Ever since I started learning about content marketing, Content Marketing Institute and Joe Pulizzi have been indispensable sources of knowledge. In a world of ‘hacks’ and ‘tricks,’ Pulizzi’s work has always been focused on the things that don’t change: the strategic value content can bring for both the audiences and the business.
“The essence of this strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.”Joe Pulizzi
I find this phrase on page 5 of ‘Epic Content Marketing.’ The completely revamped second edition of the book is co-authored with Brian Piper. It talks about TikTok and Web3, and NFTs but still focuses on the core: that content is all about delivering value.
In this post, you’ll find some key points that made an impression as I read the book.
If you’re just starting in content marketing, this is a handy manual to develop the right mindset. A mindset that will enable you to focus on strategy and long-term success.
If, like me, you’ve been steeped into content marketing for a good few years, it’s still a wonderful reminder that what you’re doing is right. There are content marketers out there focusing on the long game and delivering results that way. I predict that ‘Epic Content Marketing’ will be your trusted guide, too.
What content marketing is all about
There’s so much goodness in this book that I had a hard time choosing the highlights I want to present to you. To kick us off, here are a few great points on the essence of content marketing.
“As a business, your goal is to become part of the content fabric for your customers. If you do, selling to them becomes relatively easy.”Brian Piper
The logic is simple. If you can bring value to your audience, you get to interact with people, forge relationships with them and ultimately be there in their minds when they’re ready to buy.
And here’s the first provocation: will people notice if your content disappears today? Will they miss it? And another question: on what topic can you be the leading informational expert in the world?
Joe concedes, “Yes, it is a bit audacious to go out on a limb and clearly state that your content marketing should be an irreplaceable resource for your customers . . . that you are indeed driving where the market is going from an information standpoint (like a media company). That said, be audacious!”
“You should have customers and prospects needing—no, longing for—your content. It ought to become part of their lives and their jobs.”Joe Pulizzi
How do we get there? Well, through quality. Joe quotes Ann Handley’s concise answer: “Here’s a handy, memorable formula that captures the sweet spot of your quality content . . . Utility x Inspiration x Empathy = Quality Content.” Utility means you need to bring value, as befits a trusted source. Inspiration means you need to capture the hearts of your audience, not just their minds. And empathy is about understanding your target audience, what they most desire, and how your brand can help them get it.
‘Epic Content Marketing’ does a great job at talking about the content types you can use in your platform, but I’m most interested in the strategic planning of content – and that’s where the book has a lot to teach us.
The six principles of content marketing
Brian Piper opens up the strategy section of the book with six principles that define a working content strategy – one that can move the customer to act in the desired fashion our business will benefit from.
“We marketers need to positively affect [customers], engage them, and do whatever we must to help stay involved in their lives and their conversations.”Brian Piper
So here are the six boxes epic content marketing needs to tick. Think of them as your Epic Content Commandments, print them out, and use them as a checklist when planning your content.
- Fill a need. Your content should be useful in and of itself. It should answer some unmet need or question for your customer.
- Be consistent. This is the name of the game and the number one reason why content programs can fail. A monthly magazine, a daily email newsletter – the content needs to always be delivered on time and as expected.
- Be human. Show some personality and create content in the unique style of your brand.
- Have a point of view. Some content creators try to play it safe. Too safe is boring. Take sides on matters that can position you and your company as an expert.
- Avoid “sales speak.” Speak like a human talking to another human. Don’t use jargon and avoid technical terms (unless your audience uses them day-to-day).
- Be best of breed. This means that, for your content niche, what you are distributing is the very best of what is found and is available. Make your content remarkable – and even if it isn’t, always strive for that.
Creating your content personas: mistakes and information sources
It makes sense that strategy starts with understanding your audience. Remember what Ann Handley said about empathy, right? A critical point that the authors make here is that personas are a tool and must be treated as one. Building up personas needs to have a tangible effect on your business. Adele Revella, founder of the Buyer Persona Institute (BPI), jumps into this section to note, “You should never have more personas than you have capacity to go to market. This means, don’t create 100+ personas if you don’t have the resources to build different messages, content, and go-to-market strategies for all these personas.”
She also defined a few key mistakes you need to be wary of:
- Making up stuff about buyers – relying solely on secondary information from analytics tools or company team members is no way to build a persona. Marketers need to run in-depth interviews to uncover the decision process, the desired outcomes, and any anxieties we can address.
- Getting sidetracked by irrelevant trivia – does the gender or household income of your persona matter? Revella’s Buyer Persona Institute defines the Five Rings of Buying Insight that need to find a place in the persona portrait: Priority initiatives (issues they dedicate time to), Success factors, Perceived barriers, Decision criteria, and Buying process. However, I still say to throw any of these out the door if you don’t use them to make decisions.
- Developing too many buyer personas – usually, as soon as you remove unnecessary fluff from your personas, you’ll see you’re catering to just a few. Remember, if you don’t have the resources to create a tailored strategy for addressing each of your personas, they are too many.
- Conducting scripted question-and-answer interviews with buyers – rather than following a strict script, you’d be better off conducting unscripted, agenda-driven conversations to find answers to specific questions.
