Diary of a Content Marketing Strategist: Successes and Failures on a Journey of Discovery
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but, honestly, I wish I’d had the benefit of what I know now two years ago – it would have saved so much wasted time.
Talking to others who do a similar role to me (agency owner, director, creative content marketer), they too have had similar experiences. I find this oddly reassuring, a relief to know that the roller coaster of content marketing hasn’t been a solo ride.
All digital agencies constantly reflect on their skill sets and processes to ensure that they are one step ahead of the algorithm updates, but one step ahead is no longer enough – now it’s about future proofing. When the updates started coming thick, fast and harder than ever it was a game changer for our industry – and who wants to live like that? It’s why I am not sure that you can appoint someone who just knows this stuff, as I believe it’s the evolution of an industry.
At Strategy, we keep up with industry developments so we knew the changes were coming. And, as all good agencies did, we had already started to step up content marketing to a different level – but we needed to go further faster and that pace of change is pretty full-on.
It’s a welcome change as there have been some scuzzy activities in SEO that have ‘worked’ but have tainted how some people view the industry. Now that these practices have been effectively outlawed, they have taken with them some of the more acceptable approaches too. But if that’s the price the industry has to pay to build for a better and more sustainable future, bring it on.
We’re Strategic Marketers Now, Not Just SEOs
We have called ourselves ‘internet marketers’ for a while now, and the clue has always been there in the name but the emphasis has been on the wrong word. We are now marketers first and foremost and unless the emphasis is on marketing strategies, in the traditional sense of the phrase, then you’re doing it wrong. Adapt and change or prepare for your demise.
The good news is that as internet marketers we can measure pretty much everything in a way where traditional marketing has always flown blind. Search + marketing = a marriage made in analytics heaven.
It may sound a bit doom and gloom but that’s not a feeling I want to leave you with. This is great news and the future is truly bright. It could be a bit brighter a bit sooner if we can all (agencies and clients) embrace the learning curve and get the right content to the right people at the right stage of the buying process. As this is what the best digital agencies are concentrating on, you can appreciate what a much improved and amazing place the internet could be for everyone moving forward.
So to help anyone out there who is interested in seeing inside my head, here are the things I wish I’d been more aware of. (Disclaimer: I was aware of some of the more obvious things but I’ve added them here as they needed more emphasis and attention sooner. After all, I’d like your journey to be less painful in the head-smacking department than mine.)
Clients Don’t Always Appreciate What You Are Trying to Achieve
Of course, many do, but some need our help to educate them about how it’s better to do something awesome that takes more time than something else that they may see as a ‘quick win’. We know that’s not going to help their long term goals, but communication and agreement of business goals and strategies is paramount to success.
Your promotion plan needs to be as strategic as your content plan: “build it and they will come” isn’t going to cut it. Each asset needs a promotion plan to seed the benefits of the content to people who are going to care about it most. It also needs to be effectively promoted within the client’s site to their visitors. The promotion plan covers each step of seeding and sharing the content to the right people at the right time.
Do a Content Plan for Six Months at a Time
Rather than creating content on a monthly basis or even on an as needed basis, it’s worth investing the time necessary to research and plan a content strategy that takes into account the target audience. Their information needs for each stage of the buying process as well as the message architecture needed to maintain consistency across the communication strategy. The need for an effective content strategy is probably the thing I would strongly recommend to get right as soon as possible!
The other great thing about doing a six month content plan is you can easily take into account any seasonality and events that you could capitalise on – create calendars of events for each sector so you can plan before, during and after content. This then turns into an editorial calendar for onsite blog posts. Think like a marketer, plan like a marketer.
Put Your Target Audience Front and Centre of Every Decision You Make
Know who they are. Create audience personas so you know who you are talking to. And, most importantly, know what they need from you at each stage of their interactions with your brand. You want to be their brand of choice when it comes to making the purchase now and in the future – so know what they care about and what presses their buttons. Ideally you want them to become brand advocates. So deliver content they need, want and will share.
Clients May Change the Asset/Content You Have Created and Make It Ugly
Thankfully this hasn’t happened much, but very occasionally what we have sent to the client to approve and publish has become, shall we say, ‘altered’. Maybe it hasn’t become totally wrong but it’s less effective than we had intended. This is really frustrating – especially when there has been a lot of effort made to produce something that was much better looking when it left our hands.
If this has happened then we needed to either educate them better in the first place, or pay closer attention to the transition the content may go through at their hands.
Clients Might Decide to Keep the Content to Publish at Their Convenience
This is particularly irritating when it’s a pay-on-results client as we have to invest our time and effort in the creation of the content so that it performs well and brings results. After all, we get paid on those results. If the content doesn’t get published in a timely manner then we can’t get results. The way around this, of course, is better communication with the client and agreement in advance about publication. We get that in writing now.
Great Content Presented within the Template of an Ugly Site = Ugly Content
In the early days of creating certain kinds of content we didn’t always anticipate the technical limitations or where the content would appear on the site. It’s a bit of a schoolboy error that we learned from quickly. Sometimes when creating this kind of content, however, it’s not always possible to anticipate all the issues until you have experienced them. This is now part of our brief, plus we have worked out a much better way to work around this particular issue. It is proving to be an excellent solution.
