Content Marketing Institute's 2015 "Small Business Marketing Trends-North America" study, sponsored by Copyblogger Media's Rainmaker platform, focuses on how small business marketers are changing their marketing practices. It also points to some potential opportunities for these small businesses and others to better leverage the value that content marketing can provide. Chief among the keys to content marketing success is having a strategy.
Only 39% of respondents indicate that they have a documented strategy (having some general idea "in your head" doesn't count). In fact, the study suggests that having a documented strategy makes a difference-60% of those with a documented strategy consider their organization "effective" at content marketing, while only 33% with a verbal strategy said the same. Those who take the time to document their strategy are also twice as likely to be successful in tracing their efforts to real ROI.
And yet, despite an apparent lack of strategy, content creation is seeing a significant upswing-32% of respondents say they are creating "significantly more" content, and 42% say they are creating "more" content than they were a year ago. However, just creating and disseminating content isn't enough to generate the kind of results that today's marketers--and the organizations they serve-are looking for. That's where strategy comes into play.
"In an already crowded marketplace, small businesses are tasked with finding unique ways to be heard above larger competitors, while promoting their products and services in a way that their audience will find valuable and not quickly tune out. Through content marketing, small businesses can uncover endless opportunities to generate brand awareness, engagement, and leads," says Amanda Eldridge, director of strategic channels at PR Newswire. Developing a strategy designed to break through the clutter and generate results is critical.
Strategy isn't just about doing things--in this case, generating and sharing a lot of content--and hoping that something works. When it comes to content marketing, strategy is about carefully considering what combination of elements can be brought together to achieve desired results.
Julia Gardner is a co-founder of MaaS Appeal, a digital brand advertising agency based in New York. Strategy is behind the agency's work. "One of the pitfalls with the majority of our small- to mid-cap clients is that they don't see the financial benefit-ROI-of content marketing," she says. "It is imperative to understand the ever-changing and non-linear consumer journey so that brands can serve up the right content, to the right consumer segments, at the right time to influence behavior. If served at the right time, a consumer in the engagement phase of the journey can quickly turn into a converted consumer." She adds it is "essential that brands understand how to measure performance of their media and content."
Gardner wrote about the elements of a meaningful content strategy in a recent blog post, which are as follows:
- Segmentation based on thorough research
- A clear understanding of the customer journey and potential points of activation
- Creating content that capitalizes on the science of user experience
- Deploying content across appropriate channels
- Optimizing content through an ongoing review of measurable and attainable goals measured "against your defined funnel strategy through awareness, conversion, engagement, and advocacy"
"Many businesses want to dive head-first into content marketing, but to succeed emphasis first needs to be placed on strategy," says Rachel Peters, content marketing manager with Big Leap. "Without solid goals and distribution methods, content won't match the intended audience and will fade away unnoticed."
Content marketing can be a great fit for small businesses, Peters says, but "dipping your toe in will get you nowhere." Instead, she suggests, "Great content should be seen as a viable asset. Instead of taking the ‘If we build it, they will come' approach, small businesses should use their content to leverage quality link-building and high-profile placements." When planning a strategy, Eldridge recommends first determining clear and concise business goals. "Who are you targeting? What value are you providing? How do you define success?"
While strategy is a critical starting point, any strategy must also be executed effectively. As Eldridge points out, "Your strategy is only as strong as the content that supports it." She recommends listening closely to your audience to uncover topic ideas. In addition, select the right communication channels for your audience. While Eldridge advises that social channels be a part of any strategy, she says that marketers shouldn't "waste valuable time signing up for each and every social network that is available." Instead, she suggests, "Research where your audience is, and select one or two social media sites that are aligned with your business."
Communication strategy must also be aligned with the organization's desired brand identity and must support that identity. That can be a challenge, particularly for small businesses, notes Kristina Kennedy, partner and VP at Kickstand Communications, a PR firm located in Austin, Texas.
"Content marketing is time-consuming and requires strong writing skills, which not everyone has," says Kennedy. "The alternative is hiring somewhat low-cost freelancers and finding the time to manage them, edit content, etc." That's time many early stage companies also don't have, she says.
A do-it-yourself approach (or attempts to cut corners) does have the potential to backfire-examples of poorly developed and poorly deployed content abound. Still, there's a growing prevalence of tools and options to help small businesses--even those with limited budgets--jump into the fray. "The art of content marketing has narrowed the playing field to a certain extent," says Lee Wagstaff, content manager with Bring Digital, based in the U.K. "If you know what your target audience is interested in and-more importantly-you can provide the answers to the questions they are asking in a unique, engaging way, you don't have to spend a fortune to make a success of content marketing." It all, however, starts with a solid strategy-at least according to 60% of small businesses.