In the last few years, content marketing has become the marketing approach that all the cool kids are supposed to be doing.
Coca-Cola is doing it, IKEA is doing it, Copyblogger has been doing and talking about it for more than 10 years now. So it’s a no-brainer, right?
Except, uhhhh, what is it exactly, again?
Even as the “think pieces” pile up, the term content marketing remains frustratingly vague.
So here’s my definition. I’d say that content marketing is communicating with potential customers in a way that:
- An audience actually enjoys paying attention to, and that
- Demonstrates to that audience that you would be a good person to do business with.
Combining those two “simple” factors can be a little tricky to execute, though.
So today, I’m offering a checklist to make sure you’re building your content marketing on the right foundation.
Just like nutrition, parenting, and the designated hitter rule, there are passionate differing schools of thought on some of these.
But this is my essential list for you to build a solid content marketing program on. Check these off, and — based on my experience in my own businesses and those of my students — you’ll have the right framework to create a successful program.
1. Don’t build on rented land
Before you create a single piece of content, think about where that content will live and how audiences will get to it.
Effective content marketing takes work. You’ll need energy, thought, and time to create good content — whether you create it yourself or use a capable professional writer.
Nearly all of the content you create needs to live on a domain you control, using a platform you can do as you please with.
That means you’re not publishing the bulk of your original creative content on LinkedIn or Medium. (You can still get the excellent benefits of those platforms by syndicating your content there after you’ve published on your own site.)
And you’re not publishing on a “website in 20 minutes” solution that forces you to use someone else’s domain.
If your domain isn’t www.YourWebsiteName.com, you don’t own your platform.
If you can’t publish what you please, with the wording, sales messages, and images you please, you don’t own your platform.
About 99 times out of 100, self-hosted WordPress is the right solution here.
I don’t just say that because of our long, proud history with StudioPress (although it’s an incredible framework). I say it because WordPress is flexible, it’s robust, it’s easy to find excellent developers for, and it makes life very easy for you as a content publisher.
You can absolutely use social sites like Facebook and LinkedIn to nurture customer relationships and get the word out about the content you create. They can work beautifully for both purposes. But don’t build your entire business there — it’s a dangerous mistake that can end up costing you hours (or years) of lost work.
2. Craft your cornerstone
In order to create a content marketing platform (as opposed to just writing about a bunch of stuff you find interesting), you need to understand your cornerstone.
The cornerstone of your platform comes from what interests and engages your audience. If you’re just starting out, you can start with what interests and engages you, then observe and adapt from there.
If your site is brand-new, start with about 10 posts that really convey your fundamental beliefs and values about your topic. Think about what you would want every single reader of your site to know.
If you’ve been writing for a while but your site lacks focus, look through your most popular material and pull your best stuff into a series of well-focused content landing pages.
These solidly useful pages are a great place to focus your SEO copywriting work, because readers love them and they naturally tend to attract links and social sharing.
3. Make your content worth reading
This one is tricky.
I’ve seen marketers assure me that their content was “high quality” because it contained a certain number of words, because they didn’t use article-spinning software to write it, or even because they actually know something about their topic.
There’s a lot of lousy, unreadable content that conforms to those three standards.
If you don’t get likes and shares, if Google suddenly hates you, or if your traffic tends to bounce like a superball, you have to take a hard look at the possibility your content just isn’t as good as it needs to be.
How can you tell if your content is worth reading?
You don’t decide. Readers decide.
That means you watch what gets the most traffic, the most links, the most social shares, and yes, the most engagement.
Content that is worth reading usually shares these elements:
- It appears under a headline that attracts and pulls in the audience, and
- It’s genuinely useful, focusing on problems readers actually care about, and
- It’s formatted to engage and hold attention, and
- It’s at least moderately entertaining.
Leave any one of those out and you’ll find that content marketing is depressingly difficult.
If, after a hard look, you realize that your content sucks, all is not lost. Partner (now) with a writer who’s great at creating terrific content, but who struggles with some element of business that you’re really good at.
By the way, if you’re looking for such a miraculous creature, we have recommendations for you on our Certified Content Marketers page. Each of those writers has been carefully vetted by a member of our editorial team for a strong writing voice and sharp marketing skills.
