I have a confession to make.
When I started doing what we now call online content marketing (back in the ancient 1990s), I didn’t have a nice tidy framework to guide me. Mostly, I screwed up a lot and learned a little.
Even by 2005, when I felt I had a decent clue of what I was doing, the “process” was still a very improvisational mess. And I certainly didn’t have a neato 5-step paradigm where each step conveniently starts with the letter A.
Agile content marketing really is a simple, messy, terribly lucrative process:
- Research to find things that might work
- Try those things out in front of everyone
- Observe, adapt, and try slightly smarter things
- Let your winners ride, then do it all over again
That said, I’ve had a lot of time to think about my particular messy process, and turn it into something useable for others. And, naturally, the copywriter in me just loves that I came up with a neato paradigm where each step conveniently starts with the letter A.
To Authority … and Beyond!
Please excuse the bad Toy Story reference. I couldn’t help myself.
If it makes you feel any better, I’ve been working on this framework for close to five years. Not that it’s so complicated, but rather because I wanted to make sure it was actually accurate and useful.
I’ve never written about this framework before, only talked about it in conference presentations and a few interviews. It was just another way to test and refine concepts before committing them to something more permanent, say, a book or something like that.
So, it really started with a single “A”. The center point of content marketing for me has always been authority, both in the sense of its powerful influence on human psychology and as a way to make Google love you without black-hat tactics.
Based on that, my first attempt at a workable framework was attention, authority, and action. Those are the three core components from a tactical standpoint.
As things started to take off at a greater pace each year with Copyblogger, I added acceleration as a final phase, mainly because I was truly bowled over by the unfair advantage an audience brought me.
But something important was missing. There was even an “A” word to describe it, but that word was so overused and misconstrued, I fought against it long and hard before finally conceding that it was absolutely perfect, if understood properly.
The critical first step is authenticity. It’s not about oversharing, or what you had for lunch, or even what you feel is real. It is, in the words of Seth Godin, the story the audience wants to hear, delivered in a likeable human voice.
A Framework and a Checklist
After running it through the mental wringer, I believe this 5-step framework is applicable to any content topic, and works for building any audience. The individual checklist items contained within each step are also vital and fairly universal.
Beyond that, how you apply this framework to your own content marketing will naturally be unique to your own situation. Take what you find useful, leave other things, but be careful not to dismiss anything outright, as there isn’t any fluff included.
Make sure to follow the provided links for more information (concentrated in the crucial authority and attention phases). I’ll also be elaborating on much of this in future articles and podcasts, but for now, let’s get you started.
This isn’t the trite buzzword served up from your friendly neighborhood social media guru. This is about doing intense research to find the authentic story a market segment wants to hear — but hasn’t yet — and how you’ll tell it over time in a way that results in a sustainable business model.
- Research potential topics based on your expertise or business subject matter
- Identify the people who would be drawn to what your topic covers
- Do keyword research to discover the language the audience uses
- Identify online and offline content resources that reach your intended audience
- Do competitive research on those who are selling to your intended audience
- Position your topic in a useful and unique way that facilitates commerce
- Design your site so that it highlights your content and communicates the useful and unique value you offer
- Identify and plan initial cornerstone content
You’ve made your initial guesses, and now it’s time to start putting things out there to see what happens. You’re hustling for exposure to get to the next level. The attention phase is the heart of an agile content marketing approach, as you’re discovering in real time what works, what doesn’t, and what to try next.
- Develop and refine your editorial voice
- Test appropriate headlines and hooks (meaning + fascination)
- Develop relationships with other producers to contribute guest content
- Develop relationships with other producers for content promotion
- Focus on converting traffic into subscribers, with an emphasis on email
- Monitor analytics for traffic sources and keyword patterns
- Build up your social media networks with a mix of content and curation
- Constantly refine your approach to all of the above to increase effectiveness
Here’s where things start to get good. You’ve built a minimum viable audience. That audience is growing thanks to the audience itself, and instead of you making self-serving statements about your expertise, they are proclaiming your authority. Best of all, you’re starting to glean valuable insights into desired products and services.
- Monitor social media sharing of content for feedback
- Build additional cornerstone landing pages on core topics
- Perform open-ended question surveys to identify frustrations and desires
- Create processes for storing and accessing product and service ideas
- Evaluate co-marketing and joint venture product opportunities
- Expand industry influence with webinars, interviews, and presentations
- Create a specialized email list for advanced education and future promotions
- Re-position editorial as necessary for impending product or service launches
- Create a better minimum viable product or service
Although you’re been asking for audience-building action all along, now we’re talking sales and lead generation. It’s time to launch that new product. Or, it’s time to switch to proactive promotion based on your new view of your existing offer based on what the audience has been telling you directly (and indirectly) via feedback.
- Hint repeatedly at upcoming product or service well before launch
- Create pre-launch email list and encourage subscriptions
- Devise a content-based launch strategy that specifically educates to sell
- Craft an ongoing promotional strategy with high-value content to pitch ratio
- Listen to feedback from customers and clients for feature improvements
- Test various copy approaches to increase conversions
- Develop marketing partners and/or affiliate program
Now it’s time to enjoy the “unfair advantage” you’ve earned by building an audience and a media asset first. Opportunities such as joint ventures for new products, affiliate and co-marketing partnerships, additional content from industry experts, better business development, and much more arise.
There isn’t a true checklist for this phase, as your experience will vary by many factors. Some of the things that will come into play are:
- Your growth / ambition / lifestyle goals
- Your tolerance for “entangling alliances” for growth
- Your willingness to accept venture funding for growth
- Your desire to shift from services to products
- Your desire to become a multi-product company
One thing that’s certain during the acceleration phase is editorial iteration. As the site grows, and your business offerings grow with it, your content focus will evolve along with the natural outside forces that affect your industry and audience.
A Work in Progress
At some point, I plan to turn the final version of this into a nice shiny PDF, suitable for framing. You know, the iterated version, nicely formatted, complete with unicorn graphics.
In the meantime, help me get there. Drop your questions and critiques in the comments. Whatever I don’t reply to directly here will be addressed in the upcoming audio series.