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How to develop a content marketing strategy

Content marketing from a digital standpoint is no longer a new trend. What once was a practice of keyword dumping in blog articles meant to trick Google has now become a well-defined, tactical approach to properly educating audiences through professional-level content - and those changes have happened for good reason.

As Google becomes smarter and smarter when it comes to understanding search terms and intent, many of yesterday's content strategies are no longer effective, meaning that a consumer-focused approach to content marketing is needed.

This article is meant to not only tell you how to develop a content marketing strategy meant to drive success in today's digital environment, but it will also help you understand why it's so important to approach your campaigns in this way when looking back at previous content and SEO tactics.

Table of Contents

Digital Content Marketing & Strategies - Then vs. Now

Much like any other marketing trend, tactics for content marketing have evolved over time as various factors effecting its success changed. Before building your new content strategy, it's important for you to understand a few very important things about previous strategies built and implemented before today, how they worked, and what factors shifted to ultimately make them less effective.

Then - A Brief History of Previous Digital Content Marketing Strategies, Their Successes, & Their Downfalls

  • 1991 - The Internet Is Recognized By the World.
  • 1993-1997 - Search Engines Like Altavista, Ask Jeeves, and Yahoo Search Are Created.
  • 1993 -1997 - SEO V1 Involves "Keyword Stuffing", Excessive Backlinking, and Bolded Keywords Within Web Copy. Blackhat SEO Is Born.
  • 1997-1999 - "Weblog" is Coined & Shortened to "Blog" 2 Years Later. The First Known Instance Of A Blog On A Traditional News Site Occurs. 1999 Ends With 23 Known Blogs.
  • 1998 - Google Is Founded Based Off The Idea That Search Results Should Be Based Off Quality of Content, Not Just Search Terms Alone.
  • 2000 - Seth Godin Creates the First (or at least most prominently known) Ebook, Driving Dramatic Increases in Traffic & Lead Generation.
  • 2003 - Google Releases Its Florida Update That Penalizes Websites For Keyword Stuffing, Signaling Its Intent To Solve For The User & Thwart Black Hat SEO Tactics.
  • 2005 - Major Search Engines Unite For The Nofollow Attribute, Created To Decrease Spammy Backlinks.
  • 2006 - Video Content Showcases Its Growing Popularity Through YouTube Sensations Like "Will It Blend?"
  • 2006 - The Number of Blogs On The Internet Grows to 50 Million.
  • 2009 - Inbound Marketing Is Published By Brian Halligan & Dharmesh Shah, Introducing The Concept of Blogging, Social Media, Email Marketing, And Automation For Lead Generation & Nurturing To The Masses.
  • 2011-2014 - Panda, Penguin, & Pidgeon Updates Are Introduced By Google Aimed At Penalizing Poor Content, Rewarding High-Quality Content & Providing Results With More Context.
  • 2016-2017 - Google's RankBrain Updates Make Search Engine Results More Accurate

Now - Where Consumer Trends, Technology, & Marketing Tactics Are Headed

Consumer content consumption is changing. While Google's continuous changes have forced blogging to be more educational and overall helpful, it has also made it easier for readers to find what they're looking for without ever going to a website. 

As email inboxes get more cluttered with marketing messages from brands, consumers are becoming less inclined to give up their information on web forms for ebooks and whitepapers, and instead, are searching for more "un-gated" content that will answer their questions for free. Alongside these download trends, consumers are also looking for easy to consume content in the form of video and other visually-heavy and pleasing mediums.

As listed above, Google is an ever-changing internet titan, continuously looking for better ways to provide its users with anything and everything they're looking for.

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What is a Pillar Strategy? An Overview

As noted above, consumer search behaviors along with search engine algorithms have changed, forcing SEO strategy to change with it. Unlike many other changes in the past that have required only slight tweaks to SEO, these recent shifts have brought forth an entirely new way of optimizing content strategies for both readers and search engines; pillar strategy.

Pillar strategy & topic clusters

In a nutshell, pillar strategy is the approach of creating content in the form "topic clusters" instead of single keyword-focused articles. The idea is that because search engines are utilizing greater amounts of context and customization to bring searchers results, it's more important to create higher level content on topics based on long tail keywords than article after article targeting keyword variations.

 

Within a topic cluster are two main pieces to consider: 

1) a piece of "pillar content" 

2) multiple "cluster articles" relating to that pillar content that link back to it

 

That pillar page is essentially a piece of long-form, ungated content that is written at a high enough level to act as the all-encompassing piece of content that will educate a reader on all necessary parts of that topic. The cluster articles surrounding that pillar content act as shorter, more in-depth articles on the different elements of that pillar page that can help a reader learn much more about a very specific aspect of that cluster's overall topic. By linking between the pillar page and the cluster article, you're showing readers and search engines that the two pieces of content are related, relevant, and helpful.

