How to Make Content Matter (Part One: Content Strategy)
Content Strategy Defines The Content Marketing Plan
What is the difference between a content marketing plan and a content strategy?
Content Marketing is the execution of the strategy. Content drives audience behavior through engagement.
Content Strategy is a discipline that involves managing the business assets – the content, its development and publication. The strategy identifies what needs to be done in a coordinated, cohesive and consistent system.
A strategy is a solution to move you from where you are now, to where you want to be (or, WHAT you want to do). The plan is how you will achieve the goal(s) (or, HOW you will do it).
What a content strategy is and what it isn’t
A content strategy is more than an SEO checklist, or monitoring metrics – time on site or pages per visit – to determine engagement. Content drives website design, marketing and customer exchanges. Content will not communicate metrics – content IS communication.
SEO is just one of many reasons to have a solid content strategy: consistent and meaningful content builds relationships (social), gains new customers (brand identity), encourages repeat customers (customer loyalty), and builds brand integrity and authority (organic SEO). It improves trust through value transparency, and reinforces the business’ core communications strategy.
Your content strategy is thereby a cohesive plan, with parts for multiple team players to coordinate, from content writers to marketing managers to the website development team. For small businesses, this can be two or three people: the owner, and the website/marketing manager, for example.
Content should follow Jakob Nielsen’s or the HHS’ content design Usability guidelines, especially improving user experience. The content draws the user to your business, and the website design allows people to access the content.
User experience encompasses all emotions, attitudes and experiences a user has around their interaction with a product, brand or company. In this context, content design usability is the ease of use of the information on the web.
There really are only four main guidelines for content design usability:
- Be succinct.
- Write for scannability. I’m not sure when the term was introduced, maybe in the late 90’s, but it is a commonly used industry term that hasn’t quite gained the vast array of citations required to be added to the dictionary. It means what it sounds like – capable of and practicable to scan. You can look at it quickly, and understand the information and determine whether the content meets your needs.
- Use hypertext to break up long content. Granted, these four guidelines are from the 1999 edition of Designing Web Usability, they all still stand, and, I dare say, are more important now than ever. You aren’t just ‘writing for the web’ any longer – you are designing content for devices. Usability is a core concept of multiple disciplines – User Experience, Human-Computer Interaction, and more – which are crossing boundaries between classic graphic design and software development. But, I digress – that’s a conversation for another time.
- Have a process to adhere to defined standards. This is where a content strategy will define those standards and identify management and maintenance roles, including, where applicable, a web editor.
As part of your strategic planning and content design, you’ll make decisions about preferred tools, and asset management. WordPress is a CMS – a Content Management System, so the question is not ‘what will my site look like’, it is ‘what content will this system manage?’ When should the website content be published? Who will manage the system? What will it look like for them?
This is what a content strategy is all about. The content strategy document will answer all of those questions; lead to more questions, and will guide the next step in answering more questions.
Your business plan includes your marketing plan, which drives the content strategy, which advises the content plan. Remember though, that the strategy only identifies what you want to achieve. It is up to your skilled team leaders to decide on how to achieve it, allowing them the ingenuity to adjust the plan when things go wrong, or are otherwise directing the outcome to less than desirable positive results. That is true business cohesion.
Create a Comprehensive Content Strategy
A content strategy aims to create sustainable, cohesive, engaging and meaningful content. It defines what content will be published and why you’re publishing it. It covers key themes and messages, recommended topics, content purpose (which reflects user needs and organization goals), content gap analysis, metadata frameworks and other content attributes, SEO, content management, publication and development recommendations; and explains how to accomplish the defined goals.
Your content strategy will:
a) identify goals and how to accomplish them,
b) persuade stakeholders of the importance of meaningful content and
c) create a content profile for future success.
