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How To Develop Your Digital Content Strategy

What’s a digital content strategy? This is a hard question to answer in 2015. Is a digital content strategy something you need for social media? Content marketing? Influence marketing? Your blog? All of the above? Yes, all of the above and then some. Your digital content strategy should be an all-encompassing strategy that defines how you approach communications across all your digital channels.

Why do you need a digital content strategy? You need a digital content strategy because your audiences want you to engage and interact with them in different ways, with relevant content that aligns with the ways they choose to consume and share the content you provide.

If you’ve never created a digital content strategy for your organization, the following steps will walk you through creating one. This is no small task, but I’ve tried to approach the assignment to make it easier for you to produce a digital content strategy that will be useful for your organization. First up, who do you communicate with?

  • Who do you need to communicate to? – this is the wrong question (and one of my pet peeves). It’s WHO do we NEED to communication WITH. You have to communicate with all your audiences – and that communication is now a micro, one-to-one, two-way conversation. Your digital content strategy must define all of your target audiences, but it must also prioritize those audiences based on their importance to your business. Customers and people that influence them will always rank high on your list of target audiences. Break down your most important target audiences and provide a clear description for each group you plan to communicate with. Some people find that breaking down audience groups into personas – similar characteristics found among subsets of your audience – helps to further define the audience you plan to interact with.
  • Why do you want to interact with them? – do you still think you can tell customers what you want them to do and have them actually do it? This is no longer the case. Your audiences have all the control today. You must get to the heart of why you CARE about communicating with your audiences. If you care, it will be much easier to develop content your audiences will enjoy and share. If you don’t care, your audience will know it and your content will lack authenticity. A key for generating awareness and engagement among your audiences is to show you care about them – by actually caring about them. Thiscan be as simple as listening to what they have to say on social media and in the comments section of your blog, and responding to their questions and comments with a genuine response. Map out clear communications goals for your organization. Here are a couple of goals to consider:
    • Why do you want to communicate with customers? –  do you really value your customers? What are you going to do to let them know that? Are you going to share the user-generated content they create showing how much they love your brand and your product? Are you going to thank them for making a purchase? Are you going to help promote their business among your audience to help them grow? What can you do to add more value for your customers (not the other way around)?
    • What is your approach to service? – if a customer has a problem with what you sell, how quickly will you respond and what are you willing to do (publicly) to make that problem go away?
    • What outcomes will you measure? – what do you want to measure? Is audience growth important to you? Brand sentiment? Volume of conversations about your brand and your competition? Leads and sales directly attributed to the performance of your content? I recommend having one core goal for your digital content strategy, supported by a set of key performance indicators (or KPIs) that help you monitor and evaluate your program over time. This will help you do more of the stuff that’s working, and less of the stuff that’s not.
  • How do we communicate with them? – once you have identified your target audiences, you need to dive deeper. Much, much deeper. Here are just a few of the things I believe organizations need to do when mapping out their digital content strategy for their target audiences:
  • How does each audience consume content? – there may be a dozen or so different variants here, but you most likely have different sub-groups that define how each audience seeks, consumes and shares content in different ways. For each audience subgroup, you must understand how they consume content. This may not be obvious at first, but if you develop a clear hypothesis, and put a system in place to testing how different messages work with each audience, you’ll quickly develop a formula that works for them.
  • What is the audience journey? – how does each audience first discover you? What happens next? How does their relationship evolve with your organization over time? Where do you tend to lose them in their journey? Where do they evolve from a casual fan to a brand advocate? What emotional ups and downs does your audience encounter along the way? What information do they want from you at each stage of their journey? For B2C companies, this might be entertaining content that makes fans want to engage more and share their experiences with you. For B2B companies, this may be information related to the criteria they are using to decide whether to go with you or a competitor. By thinking about your content strategy across the evolving relationship with your target audiences, you’ll come up with more relevant content that better meet the needs of your audience.
  • What content performs best? – once you know who you want to communicate with and how and where they consume content, you need to consider what type of content will perform best across each touchpoint. If your audience consists of heavy users of visual social platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, Vine or Snapchat, you’ll need to have a different approach than audiences that required downloadable PDF guides and how-tos or want to participate in webinars or offline events. Rather than doing all things across channels, prioritize your efforts and produce higher-quality content built for the native characteristics of each medium, as well as tailored to the consumption behaviors and preferences of the end user. And don’t forget, the most-effective content for your audience might not be content you produce. User generated content or influencer marketing-generated content may be more valuable. That’s the point of this step – KNOW what content should perform best.
