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The 3 Strategic Pillars Behind Every Winning Content Strategy

Many skilled and experienced marketers still struggle to understand what’s so difficult about content marketing.

On the surface, it seems deceptively simple: You get some writers and designers together, create compelling content, publish it where your audience is likely to find it, and wait for the customer calls and purchases to roll in.

But eventually, you realize doing this bare minimum won’t get you far. A lot more work needs to happen behind the scenes to deliver initial success – and keep it properly fueled, focused, and functional over the long term. And that doesn’t even include securing buy-in for your content marketing business case in the first place.

There’s no quick or easy shortcut for achieving success with content. But there is a reliable process that, according to CMI’s 2021 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends research, 60% of the most successful B2B marketers have a documented content marketing strategy. That strategy should center on three key pillars:

  • Why – the marketing and business goals to achieve and the reason to create content as opposed to other marketing techniques
  • Who – the audience to serve through your efforts, who they are, what they need, and what path they follow in their customer journey
  • How – the unique brand mission or story, what sets your content apart from anything else your audience might choose to engage with and act on
Every #ContentMarketing strategy should center on why, who, and how, says @joderama via @CMIContent @semrush. Share on X

A thoughtfully conceived and thoroughly considered strategy will supply the power your content conversations need to shine. If you’d like proof, go no further than the field of winners and finalists in the 2021 Content Marketing Awards Best Content Marketing Strategy category. Their accomplishments serve as a testament to the value of building a strategy before you create and publish any content.

Let’s explore some of the strategic decision-making that went into these winning initiatives – and a few lessons that any business looking to achieve enduring content success should take from them.

Northwell Health adapts its why around an emerging need

COVID-19 is not the first crisis to set consumers in search of reliable health information and timely advice. Still, it happened when some find it harder than ever to distinguish scientific fact from self-promotional fiction.

Why: In 2017, Northwell Health launched The Well with a storytelling mission: providing personalized content that helps consumers more effectively and confidently manage their healthcare decisions. In 2020, with so many businesses jumping onto the wellness bandwagon and contributing more confusion than clarity, Northwell seized an opportunity to refocus the mission around a new set of objectives:

  • Improve trust in Northwell’s brand and the authority of its health experts
  • Grow the audience by distributing content where its community members spend most of their online time –search, social, publications, and word-of-mouth networks.
  • Increase business referrals by drawing a line from awareness to activation – i.e., generating appointments for Northwell services.

Who: Studying its audience insights, Northwell observed a growing consumer frustration with the state of health information: Consumers thought their searches too often surfaced dispassionate, cold, clinical information or content designed to capitalize on anxiety and mistrust.

How: Northwell added a new section to The Well devoted to accurate, trustworthy COVID-related health information. It expanded existing coverage of other timely topics to highlight its authority as a health provider and provide a heightened sense of empathy so more consumers would feel seen in its conversations. 

Bottom line: By filling a critical gap in its audience’s need for accurate, relatable information, Northwell’s brand awareness skyrocketed. And its reputation as a trustworthy health resource spread to new audiences when its content earned coverage on networks like, local ABC affiliate, Apple News, and Newsday.

The content efforts also drove a 20% increase in direct referrals (year over year) and achieved record-breaking media spend efficiency thanks to Northwell’s customized media plan for every piece of content. Taken as a whole, it’s no surprise that The Well earned high marks from this year’s Content Marketing Award judges – and took the prize for best content strategy.

Dela serves its who through relatable, empathetic conversations

Who: The loss of a loved one is a topic few want to think about, let alone talk about with brands. Yet, trustworthy guidance and emotional support for these sensitive, inevitable conversations can be a comfort.

How: Dela, a Belgian funeral business cooperative, specializes in facilitating tough decisions and discussions with empathy is something. To drive its brand awareness goals and increase audience trust, it built a strategy around engaging notable influencers in open, honest conversations about saying farewell.

Through a partnership with DPG Media, Dela integrated a storyline in the country’s popular soap opera, Familie, in which a character named Benny was forced to deal with the loss of his father. The storyline became the lever for a native campaign featuring the actor who plays Benny, Roel Vanderstukken, sharing his real-life perspective on the subject.

