Having a well-documented content strategy is fundamental to content marketing. And yet, as HubSpot reports, only 37% of B2B companies that use content marketing have a documented content strategy.
A content marketing strategy is important because it allows everyone in your company to understand the what, how, and why of your communications.
Can you identify your company's biggest marketing and sales opportunities? Do you know where you're leaving money on the table — hemorrhaging your budget or missing potential revenue?
Your top answers to those questions probably involve software investments that aren't paying off or possibly marketing channels you've neglected. Those and other obvious answers aren't wrong, but they also miss one opportunity almost every company has yet very few recognize.
We're talking about improving your written communications. One researcher estimates that poor writing costs American businesses alone almost $400 billion each year.
That number is based on the statistic that workers spend 22% of their time reading, a number that goes up for higher compensated employees. The more time workers waste trying to understand poor communications, the more paid hours are lost. Though the estimate may be rough, even half of the lost revenue that this study cites would be an extraordinary sum.
And here's the thing: this study only looks at the costs of poor communications through the lens of productivity. What about marketing dollars wasted because of copy that goes unread? Sales proposals lost because a service's value isn't clearly communicated?
Much of this is due to the lack of a solid content strategy.
At Foleon, we focus on giving companies the tools to improve their content marketing and digital communications. We know that readers' online behavior is different from five years ago. Over half of all online traffic is through mobile devices. The average human attention span has shrunk to less than that of a goldfish. All of these factors and more are changing the landscape of content marketing and communications in general.
We put together this page as a summary of the experiences we've had in our content marketing efforts, as well as the lessons we've learned on digital communications as a whole through working with our amazing clients.
Poor writing costs American businesses alone almost $400 billion each year.
We'll dive much deeper here than creating outlines for a piece of writing. There are so many moving pieces that go into a good content marketing or communications plan.
- Do you understand your audience’s problems and challenges?
- Can you deliver content to them at every stage of the buyer’s journey?
- Most importantly: are your efforts planned, organized, and based on data instead of gut feelings?
Luckily, there is an abundance of tools to help accomplish these tasks. We'll present many on this page, including some third party tools and templates, as well as some that we've created ourselves.
Anyone whose job involves writing and communication will benefit from the lessons shared here. Content and social media marketers, internal communications professionals, salespeople, and more will find resources that will enable them to excel at work. We've tried to keep these lessons as practical as possible. Our goal is for you to take what we share here and be able to immediately apply it.
So without further ado, here is our complete guide to building and applying a content marketing strategy.
1. Who's reading your writing: creating personas
The first, often neglected step in cleaning up your communications is identifying your audience. At Foleon, our content philosophy is what we call “writing on purpose.” We don't believe in publishing content just for its own sake. Every piece of writing should target a specific group and inspire them to take a particular action.
Unfortunately, proper targeting is difficult, and many organizations struggle to create the right tone of voice for their audience. A great tool to facilitate your efforts is persona building. A persona is a fictional person created to represent your ideal customer.
Usually, a company will have several personas that they target. For example, the personas you use may be a marketer, an internal communicator, and a graphic designer. Many people like to give them names to make them feel more real, e.g. Marketing Matt, Communications Cathy, and Designer Danielle.
Every piece of writing should target a specific group and inspire them to take a particular action.
All three have characteristics that make them different:
- They have their own desires and challenges
- They have unique backgrounds and demographics
- They get their news from different sources
- They practice different hobbies outside work
- And much more
These personas should be central to any content strategy and, along with concepts such as the buyer's journey (which we'll cover later), are the starting point for anything you write.
So, how do you go about assembling personas? It's a process of deep introspection, and it requires you to consider your current audience, desired audience, and the value you provide as a company. We'll explore all of that in depth, but first, a word on why this all matters:
The pitfalls of poor targeting
Let's say you work at a company that produces project management software. Conceivably this could be marketed toward anyone, but there's some feature about your product that makes it ideal for corporate law firms.
Many companies nowadays, especially in the SaaS space, focus on making their copy fun and conversational. This may be the perfect approach to targeting a lot of organizations, but it's less likely to work with the conservative legal world.
If those law firms are seeing your fun and conversational copy, you're probably costing yourself customers before they're even familiar with your product. That's why it's important to deliver them copy that's appropriate for their industry and for the individual who is likely to be reading it.
This concept doesn't only apply to your tone of voice, either. Legal employees will likely be driven to convert by different benefits of your platform than workers from another industry, even if the platform is applicable to both. They'll go to different sources to find their content, impacting how you need to think about distribution. In other words, writing content that's not tailored to the correct audience can result in them reacting poorly and not converting, or you might never even reach them in the first place.
