Content Strategy: A Complete Guide

Why You Need a Content Strategy

Content strategists are usually responsible for building out content strategies; and for a good reason, as you’ll soon discover. However, depending on the organization’s size, that responsibility may rest with a senior content marketer or even an SEO specialist.

A successful content strategist is a high-level critical thinker, a communicator who can solve problems and stay organized. Solid analytical abilities, coupled with creativity, help content strategists develop high-performing content that tells a brand’s story. Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) skills help ensure the successful execution of any content plan.

What is a Content Strategy?

The textbook definition of content strategy is that it’s the planning, development, and governance (management) of all types of content, written or otherwise. A more pragmatic view is that content strategy is a plan to drive targeted inbound traffic and guide visitors through the marketing funnel.

Content is not just articles and SEO. It touches everything, including email, social media, user experience (UX), audio, and visual.

It’s used for a lot of things, including generating traffic, user engagement and communication, lead generation and nurturing, branding and loyalty, and prospecting.

Where Do You Get The Information for a Content Strategy?

Where do you get all the information necessary to develop a content strategy? There are two parts to this. 

First, define the story that your organization wants to tell about its brand and expertise. Then determine whether your content builds upon that story. The story being told may not be the one you want.

You’ll need to figure out what’s the end goal and whether current efforts are getting you closer toward that goal. Content strategy aims to make the path towards the goal clearer.

Why is Content Strategy Important?

Ensuring the right story gets told is one reason why content strategy is important. Another justification is that a good plan makes the most efficient use of resources to achieve a given goal.

As search engines have evolved, content strategy has adapted to meet those changes. In the early years, when search engines could only match keywords, the strategy was simple. The focus was mainly on the page level. Write one page targeting one keyword.

Google has come a long way in understanding content. Not only does it understand relationships between people, places, and things (Google Knowlege Graph), it also understands topics (Google Topic Layer). As a result, content strategy has shifted from the page level to the site level.

When Should You Start?

Putting together a content strategy is a continuous activity as your plan needs to adapt to changes in the market and take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. The best time to develop a content strategy is right now!

How MarketMuse Builds a Content Strategy

With an objective firmly in place and a good understanding of the current efforts, it’s time to dig deep into the existing content. The complexity of your strategy is irrelevant. It’s high-quality content that creates topical authority resulting in success.

High-quality content adds value to visitors by answering their questions and needs. It is topically comprehensive and connects to relevant content. You need three kinds of pages, landing, supporting articles, and pillar.

Mostly, you need to expand and optimize these content types in various ways depending on the goal. Your content strategy is going to require all of these page types (landing, pillar, and supporting) to build content clusters, which will lead to topical authority. 

Landing pages are typically designed to be a point of entry that caters to a specific user intent. Their goal is to convert visitors and can also be used with paid advertising.

Article pages can fill in topical gaps and expand deeper into a specific user intent. This type of page can guide users down the marketing funnel via call-to-actions (CTAs) and linking. Other media can also support it, like videos and infographics. Article pages can be hard news, evergreen content, blogs, reviews, how-to, and interviews.

A pillar page is a long-form guide designed to cater to many different user intents. It has breadth but not depth. It touches on many topics but none in great detail. It’s a beacon for organic traffic and leads to satellite pages and landing pages.

Situations You May Encounter

No content plan is an island. You must take into account existing content and website structure. Here are some circumstances you may encounter when putting together your first content plan, along with solutions.

While these are not the only situations in which you may find yourself, they are the most common. Every environment is unique, so your plan must reflect that reality.

Content Clusters and Building Authority

Topic clustering is the practice of organizing content on a website into topically related ‘clusters.’ This is done by producing a ‘pillar’ page on a core topic and multiple additional content pages that are related to that topic. The pillar page should link to the cluster pages, and the cluster pages should link back to the pillar.

Topic cluster example for an appliance retailer.
A simple example of a topic cluster that a retailer selling appliances might use.

Within a sufficiently broad topic, there are many different user intents that searchers could try to accomplish through their searches. This can mean a lot of different things. Maybe a user just wants to learn how to do something specific. Or maybe they just want to find a piece of information. In other cases, they want to compare options for purchase and make a decision to buy something. 

The end goal of a topic cluster is to ensure that as many possible user intents as are relevant to your business are served across your content inventory and making that content easily discoverable in your site architecture.

Ideally, your content cluster would span the entirety of the buyer’s journey, whatever that may mean for your business/website. This is how users and search engines alike determine your overall topical authority and expertise on the topics you cover. 

Buyer's journey representation: awareness, consideration, purchase, post-purchase.
A topic cluster should have content that fits into each stage of the buyer journey

By executing these components correctly, you will have a logical, topically organized site architecture that has a high likelihood of success in driving higher rankings and more organic traffic. 

Who Builds Content Clusters?

Content clusters are not limited to one business model or topic. Content strategists from all industries and business models are using content clusters to drive tangible SEO and business results.

Each of these businesses has different business models and different uses for content in their marketing efforts. Regardless, when you are thinking in terms of topics, you’re able to use this approach to better organize your site and build authority around the concepts and topics your audience is searching for. 

When Should You Build a Content Cluster?

One of the most common questions about topic clusters is, “How many pieces of content should a cluster have?” 

The answer, as it so often is when it comes to SEO and content, is “It depends.”

Broad topics that have a lot of ground to cover will have dozens of pieces of content, while more niche topics could have less than 10. There is no commonly agreed-upon standard for when a group of content items becomes a cluster. 

The first step to building a topic cluster is to identify a topic that your audience would likely be searching for that connects to your offerings and the problems they solve.

For example, MarketMuse is a content intelligence and strategy platform. Our content strategy is driven by an awareness of the industry we’re in and what problems we solve. 

We don’t just write about content intelligence and strategy; we have clusters on topics like content optimization, content operations, topic modeling, natural language generation, content research, and so on. We even have a topic cluster on topic clusters!

Once you have identified some key topic areas, you can start building out your cluster. 

Next, we’ll look at why a strategy employing content clusters offers better opportunities than one that is keyword-based.

Why a Content Cluster Makes More Sense Than a Keyword Strategy

Prior to Google’s evolution into a semantic search engine, Google’s method of understanding content and domain quality fell largely into two buckets – keywords and links. 

The search engine would serve content that contained a keyword or keyphrase in a query. It would rank these pages based on Google’s patented PageRank system, which determined the quality and authority of a page/domain based on how many other domains were linking to it. 

To understand how Google analyzes and ranks content today, we have to consider three major updates to its core algorithm, Hummingbird, Quality Update, and RankBrain.

It is believed that most of the major updates Google has done for its search technology since 2015 are iterations of RankBrain. There’s one update that is worth understanding in greater depth.

Topics, Not Keywords

For SEOs and content strategists, the upshot of Google’s evolution can be summed up fairly quickly: Topics, not keywords.

Google’s evolution away from being a keyword-focused search engine and toward a semantic and topic-focused engine means that the traditional ways of thinking about how to prioritize content are no longer as useful or relevant.

Most content strategists use metrics like Monthly Search Volume, Keyword Difficulty, and Domain Authority to gauge which content ideas are important and worth pursuing. The first metric, in particular, remains a major data point for content decisions.

On the flip side, thinking in terms of topics will give you a much wider range of possibilities for interesting and useful content that directly maps to what your business does and, more crucially, to what your audience wants to learn and do.

How Do You Use MarketMuse to Build a Content Cluster?

MarketMuse is built on topic modeling technology that makes it possible to identify and create topic clusters. The content Inventory within the platform gives you the ability to slice and dice your site from a Pages and Topics perspective and identify clusters or parts of clusters that already exist on your site. The Applications give you the tools you need to do topic research and find ways to find new content ideas and improve on existing content. 

Building content clusters can be a powerful way to really “own” a topic from a search perspective. It’s a matter truly understanding all of the dimensions of a topic and providing content that not only answers a specific user intent, but gives that searcher the means of answering their next question with more content on your site. 

Building a Content Outline

A content outline is used by writers to ensure their output fulfills the goals of the content strategist. Usually, it’s created by a content strategist or editorial manager.

