David Meerman Scott, bestselling author and marketing strategist, once said “you are what you publish online.” Never has this been more true than for brands. We aren’t just competing with rivals in our industry; we are competing for consumer attention, and consumers are sick and tired of being interrupted with content that is annoying and irrelevant. The only way to achieve that goal is with a truly remarkable inbound strategy focused on useful, helpful content. But what does it actually take to succeed with content? Below I’ve outlined the core elements of a successful content strategy to create an inbound experience for your customers, along with some tips, tricks, and insights we’ve learned along the way from building our own brand of HubSpot content.
When a marketer asks me where to begin their approach to content, I always default to the same question: Who is your audience? Inevitably, I get a broad answer, like “moms” or “C-level executives,” and the reality is there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of businesses targeting those exact audiences on a daily basis. Before you start crafting content of any kind, you need clear buying personas so you can build your publishing and promotion strategy around your potential buyers.
If you’re not familiar with buying personas, think about them as a pseudo-Facebook profile for your core audiences. In other words, it’s not good enough to target “moms”. Your persona strategy should include demographics, sample content consumption, ages, buying habits, and other relevant information that will guide your strategy. For example, replace “moms” with a named potential consumer, such as Meghan. What does Meghan do all day? Who does she interact with? What social networks does she use regularly? What blogs or magazines does she enjoy? What motivates her? If you’re not sure how to create personas for your business, start by interviewing 3-5 customers or potential customers of your business and ask them open-ended questions about their day. By asking a bit about the tenor of their daily life, how they found your company, and what websites they visit daily, you’ll start to recognize some trends in demographics, motivation, and habits of your audience. It’s tempting to create 10-12 buyer personas, but doing so is a mistake.
Great content strategies identify 2-3 core personas and create tailored plans to succeed in reaching each of them. Persona development may sound like an exercise in make-believe, but building personas forces your team to be honest about who you are marketing to and who you are not. The “who you are not” portion of personas is imperative. Once you start creating and promoting content, you will inevitably be asked (by your sales team, your executive team, or by potential customers) to create more content, and being able to chart a clear path to content success with 2-3 personas is far more efficient and effective than trying to be all things to all people in the world of content.
Do Your Homework
The single biggest mistake you can make in developing a content strategy is doing exactly what everyone else does. In other words, copying the playbook of other brands in your space may work in other realms of marketing, but it falls flat in the content world. Think of your company’s content as a television channel: You don’t want to be the fifteenth channel competing with ESPN for around the clock sports coverage, do you? No, you want to create your own approach and give people a reason to tune in to your brand content on a regular basis.
To do that, you not only need to be different, you need to be remarkable. Being remarkable requires some investigative work: In addition to knowing what and when your target audience is reading on a regular basis, you should also have a basic understanding of the content landscape in your industry. We recommend that people do a qualitative and quantitative analysis of what’s already being written in their space. Seeing what other companies are publishing can help you win either by volume (if they rarely publish new material) or by quality (if their content is mediocre).
The second part of your homework is recognizing that your competition in SERPs might not be the same (or event related) companies you compete with for a sale. Thus, do some keyword research to understand who you are truly competing with on a daily basis for attention share in the content space. If the folks you compete most often with for attention aren’t true industry competitors, you might consider joining forces with them as your content strategy matures to develop some joint content that’s of value to both of your audiences. At a minimum, do some basic keyword research to identify long-tail keywords your buyers will search for so you can create specific, value-added content tailored to those searches.
Identify best practices to test from other industries (highly visual content, snackable content in list form for mid-day viewership, wrap-up posts on Fridays to recap the week of content in your space) and identify how and where you can do it better. Instead of using what’s been done and copying it, identify ways in which you can harness the insight from that research to chart your own course: Take what works from others, but adapt it to your brand, voice, team, and channel. Oprah didn’t become a living legend by following the playbook of talk show hosts before her. Instead, she identified what wasn’t being talked about and created a show that fulfilled a gap in the market. Your company should do the same. Invest a week to understanding what your content competition looks like, and developing a plan for your channel that will allow you to stand out from the pack.
Launch and Learn
Don’t get so buried in research, benchmarks, and industry landscapes that you under-invest in creating the content. Generate a plan for the first eight weeks of your content (my company, HubSpot, created a template to make that easy here) and invest some time and energy into ensuring your content is relevant, shareable, and delivers value to your audience. If you’re dealing with company writers’ block, consider the following:
- Collecting the top five questions your sales reps get on the phone every day and turning that into a blog post
- Assembling an infographic with industry benchmark data that is relevant to your customers and influencers in your space
- Asking your CEO to write about the lessons he or she had learned along the way in building your company
- Identifying four customers to share their journeys with your product or service in an online interview
- A video of your product team talking about how they innovate on a daily basis
- An informal Google hangout chat with an industry leader in your space
Ideally, you have someone on your time who can brush off their writing skills to execute on the content above, but if not, there’s nothing wrong with using a freelancer or agency to help jumpstart your efforts. I’m all for outsourcing in the name of efficiency, just keep in mind that no one knows your business and your buyers like you do, so be diligent about providing feedback on the topics, ideas, and types of content they are generating if you do outsource your approach.
One thing you do NOT need (regardless of whether you craft the content in-house or get outside help from an awesome partner) is a team full of writers akin to the SNL writing staff. For years at HubSpot, our CEO and CTO crafted many of our blog posts, I hosted many of our webinars, and every single person in the office created content, be it interviews, eBooks, or videos. Launch with a plan for eight weeks of content, then use the data from that time interval to see what’s working and what isn’t and where you have the greatest staffing needs. You do not need twenty highly skilled writers on your team to make a content strategy work (though you will grow a new appreciation for exceptional writers and editors, I can promise you that).
