Consumers see thousands of ads every day. Some of this content, such as a billboard or television commercial, is clearly recognizable as a marketing effort. Others are more subtle, such as an educational YouTube video that happens to feature branded products.
This approach is called content marketing. It’s a way to promote a brand and its products or services, while also providing value to the audience. When done correctly, content marketing can have a long-lasting positive impact on brand awareness, perception, and loyalty.
There are several best practices that can help you maximize your content marketing campaigns' potential. This content strategy guide will walk you through:
- What is content marketing?
- Why is content marketing important?
- Content marketing goals and KPIs
- Where do most users engage with content?
- Most popular content marketing formats
- How to create a content marketing strategy
- What makes great content
- What are the different stages of the content marketing funnel?
What is content marketing?
Content marketing is a strategic process that uses the creation and distribution of valuable content to attract a target audience. It works by creating consistent, relevant touch points throughout the customer’s buying journey. This builds awareness and loyalty. Effective marketing content may exist in many different formats, including:
- Written guides
- Long-form articles
- Instagram Live streaming
- Recorded webinars
- YouTube videos
- Guest blog posts
- Customer reviews
Content marketing doesn’t completely replace more traditional methods, but it serves as an effective complement to things like print ads, email blasts, PPC campaigns, and more. On average, businesses should expect to allocate about 25% of their total marketing budget to content marketing efforts. You can think of it as providing a helpful nudge, and less of a hard sell.
Why is content marketing important?
Our brains can’t process the thousands of ads we see every day. If the ad isn’t immediately relevant to our needs or wants, we may pass it by. Because content marketing provides some sort of informational value to the reader, listener, or viewer, it can make a bigger impact.
Another great benefit of content marketing is its longevity. Print ads often have a shelf life, while digital content can remain online indefinitely. While it is certainly still possible to create digital content that grows outdated, there are many opportunities to create “evergreen” pieces that do not lose their relevance.
Content marketing platform BuzzSumo identified the top seven pieces of evergreen B2B content produced in the past five years, and found that how-to guides and research articles tended to stand the test of time. While data-heavy articles may need to be lightly updated over time, these articles are largely hands-off after publication.
The use of evergreen content can help to boost your content marketing ROI—especially in industry segments where the customer journey is long. You can continue to build awareness and consideration without a new investment each time someone enters your marketing and sales funnel or flywheel.
Content marketing goals and KPIs
While the end goal of all marketing is, typically, to boost revenue, there are a number of goals you may want to achieve along the way. These can include:
- Building brand awareness
- Entering a new market segment
- Creating a new market segment
- Increasing sales of existing products
- Increasing website traffic
- Boosting your number of social media followers
- Launching a new product with X number of sales
These goals are typically expressed as a key performance indicator (KPI) and tracked by analyzing various metrics.
Key Performance Indicators are specific, measurable goals such as:
- Achieving an X percent increase in website traffic, year over year
- Gaining X number of new social media followers by August
- Acquiring X number of new leads after the February campaign launch
In order to know if you successfully achieve your KPIs, you must track relevant data points. Trackable metrics commonly associated with content marketing KPIs include:
- Traffic: the total number of unique visitors that come to a website
- Returning visitors: users who come to your site more than once
- Impressions: the number of times visitors view a web page or post
- Time on page: the amount of time a unique visitor spends on a given page
- Time on site: the length of time each unique visitor spends browsing your entire site
- Pages per session: the number of pages a unique visitor views during a single browsing session
- Bounce rate: the percentage of visitors who enter and immediately exit the site without clicking on any other pages
- Email signups: the number of visitors that enter an email address to receive more information or join a newsletter
- Ebook or whitepaper downloads: the number of visitors that opt to download content by clicking a button or filling out a form
By tracking these content marketing metrics, you can also gather useful data about how users engage with your content.
Where do most users engage with content?
The earliest forms of content marketing—going back to the 1700s—were, of course, all printed material. While print-based content marketing still exists today, digital content is particularly relevant.
