Hi there, small business owners – and anyone running an organization or team more or less solo. If you’re here, you’ve found the blog series on marketing that we created with you – and your limited resources – in mind.
Today we’re excited to help you make a content plan for a full year.
We’re getting to work right away, so take out a pen and some paper, or fire up a blank page in whatever software you like for making notes. (If you’re a spreadsheet fan, go ahead and use that – it’ll come in handy in a bit.) We’ll wait right here!
And while we’re waiting, we’ll remind you of why you’re making a content plan in the first place…
Reasons Your Small Business Should Create Content
Your content efforts are worth it, small business owners. As we discussed in the last post in this series:
- People search for what you have to say before they buy from you – and before they even approach you. If you’re not reaching out to them with helpful, informative content, they’ll find a competitor who is.
- Content marketing is less expensive for you than traditional marketing is.
- Businesses who create content attract more customers than businesses who don’t.
- Content enables you to compete with bigger brands that have bigger budgets.
- Any of your marketing goals – increasing your brand awareness, growing your thought leadership, generating leads, retaining customers over time – are nearly impossible without content of some kind. Customer referrals are great, but in the age of online research, not as single-handedly powerful as they once were.
- And perhaps most important, your message is the most critical thing you own, aside from your product. No one else in the world has quite the same story as you do. A content plan enables you to take charge of it and use it to your advantage.
We know, we know, you’re on board!
All right, got your blank page ready? Let’s start building your content plan.
Step 1: Define Your Audience
Before you produce any content, you need to decide who is going to read (or watch, or listen to) it.
If you’re not sure whom you’re talking to, your content won’t sound sure of the point it’s trying to make.
And if you’re trying to talk to everybody, your content won’t resonate with anybody in particular.
So, whom do you want to talk to?
Who should be more aware of your brand? Whose trust do you need to earn? What kind of customer leads do you want to attract and convert? Who would be super excited about your product and potentially loyal to your brand?
Let’s figure this out.
On your paper, list your answers to the following questions:
- Who are your best customers currently? In other words, what customers are of high value to your business?
- What characteristics or behaviors do they have in common? For example, are they at a similar stage in life? Do they have similar careers or interests? Do they interact with you in similar ways?
- How do you help them?
You can have more than one set of answers – in fact, you probably do.
The important thing is that each set of answers identifies a specific type of customer. In marketing-speak, a specific type of customer is called a customer avatar. Customer avatars enable you to replace vague or overly broad ideas of your audience with well-defined groups of people.
But not too many groups of people! We recommend two or three sets of answers. This will identify a primary set of proven, ideal customers, along with a second and possibly third set.
Your answers reveal the core audiences for your content. These are the people you want to talk to. They are the driving force of your content plan.
Now answer two more questions:
- What other type of customer would you like to pursue? (These are folks you believe you could serve very well, but who aren’t customers yet.)
- How can you help them?
Again, you can have more than one set of answers, which reveal your aspirational customers (these are customer avatars too). If you’re a startup, you can lean more heavily on these questions than on the earlier ones.
But again, try not to have too many sets of answers. You cannot be everything to everybody, no matter how tempting it is to try. When you’re building a business, it actually works against you.
But that’s a topic worthy of its own blog post. For now, let’s look at an example of how you might answer these questions.
Let’s say you have a personal investment consulting business. In thinking about your audience, you identify your best customers as women in their 40s and 50s who want to secure their retirement savings. You are able to give them investment strategies that grow their nest egg. And you’d like to work with more young professionals in their first or second jobs, because you know you can prepare them for retirement and home ownership much earlier.
Defining your audiences in this way helps you create a content plan full of topics that are truly helpful rather than overly general.
Step 2: Generate Topic Ideas
You’re a small business owner, so you’re already an idea person. You’re going to be great at topic generation, whether you already have a long list of content ideas (in which case, this step helps you organize them) or whether you can’t think of a thing (in which case, this step helps you realize you actually can).
To generate potential topics for your content plan, list your answers to the following questions:
What questions do you get most often from customers?
What do you find yourself answering over and over for your customers or your prospects?
For example, what are the points of confusion about your product or process? What are customers’ most common requests? What expertise or extra help do they ask you for?
Every question they ask is a potential content topic for your content plan.
If you’ve been in business for any length of time, you can probably list half a dozen customer questions off the top of your head. If you were to put a monthly blog on your website, that’s half a year of content topics right there.
What questions do you wish you’d get from customers or prospects?
We are not encouraging you to create content on topics that no one is asking about.
We are encouraging you to create content on topics that you understand well, but that your audience does not.
