A Comprehensive Guide to Content Marketing
As we’re entering the 2020s, things are moving faster than ever. The produce-target-publish-dispose cycle is spinning at a dizzying speed, resulting in an overproduction of digital content. With new content being thrown in users’ faces every few seconds, the attention span has reached a breaking point. People no longer have the patience nor time to sift through content until they get what they need. More disposable than a paper cup, content that does not reach its mark right away becomes virtual garbage.
This is particularly relevant for the advertising industry and marketing. Just ten years ago, no marketing tool was more efficient than the plain ol’ ad. And as per the usual human habit, marketers started overdoing it. Flashy banners and intrusive pop-ups ambushing unsuspecting visitors led to a sense of saturation, and ultimately, an aversion towards this traditional marketing method. Cue AdBlock, and today we find ourselves in a dilemma – if not ads, then what? According to most progressive marketing gurus, the answer lies in content marketing.
Content marketing is by no means a new thing. If you think of it as of storytelling, which it essentially is, you’ll see it has been around for, well…four millennia. And it always served a clear purpose. Entertainment, passtime, delight, persuasion, argumentation…just think of Scheherazade and her tales of 1001 nights. As an example, this might be a stretch, but you get the idea.
What we call content marketing today is not that different from traditional storytelling and, thanks to this, it packs all its power. So today we are going to take a deep dive into this method. By the time we emerge on the other side, we will have harnessed the power of content marketing and its many strategies and channels. Here’s what we’re going to cover:
If you happened to Google “content marketing,” you have most likely come across this definition from the Content Marketing Institute: “Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”
Alright. This is a good working definition, but it doesn’t tell you much, does it? Let’s try to rephrase: Content marketing is storytelling custom-tailored for its designated audience, crafted to provide value and serve a purpose. It can be a solution to a problem, an answer to a question, an idea, a tip or a piece of advice… As long as it answers a need, it’s good. And if it helps you move closer to your goal (conversion), all the better.
There’s another thing that can be said about content marketing with absolute certainty: it works. Let’s see why.
Content marketing is, above all, engaging. It pulls the audience in without trying to sell them anything (at least not directly). This approach tells the audience several things:
You understand their needs.
You have what they need.
They’re not expected to give anything back.
You respect them, and their time.
Now might be a good time to point out that content is a wide term and that it encompasses a range of media: from written word to images and video, through social networks, of course. We will go through all of these in a bit, but since we’re working on an explanation here, it’s something to keep in mind.
This means that content marketing can involve anything from guest blogging to viral Instagram campaigns. It is an immersive, engaging creation that you serve to your audience with an end goal in mind, while remaining respectful of their needs.
A lot of people think of content marketing as something innate to digital marketing. While content marketing is one of the pillars of digital marketing, it is actually way older and has been around for decades before the first PCs.
We can go as far back as the 19th century and we’ll find some brilliant examples of content marketing – for instance, it was in 1888 that Johnson & Johnson launched their Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment and several other publications aimed at improving public health awareness, in which, of course, they promoted their own products, such as bandages and gauze.
Similarly, in 1896 John Deere launched The Furrow, a journal on all things farming, which was a mix of useful advice, best practices and current issues, peppered with the news about the company’s latest products. Not only does The Furrow still exist, but it has a circulation of 1.5 mil copies in 40 languages and 12 countries.
The recipe for success of these publications (and many other similar ones) is strikingly simple and it encompasses just what we had discussed above – they all provided useful, concrete information that the audience can appreciate.
Like we said earlier, one of the reasons why content marketing works is that it gives your audience what they need and gives you something (leads, sales, whatever) in return, without being obtrusive, aggressive or pushy.
Obviously, a thorough approach like this is bound to have some great results:
It increases brand awareness. There are just too many brands out there right now. The market is a lot like a forest and the average consumer is a lot like the Little Red Riding Hood trying to make it to her Grandma’s house without being eaten by big game companies thirsting for her money. Brands with strong reputation are more likely to make it in that forest, but what about the startups and budding businesses? Content marketing can help them get on the map by providing niche-specific content that answers the consumers’ needs. When a brand consistently manages to do so, it rises above the forest and becomes the only point of reference in a certain field or niche.
It builds loyalty and trust. One of the pillars of content marketing is honesty. You produce actionable, quality content that serves a purpose. And you do so without trying to (directly) sell anything. This is the shortest way to a consumer’s heart. When a relationship is built on trust and respect, it is more likely to grow into something more lucrative than in-your-face ad targeting that has already started to creep the consumers out with its uncanny timing and placement.
It helps build authority. Brands that represent authorities in their field, be it economy, tech, lifestyle or health, simply do better and grow faster. We all seek out figures of authority when we need help. One way to become an authority in your niche is to maintain a constant, reliable flow of quality content that solves dilemmas and answers questions, gives ideas and inspires action.
It improves traffic. Inbound leads are among the most direct results of a good content marketing campaign. Optimized, quality content is more likely to rank well on search engines, especially if it is constant. This, in turn, means more people coming to your digital home for information and help, hopefully clicking through more than just one page and engaging in a way that ticks your lead generation boxes.
It supports social communication. Good content is easily shareable. When you put out something that is not only well-crafted but also fun, engaging and, above all, universally useful, people become more likely to share it with others on their social platforms. That way you not only expand your reach, but you also open up a channel for communication between your brand and your audience, a channel that is incredibly precious.
It optimizes the customer journey. These days, most decisions start with a search. Say we have a person looking for a service in their area. They type a query in the search bar, and your brand comes up somewhere on the first page of SERP. If your content provides enough information, tells them something they didn’t already know and shows your trustworthiness, the person (who has now become a prospect) will possibly join your list, becoming a lead, and then, hopefully, gently pushed by the authority your content exudes, become a buyer.
So, the benefits are pretty clear. But traditional marketing has its virtues too, right? Most of the “classic” marketing channels are still in the game and still helping their strategists earn billions. Let’s take a quick look at how the two fare against each other.
When we talk about traditional marketing, what we’re thinking are the channels like TV/radio commercials, newspaper ads, billboards, signs and banners, direct mail, flyers, etc… the stuff most people think of when they hear of “marketing/advertising.” It’s also the stuff that most people are pretty tired of, due to its often intrusive nature. You’re sitting there on your sofa after a long day, watching your favorite game show, and just when you’re about to find out if the fellow from Cincinnati is going to win the $1,000,000 prize, they cut to commercials. Or you open your mailbox and find a letter in a nice envelope, you get all excited about it, only to find out it’s a direct mail ad from your local laundrette.
