Ask the Experts: Starting a Content Marketing Program from Scratch

June 6, 2016

I will be the first to admit—I'm a horrible baker. Which is unfortunate because I think baking is one of the cooler tricks humanity has developed over the centuries. You take raw ingredients no one would want to eat separately (flour, eggs, salt), combine them in precise proportions, then apply heat until you create something delicious. Perhaps its the lack of patience or the exactness required that makes me a horrible baker.

Regardless, baking really boils down to a little bit science and a little bit art. And the best bakers I know have refined their craft through years of experimentation.

Science, art, experimentation…when you think about it, baking sounds a lot like marketing. But the comparisons don’t stop there. In marketing, as in baking, you can get decent results with pre-mixed product. The memorable stuff, though, almost always originates from scratch, with help from lessons learned along the way.

As we were putting together our Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to Content Marketing, we had the privilege of interviewing a group of blue-ribbon content bakers. We knew each of them built their business on a series of experiments and failures—that each collapsed soufflé of a campaign helped them reach their current level of success and awesomeness. 

So we asked each our experts to ponder what it would be like to start from scratch again. What would they make with the same raw materials they started out with, but with the benefit of years of practice?

Read on for insights you can use for your own content marketing kitchen experiments.

If you were starting a content marketing program from scratch, where would you begin?

Ardath Albee, CEO & B2B Marketing Strategist, Marketing Interactions

I’d begin with understanding my audience. My vehicle for doing this is personas – whether buyer, customer, end user, advocate, etc. Doing the work to interview, learn from, and research your audience is the primary factor that should drive a content marketing program. Without this knowledge, the relevance needed to drive engagement and intent based on matching context at every stage will be elusive.

Michael Brenner, CEO, Marketing Insider Group

I've started a few content marketing programs from scratch. And started at the same place every time: keyword research. Start by thinking like the target audience, quantifying the questions they ask Google, checking out the sources that show up in the top position in Google, understanding the categories and structure of the content that gets ranked and shared. Anyone can do this research. Then you have to build a content marketing destination that is best structured to answer those questions.

Andy Crestodina, Co-Founder & Strategic Director, Orbit Media Studios

Before we get started, it really helps if you've done some sales work for a while. This puts you in touch with your prospects’ hopes, fears, pain points and questions they need to have answered. As always, empathy is required!

Our first step is to create the content marketing mission statement. This is focused on the same people, but with broader topics. This will sharpen our focus and set the direction for everything that follows. Just fill in these blanks:

Our website, email and social media accounts are where...

AUDIENCE X finds...



Once we have that documented, we can start listing out our main topics. This is one of many lists we're going to create. Here's a list of lists that we'll be working from:

  • Topics we plan to publish (including the key phrases we plan to target)
  • Influencers we plan to collaborate with (they are experts in our topics and they have serious followings)
  • Networks we plan to be active within (this likely includes a few LinkedIn groups)
  • Publications we'd like to write for (they have the attention of our audience already)
  • Formats we plan to use (blogs, video, infographics, podcasts, etc.)

Soon we'll have places to capture and collect the ideas and structure for all of our future efforts. Wrap it all up in a publishing calendar and turn up the activity levels to the highest sustainable level.

Finally, we need a good mousetrap for our cheese. The website has to do a lot of important things...

  1. Support all kinds of future publishing initiatives
  2. Must be search optimized with no technical SEO issues
  3. Must be setup to make analysis easy
  4. Guide visitors toward the desired actions, including newsletter sign up. Our long term plans involve an ever-growing email list.

Once this is all in place, we're ready to start publishing and promoting content!

Pawan Deshpande, CEO, Curata

There are two situations:

First is where you truly are starting from scratch. In that case, I would identify a specific topic that I can “own” in the market that meets the following criteria:

  1. A topic that my audience is interested in.
  2. A topic that no other competitor “owns” yet (by marketplace competitors, or publishers covering this topic).
  3. A topic that relates to my brand and the value proposition of our product or service.
  4. And if I plan to curate content as well, a topic where other people are publishing content.

These days most companies are already doing content marketing, so I don’t think they are starting from scratch. In those cases, I would start with data by measuring what has worked, and what hasn’t across all stages of the funnel – from sharing, to consumption, to marketing pipeline impact, to sales pipeline, and ultimately revenue. And then figure out what worked well, and see how I can do more of it.

Rand Fishkin, Wizard of Moz, Moz

I'd work hard on getting to know my audience, studying my competition, and formulating a strategy around what would resonate before I ever took to the content creation itself. But, from that point, everything would be experimentation and evolution based on what I learn. Every audience and every platform are different. I suspect that, depending on how unique the new audience I was going after was from my current audience (of mostly marketers & tech folks), it might take me some serious time to get good at finding a sweet spot.

Ann Handley, CCO, MarketingProfs

The first thing I would do is hire a strategist, someone who can set the course for the content marketing program. Five years ago I would have said start with a writer, start with someone who can jump in and start creating content, but I don’t think we can do that anymore.

We need to think about why we’re creating what we’re creating. We need to think about how we’re going to connect with customers, and where we’re going to connect with them. All these questions need to be answered before we can put pencil to paper, pixel to screen.

Doug Kessler, Creative Director & Co-Founder, Velocity Partners Ltd

I’d always start with a blog. It's easy, low-cost and a great way to start getting your content chops working. Try for a weekly cadence if you can. Figure out your content sweet spot – where your audience's information needs and your own authority and expertise overlap – and stay within it.

Then aim for one, big, chunky, high-value piece – maybe an eBook, SlideShare or video. Make it really, really good: It will be the bedrock of your content brand. Then pimp the living daylights out of it.

And commit to getting better and better and better.”

Lee Odden, CEO, TopRank Marketing

All marketing starts with the customer. Understanding what buyers need is essential for architecting a content marketing program that is relevant, meaningful, and effective at driving new business.

The most successful content marketing is a cycle of content informed by customer insight that when implemented provides even more data for insight for content marketing performance optimization.

Joe Pulizzi, Founder, Content Marketing Institute

I would focus on one key content type (audio, textual, visual), one key platform (blog/website, iTunes, Twitter) and consistently deliver content over time. Focus on a defined niche and a well-defined audience where you can present yourself as the leading expert in that niche.

Craig Rosenberg, Co-Founder & Chief Analyst, TOPO Inc.

Content is one of the first things you do when you start a company  My favorite quote on content marketing of all time is from Jon Miller: “We wrote our first blog post before we wrote our first line of code.” But even before that, if you are starting a company from scratch, I think we can all agree that knowing your audience comes first. Knowing who they are, what they care about, and why they buy is step one of any marketing program.

If you’re in the B2B space, rather than starting with buyer personas, I recommend starting at the company level to build your ideal customer profile (ICP) – who is the ideal company THEN who is the ideal buyer. This allows you to get hyper-specific to make sure your message resonates with the right customers. Otherwise you’re trying to sell to everyone. After you’ve created your ideal customer profile, drill down into the types of people within those companies you need to talk to.

For more can’t-miss content marketing recipes, download The Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to Content Marketing.