Content Marketing Strategy: The Best Checklists and Templates
Have you developed your foolproof plan for getting Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or Google Home devices to speak your brand’s praises when customers come calling for advice?
Are you fighting FOMO with a killer virtual reality app that turns your shopping experience into a garden of unearthly delights for consumers to explore?
Have you budgeted for a new blockchain-based loyalty program or a celebrity-hosted influencer network promising fame and fortune to your audience in exchange for their ongoing engagement?
Don’t panic about keeping up with progressive content trends like these. Remember while it’s tempting to pour all your content team’s energies and resources into the next big thing to hit the digital marketplace, sustainable, long-term success with content marketing first requires a mastery of the fundamentals.
This updated toolkit – featuring some of CMI’s best tips, checklists, and templates – can help you build that solid foundation. Use it to check off some of the critical content marketing tasks on your to-do list more efficiently and use the newly freed brainpower to innovate wisely and purposefully.
Content marketing strategy tips and tools
Everything you do as a content marketer should flow from a deliberately constructed content marketing strategy. This includes determining how to model your content operations as well as outlining why you are creating content (your purpose), who you want it to reach (your audience), and the expected impact of your content efforts on the business (your goals).Everything you do as a content marketer should flow from a constructed #contentmarketing strategy. @joderama Click To Tweet
Choose a content business model
Think of your strategy as a road map of the content experience you intend to cultivate and how it will connect your business with your audience – and move both of you closer to achieving your goals.
Of course, anyone who has used Google Maps knows that every destination has multiple routes. And, according to CMI’s chief strategy advisor Robert Rose, the same goes for finding the best content marketing strategy for your organization. In fact, he recently identified four viable approaches that organizations can follow based on their goals, business structure, team resources, and level of content experience:
- Player: Content marketing is seen as a contributor to other business communication strategies such as demand generation or product marketing.
- Performer: Content functions as a center of excellence, aiming to build an addressable audience through owned media platforms.
- Processor: Content is treated as a centralized service offered throughout the organization.
- Platform: Content is run as a self-sufficient yet fully integrated media business.
Craft a one-page content strategy guide
You can’t achieve content marketing success unless you understand what success means to your organization. Some of the most common goals marketers pursue through their content programs include:
Of course, content marketing can help your business achieve all these aims and more; but it works best when you focus on one challenge at a time. If your content program could only help your company achieve a single goal, what would you want it to be?
To figure out which goals your organization should prioritize, try the steps in George Stenitzer’s one-page strategy guide.
Build performance-driven audience personas
When you think of your content recipients in broad terms like “audience” or “targets,” it’s easy to lose sight of their needs as unique, complex people with different needs, interests, preferences, and behaviors.
That’s where audience personas come into play. These composite sketches help characterize key segments of your audience in terms of their relevant challenges and concerns and the role they likely play in their company’s purchasing process.
Robert suggests this five-step approach to building more valuable audience personas – ones that put the customer’s needs at the center of your stories:
- Define your target: Detail the total addressable audience.
- Discover the “so I can”: Uncover the functional and emotional jobs the audience needs to get done.
- Decide on your niche: Find your sweet spot of relevance – where your field of knowledge and your skill sets intersect with a passion point of your audience.
- Differentiate your content approach: Prioritize the jobs to be done by those that you can and should solve with your unique and distinct point of view.
- Design your map of success: Identify as many of the kinds of value you can provide across each step of your chosen jobs to be done.
Take the information you gathered through these steps and assemble your audience persona profile. Here’s Robert’s example:
Write a content marketing mission statement
A unique content marketing mission statement helps you document your company’s reason for creating content and the priorities and perspectives it will uphold in pursuit of that mission.
Your mission statement is a critical component for guiding decision-making throughout the life of your program. As Ann Gynn points out, there’s an art to crafting a useful one – and not everyone gets it right. To avoid providing too much (or too little) detail in your statement, follow these tips:
- Be succinct but don’t oversimplify: Describe your editorial mission clearly to prevent your content team and your readers from making assumptions about the purpose of your brand’s content.
- Don’t be generic: Distinguish your brand in the statement, whether it’s by geography, industry, niche, etc.
