July 15, 2021
This guest post was originally written by Tyler Hakes, strategy director at Optimist, a full-service content marketing agency. It has been updated with more information on how to develop a comprehensive content strategy for every funnel stage.
You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “content is king”.
Today, too many companies approach content marketing with the intent being to simply to publish something — literally anything — without a strategy in place for why they are creating that content to begin with.
This is why we end up with so much impractical, lackluster content on the web–it’s from a lack of direction and vision that rarely produces any value.
Let’s change that.
Instead of creating “content,” let’s look more deliberately at the role content marketing plays in meeting both business objectives and customer needs.
If you’ve wondered what the value of your content might be or how it fits into the bigger picture, then this post is for you.
In this guide, I’ll define what a content marketing strategy is, help you decide if a content marketing strategy is right for your business, and outline a three-step process to analyze your customer base, understand their journey, and then create a content marketing framework that incorporates both pieces. From this, you’ll be able to create a laser-focused content marketing strategy, with each piece of content playing a key role in both your business and the life of your customer.
A content strategy is the development, publication, and distribution of helpful, relevant content. Having a content strategy in place will help you manage and prioritize which types of content you decide to create and who you’re making it for. Moreover, a content strategy should also cover the channels where that content will be published, development of a content calendar or publication schedule, and a plan to create relevant, unique pieces of content.
It’s important to note that a content strategy is a bit different than a content marketing strategy. A content marketing strategy, as the Content Marketing Institute notes, explains your “why”– why are you creating content, who will your content help, and how your content can help someone better than anyone else. Essentially, your content marketing strategy should help you determine how the content your produce will help you accomplish a business goal, like generate more business leads, acquire newsletter subscribers, or increase your social media following.
Considering investing in a content marketing strategy for your business? Here are just a few reasons–backed by data–for you to invest in a content marketing strategy:
These are just a few reasons why you should consider investing in content marketing for your business, but if you’re not sure where to start of what type of content you should create, keep reading to learn our three-step process for generating content ideas for each funnel stage.
Now, let’s get right into the five-step process for creating strategic content for every stage of in a buyer’s journey. I’ll cover:
Step One: Creating User Personas
The key to any successful marketing strategy is clearly defining the audience and then understanding their needs, desires, and characteristics. It’s about creating tailored messaging that speaks to them and answers their questions.
Content marketing is no different.
Before we can put together a strategic content plan, we need to understand the segments of our core audience. This can most easily be done by creating user personas.
User personas are archetypes that represent certain populations within your target market. They should be as specific as possible–modeled after real customers or target prospects. This will allow you to better visualize and conceptualize their roles and the challenges they face–and how you can help to solve them.
You’ll generally want to define 3-5 specific user personas. More is fine, but don’t go overboard. Remember that these are archetypes and it doesn’t do any good to over-segment your audience at this stage.
Then, you should consider three key things for each persona: Role, Goals, and Worries.
Create a table like this one to map out your specific personas and the characteristics that define each. It’s useful to see them side by side so you can begin to see the differences (even if they’re slight) between each role.
Ladder also provides a great example of a customer persona. Their primary customer persona is “Steve Seed, a startup founder and CEO. Ladder’s customer persona chart goes into incredible detail, defining their ideal customer’s goals and values, challenges and pain points, sources of information, and objections, and their role in the purchase process. They even include detailed targeting information their location, annual income, level of education, and even their hobbies!
As they mentioned this blog post, Ladder was able to plug this detailed information into Facebook’s Audience Insights tools to find audiences that closely resemble Steve Seed.
This is the very first step in your content marketing plan that you absolutely shouldn’t skip over.
Once you understand who you’re speaking to, you need to understand the process that they go through from initially discovering your product/service to the point where they actually decide to buy it.
Each of these personas that you have defined has a unique “buyer’s journey”.
Although this is generally represented as a marketing or sales funnel–going from awareness and leading to purchase (or action)–it may not always represent your true buyer’s journey. The modern path is nonlinear, with prospective customers jumping from one stage to another at various points.
But it’s still useful to think of these stages and–maybe more importantly–the channels in which you can reach these customers as they progress toward the purchasing decision.
Let’s first breakdown each of the stages in the buying journey.
The awareness phase of the buyer’s journey is the “top of the funnel”.
This is where a prospect first becomes aware of your company, product, or service. They may not even know that they have a problem that you can solve.
For this stage in the funnel, you’ll want to focus on content that identifies prospects, introduces your brand, or presents a problem.
Think of this like small talk–your prospect may be interested in working with you in the future, but now’s not the time to put on a hard sell. Just introduce yourself and give them time to get to know you.
For instance, a consumer-facing company like Casper can create content that’s meant to draw people into their community or website, but not sell them a mattress.
Here’s a Facebook ad that promotes a piece from their site–it’s lighthearted, fun, and not salesy.
For B2B companies and agencies, you can use content to get your target audience to self-identify by presenting them with something topical and persona driven. Mixpanel does this beautifully with their blog content that speaks directly to product managers.
They can feel pretty confident that anyone clicking on this piece of content is likely a product manager (or at least interested in product management). They are building awareness with their target market, even if the content isn’t selling them Mixpanel’s actual product.
Remember to think of this stage in the process in relation to the others. By driving traffic and building brand familiarity, you can do things like retargeting or re-engage this audience later through different channels.
Awareness of a product, service, or company doesn’t always translate into interest right away.
For some prospects, it may just be bad timing. For others, it may take some time for them to learn more about what you’re offering and ultimately decide if it’s what they’re looking for. Some may never move past the awareness stage–that’s the nature of the “funnel,” after all.
Whatever the case may be, once a prospect does move into the next phase of the buying cycle, the kind of content you want to offer them will change pretty dramatically. Instead of simply making the first contact with your prospect, you are now engaged in a conversation.
They are interested in the story you’re telling or the problem you’re solving and they want to learn more.
Consider this like a window shopping phase–prospects want to see what you have to offer, but they aren’t ready to talk to a salesperson.
During this stage of their journey, your prospect may make initial contact by either subscribing to a newsletter, downloading a whitepaper, or connecting via social media. Don’t panic! That is totally normal.
From a B2B perspective, this is the stage where you want to introduce a deep dive on a topic relevant to your prospects needs–a particularly useful guide or white paper can work well here. A perfect example of this is HubSpot, who created a hub of all of their free marketing resources, including workbooks, webinar recordings, eBooks, courses, templates, online courses, and much more.
HubSpot is aware that people who visit this page are interested in free marketing materials, but may not be aware of their products and services. As a result, they’ve added a Drift chatbot to the page, which encourages visitors to learn more about what HubSpot has to offer. This is just one way to encourage website visitors to convert into potential business leads.
From a B2C perspective, this stage is the perfect place to build a community around your brand and to nurture potential customers through newsletter emails, exclusive discounts, promotions and giveaways, and social media.
A great example is from Sephora, the global cosmetics retail chain. Sephora has built the Beauty Insider Community, which allows potential customers to ask questions and take part in conversations with other current and potential customers, browse photos and videos from current customers, read reviews and share recommendations, and also sign up to attend in-person events and classes.
If your prospect has moved from the interest stage to decision, then they are contemplating making a purchase.
Essentially, this means that they have seen what you have to offer, they think that it could help them, but they aren’t 100% convinced that it’s worth the money or that it applies to their situation.
Your job here is to calm their fears–show them the value in what you have to offer and make the decision as simple as possible.
Social proof plays a big role in this stage and things like testimonials, reviews, and case studies can drive home a value proposition and help the buyer decide to move forward.
Hootsuite hooks prospects by laying out clear and compelling case studies that detail the kind of benefits you can get from what they do. This kind of content is exactly what many people need to see in order to take the next step.
Shopify does this by highlighting success stories of people–just like you!–who started their own store and have made it. They have an entire section of their site dedicated to telling these stories.
Once someone has decided to buy, they may need one final validation or bit of information to make the purchase decision.
In this stage, it may be a choice between one or two companies or deciding whether to outsource or hire. The content that will work best for this phase of the cycle is content that helps your prospect understand the value of working with you, specifically, and not just the solution that you’re offering.
Take a note from Samsung, who launched several ads last year targeting major flaws with the Apple iPhone, including limited space, small screens, the infamous iPhone dongle accessory, and public outcry from throttling performance.
Meanwhile, Single Grain tells it like it is–here’s how to pick the best digital marketing agency.
Beyond just thinking about the stage that each buyer is in, you’ll also want to consider which channels align with that customer’s stage in the journey and how you can communicate with them. Each channel may also lend itself to certain types of content.
Now, once you understand the various stages of the buying journey and the channels in which you can reach them, you can start to think in two dimensions–considering both the individual user and their current state in the process.
This is where this approach becomes really powerful. With these two considerations, you’re able to come up with a plan for how to target your content directly to the needs of your customers and create a lot of value.
The importance of different kinds of content depends not only on their current stage in the buying process, but also on the individual customer and their individual goals and needs.
This means that it’s not possible to create a content plan by simply looking at user personas or customer journeys–they must be combined into a single matrix, which creates the opportunity to address each individual persona throughout the entirety of their purchase decision.
And this is what we will ultimately create.
In this framework, each space should be filled with specific content ideas that will meet the needs of that type of user at that particular point in their journey. This allows you to pinpoint in on their needs and what stories you can tell in order to move the customer forward.
From this point, it’s a matter of brainstorming and research–filling in each square with a number of specific and actionable content ideas.
With the matrix complete, you now have a plan for how to create content that’s relevant.
But more importantly, you have a strategic framework that is the basis for all of the content you’ll be creating. So it won’t just be “stuff” that you’re publishing just to check a box. Instead, it will be specific, targeted, and aligned with both the goals of your business and the needs of your customer.
Beyond just having the right content there, the next step in this process will be to create a sequence in which you engage the right people with the right content–at the right time.
I’ll save the specifics on marketing automation for another time, but just know that you should be thinking about how you segment your audience and deliver this content as they move throughout their relationship with your company.
If we look at Casper’s content, we can see a clear progression:
And HubSpot does the same thing when talking to marketing people:
Timing is important–so don’t forget it.
Through this process, you should be able to create a strategic mix of content for each of your target customers throughout their buying decision. From there, you’ll need to create campaigns and touch points that deploy that content to the right people at the right time.
What questions do you have about aligning your content with the needs of your users?
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