Content marketing represents a huge opportunity for business growth. But where do you begin? How do you choose which tactics will provide the best return on investment? And how can you maximize time spent on content marketing, when schedules are already stretched?

If you use content marketing as part of an integrated communications program, you’ll have even more questions to answer. How will it complement existing elements? And how will your content marketing meet organization objectives — from marketing and communications to business development and customer retention?

Each business is different. Despite these differences, I find myself recommending — and utilizing — three content marketing tools above almost all others. You may not need them all, or even more than one. But each plays an important role. Together, these tools can streamline the process while also supporting larger integrated communications goals.

1. Personas
Personas are a great way to gain clarity about your target audience, its needs and how your products or services fit into the equation. Personas can take the shape of a one-page summary, a bulleted list of attributes or even an infographic (see example).

Once created, personas can be used throughout the content marketing process to shape messaging. They can also guide marketing strategy and solve disagreements between team members by turning the conversation toward customer and prospect needs.

2. Content Audit
If you already do content marketing, you should perform a content audit at least once a year — ideally as part of your annual marketing and communications planning. This will help you track existing assets, gauge their relevance and identify gaps.

Margo Bloomstein, author of Content Strategy at Work, recommends asking the following questions of your content:
Is the content appropriate to the customer?
Does it use the customer’s terminology?
How well is it written?
Is the tone correct?
Is the level of detail correct?
Are there any gaps?
Does it help customers complete tasks, make decisions and satisfy needs?

Also consider past performance. Use web analytics to measure page hits, bounce rates and time spent on site. If your business development team tracks lead origins, ask them to discuss which content generates the best response.

If you’re rebuilding an existing website, you might find it helpful to track the content in a spreadsheet like the one below, designed by Dey Alexander. (This is also called a content inventory.)

3. Content Calendar
If you publish content on a regular basis — whether it’s via a blog, email newsletter, social media or just the homepage of your website — you’ll eventually need a content calendar. This tool can help you organize ideas, assign topics, track necessary approvals and see your progress at a glance.

Content calendars can also serve as a helpful reminder of upcoming holidays, industry events and seasonal trends. You can even use your content calendar to segment materials by decision makers, company characteristics or even buying cycle stages — as seen in this slide from “B2B Content Marketing: 2013 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends for North America.”

You may choose to color-code these segments for better organization and quicker identification. This can be done easily within Google’s free online calendar, which integrates with Google Drive. Other content calendars include Divvy HQ, Basecamp, GatherContent and the good old-fashioned spreadsheet.

Personas, content audits and content calendars are just three of the content marketing tools I use regularly. But they’re three of my all-time favorites. What content marketing tools and techniques do you use to prioritize your content marketing? How do you measure its effectiveness? Let me know in the comments section below.