Starting from Scratch: 6 Steps to Your First Content Marketing Plan
Content marketing is amazing for attracting your target audience and building a relationship with it.
There is just one problem, though…
How do you do it?
I share a lot of content marketing tips in my posts, but those posts usually assume you’re already doing content marketing, at least to some degree.
But if you haven’t started yet, or are very new to it, you won’t get as much out of those posts as those with some experience.
So, if you’ve felt that my past posts about content marketing have been too advanced for you, this one will help.
I’m going to give you a step-by-step process to follow to create a successful content marketing plan.
I’m talking about a plan that is simple to understand and execute but that can be used to drive thousands of qualified visitors to your website every month (in less than a year).
Why content marketing?
There are several dozen types of marketing.
They can all produce good results when applied in the right situation.
But I think we’re in a special time for content marketing.
Businesses and marketers are recognizing how effective it is in the modern consumer climate.
People have always liked to buy from businesses and people with whom they have relationships and whom they trust.
Until the Internet, it was hard for businesses to build those relationships.
But now, it’s easier than ever to deliver content to an audience.
This is important whether you’re selling straight to the consumer or to a business. A recent survey found that 67% of B2B buyers base their buying decisions on content.
And they don’t become just buyers — a large percentage of them also frequently share that content (most often in the form of a blog post — 40%).
Most marketers have just started recognizing all this.
Currently, 80% of B2B marketers have a content marketing strategy.
However, 48% (overall) do not have a written plan. In 99% of cases, this means that they really have no clue what they’re doing.
That’s good news for you. Why? Because just by putting in some effort to go through this post and writing a few things down, you’ll be ahead of over 50% of online marketers.
I’ll let you in on a secret:
Most businesses suck at content marketing.
Seriously, look at the blogs for most businesses — they’re a joke.
But still, 30% of marketers find content marketing “effective”, and another 44% get some results from it.
Don’t be in those bottom three groups…
There’s no reason why you can’t find content marketing very effective for generating traffic and, most importantly, qualified leads for your business.
Follow the six steps I cover in the rest of this post, and write down your notes as you go.
In the end, you’ll have a short, clear, and effective content marketing plan to base your future work on.
Step 1: Why are you doing this?
Before you can start producing content of any kind, it pays to do a bit of planning.
If you just produce content for a general audience, chances are you won’t get much in the way of results.
To really see great results, you need to:
- Identify your target audience
- Create content that resonates with those specific readers
When you create general content, it will never resonate with anyone, which is why it isn’t effective.
But it’s not enough to just target a specific audience. You need to understand their beliefs, problems, and desires so that your content matches them.
Part #1 — Who are they? Create a section in a blank document for Step 1. At the top of this section, you need to define who your target audience is.
For example, if you sell running gear, your audience may be “runners.”
But do you see the problem with that?
While “runners” is technically an audience, it’s not a well defined one.
There are many different kinds of runners:
- professional marathoners
- professional sprinters
- recreational joggers (do it for fun)
- runners trying to lose weight
- runners trying to strengthen their legs…
…and so on.
Do you think you could create content that would speak to both a professional marathoner and a random guy that’s just trying to lose his beer gut?
Not a chance.
Get as specific as you can. You want to identify an audience who would agree with your label.
A professional marathoner would say:
I’m not just a runner; I’m a professional marathoner who trains year round and races six times a year.
I’m not a running expert, so six times might be too many, but you get the point…
Once you have the name of your audience, write it down.
Now you can start to build a reader persona.
Give your average audience member a fictional name before moving on to part #2. This allows you to write to one person, which is an old copywriting trick for writing in a more conversational tone that is more likely to resonate with your readers.
Part #2 — What are they struggling with? Here’s where serious research comes into play.
You need to start profiling your reader.
In this part, you’ll identify as many problems your target audience faces as possible. If you can, classify them by severity.
Let’s continue with the running example.
How do you find out what problems marathoners have?
The best way to gather that information is to simply talk to them. I know it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world to do for some people, but if you can, chat with a few for 10–20 minutes.
Ask them about their biggest problems and obstacles.
If that fails, head to online forums and community sites specifically set up for your target audience. You want to find a place where they talk to each other about their problems.
If you have no clue where to start, start with Reddit.
You can find a subreddit (basically a categorized community) for just about any topic.
In this case, a simple search on Google reveals a couple of “marathon” subreddits:
Spend at least 20–30 minutes looking through the threads you find.
Record any problems you see people talk about as well as how often they come up and how serious they seem to be.
On the first few results, I already see two problems:
- beginner marathoners who are not sure about etiquette during a race
- runners having joint pain during a taper (when they reduce their mileage leading up to a race)
Ideally, get a list of over 100 problems.
