Looking at Your Content’s DNA: How to Research for Your Content Strategy
It’s unlikely that you make any important life decisions without doing research. You wouldn’t buy a house or car without first learning as much as you can about them. You wouldn’t take a job without asking questions about it. You wouldn’t make a major investment without thoroughly investigating it.
Your company’s content marketing plan is an investment. Like all investments, you want return on it. As such, exhaustive research should be the cornerstone of any effective content marketing strategy. It’s how you can understand your audience and their needs. It’s how you discover the pain points you can resolve. It’s how you learn what your audience wants and where they go to get it.
Intelligent research plays a role in multiple aspects of a well-informed content strategy, and for the purposes of this article, we’ll break it down into two phases: foundational research and continual research.
As it would imply, foundational research takes place at the outset of your marketing plan. It’s the backbone on which your actual content will be built. Continual research is what you’ll conduct throughout the process of conceptualizing, producing and distributing the content itself.
Content without a plan and purpose – regardless of how great it might be – is likely doomed to obscurity. You need a strategy to get the most out of your content. Foundational research can be compared to the traditional idea of the five W’s. Often used as a basis for scientific research and journalism, the five W’s aim to answer who, what, where, when and why. Let’s analyze how that might apply to content marketing strategy.
Who: At its simplest, who is your audience? Knowing your target audience is first-day curriculum stuff from Marketing 101, but you need to define that audience deeper than just “potential customers to buy product x.” Where does this audience exist online? What are the current challenges and concerns of this audience? Does the audience break down into defined personas? As much data you can accumulate on your audience will help ensure the content you craft is what they’re looking for.
What: What content do you have? This will help determine what content you need. Research what parts of your website do well and which do poorly. Those that do well will identify what your audience finds useful. Those pages performing poorly can spotlight where to address needs. Do you need to refresh that content? Repurpose it? Scrap it altogether?
Don’t stop at assessing your own content, though. Research the competition, as well. Compiling and analyzing content in your industry helps understand what the audience is using and sharing. Recognize where you might be able to offer more than the competition by identifying ways to provide more value, more information, or a better user experience with your own content.
Understanding what content you have and need, and what content is already out there and performing, is an important frame in the big picture of your marketing plan.
Where: You’ve determined who your audience is, now where are they? Identify the channels where the audience is engaging with content. This could include industry publications, social media or paid media. Are they following industry influencers or experts? If your content falls in the forest, but no one is there to see it, does it really exist? You’ll spend good money creating content, so don’t waste it by failing to identify where it can do its best work.
Where can also include where the audience is physically consuming content – as in what devices they are using. Are the majority using phones? If so, you might consider how your content can be tailored to those devices and platforms.
When: There’s a cliché that it’s “all about timing.” While it isn’t ALL about timing, it can be an important aspect of content marketing strategy. Are there cyclical patterns in your metrics? This information can help you identify when to focus on or promote/boost certain content.
Why: Use data to understand why people come to your content and website. Typically, users have one of three intentions: to get information; to shop; to be entertained. While you’d love to be entertaining, your goal here is to earn business. Learn the search terms that attract visitors to your site because SEO will play a vital role in your content creation.
As mentioned, this will be ongoing research to help craft the most compelling and useful content that supports your overall strategy. Some of it will overlap with foundational research, because digital content (and especially the platforms used to consume it) can be a fluid proposition.
As search engines evolve, best practices for producing content must also. Advanced algorithms can now interpret a user’s intent, which means they can decipher the content on a page and not simply identify keywords. Therefore, a good SEO strategy is far more than just peppering keywords throughout.
When it comes to the actual creation of content, you’ll want it to be well written and informative. Stay up to date with the most relevant research and developments in the industry. Use trusted sources such as industry body reports, survey studies and peer-reviewed articles.
This is key because a stark reality is that the majority of content published online generates little to no shares and links. In fact, in doing research for this post, I learned that more than half of a randomly selected 100,000 posts had fewer than three Facebook interactions and more than three-quarters had zero external links.
Now, this shouldn’t scare you away from content marketing, but should reinforce how important it is to approach it tactfully. The same study noted that certain, specific content types did have a positive correlation to shares and links – and those were “research-backed content” and “opinion forming journalism.”
Keeping eyes and ears on industry forums and social channels can help ensure you always have a pulse of the active players in the industry, and providing them well researched and useful tools based on that knowledge can ultimately equal conversions and sales.
There are also useful tools to aid you in conducting continual research. A simple one you might not think about is Google autofill. How many times have you started to type a search and Google provides you with a number of predetermined options that may or may not be exactly what you intended to search for?
Those suggestions aren’t random. Take advantage of this feature by typing in some keywords or trends in your industry and see what comes up in the autofill options. This provides you with some insight into what others are searching for.
Another helpful Google tool is Google Trends. Similarly, but with more detail, this tool can assist you in determining the most important topics with your audience and associated search terms.
If you haven’t yet explored Buzzsumo, it provides a useful look at the most shared articles related to a search term, with relevant (and sortable) statistics and information. You can also use this tool to identify the most popular publications for your industry or audience.
When it comes to the investment in your content marketing plan, the stakes are too high to go in blindly or underprepared. Only well thought out and well carried out strategies will ultimately succeed, and a content marketing plan without extensive research before and during will be neither well thought out nor well carried out.