Another way to put it: what misconceptions do people tend to have about your product, or your field in general?
Going back to our example of a personal investment consulting business, maybe you find that most people think they need a lot of money before they can start investing. Or that they believe investing is too risky for the average person. You can turn these misconceptions into educational content.
Here at Dot Your I, we encounter some common misconceptions frequently. One is that marketing and advertising are the same thing (they aren’t). Another is that marketing isn’t necessary for customers you already have (it is). Hey, we should create some content on these misconceptions!
And that’s our point: every misconception you can list is a potential topic for your content plan.
What problems do you solve for customers?
To help you answer this question, you guessed it: we can put it a few other ways.
What prompts people to come to your business for help? What are the challenges they’re facing when they reach out to you?
What do they lack, and what caused this gap between what they have and what they need?
What do they want, and what led to their search for it?
Each reason that someone becomes a customer of yours is a potential topic for your content plan. Plus it’s a source of many other potential topics.
For example, let’s again imagine that you’re a personal investment consultant. One of the reasons people become your customers is because they want to save for retirement. This reason is not only a topic of its own (literally, “How to Save for Retirement”), but a spark for many other topics that expand or drill down on it:
- The Top Five Retirement Savings Plans
- How to Start a Retirement Savings Plan in your 50s
- How Retirement Savings are Taxed
And for those of you small business owners who think there are no numerous or complex reasons for your product, we beg to differ.
Let’s say you have a roofing business. Your customers are people who need to repair or replace a roof. No mystery there, right? You may be wondering how many topic ideas can you possibly generate besides “When to Repair vs. Replace Your Roof.”
Well, here are a few:
- Will Your Insurance Cover Roof Replacement?
- Where to Find Replacement Roof Tiles
- How to Protect Your Roof from Pittsburgh Storms
Once you get going on your brainstorming, you can usually come up with many more customer challenges and needs, and thus many more topics, than you could have predicted.
What are you excellent at?
There are a lot of ways to think about your answer (or answers) to this question.
Maybe you’re excellent at your product. It is superior and you can point to why: high-quality components, extra features, the efficient way you bring it to market, or something else. Maybe you invented the product, making it the first of its kind.
Maybe you’re excellent because of your expertise. Your knowledge and experience are especially deep and you can demonstrate them. You are an authority in your field or in your location.
Maybe you’re excellent at customer service. The way you respond and cater to customers is uncommon in today’s world, even if your product itself is commonplace.
Maybe you’re excellent because of your uniqueness. Maybe yours is the only business of its kind that serves a particular set of customers who have been ignored. Or maybe your pricing model is nontraditional in your market, or you offer perks that no one else does. Maybe you have training or a track record unlike anyone else in your business.
On your paper, list what makes your business excel above your competition.
Doing this has another effect on your content plan: it tends to reveal what makes you excited about being a business owner. And anything you’re excited about tends to be something you can talk about – at length, with details, and with passion that captures people’s attention.
You can harness all that excitement into potential content topics for your plan.
So now, list the topics you love to talk about – the ones related to your business, of course. Now is not the time to talk about the sequel to Top Gun. Not that anyone around here is excited for that. It’s just an example.
A word of caution on topics related to what makes you excellent: proceed with a little humility. You want to communicate your success, and how you make customers successful, without exaggerating or boasting. Audiences don’t respond well to salesy, self-important content.
Step 3: Strategize Your Topic Ideas
At this point, your paper is filling up with content ideas for your content plan. Great!
Now we’re going to expand those topics in a way that will give your content the best chance of helping people find you, trust you, and buy from you.
Time to answer a couple more questions!
What are people actually searching for online?
Matching your content to the internet searches that people do is the practice of SEO, or search engine optimization. It is the science of helping your content perform better in search results, which increases traffic to your website. More website traffic equals more customers.
Successful SEO requires learning what information people are searching for, and creating quality content that provides that information.
Now, successful SEO also requires a lot of other things, because search engines examine many different signals from your business to decide whether you are, in fact, producing quality content that answers people’s questions.
For now, though, we are going to focus on basic keyword research.
Keywords are words and phrases that your potential customers use to find the product or service you offer.
Keyword research is how you discover what those words and phrases are. Then you can create content that contains these keywords. This lends strategy to your content plan.
There are a few free keyword research tools that you can use:
Ahrefs Keyword Generator
With this tool, you can discover keywords that people use on four different search engines: Google, Bing, YouTube, and Amazon.
Simply type in a word or phrase that you think people would use to find your business, and choose the country that you’re interested in (the default entry is the United States).
Ahrefs returns phrases that contain the keyword(s) you entered. These phrases are other potential topics for your content plan.
