The Five Pillars of Online Content Strategy

Dan BlankBy Dan Blank, Founder, We Grow Media

There is a common fear amongst publishers, whether traditional or new media, that they need to aggregate hundreds of thousands of individuals (aka “eyeballs”) to grow awareness of, and increased engagement with their authors and books. But the truth is, these people are often already connected online, sometimes in big groups, other times in smaller networks.

The core of an effective online content strategy is identifying where your audience currently gathers, and how to best meet their needs.

That content strategy should be based on their needs and behaviors, and it is an iterative process that will constantly evolve. If you don’t have the necessary research and feedback channels set up ahead of time, your content strategy will often face unnecessarily frustrating hurdles as you guess what your readers need, and hope that that what you’re offering is a good match.

Regardless of your industry or target audience, there are five fundamental pillars of an effective online content strategy:

Google Search Queries

If I am working with someone to build their content strategy, the first step is to get a sense of the existing landscape in their space. Invariably, I will be told that “their readers aren’t online, they don’t do social media.” And yet, I always find the opposite to be true.

I love the discovery process that comes with an open search field.

The key here is to try a variety of different phrases, not just individual keywords or generic categorizations. You are looking for several things: to see which sites come up in the top results for important key phrases; to identify online communities that seem to be thriving; to find the people who are very active in discussing your areas of interest online.

Look for Niches Within Niches

Don’t be satisfied with general sites that cover broad topic areas. This may be satisfying because you feel they have scale, but you’ll often find the real value in smaller niches. This is where you find topic experts and true influencers, as well as a more granular view of what people are writing about and engaging with.

View Competitors as Fellow Community Members

Those who are active in your field elsewhere on the web are the people who you should learn from, and in some cases, partner with. Online, things are much more fluid and porous than the traditional divides between companies and their communities, so when you discover someone doing something similar to you, engage them, and ask how you can help.

These are the people who will give you incredible insights, and some will one day help drive engagement for your own efforts, even if they are direct competitors.

Don’t Underestimate the Value of the Individual

When you find someone online who is engaging and/or influencing people in a topic you are focused on, dig deeper. Look them up on LinkedIn, find out a bit more about their experience and expertise. And of course, reach out and engage them in conversation. Most people like it when you recognize their abilities and efforts, and are happy to help out like-minded individuals and organizations.

Content Strategy Cannot be Created in Isolation

Yes, an advanced content strategy may have highly evolved practices, guidelines, and systems to help it run efficiently and on-target. But it is rarely a document that lives in isolation — it should be something that evolves through constant research and feedback loops with those you serve. Listening is a core goal here, and can be accomplished via traditional research means such as surveys and web analytics, as well as through direct engagement with members of your community.

A content strategy is ALL about serving the needs of your audience: listening, researching, testing, iterating, and listening some more.

The key is to not start with your goals, and try to convince people that they need what you are selling. Rather, if you truly understand the needs and behaviors of your audience, if you invest your time to build those relationships, then the content you provide will inherently serve their needs, driving engagement, connections and, eventually, even commerce.

Digital Book World 2011

Register today for Dan Blank’s DBW 2011 Workshop, Content Strategy: How to Serve Your Community by Developing Great Online Content.

Dan Blank was Director of Content Strategy & Development for Reed Business Information for the past decade, where he worked with editors and bloggers across 50+ brands — including Publishers Weekly and Library Journal — with the goal of creating engaging content and community. Blank is the Founder of We Grow Media, an online media consulting & training company, where he works with writers, authors, editors, & journalists to build their online media & marketing skills and engage their communities in fun and meaningful ways.

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