- Include your content’s purpose: Explain, in as few words as possible, how it should motivate the readers or viewers, and what you want them to know, think, or do as a result of consuming it.
- Pick a niche: Your content can’t be everything to everybody. Pick an area of specialization and ensure that your content efforts all adhere to it.
Content planning tips and tools
Repeat after me: “Content marketing works best when you plan for its success.” You need an operational plan that outlines all the insights, actions, people, and procedures necessary to take your content marketing program from a lofty strategic ideal to a fully functional and productive content marketing engine.#Contentmarketing works best when you plan for its success, says @joderama. Click To Tweet
Simplify your content inventory and audit processes
Unless your business is just launching, you probably have quite a few content pieces floating around the digital landscape. Some might be worth repurposing; others might no longer fit your goals and should be removed, revised, or replaced. Your first step for activating your strategy should be to take stock of existing content and determine whether it is still shining the best light on your brand.
Two core processes will help with this:
- Content inventory – a list of all the content items you’ve created, including the title, type and format, and where each asset has been published
- Content audit – an analysis of the data from your inventory that helps you evaluate the relative value of each asset
Content strategist Laura Creekmore shares a streamlined inventory and auditing process, including this template to help you focus in on the most useful data and observations.
Distinguish your brand content
To ensure that your content reflects your brand, its purpose, and its values, enable your team to create each piece of content under a unified standard of quality – which includes maintaining a unique brand voice and consistent editorial style.
Brand voice: Erika Heald has outlined a five-step process to establish and maintain a voice that will set your content apart from its competitors while remaining true to your brand’s core ideals.
- Gather a sample of your best content pieces. Include examples of all the types. Cast a critical eye on each piece, whittling the list to a small group of assets that represent what’s unique about your brand and embody the qualities that you outlined in your editorial mission.
- Describe your ideal brand voice in three words. Broadly categorize all the assets on your list into distinct themes. Select the three most dominant themes and describe their core qualities based on the characteristics your audience would most likely associate with them.
- Create a brand voice chart. Create a form (like the example below) to illustrate how each brand characteristic should be applied in your content.
- Walk your content creators through the chart to ensure that your team members all understand how to put your brand voice in action.
- Revisit and revise your chart as your business evolves.
Style guidelines: Style dictates the technical mechanics of your brand’s unique voice to help ensure that readers find your content to be consistent, trustworthy, recognizable, and relatable. Sasha Laferte shares a few tips for creating a brand style guide for your team:
- Baseline guide: Start with an existing style guide (like AP Style) as a baseline, then customize to align with your brand’s unique communication style.
- Formatting: Include details on how to format things like bullets, lists, hyphens, and quotes, and outline when those standards might be different – such as a content format (e.g., video, infographics) or content platforms (e.g., social media).
- Colors: Detail your brand’s palette of colors, including function. Make sure to include the hex, CMYK, and RGB codes for each color, as well as Pantone numbers.
- Logos: Include all versions of your logo and examples of proper usage in your most likely scenarios.
- Fonts: Include all brand fonts for headings, paragraphs, etc., and instructions on their usage.
- Templates: Include links to any company-branded templates (such as PowerPoint slideshows) and boilerplate information.
Staff up with the right content marketing skills
To consistently produce high-quality content on multiple channels and platforms, you need to make sure everyone on your team understands your organization’s expectations and has the required skills and know-how to fulfill them.
Use this team framework developed by Michele Linn to identify the skills, mindset, and cultural considerations to account for when running an efficient and effective content marketing program.
Find specialized content creation talent
No matter how creative and talented your team members and agency partners are, there are times when it may make sense to outsource writing – especially when you have a high volume to be done or specialized technical or subject matter expertise is needed but falls outside your team’s comfort zone.
Finding a writer who is the right fit for your team and your tasks can take some time – and a lot of careful vetting. Chris Gillespie offers a few resources to help ease the struggle:
- Writer job boards: Forums like Problogger, Writer’s Den, the Freelancer’s Union, LinkedIn Groups, or even Craigslist can be instrumental for connecting with potential writers.