Content marketing is the very opposite of all that, in several aspects:
Traditional marketing tells (you to buy), content marketing gives (you something you need).
Traditional marketing speaks at you, content marketing talks with you.
Traditional marketing is general, content marketing is personal.
Traditional marketing is static, content marketing is dynamic.
It’s clear how content marketing takes a more humanist approach, by always keeping the customers’ needs in mind. But it’s directly more beneficial for the marketers and companies too – simply because it’s so much cheaper.
Primetime ads are incredibly expensive. A 30 second ad during a TV show (and let’s not get into Super Bowl or NBA playoff ad fares) rarely costs less than $100,000, and, depending on the programming, can go way up.
It is estimated that content marketing costs 62% less than traditional marketing, and that says a lot. Sure, certain content marketing strategies, like long-running publications with a large circulation, aren’t exactly cheap either, but if we only focus on the digital realm, which is our field here, the costs are much more modest.
No one’s saying that a company should ditch the “old school ways” in favor of content marketing. In fact, most successful brands actually combine the two channels – they will have a traditional ad campaign, TV commercials, billboards and all, based on storytelling. Just think of Coca-Cola and their classic heartwarming Santa Claus fairytales winter after winter.
This is a storytelling classic. Blog is the narrative in its simplest, most common form: words. Keeping an up-to-date, engaging blog roll that addresses your customers’ needs and questions is one of the easiest ways to win them over, not to mention it’s incredibly useful SEO-wise. Play your keyword game right, and your blog posts will start popping up in the top section of SERPs, directing people your way, into your funnel.
Whole Foods is an excellent example of successful blog marketing. Their target audience are people who are more than casually interested in health and wellness, so the blog makes sure to offer health food tips and recipes combined with corporate info and product promotions. It has become a go-to place for information on all sorts of health food-related topics even for those who are not yet their customers, thanks to their carefully calibrated marketing strategies.
Video consumption has been on such a steep rise that it’s safe to say it represents the future of marketing. The numbers are clear: by 2022, video will make up more than 82% of all internet traffic. It represents content with the highest chance of being shared, and its message retention is extremely high: 95%, compared to 10% for text.
Remember the Van Damme’s Epic Split for Volvo Trucks? One of the best commercials of all time was not a standalone project though – it was actually the tip of a carefully crafted video content marketing funnel, complete with brand films, documentaries and video tutorials, that helped the company generate billions in revenue and cemented Volvo’s reputation as the truck company, period.
Starting a podcast is actually easier than it sounds, and can be both fun and efficient, if you do it right. It’s also rather cost-friendly, which makes it a great channel of choice for growing companies. There’s something in podcasts that touches the nostalgia nerve in people, perhaps because it reminds of the golden age of radio. In addition, podcasts allow users to consume content while doing other things – cleaning the house, having breakfast or walking the dog.
Podcasting is sometimes wrongly attributed to the DIY community and the “nerdy” crowd, while in fact many major league players like IBM invest in syndicated podcasts on topics from tech news to business consulting.
A picture’s worth a thousand words, and that’s really more than just an old-timey adage. Bright, visually captivating content is a marketer’s best friend, as it offers an information digest that can be consumed in seconds, and with pleasure, too. Infographics require very little time and almost no money at all, but they need to be done well. Well-structured information, preferably peppered with hard data, designed in a way that follows some basic color psychology rules, can be easier to consume than most other content types.
Guides and Tutorials
Case studies offer an insight into a process or a journey from its inception to its final results. In many cases, it is a real-life customer journey, with actual data, case uses that show prospects and leads, in great detail, what they can expect should they decide to engage with a product or a service. Case studies can also cover a product journey following the same “start to finish” path. As for the format, case studies can also be videos, and they are always visual-heavy, with infographics, diagrams and other visual aids.
The best thing about eBooks is that they don’t require as much effort as one might think. You can think of them as long-term content that won’t get pushed down in the blogroll and, more importantly, one of the most efficient lead magnets in a digital marketer’s sleeve. eBooks can be offered in exchange for a newsletter signup, as a gift to new users, as a way to show gratitude to loyal customers, and so on. Their value as a gift comes from the fact they offer in-depth insights into their subject matter. Depending on their structure and volume, they can work and serve as a textbook – useful to have at hand and consult whenever there’s a dilemma or an issue to be solved.
Usually formatted to be easily shareable across social platforms, checklists are an excellent content type for targeting small and medium businesses and startups, as well as topics that regard initial phases of a project or product development. They offer a thorough to-do list for those who aren’t really sure where to start. Often interactive (the user gets to tick or cross off the completed steps), checklists are both fun and useful, and they are actually quite easy to make and publish. Checklists can also take the form of a “regular” article, covering “things to do before/after” a certain milestone has been reached.
User-generated content is an umbrella term for any sort of content that users post across various platforms, usually social ones. It can come in the form of images, text, video, audio, comments, reviews and ratings. When that content regards your business and you pick it up, collect it and repost it on your own social platforms or your website, it becomes a powerful tool for generating new leads and, eventually, customers. The logic is simple – we tend to trust other people more than we trust companies, and definitely more than we trust marketers. When we hear a good (or a bad) thing about a product or a service, it resonates more profoundly than any ad.
Now that we know what sort of material can be used in a content marketing strategy, let’s see how to craft one that will be a success from start to finish.
If you’re not a complete newcomer on the market, chances are you’re already conducting some form of content marketing strategy, even if it’s not necessarily defined and articulated. Blogs, instructional videos, perhaps more elaborate pieces of content like case studies and whitepapers – your output probably includes at least some of it.
Still, simply publishing content cannot possibly be enough. Content creation has to have a clearly defined goal and purpose. And in order to achieve your goal, you can’t just shoot around in the dark hoping to randomly hit the mark. It simply doesn’t make sense, either time- or cost-wise.
A clear, well-defined, step-by-step content marketing strategy can help you reach your end goals faster, with less expenses, expanding your reach with each step and helping improve visibility, reputation and trust.
What Makes a Good Content Marketing Strategy?