Need more help understanding pillar strategy and how to fully execute it? Let our in-depth article on this new SEO strategy take you deeper.

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How to Develop a Content Marketing Strategy

So, now that you understand what content marketing strategies and tactics looked like in the past and how its future is greatly tied to new SEO strategies in the present, it's time for you to take that information and begin building out your own content marketing strategy. 

Use the steps listed out below to help you gather and decipher information, form strategy, and map out its execution.

Step 1 - Research Your Target Audience

Just like anything else in marketing strategy, understanding your target audience is the first step in understanding how your content campaign can be successful in attracting the eyes of your prospective buyers online. Consider the following when researching your target audience:

  • Interview internal organizational resources including executives, sales representatives, customer service representations, and others to understand who is a part of the research and purchasing phases of the buying cycle of your product/service. Look for information that helps you better understand what existing marketing content, resources, or sales collateral seems to resonate with this audience currently.
  • Compare your notes from your internal research against your marketing and sales database to see if you can confirm segmentation information like job title and company size. Look for other trends such as average time to close, consistent themes in closed won or lost reasoning, and communication preferences.
  • Interview existing customers, past customers, and sales prospects to gather more in-depth information about their day to day activities, pain points, goals, and content consumption habits.

Once you feel like you've built out a solid understanding of your audience through multiple interviews of different people, you're ready to move forward into goal setting for your content endeavors.

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Step 2 - Establish Goals For Your Campaign

A campaign without goals is like leaving the parking lot without knowing your destination. You can drive around all you want and think you've made progress, but you'll never know if you actually made it where you needed to go.

For many of your campaigns, lead or customer generation will be your ultimate target for your digital marketing. You'll first want to focus on building out those goals before then considering how your content strategy can help you reach those goals. Consider the below items as you're building your main and content-specific goals:

  • Establish baseline metrics for your overall digital marketing KPI's (website traffic, lead generation, qualified leads, customers) as well as your content-specific KPI's (blog traffic/views, leads attributed to blogs, etc.) so that you can understand what your previous efforts (if any) were able to drive.
  • Build your overall digital marketing goals. If you're unsure how to go about doing that, use this template.
  • Look at the opportunities for your content and SEO campaigns to drive traffic growth that your new goals have laid out. Consider that you want at least 50% of your traffic growth to come from organic search which will be led partially by your content campaign. Compare that proposed growth against your existing content baselines and this will help you build out things like blog traffic goals.

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Step 3 - Research Your Competitors & Industry Thought Leaders

With an understanding of who your target audience and campaign goals, you should now take that knowledge and use it to judge what the rest of the industry is doing from a content marketing standpoint. Consider the following when researching your competitors', industry publications', and thought leaders' content:

  • Look for high-level topics that are being covered with recently published content.
  • Look at how the content is being organized. Consider the mediums being used, the formatting of the content, and the steps being taken within that content to convert readers into subscribers or other.
  • Look for indications of popularity or disinterest on specific content or topics. Look at social share counters in blog articles. Look at what content is being promoted the most by the creator. Look at "most popular" lists on blog sidebars. Look at comment sections to understand the level of engagement of readers.

By considering the above items during your industry research and then comparing them against what you know about your target audience, you'll be able to better understand what content marketing ideas being executed by your peers are sound and which ones should be avoided. Aside from getting ideas for execution, you should also be able to gauge where your brand and campaign stands against your competition, helping you build ideas on how you can differentiate or how you will need to elevate to match what others are doing.

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Step 4 - Audit Your Existing Content By Mapping It Against the Buyer's Journey

Now that you have an idea of what kind of content is out there in your industry, it's time to take a look at what you already have published or just created. While many believe that this step can come before competitive and industry research, I find that viewing content outside of your own first helps you look at yours in a more critical light, which is ultimately what we want.

The key to a strong content audit is to not only understand what content you have already created (whether it be a blog, offer, or sales content) but to also consider where or even if that content best fits along the buyer's journey. While many consider the buyer's journey to cover Awareness, Consideration, and Decision, I like to think of it in a more all-encompassing manner:

Buyer's journey descriptions

As you can see, there are quite a few stages within a normal buyer's journey. While your industries may be slightly different, I would wager that it's still more complex than the ACD model. As you can also see by now, the greater amount of stages and their specificity allows you as a digital marketer more opportunities to create content that will better connect with your audience as they move through the research, purchasing, and usage phases. 

