So, you’ve decided 2017 will be the year you start your content marketing programme. Congrats! Successful implementation of content marketing can help you drive revenue, change brand perception, reduce sales lead times and CPAs, and a whole lot more
However, unsuccessful content marketing could also lead to frustration, distraction and wasted budgets, which according to the Content Marketing Institute can happen all too often.
This begs the question: how do you end up on the positive, ‘winning’ side of content marketing and avoid the negative?
Well one important place to start is to think about the systems you need to put in place.
Many online posts exist around content marketing tools, but content marketing tools are specific instances – or sometimes just fragments – of broader systems that you need in place, so that’s what we’ll dig into in this post (while not ignoring tools…because marketers love their tools, so I wouldn’t do that to you!
You might be thinking, “Can not having the right systems (and the tools within those systems) really tank my content marketing”?
Absolutely. Top athletes don’t just set goals and blindly hope to achieve them. They create entire training programmes and regimes around them, repeatable processes, to help them reach said goals. And they employ the best equipment within those systems to give them a competitive edge.
Similarly chefs run tight ships, with well-defined processes in place; and the best chefs use the highest quality ingredients within those systems in order to produce award-winning food.
You get the picture. Systems first, tools second. Both are crucial to the overall success of your content marketing.
In this post I’ll outline 8 fundamental systems (and highlight some of my favourite tools within them) that you need to execute a top performing content marketing programme, which are:
- Lead Capture
- Lead Nurture
For each, I’ll provide a free and premium tool option. Ready? Let’s dive in.
CMS stands for ‘Content Management System’ and it’s very likely what you’re going to use on a day-to-day basis for publishing your content.
Even if your content is not word-based, you’ll need some form of CMS to manage the uploading, processing, hosting and publishing of your videos, images, podcasts etc.
Some CMS systems will also become a focal point for integrating and adding other tools that we’ll discuss in the rest of the post; and some will also help you to write or create your content as well as publish it to the web.
So, what choices do you have?
Some might say, “why look elsewhere?” (I also use WordPress), and there certainly are a large range of advantages, including,
Reliability: A system that powers over 25% of the web is well proven and well maintained! Their core systems will cope with most traffic demands, so they can scale with your business or blog (assuming you also have a scalable hosting system), and downtime is going to be very rare.
Flexibility: For me, this is the biggest reason to choose WordPress. It’s almost infinitely flexible in terms of both its look (so your site can stand out and be branded however you need); and its utility.
You can adapt its utility to your needs by using plug-ins, which offer additional functionality, such as lead capture, video embedding or comments (and just about anything you could possibly think of).
Free: All of this…and it’s free! It’s kind of hard to believe such powerful software, that forms the backbone of so many sites online, could possibly be given away for nothing. However in this case, it’s true.
That being said, there are some cons you should be aware of when it comes to WordPress, before you decide to build your content marketing machine on it. These are:
Lack of support: There is no phone support or customer service team you can call if you have issues with WordPress, and can’t figure out how to make something work. The same goes for many plugins. While there is a forum, and many plugins offer some email support, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the answer you need, or in a timely manner.
This means you have to have at least some digital / technical confidence to get stuck in with WordPress.
Open to vulnerabilities / security: One of its strengths (flexibility and plugins) is also one of its weaknesses, with some plugins being poorly coded and potentially opening up your site to attacks and damage from hackers.
And if you don’t have a technical support team to tell you which plugins are well coded and which are not, you will be taking a small risk with each new plugin you install. For this reason, you may want to consider sticking to well-known plugins created by trusted brands, or those with a very large install base, where you can have a higher degree of confidence they’re safe to use. You can also check their reviews, and if they recently worked on it, giving you an indication that it is being actively maintained.
Slow / bloated: Another downside to adding plugins to WordPress is that they can also slow your site down. If it has to load and run through a ton of programmes every time it loads, then your page speed will be affected. And slow page load time can lead to a poor user experience, and potentially damage your search engine rankings too.
If you decide WordPress is not for you, then what are your alternatives?
You can go for something quite different like a super simple, social CMS like Tumblr or Medium; you could pay a developer to build you a site from scratch; or you could opt for one of several similar CMS systems competing with WordPress such as Wix, SquareSpace, Drupal & Joomla.
Before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), good content marketers spend time researching what content they should create and understanding their audience, ideally building an ideation system around it.
