization). SEO itself is a complex strategy, demanding frequent revision and work both on and off your website.
The basics of content marketing, however, are relatively simple. Google looks at two things when it evaluates how to rank sites for a given user query: authority and relevance.
The higher these two factors are for a given site or individual piece of content, the higher it will rank in search results, and the more traffic it’s going to receive. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to maximize these two factors for relevant user queries. Content can help you do both.
When you’re creating off-site content—in any context—you have the possibility of generating referral traffic. In some cases, this is due to your own link building outreach campaigns; you’ll manually include a link pointing back to your site in an effort to boost your rankings, but readers can click that link and get to your site directly. Even if stories are written about you, such as press releases or other third-party coverage of your business, you’ll usually get a linked mention of your brand name that users can follow to get to your site.
Take, for example, this viral story posted on BuzzFeed about a pet owner’s dog’s final day of life. Emotionally powerful and visually engaging, eventually almost 7 million people viewed the story. Note that there’s a link to the owner’s photography blog as a header to the piece. Now imagine that only 5 percent of users ended up clicking that link—that’s about 350,000 new visitors thanks to just one new published piece of content.
(Image Source: BuzzFeed)
I’m not saying you should expect 350,000 new visitors (or anywhere near that number) every time you publish content off-site; this is an extreme example. However, it’s not unreasonable to expect hundreds, or in some cases thousands, consistently, when you’re publishing on high-authority, highly relevant, high-traffic sources. It’s a major benefit to the content marketing game.
Social media marketing and content marketing are inextricably intertwined. You can use your content to help build a bigger, more relevant following on social media, and you can use your social media following to generate more traffic to your content, thereby making it more effective. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and one you should be taking advantage of.
The bottom line benefit here is that the more you engage in content marketing, the bigger your social media following is going to grow. You’ll get more social traffic as a direct flow of visitors, and you’ll have more potential consumers to reach when you have promotions or sales to advertise.
To illustrate the possibilities here, let’s take a look at the same story of our last example. This particular story was picked up by a number of different publications, including Huffington Post. There alone, the piece managed to generate 26,000 social shares (definitely contributing to its millions of eventual views).
(Image Source: Huffington Post)
But take a look at how this affected the owner’s photography page on Facebook. It now sports more than 20,000 likes. How many likes do you think it had before this post went viral? My guess is that, like most other small photography businesses, they numbered in the hundreds.
(Image Source: Facebook)
Traffic and conversion rates go hand-in-hand; if one is consistent and the other increases, you’ll see more revenue, but if you can manage to increase both at the same time, you’ll see rapid revenue growth.
Content gives you a platform to highlight why your company is the right one for the job. An impressive piece of content that outlines your expertise in your industry is likely to leave a significant impression on an interested prospect, giving them confidence in working with you as opposed to your competitors.
You can use your content as an exclusive value-add that keeps your customers around for a longer period of time.
You may send out an exclusive email newsletter, or provide exclusive eBooks to people who have signed up for your service.
This makes it harder for them to leave your brand, especially if none of your competitors are currently offering a similar benefit. You could also use content to increase your customers’ satisfaction with your products. For example, you might include more help guides, tutorials, and ideas on how to use your products and services to keep users around for longer. Many SaaS companies like ZenDesk take advantage of this strategy to increase user satisfaction, while more physical-based product companies and organizations like Raspberry Pi use new projects and creative inspiration to keep their active users engaged.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of content marketing is actually a modifier for all the other benefits; it’s the power of compounding returns that content marketing offers. Content marketing isn’t a strategy that scales linearly; instead, you’ll see a slow build at the beginning, followed by an exponential explosion of results.
Why is this? For starters, content marketing is about creating valuable assets which exist permanently. When you publish a landmark piece of content off-site, that doesn’t go away—it continues to add value in terms of referral traffic, domain authority, and brand visibility over time.
The longer you engage in a content marketing strategy, the better results you’re going to see. It’s not like a paid advertising campaign, where you only pay for what you get in the moment.
There are some important reasons why you should plan a content strategy—by which I mean a formally written document—that outlines your plans for success. According to research from the Content Marketing Institute, there are four main factors responsible for differentiating self-described “successful” content marketers from self-described “unsuccessful” content marketers.
(Image Source: Content Marketing Institute)
Let’s move on to the actual steps you’ll need to take to draft your content strategy. First, you’re going to need raw information. Remember what I said about needing to have more objective information, rather than relying on your own assumptions and instincts? This is the stage of the process you’ll use to get that information. There are several types of research you’ll need to perform, each with their own challenges and tactics. Your end goal is to walk away with enough raw material and data to inform your strategic decisions.
Let’s take a look at some of the most important research areas:
Image Source: ComScore (via smartinsights.com)
Still, you’ll find that your demographics and your industry likely favor one device more than the others. You’ll need to make your content compatible with all devices, but you might bear one in mind more than the others.
(Image Source: ahrefs)
Again, keep any keyword insights you find here in balance; your primary goal is to produce good content. Write for readers, not for search engines.
Once you’ve done enough research to give you a broad understanding of your audience, your competitive position, and your niche, you can start drawing up the main goals of your campaign—as well as a timeline in which you’ll meet those goals.
After you’ve set your goals, you can start working on how you’re going to execute your campaign. One of the most important considerations you’ll need to bear in mind are those related to the brand (or brands) you plan to use.
Now, you’ve already come up with a target market, and you have a general idea what that target market likes and dislikes, and what their values are. Now it’s time to formalize this information in the context of your content strategy. The best way to do this is with a customer persona (or multiple personas, if you have multiple demographics). This persona is essentially a fictional character you’ll be creating as the “average” customer you want to target.
To start, come up with a list of traits that define your average customer, whether those are demographic (age, sex, geographic location), environmental (family, education, career), or behavioral (disposition, buying habits, typical brand relationships). Then, put a name and a face to that description. This will help you solidify the way you think about your target audience, and think about it in a more human, approachable way. Once defined, you’ll be able to picture this persona in your mind when writing content or hiring a content writing service, helping you to write specifically for this given audience.
I’ve mentioned content types conceptually, but it’s time to define exactly how these will function in your campaign. Some of the key dimensions you’ll need to consider are:
The other big variable to consider, of course, is volume. How many of each type of content are you going to produce, and how often will you do it? With this information, you’ll be able to set up a rough editorial calendar, the last piece of the puzzle you’ll need before you actually start executing on your strategy. Your editorial calendar doesn’t need to be anything fancy—at least not at first. It can be a common spreadsheet with listings for your content title, medium, format, and publishing information.
(Image Source: Georgetown)
The final stage of your content strategy is distribution. Content generally isn’t seen unless you do some work to get eyeballs on it (unless you’ve already got a huge brand like Mashable or TechCrunch, in which case you probably aren’t interested in reading this guide), so you’ll need some sort of driving mechanism to help people find it. There are generally four dimensions to consider here:
The “off-site publisher” side of your strategy will focus on where and how you’ll publish content that’s off your website (such as through guest posts). Often driven by personal brands, these are guest contributions on external publications where you’ll be able to reference or cite your on-site content in a way that adds value to the content.
Over time, you’ll build your way to bigger and higher authority sources, but before you jump to that level, you’ll need a plan of attack, slowly ratcheting up your efforts and targets.
Social media involves sharing your content in relevant social media channels as well as through your email newsletter, and with other influencers (often via email or social media). You’ll need to figure out which social media channels are most visible or most engaging to your target market, how (and how often) to syndicate your posts, and how you’re going to grow your presence over time.
Paid ads includes paid traffic avenues such as:
Paid ads can be a great way to get lots of eyeballs on your content very quickly, but it’ll come at a significant cost. In my own experience, I’ve found paid ads to be pretty disappointing in terms of engagement & shares, so I can’t really recommend them, but I’m sure there are many marketers who have had positive experiences with them.
