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6 Steps to a Data-Driven Content Marketing Strategy

building top drawing-rise above big dataWhen a shopper walked into my grandpa’s store in Cranford, New Jersey, in 1955, he received a firm handshake and personal service. Grandpa Ted would walk his customers around the store, learning about their lives and needs through conversation. These details would inspire how he approached other customers as well as those who returned again for new products.

Despite the fact that my grandpa was a smart marketer and a savvy businessman, he’d likely freak out at the idea of trying to build relationships with customers he’d never seen before in person. But this is exactly the type of challenge digital marketers are faced with today: learning to become more human in the way we greet potential customers, learning how to start genuine conversations, and learning how to create an ongoing rapport with people once they discover our businesses online.

Big data content marketing can be the solution to all of these challenges — if you have the right framework in place for making it actionable.

Several of today’s top brands are already using data to improve their content marketing strategy and customer conversations in ways that go beyond the checkout experience on their eCommerce sites. They’re using customer information to strengthen the service side of their operations, as well as to optimize the content marketing they publish to their owned media properties (e.g., blogs, microsites, and social media).

Below are a few examples:

Kohl’s captures offline behavior to fuel content decisions

Department store Kohl’s is using an indoor positioning system that “walks the aisles” with customers. This mobile-based technology allows shoppers to opt in for promotions as they enter the store. Throughout their visit, people receive lifestyle content in real time based on the products they appear to be looking for.

For example, if a customer has opted in to receive information via the Kohl’s mobile app and he or she is lingering in the home goods aisle, Kohl’s knows to send relevant content to this shopper to increase the likelihood that he or she makes a purchase — for example, a look-book or a Pinterest board of home décor ideas. This inspiration or advice-driven content would be focused on delivering additional value to shoppers beyond promotions and discounts.

Big data is the by-product of Kohl’s effective CRM strategy, and it goes on to fuel the company’s broader content creation campaigns. Through Kohl’s CRM strategy, the company knows what the customer purchased in the past, and with its in-store technology, the company can track his or her behavior as he or she moves through the aisles. However, the company can make that data even more actionable (beyond coupons) by feeding this information to its content creators. Shopping behavior can illustrate common threads in Kohl’s audience — or personas — that inspire the type of content the company’s marketing team might create and later distribute to pockets of people based on their own shopping experiences. This practice would keep Kohl’s top of mind among consumers, even when they aren’t actively shopping for new products.

Arby’s uses data to identify the right channels, creativity to make a connection

When connecting with someone, it’s not always what you say, it’s when, where, and how you say it. This is by no means an invitation to speak out of turn, but more of a call to arms for marketers to create content for more than one channel.

Marketers often use data to understand the type of message that resonates with their audience and the best channels on which to amplify that message. For example, research from Twitter shows that 90 percent of Twitter users who see a TV show-related tweet are likely to immediately watch the show, search for more information, or share tweet-based content about that show.

Arby’s does a great job of balancing its data initiatives with its creative marketing. Taking advantage of the strong connection between TV and Twitter usage among its audience, Arby’s parsed through its customer data to determine that not only would its audience tune in to the 2014 Grammy Awards, but that a high percentage of its audience would be engaging in live conversation around the event on Twitter. Knowing this in advance allowed Arby’s to set up a social listening room where the company’s social media director watched the awards show and waited for an opportunity to embed itself in the conversation with relevant, real-time social media content.

For example, during the show, Arby’s tweeted at artist Pharrell Williams about his big, wide-brimmed hat. This sent the Twitter world into a frenzy, as second-screen Grammy viewers who were already leaning in to watch the show became enthralled with the engagement taking place in front of them.

This was a great example of a brand executing its real-time marketing muscle, while also allowing data and clear audience analysis to show where and when it would be appropriate to enter an online conversation.


The key takeaway here is that big data is rich information you can use to drive your content or social media marketing programs. Without data at the core of your strategy, these real-time engagement opportunities carry a lot of risk and often miss the mark.

Successful companies use a data framework

Today’s leading brands use data in a variety of ways. We see Kohl’s using customer information to push in-store shoppers toward the checkout lanes through personalized content, while Arby’s uses big data to identify the channels and cultural events that interest its audience and deliver relevant content as a way to join the conversation.

Whether you use data to drive your digital marketing or inspire how you connect with customers, you need a framework in place to compile, consolidate, and manage the volume of customer insight you acquire every day. Below, I outline a framework for turning big data into actionable content:

A content marketer’s framework for making data actionable

You already have the data you need to create smart, witty content that your customers will relate to, though you may not have a framework to put that data to work for your content marketing strategy. In order to step up your game and develop a system like Kohl’s and Arby’s, follow this six-step approach to data-driven content marketing:

1. Use available tools to start to understand your customers: Even if you only sell one product, your customers come to you for several different reasons. As a content marketer, your first goal is to establish buyer personas. However, avoid assuming too much in this process, and instead, apply tools to help understand your customers’ life cycle based on solid data.