There are a few things that separate a good content marketing strategy from not-so-great ones.
The first is balance, or more specifically, balance between search-oriented content and thought leadership.
Of course search ranking matters. You can’t get anywhere unless you rank high where everyone can see you. Poor ranking means poor visibility, which is why the majority of businesses direct most of their marketing efforts towards SEO, and tailor their content marketing strategy accordingly.
However, in this day and age, you have to count on the fact that audiences are pretty aware of how search engines work, at least intuitively, and are already able to recognize certain SEO tactics at work. This can sometimes cause a psychological barrier, a resistance towards content that is perceived as bait, as a vehicle for luring them in and making them buy.
When a strategy is too search-focused, it tends to deliver content that resembles other content on or around the same topic. It then becomes a purely SEO game – who can optimize things better in order to rank higher. It becomes “form over substance,” while, of course, it should be the other way round.
Engaging the audience by starting a conversation with them, telling a story that resonates with them and, again, giving them what they need – these should be the goals of a successful content strategy.
Another thing that you should reflect upon is how you intend to structure and deliver your content. As we’ll soon see, it is vital you create your basic topic(s), related and congruent with your niche and your audience’s interests. Once these are defined, you can proceed to create content clusters around those pillars.
This methodology works because of its solid structure – it has a pillar or a base, and a set of subtopics, satellites if you wish, orbiting around it, pulled in and held in place by a gravitational force that is made of keywords and search terms. This is a structure that covers everything you are targeting, based on your insights into what people need.
Sure, you can go wild and post content on topics that are only loosely related (or completely unrelated) to your niche. But unless you already have a massive following and crazy traffic, this will just be a waste of your time and resources.
In order to get to a place where you have a content structure that works and the perfect balance between search-focused and authoritative content (thought leadership), you need to set some time aside and carefully plan out your strategy.
A Step-By-Step Content Strategy Plan
When it comes to mapping your content marketing strategy, or any other strategy for that matter, it’s always useful to start by asking some crucial questions. Once you determine the answers to your questions, you can use those as steps or pointers for your plan.
What are your goals?
By “goals” we don’t mean your personal or business goals, the “get rich, buy a yacht” kind of thing. We mean your content marketing goals – where do you want your content to get you and what do you want it to do. For most marketers, it means increasing the revenue, getting more traffic on your website, making more sales, gaining influence and becoming a niche authority, or, more specifically, better social media engagement, better SEO and lower marketing and overall business costs.
You can have more than one goal, you can have them all or a combination of several of them. A business can have quite satisfactory site traffic and SERP ranking, but may need to improve social engagement or reduce the amount of money they spend on ads. Another one may simply wish to expand its reach and get more people to the site and into the funnel.
Whatever your goals, it’s important to have them well-defined and periodically revisited and revised.
What are your KPIs?
KPIs or Key Performance Indicators come as the natural following step. These represent measurable values that can be used to track the success in achieving your goals. They can come in the form of milestones and are expressed in numbers, where possible.
KPIs may include certain monthly or annual revenue targets, the number of new signups, subscriptions, downloads, purchases, search ranking indicators, clicks, click-throughs, mentions, shares, comments, and so on. KPIs may also regard your expenditures, such as marketing costs, campaign spendings, lead-acquiring costs and similar.
Who is your audience?
This question is particularly important for tailoring a content strategy, as content marketing depends massively on successful targeting of audience needs.
Here, you first step should be to learn about Google Analytics and its many exquisite tools and get some hard data on your audience demographics – age, gender, income, education, location, as well as some data on their behavior and interests.
Next, it’s time to collect feedback. Hard data is great, but nothing beats direct insights into how your audience feels about your business and your content, what their needs and issues are, and where they see room for improvement.
These two steps combined will prepare you for the ultimate step and that is creating customer (aka buyer) personas.
A customer persona unites key traits of the largest portion of your audience, the portion you can consider your audience stereotype. Something like avatars, customer personas represent your ideal audience and the one you will be directing your efforts toward. Ideally, a customer persona will tell you all you need to know about your audience’s needs, pain points, attitudes and most urgent issues. Address those with your content strategy, and you will see significant improvements across your entire KPI map.
Where do you stand?
In case you’re not literally just starting out, you probably already have some content out there. The next step in your strategy should, therefore, be to assess where you are and how you stand in terms of publishing content that actually works in favor of your goals.
The best way to get this sort of insight is to conduct a content audit. A content audit is a detailed assessment of every single piece of content on your website or platform – blog posts, video, social interactions, comments, visual material, and so on. Leave no stone unturned as you examine each piece of content to see if it serves your purpose. For a thorough content audit, it’s best to hire a professional, if your budget allows for it. If not, you can use one of the many available tools, such as SEMRush and its Content Audit tool. The content audit should analyze your titles and descriptions, length, shares and interactions, as well as backlinks. Then use the data to see if you have enough inbound links pointing to your content, how you rank for the keywords in the content, and if the content is sufficiently shared.
Your final goal here is to identify content that works well as is, content that needs to be updated (in terms of keywords, subheadings, links), and content that is so off the mark it’s best removed altogether.
Finally, don’t forget to check for any content gaps, i.e. topics that you should be covering and that you currently don’t have. This includes questions that your audience asks and that are left unanswered, as well as content that has all the potential for ranking well and has in fact started to climb up in the SERPs but needs improvement. A great tool for identifying content gaps is Ahrefs, which has a specific section just for this, on top of other excellent SEO features.
What resources do you have at hand?
Before you set out to fix what needs to be fixed and add what needs to be added, you have to know what you’re working with in terms of budget and resources. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean finances alone. Resources also mean people who will be working on the content strategy and crafting the content itself. It also means physical and digital tools for crafting it – office space, computers, supplies, as well as servers, hosting, etc.
Do you have in-house content creators or will you be outsourcing them, and what costs do these options incur? Will you be hiring specialists for video and podcast production? Is there a person on your staff who will handle social media? Approach this as you would any other business plan that takes into consideration all the necessary expenses and compares them to the available budget.
What content types will you use?
This is a step that, depending on where you stand, can easily switch places with the previous one. What sort of content you will focus on will depend on what resources you have at hand, but it can also be the other way around: you will plan your resources only after you have identified the types of content you plan to put out.