Four components come together to build a successful content strategy:
|Audience, Message structure and tone|
Identify Goals: What content is required? Establish tone, audience and message structure.
|Content maintenance tasks, tools and roles|
Workflow and Roles: Follows the content lifecycle to identify daily tasks, tools and management/maintenance roles.
|Content organization, accessibility and details|
Establish Structure: Identify how to organize, prioritize and access content. Map message to content, create detailed page tables, content bridging.
|Guidelines for sustainability and evolution|
Standards and Policies: Establish guidelines, standards and policies for the content lifecycle. Also, identify how to evolve and sustain the content strategy.
In the end, the content strategy as a deliverable defines:
- Purpose (how content will meet both user needs and organization goals)
- Themes and messages
- Content gap analysis* (includes the content audit and competitive analyses)
- SEO metadata and other attributes
- Content management
- Publication and development recommendations
- Content distribution strategy (including email marketing), which then will guide the content marketing strategy
5 Stages of the Content Lifecycle
- Analysis and Audit: competitive and objective analyses, environment evaluation and stakeholder interviews where appropriate. Here you will identify the content using personas, scenarios and perform the content audit. You’ll also identify the governance and budget. For small businesses, this usually involves a meeting, or several, to gather user personas, determine responsible parties for process delegation, audit or monitoring and discuss budget and conversion goals. You’ll also perform the competitive content analysis and current content audit where applicable. A guide to the content audit can be found near the end of this article.
- Strategy: Taxonomies, content development process, voice and brand identity. Here you will establish key themes and topics and build the content calendar. What information is most useful, unique and current to the user audience?
- Plan: CMS, metadata, migration plan, communications plan. This is when you will specify CMS features like metadata and content models, and use a wireframe or sitemap to explain interaction and content.
- Creation: writing, SEO, quality assurance. You may not only choose to publish from scratch, here is your opportunity to aggregate and syndicate. Here you should specify SEO best practices. We include content best practices in this article below the wireframe diagram. No matter the content format, it is helpful to produce content 4-6 weeks in advance and then schedule publication. This provides a good foundation and allows more time for content production.
- Maintenance: auditing plan, identify measurement of success, advisement. Create style guide for tone of voice, optimizations, community policy and linking policy. Address structure and standards. Write comprehensive copy decks. If you don’t have a copy deck or wireframe template, start using one. Here is an example of a wireframe for designing or presenting content.
What the content strategy document looks like in the end is entirely up to you – use Excel, Word, Power Point, any content design program you are comfortable with delivering. The content and delivery of your document or presentation should explain the important points, inspire discussion and be understandable. Here are some examples of content strategy document templates:
Best Practices for content creation
When the strategy understands the user well enough to have content structured around their communication methods, the resulting meaningful content will have the following attributes:
- Reflect user needs and organization goals based on market research, user research and website metrics analysis.
- Be clear, concise and purposeful
- Be factual and current
- Be accessible via website structure, varying devices and search engines
- Maintain consistent communication by following style guides
For a comprehensive guide to visual storytelling, view the SlideShare from the Content Marketing World 2015 by Buddy Scalera: Words + Pictures: Content Marketer’s Guide to Visual Storytelling He tells the story of Grok, who learns how to share an important life-saving message with his fellow neanderthals. Among other significant details supporting visual communication design on the internet, Buddy and Grok guide us to creating effective infographics and webpages that are easy to absorb and create personality for your brand and message.
How to do a content audit
Perform a content audit to draw conclusions and guide the content strategy. The content gap analysis mentioned earlier includes the content audit and competitive analyses.
- Inventory existing content. You are not performing an SEO audit; you are building a profile for successful content for each category.Tip: use open site explorer for content performance numbers as wellMajor bonus tip: Use Excel functions and multiple worksheets for compiling and analyzing large amounts of data from multiple sources. VLOOKUP is the best function.Note any events that may have had a negative impact (such as bad PR). It couldn’t hurt to note any other events that influenced out-of-the-ordinary business attention (good or bad). For an in-depth guide to good and bad content inventory, see Moz’s Whiteboard Friday, Clean Your Site’s Cruft…
- List all internal site pages by category
Tip: use screaming frog site crawl by upper level hierarchy pages (categories), especially for larger sites
- Include http status codes, H1/H2, page titles, Meta description and word count. Filter out duplicates.