It sounds like a lot, but it’s doable, and you’ll be set for content ideas for a while.
Alternatively, do a search for forums on Google.
In this case, these results are probably better.
They are geared towards experienced marathoners, whereas that first subreddit was focused on beginners (although it will have some experienced runners too).
You do the exact same thing here — look for problems.
Again, I see a few problems right off the bat:
- How do you set your pace for a marathon?
- What do you do if you start getting pain leading up to the marathon?
Write down your list of problems (in your document or in a separate spreadsheet) before moving on.
Part #3 — Where do they look for solutions? In order to provide your audience with solutions to their problems, you need to find a way to get those solutions in front of them.
Most of these places are online, so that’s what you should focus on.
You need to compile a list of websites they visit.
That starts with the forums and communities you just found in part 2.
Other than those, you’ll just have to search around.
I would recommend starting with:
- top (niche) sites
- top (niche) blogs
You should be able to compile at least 20–30 “popular” sites they visit.
If it looks like a site only has a few dozen readers, don’t bother recording it.
Record these sites as we’ll be coming back to them later.
Part #4 — How will you solve their problems better than anyone else? No matter what your topic is, there are already at least a few popular sites that cover it.
Readers need very good reasons to either add your site to the ones they already follow or replace one of them with yours.
And the way you convince them to do that is by giving more value.
If your content is clearly better than that of your competitors’, you will draw readers away from them.
Start by going to the most popular sites in your niche.
Look through their content, and note any weaknesses in it.
For example, I picked the first popular marathon site I found, which was a blog on a major running site.
The content is written by a true expert, but it’s quite basic, and it’s very anecdotal.
I would note under weaknesses:
- Not enough images, lists, etc.
- Could use more data supporting points
- Very short, doesn’t dive into the topic thoroughly
Then, I would move on to the next blog.
After 5–10, you’ll start to see the same things pop up every time. These are your opportunities.
Go back to your document. Your goal here is to create a concise description of how your content will be more valuable to your target audience.
Our content will include a lot of relevant visual content as well as data-driven answers. We will go deep into subjects to try to satisfy our target audience.
Having that description to guide you in the future will ensure that you focus on the right things.
Step 2: Here’s how you figure out the best type of content to produce
The “content” in content marketing can mean a lot of different things.
Pretty much anything that can possibly contain a message is considered content. That includes:
- blog posts
- pictures (drawings, comics, photographs, paintings)
and much more.
If you produce certain types of content for your audience, you’ll get better results than you would with other types.
To figure out what the best type is, you have to consider two factors.
What are your audience’s preferences? Some audiences prefer certain types of content over others.
For example, home decorators are mainly looking for visual content. Pictures and videos are the primary form of content in the home decorating niche.
On the other hand, a niche like nutrition mainly will have your standard text content with pictures mixed in.
The tough part is figuring out what is best for your niche.
To do this, we’re going to look at a few different indicators.
Start by heading to Buzzsumo. Create a free account if you don’t have one yet, and then search for your niche (you can choose a broader niche here).
What you’ll likely see is that one of the main social networks is much more popular than the others.
If Pinterest or Facebook are the most popular, image-based content is going to be crucial. Pinterest is a purely image-based network, while images are by far the most shared type of content on Facebook.
But that’s not a perfect overview of the whole situation.
What about things like podcasts?
That’s where you need to search individually. The two other forms of content you need to check for are podcasts and videos.
With podcasts, you can use two methods.
First, you can look at Stitcher’s top 100 podcasts in a relevant category.
In our example, I picked “sports” since that’s what running would fall under.
I looked through the top 100 and couldn’t find a single podcast about running. That tells me there isn’t a lot of interest:
Ideally, you’d like to see at least a few different podcasts about your niche as an indicator of some interest.
If you see 3–4 in the top 10, that tells you that audio content is huge in your niche and you should definitely incorporate it into your content strategy if you can.
Anther way you can check for podcasts is to simply Google “top (niche) podcasts”.
I found a few, run by some popular websites. Then, I looked them up on Stitcher and found that they had barely any reviews. This means they aren’t very popular.
In this case, audio content is out.
Finally, what about video content?
Well, that’s pretty easy to check for. Go to YouTube, and search for your niche. You can also try a few suggestions from the search bar.
This actually surprised me. There were many marathon-running videos with several thousand views.
I didn’t expect this, which is exactly why you need to check.
Look at the number of views on each video. You’ll have to decide what you’d consider a significant number, but I’d be looking for at least 10 videos to have at least 20,000 views to indicate serious interest.
