Why Content Strategy Is Still So Confusing For Marketers (And How To Simplify It)

by | 04.Oct.18

I have developed strategies for content marketing for years now, and even I still need to rethink the elements that go into them. There are a LOT of different definitions, approaches, and opinions out there. It makes content strategy a rich and diverse discipline, but also a confusing one, and I can only imagine how marketers must feel when they plunge into content strategy for the first time.

In this post, I’m going to look at some of the main areas of confusion and present a super-simple “starter” content strategy that anyone can put together.

Point of confusion #1 – What is CONTENT?

No wonder content strategy is so confusing when “content” is a tricky word all by itself. Ask a dozen content experts for a definition and you’ll get a dozen answers. While everyone has an intuitive sense of what content is, actually pinning it down tends to tie people in knots. Here are a few answers from highly respected sources:

“Content is compelling information that informs, engages or amuses.” (Joe Pulizzi)
“Content is any text, image, video, decoration, or user-consumable elements that contribute to comprehension.” (Scott Abel)
“Content is contextual, human-usable data.” (Rahel Anne Bailie)

Or, as Ann Handley puts it, “Everything the light touches is content.”

Grandiose. But kind of true.

Because I develop content exclusively within a marketing context, my own working definition is:

“Content is the words and images that inform, inspire, or motivate your ideal customer.”

#Content is the words and images that inform, inspire, or motivate your ideal customer. Click To Tweet

This definition works for me because regardless of the format or type—an email, a search result, an ad, a tweet, a blog post, a podcast, a webinar, and so on—it’s going to be made of words and images. Some of the words are spoken, some are written. Some of the images are static, some are dynamic. But without words and images, there can be no content. (And before you say, “Aha! What about MUSIC?”—yes, music can be part of the content experience. But only if it enhances the experience that words and images create.)

Point of confusion #2 – What is CONTENT STRATEGY?

Once we’ve defined content, the next hurdle is to define content strategy. Here, too, there are lots of different definitions to choose from, some of which seem to be describing completely different things. This is partly because everybody’s got their own “secret sauce” when it comes to strategy, and partly because content strategy comes in two flavors: front end and back end. The back-end kind gets very technical, focusing on taxonomies, metadata, and information architecture. The front-end kind focuses on the elements that are more familiar to most marketers, such as personas, customer journeys, and voice and style guides.

When you strip away the very different tools and terminologies for front- and back-end content strategy, they ultimately have the same purpose: to help an organization CREATE, DISTRIBUTE, and MANAGE content. Specifically, they help the organization CREATE content that’s relevant and valuable, DISTRIBUTE content in a way that’s accessible and timely, and MANAGE content to ensure consistency and quality.

Pretty simple, right?

Content strategy simplified

So, now that we’ve simplified the definition of a content strategy and identified the three main components, it’s time to look at the last piece of the puzzle.

Point of confusion #3 – What goes into a content strategy?

While the three main components that make up a content strategy are fairly consistent, there’s less consistency when it comes to the types of information that make up each of those components.

There’s really no universal template for building a content strategy, and few rules to guide its development. Just like snowflakes, all content strategies are unique. Some are hefty reports. Others are sleek one-pagers. Some marketers like to dig into the details, including conducting content audits, mapping out content calendars, and creating style guides. Others believe that these are tools and tactics that relate to the execution of the strategy, not the strategy itself.

A content strategy doesn’t have to look like this

I don’t think it’s useful to get too prescriptive about what DOESN’T belong in a content strategy. (If you want to include extra bells and whistles, it’s not going break anything.) But it’s definitely useful to know what absolutely needs to be included at a minimum.

Simplifying your content marketing strategy

If you’ve never developed a content marketing strategy before, these are the six elements that I think are the essentials:

  • Purpose

  • Personas

  • Themes

  • Channels

  • Journey

  • Voice

Start with these elements and you’ll have a solid foundation. Together, they provide answers to the biggest questions a content strategy needs to answer.

I’ve included links to a few resources to help you build each of these elements. Stitch them together and you’ve got a simple content strategy that’s should be capable of guiding your content marketing efforts.

Purpose (AKA “the why”)

Why do you create content? What business goals does your marketing content need to support?

This is where you pull out your company’s mission, vision, and annual business goals. The “why” doesn’t need to be longer than a few sentences, but it needs to clearly articulate the business need and the ways in which content marketing will address it:

Our company is committed to _____ [insert business goal]____. Content marketing can support this objective by ___[insert the contribution content marketing will make]___.

Personas (AKA “the who”)

Who is the audience for your marketing content? What are their fears, goals, preferences, and desires?

It can take a lot of qualitative and quantitative research to develop effective personas, but this Newscred article offers a straightforward introduction to the basics.

Themes (AKA “the what”)

What unique and valuable contribution does your content add to the conversation?

There are a LOT of resources out there to help marketers brainstorm a million content ideas, but very few that help them identify the core themes that 1) showcase their organization’s expertise and values and 2) align with the needs and interests of their audiences. This short article at Velocity Digital offers a good intro to the topic.

Channels (AKA “the where”)

Where will you reach your audience? Which channels are most likely to reach them?

The channels you choose to distribute and promote your content will be contingent on persona preferences and organizational resources. This article from MOZ offers an overview of digital marketing channels and some pointers on how to prioritize them.

Journey (AKA “the when”)

When should certain types of content reach your audience?

The needs and priorities of your leads and prospects evolve over time as they interact with your content. That needs to be reflected in the content journey so that you can connect your audience to content that answers the need at every stage, from awareness to consideration to decision and beyond.

This NewsCred article offers a good introduction to mapping content to the buyer journey, but to simplify the process even further, align your content to these three journey stages:

AWARENESS: What useful ideas, knowledge, and expertise can you share with your audience to help them redefine the possibilities?

CONSIDERATION: How can you help them understand their options and make the choice that’s best suited to their goals and requirements?

DECISION: How can you help them get over the finish line by offering incentives, addressing concerns, and offering incentives?

Voice (AKA “the how”)

How do you express your brand personality through your content? What are its human dimensions?

If you don’t want to spend hours battling over whether your brand voice is “cheeky” vs. “feisty,” the usability experts at the Nielsen Norman Group distilled hundreds of descriptors into four basic voice dimensions. It just doesn’t get any simpler than that.

Content strategy may seem complicated, but developing a simple, streamlined content strategy is well within any marketer’s capabilities, and a bare-bones strategy will still give your content marketing efforts far more focus and effectiveness.

If you need help getting started or want an expert to lead the process, you can learn more about DemandLab’s content strategy services here.

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