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The Four Stages of Content Marketing

Planning a long-term content marketing strategy isn’t easy. In fact, once you realistically lay out your goals and the steps you’ll need to take to reach them, it can seem like an insurmountable task. But the steps are actually what will make reaching your goal possible. Without them, it would be easy to rush toward an outcome for which you’re not yet acclimated.

This month we’ll follow up January’s article on content with one that methodically builds a long-term but comprehensive content marketing strategy. If your goal is to make it to the top, you’ll need to learn how to successfully master each step in-between and maintain a slow and steady pace.


1. How blogs, newsletters, and case studies will help you to attract, inform, and engage prospects through your website.

2. Strategies for deepening the content experience on your website with webinars, audio and video.

3. How to expand your content marketing plan to include offsite opportunities to write and speak.

4. What it’s like to publish a book.

Last month, in The Truth About Content, my main purpose was to pass along a few simple pieces of advice: That when it comes to marketing, content is not product; to start small and have a plan for growth; to treat it as seriously as a publisher does; and perhaps most importantly, to not let your ego get in the way.

Most of that is just pure common sense. But just because something is obviously in our way doesn’t mean that we aren’t likely to stumble over it. Am I right?

I briefly covered the idea of easing in to a fully-functioning content-marketing system—that was the start small and have a plan for growth part—but I didn’t get into too much detail about what easing in might look like. That’s what I’ll cover this time around: Generally, I’ve observed four stages to content marketing for agencies; each one builds upon the former once it’s been stabilized and continues to push the range of content influence outward.

On the right, I’ve created a timeline showing how we’ve approached content marketing over the last 5 years. There are places where it won’t exactly match the four-stage pattern, though, as opportunities took us in directions we couldn’t always predict. But in general, our experience has taught us that the four-stage approach for anyone starting out today makes a lot of sense.


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 prospects, inform them of your expertise, and engage them in a helpful and conversion focused process that transitions visitors to qualified and viable leads. This is, essentially, what is much more briefly described as pull marketing. Stage 1 is focused on the written content that is the foundation of a modern, conversion-focused website.


You know what a blog is. A blog is one of those things that is more easily recognized than described; suffice it to say you know one when you see one. But when developing a content marketing strategy, it’s helpful to start thinking of a blog in particular terms that differentiate it from other forms of written content you might create. Here’s the definition that I’ve settled on: A blog takes a cumulative approach to telling the story of your thinking through many shorter, less formal posts. When people subscribe to a blog, they are entering into a more intimate form of content relationship than other platforms. It’s not just about the information itself. The point of view and the author’s voice, often delivered in a more casual, raw and almost improvised manner, are just as important to building and maintaining readership.

Because this format is generally more casual, brief (~500 words), and frequent than the others you might adopt in Stage 1, it’s also one that allows for more risk. Not every idea you discuss in a blog needs to be road tested, backed up with data, or what have you. Regular editorial planning sessions, in which you assign specific topics, will probably be necessary to keep your contributors’ writing, though at the outset there may be enough excitement and momentum to make them seem unnecessary. Stick with them, though. Over time, there will be dry spells where the system will be the only thing between you and an apparently abandoned blog.

To maintain this level of output, it’s best to distribute the work as widely as you are able. This tends to create discomfort, either because firms want to consolidate and control their public voice, or because people who otherwise would be natural choices are already swamped with work. To this, I usually point out a couple of things: (1) If you don’t trust your employees to represent your firm well in your blog, you’ve got much bigger problems (see last month’s piece under …meddling egos). (2) Blogging isn’t a cheaper form of marketing. It’s just a different one that also requires investment. It needs to be a required part of a contributor’s job description, not a “when you have spare time” assignment.

There’s a value in blogging to remaining top-of-mind for your readers, so that of course implies a certain level of frequency. I generally recommend finding a comfortable volume somewhere between once a week and every weekday. There are blogs I read that stick to a once-per-week schedule and deliver a rich, thought-provoking piece that I can expect and will set aside time to digest. There are also a few blogs that publish every single day. It’s usually lighter material, but it’s a stream of thought that comes naturally to the writer, one I’ve decided to tap into. But most blogs are somewhere in between. As I mentioned above, blogging is generally informal writing, which means that the more you write, the easier it will become. You should get to the point of writing as fluidly as you would speak. But no matter what frequency you settle upon, consistency is more important than volume.


