A beginner’s guide to a content marketing strategy that works

What sets a great content marketer apart from a mediocre one is the former’s ability to analyse, plan and stick to it. Content marketing is a tedious job to say the least but extremely rewarding when done right.

Most of the things that I recommend here are boring AF and many entrepreneurs aren’t ready to commit so much time before launch. If you are reading this to find shortcuts to a great content marketing strategy, think again!

The first thing to remember is that there are no alternatives to kick ass content. However, careful analysis will help you have a more focused strategy and game plan towards creating a well oiled inbound marketing engine.

Define a Target Audience

Marketing 101! Ask yourself these questions to get to the ideal target audience definition:

  1. Who will make the purchasing decision for your product?
  2. Who will influence the purchase decision?
  3. Where do they spend time online and what kind content do they interact with?
  4. What problems do they face and look for solutions online?
  5. What questions would they ask while trying to solve this problem?
  6. What are their interests and hobbies?
  7. What kind of content do they share with their networks?
  8. What are the top considerations they have while making the purchase decision?

For most early stage startups, the definition of target audience remains fuzzy but you would have a fair idea about them already. This step is easier said than done. It involves hours and hours of scrolling through tweets and LinkedIn activity of a reasonable sample size of people. You are done only, and only if you have internalised these answers to the extent that you can tell them in your sleep!

Research your tone and keywords

While keyword research is undoubtedly important and essential, content is often found through social channels and online communities. Your content needs to have a healthy mix of both!

There is plenty of research available but not enough is said about the tone of the content.

The tone of your content will decide the kind of brand you will end up creating. Decide what your brand’s tone is going to be and be consistent with it. Reflect it across all communications with users.

For example, you can set your tone to be something like “lighthearted, sincere and intelligent”. I love the way intercom does their content. See here, here and here.

Keywords

Keywords are extremely competitive. It takes hours of research and repetitive, tedious work to find great keywords that you can rank on. However, a great keyword can make all this effort seem worth it. It’s like-

Finding needles in a haystack

You can use tools like Serpstat or SEM rush to uncover what your competitors are doing. If you are just getting started and haven’t built a domain authority yet, you probably shouldn’t try to compete with them head on. However, figuring out the keywords your competition targets will give you a glimpse inside the competition’s content strategy.

When it’s time to find your own keywords, compile a list of anchor keywords that your competition targets and go long tail on the same. There is plenty of juice to be squeezed. Three major sources of keywords to focus on long tail are:

  • Competitor strategy
  • A list compiled through looking at what your customers share
  • A list of keywords through insights that you have in your customer’s persona

Needles that can deliver the dose

Weed out the keywords that don’t closely ally with your product and user persona. There are three major category of keywords.

  • Awareness — Where the customer can relate to the problem and learn about the solution
  • Consideration — Where the customer explores benefits of the solution
  • Intent/Decision — When the customer has decided resolve the problem but needs to decide on the solution

These are essential steps in a customer’s journey to purchase a product. As you grow, you will have to start writing more and more content for education and exploratory-keyword content but you are probably better off focusing on just intent backed keywords for the first couple of months and slowly move up the funnel as you build an audience.

Neil Patel wrote an excellent piece chronicling how to get started with long tail keyword research. I highly recommend you read it. On top of the standard tricks of discovering long tail keywords, I also use a tool like answerthepublic to generate a whole lot of questions and phrases on anchor keywords.

Note: This is a very subjective thing. If your product is a category creator, there is a good chance no one is looking for a product like that, in that case your priority should be to educate the customers on why they need that solution.

Writing content with standard SEO tactics is a great way to get a steady stream of interested users. However, the sheer amount of content out there makes it increasingly difficult to get into the top three positions for keywords that have some reasonable traffic to attract. However, it still remains an important part of your content marketing playbook. This is how your spreadsheet of keywords may look like.

From here we will move on to how to write content that is more social media friendly.

Explore your customers

This is the most tedious and boring part of this job. Find your potential customers through LinkedIn. Ideally your sample should have a healthy mix of those who are content curators and creators for that community and their roles clearly laid out. Go through their twitter profile and make a list of topics they care about. You will also find lot of tertiary topics that they care about where you will not face competition, and write about them. It’s a great way to gain social traction once you have a small community going around.

