Today I spoke at the Triangle AMA‘s Fall Training Camp on the four stages of content marketing. It was an honor to be invited, and I enjoyed spending time speaking with triangle area folks who are at various stages of content marketing themselves — from a few years in to just discovering it for the first time. Below is the content of my talk…
Hello, everyone! I loved that line that Greg shared — that even the experts haven’t been expert for very long. That’s absolutely true. Everyone is struggling with content marketing, even those who look like they’re not from the outside. They’re struggling, just not always with the things you’d expect.
So with that in mind, know that even though I’m up here talking to you about content marketing, and saying the usual “you should’s,” that I’m not that much farther ahead than you are. In fact, I’d like to hear where you are exactly.
How many of you already have a content marketing strategy you feel good about and a working system in place that is producing regular and effective content now? (Not one hand raised.)
How many of you are just getting started? (About half the room raised hands…)
And how many of you would say you’re somewhere in between — maybe you’ve got a plan but are struggling to either implement it consistently or you just feel like it isn’t working so well? (…and the other half.)
Alright, well, let’s start all the way back at “why?” then. For some of you, this will be review, and for others, this will be the foundation you need.
Content marketing is how you describe your expertise to those who are looking for it, but haven’t found it yet. Here’s something interesting: before the phrase “content strategy” was used much — long before I ever heard it, anyway — we called it SEO. Basically, we knew even way back in 2000 – 2001 that the best way for us to build our business was to write stuff about what we do, and frame it properly so that it would be indexed by search engines and then discovered by people searching for that sort of information who didn’t yet know that we existed. They’d read it, be impressed, and then — bang! — they’d want to buy. Well, some of them, anyway.
As simple as it was, SEO was a tactic that stood in the gap for a not-so-developed content strategy. We had the describing-our-expertise thing down, but we weren’t so solid on the “to those who are looking for it” part yet. We had a vague sense of who they were, but not enough to focus our content properly.
The “who” needed to graduate from “anyone who would pay us money” to someone more specific. Until it did, our services would remain too generally defined — at least as far as any content we created defined it — which would make for a much more competitive landscape to navigate. Being a generic web developer worked for us for a few years, but once all the nephews of CEOs started to learn how to write HTML or work with Dreamweaver, we needed to get serious about defining who we were, what we did, and who we wanted to work with. That CEO’s nephew thing is real, by the way. It was always some CEO’s nephew who had Dreamweaver on his Dell or something.
Of course, that conclusion is one that just about any marketing professional must come to in order to do his or her job effectively. It’s one thing to clearly define what you do, and even to clearly articulate that. But if you aren’t communicating it to the right person, then success will be hard to come by.
Who is Your Audience?
So we need to define our audience, and the best way to do that is to create personas. Is there anyone here who has not heard that term before? There’s a great book that details personas and how to create them by Steve Muldur called The User is Always Right, which I’d recommend. In it, Mulder defines a persona as a “realistic personality profile that represents a significant group of your website’s users.” It’s interesting — personas have been part of the marketing conversation for years and years, especially for marketing consumer products, but as soon as marketers started using the web to communicate to potential customers, particularly about business services, personas were forgotten. It’s taken books and people like Steve Muldur writing them to reestablish the persona as a critical marketing tool.
Typically, a persona looks like this. We’ve identified a type of person whom we believe to be likely to buy from us and rounded out that profile with all kinds of information about him that we think might be relevant to his decision making. We’ve even given him a name, so that when we talk about creating messages for him, we can easily understand who we’re talking about. This message is for a “Brian,” as apposed, I suppose to an “Edward” or something. We don’t just invent all this stuff, of course. We gather it from a process that starts with creating hypothetical personas from our own experience, and then testing them against reality by interviewing a representative sample of our own clients or customers, as well as people who might be future customers or clients, if possible. From their insight, we can finalize our personas and hold every decision — whether about design, development, or content — accountable to them later.
