- A content strategy is an all-encompassing approach for creating content that drives key business objectives.
- Content strategy is the higher-level planning process. In comparison, content marketing is the nuts-and-bolts process of creating, publishing, and promoting content.
- SEO is vital throughout the content strategy development process because it helps you identify how your audience searches, and it amplifies the content you create.
Your Content Strategy Matters
Brands that have a documented content strategy perform better and have higher marketing ROI.
What is a content strategy?
Content strategy is the high-level planning, execution, promotion, and on-going management of the content lifecycle to support key business initiatives. Essentially, it’s your brand’s game plan for driving traffic, leads, engagement, sales, and other business outcomes through content.
When executed well, content strategy is one of the most important components of your marketing strategy.
But, it takes time and money to create great content. So whether you outsource blog posts or develop videos in-house, it’s critical to have a well-organized plan to get the outcomes you want.
Your strategy is a playbook that drives action and insight. And like a playbook, it covers a lot…
Content strategy vs. content marketing
What’s the difference between content strategy and content marketing?
Content strategy is a higher-level business activity than content marketing. Content strategy is the roadmap that guides your content marketing. It’s the decision making that underlies whom your content will impact, how your content will cut through all the noise, and the desired outcomes. In addition, it involves defining content success.
On the other hand, content marketing is the process of organizing, scheduling, creating, publishing, distributing, and promoting content pieces. Content marketing is the tactics that follow from the content strategy.
Your content strategy defines:
- What you’re trying to accomplish
- Who you’re trying to reach
- What types of content you’ll publish
- How your content will support the brand
- The ways in which your content will be differentiated
- How you will promote and amplify your content
- The metrics that define success
You wouldn’t plan a trip without knowing your destination. Content strategy ensures that your content marketing efforts are taking you in the right direction. Without a well-defined strategy, you may waste a lot of time writing content that doesn’t get the audience impact nor the business results you want.
Content strategy for SEO
Content strategy and SEO go hand in hand. A central part of an effective strategy is identifying the questions, desires, pain points, and challenges that your audience has. Once you identify these things, you can do strategic keyword research to determine how your audience searches. You would then create content around these topics that fulfill their search intent. In the process, you give your brand the ability to connect with them precisely at the time they are most receptive to your content.
Map content to the customer journey
As marketers, we must develop a content strategy that places our target audience at the center of our brand, not the other way around.
Customer journey mapping helps you identify key moments that influence the buyer’s decision, such as when they realize they have a need, when they discover a solution, and when they make a decision.
Then, develop content that amplifies brand awareness, solves problems, and influences decisions. This might include blog posts, articles, and videos that answer your customer’s questions. It could also include MOFU content to help them take the next step in their journey, such as webinars and case studies. And finally, you might create content like interactive tools and calculators, product comparison charts, etc. to push them over the finish line at the bottom of the funnel.
Align with search intent
No matter the content you generate, be sure that you’re aligning with search intent. In other words, make sure that you’re providing the type of content, information, and answers that someone searching on a given keyword is actually seeking.
Intent really matters. If someone is searching for educational information and all you have to offer is a product, Google will likely identify the disconnect and display other content at the top of the SERPs instead of yours. Similarly, if they are looking for a checklist and you’re not serving that up in your content, you’ll likely miss the mark again.
Aligning with search intent is a cornerstone of Google’s algorithm. This is evidenced in Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines. Section 12.7 of the Guidelines is labelled “Understanding User Intent,” with five sub-sections.
Launch SEO topic clusters
Along with full-funnel content and aligning with intent, your content ecosystem should be mindfully structured. To that end, SEO topic clusters are a particularly effective way to increase organic traffic for relevant keywords.
A topic cluster is a hub-and-spoke model of content production. It contains a central pillar page (the hub) that thoroughly addresses a broad topic at a high level. The pillar page is supported by a number of related, longer-tail cluster pages (the spokes) that address specific subtopics in a much more in-depth fashion than the pillar pages. The pillar page connects to all of the cluster pages and vice-versa through internal links.
