ImageAccording to the 2014 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends report, content marketing is on the rise, with 93 percent of marketers using content marketing, compared to 91 percent last year. For most, this is not all that surprising.

Also not surprising: 42 percent of B2B marketers consider themselves effective at content marketing, up from 36 percent last year.

Here’s where things get interesting: Of the marketers who consider themselves ineffective at content marketing, 84 percent have no documented content marketing strategy.

All of this explains why, this marketing planning season, we’re seeing a dramatic increase in inquires for content marketing planning. Most marketers or business executives, especially those doing this for the first time, haven’t been through a content marketing planning process before. While every plan is different, let me address some common elements that should be a part of any content marketing plan.

Goals & Objectives

Before I dive directly into content marketing goals and objectives, know this: If your content marketing goals and objectives are designed to stand alone, you’re starting in the wrong place. Content marketing goals should come from marketing goals. Marketing goals should come from business goals. Content marketing, therefore, should support the business, not just marketing.

Aligning content marketing with your marketing and business objectives needs to guide your approach, but don’t go overboard, especially if this is your first content marketing plan. I typically recommend setting some simple but specific one-year goals, and then identifying some broader two-or-three year goals, which you’ll need to revisit on at least a quarterly basis.

Your goals and objectives will be driven by budget, as well as a list of questions that will help you through the process:

Research

Your content marketing plan should be based on some upfront research, of both the primary and secondary variety. Primary research should include interviews with marketing stakeholders, both internal (employees) and external (customers, prospects). Secondary research should include any relevant reports, studies or surveys. Believe it or not, if you look hard enough, there are even studies summarizing content marketing usage in particular verticals.

Don’t do research just to say you did research, though. Make it actionable research:

Target Audiences

Developing a content marketing plan without identifying the target audiences is like shooting an arrow in the dark. If you don’t know who you are trying to reach, then regardless of how remarkable your content is, it will have little chance for success.

In identifying the target audience, don’t jump immediately to your current customers. They may or may not be the right customers for your business and offering, and they may or may not be the customers you aspire to work with.

During this part of the process, you should be asking questions like:

  • Who are your best customers?
  • What types of issues are they concerned with?
  • What types of information do they consume to address those issues?
  • Where do they get that information now?
  • How do they typically interact with information, and the companies that produce that information?

For more on identifying who your best customers (and influencers) are:

Competitive & Aspirational Benchmarking

You’ll want to get an understanding of what your competition is doing with regards to content marketing, as they are competing for your buyers and influencers’ mindshare on a daily basis. Anyone in the decision-making seat has limited time to consume information, and therefore they will select only the most remarkable content.

Don’t forget about your aspirational peers, though. Your industry may be behind the times, and your competition may be doing things the wrong way. Make sure you include a company that you know is executing content marketing successfully, and benchmark against it.

Ideas, Messages & Themes

Most marketers spend the bulk of their time in this area – this is the fun stuff, the “let me dream up all the cool content ideas I have and see if anyone likes them” work.

But if you don’t put some structure around it, your plan will look like one giant brainstorm. Make sure you address these three distinct areas:

  • Ideas – You might also call these campaigns, or programs. Your ideas take into account goals, objectives, messages and themes but put a creative spin on things. Think Lowe’s Vine videos or American Express creating its Open Forum content initiative.
  • Messages – Don’t do a content marketing plan without going through a messaging (or story) development exercise. Messages inform themes, themes inform content.
  • Themes – When you get to the theme level, now you’re talking about taking your company’s core story, combining it with the target audiences, and developing the specific stories you need to tell to engage with the right people.

Here are some suggestions to make sure your ideas, messages and themes play well together:

Channels & Tactics

There’s no point in creating content if no one knows it exists. A solid channel strategy answers the question, “Where will my content live in order to receive maximum exposure to the highest possible percentage of my target audience?”

My responses to that question start and end with “website” or maybe “blog.”

Not so fast, my friends. Content distribution, often in places outside of your “owned” properties, is one of the most overlooked (and underappreciated) aspects of effective content marketing. And distribution does not end with social media.

Get your content distribution mindset right:

The tactics side of this discussion is fairly simple. You cannot market anything without content today, and therefore, when you start building your content marketing plan, you need to think about content marketing as an approach…to everything. Your content marketing plan will ultimately impact every single marketing tactic, campaign or program.

Content Assessment

If you’re going to plan your future content, it probably makes sense to evaluate your current content, right? In particular, if you’ve already developed a healthy library of content, you’ll want a trained editorial eye evaluating each piece to determine its value (or lack thereof), its relationship to new messages and themes, and whether it still has a spot on the content roster.

There are plenty of resources to guide you in your content evaluation:

Process, Team & Tools

All the cool content ideas in the world will mean nothing if you’re not able to establish the right team and process to execute content marketing, and give them the right tools to support it.

Process and team decisions are driven by goals and objectives. To address some of these issues, you first have to decide whether you are insourcingoutsourcing, or executing in a hybrid model.  Staffing and operating a content marketing team is no easy task, even if you’ve assembled a dream team. Trying to assign content creation tasks to an existing and possibly already overworked staff is an even more difficult way to execute a successful content marketing strategy. Consider your team structure carefully.

For maximum content marketing effectiveness, you’ll also need a little technology. In particular, your plan should include an exploration of:

  • Content management systems
  • Blogging platforms
  • Customer relationship management software
  • Marketing automation software
  • Web analytics

For more on including technology in your content marketing plan, check out the 5 Marketing Technology Must-Haves for the Modern Marketer.

Measurement

Content marketing has always been tough to measure in a closed-loop fashion, and that was before Google made it even harder. That’s no excuse, however, for throwing in the towel on measurement.

The fact is that many facets of content marketing are measureable to the nth degree. If you’re not tracking against leading indicators such as awareness, readership and engagement, shame on you. If you’re having trouble tracking against leads and acquired customers, join the crowd.

Your plan needs to include a measurement initiative that ties your goals and objectives back to actual performance. If your content marketing goals and objectives are going to align with your business goals, your measurement goals need to align, too.

For each stage of the marketing funnel, decide which metrics will help you to judge whether you are reaching your goals. Metrics  like page views, unique visitors and views are important in the sense that without them you won’t generate leads, but a million unqualified visitors who don’t need your services are useless. Measure everything you possibly can, however, report only the few, business-focused KPIs that truly influence your goals.

Mailing it in on the content marketing planning process will seal your fate as a member of the 84-percent club, and worse yet, it may spell premature doom for your chance to do content marketing the right way.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”