That’s all useful. I’ve created personas for my firm and helped many of my clients create personas as well. But here’s the thing: It’s far more important that your personas represent real stages in the buying cycle than that they represent real people. In other words, doing personas right will require that sales and marketing get together and make sure they have the same people in mind, and — in my experience, anyway — marketing is typically reluctant to admit that sales might know better about that. So, my recommendation is to organize your personas using sales language at the start. After all, the whole point here is to create content that, one way or another, leads to sales. So why not forget “Brian” and cut to the chase. Name him by sales-oriented behavior instead.
No matter how your sales team organizes this sort of thing, there are really three stages of the buying cycle that will always be present, particularly for business-to-business products and services. First, someone researches, then they evaluate options, and then they make a decision to purchase. Sometimes one person does all three of those things, and sometimes the org chart might be deep enough that there’s a unique person doing each one. Either way, you need content that meets the needs of each stage.
You can go further with your personas, and create profiles similar to the one I showed you called “Brian,” but if you stopped there, with just the three stages of the buying cycle standing in for your personas, you’d probably be fine. You’d certainly be better served with that than a desk full of names that don’t correspond to reality.
The next step is to figure out what content would actually help a person at each of those stages. This is where testing your personas by interviewing clients or customers is really helpful. Don’t assume you know if you haven’t asked.
The Four Stages of Content Marketing
OK, so we know what content is for, and now we know who we’re creating it for, too. The next question is what form should our content take?
STAGE 1: Attracting, Informing, Engaging
The first purpose of a content marketing strategy is to provide a scalable plan for regularly adding high quality, educational content to your website that will attract the right prospects, inform them of your expertise, and engage them with calls to action that transition them to qualified and viable leads. This is, essentially, what is much more briefly described as pull marketing, or what we mean when we say conversion-focused. Stage 1 focuses on the written content that makes all this possible.
The trouble with blogs is that we all know what they are. They’re such a known quantity that we take them, as a form, for granted, and assume that we know exactly how to write and maintain them. So, I think it’s helpful to redefine a blog in terms that speak directly to its form in comparison with other forms of content you might create. So, instead of “a blog is, well, you know, a blog…like WordPress,” I’d prefer something like, “a blog takes a cumulative approach to telling the story of your thinking through the ongoing publication of less formal material.” When people subscribe to a blog, they’re entering a more intimate form of relationship — one that is partly about receiving information, but also about receiving it from a person (or persons) with a distinct point of view. Sustained interest is the goal of a blog, and that is much more easily created when the authors are able to be themselves and build relationships with readers.What is a Blog? Ideally, we want to tend toward briefer posts on a blog — in the 500 word territory, though longer is fine so long as that doesn’t cause you to be irregular in your writing. Also, when I say “less formal,” what I mean is that there is room in a blog to take risks with ideas. Every new blog post either builds upon or buries a previous one, so you don’t have to think of them as much as “going on the record” as far as some idea or approach is concerned as you might in another format, like a newsletter or whitepaper. In fact, trying on different ideas, approaches, or points of view in this format and gaining feedback from readers — and taking that feedback seriously — will build a much stronger ongoing relationship with readers and make for a much more effective blog — one that grows its audience and is recommended to others.
Who Writes? Ideally, you’ll want to spread the work around as much as possible. I realize that at many organizations, there’s a tension here. The idea of many people speak for a company makes it that much harder to control the message, and this, of course, makes people nervous. But I’d respond to that by saying that if you don’t trust your employees to represent you well in a blog, then you’ve got bigger problems to fix than fall under the category of blogging or even content marketing. Secondly, blogging isn’t an icing-on-the-cake form of marketing — one we do when we have free time or on an as-we-can basis. It needs to be a concrete responsibility — as in part of someone’s job description. That way it will be taken seriously such that the right people will be assigned who will be capable of taking the right sort of risks as bloggers.