Either way, it’s essential you decide on several fundamental content types, and then perhaps pepper them with some additional types of content, when and where it seems fit.
As we already discussed above, a blog is the basic and most widely used form of content in digital marketing. You can never have too many blog posts, especially if they can be used for forming content clusters or for sharing across social platforms.
In some situations, a blog post can be repurposed and converted into a video or a podcast. This is convenient, since you’re engaging additional content channels without actually having to produce brand new content from scratch. This is especially true for blog posts that represent tutorials, recipes or instructions.
What channels will you use?
This is more of a question in which corner of the digital realm does your audience prefer to dwell. For instance, young audiences spend a lot of time on social networks and prefer video as a medium, so you have to make sure your content reaches them there. But you have to get into the specifics, too. For instance, 75% of those in the 18-24 age bracket use Instagram, while 46% of older adults prefer Facebook.
So, instead of trying to cover everything at once, it’s better to check with your analytics tool to see what content is most shared, where, and by whom.
Content Creation, Distribution and Measurement
Before you start the content production cycle, it’s a good idea to set a content calendar first. Start by asking yourself how much content you want to publish and in what timelines. Will you be posting daily or weekly? How many posts per day/week?
Next, create a list of topics and issues you want to cover, and assign a publication date for each one. Pay attention to time-sensitive topics, seasonal topics and those that concern current issues. As for the planning, you can use a simple tool such as Google Calendar, or specialized tools and task managers, such as Asana or ActiveCollab.
In planning your content, topics are just one part of the process. What also matters is to make sure your content answers the audience’s questions and needs, and the best way to find out what that is is to conduct a thorough keyword research. You can then target those keywords, which is a surefire way to reach better SERP positions for your content, whether we’re talking about blog posts, videos, lists, podcasts or whatever other type of content you’re putting out.
Of course, keyword research is just one element in the more complex SEO strategy you should be following. If you don’t know where to start and how to do it, you can always use one of the many free SEO tools at your hand.
Again, your content should never be purely SEO-focused. You are a human being writing for other human beings. This simple fact, when accepted and acted upon, helps create extraordinary content that converts.
In addition to being informative and actionable, content should also be well-written. We really can’t stress this enough. No one can become a niche authority if their content is riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes, if it’s too long or too short, too beat-around-the-bush or too laconic. The perfect balance isn’t the easiest thing to strike, but, thankfully, today we have tools that help with that, too.
Before we look deeper into what makes good content, it’s important to mention that the final step in every successful content marketing strategy is – measurement of results. It’s a step that is surprisingly often skipped or neglected, but one that can actually tell you whether your strategy works or not.
To do that, go back to the second question or step in your strategy – your KPIs. Use an analytics tool to check if you’re hitting your targets, which KPIs need more work, which are a complete miss and which ones are on mark. Look for all instances of audience engagement, from clicks to mentions and comments, and, of course, your SERP ranking. Then reevaluate your strategy to find the pain points and fix them. Do this periodically, and your content strategy will always be fine-tuned and up to date.
One problem with content marketing is that people are constantly being bombarded by it. Let’s face it – ever since marketers realized that this was the right avenue to pursue, content (good or otherwise) has become omnipresent.
Traditional ads incorporating storytelling elements, videos, short web stories, and, of course, blog posts – these are being constantly fed to audiences to the point they become stuff to avoid or shut out mentally. This in no way means that this marketing channel should be abandoned. We have, in fact, shown that, thanks to its many virtues, content marketing still reigns supreme over other marketing modalities. But how do you stand out from the rest? How do you make your content audible through all that noise?
The answer is seemingly simple: you create quality content. But that brings us to another dilemma: what exactly constitutes quality content?
The problem with quality content is that it has to please two very strict judges: search engines, and the audience. Oftentimes, one excludes the other. You write strictly for search engines, following precise SEO guidelines with plenty of keywords, links and a 1000+ word count, and you end up with dull, uninviting content that, despite initially ranking well, soon falls into the bottomless pit of page results no one actually looks at, let alone clicks on.
On the other hand, you can write for the audience with complete disregard to SEO rules, and your content, no matter how well-written it is, will never reach readers.
The thing is, you somehow have to do both. You have to produce content that works both for Google and for your audience. There are no shortcuts here, no quick fixes or hacks. Your goal is content that both reaches the top of the SERPs and provides huge value to your audience. This is the only way you can make it. Second-page rankings and so-so content won’t cut it.
Finally, bear in mind that good content requires time and patience to start bearing fruit. It takes approximately 60 to 180 days to reach Google’s Top 10, and getting to the number one position takes even longer. Of course, good ranking is never a given. You have to show Google it can trust you. This trust is based on your authority (the number and the nature of the links pointing to your website), the freshness of your content, its quality, volume and frequency of creation.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the things that constitute quality content.
Good content is always memorable. And the best way to make sure it is memorable is to make it unique. How many times have you clicked on a title or a link that promised much but delivered the same thing you read or heard 20 times before? Reposts and rehashed content are extremely popular among brands that can’t be bothered to find their own unique voice or offer a fresh perspective on things.
And we’re not talking straight down plagiarism here. Of course that’s an absolute no-no. Content spinning is a technique that basically reiterates the same insights someone else reached, but “in other words,” sometimes as simple as synonyms, so that they can’t be accused of plagiarism.
Now, no one is saying you should only publish content if you have something to say that no one else ever said, or if your content is 100% one-of-a-kind. In this day and age, this is basically impossible. What matters, however, is that your take on things is absolutely fresh and unique, and that you tell it from your own perspective, in your own voice. Ideally, peppered with your own data and experiences.
Relevance and Alignment
Good content is always relevant to its audience. Of course, you have to know your audience first, as we discussed earlier in this guide. Once you know who they are and what they need, you’ll have an easy time modelling your content so that it is relevant to them and their personas. If you’re only just starting and don’t have an audience yet, then focus the gist of your content to the niche or industry you’re targeting, the more specific the better.
Similarly, content needs to be aligned – both with your own business needs and with your audience’s needs. The key here is to find the perfect balance. If you weigh too much on one side, you’re losing on the other.
If the content is too business-oriented (too focused on the service or product and its virtues), it can come off as too salesy. Audience doesn’t care for salesy content since it’s usually boring and can appear manipulative.
Business-focused content is also not the most SEO-friendly kind, either, as it misses on a lot of keyword opportunities.