Starting from your UVP
The best starting point for building your personas is to consider your Unique Value Proposition, or UVP. Your UVP is a statement that explains, in the simplest and clearest terms possible, the value of your product and the benefits you provide to customers. Many organizations actually struggle to de-mystify this. After years of exploring and elucidating all the wonderful things about themselves, they find a clean and clear explanation out of reach.
However, distilling the benefits of your operation into plain language is paramount. That allows you to think logically about who your customers are and why they choose you. Take a look at a list of clients and a list of professions with which your salespeople have frequent conversations. Line that up with what you deduced about who is a relevant audience for your UVP.
Where those groups overlap, you'll have a clear picture of one or more audiences who deserve your attention as a writer. These are people who are open to your message and want to hear from you.
Examining your UVP is important, but it still presents you with only a fuzzy picture. The next step is to mold a living, breathing thing from your insights.
Distilling the benefits of your operation into plain language is paramount.
The craft of character
Imagine you're writing a letter. What sounds easier: addressing a group of people who have some vague commonalities or addressing an old friend? Making your audience real, personal, and specific helps you create powerful copy and, in turn, rapport with potential customers.
You don't have to actually pretend you're writing to an old friend to construct a persona (though if that works for you, go for it). What you do need to do is build fictional characters, individual people, who are your target group personified.
Some of the characteristics you’ll create for them include:
- Job titles
- Day-to-day responsibilities
- Areas of struggle
- Goals and triumphs
A recent article on Medium even demonstrated why knowing a character's favorite songs helps to understand their psychology.
Try to flesh out these characters as much as you can. Don't assume that you know them intimately from the get-go. Rather, go through all the steps of character creation we discuss here. There's a good chance you'll be surprised at what you discover.
A word on style
These characters are your company's target personas. They're the foundation for the rest of your marketing and outreach activity.
After completing your persona outlining, it's wise to begin your research on style. Later on, we'll delve deeper into creating a style guide and even share our own style guide.
What you can do immediately upon finishing work on your personas is find some of what's already being written by or for similar people online. By understanding your personas' job titles and industries, you can identify real people online who are aligned with them. If you're lucky, you'll find that some of these real people have published some writing themselves, such as blog posts on LinkedIn.
Even if they haven't, there are certainly others already writing with these people in mind. Whether it's industry blogs, marketing materials, or something else, that writing will give you a peek into the style associated with your new personas.
Take in the style they use. Is it conservative, fun, technical, or solution oriented? Does it use long, in-depth paragraphs or short, journalistic ones?
All of this will help you develop a writing style appropriate for your new personas. The next step is deciding what exactly to write.
Deciding on topics and formats
Choosing the appropriate topics and formats for your content is as important a component of your strategy as anything else discussed here.
The number one thing to keep in mind is that you're trying to entice your target audience to come to your website and eventually convert to paying customers.
What issues do they face in their daily lives?
What marketing materials will help them overcome those obstacles?
For each persona, research their hopes, dreams, fears, pains, barriers, and hesitations. Cross-reference those with your UVP, and you'll have an easy time generating a list of topics.
The question of helpfulness extends to both topic selection and format selection. Topics and formats may be ones that are already common for your target industry. However, it's important to put yourself in your persona's shoes and question whether there may even be a content gap for the industry that is waiting to be filled. Perhaps there are no technical, research-based white papers in this industry, even though that would be helpful for and welcomed by the industry's workers. This is a good example of why it's useful to be intimately familiar with your personas.
Up next, we're going to discuss finding your audience. How do you find out not just who's consuming your content but where online they go to find new content? This will reveal a lot about how to construct your work and about successful distribution.
2. Where is your audience?
Once you've determined the personas your writing should target, you may be wondering how to reach them. Marketers generally have a toolbox of distribution strategies, such as social media and email outreach. While these are great practices, they cast a very wide net. If you went to all the trouble of defining personas, why not make the most of them?
Determining where your personas are most likely to be reading content is a tricky process, and there's some trial-and-error work involved. However, the better you get at this, the more your work will pay off. You'll have a better degree of control over where you put your efforts, and you'll know what channels need extra attention to drive conversions.
Some of the work of channel discovery is common sense, while other parts are learned skills. We'll dive into a couple from both ends of the spectrum today to get you started. As always, take our advice as a starting point. There are endless new techniques to discover!
Internal versus external communications
Let's start with one of the easier questions to answer. Are you writing for internal or external stakeholders? While much of this page is geared toward marketers whose primary goal is acquiring new customers, some of you reading this may also be internal communications specialists.
For those who are on the internal side, the other tips here may be less relevant, but there are still lots of avenues for you to explore. Internal newsletters, shared over email or over your company intranet have lots of potential. Some Foleon users are doing exactly that.
In addition, although it sounds counterintuitive, you might consider looking at external marketing to help reach internal targets. Seeing their company in the news or going viral on social media will get employees excited in a way that traditional internal communications often can't.
Diving in head first to Google Analytics
Moving to external audiences, there's no greater tool for discovering new opportunities to reach your audience than Google Analytics. Specifically, the Segments feature provides far more in-depth analyses than you may have realized were possible.
To create a new segment, just view any report, and near the top of the page you'll see a box labeled All Users and next to it another box that says Add Segment. Select Add Segment and then click the red button that says New + in the upper lefthand corner of the box that has just appeared. Then, you can play around with the endless possibilities or even select the Import from Gallery option and try out some custom configurations other power users have created and made public.
Segments allow you to look at stats for a group of visitors defined by demographics, information about the type of traffic, and more. Google Analytics collects huge amounts of data from every visit to your site, and Segments are your secret weapon for organizing it all.
How does this help you find your audience? Let's say you're looking to refine your social media strategy. You have a clear idea of your ideal customer persona, and you've written some great content targeted toward them. You know this content has good social media potential, but where do you go from there?
You might start by creating Segments for traffic that came from each of the major social networks where you have an account. Then, check out your goal completions report and add your new Segments. You'll be able to see how each one performed in terms of goal completions.
Say you have modest success with traffic from LinkedIn completing goals, though not as much as you'd like, and you have absolutely no success with visitors who come in via Facebook. That's a good indicator that you should concentrate your efforts on LinkedIn and maybe invest in some paid campaigns.
This is only scratching the surface of what's possible with Segments. The possibilities are practically endless, and they can do a lot to inform your strategy.
Segments can also tell you a lot about the devices on which your visitors are viewing your content. However, before you even start digging into Google Analytics on that front, there's one piece of advice that applies to nearly every company around today.
Don't neglect mobile
There are few trends that are general enough to advise all organizations across the board to heed them. The trend toward mobile traffic is one of those. On average, about 55% of internet traffic comes over mobile — more than half.
For this reason, when you're considering the channels where you'll find your target audience, you must count on many of them viewing your content on a mobile device.
What does this mean for you as a content marketer? First and foremost, it means you should be practicing responsive design at every turn. If visitors have to repeatedly pinch and zoom to read your article, you can count on losing lots of them right away.
The move to mobile affects your email marketing as well. Subject lines on mobile devices only allow about half the characters of a desktop computer. You can either create shorter subject lines or write subject lines where the first half will compel readers to know what the entire thing says. Either strategy will work, but you should be utilizing one of them.
If visitors have to repeatedly pinch and zoom to read your article, you can count on losing lots of them right away.
These are just a few examples of how you can think of your marketing channels. We haven't covered important topics like paid advertising, earned media, how to find relevant conversations on social media, and more. This should, however, be enough to get you started.
3. Mapping your content to the buyer's journey
Content marketing can be overwhelming. It's possible that you're working with a sea of content types — such as blog posts, newsletters, case studies, eBooks, white papers, and webinars — and wondering what goes where. What content is right for your organization? What will connect with your ideal audience and inspire them to become customers?
By looking at how people develop a relationship with your brand over time (commonly called the buyer's journey), and determining what kinds of content are most helpful for people in each stage of their journey, you can anticipate what type of material you'll need.
In this section, we'll explore this process and deliver actionable insights that will help you create an intelligent content strategy.
Introducing the buyer's journey
Once you understand how to employ the concept of a buyer's journey in your content strategy, you'll substantially increase your success as a digital marketer.
The buyer's journey is a framework that explains the steps someone goes through in discovering a problem he or she has, researching that problem, and eventually purchasing a product to solve that problem.
As can be inferred from that definition, there are three stages to the buyer's journey: the awareness stage, the consideration stage, and the decision stage.
In the awareness stage, the potential buyer is confronted by some problem. They're aware of their frustration but don't yet know precisely what's causing it or whether it's unique. This is typically when someone searches online for the symptoms of their problem, looking for any information they can find.
People in the awareness stage are not ready to be sold to, but they will be highly receptive to any source that helps them name and frame their problem. They are still formulating the vocabulary around the issue that will help them search for a solution.
This is a great time to make people aware of your brand. If you can provide information that helps them understand an issue they are facing, and if you can optimize that content around the search queries they're using, you will rank highly, and visitors will take note of you.
Blog posts that articulate and describe a problem, help readers contextualize that problem and highlight a number of approaches to solving it are most likely to resonate with people in the awareness stage.
