The Beginner’s Guide to Content Marketing

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The content marketing game is hard. Having to consistently publish valuable, relevant and high-quality content over the long haul, finding the perfect managing editor who is equal parts project manager and keeper of your brand’s voice, scaling a team of writers, designers and video editors to communicate your stories, and getting your stories in front of the right audiences are daunting tasks. 

Unless, of course, you structure your content team like a magazine’s editorial department, complete with a skilled team and a fine-tuned process.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of building your own editorial department, you’re in luck. I’m sharing tested tips from my time at The Simons Group to help you on your content marketing journey. 

A beginner’s guide to content marketing.

Where Do You Want Your Content Marketing to Take You?

Sometimes, the hardest part is getting started. You must figure out where you want to go. Sure, you want to increase your website traffic, click-through rates and, ultimately, revenue, but these aren’t the type of goals I’m talking about. If your content marketing strategy is solid, those things will come.

Turn your goals outward and think about forming genuine connections with your readers, from those who are still figuring out what their problems are to those who are already using your products and services to solve theirs. Your content must reinforce the solutions you offer and help your customers get the most benefit from working with you.

To simplify this step, frame it as a give-and-give-and-give-some-more-to-get scenario:

GIVE/GIVE/GIVE: Provide high-quality, purposeful content to pique readers’ interest.

GET: Brand awareness

GIVE/GIVE/GIVE: Craft content that provides value beyond your own products and services.

GET: Brand loyalty

GIVE/GIVE/GIVE: Educate your readers by providing valuable content that answers their questions.

GET: Searchers discover products and solutions they wouldn’t know about otherwise.

GIVE/GIVE/GIVE: Form human connections with your readers by listening and responding to their comments and questions.

GET: A humanized brand with personality and engagement

GIVE/GIVE/GIVE: Provide an honest look into the inner workings of your company culture.

GET: Future team members who will fit in with your culture and drive your business forward

Now, on to Planning Your Content Marketing Strategy

You’ve nailed down your goals. You know what sort of relationships you want to create with your readers and where you want those relationships to take your company. How do you get there? This is where developing a solid content marketing strategy comes into play.

Ask yourself these hard questions:

What defines my brand?

This question is key, not only for your content marketing strategy, but also for your brand strategy. Keep it simple. Pick one thing your brand does very well and let everything else fall under it. Resist the urge to be everything to everyone. This will only lead to confusing and muddled messaging.

“Make every detail perfect, and limit the number of details to perfect.”

– Jack Dorsey, Co-Founder of Twitter

Who am I creating content for?

Is your target audience defined by one customer type or do you have many? Do you serve multiple verticals and industries? Are you recruiting junior- and senior-level employees? Since you’ll likely have more than one type of reader, your content strategy should cater to each type you want to target. Create a buyer persona for each audience type.

What problems can I help my readers solve?

Every business solves problems. What unique problems does yours solve? Take this question to your front-line people – the ones who interact with your clients daily. Ask them what problems your clients face and identify the questions they ask. This exercise will help you craft topics that will educate your audience when they seek answers. If you want to establish your people and brand as trusted experts, write content that helps your readers problem-solve. Give them valuable information they can act on immediately. These topics will be foundational as you develop your editorial calendar (see more on that below). 

What makes my brand special?

What makes your brand special boils down to your unique selling proposition (USP). Hopefully, you already know what it is. If not, you may think you’re the same as your competitors since you offer the same products and services at a similar price point. Believe me, you aren’t. Your company’s differentiators will help you stand out. The secret to creating your USP is understanding what your ideal clients value most and delivering better than the rest.

What types of content should I create?

Content is much more than the written word. Using different content formats is a must if you want to connect with your readers in a compelling way. Some of your readers will be visual, while others will want to see and listen to what your brand has to say. All of your readers will be some combination of the set. Think about how you can repurpose topics across different content types.

For example, if you publish a long article, think about what infographics you can use to make it more engaging. Alternatively, divide it into three or four parts, creating a series to get more shelf life, or create a social media video around the topic to entice readers. Determine these formats in advance, so you know what to budget for and what to include in your editorial calendar.

Where will I publish?

