Classic marketing has hit a dead end. Trying to break through the noise based purely on advertising slogans and aggressive marketing has grown increasingly less effective. This applies not just for paid advertising, but also for search engine marketing (keyword: "Google Panda"), email and social media marketing, corporate blogs and in essence other channels as well.
The focus has now shifted to "content." The idea: because – unlike advertising – "content" offers direct benefits, target audiences are more likely to taken an active interest in it, or at least a passive one. They are less likely to tune it out immediately, but rather in fact are more likely to pay attention to it. That's the theory, anyway.
In practice it often works nowhere near that well. First, companies must still advertise their content; second, good content requires time, money and competency to create. Simply producing and posting something every now and then runs the risk of squandering precisely those resources. Yet looked at another way, content marketing can provide smaller companies in particular with a chance to punch above their weight, since clever minds count more here than money.
For really good strategic content market, a variety of components must come together. It's important to realize that precisely because there are no limits to what is possible in this field, it's all the more crucial for companies to come up with a strong concept. And that's something that even big companies fail to do sometimes. Those who can achieve strategic clarity enjoy a real competitive advantage.
One outstanding approach to the design process comes by following the five big "P"s: Prepare, Plan, Produce, Publish and Polish. These can help guide startups and companies through all relevant questions related to blogging, content marketing and social media.
The first step toward a conceptual design for content marketing is thematic planning. The company must ask itself several questions here: What do we want to talk about? What is of interest to our target audience? What questions can and would you like to answer, and what problems do those answers solve? Simply stated: What are the most relevant topics?
Haircare product producers L’Oréal and Schwarzkopf show just how effective this can be: Their websites contain dozens of videos showing how customers can put together creative hairstyles. DIY market Hornbach focuses on helping users solve problems: their website features a dedicated section with how-to instructions for home repair fans.
Springlane, which sells kitchen goods, publishes a magazine with recipes and background info related to kitchens and cooking. E-Plus and Saturn run platforms named "Curved" and "turn-on" respectively, each containing news and reviews on the latest cell phones, tablets and gadgets. They are all very well placed on Google searches, generate hundreds of thousands of visitors monthly – and help sell their respective projects.
The key factory when planning a topic is identifying goals. Yet there's more to this than simply asking what the company would like to have. That's why goals serve as the benchmarks for topical planning of content. All content is measured up against them: does a given article make a concrete contribution to achieving those goals?
Good goals for the three examples cited above might be: "We want to be viewed as the biggest experts in the field of haircare products“ (Schwarzkopf and L’Oréal), "We provide the best help with decision making when it comes to buying smartphones and tablets“ (E-Plus and Saturn) and "We inspire you like no other when it comes to building" (Hornbach).
Other strong goals include becoming the emotional favorite or service leader in a specific industry. These are all good reasons that drive people to make a purchase from a specific provider. In that way, an individual blogger or small company has a chance to outmaneuver a multinational corporation. What really matters is that each bit of content contributes to making the target audience perceive the company as competent, inspiring, sympathetic or more service oriented than the competition.
A good content marketing concept thus first defines a) what the company would like to represent to its target audience, b) what kind of content can achieve that perception, and c) how those strengths are viewed in comparison to the competition.
The interests of the target audience
The central question behind content marketing is: what are the needs of the target audience? When creating content marketing concepts, the word "target audience" should be replaced with the word "desire demographic" – which encourages the necessary perspective shift. Because it's not the company's goals that matters, but rather the informational needs of the recipient.
"Desire demographics" are easier to define as complex personas: they encompass everyone with the same need. This is easier to handle than answering the hundreds of questions that are usually involves with personas.
The desire demographics serve as a type of filter: content that doesn't fit 100% into their needs are not included in the thematic planning. When assessing topics, it can be helpful to name an internal 'lobbyist' to represent the interests of that desire demographic during editorial meetings. The company should also analyze the following sources to learn more about their interests of their desire demographics:
All questions and topics that emerge from this analysis can then be compressed into thematic groupings. These should be conveyed together with the topics themselves onto a planning list formulated from the communications goals. When it comes to a company's content strategy, only those topics are relevant that match its desire demographic and for which the company has sufficient know-how.
That sounds complex, but doesn't need to be rocket science. The important thing is getting a feel for what might be interesting. Thematic clusters – terms general enough to cover multiple articles yet still concrete – are a helpful tool for orientation. These clusters can later serve as a one-to-one navigational structure, along the lines of how Schwarzkopf lists topics such as "Trendy Looks," "Hair Styling" and "Coloring."
Step two in strategic planning is the content mission – the junction between communications goals, corporate expertise and informational needs by the desire demographic. A mission might be formulated thusly: "We help the affluent make the best decisions they can in all finance questions," "We're where young women come to see the best hairstyle trends and learn how to make them for themselves," or "We offer the finest ideas for DIY types and provide instructions on how to do it right."
When planning, companies should only address topics where their expertise lines up with the informational needs of the desire demographic, and where no competitor is already servicing these interests. Brutal honesty is required here. The goal is not to cover as many topics as possible, but rather that the proper ones be addressed. If there is ambiguity as to whether someone is the leader in a specific topic or not, a commitment to the mission can help: there must be an unwavering commitment to being the best information provider in that specific area. Second or third-class content project simply don't provide enough return on investment.
The mission is the model for content strategy – the brand promise. As such, the company must define it as clearly and unambiguously as possible and ensure that all colleagues are bought in – and stick to it. Each piece of content going forward must fit with the mission. That eliminates much of the room to experiment. But it opens other doors: those involving focus, clarity and profile.
Collecting and assessing ideas
Once the mission is in place, it's time to collect ideas. The company should continue to monitor the daily questions being received from its customers. It should subscribe to the competition's news feeds, read industry journals and know current trends on the market. Tools like Storybeat are also helpful for following current topical trends based on social shares.
The content editors should also gather the topics in a systematic manner. The simple, albeit not best solution, is using Excel or a Google Docs spreadsheet. A growing number of users are working with Trello as well. Originally intended for project management, it can also be re-purposed as an online tool for thematic and editorial planning. One application more intended for this specific use is Scompler, which offers a free version.
Before moving on to the actual content production, the ideas must first be evaluated. This is performed by comparing the content mission – i.e. the communication goals, desire demographic and competencies – against the best collected ideas. Helpful questions include:
A simple point system is a helpful decision-making tool, with each "yes" scored as one point. And as it comes time for final selection, remember: two good pieces of content per month are generally better than ten mediocre ones.
While it may sound simple in theory, the practical application can be complex, requiring experience and good instincts: creating a truly effective thematic plan requires ideas that will win and keep the interest of the target audience. In many cases, they are only built step for step. After all, no matter how successful the first launch, the fifth P is all about polishing.