An effective content marketing initiative should not only help a firm generate leads in the short-term (the next 12 months). It must also position it to secure the clients and projects it really values over the long-term (the next 2-3 years). These 7 steps help you do both.
Your content tends to short-term needs and long-term objectives by establishing a substantive point-of-view on a critical market challenge facing clients both now and in the years ahead. While it’s tempting to rush to the table with a slew of new content. Often, the firm’s long-term interests are better served by a more measured, strategic approach that weighs today’s requirements with tomorrow’s objectives. To do this, we generally follow 7 steps:
- Steps 1-3 focus primarily on aligning content with the firm’s business objectives.
- Steps 4-5 focus on developing and exploring potential topics.
- Step 6 is about trimming away the ancillary noise and focusing in on the right activities.
- Step 7 is about translating those activities into an actionable plan.
#1 — Review the Strategic Plan
Align content with the 3-5 year vision.
Among other things, the strategic plan should define which industries appear most attractive to the firm’s leadership, which areas of expertise and service offerings we’d most like to grow, and the critical capabilities that make the firm unique.
Most middle market and larger firms will translate the strategic plan into individual market plans for each key sector. An effective market plan should identify some of the pressing challenges of clients in the market based on the perspective and experience of firm leaders. Your firm’s strategic plan should help you identify where to develop a substantive point-of-view for the firm and some of the pressing challenges and topics your firm could own.
If yours is a smaller firm, you may actually lack a strategic plan. While clearly this is something you should endeavor to fix, you may not be in a position to will that to happen. If that’s the case, a place to start could be simply scheduling some time with firm’s owner or principal. Ask for his or her perspective on where the firm is headed over the next 3-5 years. Most leaders are more than happy to have this conversation.
#2 — Assess the Firm’s Strengths and Weaknesses
Determine where content can add the most value in the next 12 months.
Some of the questions you should be asking yourself:
- Where do we have the most depth in marketable project experience (a collection of tangible, proven outcomes delivered for well regarded clients within the last 3 years)?
- Which practice leaders are most forward-thinking, articulate and outspoken?
- Where have we developed content in the past (this can include industry presentations and articles in trade publications)?
- Which practices or service offerings are we most able to scale?
Ultimately, you’ll have to decide whether it makes more sense to devote your content efforts towards markets where you have the most tangible experience to “double down” on your past success or to apply content to one of your weaker markets by using it as a proxy for experience and closing the gap between your firm and more established competitors. Both strategies can make sense. Generally, it’s best to think about the decision in the context of the firm’s broader strategic plan and in the capabilities of the principals in charge of each market or service.
#3 — Establish Objectives
Pause and answer this question — are you looking to attract new clients or deepen relationships with existing ones?
Often, existing clients are at a different point in their buying journey than new ones. After all, they’ve already hired your firm in the past. Content developed for existing clients can often help them migrate to the next level of a solution — one that may require a different set of advice, services or expertise from your firm. Resist the urge to market to both simultaneously. While effective content for a prospective client may provide some useful ancillary benefits to existing ones, trying to serve both audiences at the same time generally yields something less valuable to both.
#4 — Review Business Development Plans
Align topics with your most pressing pursuits.
Usually, the success of a firm’s year hinges on little more than a handful of opportunities won or lost. As a result, a firm’s current pipeline and business development plan can be a critical resource for developing your content strategy.
- Start by identifying the 4-5 highest priority opportunities for the year ahead.
- Interview any project managers with direct prior experience working with those clients.
- Work with the principal in charge of those pursuits to identify the critical decision-makers.
- Then, work together to make a list of their most pressing concerns related to the upcoming initiative.
In some way, shape or form, many of those pressing concerns should make it into your content strategy for the year ahead.
#5 — Conduct Interviews
Reach beyond the principals for additional insight.
In a lot of firms, the content strategy is shaped largely by the principals in charge. A marketing or communications person works hand-in-hand with a market leader to identify the pressing issues facing clients in the market and translating those issues into potential content topics. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, often there are opportunities to dig deeper. Interviews with associate principals, project managers and client contacts often unearth issues and topics you might otherwise not have known were there. In our own content brainstorm this year I was surprised at how many unique topics came from our client service team that wouldn’t even have been on my radar if you’d asked me for topics in isolation.
#6 — Search Online
Visit your good friend Google to whittle down your options.
If you’ve taken all 5 of these steps (or even just 2-3 of them) you should have a long list of potential content topics and pressing client issues on which to focus your content strategy. At this point, it’s a good idea to start whittling topics down by searching for sources of similar content or perspective. Developing a point-of-view on the “Impact of Falling Oil Prices on U.S. Shale Production” isn’t going to produce a whole lot of value for your firm if that topic has already been explored in depth by someone else.
- Start by searching Google based on how you think someone might search for the topic you’re thinking of exploring in-depth.
- Look for any existing content on the topic.
- If there is none, great. If there is, how substantive is it? Is it research and fact-based? Does your firm’s point-of-view represent a unique or different way of looking at the problem?
- Obviously, at this point, it’s also wise to visit the websites of your key competitors to identify topics they’re focused on along with their points-of-view on them. If you’re going to produce content on similar topics you’ll want to understand what makes your point-of-view different and unique.
Use your online search efforts to punch holes at your initial content list. Identify reasons not to pursue a particular topic or content effort. If your firm produces a lot of thought leadership, it might make sense to invest in Source For Consulting’s thought leadership database. Aptly called White Space, this service indexes thousands of unique pieces of thought leadership on a monthly basis and makes it all available for search and review for an annual fee.
#7 — Develop a Content Calendar
Translate it all into an actionable plan.
At this point, you should have a healthy, actionable list of content topics that are aligned with your firm’s long-term objectives, meet your firm’s near-term needs, are of pressing interest to clients, and are relatively unchartered territory by other firms. The final step is to translate this into an editorial calendar for the year ahead.
A good content calendar outlines who’s responsible for doing what and when it’s expected to be done. It functions as a living, breathing document that changes regularly and is often updated weekly or monthly. As such, it should serve as both an editorial guide and as a simplified project plan. Here are some additional resources for developing a content calendar:
- Getting Started with Editorial Teams and Content Calendars (Webinar)
- Sustaining a Content Marketing Initiative (Interview with Sonja Jefferson)
Recommended Action Items
Chances are good that content strategy is not your full-time job. And, you probably don’t have 3-4 weeks to set aside exclusively for this effort. In fact, you may actually be in the throws of weekly content development as we speak. To tackle this, without outside help, try this:
- Block off one morning each week for the next 10-12 weeks to work on your content strategy.
- Use the first 8-10 weeks for items 1-5 and the last 2-4 weeks for items 6 and 7.
- Plan your activities for each week the week prior
Within 2-3 months you should have an effective, working content strategy that meets your firm’s near-term needs and long-term objectives.