Conceptualising content strategy

“Can you describe your company’s differentiation to us?” Three executives from a successful regional chain of mattress stores shifted unc...

“Can you describe your company’s differentiation to us?”

Three executives from a successful regional chain of mattress stores shifted uncomfortably in their seats, until the boss confidently blurted out, “We have the widest selection, the lowest prices, and the best service.”

“So, you have the most mattresses of anyone?”

“Well, probably not, but we have plenty,” the boss answered, seeming to lose some confidence.

“And nobody underprices you?”

“Well, just those online guys. Our prices are competitive with other stores around here.”

Competitive doesn’t sound like the lowest price, and we were discussing the content marketing strategy for the company, so the fact that “those online guys” were priced lower didn’t sound terribly differentiating. Still, we pressed on, seemingly to the inevitable.

“And how do you know that you have the best service?”

“Well, nobody complains.”

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The truth is that this successful company was differentiated the way many are: They were the best choice in a local area. No one wants to drive 30 miles with a mattress on their roof, so close is good. Unfortunately, on the web, every company is equally close, and they deliver anywhere. This company didn’t really have a differentiation that translates to content marketing.

After a lot of discussion, we realized that several of their stores do a booming business in hypo-allergenic mattresses and associated products, such as mattress covers that keep out dust mites, down-free pillows, and many other products. Two sales associates with allergic children had done a ton of research and even gotten referrals from local allergists. Now, that’s a differentiated content strategy.

And, as you’ll see in this blog, understanding your differentiation can help you focus your efforts on the right buyer journey. The buyer journey for buying a mattress is extremely competitive and probably would not end well for this retailer. On the other hand, the buyer journey for addressing a child’s allergy might end really well, especially if one of the doctors was willing to be part of the marketing.

This is the strategy at the heart of  content marketing analytics finding the differentiation that leads to a compelling story, and telling that story in a way that aligns to the buyer journey. Executing such a strategy isn’t always easy, and we can’t say that this retailer lived happily ever after because of its strategy, but executing an undifferentiated strategy is a recipe for failure. But it’s not the only factor in failure. The truth is that few companies execute content marketing well—for several reasons. You need to clear these blockers at your company to execute your strategy:

Mistaking volume for effectiveness. Most of our clients think they need to constantly create new content to set the brand agenda on the web. The reality is quite the opposite: Companies that build evergreen content that serves persistent client needs have more success. Those that treat web content like a magazine—to be created, published, and discarded—merely clutter their websites, confusing their clients and prospects. Better to constantly update and freshen the evergreen content that is already working than to continue to dump new stuff out there for no good reason.

Executives who succeed at content marketing tips imitate land development. Perhaps you build a hotel on a site. Then you landscape it. Then you continually beautify it and maintain it as a pleasing destination, adding small gestures to delight your customers. That’s what websites are: destinations that delight prospects and clients with continuous improvements.

Too much top-down control. Too many executives at our client sites think of web content as if it is ad copy—something to be scrutinized and reviewed to death prior to publishing. They don’t hand control of the product to their content teams—the experts at building client experiences. And once they have reviewed and approved the product, they don’t like changes. Web content marketing must be agile, allowing teams to iteratively improve the product over long periods of time.

Executives who succeed at content marketing only care about the KPIs the efforts drive (conversions, leads, revenue, etc.). They let teams build content that works to deliver those results. They don’t micromanage the product team. The team controls the content and is responsible for the results.

Too few resources. Some of our clients labor under the myth that web content is easier than print, so it should require fewer resources. It’s actually the opposite, due to the interconnectedness of content. Magazine content exists in a vacuum. If you have a bad issue of a magazine, no big whoop. Make a better one next week or next month. If you let a microsite go off the rails with inexperienced resources, it could take six months to recover in a competitive marketplace. One bad microsite can pull down the domain authority of the whole site.

Too much fragmentation. Most of our clients lack central standards and oversight for web content. A company of any size and complexity that’s in this boat presents itself as a loose federation of disconnected microsites rather than a single coordinated site. This makes the client experience poor, with dead ends and too many irrelevant links. Standards and governance help all product teams collaboratively produce client experiences that work. It is the hard work of content strategy, but it is absolutely necessary.

Overreliance on agencies. Most of our clients outsource their marketing content efforts to agencies, which are even less connected to whatever central standards and governance processes exist. Because these agencies often get paid for volume rather than results, they overproduce as a matter of course.

There are lots of reasons to outsource parts of the whole ecosystem of content marketing. Because the parts of this ecosystem are typically run by different agencies, or parts of a larger agency, the whole ecosystem will tend to get fragmented without a centralized strategy to organize the whole, prioritize efforts, and govern the activities. Again, this tends to mean more in-house resources than executives are comfortable with. But outsourcing your strategy is a recipe for disaster, especially if you use multiple agencies.

