By Don Stanley published January 10, 2014

Why You Should Discuss Content Marketing Strategy Before Tactics

Failure to plan is planning to fail —John Wooden, legendary basketball coach

businessman writing strategyI often get asked the following question: “What’s the primary reason businesses fail at content marketing?

Those who ask seem to want, or expect, a complex answer; but the fact of the matter is the answer is really quite simple: Most organizations fail because they jump right into content marketing without first creating an overall content marketing strategy. They know they need to produce content, so they just start producing it. Not much effort is given to why they’re doing it or whom they’re targeting. Sadly, what often happens is these organizations try content marketing for 3 to 6 months and then, when they don’t achieve immediate and monumental success, they declare that it doesn’t work. Unfortunately, without developing a strategic plan, these organizations are destined to fail before they even get started.

To some of you, this may seem like a “duh” moment. After all, taking such a haphazard approach to content marketing is just as counterintuitive as an architect designing a building without giving any consideration to the landscape, climate, and surrounding structural environment.

If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time. —Zig Ziglar

I can’t stress enough how critical it is to reach agreement on a content marketing strategy before discussing tactics. Building and then making a smart business case for investing time, dollars, and staff into this new venture should be top priority; after that, an organization can go about generating all the content it wants. But the content needs a purpose, a target. Without this, you will have trouble justifying your investment when the content marketing ROI conversation inevitably comes up.

So where do you start?

Start here: Top two “W” questions to ponder

Any time the issue of whether to pursue a content marketing strategy comes up, the following two questions should be the first ones asked (and answered):

  1. Why do we want to participate in content marketing?
  2. Who do we need to convince that our content marketing will be valuable? 

As author and renowned TED talker Simon Sinek would say, “Start with why.” Evaluate both the internal (within your organization) and external (outside your organization) reasons that content marketing makes sense. Yes, it’s been proven to increase the bottom line. Yes, small and focused content with high value can generate brand awareness, web traffic, online leads, and customer loyalty. But what else can it do in your specific industry — and for your specific customers?

Once you know why you want to engage in content marketing, you must convince a disparate “who” group of internal stakeholders, including executives, decision makers, and would-be content producers within your organization.

At the same time, you need to consider whether your external customers truly will find your content to be worth their time. Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero once said (or so I read), “If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings and speak my words.” And, more than 2,050 years later, he’s still right. You must think like your target audiences and produce content and information they want and need. In the words of Jay Baer, your business needs to serve as a “Youtility” for your audiences to be successful in today’s marketplace.

So once you’ve defined your “why” and your “who,” what should you do next?

Five more questions to consider

Now it’s time for the rubber to meet the road and for you to get specific about the information you will need to develop your content marketing strategy. To do so, you will want to reflect on key questions like these:

  1. What investments are required to make your content marketing effective?: Do you have the dollars to dedicate to creating successful content marketing? Can your employees afford the time it will take to create high-quality content consistently? Might additional staff members need to be hired or other resources need to be added to do the job right?
  2. How innovative is your organization?: The size of your organization determines the type of content marketing pitch you make. Smaller organizations and those that are known for innovation might be more provocative with their proposal — for example, they may consider including bold designs, sexy copy, and edgy videos as part of their overall content marketing strategies. Compare that approach to one of a Fortune 500 company that has a board of directors and a slew of investors who all will be judging the content purely from a bottom-line perspective. Remember, you’re pitching a new idea, and you need to understand how far you can go with that idea.
  3. How will customers and prospects potentially benefit from your efforts?: Know what they want to hear from organizations like yours, and what they need in terms of useful information and value. Everybody asks, “What’s in it for me?” But you’ll need to know the answer to that question well before your customers do. Make sure you create a content calendar to ensure that, after a few weeks of effort, you don’t run out of topics that your customers will care about. And remember that your content must, in some way, help make your customers’ lives easier and encourage them to engage with your company. Write for them, not for you. This approach will pay off in the long run.
  4. Where will people be looking for this content?: Do your customers spend most of their online time at their desktops or on mobile devices? How many views does your website’s home page receive per month? If it’s more popular than other pages, that means visitors are seeking out your company’s expertise — and are perhaps finding nothing but a sales pitch. Would they stay longer if you posted something to engage them — something that would compel them to leave a comment, download a 16-page eBook, share a video on their Facebook feed, or mention your organization on Twitter? Answers to these questions will help you determine distribution priorities for your content marketing strategy.
  5. What risks are involved?: What if, once you’ve received buy-in and begun to create videos, blogs, newsletters, and other content, the process doesn’t quite work the way you envisioned it? How will you track a campaign’s effectiveness? Who will have the authority within the organization to permit you to amp up (or to scale back)? And who, ultimately, will be responsible for the overall content marketing strategy; in other words, who will be prepared to lead the charge if the powers that be say yes to content marketing — and who will have a convincing response on hand if they say no? Regardless of the ultimate outcome, you’ll garner trust by coming into your pitch meeting prepared to address whatever questions, comments or arguments come your way. 

