Getting content right is tricky. For content marketing to deliver results, an integrated, optimised and well thought-out plan is essential. Here’s ESM Inbound’s guide to the five rules of great content strategy:

#1 It’s flexible

It can be tempting – when you’re dipping your toe into the water with content marketing – to look for a formula, or a template for how to create a successful content marketing strategy. But any such framework runs the risk of encouraging you to get stuck into arbitrary ‘slot-filling’ traps – “we have to produce four blogs every month”, say. 

This may well not be the best use of time and internal or agency resources. In the three years since I joined ESM Inbound, we have fine-tuned our approach to content strategy. As our understanding of what makes for a successful strategy has evolved, we have moved away from a formulaic retainer model to a flexible credit-based subscription

We can give you an idea of typical deliverables for different packages, but they are just a guideline, and in reality what you’ll get will vary. We find that this approach gives us far more scope to tailor each content strategy we create to suit individual businesses. 

Where once we used to release the same deliverables every month (most of the time this included a pillar page, a pop-up form, a landing page and a blog post), now we can be responsive and mix it up more, focusing our energy on a longer pillar page one month and a social campaign, or four-part blog series the next. In essence, this means we can deliver a bespoke content-marketing campaign with the one-stop-shop expertise of a dedicated agency. 

Lots of agencies still offer content retainer packages that operate in this way. This is because it is easy for the agencies to work to set templates and deliverables that are broadly the same month by month. It isn’t (whatever they may tell you) the best approach to content strategy from the perspective of the client. 

#2 It’s fine tuned based on content data

The biggest problem with template-based approaches is that they don’t allow for constant adaptation led by customer engagement with your content as it is released. 

An effective content strategy should be subject to responsive fine tuning. At ESM Inbound, we schedule a monthly content call with our customers. I wouldn’t dream of going into that call without having spoken to the Martech team and asking them to dig around in the customer’s HubSpot portal. I want to know:

  • What are their findings from the month just gone?
  • What is older content that’s been live for longer showing?
  • What could we be doing better for the customer? 
  • What has performed well and been really successful?
  • What suggestions can you make for next month?

This ensures I have an evidence-backed plan for how to focus our resources for the following month. We may try to replicate a successful email campaign by running a similar one, or a neglected blog post that hasn’t had much traffic may be subject to a refocused Google Ads campaign and a different headline to drive more readers to it. 

By approaching content strategy in this way, we take a more holistic, integrated approach, using the learnings of previous successes and failures to inform what we will do moving forward. The bottom line is, there's no point repeating the same process every single month if it's not working for a customer.

#3 It works backwards from the desired outcome

Successful content strategy works back from the desired outcome. We think about the client, about the kinds of questions their customers will be coming to Google to answer. With this mindset, we review everything from the customer’s perspective: 

  • Does the headline of a pillar page or blog post reflect a keyword phrase the customer is likely to type into Google? 
  • Does the blog post or content accurately answer that question?
  • Is the call to action clear (with an easy-to-spot, one-click button)?

A constant strategic refocusing tool we use at ESM Inbound is to relate everything back to the buyer’s journey. This enables a content manager or agency to ensure that content is only ever created with a specific target customer and a specific desired action in mind, whether that’s email capture, booking a sales call, or upgrading an existing product or subscription. 

Before planning content strategy for any of our clients for a given month, at ESM Inbound, we look back over at the persona research – you can use our free guide to do this yourself. Next, we think about which stage of the buyer’s journey we want to target. If it’s the awareness (early stage) phase, we’ll plan a whole month of content based around that. 

It’s got to be a joined-up experience for people across social media channels, Google Ads, email and the blog – it all has to work together. Nothing should stand alone; all content needs to form part of an integrated whole. With content strategy, the ‘strategic’ thread isn’t ‘we write four blog posts per month,’ it’s ‘we need more qualified leads who need this service so let’s increase organic traffic to the website’. 

#4 It has SEO at its heart

Content without an integrated SEO strategy is essentially pointless. Content strategy needs to revolve around carefully researched SEO keywords – both long-tail and short-tail. This is a key aspect of the science of any content strategy – it allows you to tailor your communications to customers in a way that means they will find your content when they are searching for solutions to their existing problems. 

Investing time at the planning stage is essential to reduce the risk of wasted effort down the line. At ESM inbound, our content team is trained in SEO, but even so, we sometimes consult an external expert to update us on the latest changes to Google’s SEO search algorithms, which are constantly being refined. 

As Google’s ranking system for organic search becomes more human, the focus for content producers is on relevance. This is measured by keywords but also by relevant links and back-links, internal (linking to other content and web pages on your site) and external (to helpful content from your competitors and industry experts). As a general rule, we aim for three of each type of link per post. 

If you link to too many external sources, you risk damaging your credibility. Google likes video content, too, particularly video that is hosted on YouTube (as it owns the platform). Integrating all these aspects of SEO into content requires thought and attention, but the pay-off is worth it.   

#5 It’s a matrix, not a magazine

When content marketing was in its infancy, lots of ‘content strategists’ approached their content planning as if it were a magazine: with a focus on regular features, a balance of stories, and a news-based focus that was centred around the now. 

Since then, content marketers have learnt that evergreen rather than topical content is most valuable, that ‘balance’ of content over the course of a month is a red herring (when you may get better results focusing on a campaign-based focus for the month that is aimed at a particular stage of the customer journey). 

More than anything, online content differs in that it should operate as a web, or a matrix, interconnecting and intersecting as much as possible in an effort to help Google (and therefore customers) to find it. Pillar pages are essential to pulling disparate blogs together, and creating ‘topic clusters’ that form valuable content hubs (that can also be used as lead captures if you offer them as downloadable PDFs). 

The best way to think about your goals when creating content is to imagine an organism comprising interconnected posts, videos, pillar pages and landing pages that all support one another. Investing on maintaining, upgrading and updating the organism (by revisiting and repurposing existing content) is a key aspect of maintaining the evergreen value of the content you have. 

Adding fresh links, new keyword-optimised subheadings and creating pillar pages to tie together existing content will improve the ranking of your content over-all. It is often a far better investment than churning out fresh blog content.

It can be easy to lurch from week to week when it comes to content. Firing out a quick blog post or social post here and there (because you haven’t done one for a while or forgot) feels like you’re doing ‘something’ and will remind your subscribers that you’re still alive. But without a bigger picture and overarching strategy behind your content, you might as well not be posting at all a lot of the time. We hope the tips in this post have helped you refocus your attention on content – and that you start seeing traffic and leads increase accordingly.