10 Hard-Won Lessons I've Learned About Content Strategy

September 17, 2016

The guest post was contributed by Josh Ritchie, who is the CEO and Co-Founder of Column Five.

According to the Ascend2 2016 State of Content Marketing survey of both B2B and B2C marketers, lead generation, customer engagement, and brand awareness rank as the top three most frustrating problems for marketers. Content marketing is an effective way to tackle all three, but it requires a strategy that fits your business needs. And this is where too many of us fail.

Establishing a content strategy is tough work. Refining and constantly improving it is even harder. As the Co-Founder of Column Five, a content agency with about a decade in the game, I’ve lived and breathed this reality. I’ve and often struggled with it, too. In working through content strategy for both Fortune 100 brands and tiny startups, not to mention our agency’s efforts, I’ve found that we all face the same struggles—no matter how big our budget is.

We slave and sweat over content. We try to keep publishing pace, but sometimes the work you’re most optimistic about doesn’t pan out. This is often because one step of the execution was off base. Just because you have a strategy living in a Google doc somewhere doesn’t mean it’s effective. Over and over, the same easy-to-overlook issues have sabotaged seemingly “solid” content strategies (ours included).

The fix? Reassess your strategy through a fresh lens, on a constant basis. Here are 10 things that I believe will help you craft a successful content strategy for your business, all of which I’ve learned the hard way. I hope you won’t have to.

1) Put Your Audience First

The is the most crucial part of content strategy is somehow often overlooked from the get-go. You sit down to craft your strategy and the first question is, “So, what are we going to create?”

(We’ve been guilty of this too from time to time.) You’re so focused on creating, you forget who you’re creating for. The very first conversation—and the most constant conversation—should be focused on your audience.

Their wants, needs, and desires should guide everything you do. I realize sometimes this is murky. You have a general idea of who you want to talk to or who you think you’re talking to, but usually you haven’t done the legwork to figure it out. Or sometimes, it can be difficult to put the audience before your own marketing goals.

Tip: Carefully crafted marketing personas, which accurately describe the different customers you’re trying to target, are a good starting point. Good personas are highly detailed. They cover the obvious demographic elements, such as age, income,and job title, as well as the not-so-obvious things, such as career aspirations, personal fears, and regrets—the psychographic elements.

This helps you get a sense for who your target audience isconsists of, what problems they’re facing, and how you might provide the solution to those problems. (I’ve detailed how to craft these personas in under 60 minutes. You can even do it over lunch.) The goal in this effort is to put yourself in your audience members’ shoes, so that you can empathize with them, then ask, “What kind of content do they need/want to engage with?”

2) Talk to Your Clients

This one goes hand- in- hand with identifying your audience and developing personas. In fact, it should be treated as the second stage of persona mapping. You can’t create those marketing personas based on guesses. The only way to identify how to help your audience is to get to know them intimately.

It’s important to reach out both to clients and to those who interact with them (e.g., the sales team). That will enable you to gain much needed perspective and make sure your ideas match with your audience’s reality.

Tip: Identify opportunities to get regular customer interaction and feedback at every touchpoint. These can be both technical (e.g., surveys, project wrap-up reports) or personal. We sometimes have a catch-up lunch or shoot off a simple email to a prospect to get inside their mind. Some starting points:

  • What are your goals this quarter?
  • What do you wish you knew more about?
  • What are the biggest frustrations weighing you down?
  • What resources do you wish you had?

The answers here are a great way to guide content strategy and come up with specific ideas for articles that will resonate with your target audience.

3) Build Out Specific Content Themes

Building out a long-term strategy can seem overwhelming. But identifying content themes helps ensure everything you create aligns with both your short- and long-term content goals. If you’ve done your homework with your audience, this will be easy.

The more you talk with your customers, the more you’ll notice the same themes arise. You’ll be able to identify their pain points, problem areas, knowledge gaps, resource gaps, and more. Some themes will be more effective for you to cover than others (e.g., issues where you can position your product or service as the solution). Map content sprints focused on tackling these issues.

Tip: While you should always retain some degree of flexibility, identifying themes to tackle will help ensure that you: 1) are creating targeted content, and 2) have a healthy mix of different types of content. An easy way to do this is to choose both a quarterly goal or focus (e.g., lead gen), as well as three specific themes per quarter.

You don’t have to be super detailed here, nor do you need to publish on these themes sequentially. But it will help you make sure you’re covering all bases and angles in a strategic way.

4) Prioritize the Production Process

The key to a successful content operation is a solid infrastructure. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a great content operation isn’t either. But this is a common trap when it comes to implementing any good strategy. You may have a ton of brilliant ideas and grand plans, but they’re worthless if you can’t properly execute.

Be mindful of the volume of content you produce, as well as consistency. It’s tempting to hit the ground running, to want to do everything all at once, but it’s much easier to scale up gradually. In general, you’ll also get more value from a few stellar pieces than a ton of passable work. Before our team proceeds with an idea, we carefully examine whether we can execute a project that is:

  • High quality

  • Original

  • Useful to our audience

  • Something we can write authoritatively on

  • Produced in a reasonable amount of time

If we can’t say yes to all of these, we table it.

