Content is the atomic unit of marketing — the currency of how to get attention (when done well). But simply “creating content” without a thoughtful vision is a lot like writing individual book pages for readers expecting a story. So what are the atomic units of a content marketing strategy that will focus and interconnect your execution? What do you need in place to actually start planning and producing content in a systematic way?

To start, a successful content marketing strategy has 11 core components or building blocks. If you’re developing your brand’s first content marketing strategy — or if you’re resetting an old one and redefining the brand’s approach to content — here’s what you’ll need to get going.

1. Brand Guidelines

Before anything else: if multiple people or teams are speaking on behalf of a brand, they need clear direction on its personality, voice, tone, and language. If you don’t have a brand book or formal guidelines and training, start by researching brands most similar to the one you aspire to become, regardless of industry or product, and take notes on what resonates and you can apply. Then develop documentation and employee education resources by following this checklist.

Brand and Content Guidelines

Need some inspiration? Here are brand book examples from Mailchimp, Nike Football, Intel and Cisco.

2. Marketing Objectives

Depending on your business needs, you’ll have different key performance indicators (KPIs) and goals for your content marketing initiatives. In all likelihood, you should take that a step further and define relevant metrics for different types of content. These could fall into categories like:

  • Performance marketing content (direct response ads, demand generation, and other promotional content that correlates with sales)
  • Brand awareness, consideration, and/or consumer perception content
  • Local market communication and support content (such as assets sharing with your distributors, retail partners, or local teams)

or any other business objective related to product, promotion, placement, and pricing. In many cases, your content may extend further to other departments, such as recruiting content for HR. 

Determine which of these goals are core to your content’s success in the short- and long-term and establish them as the analytics cornerstones you can consistently measure in a reporting tool or dashboard.

3. Customer Persona(s)

Marketing and advertising is meant to reach people, whether that’s a broadly defined group for a consumer brand or a narrower segment with specific demographic or behavioral attributes.
Document the people and personality profiles (personas) you want to reach and influence, backed up by research and data you’ve collected, and create cheat sheet summaries for campaign use or to distribute to customer-facing teammates. These can include demographic elements like:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Household income
  • Location
  • Education
  • Family status
  • Job role / title

As well as cultural and behavioral traits like:

  • Personal values and goals
  • Consumer needs
  • Cultural influences
  • Media preferences
  • Fears
  • Purchasing frictions

Most importantly, work to uncover a unique insight about your target customer that the rest of the industry overlooks or under-appreciates. Often, it will serve as the creative catalyst for a successful content strategy or campaign direction.

4. Data and Market Research

Research and data are the cornerstones of customer insight and understanding. This can be historical data (website traffic demographics, sales data, surveys, studies, customer feedback, or other recorded brand interactions), original primary research, or third party data — and in most cases you’ll want to rely on a mix of all three.

Some of the informative (and unbiased) research comes from social listening and third party sources, which can then be supplemented by interviews and internal analytics.

For digital, tools like Google’s Consumer Barometer can help you better understand different demographic groups and their online purchasing behavior. OpenStrategy also hosts a helpful directory of free consumer research tools that can guide your content strategy [note: Twitter authentication is required to access it].

5. Customer Journey Map

Once your objectives outline what you want, and your persona and research work define who your customer is, a journey map clarifies your customers’ specific needs — and how you can meet them. An effective journey map draws the story arc of a potential customer (or persona) as they progress through their world and interact with your brand, from their perspective. Although customer journey maps can be modeled off a traditional marketing funnel, they are not necessarily linear, adding overlays and new dimensions to a classic path-to-purchase model. A customer can jump from one stage (or device) to another based on a number of factors and triggers, and they may interact with some of your channels and touchpoints while skipping others completely.

Customer Journey Map

Your journey map should be tailored to your specific customer profile (and how you reach and interact with them), but a few guiding principles and good design approaches apply.

First, overlay your journey map with some linear framework for Stages the customer progresses along. This can be highly detailed and segmented, or more broadly generalized, but should follow a general progression from Need Recognition to Solution Research (and Search) to Purchase Evaluation to Product Usage to Continued Usage (or Repeat Purchasing) to an end step like Consumer Advocacy or High Satisfaction. The specific steps you use and level of detail will be what’s right for you.

Next, against the stages you’ve outlined, map out the story of your customer, paying particularly close attention to their:

Activities (Doing) – What’s the story of your customer’s typical day that leads them to interact with your brand? What is your customer doing, stage by stage? What actions are they taking to move themselves on to the next stage?

Context (Setting) – What else do we know about the customer? If your customer experience is heavily or entirely digital, what devices are they on at a given stage?

Questions (Thinking) – What are your customer’s open questions or uncertainties preventing the customer from moving to the next stage of their journey?

Motivations (Feeling) – What does your customer ultimately care about? Why and how do they care about you in context? Why is the customer motivated to keep going to the next stage? What emotions are they feeling?

Brand Relationship (Touchpoints) – What are the touchpoints and opportunities between you and the customer? What barriers stand in the way of them moving to the next stage?

For more on how to successfully develop customer journey maps, watch former DreamWorks story developer James Buckhouse’s talk on how to design stories at Transition 2016.

6. Content-Market Fit (Content Domains, Topics and Media mix)

As important as it is to understand your customer, from a content marketing perspective, it’s also important to understand the current state of content in your industry to look for openings and opportunities. When subscription beauty startup Birchbox first launched, Co-Founder Mollie Chen saw that their content marketing was up against content from established beauty brands, established magazines and publishers, YouTube and Instagram influencers, and new media entrants like Refinery29. To find their content direction, Birchbox asked three key questions:

  • What can our content add to the conversation?
  • How would that content tie back to our brand, products, and value proposition for customers?
  • What content will customers care about?