Sometimes this is to fill out buyer personas and understand your audience at a fundamental level; while other times it’s to find popular topics and unique angles to ensure you’re creating content your ideal customer wants.
One of the most popular and widely tools used by content marketers for researching the latter is BuzzSumo, which has a free (though limited) version that anyone can access.
There are a number of different ways you can use BuzzSumo, but one of the most basic is to search for a topic (e.g. “content marketing”) and then see which posts have been the most popular based on how many people have shared them across the major social networks.
This indicates that a particular angle has worked well, and using the ‘skyscraper technique’ popularised by Brian Dean, content marketers will look to create an even better version of that post, usually with a twist or unique angle too.
If you’re interested in digging deeper into the skyscraper technique, you should also check out my post published on Content Marketing Institute on how to do it properly.
Other tools are often used to research popular keywords and phrases that will do well in Google search, driving organic traffic back to your site. These include KeyWordTool.io, Google’s own Keyword Planner, and Moz to name just a few – but there are dozens and dozens you can use.
Again, most of these tools will offer a limited free version and a full-featured paid one.
Before moving onto the next system and set of tools you’re going to need though, it’s worth mentioning some slightly less trendy, but still very effective research methods and tools you can use, which include:
- Surveys and polls (some providers include SurveyMonkey, OnePulse, Google Surveys)
- Phone calls (yes, picking up the phone and asking people questions still works!)
- Focus groups
- Team brainstorming aka collaborating with your team to regular market feedback from the front lines of sales, product, customer service etc.
Assuming you’re going to publish new content regularly, which is often cited as one of the keys to content marketing success (though it’s by no means essential), you’ll no doubt want to create a content marketing calendar.
Whether you work with a team, freelancers, or entirely on your own, having a content marketing calendar is a must for several reasons:
Strategy: One of the biggest benefits of laying out your content marketing ideas and publication schedule into a calendar is that it helps you think strategically.
For example, should you be releasing a piece of content around seasonal events (Easter, Christmas, Bank Holidays etc.) or avoiding it? Should you be prioritising some foundational topics over others to build the right momentum? And are there any obvious gaps in terms of the content you’re creating for your target audience? All of these questions are much easier to answer when you’ve got a calendar in place.
Motivation: Maybe it’s just me, but I really get motivated – and excited – whenever I look at our content calendar (which is several times a day). It reminds me how much content there is to create for the industry, how rich the opportunity is, and how many chances we have to make a difference to someone by providing them with either inspirational or educational content (or both).
Basically, having a list of creative ideas is a great way to keep your mind focused and energised, rather than sitting in front of a blank doc each day, desperately searching for motivation.
On schedule: On a practical note, your content calendar should also help keep you on track. You can use it to track publication deadlines, submission deadlines, whether you’ve had a draft or not, what the steps are in your workflow (e.g. approval by editor, send to design etc.)
Being organised and keeping tabs on your production schedule makes for less stressful, more streamlined, and ultimately more impactful content marketing.
So, what are your options?
On the free side, you’ve got Google Sheets or even Excel.
The main drawback to Excel is that it’s hard to share and collaborate with a team, so unless you really are a one-man band with no outside help, it’s probably not scalable.
Google Sheets is a great alternative though, as you can create different security and sharing settings for different collaborators (e.g. view only, comment only etc.) You can even sync it with Google Calendar to set reminders and share deadlines with your team.
And it plugs into plenty of other popular apps you might already be using to manage your time (or projects) such as Trello and Evernote, both of which offer reasonable free versions of their service too.
It’s the tool I use with an in-house team and freelance help, and while not perfect, we publish over 10 pieces a week with a varying number of people involved, so it does scale.
On the premium side of things there are tools that look really useful, such as CoSchedule, Contently and Percolate. While I’ve not used them myself, they promise all kinds of additional functionality, from governance and workflow tools to content creation and tracking, that help keep everything in one place for you.
For larger enterprise content teams, perhaps working internationally, those with a higher cadence of publication, or for anyone working in more regulated industries that needs more legal / compliance control, these could be the answer for you.
Whatever route you choose, I’d urge you to get some calendar system set up in place sooner rather than later!
Content marketing isn’t just about the written word, and even if the majority of your content is made up of blog posts, you’ll probably want to use a design tool for creating nice images to add to it, or to encourage social sharing.