So, topic clusters are like concentrated buckets of relevance. They help search engines understand the context, relationships, and hierarchy of each page within a family of content. At the same time, they help your audience find answers and related information easily.
Atomize your content
Another content strategy that can improve organic search performance is content atomization, where you produce multiple content pieces from a single content source. For example, you may create a research report as your base piece of content. With atomization, you can then break the report into smaller, snackable components and distribute related video, audio, reports, white papers, webinars, presentations, data visualizations, and other types of content.
As long as you are careful not to cannibalize your SEO results, content atomization can be an effective content strategy that fuels SEO reach, traffic, and engagement by ensuring the right audience finds the right type of content.
Develop online tools
Looking for a content strategy example that can have an outsized impact on your SEO performance? Develop online tools. When you provide your audience with a free, valuable online tool, in many cases they will link to it, strengthening your backlink profile (and therefore your organic rankings).
How to develop a content strategy (15 steps)
Now that you know the what and why, let’s talk about the specific steps and workflows you should take when creating a content strategy for your brand.
1. Establish your content goals
Before you launch any new content marketing strategy, it’s important to establish clear business goals and KPIs. After all, without goals you can’t develop a strategy, measure program success, or communicate ROI to company stakeholders.
Focus on outcomes
Goals compel action and drive your content strategy, so build your goals around the outcomes you want to achieve.
Determine the right goals for your brand
Are you looking to drive rankings?
If so, to what extent?
Looking to drive traffic?
How much traffic?
Are you looking to reach a specific audience segment?
Which segment and how will you measure your reach?
Looking to drive conversions?
How will you measure conversions, how many do you need to see, and by when?
Looking to drive engagement?
What kind of engagement?
When setting goals, experts agree that you’ll achieve more by following a two-tier structure: stretch goals and S.M.A.R.T. goals.
Stretch Goals vs. S.M.A.R.T. Goals
- Stretch goals are aspirational. These are usually major quarterly or annual milestones designed to push your team to achieve more ambitious outcomes.
- S.M.A.R.T. goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-constrained (having a clear deadline). Consider these your process goals to ensure that you do the necessary tasks to achieve your stretch goals.
These two types of goals support each other and help to define your strategy. For example, imagine that your stretch goal is to increase organic search traffic to your content by 100% within a year. Here are a few S.M.A.R.T. goals that might support that initiative:
- Publish 25 blog posts each month
- Record a weekly podcast and accompanying SlideShare
- Engage with 100 third-party publications monthly
As you can see, it would be hard to achieve a stretch goal without a structured digital marketing plan in place. Similarly, the S.M.A.R.T. goals would be random without the focus of a larger, galvanizing stretch goal.
2. Define your audience segments and buyer personas
Next, it’s time to research your audience and create personas. This step is critical because developing a content strategy that targets the wrong audience wastes time and money.
For example, if you’re in the financial services industry, one audience segment might be recent college graduates with more than $10,000 in debt who might be interested in refinancing. Or, it could be females with a net worth of $100,000 or more who are candidates for investing advice. Another segment might be families with a net worth of $10 million or more who are prime candidates for estate planning guidance.
An audience segment may not reveal the characteristics of buyer personas within that market, but it’s a useful framework to help you make your marketing more targeted. And the more targeted your marketing, the more likely it is to be effective (and efficient).
There are many different types of criteria and demographic data you could use to segment your audience, depending on what your business sells and how diverse its reach is. For example, buyer persona characteristics for B2C marketing might include:
- Family status
- Income level
- Disposable income
- Products desired
- Product attributes
- Pain points
For B2B marketing, on the other hand, you might include:
- Job title
- Company size
- Decision maker
- Business goals
- Impact of goals
- Pain points
- Effect of frustrations
- Products desired
- Product features
Fortunately there are plenty of places to glean audience insights, including:
- Search data
- Social media data
- Email marketing data
- Google Analytics data
- Behavioral intelligence
- Survey data
- Analyst reports
- Customer interviews
- Interviews with salespeople
- Interviews with support teams
Use that data to define your target audience segments and then create personas within each segment.