When Should You Publish? That, of course, brings us to the “when.” Ideally, we want to use our blogs to remain top-of-mind with readers, which requires regular output. Generally, I’d recommend finding a feasible place between once a week and every weekday. But overall, consistency is far more important than volume, so if you can’t sustain more than once a week, don’t try. You’ll only burn out.
Numerous experiences have taught me that the word “newsletter” rarely means the same thing twice. Some people think of some bundle of paper mailed out to subscribers — like secret, under-the-radar content. Others think of a regular dispatch of news content. What I have in mind is somewhere in between. When I say “newsletter,” I generally mean a regular, educational article published on your site that is announced with an email sent to subscribers that provides a short description of the article and a link to read it back at your site. But I still think it’s helpful to define these things in a particular way that sets them apart from other forms of content, so I’d describe a newsletter as a regular, long-form presentation of a single idea central to your expertise in one, focused article.What is a Newsletter? So, compared to a blog post, a newsletter is longer and more formal. Ideally, shoot for something in the 1200 – 2500 word range. It can be longer — mine often are — though your audience will obviously shrink as the length increases. It probably shouldn’t be less, since you need the room to properly develop the idea in a serious way. I tend to think of these articles as your opportunity to go “on the record” on a subject relevant to what you do. This means that editorial planning is a must.
Who Writes? Given the formality and length of these articles, I’d recommend sticking with one author. However, in some cases — like where a firm might have several “vertical” areas of expertise that are represented by multiple people — having several authors might be a better fit. In that scenario they might alternate.
When Should You Publish? Again, given the formality and length, which makes a newsletter more work to produce, I’d recommend a monthly publication schedule. This gives plenty of time to research, write and edit your article, but keeps the flow of ideas consistent without being overwhelming. If you don’t think you can meet a monthly deadline, scale back to every other month or quarterly. I wouldn’t drop below that.
- CASE STUDIES
Once written content like blogs and newsletters successfully “pull” new and interested researchers to your site, you need to be ready to transition them from learning about what you do to seeing how you’ve done it. Case studies are more than a portfolio page with lots of nice pictures. I’d define them as visually-rich presentations detailing the successful application of your expertise. You could, of course, provide this sort of information in a blog post or newsletter article, but a prospect specifically looking for examples of your work — someone who is evaluating — they won’t know to do their digging in those sections of your site. But if you have a navigation item called “Case Studies,” where to start will be crystal clear.What is a Case Study? A case study is one of the few places you can get away with a little salesy bragging, so long as you can prove that you’ve provided value. So, I recommend a simple, consistent format for case studies: First frame the objectives, then describe your solution, and finish with some form of measurement of results. While you might like to feature a testimonial — as a pull quote or something like that — a “what they did for me was great” line won’t be enough to establish results. You need something more data-rich that can back up a compelling case for why your solution was sound. With that in mind, choose projects where demonstrating success doesn’t require too much hand-waving or fudging.
Who Writes? You want to spread this work around, and ideally, have it done by those who were actually involved in the work a case study is describing. The written portion shouldn’t be too long — somewhere in the 500 – 700 word range — but the visual documentation could take some work to do well. This means you’ll probably need to divide the responsibility at least in two: one person to do the writing and another — probably someone with some design skills — to do the imagery.
When Should You Publish? You don’t want to publish too many of these and run the risk of being a high volume/low attention to detail sort of company. But you also need to publish them regularly enough to avoid the perception of not having much going on. So, probably quarterly. But you also need to take into consideration the projects themselves. How long does it take to complete something as well as measure outcomes? Depending upon those things, you should work out a schedule that corresponds to your output reality.
Stage 1 is ambitious enough, and frankly, most companies have a hard enough time sustaining a blog well on its own. As appealing as some of the next few types of content I’ll review might be, I wouldn’t recommend moving forward until you’ve truly stabilized the production of stage 1 content. This could take a while.
