It's that time again. As the old year comes to a close, our minds turn to planning. Whether you plan with the calendar year or not, it's the perfect time to reflect, assess and get ambitious about the future.
In this post, I'll share my approach to planning. I've evolved the process and tools over time, based on my experience as a strategic planning and content marketing consultant.
This approach is designed specifically for small businesses. It’s scaled with that sector in mind, with neither too much nor too little ‘process’.
What's A Content Marketing Strategy, and Why Have One?
Content marketing, as defined by the Content Marketing Institute, "is the marketing and business process for creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action."
Content marketing includes blogging, vlogging, publishing on social media, podcasting, writing books that help sell products, services or ideas, and even creating courses. Most forms of content marketing are digital, but some aspects are distinctly offline: in-person seminars/workshops/training and print books come to mind.
Why have one? Content marketing is an investment. It takes time and significant expertise to create, but the world is now awash in content, so your content needs to be very smart and very targeted to win attention. Taking the time to plan your content helps immensely.
Plus, only around 37% of businesses say they have a content marketing strategy (according to HubSpot), so having one will win you an instant competitive advantage.
Groundwork to Content Marketing Strategy
Before you can plan in earnest, you'll need to fire up some analytical thinking. Getting clear on a number of strategic issues now will save you time and money in the long run. Failing to do the groundwork can result in content that misses the mark, and wastes your resources.
A competitor analysis and competitor content audit:
You should be monitoring your competitors at all times, but during planning, you must assess a) their content, b) their brand positioning.
The latter is really essential to your overall marketing strategy, but I mention it here because sometimes clients haven't done this analysis until we get down to writing content. It's part of my research process as a copywriter, but it should also be a part of your branding and marketing planning.
As you scan the competitive landscape, document what your competitors are publishing on various channels (their blog, social media and anywhere else they're active).
Thinking about your most valuable keywords, look for top-ranking content. If this content is by your competitors, you'll want to make a plan to develop even higher quality content on the same topic, to knock theirs out of top position.
During your review, you should also look for competitive statements they've made that you need to address through content. For example, if your competitors are making noise about the superiority of certain features they offer, you need to counter those claims in your content. Likewise, if there are several competitors vying for the same positioning (i.e. "the easy way to x,y or z"), you'll need to assess how you can break through the clutter.
A review of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats:
Yes, this is a SWOT analysis - it’s an oldie, but a goodie.
When you think about your successes, jot down what this says about your strengths. Maybe you have a strategic advantage in writing, in video production or graphic design.
When you think about what challenges you've encountered in content marketing, document what this means about your weaknesses. Maybe you have gaps in your team. Perhaps you don't have some of the in-house expertise you need to do content marketing well. Make note of it!
Opportunities are ideas, or projects in infancy. Perhaps you've noticed that very little quality content exists on a strategic topic. Or perhaps you're nurturing a possible partnership. Maybe you’ve discovered software solutions that make new ways of content marketing possible. These are all opportunities.
Threats are any likely developments that could undermine your content marketing. Are you at risk of losing a resource that you rely on for content? Are you over-invested in a platform that may not be viable in the future? Is one of your competitors going all-out on content? Document these threats.
Revisit or define your brand positioning:
You may already have ‘laminated’ or ‘locked down’ positioning, which is great. If not, there's no better time than the present to do so. Your positioning will inform each piece of content.
A positioning document should include most or all of the following:
- Target customer
- The problem you solve, uniquely, for this specific target
- Emotional and functional benefits of your solution
- Proofs of your benefits
- The tagline that sums up the benefits you provide to your target
- Your brand character
- Your pricing strategy
Positioning is a topic in itself, and one that I'll address in a subsequent post. If you need help with your positioning, drop me a line and I'll share my best advice.
Define your brand's visual identity:
So many aspects of content marketing are visual. If you start publishing without a defined style, you can end up with a very eclectic look that does little to cement your brand in your audience's mind.
A brand style guide is helpful. It should set out how your logo is used, in what context; your palette; your core fonts; how you use iconography and your guide to photography use.
I have a few tips on developing and using style guides. Again, if you have questions, don't hesitate to contact me.
Create your audience avatar and mine customer data:
Creating a customer avatar can go quite deep, but I think at a minimum it’s important to collect some ‘voice of the customer’ data to inform your content plan.
For example, review comments your customers have made on their needs, their frustrations, and things they really appreciate related to your product or service. If you don't yet have customers, you can mine comments from forums, from social media and even from Amazon reviews. I can help you learn how.
During this exercise, write down the questions you discover customers are asking. These can inspire your content.
The Content Marketing Strategic Plan
Once you've done the groundwork, you're well-equipped to define goals, strategies, tactics and KPIs for your content marketing. This is an extremely useful exercise. You can only succeed in content marketing if you define where you’re going, how you’ll get there, and what success looks like.
I have a handy content marketing strategy template, available on request. I also help brands develop their strategy as one of my services.
The Content Calendar
As an appendix to the Content Marketing Plan, you will need to create a Content Schedule or Content Calendar. Here’s a screenshot of the main elements.
Your content calendar sets out what you’ll publish, when. It also documents responsibilities, some of the SEO considerations, and results.
At the top of the spreadsheet, you’ll see I’ve included reminders of important considerations (like audience and tone). You want to keep these in view as you produce content throughout the year. This is particularly important if you're outsourcing to an agency, or someone who doesn't live and breathe your content strategy.
In short, using a content calendar lends discipline to your content marketing. It helps you to plan in advance, so you always have content lined up for the appropriate times. And it allows you to properly resource your content marketing, by taking a more granular look at what you’ll produce.
You may be wondering, what’s the balance between planned and spontaneous content?
I recommend leaving room for adaptive content - that is, for content that responds to topical issues. For example:
- There may be new developments in your field that you can’t anticipate;
- You may wish to publish case studies or customer success stories;
- And you may discover customer questions throughout the year that suggest great content topics.
The balance is a business-specific decision. Think about:
- How much flexibility you have to produce ad hoc content;
- Whether you’ll have time to initiate unplanned content projects throughout the year;
- How often valuable content opportunities arise. Is your best content based on customer stories? Then leave plenty of room in the calendar to develop these as they become available.
How Much Work is Involved in Content Marketing Planning
If you've never thought through the above questions, the process may take you several weeks, and you may need help.
If on the other hand, all of this has been brewing in the back of your mind - or if you have pieces of the planning already done - it can be a quick piece of work.
Recently I sent the advice I've included here to a new client. I assumed the company would need hands-on support and that we'd probably spend December and part of January getting it done. Instead, the client took my templates and single-handedly completed all of it, in the matter of about a day. Now, we're already executing.
If you need help with content marketing strategy, please feel free to get in touch. It's never too early or too late to put a solid plan in place.