A buyer persona is defined as a semi-fictional representation of an ideal customer based on common audience attributes. These may include pain points, needs, interests, demographic information, as well as other factors as listed above.
The main difference between a buyer persona and an audience segment is that buyer personas force you to think about your audience as an individual, rather than a group. And within each segment, you may have multiple buyer persona examples.
While you develop your personas, think about your customers’ core problems as well as the outcomes they want to achieve. You’ll be more successful if you align the right content with clear customer objectives.
Let’s look at the previously mentioned audience segment of females with a net worth of at least $100,000. A buyer persona within that segment would include further detail, such as:
- Name: Aya Accumulator
- 35 years old
- Lives in a city or nearby suburb
- Married, but independent minded
- Director or VP level at work
- Ambitious about her career
- Net worth of $100,000+
- Invests in a range of funds but little retirement savings
- Intelligent, but would feel safer with investment guidance
- Wants to be perceived as successful
- Digitally savvy
However, don’t just focus on solutions. If you find a gap in the market, why not produce content that entertains your audience? You may be able to cut through the noise with something that tugs at the heartstrings, excites them, or drives them to think more aspirationally.
3. Conduct a content audit and gap analysis
Execute a content audit to identify and inventory all existing brand content and to evaluate its effectiveness. An audit helps you to determine if you have:
- Competitor content gaps
- Customer interest content gaps
- Missing steps in the customer journey
- Irrelevant content
- Underperforming pages
When reviewing and assessing your content, it isn’t enough to know who your customers are. In order to have a strong and differentiated content strategy, you should also do a competitive analysis.
However, don’t just look at your direct competitors’ content strategy. Major e-commerce brands often lose traffic to review sites and industry blogs with a strong SEO strategy. Financial services firms often lose search engine rankings to lead generation sites and publications. So take note of all the websites vying for your customers’ attention within the Google SERPs.
Scrutinize everything you’ve published.
For example, an inventory of your blog posts might reveal that some are outdated, not aligned with business goals, or not performing well in organic search. You can then decide whether you want to:
- Delete irrelevant posts
- Update outdated content
- Combine multiple posts into a consolidated, more valuable post
- Create completely new content pieces
4. Map content needs throughout the customer journey
The Conversion Funnel
Once you define your audience segments and buyer personas, map the customer journey of each persona throughout the buyer’s funnel, including:
- What do potential customers do?
- Where do they go online?
- What information do they want?
- How is the content presented?
Additionally, what questions do they ask themselves when they search? Alfred L. Yarbus, a Russian psychologist, conducted a study on eye movements. Participants were asked to look at paintings. Yarbus asked a certain question, then he tracked the eye movements of each participant.
What he found was that participants looked at completely different parts of the painting depending on the question they were asked beforehand.
Essentially, our brains are hardwired to find solutions to specific questions we ask ourselves. So, it’s critical that you strive to answer your audience’s burning questions all the way through the conversion funnel.
Targeting stages of the funnel
For example, a blog post may target a generic head-term in your industry to capture those just beginning the buyer’s journey. The post may answer key questions and offer potential solutions. Or, it may be an entertaining or intriguing piece meant to expand reach and capture attention.
Another blog post may target the middle of the funnel when the prospect has done their initial research and begins to engage with various brands or vendors.
At this point, the prospect may want more detailed and customized content focused on specific products, services, solutions, features and benefits.
At the bottom of the funnel, prospects want to compare options and make a final decision. To turn their curiosity into a conversion, provide an ROI calculator, detailed case studies or offer a free trial or coupon.
For more about funnel stages, read our post about ToFU, MoFu, and BoFu.