Observe how the following blog post titles focus on attracting visitors who are still trying to define and understand whatever issue they're facing:
- 11 types of back pain and what might be causing them
- The top 5 reasons web content fails to convert visitors
- Why your CRM is so messy (and how to fix it)
These 3 titles cater to potential visitors who are experiencing frustration but have not yet nailed down exactly what's causing it or what kind of solution to investigate. Visitors are likely to click on these titles because they promise more information that will help them clarify the question they're facing.
Content targeting the awareness stage should aim to educate, define, contextualize, clarify, and inform. The best way to draw visitors into your funnel is with content that helps them understand their problem and prepares them for the next step: searching for a solution.
In the consideration stage, potential buyers better understand the cause of their problem and are now researching various kinds of solutions. How and where they search depends on the information they received and the vocabulary they developed in the awareness stage, which is why that stage is so critical.
In this stage, the potential buyer is still not ready to make a purchase, but they are eager to give things a try. Content in this stage should encourage users to start free trials, request product demos, or download solution-oriented offerings like eBooks and white papers.
These conversions are valuable because they allow you to showcase the benefits of your product while also gathering prospects' contact details. The goal here is to enable potential buyers to give proper consideration to your product or service with content that demonstrates precisely how you propose to solve their problem.
Other forms of content highly suitable for this stage are:
- General FAQs
- Product brochures
- White papers and eBooks
- Explainer videos
Content targeting the consideration stage should aim to explain and even demonstrate how your product or service will effectively solve the specific problem the buyer identified in the awareness stage — and ideally get them to try it out themselves.
During the decision stage, the potential buyer has a handful of products or services they're investigating in depth. They know more or less what they want in a solution, and they're looking for the one that best fulfills their criteria. At the end of this stage, the buyer will likely make a purchase.
Your goal in this stage is to persuade prospects to purchase your solution rather than a competitor's. Content for the decision stage should flaunt the merits of your solution and provide clear evidence of how it helped others who faced similar problems succeed.
Pieces of content ideal for the decision stage include:
- Case studies / success stories
- Instructional videos and tutorials
- Product documentation
If you offer a software solution, tutorials and documentation inspire confidence that once the potential buyer makes a purchase, they'll have robust instructions that allow them to get started immediately. If prospects are comparing you with other similar solutions, this type of support material can play a big part in their decision.
Your goal in this stage is to persuade prospects to purchase your solution rather than a competitor's.
Also consider the content on your pricing page, online store (if applicable), and automated notifications reminding them that their trial is going to expire. These are critical for the decision stage and may spell the difference between a prospect choosing you, or choosing your competitor.
Content targeting the decision phase should aim to give evidence of expected results and persuade prospects that your solution is the best choice among many.
As you can see, understanding the buyer's journey helps you present the right type of content to potential buyers at the right time. The challenge now is to determine where each of your current assets belong in that journey.
Mapping your content
The best way to begin applying the buyer's journey and start getting strategic with your content efforts is to perform an audit of all your existing assets.
For each content asset you have — whether a blog post, case study, web page, video, eBook, or something else — you should determine where in the buyer's journey it belongs and how effective it is in moving prospects further through your funnel. This allows you to do 2 things:
- Identify content gaps in your funnel
- Optimize content according to where it belongs
The goal of a content audit is to get a complete picture of what content you currently have running, its performance, what pieces are planned for the next several months, and their projected performance.
If this is beginning to sound like lots of work, that's because it is! Effective content marketing is no walk in the park, but it pays off.
Identifying gaps with a content audit
Create a spreadsheet that includes every piece of content your organization has created and is currently planned for the future. The spreadsheet should have columns for its status (published or planned), its type, its title, the stage of the buyer's journey it targets, the persona it targets, and the URL.
Merely filling out this sheet will give you a great idea of where content might be lacking. You might notice, for example, that the majority of your content addresses the decision stage and that you have very little geared towards awareness. Or perhaps your awareness stage is well-covered but you lack in consideration stage content.
Identifying gaps helps you plan for the future. Focus your content creation efforts on filling these gaps and ensure that every buyer's stage/persona combination is well covered with quality content.
Establishing goals for your content
The point of mapping content to your buyer's journey is to be more effective in drawing visitors through your funnel by presenting them with the content they need to take the next step towards a purchase.
So, after determining where within the buyer's journey each piece of content belongs, you need to check whether those assets are really doing their job.
- Is your awareness stage content helping people define their problems?
- Do your consideration assets showcase the merits of your solution?
- Are your decision pieces persuading prospects that your offer is better than those of your competitors?
Before you can answer these questions, you need to decide on some measurable goals. Goals allow you to gauge the effectiveness of each piece of content and then optimize them accordingly.
The goals you set for each piece of content depend on both the buyer's stage they belong to and the type of content. Only once you've determined a goal for each asset can you assess its effectiveness and begin to optimize it.