Now that you have a broad idea about the topics you can write about, it is time we move on to the single most important part of your text content — the headlines.

Analyse the headlines

Headlines are one of the most important part of your blog. On an average, only 20% of people who land on your blog page will complete the entire article. However, an article with a great headline will get a greater number of clicks and shares.

It is important to figure out what kind of content works and appeals to your competitors’ audience. If you are trying to tap in to a similar audience, there is a very good chance that similar things will work for you.

This is my stack for doing this.

Scrape a good sample of your competition’s blog headlines. A good sample size might be around 100–150 articles. I find import.io the best available scraping tool but there are hundreds of them available. A simple google search about “web scraping tools” will give you plenty of them to play around with. Find one that you like the best.

Once you are done with scraping the headlines, export a CSV of all the headlines along with URLs, category, sub category, author names and publication date. Head over to sharedcount and import all the URLs. Export the results into another CSV file.

Note: Due to recent restrictions imposed by twitter, you can’t get twitter share count but assuming that Facebook and LinkedIn share counts will be good enough indicators, you can move forward with this. If you know a share counter that allows you to do this including tweets, that would be great! Also, to see if it is the right decision to ignore twitter or not, you can see the share of twitter traffic in social traffic coming to the site. If it’s less than 20%, I would consider that FB+LinkedIn are a representative sample.

Shared count jumbles up the order of URLs that you had given as an input. Make sure when you merge the two CSV files, you have them sorted according to URL or headline.

Interestingly, most company blogs follows a power law curve where the top 1% content have an overwhelming share of total shares (anywhere between 12–18%)

Sort the file in the descending total share counts. Isolate the top 25% of headlines and assign each headline in one of the following categories:

  • Lists
  • Howtos
  • Mistakes
  • Guides
  • Stories/Interviews
  • Opinions & Strategy

Get total share count and average number of shares each category makes.

Pro Tip: Although it can be done manually, use sumif and average function. This way you can do this with multiple competitors and other organisations whose content marketing strategy you admire!

This exercise has now given you an idea about the content composition and the likelihood of a particular category of post getting shared on social media. See the most fertile category for your competition, benchmark them against the ones you really admire and respect. This will inform you on the kind of headlines that your competitors’ audience likes and shares and that in turn will inform the headlines you can write. The key here is to have a great balance of all kinds of content but you can strategically focus more on certain kinds of content and produce more of it.

A lot of my peers split the text of headlines in different columns and then analyse the correlation between total shares and the first word of the headline. I disagree with this method because I haven’t found enough evidence on correlation between first word of headline and social sharing. The headline is way more than just the first word and essentially fails to effectively capture the reasons why people share content on their social networks and click on them.

If you want to get even more sophisticated is to generate keywords out of the text of all the headlines. Remove keywords like “Like, the, a, an, for” etc. Do a multiple regression analysis and determine the weight of each keyword and that will give you the keywords most associated with highest number of shares. Although I have never tried to do this kind of analysis, I have my doubts over efficacy of this exercise at a smaller scale.

At the end of this exercise, you have a clear idea about what keywords to target, what are your users thinking about, what do they want to share on their social networks. Also, you will have really good clarity on kind of headlines you can write. Of course, this is just a starting point and you will have to experiment and evolve along with it. This exercise will just give you a head start on 3–4 months of experimentation.

Content marketing is more like a marathon. It will take months to get your tone right, create a well oiled engine that consistently creates great content and deliver results. The patience and constant experimentation are your only weapons to fight this battle. This analysis will help you understand your space and competition better and take you a step closer to inbound marketing nirvana!

Side note

The above exercise done for buffer
A typical social sharing distribution

These two graphs chronicle the story of a content marketer’s frustrations and dreams! The second graph is of a company doing reasonably well with its content marketing efforts whereas the first graph is that of someone doing exceptionally well! The share counts of stories generally follow a power law curve. As a rule of thumb, after about 100 articles, you should have the ratio of mean/median share count below 2. Buffer’s ratio is 1.4. It’s a sign of consistently great content that is liked and shared by a large number of people and less reliance on one time hits!

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