Hubspot estimates that as many as 5.6 billion Google searches happen every day. People have questions, and they’re seeking the answers online.
These billions of searches translate into chances to connect with your target audience through blogs, videos, podcasts, and images—all searchable via Google. You can publish this content on your own website or social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Quora. Public content from these networks often appears in organic search results as well as through on-platform search.
Most popular content marketing formats
The best format and platform for your content marketing depends on budget, industry, and target audience. What works well for a business-to-consumer (B2C) cosmetics company may be very different from what a business-to-business (B2B) software company needs. Similarly, content that works well on your website may not translate as effectively on social media.
Many of your content marketing efforts will involve these formats:
- Articles and blog posts
- Ebooks and whitepapers
- Images and infographics
- Tools and templates
- User generated content
Some of the formats, such as blog posts, can stand alone if necessary. Others, like GIFs, are usually best paired with additional forms of content.
Articles and blog posts
The article you’re reading right now is a form of content marketing. Whether you wound up on this page by browsing Upwork’s resource center, clicking a social media link, or doing a Google search, the reason is the same: you’d like to learn something about content marketing. Of course we hope that you’ll choose to use Upwork, but it isn’t required for reading this article. You can take the information you read here and apply it to your work, whether or not you have an Upwork account.
Articles and blogs can take a variety of forms, including:
- How-to guides
- Product roundups
- Human interest features
Starting a blog pays off—conversion optimization company OptinMonster found that businesses that blog get twice as much email traffic as those that don’t. This increase isn’t surprising, considering that over 400 million people read blogs and articles every month.
You can structure your blogs and articles any way you’d like, though longer is typically better. HubSpot evaluated their content and found that the ideal length for blogs is between 2,100 and 2,400 words. This is a nice sweet spot, as it gives you enough space to get into detail but not overwhelm the reader with information.
There’s no problem with making your content shorter or longer, however, if you feel it works well. Just try to keep your blog posts at a 1,000 word minimum—any shorter than this, and the content may not provide as much benefit for search engine optimization (SEO) or your customers.
Ebooks and whitepapers
If you have a lot of ground to cover in your content, it may make sense to structure it as an ebook or a whitepaper.
Whitepapers usually drill down into one specific topic, providing rich information for readers who are already familiar with core concepts of the industry or issue at hand. They are often presented as downloadable files that aid in lead generation.
Ebooks typically target a broader audience, giving readers an in-depth introduction to a particular topic. Traditionally, ebooks may be downloadable PDFs, like whitepapers. You can also turn ebook content into a series of interactive web pages arranged in “chapters.” This example from Backlinko shows a comprehensive, web-based guide structured around a clickable table of contents.
When offering ebooks and whitepapers as downloads, you can pair them with blog posts that act as an introduction. This may help to increase the SEO value of each piece of content, as well as give you the benefits of blogging along with lead generation.
Images and infographics
Images and infographics enhance written content, and can increase conversions by as much as 86%. Because still images are an extremely shareable form of content, they’re also a great way to get backlinks to your site.
The best type of image to use depends on your business model and target audience. A software company targeting enterprise-level businesses may find that infographics about financial or time savings resonates well with their audience. Meanwhile, a consumer skincare company targeting college students may choose to use before-and-after photos or even a branded spin on memes.
Content marketing can also take the form of stock photography. Brands like Le Creuset, Harley-Davidson, and Square all post curated image sets on Unsplash, a royalty-free stock photo site. Many of the brands’ photos are in line with other stock images on the site, such as this image from Le Creuset:
The image features a classic red Le Creuset pot, but is not otherwise noticeable as an advertisement. Bloggers and other content creators are able to freely use this photo around the internet, expanding exposure to Le Creuset products.
Tools and templates
Interactive or downloadable tools and templates are another way to add value to blog posts and articles. This kind of content may include:
You can opt to embed this content in a blog post, place it on its own landing page, or use it as a lead generation tool.
Coda, a maker of collaborative online document software, regularly creates templates and tools for its users. The company explains the tool in a blog post—including how they use it internally—and provides a link for readers to copy and use it themselves.
Adding interactive features and tools to your website can further boost your conversions by as much as 50%.
Over 30% of Americans listen to a podcast every month. By starting a podcast, you can potentially increase touch points with those members of your audience who prefer to get their information by listening.
The majority of podcast listeners find new shows by searching online, so it's a good idea to post each episode on your website. You can pair each audio file with a written transcript or blog post for SEO purposes. (Upwork’s Work Unlocked podcast is a great example of how this can look in action!)
Thanks to sites like YouTube and Vimeo, video content marketing is accessible to companies of all sizes. You no longer have to pay for a TV commercial or get a press release picked up by a news station in order to get your message out in a video.
Adding video into your content marketing plan can lead to great results, too. According to video marketing company Wyzowl, 86% of marketers feel that video content increases website traffic.
There are many different kinds of videos that are suitable for content marketing, including:
- Product how-tos and explainers
- Corporate keynotes
- Year-in-review recaps
- Inspiring customer stories
- User generated and influencer content
Don’t forget to repurpose video content across platforms. And, as with audio, you can turn your video topics and transcripts into unique blog posts.
Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) files are a web-friendly hybrid between videos and still images. Most businesses can benefit from including GIFs in their content marketing plan, but the type of GIF varies.
Business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) software or app companies with a formal or serious brand voice might choose to utilize GIFs as visual aids. Rather than uploading a tutorial as a webinar, these brands could opt to write out each step in a blog post and use GIFs to illustrate actions, such as clicking through a signup process.
Companies with a more casual brand voice may also be able to incorporate humorous GIFs into their content. These brands have the option of using existing GIFs that are popular with their audience, creating their own takes on memes, or turning segments of a viral brand video into GIFs.
A number of brands that create original GIF content upload their work to media sharing sites like Imgur and Giphy. Users of these sites may find and share the branded content across text messages, emails, social media profiles, websites, and more.
User generated content
User generated content (UGC) is a useful form of brand amplification. Truly organic UGC involves a brand’s loyal customers creating social media posts, videos, graphics, or other content that places the brand’s product or service in a positive light.
Leveraging this user generated and influencer content may have a positive impact on brand perception, as 76% of consumers tend to trust UGC more than corporate content. Companies can boost their brand’s relatability by engaging with and sharing UGC across their website and social media accounts.
How to create a content marketing strategy
A content marketing strategy lays out all the ways a business will create, deliver, and utilize different assets to create customer touch points. It’s best to develop your content marketing strategy before building out the rest of your marketing plan. Elements of the deliverables that you create and share as part of content marketing may also be useful in traditional advertising, email, PPC, social media marketing, and more.
Developing and executing a successful content strategy is a big effort. It can require the help of multiple teams or independent professionals, including:
- Content strategists
- SEO specialists
- Content writers
- Audio editors
- Graphic designers
- Web designers
- Social media marketers
When planning your content strategy, it’s important to do the following:
- Understand your prospects
- Know customer pain points
- Develop data-backed personas
- Align on goals and KPIs
- Develop relevant, problem-solving content
- Amplify on the right channels
- Measure results and evolve your strategy
Approaching each of these steps in order can help you effectively reach your target audience and boost the return on your investment.
1. Understand your prospects
Every content marketing strategy should begin with market research. Before you can use content to build brand awareness, you need to know:
- How your audience perceives your current brand, if it exists
- What your audience may need or want out of your brand
- How your audience perceives competing brands
- Ways in which competitors may not be meeting the needs of your target audience
This information will help you develop a better idea of how your brand should position itself to reach your ideal customers. It can also confirm that there is, indeed, a need for your product or service within the market.
During the market research stage, you may utilize a mix of industry benchmarks, audience surveys, or focus groups. The results will help you develop a better idea of how your brand should position itself to reach your ideal customers. This research can also confirm that there is, indeed, a need for your product or service within the market.