Here are 6 content goals we use at Foleon (though yours may differ):
- Acquisition: To attract new visitors
- Activation: To turn visitors into subscribers (micro-conversion)
- Education: To engage subscribers and keep them coming back
- Revenue: To persuade visitors to make a purchase (macro-conversion)
- Expansion: To encourage customers to upgrade
- Referral: To delight customers and turn them into evangelists
As you can see, the goals don't always have a 1-to-1 relationship with the journey stages. While acquisition and activation are most associated with the awareness stage, activation could also fall neatly into the consideration stage, depending on the context.
What's important here is that assigning goals to content gives you the ability to measure their effectiveness and optimize them.
Only once you've determined a goal for each asset can you assess its effectiveness and begin to optimize it.
Optimizing for the journey stages
Now that you've placed each asset in the buyer's journey and assigned them tangible goals, you can decide what metrics are most appropriate to measure.
Make a second spreadsheet, similar to the first one, that includes every piece of content you have, as well as the ones you're planning. The spreadsheet should have a column for the title so you can relate it to the first one.
Additional columns should include each piece's goal, the number of views, time spent on page divided by wordcount, bounce rate, traffic source, conversion rate, and possibly more. Only use the columns that apply to a given piece of content and add columns for more metrics as necessary.
For an awareness phase blog post that offers a downloadable eBook, for example, you would likely be interested in the number of unique users the post acquired, scroll depth, and the conversion rate. For the eBook itself, the number of activated visitors who later returned to your website and viewed your pricing page might be of particular interest.
Case studies are an example of another content type, with different metrics. The conversion you're looking to drive with case studies is likely a purchase.
Tracking these metrics will show you whether each piece is contributing to its goal and where you have room for improvement. It's a bit of an art, and it takes practice. But eventually, you'll get a clear picture of the boundaries between each stage of the buyer's journey and which types of content are effective in moving prospects further.
Filling your funnel
As you fill in your content gaps and optimize assets according to their place in your funnel, you'll begin to develop a content ecosystem with pieces appropriate for all of your needs. As different prospects move through your buyer's journey, you'll always have a good piece of content there to nudge them along.
In this way, you'll be able to help prospects along the entire journey, from beginning to end. The more robust this ecosystem becomes, the better your conversion rate will become. In turn, this will give you better insights into your buyer's journey and enable you to create even better content.
This is how marketers sustainably fill their funnel, and this process is what makes content marketing effective.
4. Building your content calendar
Organization is paramount to a good content strategy. To be successful, you need to be able to see the big picture in terms of which content assets you've already created, which are upcoming, and what you're planning for the future. As we already discussed, part of this means determining which content assets align with the stages of the buyer's journey.
In addition, a detailed timeline is an essential organizational tool. Creating a content calendar gives you oversight that lets you manage your time and expectations, and it gives the flexibility to add or remove content assets in whatever way best supports your overall business goals.
However, if you've previously sat down and tried to plot out a content calendar, you probably know that it can be a difficult and confusing process. Our aim in this section is to give you the tools you need to make this process painless and productive, including an excel template for your own content calendar.
Organization is paramount to a good content strategy.
Setting up your spreadsheet
We'll talk shortly about what to consider when actually placing your content pieces into your calendar. First, let's address how to set up the spreadsheet that will contain all your information.
The calendar we use at Foleon has several columns, giving us oversight into everything we need to know about each piece of content.
The columns indicate:
- Is the content currently in progress?
- What is the estimated deadline?
- What is the status of the project?
- Who is the project owner?
- What is the type of content?
- Is the content part of a campaign?
- What is the title?
- What is the business goal for your content?
- Which stage of the buyer’s journey are you targeting?
- Which persona are you targeting?
The business goal column we use dovetails the buyer’s journey stage. It defines what reaction we hope to achieve from whoever views this content.
Starting to fill in your calendar
When you begin filling in your spreadsheet with your planned content assets, prioritization and time management are your top concerns.
Since content marketing is an ongoing effort and not a one-off project, you'll want to make sure that you set reasonable expectations about concurrent projects. Working on too many large pieces at once is a surefire way to miss your deadlines. This is an intuitive bit of knowledge, but without the organization provided by your content calendar, it's hard to act on.
When filling in your calendar, make sure that you have larger projects spread out and only have smaller projects running concurrently. Luckily, it's fairly easy to pinpoint which projects will be more time and labor intensive. This usually correlates with word count and necessary research.
Organizing around campaigns
Since you will generally have one large project and a few smaller ones running at once, a good idea is to have them all be around related topics. This way, you'll naturally see your marketing campaigns start to form. Each campaign can have a big content piece, the real workhorse, supported by your shorter pieces.
You can also work backward, with the idea for a campaign and the expected timeline. From there, you can define the larger and smaller content projects that will fit into that campaign.