STAGE 2: Deepening the Content Experience
This stage is comprised of content that either reformats content you’ve already created or deepens the treatment of the same ideas you’ve already worked with, ideally to engage visitors who are more inclined to listen or watch material than read it. One exception to that are research papers, which I’ll cover first.
- RESEARCH PAPERS
Typically, research papers or whitepapers are used to describe proprietary methodology or technology — regardless of whether it’s truly proprietary — and is used as bait to gather information about potential prospects. So in exchange for access to the information, you’d require the user to fill out a brief form of some kind.What is a Research Paper? Bait sounds negative, I know. But there’s nothing really wrong with this format, in my opinion. I just think we can do better with tightening up on who, exactly, we think is a good fit for the information itself. So instead of a wide net, we want the right worm for the right fish. Ideally, this sort of content would be what you create to address the needs of a serious evaluator — someone who has done the research already, perhaps helped by your blog or newsletter to understand some of the finer points of what you do, and is ready to start using content to compare you with other possible options. So, you might use this format to address the evaluation process itself, perhaps going deeper on issues of pricing and even comparing your pricing with competitors. You might share research on what the long-term costs to maintain your product or service are and how companies like your customers tend to budget (or not) for this. This sort of content requires research but gets right to the heart of why you might be the best choice an evaluator can make.
Who Writes? Choose your author wisely. There needs to be a high attention to detail here, so the research component might need to be handled by someone other than the person who actually writes it.
When Should You Publish? Probably not that often. The more “proprietary” the information a paper like this contains, the less likely it probably is to change. Also, as far as research is concerned, it takes time to do well — to gather real data and mine it properly.
You’re probably familiar with webinars — you’ve probably even attended a few. If you haven’t, a webinar is essentially a live seminar, which includes some instruction as well as a question and answer period, conducted on the web. The idea here is to extend your ideas and expertise into a new format, one that will be more likely to be consumed by someone who isn’t much of a reader, or anyone who is interested in asking questions and interacting with you.What is a Webinar? If you’ve stabilized and sustained Stage 1, then your blogs and newsletters should contain plenty of material that could be rethought for the webinar format. That’s definitely where you should start. Being able to refer prospects with questions to an article or a webinar is a powerful way of demonstrating your command over the material they’re interested in. As for the format, I’d recommend keeping the session within the 45 minute – one hour range and making sure you allow time for Q&A.
Who Creates? To do webinars well, you’ll probably need more than one person. Creating the material, which involves writing skills and presentation skills — which in turn are part public speaking and part design for a good slide deck — could all be done by one person, but that’s less likely to produce something great as collaboration might. Once the material is created, there are all kinds of organizational tasks that could be handled by multiple people — coordinating promotion, registration, etc. Also, during the webinar itself, the presenter would probably have an easier time managing the Q&A with a moderator there to vet questions and organize them in priority as they come in.
When Should You Broadcast? A good webinar takes a lot of work, so if you’re managing these other forms of content, I would think that quarterly would be about as often as you’d want to do them. If that’s too much, you could start with two per year and scale up provided you can deliver them at a level of quality you’re satisfied with.
Finally, there are plenty of other audio and video formats that you might use to extend your ideas into new networks of interested people who might not be readers. You might do podcasts or video casts, or you might just create the occasional video if that format suits the material best. If you’re interested in pushing out into these other formats, I’d recommend starting with the written stuff first, so that you can carefully think through what you want to say, then using them as launching points for audio or video later. The additional challenge in audio and video has to do with performance — public speaking type stuff — which is something you can leave pretty unaddressed with writing.
STAGE 3: Expanding Beyond Your Site
If you master stages 1 and 2, you’ll generate lots of interest and probably start getting offers to create content elsewhere. Generally, these opportunities will be of two kinds — either writing or speaking to peers or to prospects. Both offer obvious benefits.