Personal experiences shared by other influencers and celebrities helped Dela extend the engagement to other print and online channels. It also led to the publication of a print supplement – Salut Allemaal (Goodbye Everyone) – in a Belgian showbiz magazine and a guest spot on a popular national radio show, in which Dela shared stories and tips on dealing with grief and other loss-related emotions.

Working with high-profile influencers is an effective way to create a positive association between your brand and a topic that addresses an audience need, says @joderama via @CMIContent @semrush. Share on X

NRMA takes its how to the intersection of passion and purpose 

Exploring the lesser-known highways and byways of the open road is part of the appeal of the caravanning lifestyle in Australia. Yet the country’s highways discourage RV enthusiasts from leisurely winding their way through smaller towns, which is hitting those local economies hard.

Why, who, and how: Given it specializes in both small business and caravan insurance, NRMA has a vested interest in facilitating increased RV traveler tourism in these regions. When its research found the caravan traveler demographic is rapidly expanding beyond retirees, NRMA refocused its growth goals around the needs and passions of those new niches.

That strategic shift resulted in the launch of Sloways – an insight-driven, content-led, multi-platform experience aimed at diverting leisure travelers from fast-paced highways and guiding them through the regional towns that embrace their lifestyle. Over 1,000 miles of Australian roadway, Sloways signs now serve as a welcome beacon for the caravanning community.

.@NRMA #content site Sloways promotes caravan tours of Australia’s less-populated roads. Sloways signs are as a beacon for travelers on 1,000 miles of roads, says @joderama via @CMIContent @semrush. Share on X

On the digital side, a new interactive travel planning tool enables NRMA’s audience to build customized itineraries for towns in the Queensland and New South Wales region. It plans to expand into additional areas.

To fuel the community’s desire to travel – and support the initiative’s long-term goals – NRMA also developed assets that include:

  • A branded microsite promoted via email campaigns and social media
  • A full-length film inspired by the slow TV trend and directed by Revolver’s Dani Pearce
  • A series of YouTube videos showcasing Sloways
  • Long-form written content and visual content profiling participating local businesses and attractions
  • Facebook instant experiences, interactive social polls, and paid social promotions

Bottom line: The impact of Sloways far exceeded NRMA’s initial expectations on its marketing goals and the country’s caravanning culture:

  • 30% increase year over year in caravan insurance quotes
  • 22% increase year over year in caravan insurance policies
  • Estimated $22 million injected into regional communities
  • 112,000 visitors to the Sloways website, indicating an impact on consumers’ planning behaviors
  • Caravan product proof points delivered CPCs of 82 cents (industry benchmark: $1.30)
  • 5M+ impressions across digital

SAP executes a plan on top of its pillars

Of course, creating your strategy is just the first step in the content marketing process. You also need to cover other considerations – tactics to execute, metrics to track performance and gauge ROI, and optimization so the content delivers value in the future.

Smart planning aligns all three pillars: SAP has earned its status as a well-respected industry thought leader the hard way – by helping B2B customers address their business challenges and adapt to evolving conditions, needs, and opportunities over time.

That forward-focused vision factored into the strategy for SAP’s The Future of Customer Engagement and Commerce content platform. This multimedia, multi-contributor initiative is built on clear goals, a distinct mission, and deep audience insights, and each of the resulting content assets includes critical details to serve multiple marketing priorities at once.

SAP established a consistent traffic volume for the site by focusing on SEO and evergreen content. Contributed content gets edited to align with the brand’s authentic communication style and inclusive tone of voice. Once published, assets go through a continual re-optimization process to maintain their timeliness and search relevance. Updated calls to action guide readers to additional assets that support their needs in the next stage of the customer journey.

A winning strategy delivers much more than the sum of its pillars

It’s always critical to keep business goals top of mind when creating content. But building your strategy to give equal standing to your audience’s needs and to stand out from your content competition will make it easier to keep your efforts properly focused, well-aligned, and capable of delivering the impact you’re looking for.

Is your work award-worthy? You’ll never know unless you enter. Visit the Content Marketing Awards website to review the rules and study past winners. Apply by May 21 to avoid late fees.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute