If you were paying any attention to the SEO-sphere on January 20th, you might have caught a post from Matt Cutts outlining the “Death of Guest Posting”. Similarly, the industry is abuzz with speculation after another post, “Content Shock: Why Content Marketing is Not a Sustainable Strategy” presented the idea that content marketing will eventually reach a point of ineffectiveness as more businesses vie for the same limited attention span of the market.
The industry’s frantic reaction to both of these pieces brings to light an important realization: Most people are doing content marketing all wrong.
Ask yourself if your content marketing process looks anything like this:
- Set a blog schedule
- Create a list of ideas off the top of your head;
- Publish posts; share them on your social accounts
- Tweet a few influencers who have never heard of you before, asking if they’ll share it, too
- Sit watching real-time analytics and pray that the piece takes off.
Or maybe it looks a little something like this:
- Come up with a clever idea for a content piece
- Dump a most of your limited budget into creating this one, really great resource
- Send a few outreach e-mails to prominent bloggers, tweet at influencers, etc.
- Become frustrated with lack of uptake, cursing the limited attention spans of your audience
No? Maybe this rings true:
- Hire bloggers or a cheap 3rd-party service to create content for you
- Assume the quality is good – who has time to review it?
- Have a 3rd-party place them as guest posts on blogs around the web, being careful to vary up the anchor text
- Wait for the links, traffic and cash to come rolling in
For those honest enough to admit it, these processes might seem painfully familiar. If they are, it’s time we changed that. This post is an overview of the process behind doing REAL content marketing the right way.
Step 1: Develop Personas
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times – “know your market”. But for content marketing to work, that knowledge has to be written down and applied. Paying lip service to being “Customer-first” doesn’t help you – it’s time to dig in to the data.
Don’t wing it – ad hoc personas are just wild guesses. Collect information:
- Basic demographics (Age, location, gender)
- Psychographics (What else are they interested in? What habits do they have? What do they value? How do they live?)
- Pain points (What problems are they trying to solve? What frustrates them?)
- Pressures (Who do they answer to? What risks do they face? Are they short on time?)
- Goals (What are they trying to accomplish? What is their ideal outcome?)
Even if you don’t have the resources to hire a research team, you can still start building personas from information you do have access to:
- Short interviews/surveys with existing customers
- Google analytics
- Google consumer surveys
- Your sales team (Who do they interact with? What are their needs?)
- Facebook Insights (Look at your fan metrics, if they exist)
- Quora (Pose questions to your target market to glean insights)
- Mosaic Interactive Guide
For the sake of this post, I’m going to assume you’ve already invested time in finding your brand’s voice and tone – but if not, ironing out your branding is an important step to make sure that everything that comes next will make sense to your market when consumed.
Document your personas; have a pull-sheet you can grab at a moment’s notice. You’ll need it.
Step 2: Chart out the Customer Journey
With your personas in hand, it’s time to map out the customer’s journey from awareness to purchase. There are four key stages:
- Awareness: The person becomes aware of their need by a “trigger event”; the introduction of a pain point that requires a solution or a question that needs answering. At this point, they’re more interested in learning about their problem and potential solutions than they are about your business.
- Consideration: The person is now actively considering and evaluating different solutions to their problem. In this stage, preferences are set, ideal solution criteria are laid out and the opportunity to educate the client about your value proposition is at its highest.
- Purchase: The lead is now warm and ready to make a purchase. In this stage, they’re looking to mitigate risks and alleviate any lingering fears, as well as have their purchase decision affirmed. At this point, they’re receptive to more aggressive calls-to-action and invitations to close the deal.
- Affirmation & Loyalty: With the purchase made, the customer can now be turned into an advocate. They are familiar with your brand and are evaluating the purchase they’ve just made. In this stage, the customer’s decision needs to be affirmed with great support and customer service; the product also needs to do what you promised.
The reason this customer journey is important to your content marketing is because the need-states at every stage are different. Those in the awareness stage will want content that is focused on educating them on their need, while content in the “consideration” stage can hone in on eliminating fears and demonstrating value propositions.
For each stage, map out every persona’s key questions, needs, pain-points and problems that you can address.
