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What Is Content Strategy? A (Complete) Beginner’s Guide

Everyone knows that you need great content to be successful online, but having great content is only half the equation.

The other half is what you do with it, how you apply it as part of your overall marketing strategy.

Here’s why:

As of January 2020, there are 4.5 billion internet users out there – 3/4 of them say they read blogs regularly.

(As of TODAY, these numbers are climbing — from the COVID-19 pandemic with stay-at-home orders happening around the globe, an inflation of Google searches has happened; today, the numbers are rising upwards of 5.5 billion searches per day, up from 3.5 billion/day.)

Blogs have been the main driver of content since the beginning. In 2020, at least 55% of marketers identify blog content as their top inbound marketing tool. A fifth of all social media posts link back to a blog on a site.

Why all this emphasis on blogs and content?

Research by the Content Marketing Institute shows that content marketing generates three times more qualified leads than traditional forms of advertising.

(My own exponential business growth over the past few years is living proof.)

Content marketing is easily one of the most powerful tools in existence when it comes to driving your business to unparalleled heights of success.

Simply put… it WORKS.

There’s a catch here, though. Even with great content, content marketing on its own isn’t enough. You also a need content strategy.

But what IS content strategy?

That’s what this guide is about.

What’s Here: What Is Content Strategy? A Complete Beginner’s Guide

1. Content Strategy Defined

A. A Roundup of Ideas and Definitions

B. Defining CS in Relation to Your Business

2. Content Strategy, Content Marketing, & Content Marketing Strategy

A. Content Marketing Defined

B. CMS: How CS & CM Work Together In Your Business

3. What a Content Strategy Looks Like on the Ground

A. A Real-Life Example

A complete beginner's guide to what content strategy is

What Is Content Strategy? There’s More Than One Right Answer

If you were to ask a room full of marketers, writers, and business owners about what “content strategy” is, I’d bet you a pretty penny or two that you’d get more than one answer.

Actually, you’d get several answers that seem to conflict with each other on the surface. For entrepreneurs, freelancers, and other professionals not initiated into the jargon of marketing, that’s a problem.  

Most digital marketers claim content strategy is The Big Thing in 2020, but until very recently, the term has been rife with misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest definitions online and see if we can piece together what it is.

The Many Definitions of Content Strategy

According to experts on the internet, content strategy is…

  • The process that helps you get the right content in front of the right people, at the right times, for the right reasons (Content Marketing Institute Blog).
  • The management of content that you create and own done so in a way that demonstrates your brand and its authority on a topic (HubSpot on Content Strategy).
  • The glue that connects your company’s content with your business goals, and the needs of your customers or audience (Kristina Halvorson at Brain Traffic).
  • The strategic planning, creation, delivery, and governance of your content (US Government’s User Interface and Usability Office).
  • The fulfillment of business requirements or goals through content creation and distribution (Distilled).
  • The guidelines involving how and why you create and manage the content your customers will encounter (Moz).

All of these definitions are right, and they all touch on slightly different aspects of content strategy. However, they all have a few common themes. According to these definitions, content strategy:

  • Firmly connects your content and your business goals or needs.
  • Requires that all content serves a purpose.
  • Involves the content’s entire lifecycle, not just its creation and publication.
  • Is inextricably linked to content marketing (the source of much of the confusion).

In other words, content strategy isn’t simply blogging for blogging’s sake, or posting on social media daily to keep the account looking active – you know, internet business best practices from a decade or more ago.

It’s not the endless creation of editorial calendars or hosting brainstorming sessions on Hangouts with your blogging BFFs (although you might do these things during the content creation phase).

Content strategy is bigger, more all-encompassing, more personalized to your specific business.

That’s why there’s no one Right Answer when it comes to content strategy … because there’s no One Business Model or One Road to Success.

content strategy and marketing is huge

Content Strategy Wants YOU to Define What It Means For Your Business

In a nutshell, content strategy is the masterplan defining and driving the use of content to achieve your business goals.

It’s the backbone of your content creation and the marketing efforts that help you develop a brand with authority in your industry.

Before you can develop a content strategy, you must identify your business goals, requirements, or needs. (If you’re in business and are surviving, you should already know these. If you’re just getting started, here’s a great primer.)

The connection between business goals and content output frequently represents a missing link for entrepreneurs, freelancers, and even some businesses. Without it, a content strategy lacks context.

Once you have that context, the following questions take on a lot more nuances: 

  • How does my content meet business and user needs?
  • Who is my intended audience and how does it meet them where they are?
  • Where am I publishing this content (and why)?
  • What action (or reaction) do I want from my audience?
  • When is the best time to publish this content?

Remember: knowledge without action is worthless.

When you can answer these questions completely, you’re well on your way to becoming a content strategist.

Content, Marketing, and Strategy… Oh My! Putting It All Together in a Way That Makes Sense

Now that we’ve defined content strategy, let’s put a sword through the biggest Gordian knot of terms in digital marketing. Ready for it?

First, Let’s Define Some Words

Content, marketing, and strategy are three words frequently found together in a multitude of combinations. It’s really important to define these three words individually because those combinations can get pretty crazy.

Drawing from Merriam-Webster…   

  • Content is the principal substance (written, visual, audio, etc.) constituting your online presence (such as a website).
  • Strategy is the plan of action to achieve a goal.
  • Marketing is the process of creating, communicating, and distributing materials with the intent to exchange valuable offerings.

Alone, they seem pretty straightforward. When we put those ideas together, we end up with a lot of confusion. And it shows…

Confidence levels of marketers when planning content - CMI

Research by the Content Marketing Institute shows that organizations continue to lack confidence in their content strategy.