If there’s only one video with a ton of views, it’s likely a one-off viral fluke and should be discounted.
What are your strengths and/or budget? The second main factor depends on your skillset. If you’re not a good writer, you probably want to lean towards a different type of content.
Often, you’ll find that multiple forms of content are equally popular in your niche. That gives you a lot of flexibility. You can use any combination of them.
But what if only one type of content is popular? Well, then you have no choice.
If you aren’t comfortable creating that content, you have a decision to make:
- learn how to create it
- hire someone to do it for you
If you have a healthy budget for content marketing, hiring is always a good option.
If not, you’ll need to develop those skills on your own.
Now, combine the two: Now you’re looking for the intersection of these two areas:
the type of content desired by your target audience and the type of content you can actually produce.
The type(s) of content that falls into both areas is the one(s) you should produce for your target audience.
Step 3: The key step to content marketing success
Let’s slow down for a second.
You now know your audience.
You also know the type of content you’ll produce.
So, now we can start looking at actually creating and publishing content.
But there’s one thing, one key concept, that you need to understand if you want to be successful:
Your success depends on one thing — consistency.
Content marketing will not produce results overnight.
It takes months of creating quality content for it to start getting any real traction.
Many businesses start off on the right track, but when they don’t see huge results in the first few months, which is expected, they get discouraged.
Then, when they face their first big obstacle, they end up ditching content marketing. Maybe their budget is tight, or they have a lot of other work to do. Content marketing gets cut first.
If you’re going to do this, commit a certain amount of time that you know you can commit to content marketing for at least a year.
How often should you publish? There’s no magic number on the frequency of content publishing.
But as a general rule, the more content you publish, the faster you will get results (and bigger results).
This assumes that the quality of the content stays the same regardless of frequency.
One survey found that 91% of top bloggers blog once a week or more.
But that’s more of a correlation than causation.
There are plenty of outliers, e.g., Brian Dean at Backlinko who publishes once or twice a month at the most. He’s done incredibly well for himself in a short amount of time with this strategy.
What it comes down to is not quantity, but quality.
Always try to produce the highest quality content you can even if that means cutting back on how much you publish.
So the answer to how often you should publish is:
Publish as often as you can while maintaining the highest quality possible.
However, remember that you need to be consistent.
Don’t pick a frequency that you can’t sustain over a long period of time.
I can do three long posts a week on Quick Sprout without much of an issue because I’ve practiced over the years. If you don’t have the skills or resources to do that yet, be less ambitious to start.
How long will it take to produce content? Another question that is highly related to the last one is: how long do you expect it will take you to produce the content?
Depending on the type of content you’re creating, a single piece of it could take anywhere from 2–20 hours to create.
Obviously, you can’t post more than once or twice a month if it takes you 20 hours to create something.
You also have to factor in promotional time (which I’ll cover in Step 6). You should spend at least as much time promoting content as you do creating it.
This means that if you have 20 hours of time available for content marketing a week and a post takes 5 hours to create, you can only post twice a week maximum.
You might even want to stay on the safe side for now and choose one piece of content a week.
Step 4: How will you manage your content?
You’re committed to being consistent, right?
I hope you’re nodding your head right now.
In order to be consistent, you need to plan.
If you don’t plan ahead, it’s too easy to forget to write, publish, or promote your content when you get busy.
The key to planning ahead is having a schedule, typically called a “content calendar.”
How will you create a content calendar? Although the term might sound fancy to some, it’s really simple. All you need is some sort of a calendar that allows you to assign post ideas to specific days.
There are many tools that will help you do this, but I’ll go over three solid options.
The first one is Trello — a project management tool.
You can create lists for each week in a month (or the whole month) and then add “cards” for each piece of content you want to schedule:
One of the great things about Trello is that you can give each piece of content a due date.
You can customize your settings to get reminders about a piece of content that’s due in the next couple of days or that’s overdue.
The second option is to use this WordPress editorial calendar plugin.
It adds a calendar tab to your site’s dashboard, and you can see what you have scheduled in a typical calendar format at any time:
The plugin ties into your posts, so you can do things like change their scheduled time and date as well as edit post titles from the calendar itself.
And the final option you should be aware of is just a simple spreadsheet in Excel or Google Sheets.
All you need is a spreadsheet with a column for publishing dates and a column for post titles:
The biggest benefit of this option, aside from how simple it is, is that you can customize it easily.
You can add columns for due dates (to ensure you finish the post ahead of time), categories, or metrics like traffic and social shares.
It doesn’t matter which option you pick. Just choose something that’s simple for you and will help you keep your content creation schedule straight.