Writing articles for other publications is a great opportunity to gain wider exposure and strengthen your reputation. But, I’ll tell you, the experience of just being asked is powerful. It’s flattering, and when we’re flattered, we tend to not be very discerning. So if you’re asked, first consider who is asking. Do they represent the right platform for you? What’s in it for them? What’s in it for you? If it’s your first offer, and the platform is right, the exposure you stand to gain may be compensation enough. If this is the case, be willing to try it at least once and measure the outcome. You’ve got to start somewhere.If you continue to do any freelance writing, you should pursue real compensation — not for the sake of actually making any real money, but for establishing a real value to your writing. As they say, pricing is positioning. Also, guard your time and energy wisely, bearing in mind that it comes in limited quantity.
- PUBLIC SPEAKING
Generally, the same considerations you’ll want to weigh for offsite writing are relevant to public speaking opportunities. There is real value to the reputational benefit of speaking, whether to peers or prospects. Of course, if people who might actually hire you are in the audience, that’s ultimately better. But, the reputation boost has to be earned. Your first one will be a risk for whomever invited you, so prepare well — rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, and in front of people, too. Afterward, seek out feedback and be prepared for it to hurt a little. Your goal as a speaker is probably to teach something, and those who are teachable make the best teachers.As for style, be yourself. If you can refine your presentation skills and remain fully you, you will do well. Also consider the context and craft your approach accordingly. Some engagements will require a more polished, keynote-style presentation, while others will be more casual and classroom like. You may be better at one than another, but it will be worthwhile to try to do both well.
STAGE 4: Book Publishing
Many people consider book publishing to be the final frontier. Having written a book is often a level of prestige that solidifies the impression of your expertise — even if nobody reads it! Crazy, right? But, writing a book is a major undertaking and the outcome — the potential prestige — should be a distant possibility. Writing well is hard enough. Writing a book is another matter entirely. It requires enough knowledge to fill it; patience, diligence, and steady craft to write it; and the humility to submit to an editor and re-write much of it on the basis of his or her feedback.
With all of that said, there are three approaches you might take to book publishing. Each has it’s pros and cons:
Self-publishing might be a good way to get your ideas bound in a book format quickly and inexpensively, but without an existing network of influence, it will be very difficult to turn that object into an effective marketing tool. If you already have written and published books, and already have a devoted following — perhaps through a blog or something like that — then you still might be able to make it work. But it’s a major uphill battle and you would be flying solo the whole time. If you’ve never written a book before or even done much serious writing, I’d advise another route.Pro: Total control, full proceeds, faster turnaround.
Con: No accountability, professional editorial opinion, influential backing, or marketing help. No advance. Responsible for all production, marketing and fulfillment costs.
- WORKING WITH AN INDEPENDENT PUBLISHER
Many of the pros you might imagine coming from self-publishing — like more control, full or better share of the proceeds, faster turnaround — are available here, but with fewer of the cons. There are many small, independent publishers around today, and they’re typically people with insight into the publishing experience. One I’d recommend is Rockbench Publishing, which is run by David Baker. He describes it as a publisher of “courageous thought leadership content.”Mark O’Brien’s book, A Website that Works, was published by Rockbench.
Pro: More control, more of the proceeds (if not all—depends upon the publisher), professional editorial and marketing help, faster turnaround.
Con: No advance likely. Typically responsible for production, marketing and fulfillment costs.
- TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING CONTRACT
When people dream of writing a book, this is usually what they have in mind. And, depending upon the publisher and you, I suppose it could be a dream scenario. A wise friend recently said to me, “Expectation is disappointment waiting to happen.” If you’re just getting started as a writer, don’t expect a contract with much freedom or one that lets you quit your job. If you are offered a contract, a more likely situation would be getting started with a modest advance and writing on nights and weekends. There are many benefits to plugging in to a real publishing business, but publishers are still playing catch-up with the web and so things will move pretty slowly. But, a professional publisher will take care of just about everything for you — the editing process, the marketing, sales, and fulfillment, etc. — which gives you the ability to focus on writing. But that all comes at a steep cost. You’ll negotiate a contract with very specific royalty percentages that favor paying the publisher back for its investment. So, don’t expect to get rich!My first book, The Strategic Web Designer, was published with a traditional contract with HOW Books. I found that to be a good experience, and would be happy to share more about that if you’re interested.
