The “5 A” Framework for Content Marketing Success

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:

  1. Research to find things that might work
  2. Try those things out in front of everyone
  3. Observe, adapt, and try slightly smarter things
  4. 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.

1. Authenticity

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.

Checklist:

2. Attention

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.

Checklist:

3. Authority

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.

Checklist:

  • 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

4. Action

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.

Checklist:

  • 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

5. Acceleration

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.

Brian Clark is Editor-in-Chief of Entreproducer, a multimedia email publication exploring the business of independent digital media. Get more related content on Twitter.

Here’s what Entreproducer covers:

  • The business, revenue, staffing, and legal models that move you from content start-up to success.
  • Audio and video profiles of the entrepreneurs and companies that are pushing digital content innovation.
  • Tips, tools, and tactics for getting online content to work for you, no matter how you make money.

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Comments

  1. Examples, please. Your concepts and your list are brilliant. Your brevity is formidable. It it all makes me yearn for an example, the story of how somebody did this stuff and it worked. Thanks so much for inspiring me again today, Brian!

  2. Awesome list, Brian. You’re the reason I’m into content marketing.

    I can’t think of any question. I’m happy with what you’ve shared already. Thank you!

  3. Morning Brian.

    This post has so much for me and I’m sure so many of your other subscribers.

    A no fluff, direct to the point checklist that darn near insures success if you follow it.

    What I’ve found recently that has really worked well for me is two things that I’ve gleaned from you and the folks at Copyblogger.

    Develop checklists as you’ve shown above and then simply schedule them into my calendar on a regular basis. I get more done now in a much shorter time.

    Thanks Brian for all of your ongoing great help …

    Brent

  4. Brian –

    What an awesome article! It struck me as I was reading that if you’re not in the position that I’m in it would be difficult to full appreciate the value and insight that you’re offering here.

    I’m currently standing between steps 2 and 3 (I believe) with my own blog / platform. This is a tremendous validation of my intended approach and provides a encouragement that in the end it will be successful.

    Your writing style is tight and enticing. I feel as though I’m literally chasing the words to the end of the page.

    Sorry to go on but this is just great stuff! I look forward to more.

    - Jason

  5. I love the word Authority. As my opinion, authority is one of the most critical part to build a sustainable and profitable online business. It might take a long time to become an authority in our niche, but definitely, it worths on every amount of effort.

  6. Great list. Can you squeeze connection and contribution in somehow?

    • I agree with you Joe, it is a great list.

      How about the “6th A” – Alliances which could work for connection and contribution.
      The highest performing and rewarding alliances are VERY connected and they truly contibute to the alliance partners bottom line, growth of people and provide resources for non-profits (contribution).

      • Alliances – good one John!
        I thought of a few other possibilities…
        Affinity – building likeability and connection.
        Appetite – building up hunger for your stuff by offering “taste tests” beforehand.
        Aspiration – offering a vision of a better future.
        Probably not strong enough to make the cut, but your Alliances is a keeper for sure.

        • Hi Joe,

          I like your point on “Affinity”. A person can look for connections to others who may have similar products or services or think along the same lines as the person creating the original content.

  7. Brian, this post is a nicely condensed masterclass in content marketing. I’m really looking forward to examples and case studies. I’m quite interested in the timeframes attached to these phases. I’m sure it varies on a case-by-case basis, but have you noticed any consistency or general rules of thumb around a natural progression of time between stages? Thanks.

  8. After reading the 5 A framework, I guess I’m slightly right back where I was after reading your great post on Hyper Local Sites;

    Specifically where #2 – Attention – is concerned in determining what a minimum viable audience should look like.

    Since audience reaction/engagement is clearly measurable, is there a hierarchy of kind/quality in audience metrics that lets you know your on the right track?

    I’m only asking because I’ve read blogs/sites that don’t see tons of comments but lots of social shares. In addition, I’ve also seen sites with lots of comments and little to no social shares.

    Should your first clue be how your site compares with a competing site in the same niche or should you have a minimum level of audience engagement in mind to determine if you are seeing a minimum viable audience begin to form?

    (just looking to understand how to identify milestones to know when to go to the next level)

  9. THIS is the Holy Grail Brian, it’s the Entreproducer post I was looking for (not meaning I was waiting to take action until this came out). I know you’ve written about all these topics all over Copyblogger, and special reports, Premise members area, etc. But this encapsulates everything in a nice followable (is that a word?) structure you can use as a loose roadmap. Thanks for this!

  10. Brian, I’m a student of yours and the entire copyblogger team.

    I find myself sharing Michael’s sentiment on ‘minimum viable audience’.
    I understand there are no hard metrics, but it’s difficult to understand where that threshold is.

