A recent discussion with a client of mine has prompted me to write a brief(ish) overview about what content marketing is, what it means, how it should be approached – and why you should consider it.
Whilst working for an adventure tour operator and later a retail travel company, I recall many discussions about how to make ourselves stand out from the crowd. In both organisations, we knew we had something special: expertise and knowledge in one case and buying power and great service in the other. But these messages always got lost in the rush to get product in front of customers – and seemed somehow less important, as senior management required a measurable result from marketing activity. I know there are many companies out there with similar issues – but the lack of effective communication around a company’s true USP’s will hinder success and make many organisations look very similar to most of their competitors.
Content marketing (content strategy) is the way to address this: it will allow you to become the acknowledged expert in your sphere and as a result, to attract and build an audience to whom you can then market your products based on trust, understanding and an existing, non-commercial relationship.
There is a misconception that content marketing starts and ends with writing articles for your website, maybe popping some video clips on YouTube and keeping your blog up to date. Well, these things are all a part of it, certainly, but content creation is only one in a series of steps that will deliver a strategic approach to this form of marketing. Indeed, the word ‘strategy’ should really be appended to make it ‘strategic-content marketing’ to give a truer picture – so that’s what I’ll call it now, just to ensure that message drives home.
The difference between strategic-content marketing and other marketing disciplines is that most activities generally focus on delivering product – or product-related messages – to your customer, and then converting that customer to a sale. Strategic-content marketing can broaden your message, however. It tells a much bigger story about your organisation, what it stands for, what its expertise is and, even further out, the story of your world. This is where you will discover areas in which it will overlap with the wide and varied worlds (and interests) of your potential customers. Content marketing can and should overlap with traditional channels as well – depending on where in the marketing funnel your customers are – or where they are on their personal journeys if you like.
However, strategic-content marketing, done well, can also deliver other tangible benefits: increased site traffic, better quality (or more qualified) traffic, improved SEO, direct customer conversions, a consistent customer experience and an audience loyal to your brand over a long period: brand equity.
The steps for a strategic approach can be broken down as follows:
Deciding upon a content strategy
Firstly, you need to understand why you should embark on a strategic-content marketing route, how it might fit into your wider marketing activities and goals and how it will affect your overall business aims. Most of all, consider how strategic-content might appeal to your intended audience.
Consider what the ultimate aim is for a content strategy. Make the aim relevant – don’t try and link content directly to sales, but make it about a higher vision, such as being the leading expert in your field for example. For a travel company, perhaps you want to be seen as the foremost expert on African safaris and wildlife parks or the go-to resource for West Country cottages. Within those broad goals (which may have a timeframe measured in years), you can then create shorter-term goals such as creation of specific resources, such as the most comprehensive guide to ‘The Big Five Safari’ or ‘Fishermen’s Cottages in Cornwall’.
Once you understand the ‘why’, you will need to communicate this internally – and sell-in the idea of a shift in the way your company markets itself in the future.
Considering your strategic-content marketing funnel
Strategic-content marketing can address all stages of the customer journey, so define your audience and ensure you understand where they might be on their journeys or, in more traditional parlance, where in the marketing funnel they might be.
Consider what form of content will suit each stage of your customers’ journeys through the funnel.
- Attract and build your new audience with blogs, guides, videos, etc, about broader topics likely to appeal to a wide audience. These topics will be more in line with your overall vision to be the expert in your field. At this stage, your products, brands, service and even broad product segment should be invisible. You’re not selling anything – simply providing great, expert and free information.
- Next, start to acquire potential customers from that audience with content designed to solve their problems, such as how-to videos, and broad product descriptions maybe. In the case of the cottage company, this could be a guide on a specific style and location of cottage suitable for a family holiday – things to consider when choosing your cottage, the best way to travel and what to do while you’re there. Again, don’t try to sell anything yet. You can include references to your brand here, but only in context – and it may be better to simply talk about ‘holiday companies’ in general terms, to keep it as neutral as possible.
- To convert your potential customers, you will now need to bring in sales messages such as reviews, testimonials and product comparisons – as well as detailed product or service descriptions. This is where you need to be in more of a sales mode, as you would be with traditional marketing activity.
