We get a lot of questions about content strategy. Often they’re preceded by some kind of angst-ridden confession. “I don’t have a strategy for all this content I’m churning out. I just keep churning.”
The good news, we like to reassuringly respond, is that you’ve got company. In fact the vast majority of business-to-business marketers are slinging content with no strategies. Last year we found that only 13 percent of law-firm marketing officers had a documented content strategy (58 percent said they had a strategy but hadn’t bothered to write it down). That’s a problem because research has consistently shown that marketers get better results from their content when they have a documented strategy.
As we amble further into those angsty conversations, we frequently discover that the reason marketers haven’t written down a content strategy is simply because they don’t know what to write. There’s a massive amount of material out there related to content strategy, of course, but that’s the problem – sorting through it all would take hours, and potentially cause your eyeballs to explode.
It’s unfortunate, because this should be simple. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to the form a content strategy should take. It just needs to have a few essential elements.
We look at content strategy through the elegant framework articulated by Howell Malham in his book “I Have a Strategy (No You Don’t).” A good friend of Greentarget, a grand thinker and a sartorial demigod, not to mention a mensch, Howell postulates that a strategy is not a strategy unless it has five elements. Here they are, through the prism of content strategy:
- A purpose: What you hope to achieve through your writing or thought leadership. You want to be grandiose here. Think beyond what you want to do — think about why you want to do it.
- A plan: Publishing thought leadership in some medium (your blog, a podcast, video series, etc.) that will help achieve your purpose.
- A sequence of actions or tactics: The steps you’ll take to produce, manage, distribute and promote the content.
- A distinct, measurable goal: The business result you want to achieve.
- A narrative: A unique message that has value to your audience.
In Order to Form a More Perfect Content Strategy
To understand how this might work, here’s a historical example. Back in 1787, Alexander Hamilton, bona fide historical person and future protagonist of the Tony-award winning hit musical “Hamilton,” orchestrated one of the greatest content-marketing campaigns of all time. Historians disagree about whether Hamilton had a documented strategy1 when he set about producing “The Federalist Papers,” and the Content Marketing Institute’s data doesn’t go back that far. But if we lay Howell’s graceful framework over Hamilton’s brilliant handiwork, we see what an effective content strategy looks like.
Hamilton had a clear purpose: to create a strong national government that would help realize and perpetuate the ideals of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. His plan was to publish a series of anonymous essays arguing that the proposed Constitution gave the country its best shot at realizing and perpetuating those ideals. He chose a pair of co-authors, assigned them topics and convinced three New York newspapers to publish the essays. To complete this series of actions, Hamilton wrote non-stop, penning 51 of 85 essays himself. Each one furthering the narrative, described in “Federalist No. 1:” to establish the kind of enlightened, prosperous republic that the former colonists had fought for, they must adopt the draft constitution. His distinct, measurable goal: ratification by the New York legislature, and then by all 13 states.
As we know, that’s exactly what happened. The Constitution became the law of the land. “The Federalist Papers” went on to become the definitive source of Constitutional interpretation, serving as the intellectual mortar that binds American civil society together, even today. Hamilton went on to become a hip-hop legend.
How It Works in Business
Characterizing “The Federalist Papers” as content marketing, of course, borders on ridiculous. And I’ll assume that with your own content you’re aiming for something less ambitious than changing the course of world history. So what might such a strategy look like for a business?
Let’s say your consulting firm has an amazing cybersecurity practice. You’ve got a handful of mid-sized clients who rave about how you plugged all the holes in their data systems by training their staff and vendors in proper security techniques and processes. You want to move up the chain and sell this offering to bigger companies, but they’ve never heard of you.
You need a content strategy. And so, inspired by some crazy blog post about show tunes and the Constitution, you sketch out a five-part plan. It contains…
- A purpose: To increase consumers’ security and privacy by teaching the companies that possess consumer data to shore up their internal protections.
- A plan: To publish a series of articles that inform big organizations about how training their people can be the most powerful form of cybersecurity.
- A series of actions: Appoint a managing editor; assign three to four authors; build a simple microsite and publish an article per week there; distribute via paid promotion on firm’s and authors’ social accounts, and via monthly newsletter.
- A goal: To become recognized as the leading firm in the field of cybersecurity training, as demonstrated by at least one speaking engagement and three media mentions by year’s end.
- A narrative: The most common source of data breaches is simple human error. True cybersecurity comes not from better technology, but from better training.
Obviously the details will vary depending on your message, your goal and, most importantly, your audience. But generally, this is a solid strategy for using thought leadership to build your reputation. Now all you need to do is execute.
1Actually, historians neither agree nor disagree on this point. They couldn’t care less.
Brandon has spent his career sharpening his editorial skills to become an accomplished and successful communications and marketing professional.
When he’s not being outsmarted by his daughters, he spends his time reading, writing and attending theater and live readings around the city.