How to Build Your First Content Marketing Strategy

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Google's recent Penguin algorithm updates have forced many business owners to take a hard look at their content strategy and link portfolios. Sites with unsavory linking practices, sub-par content, and no social media signals, are losing visibility in Google's search rankings.

Many sites have also incurred manual penalties that have either caused them to rank much lower in search engine results pages, or become de-indexed completely. And once you've been knocked into search engine oblivion, it's nearly impossible for people to find your site.

Whether the main goal of your site is to make a little extra cash each month or your site the main hub of your business, your content conveys your message, establishes your brand, and converts potential customers into sales. There are a few key questions you should ask yourself when examining your content strategy or when determining that you need to get started with one altogether.

High-quality content serves two purposes. It:

  • Attracts your readers and keeps them engaged.
  • Helps your site rank well in search engines.

A Good Content Strategy: The Basics

To better understand how to develop an effective content strategy, it's important to explore what content is. Let's start with a basic definition.

Content can be either visual, auditory, or written. It includes everything from blog posts, articles, website copy, letters to customers, and social media posts, to podcasts, recorded interviews, infographics, photos, and video. Most content is created and published with a particular target audience in mind.

If you look at any successful business online, you're likely to notice one common element: they're producing high-quality content that's both engaging and informative on a regular basis.

So how do you know if you're producing effective content in your own business niche? A simple test can help shed some light on this question.

If you're creating content regularly, grab a few of your recent pieces for evaluation, then get started by asking yourself the following five questions.

1. Who Are You Writing For?

It's time to take a good look at whether you're creating content with your target audience in mind. Many business owners make the mistake of writing for their peers as opposed to their customers.

Take stock of your web copy and recent social media content. Are you using these channels as effectively as you could be to engage with new clients?

Consider the following scenario. You own a graphic design business and the last two articles you've written are highly technical pieces related to user experience design and trends in vector options. While the content may be well written, it is more likely to appeal to other professional web designers rather than potential customers. Clients are going to be looking for less technical posts like "how to make your website stand out from competitors," "what you should budget for professional web design," and "what criteria you should use when choosing the right designer."

Often, we draw inspiration for our content from popular industry blogs and publications. The things we read daily influence our thought process. So it's important to take a step back sometimes and evaluate whether you are writing for the right audience.

You can still write technical pieces as well. But consider pitching them to popular magazines, journals, and blogs written for those in your industry.

Publishing content on external publishers with an existing, established audience that fits your target criteria should be a primary goal of your content marketing campaign, as it can yield tremendous ROI while also establishing your brand as an authority in your field. For more information on building a content strategy specifically for a B2B business, see "How to Create a Content Strategy for a B2B Business".

2. What is Your Customer Avatar?

You've now made a commitment to creating content with your potential customers in mind. But do you know who your customers are, exactly?

Let's take another professional services example: lawyers. The logical assumption is that a lawyer's target audience would be clients who want to find legal representation.

But most often, this isn't the case. The "clients who need a lawyer" category is too general, so businesses who target that broadly typically don't experience much success. If you take a deeper dive into your previous client list, you may find that the majority of your customers are individuals needing a specific kind of representation. Maybe they're looking for a divorce attorney, or a bankruptcy specialist.

Let's continue the example with the divorce context in mind.

So your target audience is individuals in the midst of a divorce or considering that path that want to talk to an expert. Once you've identified your customer avatar, it becomes easier to focus your content strategy.

You can use the information you've gathered to plan and design your content specifically for your audience. The right information goes from "how to choose a lawyer" to "the top 10 things every woman should know during a divorce." Which one do you think is more likely to get your specific target audience to read your content?

3. How Can You Make Your Customers Lives Easier by Solving a Common Problem They Face?

Typically, the first thing that comes to mind when we think about our business: the features we offer to our customers, either products or services. A web designer, for example, would probably consider features such as brand consultation, requirements analysis, design mock-ups, reviews and changes, and the final product. From the client side, we'd be focused on the product: a professionally designed site that aligns with our brand and presents us well to our audience.

When you're creating your content strategy, try to think ahead about what kinds of questions your clients may have. Sometimes it's better to focus on the basics for a mainstream audience.

A typical client who is seeking a professionally designed site may have questions like:

  • What will the total cost be?
  • What's the turnaround time?
  • What should I expect from the process?
  • Who will write my content?
  • Should I provide photos for the site?
  • Which company will provide hosting?
  • Will I be able to manage my own site if I need to make changes?

As you take a deeper dive into your audiences' questions, you can start to shape your content strategy. Effective content will address your customers' pain points and help them solve their problems. It provides simple answers to their most pressing problems, while solidifying the idea that you're the go-to expert in their minds.

4. How Do You Keep Your Audience Engaged?

By this point, you know who you're writing for and the topics they're interested in reading about. Now how do you capture their attention and keep them interested? A quick search online will reveal that certain types of content are popular.

For example, readers love top 5 or top 10 lists. But chances are those lists already exist in your industry. So how can you craft engaging content? The key is finding your story and writing compelling pieces.

