By Joe Pulizzi published June 23, 2014

Kick Off Successful Content Marketing with a Pilot Program: 10 Steps

illustration-computer, ruler, pencil, eyeIn most cases, taking a content marketing approach that goes against the culture of an organization is an exceptionally challenging endeavor (see this article for more on battling organizational change). No matter how much passion you have for the concept of content marketing, more often than not, internal politics may get the best of you.

However, we’ve seen pilot programs in content marketing work dramatically well for many marketers, especially in the manufacturing sector. One senior marketer at a large manufacturing firm recently told me that their progressive content marketing approach can be credited to one thing: launching the program as a pilot (including referring to it as such).

Why does this work? First, decision makers in charge of the budget strings are not scared off by the word “pilot.” They understand that pilot means test. Even though you know that a successful content marketing approach takes many months to take hold, perhaps even years, decision makers don’t want to hear that. A pilot clears away the concern that you are irreversibly taking the organization down a risky road.

Pilot also holds the connotation of “single,” rather than “home run” (to use baseball terminology). With a pilot, you can set expectations somewhat low, so that even a little bit of success can get you a continuation on your budget ask.

So here are 10 steps that can help make your pilot program happen:

  1. Ask why: Why are you doing this in the first place? What is the business objective? Is it to drive sales, to save costs in some way (as a replacement for something else), or is it to create better customers (to keep them loyal or, perhaps, get current customers to spend more)? At this point, focus on the real reason why the person controlling the budget will grant you some of it. If it’s not one of the three above, you are doing it wrong (the metrics step will come later). Ask yourself: How will my business be different after the pilot program succeeds?
  2. Ask who: Who is the specific audience that you will be targeting with your content marketing approach? The smaller the better. For most pilots, we want to target a very distinct customer or prospect group — the people who can make the greatest impact on our business. Of course, in some cases you may be targeting an influencer group —  Content Marketing World keynoter Andrew Davis said he once worked on a pilot content marketing program that was successful even though it was targeted to just one influencer.
  3. Ask what: What is the core content niche you will be focusing on? In what area can you develop something for this audience that can be indispensable?
  4. Ask where: What is the core deliverable for your target audience? Is it a blog, a podcast, a webinar series, a book series? Do you already have some of the content to make this happen? What do you need to get that you don’t have? Also, consider how you can get multiple uses from each content piece. For example, could a blog post become part of an eBook series? Could an eBook series become a book? Would it be possible to turn each eBook in the series into a webinar? Think multiple-use right from the beginning of your pilot program.
  5. Consider your available team resources: Obviously, you will take the lead, but how will you execute the plan you build to make it happen, and who will be helping you? Will you involve employees from multiple departments? Will you budget for freelancers? When you budget, you need to put a hard cost on the time you are taking from both internal and external resources, or the financial folks will call you on it. In most pilots, contractors are key, so I would outsource as much of what you can until the program gets long-term buy-in.
  6. Determine your primary metric: What is the core metric that will help you tell the measurement story for your pilot program? In most cases, it will probably be the number of subscribers, or the people who receive or opt in to your content. Once you have that information, you can compare your subscriber database with your customer database and show how subscribers behave differently.
  7. Consider your secondary metrics: What are the secondary metrics that lead to the primary metric? For example, does increased traffic lead to more subscribers (sometimes it doesn’t)? How about social sharing? What about search engine optimization? What about time spent? Having all the data points is great, but if you don’t know why it does, or does not, lead to the primary metric, you need to head back to the drawing board.
  8. Set a length of time for the pilot: We’ve seen the majority of pilot programs run for six months — most senior-level decision marketers seem to see this as a reasonable timetable. Your goal for the six months will be to get enough of a positive story (from points five and six) to get an additional six or 12 months for the program.
  9. Will your content be irreplaceable to those it reaches?: Is your particular content marketing approach truly unique in your industry? Will it be meaningful to your audience? How easily could it be replaced? Are there already many content options in this area for your possible subscribers to choose from? If so, you may want to narrow your target audience or content focus a bit more. When you look at replacement factor, it’s fair to look at the audience, the content niche, and the deliverables to make sure your pilot program will truly provide something that’s unique and valuable to your audience.
  10. Communicate your success: Plan to be successful right from the start, and make sure you are prepared to share each and every successful milestone you achieve. What will the six-month deliverable look like? What can you do right now to help tell the success story? Maybe you can plan to interview subscribers (video is very effective here) to learn about their experience with your content? Can you use analytics to show how buying paths have been impacted by your content? Can you show sales effectiveness or how the sales process has changed? Just as important as the success of your content deliverables is how you will share this story of success to your stakeholders. Many marketers wait until the last minute to start thinking about this. You need to run how you explain your success in tandem with the program itself.

Have you run a pilot program for your content marketing? How did it work? What unique things did you do that made all the difference?

For more guidance on getting started with content marketing, read CMI’s guide on Building the Business Case for Content Marketing.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi considers himself the poster boy for content marketing. Founder of the Content Marketing Institute , Joe evangelizes content marketing around the world through keynotes, articles, tweets and his books, including best-selling Epic Content Marketing (McGraw-Hill) and the new book, Content Inc. Check out Joe's two podcasts. If you want to get on his good side, send him something orange. For more on Joe, check out his personal site or follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • Bruce McDuffee

    Yes, a pilot program works well especially when you are up against a strong culture. I’ve seen educational webinars as a pilot program tactic work very well in manufacturing businesses because expertise is usually abundant.

    If the webinar covers a topic where the expertise and the audience needs are aligned, the numbers are usually impressive (1000 or more registrants is not uncommon). This gets attention of high level executives. It’s even more impressive if you can tie it to opportunities and revenue. Educational webinars give you a quick win in support of a broader content marketing strategy.

  • http://www.datadrivenseo.com/ Josh Schonwald

    Competitive analysis is also one of the most important aspects of any content strategy. The time it takes to sit down and do in-depth competitive analysis will save a company a lot of testing down the road. If something seems to be working well for them you should mimic the strategy but attempt to do it better. Also look for holes in their strategy that you can exploit with your own content strategy.

    • http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Josh…so so true. Thanks for the reminder on that.

  • Neal Taparia

    Hey Joe,

    Awesome guidelines! We’ve had a lot of success getting people on board with content marketing by calling it an “experiment” which is similar to pilot.

    We’ve also explained that a key benefit is to build your personal brand by publishing your knowledge and expertise you gain through our organization online. It’s true and resonates well. You are empowering your team to create a public paper trail of everything they’ve learned, which can benefit them in the long run!