In the post Panda and Penguin update world of Google, our content strategies are more important than ever. Shady links, automated content scrapers, and other issues have been highlighted by Google as iffy practices that are likely to land you in the sandbox. “In the sandbox” is an apt analogy for receiving a penalty that pushes you far, far down the Google ranks, or gets you de-indexed altogether. This means, essentially, that no one will ever find you.
Whether you rely on your site to make money or to spread the message on something you care about, your content is the medium through which you make that happen. Here are some core questions to ask when evaluating the effectiveness of your current strategy (or outlining a new one to try). Good content not only helps you effectively serve your readers, it also ensures that search engines value your site and rank it accordingly.
What is a content strategy?
Starting with the more basic assumption, first let’s explore “What is content?”
At its heart, content is information produced, published, and consumed about a particular topic. Content can be in the written form of blog posts, web copy, or sales letters. It can be a video, such as a video sales letter or a product information video. It could be audio, such as a podcast or an interview.
Every successful online endeavor is driven in large part by significant quantities of high quality content. The challenge is simple: are you producing the right content, in the right medium, for your audience. We’ll come back to how to develop a content strategy in just a bit. But first, let’s take stock of how effective your existing content has been. Take a few pieces you’ve produced recently and run them through the following evaluation. Here are the core questions to ask:
1. Is your content geared toward your customers….or toward your peers?
One of the most common mistakes we make with our content is writing it for the wrong audience. Consider: the content that you are developing is for your website and social media channels. These properties are used to advertise your web design business, and your goal is to reach new clients.
In this instance, articles such as “the latest in vector options” or “how this new plugin makes it easier to design flash pages” might be fascinating for you to research and write, and directly relevant to the work that you do. But these are going to appeal to your peers, not to your clients. They are going to be looking for things like “how to choose a great web designer,” “what budget is reasonable for building a new website,” and “what new design trends will help you look cutting edge in a crowded landscape.”
Often, we read publications in our space – magazines, blogs, and follow the social media of our peers. This information leaks into our thought process and inspires the content that we write. Make sure, though, that every piece of content you publish is advancing your goal and is targeted to the right audience. Save those other articles mentioned above for industry publications, trade journals, or conferences.
2. Who are your customers – really?
Once you’ve committed to writing for a specific audience – let’s assume your customers – this leads us to the next question. Who are your customers, really? To carry forward the web design analogy, you might say “people who are looking to have a website designed.”
Yet, very few businesses actually serve such a broad niche and those that do often fail. Most businesses today are much more specialized. So as you probe further, you realize that you design web sites exclusively for entrepreneurs. In fact, you tend to specialize in brick and mortar businesses and in helping them establish an online presence.
So, the avatar you’re writing to has become an entrepreneur with a brick and mortar business that’s considering building a website to go online for the first time. The types of questions and concerns that they need to address – and the resultant content you can create – are suddenly much clearer. Use this information as the basis for both the type of content that you produce, as well as how you serve it up.
3. What problem in their life are you able to solve (and how can you advance that mission through your content)?
We often think in terms of our businesses as the products and services we sell – the features. For example in our web designer analogy, you’re thinking about the design consultation, the branding report, four iterations, unlimited stock imagery, and however many inputs. As the client, we’re looking for the outcome: a finished website that beautifully represents our brand and communicates our offerings expertly to our market.
So if you’re producing content for a set of clients looking to have a website designed, try to interpret their questions. One of the core insights for a content strategy is that a mainstream audience often has much more basic questions than you’d anticipate. Specific questions about website design might be:
- How much will this cost?
- How long does it take?
- What will the process look like?
- Who writes the copy?
- Do I have to supply images?
- How do I deal with hosting?
- Can I update the site myself or do I have to pay you to do it?
- How can I connect the site to my social media profiles?
As the concerns become clear, these questions provide specific topics around which to craft your content and take you that much further toward the goal of solving the customer’s problems.
4. Are you harnessing the power of story and the hook?
Once you’ve established what you’re writing and to whom, there’s a question of how you craft that content. We live in an age of top 10 lists, 5 apps to help you achieve X, and even this article on 5 questions to ask about a given content strategy. But the real magic in content, as in copywriting, happens when you capture your reader’s attention. What’s your hook? How can you convey the same information using the power of story?