I discovered in a recent consulting engagement that the word “newsletter” can mean many different things to different people. For some, it means a collection of news items and press releases. For others, it means a regular promotional mailing—whether that be electronic or good, old-fashioned paper. But when I use the term, I mean a regularly produced, educational article published on your website with a companion “teaser” email sent to subscribers linking them to it. But like blogging, newsletter writing needs to be differentiated from other written marketing platforms, so for those to whom it’s general purpose is clear, I typically define it in these terms: A newsletter is your long-form venue for routinely developing a single-idea important to your expertise and positioning in one, focused article.

Compared with a blog post, a newsletter article is more formally written and longer. 1200-2500 words is a reasonable range; it can be more—though your audience will shrink as the length increases—and probably shouldn’t be less. I tend to describe newsletter articles as regular opportunities to go “on the record” on a subject critical to what you do, so editorial planning is even more critical to this platform.

Generally, given the length, formality, and frequency (I’ll mention that next), it makes sense to have one writer cover the newsletter. However, there are cases in which more than one may better fit the bill. One example of this that I’ve seen more than once is when a firm has several principals who each “cover” a particular discipline vertical.

Because a newsletter is more formal and longer than a blog post, it will naturally require considerably more work to produce. With that in mind—and the same principle of consistency over volume as I mentioned for blogging—publishing monthly is probably as far as you’ll want to push it. If you don’t think you can consistently meet a monthly deadline, start at once every other month or quarterly and assess that schedule after you’ve maintained it for a year.


Once you’ve attracted someone to your website with written content that addresses their questions, concerns, and other need-to-knows, you need to be ready to show them the next thing they’ll want to see: your work. Case studies are more than just pretty pictures. I would define them as visually-rich written explanations of the successful application of your expertise. While you could conceivably deliver this information in a blog post or a newsletter, a prospect looking specifically to see your work won’t know to sift through those articles to find it. But having “Case Studies” in your menu couldn’t be more clear.

A case study is one of the few opportunities you have to brag and be salesy, provided you can successfully prove value. This is one reason to maintain a consistent format in every case study: First, frame the challenge, then describe your solution, and finish with the outcome. An outcome isn’t a testimonial—though those are great to include, as well—it’s a data-rich explanation of the results your solution provided. If you can’t truthfully demonstrate an outcome, don’t fudge it. Your case study will need specificity, so only choose the projects where providing detail will be good exposure.

Like a blog, the work required to produce good case studies is ideally distributed across the team responsible for the project they document. Though the written part shouldn’t be too lengthy (500-750 words), the visual documentation and measurement work required to describe outcomes shouldn’t be underestimated. This is why having a standard format for case studies will be helpful. It removes the creative work from the process and helps to focus everyone on fact-gathering and presentation skills—the creativity in a case study should be in the solution they describe, not the case study itself.

I’d recommend a conservative schedule for case studies. Regularly updating your documented work is a good thing—it shows that you are still active, which is always going to be a question on your prospects’ minds—but in determining how often to do so, there are a few factors to consider. First, how long does an average project take? If it’s somewhere between 3 and 6 months, you probably won’t be able to do more than quarterly updates (unless you have a very large team running many projects simultaneously). Second, you’ll need to give time after completing the project to measure outcomes. Depending upon what you’ve done and what you need to measure, that could be quite a while. Finally, there’s the usual question of bandwidth. Because a case study is more of a project than just a written article—involving research, writing, analysis, and imagery—it will probably take a bit more time. You will probably need to schedule the production of case studies as mini projects with real deadlines to ensure that they actually get done.

As is probably more than clear at this point. Stage 1 is ambitious enough. As appealing as some of the content opportunities may be in later stages, your priority should be to first stabilize the attract-inform-engage system before moving to later stages.


Stage 2: Deepening the Content Experience

Stage 2 generally is distinguished by content that either repurposes or deepens the content you’ve created in Stage 1 in new formats, which will in turn engage visitors who are more inclined to listen or watch material than read it. One exception to that, of course, is the first one I’ve listed below, whitepapers.


