Your Content Strategy’s Probably Not Very Strategic. Here’s How to Fix That
Content strategy might be the most widely misunderstood concept in marketing. In a lot of small businesses, it looks something like this:
Post 1 blog per month
Send 2 emails per month
Post daily to LinkedIn, etc., etc.
A schedule like that might keep you consistent, but it also keeps you running on a hamster wheel of creating content that has no purpose other than showing up.
Lots of effort. Little impact. Not very strategic.
A real content strategy is a map that marks where you are, where you’re going, and the route to get there. It’s backed up by a content plan, the travel itinerary that lists the steps you’ll take along your journey.
A publishing schedule is one of those steps. But it’s a tiny one that comes near the end. We have a whole lot of strategizin’ to do first.
Content strategy, content plan, content tactics — they’re not the same
Vocabulary’s a big reason for all this confusion. People say “strategy” when they mean “plan” or “tactics.”
“Tour the Freedom Trail in Boston” is a tactic. It could be part of a plan to “visit historic sites” that advances a strategy of “learn about the American Revolution.”
Likewise, “send 2 emails per month” is a tactic. It might be part of a plan to “teach subscribers why this topic is important,” advancing a strategy of “generate leads for consulting.”
What’s a content strategy?
A content strategy ties your content back to your business goals — like writing an email to generate leads, not just because it’s the first of the month. This gives more impact to your efforts. It keeps you off the hamster wheel because your content has a purpose.
A strategy helps you create content your audience can use. Content that connects what they want back to what you do. Content that builds your brand and moves your business forward.
That’s what you should spend time building.
Your content plan puts your strategy in motion
Once your strategy is set, you’re ready for a content plan.
What’s the difference? A strategy maps out where you are and where you’re going. A plan is how to get there. It lists the tactics you’ll use and the timeline you’ll follow to reach your destination.
The more specific you can make your plan, the better. A travel itinerary that says, “Spend the night in a hotel” without specifying which hotel takes a pretty big gamble. You might end up with satin sheets, room service, and a mint on the pillow or with a mysteriously stained bedspread and six-legged roommates that scatter when you flip on the light.
That’s the kind of gamble you make when you create a plan that says “Write one blog post a month.” Some months you’ll be inspired and write 1,000 words of persuasive eloquence. Other months you’ll stare blankly at a blinking cursor, picking at a bit of dead skin on your thumb and wondering if it’s possible you’ve literally said everything there is to say about your business.
Don’t risk it. Be specific and intentional in your planning. Want to write a monthly blog? Plan 12 topics that connect back to your content strategy. If you develop more than 12, even better — now you have an overflow list of ideas to develop for the future.
What small teams need to know before making a content plan
First, don’t cut corners. Start with a content strategy. You need a destination before you start mapping a route to get there.
Next, recognize the limits of your team. No matter how talented or how dedicated, there is only so much one person can do. Each phase of the content lifecycle — research, planning, creation, and maintenance — takes time.
If you don’t plan for that, you risk taking a detour to Burnout City. Or having a great plan that’s only half done. Or both.
There are three ways you execute a content plan without overburdening your small team.
- The most obvious option is to simply commit to a lighter cadence. Publish fewer pieces, but make them great and optimize the hell out of them.
- Alternatively, you could bring in a contractor to lighten the load. The most common choice is to hire a freelancer for content creation, while your team focuses on planning, distribution, and maintenance.
- If you have enough people, the most effective option is to share the load. Instead of one person owning a project all the way through, put them in charge of one phase of every project. For example, Jess handles research and planning, then sends a brief to Ann, who creates the piece and sends it to Eric for promotion. In that scenario, Jess is probably the content manager, so monitoring and maintenance fall under her domain, too.
OK, so you’ve got your map. You’ve got your crew. Now for the moment you’ve been waiting for — putting the rubber to the road and making your plan.
8 steps to making a content plan for a small team
1. Consider your goals
Reverse engineer the goals you came up with in your content strategy.
If your goal is to generate leads, you’ll need to consider the messages and platforms best suited to reaching your ideal customer.
If your goal is brand building, you’ll want to think about your positioning and influencers in your space.
Whatever your goal is, work backward to determine the path that will take you from Here to There.
2. Consider your audience
You need to know who you’re creating content for before you know what they want you to create.
(Read that again. Your content plan is never about what you want to create. It is always about what the audience wants to consume.)
Your plan should consider the topics your audience wants to know about, the formats they like to consume, and the trust factors that will make them believe you know what you’re talking about.
3. Find your pillar topics
Your pillar topics are the core things your content will address. They’re the three or so topics that align with your goals, satisfy your audience, and position your brand in the market.
Beneath each pillar is a cluster of subtopics, and within those are your content ideas.
4. Choose your channels
Plan how you’ll distribute your content. Include owned channels (like a blog or newsletter), social channels (paid and organic), and earned channels (like media mentions and guest posts).
When choosing a channel, first consider where your audience hangs out. You’ll know this from the audience research you did while building your strategy.
Also consider your own capabilities. Maybe your audience loves YouTube, but the thought of editing videos gives you hives. You have two real options: skip the channel or outsource the editing.
The third option — create video even though you hate it — is technically viable. But if the activity makes you miserable you probably won’t stick with it long enough to see results.
5. Create your calendar
Here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. Now you’re ready to plan out what content you’ll create, when, and where.
You can’t be everywhere, so prioritize. Maybe you’ll go for the low-hanging fruit and create the easiest content first, or maybe you’ll tackle the piece with the highest potential ROI.
For every piece you put on the calendar, include how, when, and where you’ll repurpose it. Assign each piece to a specific person on the team.
Here’s an example of how that might look:
When you first start, I suggest checking at the end of the first month to see if everything hit its deadline. Look for any bottlenecks in your process. If everything was done with time to spare, consider upping the cadence.
6. Assign creators
Assigning responsibility for each piece of content at the same time it goes on the calendar keeps you from burning out your team (or yourself, if you’re a team of one). You can see when someone has too much on their plate and either redistribute or outsource.
If you don’t have the internal resources to do all the things you want to do, now is the time to either adjust your scope or bring in help.
7. Schedule audits
Once you have a library of content, you no longer have to create every new piece from scratch. A lot of content is forced into retirement when it still has value left.
Include time in your calendar for content audits. According to SEMRush’s State of Content Marketing 2022 Global Report, 65% of companies with successful content plans conduct audits more than twice a year.
Start with content that did well at first but has fallen off, content that’s just shy of hitting its goals, and content that has a high click rate but low time on page.
Look for thin information you can beef up, dated information you can refresh, confusing sections you can clarify, and a clear path to action.
8. Track performance
The success of your content depends on your goals for it. Before you start, pick something you can measure.
Sometimes you can directly attribute outcomes like sales and leads to content, which is great. But the customer journey isn’t linear and attribution’s not usually so cut and dried.
Other indicators you can use to track performance include things like views, social shares, engagement, time on page, and bounce rate.
Look for trends among your most and least successful content. That will help you target the right places to push and pull back. Theorize why something succeeded or failed. Was it the topic? The format? The channel? Test your theory by tweaking just one thing and trying again.
Stop committing random acts of content
I know this sounds like a lot. And compared to just posting whatever you feel like whenever the spirit moves you, it is.
But that’s what separates content from content marketing. If you expect content to pull its weight as an actual marketing activity, you have to enter into it with some deliberation.
Making and sharing content takes time and energy. I don’t know any small marketing team with an endless reservoir of either. A sound strategy and detailed plan uses the resources you have as efficiently as possible so you can expend less effort and get more impact.