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If you’re looking for a “True North” around which to orient content planning, consider this advice from Marcus Sheridan, one of the keynote speakers at last week’s Content Marketing World 2012.

But before I share Sheridan’s secret, first know that about 1,000 marketers and technology providers were gathered at #cmworld. Something like 40 seminars and keynote speeches were delivered, by some of the leading corporate marketers, agency professionals and technologists in content marketing today. 

Which means hundreds of thousand of words — ideas, best practices, tips, techniques — were expressed, discussed and debated during the three-day event.  

But after a week of digesting notes and reflection, it was four simple words — articulated by a swimming pool contractor from rural Virginia — that just might be the greatest bang-for-the-buck takeaway from the entire event.

Ready for the four words? Here goes:

They ask. We answer.

 

Content Planning Under Duress

To understand the value and utility of those few syllables, it helps to have a little background on Sheridan.

Marcus is a swimming pool contractor who nearly saw his company, River Pools & Spas, go out of business during the recent historic downturn in the residential construction economy.

In the nick of time, Sheridan discovered and began aggressively practicing the principles of content marketing and inbound marketing. Today, just a few years later, his company dominates search results for almost anything you might wish to know about swimming pools. Largely as a result, his pool business is going well. So well that now he has a second business and professional persona, as a content marketing blogger, consultant and speaker (aka, The Sales Lion).

If you haven’t seen or heard Sheridan speak, imagine someone who combines the in-your-space urgency of a Marine drill instructor with the upbeat energy of a cheerleader. Then throw in a pinch of pulpit-pounding Baptist preacher for good measure.

In other words, Marcus is a piece of work. A dynamic speaker. And an insightful content marketer.


Words to Plan Content By

With the four words noted above, Sheridan shared what he considers the core content planning strategy that propelled his content, and with it his company, to rapid success. Here, in a nutshell, is what they did:

Sheridan and his employees made a list of all the questions they could think of that consumers might have about swimming pools. Questions customers and prospects had asked over the years. Queries they might have on their minds when they go online searching for information about pools, and pool contractors. 

  • “Concrete vs. fiberglass pools, pros and cons”
  • “How to choose a swimming pool contractor”
  • “Above ground vs. in-ground swimming pools”
  • “How much does an in-ground swimming pool cost?”

The result for Sheridan’s team was a list of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of questions. Then they simply set out to answer those questions, primarily by writing blog posts. They topped each post with a headline that, rather than sound cutesy or flowery, was written simply and directly. In a way that spoke directly to the consumer’s question (and, in doing so, spoke directly to search engine spiders). Incidentally, here’s a post from Marcus on blog headline writing for effective SEO.

Content Planning for Business, Enterprise or Otherwise

If you’re marketing a small business, you’d be wise to follow Sheridan’s advice.

But if you manage content marketing for a mid-size or enterprise business, you might be saying to yourself: “That’s fine for a small company. But that won’t really work for us. Our business and marketplace is more complicated than that.” And you’re probably right. But only partly.

Because it’s hard to imagine any business that wouldn’t benefit from having “they ask, we answer” at the heart of their content planning. It will keep you on track, when it comes to creating relevant and useful (vs. purely promotional) content. It’ll keep you coming back to True North, in terms of  focusing on customer pain points and opportunities. And it will keep you listening, so your content topics keep pace as your audience’s needs evolve.

In fact, the bigger and more complex your organization, I would suggest, the more systematic you can and should be about making “they ask, we answer” central to content planning.

Why?

Because the bigger and more complex your business…

1. The more complex your distribution channel, which means the more “theys” you have out there who are asking questions. Keeping those audiences and their needs and priorities straight is fundamental to organizing and executing an effective content marketing strategy.

2. The more likely you have competitors who are looking to beat you, with content as a differentiator. Marcus was able to catch his small-business competitors flat-footed. But if you’re not pushing yourself to be THE marketer in your category who’s best at anticipating and answering customers’ questions via content, it’s likely someone else will gladly seize that position.

3. The more probable that the answers to many of your customers’ questions are going to be complex and technical, helping put your content out where long-tail searches happen. Ideally, put you out there relatively alone.

4. The greater the ability and resources you have to identify what it is customers are wondering about, puzzled by or deciding based upon. Because, if you choose to be systematic about it, you can get that intelligence (often deep-in-the-sales-funnel insight) from your sales force. Or from your customer service reps or field technicians. From dealers and distributors. Through social media. By mining organic search metrics. By listening in on conversations at trade shows and conferences. Conducting surveys and focus groups. Or from a content advisory board that you recruit and manage, made up of people who represent  your sweetspot influencers, specifiers and buyers. 

They ask. We answer.

In four words or less, a pretty darn good strategy around which to launch, focus and continuously improve content planning.

Whether you’re marketing swimming pools. Or enterprise software, technology and service solutions.

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Curious to hear what you think. As a content planning technique, does your organization seek to be systematic about anticipating and answering audience questions? Feel free to share tips and best practices on how you accomplish that.

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This post, originally published on Hanley Wood Marketing’s Content Is Marketing blog, is cross-posted here for subscribers to Touch Point City. For more marketing ideas and insights from my colleagues at HWM, subscribe to Content Is Marketing.

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