By Ardath Albee published December 28, 2012

Content Marketing Theory vs. Practice: 8 Truths

[Editor’s note: Happy Holidays! This week, the editorial team at Content Marketing Institute wanted to share some of the best content marketing blog posts we’ve seen from our CMI Consultants. Today’s post originally appeared on Ardath Albee’s blog, Marketing Interactions, on March 29, 2012.]

Ardath Albee content marketing blog

Sometimes I think content marketing can be made so convoluted and complex that it’s nearly impossible to execute. I’ve seen spreadsheets and diagrams and lists of things you must do that make my head hurt. And, yes, I know I do this for a living. I’m a B2B content strategist — and dang proud of the work I do.

But reality is what we have to work with, and a phased approach can be a beautiful thing. After all, if you can’t execute the strategy, it’s not delivering a service to your company — or your customers.

Here are a few things I find true in practice:

  1. Marketers must be able to wrap their heads around the why, what, when, where and how.
  2. Content theories abound, and if you try to kludge it all together, you will become as immobilized as a deer in the headlights of a rapidly approaching semi.
  3. Theory is great but often difficult to put into practice in a reasonable way.
  4. Expectations need to be appropriate based on your resources, capabilities, and limitations.
  5. Content marketing never ends, so quit trying to get it perfect before you launch.
  6. Until you launch, you have no real-world feedback from which to judge your strategy or programs. It’s not about what you think, but what your buyers think and how they respond.
  7. Once you launch, you can tune on the fly and add layers as you gain proficiency.
  8. What I find with most projects is that the marketers taking on content marketing already have a full plate. This means that we need to figure out how to incorporate what they’re already doing within the content strategy, rather than approaching it as a stand-alone effort — which a content strategy should never be.

First, marketers need to build buyer insights and identify personas or market segments. It is only through gaining a clear understanding of each persona’s orientation, objectives, and obstacles that marketers can begin to design a relevant content strategy.

Without knowing your buyers, where’s your focus? On your products and company, of course. Because that’s what you know. This is why there’s so much crappy content floating around in the ether.

Once you know your buyers, choose a segment, step into their shoes and figure out what are all the questions they need to answer based on their specific situation. Open a document and type the problem statement at the top of the page (or get a group together and use a white board to brainstorm).

Persona problem statement: I need to do X in order to get Y.

Start tossing up questions this persona would have about solving that problem.

For example:

  • What are the different ways I can do X?
  • How much of Y do I need?
  • How are our competitors solving X?
  • What competitive advantages could we gain if we solve X?
  • Who else will be impacted in the company if we solve X?
  • How will I convince them that Y is worth the effort to change the status quo?

Keep going until you can’t think of another question this persona would ask in order to gather all the information they need to build confidence, gain consensus, and make an informed purchase decision.

Now, given what you know about your persona/segment, how would you answer each question? The answers are the premise statements for your content development. And the answers should not be all about your product, but rather focused on what it enables that your prospect couldn’t do before. The why, what, and how that will get them Y. If possible, identify several different ways to answer each question.

Assess your existing content to see what questions it answers, or if it needs to be reinvented or retired. Identify your gaps for new content development.

How do your current and planned campaigns and events, etc., fit in with your content flow for this persona? Match them up and insert them into the flow.

Consider your marketing mix and where you’ve determined your persona goes to find information and create a distribution program. Based on the modes you use, this can include website, email, blogs, social, etc. This is when formats come in. Not before. Your focus should be on the information first. Make sure you have the resources to execute and know what the timing looks like to get it done.

Don’t forget to consider calls to action. What do you want them to do after engaging with the content? Be reasonable about what makes sense as a next step given the information they just viewed. It’s not generally “have sales contact me.” And, based on the technology you have, determine the best ways to measure and monitor outcomes.

Get it out the door and tune on the fly as you go. Even if you only start with one persona, just get it going. Evolve and add layers as you learn what works and what doesn’t.

Content marketing in practice can be as easy or difficult as you make it. Focus on learning what your buyers need to know to reach objectives and give it to them in digestible ways they will value. That’s really what’s at the crux of content marketing.

Theory is great. All marketers should understand it. But practice is about execution.

For more details on how to turn content marketing best practices into actionable efforts, read CMI’s how-to guide on Managing the Process.

