Nearly every company recognizes the value of content marketing, but getting from that recognition to a program that works, both internally and externally, is a tough process. It’s not just a matter of writing stuff — it’s a matter of writing stuff that leads to a sale.

Hiring some goofball to write is easy (that’s how I got my start in this fuzzy little piece of the marketing world, after all). The hard part is justifying your content efforts and connecting them to your larger marketing plan, especially when that plan is flexing and shifting on an irregular basis.

There’s no one-size-fits-all checklist for doing this; it depends on the organization’s size, sophistication, audience and industry. But there are a few things I’ve stumbled across that make a big difference for the success of content within the marketing program, regardless of the particulars of the organization — not just in achieving marketing goals, but in winning the internal battles that justify content marketing investments.

Here are my five favorites:

Hail to the nerds

Content marketing without metrics is dangerous: for the company, for the content marketer and ultimately for the CMO who signed off on the budget. Not only does it leave marketers with no cover and make them vulnerable when they’re asked to justify their expenditures, it also leaves them unable to adjust content efforts on the fly. If a content type bombs, you need to know it as soon as possible so you can avoid replicating failure.

That’s where your analytics experts — especially in demand generation — become invaluable. Coordinating with them for regular updates and quarterly deep dives into the numbers arms you with evidence of your contribution and allows you to define success and failure. My team has a self-proclaimed “numbers nerd” who’s downright excited about providing data tying content to the marketing department’s success, and her numbers have helped shape the editorial approach.

When we found that toolkits (or collections of content on a topic) had a 43 percent conversion rate, we started to think in terms of more toolkits. When we found that original research had an almost 40 percent conversion rate, we began considering additional original research. And, when we found content types that were underperforming, we minimized their priority on the content creation schedule.

Even if you don’t have a staff numbers nerd, devote some time to the metrics. Be your own nerd. It’s a big first step toward being the hero of your marketing department.

Stop shooting without targets

A lot of content is created reactively — sales has a need, or the CEO gets an idea, or there’s something in the news you can riff off. Those things are real catalysts of content, but such content must be fashioned in light of the overall marketing strategy. The first step businesses often skip is the step in which they determine what their goals are for content. Is the goal educating a market? Is it gaining mind share from established competitors? Is it building a brand? Without knowing that, you’ll be flailing.

You also need to know whom you’re trying to reach. This can be a broad swath, but you need to have an idea of who’s in that swath in order to understand their problems and the pain points that are driving them to seek out content. Without at least an idea of what’s driving them toward the content you’re creating, you can never make your material the perfect fit that can help turn them into customers.

The editorial calendar and the other calendar

A lot of businesses now have editorial calendars, and some of them even stick to them! Creating this calendar is a tough job, and it should be a collaborative effort. But it’s not the only calendar you should manage.

Ever gone to a company’s website and clicked on a whitepaper or a buyer’s guide, and ended up with something that was written five years ago? How useful is that in making a buying decision? It can be very useful — as in, “I’m not buying from a company that can’t update its content more often than every five years.” Marketing content has a shelf life, and if you don’t manage it, you’ll be stuck with a stale library that repels rather than attracts customers.

Create a calendar for revisions of content. A buyer’s guide or a document that makes an economic argument needs to be updated at least yearly to accommodate pricing changes. Case studies should be updated at a similar interval to ensure the latest numbers are used (or to ensure you’re not touting a customer that’s gone out of business or switched to a competitor). Other content should be examined on a regular basis as well, to ensure it’s still valid and timely.

The good news is that these updates are usually revisions, not rewrites. The result is useful content that comes with a minimum of work. You end up with a deeper bench of content at a lower cost and with greater value to the reader. Which brings us to…

Don’t forget what you’ve already done

Many of us work so hard at generating material we forget what we’ve done in the recent past. That can lead to the creation of redundant material, and also to less fulfilling customer journeys, since you can’t direct customers to “next steps” if you can’t link to pertinent content, and you can’t use those links if you don’t remember them.

Creating a simple index helps (or using your own site’s content search function, if you have one). Looking into your own archives should be a first step in creating new content, not just for access to existing expertise but to find related material your prospects may find helpful. An index is also helpful when a new piece of content supersedes an older one — updating your links is much less painful with that information at your administrator’s fingertips.

Make friends and influence customers

Finally, don’t forget to tap into the expertise within your company — including people who aren’t in marketing. That means venturing into sales territory, primarily. These folks have first-hand experience with prospects and know what they’re talking about, making them a great source of validation for your existing content and inspiration for new content.

But go beyond sales. Approach executives to help with overarching strategy-based content, and even chat up engineers and product people. And, of course, make efforts to talk to customers to see what they want.

It’s easy to sit at your desk, wrap yourself in your editorial calendar and insulate yourself from the wider world — but that’s the world you’re creating content for, so you need to be an involved part of it.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  m01229