Generally, whitepapers are even more formal written documents than newsletters, providing detailed explanations of proprietary methodology or technology. Depending upon the degree to which you or your firm practice some form of proprietary methodology or have developed a proprietary technology, whitepapers may be included in Stage 1. There is definitely flexibility here. But if you don’t have truly proprietary methodology or technology to describe, a whitepaper may be unnecessary, especially if you’re already writing a regular newsletter.

A whitepaper might include deeper articulation of diagnostic procedures, description of a unique process you have developed, explanation of feature sets, etc. In most cases, these sorts of things are considered proprietary, and firms are understandably interested in preventing this information from being indexed or too easily accessed. In those cases, it is appropriate to require the user to submit some information (e.g. name, email, title, business name and URL) before accessing your whitepapers. It is probably one of the only formats where limiting access still makes sense.

Writing a whitepaper could involve some technical writing in addition to the formality the format tends to require, so choose your writer carefully. If you hire a writer, make sure you allocate time for key people to be sourced and/or gather information to be sourced.

The more proprietary the information a whitepaper contains, the less likely it is to change. With that in mind, the publishing schedule for whitepapers should be determined by relevance, not routine.


You’re probably familiar with webinars. Perhaps you’ve already attended one of ours. 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 main advantage to conducting webinars is to increase the exposure of your expertise to those people who aren’t as interested in reading an article as they might be in watching or listening to the same material. Additionally, it’s a great opportunity to gain some initial practice when it comes to public speaking.

If you have maintained Stage 1 for a while, you should have plenty of material for webinars. Take a look at any newsletter article you’ve written and think about how its content could be delivered in a seminar format. Being able to refer prospects or even existing clients to an article or a webinar on a subject they may ask about is powerful tool—not only in terms of informing people, but also demonstrating your command of the material. As for the material itself, we recommend keeping the entire session to 45 minutes—30 minutes for your presentation and 15 for Q&A.

Point of view is just as important in a webinar as any other format, especially since the person leading the session will not only require strong presentation skills, but also the ability to think on their feet during the Q&A period. They need to know the material through and through. Given the work required for preparation, the presenter should probably not be directly responsible for other in-depth writing (e.g. newsletters or whitepapers) unless they have the bandwidth. Ideally, they will be able to source designers on staff to help with the visual presentation, and someone to help with the organizational tasks of coordinating registration, promotion, and moderating the questions during the session.

Like any other content platform, a regular schedule is more important than volume. Given the work required and the lead time you’ll want to promote the event, quarterly is probably the best, most sustainable schedule.


The popularity of webinars shows how hungry people are for a variety of content formats. Creating audio and video is an opportunity to connect with those who may not be inclined to read a blog or newsletter. In general, these formats can be integrated into other content platforms, like a blog, newsletter, or case study. But as stand-alone delivery formats—as podcasts and videocasts—they should follow the same rules as blog and newsletter writing (depending upon how formal you want them to be).


Stage 3: Expanding Beyond Your Site

As you continue to produce high quality content rich with your expertise on your website, you’ll probably begin to be offered opportunities to do so elsewhere. There are obvious benefits to this, of course, especially in regard to your reputation and exposure, but it’s also a critical juncture. It’s at this point that you should consider two simple questions:

1. Do I need to do this?

2. Do I want to do this?

One “yes” (or “no”) may not lead to another. If being included in key events or publications is a priority for your firm, you should then consider who is best to do the work. It may not be you. (Again, see last month’s piece under …meddling egos. If your employee is asked to write or speak elsewhere, this is a good thing.) On the other hand, if ambition leads you to an immediate desire to speak or write professionally, make sure you can do so responsibly. It makes no sense to pursue prestige by making promises you cannot deliver. Or in other words, if your firm’s a mess and struggling for work, return to Stage 1. Leapfrogging is not advised.


