January 15th, 2016
Content marketing refers to the various strategies for producing informational content designed to build up trust and authority amongst your target audience. It allows you to build meaningful relationships with your readers as well as establish yourself as a thought leader. Unlike other forms of marketing, content marketing is not meant to be directly promotional in nature, but rather to drive sales indirectly by raising brand recognition.
Contrary to popular belief, content marketing has a long history dating back to the dawn of modern advertising in the late nineteenth century. However, with the ubiquity of the Internet, content marketing has become far more prevalent, and the vast majority of both B2C and B2B companies already have a content strategy in place.
This guide takes an in-depth look into the planning process required to create a sustainable, long-term content strategy that will increase conversions and keep your readers engaged.
Defining Your Objectives
The first step to planning for any digital marketing strategy is to define your objectives, and doing so will enable you to choose the best options for accomplishing these goals. While the ultimate goal of content marketing is to increase sales, just like any other area of marketing, you'll need to look at the ways in which you can use content to help your business to grow. Although the best answers will vary depending on the nature of your business and its targeted audience, the following should provide some ideas:
- Raise awareness of your brand, product or service.
- Nurture existing customers with targeted content.
- Develop a social community around your brand.
- Provide support and advice for your customers.
- Develop brand authority, recognition and trust through thought leadership.
When defining your goals, you'll need to be specific, and make sure they are not too lofty to such an extent you cannot reasonably expect to meet them within a given timespan. For optimal results, consider defining one primary business objective accompanied by a couple of lesser ones. At this stage, you'll also want to decide how you intend to measure your progress, so while formulating your content marketing strategy, consider creating a benchmark detailing important metrics to track, such as sales profits, click-through rates and social media shares.
Content marketing serves as just a part of the greater digital marketing strategy, and you will find that it becomes heavily integrated with email, social media and search engine optimization. You'll need to decide how your content strategy will work together with the greater online marketing plan. For example, you may want to focus on social media for driving traffic to a blog that in turn exists to drive traffic to specific landing pages. Other content might be tailored towards driving a specific action, such as signing up to a membership site.
Next, you'll want to define your key message, which basically sums up the voice of your content marketing strategy. Write down, in a sentence of two, a summary of your mission, the key message that you want to get across to your readers and a list of additional, related topics that your audience might also find interesting. Now is also a good time to conduct some competitive research to see how five or more of your biggest competitors are reaching out to their target audiences. Take note of their own message, the topics they cover, the content formats they use, the frequency of content publication and any calls to action that they use. You'll also want to determine what makes a particular competitor stand out but, in order for your business to compete, it will need to be able to offer a unique approach. Some factors that might set your business apart from the rest could include an unbeatable value proposition, the depth and quality of your content or a distinct brand voice and personality.
Finding Your Audience
Given the amount of time it takes for any content marketing strategy to come to fruition, you cannot afford to waste your efforts on content that doesn't have a focussed target audience. To create a saleable product or service in the first place, you'll also need to have a clearly defined audience in mind, and you'll need to publish content that this audience will find genuinely useful. However, content marketing is not meant to be about talking about your brand and your product. Instead, you need to be thinking about the things your audience care about. You need to know what makes them tick, and this involves extensive research into your audience's demographics, psychographics and habits.
Starting with what your business actually does, think about the related subject matter that concerns the core topic, and you'll be able to better define your target audience. In order to reach out to the right people through content and social media, you'll need to make use of the following methods to build up an engaged audience:
- Create profiles of your ideal customers and, by identifying their key traits, such as demographic and psychographic attributes, you'll be better prepared to find your target readership. Creating these hypothetical audience personas makes for a great team exercise, and although you might not get it precisely right the first time, there's nothing to stop you from refining and developing them later on as your perfect your content marketing strategy.
- If you already have a history of online marketing and sales, you'll already have a wealth of information upon which to base your future content marketing strategy. Thanks to the enormous amount of data generated with any form of online marketing, you can dig deep into important analytical platforms such as Google Analytics and Facebook Insights to learn more about what makes your audience tick.
