Content marketing has matured from trend status to an established, must-do marketing discipline. But despite that maturity, we still see organizations running on a digital marketing hamster wheel, churning out "random acts of content." 

Perhaps 2017 can be the year we establish a content marketing strategy that delivers relevant audience engagement.  

But where do we start? We are, as the saying goes, building the plane while we're flying it. 

Starting from scratch isn't an option, so we need to iterate towards a new way of marketing. What follows is a model that hopefully will give you a few pointers. 

Previously I called the model the 3 C's — customer, content and context — but it has evolved into ACE — audience, content and execution. 

You can use the same basic model to diagnose the maturity, strengths and weaknesses of your content marketing capabilities to help prioritize your program and as a core methodology for implementing content marketing. 

A: Audience Insight

Before you hit publish, ask “Who cares?” 

In a digital world clogged with content of questionable quality, who would care enough about your content to do something with it — share it, click on the call to action or call you — whatever the goal? 

Ideally you'll ask this question before you create or commission the content. But with content marketing plans already in motion, it’s a good discipline to review your existing content against this basic criteria and then get the question asked earlier and earlier in the process. 

As a quick aside, people commonly respond to “Who cares?” with the name of a stakeholder from within the company — the CEO, a product marketer or someone in corporate. Wrong answer. 

If nobody outside your business cares about that dullsville press release, do the world a favor and don't publish. 

Now the important question. Ask who you would like to care about your content. Face it, most of us are not running a free content publishing business for clicks (or kicks). We need a certain special someone to smile in our direction and transact with whatever our business happens to be.   

To do this you need to consider the quid pro quo of the content, ensuring that it is useful (or entertaining) for the audience, while at the same time moving them toward a business objective. After all, content creation is not free.   

Now comes the tougher bit. You need data to support these hypotheses to understand who you are really reaching, not just your aspirations and understanding of where the people you want to talk to are, how they behave and how you reach them. 

In content marketing — scratch that, in all marketing understanding the audience is actually the ace. 

Learning Opportunities

C: Content Is (Still) King

The internet is awash with arguments about who reigns the new age of digital marketing, but for me content still has the crown. 

At a high level, this step is about reviewing and defining the brand story, expressing what makes your organization, products or service great, differentiated and relevant in the marketplace, and how this story engages the audience (the real audience identified in the previous steps). 

After asking “who cares?” during content review, when defining the story ask the question “why?” (A quick hat tip to CMI’s Robert Rose who shared these techniques with me when I first started this content marketing journey five years ago.

Then dissect this story into relevant content snippets, expressing the story in the context of each audience persona and where they are on the customer journey.    

This approach works great at the start of a marketing cycle or new project. But what about the piles of existing content you already have? 

Audit the existing content against the ROI criteria discussed above. Ask who cares and whether it delivers on the ‘quid pro quo’ of usefulnesses to the audience and our business objectives. If the answer is no, be ruthless about getting it out of the way.   

E: Execution, the Content Machine

Execution is where you put it all together: the content creation operations and governance; the tools, systems and data; the social channel and websites; and the measurement tools and metrics. 

Most organizations have a complex ecosystem of people, processes and systems supporting execution, but the basic question here is is your organization's content machine fit for purpose? 

The Missing Letter: O 

A content strategy goes nowhere without first defining your business objectives. All of the processes above depend on understanding what your content marketing aims to do and how it links to a measurable objective for the C suite. Whether it’s increased revenue, awareness or other, the program metrics must tie to this.  

So here's to all of us hopping off the content marketing hamster wheel in 2017 and instead focusing on real audience engagement.