Most companies, large and small, should do content marketing and need a defined strategy.
For companies like 3M, that strategy is mapped out to the most granular level, but even startups with limited resources can be smart about how they do content marketing and build a foundation that will bring them lasting benefits.
Why do content marketing?
So why do I say “should”? Because the statistics back me up.
Average website conversion for companies with defined content processes is more than twice that of companies without (5.9% vs. 3.8%). (Newscred)
Using content-driven tactics saves an average of 13% in overall cost per lead. (Newscred)
82% of marketers who blog see positive ROI for their content-driven marketing. (Newscred)
So you get more conversions and they’re cheaper. More than that, content has the capacity to be “evergreen”, meaning it can continue to provide value months or years after being published. That can’t be said of SEM.
Content marketing also helps with brand equity.
90% of consumers find custom content useful and 78% believe that organizations providing custom content are interested in building good relationships with them. (Newscred)
In other words, if you do quality content marketing, your customers will like you more. It will help you build some serious brand equity and help grow customer trust.
On the bright side, 70% of marketers lack a consistent or integrated content strategy (Altimeter). So if you take the steps to develop one, you’ll be heads and shoulders above the rest. Here’s how startups can do it.
1. Identify your target market
If you built out a business plan, you likely know what your target market is. Young or old, male or female, student or professional, rural or urban. This is important, but for practical purposes, I recommend taking this much further. You need to know more than just who your target market is, you’ll want to know where they are online. I recommend asking yourselves the following questions:
- Do your potential customers frequent any forums or online bulletin boards?
- Are they in any large and active Facebook groups?
- What pages or people do they follow?
- What blogs do they likely read?
- What type of content do they share and what’s gone viral in their space?
- Who are the brands or influential people they follow on Twitter?
- What hashtags do they use?
- Do they engage in Twitter chats and which ones?
- Are they on Snapchat? Which brands do they follow?
- What kinds of questions do they ask on Quora?
- In which sub-Reddits are they active?
- Do they use StumbleUpon? Which interests are they stumbling?
- Are they active on Instagram? Who do they follow?
- Are there other social media networks or apps that they’re active on?
Content marketers working on startups should do extensive and exhaustive online research to understand how their potential customers are spending time online. Not only will this help you to allocate test budgets when the lucky day arrives that you have some money to burn, but it will also guide your early promotion strategy as you start interacting with potential customers.
For now, add all this information into a spreadsheet separated by tabs. Properly organized, this info will give you lasting value as you start implementing marketing strategies beyond content marketing like social media outreach and influencer marketing. Whether you end up working out of the spreadsheet will depend – you may find yourself eventually relying on tools provided by each of the social networks or a paid tool. Either way, this info will be good to have.
2. Build buyer personas & map out the awareness funnel and buyer lifecycle
There are lots of ways to build out buyer personas. They key thing is to try to understand every attribute about your customer that might be relevant to your product. This starts with key demographic statistics: age, gender, location, income, spending habits, etc. and should evolve into a full characterization of a possible customer. The research you did in step 1 will help you start to understand who your potential customers are and give you some confidence when building buyer personas.
If you want to earn an A+ in buyer personas, this canvas will get you there. Though, because it’s B2B, it’s a little on the dry side and possibly overkill for a startup.
To put it a little simpler, let’s consider something less extensive. For example, a tech-savvy college student majoring in psychology is more likely to use the services of a startup that summarizes academic research than a British literature major who plans on becoming a teacher. To confirm that, you’d want to answer certain questions around their majors, their smartphone use – how do they learn about new apps, how many hours they spend studying, their studying behavior – alone or in groups, how much money they spend on class materials, what learning styles they prefer, what they worry about when they’re up late at night studying, etc.
You’ll start with a simplified version of the canvas above, but you’ll want to end up with something like the below persona that resembles an actual customer. In this case, it looks like the product is something coffee-related.
If creating buyer personas seems like an academic exercise, then, well, you’re doing it wrong. It’s important to imagine that the buyer personas you create are actual potential customers and your content will bring them value. Take Han-sung Choi, above, for example. He will likely enjoy articles abound artisanal coffee, traveling in general but also to coffee hotspots around the world, and other sophisticated leisure pursuits.
Or if we continue with the example of the startups that summarizes academic research, imagine one of your buyer personas is a 20-year-old psychology major from McGill University who belongs to two study groups, spends her spare time on Pinterest, and worries about job prospects for psychologists. It shouldn’t be hard for you to think of 5-10 pieces of content that could be of value to her. Buyer personas have a way of spelling out content.
Done right, buyer personas can save you from falling into the trap of keeping your content too strictly about the specific service your startup offers. In the above case, you can expand beyond study tips and write about anything from how to keep study groups fun, the best personal style accounts to follow on Pinterest, and great remote internships for psychology students. At the end of the day, you don’t want to be a service, you want to be a brand.
