You use content to support your marketing efforts. But are you reaping the benefits of a content marketing strategy?

Content marketing isn’t just a tactic, after all. It isn’t a company blog or the email newsletter you send to customers every quarter.

It can include those things. But it’s more than that.

What is Content Marketing?
The Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing as “a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience.”

Few people decide to purchase a product or service without awareness and trust. This awareness and trust used to come primarily from TV commercials, billboards and print ads. But today’s audiences demand more. A 2014 study from the Acquity Group found that 94 percent of business buyers use online research to inform their purchase:

  • 3 percent check business websites
  • 77 percent use Google search
  • 31 percent read third-party sites
  • 41 percent read reviews

These buyers are busy. They want helpful information without clutter. They want to be entertained.

Good content marketing can provide all this and more. But only if it’s rooted in strategy. The good news? You can create a content marketing strategy in six steps.

Step 1: Understand Your Brand and Communication Strategy
If you don’t have brand guidelines, personas, keyword research and other communications tools already in place, now is a good time to start.

How do you ensure that you’re getting the right messages to the right people in a consistent way? One way to position the right message is to create audience personas. These describe a representative person from each audience segment with demographics, psychographics and other important information.

To create a persona, first identify your different audiences. Then write a short description of who they are and how they differ from one another. From there, you can document:

  • Main messages
  • Tone
  • Common objections
  • Reasons to purchase
  • Calls to action

You may also want to create a messaging matrix, which maps out your target messages across these personas and how they will adapt to the needs of each.

These tools will ensure that you and your team focus on the needs of your audience—whether you’re choosing tactics, writing messaging or figuring out where to allocate your marketing budget.

Don’t forget keyword research, too—look for relevant areas of opportunity, then document them in a keyword dictionary or SEO strategy for later use. This will help ensure your content is aligned and accessible to intended audiences.

Step 2: Understand Your Resources
What capabilities do you have? If you’re in charge of marketing, how much time can you devote to content marketing? What skills does your team have, and what will you need to outsource? If you need to outsource, what kind of budget is available? And how much time do you have to make this happen?

You’ll likely need the help of a copywriter or content planner. You may also need graphic designers, web developers, videographers, sound engineers, social community managers and event planners.

You may be thinking, “That depend on which tactics we choose.” And you’re right. But by plotting out your resources ahead of time, you won’t waste efforts on tactics that are beyond your skill level, budget and timeframe. Or you may find that partnering with an agency can help supplement your resources.

Step 3: Identify Goals
Recall the SMART acronym for goal-setting:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

Your content marketing goals should meet all five criteria. Perhaps your overall strategic goal is to increase sales 20 percent in 2016. Be sure to break that into smaller goals that fall within each stage of your sales cycle. In the awareness phase, you may want to drive a certain number of additional visitors to your site. Be sure you specify exactly how you’ll qualify and measure these visitors—new users? Organic traffic only? In the evaluation phase, you might want to capture a certain percentage of leads.

These smaller goals will naturally lead you to start considering specific content marketing tactics.

Step 4: Identify Specific Tactics
White papers, mobile apps, custom publications, social media … There are so many content marketing tactics, and new methods are being created all the time.

If you followed step three, you’ll naturally be thinking about where tactics fall in your sales funnel, and how they’ll drive people from one stage to the next.

You can start your content marketing program with video or search engine optimized blog content that’s targeted to each persona, and drives to a downloadable offers. From there you can capture contact information, vet leads and invite the best ones to a live training event or in-person product demonstration. With content supporting your sales and marketing team every step of the way, prospects quickly become customers.

Step 5: Execute Tactics
Once you’ve identified your goals, and what tactics will help you reach them, you’re ready to create content! This part can be fun, especially when you see your vision come to life.

Quality is key here. Execute to plan, and be careful not to exceed your allotted resources. Also avoid handicapping your strategic planning by rushing the creative execution or scrimping on talent and other expenses. A brilliant strategy is only as good as the content it supports.

Step 6: Measure & Refine
How are your emails performing? How many blog posts do people read before they leave your site? Do they watch your videos in their entirety, or do they click away after the first 30 seconds?

Getting this kind of data requires getting familiar with web analytics—and checking them often.

Sometimes content will perform poorly without any discernable reason. Other times it will take off. By checking the metrics you’ve identified in step three, you can stay on top of its performance, gauge trends and get insights to help you create better content. Specialty marketing automation platforms (Marketo, Silverpop, Eloqua, Exact Target and Hubspot, for example) even let you perform A-B or split-tests, which can help you tell which web page headline generates longer page views, and which email subject line captures more open rates.

And You’re Done!
Just kidding. A content marketer’s work is never done. But you may even find that creating goal-driven content marketing gets easier – and more fun – the more you do it. By creating a solid strategy before you start, your content marketing will reap more returns than content marketing done in trial and error.