    For instance, my blog only has 600 email subscribers, social sharing is minimal but the comment section is regularly vibrant and many have asked for the product they want me to produce. I think that’s enough?

    I just get so fixated on that subscriber number …

    From what I gather from Seth Godin, he would suggest giving my product away and growing that subscriber number 10-fold.

    In the end, it’s an art. Just thought I’d share my struggle.

  11. Good stuff, Brian. May I be so bold as to suggest a 6th “A”?

    Audacity – The bold disregard of the normal constraints we all encounter. We may have all five of your points locked up, but unless you’ve got the audacity to ignore that voice in the back of your head that says, “you can’t do this; you’re wasting your time; you can’t run with this group,” you won’t get very far.

  12. Brian I am loving these post! In number 5 Acceleration you mention switching from service to products, do you believe this is easiest done with an information product? I understand the idea of listening to your audience and feeling a need not met, but where can you learn more about product creation?

  13. You’re really on to something here, Brian, with the “Agile” content marketing. I put agile in quotes because it can relate to many areas. For example, I used to work for Rally Software (rallydev.com) and they build project management software to help developers with agile software development (note: they have a bunch of free agile concept education resources on their website). I was in the marketing department, and agile marketing was used, or frankly, it was being created and defined as we went along. It’s the future as it takes out the guess work — better upside, lower downside, less needed to start, faster. It’s why Google and Facebook seem to evolve better than Microsoft (okay, I’m sure people can say much more on that one, in many directions). But I digress. My point: Keep it up. Thx.

  14. Brian this write-up is absolutely stunning.

    I’m putting my new project together and my focus will be delivering amazing, useful and value-driven content to a hungry audience.

    This post could not have come at a better time.

    Just like I told Sonia in one of her recent post… Thank you for being an amazing leader in the industry.

    DO

    • Jay, you’re spot- on. It’s analysis paralysis.
      The more information I get, the the more overwhelmed I feel.
      But I also feel better equipped to achieve my goals.
      I am deep into start-up research, and the demons of doubt,
      Insecurity, fear and inadequacy are hounding me.

      It’s especially hard to deal with when you’ve had as many failures
      As I have. I know I’m not alone, so I will not give up.
      Edison has always been inspirational to me. One thousand tries before
      He discovered the perfect material for the incandescent light bulb.

  15. Hi Brian,

    This is an awesome and jam-packed blog post with lots of useful tips. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve learned so much from you and the Copyblogger team over the years, and for that I’m forever grateful. I can’t wait to read more of your wisdom in a shiny PDF format :)

    Cheers,
    Olle

    P.S. Just one thing that bugged me. I think there might be a typo in the “Framework and Checklist” section: “I’ll also be elaborating on much of this is future articles”. I think it’s meant to say “in future articles” :)

  16. Hey Brian,

    Enjoyed reading this. My question is this: is the whole process iterative each time you want to take your online business to the next level? When I looked at this list from the big picture (just scanning the subheadings), I thought, “Oh, I must be at the attention phase.” But as I read through your descriptions, I thought, “No, no. I’m in the Acceleration phase.” But I guess I don’t feel like I’m that far ahead in the whole process, mainly because my blog doesn’t grow on it’s own. Without guest posts or active SM sharing, the numbers stay static. So have I really advanced as far as I think?

    Thanks!

  17. Nicely done! I particularly like the bullet points underneath each “A” explaining what each step implies in terms of specific actions. Adds a lot of clarity, and I can see where I am personally in working through that process with my own site (and what still remains ahead).

    One little helpful note (at the risk of looking like one of those jerks who nit-picks excellent writing – not my intention), I think you intended to add a “w” to “ringer” in “mental ringer”. I was reading along and had visions of bells hitting me over the head which I don’t believe was your intention.

    Thanks again for all you do, Brian. I’m a fan and a customer. Your work has really helped me.

  18. Hey Brian,
    To me, this seems like AIDA sandwiched between authenticity (research) and acceleration (growth).

    Your approach is not new, but rather repurposed to help grow the business and provide value.

    It’s always good to see strategies being repurposed in a different way with different metaphors and language, since one approach to this might not be as clear to people as, for example, your approach to the same issue.

    Feel free to disagree, would love to know if I misunderstood what you were trying to communicate in this post.

    Thanks.

  19. This is a great step by step guide to succeeding with content marketing. Thanks for the great info Brian! I wrote a blog post that provides a good intro to the concept of content marketing if anyone here is looking for more info on this topic: http://three60marketing.blogspot.com/2011/07/power-of-content.html

  20. Brian: when you mentioned that the framework was applicable to any content topic, were you also considering creatives like artists or fiction writers? I’m guessing yes, because even sections like authority still nicely applies.