All of this, obviously, requires a keen understanding of your customer base. Remember the wisdom of Cicero….

One way to overcome any unknowns about your audience is to pitch content marketing as an experiment — something that will remain separate from the core of your business and can be halted at any given time, based on resources and results. That approach often eases the burden of commitment, too.

A final note on ROI’s place in the strategy equation

So far, I’ve quoted an ancient philosopher and a modern-day author, and I’ll begin my wrap-up with a reference to a guy who chronologically falls somewhere in between those two gentlemen: Albert Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts,” the great physicist once said, coining what has become a relevant phrase for many a social media discussion. Quality, not quantity, right?

This also holds true for content marketing. The return-on-investment equation should not be part of the business case for developing a content marketing strategy. Instead, ROI goals should be set after the strategy has been put into action. This is because ROI is a measurement of a strategy’s goals — not a part of them in and of itself. Again, this is a common mistake organizations make. Once your content marketing has begun, you will be able to track such things as sales lift, customer conversion, and user traffic and engagement — which provides the fuel you need to create convincing ROI conversations down the road.

In my experience, once an organization has agreed to establish and deliver a quality content marketing plan, the only regret I’ve ever heard expressed is this one: “I wish I would have started sooner.

Ready to make content marketing an integral part of your business operations? Download our workbook to learn how to Launch Your Own Content Marketing Program

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Don Stanley

Don Stanley is owner of 3Rhino Media, a boutique digital marketing agency dedicated to helping companies share their expertise and connect with the right clients online. He’s personally worked with a wide range of organizations including Fortunate 500 companies, Silicon Valley start-ups and nationally known nonprofits. He’s an education-based marketer, workshop leader and keynote speaker who specialized in helping businesses build strong, authentic and profitable relationships online. Don’s also an award-winning instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches digital marketing courses. Follow Don on Twitter.

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  • Michael Bian

    smart, unique take. Really enjoyed this.

  • Bradley Robb

    While those steps can all help to make better decisions regarding creating more effective content marketing, they’re a bit off when it comes to making a strategic decision. Specifically, the logic is influenced by the idea that content marketing will be the best solution, without digging into the crux of the problem. This is typically called the expectation bias and is the source of the cliché “When all you have is a hammer…”

    I know it seems rudimentary, but I’ve found the first step in any strategic initiative is first determine the problem and then validate it. Simply asking “How do you know this is a problem?” provides a powerful level of insight into most situations.

    • Mike Myers

      Great point! First, find out what problem we are trying to solve (and let’s make sure it’s a problem in the first place).

      • dtstanley

        Well said Mike 😉

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hey Brad…I believe that’s the “why” Don is talking about. Asking why should uncover the pain you are trying to solve…correct?

      • Bradley Robb

        Morning Joe,

        Somewhat. I believe the basis of my issue, and the alerting to the potential for bias was the way the question was formed.

        “Why do we want to participate in content marketing?” is a wholly different animal than “Why do you think this is a problem worth solving?”

        Asking broad questions can be scary for clients, but starting from the broadest possible mindset and working deductively is beneficial in not ruling anything out or committing too early to a particular strategy or tactic.

        • dtstanley

          Very good points Brad. And I would say the question you offer isn’t so much rudimentary. Rather I see it as foundational. It might seem basic to some, but too often folks skip over the foundational questions because they are hard to answer. So pass over the “why/strategy” questions and jump into the “how to/tactics” questions. And that’s a major problem.

          The companies that are most successful are the ones who ask (and answer) the tough, foundational questions before jumping into tactics.

  • Max Traylor

    Along these lines, do you think that creating a strategy before presenting a proposal outlining the tactics to be implemented would be wise?

    I work with a lot of agencies that propose content marketing tactics before developing a strategy. In fact the development of strategy is part of the proposal.

    I have had lots of success developing the strategy during the sales process, then once the prospect company understands that strategy we present them with the detailed tactics and cost: the proposal.

    Your thoughts?

    • dtstanley

      You nailed it The “why” is the strategy. It reminds us and the client what the end game is and why they are investing the time, energy and resources in this effort.

  • Bill King

    This is a great thread! We measure how well our clients (primarily B2B) effectively move their buyer through the customer decision journey. By doing so we gain insight into where we need to improve, but also where the problem might be. If the audience, timing and channel is correct we can conclude that content is key, and test the assumption. When we take this approach we can begin to make an ROI case for improving content.

    • Don Stanley

      Thanks for adding to the thread Bill and well said. For our clients we follow a similar approach. We break down the customer decision funnel for each key audiences and find this extremely helpful when trying to figure out opportunities and problems.