  • What platforms perform best? – I like to look at platforms in one of three categories: Strategic, Emerging or Experimental. Strategic platforms are channels you must use today. Facebook falls into this category, as audiences expect you to be on Facebook and it’s the largest social network in the world. There are other reasons Facebook would be Strategic, but this is the main one. Emerging platforms are those that have a large concentration of your target audience, and that those audience use to seek out information on your brand. While not quite a requirement yet, they merit testing and exploring further as you decide whether or not to go all-in. Another example of an Emerging platform is one that may be growing quickly, but may not be a perfect fit for you at this time. It’s a possible platform. Some of the same goes for Experimental – this is the risk category, where organizations need to decide if they are in a gambling mood. Vine, Snapchat and Meerkat fall into this category. If your audience is there, you should be monitoring developments and how other brands are using the platform to decide the right time to test things out there. I use the word “test,” because you should view Experimental platforms as just that – an experiment. Outline your platform thoughts in a grid in the strategy to communicate across your organization where you’ve prioritized the channels you’ll use to reach audiences.
  • How will you produce all of this content? – the biggest challenge for most organizations is figuring out how to produce all the content they know they need to be creating. Some of it will be developed in house, some will get kicked over to the agencies, and some will be created through mobilizing influencer networks and users to create content. And then there’s the aggregation or curation component – what content will you seek out and share with your audience that isn’t produced by you? This is a great option for developing your community, as you both serve the information needs of your audiences, while creating value for the owner of the content you share. For this step of the digital content strategy, it’s important to define the priorities for content development (you can’t do it all at once), and get into a workflow for producing content for the highest-priority audiences and engagement opportunities. I suggest everyone that produces content be linked through a central workflow management system – whether its an enterprise software platform or a shared Google Spreadsheet. You want PR, social, marketing, customer service and sales (yes, sales) at a minimum to be involved in the content workflow. You’ll want to have an editorial calendar that maps out all content production across all these groups, which will help you avoid conflicts, capitalize on some economies of scale and avoid duplication of effort. It’s amazing to me how many organizations still approach digital content planning in silos. Don’t overlook the importance of deciding where all this content will live inside your building. You need a central repository for all documents, images, videos and such – this will save an incredible amount of time over the course of your program execution. As a final thought on this point, you need to include visual content specialists in this process as well – the people in your organization (or partner organizations) that can help tell your stories in visual ways. This is where your best-performing content will come from.
  • How will you know if it’s working? – I talked about the importance of setting goals, and developing a set of KPIs to help your team (or just you) evaluate the ongoing performance of your digital content. How are you going to do this? Unfortunately, there isn’t a single free tool that pulls all of this stuff together for you. In my experience working with dozens of large organizations, and many more smaller ones, you’re going to have to be creative with how you measure performance. If you can’t measure performance against your goals and KPIs, you need to adjust them. The most-common ways to measure the performance of your digital content is to use tools like Google Analytics, native analytics built into social networks (e.g. Facebook Insights, Twitter Analytics), and third-party tools like Simply Measured or Iconosquare (Instagram analytics) that do the heavy lifting for you. There are hundreds of posts out there on how to measure social media and content performance – I’ll spare you the details in this post. That said, you should have a set of tools that shows not only how you are doing growing your audience and expanding your reach, but also how that audience is engaging, sharing and ultimately acting on the content you publish.
  • How will you use this data? – what are you going to do with the information you gather from analytics tools? I recommend you have a plan in place for regularly reviewing all of this information (monthly is a good cadence – but daily may be necessary for some organizations). Somebody on your team should serve as your analyst, highlighting trends in the data and providing recommendations for improvements. This may also include the development of hypotheses that you want to test in future content planning. The bottom line is that you need to understand what’s working and what’s not, so you can do more of the stuff that’s working.
  • How long is this going to take? – one of the final steps in mapping our your digital content strategy is to set the timetable for execution. I recommend taking the timeline as far out in the future as you need to, while focusing on a rolling 90-day cycle for the closest view of priorities. For each stage on your timeline, be clear on goals and timing – it helps to have a good project manager for this type of effort, but that really depends on the scale of the organization. You should be able to map out exactly how long it’s going to take to execute core components of your program (such as when to launch a new platform), while also setting the pace of ongoing publishing through your daily/weekly/monthly workflows.
  • How much is this going to cost? – no program is complete without a budget. What investments will you need to make to successfully execute this program – taking into consideration the things you’ve prioritized for “now” versus “later” on your timeline. Do you need to hire staff to execute the program? Retain an agency partner to assist? Is there a paid media component to your strategy? And once you have that total figure estimated to execute the strategy, is it realistic? And finally, how will you generate value that far exceeds that investment? The main factors contributing to your budget should be the cost of people to produce your content – whether internal or external. This includes the management of your program, as well as the ongoing production, posting, measurement and analysis of content performance. You’ll also need to budget for the tools you need to manage your workflow, edit images, schedule posts, measure performance and possibly research topics or monitor online conversations (social listening). You might not be able to afford everything you’d want to have to support your program, so prioritize your investments based on the “must have” versus “nice to have” criteria. You can always expand your investment as you start to show a meaningful return on the improved content you are publishing for your most important audiences.

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