Many companies have not updated their approach to content strategy to cope with the demands of digital marketing. Old-time content strategies were born in print; the agency created glossy brochures and other collateral to be distributed at trade shows and in sales calls. When they tried to use the same strategy on the web, it broke their websites. Now they seek a sustainable content strategy built for the web.

Top-Down Content Strategy

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Top-down content strategy is the process of finding the keywords and phrases your target audience most often searches for and building the content that answers their implicit questions. That sounds a lot like our description of outside-in content marketing, doesn’t it? Well, it is. You see, the words your target audiences primarily search for will tend to be top-of-funnel words. They have a high demand in Google for a reason: A lot of people search for them. They also tend to be broad categories; the more people search for a keyword, the broader it is. Brand terms can also have high demand, but you have to really mess up to avoid being found for your branded keywords. Your top-of-funnel opportunities will be high-volume unbranded keywords.

Sheer volume is not the only criterion for figuring out your most important top-offunnel keywords; it’s not even the most important. Most important is relevance to your target audience. Your target audience is looking for your areas of differentiation—in other words, which keywords your company has the credibility to win.

Briefly, if you have a right to win, your company belongs near the top of the search results for a keyword. Google really needs to show your content because your company is a reputable source of content for the implied question posed by the searcher. How your company differentiates itself from its competition determines your right to win. Finding those high-demand opportunities for which you have a right to win is the first step in building a top-down content strategy.

Google gives brands credit for having competitive advantages in the marketplace. For example, most people who search for the keyword smart phone want either an iPhone or an Android device, so top search results show the top providers in those two categories. Who earns top position is largely dependent on content. All things considered, content experiences that succinctly answer the questions implicit in the queries will win better ranking position. But if you don’t make a competitive product in that category, the best content in the world won’t help you win for that keyword.

One place to start is studying the search results for your top-of-funnel keywords. Suppose your content doesn’t rank well for those keywords and your competitors’ content does. What might be wrong is that your content isn’t as strong as your competitors’, but it could also be about your product’s differentiation in the market.

Your top content opportunities are those that have high audience interest where your company is in a unique position to win the market. Every industry has at least one wellrespected source on where competitors stand. Gartner can show your tech company toward the upper right of its Magic Quadrant. J.D. Power can award your product for quality. Yelp can show off your five-star reviews.

This is one of the reasons Google uses links as a ranking factor. If a lot of authoritative sites link to your site in reference to a product or service category, it’s an indicator that you are a market leader. When these impartial arbiters declare your product a winner, it is because it is differentiated for some specific problem or some specific audience.

Auditing Existing Content

Once you have a prioritized list of content opportunities, it’s time to find the content you already have for those opportunities and assess its effectiveness; this is content auditing.

Some experts conduct content audits by crawling and cataloging your entire site, then assessing the whole corpus of information. We don’t find this approach particularly helpful for medium and large websites because only a small percentage of your content (often 10% or less) garners the lion’s share of the traffic, so that is where you should start.

The way to identify this high-value content is to start, once again, with Google. Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools) can show all of your indexed content, prioritized by the most popular keywords that draw searchers to that content. Search Console provides a wealth of information on those critical pages, revealing their absolute ranking, impressions, clicks, and any technical crawling issues with the pages. While you can examine Search Console directly, many SEO optimization tools check your Search Console account each day to capture the metrics and show you the critical trends for your pages.

Why Not a Bottom-Up Content Strategy?

The pressure for most marketing organizations is to start at the bottom of the funnel because they need results, and it’s easiest to prove results at the bottom of the funnel. If a typical buyer journey has five steps, optimizing the purchase of the product in the fifth step will get the immediate attention of most organizations.

Why? Lack of measurement.


Sure, it’s easiest to measure the last touch of a buyer journey, but is it the most important touch in that journey? Is it the page that most strongly influenced the buyer to purchase? Chances are the purchase or conversion experience is not the most important. Chances are there was some content closer to the top of the funnel that triggered the buyer to convert or purchase. In long buyer journeys, oftentimes a series of steps contribute equally to the purchase. If you’re not measuring how content influences buyer behavior in the whole funnel, you’ll never discover that. And you’ll end up putting most of your efforts into helping customers who would have purchased from you anyway.

Starting at the bottom for your strategy leads to other problems as you work your way higher up. Let’s say you start at product pages where customers purchase or convert. Your next step would be to go one level up in the funnel. Now you must collaborate with the owners of different product pages to help the customer make the right decision between several different products. All too often, this leads to internal conflicts, where product owners end up jockeying for position on that page to entice more clicks to their own products. This can be fatal to the client experience because you’ve turned a potentially outside-in approach to an internal tug-of-war. What the customer wants is lost.