Imagine you were responsible for writing the article “How to Write a Blog Post for SEO.” While there are many different approaches one could take, that flexibility can result in misdirection, multiple re-writes, and a mediocre outcome. To combat the situation, many content publishers use content outlines.

What is a Content Outline?

For most people, a content outline consists of a title and subsections, along with bullet points for items of discussion. While some direction is better than none, high-performing content publishers realize this type of outline does not scale well. 

How to Create a Content Outline

The time required to create a content outline or brief is a function of the amount of detail contained within the document. The process of building content briefs has historically been a manual process for content strategists. Even with a template, however, content briefs can take hours to complete properly.

How MarketMuse Builds Its Content Briefs 

AI-generated content briefs from MarketMuse contain all the pertinent information, automatically gathered and organized in a repeatable, reliable way. Rather than spending hours each week building briefs by hand, you can spend more time on research that drives the strategy, finding optimization opportunities, and reporting on growth.

In addition to being a potent mix of editorial and SEO guidance, MarketMuse Content Briefs can be produced at scale to match your current and aspirational content cadence. Once they are created, you can provide access to your writers or send them a shareable link if they are outside your organization.

How to Map User Intents to Build Content Briefs and Plans

Identifying user intents and being able to map a given focus topic to an intent is critical for building content briefs and entire content plans.

Topic Ambiguity vs. Intent Fracture vs. Explicit Intent

The first thing to identify with a given focus topic is if you’re dealing with topic disambiguation, fractured intent, and explicit intent. 

Topic ambiguity is caused by the vagueness of language that leads to a query giving results for multiple things.

An intent fracture occurs when there are multiple reasons for searching for a given topic. This tends to be the case for general/head terms that usually have high monthly search volumes.

Explicit intent is the easiest because only one reason exists for the query. These queries tend to be focused and specific, and thus, they can be more easily mapped to a given phase in the user journey.

The Pitfalls of Favored Intent

When it comes to intent, the major flaw in most SEOs/Content Strategists’ thinking is that Google’s favored intent – the intent that shows up on the first page of the SERPs in the results and Featured Snippets – is the only intent they need to consider. This is letting the tail wag the dog.

A favored intent isn’t necessarily the only intent. In fact, unified favored intent can often conceal a high degree of intent fracture.

Five User Intent Mapping Tips

  1. Always check your content inventory to determine if an existing page matches a targeted intent. If so, order an Optimize Brief for this page. 
  2. A pillar page requires many intents to be satisfied, which should be reflected in your content brief.
  3. Supporting pages typically address more specific intents. It’s usually easier to map the topic one-to-one with a specific intent.
  4. If the topic is heavily fractured, you will need multiple content briefs.
  5. Consolidate based on intent grouping where possible. For example, you don’t need separate pages for “Best CRM software” and “Top CRM software.” Those serve the same intent. It’s not about creating/optimizing a single page for a 1-to-1 relationship with every possible keyword variant. It’s about comprehensively covering all intent groupings.

Building The Content Team and Process

Content strategy creates a direction for your website to tell a specific narrative and accomplish specific goals such as increasing page views, increasing time on site, decreasing bounce rate, and increasing organic rank, which can be a daunting task. In order to accomplish this, you need some players, those who can help you execute an effective content strategy.

The Content Team

So, who are these players? You need direct roles to fill who will execute the content strategy and the content itself and indirect functions that work with the players in the direct positions to market the content. The need for a team will also change depending on the size of the company/content directive.

What we’re looking at are fundamental roles. Whether one person fulfills more than one function, or you have a 1:1, each position below offers a significant purpose in building an effective content strategy.

The Content Production Process

A well-built content creation process changes based on the size of a content strategy and its execution time. Content production varies from five pieces of content a month for small operations to 15 a month for medium-sized enterprises, and 30 a month for large production. Obviously, there will be outliers, but for most content teams, your process will fall within one of these buckets. 

The Cost of Content Production

Let’s go through each scenario and talk about how the content production process works for non-technical content with a minimum content outline (most people don’t know what direction to take with outlines, so through keyword research, they build a rough guess and pair that with brand guidelines) and average quality content.

