Part one in our content strategy series shows how a company of any size can tell their story effectively
These days, articles about content strategy are as easy to find as preposterous reality TV shows. But to be clear, the content advice is much more valuable, and is much less likely to get drunk on its sudden celebrity. A smart approach to content is important for any organization, whether you're selling some furniture, running an agency or saving the world. The right content — which basically refers to anything from a blog post to a video to your tweets to, of course, your email campaigns — means that you're intentionally telling your brand's story to the people at the right time in the right places.
Our own content strategy includes a monthly roundup like this one.
You can find solid advice for building your content plan in all kinds of places, such as The Content Strategist and A Book Apart. And you can keep track of what's new by following a few people who like to tweet about that stuff, from Emma's own Molly Niendorf to Brain Traffic CEO Kristina Halvorson.
We're getting in on the fun by doing this five-part series, and we're kicking it off with a few basics. I've been developing content strategy for more than a decade now (although we didn't used to call it that), for companies ranging from tiny start-ups you've never heard of (not that the content strategy was to blame for the organization's demise, mind you) to some corporate behemoths, and these are my top tips.
1. Know what you want to say. What's your story? Do you have a story, or do you just have a product to sell or a cause to promote or some other goal to achieve? Whatever you're aiming to do, spend some time figuring out the story that's driving it. Your audience will be much more engaged if you craft a narrative for them and help them experience what you're all about, instead of just telling them.
At Emma, some of our main story lines are that we have astonishingly talented designers, a supremely helpful support crew (who, like, actually answer the phone when our customers have questions or want advice), a super intuitive interface and a commitment to giving back to our community. So we find various ways to tell those stories on our blog and our website. What drives your nonprofit or business? What do you most want to say? And who's the audience that'll be listening? Telling your story will only be effective if it means something to people you're hoping to reach, so make what you say useful (or perhaps inspiring) to them personally.
2. Know how you want to say it. Create some documents that map out that story. You might have five main stories or a dozen or just one. Break it down into pieces, so that you can plan around each element. And make a checklist that reminds you and anyone writing for you about the tone you want to establish, AKA your editorial voice or your style. What's on that list? Is it important for each piece you write to seem trustworthy and approachable? Or do you see your style as more warm and quirky? Or maybe your tone is bold and authoritative. Know what best reflects who you are as a company and what best resonates with your audience. As you might expect, that also involves knowing the purpose of each piece that you write. Knowing your goals makes it easier to decide — to paraphrase one of my favorite reality show judges — what's in and what's out. If a story idea sounds fun but doesn't help you accomplish one of your goals, it's out.
3. Do your logistical homework. Fire up some spreadsheets and start planning.
- Figure out what content you've already got and make an inventory. Use that inventory to see how you might get more out of what you already have before you start creating more content.
- Then figure out how you're going to get more of it. Do you have in-house resources? Do you need to hire some freelancers? Will you do the writing yourself?
- Develop several formats for telling those stories. Again, map it out. Will you post on your blog, Twitter and Facebook? If you're doing long-form writing, establish some clear writing guidelines and formats so you can easily communicate your expectations with anyone else who's helping implement this plan.
- Think carefully about who needs to hear what when, if you have a large audience. If you're talking to both customers and prospects, for example, you may need separate plans for each segment of your audience.
- Create a process and a schedule to keep all those formats rolling. Creating a schedule is as simple as adding publish dates and deadlines to a spreadsheet … and voila, you're the fancy owner of an editorial calendar. Congratulations, you. Your new editorial calendar will let you see your planning at a glance and share it with everyone else at your company.
- Set up some measurements. What will make your content strategy successful? A higher CTR on your site and in emails that will lead to increased revenue? Know what you're going to track and how often you're going to look back at the numbers.
4. Focus on quality. There's a lot of pressure these days to tweet eleventy-hundred times every day and have your LinkedIn this and your Facebook that. You may start feeling overwhelmed with all of those tips that surface every day as you follow what's happening in the digital world. You may get content strategy envy as you look at what other companies do. Or you may even feel pressure from other people — your second cousin, perhaps, or someone in your own organization — who've read about content strategy and social media strategy and want you to follow the particular advice they found online.
It's important to keep up with the industry and tell your story in as many places as you can, but always remember that quality is every ounce as important as quantity. (It's eleventy-hundred ounces, by the way.) And not everyone who's decided to market himself or herself as an expert actually has the editorial chops to back that up. So be discriminating. Follow some of the advice you find, but also establish a good, old-fashioned editorial process. Put every new idea through that checklist you created and be realistic about how much you can do without starting to feel like a content factory.
5. Tell one story at a time, in a bunch of different places. As you map out your content strategy over the course of a few months, you'll see that you have plenty of time to develop the plot as you go. Resist the temptation to say everything to everyone all at once. You know those email campaigns you get that are so broad that they basically say nothing? Yeah, don't do that. It's not engaging. Pull out one story at a time and evoke a feeling. Paint an experience instead of merely selling a couch or asking for volunteers. Let one snippet of your story act as a hook that will become something bigger once your audience feels connected to you.
In sum (not that we did any actual math), here's a good place to start:
- Your story, all mapped out like a summer road trip
- A checklist that outlines your voice, tone, style, however you roll
- A content inventory
- A process for generating more and more — and getting better and better while you're at it
- An editorial calendar that's simple to create but seems fancy
- A list of what you'll measure
- Inner fortitude to stand strong and not get overwhelmed by too much advice and too many tweets
We'll be back soon with part two, which will include content templates for your email strategy basics. See, we're even doing some of the writing for you. We like you that much.
Susan will be presenting at Content Marketing World in Cleveland next week. Let us know if you'll be there, too. And talk content with Susan on Twitter.