Companies have been doing content strategy all wrong: A new approach for a new year

At the beginning of a new year, content marketers are typically abuzz. The new year is the ideal time to refresh a company’s content vision, set new goals, and establish the strategies critical to pursue the vision and goals.

While having a content strategy is critical, content marketers often treat developing one as a check-the-box exercise at the beginning of the year. The reason? The word “strategy” is thrown around often and easily, and as a result we tend to confuse a strategy with plans, frameworks, and tactics. The output of a strategy session, then, becomes a well-organized task list or execution plan when what it should be is a set of guiding principles born out of deep thought, competitive analysis, industry trends, new opportunities, weaknesses, data, and other inputs. While developing a plan is easier than establishing guiding principles, this type of “strategy” doesn’t serve companies or content marketers the way it should.

As we kick off 2020, we first seek to redefine content strategy—what it is and is not—and then explore what to incorporate into the development process.

Getting content strategy right

In the simplest terms, content strategy is a set of (hopefully) well-informed choices. Sounds easy enough, but looking at what those choices are elevates strategy development to a higher plane—one that requires deep thinking, a bevy of data and insight, and a willingness to be provocative. As marketers establish content strategy, they need to make the following choices:

  • What differentiates our thinking on a given topic or theme?
  • Where are we seen as an authority, and where would we like to be?
  • What are we doing better than the competition?
  • Where are we falling short?
  • What are the advantages of going to market with these messages and formats?
  • What are the drawbacks?
  • What value do we add by publishing on heavily saturated topics?
  • Which industry trends should we capitalize on—or stay away from?
  • What does our audience care about?
  • What does success look like? What’s been successful in the past?
  • Are there any reputational considerations?

These aren’t questions with simple answers; rather, they are weighty choices an organization must make. Marketers must be inquisitive and analytical, debate ideas, and tackle their own biases head on—all of which are difficult to do when strategy development is relegated to a one-off planning session at the beginning of the year. Redefining content strategy as a set of choices and the process of establishing key positions on critical issues will help marketers get more out of their content, from creation to distribution.

Making informed choices

Of course, a wealth of inputs is necessary to develop content strategy. Organizational data, competitive intelligence, market and trend reports, audience and customer insights, web metrics—together these form the foundation for clear and objective analysis. The most valuable insights come from combining number crunching with a thorough, qualitative view of the landscape.  

To make informed choices, companies should make the following activities part of their ongoing process.

Keep a pulse on what competitors are publishing—and how good it is

In a world of content overload, companies that can identify white space or provide a fresh perspective on existing ideas or challenges stand out from the pack. The best content should spark conversation, provide an avenue into experts’ thinking, and advance a dialogue—not just add to the noise or provide commentary. Without a good handle on what already exists in the market, companies may find their voice and message gets lost or fails to engage the reader, particularly when publishing on oversaturated topics or themes. And quality matters. Companies that frequently publish on a given topic only put a stake in the ground when that content is well received and adds value. Otherwise, the white space still exists.

Use data to address biases in decision-making

There is plenty of evidence pointing to the ways inherent human biases influence our thinking when it comes to business decisions. It’s especially important to be conscious of those biases when developing content strategy, particularly as marketers assess the distinctiveness of their organization’s messaging, how provocative or fresh the insights are, and where the organization’s expertise is a key differentiator. If biases factor too heavily in that assessment, the content can fall flat or over-index on messaging and capabilities that aren’t particularly distinctive. Relying on data such as surveys, market analysis, and social media monitoring can help keep biases in check. In addition, bringing diverse voices—and both marketers and client-facing subject-matter experts—to the table can counter natural tendencies toward bias.  

Regularly track performance to define success for the organization

Companies of all sizes and levels of sophistication struggle to define content performance metrics and quantify the return on investment. For B2B companies, the sales cycle is long and the path meanders, which makes it difficult to understand how content affects a sale or what role it plays in relationship building. And the audience is narrowcast, which means that traditional web metrics might be relatively low for even the best pieces. So performance tracking is often a more complex formula that involves input from client-facing colleagues who use content to start or support conversations; metrics from web, social, and email campaigns; and data that can highlight brand-awareness patterns, such as search traffic over time, social mentions, surveys, or external links back to website content.

Measuring the ROI of B2B content is challenging and the numbers can seem low. But tracking as much as possible, developing a performance formula, and setting benchmarks is the only way to get closer to finding what works. Like most things related to content, it’s the blend of quantitative and qualitative data that will uncover the most interesting and useful insights—and help organizations make better choices about their resources.

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Redefining content strategy can help companies view their content-marketing efforts through a new lens and ask the right questions about where they’ve been and where they’re going. By making a set of well-informed choices—and revisiting the activities they incorporate into the strategy-development process—organizations can create smarter, more substantive content that makes a bigger impact in the marketplace.  

Alia Samhat

Alia is the director of accounts and strategy at Leff. Her expertise is in creative strategy and operations, weaving together the efforts of writers, designers, video producers, analysts, and subject matter experts to produce meaningful work.

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