Writing articles for other publications is a good opportunity to have your expertise published and expand your reputation. But be discerning. The experience of being asked is a powerful one—one that is flattering enough to dispense with judgement at exactly the time you’ll need it. Consider who is asking: Is this the right platform for you? Is there equal or enough benefit? It’s likely that before you’re asked to write and are actually compensated for your work, you will be offered an opportunity, the implication of which is the publisher’s (probably correct) assumption that the exposure you stand to gain from them outweighs the value of your contribution. If this is the case, be willing to try it once and measure the outcome. You’ve got to start somewhere.

If you continue to do any freelance writing, you should move toward compensation for all of your offsite writing—not for the sake of actually making money (you won’t make much) but for establishing a real value to your writing. As you become known, pricing is positioning. Finally, guard your time and energy wisely, bearing in mind that as soon as you’re reporting to another editor, you’re at the mercy of her schedule!


Many of the same considerations of offsite writing opportunities are relevant to public speaking. There is real value to the reputational benefit of speaking at industry events, especially those attended by people you would want to hire you—just being among the speaker lineup positions you as an expert. Of course, that reputation boost can be very short-lived. If you don’t get up there and earn it with a good presentation, it would have been better had you not been there at all. That said, if you do begin to do any public speaking, plan for personal growth. Assume your first experience wasn’t your best and seek out feedback, expecting it to sting some. Those who are teachable make the best teachers.

As for style, be yourself. Unless you’re a fantastic actor, contriving a speaker persona will only lead to embarrassment. People can spot falseness and posturing immediately. But 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

Book publishing is the top of the ladder, so to speak. To have written a book is not simply a matter of prestige—though if it’s a good book, prestige could certainly result—it’s one of considerable challenge and investment. Writing well—regardless of the format or style—is difficult enough as it is. Writing a book is an entirely different endeavor, one that requires enough knowledge to fill it; the 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
Generally, I’d advise against self-publishing unless you have already published books and have a devoted following. Taking a Field of Dreams approach (“If I write it, they will read”) to your first book is probably not going to work. They won’t read your book, because they already have plenty to read written by people they have heard of. But if you do have a devoted following—whether from books, web publishing, or public speaking—you may have the leverage to cut out the middle-man and do it on your terms (plenty of well-known people have done this recently). Of course, if that’s you, you’re probably not reading this article, so the rest of you: Go a different 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.

Partnering with an Independent Publisher
This approach may offer many of the pros you might imagine coming from a self-publishing (e.g. more control, full or better share of the proceeds, faster turnaround) but with fewer of the cons. There are more and more independent niche publishers active today than ever, typically run by people with insight and publishing experience. One I’d recommend is Rockbench Publishing, David Baker’s imprint, which focuses on “courageous thought leadership content” with an emphasis on the marketing industry.

So you know: 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
This is the approach that most people envision when they dream of someday writing a book. Depending upon the publisher and you, a book contract could be a dream scenario. But consider your expectations. A wise friend recently said to me, “Expectation is disappointment waiting to happen.” If you’re not already well known as a writer, don’t expect a contract that will offer you a large advance and the freedom to “just write” for months on end. Instead, consider the more likely scenario of a modest advance and spending your nights and weekends writing. While the benefits of tapping into a well-run publishing machine are many, especially if there is a natural fit between their positioning and your book, the publishing world is still playing catch-up with the web and will move more slowly than you probably are hoping it will. But remember, a professional publisher will take care of just about everything for you, giving you the luxury of being able to focus on the material. Of course, that comes at a steep cost. You’ll negotiate a contract with very specific royalty percentages that favor paying the publisher back for its investment. Don’t expect to get rich!

So you know: I’ve recently finished my first book, The Strategic Web Designer: How to Confidently Navigate the Web Design Process with HOW Books, which will be available later this year. It’s been a great experience. I’ll share more about that in a post sometime soon.

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.


Firehose off!

How could there be more to say after all of that. There really isn’t actually, except for this: Don’t be intimidated, be informed! I said earlier that Stage 1 was ambitious enough, and I did mean that. Doing blogging, newsletters, and case studies regularly and well is difficult, and any expansion from there is just that—more work. But the value of the four-stage plan is in being a long-term, feasible content strategy road map, not an immediate to-do list.

Good luck, and let us know how it’s going!

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