So, with your journey mapped out, you should consider the following items when auditing your existing content against it:

  • What website content (think specific site pages and content on them) do you have that might match up with a specific journey stage? Are visitors on those pages currently finding what they're looking for? Are there opportunities to create more targeted content or overall new pages/content?
  • What blog content do you have that matches up with any one specific journey stage? Are they being read often? Can they be better optimized for search? Do they have enough quality content and conversion points to help move the person from that stage to the next? Are there opportunities for more or better content in any one stage?
  • What premium content (think pillar content, case studies, video, calculators, etc.) do you have that match up with specific journey stages? Are they being promoted in the right places (with other content that matches up with its buyer's journey stage) and getting conversions? Are there opportunities to improve the content or better connect it to other offers further down the journey?

The idea behind this audit is that it will ultimately help you understand the amount of content you have, its overall quality and focus, and the opportunities you have for new content based off gaps in your buyer's journey. Armed with this knowledge, you're now ready to consider what you should focus your creative energy on moving forward.

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Step 5 - Establish Your Content Concepts & Offer Ideas

Knowledge is power and up until now, you've been building up your knowledge on everything from your audience to your industry to your goals and even your own content. Now, it's time to start putting some of that knowledge to work by establishing key content opportunities in the form of concepts and offers.

Content concepts are considered the most important driving factors within a content campaign here at Revenue River. We like to think of them as the buckets that all content created within a campaign fit within. The idea behind creating these concepts is that it makes it much easier for you to establish very clear expectations for what you will focus on within your overall content strategy while also providing direction for your blogging/SEO strategies in relation to pillar topics (coming in the next section). When creating concepts, consider the following:

  • You should only have 3-5 concepts.
  • These concepts should naturally revolve around the buyer's journey stages between "Unaware" and "Purchase Decision".
  • The concepts should look to connect with your target audience's actions and needs during those stages and your organization's main value-add for them. As you may expect, your organization can provide a much different value to someone who is unaware of their problems versus someone who has recognized, researched, and found you as a solution to their problems.
  • Once you've established the titles of your concepts (ex: Traveling to New Zealand, Adventure Activities in Queenstown, Booking Milford Sound Tours), you'll want to create a 2-3 sentence description for each one so that you clearly define what it is about this topic that is most important for your content to focus on in order to connect your brand to your audience.

Once you have your concepts established, you can then begin your research (laid out in the next step) but before then you should begin considering what type of premium content offers you should be creating within your content campaign moving forward. When brainstorming these offer ideas, consider:

  • What offers do we already have that need to be updated or expanded? What exactly needs to be done? Document those required changes.
  • What content do we already have created but not published? These could be reviews collected, half-finished ebooks (consider NOT turning it into an ebook), or sales assets that marketing could use. Repurposing any of these items should be a relatively high priority because it takes less effort than creating brand new pieces.
  • What gaps are there in your buyer's journey content audit that should be filled? Looking at a specific journey stage, take what you know about your audience and their actions within that stage and ask yourself what you could do or create that would provide them what they need in a way that would connect and move them further down the buyer's journey.
  • Understand that the medium in which you create these offers is extremely important. Consider the fact that ebooks and whitepapers are not as appealing to readers as they once were and more interactive pieces like video and calculators are easier to consume and provide value to the viewer/user much faster.

You're almost there! With content concepts established and a list of offer ideas in hand, you're ready to head to your SEO research to help direct you where to go with your blogging while taking you one step closer to establishing a content editorial calendar and plan of attack!

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Step 6 - Perform SEO Research & Establish Your Pillar Strategy

While we've used some forms of research plenty up until now, this step is where the data truly dictates our direction. With an understanding of who we're targeting, what we're trying to achieve, what our industry and competitors are doing, what we've been doing up until now, and what we want to focus on, we now have everything needed to direct our SEO research in a way that will help us find the necessary pillar topics and long-tail keywords that will help us create content that will drive organic growth.

Again, an explanation of pillar strategy can be found here. For notes more related to connecting that pillar strategy to your overall content strategy, look no further:

  • Utilize a toolset meant to help you find the necessary topics and long-tail keywords for your pillar strategy. We've used both Google Keyword Planner and SEM Rush successfully.
  • Don't just accept whatever your tool says as the answer right away. Utilize what you know about your audience, the buyer's journey, and your content concept definitions to help you qualify or disqualify topics and long-tail keywords. Context is key at this point, so don't let a tool tell you what to do every time.
  • Not all content concepts and pillar topics are created equally. As you start to build up a list from your research, prioritize which ones are most important based on your buyer's journey needs and the search traffic that could be driven by each term.