There is no end run around this step.
You either create content worth reading (or watching, or listening to, if you’re doing multimedia) or you don’t. Anyone who tells you otherwise is slowing you down and will lead you to failure.
4. Give your content a secure environment
Having your site hacked is just no fun, and it happens … too often.
But there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself. Make sure your web host takes security seriously. Keep your site software (WordPress or whatever other tool you might be using, including your theme and all plugins) up to date.
I’ve been consistently impressed with a service called Sucuri that monitors your site 24/7 and alerts you instantly if they find any malware. (They can even clean it up for you if it does happen.) I’ve used them on various projects for years, and I’m a big fan.
5. Don’t give your great content an ugly apartment
When I first met my husband, his apartment was so awful that I almost turned around and ran away. I still have nightmares about that carpet.
Don’t let your site do the same to your wonderful audience.
Your words might be smart and sexy, but if you put them into an ugly, amateurish, or cluttered design, your readers won’t come back for a second date.
The right premium WordPress theme can give you a beautiful, professional-looking design at a very attractive price, and has other benefits as well, including improved security and code that doesn’t get in the way of your SEO rankings.
6. Create content that attracts a wider audience
Your “cornerstone” content will help you start to build strong relationships with the people who can eventually become your customers.
Now you’ve got to find readers for that content … which means you’ll create content that’s specifically designed to attract and widen your audience.
This is where you put all your headline-writing skills into practice. Content that attracts attention also tends to have a strong, well-defined point of view.
A little controversy can be good for attracting new readers, as long as you don’t fall into the trap of seeking attention for its own sake.
You’ll still rely on the factors that make your content worth reading — make it useful, make it interesting, make it readable, and put a killer headline on it.
A numbered list or two wouldn’t kill you either.
7. Build an email list sooner rather than later
Content on a public website (like a blog) is fantastic for snagging attention. But to deepen the relationship, email still rocks.
I’m particularly fond of the email autoresponder as a way to use your very best content to build prospect relationships and create an environment of trust.
Email hits readers in a more intimate way, and it tends to engage their attention more fully. When you want readers to take a specific action, send them an email.
8. Create content on a larger stage
If you feel good about items 1–7, you’re ready to start looking for a larger stage to play on.
This is where guest posting comes in. If you have the chops to write content worth reading, and you have solid cornerstone content on your own site, you’re ready for prime time.
Guest posting puts you in front of a larger audience (or sometimes, just a new audience). You can also do interviews, teleseminars, webinars, Q&A calls, or any other activity that puts you in front of more people.
Just remember to always send your new readers back to that high-quality content built on a site you control — whether that’s your blog or your email list. The smartest guest bloggers build landing pages just for these new audiences, to give fresh readers a great first experience with their site.
9. Don’t go too long without making an offer
If you’re content marketing, you can’t forget the marketing part.
If your content is supporting a business, make sure your audiences know exactly what that business is.
Well-crafted landing pages will explain your product or service to your audience in a way that makes it easy to buy. They focus your prospect’s attention so she doesn’t skip around your site checking out all the goodies. And they keep the “selling” in its own designated zone, away from your primary content. You shouldn’t be afraid to sell, but you don’t need to be a used car salesman either.
10. Go to social media … once you’ve got something to talk about
Notice how much “how to sell something on the internet” advice starts with getting a zillion Twitter followers or Facebook likes?
That’s the kind of false shortcut that will kill your progress.
Social media audiences will start spreading the gospel about you as soon as you give them something worthwhile to talk about.
Don’t try to rush to Step 10 of the checklist when Step 3 is still giving you trouble. Just like building the foundation of a beautiful house, if you do the steps in order, you’ll have something solid that will serve you for many, many years to come.
A new resource to simplify your content marketing tasks
If you like guidelines and best practices, you might like something new we’re cooking up. We prepared a small but mighty resource to help you click Publish with confidence.
It’s a framework that lets you check off the most important elements of good content, so you know you’re producing your best work. Because even when we know what to do, we have to remember to do it … every time.