- Content, being inexorably linked with social media, revolves around building an engaged audience and leading the conversation. Don't be afraid to actually ask your existing customers what they want, but make sure that you are not too pushy about it. Some techniques include conducting regular surveys, publishing on-site poles, asking for post-sale feedback, viewing blog comments and getting involved with your growing community on social media.
Although you will need to have a targeted audience from the very outset of your content marketing strategy, you also need to realise that this is an ongoing process, whereby you learn more about your audience through thorough testing and consistent engagement. You will need to leave some space for experimentation as well in order to refine your strategy later on.
Maximizing Your Content's Potential
It's been said time and again that content is king, but that's only half of the story. There's far more to content marketing than simply posting a couple of articles on a blog every week or sharing some snippets of information on the major social networks every so often. To truly maximize the potential of your content, you'll need to diversify your strategy and work hard to give your target audience what they want. The following tips will help to make sure your content not only reaches the right audience, but also nurtures it and keeps people coming back for more:
On-page Search Engine Optimization
Most website traffic originates from the search engine results pages (SERPs), and to maximize your content's visibility, you'll need to make every effort to ensure it appears in the first page of the results when someone enters a relevant query. Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to the various technical processes involved in improving your standing in the search results.
While manipulative tactics exist to artificially manipulate the search engines into prioritizing the content concerned continue to be widely used, they are not sustainable in the longer term. Approaching SEO in this manner will ultimately harm your brand's image and attract Google's ire to such an extent that you may even find your website being de-indexed entirely.
By contrast, a sustainable on-page SEO strategy involves improving your website's visibility in the search engines by targeting a clearly defined audience. The days of stuffing content full of keywords are long gone, and your number-one priority should be your human readers. By optimizing your content around a single topic, rather than specific keywords, you'll be better equipped to attract quality traffic.
Despite the controversy surrounding SEO, it is important to remember that the search engines are not quite as sophisticated as people when it comes to crawling your website and indexing its content. For example, Google's Web crawlers might have difficulty making sense of visual content without accompanying textual explanations such as image alt text, captions and filenames.
Keywords remain a central element of SEO, but you must avoid overusing them to such an extent that they detract from the reader's experience. While assigning a carefully chosen key phrase to each piece of written content can be useful, it's important not to use it more than a handful of times, preferably once in the title, once in the meta description and no more than a couple of times in the main text.
Off-page Search Engine Optimization
The search engine crawlers don't just determine your website's worth by its content alone. They also examine its link profile. A website's link profile refers to the links leading to it from elsewhere on the Web. A good backlink to your website effectively acts as an endorsement, while a bad backlink has quite the opposite effect. In other words, your link profile alone can make or break your website.
In the past, many digital marketers got away with using aggressive link-building schemes whereby the priority was to obtain as many backlinks as possible, regardless of where they were posted. Buying links was one such way to quickly build up a huge link profile, regardless of the fact that the links would end up on low-quality directories and websites containing completely irrelevant content.
Since a good link acts as an endorsement, you need to earn it rather than simply plant it on a website using spammy tactics such as link buying or link 'farming'. In other words, although link building is important, it can be potentially dangerous. Earning quality links is largely reliant on having excellent content that people actually want to share on their own websites and social media profiles.
There remain a number of safe and effective ways to get quality backlinks to your website, but you'll have to work hard to get them. For example, you might want to publish a guest post on someone else's blog, including a link to your own website in the process. However, you'll want to avoid the spammy guest-blogging networks of the type that Google have been penalizing in recent years.
Another way to safely get backlinks yourself is to be active on social media by sharing your own content on your social media profiles and on social bookmarking websites. While these links won't make much difference from an SEO perspective, they will help to increase your reach and encourage others to share your content. On a final note, you should also be sharing content belonging to others, since they'll often return the favour.
Mobile Browsing Optimization
Recent years have seen an unprecedented shift towards mobile browsing to such an extent that the desktop computer is no longer the primary tool for accessing the Web. However, browsing on the small screen of a smartphone or tablet computer is a very different experience, but one that you absolutely must accommodate if you want to maximize the reach of your website and its content.
In 2015, Google launched a mobile-friendly algorithm update that gives mobile-optimized websites greater visibility in search results delivered on the small screen. As such, having a mobile-friendly design has become a critical factor not only for enhancing user experience, but also for improving your website's SEO. You can learn more about your own website by using Google's mobile-friendly test.