Creating content that’s comprehensive and high-quality requires a significant amount of resources. Keep this in mind when building your content team and content process. It doesn’t have to be super stressful or expensive; there are companies like MarketMuse that can help lighten the load, reduce your expenditure on the shoulders of concrete data, and give you the best optimization direction.

Content Performance Evaluation

Content is never created just for its own sake. It has to drive business-critical metrics to be worth the investment. That’s why content strategists and SEOs need to track a variety of content performance metrics.

Content performance metrics are quantitative measures of how well your content is performing in pursuit of your wider marketing and business goals. Tracking these metrics can help you understand how your content is performing at a given point in time, as well as show you your progress over a period of time.

Who are Content Performance Metrics for?

Of course, your marketing team is going to be concentrating on what their performance metrics are showing, but content doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Beyond the content team, content strategists and marketing leaders are also ultimately responsible for proving the value of content to the rest of the business. 

A content team might be concerned with metrics like rankings, traffic, engagement, conversions, quality, etc. A sales team will be interested in understanding how your content impacts pipeline, sales cycle velocity, sales qualified leads, direct sales, and other sales-focused metrics. Customer success teams might want to understand how support and post-purchase content impact customer retention and lifetime value. 

Regardless of who is tracking content performance, make sure the KPIs are realistic. Track them in a way that is valuable for the business as a whole.

What Content Performance Metrics Should You Track?

It’s impossible to give a comprehensive list of every possible metric you should track. Ultimately, the metrics you choose to track and the KPIs you and your team set will depend on what’s important to your particular business. That said, certain metrics tend to be useful in most situations.

Here are some you can start using to improve content performance today broken down by where you can find them.

Other metrics matter as well, such as marketing and sales qualified leads, sales cycle velocity, pipeline created, and more. Getting to these metrics requires working with your sales team to surface this data in your CRM and marketing automation software. These are also remarkably important KPIs to prove the business value of content.

Assembling Your Content Toolkit

A content toolkit contains all the systems required to conduct the level of analysis you need for your domain. From small companies to large, toolkits will vary. Below are all the different tools content strategists use to conduct their analysis and why.

Remember, each one of these systems will have overlapping data, and since each tool collects and defines their data differently, no one tool will have the same information. It is completely possible to use just one tool, but it’s important to test different systems to see what works for you.

There are also many more tools in each category above, but the ones listed are the ones MarketMuse strategists use!

Below, you’ll find a rundown on the MarketMuse competitive landscape. Look through the competitive analysis and make your own decisions on what works best for you!

Looking for MarketMuse alternatives can be an exercise in frustration. Results on the first page of Google frequently get our competitors wrong. To save you from further exasperation, we’ve put together a list of MarketMuse alternatives and competitors.

This page offers a summary of how each platform differs, along with links to detailed comparisons. MarketMuse provides workflows for the entire content life cycle, specifically:

  • Content Strategy
  • Content Research
  • Content Creation
  • Content Optimization
  • Natural Language Generation

So, it’s through this lens that we’ll compare MarketMuse to the various alternatives.

If you’ve ever built content plans and content briefs manually, you know it’s time-consuming. Searching the Web and manually constructing how best to represent a topic isn’t something you can push out in a couple of minutes.

Not only do we speed this process up significantly, but the content plans we create are several orders of magnitude more effective than what a human can put together. Imagine analyzing a site with over 300,000 pages of content that’s ranking for over 110,000 keywords. MarketMuse did this and identified over 2Mn insights for how to improve the site’s content.

MarketMuse is the only one to offer AI-driven content plans, content briefs, and a suite of applications purpose-built for content strategists.

With these competitive products you’re still stuck with:

  • Manual workflows using keyword research tools and SEO platforms
  • Content strategies built-in spreadsheets
  • Content briefs produced through manual research

When it comes to natural language generation (NLG), MarketMuse First Draft is unique in this regard. None of these MarketMuse competitors can generate long-form content, or any content for that matter, using NLG.

While some of these tools can play an essential role in your content marketing stack, MarketMuse is the only AI-driven content intelligence platform that knows your content and provides smart recommendations. For real actionable insight, try MarketMuse today!