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How to Develop a Content Strategy: Start With These 3 Questions

Editor’s note: A successful content marketing program starts with a documented strategy. We’ve updated this guide to help you with the latest resources – and still essential criteria – for crafting a strategy. 

Anyone who grasps the fundamentals of content marketing knows that the concept isn’t all that complicated – consistently provide something of relevant value to your target audience in the hope they ultimately will return the favor.

Serving the needs of your audience with valuable, high-quality content is an admirable goal for any company. But your efforts will amount to little if your content doesn’t trigger audience behaviors that help your company reach its business goals. And that, my friends, is where complications set in.

To give your content marketing program the best chance of driving desired results, you should know the answer to these questions:

  • Who should the content we produce be most relevant to?
  • What benefits does this audience receive from consuming our content?
  • What desirable and distinctive content experience can we consistently deliver?

You’ll uncover the answers to these questions – and plenty of others – through the process of developing your content marketing strategy.

Before we get started

If you’re new to content marketing – you may want to start your journey by reading our comprehensive Essentials of a Documented Content Marketing Strategy e-book and browsing our archive of strategy-related insights.

If you’re looking for a refresher on the essentials or some help filling a knowledge gap, read on for a handy tutorial – and our best resources – on the subject.

Why you need a content marketing strategy

While your company should have a content strategy – a strategic plan for all its content usage across the enterprise, it also should have a dedicated content marketing strategy – a unified, strategic road map focused exclusively on how your business will use content to attract, acquire, and engage its prospects and customers.

Your company should have a #contentstrategy & a dedicated #contentmarketing strategy, says @joderama. #CMWorld Share on X

Why is it critical to develop (and document) a deliberate strategy? For starters, consider that CMI’s annual Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends research has consistently found that a documented content marketing strategy is a factor that separates successful content marketers from their less successful peers.

In fact, according to our latest B2B findings:

  • 65% of the most successful content marketers have a documented strategy vs. 14% of the least successful.
  • 73% say it keeps their teams focused on established content priorities.
  • 68% say it helps their team allocate resources to optimize desired results.
73% of most-successful marketers use their #contentmarketing strategy for content priorities. @CMIContent #research Share on X

Furthermore, the insights from a documented content marketing strategy can make all your tactical decisions – including which types of content to develop – easier to plan and manage.

What goes in a content marketing strategy

Your strategy should define your key business and customer needs, as well as how your content efforts address them. Though no two strategies are alike, all should detail a few essential components:

  • Your preferred business model – the investment strategy your content initiatives fall under, the role content plays in your organization, and the way you structure your team to put your plans in motion successfully
  • Your purpose and goals – why your content exists, what you want your audience to do once it has consumed your content, and the value you expect its actions to provide for your business
  • Your audience personas and buyer’s journey – defining characteristics of the one audience that will benefit most from your content, its current user state, and an estimate of how its needs and goals may evolve
  • Your differentiated editorial mission – your company’s unique perspectives and approach to creating content and how they distinguish your content from your competitors
#Contentmarketing strategy: business model + purpose + audience persona + editorial mission. @joderama #CMWorld Share on X

Since these are complex considerations, I’ll unpack each one in more detail. 

Take a shortcut: To put a more strategic content marketing framework in place for your organization, get a head start with this streamlined, one-page content marketing plan.

Choosing your business model

As CMI Chief Strategy Advisor Robert Rose discusses, organizations structure their content programs based on one of four primary models. Which one works best depends on the business goals, your team resources, and the value you wish to provide to your audience:

  • Player (content as contributor): Under this model, content marketing is seen as a contributor meant to support and integrate with broader demand generation, product marketing, or other business communications initiatives.
  • Performer (content as a center of excellence): Content is viewed as a discrete and focused strategy fueled by the development of deep relationships with addressable audiences through owned media platforms.
  • Processor (content as a service): Content is viewed as a highly specialized function of the business. A direct team may take responsibility for some centralized content functions but not necessarily for the creation of content.
  • Platform (content as an integrated business): Content marketing is viewed as an integrated and often fully functional media business that operates within the confines of the brand. Under this approach, content is often treated as if it’s a distinct product created and marketed by the business.
Successful #contentmarketing integrates changes to make #content function as a business model. @Robert_Rose #CMWorld Share on X

Establishing the most effective model at the beginning of your strategic development process helps you clarify your content’s purpose and structure, allocate resources efficiently, and better understand the steps to scale and evolve your content program for long-term success.

Setting your purpose and goals

You’ll never reach your content marketing goals if you don’t know what you are looking to achieve. Since different types of content work better in pursuit of some goals rather than others, it’s important to clearly define success from your organization’s perspective first. You won’t end up wasting time on efforts that don’t line up with what you want to accomplish.

Find your purpose

One of the simplest ways to home in on a unique and worthwhile purpose is to examine the key area where your business has been struggling the most. For example:

Set goals around that purpose

Once you’ve identified your primary purpose for creating content, outline the goals you expect your content to help achieve.

