Agile Content Marketing: How to Grow an Audience that Grows Your Business

It’s the question I get more than any other lately, and it’s one of the most important questions you’ll answer in marketing your startup:

How do I create a content marketing strategy that works?

That will take several thousand words to answer, and then you’ll have to create your own strategy. Yep, ultimately it’s up to you.

To help, I’ll be writing a series of articles over the next several weeks, starting with this one. Each will progress from general to more specific at each step, to provide a blueprint to work from.

The first step is to get your head right. In other words, you need to begin with the correct perspective to succeed with online content as a marketing tool.

Mainly, you need to begin with the end (the result you want) in mind. This is where content marketing strategy fails … essentially when there isn’t a executable strategy in place at all.

Agile content marketing is the answer. Because no matter how wrong you get it at first, you can always make it right if you abide by this general philosophy.

Once again, we can borrow methods that have been proven to work by others. Some software companies have been using an agile methodology for quite a while.

Standup comedians have been doing it even longer. Let’s start with them.

How Stand-Up Comedians Develop Content

The word agile used in this sense comes from the world of software development, and is based on iterative and incremental development. Meaning, as with lean manufacturing, you start with something simple, understand that it needs improvement, and quickly make those improvements based on feedback.

With agile content marketing, you’re not starting with a minimum viable product. You’re first trying to build a minimum viable audience using the same lean principles of iterative and incremental development, so that you understand how to grow the audience further and better understand what they want to buy.

When applied to content marketing, agile development can be best understood by the way stand-up comedians write, test, and refine their acts. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not some isolated act of creative genius; it’s a process of iterative and incremental joke development.

  1. First, a comedian writes material. These jokes are based on what the comedian thinks is funny based on an educated guess of what might be funny to the audience.
  2. The comedian knows the act needs to be tested and improved. So, she heads out to small comedy clubs and performs the initial jokes in front of a live audience.
  3. Based on audience response (laughter, or lack thereof), after each performance the comedian cuts certain bits, tweaks others, writes new jokes, returns to the stage, and repeats. At some point, she arrives at a honed set of material that is then taken to larger venues, a comedy special, or other setting where a more polished performance is important.

Simple, but not easy. You’ve got to have the courage to just put it out there, and then objectively and progressively adapt.

How to Create Content that Isn’t a Joke

Similarly, agile content marketing follows the same 3-step process:

  1. Start with an educated guess for a content approach
  2. Release content knowing it’s likely flawed
  3. Optimize constantly based on feedback

It’s that rare approach that encourages disciplined execution and constant innovation at the same time. This ready, fire, aim methodology actually boils down to four distinct steps:

1. Strategy

This is the phase of the process where you’re making your own educated guesses. Those guesses come primarily from general market research into who you’re trying to reach, what they’re currently buying, what they need to learn to solve their problems and/or satisfy their desires, and how that can relate to a general class of products or services they want to buy.

2. Release

Research is vital, but at some point you need to settle on the overall positioning of your website, and start putting content out. You don’t need a theater or stadium-sized audience, just the equivalent of a small comedy club. Even then, you’re going to have to work to get your content viewed and shared enough to generate meaningful feedback.

3. Iterate

Iteration means the act of repeating and refining a process in order to reach a certain result. In mathematics, it means taking the output of a function and using that result as the starting point of the next function. Likewise, with content, the results (comments, shares, links, etc.) you receive from an initial content “experiment” fuels the approach you take with the content you produce next.

4. Optimize

The first three steps are repeated endlessly for the life of a project, just like the evolving editorial focus of a magazine, production cycle of a TV series, or career of a stand-up comedian. Mistakes are made and pivots performed. But you’ll also discover the content that is fundamentally crucial to your website – what I call cornerstone content (see also this article) – which can be organized and optimized as a constant workhorse for your content marketing efforts.

Help … I Need More Detail!

I know, I know … but as I said at the beginning, getting into an agile content marketing mindset is the first step. Without this philosophical framework in place, your efforts can quickly slip from iterative to idiotic.

Up next, I’ll walk you though a 5-step process that details more specifically how to execute on an agile content marketing approach. After that, I’ll drill down even deeper into a production process to create content that works as effective marketing, not just as filler on a webpage.