For example, if you type in “investment advice,” you get phrases like:
- Real investment advice
- Investment advice for beginners
- Pension plan investment advice
- Real estate investment advice
So if you are a personal investment consultant, these phrases are potential topics for your content plan.
Ahrefs also tells you:
- How difficult it is to rank in the top 10 search results for each keyphrase.
- The number of people who search for each keyphrase per month.
You can also click the Questions tab to discover what questions people ask that contain the keyword you entered. These questions are even more potential topics for you.
WordStream Free Keyword Tool
With this tool, you can discover the keywords that people use on Google and Bing.
As with the Ahrefs tool, simply type in a word or phrase that you think people would use to find your business.
With WordStream, you can choose your industry, plus search by U.S. state rather than the country as a whole. Keyword usage and search volumes can differ a lot among states, so this is a nice feature.
The results that WordStream returns also include the cost-per-click (CPC) of the keyword you entered. This is the price you’d pay for a pay-per-click (PPC) advertising campaign using this keyword. A general rule is that the higher the CPC is, the more ready-to-buy the people using the keyword are.
AnswerThePublic is a powerful tool that has a limited free option. You can use it to discover what questions people are asking, and what phrases they are using, in their online searches for any subject.
AnswerThePublic returns results in both list and chart formats that give you tons of information about your keyword, including:
- Questions with your keyword that use “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” “will,” and “how.”
- Prepositions with your keyword that use “is,” “can,” “to,” “for,” “near,” “with,” and “without.”
- Comparisons with your keyword that use “and,” “or,” “like,” “vs” and “versus.”
- An alphabetical list of other words people use with the keyword.
The free version of AnswerThePublic will give you plenty of content ideas, and it’s fun to use. But think carefully about the keywords you enter, because you get only two free searches per day.
Yeah, small business owners…us too.
On to the next question that will help you strategize your content plan…
What do potential customers need to know at the different points along their buying journey?
Another way that you can be strategic with your content topics is to map them to the three main stages of the buyer’s journey:
- Awareness, in which potential customers discover you.
- Consideration, in which potential customers determine whether your product is right for them.
- Decision, in which potential customers become paying customers.
When buyers are in the awareness stage, they may not know that you exist, or they are just beginning to research you. They’re not ready to buy, so think of content topics that:
- Introduce them to your brand and your mission.
- Show them that you understand their problem and the ways to solve it.
- Educate them without condescending.
When buyers are in the consideration stage, they’re evaluating you and your capabilities against your competitors. For this stage, think of content topics that:
- Emphasize your uniqueness.
- Show how you’ve helped other customers with similar challenges and criteria.
- Offer detailed advice, a free preview, or another show of goodwill that fosters a relationship.
When buyers are in the decision stage, they are looking to gain confidence and certainty about their choice. For this stage, think of content topics that:
- Provide as much product detail as possible.
- Clearly explain the return on investment that they can count on.
- Portray you in a favorable light next to your competitors, honestly and without negativity about any other organization.
Step 4: Hone Your Message
To be successful at content marketing, you need to have a consistent message. This message must be a thread that runs through all your content.
As the social media influencers would say, all your content needs to be “on brand.”
What does this mean, exactly?
Well, each piece of content you produce must communicate who you are with clarity, confidence, and repetition. Each piece must support the same idea of what your business is about, and what customers can expect when they work with you.
Let’s figure out your key message. Time to answer a few more questions!
What do you value most in your business?
In the context of your product and your customers, what is most important to you? What do you care about most deeply?
Another way to think about this question: Why did you start your business in the first place? You might have personal reasons, like wanting to be your own boss. But beneath that reason is probably a customer-focused reason too – like wanting to serve them better than you could while working for someone else.
Your answer(s) to this question might overlap with your answers to what makes you excellent, and that’s fine.
What we’re trying to articulate here are the sincerely-held values that you bring to every customer, and the outcomes that you work hard to deliver for them.
Then, in every piece of content you create, you want to support the values and outcomes that you identify.
You don’t have to literally mention these values and outcomes in everything you produce. But you do want everything you produce to be consistent with these values and outcomes.
For example, our personal investment consultant may care most about giving customers peace of mind that they won’t have to struggle in their golden years. So, some pieces of content from this business will reference the value of customer peace-of-mind specifically. Other pieces of content will give information and advice that supports the outcome of struggle-free golden years.
There’s a catch with this question!
Don’t be tempted to land on a value that every person on the planet claims to have, unless you can articulate that value in a unique way for your business.