The thought of design can be quite intimidating though, especially if you’ve never really considered yourself particularly arty or talented in that area.
So what can you use to help create impactful images even if you’re a complete novice? To my mind, the best tool out there is Canva.
It’s by no means perfect, and there are several things I’m hoping to see improve as it continues to grow and find success, but for a free online tool that will help those of us (including me) who are not naturally good at design, it’s hard to beat.
It will provide you with suggested templates and professional looking backdrops on which you could even just edit the text, or a blank canvas on which you can add images, shapes, colours and text until you’ve got an image your audience will want to share. They’ve also got great support and design classes to help you with the process.
If Canva is too simplistic though, and you’re looking to create a more nuanced, professional design, then the go-to tool for many of the world’s designers is still Adobe. It’s not particularly cheap unless you’re a heavy user of it, but the depth of functionality it offers is amazing, and watching a designer who knows how to use it can genuinely be a fascinating experience in itself!
Lastly, another alternative, if you really don’t want to do the design work yourself, is to outsource it to a designer. You can use sites like Upwork to find really talented designers for reasonable rates (although bear in mind, you often get what you pay for, so don’t skimp too much).
Many people have written that if ‘content is king, promotion is queen’ and that’s because the ‘field of dreams’ strategy doesn’t work for content marketing. If you write it, they will not come…unless you tell them about it!
Getting the word out to your audience that you’ve created valuable content for them is an essential ingredient to the success of content marketing, and one that is criminally overlooked.
If you’re not spending at least 50% of your time (and budget) on content promotion, then you’re very likely wasting much of the time and money you’re spending on content creation, because you’re not investing enough in getting it seen.
So what are your ‘free’ and ‘premium’ options here?
Free promotion tools include social media, search engine optimisation and email, so let’s run through each:
Social: Using social media to promote your content has had an entire library’s-worth of content written on it, so this is a very, very brief overview, but you’ve got at your disposal:
- and many others I won’t list here…
The basic rules of engagement for all of them – on which the success of your content marketing promotion depends – is that they’re communities, and communities demand give-and-take, and respect.
This means you can’t just spam everyone every time you publish a post without contributing back to the community as well. This will include liking, hearting, commenting, retweeting, sharing and otherwise acknowledging other’s contributions; only sharing high quality content of genuine value; and understand (then following) the specific cultural rules each community has developed.
SEO: Less of a tool and more of an overarching, long-term strategy, SEO as a distribution channel is all about getting your content to the top of Google’s search results (not to mention Bing, and even Alexa if you’re thinking ahead to the impact of voice-based search).
Brian Dean recently released some great guidelines on how to do this, based on over a million sites, so check it out. However the key ingredients remain: make sure your content is of high quality and will be useful (or enjoyed by) your target audience; try and build genuine, high-authority backlinks (i.e. don’t buy them); make sure your pages provide a good user experience to the read (fast page load, mobile optimised etc.)
There’s also a great free SEO-plugin for WordPress called Yoast I can recommend, which helps guide you in terms of creating content that will be optimised for doing well in search.
Email: For many of the giants in content marketing, such as Hubspot, email has been the key to success. Building a strong email list so you can tell them about your latest content release is a powerful way to reach an engaged audience who want to read (or watch) what you’ve produced.
Using email to drive this audience back to your content will also then prompt them to share it with their networks on social; and potentially lead to important back-links too.
There are many great email tools out there you can use, with MailChimp being one of the most popular (free up to 2000 people).
On the paid side of things you have Adwords, paid social and retargeting, so let’s run through these too:
Paid social: The most common form of paid content promotion is giving your social sharing a boost with some targeted advertising budget. Most of the major social networks offer some kind of paid promotion now, with Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook all providing easy-to-use self-service dashboards for setting your budget, target audience and a variety of other options.
Adwords: This is Google’s Pay Per Click (PPC) programme, and it allows you to bid on keywords and phrases that your target audience may be searching for, and promotes you site (or in this case, content) in the increasingly prominent adword spots.
I should add a note of caution here, in that paying to drive people to top of funnel or awareness-stage content (i.e. content where your target audience is quite far away from purchasing your product or solution) could become a very expensive form of content promotion.
It generally works better – and is more cost effective – if driving people to specific landing pages when they’re closer to end of the purchase funnel. For example pricing pages, feature tables, product demos, sales webinars etc.