5. Conduct keyword research
Whether your primary goal is B2B lead generation or to increase ecommerce sales, you need traffic. But you won’t attract thousands of visitors to your site with good content alone. You need to optimize for keywords too.
Keyword research is the foundation of an SEO-focused content strategy because it guides you to the most valuable topics and keeps you organized. With thorough keyword research, you’ll be able to cover topics thoroughly without writing the same blog post five times. That means more traffic, more engagement, and more conversions.
Where do you begin? Use tools like Ahrefs and Semrush to uncover the topics in which your audience is most interested. You can also use SEO tools to spot your competitors’ top pages as well as the head terms and long-tail keywords driving most of their traffic.
Confirm the questions that your audience asks online, as well. Use tools such as Answer the Public and Answer Socrates or Google Question Hub. This gives you the strategic opportunity to be first to answer an important question. You can also confirm the “People Also Ask” (PAA) boxes in the Google SERPs for your target keywords.
After you identify relevant keyword phrases and questions to target, and you note the search intent behind each one, it’s time to create content.
6. Brainstorm content ideas
Next, use your list of keywords to brainstorm new content ideas. But, how do you create unique, usable content when there are more than 4.2 billion web pages competing for attention?
Fortunately, the vast majority of indexed web pages are terrible. So, take that golden opportunity to iterate and improve upon what already exists!
A key to producing great content is to use a process of iterative ideation. As author Steven Johnson shows us in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, the best innovative ideas are typically iterative, take shape over periods of time, and often occur in the realm of the “adjacent possible” (relying directly on previous knowledge).
So, don’t waste time looking for the one thing that hasn’t been written. Instead, brainstorm new ways to approach an old dusty topic, or cross-pollinate two separate ideas to forge something unique.
Not sure where to begin? Tools like Buzzsumo can provide insight into engagement, while Ahrefs and Semrush are excellent for shedding light on keyword rankings, backlinks, and traffic.
After you identify the top performing content for each keyword, knock it out of the park with something 10X better. Here are several ways to improve your existing content:
- Leverage proprietary data
- Visualize boring topics with graphics
- Simplify or break down a complex topic
- Combine related content into a comprehensive guide
- Use explainer videos within your copy
- Create something 10X more entertaining
7. Choose a content management system
If you plan to produce a massive amount of content, you’ll need a robust Content Management System (CMS). Your CMS allows you to create, organize, publish, and store various kinds of content, including blog posts, audio, video, PDFs, etc.
Fortunately, there are plenty of options to choose from depending upon your needs.
For large ecommerce stores, for example, there’s Magento, which supports more than 200,000 online stores across 20+ industries. Sitecore is often used for enterprise websites that need strong security and scalability. WordPress has the largest market share of any CMS. And Drupal is a good option if you need extra customization and data management capabilities.
8. Establish a content development process
Your content won’t create itself, so you need a clearly defined, repeatable, structured content strategy development process. The right methodology ensures that you always create high-quality, high-value content.
Your process should include:
- Keyword research
- Content brief
- Media selection
- Browser preview
Clarify who will be responsible for each task and by what deadline. In addition, standardize your content tech stack and workflow. Beyond your CMS, there’s project management software, grammar checking software, SEO software, and much more.
9. Implement a content calendar
A content calendar is much more than a simple schedule. It’s also an organizational structure that aligns your content team with your broader marketing tactics and goals.
An effective content calendar should tie each piece of output back to your S.M.A.R.T. goals so you can track performance. It also helps you prioritize items that are likely to have the greatest impact. Depending upon your organization’s goals, your content calendar should include the following types of information:
- Title of Content Piece
- Target Audience Segment or Persona
- Content Format
- Content Brief Due Date
- Draft Deadline
- Editing Deadline
- Design & Development Deadlines
- Publication Date
- Target SEO Keyword(s)
- Associated Keyword Query Volume
- Comments or Other Information
Do you publish multi-format content such as a blog post that includes a video or an infographic? Then, create a separate line item in your calendar for each component.
