“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” — Confucius

If Confucius applied his quote to content marketing, he might say that a content marketing department begins with a single blog post.

Just as a company begins with an idea from a founder, a content marketing machine begins with the work of a single person.

While some organizations have a top-down approach to starting content marketing, I’ll cover the bottoms-up approach: how a single person can build the case for content marketing and work across the organization to make it happen.

Here are six steps from my experience building the content marketing department at DNN:

1. Document Your Mission

When you’re getting started with content marketing, a full blown business plan may be premature. There’s too much that you’ll learn along the way. But defining a simple mission statement does help. A single sentence can be useful: one that captures not just the goal, but how the goal is measured.

For example, “Our goal is to grow awareness, as measured by blog page views and social shares, as well as traffic to our site from branded search terms.”

The mission helps you decide how to prioritize projects. It also provides a quantitative means for assessing success. As you grow your team with colleagues, contractors, agencies and freelancers, the mission statement puts everyone on the same page.

2. Seek an Executive Sponsor

Executive support is essential. When I started, I was fortunate to have strong support from DNN's CEO, Navin Nagiah. In fact, Navin became one of our early bloggers.

Look for an executive sponsor whose interests align with your mission statement. Explain your goals and mention how frequently you’ll provide updates on your progress. If your goal is to grow awareness, executives with titles of CMO, VP Marketing or VP Business Development may be a good fit.

Executive sponsors are essential to gaining budget and for helping share content marketing successes within the executive suite. Positive word spreads quickly from there.

3. Start Publishing

Start with a frequency that works for you. And always choose quality over quantity. Early on, you’ll be the primary author of your blog, but that changes quickly once others catch on.

For instance, blog posts that receive a lot of views, shares and comments will encourage others (both inside and outside your organization) to contribute. In the very beginning, people didn’t submit guest posts to the Marketo blog. However, when Marketo got traction with its blog, it became a desirable destination for marketers to get their posts published.

Don’t paralyze yourself overthinking the best topics to write about. Pick a topic, then write about it. By publishing consistently, you’ll start to see what topics work and which ones don’t. Tune and optimize to improve over time.

4. Evangelize Internally

Rebecca Lieb (@lieblink) of Altimeter Group used the term “culture of content” in one her research reports. Her report inspired me to build and grow a culture of content at DNN. To do so, I needed to become a vocal proponent of content marketing. I had to market the content marketing function.

At a company-wide meeting, I commented that “I begin every day with coffee and content.” Apparently that comment was memorable to colleagues, because soon enough, you could not separate me from the content marketing function I was evangelizing.

Every time an employee made their first contribution to the DNN blog, I’d add their photo to a slide. At company meetings, I’d be sure to slow the slide with everyone’s picture on it. Each month, the number of faces on that slide would grow.

While we did provide monetary incentives (e.g. Amazon gift cards) for participating, I’d always push the intrinsic rewards first: things like exposure, thought leadership and personal branding. Those benefits are more meaningful and sustainable.

5. Build Your (Virtual) Team

Before adding full-time hires to the team, I built out a virtual team to help scale our content marketing. I looked to these three groups:

Non-competitive companies

I network with other companies in our space who are not competitors. I read their content and follow them on Twitter. Once a rapport is established, I ask if they’d like to trade guest blog posts. Their content becomes a welcome addition to our blog, while our content helps us gain awareness on theirs. As an example, here’s a guest post I wrote for Leadtail about a Social Insights report they published.

Freelance writers

Freelance writers need to market their own content. So it’s not surprising that some of the best marketing content is published by folks who do freelance writing for a living. I subscribe to over 150 blogs. When someone publishes consistently good content, I check to see whether they’re a freelance writer. I’ll then hire them to write blog posts or e-books. If I love what they write on their own site, then I’m certain it’ll work well on mine.

Third party research

I’ve collaborated with companies like The Community Roundtable, Demand Metric and Leader Networks on third party research. Their research can provide interesting insights to inform our marketing and product strategy. In addition, the research becomes a valuable component of our content marketing. I can create an editorial schedule around the research: blog posts, SlideShares, videos, webinars and more.

6. Share Results Widely

As you generate wins in the content marketing department, let the entire company know. At company-wide meetings, I ask for five minutes on the meeting agenda to share recent successes (including that slide with the photo of all contributors).

Also share results with your executive sponsor. Use the metrics associated with your mission statement, but also share qualitative successes: a compliment from a blog reader or a customer who said “keep up the good work” about your blog. 

Bringing It All Together

In addition to the metrics associated with your mission statement, here’s one indicator I use on content marketing success: when bona fide writers ask if they can submit a guest post on your blog. If that happens, pat yourself on the back, then share the resulting post with everyone in your company.

Related Tips

Recently, I was invited to participate in #ContentChat, a weekly Twitter chat about content marketing. The topic of the chat was “Creating Content When Your Marketing Team is Small.” This chat summary from Smarter Shift provides nuggets of wisdom that were shared by participants.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Steven Bratman