On the other hand, the content that is too audience-oriented can be shallow, too wide and even click-baity. If you promise too much to too many, you’re bound to fail and disappoint. Sure, it’s important that you please and serve the audience, but don’t forget that your first goal is to serve your business KPIs.
A book, a story, a movie, a song – it always starts with the title. And while you should never judge a book by its cover (or an article by its title), first impressions really do matter. It’s the title that draws people in, and the first thing that informs their decision whether to click or not.
So you have to make your title strong. Okay, but how do you do that? And, what’s also important, how do you avoid click-baiting?
Over time, certain good practices have been established regarding good content titles, whether we’re talking about blog posts, videos or other content types.
– Lists are incredibly popular. People love well-structured content, and they’re more likely to click on 10 Best Italian Restaurants in Town than on Italian Restaurant Recommendations.
– Lessons also make a good title material. 13 Lessons I Learned About Lead Magnets will perform better than, say, Some Insights Into Lead Magnets. Similarly, the All You Need to Know About… formula will attract people who are looking for direct, actionable knowledge.
– Controversy may be borderline unethical as a means to attract an audience, and it can be a slippery slope too, but, when approached carefully, things like Let’s Face It – Millennials Really Are Spoiled Brats attract clicks like flies.
– Comparisons also make great titles. The This vs. That: What’s Better sort of title promises to provide tried and tested information that compares virtues and downsides of a product or service. On that note, the Pros and Cons of XYZ is another successful title formula.
– How-To titles work great and also rank well, because they are as direct as it gets and also because they provide one of the most actionable types of content – instructions.
Of course, let’s not forget the SEO aspect – the title has to be keyword-rich and, ideally, contain your main keyword in its entirety.
Engaging and Shareable Content
In content marketing, we often hear these words, “engaging” and “engagement.” What do they really mean? By “engagement,” we usually mean the viewer’s interaction with our content – reading, clicking through, sticking around to explore other pieces of content on a given channel. The higher the engagement, the better, obviously, since it not only helps you gain a loyal audience that will keep coming back, but also helps you rank higher.
In order for a piece of content to be engaging, it has to give readers (or viewers, or listeners) what they need and what they were initially looking for when they came over to your digital backyard. Engaging content lures them in and keeps them interested, wanting to find out more – more similar quality content, and more about your brand. It’s the winning situation, really, and with some care and effort it can be easy to achieve.
When the audience engages with your content, it also becomes more likely to share it with its peers. This is excellent news for you, as long as you make sure your content is easily shareable – donned with social buttons, social network feeds and all. It’s incredibly simple to arrange that, thanks to a plethora of tools and plugins for social sharing, and it can get you a long way in terms of brand presence across all major platforms.
Strong and Dynamic Structure
When we talk about written content, i.e. blog posts and similar, it’s very important to make it well-structured. A strong article structure implies content that is sectioned off in paragraphs for better readability and a smoother reading experience. A balanced ratio of subheadings is also important, especially for longer pieces of content.
Make sure your paragraphs are not too long and chunky, with three to four sentences max. Also, don’t weave your sentences too long. Short, if not truncated sentences do better with most readers. Keep in mind that many of them don’t share your mother tongue and may have difficulties absorbing the material in their second language.
Post readability is a factor that is extremely important for the success of your content, and it’s something you can actually measure and improve upon, thanks to various tools at your disposal.
Bullets and lists are another great way to break the content apart as they make the piece flow smoother and help the reader focus. They are also great for keeping around visitors prone to skimming.
Keyword Optimization (And No Stuffing!)
We already discussed keywords and their importance at several points in this guide to content marketing. Keywords are primarily there for the search engines’ sake. Without their proper use, you could write a Pulitzer-worthy piece that no one will ever get to read, because it will never rank on Google.
It’s not easy writing a piece of content that is keyword-optimized just so. Overoptimizing is a thing, and a damaging one, too. Pick your keywords (your main keyword, secondary ones and synonyms) and use it throughout your content, but evenly, and, above all, organically. This means using the keyword only where it fits naturally.
As for keyword density, i.e. the number of keywords per total number of words in a text, there’s no definitive, quantifying rule. Numbers are not as important here as the effort to tailor and fine-tune the content towards the keyword and to use it as naturally and organically as possible.
Research is imperative for all content creators, regardless of their chosen channel and of their particular niche. Whether you’re writing a blog post, creating a video or a podcast, or perhaps an infographic, you need to start your process with extensive research. Even if you’re blogging about your own experience – you still need to do some research. Here’s why.
By researching your topic, you are getting an insight into how much coverage (and what sort of coverage) your topic is getting, whether it’s from your direct competitors or from outlets that can’t really count as such. See how other people approach the same subject, see how they rank and try to figure out what makes that content rank well. Take what insights you can from them, and then create your own content using your own unique voice and perspective.
Note that, in the research phase, unintentionally copying or drawing too much inspiration from other people’s content is a common trap, so be careful there. Some things simply stick passively with us and then come out disguised as “original” ideas or concepts.
Research is important also because it gives us hard data, which we can use to instill a sense of trustworthiness and credibility into our content. Fortunately, statistical data is incredibly easy to find these days, when everything gets published online and not in some specialized scientific magazine that only comes in a paper issue. So dig around the web and find the data that can corroborate what you’re saying and help you prove your point. Make sure to always cite your sources and link to them. That way you will be showing your audience that you have a responsible approach to information.
It is absolutely imperative to only ever publish content that is well-written and 100% error-free. This one should be a given, but it never hurts to reiterate. Not only do errors (both spelling and grammatical) make you look unprofessional, but they affect the reading process negatively, too. Errors, when detected, interrupt the reading flow and create a negative experience that you definitely don’t want associated with your brand. In addition, search engines have grown to recognize and evaluate the amount and the severity of mistakes and to rank low the content that is rife with them.
It can be hard to spot errors in your own work. Auto-proofreading is basically an impossible endeavor, due to certain psychological processes that keep us from seeing our own mistakes. That’s why every serious content-producing outlet should always have an in-house editor to take care of that.
If you’re only just starting and don’t have anyone around to take a look at your content for you, you can always resort to one of the many grammar checker tools that today’s content creators are fortunate to have at their disposal (and many of them are free, too).