Without conducting adequate market research, you may not have enough data to fully build out your content marketing strategy. As a result, campaigns could fall short of hitting KPIs.
2. Know customer pain points
The market research you conduct as part of step one should also give you a clearer idea of customers’ pain points. These pain points influence buying decisions and can create friction that stalls customers on their path toward making a purchase. Examples of pain points include:
- Cost: a product or service is too expensive for most of its target audience
- Time: using the product requires the user add additional steps into their day
- Effort: acquiring the product is difficult or complicated, with multiple steps
While you may not be able to completely address all pain points, removing as much friction as possible may help to give your brand an edge over competitors. It’s important to communicate the ease and benefits of choosing your product or service when preparing marketing materials.
If you avoid identifying and addressing customer pain points, you may find that your audience is more likely to choose a competitor.
3. Develop data-backed personas
Knowing your customer’s needs and pain points is only one part of the process. For your content marketing strategy to work, you need to communicate your message in a way that resonates with the audience. Buyer personas help to streamline this process.
You can create audience segments by clustering potential buyers together based on demographic data. A persona is the fictional profile that represents one of these segments.
Every buyer persona should include:
- A nickname that represents the segment, such as “Executive Erica” or “Student Stan”
- An age range that reflects the average for your segment
- An example occupation and income bracket
- Background details including education level, family, and day-to-day life
- Common interests, habits, and hobbies
- Goals that your product or service may address
- Key values that influence buying decisions
- Fears that may add friction
- Challenges in their existing workflow or purchasing journey
You can build personas using data from:
- Your market research efforts
- Social media analytics
- Google analytics reports
- Your existing order database or CRM
In addition to helping you further identify the unique traits of your ideal customers, buyer personas also help to clarify who is not in your target audience. Without this step, you may market to your audience in an ineffective way—or target the wrong people entirely.
4. Align on goals and KPIs
Once you’ve completed your research and built buyer personas, it’s important to evaluate or create goals and KPIs for your content marketing strategy.
First, consider the ultimate goal for your content marketing efforts. Examples of goals can include:
- Generating more website traffic
- Obtaining more social media followers
- Increasing lead generation
- Selling more products
- Acquiring a percentage of competitors’ customers
- Building repeat business
Next, think about how you can track each of these goals to measure success. You may decide to track toward a few large goals or break them into a series of milestones to hit along the way. Identify the tools and teams you’ll need to rely on to effectively execute and track each goal.
Without defining goals—and the associated metrics to track—you may not be able to accurately assess the impact of your content marketing strategy. Tracking goals and KPIs also allows you to adjust your strategy along the way if you find that certain deliverables are not performing as expected.
5. Develop relevant, problem-solving content
While some of your content marketing deliverables may be very subtle—like the Le Creuset photo above—a lot of it will provide clear value to the consumer. Take a look at the buyer personas and pain points you have identified. How can you create content that reaches these consumers and solves the issues at hand?
Let’s say we’re trying to sell a productivity planner to three different buyer personas:
- Vice President Paula, an executive trying to balance her home and personal life
- Entrepreneur Erica, a former corporate employee turned startup business owner
- Scholar Steve, a university student studying for two degrees
Each of these audience segments can benefit from our product, but we’ll need to tailor our message differently for each one. The motivation for an executive to try a new productivity system is likely to be different than that of a college student. We’ll need to create content to target each type of potential buyer.
If we neglect to speak to each of our audience segments’ needs, then we may lose market share and miss the opportunity to convert new customers.
6. Amplify on the right channels
In addition to deciding what problems your content will help to solve, it’s important to clarify where the content will live. There’s a good chance you’ll need to utilize multiple channels to get your message across to every audience segment. Look at the data you collected in earlier steps to help you decide what channels to use when amplifying your message.
In the example above, we identified three distinct buyer personas for our productivity planner. Let’s say our research indicated that corporate customers use LinkedIn, while the entrepreneurial and student segments are more likely to use Instagram or TikTok. As a result, we could:
- Write a blog post about productivity hacks and put it on our website
- Create a infographic that accompanies the blog, and post it on LinkedIn
- Break the infographic into four vertical slides and create a scrolling carousel on Instagram
- Engage a TikTok micro-influencer to post a series of videos about how the planner has improved the way they balance work and school.