Figure out what channels you can use to publish your content. Consider your website and blog, and social channels, such as LinkedIn and Twitter. The key question: What channels do your readers use? Social and paid channels should amplify the reach of your owned networks, including your website and blog. You don’t have to be on every channel. It takes time to manage each channel well, so choose wisely. It’s better to target a few specific channels that will help you connect with readers.

Do I have an editorial calendar?

Create an editorial calendar that reflects your research and hard work. Revisit the results of the exercise where you developed topics based on the problems your company solves. This list will be the cornerstone to mapping out your calendar. Incorporate your company’s messaging and expertise to emphasize your authority over time.

You must also figure out how to create content. Who will be your subject matter experts? Who will write for you? What keywords and personas should you target? When and where will you publish each piece? What calls to action will you use?

Create your editorial calendar using free tools, such as a Google Calendar template, or paid tools, such as the editorial calendar features of project management software. As you go through the exploration process, keep in mind that all relevant stakeholders should be able to (at the very least) view the calendar, so it must be in a shareable format.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO): Your Content Marketing Partner

SEO gets your content marketing in front of readers. Without SEO, your content is a tree falling in a deserted forest. It will make a noise, but no one will hear it. If you want to be heard, make sure your SEO and content are unified. 

The easiest way to explain SEO is its result: You enter a search term into Google and it gives you a list of relevant matches. You click on one (or many) of these results and get taken to an answer. This happens because you have excellent content that’s optimized to help it rank higher than content on other sites. 

Primary and Secondary SEO

SEO comes in two varieties – primary and secondary. Each is based on user intent:

  1. Primary, seeking a product/solution, or
  2. Secondary, seeking an answer to a question.

Primary SEO’s user intent is straightforward. The searcher already knows a product and/or solution exists to solve his problem. 

Secondary SEO is what you use for your content marketing strategy – creating valuable content that answers searchers’ questions and is optimized for relevant secondary keyword searches. SEO exposes searchers to products and solutions they may not have known about.

For your SEO to work, you need:

  • Well-written, useful and relevant content that uses words and phrases that people who need your goods and services search for. 
  • Quality inbound links to your site. This is why great content is so important. It increases your chances of securing organic links from quality websites. 

Who’s Going to Manage All of This? Your Managing Editor, of Course!

Now that you’ve nailed down your goals and developed an editorial calendar, it’s time to appoint a managing editor. Some of you may already know I’m a huge fan of the almighty editor – “content’s superhero.”

Editors stay on top of everything – from tone and voice to audience and style rules. They manage editorial workflow, help content contributors improve, ensure contributors follow correct style, and ensure copy is well-written, relevant and engaging. They’re the last set of eyes on every piece of content.

Your Audience Needs Consistency; You Need a Style Guide

A style guide isn’t a nice-to-have – it’s a must-have. This living, breathing document will guide all work from your content contributors (writers, designers, photographers, etc.), so it’s a pretty big deal. Some may even argue (me included) that your style guide is more important than your marketing strategy.

Here’s why: If you left the editorial and visual depiction of your brand open to interpretation among your creatives, you’d likely have a broad range of disjointed assets. A style guide will help ensure your assets read, look and sound like your company.

See why this may be even more important than your content marketing strategy? Your audience should view all communications with your brand as if they’re interacting with real people. The tone you use across your content marketing must reveal your brand’s personality.

I recommend including editorial and visual style rules in one guide to keep branding consistent across all assets and channels. This will ensure you create a cohesive experience for your audience. This approach will help you build brand recognition and nurture current and future customers.  

The editorial portion of the guide should include specific rules around your brand’s voice, tone and grammar. It should also dictate if you will follow the Associated Press Stylebook, a similar widely known style guide, or your brand’s unique standards.

The visual guide portion should cover logos, fonts, color palettes, photography and design standards.

How Do I Produce All of This Content?

Who’s going to produce your articles, graphics and videos? Your creative team, of course! 

When I build on-demand content teams for our clients, I view myself as a matchmaker who uses a quality-over-quantity approach. Taking the time to learn their internal needs is a must when building content teams. And by “needs,” I don’t mean “we need to write 5,000 words of content a month.” I review clients’ values, personality types, communication styles and company culture, matching them with content creators who will complement those “needs” for the long term.

Let’s start with your writers.

Your writing team will have to create a high volume of top-of-the-funnel and brand awareness content, as well as high-value, actionable, long-form content that generates leads, adds subscribers and boosts your search engine rankings. You’ll likely need a mix of writers on your team.