Every campaign should relate to an overarching business goal, with its own metrics for success. It should target one or a group of the buyer's journey stages and personas. Moreover, every piece of content within a campaign should have those same attributes.
Obviously, that's a lot of information for every piece of content. Many marketers cut corners with this because it's too difficult to keep track of everything. But why do a worse job with content marketing, when you can make use of a content calendar as a tool to stay organized and easily track everything you need to track?
The slow build of content marketing
Have you ever watched a classic horror movie, like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho? A lot of those movies are what fans refer to as “slow burn” horror movies. They don't hit you over the head all at once. Rather, the dread builds over time and the movie's accomplishment is the feeling you're left with by the end.
Content marketing is kind of like a slow burn horror movie. Rarely will a company have one piece that immediately goes viral and accomplishes all their business goals at once. If they do have a piece that gets that kind of attention early on, they likely don't have the infrastructure to fully capitalize on the success.
More often, content marketing is a series of smaller creative and outreach efforts that assembles many small building blocks of success.
Establishing quantitative goals ahead of time, and frequently revisiting and re-assessing them, is how you ensure that you are continuously building the necessary structure for your desired results. Otherwise, you risk wasting time and effort.
Your content calendar lets you visualize how your content efforts build over time and establish milestones that coincide with content events. Without your calendar, this kind of structure would be impossible to properly build and track.
Content marketing is a series of smaller creative and outreach efforts that assembles many small building blocks of success.
As you track your progress, don't treat your calendar as if it's set in stone. Continually adjust it as needed. You may need to replace entire campaigns as you analyze your progress.
5. How to write a style guide
Ask a graphic designer about the importance of visual consistency across a company's public-facing assets. They'll likely point you toward guidelines governing hex codes, typefaces, logos, and more. Then they'll tell you not to deviate from those.
Their reasoning is sound. Look at an ad from a company with strong, consistent branding, and you'll probably recognize who it is without ever having to see their name. That kind of familiarity is desirable.
So why don't companies pay as much attention to their written assets as their visual ones?
Developing and maintaining a unique voice is essential for any brand. It helps them stand out and create rapport with their audience. Keeping that voice uniform across all of a company's communications makes them more memorable, recognizable, and trustworthy.
The guidelines for brand voice and written assets are typically compiled in a company's style guide. Not all organizations use a style guide, but it's a tool that all should consider adopting. A good style guide can be accessed, understood, and utilized by anyone in any department.
But how do you go about building a style guide? It seems like quite the creative undertaking and something that a busy marketer doesn't have the time to tackle. Luckily, a few simple tips can make style guide creation accessible to anyone with some basic writing skills. We'll explore those tips here and share our very own style guide.
The snowflake method
A popular method for writing fiction is known as the snowflake method. It originates from this webpage, which, according to the author, consistently gets over 1,000 page views daily.
The success of that website aside, the snowflake method is very helpful for outlining a piece of writing and, as you'll see shortly, for creating a style guide as well.
The way the snowflake method works is for the author to start with a one-sentence summary of the story. They then build that out to an entire paragraph that includes the major points of conflict and the story's ending. From there, the author continues adding details and expanding the elements they've put on paper.
In other words, the snowflake method forces the author to start with an atom of a story and build up bit by bit until the entire thing is there before them, in the flesh.
Of course, up until this point, we've only described a method for outlining fiction. This doesn't connect to our original mission of building a style guide. At least, not yet.
Bringing it back to the style guide
Just like the traditional use of the snowflake method, when you apply it to a style guide, you'll be working from an atom all the way up to your finished product.
The atom that you use when beginning your style guide is a short list, or a single sentence, describing the values you bring to users. It's important not to consider this from the viewpoint of your users and not just describe what you believe the values to be. If you can, get real feedback from users and apply that, or see what people are saying on social media. This already puts you on the same level as your audience, which is invaluable.
When writing out those values, do so in a way that is similar to an elevator pitch. You aren't yet describing your product or service, but you do want to be clear in such a way that you could send your values to someone who has not previously worked with you and have them perfectly understand.
Building on your foundation
Once you have that atom, a description of the value your product brings to users, your next step is building that into a mission statement.
The mission statement for your company should include your values, as well as how you deliver them to users and why this is important. All of that should be contained in a single paragraph, and someone reading the paragraph should have a good idea of what problems you solve and how.
Add to that paragraph another that describes your product or service. In other words, take your mission statement and give people a basic, clear idea of how you put it into practice. If you make software, for example, this should be the first good description of what that software is.
Those two components, the mission statement and the description of your product or service, are the two hardest parts of the style guide. After you feel confident in those, the rest will come fairly easily. However, it's important to get these right. We recommend trying a few iterations and using different vocabulary, then picking the version that feels the most accurate and compelling.
