Content marketing and a content strategy are two very different things. You might think that because your blog revolves around a certain topic, your content strategy is exactly that — a blog that discusses a topic related to your product or service. But actually, a documented content strategy is the difference between publishing content on a whim, with the gut feeling that your audience will enjoy it, and publishing content based on research in a way that doesn’t just push more content out into the world aimlessly, but with content that creates value for your readers and to your brand.

To harness a stronger understanding of what makes for a strong documented content strategy, CMSWire reached out to Martha Mathers, practice leader, Marketing and Marketing Technology at best practice insight and technology company CEB, now Gartner.

What Is Content Marketing?

Let’s first recap on how content marketing is defined. According to Mathers, content marketing is, “made up of the individual assets that a company or brand builds to capture the attention of prospective buyers, nudging them toward a purchase [or conversion].” Those assets could be anything from a blog post, to a LinkedIn status update, to a live webinar to an Instagram post. But producing those assets is the easy part — the hard part is producing those assets in line with your content strategy.

What Is a Content Strategy?

A content strategy isn’t about capturing clicks and downloads. Instead, a content strategy describes what you aim to achieve through the sum of your content investments. "Content strategy, by contrast encompasses the entire content marketing portfolio and carries a certain expectation for business impact,” said Mathers. 

Theresa O'Neill, the VP of Marketing at Ghent, Belgium-based Showpad, a content management and marketing solution had this to add, “A content strategy is the larger planning, development and execution of your company’s collateral. It includes the entire customer lifecycle, from the bottom of the funnel through the close and deployment of a product or solution. Within this strategy, thought leadership and how-tos are prevalent, and are great pieces of informative content that helps customers." 

As for how seriously brands should be taking their content strategy in 2018 and beyond, O’Neill emphasized that establishing a content strategy is a must for brands now, and should be a major focus for them in 2018 if they haven’t started already. According to her, the marketing team needs to build relevant, targeted content for customers and prospects, whether they’re low-funnel or lack total awareness. 

Content that aligns with a centralized content strategy is also important for sales teams, as strong, relevant content helps to keep prospects moving forward through the funnel. “Companies need to know what content performs best, what drives the most revenue and what doesn’t work. This is why, when building out a content strategy for 2018, [with] sales and marketing alignment is a key piece of the puzzle,” O’Neill said.

Where to Get Started With Your Content Strategy

According to Mathers, CEB, now Gartner research shows that leading content strategies include two dimensions, organizational need and customer buying behavior. “Organizational need depends on commercial objectives established by the CMO and his or her senior leadership team, but when it comes to the second dimension — customer behavior — we see many companies who fail to appreciate that marketers are not so much makers – but takers,” she explained. As far as Mathers is concerned, far too many miss that critical second component of a successful content strategy.

Learning Opportunities

“For content marketing to be effective, marketers must build a strategy that addresses the specific information needs and learning tendencies that lead customers to seek out supplier content in the first place. If a company’s content marketing strategy looks only inward and not simultaneously outward, then it’s losing sight of a critical enabler of commercial results,” she said.

Returns Are Expected, But Not Always Quantified

CEB, now Gartner, research, according to Mathers, shows that only 41 percent of marketers have a documented content strategy. But that’s not the really interesting part, she noted. “When you look under the hood of that 41 percent, a [CEB, now Gartner] review of the content strategies for these companies found that most [content strategy] documents were better described as editorial calendars or content production dashboards,” said Mathers. And while those documents are useful for fulfilling micro-level needs like getting the next campaign out the door, they do little to help a brand achieve their broader content marketing objectives.

According to research from CEB, now Gartner, Mathers said, “despite high levels of investment in content marketing (content production and distribution comprise more than 1/3 of the typical CMO’s budget), returns remain unclear for most marketing teams.”

In fact, according to Mathers, nearly half of marketers exhibit some level of confidence in returns from their content marketing investments, but they struggle to articulate concrete business impact. “In this type of environment — namely, significant investment with low certainty around returns — a carefully crafted strategy becomes a crucial focusing device that helps teams prioritize the highest-potential content opportunities,” she said.

A Great Content Strategy Considers Customer Behavior

Mathers said that organizations need to be more proactive about considering customer behavior more actively. “Change is the only constant in today’s customer environment. Empowered buyers have access to high-quality information enabled by always-on, digital communication channels, and companies must find a way to break into customers’ learning needs – while ultimately building preference for their own solution,” she said.

"Today’s marketing environment demands content strategies that carefully and consistently target a small number of very specific, high-priority organizational goals. But that alone is insufficient. Marketers must simultaneously account for buyers’ needs and behaviors to ensure they produce content that’s not only consumed, but that actually drives favorable buying behavior."

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