For example, too many businesses will cite “integrity” as the value they care most about. Saying you have integrity doesn’t make you special. Everyone claims this.
Now, if you can show that your integrity really is notable in your business, you might have something. But even so, try to define it differently, more memorably, or with more specifics, than the next guy.
For example, one of our clients is in an industry where unscrupulous vendors sometimes artificially inflate estimates. In this case, communicating the value of integrity is warranted. But when this client really thought about it, they realized that they could more accurately describe this value as “fair, detailed, and honest estimates that recommend only what you need and nothing more.”
Bottom line: be as authentic, specific, and unique as you can about what you value in your business.
What do you want to be known for?
What do you want to be the absolute authority on? What do you want consumers to think of immediately when they think of you?
What is your one thing?
What is the one thing that you want your brand to be associated with above anything else?
Your answer may echo an answer to a previous question, or your answers to the previous questions may lead you to a new answer for this one.
Examples of a “one thing” are plentiful, and as wildly varied as the companies that tout them. Apple is renowned for superb, minimalist design. The Red Cross is associated with medical assistance anywhere in the world. Subway immediately conveys a freshly-made sandwich. UPS is known for friendly, reliable package delivery.
Only you can know what your “one thing” is, and it’s worth some time and introspection to articulate it. You will use your “one thing” to guide the development of your entire content plan, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Step 5: Decide What Content Types You’ll Produce
In our last post in this series, we discussed the two main categories of content and listed the main types of content in each:
- Content assets – Standalone pieces of digital or physical collateral.
- Recurring content – Digital or physical messaging that you publish on a regular schedule.
Now it’s time to think about which kinds of content you’d like to include in your content plan.
From stone carvings to streaming video, content types are practically endless. The folks at CoSchedule have put together a list of 113 content types that will get your idea juices flowing whether you’re a content beginner or veteran. (Stone carvings are not among them. But they could work for your signage!)
When you are first starting out with content, we recommend a core set of content types. These enable you to speak to your audience without becoming overwhelmed:
- A website that describes, at a minimum, who you are, what you offer, and how people can get in touch with you.
- Case studies or customer success stories that show how you’ve helped customers.
- A blog (ideally weekly, but twice-monthly or monthly works too) that communicates your expertise and shows that your business is healthy and active.
- A monthly or quarterly newsletter that serves as a touchpoint for interested prospects and current customers.
- Regular and frequent social media posts.
- Regular Google My Business posts (see Part 4 of this series for help in optimizing your GMB listing).
- Real, authentic photos of your business and its people (almost all content types benefit from imagery that isn’t stock).
- Video, including professional spots for your website, and casual videos for your social media posts.
Depending on your business, we might also recommend a few other content types, such as an article or whitepaper, e-book, or webinar.
In deciding what content types you’d like to include in your content plan, consider the following:
- The content assets or platforms you already have that you can use.
- The type of content that best showcases your product and complements your business.
- The type of content that your competitors produce.
- The person or people at your organization who will be producing the content, and the amount of time they can dedicate to this task.
- The length of your content. Ideally you want a variety of content lengths, from brief announcements to in-depth how-to guides.
- The quality of content that you can produce on your own. Some content projects might warrant the help of a professional marketer. Given the importance of communicating well with your audience, your return on investment here is often well worth the cost.
Step 6: Draft Your Content Plan
We’ve arrived, small business owners! Now we’re going to take all the thinking you’ve been doing and lists you’ve been making, and synthesize them into a 12-month content plan.
Create a content calendar
A spreadsheet is a good tool for this exercise. But if you prefer, you can create a table of rows and columns on your paper or in your word processing software.
At the top of the sheet, write three things. These are the principles that will guide your content plan:
- A clear statement of your “one thing.” This is the thing that you want your business to be known for – that you want to be the absolute authority on.
- The values that you identified as most important to your business.
- The audiences that you identified for your content.
Now label a column “Month,” and enter the name of whatever month follows this one. We’re giving you some ramp-up time, small business owners! You don’t have to put yourself on the hook to publish something this month. But if you’re raring to go, go ahead and enter the name of this month.
Under that, list the next five months.
We’re going to focus on your first six months of content, at a pace of two new pieces of content per month.
Develop your content themes
Using the topics you brainstormed, researched, and listed, we are going to define three content themes.
Then we’ll group four topics under each theme, for a total of 12 topics.
To do this, review all your topics thus far. How can you group related ones together?
Topics can be grouped according to any number of ideas or elements. Let’s illustrate how you can group topics. For some of these, we’ll use our trusty example of a personal investment consulting business:
- The customer challenge or goal they address. For example, you could define a theme of “Saving for Retirement” that would contain topics on how, when, and why to do this.
- The type of customer they speak to. For example, you could define a theme of “Investments and Gen Z” that would contain topics that provide this audience with education and advice.
- A product or service that you offer. For example, you could define a theme of “Real Estate Investing” that would contain topics that explain what this is, the benefits it delivers, and the knowledge needed to do it successfully.
- Current events and policies. For example, you could define a theme of “Investing and Interest Rates” that would contain topics that describe what customers should do, and what they can expect, given U.S. fiscal policy scenarios.
- A campaign that you want to run. For example, if you plan to offer a sale, host an event, or introduce a new product, you can create a content theme for that campaign. This theme would contain topics to educate your audiences on whatever you are promoting, and help prime them to buy or attend.
- Buying cycles. For example, if your business experiences seasonality patterns, you can create a content theme for each season. This theme would contain topics that relate to buyer interest during those seasons or time periods.
The fun of defining themes is that they usually spark more topics ideas.
Let’s get going on your themes:
- To the right of your Month column, create a column and label it “Themes.”
- Enter a topic theme for the first month in your list.
- Skip a month, and enter another theme for the third month in your list.
- Skip another month, and enter a theme for the fifth month in your list.
Now you have your three themes.
Note that you don’t have to implement content themes sequentially like this unless they are calendar-dependent. But sequential themes are a straightforward way to create your first content plan.
Populate your content themes with content topics
In this step, we’re going to take the four topics that you grouped under each theme and put them into your content calendar.
- To the right of your Themes column, create a column and label it “Topics.”
- For your first month, list two topics for that theme. We recommend you keep a week between topics, to create a pilot publishing schedule of every other week.
- For your second month, list two more topics for that theme.
- Repeat this process for your second and third themes.
What you should have now is an initial content plan: a six-month calendar that contains 12 topics organized into three themes, with two topics scheduled per month.
To expand your content plan to 12 months of content, you have a variety of options, depending on the number of content topics and themes you can generate:
- Repeat the above process to define 12 more topics and three new themes.
- Use only your original three themes, and build them out with additional four topics each.
- Define two more themes for a total of five, and challenge yourself to support each with 10 topics. This would enable you to produce weekly content for an entire year.
- Or, pause on topic/theme generation for a few weeks, and focus on your first six months of content right now. More topic and theme ideas will occur to you as time goes on.
Write your content titles
Now we’re going to transform your content topics into actual titles that you can use for posts, articles, and videos, and lots of other pieces that you create.
You can work directly in your Topics column, or create a new column next to it called “Titles.”
In our digital world where a lot of online content competes for consumers’ attention, how you title your topics really does matter. Certain words, phrases, styles, and structures get more clicks than others.
Luckily there’s a free tool to help you craft compelling titles: the CoSchedule Headline Studio.
This tool scores your headline on a scale of 1-100 according to several criteria, such as word balance, word count, headline type, sentiment, reading level, clarity, and skimmability.
It also enables you to edit your headline up to 25 times in order to improve its score, and provides suggestions via a built-in word bank.
This tool also has a paid version that offers more detailed suggestions, including SEO analysis and expanded word banks.
Using the free Headline Studio, we can discover that a headline of “How Retirement Savings are Taxed” (yep, our personal investment consulting example again) gets a score of 64. It is clear, skimmable, and positive, but a little short on words.
By editing this headline to “How You Can Save On Your Retirement Plan Taxes,” we can increase the score to 77.
With a few cycles in this tool, you’ll get a better feel for writing headlines, and can apply your new title-writing skill to all the topics in your content plan.
Build out your content plan over time
In your spreadsheet or table, you can add more columns that give your content plan more direction and detail. Some of the columns you might consider are:
- “Keywords,” to designate which keywords you are targeting with each piece of content.
- “Subtopics,” to outline the subjects you’ll cover in each piece.
- “Subject matter expert,” to identify the author of the piece, or the person you’ll get information from.
- “Social media promo” to list the snippet or other information you’ll post to your social media platforms to promote your content.
- Various dates for drafts due, reviews due, and publishing.
Wow, small business owners. If you took the journey through this post with us, you have a documented, strategic content plan. Congratulations! Only about a third of companies like yours do this, and it puts you at a huge competitive advantage. We’re excited for you!
And we’re glad to help you further. Content takes some time – time for you to create it, and time for it to make an impact on your bottom line. If you’d like to explore partnering with us for your content, contact us any time.
This post is part of our “DIY from DYI” (see what we did there?) collection, which features do-it-yourself marketing tactics for small business owners in Pittsburgh PA and everywhere.