In the beginning, you can assume that most students haven’t heard of your startup and map them out earlier in the awareness funnel. If you have a handful of direct competitors, one of your buyer personas should be somebody who uses the competition and you can map them further out: in that case they know there are academic research startups out there that can bring them value and they’ll be less difficult to persuade to try out your’s once you get them to your website. For them you can write about more focused, advanced topics around your startup.
If you need help coming up with personas, I recommend involving your team, especially your CEO, sales leads, customer service representatives, or social media managers. They probably have a lot of experience communicating with and canvassing potential customers. Other options include:
- looking at your competitors’ sites and asking yourself who their content is intended for
- speaking to current customers and maybe even conducting a survey
- doing informal research on popular forums online
3. Find an editorial calendar template that makes sense to you
This step might be difficult to think about if you don’t already have content lined up, but I recommend trying to make these key decisions early so you can start building an actionable plan as you proceed through the rest of the steps. For startups, I recommend a hybrid of two tools: good, old-fashioned spreadsheets and something dynamic like Trello.
The key benefit to spreadsheets is that you can keep all of the important data points like keywords, CTAs, and personas localized. Here’s an example of one.
I recommend taking this spreadsheet further by adding content categories (leisure travel, teamwork tips), content types (i.e. ‘how to’ blog post, infographic, webinar), working headlines, tags, & more on-page SEO elements like blog page titles, descriptions, and images. The simple fact is that if you use a blogging platform like WordPress, you’ll never be able to see a birds-eye view of all of these elements. Using a spreadsheet like this is key to tracking and coordinating your efforts; and it’ll simplify preparing and formatting blog posts into a convenient drag-and-drop scenario.
Second, I recommend a tool like Trello that allows you to dynamically move through the creation, publishing, and promotion cycle. You can create boards for each stage: ideation, research, on hold, writing, editing, & graphics, scheduled, ready to publish, and publish. As well there’s a calendar view that let’s you take an at-a-glance view at your publishing schedule; if you add a board for important events, you can visually come up with new ideas and time content appropriately. Here’s an example of Trello’s calendar view.
Both tools work well together in combination. Spreadsheets will help you keep your information coordinated and centralized while Trello is great for visualization and workflow.
4. Spend 2-3 hours doing SEO research and coming up with a list of relevant, high-traffic, low competition keywords
This isn’t fun, but I highly recommend that you become good friends with the Google Keyword Research Tool. To do this right, have three things handy:
- your buyer personas
- your competitive landscape, specifically website addresses
- fat-head terms that directly describe your company
You’ll want to enter all of these into the Keyword Planner via the “Search for new keywords using a phrase, website or category” section and come up with a list of 100s to 1000s of keywords that are relevant to your product and indicate some level of either intent or the potential for intent.
Here are some step-by-step considerations:
- First, go into your buyer personas – hopefully you have 5-8 of them – and pick out all of the terms that are shared by the majority of them. Here you’ll want to go more broad than specific and try to suss out elements that are shared by most of your potential customers: it could be blogs they read (in which case add the websites themselves), interests they have, things they buy, or more. Select ad groups that you think could indicate some level of buyer intent.
- Second, go to your competitive landscape – enter all of your competitor websites into the Tool and pick out the ad groups that look most relevant to your potential customers. This is also a clever way to understand what your competition is trying to optimize their website for.
- Finally, think of all of the possible ways to describe your business and enter these as well. To do this well, you might need to do a brainstorm with your colleagues or go through your competitive landscape as well. Sometimes the first key phrase you think best describes your business can be greatly improved and will change over time.
The next step is to group all of these keywords into broad groups. These groups will later help you come up with content categories. Then, pick the keywords that have a substantial level of traffic combined with a low level of competition. Remove everything else. If you’ve done this step right, you should end up with a list of 100s of keywords spread over 10s of groups. Save it because, long-term, this is just the beginning – eventually you’ll both expand upon this tactic and add different tools to the mix that will help you discover more keywords.
5. Next, see what content has trended around those keywords and come up with a list of headlines
There are a number of ways to do this. BuzzSumo has done a great job jumping to the top of many marketers’ list. There’s also tools like Ruzzit, the Hubspot Blog Topic Generator, SERPs, and Reddit. Enter each of your keywords into the various tools and come up with 5-8 content headlines around each one. This is essentially a type of headline research but it’ll also help you discover great content has resonated with your potential customers that you can save for later inspiration.
6. Start with blogging, but push yourself to build out other things too.
Experiment, experiment, experiment. Challenge yourself to try one different piece of content per month. Don’t try to be original: reuse and recyle. Make your content stretch.
This handy table from BuzzSumo illustrates not only how many different types of content you can try, but also how different types of content can be mapped to the awareness funnel.
48% of content marketers support the different buying stages of the sales process with dedicated content. (LinkedIn Technology Marketing Community)
Remember #2? Make your goal to be one of them.
