As a savvy small business owner, you’ve probably noticed the new craze going on in online marketing lately. By lately I actually mean the last 2 years. The craze is known as content marketing and, apparently, various businesses have been getting great results with it.

Just so I don’t sound empty worded, it’s been said that 71% of marketers plan on increasing their investments in content marketing in 2014 (link). Do they all know something we don’t? Should we learn the secret too? If so, what is it?

Well, there’s no secret in particular. It’s just a simple relation of efforts vs. profits. It turns out that content marketing simply works and can help you drive some of your goals home quite effectively. That’s probably why it’s one of the most used marketing methods on the web today.

So how to get started with content marketing as a small business owner? Or even more importantly, what is content marketing in the first place?

The elephant in the room: What is content marketing?

It’s the practice of using content (the text, articles, videos, etc. that you publish on your site) as a marketing tool.

Or to put it another way, content marketing is about publishing information that educates people and as a by-product spreads the word about your brand and the things it has to offer.

How is it different from other, more traditional methods of marketing? Consider the following illustration.

Online Advertising:

Content Marketing:

Who is this guide for and is there really no experience required?

Just like the headline indicates, we’re focusing on small business owners primarily (that’s you).

This means that we will intentionally not talk about all the aspects of content marketing, but instead focus on things that have the potential to work especially well for small businesses.

The promise:

  • you will find out how to get started in content marketing;
  • you will learn how to launch your initial campaign;
  • you will learn how to evaluate your results and keep the ball rolling.

So, is there really no experience required? Okay, I lied about that one. But hold on, don’t leave just yet! The only thing you need at this point is a basic understanding of how to manage your own website.

This includes things like publishing new content, moderating comments, and so on. Basically, if you’ve had your site for more than 2 months then you surely have all this figured out already.

The kitchen parallel

Let’s get seemingly off topic for a while…

Every good recipe, or should I say “dish preparing experience” is built with two elements: prep and pickup. Prep is where you prepare the ingredients and set them aside in a half-made state. Pickup is where you take those ingredients and finally put them together into a dish.

For example, when grilling some shrimp, getting the shrimp cleaned and seasoned is prep. Putting them on the grill is pickup.

The funny thing is that content marketing is kind of similar. You always start with the prep work – getting your weapons together, preparing your tools, setting everything in place, and then there’s pickup – getting your campaigns launched.

Here’s how the process is laid out in time:

Phase #1: The prep work

Prep is essential to success.

It’s because of this initial phase that you will be able to replicate your campaigns later on, instead of developing them from the ground up every single time.

Here are the steps:

1.1. The main goal

You must have a goal. If you don’t, you’ll have no way of telling if your campaign is successful or not.

In short, the goal is the answer to the question of what is it that you want to achieve with content marketing?

Now, since you’re a small business owner, some of the more sensible goals for a content marketing campaign include:

  • lead generation – getting people into your sales funnel
  • sales – selling some of your products or services directly
  • brand building – building awareness around your brand and its offering
  • community building – attracting fans and people interested in the niche your business operates in
  • educating – reaching your existing customers/clients and educating them on your offering, which brings them back to you for repeat purchases

The order of the above goals isn’t accidental, by the way. It’s reported that lead generation is actually the top goal of them all for B2B content marketing (link).

That being said, the goal you choose is essentially up to you. But no matter which one it’ll be (and yes, choose just one), you need to ask yourself one question, which is: Why do I want to achieve this specific goal?

Think about the impact it can have on your business and your overall profits.

For example, with lead generation, a good way of coming up with an answer is to finish the following sentence: I want to use content marketing to generate leads for my business because ________. What comes after because is the impact statement we’re looking for.

The main value in all this is that what you choose as your goal will have a huge influence on the kind of content you’ll be creating (or will get created for you).

1.2. The audience

You always have to target your content marketing campaign to someone, preferably someone specific.

What you need to do is go backwards and define your audience based on your business’ offering and the goal you’ve set just a while ago.

Here’s what I mean. Without a doubt, you are the person who knows best who the ideal customers for your business are. Having that in mind, as well as the main goal you’ve set in the previous step, go ahead and define the target group for your first content marketing effort.

In all likelihood, if you’re aiming at generating leads or bringing in direct sales then the target group in this case is the same as the ideal customer for your business.

