Zen and the Art of Creating a Content Marketing Strategy: 10 Steps to Enlightened Content

Will Trevor is a faculty program director at Excelsior College. The original post can be viewed on LinkedIn.

The creation of a content marketing strategy that delivers a consistent stream of valuable, relevant, and usable content, which is focused upon your audience in an informed and adaptive way, and adds value for your customers, is something so near to nirvana that such a level of enlightenment is attained rarely and by few brands today.

Findings in the 2016 B2C  Content Marketing Report, from the Content Marketing Institute, showed that while only 37% claimed to have a documented content marketing strategy, fewer than 38% overall believed that their organization was effective at content marketing!  So in this article I am going to explore the 10 steps that might just help you to achieve that ‘content nirvana’ that so many brands crave – the focus here, however, is more upon the strategy process, rather than the content itself.

STEP #1 – Differentiate the Content Strategy from the Content Marketing Strategy

The first faltering steps upon the path to enlightenment often incurs a confusion between the content strategy and the content marketing strategy, which can catch out the unwary pilgrim.  In defining the former, doyen of content strategy, Kristina Halvorsen, has described it as, the “creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”  Or, Rachel Lovinger of Razorfish, described it in her 2007 article, Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data, as utilizing “[…] words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences.”  But, as both Halvorsen and Lovinger attest, a content strategy is more about the oversight and the management of content as a strategic business asset that is deployed to achieve the organization’s corporate goals.

A moment’s meditation then allows us to discern the difference between that and the content marketing strategy.  In contrast to the content strategy, the content marketing strategy analyzes how content marketing can be used most effectively along the customer’s journey and how it can be applied in conjunction with the other elements of the marketing mix. Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute and author of Get Content. Get Customers, powerfully defines a content marketing strategy as:

How a brand creates, delivers and governs original or curated content to attract and retain customers, positioning the brand as a credible expert and, ultimately, motivating a change in behavior.

STEP #2 – Start with the Customer: Research and Identify the Buyer Personas

It is a basic truism of marketing that we need to start by knowing who our customers are and research their journey, both in terms of their pain points and challenges, but also so we can target and position the content with regard to their preferences and needs. To achieve this we create personas, which, while not being actual customers, they are instead representations that reflect their goals and buying journeys and backed by solid research.  They are archetypes, and, although personas are common in other areas of marketing, they are invaluable in developing the insight to develop usable and shareable content.  This step is often ignored, or inadequately executed, and the path to Hell, rather than the road to enlightenment, is littered with brands that did not sufficiently and thoroughly research the personas of their customers along and throughout the buying cycle.

STEP #3 – Align with the Corporate Mission, Vision, and Values

Nature abhors a vacuum and your content marketing strategy should not be developed in isolation from the broader mission, vision, and values of the organization.  ‘Siloed’ thinking leads to a content marketing strategy that is divorced from the overall strategic goals of the organization and may lead to questions of future relevance and effectiveness over the long term.  If you can show that your strategy is aligned with the overall corporate mission from the outset, then the achievement of STEP #4, should be that much easier.

STEP #4 – Gain Executive Buy-in and Provide Stakeholder Consultation

No man is an island and neither is good strategy.  If you decide to impose your content marketing strategy without the buy-in from the C-Suite and the other internal stakeholders, then you are going to have a hard job of convincing them that your activities are relevant to them and that you are creating value for the customers and the organization as a whole. Consult early and consult often and convene regular meetings in which you feedback to the stakeholders.

While it may be a challenge, lay off the jargon and communicate the successes and the failures in an open and accessible way.  View this as an iterative process and make sure that you show you are both listening and valuing the input of the stakeholders – you don’t want to be seen as the ‘patronizing marketing guy’ that bamboozles with jargon!  You’ll quickly loose friends and be bereft of the ability to influence people and the goal of content nirvana will start to be a distant and unattainable dream for you.

STEP #5 – Where are we now? Audit the Current Situation

Unless you’re a start-up that is fresh out of the box, then the chances are that you are inheriting a situation in which there has been some content creation and curation already, but with a disparate and disjointed approach to distribution.  Different parts of the business may have been developing their activities in isolation, but don’t assume that this has been wasted effort.  Seek first to understand and so you are going to need to investigate and audit what has been happening up until now.

One section of the business may be running a successful blog, while yet another has been gaining considerable traction from their Facebook feed.  You probably won’t need to wipe the slate clean, but you do need to be fully appraised as to what is happening now, and, from a governance perspective, who is doing what.  People are wary of change, however, and you may need to convince them of the benefits of consistency and the greater support and resources that you are going to able to provide, which will also help in gaining their buy-in to your strategy.

STEP #6 – What Does Success Look Like? Metrics and KPIs

As we already noted, in addition to knowing your customer you also need to work with the stakeholders and internal customers who have an interest in the success or otherwise of the content marketing activities you are undertaking.  You need to be able to articulate the feedback in a way that is both meaningful and actionable for those stakeholders. However you choose to collect the data, whether through Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics, transparency and consultation should aim towards the development of a suite of metrics that are user friendly and give a significant degree of visibility.