Author: Ardath Albee

Ardath Albee is a B2B Marketing Strategist and CEO of her firm, Marketing Interactions, Inc. where she helps companies with complex sales use persona-driven digital strategies and content marketing to turn prospects into buyers and ensure that existing customers choose to stay. She’s the author of Digital Relevance: Developing Marketing Content and Strategies that Drive Results and eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale. She has been voted one of the 50 Most Influential People in Sales and Lead Management for the past four years and was selected a 2014 Woman to Watch in B2B Marketing by FierceCMO. Ardath is also an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program. Follow her on Twitter @ardath421.

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  • Ram Babu SEO

    yes, it will never ever end , until the business run !. . i think content is everything that works for us and our audiences to excite them sometime and getting fascinated with excellent stuff we create for them..

    • Ardath Albee

      Thanks, Ram! I’m inspired by your passion. Keep it going.

  • Maggie Holley

    “Until you launch, you have no real-world feedback from which to judge
    your strategy or programs. It’s not about what you think, but what your
    buyers think and how they respond.”

    Needed in here is also TESTING your content with an SEM Adwords Campaign…
    That sure helps with..”Get it out the door and tune on the fly as you go. Even if you only
    start with one persona, just get it going. Evolve and add layers as you
    learn what works and what doesn’t.”

    • Ardath Albee

      Hi Maggie – Great point! Testing is what informs tuning. Gotta have it 🙂

  • johnbottom

    Wise words as always from Ardath. The line that stands out for me is “Content marketing in practice can be as easy or difficult as you make it”. This is a problem that we often run into, but rarely mention. Speaking frankly, if you want to make money from advising on content marketing you have to think about two customers: your client, and the end customer. 99% of the advice on the web and the conversations between professional content marketers focus on the latter. But if you get the first part wrong – if you over-complicate and try to implement campaigns that do not fit with your client’s knowledge and resources – you will fail. These are the people who pay your invoices, so you need to think about them too. This may be obvious, but it’s easy to overlook in our enthusiasm to achieve content marketing perfection.
    Happy New Year to all

    • Ardath Albee

      Hi John – Always nice to see you. Such an important point. In my experience, it’s much more appropriate to start small and iterate as skills develop and as the team can prove out that the theory translated into practice to achieve the goals set for it. Process development can be tricky and change is hard. As Joe Pulizzi always says – content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not going to disappear, so there’s no need to kill yourself (or your client) trying to get it all done at once.

  • Ardath Albee

    Thanks, Chad, for pointing to customer journey mapping. As I include that in persona development, I sometimes forget to single it out. Definitely a key component for content strategy. What you’ll find if you’ve identified the right questions is that they lend themselves to a flow. For example, one would obviously need to be answered before another can be asked.

  • Mike Alder

    Great post! I have been in a content marketing position for the past couple of months. I started out with just blogging but as I developed what I was getting the most responses from I found out who my audience was.

    The hardest part for me is putting something out there that i feel isn’t perfect. When I don’t feel like something it perfect I tend to drag on sentences, delay posting it, going through revision after revision. That is when content marketing get to be difficult. But as you said, “Content marketing in practice can be as easy or difficult as you make it.”

  • Chuck Kent

    If content marketing was truly integrated with a brands overall communication, point 1 would largely be taken care of from the get-go. I am constantly amazed that content marketers and creators think that starting with strategy, and the underling understanding of target audiences, benefits to them, voice to be used, etc., is a new idea. It seems that in content marketing, “strategy” is often misunderstood as a tactical plan, which limits the ability of the communications used to really connect on a human level.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Chuck…I agree, but most of the traditional marketing strategy plans (in my experience), don’t take into account the informational needs of the target audience (more like a publisher would do). I think that’s the difference when you look at it from a content marketing stance.

      That said, you are right, it should be standard.

      • Chuck Kent

        I have to admit that most traditional branding, in spite of years of preaching a benefits and user needs orientation, is too often brand-centric rather than audience centered, whether you’re talking about meeting rational (informational) or emotional (assurance, excitement, etc.) needs. My point is really that content and branding should be inseparable, and that their union starts with conceiving a real strategy (OK, I’m pressing the Branding Marries Content image of the Branding Magazine article you were quoted in… but the image is apt).

        A good current example of a marketer mining its own brand truth and creatively communicating it to meet its audience’s rational and emotional needs is the Every Beat Counts campaign for Save the Children (executed, interestingly, by a big brand agency, my alma mater, BBDO NY). It employs storytelling TV ads and video, original music, unique image generation and sharing… It’s worth a look, especially as we all need to be “looking beyond the blog” in the ever-more-crowed world of content.

        • Joe Pulizzi

          Agreed. Great example.