After the twelve months we’ve just had, it would be comforting to focus on something else entirely. Wouldn’t it? Well, since you may be tasked with doing this anyway — I thought I’d outline nine simple steps to help you create a content marketing plan for the coming year.
If you’re a seasoned content developer, you can probably skim through the list below. But for some businesses, a “content marketing plan” seems like a real leap of faith. How do you sell reluctant business execs on the value of content development?
Well, you might emphasize that the average conversion rate for organizations with a content process is more than 2x those that don’t.
Targeted content lends credibility, authority, and positions your company as a thought leader. Where else but online do you have such an opportunity to level the playing field against formidable competitors? Plus, when decision makers see how a content marketing plan can drive results and increase brand awareness, they’ll be more inclined to support it.
“The content marketing imperative will become clear for more brands that want to survive (or at least stop wasting their marketing dollars).” —Michael Brenner, B2B Marketing Insider
Agree on the Definition
A content strategy isn’t necessarily the same as a content marketing strategy. One focuses on developing the content — the other on systematically promoting that content across platforms. But blending a bit of both is an efficient way to create a comprehensive content marketing plan. Provide useful or entertaining content that visitors value? Then they may grant you some latitude to promote it.
In this post, we combine our experience with other good ideas to help you draft a practical content marketing plan for the coming year.
Ready? Okay, let’s dive in:
1. Outline Your Goals
Honestly, there’s no reason to work through the rest of this exercise if you’re not going to state how “success” would be defined. What minimum threshold must the plan meet to be seen as a win? What is the “best case” result you’re looking for?
What’s the rationale?
Maybe you’re after a promotion, a new job, or a prospective client. Perhaps you’re an independent consultant looking to boost your social media audience or win a new client. If you’re a small company, perhaps your team will aim for a specific, increased revenue number.
Maybe you want to generate an increased number of high quality leads. Perhaps you want to improve sales, increase brand awareness, or nurture existing prospect leads.
Whatever your goal, it’s useful to commit those ideas to a one-page project brief. Outline the result you envision clearly. The goal doesn’t have to be grand, nor complex. Just create a short, simple list of benefits that the most junior person on your team would understand.
“For a successful content mission, include target, delivery & outcome.” —Joe Pulizzi, Founder, Content Marketing Institute
Assess where you are now. Cite real numbers here, because you’ll need them later to evaluate your efforts. Next, describe where you’d like to be 52 weeks from now and include ideas on how to make that happen. Accept that the time you’ll invest toward this project may not fit within your regular workload. Entrepreneurial work is usually added to your other responsibilities.
No pain, baby? No gain!
2. List Prospective Topics Based on Goals, Analytics, and Common Sense
If you didn’t already consult web reports in step one, it’s definitely time to fire up Google Analytics! If you rely on several analytics tools, even better. Consult intelligence from the sources you trust most.
So … which posts performed best last year? Which search terms resulted in visits? What posts did people spend the longest time on? Do you see any patterns in the kinds of content that attracted the most pageviews? What other sites referred traffic to yours?
If you have a new site without history to evaluate yet, perform some research and make some educated guesses. The upside is that you’ll soon build a history that you can use to make better-informed decisions from.
“Improve results by aligning content w/ what performance metrics tell you.” —Cory Edwards, Director, Social Media & Content Marketing, Adobe
Select Topics Wisely
Be strategic about what you cover. Certainly, let the numbers guide you on where to focus upcoming content. But also consider topics you haven’t yet covered or that are related to your most successful posts.
”Small businesses don’t have the luxury of massive budgets that are over-weighted in ineffective advertising. But they also need to drive brand awareness and leads with limited resources. Content marketing is a great way for small businesses to do both.” —Michael Brenner in Inc.
How many topics you’ll need depends on how much bandwidth you can allot for content development and promotion. But consider multiples of 12. For instance, we typically publish one email newsletter each month. Each of those email efforts requires at least one main topic, with perhaps two or three others for support. This coming year, we have about four solid topics planned for each month. That means we can probably add (and promote) one new blog post each week.
