This article is part of our Complete Guide to Small Business Marketing, which covers topics like market research, SEO, SEM, social media and content marketing.
Content marketing isn’t new, but its popularity with marketers grows every day. It’s a marketing strategy that’s particularly well-suited to small businesses because you don’t have to invest millions of dollars in order to see big results.
This guide will help you understand what content marketing really means and how to use it to grow your business. We’ll walk you through building your own content marketing strategy, managing the content creation process, and evaluating the results of your content marketing efforts.
Let’s get started!
What is content marketing?
Google defines content marketing as “a type of marketing that involves the creation and sharing of online material (such as videos, blogs, and social media posts) that does not explicitly promote a brand but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services.”
SnapApp shared, “Content marketing costs 62% less than traditional marketing and generates about three times as many leads.” And as many as 74% of companies surveyed by Curata say content marketing boosts lead quantity and quality. That’s a big deal for small businesses.
At its broadest definition, “content” refers to almost everything you see or read online. As marketers, when we say “content,” we mean blog posts, long-form guides (like the one you’re reading), videos, emails, social media posts, case studies…the list goes on. For our purposes in this guide, we’ll focus on blogs and articles.
Creating your content marketing strategy
Like any new endeavor, the best way to get started with content marketing is to put together a comprehensive strategy. Your content marketing strategy ensures all of your marketing tactics are aligned with an overarching goal for your business. It details the methods, channels, and means you’ll use to get there and sets out clear benchmarks to measure your performance against. Those come in handy when it’s time to audit your strategy and double down on the most successful tactics.
Every sound strategy starts by outlining the defined goals or objectives you hope to achieve through content generation. If you’re just dipping your toes into the content sea, it might be hard to get a firm grasp on what effective content marketing can do for your business. That makes it tough to land on reasonable goals.
So what can content do for your business?
- Boost brand awareness. When your business is relatively unknown, content can help get your brand in front of audiences who may not otherwise be exposed to it. It can also help you begin establishing a relationship with potential customers, long before they need your services.
- Generate leads. Good content helps you nudge your audience through the buyer’s journey—meaning you can guide them right through your sales funnel (or the series of actions consumers take to get through the decision process and take action to become a customer.)
- Win over subscribers. As a marketer, an engaged list of subscribers is a powerful tool, and content can give your audience an incentive to fork over their contact information.
- Build authority within your niche. If you’re new to your industry, it’s important to build up authority so consumers begin to see you and your business as experts in your field. Publishing high-quality content is one of the best ways to make that happen.
Sample goals for your content marketing strategy
Now that you have a better understanding of what content can offer your business, you might be wondering how to turn those broad objectives into concrete measurable goals. As a beginner, it’s tough to grasp what realistic goals look like. Here are a few sample goals to help you get started:
- Add 20 new subscribers to your email list by the end of the quarter
- Increase traffic to your blog by 20% month over month
- Get five warm leads from content in the next month
- Secure a link to your website from an industry authority (links from well-known websites are a hint to Google that your website is valuable, and they can improve your content’s ranking in searches.)
For more help setting intelligent goals that will drive your content strategy, try HubSpot’s SMART Marketing Goals template.
Finding your brand voice
Once your goals for content marketing are set, it’s time to think about how you’ll get from your starting point to those objectives. What type of content will you produce? What topics will resonate with your audience? How will your brand talk about those topics? How often will you publish new content? How will you promote it?
Your content marketing strategy needs to answer all of those questions, so you can chart a clear path from where you are now to where you want to be next month, next quarter, next year.
Step 1: Creating a messaging strategy document
Your content strategy outlines your content marketing efforts and the tactics you’ll use. A messaging strategy document does the same thing for your actual content production. It clearly defines who you’re speaking to and your brand’s style and voice—the way you speak to customers and your audience.
When you write content, are you speaking to existing customers? Potential customers? What are those people like? Demographics, interests, pain points… Will your content use a formal tone, avoiding contractions and slang? Will you speak as an expert, authoritatively? Or as a friend, keeping things casual and fun?
Your messaging strategy document should answer all of those questions. When finished, you should be able to hand that one document to someone outside your business and give them a complete picture of how to create content for your business. That comes in very handy later on, when we talk about outsourcing content creation.
Step 2: Outlining content topics and clusters
Now that you know how you’ll talk about things, it’s time to decide what things you’ll talk about. Your goal with content marketing is to build up a following—loyal readers who come back to your content again and again. That means it’s important that you set and maintain accurate expectations around what topics your content will cover.
At the beginning, identify 10-15 buckets or clusters of topics that matter to your business and your target audience. These buckets serve as the broad outline for your content, and you’ll pull individual content pieces out of this bucket to cover the broader topic comprehensively. Eventually, your blog posts or articles will form a cluster around each of the buckets you outlined.