You now have everything you need to do in order to drive campaign success through content creation. Now it's time to map out what you'll be doing, when, and how.

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Step 7 - Build An Editorial Calendar

Often times, marketers will move too quickly into building an editorial calendar which leads to a host of problems from too much/too little mapped out, to improperly prioritized activity, and an overall disjointed strategy. Only after you've gone through all of the above 6 steps will you truly be ready to build an editorial calendar that will help drive success through targeted activity.

When establishing an editorial calendar for your content, consider the following for each piece you would like to update, repurpose or create:

  • What is the project's title?
  • What is the project's type and where will it live on your site? Examples include premium content/offer, website page/copy, pillar page, and blog articles.
  • What stage of the buyer's journey does this fit within?
  • What content concept does this fit within?
  • What product or service are you ultimately promoting?
  • What is the project's ultimate goal?
  • What segments of your audience are you targeting with this project?
  • What SEO keyword information do you need for this? Examples include pillar page title and/or long-tail keywords.
  • What is a good description of what this project should cover or comprise of?
  • What call to actions should be used or what next steps should be established within the project?
  • When will you create a draft of this project? When should it be reviewed and finalized? When should it be published?

Remember, this editorial calendar should be driven by your campaign's overall goals and the resources that you have available to you. If you're looking to drive a large amount of new website traffic then you should most certainly be more focused on your blogging/SEO implementation but if you're looking for a greater lead generation then you should consider what new offer content can be created and promoted to help do so. If you find that your goals require more content than you're capable of creating within your role or budget, you'll need to consider what needs to change to either help you hit more reasonable and attainable goals or bring in the right help to drive the activity needed to hit the more aggressive ones already set.

Once you've built an editorial calendar that you believe properly maps out the necessary activity to help drive results through content marketing, you're ready to move into the fun stuff - execution!

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Step 8 - Create, Promote, & Analyze

Ah finally, the moment has come where you can finally start doing shit! You've spent so much time in research mode looking at all the various elements that ultimately helped you establish a sound content strategy and editorial calendar and now you're working off a project plan to drive the results you're going for. 

While I could spend just as much time as I have on this article telling you how to properly create, promote, and analyze your content, I'll spare you and just share a few key bullet items for each.

For content creation, consider:

  • What can you do before you create a piece of content to help you reconnect with your audience's needs and goals, their buyer's journey, your brand's positioning, and your overall content strategy? 
    • Having these elements fresh in your mind before and as you create content will ensure that you're focused on the right things with your writing and execution.

For content promotion, consider:

  • Who am I targeting and what mediums should I promote through to reach them?
  • When should this content be shared to maximize visibility and objective achievement (article reads, conversions, etc.)?
  • How can I create a "promotion campaign" that maps out the various places, times, and ways in which to share a single piece of content so that I can maximize its contributions to the campaign?

For content analysis, consider:

  • Are you tracking your main KPI's against goals on a regular basis? Weekly? Monthly?
  • Are you utilizing other tools to help you understand whether or not your content is successful? Can video analysis tools like Wistia or TwentyThree help you understand if your videos are being watched all the way through? Can Atomic Reach tell you whether or not your content is being read all the way through and written at the right level for your readers? Can HubSpot tell you whether or not your blog articles are contributing to offer submissions and overall business generation?
  • Are you making tweaks to your strategy and editorial calendar based on your analysis of the above reporting and metrics?

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Wrap it up, wrap it up

Holy shit this was a long article! Hopefully, by reading through all of this you'll understand what I've come to see over the last few years within the digital marketing and content marketing space: if you want to do it right, this shit isn't easy.

The reality is that content marketing is no longer a new idea that only a few people were doing. There are more and more people out there creating content online with hopes of attracting and converting those readers into new business. Lucky for you, a large majority of those publishers haven't read this piece and most certainly didn't follow the steps that I've laid out and that's where your advantage now lies. There is plenty of creative energy needed to drive a successful content strategy, but don't discount the need for understanding everything about your industry before starting your own campaign and certainly don't publish a damn thing before first establishing KPI's and goals to track.

Have questions about this strategy? Need help building or implementing your own? Let us at Revenue River know through a comment, note, or simple chat and we would love to show you how a targeted content marketing strategy can work within an overall integrated digital marketing and sales campaign to drive real business growth.

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Marc Herschberger

Marc Herschberger

As one of the first hires at Revenue River, Marc has a passion for the company that rivals anyone. Marc takes strategy to a new level with anything and everything being planned out. That mentality has rubbed off on the rest of the company and took Revenue River to the next level. While Marc isn’t strategizing a social media campaign or the next integration, he’s on the soccer field strategizing his next play.

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