As we already mentioned earlier in this guide, video is the medium of the 21st century. Images are another classic, as well as audio material. In fact, it can be argued that almost all other types of content are preferred to plain old text. Especially if it’s just that – all text, chunk after chunk of it.
It’s not just the matter of the modern audiences’ taste and preferences. Different people learn differently, and a lot of people are visual learners. While you may not necessarily be trying to “teach a lesson” with your content, you still want it to stick, so you have to make sure to cater to those who prefer visual aids.
And don’t worry if you don’t have any videos to embed in your posts. Images can be just as engaging and can add significant value to your content. Balance is crucial here, too. You should definitely have more than just one image (the so-called featured image or main image) but not too many. Also, your images should be optimized for the web, in order to assure the best possible performance of your website.
In addition to videos and images, consider adding custom illustrations, infographics, diagrams, charts and whatnot. You can get creative with your multimedia content, as long as that content is relevant, valuable and on-brand.
Regular Content Updates
The importance of regularly revisiting and updating your content is twofold. On one hand, Google uses “freshness” as a quality indicator and therefore tends to push up content with more recent publishing dates. On the other hand, audiences look at publishing dates to establish whether the information they will find there is still relevant and applicable. If you see two articles on the same subject, one from 2014 and the other that says “updated 2020,” which one will you click on?
When updating a piece of content, don’t count on Google to skyrocket it to the top of the SERPs after you’ve only changed a sentence or two. Search engines also take the nature and the amount of change into consideration. In order to be recognized as fresh and new, the update needs to be a bit more substantial than that.
Finally, updating the content has to do with authority and brand image, too. If you want your content to stay accurate and relevant, you have to occasionally revisit it and see if anything changed in the meantime, updating the information to match the present state. It’s the only responsible thing to do, especially if you’re dealing with tips, advice and how-tos that are formed around precise, concrete information.
Note that by “updating” we also mean publishing new content. The frequency will depend on your content calendar, but bear in mind that search engines favor websites that are frequently updated with new content.
Quality content is at the base of every successful content marketing strategy, alongside essential steps or stages that assure the strategy will hit its mark. After taking care of these elements, it’s important to remember that different stages of the customer journey require slightly different approaches in terms of content type and the right channels for distributing it.
The content marketing funnel can be roughly divided into three levels: top of the funnel (TOFU), middle of the funnel (MOFU) and bottom of the funnel (BOFU).
Top of the funnel is the lead generation stage while the bottom of the funnel is the purchase stage. The middle of the funnel is, well, everything that happens in between in the customer journey.
In most cases, the ideal proceeding would be to assign each stage both a specific content type and a specific channel that work best with that particular stage.
Top of the Funnel Content
The focus of this stage is on targeting and attracting potential customers/audiences. In most cases, this involves utilizing search engines, as well as email campaigns and social media marketing. The goal is to bring people in and get them interested in proceeding to the next stage of the customer journey.
At this stage, content types such as informative and actionable blog posts (how-tos, tips and guides) have proven most effective, followed by landing pages, checklists, infographics and eBooks and whitepapers.
This type of content is predominantly informative in its nature, and its value to the customer is clear and direct – it provides answers and guidelines.
Key metrics to use at this stage include website traffic, time spent on page and, of course, conversion rates.
Middle of the Funnel Content
At this stage, the content you are crafting is designed for those already in your database, i.e. leads that are already familiar and that are actively engaging with your brand. This is the time to gently push the prospects into becoming customers and to basically align your leads’ needs with what you’re selling, before proceeding to the final stage of the customer journey – the purchase.
Organic search, email campaigns and social media remain the primary channels for content distribution, while the content types that match this funnel stage the best include guides and tutorials, product showcases and overviews, success stories and case studies. At this point, people whose interest you’ve piqued will want to learn more before they commit to a purchase, and you have to make sure your content provides them with all the relevant information.
Bottom of the Funnel Content
Plainly speaking, the bottom of the funnel is designed to sell. You have already captured your leads, made your prospects, and now it’s time for the conversion – for turning them into buyers or clients.
This final stage of the customer journey is best channeled through organic search, email campaigns, but this time also PPC campaigns and paid ads. Product showcases, customer reviews and success stories make the ideal content type for the bottom of the funnel stage, and the key metrics include conversion rate, number of payments and ROI/ROMI.
In content marketing, it is important to always remember there are no universal solutions that apply to all cases regardless of their specifics. The sales funnel is the perfect example, with different tools picked from the marketer’s toolbox and different avenues for using them throughout the funnel stages.
Now that we have covered some basic dos of content marketing, let’s check out a few don’ts.
A lot of people, especially marketing novices and those who are just venturing out into business, see content marketing like a pretty basic thing to master. You write stuff, slap down some pictures, share it on your social media and that’s it. Then, a few months later, they look at their numbers and scratch their heads: “Why aren’t we getting more traffic and making more money?”
As we saw throughout this guide, content marketing is a complex field that warrants a serious approach and a lot of planning and measurement. A lot of times, you will find yourself having to go back to the drawing board, most likely because you’ve made a mistake that cost you your goals.
It is said that “wise men learn from other men’s mistakes, fools from their own.” Don’t count yourself among fools – check out some of the most common content marketing mistakes:
No clear strategy.
As we already saw pretty clearly, a thorough content marketing strategy is an absolute must for any business that wants to actually get somewhere. The strategy needs to be laid out from start (goals and KPIs) to finish (measurements), with occasional revisions for checking if your planned steps still make sense.
Some marketers create strategies that are not specific enough, some don’t make any strategies at all, randomly hitting (or more often – missing) their marks. But the very best marketers always have a clear, precise and thorough strategy.
Not being an expert.
You can’t just post about anything whatsoever. Or, even worse, about everything at once. The best content marketing strategies are centered around a field in which the business is an authority, and are crafted and executed by people who are actual experts for that area. A fashion blogger shouldn’t write about health or marketing, and a UX designer probably wouldn’t make a good political analyst.
Stick to your expertise, which should, of course, correspond to your brand or business’ nature, and write about what you know best. Your knowledge will be apparent from your copy and very easy for the audiences to pick up and appreciate. By proving that you’re an expert, you’re actively working on becoming a niche authority, something that will be rewarded by the audience and search engines alike.
Not enough research.