      Do you break out the journey for individual audiences as well? We do this and while it’s time consuming on the front end, it’s very, very helpful in the long run.

      • Bill King

        We are just to the east of you…Go Badgers!

        We will break down the journey by market segment if the client recognizes the value. We also like to break it down by business type if the client has multiple business units under one umbrella. But, like you pointed out it is time consuming.


        • Don Stanley

          Great to hear from a fellow Badger, Bill!

          And I like the qualifier “if the client recognizes the value”. That’s where we find ourselves doing a lot of client education work — which starts with helping them get clear on their “why”. It’s not easy work but it’s definitely worthwhile.

          • Bill King

            I’d love to learn more from you about how you are measuring results and share what is working for us. I’m at @kinginnovative as Suzanne says….learn learn learn

          • Don Stanley

            😉 I’ll reach out to you soon (probably next week) on this.

  • Suzanne Mannion

    Great post. Signs are certainly pointing to 2014 being the year of Content! I’m finding it very beneficial to review various recommendations, which are confirming what I know or recommending additional ideas. Love that our industry let’s us keep learning, learning, learning!

    • Don Stanley

      Thanks Suzanne.

  • Kizi 1

    I liked your information and hope that you will bring many good things and more interesting, thanks

  • dialuz

    Great is best posting in 2014 may i ear all the blogs

  • Samuel @ ReferralCandy

    Hi Don,
    This is a much-needed post for some, mainly because it’s so easy for us to get caught up in the many methods and techniques to produce content, instead of looking at the broader strategic picture. Diving into content marketing without a solid or at least a clear content strategy is bound to make little progress due to the lack of focus. Plus, how do you know if you’re making progress when you don’t even have a clear idea of what you’d like to achieve long-term?

    Additionally, the point about ROI is also important, in that many higher-ups who don not fully understand content strategy would demand to see ‘results’, and that’s the only tangible result they know of, and care about. Sometimes, bigger, and perhaps more ‘old-fashioned’ companies do not like hearing things like ‘customer satisfaction’ and ‘loyalty’, unless it can be represented in tangible data.

    • Don Stanley

      You are spot on Samuel. If you don’t know your target, it’s hard to determine if you’re hitting it.

  • Ed Marsh

    spot on. and it’s a much broader issue than simply content marketing. we work with B2B manufacturing companies on business development – with best practice digital marketing and with entry into profitable global markets for diversified export sales. ( and we see precisely the same ad hoc approach in both cases.

    what’s missing is some euphemism for strategy – because that’s what they all need, assume they all have, and are hesitant to engage in. so lowering the emotional barrier might make it more accessible for them. it’s often astounding when you start to dig into their biz dev activities – almost always it boils down to following up on the most recent lead rather than deciding where they should be based on company philosophy, product, growth expectations, etc.

    this doesn’t have to be a grand mckinsey style exercise, but a series of discussions about what they’ve done, what they do and what they hope to do. and when a company opens up and allows that insight to infuse their efforts the results are amazing. you’re absolutely right Don – the typical response is “I wish we’d done this sooner!”

    • Don Stanley

      Excellent points Ed. I love your tip on taking smaller steps by starting with a a series of simple (but powerful) discussions. That’s a great way to get a client moving forward on the strategy front. Small actions like this can definitely help an organization make progress on being more strategic.

      And I very much agree with the euphemism for strategy point as well. I sometimes say, half-jokingly, that strategy has a branding problem. It’s perceived as time-consuming, difficult and not “results-oriented” enough. I think this is two fold. One, strategy work can be hard. Secondly, sometimes we (people who work on the strategic side) make the process of creating a strategy too grandiose. We lay out a process for developing or defining core strategy that multi-step, multi-tiered and plain overwhelming.

      On that note, have you watched any Simon Sinek videos or read any of his books? Highly recommend learning more about his “Golden Circle”. Marcus Sheridan shared the concept with me (he wrote a great post about it) and I have since shared it with my clients. I find my clients who learn about the Sinek’s Golden Circle concept are more enthusiastic and engaged in strategy work.

      Thanks again for the input

  • Kelle Campbell

    Love this post. Especially your final note about return on investment. I’ve encountered business associates who do confuse ROI with strategic goals. I think the crux of the matter is that some of them haven’t figured out what to measure and/or how to measure.

    • Don Stanley

      TY so much for the feedback Kelle! And I think you’re right. In my experience, too many businesses jump on the CM and SM bandwagon because it’s everyone else is doing it.

      They don’t spend enough time up front asking the right questions including what to measure. Key performance indicators (KPIs) need to be just that … indicators of KEY strategic items.

      Appreciate the comment!

  • Anoop Srivastava

    Don, First time i have seen such type of good post on content marketing. Thanks