Crafting a Content Marketing Strategy for Startups: A Beginner's Guide
As an Inbound Writer for Lean Labs, Melissa writes about high-converting websites and customer-centric marketing. She's an avid traveler, with trips to Iceland, Ukraine, and Portugal under her belt. She currently resides in Wilmington, North Carolina with her dog, Morrie.
Influencers are always stressing the importance of making great content. But it's not as easy as it looks.
Entrepreneurs like Gary Vaynerchuk and Guy Kawasaki can publish a blog post, and have it go viral in seconds. Then, they explain how they did it, with suggestions such as “be authentic” and “determine your brand voice.”
While both of those things are true, actually creating dynamic content goes way beyond that.
Here's the truth: Creating exceptional content is hard work.
It takes time, budget, and patience. It goes beyond being transparent or posting a lot. There's so much more to it, and that's why brands need to start with a content marketing strategy to guide them through the process.
4 Steps to a Content Marketing Strategy
Content is crucial to building relationships with potential customers. From the very beginning of an engagement with potential customers, brands can attract or repel them with the quality of their content. You risk losing a customer just because your content isn't compelling enough. Even when a visitor keeps engaging with your brand, you risk losing them at any touchpoint if a majority of your content is poor.
Then, despite all of the time, resources, and budget you've invested in content, you've lost a lead.
That's why it's crucial to have a content marketing strategy.
This structure gives your team guidance on how to create and use the content that will actually engage, nurture, and educate leads. Taking time to lay a solid foundation makes all the difference in content creation.
It's already time-consuming enough to create content, so there's no benefit to cutting corners. When your team rushes through a strategy or select blog post topics or content offers on a whim, you're just spinning your wheels.
Step 1: Know The Customer
You probably already have a lot of ideas for content. But before you produce a blog post, you need to stop and consider your customer. The goal isn't just to create the content; it's to create content that's beneficial to your customer.
To do this, you can't just go off ideas. You need to start from the beginning of their buyer journey and see everything from their perspective. That's why the first tool we use to create a content strategy are buyer personas.
A buyer persona is one of the most important weapons in a marketing team's arsenal. Not only will your buyer personas be used to build your content, but they're also used to inform branding decisions, create ad strategies, segment contacts, and so much more.
For your content marketing strategy, the initial step is simple. Complete 3-4 buyer personas. If you've already done this, make sure they're updated with the most recent information about your customers. These 3-4 buyer personas need to be an accurate depiction of your ideal customers. Otherwise, they're not going to work as well.
Then, it's time to conduct an exercise we call customer journey mapping. Customer journey mapping is another crucial step to developing a content marketing strategy. Customer journey maps cover different paths a customer could take to find your brand, learn about your solution, and select your product. If you're honest, you can find opportunities to better engage potential customers at each touchpoint.
Once you have those customer journey maps done, it's time to map all of that into an action plan.
Step 2: Build The Plan
At this stage, things can easily fall apart. It can be tempting to take all of the information about your customer and run with it. But don't start creating content yet. In order to really have that solid foundation, you need to put together the right structure.
It's like building a house. You can select the neighborhood you want to live in, and the number of bedrooms and bathrooms you want - but you wouldn't start building it without a blueprint. This step of content marketing strategy development is that essential blueprint, which is a series of crucial strategy documents you'll house in one central repository, such as a secure folder within Google Drive.
This folder should already include buyer personas and customer journey maps. At this stage, you'll also outline and include your:
Content Objectives and Goals
The goals of your content marketing can't just be to produce content. There needs to be a clear way to demonstrate whether or not your content is performing in the way you need it to. Here are a few common goals that businesses use to measure the performance of their content:
- Build Awareness - Many businesses use exceptional content to make their brand more visible within their industry.
- Attract Followers - Accumulating followers is one of the first steps to becoming an authority in your industry.
- Increase Leads - This is an obvious one. You want your visitors to become leads.
- Converting Customers - Then, you want those leads to become paying customers.
Document these goals on one page, then add it to your strategy folder. For anyone working on your content, these goals will act as a compass.
Topics and Subjects to Cover
After determining the goals, it's time to identify topics to cover in your content. Using the research you've already generated about your customer, pick 3-4 general topics. For instance, HubSpot generally covers subjects such as Inbound Marketing, Sales, and Marketing Technology. While these topics relate to each other, each one can inspire a series of blog posts, offers, and more.
These topics will also inform pillar pages. Pillar pages are long-form, high-quality content that will act as central content hubs on your website. They're not blog posts, but crucial website pages that will help educate and engage potential customers. The pillar pages will fit into the architecture of your website, and linked somewhere on the home page, and/or in your navigation.
As a best practice, we recommend working on one pillar page at a time. They need to be much longer and more detailed than blog posts, at least 2,000 words. While working on a pillar page, you can also work on blog posts in tandem.
Blog Posts and Keywords
Now that you generally know which topics you'll cover, it's time to generate keywords. For each broad topic, use tools like Google Keyword Planner, SEMRush, and Moz to brainstorm keywords that have low to medium difficulty. When we brainstorm keywords, we score the strength of each one utilizing a unique combination insights from SEMRush and Moz. This helps predict whether or not that keyword has enough opportunity to write for.
We prevent writing a lot of ineffective content this way. Once we have some set keywords, about ten for each general topic, we brainstorm blog post titles using those keywords.