By working through these questions, Birchbox saw content opportunities to introduce new products (discovery) and speak to the casual, infrequent beauty customer through accessible, visual how-to guides and coverage of new beauty trends. The move helped focus their editorial and social efforts, allowing the brand to outmaneuver larger competitors to win attention and drive digital sales.

Birchbox content marketing

It’s also important to pay attention to the state of media behavior and content consumption formats, including device usage and visual trends. With new formats abounding, it can be tempting to throw your hat in the ring across written, photo, and video on a variety of different content channels. But it’s often better (and more resource efficient) to do a few things well than try to be everywhere. Decide which 2-3 content types are going to be your primary focus: Instagram Stories and blog posts, for instance, and then try to repurpose elements of that content to create other vehicles and post types on other channels. Podcasts could be repurposed audio from videos you’ve created, or microsites can contain all your content grouped by a specific campaign or theme, for example. The key is to find your unique place to stand out and add value to the conversation.  

7. Resource and Capabilities Assessment

As I’ve written before, “content marketing” suffers from a definition problem. We can’t really define it just as much as we know we can’t market without it. This lack of clarity often leads marketing organizations spinning their wheels and wasting precious resources, unsure of what’s in scope and what’s out of scope. Identifying content-market fit (or even getting to a solid hypothesis of what it might be) lets you focus and determine the right resource mix to execute and fund your programs.

Once you know the type of content you need to excel at and the publishing or campaign cadence, think through and answer these questions:

  • What’s the available budget for content and creative? How will it be broken down between production / development and distribution (or buying influence)?
  • How will my content get created? In-house? Externally via agencies and/or freelancers? Hybrid model (mix of internal and internal)? Or will content primarily be customer or community-generated?
  • What talent do I need on a given creative team (e.g., art direction, photography, video, mobile, interactive, copy, etc.)?
  • What processes and technology are needed to operationalize my strategy?

Take full stock of your resources (budget, people, teams, agencies, competencies, and technology) to further refine and focus your strategy.

8. Process

Every effective content program requires an iterative workflow or process that lets your team focus on what’s important: creativity, then translating it into effective content. To build an efficient, content marketing machine, consider the following:

  1. Group your content into a few core buckets (e.g. videos, blogs, ebooks, microsites, etc.)
  2. Design a ‘best practices’ workflow for each core content type. Think about where each content type begins, who owns the business requirements and brief development process, when and where resources need to be turned on or off, how feedback and approvals are coordinated, how to measure each step, and who’s responsible for the final output. For a quick-start reference, here’s an open source template example of Percolate’s content marketing process.
  3. Meet with stakeholders and members of your team to see whether your ‘best case’ process is possible and, frankly, makes sense for them. Is everyone bought in that this is the best way to work? Is there anything missing you haven’t thought of?
  4. Get your new process down in writing. Decide where to document it and start training your team.
  5. Test your new process. Does it work? Where are the gaps? Where are the breaking points? Processes will mature and develop over time. Stay cognizant of production time and resource requirements. Regularly check-in with teams to see whether frustrations have developed.
  6. Finally, processes need to be codified into habits. Making your new workflows habitual is what will allow you to truly scale your content strategy. Enforce your new workflows internally and find champions at each checkpoint to help you.

You may also want to diagram your process, along with key challenges and opportunities for improvement, with a “swim lane” diagram:

understand people process and technology

focus on critical needs of your organization

9. Internal Communications Plan

Now that you’ve locked down your goals, plan, and resources to make them happen, communicate your content plan and operating rules to your stakeholders and constituents. Your content team shouldn’t have to operate in a silo: bring in diverse voices — your head of communications, customer marketing, product marketing, and senior marketing management — and ensure they’re aligned with your strategy, particularly if your content team is operating as a ‘service’ function for other parts of the organization. Or, you may need to pull in other internal teams or employee groups to collaborate on content creation or distribution.

stakeholder coordination is key to content marketing success

10. Content Calendar

At this point, you should be ready to start assigning out and mapping your content to an editorial calendar, segmented by attributes like topic, campaign, and content owner. By scheduling content on a visual, transparent calendar, you can enable proper visibility and coordination across different initiatives, teams, and even regions. Moreover, work with your communications leads (and/or agencies) to align your internal content calendar with the external news cycle of your industry. What are the conversations happening in the world that intersect with your brand and what it stands for? Often, broader news cycles can be a valuable input (and source of triggers) into your content execution.

For further reading on building out your content calendar, see:

11. Ongoing Iteration, Operations, and Analytics

It’s often said “a writer’s work is never done,” and the same couldn’t be more true when you’re one of the people defining a brand’s ongoing narrative. In general, “test and learn” is a sound operating philosophy, but it’s particularly true with content. Place small bets, iterate, gather data, listen for feedback, and then scale your successes. Building great content organizations requires patience and perseverance, so it’s important to progress incrementally, milestone by milestone, and break down your ideal outcomes into actionable programs and phases.

Ultimately, “content” isn’t just a department within marketing or a function at a creative agency, it’s the lifeblood of the brand, a circulatory system that supplies internal departments and external audiences with the business’ identity and key information. Build a vision for it with the thoughtfulness that level of responsibility deserves.

Want to learn more about how the world’s largest brands are thinking about their marketing strategy? Request an invite to Transition 2017 to hear from brand experts at innovative companies likeGoogle, Sutter Health, and more.