These three parts of the funnel/customer journey can be broken down into many more sub-sections – each requiring a very specific style of content. But I’d advise to keep it simple to start with and then experiment as you become more experienced in this new approach.
Creating a team
This is the point at which some smaller company bosses may be wondering how they are expected to resource yet another form of marketing, when their staff are already busy and when bringing in new people is just not an option. The truth is that strategic-content marketing is not a bolt-on option, but must become an integral part of what you do as an organisation. You need to create a content culture right across the organisation, so that it becomes second-nature in everything you and your team do.
Look at your existing staff and work out where the expertise that you wish to communicate really lies. Is it with the marketing guys or actually with the product team? Is there expertise and knowledge right across your business that could be leveraged to create an expert positioning in the market?
Then consider which people are best placed to manage the process and create content. This may well be the marketing team, (and I’d certainly encourage you to keep content creation in-house where you can) but it may be that you’ll need external resource to assist with the finer points of promoting your content.
Whichever approach you take, ensure that the team covers the following functions:
- Strategy and planning
- Writers and creators
- Co-ordinators and administration
- Promotion and amplification
Remember, these are functions, not roles. A recommended approach to the above is not to assume you need an individual for each skill. Certainly, while you’re finding your feet it may be that one person can handle several areas or that an external agency might pick up some of the workload too.
Internal strategic-content structure
Now you have your team, you will need to ensure there is a planned approach in place.
- Create a content calendar containing broad topics to build your content around, events, milestones, celebrations…anything in fact that could seed content ideas as the months roll by. This should be a living plan too. Add notes, comments and workflows to it as you go. Jot down ideas around the broader topics as they arise and even use it to track results to feed back into planning for the next cycle – whether that be next month, next quarter or next year. Also note which channels you think would be ideal for each topic – hone down your audience segmentation so you understand who will be where, when and interested in what.
- Consider your content management system (CMS) and work out if it will need any development in order to present and index your content.
- Think about how you plan to measure and analyse your work. If you don’t have Google Analytics (GA) set up, then do it. Identify what success looks like: is it web traffic, time on site, pages browsed – or can you track online conversions to action, either an enquiry, a download of additional information, a social-media share or a comment.
Come up with ideas (ideation)
This is where the fun starts. First-up, create a depository of ideas: this can be paper based, electronic, a whacking great whiteboard…whatever works for your team and is accessible by everyone.
Run brainstorming (or, more politically correctly these days – ideation) sessions. Remember to run these using the “brainstorm space is sacred” adage – ie all ideas are good ones, no questioning of anyone (until later) and record everything.
Write down every single possible customer question that has ever been asked or that you think might ever be asked – no matter how daft, obvious or out-there it was or is, and then write answers to every single one. It’s a great job for your customer service or sales teams.
Do competitor research – both with direct competitors and with a wider selection of organisations competing for your customers’ time, wallets or attention. Run this research in both the real and the virtual world – eg. Google, keywords and web trends.
See what else is out there that seems to work and gets shared, commented on or simply interests you. If you like it, chances are others will too.
Lastly, just keep an eye out. Ideas can drop out of the blue from all kinds of sources: perhaps from an overheard conversation in the supermarket, from the TV news, a social-media string or even a dream (keep a notepad by the bed).
Now you have a plethora of ideas, notes and inspiration you will need to start whittling. This can be done from both ends: whittle off anything that on second thoughts just isn’t right, whilst at the other, more positive end, look again at your goals and your customers and highlight the ideas that seem to meet their needs.
And so the fun part continues – but this is also an equally serious step and needs just as much focus, strategic approach and planning as the whole process. You would be best served to create your content in-house but, if using an external resource, find someone who knows you well, understands your product/service and most of all your customers. Then you’ll need to consider the following:
Audience – and goals
Who is this content for and what is the goal for this specific piece? How do you want your reader/viewer to feel and react once they’ve consumed your content? How does this goal feed into your overall strategic-content marketing and business goals?
Format – copy, graphics, video, illustrations, charts, images – or a combination.
Which format will best communicate your message and which will resonate with your audience?