In CMI’s Content Marketing Framework, Robert explains that common content marketing goals typically fall into one of three main categories:

  • Sales goals – content that aims to support specific campaigns or product-driven goals
  • Cost-savings goals – content designed to increase the cost efficiency and performance of your other marketing activities
  • Business growth goals – content that serves in an entrepreneurial capacity such as creating new revenue streams or new product lines

While each category offers different benefits, each is built on a common foundation of value – subscribed audiences. Why focus your goals around subscribers? As Robert points out, the deeper level of ongoing engagement that characterizes the subscriber experience makes this audience more likely to exhibit desirable behaviors – like a greater willingness to share personal data, a greater interest in up-selling opportunities, or greater brand loyalty and evangelism – than non-subscribers. Learn more about setting the right content goals.

A subscribed audience is more likely to help #contentmarketing achieve its goals, says @Robert_Rose. #CMWorld Share on X

With your purpose and goals documented, you can move to the next step in your strategy – finding the right audience to consume the content you create.

Identifying and understanding your target audience

While every business hopes its content has universal appeal, content marketing typically works best targeted to serve one audience above all others. When you publish broad-reaching content, it never gets specific enough to provide much value to anybody.

When you publish broad-reaching #content, it never gets specific enough to provide much value to anybody. @joderama Share on X

Narrow your focus to a single niche audience

To uncover your primary audience, look for the type of customer you can help the most with your content. Ask yourself:

  • Are there relevant yet underserved audiences who aren’t getting the information they need from other sources?
  • What customer group is our business struggling the most to gain traction with? Can content help us bridge this gap?
  • Would anyone care or notice if we didn’t provide this content? Can we become the leading information resource for this customer base? Learn more about pinpointing your ideal audience.

Expert tip: For additional guidance on identifying and developing your ideal audience – and the benefits this process can provide – check out the example set by Intel iQ.

Craft your content marketing personas

Once you’ve identified your core customers, develop a clear picture of who they are so everyone on your team can know them as real people – with unique interests, goals, and challenges – and keep them top of mind when planning and creating content.

This is where your content marketing personas come in – composite character sketches of a type of customer based on validated commonalities. Personas help you understand how certain ideas, content formats, and approaches to the subject matter might make your audience more receptive to the content you share. Learn more about creating actionable content marketing personas.

Take a shortcut: There’s no one-size-fits-all method for developing content marketing personas. Customize the process to fit your goals with this guide to four of the most common approaches.

You should also consider how your audience’s needs and behaviors may shift as your content does its job. Creating a map of your buyer’s journey helps you better anticipate and adapt to your persona’s content needs as they evolve.

Use audience intent as your guide

Of course, the buyer’s journey is more like a labyrinth than a linear path. With competing messages, media channels, and stakeholders affecting the average decision-making process, it can be tough to anticipate what content will deliver the brand experience your target audience seeks.

That’s where doing a bit of research into content intent can come in handy. As LinkedIn’s Daniel Hochuli points out, audiences have two primary reasons for consuming content:

  • Informational intent – Audience members consume content as part of their research process or general interest in a particular topic.
  • Transactional intent – Audience members act with the purpose of completing a transaction. 
Misaligned audience and brand intent produces disastrous results, says @LogocracyCopy. #CMWorld Share on X

Understanding why your target audience might engage with your content (in addition to analyzing how it has engaged with your content) can bring sharper focus to your strategic decision-making and design a content experience that will deliver on audience expectations. Learn more about incorporating content intent in your strategic development process.

Identifying your mission

Once you know your audience, your purpose, and your goals, you have the information to develop the final component of your strategy: your content marketing mission statement. This brief declaration outlines your company’s unique content vision, the value that content provides, the audience it benefits, and the priorities and principles it upholds.

As you craft your mission, CMI founder Joe Pulizzi recommends that all content marketers ask themselves, “In what subject area can we become the leading informational provider?” If you don’t believe you can own the relevant conversations around the content niche you have chosen, narrow your focus to an area of content where you can have a bigger impact on the audience. Learn more about crafting your editorial mission statement.

For example, look at Content Marketing Institute’s mission statement, which focuses on helping a sub-segment of the broad content marketing audience:

Content Marketing Institute leads the industry in advancing the practice of content marketing for enterprise marketing professionals. We educate our audience through real-world and how-to advice through in-person events, online training, a print magazine, daily blog posts, and original research.

Your content marketing mission statement should help your entire organization better understand what distinguishes your brand’s content experience from all the other content competing for your audience’s attention. Defining the core features of your brand’s differentiated story also helps your content team make more informed content creation decisions. It is easier for them to see which ideas are well-aligned with your goals and which ones may not serve your unique purpose. Learn more about finding – and telling – a differentiated brand story.

Ready for next steps?

Once you have a firm handle on how to develop your strategy, you can move on to activating it through your editorial planning process, including deciding which roles and skills you need to account for and how to ensure that your team’s efforts will align with your strategy.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute