Afraid of creating a content marketing strategy? Here are 3 steps to fix that

According to a 2014 report by Content Marketing Institute and the UK Direct Marketing Association on Content Marketing in the UK, lack of a documented content marketing strategy is one of the biggest threats to successful content marketing. We can all agree that a strategy is vital, but an interesting question is, why do so many companies not have one?

keep-calm-and-don-t-be-afraidLee Odden wrote in a recent blog post that the reason many companies do not have a content marketing strategy isn’t because they lack sufficient time, resources, or funding to create one, but rather it’s due to a lack of vision and empathy for the customer experience. There is much to be said for the case Odden makes, but my experience as a strategist tells me that there is an even greater and more profound reason: fear.

A key aspect of strategic development is that it forces us to make — and commit to —decisions. That’s the core of what a strategy is designed to do — help us decide what actions to take, what to target, and how to reach our ultimate goal. To many managers, this is a frightening prospect.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review notes, “All executives know that strategy is important. But almost all also find it scary, because it forces them to confront a future they can only guess at. Worse, actually choosing a strategy entails making decisions that explicitly cut off possibilities and options. An executive may well fear that getting those decisions wrong will wreck his or her career.”

A content marketing strategy forces practitioners to define our brand, to identify target groups, to select tactics and channels, to devise KPIs, etc. However, this process also requires that we consciously decide not to focus on certain target groups and channels, as well as to abandon some we may already be working with.

Creating a content marketing strategy forces us to make choices and decisions that can be questioned and second-guessed. It’s much safer to skip the hard work of coming up with a strategy and dive straight into creating content — more content, all kinds of content, content aimed at everybody. It’s content mud, and if we throw enough of it onto the wall, some of it is bound to stick, right?

For me, the key question is, how can content marketing professionals get managers and other stakeholders to invest the time, money, and courage required to create an actionable strategy, and then commit to it? And the one answer I’m coming to more and more often is this: We have to get better at explaining what strategy is, and what the benefits are of having one. Sound obvious? Well, in many ways, it isn’t.

Very often “strategy” at a company means a collection of broad goals, ambitions, visions, and values. It’s something that has been discussed and developed at the highest level of management, by executives who likely will not have a hand in how it ultimately gets executed on. Unfortunately, these sorts of strategies offer little direction for how content marketing teams should work off them, and often end up collecting dust somewhere, rather than being implemented, tested, and continuously improved.

But that’s not really what a strategy is meant to be. In his book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, Richard Rumelt defines strategy as, “A coherent set of analyses, concepts, policies, arguments, and actions…” In other words, it is a real plan that will help you get from here to there.

We need to change the perception of strategy. That means establishing that a “real” strategy is hands-on, creates efficiency, and actually helps everyone involved in the work. This will make it easier to achieve the end result — in the case of content marketing, that means better content, and better ways of creating, handling, and measuring it.

If you want to change the perception of strategy at your company (or among your clients), here are some specific steps you can take:

1. Make sure that any strategies developed can actually be used: According to Rumelt, all good strategy has a basic underlying structure that he calls a “kernel.” It has three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and a set of coherent actions. If your strategy doesn’t contain such goals, actionable guidelines, and specific activities, it is just a wish list.

First, you need to identify your strategic objectives, and then be able to break them down into manageable decisions and tasks, such as what messages to use; what formats to create content in, and for which channels; what to measure, and so on. Next, you must convert those guidelines into tactical activities, such as developing content themes and topics to focus on, building editorial calendars to organize your efforts against a realistic schedule, determining available resources, and dividing the required responsibilities.

Now, getting buy-in on this from executives will probably require that you highlight the key points of your strategy and present it in a non-technical fashion, as many executives may not have a background in communication/marketing, let alone in content marketing. For example, a recent study from Sirius Decisions shows that 85 percent of people currently in B2B marketing positions were not professionally trained in marketing prior to stepping into their roles. Just like you put in the effort to understand the language of your customers, you must understand the language of your management team. The key to getting its buy-in is to make sure that the team understands that your content marketing strategy is tied to your organization’s overarching business goals and will be measured against those goals to determine what results have been achieved.

Let’s consider a prospective example. Say you work for a B2B company in the high-tech sector. Your content marketing strategy could begin with an outline of your business goals, your target audiences (perhaps in the form of buyer personas), and the content guidelines you wish to establish for your brand — including voice, preferred channels, and KPIs.

Your next step should be to devise a structured, efficient process to ensure that the type of content your analysis has helped you decide on actually gets created, distributed through the best channels, and measured for its impact. To do this, you will need to break down the process into a set of manageable activities. This “process and activities” phase is where you really need to focus your strategy-development efforts, because this is where the realities in your organization take over, in terms of budgeting, resourcing, and so on. It’s where you transform your ideas from a wish list into a viable strategy — by deciding where and how your resources will be used in the best way.

2. Define what format your strategy should take in order to be clearly understood  — and be successfully implemented: The only way your content marketing strategy is going to avoid becoming the dust collector I mentioned earlier is if it can be executed on successfully. So you will need to document your strategy in a way that it can be understood and used to guide your team’s content efforts, from the buy-in phase all the way through creation, distribution, and measurement.

For example, should it be created in a primarily visual format, like an infographic? Should it be built using a particular digital sharing tool, such as a Google Drive document or spreadsheet? Does it have to be built as a single document, or can you break it down into components that can be distributed as needed? For example, maybe your content creators don’t need access to the full strategy, but rather just the components that directly pertain to their own responsibilities, such as audience and messaging information. Depending on what kind of organization you work in, you might need more or less of this thinking — smaller companies tend to have less of a need for some processes to be explicitly planned out, while in larger organizations, the clearer your processes are, the greater potential for you to save time and budget, and to eliminate the potential for confusion and mistakes.

3. Be clear that your content marketing strategy is meant to be a living entity — not a static, permanent fixture. Any viable content marketing strategy should be revised, tweaked, and improved based on the results and the key performance indicators (KPIs) you set, so it will be helpful to communicate that nothing needs to be set in stone right from the outset.

For this reason, you should also plan a clear process for revising and honing your strategy, as new needs arise, and new information becomes available. Metrics can assess the success (or lack thereof) of different types of content, how channels compare to each other, interactions in social channels, and so on, which will help you identify areas of your strategy that are in need of improvement. This is a key part to show to executives, because it will demonstrate that you will continuously evaluate the success of your content marketing program, and that they will not be indefinitely tied to a program that may not be achieving its goals.

These steps make it easier not only to encourage decision makers to commit to having a strategy but, even more importantly, to explain the actual benefits of having a strategy in place before beginning any content creation efforts.

What’s your take? Have you seen fear frighten companies away from creating a content marketing strategy? And can greater understanding of what a strategy is — and what it can do — change this perception? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

This blog post originally appeared on the Content Marketing Institute’s blog in April 2014 as 3 steps to overcome the fear of building a content marketing strategy

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