Make sure you’re subscribed (it’s free) so you don’t miss what’s next.

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. In essence release, execute, and never be afraid to pivot.

  2. I finished reading Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up” recently. What I loved about it, was the detail that went into describing his process for creating his art. And like you said, “it’s not some isolated act of creative genius; it’s a process of iterative and incremental joke development.”

    That type of work, process and refinement, can be applied to just about anything really.

    • Steve Martin is a brilliant man, and his take on it is very similar to what Brian outlined here.

      Iterating with an audience is high leverage for a lot reasons, but what I applaud Brian for most is starting with the most important thing…

      MINDSET.

      I see so many people talking about specific tactics without helping their audience with key mindset things that will prevent successful implementation, every time.

    • I also read “Born Standing Up.” I expected it to be a funny memoir, but I was amazed at the sheer amount of work that Steve Martin put into refining his act and persona over the course of many years, well before any of us had ever heard of him. And I would have thought that once you get on the Tonight Show, you’ve got it made. Not true. Even after he was on there multiple times, he still had to continue to work very hard before he really achieved comedic success.

  3. The New York Times ran an article on Myq Kaplan that tracked the evolution of one of his jokes through several stand-up routines. Myq plays with language a lot so he’s also abstractly fascinating for a language geek like me to listen to.

    Probably the toughest challenge I’ve faced over the years is sorting out why content flops. Learning from mistakes is tough when it’s unclear whether the piece of content suffered from marketing failure, presentation failure, or what. It can also be hard to pin down exactly what makes an article take off in some situations: great idea? Killer execution? It can get pretty complex. I’ve written about 300 posts about songwriting, and I feel like I’m finally just finishing my warmup.

    Nobody promised me it would be easy. 😉

  4. Hi Brian, this is a really interesting approach and one I really like and will definitely try out. I can see it has stacks of benefits and I can also see how it ties in with what social media has taught us – if you actively engage with readers and respond to their feedback, they will feel more involved in the development of your product. As such, they feel a part of it which can help build loyalty and trust.

    I’m thinking confidence has got to come into this somewhere because through the agile content marketing concept you’re acknowledging you’re not putting out a finished piece. As such, you have to expect some feedback will not be favourable! However if you’re trying to meet the needs of a particular audience they are best placed to tell you what’s good and what sucks! It’s got to be worth the risk!

    I have a question. How much does the success of this strategy depends on how well your target audience already know you? I get that if you’ve built a loyal tribe, they will forgive you the occasional “mistake”. But how does this work if you’re a “newbie” and your educated guess is way off the mark?

  5. Applying The Lean Startup methodology to content marketing and publishing is, put simply, sound business practice in today’s connected society.

    That book is required reading for anyone in an entrepreneurial pursuit… period.

    This concept of “agile content marketing” will surely be a hit for you Brian. I love it.

  6. Brian – have you by any chance ever heard the WTF podcast with Marc Maron? He’s a longtime stand-up comedian who interviews famous comedians and comic actors about their life and careers. I’ve always enjoyed comedy but I’ve never been really, really into it like some people. But somehow I came across his podcast and I’ve just been fascinated by his conversations with these comics, especially when he talks with them about their writing process or how they developed their comic style in the comedy clubs. Reading this post I realize why – it resonates with me because it’s like any writing process, or entrepreneurial venture, both of which I’m living right now – trying things over and over, putting it out there, getting feedback, and just making it better and better, exactly like you described. Great post!

  7. Damn Brian, this is fantastic.

    You really know how to lay out your words to make them really effective for the reader (me).

    I really appreciate the analogy of the Comedian approach.

    Looking forward to the next part of the series.

  8. Brigette says:

    Subscribed! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  9. How would agile marketing apply to a relatively large (800+ pages) new site?

    Since you’ve already got a content framework established, it seems a pivot would be harder to implement.

    Especially if the content revolves around a single premise (e.g. a travel site which covers destinations).

    How would pivoting be possible in this case?

    Cheers,

    Adam

    PS – Congratulations on your Forbes column. It was a great read.

  10. “A good plan violently executed today is far and away better than a perfect plan tomorrow,” as they say.