This may sound obvious, but you need to be aware of that, as it will have an impact on your future decisions and the direction you’ll go in with your content marketing setup.

1.3. Competition

It’s funny that no matter what you’re doing on the web, there’s always competition. There’s always someone who seems to be aiming at similar audiences or even trying to sell very similar products to yours.

And that’s a good thing.

You shouldn’t be afraid of those people. Instead, you should pay close attention to what they’re doing and try to adapt some of their ideas.

So, this step is about researching your competition. You know your niche, you know your offering, so finding competing websites shouldn’t be a problem.

Take notes of what they’re publishing and what exposure they usually get. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. Some of the metrics worth focusing on:

  • The headlines and the kinds of promises they make
  • The type of content being used with the most success (text, video, etc.)
  • Which content gets the most social media exposure and reader interaction (tweets, comments, etc.)

This sort of research gives you an idea on what works in your niche. The reason why this is so important is because there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. It’s always easier to build upon what’s already out there.

1.4. Coming up with content ideas

I’m sure that going through the previous step will give you a number of ideas already, but it’s also a good practice to spend a moment in solitude and try to come up with even more unique stuff of your own.

A good way to start this sort of brainstorm is to look at your target audience and think about the things that those people would appreciate learning from you.

What do they really need at the moment? What is their main problem right now? What is the trending topic in your niche right now? What are people talking about on forums? And so on.

You shouldn’t put a limit on your creativity in this step. If you can only come up with two original ideas, that’s fine. If you have 30, that’s fine too. You will only go with one of those ideas to start with anyway…

Engage in brainstorming every two weeks or so.

Now, as for the technical stuff, it turns out that the best way to keep such a bank of ideas is to turn it into a standard text file (headlines and descriptions) or a mind map (which is even better).

1.5. Differentiate

What will make your content different?

This is a question we don’t usually like to ask ourselves. It’s difficult and uncomfortable, yet especially important.

The fact is that creating yet another me-too type of content has very little sense. If you want to make content marketing worthwhile, you need to bring something new to the table. Either in substance or in form.

Here are some of the ways in which you can make your content unique:

In essence, a good way of coming up with this part is to look at your business. What is different about it? Use this factor to differentiate your content as well.

1.6. Creating content

There are basically two paths you can follow here:

  • create content yourself (or get it created in-house), or
  • get content created elsewhere (outsource it to a contractor or freelancer).

Finding out if the first path is the right one for you is very simple. Do you have anyone in your team who’s knowledgeable about content creation? If not, don’t insist on picking a person and persuading them to learn the craft overnight. They are not likely to produce any good results anytime soon. In such a case, go with a contractor (more on where to find them in a moment).

That being said, regardless of whether you’re going to create content in house or outsource it, the process is kind of similar. Here’s the roadmap:

  • Pick just one idea from your bank of ideas. Again, just one – something that has the most potential to be noticed, considering the things your readers are looking for.
  • Pick a content type. Some pieces of content will have a much bigger impact if they’re given a form other than plain text. Content types you can try:
  • tutorials (in-depth explanation of a complex task/challenge);
  • case studies;
  • infographics (a combination of interesting data and attractive presentation);
  • resource lists (a list of resources or links published elsewhere on the web that solve a given problem);
  • interviews; and
  • video or audio content.
  • Name the main goal once again. Try doing it in a single sentence. This goal will be given to the person creating the content.
  • Set the expectations. Here are the things that the person creating your content should receive prior to starting their work:
  • The starting headline. This will make their work clearer regarding the goal that you want to achieve with this specific piece of content and what main message needs to be conveyed. You can use the exact headline you’ve taken from your bank of ideas.
  • The goal.
  • The proposed content type. However, don’t make it written in stone; your writer will probably have some ideas of their own.
  • The main idea for the content. A short description of what you need.
  • How long should the content be?
  • The deadline.
  • The budget available.
  • Which call to action should be promoted inside the content? This is important because it’s directly connected to your main goal. For instance, if you want to generate leads with content marketing then, at some point, your content needs to encourage people to give you their contact data. Therefore, you need to specify clearly what the reader is expected to do after reading the content.
  • If you need some helping hands to get the content created, check out a site like PeoplePerHour, or oDesk. It’s best to pick someone with good reviews and affordable rates. If you don’t need an outsourcer then just make sure that the person responsible for the content on your team knows exactly all of the above and understands what you’re aiming for.