Let's pause for a moment and take a look at these two examples:

"Bill M. and I first met on a sunny morning in my San Francisco office. At first glance, you could tell that Bill was overworked and wiped out, his skin was pale, large bags under his eyes, shoulders tense. I could tell this was going to be an interesting meeting. Suddenly, everything became clear when Bill laid it all out for me: 'Marie, my brick and mortar business is on the verge of bankruptcy and something's got to give. It's time to take my operation online to attract more customers.'"

Or the following:

"Retail businesses can be affected negatively by technology. Unfortunately for many stores, they are in dire financial straits before they realize they need to make a change. One of my clients was close to bankruptcy because he was losing business to big name online retailers."

Does one of these introductions make you want to read more? Think about how you can tell your story or capture your readers' attention with your new content.

5. Are You Providing a Call to Action for Readers? Will They Feel Compelled to Get in Touch?

Last but not least, you want to make sure that everything you create has a strong call to action.

For example, maybe you're writing about a popular service that your business provides. You'll want to end your piece with something like, "if you want more information about service packages, please get in touch with me(@)mybusinessname.com."

Ensuring that everything you're writing provides a clear message to customers will help increase your sales conversions. This single step alone will dramatically increase the ROI on content that you create. I recommend this article, "The Definitive Guide to Crafting Winning Calls to Action in Your Content."

Did Your Business Pass the Test?

Were you writing for your audience? Did you choose a topic they were interested in? Was your content engaging? Did your content focus on solving a pain point and help your customers?

In order for your content strategy to be effective, everything you produce needs to meet these goals.

How to Develop Your Future Content Strategy

Hopefully the evaluation of your current content helped shed some light on how effective your previous content has been, and you now have some in-depth knowledge of what it means to create good content.

If you truly want to develop an effective content strategy, it's important to have a plan. Otherwise you might fall into a rut, and simply create content that feels forced and doesn't help your business achieve its goals. Or you might lose your way, and fail to produce content at the rate needed to achieve your goals.

So before you start writing, take the time to reflect and plan. Developing your strategy will help your business in the long run. It's going to make it easier to achieve goals for your site and your sales, cut down on costs, and you may even surprise yourself and surpass your expectations.

1. Have Clear Goals in Mind

You should always approach your content strategy with goals in mind. Truly think about what you want to achieve and write it down.

It's a good idea to set a series of milestones for yourself, rather than one large overly-general goal. Once you've identified your goals, reflect on how you can achieve them with your content.

Let's consider the following. A local industrial equipment dealer specializes in selling trucks and repairing industrial vehicles. They are interested in grabbing the attention of potential customers, but their products and services attract different audiences: those who are interested in purchasing a truck and those who want a trusted mechanic for a range of industrial machinery. So, instead of creating one overarching goal, they identify a series of smaller ones. Those goals may include increasing the visibility of their repair shop and getting the word out to the community about their line of trucks. The auto dealer can then use these goals to develop their content strategy.

2. Review Your Data to Develop Great Content

Do you have a monthly newsletter through an email marketing service? Or perhaps you have an analytics program (like Google Analytics) installed on your website? Use that data to help you develop your strategy moving forward.

Reviewing previous campaigns and assessing your site can help you understand what types of content are getting the most interest from your readers.

If you haven't been tracking data from previous campaigns, there's no need to worry. You can take a look into industry trends, do some keyword research, and see what's driving the most traffic to your site, and what traffic is converting the most.

3. If You Need to Know, Just Ask

Nobody knows what your customers are looking for better than your customers themselves. Think about doing some market research to help get a better understanding of customer needs. A quick survey should do the trick.

Ask questions like:

  • What do you enjoy reading about?
  • What would you like to learn more about?
  • Are you looking for something specific?
  • Do you enjoy watching videos or prefer to read blog posts?

Get your customers talking and you may be surprised at the insights you gather. You can also get creative with customer follow-ups.

Set up a customer service survey, or email customers to ask for their feedback on a recent purchase. Customers will appreciate the opportunity to share their thoughts with you.

4. Look Inside for Opportunities Before You Go Outside

You've set your goal. Take a look at your existing audience and do a quick analysis. Can you meet the needs more effectively to help meet that goal? If the answer is yes, then you may want to consider developing a feature blog that provides valuable information for your customers or targeting existing customers with your email marketing. These things would make a lot of sense and create a positive impact for your business.

If you need to look toward an external audience to meet your goal, consider writing and placing some guest posts at targeted sites.

5. Create a Timeline

You've taken the time to think things through, now it's time to create a timeline to achieve your goals. Make a plan to step back and evaluate your strategy at the 3-, 6-, and 12-month marks.

Typically, it takes time for an effective content strategy to truly take hold. In that time, you'll probably have at least one piece that drives considerable social activity and website traffic.

But it's always good to focus on your long-term success. Identify weekly or monthly benchmarks that indicate who your target audience is, which topics you'll discuss, what format you plan to use, and how you'll share your content – either on your own site, through guest blogging, email, etc.

After you've developed your timeline, evaluate it to ensure that your topics are focused and not repetitive.

Creating a timeline will help you develop specific goals with your content marketing efforts.

You've spent time reviewing the data from past campaigns. You've used that data as well as input from customers to plan your future strategy. And you've created a timeline of how to make the most of your content marketing and meet your goals in the coming months.

The next steps are execution, tracking your successes, modifying your timeline, and keeping up with your efforts.

Are you tackling your first content marketing strategy? Let me know what challenges you're facing in the comments below.