All of this information is housed in a Google Spreadsheet that includes:
- The topic, or pillar page it relates to
- The keyword it's targeting
- A link to the overview of that keyword in SEMRush and Moz
- Our generated score for that keyword
- The blog post title
- The most relevant stage of the buyer journey
This spreadsheet can also live within your strategy folder. Per quarter, we typically produce about 32 titles for varying parts of the buyer journey. The titles are all vetted through key stakeholders, so we can ensure they're the absolute best titles we can cover.
Once all of those strategy documents are put together, your team can piece together how that content can help nurture and move leads through the funnel. Depending on your goals, you can piece together the channels and mediums you'll use to distribute content, and how it will be used to attract customers.
By the end of this initial content strategy, you should know all of the content you want to create, the stage it will support, and where content will make the most impact.
Step 3: Executing Exceptional Content
On average, 60% of B2B content ends up in a 'content wasteland.' Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons that content can fail, ranging from the quality of the writing, the understanding of the persona, to the distribution strategy. To set up your team for success, there are a few things to check off before writing any content.
- Budget. Before writing anything, figure out how much of your marketing budget will go to content. The budget should include the hourly rate for the writer, how much you can afford per post, the estimated time it will take for your team to QC, as well as any tools or subscriptions you'll need to pay for to make it happen.
- Creation Process. Figure out all of the production steps from point A to point B. From the title to the finished product, who will own the creation of the asset, who will write it, and what tools or resources will they need to be successful?
- Quality Guidelines. All of the content we produce follows our content guidelines and matches our brand persona. The brand persona is a one-page document with our preferred tone, and voice. For instance, we use a fun, relatable, and approachable tone over a professional or prestigious voice. This can also be housed within your strategy folder.
After these preliminary steps, it's time to get writing. Your content writers will require guidance to be successful, so for every content asset they're assigned, be sure to:
- Include an outline. Regardless of if writing is done in-house or outsourced, start with an outline. Our outlines for blog content include the content length, type of post, the target persona, as well as the keyword we're ranking for. This helps to get the writer understand our expectations.
- Pick a blog post template. There are a lot of different kinds of blog posts. To mix it up, you shouldn't just stick to one format. Assign your writer with the recommended style of post, depending on the goal of the article. For instance, a Skyscraper post can help drive traffic or improve keyword ranking.
- Check for readability. Running quality control (QC) for spelling and grammar is important, but many teams forget to check for readability. We utilize tools such as Hemmingway and Grammarly to make sure all of our content is easy and enjoyable to read.
To ensure that posts are created in a timely manner, there also needs to be a consistent content publishing calendar. In this content publishing calendar, you can produce blog posts 2-3 times a week, and an offer once or twice a quarter.
There are a few tools that aid in content creation and distribution. We use Gather Content for our outlines and blog post drafts, and put those drafts into our HubSpot blog. From there, we can schedule when those posts go live. We can also schedule when those posts to go out on social.
Step 4: Study Performance + Optimize
One of the biggest challenges companies face is proving the ROI of content. Without a clear understanding of the value your content is providing, it's difficult to gauge whether or not it's effective. That's why coming up with a strategy to measure content performance is just as crucial as any blog title or keyword.
There are a few metrics to measure content marketing efforts, which include:
Going back to the keywords you've identified, once you start to publish exceptional content, you should start seeing some organic results. Over time, monitor how your brand is ranking for your top keywords. It won't be immediate, so be patient.
Engagement metrics include stats such as visits, unique visits, bounce rate, time on site, etc. These metrics show how customers are connecting to content. Improving these rates are important, as they contribute to search ranking.
To create effective distribution strategies, look to your sources. The amount of traffic generated from email, organic, Facebook, Twitter, and more can optimize messaging for those channels. It's important to focus on sources beyond just Google, as any update can result in a big dip in your traffic. Studying various traffic sources and optimizing content for those channels can also help you learn a lot about your audience.
When it comes to offers, lead generation is an important metric to pay attention to. When the visitor-to-lead rate is high, and the quality of those leads are very good, it indicates that you're writing helpful, persuasive content that's resonating with potential customers. The number of conversions occurring after a lead engages with a blog post, or 'conversion assists,' can help identify top-performing content.
Over time, these numbers can help you identify areas to optimize on your landing pages, CTAs, content offers, and more. It can also help educate marketers on the styles of content that customers prefer.
Lead-to-customer conversion rates show how content marketing efforts are supporting your sales team. By source, you can evaluate the performance of workflows or lead nurturing initiatives, and use that information to optimize content and messaging.
When you're regularly monitoring these metrics, you can identify the strengths and weaknesses in your content strategy. If you utilize it correctly, data can tell you everything you need to know about the quality, effectiveness, and performance of content.
Putting The Content Marketing Strategy Into Practice
If you're considering refreshing or creating a content marketing strategy, ask yourself this.
As it stands right now, are you always providing value to your customer?
Are your current inbound marketing initiatives driving the results necessary to grow your business?
If the answer is no, or even maybe, you need to consider developing a long-term process and plan to ensure the success of your team.
Otherwise, why create content at all? And don't get us wrong - you want to create content. As those same entrepreneurs say again, and again, content really is the key to fostering relationships with potential customers. It just takes a lot of dedication and commitment to make it happen. This is a lot of information for a new marketer or business owner to take in, so for these beginners, we offer our Game Plan Offer.
The Game Plan isn't a fit for everyone. However, if there's an opportunity to deliver insights and guidance that can get you started on an effective content marketing strategy, we'll reach out. We want to equip business owners to experience the long-term benefits of exceptional content.