- Gather social metrics, number of page comments, page reviews, page authority (Moz or Majestic), and conversions.
- Gather each page’s element analysis (Screaming Frog works well here, too)
- Number of paragraphs
- Keyword repeats (term-frequency inverse document frequency) for top 5 phrases
- FK grade level and reading ease
- Number of heading tags
- OGP (Open Graph) markup (Facebook, Google, etc.)
- Social shares
- Spelling errors
- List all internal site pages by category
- Analyze the competition. Take a good look at your competitors’ successful strategies and tactics. Not to mimic, but to encourage your own goals. You can also run some reports on their content to give you a better idea of some areas you may need to improve upon (that aren’t already evident). Use Semrush, Ahrefs, Sistrix, Buzzsumo, a combination of these tools, or whatever your preferred competitive analysis tools are.
- Make recommendations for success based on your successful content, as well as your competitors’. Build a profile for emotionally significant content. You can dig in to Twitter trends further using Topsy. Remember that your summary is about the user and the content – the data just provides statistical evidence for your conclusions.
- Design a strategy based on those recommendations.
- The content strategy should align with the marketing plan; Identify and repeat your goals accordingly.
- Explain your methodology and data sources.
- Include a goals and analysis plan, which will outline what metrics to measure, when and where (social activities, breadth of scope, et cetera).
- Identify topics built on themes (not keywords), based on business value. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Content should support the essential topics (and doesn’t necessarily have to be about said topic). Include some examples. Good essential topics have the following properties:
- Works for multiple types of content, such as how-to pieces, discussions, and more
- Is understandable
- Allows flexible emotional tones.
- Identify audience (from personas already identified in your marketing plan) and the appropriate tones with each
- Identify content types (infographics, video tutorials, podcasting, etc.)
- Hierarchy – explain how you will rank content by identifying successful content, providing examples of other similar content, and listing example content type and titles according to the business (what rubric makes sense for the business).
- Content calendar: based on the aforementioned rubric, set a schedule in calendar format
- Tactics and Best Practice: Based on your collected data, write a policy for addressing significant occurrences (anything that was great or terrible 25% of the time). Address future staff and business changes and write policies to cover those. For example: Don’t duplicate content; Write descriptive titles; Include links in content (not at the end); Specify image size (page load); Follow taxonomy architecture; Etc. You can detail reasons for the policy as well.
- Include lots of examples, screenshots and markup to make it easier to identify essential topics and best practices.
- Outreach guidelines: how much to do and when, who to reach and how.
- Governance: Identify whom can create, publish and authorize content.
- Review: Specify procedures for measuring and tracking analytics to monitor and when to check them. Overview data interpretation (what does this mean, and why is it good or bad, what should the appropriate reaction be and why).
Remember that this is the strategy (the WHAT), not the plan (the HOW). According to General George S. Patton:
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
For small business content marketing, once you identify important elements, you can streamline this checklist to perform a scaled-down content audit. A small business content strategy will likely have a small amount of content to audit, and a small-scale content marketing plan.
The content gap analysis
Your content drives relevant and valuable traffic, and identifying the gap between your current content status and where you would like to be will guide your content strategy towards connecting with customers.
For the content gap analysis, you’re going to take the data from the content audit and measure the distance between where you are and where you want to be in terms of metrics: Organic Traffic, Social Traffic, Conversions, Usability – whatever your content goals are – and prioritize your existing content for optimization.
Once you identify your current and future content topics and themes, review current search engine results for your top terms to identify the current trending content types or formats. For example, does Google rank a How-to, offer a featured snippet for a Definition, or are the bulk of first page results checklists or case studies? What you see there will allow you to fill any gaps, the part that isn’t being covered, or can you create more valuable content that provides better, more in-depth answers?
Congratulations on building your content strategy! Now that you know what you’re going to publish, stay tuned for How to Make Content Matter Part 2: Content Marketing Strategy, HOW to fulfill your project needs by creating and distributing content.