Your editorial calendar should be accessible online by your internal team. Keep it clean and skimmable so it’s easy to see what you published, what’s still in process, and what’s on the back burner.
For keyword-focused content, track scores from SEO tools such as Clearscope, MarketMuse, or Yoast to ensure content meets your threshold.
A content calendar keeps the entire content production process on track. It ensures that deadlines are met and that last-minute “fire drills” can be averted. Your content schedule helps the entire team stay organized and on pace to hit your goals.
10. Prioritize quality over quantity
If your audience gives you their attention, don’t squander the opportunity to connect by serving them lazy content. Make your brand stand out with exceptional quality.
Want to rank well in organic search? You must provide valuable content. That advice is straight from Google. In fact, it’s the guiding principle behind most successful content strategies for several reasons:
- You won’t waste resources on thin content that nobody will engage with
- You’ll focus on actionable content that drives traffic and leads
- Stakeholders will see you as an industry expert which can earn media mentions and natural backlinks
- You’ll keep visitors on your site longer
- You’ll increase brand affinity
But, what is valuable, usable content? It depends on your industry, but it could be unique market research, expert advice in a podcast, a listicle of resources, beautiful photos, or even emotionally engaging content and videos.
The bottom line? Give your readers something they’ll love and share.
11. Publish long-form content
When it comes to Google rankings and organic search traffic, long-form content such as blogging almost always wins. According to a study by Semrush, long-form content generates 3X more traffic, 4X more shares, and 3.5X more backlinks.
There are several reasons for this.
First, long-form content often ranks for more keywords than shorter content since it covers a subject in more depth. You can answer more questions, naturally include more long-tail keywords, and structure the content in such a way that it might capture the featured snippet.
Second, long-form content tends to get shared more frequently, which helps expand reach and build valuable backlinks. If you manage a website dedicated to running, are you more likely to link to a 500 word or 3,500 word blog post about how to choose the best running shoe? Obviously the latter because it’s more valuable to your readers.
Third, long-form content lends itself well to multiple content formats in a single content piece, making the content more engaging and link-worthy.
Fourth, it’s easier to build funnels within your content when it’s long-form. With more real estate to play with, you can include more CTAs on the page, helping to drive your readers to the next step in the buyer’s journey.
Finally, long-form content keeps people on your site longer since the content takes longer to read.
12. Build expertise, authority & trust (E-A-T)
Brand trust influences conversions, customer loyalty, SEO, and more. That’s why it’s critical to build trust by showcasing your brand’s natural expertise throughout your content strategy.
For example, if your company sells photography supplies, you should stick to topics related to photography rather than optometry.
From a search perspective, however, there’s more to it.
You’ve probably heard of the concept of expertise, authority and trust (E-A-T), which is a set of principles foundational to Google search. E-A-T is not a direct ranking signal. However, many ranking factors within Google’s algorithm are meant to measure it in some way. Therefore, improving your expertise, authority and trust can indirectly benefit an enterprise SEO program. For example:
- People are more likely to link to content they trust, and links are one way Google measures trust.
- Expert authors cover topics more thoroughly, which means they’re more likely to mention relevant topics and co-occurring keyword phrases.
- Google continues to improve its understanding of entities which helps them recognize well-known authors.
This becomes especially important as you create content for people who may not yet know about your brand or product.
Sometimes, your eyes can get big when you see the search volume behind a top-of-funnel query. But ask yourself this: does it really make sense for my brand to talk about this? If it doesn’t, you’ll need to either find an angle that connects, or look for a different opportunity.
13. Evoke an emotional response
A smart content strategist understands that the most impactful content works on a subconscious level.
The human brain subconsciously processes 11 million bits of sensory information each second. Compare that to only 40 bits per second on a conscious level. In fact, Harvard Professor Gerald Zaltman estimates that 95% of our decisions are made subconsciously.