Once you have the content created, review it, make sure that it’s in tune with your goals and expectations and then prepare for the second phase – pickup.

Phase #2: The pickup

Just like with most good dishes, pickup requires less work and less time than prep. But surprisingly, it’s just as much, if not more, important for the final outcome.

2.1. Get your site ready

This step doesn’t always have to take place. It will depend on your goal and the things you have on your site already.

For instance, if you want to generate leads, but you don’t have an email subscription form on your site yet, then you need to take care of it now. This isn’t difficult, thankfully. You can safely go to MailChimp and get everything set up with some help from their tutorials and videos.

Another example, if you want to generate some direct sales, you have to make sure that there’s an easy way for your visitors to go straight to your shopping cart and complete the purchase without any hiccups.

I do realize that this might sound basic, but the easiest mistakes are often the most tragic.

One more crucially important thing is to make sure that your tracking mechanisms are set in place. The most popular tracking tool out there is Google Analytics. Another one that’s less popular but no less functional is Clicky. Both are equally easy to install. Going through the official tutorials will make the process clear.

2.2. Hitting the publish button

Finally, it’s time to hit the publish button and get your content online.

Just to make this clear, you’re publishing this content on your small business’ site. If you use WordPress then this step is easy. If not then you might need some assistance from your webmaster.

There’s actually nothing more that can be said about giving your content the green light. But the event itself is the center of every content marketing campaign, so I figured it does deserve its own step nonetheless.

2.3. Initial promotion

The initial promotion consists of the following elements:

  • Sending an email out to your existing email list or contacts. Let them know that you have some shiny new content that’s probably worth their while.
  • Tweet about it a couple of times throughout the day.
  • Update your Facebook with a similar message.
  • Make sure to share your content on Google+.

These quick actions will give you some initial exposure and get the ball rolling, provided that you have some following on your social media profiles already.

2.4. Ongoing promotion

After the initial promotion phase is over, you should start utilizing other means, slightly more direct in nature. Some ideas:

  • Reach out to your competitors directly and let them know about your content. Doing this might sound odd, but you will be surprised to see that some of them will have no problems at all giving you a shout-out.
  • Use Google to find other sites that are talking about similar topics and reach out to them with a similar message.
  • Use Technorati to find other sites in your niche/market and reach out to them too.
  • Repeat your initial Twitter promotion a couple of times for maximum exposure.
  • Try commenting on other people’s blogs. Focus on articles that talk about similar topics. Link to your content whenever suitable from within your comments.

2.5. Tracking

Remember the tracking mechanisms I told you to set up earlier (Google Analytics or Clicky)? Two or three weeks after the content is published is a good time to go to your analytics solution and look at your results.

The things worth paying attention to:

  • The number of visitors in relation to your other content. Has this new content achieved bigger traffic than your previous content?
  • Sources of traffic. Where were the visitors coming from?
  • Time spent on site. Were your visitors engaged in consuming your content?
  • Bounce rate. Did the visitors leave after reading just a single page of your site?
  • The status of your goal. What results did the content bring? For example, what’s the number of new email subscribers you’ve attracted so far? MailChimp will let you know about that.

The above are some of the things that tools like Google Analytics, Clicky, or MailChimp will tell you. No additional setup needed.

Why should you be looking at all this data? Because it will allow you to plan your next content marketing campaign better.

For instance, if the average time spent on site is 10 minutes then you know you’re going in the right direction, and that your content is engaging. But if it’s 10 seconds then it’s a clear indication that you’ve failed to interest your visitors and that you need to try something else the next time around.

What’s next?

Rinse and repeat. Cook up another content marketing campaign. Then one more. Repeat until you’re the master cook (going back to my kitchen parallel).

And remember, no matter what sort of campaigns you’re launching, they should always consist of two elements: prep and pickup. There really aren’t any shortcuts.!

  • Manish Dudharejia is the Founder & CEO of E2M Solutions, a full service digital agency specialized in Website Design & Development, eCommerce, SEO, Content Marketing, and Copywriting.