Content Marketing: Related to Content Strategy

Content marketing involves “creating, publishing, and distributing content for a targeted audience online” (Practical Content Strategy & Marketing).

Look familiar? It should.

What are creation, publishing, and distribution activities to which we’re referring?

Those are your brainstorming sessions, editorial calendars, and neat social media auto-posting features that many marketing platforms now offer.

Here’s where most people (particularly non-marketing people, aka most solopreneurs and freelancers) trip up:

On their own, these activities are not a strategy. They’re tools for enacting a strategy.

An editorial calendar is NOT a content strategy

They look like a strategy because they involve planning, foresight, and getting those creative juices flowing. However, content strategy guides the use of those tools. Content strategy decides:

  • What subjects (topic circles) guide the brainstorming session?
  • What topics from the session make it onto the editorial calendar?
  • What’s the best voice, style, and formatting to use to meet an audience?
  • What are you doing to create a more valuable and comprehensive piece of content than what your competitors provide?
  • Where and when content is posted or cross-posted?
  • How is the piece of content tracked and what metrics do you use to measure success?
  • What happens to the content once it’s no longer fresh?

In other words, the content strategy ensures that each piece of content has a purpose, aligns with your needs or goals, and exists to provide value to your users. 

what are the keys of a content strategy?

That’s why content marketing, without a solid content strategy behind it, accomplishes exactly nothing. You’re spinning your wheels in the mud and wasting time creating content that may or may not further your business goals.

Confidence in revenue-driving results from content

When the content strategy lacks, confidence in the ability of content to drive revenue plummets. Just look at these results from a January 2020 survey by Heinz Marketing.

Content Marketing Strategy: The Complete Package

Separating content strategy and content marketing can get messy because they’re so closely linked, but hopefully, I’ve illuminated the differences enough and shown how they work together.

There’s another term that can bewilder: content marketing strategy.

(Sheesh. Marketers really like their jargon soups, don’t they?)

However, don’t despair. Content marketing strategy is really very simple, and I actually already covered it above:  

“The strategy of creating all the content for your content marketing is specifically content marketing strategy” (Practical Content Strategy & Marketing).

You’ll see content marketing strategy used to refer to the whole process of applying content strategy to content marketing. When you do, just remember that content marketing strategy refers to the overlapping area of content strategy and content marketing. It’s a little bit of both.

Profitable Content Marketer Cheat Sheet

What a Content Strategy Looks Like on the Ground

So, that’s all pretty high level but what does content strategy look like when put into action on a daily basis? That’s what we’re looking at next.

Remember: Content Strategy Is a Process

Although strategy is a noun, content strategy is best described as a process, not a thing.

At the highest level, it’s the process of planning, developing, and managing content – but that’s a very abstract way to talk about it.

More concretely, content strategy looks like this:

You discover a user problem that your product solves. You figure out where you’re most likely to encounter users with this problem, and you create content tailored to reaching them there. As people find your content, you take note of their feedback and you make changes to refine your message.

what is the content strategy process?

Put into a real-life example, it looks like this:

1. Identify a user need that aligns with a business goal. As the owner of a company that sells athletic gear, you notice that a competitor has a lot of reviews where users are complaining that it’s hard to figure out and order their correct sizes – they keep needing to return things. You notice that they sell similar products as you and that you’ve had a few reviews from your own customers indicating that they’ve needed to return items, too.

2. Determine the content that can address that need. You decide to create a set of guides on how users can take their own measurements and help them identify the best sizes to order for gear.

3. Plan and develop the content. You determine your content will involve charts, visual guides, and video tutorials on taking measurements. To make sure your audience finds it, you take care to optimize the content with SEO.

4. Publish and market the content. The content is published on your site (YOUR turf), and you follow up by linking relevant sizing material in blog posts on different types of gear. You consider running a social media campaign specifically targeting users who have trouble identifying what size gear they need.

5. Support the content to keep it valuable and relevant. As manufacturers release new versions of gear, you update your sizing guides accordingly.

That’s a digital content strategy using the six steps of a solid framework, and it’s 1000x more effective than simply publishing informative articles on the different athletic gear carried in your store.

The Types of Content Strategy Models Out There

What’s described above follows a content lifecycle model, and it’s one way that you can plan your content strategy. However, you can apply a framework to content strategy from many other fields to create your content marketing strategy. Some of the common ones include:

  • The Pillar and Spoke Model: Also known as topic clusters, it’s a well-known way of organizing content around one main topic that also helps with SEO.
  • Frameworks from UX: Content strategy can map onto user experience (UX) frameworks, such as this one which maps content onto technical, editorial, and web development viewpoints.
  • Canvas Model: In canvassing, processes are mapped in a way that defines their value proposition, key activities, channels, customer segments, and other features.
  • Agile content strategy: Content strategy using the agile framework can enhance responsiveness and support change management initiatives in situations like pivoting or rebranding.  
Typical approaches of content creators

Marketers and content creators use a lot of different approaches in their content strategies. Source: Content Marketing Institute.

Learn to Mastermind a Content Strategy

So, what is content strategy? Content strategy is the tool that takes content’s creation and its uses to the next level, putting it to work for your brand. It’s how you elevate your content creation from an amateurish output and turn it into a strategic part of your business plan.

It provides the WHY behind the WHAT.

With a solid content strategy in place, content creation and its marketing become MUCH easier. It’s a map that will give you a sense of direction and purpose.

Ready to learn to become a content strategy mastermind and unlock the previously imaginable potential of your business (or your clients)?

Enroll in the Content Strategy & Marketing Course and learn these skills (plus more!) in under 45 days.

enroll in the Content Strategy and Marketing Course
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