For example, at Wave, we know our audience (you) is eager to learn about marketing small businesses, so “small business marketing” is one of the buckets we pull content topics from.
Where can you find ideas for content buckets and individual topics? There are a few surefire ways to find content ideas that will resonate with your audience.
- Curated content performance. If you’ve been curating and sharing content already, take a look at the performance of the content you share. Take a look at the topics that generate the most social shares or spur the most conversation.
- Competitive analysis. I’m not just talking about brands whose products compete with yours. Look at brands whose content reaches the same audience and find out what’s been successful for them.
- Local content & SEO. While you create content for humans, you still need the help of search engines in order for those humans to find your content. That’s why it’s a good idea to let keywords and trending search topics inform your content strategy to some extent.
Brainstorming and planning content
Once your strategy is in place, you’re ready to start executing on it. That means it’s time to brainstorm and plan out the content you’ll create. You know what they say about the best laid plans—if you don’t set about actually making things happen, your hard work putting together a strategy was for nothing.
When it comes to brainstorming and planning content, there are three main steps:
- Generating topic ideas (based on the buckets you outlined above),
- Scheduling content into an editorial calendar, and
- Executing on that plan.
Let’s start with brainstorming topic ideas.
Where to get topic ideas
In the first section on creating your content marketing strategy, you outlined 10-15 broad content buckets. These are your starting points for brainstorming individual content pieces. Every topic idea you execute on should fall into one of those buckets to ensure the content you create stays on message and works toward building your authority and accomplishing your goals.
The first step is to write down any individual topics that fall within those buckets. If you have ideas already, set pen to paper. Once you’ve exhausted those ideas, it’s time to put on your detective hat to find additional topics your audience cares about.
- Competitive research
When we talk about competitors in content, we don’t always mean businesses that offer the same products or services that you do. We’re also referring to other blogs or content publishers that produce content for the same or similar audiences.
Take a look at blogs that cover similar topics. What kinds of content are they publishing? How is it performing? Follow publishers that your customers share on social media and take note of the topics customers share. Which topics generate a lot of conversation? Which get shared or retweeted the most?
On top of paying attention to which topics resonate, it’s important to consider how you can take advantage of gaps in their coverage and common questions customers ask. These are your opportunities to improve and expand upon topics that you know will be successful with your audience. After all, the last thing you want to do is create the same exact content as another publisher.
- Trending topics and content suggestions
Once you have a running list of topic ideas, you can find related topics by asking for suggestions. Take your existing list and plug each topic into Google. Write down the search suggestions that pop in and the related searches at the bottom of the search results.
Follow the same process on Twitter or Instagram and you’ll be able to find trending topics and related hashtags, and follow what people in your industry are saying about them.
Another helpful tool we recommend is Buzzsumo. Search for your topic ideas (either the broad buckets or specific topics) and Buzzsumo will show you existing content that’s generating the most engagement.
- Comments and questions on existing content
This process of brainstorming and planning content isn’t a one-time activity—you’ll do this on a regular basis (whatever time frame works best for you). That means, with each successive brainstorming phase, you’ll develop a better and better understanding of your audience, their struggles, and what gets them talking.
Once your content machine starts chugging away, you can pull from any comments, discussions, or questions your content generates. This is one of the best resources you can pull new topic ideas from because it’s directly from the mind of your audience, so you know those topics will resonate.
Building a content calendar
A big part of finding success with content marketing is about holding yourself accountable to actually create content and get it out into the world. Creating a schedule of days when you’ll post is a good first step, but a full content calendar detailing the topic, format, responsible party, and publish date will help ensure you’re never caught flat-footed when it comes time to publish. Whether you choose to outsource some or all of your content efforts down the line, a content calendar will help you stay on the same page with everyone involved.
Find a system that works for you
You already have your topics chosen and you should have decided on a cadence (or posting schedule) you can stick to, so creating an editorial calendar is all about finding a management system that works for you. If you talk to 100 content managers, you’ll find 100 different content management techniques, so it may take some trial and error before you land on your perfect system.
Content calendars run the gamut from barebones Excel spreadsheets to robust software solutions with all the bells and whistles. The goal is to have a working calendar that’s accessible to everyone on your content team. Here are the things you really need:
- Scalability. The last thing you need is to have to switch systems right when you’re in growth mode. Choose a solution that can grow with your team and content efforts.
- Collaboration. Whether you choose to outsource content production or not, you need a solution that allows everyone involved to collaborate and work together.
- Calendar function. We are talking about a content calendar after all. Being able to view content pieces and your schedule on an actual calendar makes it much easier to visualize the plan.
The rest is all up to you and your team’s personal preferences and working styles. If you’re not sure where to start, give Trello’s Editorial Calendar template a whirl.