Consider these two introductions: “I first met Bert P. on a rainy afternoon in my Bay Area office. He looked exhausted, his shoulders slumped, dark circles under his eyes, flexing his fingers as though he was tense. Before I could even offer him a coffee he burst out with “Annie, if I don’t figure out a way to take my business online and start selling the modern way, I’m going to be bankrupt in six months.”
Versus, “Industries are affected by technological evolutions. Some industries progress faster than others. Unfortunately, by the time you wake up and realize that you needed a website, it might be too late. Recently I had a customer who was within a few months of being bankrupt because all of his customers were moving to competitors with websites.”
Which of these two grabs your attention? How can you integrate a story, or at least an interesting hook, into the next piece of content you create?
5. Do you have a clear call to action, and/or are you creating a sense of urgency?
Finally, does each piece of content that you write have a clear call to action. For example, if you are describing a case study of a particular customer, do you close with something along the lines of “if you’re interested in learning more about these services, contact me here.” Make sure that each piece of content features a clear call to action, to maximize the conversions of your efforts.
So how did you do? Was your audience clear? Was the topic you chose targeted to their needs? Did the piece feature a clear call to action? Did it capture their attention? Did it solve a real problem and create value for them? It’s important that each and every piece of content that you produce achieves these things.
How to Build a Content Strategy
Now that you know where you stand with your previous content efforts and have a good sense of the core elements of an effective content strategy, you can move forward with the next step. In order to be a successful content marketer, you need to lay out a plan. It can become too easy to just produce content, to strive to “feed the beast” that requires ever increasing amounts of high quality content in order to meet SEO, sales, and traffic objectives.
Instead, I encourage you to take a step back. Planning out your content strategy will ultimately save you money, cut the time it takes you to achieve your goals, and perhaps yield results that go well beyond your expectations.
1. Be very clear on what you want to achieve
A content strategy is taking you toward a goal. Define that goal very clearly. Rather than craft an overarching strategy, decide a series of micro-goals and then determine what it will take to help you achieve those.
Let’s look at an example. A car dealership may want to increase visibility with overall customers for all of their lines. But the kind of customer that is looking for information about a pickup truck is unlikely to be interested in the basic information needed to evaluate a Mercedes or BMW. So the car dealership might set two goals: to raise awareness of their service department that specializes in pickup trucks, as well as raise awareness among area customers about their excellent selection of luxury cars. Each of these goals can be achieved using an appropriate strategy for each one.
2. Take the time to target content topics and form to the people consuming them
Look at the data you have available to you from existing campaigns to make decisions about your content format. Take stock of your Google Analytics or other website data; look at your email newsletter conversion information. The information you’re looking to uncover is what kind of content your customers, readers, or target audience like to consume. If you don’t have historical data, you could always consider evaluating things like general trends, keyword data, and the general queries that bring people to your website to provide insight into what information your clients value most.
3. Ask your customers what they need the most
Consider running a survey to ask your customers and readers what kind of information they need most. Do they have specific information they are looking for? Would they like a regular Q&A feature? Do they consume video more often or prefer reports they can download to Kindle on their phones? Another option to look at in terms of getting your customers to talk to you is setting up a simple follow up communication to newsletter opt-ins, purchases, and more. Simply ask what their biggest current concern is, or what kind of information they would like from you give the opportunity to ask for it.
4. Consider internal versus external opportunities
How much of your goal requires you meeting a need with your existing audience, versus how much requires that you expand your reach? If your goal is related to the first, then certain forms such as a members only area, email outreach campaigns, and a blog series make a lot of sense. Otherwise, looking for ways to share your content through guest posting, interviews, and freelance writing may be the way to go.
5. Develop a schedule
Once you’ve evaluated these specific components, we recommend choosing a period of time and developing a content schedule to go with it. 3, 6, or 12 months are all logical choices. Content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint as they say. You certainly may achieve outstanding success with a piece that goes viral or hits its mark, but you will be much more successful if you take the long view. Set weekly goals that specify who you’re hoping to reach, what you’ll talk about, the format it’ll take, and where you’ll distribute or publish it. Once you’ve put together the schedule, test it and make sure there are no holes such as missed opportunities or too much repetition.
If you’ve followed the recommendations in this article, you’ve established clear goals for your content marketing strategy. You’ve evaluated the success of previous campaigns. You’ve reviewed relevant data and gotten clear about opportunities, historical patterns, and customer needs that inform your efforts. And you’ve set out a schedule of how to fulfill the potential of that work over the next several months. The key factor now is to focus on executing well. And after you’ve executed, measure your success, update your plan, and execute again.
Happy content marketing!