Step 3: Audit Your Existing Content & Map New Content to Stages
Now that you’ve mapped out the need-states at every stage of the buying cycle, it’s time to audit your content to see where there are gaps in information.
A few tips for making this go faster:
- Use a tool like Xenu Link Sleuth or ScreamingFrog to export all of your URLs to excel
- Tag and classify your content on each URL, identifying which stage of the cycle it caters to. You may choose to use a numbering system for the different stages for simplicity.
- Sort by stage and look for holes or opportunities to grow your offering.
- Determine what format would be best to communicate the message. Blogging is not content marketing; content can range from videos to eBooks to events and beyond.
When you’ve identified stages and need-states, you can also determine which content formats will be best suited to solving the customer’s problem in that state.
For example, eBooks can be a great means of educating a cold lead on their need during the consideration stage, while subtly introducing your business as a solution.
Blog posts, on the other hand, can serve multiple functions for multiple cycle stages – but often work great as a means of transparent introduction to your clients during the awareness stage.
Step 4: Use Need-States & Personas in Content Ideation
You’ve got a buying cycle with questions mapped to every stage, and personas fleshed out to help you understand the customer travelling through the journey to purchase.
Now it’s time to hunt down conversations so you can pull out questions, topics and themes to ascribe to the content used to meet needs at each different stage. Don’t rely on a “Blog topic generator” – involve your customers in the process. Visit places where open, transparent conversations happen:
You can also use tools like Topsy to filter through social media conversations and find what people are asking – and further, what influencers are sharing. As you go, jot down common questions and topics you see being discussed to serve as inspiration for content ideas.
Step 5: Schedule & Create the Content
Ah, the fun part. Take your content ideas and populate an editorial calendar that:
- Is prioritized to address the greatest areas of need
- Works on a manageable schedule for frequent publishing (if creating blogs)
- Assigns ownership of every content piece to someone who will take responsibility for overseeing creation
- Clearly lists the topic, publish date, intended persona, stage of buying cycle & key need-states to address
As for content creation – you get what you pay for. This is not the part to outsource to the lowest bidder or contract out to someone completely foreign to your strategy. Find a reliable creation partner and treat them as part of your internal team. Educate them on your goals, your brand, your customers and what you’re trying to accomplish.
Step 6: Promote, Promote, Promote
By now, you’ve put in a lot of work. Don’t do yourself the injustice of pushing “publish” and praying for uptake. Matt Gratt has a great resource on this – and I published a length look at content amplification over at iAcquire – but for now, here’s a quick summary.
Promote your content across three key channels:
- Owned media: The social accounts, websites and channels you are in complete control of. Often, reach here is limited to your immediate following and loyal customers – so don’t stop there.
- Paid media: B..b..but.. inbound marketing was supposed to get rid of paid advertising, right? WRONG. Until you have heavy readership, don’t rely on the kindness of others to share your content for you. Leverage things like sponsored posts, sponsored tweets, StumbleUpon, etc. to promote your content and expand your audience outside of your immediate circles.
- Earned media: It’s called “earned” for a reason – this is that spontaneous, “share-it-because-we-like-it” sharing you get from fans and followers of your business.
For businesses that don’t have much in the way of an audience, I break with conventional wisdom and recommend that you publish your best stuff somewhere other than your website – just for now.
Yes, one day you want to have your bright, shining resources live on your own site. But if you’re in audience-building mode, the best means of going about establishing yourself is to tap into an industry hub (SEO has Moz & SEJ, other industries have their own influential media) and give them something worth RAVING about.
Promotion revolves around community, community revolves around being a community member. Content marketing, then, is inescapably tied to how and where you choose to engage. If Twitter is your advertising megaphone and Google+ is a dumping ground for your content, don’t expect much uptake on the earned side of things.
YES, Every Stage is Essential
Oof, all of this sounds like a lot more work than just “blog a whole bunch”.
That’s because it’s a meticulous, data-driven, customer-focused process – not make-believe, amateur-hour content marketing like the kind so many businesses seem to be so fond of. A process like this will keep bad content from happening; it will prevent wasted money on worthless content and wasted time trying to reach an audience with “Me too” blog posts.
This is content marketing for grown-ups; for serious businesses who expect results and care about their branding. No shortcuts. No lip service. No link-first-focus.