By Chris Moritz published October 1, 2010

How to Develop the Strategic Pillars to Hold Up Your Content Marketing Strategy

Congratulations – you’ve diligently completed the Discovery phase of your content strategy with a thorough content inventory/audit and a manageable set of informed, objective(ish) personas. Now you’re ready to dig into tactics.

Whoa, not so fast…

If you’ve done any brainstorming before, you’ll know the horizon’s the limit when it comes to possibilities to express your value proposition and brand character.

whoa!!!
Photo courtesy of estimmel

You could:

  • Compare and contrast your products or services against the competition
  • Write articles about the goings-on in your industry sub-niche, with humor and snark
  • Create videos that show off your customers, giving their stories the spotlight
  • Offer nothing but coupons, offers or discounts

If you’ve got someone on your team who’s articulate, energetic, and convincing, they can make any or all of these ideas sound like the perfect thing to do.

The Critical Step You Need to Take Before You Get to Tactics:
Build Your Content Marketing House on a Strong Set of Pillars

Developing strategic pillars enables you to focus your content creation as you progress with your content marketing efforts. It’s great for narrowing down that daunting universe of possibilities into a solar system of actionable options.

I’m going to go out on a pretty short limb here and venture that you have neither infinite resources nor infinite time to pull this off. Your go-to-market window is probably a whole lot closer than you’re generally comfortable with, and your market research sketchy, cobbled together or non-existent (I’ve been there).

That being said, you can orient your thinking and your content creation efforts into a structure that’s repeatable, thorough and existentially in the best interests of your customers.

Step One: Business Objectives and Marketing Tasks

First, understand your business goals. This might seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often marketing efforts get kicked off without a clear understanding of what the objectives are. Rarer still is a clear prioritization of objectives, a benchmark-worthy data set, and an honest mapping of past expenditures to known successes.

In the absence of these (and any golden-egg laying fowl, pink unicorns or philosopher’s stones you may have lying around the office), decide the basic marketing task you have at hand: direct sales, lead generation, public service announcement, donation drive, loyalty and retention, etc.

Step Two: Seek the Sage

A Wise Man Once Said
Disclaimer: Your sage may or may not look like this.
Photo credit: Jeremy Brooks

With your business goals in hand, you should find the person in your organization who knows the most about your customers – what they want, what they need, what their issues are, etc. Now, this may be you (if so, you can skip ahead a bit – I won’t tell anyone). You may be fortunate enough to have a researcher, analyst, strategist or old codger who’s seen it all before – if so, great! Corner this person for several hours, ply him with some sort of tasty beverage, and pick his brain.

No, no – you’re not taking this meeting to shoot the breeze, kvetch about senior management (tempting though that may be assuming you’re not said management), or knock the competition. You’re here to get answers to a specific trio of questions.

  1. What are the top 5 barriers your customer have that get in the way of your primary business objective?
    Do they not have any idea who you are? Do they not understand what the benefits of the product or service are? Do they not care about the benefits? Do they not understand why they need the product or service? Do they find you to be less credible than competing options? Do they have an existing relationship with a competitor? Are they strapped for resources to spend/invest in a product or service like yours?Don’t limit yourself to the standard marketing funnel (they’re not aware, we’re not making the initial consideration set, they don’t have enough preference for our brand, etc.).  Get right down to the core of the issue in your customers’ vernacular – warts, wonderment and all.Maybe their peer group wouldn’t look kindly on the purchase. Maybe they don’t associate your brand with their “tribe.” Maybe they’re apathetic and don’t see a reason to switch from their current provider outside of price. Maybe they’re too idealistic or unrealistic about what your product or service can do. Basically, don’t be afraid to admit the real issues.
  2. What are the top 5 “a-ha!” moments your new customers have? Once someone becomes a new customer, during that bright and shining honeymoon period when they (should) feel the best about your product or service, salespeople, process and brand – what are the things they find out afterthey made the purchase that they most frequently mention?Maybe it’s the friendliness of the salespeople, the ease of the checkout process, the speed of the delivery, the packaging it arrived in, the feedback they received from friends and family when mentioning it on a social networking site.Identify all the “I wish I would’ve knowns” and “this was the best part” moments.
  3. What are the top 5 questions your prospect or customers ask during the shopping process? Now don’t head straight for the tired old FAQ page on your site – you know, the one replete with questions no one actually asks – aka the list of thinly recreated benefit statements with oh-so-convenient answers. What are the realquestions your customers are asking? Maybe they want to know what other people say about you before they buy from you (or take your positioning statements at face value). Maybe they want to know what the lifetime value of your product or service is. Maybe they want to know the TOTAL price ahead of time. Maybe they want to know how your product will make them thinner/wealthier/famous/content/infamous/smarter.If you need more pointers, Rahel’s got some great ways to improve your FAQ pages.