- Thinking the persona is the end game – personas are a tool to align your sales enablement strategy. Find ways to distribute the knowledge within the team and use the personas in your decision-making process.
To build robust personas, you can rely on what the authors call “listening posts” – qualitative and quantitative data sources. This includes one-on-one conversations, keyword searches, web analytics, social media listening, and surveys. But frankly, it can include a lot of other things, too.
Defining the engagement cycle
Planning content campaigns is no easy feat. But there’s a handy tool described in ‘Epic Content Marketing’ – the engagement cycle. It’s a concept that combines the internal sales perspective with the customer’s buying process and your personas.
“An engagement cycle is a defined process that your audiences go through as you help them engage with your brand. The engagement cycle is not perfect, but it can help with the development of compelling content at certain stages of the buying process that either aids the prospect in buying or assists the customer in spreading your content.”Joe Pulizzi
Here’s how content assets, personas, sales, and buying cycles work together to create a content segmentation grid catering to the engagement cycle:
To build this up, you need to follow four steps:
- Map your audience personas to your sales process: First, do all personas pass through the same stages? What are these stages exactly? How do you define the discreet groups of people in each stage?
- Create a content segmentation grid: “Simply put, the content segmentation grid is a mash-up of your sales process and the content you have that moves customers through that process,” Joe Pulizzi states. This will show you where you might be missing content or where there are overlaps between competing pieces of content that can be better integrated.
- Map your personas to their buying cycle: this is where you exercise empathy and see how the process looks from the perspective of your personas. What actions do they take, and what information do they need? You’ll generally see that the buying cycle can be mapped to the sales process to bring the internal and the external perspective together.
- Create the customer/content segmentation grid: at this step, you’re essentially building up the grid created in step two, adding in the specific steps your customers take across the funnel stages. It helps you bring together these points of view and map out your content to understand where opportunities lie.
The strategic foundations of content marketing
There are many more aspects to planning. “Mission statement creation, audience persona gathering, internal content integration, and measurement outside of content consumption metrics are often absent,” Joe explains. And to create epic content, you need all of these elements.
Defining a content marketing mission statement is invaluable to harmonizing all your content marketing efforts. It’s a simple formula created by Andy Crestodina from Orbit Media. He calls it the XYZ method: “Our company is where [audience X] finds [content Y] for [benefit Z].” However, to get to a brief statement like that, you need to do a lot of soul-searching and planning.
One crucial bit of this process is finding your niche. We started by saying your brand should strive to be an irreplaceable resource of information. You can’t really do this for a vast category – but choose your niche wisely, and the task becomes more manageable. And since it focuses on a specific subset of the potential audience, it’s also much easier to create superfans looking for content in this niche.
“Even though you want to think big with your goals, your actual content niche needs to be small. How small? As small as possible.”Joe Pulizzi
This is the difference between targeting all pet owners and targeting adventure travelers who bring their small dogs on their trips.
Another salient point when building the strategy is defining your goals for audience development. In most cases, content serves to help you build a following, a community, or a subscriber’s tribe. Joe points out, though, that not all followers are created equal: “While I believe that any fans, followers, or subscribers can be a good thing, they are not equal in value. In ‘Content Inc.’, I go into detail about the “subscriber hierarchy.” Our job as content marketers is to move up the hierarchy whenever we can.”
Here’s what that hierarchy looks like. If you’ve read Pat Flynn’s ‘Superfans’, you might link it to his Pyramid of Fandom.
Now that we have the strategy set with goals, personas, and our overall content platform, it’s time to dive deeper into managing the content process.
Managing content marketing
If the strategy is so important, it follows that creating the strategy is the central part of the battle. Not so fast!
“What is the biggest reason why content marketing initiatives fail? First, the creator or brand stops producing the content (campaign mentality). Second, there’s inconsistency. Third, it’s not remarkable content. “
To ensure we’re consistently producing valuable content, we need to operationalize content planning, production, and distribution. The execution details actually help you get content out the door. Here are a few key points the authors make along the way:
- Ensure there’s buy-in for your content platform: “Organizations without C-level buy-in are 300 percent more likely to fail at content marketing than are companies with executive buy-in (according to Content Marketing Institute research).”
- Align content creation efforts: “You can’t have a long-term content strategy without the tools to manage it. And one of the most effective tools you can use is the editorial calendar.”
- Communicate clearly with freelance creators: they need to know what content they will produce, what are the content goals, what expertise or information they will need, as well as budget, deliverables, revisions, and timelines.
Joe Pulizzi points out that successful content comes from organizations that take time to develop and maintain a “content marketing culture” where all stakeholders are aware of the roles content plays and the benefits it can bring. Here are three things you need to focus on when building that culture:
- Start to think about your content packages as a series (like a television show). Set up the pilot as a test, and then, if it’s successful, roll ahead with the series.
- Train all product managers in the basics of content marketing. Since content marketing requires an intimate understanding of the needs and pain points of the target audience, product managers can help you with insights and stories worth telling. But you need to tell them what to look for and how you can build on opportunities together.
- Establish a pilot team. Find the storytellers in your marketing department and set up a “skunk works” operation (an independent stealth team) to test content marketing. Once you have reached some objectives with this group and success is clear, you can push it through the entire organization.
Finally, you need to build and continuously develop your content marketing plan. The components include:
- The channel
- The persona
- The content goal
- The primary content type
- The structure (how the content is built, format considerations, etc.)
- The tone
- Channel integration (how it plays with other channels)
- The desired action
- The editorial plan
A piece of advice from me here: you can use your editorial calendar to plan continuously as new content comes along and build a content marketing blueprint with the general content plan tenets of your strategy.
Finally, we need to measure content and the results it brings.
In an interview with Jessica Bergmann from Salesforce, she gives us a clear direction for measurement: “We measure content performance by three factors: Did you bring in the right audiences? Did you keep them engaged? And did you move them to a next step? Each content asset is scored on traffic, engagement, and progression using an algorithm.”
Depending on your content goals, your metrics might differ. To find what they are, Brian Piper recommends starting with the question of what will be different a year from now if our content succeeds. “The answer to that question is the most critical element of your content strategy. Measure behavior that matters to your business.”
While marketers might look at a variety of metrics, C-level executives are interested in just four questions:
- Is the content driving sales for us?
- Is the content saving costs for us?
- Is the content making our customers happier, thus helping with retention?
- Is the content growing our community and expanding our opportunities?
To ensure continuous executive buy-in for your content program, you must demonstrate results in these four areas. Brian recommends starting by:
- Tracking sales lift – i.e., do people who receive the content buy more vs. these who don’t
- Measuring new or increased sales from people who engage with your content products or subscribe to emails
- Doing online readership studies to determine if readers engage in the right behaviors
- Measuring engagement through online research or by using analytics (e.g. increased content consumption, returning visitors, etc.)
- Doing a pre-awareness/post-awareness study to measure the impact of the program
You could also go further as you scale your content marketing efforts and bring in revenue with content. In ‘Content Inc.’ Joe Pulizzi defines six direct revenue lines and four indirect revenue lines for content:
- Conferences/events (revenue from tickets and sponsorships)
- Premium content (like paid books or ebooks)
- Affiliate programs
- Selling more products indirectly
- Selling more services indirectly
- Creating customers who continue to buy (loyalty)
- Creating customers who buy more (better customers)
While these usually move the needle for small content creators, it’s a good reminder that you can build a content profit machine.
And while these things can be measured, there are some hidden benefits of content marketing you can also educate internal stakeholders on:
- Content can give you a recruiting edge – by showcasing your culture and brand ethos, you can attract star employees and build up your employer brand.
- Content can boost company morale – seeing your brand in external publications creates pride for many employees, especially when partnering with key industry media.
- Content opens up lines of communication – it can start partnership discussions and business development initiatives.
- Content fosters trust – the more value you create for your audience, the more trusted your brand is.
‘Epic Content Marketing’ gives us a good foundation for strategic measurement matters and the general logic of developing measurement plans. There’s also much more on the tactical elements of measurement, bringing these ideas into practice. The Content Marketing Pyramid and the four types of content marketing metrics will help you strengthen the business case for content marketing.
The final part of ‘Epic Content Marketing’ looks at the future. There are chapters on Web3 and NFTs, but I was most interested in the medley of predictions from notable content marketers. They were asked to say what would happen with content marketing in 10 years. Here are a few quotes that I found most interesting:
“The problem is that marketers need to work their storytelling, writing, creative muscles until they’re tight and toned as a CrossFit disciple’s muscles. We need to understand how to tell great stories. Create a warm and accessible brand voice. Pull emotions out of our organizations. Find the human beings at the center of our work. We need to let go and dream. Imagine. Create.” – Ann Handley
“People always want to be educated, to be entertained, to be engaged emotional y in the content they consume; those things are not changing. And if we focus on fulfilling those needs, we will do well.” – Christopher Penn
“The other side of that is the youth of today. The way that they consume content will have to reconcile with business publishing. I’ve seen studies show- ing that consumption of mid- to long-form content is demographically skewed, in a horrifying way. So repurposing. I’d say repurposing will be one of the most desired skills on teams. What we’re going to see in 10 years’ time is expertise drives the bus for having longevity, but also being able to package that expertise in as many formats as possible becomes the meets minimum for any business.” – Jeff Coyle, MarketMuse
“Most people focus on what has changed in the last 10 years. What’s interesting to me is what has not. To build an audience and community, you still need to deliver valuable, relevant, and compelling information to a targeted group of people over time. That content needs to be differentiated in some significant way.” – Joe Pulizzi
“Whatever you do this year, make sure you are telling a different story than everyone else in your industry is telling, not just the same story told incrementally better.”Joe Pulizzi
Creating epic content marketing is definitely a challenging feat. As marketers, we need to sharpen our skills continuously. We must build a better understanding of what resonates with our audiences. It’s about constantly learning and finding suitable sources to learn from. ‘Epic Content Marketing’ is one of these sources.