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From the Trenches

Why You Need a Content Strategy AND a Content Plan

Yvonne Lyons | June 7, 2018
two puzzle pieces connecting like a content strategy and a content plan

Content strategy versus content planning. Lots of people believe they’re essentially the same things. We frequently talk to prospective clients who say things like, “Oh, we already have a plan.” I know after a long time in this business that I now have to ask questions about what it is that they really have. Is it a marketing plan? A content strategy, perhaps? An editorial calendar?

Sure, it’s possible that people just tackle one or the other because they’re just dying to get to execution, which is the fun part. But I would posit that for the most part, it’s just broader confusion about these words and how our industry has used them.

Here is a framework that will help keep strategy and planning straight in your head, some insight into their differences, and some tips for what you should include in each as you work on them.

You can’t make a content plan without a content strategy.

Content strategy is not planning and it’s not execution. Strategy is the process you go through to get to the planning step, which then leads you to execution. It’s also not the same as your content marketing strategy and planning. The content strategy should be part of that, but content marketing is broader. Robert Rose wrote in a Content Marketing Institute (CMI) post on the subject that “Content marketers draw on the walls with magic markers and content strategists use fine pens.” Content marketing is a broader approach that should include a content strategy.

So, relationships aside, what exactly is content strategy and how is it different than just coming up with an idea for some content and then publishing?

When you try to find “the” definition of content strategy online, you are hit with lots of variations. Many of them have parts of what I believe content strategy really entails, but most I’ve found, including Kristina Halvorson’s definition that is also quoted by CMI, are a little broader than my own definition. Halvorson says that content strategy “… plans for the creation, publication and governance of useful, usable content.” True, but I think you can go narrower. Here’s how I would define it:

“Content strategy defines how and why content will be used to achieve marketing and business goals.”

There is a hierarchy here: the business goals should guide the marketing goals and the marketing goals should guide the content goals. If you are someone who truly understands content and marketing, you probably know that you need a content strategy. But why do you need it and what goes into it? Couldn’t you just start planning based on your corporate knowledge?

With clients, I usually use the analogy of a train careening off the tracks. The strategy you establish should include research (competitive and industry), your goals, messages, and themes, all created with the target audience in mind. Being able to circle back to the strategy allows you to keep the train firmly on the tracks headed toward its destination. It keeps rogue ideas from creeping in that don’t address the goals, and discourages random hard left turns that might address or solve this week’s problem, but don’t lead toward the agreed-upon objective. These detours not only make a mess of your best laid plans, but they confuse your audience.

Staying on the rails helps your credibility with your audience and keeps you aligned with your company’s brand messages.

Part of your strategy should also involve how you will get things done. Not how in the sense of who is going to write that eBook or a white paper, but what does your high-level process look like? Who is involved and responsible for what? Who actually has to have input into the big decisions? Do you need to add to your team or outsource to freelancers or an agency partner?

And last but not least, make sure your strategy addresses what you will consider success and how that will be measured. Make sure that your leadership buys in to that decision. It’s easy to slip into “how did yesterday’s piece of content perform” mode, and that can lead to unhappiness all around.

Once you make these decisions and have that strategy set, you can move on to planning.

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Once you have a strategy, you can start content planning.

The planning is the part where you actually decide what you will do and when. This is where you create topics to address your themes, choose specific content types and tactics to address your goals and audience’s preferences, and then put it all into your editorial calendar.

Take time here to consider:

  • Do the topics you create fit squarely under the themes you developed in the strategy stage?
  • Is every piece you are planning going to be useful, helpful, and relevant to your audience?
  • Do the types of content you are planning make sense for your audience? Remember you can’t just choose what’s hot today. Some audiences still demand print (nope, not dead), some want interactive content, some need video because they just don’t want to read.
  • Are there conferences or tradeshows that require content to support and promote them?
  • Will you be creating in-person events, and what content goes along with them?
  • Does your industry have seasons or promotional months — think breast cancer awareness month for the healthcare industry — that you should be keeping in mind for content that feels relevant to the audience?
  • Did your competitive research show a “window of opportunity” for your content creation efforts? If your audience would respond to webinars, but your competitors aren’t doing any, that’s an opportunity for you to seize.
  • Can you create some kind of a backlog of evergreen content for those situations when something doesn’t pan out?
  • And finally, what can you repurpose and republish to get the most mileage out of what you are creating? Update those posts that are getting traffic and republish. Pull that eBook apart into four blog posts, an interactive assessment on the same subject, and some checklists. The possibilities are almost endless.

Make sure that as you are developing your topics, you are doing that under the umbrella(s) of the themes you created as part of your strategy. As you run out during the year, you create more but under the same themes. Keep the train on the tracks.

Execution — where the content plan comes to life.

Planning and strategy all done? Great, let’s go! I don’t have to tell you that the “creating” part of this requires not just good content, but remarkable content. Strategy and planning are key to success, but if after all that work, your actual content sucks, why did you bother? If you skipped the step in the strategy section where you should have considered getting freelance help or adding staff, now might be the time to reconsider.

Remember I said that this is all part of your larger content marketing effort, so execution should always feel like a team endeavor, and I don’t mean just your content team. The alignment with your paid and organic social media marketing tactics, integration with marketing technology efforts, and cooperation with public relations plans are all key. You have to be “looking around you” all the time for how it can all work together.

And remember that once you launch you have to keep going. When your audience comes to expect that remarkable content you’re creating, you can’t just crap out and stop publishing because you won a trip to Italy. Stay with the editorial calendar, and make sure your team is solid and backs you up, and that everyone has bought into the strategy.

Keep the train on the tracks: Strategy, then planning, then execution. If you intend to be successful with your content creation and your content marketing, you need to be able to separate one from the other and do them in the right order.

Need help getting the broader content marketing strategy and plan together? Download, “Build Your Content Marketing Plan: A 10-Step Guide.” If you’re ready to start with a deep dive on just the content strategy, get in touch.

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About Yvonne Lyons:

Yvonne Lyons is Right Source’s vice president of creative services, overseeing content and design for all of our clients. She ensures that all creative produced at Right Source is of the highest quality and is aligned with our clients’ business strategy and goals. Yvonne received a bachelor’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University in writing and literature and has more than 20 years of experience in marketing, branding, and communications.