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Cooking Up a Content Strategy: Recipe-Writing Instructions

I sometimes moonlight as a food writer, and it recently occurred to me (d’oh!) that formulating a really good content strategy is a lot like cooking or, more precisely, like developing a recipe.

In both cases, you begin with a goal and a bit of educated guesswork, embark on a process of careful planning and trial and error, documenting and tweaking as you go, and come away with a tasty reward — as well as a blueprint for future success. Another thing recipes and content strategies have in common is that, while both allow for plenty of creativity and experimentation, there are also certain rules you have to follow, or you’ll end up with a broken sauce, a fallen souffle, or an ineffectual content strategy.

Of course, as anyone who likes to cook can tell you, all recipes aren’t created equal; there are good ones and there are bad ones. A hastily thrown-together recipe — one that isn’t tested thoroughly or written clearly — all but guarantees failure in the kitchen. Same goes for your content strategy.

This is all to say that the planning stage — the part where you decide which ingredients to include in your content strategy and how to handle them — is probably the most crucial factor determining the success of your content marketing efforts. During this time, your business has the opportunity to carefully assess its goals, think through its core messaging, consider publishing channels and personas, and determine which resources can realistically be committed to building and maintaining your strategy of choice.

This whole analogy to recipe writing is cute and all, but I’m sticking with it because I actually think it’s a useful way to frame one’s thinking around the planning stages of content marketing. With that said, let’s walk through the process of developing a sound content strategy recipe that serves your business’s marketing needs.

1. Pick a Dish, or, Define Desired Results. This may sound obvious, but the first step in developing a recipe is deciding what exactly you want to make. On the one hand, specificity is important. It’s not enough to say you want to make pizza. What kind of pizza? White crust or wheat? And is the crust store-bought or homemade? What about sauces and toppings? On the other hand, it’s wise to remain somewhat flexible at this stage. After all, the recipe development process itself will provide feedback that will result in modifications to your original plan. Maybe that honey-wheat crust you had your heart set on is just too sweet with the sauce you made. Only by working through the recipe can you see what really works, and it’s important that decisions be made with the quality of the final dish (rather than your preconceived goals) in mind. That’s true of your content strategy, too. You may think you want a blog, newsletter, whitepapers, and webinars — and defining those goals at the outset is an important step — but you’ll want to remain open as you develop your plan further, with decisions made realistically and in service of a content strategy that truly works, not some unproven wish list.

2. Check Out How Others are Doing It. Just as I usually begin recipe development with a review of what’s already out there, now’s the time to check out how other firms are approaching content marketing. Pay especially close attention to your direct competitors, your aspirational competitors (firms you admire that, in your estimation, currently outclass you), and firms whose content you regularly consume, whether or not they are in your industry. Doing so will give you a better sense of what does and doesn’t work in a real-world context, one that relates directly to your industry, target audience, and the things you hope to achieve. The idea here isn’t to copy another firm’s strategy play by play, but to get a better sense of what your target audience is already being exposed to — and what’s being done by the standard-bearers in your industry. If you find yourself in need of fresh inspiration, visit our friends at Valuable Content. Their monthly Valuable Content Award is a great resource that showcases firms with top-notch content.

3. Gather Ingredients. Ok, now’s the time to do an honest inventory of your resources. Just as you can’t make pizza without certain basics, like flour, cheese, and sauce (don’t go getting all semantic about this; yes, you could make gluten-free, dairy-free, and sauceless pizza, but you know what I mean), you can’t implement a content strategy without the proper resources to back it up. So, think it through: who exactly is going to manage the blog, and how much time can they realistically be expected to commit to that task? Who will contribute, and how often will each contributor be asked to produce? How often can you, as a company, commit to publishing new blog material? Now ask the same sorts of questions about every one of the content types you put on your content strategy wish list. Remember: consistency is key, and it’s better to do one thing — a blog, say — really well than to do three things haphazardly. Start small and diversify your approach as you become comfortable with what you’re already doing.

4. Consider Timing. Even with the simplest dishes (think eggs fried over-medium), great cooking is all about good timing. When it comes to that egg, ten seconds can spell the difference between perfection — slightly thickened, golden yolks — and rubbery disappointment. Cook an entire meal with several dishes, and the need for spot-on timing only intensifies. Without it, you’ll never get everything on the table, fresh and warm, at the right intervals. Think of your website as the table, with each type of content requiring its own unique process and timing before it can be added to the table. That sort of orchestration is challenging no matter what, but it becomes even trickier when considering the big-picture content needs of your site, especially if you’re trying to work with overarching themes across content types. It will take practice to get the timing right, which is one of the reasons we advise starting small and taking it slow. However, simply being aware of the challenges associated with timing is an important first step in the right direction.

5. Define and Refine Your Method. What makes for an excellent recipe? Testing, testing, testing. Well, that’s not the only thing, of course — the finished result is pretty important, too — but even recipes for the most delectable concoctions are still failures if they’re too vague or error-ridden to be successfully replicated. The testing phase of recipe development begins with a tentative blueprint, which is then refined through controlled, rigorous experimentation and documentation, moving ever closer to something that’s as foolproof as it is delicious. As you might expect, content strategies are similar, only — as opposed to a recipe — you’re never really done with this phase. Like a recipe that has yet to be tested, your initial content strategy is basically just an educated guess; hopefully you’re pointed in the right direction, but there are a lot of things you don’t yet know, and those details matter. As you get going, you’ll want to pay close attention to how your content strategy is performing, and that means setting benchmarks and paying attention to analytics and conversions. Though somewhat less obvious, it also means checking in with staff to see whether the amount of output you’ve planned for is sustainable in practice. Now, rinse and repeat. Ad nauseum. Keep in mind that a content strategy is a perpetual work in progress, and one measure of success is how dynamic it is in the face of shifting conditions. For example, the content on your site should reflect your firm’s current thinking, direction, and goals — something that will naturally change over time. Likewise, the breadth and depth of your content strategy should shift in accordance with both resources and results, neither of which will ever be static.

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