The Power of Process: Six Steps To A Strong Content Strategy
Nobody much liked the word process until it gained cache through the unlikeliest of sources: sports. Alabama football coach Nick Saban, revered by fans and peers as something akin to a god now that he’s pocketed six national championships. Years ago, Saban began using a psychologist to help his players focus on the play at hand and nothing more. Not the score. Not the clock. Not the down and distance. Just the play in front of them. He called it “The Process.” Business Insider writer Richard Feloni described Saban’s “Process” thusly: “...a simple but profound way of breaking down a difficult situation into manageable pieces.” The technique evidently keeps Alabama players cool, calm, collected and free of the drama that big-time college sports--and their teenage energy--religiously produce.
Then the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers put their own polish on the word “process,” with the mantra, “Trust the process,” a phrase designed to keep their organization focused on their rebuilding plan and not the losses that piled up along the way. Former General Manager Sam Hinkie said, "We talk a lot about process—not outcome—and trying to consistently take all the best information you can and consistently make good decisions.” The Sixers finally broke through, producing a 17-game winning streak in 2018 and managing 52 victories in 2019, making it to the second round of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. Trust the process.
Actually, at the highest level, the process is fairly straightforward: Goal, Strategy, Tactics. Here, I’ll provide you with a strategic model and a tactical model.
An Imperceptible Transition from Sports to Marketing
Naturally, all successful sports teams and coaches are mined for their secret formulas, which are scrupulously unearthed, then swiftly translated into by ambitious journalists into ‘lessons’ for corporate America. The shelves at Barnes & Noble are rife with such books. Slim volumes that promise a magic bullet, a secret recipe, the ‘one thing’ you need to remember, and so on. Welcome to the content marketing matrix.
The fact is, content strategy, and its corollary, content marketing, can benefit from a process, if not “the” process. The ability to break down an unwieldy, high-budget, multi-input marketing campaign can be immensely helpful in settling one’s nerves and keeping a team focused on achievable goals. Goals that, when added together, produce the result you want. Focusing on, say, lifting conversions by 25 percent is not a particularly helpful place to focus one’s attention. That may be the key KPI in the cloud-draped boardroom, but in the trenches it feels abstract and overwhelming. The KPI is the outcome, not the process you take to get there. With your eyes cast to the horizon, you’re bound to stumble on the road toward it. Better to focus on the task at hand.
Goals, Mission and Objectives
If there’s a division between brand strategy and content strategy in your organization, certain strategic elements will be checked off by the brand strategy team before you get the green light. If there’s no division, you’ll be responsible for addressing a handful of foundational concerns, including:
1. Mission: At the most basic level, what are you doing and why are you doing it?
2. Objective: What do you want to achieve through your campaign?
3. KPI: How will you measure your success in achieving your business objective?
4. Message: What’s the core message you want to communicate to your audience? This could be particularized to your specific campaign--maybe there’s an offer that changes the general message--or it could be drawn from the brand’s basic message architecture, which will likely be an extant document.
5. Strategy: What’s the core approach to achieving your mission? Will you aim at a certain audience segment? Will you devote most of your budget to broadcast, or digital marketing? And so on.
Six Steps to Tactical Success
Assuming you’ve got these high-level answers in hand, it’s time to turn to the tactical execution of your project. This is the ‘when, where, and how’ stage of the work. here’s a six-step plan to developing a strong content strategy, one that ensures you’ve covered all your bases in the planning, production, and launch of a campaign strategy.
Step One: Locate Your Customer in the Buying Cycle
Address your customer’s state of mind. Fortunately, this is made easy by the eternally helpful path to purchase, better known as the “purchase funnel.” This term is sparingly used anymore. Planners may reference it when talking about the “upper funnel” (awareness marketing) or “lower funnel” (the buy flow leading to conversion). In any event, place your customer or prospect where they are on the path to purchase. Are they facing a challenge that your product can solve? Do they even know your product exists? Are they currently evaluating a range of products that might include yours? Are they about to pull the trigger and purchase one? Are they already a customer who either needs to be shown some love in order to retain them, or given an opportunity to advocate on your behalf?
