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How to Build a Content Strategy Completely From Scratch

Content. It’s an ominous word for companies of all sizes, but especially so for startups. You know you need strong content to help establish your brand, attract new users and showcase your products or services, but exactly how do you go about doing so?

As with most well-executed parts of your business, effective content starts with strategy. Before you publish a single blog post, craft one tweet or push live your first marketing page, the best bet is to start with your content strategy.

What’s Content Strategy?

Content strategy includes everything that goes into planning, creating and managing all content for your company. It’s essentially the North Star that guides you in making the right decisions for your content. It helps you plan out future content and maintain the content you already have.

When done well, content strategy can be a key factor in your company’s future success. When done poorly — or not at all — your content may end up disjointed, redundant, misaligned with your overall mission or just downright confusing.

Whether you have a strategy in place or not, sooner or later you’ll have to create content. Even if you don’t have budget to bring on a content expert to lead you through the process, you can take these steps to DIY your own content strategy from scratch.

1. Define What Your Brand Is (And Definitely Is Not)

Your brand is more than your logo. Your brand is really how you are perceived by your customers and everyone outside your organization.

A classic example of strong branding is Apple. They’re known for designing clean, simple products completely stripped of anything superfluous. Spend 30 seconds reading their website copy, and you’ll recognize this design sensibility carries through to their content.

Getting crystal clear on how you want your organization to be perceived will drive the voice and tone of your content. The good news? You’re in a great position because you have a blank slate. At this stage, you can build your brand into anything!

Brainstorm a list of adjectives you’d like to define your brand. Start with a large group of words, then narrow it down. Modern, relatable and emotional? Radical, playful and geeky? If you’re struggling with this, it might help to start with words that describe what your brand definitely is not. Identifying off-brand words is quite useful at this stage.

When I work with clients who need help defining their brand, one of my favorite tools is the Brand Deck. It’s a deck of cards chock-full of descriptive adjectives you draw from to define your brand’s characteristics. The exercise always sparks interesting discussion about where companies want to take their brand.

2. Identify Your Target Audiences

Enough about you. Now it’s time to talk about the people who will consume your content.

These people may be your target customers, your users or your clients. They’re also known as your audience. It helps to use a literal analogy here: Your audience comes to your show (website, blog, newsletter, social channels, etc.) because they anticipate getting something out of it. If the performance your audience sees disappoints, they won’t buy tickets again.

To turn every audience member into a repeat customer, it’s in your best interest to try to understand them long before they walk in the door. What pain points do they need addressed? Do they have preferred platforms or social networks? What other products, services or brands do they evangelize?

You likely have more than one audience. Some of my clients find it helpful to create a few personas, which are made-up people who represent target audience segments. You might go so far as to give them names, flesh out demographic info and identify how your company can specifically help that type of person. Buffer offers an in-depth explanation of audience personas and how to create them.

3. Solidify Your Content Goals

Now that you’ve done some soul searching and honed in on your target audiences, it’s time to take a similar approach with your content goals. Ask yourself this question: What do you want your content to accomplish?

Here are a few content goals past clients have asked me to help them achieve:

  • Develop thought leadership to build influence
  • Create transparency for my brand
  • Showcase my expertise in my industry or market
  • Make people’s lives easier by addressing pain points or confusion
  • Help people learn how to maximize my product for their own benefit
  • Generate interest among job seekers and attract potential hires
  • Educate and inform our users

Content can serve many purposes. You likely have many goals you’d like to achieve. Since you’re just getting started, I recommend culling your list down to three. That doesn’t mean you can’t come back to those other goals later. Keep in mind your goals also may shift after you bring your product to market, which may generate feedback or an evolution of your startup’s larger strategy.

4. Become a Student of Competitors’ Content

Next comes the content audit. It’s a valuable tool in any content strategist’s workbox. An audit involves going through all existing content with a fine-tooth comb and evaluating its effectiveness.