Creating Great Content Will Take Longer than You Anticipate
The first time you do anything new it takes longer than the second time you do it – no surprises there. Allow more time for the first attempt, but also learn how long each type of content takes so you can allocate resources properly in the future. The good news is that it’s not only faster to create but almost invariably better too.
You Will Learn More than You Could Possibly Imagine Every Day
Sources of inspiration are many and varied. Creative people who are motivated dig deep and contribute amazing suggestions. With every single thing we do we learn something that can be applied to improving something else. Because effective creative content marketing has the same roots as traditional marketing strategies, there is a whole history of learning to be combined with search practices – and they complement each other well.
If You Don’t Have a Detailed Brief Your Content Will Still Evolve – and Not Always in a Good Way
Our briefs have evolved over time to be so much more encompassing than the early days. The creative brief is a document that follows the project – from inception through creation to completion – and it ensures that attention is paid to priorities such as:
- what the point of the content is
- exactly who the target audience is
- who would care about it
- what the most relevant search phrases are
- where and when the content will be published
- what the KPIs are
- how success will be measured
Without a concise brief it’s possible for the content to suffer from a smidge of Chinese whispers, with the end result being slightly off track from what was initially intended. A brief with senior level review points near the beginning and end of the process ensures the content stays on track and responds to suggested improvements.
You Don’t Need Everyone’s Involvement in Creative, but You Do Need Some Key People
It would be just as easy to involve too many people in the creative process as it would be to involve too few. If anything we have suffered from ‘too many cooks’. Actually, “suffered” is the wrong word as I’m not sure too many people can have a negative impact on brainstorming. However, there are studies on brainstorming that we have researched, and we now operate very effectively with the key success factor being the efficient use of time while still maximising the result. We use key people at specific stages to perform agreed tasks so that – when the team comes together to make decisions – we have all the information and research we need to make the best use of the available time.
Preparation before Meetings Means Super Productive Meetings
This is tied to the point above. It’s just sensible to implement effective work practices for people who are involved in creative meetings to prepare before bringing their thoughts together with others. To facilitate this, we use client summary forms – such as internal documents – so everyone involved has the same key information about the client and their business goals.
Asking Your Target Influencers What They Think of Your Creative Idea Can Put an Awesome Spin on What You Create
Hat tip to Paddy Moogan for this one: it was one of the head smacking moments I had when reading his awesome book on Link Building. It’s such a simple principle and I so wish I had thought of it before as it works beautifully.
Explaining your idea to the right people in a way that gets useful responses is not so straight forward, but we have this cracked after lots of trial and error. We now know we are creating content that influencers want for their target audience – the same target audience as our client. In addition we have their buy-in before it’s created, so what do you think their chances are of sharing it? Yup, pretty good!
Evergreen Assets Are by Far the Best
It sounds obvious, but sometimes we need to refine ideas to make them evergreen. It’s easy to get carried away with an idea that has a specific shelf life or, perhaps worse, needs updating regularly. What you don’t want to do is create a rod for your own back, so think about how your idea could be converted into something evergreen: something you can add to in future – you don’t want it to become outdated and redundant after all that work. Mind you, it’s perfectly fine if you intend it to happen that way. Just make sure it’s a conscious decision rather than a head-on-desk moment!
This Spring Calendar is not evergreen content because it is tied to specific dates and covers only three months. There are calendars for other seasons but they will need updating each year. It’s not ideal because of the need to maintain the content each year and the limited relevance of each piece, but then at least they will be very relevant at these points each year providing they are maintained.
Not All Content Will Perform Equally, Be Prepared to Fail
Real marketing campaigns can be a bit like PR campaigns: the angle you take could result in content that is just a bit ‘meh’. Even with the best will in the world and all the research and prior buy-in it could fall a bit flat. So set expectations and don’t be disheartened. We know everything can be measured, so learn as much as you can and either realign the campaign or bin it. You’ll soon develop a good sense for what is a great idea and which ones truly suck.
This happened to us with a content marketing campaign we designed for our own website. The results just weren’t there so we revisited the whole process to evaluate what went wrong, and we found that the idea was sound (as we suspected) but the execution was flawed. We didn’t have a proper brief, so the idea evolved into trying to do too many things while not ending up doing any very well.
I got some feedback from SEOs after it went live (testing Paddy’s approach) and they made suggestions for what they would have liked the tool to do. It was also interesting to consider that their expectations of what it would do when I first explained it were completely different. Anyway, we took all these issues on board and went back to basics.
Don’t Make Schoolboy Errors
Ensure you optimise for key phrases and include Analytics (this one is unforgivable but it only happened once!). When real marketing meets search you need to remember to bring the basic principles of search with you (i.e. what is the demand for keywords associated with your content?). Know whether you are targeting long tail or a popular search phrase and, if so, which one(s) and optimise your content for those terms.