3. Describe Your “Buyer Persona.” Address Them Directly in Your Writing.
Work to understand who your audience is. Who is this person? Put yourself in their shoes. What do they really want? Consider the “takeaway” they are looking for, and make sure you deliver that. If I have done this correctly, you dear reader are represented by the persona I’ve envisioned for Spark Creative.
“Great relationships, whether personal or professional, start with asking the right questions and truly listening to what other people have to say.” —Are You Listening? How to Deliver What Your Clients Really Want, Todd McCormick, Silverpop
Address Your Prospect’s Interests
As you sit down to write, narrow your audience to people you know. Whether professional colleagues, current clients, or prospective customers, it’s easier to generate content for folks you can see reading and appreciating it.
Imagine the biggest challenges these people face in their jobs. What questions would they be asking? Think about how they would type that question into a search engine. Make that question the title of a blog post. How will your content help them solve their issues?
4. Segment and Prioritize Your Topics List. Research and Refine SEO Keywords.
So, you’ve got a list of topics. Try breaking them out into larger themes. For example, many of our topics can be grouped under three main categories; writing, design, or strategy. This can help you prevent publishing too many similar topics in a row. You’ll cover a variety of different topics over each shorter span of time. You can also prioritize topics that seem most essential to reaching your goals.
“Identify customer content favorites & plan content designed to satisfy them.” – Lee Odden, CEO, TopRank Marketing
You don’t necessarily need to research an entire year’s worth of SEO keywords for all topics up front. This is a task that can be addressed as you move along the editorial and promotional calendar.
But, it’s well worth doing. For instance, my original idea for this post included the word “annual.” But after I did some SEO keyword research, I learned that few searches featured that word.
The upshot is, the way you might phrase an idea may not be the way people are likely to search for it. So, double check yourself before finalizing each topic name, and integrate the SEO keyword into it.
SEO is a larger topic best addressed elsewhere. But there are certainly best practices to keep in mind. Long tail keywords can help you stand out from the crowd.
5. Create Folders to Represent Those Marketing Efforts
Up to this point, I’ve summarized ideas you’ll find general agreement on. But here are some useful ideas I’ve developed for Spark Creative. The first is to take advantage of your computer’s filing system and folders.
It works like this. Adjust the file window on your screen to display folders in alphabetical order, then create a batch of empty folders. They may come up as “untitled 1” and so forth. Next, from the list of topics you created before, key in refined topic names for all these folders. You might have 12 folders, 24, 48, or more. You don’t want the list to become unwieldy, but the number doesn’t matter.
Point is, each post is likely to require supporting files for notes, images, drafts, and research sources. Setting up these folders in advance will make things very efficient as you work through your content marketing plan each week.
“The shift to social (and ultimately mobile), is forcing every marketer in the world to become an expert content creator who can create a wealth of interesting, relevant and on-brand content to reach consumers through their platform of choice.” —re/code
6. Map Your Main Promotional Efforts to This Year’s Calendar
As you create your content marketing plan, you can sync it with an editorial calendar. This will help constrain seemingly endless work into manageable assignments and make it easier to execute to a schedule.
In a similar manner to how we created folders for each main topic, now you can create 12 folders to represent each month. Apply numbers like “01-january” and “02-february” to each so they line up neatly within the main subfolder, in order.
Any content marketing plan must be accompanied with intent to complete the supporting actions during the year. But, that’s made easier when you map these steps out to a schedule.
Days will get busy. When clients are waiting for your work, content marketing and social media engagement are the first initiatives to be sidelined. This system enables you to work ahead when time allows. You can even develop several pieces that are good enough to publish. That way, you’re less likely to get crunched at deadline time.
7. Sync Your Topics with Dated Marketing Efforts
So, you’ve got one batch of topic folders and 12 monthly folders. Can you guess where this is headed?
Before you decide, open up a calendar. You’ll want to map your content publishing and promotion efforts to specific days over the coming year. Let’s say you prefer to publish on the second Wednesday of each month and promote beginning the next day. Now, you can page through the calendar to identify specific dates you need to work toward.
