By Michele Linn published June 6, 2014

Developing Your Content Marketing Strategy: What You Need to Know

man with paper-content marketing strategy

Image created by Andrew Moir.

Last week, in our first “Back to Basics” post, we discussed two essential elements for getting started with content marketing. Your goal(s) and mission statement are the best benchmarks by which to measure the value your content brings to your business; but to give your content marketing program the best possible chances of succeeding, you will need a documented content marketing strategy.

In fact, having a documented strategy is critical, as it’s one core element that separates effective content marketers from their less effective peers. As we’ve seen in the responses in our annual research, those with a documented content marketing strategy:

  • Are far more likely to consider themselves effective at content marketing
  • Feel significantly less challenged with every aspect of content marketing
  • Generally consider themselves more effective in their use of all content marketing tactics and social media channels
  • Are able to justify spending a higher percentage of their marketing budget on content marketing

Here are a few common questions to help you start creating a content marketing strategy from scratch — or improving the one you may already have in place.

Is there a template I can follow?: There is no one “template” for creating a content marketing strategy, as every company must approach this technique from its own unique perspective, based on its specific marketing needs and requirements. However, there are a few common elements that every content marketing strategy should have in common (see below).

Does my strategy need to be documented?: It’s not critical that you document your strategy, but from my experience, something almost magical happens when you put pen to paper and document the specifics. Connections can more easily be drawn, and it helps to get everyone on the same page.

What types of information should my content marketing strategy cover?: We suggest including the following components as you develop your strategy: 

  • A business plan for innovation: This is optional, but if your organization is not used to incorporating new processes like content marketing into its operations, you may need to start by convincing your stakeholders to allow you to innovate. Why? Quite simply, this gives you permission to do what it takes to succeed, yet covers your bases in case you fail. By definition, innovation means doing something that hasn’t been done before — so there’s no way to guarantee return on investment (ROI) before you have a chance to experiment. By including an innovation plan in your content marketing strategy, you are making sure everyone’s expectations are aligned. 
  • A business plan for content marketing: Once your organization has agreed to experiment, the next step is building the business plan for the content marketing program itself. It’s important to note: The business case is not meant to outline guaranteed ROI. Trying to pin ROI on content marketing right from the outset is a bit like asking, “What’s the ROI on your telephone system?” — you won’t know until you start to get a sense of how much (and how well) it will be used.
  • Persona development and content mapping: This part of the strategy helps your content team recognize your buyers as people with informational needs, and helps them create content to address their questions at each stage of the buying cycle.
  • Your brand story: As part of your strategy, you will need to determine what your “pillars of content” — in essence, the stories you want to tell — will be. This will be more of a framework than a fully realized to-do list or template, as its purpose is to help you to develop the best way to tell your story (or, perhaps, to help you discover what’s missing from your company’s existing story).
  • A channel plan: This component focuses on how you plan to “place” the content you create — i.e., which channels will be most beneficial for your content distribution efforts? 

Want to learn more about what your content marketing plan should include? Download The Essentials of a Documented Content Marketing Strategy: 36 Questions to Answer. 

How do I communicate my strategy internally?: This very much depends on your organization. In some cases, it makes sense to have specific executive summaries targeted at different stakeholders. In other cases, you may want to develop a small-scale “pilot” program that allows you to test a few options, prove success, and then build onto your content marketing program from there.

Regardless of your approach, you’ll find it helpful to apply the principles of content marketing to your efforts to market your plan, as well. In other words, make it about your audience members’ needs: What will they care about most, and what information will they need to make decisions and allow your content marketing efforts to move forward?

Does a content marketing strategy differ from a content strategy?: Yes! While people often use these terms interchangeably (understandable, as the lines are somewhat blurry), Robert Rose makes this useful distinction:

  • Content marketing strategy: Content marketers draw and develop the larger story that our organization wants to tell. They focus on ways to engage an audience, using content to drive profitable behaviors.
  • Content strategy: On the other hand, content strategy delves deeper into (in Kristina Halvorson’s words) the “creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” As The Content Wrangler, Scott Abel, says, content strategy helps you manage content as a business asset.

Note that this distinction is something that has evolved over time. But, in recent editorial, we have been trying to keep the lines between these two disciplines drawn as clearly as possible (read our full definition of content marketing to better understand how it fits into marketing).