Step 5: Where will you distribute your content?
Another huge mistake that many beginner content marketers make is starting to blog with no audience.
If no one is seeing your content, it doesn’t matter how good it is — your blog won’t grow.
There are basically two different ways you can address this problem in the beginning:
- Publish your content on other sites, leaving a link back to your blog.
- Promote your content.
You should be doing both of these things.
As you grow your audience, you can publish solely on your own site if you wish.
I’ve covered how to promote your content several times in the past. Here are a few resources to get you started:
- Promoting Your Content To Increase Traffic, Engagement and Sales
- The Day After: 11 Things to Do After You Publish a Post
- 17 Advanced Methods for Promoting Your New Piece of Content
The most important part to understand at this point is the first one.
Remember those sites you identified before? The ones where your target audience gets their solutions?
Now, you’ll identify how you can get traffic from those sites to yours.
Important: Don’t just send visitors to your blog. Send them to a landing page on your site. Offer them a lead magnet for their email addresses. This way, you can drive these readers to your future posts.
Category #1 — Blogs: These will be the blogs on your list.
In order to get your solutions in front of a blog’s audience, you need to guest-post on a relevant blog.
Obviously, not all blogs allow guest posts.
To check, just Google: “(site name) guest post”, and see if anything comes up. Ideally, you’ll find some guest-posting guidelines or previously published guest posts.
If a blog doesn’t accept guest posts, take it off your list.
If it does, follow the steps I’ve laid out in my guide on guest posting to maximize your chances of success.
Category #2 — Search engines: Did you know that search engines can drive traffic to your site? They should call it SEO or something — just kidding…
SEO is a great way to get your content in front of your target audience.
However, it’ll likely take at least 4–6 months of solid work before you start getting any real traffic.
Focus on getting traffic from other sources first and SEO last.
Here are some of my best resources on SEO although there’s obviously a ton to cover:
Category #3 — Social media: Another great source of traffic is social media. Almost every audience is active on one social media platform or another.
In addition, most social networks offer an easy way to funnel visitors to your website.
Remember that Buzzsumo search we did earlier? That tells you where you should be posting your content:
Typically, you’ll only be posting excerpts of your content, but you can do that to grow your following and drive traffic to your content.
You should combine this content posting strategy with a social media promotional strategy.
Category #4 — Forums/communities: Finally, you can post your content on forums and other online communities.
You can create content on your own website, but then reformat it for a forum. Leave a link somewhere before or after the content back to your own site (a landing page, hopefully):
Publish your content anywhere a significant portion of your target audience can see it.
While you will need a detailed strategy for this (using the resources I’ve linked to throughout this section), for now, write down the main places you want to publish your content on in your content marketing plan.
Step 6: The other side of the coin
Finally, no good content marketing plan is complete without content promotion, which is the other side of the coin of your content marketing.
Publishing content on other sites is one option, but there are other promotional tactics you can use.
Here are two main options you’ll want to consider.
Choose one or both, and record it on your document as your method(s) of content promotion.
Option #1 — Email outreach: Email remains the most effective way to build relationships with people online.
In particular, you want to use email outreach to get your content in front of influencers in your niche and related niches.
After you publish a piece of content, you’ll want to create a list of at least 100 bloggers, writers, and other type of influencers who care about that specific topic.
Then, you’ll email them to let them know about the content.
Your end goal is to get links or social shares from them, which will drive traffic and contribute to your overall SEO efforts.
Here are some great posts on email outreach:
- The Link Builder’s Guide to Email Outreach
- How To Create a Killer Outreach Email With 4 Quick Steps and 3 Simple Tips
- 6 Ways to Make Link Building Outreach More Effective
Option #2 — Advertising: This second option takes a lot less time than manual email outreach, but, of course, it costs more.
It’s traditional advertising: you pay to get people to visit your content.
There are three main areas where you can advertise:
- Social media — Facebook ads are a good investment for most marketers
- Search engines — You can set up PPC (pay per click) ads on Adwords or Bing
- Native ads — You can also pay to have sites link to your content inside their content (it doesn’t appear like a typical ad)
You don’t need to use paid advertising to be successful. However, it can accelerate your growth, which makes it a good option if you have leftover funds in your budget.
Being a successful content marketer isn’t complex, but it takes a lot of knowledge and effort.
You’ll need to learn more about the areas I touched on briefly here.
In addition, you’ll need to practice. As you start producing content, you will learn a lot through trial and error.
That being said, if you follow the six steps in this post, you should have a clear content marketing plan that you can use to shape your content marketing in the months to come.
As always, if you have any questions, just leave them in a comment below.