7. Use internal resources round out your content program and to lighten the load
So you have your editorial calendars mapped out and the only natural thing to do is freak out. You have SEO-optimized headlines and, as well, you shouldn’t forget the standard startup content fare: development news, new hires, product information and how-to guides. You have a lot of work ahead of you. Just remember that you likely have more resources in the office than you think to both come up with content and get it written.
- Look at what your competitors are writing about. Of course your competitors may not be great content marketers – don’t give them too much credit unless you see that their websites are getting a lot of traffic, they’re getting mentioned a lot, or their content is getting shared.
- Is there anything you want to share about your company or your team members? Remember that your early base of fans will want to know more about what’s happening behind the scenes.
- What cause have you adopted and are participating in any events or offering to make donations when purchases are made?
- Are you offering discounts, sales, free books, or white papers?
- Turn your emails into content. Again, this is especially true of the emails salespeople and customer service representatives get. If your customers have questions, it’s a ripe opportunity for fresh content.
- Host a company blogathon – sounds silly, but the employees at your company likely have lots of ideas but have never been given dedicated time to write about them. Plan with your CEO to do it for a few hours once a month. That should be enough time to come up with solid rough drafts – the blinking cursor is the hardest step. Just make sure to map out the ideas beforehand so they’re on-brand.
- Interview your colleagues, your customers, and your partners. They might have great ideas about what they’d like to read or think your potential customers might be interested in.
- What questions are your sales people hearing on a regular basis? What are the questions and comments on your posts and social media pages?
Finally, remember if you’re feeling the pressure, you’re not alone.
77% of marketers will increase content production in the next 12 months. (Curata)
8,800 large brands increased their content output by 78% on average over the last 2 years (Trackmaven)
56% of leading business bloggers are hiring additional resources in the next 12 months (Curata)
8. Track the success of your content
Create a simple system of analysis so that you can compare and contrast the success of your posts. I recommend starting with actionable goals like collecting email addresses. This is obviously most straight-forward for gated content but you can also experiment with different types of sign-up forms: pop-ups, sidebar widgets, etc. If you have some money to spend, I recommend tools like Thriving Leads or Optinmonster.
Other metrics to monitor can include page views, shares, comments, email open rates, and more. Obviously different content will be promoted differently, so it can be difficult to understand the absolute value of each piece of content and its promotion. To start, I recommend having a monthly meeting where you collect a fixed number of metrics on each piece of content and have an open forum to understand what was most successful and why. Ask yourself:
- What content was the most popular & why?
- What content sparked the most conversations?
- What content resonated with influencers – assuming you asked for their opinion?
- What gated content resulted in the most email signups? What regular content drove email signups?
- Which headlines drove the highest email open rates?
Start with Google Analytics and the analytics offerings of the various services that you might be using like Buffer, Mailchimp or Bit.ly. I also highly recommend tools like Lead.in and MixPanel which are free (up to a point) and can give you extra contextual information on the leads that are converting.
9. Stay strong and do your best to avoid content fatigue
The best way to do this is to experiment, try new things, and see your content continuously do better. If you hit a wall, I recommend talking to some content marketers you know and asking them to review what you’ve done and give you feedback.
10. Speaking of, here are some extra credit tips
- Listicles: The listicle still isn’t dead and lists starting with 10 have stayed the most popular number
- Videos: Videos, especially Facebook native video, do very well
- Long-form content: Longer form content outperforms short form content
- Images: Use images frequently – in fact, don’t be afraid to combine lists with pictures and do… picticles?
- Open Graph: Make sure your posts are optimized for sharing on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere (open graph material)
- Emotion: Give your posts some emotion and follow the best advice on what goes viral
- Titles: Work on your titles and your first sentence
- Readability: Make sure your content is scannable – use headlines, sub-headlines, images, and bullets; use simple language that teenagers would find easy to read; be informal and conversational
- Experiment: Experiment with different services and plugins and test out their services. Sometimes the difference between being a marketer and being a “growth hacker” is just knowing the newest tools out there that haven’t reached saturation.
- Guest posts: If any blog posts appear to be doing exceptionally well, don’t be afraid to pitch them to larger blogs with some modifications – guest posts are a whole other topic worth deep exploration
- Influencers: Come up with a list of influencers around your subject matter. Ask them questions and insert them into blog posts – they’ll be more likely to share the content afterwards. Influencer marketer is also a whole other universe of best practices.
Last words: remember that content marketing takes time.
You’ll know you’re succeeding when:
- You’re starting to rank for organic search terms that bring in traffic
- You’re starting to understand what content drives clicks and email signups
- You’re starting to get customers and interest from journalists and influencers
The key thing is to never stop publishing. Create a schedule and keep to it.
79% of ‘best-in-class’ B2B marketers rate blogs as the most effective customer acquisition tactic. (Newscred)
Brands that create 15 blog posts per month average 1,200 new leads per month. (Hubspot)