So how do you tap into your customers’ subconscious mind?
The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people who couldn’t feel emotions due to brain damage. Those individuals struggled to make decisions because they endlessly waffled between options, as they couldn’t feel strongly enough about one option versus another. In other words, humans need emotions to take action because we base our decisions on feelings.
Emotions also prompt higher engagement. Jonah Berger, a Marketing Professor at the Wharton School, explained that people are more likely to share content that triggers an emotional response, especially a high-arousal emotion.
Emotional content draws in users, prompts action, and encourages sharing. What’s more, all of those things are a recipe for earning natural backlinks that improve organic visibility.
14. Plan a variety of content types
Make an effort to vary the types of media in your content strategy. Each demographic consumes content differently, so keep your buyer personas in mind while you brainstorm.
Even if your target audience segments are relatively the same demographic you should still mix things up. For example, some people prefer visual content, some are auditory learners, and others prefer to read text.
Consider using some of the following formats in your content strategy:
- Blog Post
- Case Study
- Topic Cluster
- Data Visualization
Develop a content creation strategy with different learning types and scalability in mind.
For example, you could create a survey as your base piece of content. From the insights that you collect, you can shape the takeaways into everything from infographics to videos, podcasts, blog posts, checklists, templates, social content, presentations, etc.
And don’t forget to distribute the different content types appropriately. For example, if you created a video, upload it and optimize it for YouTube. In this way, you’ll have a broader reach. A prospective customer may find your content, for example, in your blog, but another may run across the video version in YouTube or a podcast episode in Spotify.
Think broadly in terms of repurposing content to maximize your SEO ROI.
15. Define your content distribution and amplification strategy
Your content strategy doesn’t end when you publish a blog post or a video. Think about it. You’ve invested a great deal of time and money to produce compelling content that you expect to deliver results. So, don’t share it one time and move on to the next project.
Instead, build amplification into your content strategy process. Share posts multiple times across several social platforms. Execute blogger outreach to online publishers, and even other businesses to promote your blog posts, graphics or videos. Also, don’t be afraid to run paid ads. Just make sure you understand the ROI before you go on a spending spree.
Amplification is the engine that drives more website traffic. If you’re smart about content promotion and distribution, you’ll see a compound effect from your marketing efforts. One publication may share it with its audience, who in turn then share it with their individual networks, etc.
Measuring the effectiveness of your content strategy
This content strategy guide has walked you through the steps to build a plan, establish goals, identify your audience, plan a pipeline, create individual content pieces, and promote them to the right audience.
Finally, you’ll need to measure success so you can iterate and improve. Your content strategy KPIs should define success in terms of your marketing objective. So, if you care about conversion rates, include them. Don’t make the mistake of reporting against dozens of metrics that don’t support your goals.
Here are a few KPIs to consider:
- Google rankings
- Number of ranking keywords
- Organic visibility percentage
- Google organic market share
- Traffic (organic, paid, or referral)
- Qualified leads
Next, determine how you will capture, analyze, and report against those metrics. For example, will you report performance against a baseline each month or against the previous month or previous year? Will you create a live dashboard or pull data from search engine optimization tools like Google Analytics, STAT, and Semrush?
Finally, identify the individual(s) who will monitor and measure performance over time.
Future of content marketing
Consumers and individual B2B buyers are bombarded with so much content each day that they experience cognitive overload. As a result, people tend to filter out most of what they encounter.
What this means for your content marketing is that you need to up your game. Build a strategy that gets you noticed, generates traffic, boosts engagement, encourages shares, and increases conversions.
It’s not just about pieces of content. Think experiences moving forward, and how those user experiences fit into the purchase funnel and the broader customer journey. The brands that provide the best digital experiences will win in the long-term.
A content strategy plan gives you a roadmap to follow each step of the way. It keeps you producing content that serves your audience and your business objectives. It also keeps you from wasting time and effort on content that won’t move the needle for your business.
Get strategic. And get more results!