The path to purchase has four traditional stages:
● Advocacy/Retention: These are slightly separate insofar as advocates are already sold on your brand and product, while other customers need to be persuaded to stay with your brand.
Plotting your prospect on the path will instantly give shape to the messaging you want to create for them. Each stage in the cycle indicates a different mindset and a different set of rhetorical cues.
Step Two: Find Your Voice
Next comes identifying the right voice or voices to communicate your message. In the heyday of print and broadcast advertising, the voice was usually the godlike call of the brand itself. But content marketing has diversified the field of influence. If you were to break down the process of influencing a prospect to buy a product, you’d likely find a host of influencers that nudged the consumer toward checkout.
In my experience, six ‘voices’ are critical to keep in mind:
● The brand voice, of course, which makes the central product or service claim. Brand voices also play a major role in user engagement, providing real-time interactions that shape customer perception, be it a web chat utility or community management on social.
● There’s also the incredibly influential voice of the peer, which many consumers trust more than brands. Having individual consumers communicating their experience can be a powerful inducement to purchase.
● So can the voice of the crowd, basically an assemblage of peers that materializes in aggregate as a starred rating system. Seems impersonal, but large swathes of consumers trust the crowd more than the individual.
● Influencers are also highly-esteemed purveyors of marketing messages over the last half decade. Influencers can definitely deliver discrete audiences with an authentic voice, but it’s critical to ensure they reflect the character of your brand.
● As important if not more important in the new era of brand and platform distrust is cause affiliation. Giving a brand a civic purpose is a path to creating or rebuilding trust. Aligning campaigns or events with good causes can incentivize participation. Not only that but, whether we like or not, sharing one’s support for a cause is a powerful trait signaling device on social. In a society as busy and transient as ours, signaling values matters at the individual and institutional level. An influencer, tied to a cause-driven campaign, can create the brand lift and halo effect marketers crave.
● Unlike the brand, individual consumers, or crowdsourced ratings, experts can play a powerful role determining purchase intent. The voice of an authority, whether credential professional or noteworthy institution, can calm fears of quality or risk. In fact, given the unsettled public sentiment of the last couple of years, faith in experts is on the rise.
Collectively, these voices provide both analytical and anecdotal evidence in favor of your product or service. Both are necessary since they satisfy our desire for logical argument but also our need for trustworthy sources.
Step Three: Select Your Sources
How and where you source your content is a key consideration informed by the level of difficulty in communicating your message, by budgetary limitations, and by audience affinity. Several sources immediately present themselves as options.
● Original content is the safest but also usually the most expensive. Crafting the message just as you want it, in the voice you need, in the format that works, is generally a must-have as a centerpiece of your campaign, be it a full-on broadcast spot or a finely tuned landing page. Original content can then be augmented by a variety of supporting sources. All “hero” content should be original. “Shoulder” content doesn’t have to be, but is often a smaller slice of the original content, be it behind-the-scenes clips to outtakes and differently formatted version of hero content.
● Partner content, from your brand alliances, can be especially useful from a volume standpoint. For instance, a partner publisher might supply well-crafted editorials that back your sales message, lending ballast to your more streamlined brand claims.
● User Generated Content is another useful option. Often produced by brand advocates and fans, UGC can offer the unpolished, unscripted authenticity and peer insight that often underlies consumer trust.
● Media coverage is particularly important in driving traffic into your brand ecosystem. Pitching media outlets on your original content can result in free exposure and qualified traffic, as well as a credibility boost if your work is placed with a reputable media entity.
● Sometimes existing content--already created and living in your ecosystem--can be artfully repurposed if the message is right. Reshaped in terms of format, length, and channel distribution.
Step Four: Pick Your Content Format
What’s your content typology? How many varieties of content will you need to produce to reach your audience in all their favorite locations? How do they consume content? Typically, custom video, imagery, graphics, editorial, utilities, and social will all play a part in a holistic campaign and will tend to align with key consumer needs on the path to purchase, from initial education to product specification. But consumer habits and preferences are fickle:
Some consumers prefer short-form text, while others like long-form.