But without any content, what is there to evaluate? The competition. For startups, I always recommend a competitor content audit. If you have no true competitors, there are certainly companies in the same market or industry where you can start.

If you plan to launch a blog, read up on theirs. If you’re developing a welcome email campaign, sign up for theirs. If you’re developing a marketing website or series of landing pages, click their ads and poke around on their site until you find all of theirs.

Watch your competitors’ videos, follow their Facebook pages, and consume their content. Throughout this studious process, your goal is to observe what they’re doing well and where they could do better.

Keep the following questions in mind:

  • What are the most popular words and phrases these competitors use?
  • Are there certain topics or ideas no one else has covered?
  • What content do you find the most useful and relevant?
  • Do you find particular approaches off-base or confusing?
  • Where do you see gaps or areas for improvement?

This exercise offers two valuable takeaways. 1) It helps you identify areas in which you can stand out with your content. 2) It may help you understand what very bad and what very good looks like.

This is one of my favorite parts of the process because I love falling down rabbit holes of all things content. If you’re taking this on yourself, know that an hour or two of reading competitor’s blogs won’t cut it. This step is a time-consuming one that requires diving deep. That said, don’t skip it. If you aren’t clear where your competitors stand with their content, you may end up making the same mistakes they do.

5. Get Into Planning Mode

Now it’s time to put your work into action. You’ve got a handle on the why and who behind your content. Next up: the what. What’s your content plan? A few considerations to keep in mind as you plan out which pieces of content you intend to create.

  • Zero in on which content “thing” you start with (website, blog, email campaign)
  • Identify a core list of topics, categories or messaging points
  • Start small. It’s better to focus your attention on quality, not quantity.

Notice we still haven’t written anything yet. We’re almost there. First, we’re planning what we will write.

For example, if your plan is to start a blog, have a short list of topics identified before you start. Involve every stakeholder in deciding which topics those are. This will ensure your team is on the same page about your strategy, while naturally guiding everyone into to thinking big picture before getting into the nitty gritty details.

Let’s say the copy on your homepage needs a lot of work (or needs to be created in the first place). What are the key benefits you intend to communicate? Once again, get the necessary people on the team to agree on these points. Having these discussions up front streamlines the content production process. When everyone’s in lockstep about what you want your content to achieve, every step down the line moves more efficiently.

6. Create Your Content

Finally! We’re here, the stage where you put pen to paper to bring your magnificent content strategy to life.

This might seem like the easy, straightforward part. But there’s one important factor to consider about creating strong content that hits your goals, speaks to your audience and amplifies your brand. The process takes time. The first draft is rarely the final draft. Stakeholders will have input and feedback to improve and iterate on the content. Revisions may be necessary as you start to feel out what’s most on-brand for your startup.

When you’re up to your shoulders in fundraising, growth and development, there’s not much deep thinking time left to write, revise and finesse content until it’s just right. On the other hand, you’re trying to keep costs low. And the beauty of time is that it technically costs nothing.

There are a few routes you can go for content creation. Each option offers a different level of time and cost commitment.

  • Create and revise content internally (low cost, high time)
  • Create content internally. Bring in external contractor to revise (medium cost, medium time)
  • Bring in external contractor to create and revise content.. (high cost, low time)

I often work with clients who are strong writers and communicators. Their challenge isn’t lack of ability. It’s lack of time. They’ve decided their time is best spent developing other aspects of their business that require their unique expertise.

Ultimately, you must decide how to best invest your own time to achieve your content goals. As with all aspects of your startup, you simply cannot have fast, good and cheap. Content is no exception. But you can start small. A little bit of good content goes a long way. The investment in one strategic content initiative can pay large dividends in the long run.

Ready ramp up your startup’s content game? Scroll back up and start with step 1.

Betsy Mikel is a brand content strategist and copywriter. She crafts compelling stories that sell products, build brands and grow audiences.