  11. Hi Brian,

    I got stuck early in the article: “Mainly, you need to begin with the end (the result you want) in mind. This is where content marketing strategy fails … essentially when there isn’t a executable strategy in place at all.”

    When you say executable strategy, do you mean overall business strategy, or strategy for what you want the content to do for for your business, or strategy for making the content part of the business model? Or is that covered in your 5-step process you’re covering next time?

    Good stuff. Thanks!

    Jack Price

  12. I agree with this article and with Ricardo’s. You have to have your mind in a correct frame in order for your to make great content.

    Great work Brian!

  13. Brian – have you read about the Pyramid method by Cal Newport?

    His suggestions are pretty similar to your process.

    1. Find a small audience. One venue where you can perform your art. One forum where you can win over the audience completely.
    2. Zero in on one relevant metric that you can track. Audience laughter. Clapping noise. Number of facebook likes. Number of comments. One metric.
    3. Practice at that one venue and do everything to become the number one guy with your metric.

    Focus all you have on mastering that one venue. Because if you can’t master one small venue, you’ll never be able to master the world.

    • Prabu Rajasekaran says:

      That’s a valuable comment, Ankesh. I just read through Cal’s article – a brilliant strategy to develop oneself.

  14. Great article Brian! I love the idea of applying Agile to content creation. Any suggestions for getting quality feedback when you are just staring out and don’t have a lot of content?

  15. Joseph Putnam says:

    Mr. Clark,

    I’ve never considered comedians before and their application of lean startup principles, but the points you make are spot on. Recently, I’ve been testing ideas with small groups such as my friends on Facebook or people I can contact by e-mail. If those people respond well, then there may be a good idea. I also test some ideas by talking to people in person. If those ideas make sense and are helpful to people in person, then there’s a good chance that more people will find them helpful when the ideas are broadcasted online.

    I like this idea of testing and iterating, and comedians refining their acts is a great way to make this point. You can’t always know what people will react to, but once you find out what a small group likes, there’s a good chance that a larger group will like it as well. Why? People are more alike than we realize. We just have to know what desires and interests they share.

  16. Brian…I’m so glad you started this site. So far, everything has been spot on. Sometimes the strategic “guessing” can be challenging for people. I’d like to offer my topic brainstorming tool. It was taught to me by Keith Miller, a best-selling author who recently passed away. I turned it into a 37-minute video. Watch from beginning to end and you’ll walk away with 64 topics for content…no matter your industry or area of expertise. We ask for an opt-in, but for your audience…just substitute a /outline after the .com and you can just do the exercise. I hope it helps people.

  17. One way to make the refining/optimization process a little quicker is to A/B split test your content.

    The easiest way is through your email marketing platform if you have a list and you are sending regular content updates.

    Granted, you need a fairly large list to attain statistical validity with a small change (like a headline), but if you’ve got access to one, the knowledge you can gain is invaluable.

    For instance, let’s say you’ve got a travel site like @AdamCosta and you want to know whether your readers like articles about specific destinations or articles about travel tips in general.

    You could send do an email split test where Treatment 1 is headline, description, and link to an article about a popular destination and Treatment 2 is a headline, description, and link to an article about travel tips.

    If treatment 1 wins, write more articles about popular destinations. If treatment 2 wins, write more articles about travel tips.

    Hard click data is generally more reliable than fuzzy customer feedback or social signals, so you can make your pivots faster and with a higher level of confidence.

    Just beware of making confident decisions based on click differences that aren’t actually significant. A basic statistics lesson can help with that:
    http://www.marketingexperiments.com/blog/analytics-testing/testing-sample-size.html

    • Very interesting idea on using email to drive future content. I think using your examples would yield statistical results quickly due to drastically different angles.

      Another method would be to use a heat map plugin to track where people click on your homepage (you can also do this in Google Analytics). Then set up a simple A/B split test where you move your categories around and see if clicks shift accordingly. This lets you determine if it’s really the content – or merely the placement – that is drawing people’s interest.

      Paul, for like the fourth time here you’ve given me a LOT to think about. Thank you.

