Content Marketing - but as a Strategy

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

  • Editors

  • 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.

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