- Freelancing platforms: Sites like Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer.com add automation to the mix, providing a centralized place for evaluating writers’ profiles, client reviews, and past work.
- Content marketing platforms: Content platforms like Contently, Skyword, and NewsCred are pricier than other alternatives but potentially worth the cost because they curate their pool of writers and can provide an editor for quality assurance.
- Referrals and word of mouth: As a rule, the best writers rarely have to look for work – they’re inundated with clients starving for their unicorn-rare mixture of writing proficiency and industry expertise. The easiest way to find them is to ask around.
Content creation tips and tools
Once you’ve set your strategy and outlined your plans for executing it, it’s time to create high-quality, customer-driven stories. Though the creative process is unique to every business, plenty of tools can help with generating story ideas, organizing them into relevant content pieces, and getting them into the hands of your target audience.
Align team expectations with a creative content brief
A great creative brief provides a clear view of the project, the business challenge it is meant to address, and the value it aims to provide to your target audience. If everybody on the team understands their expectations from the get-go, it makes it easier for them to stay focused, channel their creativity, and collaborate effectively.If everyone on the team understands expectations from the get-go, it makes it easier to collaborate. @joderama Click To Tweet
Use Duncan Milne’s creative brief template to guide your creative brief execution. Then, make sure to distribute it to everybody on your content team so they all work toward the same vision of success.
Generate content ideas designed for success
Brainstorming is a great tool for getting the creative juices flowing and generating a high volume of new content ideas. There are a wide range of ways to approach this task, including the loosely organized free-association process Jay Acunzo recommends, and the five-step improv exercise Cisco Systems’ Tim Washer developed through his experience as a comedy writer.
But, if you are looking for a more strategically guided method – one that prioritizes high-growth content projects over those that only provide incremental returns – consider experimenting with the 10x idea generation framework CoSchedule’s Garrett Moon has used to reach his marketing goals 10 times faster.
Vet your content ideas for viability
Unless you live in a world where time and budget are unlimited, you need to prioritize the creative ideas that result from your brainstorms and determine which are most worth your team’s time and energies in producing.
Michelle Park Lazette suggests asking three key questions before investing in any new content idea – a process she calls her chicken test:
Create content that delivers long-term results
Thanks to search engines, any content you publish online will be findable forever – whether it stands the test of time or not. As you build your ideas into assets, you may want to focus on more evergreen types that will continue to benefit your brand long after it’s initially published.
Mike Murray outlines the evergreen content formats he thinks offer the longest lifespans by design, as well as those that can be easily updated with fresh information as necessary.
Support sales and drive increased conversions
While all-purpose content is important to have, you can build your content efforts around specific or specialized business needs – like supporting your sales team’s efforts to address pressing customer challenges or bridging prospects’ critical knowledge gaps.
Follow the technique that Pam Didner has outlined for creating sales-driven (and sales-driving) content – which starts with mapping the customer journey to the sales journey.
Build lasting audience relationships
If your writers are focused on communicating key talking points instead of readable and relatable stories, you might grab the audience’s attention, but you won’t hold it for long – or earn their ongoing interest in what your brand has to say.
As readable.io’s Steve Linney explains, readable content speaks to consumers on their level, using short sentences and simple words, and avoiding unnecessary buzz terms or industry jargon that can make stories feel too complex and confusing to engage with. To strike a good tonal balance between formal and conversational speech without sacrificing your brand’s personality, use Steve’s helpful style of writing chart as a reference tool:
Content distribution tips and tools
Simply creating and publishing content online probably won’t be enough to get it discovered by the right consumers, let alone do so at scale. As a content marketer, you need to make thoughtful decisions about how and where to distribute your content, as well as how you boost your efforts’ chances of building authority and trust.
Promote your blog posts for maximum success
As DivvyHQ’s co-creator Brody Dorland reminds us, without an effective and repeatable process for promoting your blog posts and maximizing their visibility, all the hard work creating them can go to waste. Fortunately, he shares an updated version of his future-proof checklist for promoting your blog that will help you cover all your bases.