Whether you are looking at reach in terms of unique visitors (UV), geography gleaned from Google Analytics, or even identifying which devices customers are using to access your content. Maybe you are looking at engagement in terms of bounce rates, heat maps, or just page views; or Sentiment that can be gauged by an analysis of comments and the level of social sharing.  Whatever metrics and KPIs you use, a focus upon the requirements of the stakeholders and data users is paramount (see STEP #4), so that content isn’t being developed that is divorced from the customer or the corporate mission.

STEP #7 – Commit to Paper and Document it!

The barons made King John commit the Magna Carta to parchment, the Founding Fathers similarly wrote out and signed the Declaration of Independence, and Karl Marx scribbled down the Communist Manifesto, and, while your strategy is not going to be quite such a monumental piece of literature, you still need to write it down. In a smaller venture, you may be able to get away with not developing a fully written document, but where you have multiple stakeholders and you are working across a number of functional areas, you will need to produce a coherent document that is made readily available and accessible for both scrutiny and regular revision.  A key finding from the 2016 B2C Content Marketing Report, was that, as we have already noted, while only 37% claimed to have a fully documented content marketing strategy, where one existed, 58% of respondents indicated that they felt it to be effective.

STEP #8 – How Do We Build the Content Ecosystem?

It is often the case that the technical marketing knowledge may reside with the marketing team, whereas the content knowledge and expertise may lay elsewhere within the organization: engineering, operations, or other subject-matter experts.  Here ‘ecosystem’ is just a fancy name for the internal organization needed to achieve the goals of the content marketing strategy: both technical, personnel, and organizational.  If various aspects of this process are outsourced, then the process is somewhat more complicated and effective coordination is vital.

A clear and documented content marketing strategy, accompanied by agreed and achievable KPIs, together with an editorial mission statement, are vital when holding regular content marketing meetings.  How often those meetings are held will depend upon the size, mission, and resources of the organization: these could be daily, weekly, monthly or bi-monthly. An awareness of the priorities of your other stakeholders will also govern what you select as the optimum schedule to hold such meetings.  Of vital importance will be the reporting mechanisms, but also the content creation, curation,  and distribution infrastructure, whether you are using professional applications, such as Curata, PublishThis, or TrapIt, or your processes are less automated.

STEP #9 – Identify and Provide for Training Needs

An effective content marketing strategy is going to include a lot of people from a variety of functions and they are going to need to be clear about the role that they will be called upon to play and what they need to do.  Remember that the people beyond the marketing team may need to know what some of the basic terminology is and how the strategy and the execution all fits together.  Identifying those training needs and then delivering training to meet them is going to be both good PR with your internal stakeholders and it is also more likely to ensure both the buy-in and success of the overall strategy.

STEP #10 – Test and Optimize for Continuous Improvement

Unlike Moses’ tablets, your content marketing strategy should not be set in stone!  General Eisenhower famously declared, “plans are nothing; planning is everything.” And so you will need to keep the process continually in review: is the strategy still aligned with the corporate mission? Are we meeting our goals and our KPIs? Do we still have stakeholder buy-in to the process? An evolving cycle of planning, checking, doing, and changing will require an ongoing and iterative process that will ensure the effectiveness and longevity of your strategy and a range of satisfied customers, both outside and in.

But when it comes to creating a content marketing strategy that leads to enlightenment and the creation of content nirvana, I am going to leave the last word to Buddha:

There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.

Picture Credits:

Title Image: The Art of Social Media by mkhmarketing: https://flic.kr/p/dUmKE4 (Creative Commons); (Pic 1) Buddha by John Choe: https://flic.kr/p/9zM1P (Creative Commons); (Pic 2) Buddhist Temple detail Singapore by Les Haines: https://flic.kr/p/gELBoL (Creative Commons); (Pic 3) Nirvana by Steve Prakope: https://flic.kr/p/h5Yvy (Creative Commons); (Pic 4) Buddhist Scripture by Mark DeMaio: https://flic.kr/p/26D9q (Creative Commons); (Pic 5) Tibetan Buddhist nuns listening, vow takers in maroon, red, and orange, Sakya Lamdre, Tharlam Monastery porch, Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal by Wonderlane: https://flic.kr/p/bmnFTo (Creative Commons)

William Trevor
About William Trevor 18 Articles
Will Trevor is the Faculty Program Director for Marketing in the School of Business and Technology, in which role he is responsible for overseeing and developing the college’s marketing programs. He has a background in sales and marketing, where he filled a range of positions encompassing both consumer-to-consumer and business-to-business markets and across a range of industries. His experience spans both agency-side and marketing management roles, which have helped to inform his perspective on marketing from both a practitioner and an academic angle. And as a longtime member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, he was recently honored to attain the designation of Chartered Marketer. Will has taught in higher education for a number of years and on both sides of the Atlantic: in the UK as a faculty member with the University of Essex Online, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds City College, and Askham Bryan College; and in the USA he has taught for both Excelsior College and the University of the People. In 2013 Will was recognized for his qualifications and experience in the field of higher education and he became a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. From his practical experience in consultancy and market research, Will developed an academic interest in fields of marketing that relate to market research and the role of big data. He also explores issues of consumer behavior and the impact of the evolving field of behavioral economics on the marketing discipline. And his previous experience in sales also fuels an ongoing interest in sales and sales management and the role of sales professionals in a global context and in terms of cross-cultural issues.

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