How to Create an Effective Digital Content Strategy for 2014


Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 2 years, you've probably heard the buzz around the importance of developing an effective digital content strategy. Today, almost every business has a content management system (CMS) running their website. Designing and creating the website with a CMS is the easy part. Just hire a web development firm that knows Drupal, WordPress, or Joomla and you’re up and running.

The tough part is figuring out what type of content to publish. What should you publish? How can you get people to discover your content? What will engage people? What will make people want to buy your product? Companies are struggling to answer these basic questions every day. That’s why there is such a strong interest in content strategy.

Google Search Volume Trend Data for the term "Content Strategy":

To make matters even more complicated, by the end of next year most websites will be responsive and viewable on mobile devices. (If you haven't heard about Responsive Web Design (RWD), read this blog post.) RWD will require reformatting and rethinking your content so it is easily consumable on smaller screens.

Google Search Volume Trend Data for the term "Reponsive Web Design":

With these two converging trends the need for an effective forward-thinking future-proof content strategy is paramount.  To address this strong interest in content strategy, numerous content strategy conferences, consultants, blogs, ebooks, and so-called experts proffering advice have sprung up. Unfortunately, today there are very few true authorities on the subject who can offer actionable advice that will make a real difference in your business.

Most of the strategy advice being published today is in the form of useless platitudes such as:

  • Content is king
  • Everything is content
  • Create content that has value
  • Create content that doesn’t suck
  • Make sure your content can be consumed in bite-sized chucks
  • Tell your story
  • Be authentic
  • Voice and tone matter
  • Make sure you have a great call to action
  • Contextualize your content

Unfortunately, MOST OF THE PUBLISHED CONTENT STRATEGY ADVICE IS FAR TOO SIMPLISTIC to be useful in developing an effective content strategy. Typically this simplistic advice is being espoused by right-brained advertising and marketing professionals who have very limited technical or analytical skills. (What I like to call English majors who fell into the advertising business because it pays more than teaching English.) Sadly, most of these numerically challenged folk don’t have a clue about how to solve some of the most complex challenges we face today. This is unfortunate, because we live in a rapidly evolving technical marketing world, and it is only getting more complicated.

Case in point, if you gave most content strategy experts a login to your Google Analytics account and asked them to tell you the bounce rate for your website, their heads would literally explode (ok, maybe). You would be better off giving them a Ouija board. It’s as though these so-called content strategy experts have repackaged their same old song and dance to take advantage of the hype around content marketing (and to sell their Content Strategy services). Even worse, if you actually invest the time to attend any content strategy conferences, or closely read the articles, blog posts or e-books on the subject, you’ll notice that most of the ideas involve circular descriptions or content strategy explanations that are completely vague and meaningless.

A typical engagement with one of these content strategy firms involves:

  • A website content audit
  • Recommendations for cleaning up the content mess
  • Developing an internal process for creating content
  • Creating a content governance plan

It's what I like to call the INSIDE-OUT CONTENT STRATEGY...

At the core, they are stale, tired, and retreaded ideas about content publishing and basic writing style. Ok, writing style is important, but what you write about is even more important. The notion that if you publish something that is well written and tweet it to the right audience, you’re good to go is a recipe for failure in 2014. Over the long term, none of these simplistic approaches will help you grow your business, build your brand, or move the marketing ROI needle.

These old and tired approaches to developing a content strategy are the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.

If you want a truly effective content strategy, you need a metrics-driven strategy that is based on real-world data, human behavior, and insights into your target audience. Developing a truly effective content strategy for 2014 requires taking a new approach that is 100% data driven and proven to produce a measureable ROI. Moreover, the most effective content strategies are based on a very simple idea. The core of your strategy is to tailor your content to your audience’s interests. Anyone who has taken a college-level journalism class knows that to get an audience engaged in a story, it must be tailored to that audience. To engage the reader, you need to get inside the head of your reader and understand what they are interested in. You have to see the world through their eyes to understand what will resonate with them. You need to understand their needs, wants, desires, fears, and more.

So how do you get in someone’s head and read their mind?

