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What is content strategy anyway?

What is content strategy anyway? Joe McCambley

Not long ago I had a discussion about the importance of content strategy with the lead strategist at a very well-known SaaS company. "We make sure that all of our clients understand the importance of content strategy," he told me, "and demand (for strategy) is off the charts. I have to do five this week."

"Do you have five strategies to approve this week," I asked, "Or do you have to start and finish five strategies?" He confirmed that he meant the latter, and that he planned to do all five strategies himself.

That blew me away. There's just no way to craft a comprehensive enterprise-wide content strategy for a major brand in a week, let alone five. And the process never stops, as we refine our thinking and planning and optimization constantly throughout the year.

We all define content strategy differently

I realized in that moment that all of us "experts" in content marketing define content strategy by what we sell. Remember the old adage, "To those who only have a hammer, every problem is a nail?"

If your goal is to sell software as a service, and your SaaS is geared toward helping connect clients with freelancers who can write an article (or 10), or helping clients find existing content they can license from a publisher, the strategy you craft may go just deep enough to sell your software. I'm not criticizing that model -- it makes no sense to sell an enterprise content strategy to a brand that doesn't need it or want it.

If you're a publisher hoping to replace declining print advertising revenue by crafting native ads for advertisers, you're probably giving your strategy away as part of a traditional media buy. In that case your strategy will cover the creation of an article plus some promotions via your publishing and social platforms. Again, that's not wrong. It fills an important market need.

Knowing that every industry provider defines strategy according to how it can help them, how do you go about "buying" a strategy that helps you?

Do you need a content strategy or a creative brief?

If your plan is to dip your toe in the water by creating an article or blog post and seeing how it performs, you are being inventive, but you are not being strategic. You need to articulate your audience and message and "reasons to believe" to your partner or internal team, and you need to provide them with some sense of the results you hope to achieve. Most of that can be covered by a creative brief. You may not be interested in strategy until you prove to yourself that content works.

But if you work in an enterprise that consists of an umbrella brand and multiple sub-brands and multiple product groups within each sub-brand, and you want to integrate your content marketing efforts, you need content strategy. Or if you're a product manager hoping to dive in and transform your marketing efforts using multiple forms of content across multiple media and multiple devices, you need content strategy.

The question is, what is the right strategy for you?

The 10 common denominators of successful content strategy

Content strategy is different for every brand and every product. But there is a core set of activities that can serve as the foundation to your success. If you are beyond the "dipping your toe in the water" stage, you should work with your partner do accomplish the following:

Articulate your brand voice
GE is the voice of innovation. Red Bull is the voice of extreme sports. There are others who claim to be innovative and extreme, but GE and Red Bull are all in, and it shows. The first step toward being "all in" is knowing what you are all about. What are you about? If you don't know your brand voice or can't articulate it, do not pass go. Stop here and get it done.

Map your customer journey
This is much more difficult than it sounds, and for some brands it's nearly impossible -- you could be almost anywhere when inspirational content from Nike might do you good. To the extent you can articulate the mindset of your audience at each stage of their journey as well as the device on which you are likely to encounter them, it's a good start.

Define the questions your customer is likely to ask at each stage in the journey
If your customers know nothing about the Tesla Model S but are curious about self-driving cars, they might search Google for "How do self-driving cars work?" If your customers know about your Model S and want to compare it to a Mercedes, they might search Google for "Which is safer, the Tesla Model S or Mercedes E Class?" You want to have content to answer those questions. If you're at a loss about what content to create, these sorts of customer questions are a treasure trove of ideas.

Connect the dots
While the sales process is not usually linear, there is often a progression of knowledge that a person must acquire in order to make an intelligent purchase decision. Make sure each piece of content connects to both the previous and next piece of content in the purchase journey. If there is no "previous" or "next," then make it easy for people to connect to other content that will be helpful and useful to them via inline hyperlinks to other content or "you might also like" links at the end of each piece of content created. 

Audit your existing content (including advertising) and match it to the customer journey
Paste your content up on a wall. Does it answer every question a customer might ask along their journey? 

Identify content gaps and plan to fill them
If your audience spends 50 percent of their time on mobile devices and you have no mobile content, it's a gap. If your customers need answers to certain questions before they'll be willing to buy from you and you have no content that answers those questions, it's a gap. If your customers speak French but all your content is in English, it's a gap. "Gaps" can mean content that should exist but doesn't, or content that does exist but not in the location or the format that will allow customers to benefit from it. Also, keep in mind that your goal should be to generate the greatest results possible using as little content as possible. This is about quality, not quantity. That being said, it will often take more than one piece of content to fill a gap, as different customers will encounter you in different places during their journeys, and different messages and formats will likely be appropriate.

Isolate content that is off brand
Being "all in" requires that all of your content deliver one powerful message in one powerful voice. If you've embraced content marketing, you (hopefully) believe that content that helps sells, and content that sells, probably doesn't. Don't be afraid to rewrite ad or article headlines and copy so that all of your content asks, "How can I help you?" rather than, "What can I sell you?"

Promote your content
Your content won't work if nobody sees it. As you build a critical mass of content, you'll find that it attracts ever greater percentages of organic searchers. Until then, you'll need to work with your social and media teams to make sure your content intersects with your audience at the most appropriate places in their journey.

Measure your results
At the end of the day, your ultimate goal will almost always be to sell more product. But content marketing is similar to all marketing in that some content is best for building awareness, some is best for consideration, some is best for conversion, and some is best for loyalty. Because different forms of content at differing points in the customer journey generate different results, you're going to want different metrics throughout the journey.

Optimize and kill
Usually at this point you'll find yourself tweaking headlines or first sentences or calls-to-action to see if you can generate better results. Optimization is always a good idea. But never be afraid to test a whole new piece of content to see if you can generate results that are orders of magnitude greater than what you're getting today. Always try to kill what you have in an effort to continuously improve. 

I'm sure this feels like a lot, but if you are committed to content marketing, the 10 steps outlined above are the minimum you'll need to approach things properly. Follow them and you'll find it much easier to react in real time to opportunities to improve whenever, wherever, and however they arise.

Joe McCambley is SVP, Content Marketing at POP, a Seattle-based digital agency that transforms ideas into experiences. Prior to joining POP, he co-founded The Wonderfactory, the agency that helped Coca-Cola become one of the world’s most...

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