Putting the “Strategic” Into Strategic Content Marketing

The Content Marketing Institute’s (CMI) 2015 reports on B2B and B2C (business-to-consumer) content marketing trends reveal some important disconnects among demand, effectiveness, and satisfaction with results. For instance, while 86% of B2B respondents indicate that they are using content marketing, only 38% say that their efforts are effective. While 83% say they have a content marketing strategy, only 35% have a documented strategy. That’s a problem.

The situation on the B2C side is similar. Here, 77% say they use content marketing; 37% say their efforts are effective. While 77% say they have a content marketing strategy, only 27% have a documented strategy. Even among those who claim a documented strategy, there is a wide range of perspectives about what that strategy actually entails. Truly strategic content marketing efforts remain elusive for many.

Sarah VanHeirseele is VP of digital for Blue Chip. Content marketing strategy, says VanHeirseele, is “the clearly defined approach that aligns messages, media audiences, and channels in a cohesive way.” The strategy, she says, sets the parameters for what the brand can say and how it will say it, as well as where messages will appear. While content marketing is all the rage these days, VanHeirseele says, “It’s very difficult to find examples of marketers who are nailing the strategy in terms of bringing the tactics back around to business objectives.” The focus tends to be on “going viral” rather than building a sustained effort to create long-term value, she says.

Ed Marsh is a HubSpot VAR (value-added reseller), the export advisor to American Express for its middle market program, and the founder of Consilium. Marsh says, “Most companies think that the decision to adopt content marketing is the strategy piece.” Then, he says, they “tackle a checklist of tasks.” Most, Marsh says, will claim they have a strategy and will articulate it similar to this: “Generate X new leads by reaching XX persons as they consider XXX solutions.” But that’s not a strategy. That’s an objective.

Chris Bilko, a copywriter based in the U.K., says, “The best way to think of strategy-in any context, not just content marketing-is to see it as how you’re going to achieve your goals.” So if your objective is something similar to the aforementioned statement, your strategies should indicate how you are going to achieve that objective.

“If your goals are where you want to go, strategy is how you’re going to get there at the very high level,” says Mary Ellen Slayter, CEO and founder of Rep Cap in Baton Rouge, La. “Divide and conquer is a strategy. Word-of-mouth is a strategy. Creating and managing a Twitter account is a tactic. Hootsuite is a tool,” she says.

“Before you hit ‘publish’ on anything, figure out why you’re producing the content in the first place,” suggests Slayter. “What’s the desired outcome? Do you have a tangible goal? Increasing qualified leads or the number of referrals from existing clients are both legit goals for content marketing. So is shortening the length of the sales pipeline. Increasing page views on a website is not.”

Part of the problem, says Marsh, is that content marketing is generally driven by the marketing department-so the strategy that has to be driven at a corporate level is never explored. “If the CEO signs off on a new marketing budget but marketing never thinks beyond their silo and never gets [the CEO] involved in how it changes the business, then the content marketing strategy by definition will be a campaign execution strategy rather than a revenue growth strategy. That’s fundamentally limiting,” says Marsh.

Content marketers need to make sure that their efforts are focused on achieving business objectives, as Slayter notes. It’s not about the content-it’s about the business results that the content is able to achieve. “The most lost people are the ones who are quite adamant they have a strategy when all they really have is a monthly editorial calendar in a Google spreadsheet,” says Slayter.

In formulating an effective content marketing strategy, Danielle Hohmeier, a branding, content, and social media strategist at Atomicdust in the St. Louis, Mo., area, recommends the following approach:

  • Start with goals. Why are you using content? What do you want your audience to do?
  • Define brand voice and personality attributes. This often ties back to the organization’s mission. Not so much what you do, but why you do it. Describe the brand as if it were a person (friendly, knowledgeable, and professional, etc.).
  • Create audience profiles. Who is your audience? Do different audiences apply to different channels?
  • Identify appropriate channels. If you don’t have customer emails, you can’t rely on an email newsletter. If your customers aren’t on Facebook, you don’t need a page there. Choose the channels that will be most effective for you and plan how to assess and build toward additional channels in the future.
  • Identify topics of content-aside from your company news or product information-that your audience will care about.
  • Define measurement. Before you start, choose the metrics you’ll be looking at and the frequency you’ll be looking at them. There is so much data out there; this will bring focus to your efforts.

Then, pull all of the aforementioned together in a statement that indicates how you intend to meet your desired business objectives. That will be your content marketing strategy. Whole Foods Market is often pointed to as an example of a company that is getting content marketing right. Its strategy might be summed up as, “Use storytelling to convey our commitment to quality, standards and taste, and distinguish ourselves as the leader in the grocery industry,” says Scott Simons, global marketing director for Whole Foods, in an interview that appeared in Direct Marketing News. That’s a strategy. All of the to-do items that will be developed to support that strategy (social media posts on various channels, white papers, and blogs posts, etc.) are tactics. Tactics, without strategy, are chaos-a lot of wasted time and effort that is unlikely to yield meaningful results. If you’re engaged in content marketing-or marketing of any kind-it’s time to get strategic.

(This piece originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of EContent Magazine.)

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