    I’m guessing your checklist on market research and topic positioning will make some creatives cringe, though. There seems to be a never-ending tension artists face between satisfying the audience and satisfying the muse. :)

  21. Hey Brian,
    Great article–wish I had found a resource like this four years ago when I was just starting out (especially the emphasis on e-mail conversions)! Anyways, you’re framework is absolute gold for anyone out there who’s unsure about how to build a rock-solid business on the web. I’ve been following your work for a few years and it’s great to find your ideas synthesized so well as a single resource. I’m definitely looking forward to the PDF, I think my business is just moving from #2 to #3 and I’m already seeing more success–just hoping I can keep things going in the right direction for long enough so I can reach #5!

    Guess there really wasn’t a question in there, but just wanted to say nice job on your article and thanks for doing what you do!
    Best,
    Tommy

  22. Thanks Brian, this is a great post with so many actionable items. I especially like your definition of authenticity as finding the story your segment wants to hear. A question– is the 5 point process best to implement as a linear progression or are there cases where you might be working on more than one point at the same time?

  23. I wanted to thank you for Copyblogger and you and your staff for all the wonderful help I’ve received as a regular subscriber and user of a number of your products. I joined Teaching Sells several years ago with the idea of knocking out a business in quick order. Your training and attention to the kind of detail you again show in this framework has helped me adjust to the reality that I had lots of hard work ahead of me.
    I’ve spent 2 years growing authenticity, attention and authority through my blog, ruraltourismmarketing.com, speaking and giving live workshops to test my market and the premise of my business plan, and have recently taken action, officially opened my memership website a crack to test all the working parts, and will accelerate with a launch next month.
    This framework is the basis for Teaching Sells, of course, and is the reason I have confidence that my membership site will be a success.
    Cheers and again, thanks,
    Joanne

  24. Johanna Fenton says:

    Hi Brian. Thanks so much for sharing this. I’ve read this over and over. I don’t have anything valuable to add, but I just have to say how much I appreciate this sentence: “This isn’t the trite buzzword served up from your friendly neighborhood social media guru.” There’s something very gratifying about seeing that sentence in print. Also, I hopped over to read your post about authenticity on Copyblogger. That, too, was gratifying. Someone please redeem the word authenticity!

  25. Can talk a bit more about surveying? I always see this mentioned in the online marketing blogs but what do you do when you’re new? Should you wait? How long?

    You mention it in a checklist under #3 Authority…

    “Perform open-ended question surveys to identify frustrations and desires”

    but I find it difficult to get people to respond. I have a new blog and I am trying to survey people in twitter and facebook, but I am lucky if I get a response at all. I’ve only gotten one or two. Not enough to make any conclusions. Should I try forums or mix them in with comments on blog posts? I have seen people even put them as blog posts – i’m not getting any traffic to the blog, but I am building up a nice following on my social media. Any thoughts or suggestions?

    • Hi Sylvia,

      Seems your questions center around my remarks in the comment left earlier about finding “other” means of engagement that could be practical signs that your moving from #2 to #3 (or making progress in your content marketing, period).

      I’m sure the follow up post to this from Brian will delve deeper into each of the steps and perhaps find him exploring alternative measures that take into consideration the way site visitors register their engagement these days (i.e. Pinterest traffic).

  26. Great article! I am really trying hard to follow this formula.

    I am finding the more I write the more opportunities I see for new posts.

    Keep the great content coming!

    And I will attempt the same.

  27. Youssef says:

    Will this works for a Hyperlocal site?

    I can imagine will be the same process.

  28. This would be a great article if there was a concise summary of the points raised. What will turn it into a stellar resource is your mentioned fashioning of the article into a PDF. Which if I wasn’t so darned busy today, is exactly what I would do myself.

    Good work, sirrah. As always.

  29. I found this article a huge relief to my current activities and here I thought I was all over the place, well maybe I am. I feel many of the steps intermingle with each other but again, no one really maps out the process as you have here. Thank you , a huge help.

  30. Liza Mae says:

    Brian, I absolutely love and appreciate your energy, passion and creative spice. You’re rockin’ my world…thank you.

  31. Brian I absolutely love this post.

    I launched a new UK based on-line magazine back in May called the Micro Business Hub. It publishes daily content to help micro business owners make their own venture successful.

    I can see how the five stages you’ve outlined directly apply and I can even see where I’m at. I totally get the idea of building your audience first before attempting to sell anything, and I’m really enjoying the whole experience of reaching out to guest bloggers and other key people as we look to spread the word and attract more readers.

    So keeping with your “A” theme – for me the whole process of creating a new information based website is packed with the adrenalin. There’s nothing quite like it :-) I love all the learning, the discoveries and the great connections we’re making – and early feedback suggests we’re doing something good.

    And so I’ve printed out this post to use as a checklist to guide me and help me stay on track – totally awesome :-)

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