Some have a major bias in favor of video, while others love podcasts.
Some visit brand sites while others stick to social media and major commerce engines like Amazon.
A surfeit of micro-blogged recommendations or enthusiastic social posts might be sufficient to engage some prospects, while others might want to see a white paper.
A variety of bite-sized content: polls, tips, success stories, and external influencer posts
At any rate, a range of types keeps the content fresh and forces your creators to redesign their messaging, providing new and slightly varied iterations.
Step Five: Choose Your Channels
The fifth step will in some sense be guided by decisions you’ve already made. You’ve identified your audience on the path to checkout and you’ve assessed the content types that appeal to them best. These choices will help you identify your primary distribution platforms. Where do you need to be seen? A campaign ecosystem--constructed for a unique campaign--can be inclusive of owned properties, from print to digital to retail environments, as well as PR, above-the-line spots, events, sponsorships, and more.
A key is to consider paid, owned, and earned channels to ensure a holistic distribution of your work.
Whether through owned or paid media, you’ll want to distribute your content as widely as possible with a keen eye on mobile. Across all relevant social platforms. Across all major digital brand assets. And embedded in major broadcast, print, and web thoroughfares trafficked by your audience. Within that campaign ecosystem are numerous considerations: from AdWords retargeting to promoted posts and sponsored tweets to organic reposting by partners with reach. Prioritize primary and secondary platforms based on consumer preference.
Here’s the shortlist of platforms you should at least consider:
Social (Paid and Organic)
Email (dedicated or newsletter inclusion)
Event (host or participant)
Search (Paid and Organic via SEM)
Step Six: Construct a Calendar + Establish a Cadence
The last step in the planning process is to schedule your campaign. As you lay your content across the length of your campaign, you’ll want to address the content from a topical and timing standpoint:
In terms of topic, answer these four questions (some simply confirming earlier decisions):
● What is the core theme of your content? Are there multiple topics in a thematic hierarchy?
● Where is your customer on the path to purchase? Is your topic relevant to their state of mind at that stage?
● What date will you publish and does the date align with the topical nature of the post?
● What format is your content delivered in? Does this suit the customer’s preferred consumption habits?
Your editorial calendar should include columns for:
● Content theme
● Journey stage
In terms of cadence and timing, answer these three questions:
● Frequency, or how often should you communicate with your customers?
● Cadence, or when should you message them?
● Duration, or how long should your campaign last?
All of these will help keep your campaign from the scourge of overexposure and the threat of underexposure. A smart schedule will keep the consumer curious and engaged, rather than frustrated and finished with you.
Also remember that the cycle never ends. Not only is there in-campaign optimization, both from a content perspective but also from a media buying standpoint, but there’s also the advocacy effect. Once customers become advocates, they become conversion engines of their own, convincing a new prospect to test drive your product or service in another instance of peer persuasion.
Closing the Loop
These six steps constitute a process that will ensure you’ve covered the central considerations of your campaign. And remember that the last step can easily lead to the first step again in an evolving cycle of communication. Of course, I’m sure some intelligent marketer will leap to the fore to remind me of a crucial oversight, which is good since this process should be flexible and open to revision. But I do think it represents a holistic overview of the content strategy process. I hope it helps you keep focused on the task in front of you, even as you pursue the prize on the horizon.
About the Author
Jason Hirthler is a senior content strategist with 20 years of experience in digital communications. He has helped Fortune 500 brands shape their digital ecosystems including Johnson & Johnson, Adobe, Bayer CropScience, Kimberly-Clark, Newell-Rubbermaid, among others. He has guided campaigns for major CPG brands including Listerine, Powerade, Tylenol; major entertainment brands such as HBO, SHOWTIME, and DIRECTV; and emergent service brands including ATT Fiber, Seamless, TheLadders, and National Grid. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at email@example.com