To many marketers, the thought of creating a content strategy can be as intimidating as a blank page is to a writer. Everyone knows they need a strategy, but plenty of smart marketing leaders just aren’t sure how to even begin approaching theirs. That may be a big reason why just over 40% of B2B marketers surveyed in the last year have a documented content strategy.
So how do you get from knowing the need to having a fleshed-out content strategy in front of you? Just like a writer attacking the blank page: research, research, research — and then dig in. After you look at seven key sources to inform your content strategy, you should have no trouble getting a first-draft strategy on paper.
Source 1: What’s Working . . . and What’s Not
Whether you’ve never had a documented strategy before or just want to build a better foundation for yours, you’re probably not starting from scratch. Even if you plan on abandoning a lot of your old content (and the strategy behind it), it can still provide valuable information about your audience and how they relate to content.
That’s why looking at your site data can be a great way to start. Google Analytics is standard tool for looking at how visitors are engaging with the content on your website. In the present era of SEO, it’s still easy to get caught up in rankings, but don’t get bogged down in keyword specifics yet — instead, become curious about questions like these:
- What pages or content are visitors lingering on the longest? What do they have in common? (Length, topics, imagery?)
- What blog posts are visitors bouncing from after just a few seconds? What do these posts have in common?
- What blog posts are drawing in people who stay and engage with other posts? What do these posts have in common?
You can go pretty deep down the data rabbit hole and even produce some really impressive reports. But don’t let the possibilities overwhelm you. Your goal can simply be to form big-picture impressions of what appears to be working (What can you learn from it?) and what hasn’t been (Maybe spend less time on those efforts.).
Of course, this holds true for other platforms too. You don’t have to go deep into the weeds of social media analytics to see what some of your top-performing posts were and what fell flat. From there, you may be able to see whether your Twitter audience likes to read your blog posts or if your LinkedIn followers don’t particularly like your webinars.
Just remember to hold your conclusions loosely. If you plan on shifting the audience you’re targeting, your data on past site behavior might not correlate to new visitors. If you expect to ramp up your Twitter following with a major social media effort, statistically insignificant engagement data shouldn't determine your path forward.
Source 2: What Everyone Else Is Doing
Without at least a small-scope competitive analysis, a content strategy is incomplete. But don’t let the technical-sounding name become a barrier to entry. If your competitive analysis is simply spending time looking at the websites, blogs and resources being published in your market space and industry, then you’re doing enough for a start.
Even if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, a competitive analysis isn’t just about plucking the low-hanging fruit of other people’s ideas. Sometimes it’s learning where everyone else is zigging so you can zag. Ultimately, it’s a matter of surveying the landscape so you know how to position your content. For example, consider the following:
- What have other people written about that you can cover better?
- What subjects are oversaturated with nothing left to say about them?
- What’s no one talking about that you can become the authority on?
- What opportunities have others left open? What might it look like if you seized them?
Sometimes [a competitive analysis is about] learning where everyone else is zigging so you can zag.
Don’t get caught on the word “competitive” either. This isn’t just your business competitors. You’re fighting for web traffic and attention spans, and that means you’re competing with anyone who’s producing things that interest your audience. Google searchers don’t necessarily think of whether B2B Inc. sells the same product or service as you when they type in a query. What matters is if they produce content that your audience wants and what you can do to capture your share with even better content.
Source 3: The People
Advertising legend Howard Gossage said, “Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.” The surest way to produce content people will read or engage with is to create content people like. And to know what they like, you should probably ask them.
There’s no real substitute for direct qualitative and quantitative user research. Qualitative research (looking at words) puts you in contact with a handful of real people who fit your audience personas so you can discover their preferences and habits, including things you might never have thought to poll in a survey. Quantitative research (looking at numbers) can give you a much more data to work with and solid numbers to crunch.
The surest way to produce content people will read or engage with is to create content people like.
That said, there are plenty of other ways to get at least a faint pulse of the people. Among them, sites and platforms like Answer the Public use search data to suggest popular queries around your major keywords. But one of the most underused tools for gauging what people are searching for is Google itself—literally, Google.com. While search data from engines become increasingly hidden, Google features such as related searches and autosuggest show a little of that information through what it’s learned from searchers. Several simple browser extensions can also import search data to give you the numbers behind related searches.
Source 4: What Does Everyone Else Think?
Content may clearly live in marketing, but the most successful content marketing is owned across the organization. Thinking about your content strategy is the perfect time to get collaborative. Your sales team is often the best place to start. Anyone who takes care of customer relationships might be a close second. Of course, don’t forget that they wear perception filters like everyone else, but ask what they think:
- What are the questions that keep coming up for our prospects?
- What are our customers talking about these days? What keeps them up at night?
- If we invited you to write a blog post for the company, what would you feel is important to talk about with our audience?
- What opportunities might we be missing in our content marketing?
Asking for ideas and creative input doesn’t obligate you to write it into the strategy, but seriously and respectfully listening can at least help with organizational buy-in and inspire fresh ideas.
Source 5: What You Don’t Have
A content audit is often the first step of a content strategy, but combining it with a gap analysis turns it into an actionable plan. With a better understanding of what content’s competing for your audience, how they’re interacting with it and what they want to interact with, you’re better positioned to understand what you really have and what you don’t.
In particular, you should wonder:
- What personas are we not fully addressing at specific stages of their journey?
- What important questions are left for us to answer?
- What target and low-hanging keywords aren’t paired with content?
- What new types of content and media represent opportunities for us?
Source 6: People Who Get Paid to Know Things
Hopefully, your platform analytics and audience research yield plenty of insights, but that doesn’t mean you can’t glean insights elsewhere. Third-party research and experience from subject-matter experts can tell you the difference between a 600-word blog post’s performance versus a 2,000-word blog post or whether it’s better to put case studies on video than in a PDF.
The caveat here is that your industry and market may be unique — but it very likely isn’t. Take broad research and generalized best practices with a grain of salt, and certainly check them with data from your own audience. At the same time, remember that your audience visits other websites too, and they’re often as much a part of reported consumer trends as anyone. Know your personas well — and also that, for the most part, people are people are people.
Source 7: What You Can (Realistically) Do
After a robust amount of research, some collaborative brainstorming and a thorough gap analysis, it’s easy to start dreaming up a truly ambitious content strategy. And why not dream of digital magazines, one-hour podcasts and an original YouTube series? But before putting all the pieces together into a documented strategy, you’ll have to come down to earth — at least for “Phase One.”
An important source for shaping your content strategy is simply to ask:
- What are the current resources we have available to support content creation?
(Include internal subject-matter experts you may be able to recruit on a limited basis, as well as agency partners who can support your content creation.)
- What weekly and monthly volume of content can we support with our current resources?
- What are the next additions to our team we want to make to support the level of content we really want to produce? (Include freelancers, guest contributors and agency partners.)
- How would we prioritize the content we want to create as we lose and gain capacity?
Putting It All Together
Writing your content strategy isn’t unlike writing in general — apart from inspiration, it’s a matter of laying a foundation of research and grinding it out. Just as every writer wants their first draft to come out as pure gold, you may feel the same about your documented content strategy. The truth is, it should start a little rough. This is where it starts, and we refine it from there.
Begin by working through the main sources for your content strategy to ensure you have all of the pieces in front of you. Once you do, you’ll be able to turn observations and insights into ideas and recommendations that have a solid foundation you can test and build upon.
Need help pulling together your content strategy? We’re some of those people who get paid to know things. Let’s talk about your goals, your audience and how we can pull them together effectively — reach out anytime!