Identifying the right audience and message is only part of the process. If we don’t communicate that message across the channels our customers actually use, they won’t see, hear, or read it.
7. Measure results and evolve your strategy
After establishing the channels you will use to distribute your assets, implement a process to track all relevant content marketing metrics. This may include using built-in social media and website analytics or connecting third-party platforms to make sense of the data.
As you collect data, take note of whether or not you’re on track to meet your defined KPIs, and if any channels are performing better or worse than expected. If things don’t go as planned, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. By adjusting your strategy, you can potentially regain ground and remain on track to hit your goals.
Of course, all the strategy and planning in the world won’t help if your content isn’t strong. Engaging, effective content is the cornerstone of every successful campaign.
What makes great content
No matter what format and channel you choose to use for marketing purposes, great content is always:
- Expert-backed and credible
- Multi-platform and mobile friendly
- Consistent quality
- Easy to understand
By striving to hit each of these points when creating new content, you can improve the quality and longevity of your content—as well as the ROI.
Above all else, relevancy is critical for content marketing success. If your content no longer speaks to your audience, it won’t drive conversions.
Creating a library of evergreen content, as noted above, is useful for keeping your content “fresh.” It’s also beneficial to throw some non-evergreen content into the mix, though. This can show that your brand pays attention to changes in your industry and help you gain some SEO benefit from posting about trending topics.
Review all of your content on a regular basis and assess its relevance. If it’s outdated, decide if you should take the content down or rework it. Even some evergreen topics need an occasional refresh. This may include actions such as updating the year in a video’s title or adding a new section to existing blog posts.
Expert-backed and credible
Providing expert sources and testimonials is a way of building your brand’s value in the eyes of new consumers. Expert sources can include industry leaders, public figures, and internal subject matter experts among others. When customers first encounter your brand, a reputable third-party source may carry more weight than an internal expert. However, as users become more familiar with your brand and product, hearing from the people who create it can be beneficial.
Expert-backed content is also a great way to boost SEO and domain authority. If you feature an expert’s profile, endorsement, or testimonial, they may be willing to link back to it from their site. If the expert is well known to your industry or public, this type of partnership may also help you to garner more media coverage.
Multi-platform and mobile friendly
In the United States, 70% of digital media consumption happens on a smartphone. Google now looks to the mobile versions of websites first when considering ranking factors. Mobile usability, speed, and experience can all impact your content’s reach. Depending on the channels you utilize most, you may even want to develop a separate mobile marketing strategy.
Luckily, posts on social media platforms are already optimized for use on mobile and. When posting on YouTube, this also includes gaming devices like the Switch, Xbox, and PS5.
Progressive web apps (PWAs) and lightweight websites can boost usability on mobile devices as well. Keep an eye on your website traffic and SEO rank as you roll out your new content strategy. If you are seeing low traffic and high bounce rates from mobile users, it may indicate a problem. Optimizing your site and removing digital friction points can open your content up to more users.
Maintaining consistent, high quality content is important. This doesn’t mean that your YouTube videos have to have a blockbuster-level production budget. Instead, focus on creating content that:
- Addresses your audience
- Gets published on a reliable, recurring schedule
- Is free of grammatical errors and inconsistencies
- Is easy to read, hear, or watch
Someone who likes your content is likely to know other people in a similar segment. By sharing your content, they amplify your message for other potential customers. Images, videos, and social media posts are all easily shareable and a great way to gain more impressions. You can make long form content shareable too, by including infographics and click-to-tweet quotes.
Easy to understand
As a general rule, your content marketing deliverables should be easy for a general audience to understand. This may include:
- Breaking complex, long topics into a series of shorter and easily digestible blog posts or videos
- Utilizing images and GIFs alongside written content
- Adding captions to videos
- Keeping the reading level around an eighth or ninth grade range
It’s also important to consider the different stages in your marketing funnel. People who have never heard of your brand before may need a very entry-level primer, while existing customers come with some background knowledge. Creating unique content for every segment across every funnel can help you keep it easy to understand without becoming repetitive.