Tip: Start small, then scale from there (e.g., start with written articles, then build up to infographics). Above all, the best way to build your machine is to build the right team. Include the right stakeholders to make sure everything gets done efficiently, on time, and within budget. (Here are some tips on how to build a great content marketing team.) Remember: Content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. And, there’s no finish-line.

5) Create a Road Map for Every Piece

Quality content is the key to content success. Sometimes it’s easy to focus on larger strategy themes and forget that every single piece is meant to support that strategy. Certainly, you might strike gold with a random piece, but that’s not a reliable way to achieve long-term success.

You put so much work into your strategy; it’s a waste not to follow through. Each piece you create should be vetted through the same strategic thinking.  

Tip: When you have a great content idea, do as much as you can to ensure its success from the get-go.

  1. Measure your pieces accurately: Decide how you’re going to measure success ahead of time. If you’re creating brand awareness content, don’t judge the efficacy of your efforts based on a metric that you reserve for lead gen content and vice versa.

  2. Make the editorial calendar your friend: As you come up with your ideas, vet the hell out of them. For example, we identify the following for each piece of content:

  • Subject

  • Angle

  • Keyword

  • Target persona

  • Pain point

  • Solution

  • Headline

  • Subject line

6) Focus on Providing Value

Your audience will only connect to your content (and, as a result, your brand) if they believe it provides value. It can entertain, educate, or inspire them—but they have to benefit from it in some way. Talking to your audience and identifying those themes can help guide you here. Your job is not just to address a subject; it’s to provide some tip, insight, or new perspective.

You audience doesn’t want to be sold to or talked at. First, establish that you care about helping them—not helping yourself make money. When you approach content this way, they will be more eager to engage with you, and some of your audience will turn into customers over time.

Tip: Approach all content ideation from a value/benefit perspective first. What problems can you help solve? How can you help enhance their lives? These are the questions that put you on the right path.

7) Showcase Your Unique Expertise

I’m gonna take a wild guess and assume you’re not the only player in your space. There are plenty of competitors trying to reach your same audience through the same tactics. How do you differentiate? By upping the value through your expertise. Odds are you know everything about your industry, you are always looking for new solutions, and you have a ton of experience under your belt.

Demonstrating this in your content is the best way to serve both your customers and your goals.

Tip: Good content is about coupling the right angle, the right value, and the right expertise.  As you ideate for a particular subject, ask yourself:

  • What’s already been written? Look for ways to expand or homne in on a topic.

  • Have I failed in this area before? Share what you’ve learned. (See: This entire post.)

  • Did I have a breakthrough or succeed? Help others do the same.

Fun fact: After much reflection about that we’re doing and where we’re blowing it, we identified the very weak points of our content strategy I’m discussing here. After we revamped our strategy accordingly, we doubled our blog traffic in four months.

8) Showcase Your Culture Through Content

No one wants to talk to a brand. They want to talk to people. They want to know who you are, what you believe in, and then they’ll decide whether they want to buy in. Your company culture is an important part of your identity, and your content is a great conduit to express that.

For example, our agency specializes in data visualization. We also have a long-standing tradition of Beer Friday. We married the two to create this infographic:

This doesn’t mean you should blog a ton about your company BBQ, but you can think of clever ways to express yourselves.

Tip: From your newsletter popups to your articles, showcase your culture at every touchpoint.

For more, download our free e-book on how your company culture can help your content marketing.

9) Leave Sales to the Sales Team

Content marketing is not sales collateral. (Put this on your wall!) It’s about starting a conversation, providing value, and building a relationship. Content is the first step here—it also makes people more receptive to sales collateral. (A recent Nielsen study found that interacting with editorial content made consumers more willing to hear a brand’s hard-sell messages down the line.)

If you do your job well, people will want to work with you, and you don’t have to really sell anyone. You just have to facilitate a great buying experience. Your job as a marketer is to tee excited buyers up for the sales team, and let them handle the rest.

Tip: You are a storyteller, not a salesmen. Approach content as brand publishing and look for unique stories to tell (not sell)! Employ tactics like data-driven storytelling and visual storytelling to help you do that.

10) Experiment Often

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. True. But sometimes things may be broke and you don’t know it.

Like all things in life, you have to evolve if you want to stay competitive and differentiate yourself. This means always being willing to experiment, fail, tweak, iterate, and most importantly, never get complacent. Complacency is the devil.

Another way of putting this: A solid strategy is important, as is staying the course. But you also need built-in room to be responsive and flexible. Allow some room for failure. In my eyes, strategy must be iterative. As you learn, fail, and succeed, you refine and improve over time.

My absolute favorite quote right now is:

I never lose. I either win or I learn.— Nelson Mandela

Adopt that mantra in your content efforts. Hell, make it your life mantra. It’s liberating.

Tip: Look for opportunities to experiment with new mediums, new distribution platforms, and new editorial approaches. Schedule regular postmortem meetings to assess content performance, what did or didn’t work, where you might improve, and what new tactics you could test.

Doing content well is an ongoing struggle that takes patience and persistence, but you can succeed as long as you remain proactive and flexible.

Hungry for more insight into content marketing? Download The Sophisticated Marketer's Guide to Content Marketing today.