There is a better way. If you start at the top of the funnel to build experiences that help prospects learn about your unique position in the marketplace, you can build experiences for the client first. Only after you know you are building outside-in content marketing do you worry quite so much about making sure they ultimately get to good purchasing experiences.

DB Squared, a B2B finance company that sells refactoring and other cash-flow services, hired a single marketing person and increased their web page views by more than 300% by focusing on top-of-funnel lead generation through content marketing. By focusing on quality content assets targeted to the beginning of the buyer journey, that single marketing person avoided diluting her impact over a large number of activities and concentrated on the area where content marketing can help the most.

There’s nothing wrong with starting an optimization effort at the bottom of the funnel if you desperately need to show marketing results quickly. But don’t mistake that as a content strategy. Your strategy needs to start from the top.

content that isn’t working yet? Of course, you have your web analytics package to measure your audience’s interaction with your content. And there are auditing tools that find writing errors, suggest new headlines or calls to action, and generally help you improve your content. You should also be using A/B or multivariate testing. What works in those tests can guide you more broadly for your content strategy.

Ultimately, your goal in performing any type of content audit is to understand the following:
  • Which content is worth keeping and optimizing
  • Which content you should delete and redirect to a new experience
  • What new content is required to fill gaps
  • How all this content fits into a strategy that serves your audiences
  • Where your content fits into typical buyer journeys

Mapping Buyer Journeys

The process of journey mapping usually starts in an organization as more of an art than a science, with sales reps outlining what a typical buyer or buying group looks like, then building personas for these buyers that focus on the information needs of buyers. Most companies stop there, but this process so far is based more on opinion than data. We advocate a more data-driven approach to journey mapping.

Using Search to Understand Buyer Journeys

If you start with a list of personas mapped to buying agendas, you can make the data much more meaningful by looking at typical search journeys of the personas in the list. It starts with your top keyword opportunities. When building a content strategy from the top down, you can use the opportunities list as the first few steps in buyer journeys.

Even when you try to be data driven, you usually need to start with opinion, but let’s dress it up and make it sound scientific: You start with a hypothesis. You might start with a hypothesis that the target persona will start the buyer journey by searching with a particular keyword. And you test your hypothesis against actual search results.

Say that Janet, a CMO who is relatively new to digital marketing (that’s the persona), searches for the word big data (that’s the hypothesis). Our data shows us that the implicit question Janet is asking is “What is big data?” That data consists of the first page of search results in Google, where several of the top results have that exact question in the title. This is the Learn step in the buyer journey.

Next, Janet begins the Compare step of her buyer journey by searching for big data platforms, resulting in Google showing several examples of third-party research sites, along with a few big data vendors. These pages compare the top platforms for managing big data. From this, she can make a list of the top vendors.

With Janet making some headway toward selecting a vendor, she starts the Solve step in her journey, trying to imagine what form a solution to the problem would take. Perhaps our keyword research data reveals that Janet searches for components of a big data platform. The pages she gets back from Google are geared more toward data architects than CMOs. For example, there is a white paper titled “An Enterprise Architect’s Guide to Oracle’s Big Data Platform” near the top of the search results. This suggests that we have another persona in play—software architect, who will be called in next to help complete the research on this potential purchase. When the answers to Janet’s questions get too technical, she needs help. Again, the search results shown in response to these targeted keywords from our strategy form the data that reveals these facts.

It’s likely that when Janet is confronted with these overly technical responses, she makes a note to ask a more technical person for help, but she probably also backtracks in the process, perhaps even back to the Learn stage to reground her understanding. Perhaps she returns to a more basic keyword, such as big data for marketing. Near the top of the results is the title “The CMO’s Guide to Big Data.” Bingo. Now Janet is on the right track.

Eventually, she gets to the point of being ready to start the purchase process, perhaps with an RFP. Her journey might take weeks or months, depending on the scale of what she needs to buy. Not all of her journey happens through search. But we assume for simplicity’s sake that it does, so that we can build content that meets her needs—and those of her buying group—at each stage in her journey.

When you are testing the keywords your personas might use in their buyer journeys, there are no bad results. Eliminating irrelevant keywords from the list or assigning them to other personas is as valuable as confirming that the keywords fit the buying process for that persona.

At a certain point, you chart your buyers’ courses through Google by connecting the dots of their individual keywords. Don’t worry so much about the order of the keywords because your buyers will take nonlinear paths through the information. The data will help you prioritize which keywords opportunities bring the highest ROI. So we focus on the higher-demand keywords first and build the content architecture below using the buyer journeys as guides.

One critical thing to remember is that buyers do not typically take all the steps at one time. If someone is in the Learn stage, offering them free shipping for a product they don’t even understand will not be effective. Your best outcome for each stage of the buyer journey is to move the buyer to the next stage. Buyers are not typically tolerant of offers unless they are ready to buy. Don’t short-circuit the process to try to push buyers to move faster than they are willing to go.

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