Pro: Modest advance. Influential backing with professional editorial, design, and marketing team. Placement of your book in stores (online and brick and mortar). Aggressive promotion.
Con: Less control over content. Even less control over title, cover design, and promotion. Less of the proceeds. Much slower turnaround.
It was at this point that my computer’s battery started running low. Bit of a rookie error to not plug it in. Keynote started lecturing me about how it wouldn’t resume my presentation until I’d fixed the situation. Rude. So I just shut my laptop and went ahead without it. 😉 – CB
Managing Content Production
So at this point, we’ve almost got a map. If we were to plot all of this on paper, we’d have destinations, and a vague sense of where things are relative to one another, but we don’t yet have a firm sense of how, exactly, to navigate them.
You may have noticed as I’ve been talking that the image behind me has been slowly coming in to focus. If my computer was still on, I’d be pointing that out right now and asking you if you could tell what this image is.
Did anyone make it out? Right, it was a road! This is where we are right now — we’re standing in front of a road that’s slowly been coming in to focus, but we still need a bit more information to be confident enough to start moving forward — to have the clarity we need to travel that road.
What we need now are a few management tools to connect things — our content with our personas — together, so that we don’t get lost or mixed up about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and who we’re doing it for later.
First and foremost, you need people. Content marketing needs to be officially staffed — it can’t be the kind of thing that just gets “covered” by people who happen to be willing to do some extra work. In fact, there really needs to be least one person who works full-time on managing it all in order for content marketing to really work.
This person might have any number of titles — that part is up to you and what makes the most sense for your organization — but they need to be empowered to lead. They need to understand and care about the strategic objectives and have the authority to act in order to achieve them. There are two tools that the manager/editor can use to organize the content marketing system:
The first is a content matrix. This could be a simple as a spreadsheet that identifies the key personas — which we discussed earlier, but should ultimately correspond to the buying cycles — and the content types that you’ll be working with to address them. The matrix should form a pattern between the content and the persona, which will help you create an editorial calendar with clear objectives later, as well as a clear idea of what call to action should be matched with each piece of new content. With the right matrix in place, you might work out a cycler that determines that every third newsletter should be written to the evaluator or every other blog post should be written to the researcher.
The matrix leads to the second tool, which is an editorial calendar. This should be a literal calendar — not an idea or a document on one person’s computer — that is accessible to everyone expected to create content. Things like Google Calendar or Basecamp are simple and powerful tools for just this sort of thing.
An editorial calendar comes from the strategic objectives shown in the matrix — what kinds of content should we be creating for which personas — and should contain specific deadlines for individuals to create specific pieces of content that address those objectives. So, for example, the calendar would show that John has a blog post — about a specific thing written to a specific persona, which you’ve worked out with him already — due on November 2nd, and Jane has a case study — about a specific project with specific points you want her to cover — due on November 10th. These aren’t publication dates, but deadlines the creators need to meet for the editor or manager, who will then review their content and either send it back for revision, or move it along in the process.
These tools are essential to managing the complexity of content marketing successfully.
There is so much more…
…that I want to talk to you about — that if I did, we’d be here all day — stuff about the interpersonal work of managing content production, stuff about engagement, about promotion, about writing itself, about measuring the effectiveness of your content, and even about not letting your ego get in the way — which is a very real and important thing in any creative endeavor. But like I said, we don’t have time. But, I’ve got stuff on all of that right here on this website…
For further reading…
- How to Use Google Analytics to measure the effectiveness of your content
- How to Promote Your Website Content
- On Writing, for Creative People
…and of course, check out my book, The Strategic Web Designer, which has chapters on personas, content strategy, and measurement.