With the technology available today, it’s a lot easier than you think. No, it does not involve a special doorway and tunnel like the one in the movie Being John Malkovich, although some of the insights available through these tools will give you a creepy voyeuristic feeling of being inside your target audience's head.

Today, one of the most effective and easily accessible tools for understanding people’s inner needs, wants, and desires is Google Search. It is critical to start with Google because this is how most of your audience will discover your content.  While social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Youtube, and Google+ are becoming significant and viable pathways for content discovery, Google Search is absolutely foundational to developing an effective content strategy. If you are not starting with a deep dive into keyword research you will have a weak foundation for your content strategy. Google has several free tools that you can use to discover what people are interested in. One of the more useful and fun-to-use tools is the Google Keyword Trends tool. With Google Trends, you too can see if people are becoming more interested in a specific subject over time.

For example, if you were in the cupcake business you could run a search on the world cupcake with this tool and it would generate this graph:

Google Search Volume Trend Data for the term "cupcake":

Google Cupcake searches

Above are the number of searches every month for the term cupcake sorted by volume.

As you can see, this graph clearly indicates that people are becoming more interested in cupcakes. The data clearly indicates CUPCAKES ARE HOT and are projected to get even hotter (click on the forecast check box on the trends website). Leveraging this trend data is just the beginning of the process of analyzing people’s interest in the subject of cupcakes. The next step is to drill down into the number of people searching for cupcakes and related keywords.The best tool for that job is the Google Keyword research tool. This tool will tell you the number of people searching Google for a specific keyword search term every month.

As you can see, there are over 9 million searches for cupcakes every month. If you are trying to determine which keywords are the most valuable, you can sort by competition and it will quickly put the highly competitive ideas at the top of the list. This type of sort is valuable for quickly surfacing ideas for content for your website. Why? It's because the competitive keywords are the most targeted and are the ones advertisers are willing to pay for.

Google Search Data on Cupcakes sorted by competition

Drilling down even further, you can use the advanced filter to determine whether these searches were performed on a smart phone or a desktop computer. If you ran a cupcake store, this could be valuable information for driving traffic. For example, say you wanted to know if people searched for the term "cupcake store" while on their smartphones.

Number of searches for the term "cupcake store" on smartphones with a browser:

Cupcake store searches

Number of searches for the term "cupcake store" on desktop or laptop computer:

cupcake store laptop desktop

As you can see, approximately 45% of the searches for cupcake stores are on smartphones with a browser.

While these examples of search data for cupcakes may seem overly simplistic, the same approach can be used for more complex products. For example, if you are an enterprise hardware vendor that sells disk storage arrays and want to know what subjects to write about in your blog or for generating a white paper, you could run a search on the term "big data". 

Google Search Volume Trend Data for the term "big data":

If you wanted to quickly come up with a few ideas for blog posts you could run a keyword search on "big data" and sort by competition. This would quickly generate a list of ideas to write about. On quick review, a blog post about big data analytics could prove to be highly effective in generating traffic to your website.

So how do you use this keyword research to develop an effective content strategy for 2014?

Think of Google Keyword research tools as a modern electronic fish finder that will help you figure out where the fish are in the ocean. Insead of throwing your line in the water at a random location and and hoping for the best, you can now go to to where the action is. 

This first step is to build a list of your target audience is likely to use to discover your content on the web. Once you have that list you need to validate each term. Validation involves running the keyword terms through the trends tool, the keyword tool and performing manual searches in Google to review the search results page by page. After drilling down and validating the results you can begin to prioritize and weight each keyword term.

Audit your website content through the lens of SEO.

Now that you have a prioritized list of your target keywords, you’ll need to perform an audit of the content on your website. The first question to ask is: Are you creating content that is related to these keywords?  Do you use any of these keywords in the H1 title tags in the content? Are these keywords woven into the meta description tags?

Once you have a content strategy built on sound SEO research, you need to analyze your vistors' engagement levels. In our next post, we will focus on tools you can use to measure and develop engagement with your content.

Stay tuned.