Before you start clicking and dragging topic folders inside the monthly ones, take a moment to consider holidays and seasonality. July and August are fairly big vacation months. So, if you market B2B you may want to schedule lighter topics then. Organizational articles (like this one!) may work better in late December, January, or September.
Take advantage of color coding and your computer’s desktop screen. We tend to highlight folders that need urgent attention as blue. Likewise for files we place on the desktop. But once an item’s been addressed, it comes off the desktop for filing in its project folder. We apply yellow highlight to any folders that contain work in-progress, and green is for anything that’s completely finished.
Using this system, you could crank out a plan of your own in a few hours. Whatever your annual goals might be, consider mapping out your content marketing plan with a set of dated subfolders within your main project folder. This allows you to easily file away ideas as you come across them for topics you’ll post about later.
That way, when you come across an amazing “vertical marketing” resource in March, it can be tucked away in that folder until you need it in June. You can also work ahead on post ideas that aren’t as time sensitive. That’ll help smooth out the workload when upcoming weeks suddenly become busier than expected.
“Give buyers engaging, compelling, thoughtful stories and they will gladly give you their attention, respect, and business.” —The New Rules of Content Marketing, Brendan Dell
8. Consider Types of Content that Will Work Best for Each Topic
Good content demonstrates. It might require more time and effort, but it will serve you better. Content types can go far beyond typed-up words. Formats may include: How To’s, Case Studies, Charts, Graphs, Ebooks, Presentations, Webinars, White Papers, Surveys Results, Quotes, Podcasts, and Press Releases.
Here are a few of our favorite types of content:
Infographics typically feature a strategic arrangement of icons, illustrations, numbers, and copy to help you communicate a large amount of information in a small space. These information graphics have become popular across the web for content marketing, article support, gated content, and search engine optimization efforts.
The Spark Creative team has been cleverly devising information graphics and illustrations for years and years. Workflow illustrations are a form of infographic we regularly use to help simplify complex software and network processes for brochures, videos, web sites, presentations, and more.
The explosive popularity of mobile devices has breathed new life into web videos. So, why not take advantage of that? We regularly generate video scripts. So let us get your video or animation project off the ground. We’ll tee up challenges that resonate with viewers and produce truly engaging video and that help showcase your solutions.
Spark Creative team members have been working to match up the right images for client projects for over twenty years. We know how to gather the images you need quickly and within the scope of your budget.
- eBooks/White Papers/Lead Magnets
Consider that email efforts and social media marketing leverage content to help “drive” website traffic. Once prospects arrive there, the offer and incentive should be compelling enough to persuade them to offer their contact information and email address. We can help make sure your response forms are user-friendly and engineered to deliver the exact information you need about each lead, quickly.
9. Begin Your Research, Writing, and Promotion!
Obviously, promoting efforts from your content marketing plan is not some groundbreaking new idea. But it is important. As we are each exposed to hundreds of sales messages each day, our brains grow increasingly adept at tuning them out. Targeted content can help you break through.
In fact, a content marketing plan has become more essential to high level business initiatives going forward. The number of consumers devoting screen time to computers, smartphones, and tablets grows each day.
That means increased exposure to social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. It’s valuable to participate on those channels, but social media success demands sharing, engagement, and original content.
In any case, why rely on websites, ads, and marketing alone when you can build a more qualified audience yourself?
“The essence of this [content strategy plan] is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing, valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business.” —58 Social Media Tips for Content Marketing, Content Marketing Institute, via Michele Linn
Good content has become part of the basic “social media contract.” High-quality content can attract interest, build awareness, and encourage sharing. Outstanding content can help promote sales, brand loyalty, and referrals.
So, at minimum, you want content to raise awareness and help acquire qualified leads. Content marketing efforts can also serve as an on-ramp for solutions selling and other marketing.
“Exceptional content, like remarkable products, induces conversations and sharing.” —The Grande Guide to B2B Content Marketing, Eloqua
But consider implications of the investment going forward. The more quality content you create, the more you own. This facilitates more opportunities to repackage it into other formats. As your posts and pages add up, you can combine them into more comprehensive white papers, e-books, presentations, and videos.
Bonus Ideas: Measure Results and Adjust As Needed
Don’t expect to calculate a return-on-investment directly from the content itself. You can measure the effectiveness of your other efforts, with an understanding those efforts depend on the content they’re based on.
“The most valuable lessons are often found in the things that didn’t work, so treat it all as a learning experience that keeps your content constantly fresh and worth talking about.” —A Three Step Approach to Strategic Content Development, Brian Clark
Reinforce the Value of Content to Upper Management
If you need outside help to keep the quality content flowing, consider the investment. “We have discovered that hiring consultants and outside experts can save us time and money. It also can increase our competitiveness and professionalism.” —Lee IWan
One arrangement that works quite well is to expand your in-house team with a reliable content developer who can tackle research and writing tasks on a monthly, weekly, or project basis.
We understand that many of your work lives revolve around going to – and preparing for – meetings. As a result, internal content development efforts often get sidelined.
There is extraordinary freedom in handing off action items to a strategic writer/consultant. “Companies often need a fresh set of eyes – you’d be amazed at the amount of value consultants can add based on the most mundane observations and insights.” —Management Consulted
Remember, a few posts might generate most of your traffic. “It really does pay off to focus on fewer high-quality content projects, rather than trying to bang something new out constantly.” —Inc.
If you take no other advice away from our site; Give your content marketing plan a fair try. You won’t regret it!
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Sources may include:
What’s Content Marketing Again?, Noah Brier, re/code. http://recode.net/2014/01/24/whats-content-marketing-again/
Ev Williams’ Rules for Quality Content in the Clickbait Age, Ev Williams, Wired Magazine, http://www.wired.com/2015/04/ev-williams-rules-quality-content-clickbait-age/
How to Drive Sales With Content Marketing, Aaron Aders, Inc. Magazine, http://www.inc.com/aaron-aders/brand-propinquity-how-to-drive-sales-with-content-marketing.html
What Exactly Is Content Marketing and Why Do You Need It?, http://www.inc.com/anita-newton/what-exactly-is-content-marketing-and-why-do-you-need-it.html
5 Surprising Truths About Content Marketing, http://www.inc.com/larry-kim/5-surprising-truths-about-content-marketing-for-brand-building.html
10 Content Marketing Trends Every Leader Needs to Know for 2015, John Hall, Inc. Magazine, http://www.inc.com/john-hall/10-content-marketing-trends-every-leader-needs-to-know-for-2015.html
The Functional Content Masterplan, Simon Penson, Moz.com, https://moz.com/blog/functional-content-auditing-masterplan
Easy-as-Pie Guide to Content Planning: 3 Recipes for Success, Knute Sands, Top Rank Marketing, http://www.toprankblog.com/2016/05/content-planning-ebook/
Planning Social Media Content? Ask Yourself These 9 Questions, Amanda Zantal-Wiener, HubSpot, https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/planning-scheduling-social-media
6 Questions to Ask Before Drafting Your 2017 Content Marketing Plan, Laura Schierberl, Convince & Convert, http://www.convinceandconvert.com/content-marketing/2017-content-marketing-plan/
The Content Marketing Book of Answers: Strategy & Planning, Jodi Harris, Content Marketing Institute, http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2016/06/content-marketing-strategy-planning/
17 Tips for Creating a Content Marketing Plan in 2016, Shane Barker, Sprout Social, http://sproutsocial.com/insights/
How to Build an Unbeatable Content Marketing Plan, Justin McGill, HubSpot, https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/
The Ultimate Guide to Content Planning, Simon Penson, Moz.com, https://moz.com/blog/the-ultimate-guide-to-content-planning
Excel at SEO With This 15-Point Plan, Jodi Harris, Content Marketing Institute, http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2016/05/excel-seo-plan/
A Thirty-Day Plan for Gaining 100 Authoritative and Relevant Backlinks to Your New Website, Neil Patel, QuickSprout, https://www.quicksprout.com/2016/10/22/a-thirty-day-plan-for-gaining-100-authoritative-and-relevant-backlinks-to-your-new-website/
The 79-Year Master Plan for Becoming Unforgettable, Pamela Wilson, CopyBlogger, http://www.copyblogger.com/picasso-social-media/