The mission statement for your company should include your values, as well as how you deliver them to users and why this is important.
Where to go from here
The bulk of your style guide should be based on the work that you put into the values, mission statement, and product description.
Suggested sections that your style guide can include are how to write:
- For social media
- For marketing and sales emails
- For landing pages
- About people within the organization
- Technical and legal content
As well as:
- Spelling conventions for numbers and more
- Preferred grammar, punctuation, and much more
Those sections will vary depending on what writing your organization actually does. Different industries all require different written materials. However, the purpose is always to make sure everyone is able to write with a consistent style and usage across the company, whatever the purpose.
Everything in those other sections should evolve from the work we explained previously. Take your values, mission statement, and product description, and examine the vocabulary and syntax you use. Which verbs and nouns are the correct ones to use for your business? Do you use longer or shorter sentences? Does the vocabulary choice make you sound technical or friendly?
Beyond the vocabulary and syntax you've already picked out, come up with some other acceptable choices. These choices will also likely vary depending on where that writing will live. Try to cover as many scenarios as possible, but make sure they all align with your original efforts.
After that, you'll have all the components of a great style guide. If you follow all our instructions here, you'll have all the most important components finished.
Distributing your style guide
Finally, a word on making sure your style guide is actually used. There isn't an easy answer for how to make sure your colleagues conform to your style guide. However, there are a few steps you can take.
The most important thing is making sure people are aware that the style guide exists and making it easy to access. A company-wide email should take care of the awareness portion. Hosting the guide in a central place like a company intranet, or even just a Google Drive that everyone can access will accomplish the rest.
Once people know how to find your style guide, getting them to use it is a bottom-up task. Luckily, once you get a reputation as a good writer at a company, it's common for your coworkers to ask for help on everything from emails to presentations to social media. As you guide them, make sure they learn to see the style guide as a resource to make their efforts easier.
If you're successful, you'll see a big transformation across your company. Effective, consistent writing makes any organization feel like a trustworthy, well-oiled machine.
6. Tips to keep your writing fresh and sharp
Throughout this page, we've discussed how to write on purpose. We covered topics such as targeting your writing to specific groups of people and organizing your content writing efforts. Implementing all the tips found on this page will make you feel like you have a lot more control over your writing.
Good writing is sometimes underappreciated, but it's the cornerstone of any successful business. Without good, consistent writing, a brand can't take shape. Customers and prospects churn due to inconsistent messaging. Even employees in the organization will be unable to produce consistent results.
One assumption this page has made thus far is that you, the reader, are comfortable in your basic writing skills. We've spoken as though you only want advice on applying your mighty pen to your company's marketing efforts.
But what if you need more confidence as a writer in the first place?
We haven't forgotten those of you who find yourselves with content marketing responsibilities but scant training in the written arts. The good news is there are a few simple steps you can take to vastly improve your writing.
Stick with us through this section and we'll introduce some essential tips and resources.
Got a question? Choose your guru wisely.
Grammar and style questions can certainly be Googled, and you can also ask teammates for their opinions. However, you may get different answers from different people or websites. This leads to inconsistent writing, which itself leads back to the problems we mentioned earlier.
For this reason, you as a writer should choose a central authority to answer all your questions. This happens to be a problem many have previously tackled.
Central authorities for grammar and style questions are style guides. You'll recall that we explored how to create a style guide for your business. This doesn't prevent you from working with another style guide as they sometimes address different concerns. You can even pull parts of your company's style guide from a previously extant one.
Some well-known systems writers use are MLA, APA, Chicago, and Turabian. You may recall these from writing essays in high school or college. Though they're sometimes written by or for specific industries (APA, for example, is the American Psychological Association), they all establish fundamental standards for grammar and style. They should all address any questions you might have. Just make sure to use the same one every time.
Special mention goes to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, first published in 1959. This has been a go-to in English classrooms since it first arrived on the scene.
Sometimes less is more
A basic style guideline that should inform a lot of your writing choices is economy of words. This means using as few words as possible to make your point. Economy of words is meant to make your prose straightforward, elegant, and easy to understand.
Written communication in the English language always holds the economy of words as a golden rule. Other common style rules, like avoiding the passive voice, often have a secondary effect of enforcing economy of words. “The report was printed by the man” has more words than “The man printed the report,” but they communicate the same idea. Therefore, if you look for ways to maximize your economy of words, you'll use the active voice by default.
The economy of words enforces other common style rules as well. Because of this, if you're going to memorize one rule of style, make it economy of words.
If you're going to memorize one rule of style, make it economy of words.