When I look for writers, I always judge the quality of their past work over their backgrounds and qualifications.

Like many of our clients, I gravitate toward those who have journalism backgrounds. Journalists have a natural aptitude for investigating topics from all angles and writing about them in ways that tell stories rather than merely regurgitating facts and figures. Since they’re so curious, they can get up to speed on and write about a wide variety of topics quickly.

Journalists will typically be the backbone of your content marketing team. If you want to add journalists to your team, I suggest finding those who have created content in your subject areas. You’ll get storytellers who understand your industry’s nuances.

“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.”

– Steve Jobs, Co-Founder, Apple

A niche or highly technical topic may require a subject matter expert who can write. Niche writers may be highly credentialed and have professional and scientific degrees in their respective fields. They can be difficult to source and may cost more than journalists because of their scarcity and expertise.

Now, on to your designers.

At The Simons Group, one of our ingrained beliefs is that when the words are perfect, the design follows suit, and the message moves the audience to action. While writers may be the most fundamental members of your content team, don’t ignore the importance of visual content creators.

Before people read your content, they’ll notice the design and layout of your website, blog, landing page, social graphics and so on. If you want your content marketing to be successful, you must view design as being as crucial as the writing.

When looking for designers, regardless of print or digital assets, I suggest you look at how well they can simplify information and provide good user experiences.

For designers to be good at simplicity, they need to know what to leave out so they can help readers focus on what’s important, read the content and perform a desired action. 

User experience should apply to every graphical asset – not just web pages. The goal is to make it easy for readers to interact with your content and take action. Your designers must value white space and contrast and understand visual hierarchy.

Whether you need writers, journalists, designers or video editors, I highly suggest you search for and evaluate candidates regularly so that you can assemble the right team quickly.

Your Content Team Craves Background Information: Enter the Creative Brief

Getting what you need from your content team means you must set the stage for success. Remember my give-to-get scenario? This is a where a creative brief comes into play. A creative brief gives team members the background they need to start work.

Here are a few pointers:

  • Don’t assume anything. When writing a brief, pretend everyone reading it has no idea what you’re talking about. Show it to a coworker who isn’t familiar with your topic before sharing it with your creative team. If your coworker understands it, your team probably will, too.
  • Explain your goals. Let’s say your project is a white paper. Your brief should explain the complex issue you want readers to understand and the actions you want them to take.
  • Keep it brief. Summarize the project clearly and succinctly. Information overload is the silent killer of a creative brief. When possible, use bullets and headers to make the brief easy to digest. Be sure to include important details, such as objectives, deliverables, target audience and deadline.
  • Write clearly. Stay away from jargon and corporate-speak. Your writers and readers will thank you. Clear and concise writing for your brief will make you a better communicator with your content team. Creatives appreciate directness and will help you craft content that engages new readers (and new customers!) without alienating, confusing and annoying them with jargon.
  • Share secondary keywords. Since your writer will produce SEO content, he needs to know the keywords and phrases to include. 
The anatomy of a creative brief.

Keep in mind that each project type may have different creative brief needs. If you’re spearheading a few project types, simple Word document templates for each may be fine.

If you have multiple project types and sizes, with each project having a subset of assets, you may need to automate the process so you can control, manage, prioritize and track your incoming creative briefs/projects all in one place. One way to accomplish this is by building dynamic creative brief forms that tie back to your project or editorial management system.

At The Simons Group, we use Wrike to manage our projects. The cloud-based system helps you build dynamic request forms quickly and easily by using one form for all project types.

How Do You Market Content?

In today’s hypercompetitive online landscape, content may be king, but it’s a needle in the haystack if you don’t have the right distribution and promotion channels.

“But what about all that SEO we did?” you ask. Writing SEO-optimized content is a great starting point to get more eyes on you, but it doesn’t help you push content to your target audience. You’ll have to market your content marketing with content distribution.

Content distribution will help your brand share and spread content to your current audience and help you get in front of new eyes. Distribution types are wide ranging and include e-newsletters, social media (organic and sponsored), media (paid and earned) and curated content hubs. 

Are you struggling with any aspects of building and scaling your content team? Do you have any tips or tricks to share on how you’ve overcome related challenges? Let us know in the comments below.

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