Streamline your social media marketing
Figuring out the best places to share your content on social media can be puzzling as the rules, opportunities, audiences, and value propositions vary greatly from one channel to another – and can shift gears abruptly without a moment’s notice. But one thing that can make your decisions more straightforward is establishing a channel plan – an advanced directive for how your brand can and should distribute its content marketing efforts on rented channels like social media and what you expect to achieve.
For my post on social media marketing plans, I created a sample template (below) that can help you organize and apply the essential details. Feel free to download a copy and customize it to suit your needs – just open the Google document, go to “File > Download As >” and select the file format you prefer to work with. (Please note: While I used CMI as a reference for this example, the data included does not represent our channel plan.)
Master the basics of link-building
Another way to amplify your new content is by linking to it from your other high-performing content as well as popular and relevant third-party sites. Authoritative backlinks might be harder to earn than organic social shares; but as BuzzSumo’s Susan Moeller points out, they stay around longer than a tweet or a Facebook post, are easier to track than “dark-sharing” mechanisms like email and apps, and serve as a powerful Google ranking factor.Amplify content by linking to it from high-performing #content as well as relevant third-party sites. @joderama Click To Tweet
If you are looking to take advantage of this technique, Susan recommends five content formats that won’t steer you wrong:
- Authoritative content that answers popular questions, such as “what is?”
- Strong opinion posts and political posts
- Content that provides original research and insights
- Content that leverages a trending topic but also provides practical insights
- Authoritative news content on new products or developments
Get started with influencer marketing
Partnering with high-profile industry experts and public personalities for content distribution can help strengthen your company’s credibility and trustworthiness – a must for success. And with brands estimated to see an average ROI of $6.85 for every dollar invested in influencer marketing (Burst Media study), it may be one of the smartest bets around for successful content distribution.Partnering w/ high-profile experts & celebs for #content distribution can strengthen credibility. @joderama Click To Tweet
Building a robust influencer marketing program can be a time-consuming and intimidating undertaking, especially for businesses new to the game. Following our eight-step process will prepare you to tackle all the tasks, but you can start with a few lower-touch entry points such as the content roundup.
As Chad Pollitt describes, the content roundup involves collecting the thoughts of several industry influencers on a given topic and compiling them into a blog post (or some other form of content). Chad also shares the checklist below, which outlines everything involved in executing the technique successfully.
Content measurement tips and tools
Following the above advice will give your content a strong strategic and creative foundation, but that doesn’t mean your job is done. You need to continually evaluate, strengthen, and grow your content kingdom by identifying what’s working, adjusting what isn’t, and amplifying your content’s power through strategic optimization.
Measure content performance with the right metrics
It’s not enough to create and distribute the content you think your audience will want to read. You must demonstrate that your content is making a measurable impact on the bottom line by driving readers to take action with your brand.
Tracking the right key performance indicators (KPIs) can help provide insight into whether your efforts are moving the needle in the right direction. KPIs can also offer clues as to what steps should be taken to get poor-performing content on track. Use this list shared by Mike Murray to identify the most informative metrics for your specific business goals:
Of course, not all of the above metrics will be meaningful when determining the ultimate measure of success for content marketing initiatives: ROI.
As Global Copywriting’s Sarah Mitchell points out, a single piece of content rarely generates a direct conversion, making data points like unique visits, page views, sentiment scores, or even time on page somewhat irrelevant to the bottom line. However, if you want to demonstrate how your overarching content strategy is contributing to your business goals in other ways, she suggests starting with these content metrics as indicators:
- Open rates from email show whether your titles or subject lines resonate with your audience.
- Click-through rates (CTR) from your website content and email campaigns can identify consumers’ willingness to answer calls to action and help you understand how customers move through your content.
- Time spent. If time-spent figures are changing, it’s worth examining why.
- Invitations to contribute at in-person events, in writing, or by making appearances on videos or podcasts are an indication of thought leadership.
- Results from research and surveys about your company provide a body of information to track over time.
Go forth and conquer
While these tips, tools, and templates will help you tackle many of the challenges involved in successful content marketing, they’re no substitute for a thorough understanding of the principles and techniques they represent. If you have questions or would like additional insights on any of these topics, let us know by adding a comment.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute