How to build your business with Content Marketing: a BS-free guide to Content Marketing Strategy

Dan: There is a lot of BS around when it comes to content marketing strategy. We’ve built our business using content marketing, so we feel like we are in a good position to show you exactly what works. In this guide we have worked with Startup Content Strategist Ross Beard to teach you everything you need to know to get started with content marketing to grow your business.

Over to Ross.

As small business owners, we are bombarded with a wide array of marketing strategies, tactics and tips help us grow our businesses. One of your best options is content marketing: a proven tactic hailed as one of the easiest and most effective ways to attract new visitors, build trust with leads and convert existing customers into long-term, repeat customers.

Before you get too excited, be warned: if you treat this like another ‘growth hack’ or one-off tactic, it will not work. You must approach content marketing with a long-term perspective.

content marketing strategy

I’ve spent the last 18 months executing content marketing plans for two companies in Australia: a small business and a technology startup. It hasn’t been easy, I’ve been through the ups and the downs. But through persistence and a solid strategy, content marketing can be one of the best ways to grow your business. In fact, both these companies have come out on top and seen some great results. Content marketing is now contributing to 50-60% of new business for both of them.

WP Curve has a similar story. Dan wrote some 500 blog posts before WP Curve really started to take off. But when it did, the business exploded ( all whilst not spending any money on external advertising). Advertising is a cost, content marketing is an investment. Investments are hard to measure with short-term metrics, but in the long run, they are generally the most sensible decisions.

The purpose of this guide is to share proven, actionable strategies that have worked for me, so that you can implement them immediately and start on the path to growing your business.

To begin, let’s look at four reasons why content marketing should be a part of your marketing strategy.

  1. Drives new visitors and leads. Small businesses that blog regularly, receive more leads than business that do not. (Hubspot)
  2. Builds trust. Customers trust information and advice from blogs. They are more likely to buy from companies who deliver custom content. (BlogHer)
  3. Fits well with changing consumer behavior. Customers now spend 70% of the buyers journey educating themselves, rather than talking to salespeople. (Hubspot)
  4. Increases customer satisfaction. Gallup surveyed one million businesses and found that ‘giving customers advice’ was the most important factor in creating high customer satisfaction. (Gallup)

What’s in this guide?

This guide has been created specifically for the small business owner or startup founder who wants an actionable look at how to grow their business with content marketing strategy.

Here’s a quick look at what we’ll be covering:

  • Step 1: Understanding your audience
  • Step 2: Developing a content strategy
  • Step 3: Creating compelling content
  • Step 4: Promoting content and increasing reach

Step 1: Understanding your audience

Successful content marketing begins with knowing whom your ideal audience is and understanding what it is that they want and/or expect from you.

Seth Godin implicitly defines an ideal customer as “someone who wants your product and has the ability and authority to pay for it.”

Some companies take a targeted approach with their content marketing. They work out exactly who their key audience is and how they can create great content that appeals to them. They focus in on one main topic and become a trusted go-to source for information on that topic.

Vero is a great example. Chris Hexton and the Vero team target marketers as their ideal audience with their content marketing strategy. He has chosen email marketing as his main topic. You’ll find most of the content on Vero is based around this topic, for example the ultimate guide to transactional email. Over time, Chris has built the Vero blog into an authority on the topic, a well-known source of information and advice around email marketing.

Other companies take a broader approach and also have success. For example, the Joel Gascoigne the Buffer team focus productivity and transparency. These topics are important to Buffer’s audience of busy small business owners and marketers.

In Buffer’s case, they haven’t focused on one specific ideal audience. Instead, their content appeals to a broader audience and as a result, it gets more shares, spreads virally, and gets their brand message in front of more people. For example, see 10 simple things you can do today that will make you happier, backed by science.

The point here is there is not one best way to do content marketing strategy. However, there is one commonality across both these examples. Both Vero and Buffer have a good understanding of what content gets good results in their communities. They know what content appeals to their audience and they make a structured effort to create more of what works.

One way to do understand your audience is to create an audience profile.

Creating audience profiles

audience profiles

An audience profile gives you a reference point which will help you stay focused on who you are speaking to. Use the buyer persona template provided by Hubspot to write down the characteristics of your ideal audience.

A profile should include, at a minimum:

  • Job title, key company/industry information, relevant personal and/or professional background information, such as education and hobbies
  • Current problems, challenges, values and goals
  • Learning interests and sources for related news and/or information

Profiles will help you better understand your audience. This will ensure that the content you create is interesting and relevant to them.

To better understand your ideal audience, talk to your current customers and identify three or more key challenges they faced before doing business with you. Neil Patel, prolific online marketer and co-founder of KISSmetrics, believes that the easiest way to learn more about your customers is to ask them by using short surveys.  Use tools like Wufoo, SurveyMonkey and Qualaroo to create short surveys that will help you learn more about your customers.

Here are two questions to include in the survey:

  • What problem does our product help you solve?
  • How does our product provide a solution to that problem?

Related: Gregory Ciotti’s three-step guide to creating customer profiles

2. Developing a content strategy

Content marketing is not a tactic guaranteed to show results immediately after implementation. It is a strategy that needs to be integrated into your other marketing communications and initiatives. It is a long-term play.

The real question you need to ask yourself before starting with content marketing is this: where do you see your business in 12-18 months’ time?

Rand Fishkin, content marketing and SEO expert at Moz.com, says that the number one reason why small businesses fail at content marketing is because they rely upon the belief that if you create content, they will come.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Rand goes on to say that content marketing is not about converting a customer on the first, second or even third visit, but that it is a process that takes time. He notes that it “is about earning familiarity, trust and relationship.”

To explore this more, check out Rand’s presentation on Slideshare:

Again, being clear about what you want to achieve from content marketing will help you form your long-term goals.

Here are a few goals that are appropriate for beginners:

  • Attract new visitors, convert more leads, and close more customers
  • Build stronger, more trusting relationships with prospects and customers
  • Be positioned as an expert in the industry
  • Help customers and prospects better-educate themselves through the buying cycle
  • Add value to the product offering, thereby increasing satisfaction, reducing churn and creating more advocates

It is worth considering here whether content marketing is the right approach given your goals. If you have investors bearing down your neck in need of quick sales and ROI, content marketing might not be the best fit. I’ve chatted to some startup founders and they’ve slaved away at content marketing for months, only to struggle to prove its value. Content marketing is difficult to measure and must be used as a long-term strategy, it may not be the most appropriate marketing method for you.

If that didn’t scare you, it is time to formulate a strategy to meet these goals.

Let’s take a look at a content marketing strategy using WP Curve as an example:

1. Identify the ideal audience: WP Curve targets small business owners and startups who are busy with day-to-day operations, know enough about WordPress to update their websites but need help making technical changes. WP Curve understands their customers wants and needs and, as such, has tailored their blog posts, podcasts and eBooks to these readers.

2. Tap into what they care about: Although WP Curve’s content strategy speaks to a broad range of small business owners, they focus particularly on the web-based entrepreneurs. Naturally, business owners in this industry rely heavily on the appearance and functionality of their websites and developing a strong online presence to drive new leads. Dan and Alex, co-founders of WP Curve, do a great job of publishing and sharing content within this industry. You’ll find them hosting podcasts with industry experts, contributing guest posts on other popular blogs and sharing their own success stories to inspire web-based entrepreneurs.

3. Brainstorm content ideas: Dan and Alex create content around business growth, lead generation, content marketing, challenges of the entrepreneurial journey, and income reports. Not sure what content to create? Joanna Lord, CMO at BigDoor (or The J Lord as Dan likes to call her), has written an excellent guide to customer journey mapping that will help you determine what content to create and where you should be promoting it.

Still stuck for content ideas? Here are three strategies for idea generation:

  • Ask your customers: Your customers give you content ideas on a daily basis, and are the best form of inspiration. Ask them what they would like to learn more about.
  • See what’s trending: Use tools like BuzzSumo to find trending topics that your audience finds interesting and valuable.
  • Repurpose existing content: Do you receive emails from prospects and customer asking for advice? Turn your responses into new pieces of content.

Your turn: Once you have a clear understanding of how this works, go through the three steps above and write down your strategy.

Related:

3. Creating compelling content

Did you know that according to this CMI research, 64% of small businesses in North America find creating content one of their biggest challenges?

A lot of people wonder why their content marketing efforts are not successful. I have found, in the vast majority of cases it is the same thing. Their content is simply not good enough. It is not unique, it is not truly practical or useful, it is not inherently valuable, and it does not stir emotions or get people sharing or commenting. Content for content’s sake does not work anymore.

Dan Norris has some great advice for beginners:

“The best advice I could give for creating compelling content would be to create a lot of content and start paying attention to what is having an impact. Look at comments and what people are saying. Are people saying ‘I really can relate to what you are talking about’ or ‘This is awesome I’m going to use this in my own business’.”

Look for signs of utility and emotional connection, not just tweets and likes. You can also offer  giveaways for email addresses and look at the conversion rates of the posts to learn how people are engaging. You won’t get it right from the start, it’s not possible, no matter how many guides you follow.”

Personally, I have faced my fair share of challenges associated with creating effective, compelling content. When I started out, I had no idea how to write the perfect blog post or even create an engaging webinar.

Whether you were born with a natural writing ability or have none at all, creating content can be mastered. After a few blog posts and a couple of successful webinars, you will be able to determine what works in terms of results and what needs to be reevaluated.

There are many different content types you can use to grow your business. Here are the seven that I have found work best:

  • Blog posts
  • Webinars
  • eBooks and guides
  • Infographics
  • Podcasts
  • Videos
  • Templates and checklists

Related: Neil Patel’s killer guide on the five best types of content that will drive more traffic

It is important to note that your audience may prefer to consume a certain type of content. They may prefer blog posts over videos or webinars over eBooks. Accordingly, try to offer a few different mediums so that your audience can choose based on their preference. You may also prefer certain types of content. If you are better at podcasts than infographics, focus on podcasts. The key is to make sure whatever content type you are working with, you do it really well.

For those of us who are extremely strapped for time, start with blog posts and webinars.  I’ve found that these two provide the best results for the amount of time required to create them.

Blog posts

Aim to write one blog post per week and target the 1,200 word mark. Blogs are successful because they are easy to consume: anyone can read or skim them, they are easy to share and they get picked up by search engines like Google.

Key tactics when writing blog posts:

  • Choose a topic. Make sure it relates to a problem that your audience might typically face and provide something useful to them or something they can connect to emotionally. Include actionable tips and tactics.
  • Keep it well-organized. Structure the blog post in a way that is easy to skim yet detailed enough to provide valuable, actionable information. Some of the easiest, most well-organized blog posts to digest and create are numbered lists, such as Five Ways to Grow Your Business, and instructional posts, such as How to Grow Your Business in Three Easy Steps.
  • Target one keyword per blog post. SEO, or search engine optimization, is essential to content marketing’s success. Seemingly everyone utilizes Google’s search engine for answers to any number of problems. With each of your blog posts, target one keyword for which you want to rank (on the 1st page of Google). In deciding which one to target, use the Google Keyword Planner to search for one that has 100-200 searches per month. You do not want to target high-volume keywords when starting out, they are simply too competitive. As credibility is established, you can change your target to higher-volume keywords.

Related:

Looking again at WP Curve, let’s use their blog post, “The beginner’s guide to Google Adwords,” as an example.

The beginner s guide to Google Adwords

As you can see, Alex Fredheim does a great job of incorporating these best practices:

  • Clearly defines the topic. The searcher, who may have little to no experience with Google AdWords, is made aware that they have found a blog that offers tips, suggestions and solutions for use.
  • Breaks the blog post into easy to read sections: Although it’s a long and detailed blog post, Alex’s ideas are well-organized and structured.
  • Targets one keyword:  The blog post targets ‘Google AdWords guide’ as its primary keyword, which the Google Keyword Planner tool tells us is searched 390 times per month. However, he also receives traffic for similar long tail-keywords, increasing the total visits to around 1000 per month, as Dan Norris outlines in a report for May 2014 traffic.

Here is another checklist WP Curve uses to make sure all their content is valuable. It is rarely possible to tick all the boxes, but it provides a good starting points for thinking about how to create better content.

  1. Useful: Does it have utility?
  2. New idea: Is it a new spin on an old idea or a brand new idea altogether?
  3. Valuable: Will a reader get value from it?
  4. Actionable: Are there action steps a reader can take?
  5. Entertaining: Does it read well… maybe even a few chuckles?
  6. Evergreen: Will it be relevant in a few years from now?
  7. Shareable: Is there an incentive for readers to share it?
  8. Slideshareable: Could you make a short deck out of it?
  9. Eye catching: Does the headline make you want to read it?
  10. Flow: Does the content flow and read well?

I recommend using WordPress for blogging software and WPengine for hosting. This combination gives you a great platform to create a beautifully-designed site that is fast and reliable. You can also leverage a number of plugins to extend the functionality of WordPress. This will allow you to take advantage of new technologies that help to increase email subscribers, improve search engine rankings and increase the number of shares via social media.

Other than hosting your own blog, there are three other ways to use blog posts. They include:

  • Writing for someone else’s blog or site.
  • Getting other writers to contribute to your blog.
  • Publishing on other content platforms like Medium and LinkedIn.

Webinars

Webinars provide a visual platform that gives you the ability to walk through a topic, explain it in detail with examples and host a Q&A session. You should aim to host one webinar per month.

KISSmetrics is one company that is really good at webinars. Their webinar series includes over 50 topics and they continue to run a new webinar each and every week. They use webinars to capture contact details from their audience (blog visitors) so they can start building a relationship with them.

Personally, I have found webinars to be the best type of content for moving leads through the buyers journey. No other type of content gives you a way to speak one-to-one with a potential customer and provide personalized help, instantly.

You can also partner with other businesses or industry experts to co-host mutually beneficial webinars, provided you are targeting the same or similar ideal audience. This is a great strategic opportunity to get your business in front of more customers.

Key tactics for creating and running webinars:

  • Choose an interesting topic relevant to your audience. Generally, webinars fail because the topic is not interesting to the audience. Tools like Buzzsumo will help you find trending topics and create a compelling webinar.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to plan. Four to six weeks is a good estimate of time needed to plan, organize and promote your webinar. Creating a webinar is much more involved than writing a blog post. Half of your total time will be dedicated to truly understanding the topic and creating a dynamic presentation. The other 2-3 weeks will be dedicated to promoting your webinar to your own audience and working with business partners and other associations to promote to their audiences.
  • Link the topic to your audience’s core challenge. List potential core problems and describe what you can do to help your audience.
  • Utilize a landing page and webinar hosting toolUnbounce or Leadpages are great for creating a landing page that can accept registrations for your webinar and GoToWebinar is an excellent tool to host your webinar.

Need some inspiration? Check out John Dumas’ Webinar On Fire to learn how to create and present a webinar that converts. You can also read Lewis Howes’ book, The Ultimate Webinar Marketing Guide.

Recommended content marketing tools for content creation

There are so many tools available to help you with content creation. I have tried and tested almost every one under the sun. These are the tools I rely on:

What if you don’t the have the time?

If creating content becomes too time-consuming or overwhelming for you, you have the option of hiring a paid writer. This is an option that comes with a caution sign. Personally, I have found it hard to find paid writers that truly connect with my audience, at least initially.

However, if you are strapped for time, make sure you find someone that is an industry expert on the topics around which you want to create content. Find someone who has worked in the industry, understands your audience, is familiar with the nuances and knows the influencers. Make sure they have top-notch writing skills, too. Hiring a non-expert may end with you spending a great deal of time correcting their errors.

The internet is crowded with content vying for attention. High-quality content that connects with your audience is the only way to stand out from the crowd.

Your turn: Don’t wait another day. Start planning and creating your content using the three-step checklist below.

  1. Create a content calendar. Plan your next 30 days of content. Come up with four blog post titles and one webinar topic. Keep organized with a tool like Trello and set due dates to keep you on track.
  2. Write one blog post per week. Set aside four to six hours per week to write a blog post. If you get stuck, use real examples of things that are happening around the office. I find that doing so makes my writing more creative as well.
  3. Create and plan one webinar per month. Identify a topic and outline the structure. Allocate a few hours each week for planning, creating, promoting and running the webinar.

4. Promoting content and increasing reach

Matthew Gratt, head of growth at BuzzFeed (one of the most popular websites on the internet), is an expert on content promotion and notes that “marketers often forget the importance of promoting their content.” He continues, “every content plan needs a complementary promotion plan that combines paid, owned, and earned media.”

Related: What is paid, owned and earned media?

Some content marketing experts say that for every hour you spend creating content, you should spend two hours promoting it.

Often beginners forget, neglect or avoid promoting their content because it is hard work or they are not sure how to do so.

Let’s break down some content promotion strategies that are effective for small businesses and categorize them into two sections: existing audience and new audience.

How do you promote content to an existing audience?

Your existing audience is all of your existing customers, subscribers, partners and employees. When I first started my content marketing journey, I unintentionally neglected my existing audiences because I was too focused on new visitors and leads.

In reality, your existing audience will give you quick wins because you have an existing relationship and have established trust.

Strategies to promote content to your existing audience include:

Email marketing: Send a monthly email with snippets from three of your latest blog posts, focusing on what they can learn from each post.  Information about upcoming webinars or new eBooks can also be sent in separate, tailored emails. Don’t be afraid to ask them to share the content with others they feel might find the information valuable. When new people do visit your content, make sure your site is optimized for conversions (free template). You can also use email sequence to send different emails to different people in your audience.

Social media: It is important that you find a way to get your existing audience to follow you and connect with you on social media. Start out by engaging with them on the platforms. For instance, find and follow as many existing customers as you can on LinkedIn and Twitter and follow their business pages on Facebook. Start conversations and engage via their posts and updates. Doing so is the first step toward building mutually beneficial relationships.

Offline: Other marketing channels offer a great way to engage and share content with your audiences, such as direct mailing hard copies of eBooks, or face-to-face discussions during quarterly business reviews with clients.

Targeting your existing audience is one of the easiest ways to promote content. If you are producing content that adds value, you’ll have an opportunity to turn them into your content advocates.

How do you promote content to a new audience?

Promoting content to new audiences takes creativity, experimentation and analysis, but, as you begin to better understand this audience, the process of driving new visitors and converting new leads will come naturally.

Strategies to promote content to a new audience include:

Search engines: Google offers the best medium to promote to a new audience. If your blog posts’ targeted keywords are highly-ranked on Google, you will attract new visitors that are searching for those topics in order to solve a problem they might be having. The challenge for most beginners is that there is so much content already out there. This makes it hard to stand out and rank high on Google.

To help you, let’s look at a great example of how Client Heartbeat uses this strategy for their blog post regarding customer retention strategies:

Customer Retention Strategies

Here are three tips that have helped Client Heartbeat rank well for this blog post:

  • They made use of the Google Keyword Planner to identify a keyword related to their audience’s’ problems:  customer retention
  • They created a blog post focused on providing an effective solution to the problem related to that keyword search
  • They reviewed current Google rankings for the selected keyword and tailored the content to ensure it included the information for which the searcher will be looking for
  • The content itself is long, detailed and very useful. So it was shared around and linked to, increasing its importance in the eyes of Google.

Partner with associations and industry news sites: Where does your audience go for their association or industry-related news, trends and information? Identify several of these websites to which your audience already subscribe and you will have a list of the perfect platforms to reach a new audience. Since the audience already trusts these organizations’ brands, they’ll be more trusting of your content.  For example, if you are targeting nonprofits in Australia, Probono Australia would be a good place to start.

The idea is to work with these organizations on mutually beneficial, collaborative marketing. Offer to contribute an article to their blog or co-host webinars, or, if they require a monetary exchange, negotiate a price for a sponsored article, newsletter ad or website banner ad. Either way, it is worth your time, effort and/or money to get in front of their audience.

With collaborative marketing tactics, remember that you are promoting your content, not your services. Promote content such as eBooks and webinars, through which you can direct visitors to a landing page and ask them for an email in return for access to the content. This is one of the easiest and most effective ways to build your email subscriber list.

Co-create content with other businesses: There are plenty of other businesses targeting the same audience as you. Work with these businesses to collaborate on content. With each of you promoting the content to your existing audience, you will both have the opportunity to be introduced to each other’s audience. Too see this strategy in action, look no further than this guide on creating content that converts. WP Curve and onboardly collaborated on this guide together and promoted it to their respective audiences.

Social Media: Social media is the perfect venue for reaching out to new prospects and fostering relationships.  Engage and follow people who are conversing about topics related to your area of expertise. Join in on conversations, engage with these people and answer their questions to spark interest and build trust and credibility.  Use tools like SocialBroTopsy and Sprout Social to track keyword mentions related to your content. For example, if someone on Twitter is asking how to reduce churn and I have a customer-retention blog post, I can reply to the tweet with a link to my blog post and initiate conversation that way.

Paid advertising: Purchasing advertising on social media sites like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook is an effective way of promoting content to your target audience. Here is an example of a LinkedIn sponsored update (paid advertising that appears on the newsfeed) for Client Heartbeat:

LinkedIn Sponsored Update

Client Heartbeat ran this LinkedIn Sponsored Update for two days. The total cost was around $30 and it resulted in 33 clicks on the link to the blog post, 16 ‘likes’ and the addition of two followers to the Client Heartbeat LinkedIn page. When you add the organic engagement (57 clicks and 15 ‘likes’), the overall reach produces a good return for a small investment.

Offline: Bring hard copies of your eBooks to trade shows to hand out to people that stop by your stand and take interest in your information. Trade shows are a great opportunity to introduce your business to new leads, and a free takeaway initiates a relationship and adds value for the potential customer.

Email marketing: One of the end goals of content promotion is to get an email address from each new visitor. These can be obtained by using opt-ins for eBook downloads, templates and webinar registrations. By gathering and maintaining a list of email addresses for your audience members, you have a direct channel to send them useful content and marketing communications.

Utilize a tool like Mailchimp, Campaign Monitor, Infusionsoft or Hubspot to send lead-nurturing email campaigns to each person on your email list. These campaigns are designed to educate prospects by providing them with more useful content, buying guides, comparison lists and product information pages. Frequent email marketing keeps your brand fresh in the mind of the recipient and positions your business as a trusted solution to any issue they currently have or may have in the future.

Related: How to promote your content across owned, earned and paid media

Focus on your content marketing goals

Too many times I have seen budding business owners treat content marketing like a tactic. They’ve been told by others that all they need to do is create a blog post and an opt-in form and they will drive 300 new visitors a month, 10% of which will result in new customers.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Content marketing needs to be integrated into your bigger picture marketing strategy and be an extension of what you are doing with your other marketing communications.

I suggest you think about what it is you want to achieve from content marketing, whether it is attracting new visitors to your website, building trust and nurturing prospects through the buyer’s journey, or educating existing customers to increase satisfaction and turn them into advocates.

Success is measured by comparing actual results against the goals you set when developing your strategy.

One good indicator of successful content marketing is the transition of your audience solely reading a blog post to actually downloading your product information.

I challenge you to stop thinking of content marketing as another tactic to can add to your arsenal. Think about where you want to be in 12 or 18 months’ time and create your content strategy around meeting those goals.

Are you interested to learn more? I recommend reading these resources:

Your thoughts?

What will you implement from this guide as part of your content marketing strategy? Let us know in the comments below.

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About

Ross Beard is a marketing specialist. He helps companies with their content, SEO and PPC. Connect with him on Twitter @RossBeard.

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