Don't change things up
Consistency is a topic we've touched on a lot, but it deserves an additional mention here. Whatever rules you choose to follow, stick to them. Certain style and grammar questions have multiple answers, depending on which style guide you follow. Not choosing the same rule every time leads to sloppy writing.
This is why we talked about creating your own style guide. Referencing those guides mentioned above is a great starting point, but it's not enough. You need to make choices about which rules you follow in relevant situations. Consciously defining those and sticking to them is the trick to becoming a good writer.
As you continue your content writing journey, we hope you'll continue to reference the tips and resources on this page. Foleon is committed to helping content creators across locations and industries maximize their output. We believe that good content is a necessity for all modern businesses. If you have any other questions on producing awesome content, please reach out to one of our experts! We'd be happy to hear from you.
7. Bonus section: future trends in content marketing
Thanks for coming on this journey with us. Throughout this page, we've taken a deep dive into the details of what makes a good content marketing strategy. Hopefully, at this point, you've seen that content marketing, indeed any business communications activity, is more involved than posting the occasional blog entry.
Of course, your strategy will also be affected by current trends in the field. Because of the nature of digital advertising, content marketing is here to stay. However, there will always be a need for new techniques that help content marketers set themselves apart.
We at Foleon are avid followers of current and potentially upcoming content marketing trends. Staying a step ahead of the pack helps you get noticed, which is the ultimate goal of most marketing efforts.
With that in mind, we thought we'd share some of the trends we think will be important in the coming months and years. Let the principles we've already discussed guide you as you experiment with these trends, and remember to always be on the lookout for how the industry is evolving.
The death of PDFs
PDFs were introduced in 1993 as a way to correctly render documents on any operating system. For a long time, they were the standard format for all kinds of content.
With the changes the internet and smartphones have brought to marketing in general, we're seeing PDFs fall out of favor after nearly three decades. Unfortunately, the format that once enabled advances in communication is now inhibiting it.
Because they aren't responsive and don't allow page-by-page analytics, PDFs are less than ideal for the connected and mobile world of which we're all now a part. Both a better reading experience and more in-depth insights can be attained with web-based formats.
Content marketers have taken longer than some other professions to catch on to this trend, but the benefits of moving away from PDFs are already accessible. It's only a matter of time before this antiquated file format has disappeared completely from the content marketing arsenal.
It's no longer acceptable to publish content that forces your audience to pinch and zoom just to be able to read it. This will turn away readers quicker than you can say “Please buy from my competitors.”
With over half of your audience likely now reading on a mobile device, you need to ensure everything you create is built with them in mind.
It's not surprising that responsiveness is important. The challenge will come with the new content types that marketers are exploring. Aside from the trends, we mention here, the proliferation of content marketing means that companies are likely to start experimenting with new and unique content types. Those will have various combinations of written content and design, and they'll have different levels of interaction. That means companies will have to do extra work to ensure that they are all responsive on all devices.
Interaction and personalization
The holy grail for marketers is the ability to reach all of their potential customers and speak to each of them as individuals.
Big data lets us do that more easily on social media, and there's a high degree of personalization that's possible on companies' websites. However, content marketing has lagged behind until now.
As web-based content replaces traditional eBooks and white papers, there's an opportunity to bring in some of that sought after personalization. Not only can you address readers by name, you can now make sure they see content that's related to their industry, hide case studies from their competitors, and more.
In a similar vein, interactive content is quickly becoming an important way to give conversations between you and your audience a more authentic feel. From clickable infographics to quizzes and more, interactive content holds your audience's attention and stands out from static written documents of the past. For that reason, it's earned its seat at the table.
As we mentioned earlier, page-by-page analytics were not possible for content distributed as PDFs. However, it's very much in the grasp of content marketers today.
You're probably already making use of such analytics for your website. Monitoring bounce rates, exit rates, scroll depth, time on page, and more gives you a good idea of how visitors react to your copy and design. That's what gives you the ability to A/B test and improve over time.
Thanks to the changes happening in content marketing, you now have that ability with each page of your eBooks and white papers. Just imagine what you can do with that knowledge. Aside from the basic knowledge of what content draws more visitors and conversions, you'll be able to test and optimize your content page by page. This means you can truly provide your audiences with the content they want to read.
By this point, you should be well on your way to becoming a content marketing expert. You certainly have enough knowledge to take your company's marketing program to a higher level of productivity and effectiveness.
Of course, as this final section highlights, there will always be new developments in the field. As you move further in your journey toward content marketing nirvana, you'll learn to recognize and predict those trends.
We're glad you chose to read and consider everything we've discussed here. To take the next step, we'd encourage you to reach out and speak with one of Foleon's Digital Strategy Advisors. They're our foremost experts on content marketing technology and best practices. You can book a meeting here.