Fortunately, optimizing your website for the small screen isn't usually very complicated due to the fact that many modern content management systems (CMSs) and the themes available for them are already mobile-optimized. However, relying a responsive design that allows your website to automatically scale down and rearrange on-page elements is no longer enough by itself.
While a responsive design might make your content easier to view on the small screen, it doesn't necessarily help a great deal with navigation. Since mobile devices are controlled by touch, you'll also want to make sure your navigational elements, such as links and buttons, are large enough for comfortable touch operation. Above all, there's no substitute for thoroughly testing your website on your own smartphone.
The modern Web is very much a social beast, and not being a part of the social media craze is bound to leave your content marketing strategy stagnant. Your content should be carefully crafted in such a way that it encourages conversation and sharing. On-site comments and social media chatter are among the most important elements of social media marketing.
One of the most important steps to take is to enable on-site comments, allowing your readers to leave feedback and promote debate and conversation. You'll also need to encourage sharing by integrating social media buttons for the most popular and relevant networks. These buttons will allow people to share your content quickly and easily, significantly increasing its reach in the process.
Being part of the conversation is not enough, however, and to truly maximize your content's potential, you're going to want to lead the conversation and work hard to inspire your target audience. With confident and carefully researched writing, as well as regular interaction with your target audience, you'll be better equipped to prove yourself as a thought leader in your industry.
It is important to remember that crafting content is only half of the battle. Once your content is available to the public, you'll want to promote it by leading the conversation around it. You'll need to be consistently present by answering people's questions, thanking them for their feedback and leading the conversation in such a way that you can humanize your brand and create meaningful relationships.
While the humble blog post might remain among the most common content marketing formats, there are many more options available to you. Since different audiences like to digest content in different ways, be it written or visual, you'll be best equipped to succeed by diversifying your content strategy. The optimal content formats in your case will depend largely on your industry and target audience.
Consistently published content typically comes in the form of blog posts, email newsletters, magazine publications and podcasts. These formats are likely what you'll spend most of your time working on, but you'll also need to think about publishing the occasional more in-depth piece, such as a white paper or case study, particularly in the case of business-to-business (B2B) industries.
Visual content is becoming increasingly important, particularly in the case of consumer markets. For example, infographics can provide engaging presentations of certain ideas, products, trends and much more. Other tried and tested visual formats include memes, videos, images and slideshows. Combining multiple formats can also be highly effective.
While visual content should be considered an essential element of any digital marketing strategy, most content will be of the written type. However, written content is in itself extremely diverse, and you may want to try a mix of list-type articles, opinion pieces, product reviews and how-to guides among other formats. To find out what works best for your brand, you'll have to carefully study your target audience.
In order to maximize your return on investment, you'll need to adopt the right technology, and this is where marketing automation tools can come in handy. Many brands are concerned about losing their voices to automation, although when approached in the right way, it can greatly increase the reach of your content as well as improve the user experience.
While content creation will take up the bulk of the time involved in any digital marketing strategy, there are tools that will allow you to better manage your contacts, meet content publication schedules, segment your audience, conduct A/B testing routines and score more leads. Marketing automation also allows you to gain useful insights into your target audience, helping you to improve your content itself.
Businesses can safely automate a significant amount of content promotion in particular. For example, you can promote new content in your email newsletters by using automation tools to make sure that the right content gets to the right mailing lists. Additionally, you can schedule social media sharing routines across all the networks you use to provide updates promoting newly published content.
Most important, marketing automation provides a wide range of tools for gaining industry intelligence and helping to drive actions among your target audience. You can use it for capturing contact information to build up your mailing list, specify triggers to monitor audience engagement levels and monitor the performance of every area of your marketing strategy.
Content marketing takes a lot of time, but the benefits make it very much worthwhile, particularly in the case of online business. Though results certainly won't happen overnight, great content will eventually come to represent your brand and encourage audience engagement to such an extent that both your potential and existing customers will become loyal ambassadors to your brand. You'll need to have a solid plan in place that gives your content strategy plenty of space to grow and evolve in the future. Most importantly, remember that content doesn't exist only to reach out to new customers, but also to nurture existing ones.