From the Trenches

Finish That Content Marketing Plan: Create Messages, Themes and Topics

Yvonne Lyons | February 18, 2016
Finish That Content Marketing Plan_Create Messages, Themes and Topics

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post here about how to use Ideas, Messages and Themes as part of your content strategy. It was a good post … solid, and seemed pretty useful to a lot of people judging by the traffic.

But as I did more and more content marketing planning, the concept of that big idea became difficult to explain to people. It could have been the nomenclature. The word “idea” is not that different from the word “topic” to most people. And after you create themes in this game, you always have to create topics. Lots of them. And people got confused. So, because I am a woman and we get to change our minds whenever we want, I did just that. I have abandoned the concept of starting with “idea” and have revised the way in which we tackle what I think is the most creative part of content marketing planning:  creating messages, themes, and topics.

It’s still early enough in the year to get on top of a content marketing plan and do it right. But if you don’t do this part of the planning process well, your overall effort will not succeed. So it’s critical to get each step right, and come up with enough great themes and topics to fill your editorial calendar.

A year is a long time, so even if you don’t or can’t build out an editorial calendar to last 365 days, you can create solid groundwork with these messages, themes, and topics to give you something to go back to when the well runs dry and you can’t remember what you were supposed to base things on. Here’s how to work out messages, themes, and topics for your plan.

Be succinct with messages
Every company should have a messaging guide, whether you have a documented content strategy or not. But if you’re going to put a content marketing plan together, you absolutely need to have your company’s messaging — its story — down. Messages are a combination of what you do, what your brand/company believes in, and why your company is different from the other companies that might do something very similar. A message should avoid confusion and complexity and have a singular focus in order to communicate one important point. This is not the place to throw in everything and the kitchen sink because you believe there is SO much that is important about your company. I’m quite sure there is, but messages sum up the characteristics and convey just the critical aspects of the brand. Each one makes one point, not 12 points.

These are internally facing (which makes some people feel they CAN throw a few extra thoughts and feelings in there), but keep it simple. While messages are not likely to be used in content verbatim, they should be seen as the foundation of the content. You can’t figure out what the foundation is if you have to weed through 12 different thoughts per message. The point is that these then get supported by topics in the majority of all content created for the company.

As an example, the fictitious engineering company with the catchy name, “Consultants & Product Developers” (C&PD), might have messages in its content plan that look like the ones below. Note how each shows what makes the company unique or explains how it might be different from other firms that do exactly what C&PD does.

  •  C&PD’s process for product development is unique. C&PD approaches product development and design differently from most engineering firms in that they begin with the most vexing, difficult problems facing a project. This allows the company to create the best and most innovative solution for each client.
  • C&PD’s culture is unique and an advantage to clients. The company only hires the most talented engineers and nurtures their desire for new experiences, often turning away repeat work in favor of unique, new challenges to keep staff motivated and inspired.
  • C&PD is transparent in its communication. C&PD offers clients transparency in all of its findings, including those that indicate a project cannot move forward as anticipated, spelling out all areas of risk or delay.

Create content organized by theme
The next step in content planning is to create some themes. These are what you will use to guide all of the topic choices you make for the year. The themes are generated from a mixture of knowledge about marketing and business goals, discussions with sales, competitive and industry research, perhaps even conversations with customers or prospects.

You might decide to create themes under service areas for your business. You may create themes that align more with the goals or desires of your audience(s). I would posit that there isn’t necessarily a formula for creating themes, but they do need to make sense with your overall marketing objectives. Ask yourself, “is the content I create under each of these themes going to address the goal of X in some way?” If you can’t figure out how the answer might be yes, then maybe that’s not really a good theme. The other thing you MUST be able to do for each theme is create a wealth of content under each. A theme is not a topic. Think of it as a topic area. As long as you can create enough topics related to each theme that drive toward your marketing goals — and have faith that you can generate more if you run out during the year — you have a solid theme and you will remain organized and hopefully be successful.

Grow a topic tree
You can think of the hierarchy between messages, themes, and topics like a tree. Your messages are way down in the ground under the roots. Anchor content sits in the grass around the tree trunk (for those who want a deeper dive into your industry and business). The tree branches are themes, and from each one of those branches grows a whole bunch of leaves that can be your topics.

Right Source Marketing Content Tree

So, going back to our Consultants & Product Developers example, it might have “theme branches” like:

  • Project planning and management
  • Trends in the engineering world
  • Selecting an engineering firm

Each branch, such as project planning and management, would have lots of leaves growing from it that can represent the pieces of content. C&PD can probably create 10 blog posts in a year on project planning or best practices in project management.  The same thing can be done for other themes. You just keep adding “leaves” when you run out of topics.

Messages, themes, and topics might be the most creative part of your content marketing plan, but they require just as much planning as any other area. Think about the big picture, use the “tree logic,” develop themes to keep content on track and driving toward your marketing and business goals all year long — and then put it all into your editorial calendar!

Are you struggling to get your content marketing program off the ground? Download “Build Your Content Marketing Plan: A 10-Step Guide” for the pointers you need. Still stuck? Let us help you out.

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