  18. Brian,

    Your post today hit a sweet spot for me. I’ve been noodling over the same blog post for days. Wish I’d had you whispering in my ear today:

    – Release content knowing it’s likely flawed
    – Optimize constantly based on feedback

    Spot on, as always!

  19. What you described above is totally my M.O. — I’m mostly in Step 3 (iterate) and have started to find myself more and more in Step 4 (optimize). Really enjoying the process and can’t wait for your next post. Thanks, Brian!

  20. Comedians have it easy. They know when their content fails – no one laughs.

    My problem is knowing what “failure” means for my content. How do I know when something isn’t working, and how do I know what part of it isn’t working?

    • There are several ways to see what content works best:

      Social shares. Which pages of content are getting the most Tweets/Likes, etc.?

      Top pages. When someone visits your homepage, what are they most likely to click through to read?

      Bounce rate. Which pages send visitors away from your site?

      Email clicks. See Paul Cheney’s comment above about this. It’s solid.

      User requests. Set up a simple, open-ended survey and ask them what they want to learn more about, problems they have, etc. Then create content around that.

      Hope this helps,

      Adam

  21. Great post Brian (as usual :),

    It’ll be interesting too see what’s coming next. Can’t wait.

    Spot on, as always!

  22. I’m glad you mentioned Optimize as that is what I struggle with. I have loads of ideas and create lots of content, which is useful, but I am also aware of old posts that rank well, but aren’t accurate any more. Plus there are stats which show what people are reading and commenting on most and I haven’t analyzed it, or changed anything because of it.
    I guess I’m just not turned on by analytics or tweaking. I love creating and publishing and interacting, not optimizing. I hope you can cover some quickfire ways to Optimize Brian, without asking us to spend a lot of time on analytics.
    Thanks, Joanna

  23. Last night my bladder woke me up and this article popped into my head. Clearly, my subconscious wanted me to take note.

    I did not even read the whole article yesterday. I scanned it. But that was enough.

    I’ve been through a lot of Copyblogger content and products and this ‘imperfect agile product’ idea finally clicked for me.

    I’ve know you’ve told me time and again in many ways but the gestalt of failing forward as a process, makes a difference. I didn’t really believe you until I saw it as a process.

    I guess being over 40 has it’s plusses.

  24. I like the idea of incremental joke development and still trying to figure out the missing peace to my company blog but how does one know what content suits which audience?

  25. In reality you can never know for certain what your customers or audience wants without testing continuously. Nobody gets it right on the first shot. That’s why measuring and re-evaluating your content strategy is so important. Great piece!

  26. Reading this article, I just realized that agile marketing has already worked wonders for me! 4 years back I started a new testing lab, with a few services that we assumed our clients needed and then expanded the scope based their requirements. Today it is a self sufficient and profitable business!

  27. Joshua Seymour says:

    I love the example of the stand-up comedian.

    That makes so much sense. Thank you Brian.

  28. Hi Brian,

    This article is definitely helping me keep the faith while I am testing my educated guess content. I look forward to your future articles. Great work!

  29. Hi Brian —

    I don’t know if this is the best place to share this request with you, but, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d love to hear what a “day in the life” for Brian Clark looks like with regards to how you schedule your time.

    At least for me, wearing all the hats that a content-producing-entreproducer must wear can be overwhelming. I often feel the day went by and I worked on lots of things but didn’t *accomplish* something.

  30. I’ve been struggling with editing a series I plan to launch in the summer. I had the mindset that everything had to be perfect before I could launch, and it was bogging me down. I realized this a couple of days ago, but reading your words helped strengthen my resolve. Thank you.

  31. That is how I plan to create RaveOrBash.com with my partners to be both a useful resource and a successful startup especially without VC or angel investor financial input.

    This is a great movement that actually builds on the principles of sound business practices and in line with the lean startup concept…………

    Great article.

  32. I believe you’re actually describing “agile content development” not “agile content.” Agile Content is content that is, well, agile. Flexible. Can be easily re-purposed and built upon.

    • Brian Clark says:

      Hi John. I am describing agile content development, but I’ve instead substituted the word “marketing” for development, because simply developing content is not the same as developing content that serves as marketing with an aim of conversion.

      I don’t think I ever said “agile content” alone. That wouldn’t make any sense. 😉

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