What are the different stages of the content marketing funnel?
Your audience will engage with your content at different stages of the buyer's journey. The very first touch point, during the awareness stage, is a time to introduce your brand. As consumers become more familiar with your brand, the type of content that will attract them changes.
When someone encounters your brand for the first time, they are in the awareness stage. This is the very top of your content marketing funnel.
At this point, the potential customer has little to no prior knowledge of your brand. The experience they have during this stage can shape their view of your brand going forward, so it’s important to make a good impression. If not, and they drop out of your funnel, you’ve lost a potential conversion.
Content in the awareness stage should put the product on the consumer’s radar and enlighten them as to its general features and benefits. This isn’t the time to really push for a sale. Top-of-funnel content is largely introductory and informative.
After building brand awareness with a potential customer, you may enter the consideration stage. This part of the funnel is where an audience member identifies they have a problem, and are looking for a solution.
You can continue to build a positive brand association during this stage with content that:
- Recognizes their potential problem
- Illustrates an effective solution
- Presents successful case studies that buyers may relate to
- Provides information to help them make a decision
Crucially, consideration stage content does all of this without a hard sales push.
Potential customers enter the decision stage once they’ve fully considered available options. This is the point at which you can begin to push harder for the sale by:
- Promoting product demos
- Offering free consultations as part of a lead magnet
- Utilizing content calls to action (CTAs) that offer a trial or discount
- Comparing and contrasting with a competitor
Depending on your business model, the consideration or decision stages are where a potential customer may begin to have more interaction with members of your customer service or sales teams.
3 Content marketing examples from popular brands
Nearly all companies can utilize content marketing to boost sales and brand awareness. The three brands below are very different, but each represent a successful use of content marketing to target specific audiences.
Over the past several years, the LEGO brand’s evolution has turned the classic children’s toy into a multimedia powerhouse. Feature films, reality TV shows, animated YouTube videos, games, apps, and, of course, physical blocks all make up the LEGO universe.
Because LEGO is a very visual medium—the instruction books in its kits are largely pictographic—it makes sense that the brand has embraced content marketing through video. The company uses content to create and share original stories using LEGO characters, promote UGC featuring LEGO creations, and introduce new LEGO features. This content can serve as both an introduction to LEGO for new users, as well as inspiration for existing LEGO customers to purchase a new set or develop their own designs.
REI, an outdoor goods retailer headquartered in Kent, Washington, creates video content that is of interest to its core customer base—without focusing solely on products. While the company does have plenty of how-to videos that show customers how to use their new camping, hiking, and backpacking gear, REI also creates short documentary films and recurring YouTube shows. These videos create a sense of community with like-minded customers who may live or aspire to live like the people REI features.
Many of the company’s videos, including ones titled “Yoga for Runners” and “How to Make Green Curry with Tofu,” can serve as a great entry point for potential customers during the awareness phase. The content provides value to any interested viewer, whether they are an REI customer or not.
In addition to its video content, REI also produces a variety of podcasts and written how-to content. This creates multiple entry points for new and existing customers, whether they prefer to read, watch, or listen to content. It can also help to turn casual customers into brand loyalists.
Home Depot’s website is heavily e-commerce focused but also provides resources that help customers complete home repairs. Do-it-yourself project ideas, instructions, and tools like a countertop calculator are freely available to anyone regardless of whether or not they shop at Home Depot.
By placing these tools and resources prominently on its website homepage, Home Depot makes the idea of DIY repairs and renovations less intimidating to property owners who are debating starting a project. The company’s site contains content for people who are just beginning to explore DIY through holiday decor, as well as more complex electrical wiring and HVAC projects for property owners with more experience. This content helps to position Home Depot as a trusted resource and partner for fixing a house or other property.
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