As it is the case with basically any endeavor, content marketing should always be based on extensive research. And by research, we actually mean two things: researching your target audience (to construct your customer personas) and researching your topic.
Only when you know who your audience is, what they need and how they prefer to get it, will you be able to craft content that ticks all the right boxes with them.
As for the topics, even if you are an expert in your field, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t conduct research on new trends, new insights, hard data to back your claims, and so on.
Forgetting to provide value.
Sometimes, brands direct too much of their content toward singing their own praises, and they end up overpromoting themselves. The traditional “salesy” sort of discourse has long been abandoned in favor of thought-provoking storytelling that engages, entertains, and, above all, provides value for its audience. This brings us right back to the beginning of our guide, when we showed that value lies at the very heart of content marketing. People have needs and issues and it’s your job to address them and solve them.
Focusing on just one content type.
Did you know that we actually process images 60,000x faster than plain text? When it comes to absorbing information, visual simply trumps textual.
Of course no one wants to read a post that is just one chunk of text after another. Break it up with an image or two? Sure, that will help. These days, you can find excellent stock photography for free. And many more professional stock photos are available if you’re willing to spend a few bucks. This is a great and budget-friendly way to spice up your content. But it would be even better if you had some custom illustrations of your own, or, ideally, some custom infographics that support and illustrate your points.
But a common mistake a lot of content marketers make is to stop there, at just images. These days, video is everything. Embedding a video in your blog posts will please both the audience and the search engines, and you will also be able to connect your content throughout different channels (website, blog, YouTube, social platforms), not to mention the social sharing potential.
You might also consider repurposing some of your blog posts into infographics. This type of content is easy to embed anywhere you like, including your email campaigns; it’s shareable and, most importantly, it is very user-friendly, since it packs a lot of info into a form that is instantly consumed.
Multi-media content is not just fun – it’s extremely useful and possibly essential for gaining more traffic and more leads.
Irregular content delivery.
More content means a better chance of getting noticed, both by search engines and by your potential leads. But volume isn’t everything – it has to be regular. We humans are creatures of habit. Regularity gives us a sense of control, and that’s one of our primary strives. Psychology aside, if you commit to a certain output according to a certain calendar – stick to it. You can’t post six posts per week and then go AWOL for ten days. It will make you seem flimsy and untrustworthy.
Regular posts that get shared through a newsletter on whatever basis you have set, as well as post shares on your social platforms – this is how you build an audience. You make an appointment with them and, just like the fox from the Little Prince, when they see you there at expected times, they will be delighted. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s actually very important.
Too broad targeting.
It’s true what they say: you can’t please everyone. And you shouldn’t try. In content marketing, where establishing your customer personas is crucial, you have to give up on the notion that you can cover, reach and convert everyone. You can’t, simply because different people want different things. After identifying your target audience, you need to forget about everyone else. Are you providing business consulting services? Then forget about homemakers and health aficionados. You’re running a beauty products shop? Stop targeting the 65+ male audience.
Your niche is well-narrowed down, isn’t it? There’s no reason not to narrow down your target audience too, then. It’s the only way to deliver content that will actually provide value.
Lack of CTAs.
You can write extraordinary content and bring heaps of audience to your website, but without some additional guidance in the form of CTAs, where do they go? They just stick around, if you’re lucky, and if you’re super-lucky, which no one really is, they will somehow find their way to the bottom of your funnel. But in reality, it doesn’t work like that. You have to direct them, and you have to do it with calls to action.
A surprising amount of good content fails to convert simply due to the lack of CTAs. These, of course, cannot be forced into your content if there’s no room for them organically. You need to build your content in a way that leaves a natural spot for CTAs. In addition, you have to play your CTA game right – plan and design your CTAs in a way that optimizes conversion.
Not measuring enough.
Sometimes, marketers get so carried away by the apparent success of their strategy, they forget to measure each and every KPI meticulously. A single metric doesn’t mean much. You may be getting plenty of traffic but little to no conversions. And yet, you feel that just because there’s a lot of people coming to your website, you’re doing everything just right.
First of all, the people who come to your website might not necessarily be reading your content. Or, if they are reading, they may be quitting halfway, or reading all the way through but not engaging, not sharing or clicking your CTAs. So you can’t really use that as an indicator.
As we mentioned earlier, measurement has to be the integral part of every content strategy that aims to be successful. Careful data analysis and alignment of your strategy according to your findings, on a regular basis, is the only way to know whether you’re doing it right and whether certain areas of your content strategy need improvement.
No In-House Content Creators
For serious content marketing efforts, you can’t just delegate content creation to your existing staff, hoping for the best. Outsourcing can be a solution, but only a transitional one. For best results, content needs to be created by someone who shares your goals and enthusiasm and who sees themselves as part of your brand family.
Assigning various staff members to write and publish can result in content that is not just unfocused and bland, but also poorly written, under-researched and sporadic. Content is just as important as traditional marketing (if not more so, as we saw earlier) and it deserves investment into resources just as much as other parts of your marketing department.
Due to the complexity of the task at hand, a content marketer can really use all the help he or she can get. Fortunately, in this age of automation, there’s no shortage of easy and affordable tools and solutions that can help you with a huge part of the job.
WordPress is much more than a simple tool – it’s a full-fledged content management system. And it deserves to be on the top of your list thanks to its versatility, scalability and a huge variety of features tailored specifically for publishing content.
Initially developed as a blogging platform, WordPress today provides an inclusive, comprehensive platform for any sort of website, regardless of the industry or size. A plethora of super-useful plugins help extend its functionality and target specific needs and tasks – from those related to security and performance, through SEO, outreach and lead generation, to design issues. Then, there are the themes. Specifically, the premium WordPress themes that make your website appear utterly professional and authoritative. The choice of themes is so wide you’re bound to pick one that fits your brand aesthetics in terms of design. Finally, WordPress is an open-source platform with an incredibly active community. Users are encouraged to work together and help each other solve issues and improve their websites’ performance and functionality. With all this combined, it’s clear why WordPress is, in fact, the perfect content marketing platform.
When it comes to researching the audience, its behavior, needs and issues, as well as measuring results throughout various channels, nothing beats Google Analytics.
This essential tool is completely free and anyone with a Google account can register. You can track the traffic on multiple assets (websites), set specific attributes and exceptions, and choose which metrics to monitor up to the smallest detail. Google Analytics is generally quite user-friendly, albeit with a slight learning curve. But with proper guidance it can be mastered in no time and harnessed to reap maximum benefit.