Retargeting: This is a form of display advertising, and essentially allows you to show your content to your audience across different sites they visit once they’re left yours.
Similar to with adwords, you’ll probably get more bang for your buck if you utilise retargeting to push people to your middle and bottom-funnel content from your awareness content.
Whatever promotional tools you choose to use (paid or free), just make sure you use them generously, so that you give your content the audience it deserves!
6. Lead capture
Next up in the basic content marketing systems you need is lead capture, and the related lead capturing software.
Why is this such an essential ingredient to content marketing success? Well, see the above note about how crucial email is to content promotion.
Without a good-sized, quality email list, you’re going to struggle to scale your content marketing programme, and so you need an effective way to capture leads.
Thankfully, there are some brilliant free tools out there you can use, that are also super simple to set up, so this section will be almost as brief as it is important!
On the ‘free’ side of things, you’ve got SumoMe and MailMunch. Both offer similar services (and both have paid plans too), so what do they do, and what are their key differences?
They both offer:
- Hero bars
- Embedded sign-ups
They both let you target where these lead capture tools appear, how they behave, as well as some basic levels of customisation, and they both sync to the most popular email clients too.
7. Lead nurture
Once you’ve got those emails, the next question is, what do you do with them? Keeping them in an excel sheet or a CRM system won’t help you turn them into customers! You need engage them.
This is where lead nurturing comes in, and so we look at the next essential system for content marketing success.
Lead nurturing is essentially the practice of communicating regularly with your opt-in database (leads), in order to progress them down the sales funnel so they go from an interested audience to a paying customer.
There are many tools and some huge software players in this space to help you achieve this, but first we’ll take a look at a free option, and it comes back to a tool we’ve mentioned a couple of times already: MailChimp.
While they do not claim to be a lead nurture tool, you could quite easily ‘hack it’ to make it work for you as a basic alternative to the other paid-for lead nurture vendors.
To do this, you could take two routes.
Route one would be to settle for sending out a regular newsletter (weekly, monthly), and use this to continue engaging your leads with your content. You can even do this via RSS so it automates the sending at a set time each week (or month), meaning you can ‘set and forget’ it, which might be quite attractive if you’re a one-man band with a lot of other things to think about.
However it’s likely to be less effectively than other methods of lead nurturing.
Route two would be to use their ‘Automations’, which essentially becomes a drip programme, and so anyone signing up for that particular list would receive a series of related emails, generally aimed at progressing them down the funnel to purchase. However you have to pay for this feature.
And if you’re going to pay MailChimp for nurturing, you may want to consider a more full featured, all singing all dancing solution, meaning you would be better to turn to Marketo, Hubspot, Pardot, Eloqua etc. who all offer enterprise marketing automation solutions.
However one word of warning is that ‘marketing automation’ can be somewhat of a misnomer, as they can be enormously time consuming and complex to set up and maintain, so they’re only really an option if you have the resources and time to spend on configuring and managing them.
Last, but most certainly not least, we reach the final system we’d want in our content marketing ecosystem: analytics.
Tools that can provide you analytics and insights into the performance of your content marketing are enormously useful because they help you to avoid wasting time and money on things that don’t work, and help you focus on what does, ultimately making your business more profitable.
Standing head and shoulders above pretty much every other analytics tool is Google Analytics, thanks to its ease of installation, functionality…and the fact it’s free!
Again, like all of these system, Google Analytics could (and does) have books written on it and many posts (or entire blogs) can cover the ins and outs properly.
So just extremely briefly, some of the benefits of using Google Analytics include (for free):
- Understanding where your traffic comes from (e.g. which social networks, SEO, email etc.)
- The content your audience likes (by looking at time on page, bounce rates, pages per session for landing pages etc.)
- What content they don’t like (looking at the same metrics)
- Which pages help to drive your business goals (assuming you’ve set up Goals to track this)
Another very handy free tool for content marketers is provided by SumoMe, who offer free heatmaps and engagement tracking – both great insights into how your audience interacts with your content and how engaged they are with it.
On the paid side of things you’ve got tools like CrazyEgg (for heatmaps) and KISSmetrics (for more advanced and detailed data than Google Analytics provides), both companies started by accomplished content marketer Neil Patel.
There’s a lot to think about before starting your content marketing programme, but by getting all the right systems in place, you really will be setting yourself up for success with a strong foundation.