Step Three: Back It Up

Now that you’ve accessed the hard-won wisdom of your knowledgable source, you need to buttress and support their intuition with independent research and actual data about your actual customers. If you have a robust analytics program in place, this will be a whole lot easier.

Old School Research

Barring that, spend a few days (or a few bucks) gathering research and perspectives from third-party sources. This could be white papers and case studies; presentations and conference proceedings; blog posts and articles; or premium (read: expensive) research reports from reputable firms. This is an extremely useful gut check. Extra points if you assign another member of your team to this task to avoid confirmation bias from what you’ve heard from your first source.

Keyword Research

Conduct (or farm out) keyword research to get an understanding of how and what your customers or prospects are looking for when they hit Google. See Elise’s piece on finding the right keywords for guidance.

Social Sentiment Analysis

This is a topic that’s deep enough to warrant an entire series of CMI posts. In the meantime, no less than Mashable and The New York Times have great overviews.

Step Four: Plotting and Diagramming Fun

With your business insights, independent research, social sentiment audit and keyword research in hand, you’re ready. You should start to see commonalities and overlap from your inputs, things that span channels, target segments, even position in the funnel (marketing bingo!).

I’ve found that there’s usually four to five stand-out groupings that emerge (if something doesn’t fit into a group well, it may not be worth investing time or money in, but save it for a pinch later).

Summarize the group in a statement like “they need to know that we’re the best option for them” or “they need reinforcement from peers before they’ll buy” or “they have to understand the problem before they’ll hear about our solution.” Out of these statements will come your pillars.

Four to five core groups
Start with a simple structure, with the aggregate of your personas in the middle.

Now you’re going to translate these statements into one- or two-word summaries of the answer to the issue. In the case of “they need reinforcement from peers before they’ll buy” you could summarize the pillar as “Social Proof.” Match up each of your issues with a similar answer (this is the part where I mention how useful a professional content strategist can be, even on a consultant basis).

Diagram showing five labeled content pillars
Here’s a sample with five content pillars.

Ok, now can we get to tactics?

Yep! With each of your pillars detailed, you now have the structure in place to layer in tactical ideas for each of the pillars.

Diagram with five strategic content pillars and three example tactics

Continue in this vein, adding in tactical ideas for each one of your pillars, until you have a complete map.

Diagram representing five strategic pillars and corresponding tactics
Try to keep your executions to fewer than five per pillar.

Diagrams like this are useful representations of a content strategy for three reasons:

  • They have more impact than prose or bullet points
  • They’re easy to drop into presentations to stakeholders, decision-makers and team members
  • They’re perfect “cube decoration” – objects that get looked at often and get internalized better

Next Up: Mapping Your Inventory and Personas to Your Pillars

There are a few shortcomings to the approach I’ve outlined (so far):

  • Lack of prioritization: which pillars and tactics should you focus on / invest in first?
  • Lack of granularity: each of your personas will want/need content from your pillars in different volumes and degrees
  • Lack of flexibility: some of your content ideas are inherently going to be “cross-pillar”

In my next post, I’ll show you how to figure out which pillars are the most important, how to create persona-specific iterations of your pillars diagram, and how to make that dreary content inventory work you put in eke out even more value.

What do you think of this approach? Or, is there another exercise you use? Let me know in the comments below.

Author: Chris Moritz

Chris Moritz is the Associate Director of Content Strategy at Lowe Campbell Ewald, the North American headquarters of the Lowe & Partners global network. He helps clients embrace their role as publishers of compelling, relevant, and persuasive content. His work leverages the best of his experience with web design and development, information architecture, and user experience design. You can follow him on Twitter @chrismoritz.

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