On-site support includes internal links, navigation, notices, or ads that direct visitors on your website to a specific piece of content.
For a deep dive into content distribution, see Content Unleashed: The Ultimate Guide to Promoting Your Published Content.
With your vision, your goals, your customer personas, your editorial calendar, and your distribution paths solidified, you’ll have all the key components of your strategy aligned. Now comes the fun part.
Starting your content marketing strategy typically includes on and off-site content.
Your on-site content is going to serve as the backbone of your campaign, giving you creative control, attracting inbound links, and showcasing your value to prospective external publishers. Your editorial calendar might give you the plan of your content strategy, but don’t neglect the actual practice.
Creation, editing, and publication. There’s a ton of flexibility in how you actually create your content, since you’re in control. All that matters is that it’s eventually visible and accessible to your target audience, so the drafting process is up to you. Most people use a word processor like Microsoft Word (or Google Docs, if you’re more into team collaboration) for written content, having one person draft the material and at least one other revising and editing it. Track changes works wonderfully here.
(Image Source: FGCU)
Be sure you have checks and balances in place to evaluate your content for surface-level quality factors, such as detail, grammar, and syntax, but also brand-level quality factors, such as adherence to brand voice and proper formatting. Make sure your content adheres to the guidelines you established for yourself in your formal strategy.
Once you’re satisfied with the finished piece, publish it to your site. For written content, this usually involves copy/pasting and filling in some additional information (including any tags and descriptions for SEO you want to include). For images, this involves a simple uploading process. For videos, you can either host these yourself or publish them on YouTube and embed the finished product on your blog.
Content promotion and syndication. The next step, of course, is to promote and syndicate that content. First, before you do anything, make sure your site (usually the blog) has social share buttons; this will make it easy for your readers to share your article socially if they found it to be engaging. This, in turn, will increase your post’s visibility, and possibly spark a chain reaction that encourages your post to go viral.
But for the most part, if you want your post to get visibility, you’ll need to share and promote it yourself. Start by sharing a link to your latest post on all your social media channels. Then, you have a few options for further promotion. For example, you could build a few links (internal or external) pointing to your piece to give it an extra boost of authority and traffic, or you could use paid ads to funnel initial traffic to it.
Beyond that, you’ll want to save all your posts for future syndication (at least the evergreen pieces that will remain relevant indefinitely). What this means is, you’ll re-distribute the content on social media multiple times in the future, perhaps under a new title or lead-in, to reach people who might not have seen it the first time around.
Off-site content follows many of the same rules that on-site content does. The big difference here is that you’ll have to pay attention to the needs of the individual publications with whom you work, which can add a challenging variable.
Creation, editing, and publication. Ultimately, you’ll follow the same guidelines and procedures I outlined above, but with a few key differences. First, you’ll want to note your target publisher’s editorial requirements. They may mandate that you write posts in a specific format, or they may only accept certain types of subjects, or they may even require specific types of language to be used. Publishers can be finicky, so be sure to follow and respect their editorial guidelines.
The editing process for external publishers is also going to necessitate changes in your standard workflow. Some publishers may allow you to publish to the site as if it were your own, but this is rarely the case. It’s much more common for there to be a back-and-forth editing process; you’ll send a Word document over, they’ll respond with requested changes, and you’ll eventually hammer out an acceptable piece, or you’ll submit the piece online to be subjected to their own internal editorial process.
Respect your publishers, work with them, and eventually you’ll see your content featured on their site.
Note that this guide doesn’t tell you exactly how to find the right publishers or make the request to feature your content; if you’re interested in more information, be sure to check out our comprehensive guide to link building.
Content promotion and syndication. When it comes to promoting off-site content, your job is a little bit easier. You don’t have to worry about including social share icons (the publisher will do that for you), and your publisher will often promote your post on their own social networks. Still, it’s a good idea to do some promotion of your own, much in the same way you would your on-site posts.
Sometimes a simple post is enough to generate an influx of traffic. Don’t neglect this step.