Outsourcing content creation
The secret sauce of successful content is having something interesting and meaningful to say. As a small business owner, you have invaluable experience and stories to share. You’re the resident expert on your business and your industry, and you have a deep understanding of your audience and their pain points. If you find you have a lot to say, that’s a great thing.
But: Are you an expert writer or infographic designer or video editor? Most of us aren’t and that’s perfectly okay. That’s why so many entrepreneurs, executives, and marketers alike choose to outsource that actual creation of content.
Whether that’s writing or animating or anything else specialized will depend on the format you choose for each content piece. And there are plenty of professionals who are experts in those fields. They can take your big ideas and distill them into content that’s compelling, easy to read, and speaks in your audience’s own language. Not to mention, outsourcing content creation takes one more task off your plate, freeing up your time for something else.
Where to find content creators
Finding high-quality professionals to create your content doesn’t have to be a needle in a haystack. Here are the big things you should look for in a creator for your business:
- An impressive portfolio of past work
- Testimonials or recommendations from past clients
- Someone who’s professional and friendly, easy to work with
- Pricing that doesn’t seem too good to be true (it usually is)
Take note of who’s creating the content you already love and reach out to them. You can also ask around within your community or network for referrals. Last (and also least,) check out websites like Contently and Upwork to find freelancers and independent contractors in any industry.
Measuring and building on success
One of the best ways to stay on top of your content’s performance is by tracking your stats in Google Analytics. Google Analytics shows you everything from basic website metrics to the most involved ones, and it’s a good way to get a (fairly) accurate picture of your content’s performance.
If you don’t have an account already, sign up and add your website by following the prompts. You’ll add the Google Analytics tracking ID to your website to give Google access to collect data. You can find Google’s instructions on how to do that here.
Once you’ve installed the Tracking ID, Google Analytics will begin collecting data on your website or blog. In the next few days, you’ll start to see data populate in your Google Analytics (GA) dashboard.
Key metrics to track and what they mean
You can use Google Analytics to track a lot of activity on your website. From bounce rate to session duration to audience demographics and everything in between. If all that sounds like gibberish to you, you’re definitely not alone. As you gain experience working with GA, you can create filters, advanced segments, and custom reports to drill down into who’s visiting your site and what they’re doing while there.
In the meantime, here are the most important metrics you should pay attention to if you want to improve your content marketing strategy over time.
Simply put, traffic refers to how many people visit your website. In Google Analytics, you can drill down to traffic on each content piece, where those visitors came from, and how the number of visitors to your content changes over time.
When it comes to content marketing, two of the most important types of traffic to monitor are search traffic (or visitors who found your content through Google or other search engines) and social traffic (visitors who clicked on your content from a social media post or ad.) Keeping track of where your visitors come from helps you see which promotional efforts are successful and where you have opportunity for improvement.
As your content marketing efforts gain traction, you’ll see traffic increase. That’s a good indicator of growing brand awareness through content.
Getting people to your website is one thing, but traffic doesn’t mean much if they immediately leave without reading your content or doing anything else on your site. Engagement metrics measure how, or if, visitors interact with your content. They include metrics like…
- Bounce rate: What percentage of visitors click away from your website without doing anything else
- Session duration: How long visitors spend on your website, reading content or clicking through to other pages.
- Average time on page: Similar to sessions duration, but time on page is specific to each particular page on your website. For reference, if users only spend 10 seconds looking at a 3,000 word piece of content, it’s safe to assume they didn’t read it.
Tracking engagement metrics adds an additional layer to your content’s performance and makes it easy to identify which content pieces or formats perform better than others—so you can double down and create more similar content in the future.
If you’re sharing content on your brand’s social media outlets (as you should be!), you can use the big social media platforms’ own reporting to get a good picture of content that performs well there. You should monitor social media:
- Shares/Retweets, and
These will give you a good indication of the type of content that resonates with your audience, as well as the type of content that performs well when promoted on social media.
Back in Google Analytics, you can also track how much traffic is coming from each of the social media platforms and how engaged those visitors are with your content. That way, you can develop a better understanding of where to prioritize your content promotion efforts on social to drive the most traffic and most engaged audience.
Kiera Abbamonte is a content writer who works with SaaS and ecommerce companies. Located in Boston, MA, she loves cinnamon coffee and a good baseball game. Beyond Wave's blog, you can catch up with her on Twitter @Kieraabbamonte or KieraAbbamonte.com.
The information and tips shared on this blog are meant to be used as learning and personal development tools as you launch, run and grow your business. While a good place to start, these articles should not take the place of personalized advice from professionals. As our lawyers would say: “All content on Wave’s blog is intended for informational purposes only. It should not be considered legal or financial advice.” Additionally, Wave is the legal copyright holder of all materials on the blog, and others cannot re-use or publish it without our written consent.