Advertised as “SEO for everyone,” Yoast is a tool appreciated both by SEO newbies and experts alike. This easy to use solution helps with optimizing the content on your site for search engines, focusing on essentials such as keyword volume and placement, meta data, URL and image optimization, and even post readability. Extremely user-friendly and easy to set up, Yoast is fully compatible with WordPress and integrates into all aspects of your site, alerting you of areas that need improvement, tracking your success along the way.
Another recent addition to the market of SEO tools is RankMath, a terrific tool that is based on customizable modules. It allows you to track your Google keyword ranking, suggests internal links, take care of image optimization with alt tags, create breadcrumbs, verify your website with various webmaster tools, from Google Search Console and Bing to Baidu, Alexa and Pinterest, and much more. Thanks to these features, RankMath quickly became a serious contender for the number one SEO tool on the market right now.
Good content creation requires inspiration, ideas and planning, and there’s one tool that can be of tremendous assistance in this particular phase – Evernote. This tool, which works across all devices, allows you not only to collect your notes but also to share them with your team in a collaborative effort. The notes may consist of plain text,of course, but also of images, web page clips and even PDFs. It keeps all your notes in one place, which you and your team can access from anywhere, using any device. It is basically a virtuale safe for your ideas. Thanks to its intuitive UI, it’s much more convenient than, say, Google Docs or similar, bulkier and less specific solutions.
Speaking of collaboration, there’s one tool that has set itself far apart from similar teamwork solutions, and that’s Trello. Based on simple boards, lists and cards, Trello allows for easy workflow management across all company projects and teams and acts as an amazing productivity booster, complete with workflow automation. Team members can easily add comments, due dates, attachments and more, and it can also be used to schedule content publication.
Sales funnels represent the journey from turning a visitor into a lead to turning a lead into a buyer. These funnels are not universal for all visitors/leads, nor does there exist a universal customer journey, which is why a certain degree of segmentation is required, as well as development of several different funnels that require different strategies and measurements.
This sounds like a lot of work, but there’s a tool that can help. ClickFunnels creates sales funnels for you, so you don’t have to build them from scratch, and it does so with the help of user-friendly templates. In addition to sales funnels, you can also use this tool to create membership funnels, auto-webinar funnels, A/B testing, and it even features email integrations.
As a more generalized content creation and management tool, Uberflip is a content experience platform, or rather a collection of different tools for lead generation, account-based marketing, content marketing and sales. By placing all your different marketing workflows (blog posts, videos, ebooks…) into one place, you get to enjoy centralized management that not only saves a lot of time but also assures an uninterrupted and continuous interaction with the audience and customers.
A tool that we already mentioned a few times throughout this guide, SEMrush is one of the leading and most popular search engine marketing platforms in the world. A true marketing powerhouse, SEMrush helps with SEO, PPC, content marketing, research and social media. It is packed with useful features, such as a keyword research tool, backlink checker (that you can use for your competitors as well), organic research, historic data, scheduled reporting, topic ideas, plagiarism checker, content audit tools and much, much more.
The leading social media scheduling tool, Buffer is a web and mobile app for managing multiple social accounts, most notably- for queueing up and scheduling posts. We already discussed the importance of consistency in content creation and publishing, and tools like Buffer can be of great help when it comes to making sure your audience receives your regular updates.
In addition to the publishing tool, Buffer also features solutions for analyzing your social media performance, complete with extensive reports for all your social networks in a single dashboard.
For a lot of marketers, MailChimp is the synonym for email campaigns. The most popular email automation tool is particularly suitable for small and medium businesses and is completely free (up to a certain number of emails and subscribers). MailChimp helps you build email lists and track them, with metrics that include open and click rate, providing valuable insight into how your email campaigns are actually doing and in which areas they could use some improvement.
Every good piece of content is first well researched – both in terms of subject, and in terms of traffic, search volume and keyword ranking. Ahrefs is a powerful SEO toolset that helps you with the latter. It comes with rank tracking tools, a site audit and site explorer features, a backlink analyzer and much more. Ahrefs crawls over one billion pieces of content every day and gives you access to 16 trillion backlinks and 7 billion keywords. In short, it gives you an insight into who your competition for a certain keyword is, how they’re ranking for it and why, and it also helps you monitor your own SEO progress.
Another tool that we already discussed earlier in this guide to content marketing, Grammarly is software that uses artificial intelligence to help you write better. This writing assistant integrates with your text editing software and checks your writing for spelling and grammar errors as you write. It is also available as a Chrome extension, allowing you to check your writing across online platforms, forms, comments and so on. What sets Grammarly apart from other spelling and grammar checkers is the fact it takes the context into consideration, and it even analyzes your tone, making sure your message comes across exactly as you intended. And, on top of all that, it also has a plagiarism checking tool.
Good content needs to be well-illustrated and to feature multimedia as well. Still, if you’re not a designer or don’t have one on your team, it can pose a problem, since not everyone is a Photoshop wiz. Fortunately, with Canva, anyone can create graphics, presentations and other visual media for your articles, as well as for your social media profiles. This graphic design software features an intuitive drag-and-drop builder with premade templates and layouts, designed to maximise the effect of your visuals. This tool has an excellent free version that can serve just fine for small to medium projects, with 8,000+ free templates and 1,000+ design styles.
Good content has to be focused and aligned both with the business needs and the audience needs. It has to provide value and be actionable, unique and authoritative, as well as well-researched and well-written.
It is crucial to always have a content marketing strategy, with carefully planned KPIs, benchmarks, research and measurement.
Content marketing is so much more than just blogging – for best results, it should be a combination of text and multimedia, carefully planned for each audience segment and platform.
It’s main virtue lies in the fact it creates a bond between a brand and its audience – a bond based on authority, value, trust and respect.
Content marketing is a huge field that is just as essential for success as traditional marketing – if not more.
Although a complex field, content marketing is not hard to master, with a little effort, time and a set of tools for optimizing the performance of your strategy.
Ultimately, content marketing is something no business can afford not to pursue. For absolute beginners, it may seem like a complicated endeavor, but that’s precisely why we created this guide. You now know all there is to get started in the right direction, and the rest is up to you, so – start creating!