Though your content strategy covers a number of different areas at various stages of development, it’s a good idea to think of your first job as building a foundation for your brand. Building a foundation is like shaping a wheel you plan to roll downhill; the more time you spend perfecting the shape of your wheel, the more momentum that wheel will eventually build when released.
These are some of the key areas to which you’ll need to dedicate extra focus when developing your content strategy:
Once your foundation is secure, you’ll work on scaling your campaign upward. You may or may not have accounted for this in your original content strategy, but it’s something you’ll need to prepare for.
It’s one thing to talk about great content strategies, but another to actually create one for yourself or mimick other successful campaigns. Here are just a few.
Microsoft recently launched a segment of its content marketing campaign called Microsoft Stories, which as you can imagine, revolves around presenting stories to its readership. Covering many different angles, the key elements connecting all these stories in common are narratives, as each new piece tells some kind of story, and “personal” significance. I use personal in quotes because these are stories important to “Microsoft” as a brand (theoretically; in reality, they are important to Microsoft’s actual team members). You’ll find small biographies, developments of new technologies, and other inspirational, interesting points of coverage.
(Image Source: Microsoft Stories)
This is perfect to study because it goes a counterintuitive route; rather than producing listicles and ‘how-to’ articles about technology (as a typical tech business might), Microsoft developed a strategy that truly resonates with its customers, striking an emotional connection and differentiating itself from the competition.
GoPro has an amazing YouTube channel and an Instagram account to go with it. Serving a niche industry, GoPro’s exclusive function is to produce and sell its mobile video equipment. Accordingly, the company realized that simple written content probably wouldn’t attract their key clientele: photography and videography enthusiasts.
So instead, they went a more visual route, using two of the most visual-friendly platforms on the web to support their work. Furthermore, they aren’t just taking pictures and video randomly; they’re exploring the far corners of the world, going on adventures to resonate with their adventurous and mobile target market. So far, they’ve built an audience of millions, and they seem to keep growing as they produce more amazing material.
(Image Source: Instagram/GoPro)
If you’re over the age of 25, you likely remember the Dummies series of books as being staples for learning everything from Spanish to early-stage computer programming. They had (and admittedly, probably still have) their own sections in bookstores, and their branding became instantly recognizable.
When content made the major shift of going online, Dummies could have easily fallen behind, or become obsolete in the modern era. Instead, they evolved, still offering their classic book series but also adapting by making online instructional articles available to what would be their same target market in an online context.
These articles, of course, are much shorter than the actual books, but they’ve helped the company maintain its authoritative reputation over the years. Even more interesting, Dummies has launched a new product line—a series of B2B services to help small businesses and startups find their footing in the online era of entrepreneurship and marketing. They’ve developed a specific wing of their content strategy around these demographics as well.
(Image Source: Dummies)
There are two powerful lessons to take away from Dummies; first, evolution is always possible. No matter how radically the game seems to change, there’s always room for you and your strategy to adapt to the new circumstances. If you don’t change, you’re going to suffer for it. Second, your content strategy doesn’t have to strictly follow your business outline and goals; as you learn more about your readership, you can adjust your business to serve them even better. It creates a perfect feedback loop, allowing you to remain relevant indefinitely with your ever-increasing target audience.
If you can successfully write up a content strategy, and put it to action during an initial launch, you’ll instantly be in a better position than the majority of content marketers currently competing for visibility. It would be almost impossible to condense the information I’ve presented in this guide to a simple list of “takeaways” so instead, I’ll leave you with one important thought that should help you create and manage your content strategy with a better perspective.
Content marketing is a recursive process. Every action you take will yield a reaction, and you can use that reaction in a feedback loop to improve your next set of actions. Because of this, you need a strong start and a strong foundation; without one, those reactions and that feedback will carry no significance for your brand. This foundation is both the impetus for and the measurement tool of these ongoing reader reactions, so don’t underestimate its importance by attempting to improvise your strategy.