Channel(s) – Where is your audience for this particular topic? Which channels will suit the format for this piece of content?
Creation – research, create, edit. If possible, the editor should be a different person from the creator
SEO – The overuse of keywords is so ‘last-decade’ – so just write for your reader and use synonyms for your keyword (Google’s algorithms can spot these, which is useful). Make sure your keyword is in the title, use a long-tail phrase in your H2 (secondary heading), pop the keyword into the body copy at least once, but probably not more than two or three times, and use alt text on images (including your keyword).
The key to great content is for it to be something slightly – or greatly – different to that offered by anyone else. Once you have your ideas and topics, look at them again and see where you can take a slightly different slant on things. There are probably safari camp reviews all over the internet, focusing on the luxury, the service, the hospitality and the tents – but has anyone done a roundup review based on the birdlife that can be spotted within various camps or even the toilet and shower facilities for example?
Larger travel companies are already doing well with their strategic-content marketing. West Jet Magazine has an article on the best places to get a milkshake, and a guide to Canadian patios for example. Marriott has a whole site dedicated to travel which includes articles about travel technology, staying fit, ideas from customers as well as stuff about its hotels. Airbnb’s location guides include snippets about what the locals love and hate about their towns as well as guides to neighbourhoods well off any tourist trail.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your content. Once in a while, do something totally off-the-wall, unexpected and perhaps even off-topic. It will make you human and might even surprise your audience enough to be a success you couldn’t have planned for.
Content promotion (amplification)
There are many ways of promoting your content, some more time consuming than others. This may be the area where external assistance is needed. In the same way you’d use a PR agency to disseminate stories in the form of press releases, so you may decide the leg-work can be handled externally too – by your PR agency, if they are digitally aware – as they are likely to understand content and the stories you want to promote. Here is a range of options to push your content out into the world.
Find, connect and use influencers.
This is the digital-era version of PR really – establishing relationships with key bloggers, social-media commentators, e-celebs even – and getting them to mention your content in their channels.
Comment marketing. Read and then comment on blogs, news articles, LinkedIn posts and trade channels.
Ensure you relate these back to your content – not your product or brand.
Guest Posting – Find relevant sites – pitch to the editor then, if successful, promote your post everywhere.
PR – promote your content to journalists.
Social Media – Well created content and social channels are just made for each other. Forget trying to sell products through your Facebook page – it’s your ‘top-of-the-funnel’ channel, so engage, engage, engage!
- Promotion/content distribution networks – eg Outbrain or Taboola
- Paid Social Media
- Paid search (PPC)
- Display ads
Syndication – Consider the Press Association and national publications – for example The Telegraph has a syndication service – but also use services such as Outbrain, Taboola or SimpleReach.
Analysis and reporting
At this stage you should have your targets and goals well documented and understood. But it’s still easy to be blinded by the numbers so be sure to relate the stats back to those goals and be realistic about the success of each piece of content as well as the overall programme.
The most important part of analysis is to feed back into the planning loop, so lessons are learnt, for better or worse, about what works and what doesn’t. Keep a careful record of everything, learn from it and your content strategy will develop and grow stronger as a result.
Don’t stop there…
Once you’ve posted your piece of content, don’t just forget about it. Time moves on, things change and your once-pertinent, perfectly-crafted piece of copy may not make much sense to someone coming to it, for the first time, a year from now.
Make a note (in your content calendar) to review all of your content over time – and if it needs updating, then do it. Also, consider how you might repurpose what you’ve done. Perhaps make a talking-head video of some copy, take a particular sub-topic within a piece and expand upon it in a new full article. You could also create an infographic from something you did some time ago – especially worth doing if an article or blog you thought should be of particular interest to your audience, simply didn’t shine as you’d hoped.
If (when) your strategic-content marketing approach really starts to bear fruit, then consider how you might expand what you’ve been doing. Take on a full time content writer perhaps, invest in your own video and editing kit or simply increase the amount you’re producing on a weekly basis.
This strategy is not a quick-win approach. It will take time to succeed and build your library, expertise and audience. Plan on doing this over a number of years rather than months, stick with it and don’t give up easily.