Of course it’s not about stuffing your work with spam, but if you miss an opportunity to use a relevant and popular search term then more fool you! If you are creating a new page that is not part of a template that already includes analytics code, make sure you add it – it’s surprising how the basics can be overlooked when you get all excited about a great idea.
Have Someone Keeping an Oversight so You Can Keep Consistency and Promote Best Practice
This applies to client side and agency side creative content marketing. There are learning opportunities everywhere, so make sure that someone is overlooking all projects so those key learnings and best practices can be disseminated where they can benefit most.
Give Your Team Some Freedom and Don’t Restrict Them Too Much in Process
This works well for us as we have the most awesome creative team. At each stage everyone involved knows they can suggest improvements in all aspects of an idea: design, content, and targets, as examples. They all have the brief and the client summary so they won’t deviate from the key priorities; rather it will allow and encourage creative flair at every level.
Just Because We Think Something Is Great, or the Client Thinks Its Great Doesn’t Mean Anyone out There Will Agree
This is a surprisingly easy mistake to make but now a thing of the past since we added influencer feedback into the equation at the beginning. There are opportunities for great content in all sectors and niches, no matter how dull and boring they are on the surface – you just might need to give it a bit more time for the great ideas to percolate, but all sectors have them. Be persistent and – shameless plug alert! – consider hiring us if you can’t get there.
Know What Constitutes Great Content
This is a really important point because great content in internet marketing terms is only great if real people value it. That generally constitutes results in the form of links and shares which lead to increased conversions. Frankly, if it doesn’t then it’s not great by the standards we would be measured against. Know what your measures of success are for each piece of content – this doesn’t have to be complicated, you just need to be aware of what they are and then keep track.
Your promotion plan needs to kick in and be effective but the principle is simple: create content that adds value for your target audience at a known and intended stage of the buying process. You can then seed this out to influencers who would care enough to share this with their target audience. Then you can just sit back and watch the links roll in, your traffic grow and your conversions increase.
It is possible to create great content that improves conversions but doesn’t get many links. If this is what you are measuring success against then that is fine – just be aware of what you are aiming to achieve.
An infographic that we created – on the rather sensitive subject of erectile dysfunction – was seeded to universities and colleges because we thought it would appeal to student medical centres. After seeing how well received the graphic was and after hundreds of posters were ordered for distribution in new student packs, the student health guide evolved as a targeted piece of content for this very specific market.
We are in the process of producing similar fun graphics for other conditions that are relevant to students, such as stopping smoking, hair loss and malaria tablets for travellers. The client is demonstrating that they value this specific target audience by creating content that recognises their needs and speaks directly to them.
Content That Meets the Needs of Your Target Audience and Appeals to a Linking Audience Is Uber-Great Content.
Are your target audience and linking audience not the same thing? Not always; quite often they are different. Think about it, how many middle aged, middle class people with money to spend on a nice piece of feature furniture or a games room are going to run a popular website themselves? It would be a challenge to find many at all. However, how many of that target audience – let’s call them Janet and John – are influenced by the sites and publications that produce content about the latest styles in home living, or produce fantasy pieces about the coolest games rooms?
If your website has something particularly interesting, valuable or unusual that these target influencers can include in their sites, then you have a chance for Janet and John’s eyeballs to fall across your site. Plus you get that shiny link from the selective influencer’s website. Kaching!
This interactive guide to best online seo tools is attracting links and shares from, firstly, tool suppliers who are featured and, secondly, internet marketers because its useful and is nicely presented. This content provides value to a target audience who may be looking for tools in order to improve their online marketing Furthermore, their brand awareness would be increased and these visitors could potentially turn into clients.
Content That Appeals to a Linking Audience but Doesn’t Meet Any Needs of Your Buying Audience Is a Fail
We once produced a piece of content that got heaps of links and shares but was too far removed from the target audience to be useful, so it was deemed a fail. The content focused on a series of memes related to an upcoming Batman film. The content was published on a site that sold pest control products. The problem was that people who love movies and Batman loved the content – but none of them were interested in buying or talking about pest control products. An easy mistake to make, but one you don’t repeat.
Under Promise and over Deliver – Set the Right Expectations with Clients
Presenting all ideas to the client is neither effective nor useful – we have done this in the past to the response ‘yes please, do them all’. Hum, not a great situation to be in. Although it’s great that the client loves all our ideas, it’s not physically possible to do them all at the same time. We still need to prioritise and then it feels like we are letting the client down if we can’t do them all. What we find works best is for us to present our preferred option and then come back to the others if the response isn’t overwhelmingly positive. We can always use the ideas for the next creative content as we don’t want to waste them.
Conclusions of This Journey of Discovery
It’s an on-going journey for sure and, as with all learning curves, you don’t know what you don’t know. We try to anticipate all issues and we feed our learning into our processes to constantly improve them. We are not only learning from the content we create but also from the wealth of materials and support out there, such as conferences, blogs and books on marketing and brand building.
These are really exciting times for internet marketing, and those who embrace the best aspects of creative content marketing will see success for their agency and their clients. I would very much welcome comments from content marketers who would like to share their points of success and failure.