An example from CMI

I’ll be honest: For a few years, our content marketing strategy was kept only in our heads, rather than on “paper.” But, having recently made the effort to formalize our documented strategy, we learned a few things that might make it easier for you to follow our lead:

  • While I mostly followed the framework outlined in our 36 Questions to Answer eBook, it’s perfectly fine to customize the process so that it meets your unique situational needs. For example, I skipped questions in some places, and in others, I added information that would provide additional context for our team.
  • It’s best to share your documented strategy with everyone in your organization who’s affected by your content marketing program. While many aspects of our strategy had been communicated to our team members at some time or another, feedback I’ve received has shown that the team finds it genuinely helpful to have all this information centralized in one spot, and to walk through it as a team at least once a year.
  • Speaking of communicating with relevant teams, I’m a fan of sharing your content marketing strategy as a Google Doc or through another cloud-based platform. This will likely be a constantly evolving document, and cloud-sharing makes it easy to ensure that everyone has access to the most up-to-date version.
  • Now that we are approaching the mid-year mark, I am re-visiting and revising our strategy based on industry changes and our own data that we’ve gathered so far this year.

Now it’s time to put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) and start documenting. It’s OK if you don’t have all of the answers yet; but I guarantee that you’ll see your plan start to take shape once you work your way through this guide.

I’d love to hear about your experience with your content marketing strategy. Do you have one? Is it working? If not, what’s stopping you?

Next week, we’ll look at how to decide what types of content you need. Don’t want to miss any posts in our Back to Basics series? Make sure you sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter

Author: Michele Linn

Michele is the Content Development Director of the Content Marketing Institute and a B2B content marketing consultant who has a passion for helping companies use content to connect with their ideal buyers. You can follow her on Twitter at @michelelinn or read more of her posts on Savvy B2B Marketing.

Other posts by Michele Linn

  • Bruce McDuffee

    I think the most important aspect of the content marketing strategy is to define the mission statement. Further, the content marketing mission statement is not about the company, the products or the people at the company. My experience is that a mission statement about how to help your target audience be better (at something related to your expertise) will resonate, drive engagement, create top of mind awareness and give the firm credibility; all leading to more market share. Nice post Michele!

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

      Hi Bruce. I can’t agree more about the need for a mission. As I mention, I also think you need to tie everything back to your goals so you can make a tangible impact. Really appreciate the comment!

  • http://www.globalcopywriting.com/ globalcopywrite

    Hi Michele,

    You know what? I hadn’t really made a clear distinction between content marketing strategy and content strategy. It explains why my strategy documents have long explanations at the beginning of every section – a content marketing strategy as a preface to the content strategy. I can see now that I really should have two separate documents.

    I love the business plan for innovation idea. It’s the most fun part of the job and one we don’t put enough focus on. Putting it in the strategy means you’ve formalised it.

    One part of my strategy is a presentation to the C-Suite. It’s one of my deliverables that I explicitly list in my proposal. By including this, I make it very clear from the beginning that executive buy-in is expected. It’s a good tactic because clients can get very focused on deliverables and want to make sure they’re getting everything they paid for. And we all know once the executives understand why a content marketing strategy is vital, it opens all sorts of doors to do more.

    • NenadSenic

      Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud, but I am still very much puzzled by the differences between content marketing strategy and content strategy. And the aforementioned definitions, I must say, do not help. I am afraid this makes it all confusing and wonder whether this distinction is necessary. I again spent a lot of times rereading the definitions of the two, writing down and still don’t get it. Does this makes me not a real content marketer? :)

      • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

        Hi Nenad,

        There is certainly an overlap, but I think content strategy and content marketing are indeed different. To me, content strategy focuses on managing content as a business asset. Content strategists are often quite technical and handle things like taxonomy, UX, governance, etc. Content strategists can work throughout the organization as there are many places where content lives.

        On the other hand, content marketing is focused specifically on to use all forms of content to help drive profitable customer action. Content marketers focus on “move the marketing needle,” be it anything from getting email subscribers, nurturing prospects, helping with sales, retention, etc. Of course, this is very much a strategic approach.

        I think organizations need both content marketers and strategists. and there are skills both groups can learn from each other (or, at the very least, understand what each other does so the appropriate people can be brought in to assist on projects).

        Does that help? It’s certainly not clear cut!

        • NenadSenic

          Now you talk about content strategy vs. content marketing. What confuses me more is, what the post is about, content STRATEGY vs. content marketing STRATEGY. There’s so much misunderstanding reagrding content marketing already, I am just afraid that this just confuses the confused/sceptics even more. I am very protective of the field. :)

          • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

            Content marketing strategy is the strategy behind content marketing. When I read your question, I mis-read “content marketing” instead of “content marketing strategy,” which is why I answered as such.

            We should chat (offline, if easier) about any questions you have as I am sure others have the same questions as well — and it could warrant another post.

          • NenadSenic

            Michele, definitely. I like talking to much smarter people than me. I am puzzled by this issue, have been since I first read sth about it by Robert Rose.

  • http://www.twolegit.com/ Austin Dacey

    The content marketing strategy must documented for better success. That’s true.