Market Your Marketing
Now that you’ve exerted all this effort into building a compelling strategy and executing it, the last thing you want to do is playing in an empty room. You need to cultivate meaningful conversations around your content, and doing so requires a concerted effort to market your approach. There are a few primary channels I’d explore for this effort:
Every piece of content you create when you start should be optimized for social media sharing, meaning you should prepare images (where appropriate), draft tweets or Facebook posts, and suggested timing for every blog post, webinar, and interview. But your work is not done by just sharing your posts; you should identify hashtags relevant to the content you’ve created and engage with people talking about the topics your content addresses. Rather than trying to do every social channel well, invest time based on the personas you developed. If, for example, one of your personas is a busy executive with no Twitter presence whatsoever, double down on LinkedIn. If you’re an e-commerce company targeting females, Pinterest or Instagram could be your strongest candidate. Don’t try to do every social channel marginally well. Invest energy into making your presence on a few core networks truly exceptional instead.
I typically explain co-marketing with a peanut butter and jelly metaphor: What’s the jelly to your company’s peanut butter, the product or service that’s the perfect complement to what you market and sell? If you sell gym memberships, it might be a local nutritionist who can provide a free consultation for new members, driving success for both of your organizations. If you’re a software company, can you partner with a service company in your area to maximize your value proposition? Co-marketing can be an easy way to collaborate with other brands that share a similar mindset, approach, or customer persona with yours. Whether you choose to promote each other’s content, host a Q&A with their CEO on your blog, or host a joint event with a singular hashtag, co-marketing can be a great way to rapidly expand your audience and join forces to increase your reach.
Influencer and Media Relations
Influencers and media both have large bases of people who regularly read and share their content, and bring a form of third-party validation to your content and strategy that can be really helpful as you grow. Identify core social media influencers and bloggers in your industry and invest the time and effort to comment on their blog posts, share your content with them, and ask thoughtful questions of them online. If you have a truly remarkable piece of content (like an industry benchmark infographic), consider pitching it to media outlets as well. You can use a tool like Little Bird to identify influencers in the space, search on Twitter and the blogosphere yourself, or ask your colleagues and customers who they know and trust in the space. However, leveraging influencers and media to amplify your message to their audience is often the fastest (but one of the hardest) ways to grow your audience.
Send Signals with CTAs
Calls to Action are like street signs on your website, blog, and social channels telling your prospects and customers where to go next. CTAs are NOT the place to aggressively sell your wares to people; instead think of them as offering people the next level of engagement with your brand that’s appropriate based on their life cycle stage. For example, if someone sees an influencer tweet an article from your blog, finishes the article and really enjoys it, she should not be staring at a glaring button that says “BUY OUR SERVICE NOW.” Instead, she should get an offer appropriate for what she is actually is: a first-time visitor to your blog who may or may not have any intention whatsoever in buying your product. She may, however, want to subscribe to your blog via email or an RSS feed, so adding a clear call to action at the bottom of each of your blog posts is a great way to drive conversion rates. When done correctly, calls to action represent small steps prospects can take through your buying process, and help weave together each component of your marketing efforts. Each step should add value and relevance to their experience with your brand, so make sure your call to action strategy is focused on educating and inspiring them about your offering versus trying to make a hard sale.
Always Be Measuring
Your content strategy should not be measured in sheer quantity of content generated. In fact, I’d argue you should focus on quality over quantity (though both are important). At the end of the day though, marketers waste way too much time on metrics that don’t matter (like the number of blog posts published, the time it took to create them, and the number of views they received) and far too little on educating their internal teams on what metrics matter and why.
From my point of view, your content should drive results for your business, so you should set out with clear goals on what you are going to measure and with what frequency and set expectations with your team accordingly. At HubSpot, content is the gas that fuels a significant portion of our inbound marketing approach, so we track metrics for each stage of our marketing funnel. Top of the funnel awareness is measured in views, social shares, and blog subscribers. Middle of the funnel content (such as eBooks and offers included in our email sends) are measured by conversion rates and qualified lead generation, while bottom of the funnel content to help our sales reps close deals is measured by net new customers and segment every month.
We have a comprehensive framework for all of this (as part of a broader approach to measuring our customer acquisition costs and delivering upon our SLA with sales), but that’s another article unto itself. The most important takeaway is that you commit to metrics when you start, that you measure them at regular intervals, and that you leverage an agile approach to adjust your approach based on what is working and what isn’t. Our blog team, for example, has some cardinal, over-arching key learnings for content (based on SEO, past performance, and feedback from our readers) but they also adjust on the fly at regular intervals based on what readers are responding to.
Currently our VP of Content is experimenting with content volume, while past experiments have included testing our wrap-up posts, altering the format of our content (including a playlist of songs to market to), and aligning the type of content to the time of day for our core users. Regardless of what you’re measuring, content creation isn’t a “set it and forget it” element of your marketing. It should be an iterative process and one that you not only measure, but respond to and address proactively at regular intervals.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the prospect of creating and cultivating remarkable content on a regular basis, but having a clear content strategy and process is the best way for your brand to remain a signal within a tremendous amount of noise on the web. Inbound marketing centered upon remarkable content allows your business to compete based on share of mind instead of share of wallet, and that’s inspiring for any marketer. Focus on writing, designing, creating, curating, and sharing content your customers actually want which adds value to their buying experience by educating, inspiring, or entertaining them. In the overall anatomy of a great content strategy, only two things really matter: the brain power to identify a strategy that really works and the heart it takes to create content that truly matters to your audience. Renting attention with paid ads and interruption is really easy; earning attention from your customers is hard. But I promise you, it’s worth the time and effort.