At Skyword, we apply 10 technologies to help us understand our audience’s needs and nurture relationships with leads who have raised their hand and shown interest in our services.

Some technologies to consider include:

  • Content analytics: Whether you use Google Analytics or a proprietary solution, this tool is essential for learning how traffic behaves on your website — e.g., what categories are performing best; are articles in these categories being discovered through specific channels more often?
  • Social listening technology: Sysomos is a powerful tool that allows you to take a snapshot of the internet and zoom in on various conversations taking place around keywords. Use social listening tools to uncover threads in conversation to which you can apply your unique viewpoint in your content. For example, look at how people are talking negatively about your industry on Twitter and then use those tweets to drive topics of future blog posts. Is there a common challenge that your competition has yet to address?
  • Marketing automation: Solutions like Marketo can help tie your demand generation program to your content marketing strategy, as well as allow you to nurture leads through email campaigns. Want to know how a certain subset of leads interacts with your long-form content? Marketing automation tools can tell you. Your marketing automation solution can also provide data that helps you personalize outreach to your customers. What email subject lines drive the most clicks? What topics generate the most interest? These findings can then inspire your ongoing editorial strategy for your blog.
  • Content marketing platform: Once you have a basic understanding of what the market is interested in, how leads are navigating your online content, and what downloadable assets might interest your audience most, you must be able to turn all of this data into actionable content. Among the many options for this, commercial content marketing platforms can be used to pull all of this information together and inform the content creation process.

Of course, this process is no longer linear — it must come full circle. Once you’ve set the wheels in motion, you must remember to constantly test the new strategies you’ve developed and compare results over time. For example, how does consumer behavior change after Persona A receives a personalized offer to his or her smartphone?

2. Create content derived from your data findings: When you look at the data, you may discover that you cater to dozens of unique buyers. Because it’s no longer sufficient to just focus on age, gender, and income bracket when developing buyer personas, cast a wider net and evaluate information such as purchasing patterns, in-store visits, and local-based information to identify topics and areas of interest for your audience.

3. Don’t allow big data to stunt creativity: It’s easy to let the numbers influence your decisions, but don’t let metrics stunt your creativity. When you become too data-driven in how you create content, you inevitably lose the human element — or the story — behind what you’re saying. Broadly apply what you learn through data analysis to your ongoing content marketing strategy, and let the insight inspire you rather than drive the whole plan forward.

4. Build a community around your engaged audiences: Take a page out of Arby’s book by empowering internal and external contributors to engage with your audience on your behalf. You can have all the data in the world, but if you lack the ability to turn insight into meaningful discussions with your reader base, then your strategy will remain in neutral.

To do this effectively, define brand guidelines that every contributor must follow to speak in a unified, but varied voice for your business. I suggest creating a company handbook for your internal contributors to follow.

When it comes to educating your external supporters on how to best write for your brand, you may want to take a more relationship-building approach. Holding regular Google+ Hangouts with your external writers can give them an opportunity to contribute their ideas to the development of your editorial calendar — and their feedback on what’s important to your audience when it comes to your brand.

5. Create timely content with “where” in mind: Your content must be searchable, snackable, and shareable in order to reach your audience. However, it may require a push to get the ball rolling. In the content creation process, you should consider where you want to release your message before you actually put anything down on paper. If you’re still operating with an editorial calendar full of content that only comes in one format, then you’re doing yourself and your audience a disservice. The channel matters almost as much as what you’re saying.

6. Measure and test constantly: Now is the time to be adventurous with your content marketing. There’s a lot of room for creative growth, but you won’t know what works and what doesn’t without a reporting system in place. Therefore, allocate your resources to better determine which programs — or formats — are working and which are not. But take your analysis a step further by narrowing down your focus to channel-specific interactions. Are you seeing greater engagement through Google+, mobile search, or in-store app messages? Your program must be agile enough to shift its focus to those areas for immediate impact.

With a framework in place, you clear the runway for effective, data-driven content marketing. It’s important to know from the start that this process will require constant tinkering and learning. But with the right tools and creative thinkers, you’re well on your way to delivering smarter content to your audience. Remember, data can’t tell a story without a storyteller.

Looking for more guidance on how to make data actionable as part of your content marketing strategy? You won’t want to miss Content Marketing World 2014, September 8–11, 2014. Register today!