By Will Willis How effective is your content marketing strategy? For most, that’s a difficult question to answer. The answer often relies at worse on educated guesses, and at best on progress against isolated metrics that were built on last year’s plans, which were built on the plans from the year before. Many companies today have a hard time answering questions about what channels have the best chance of reaching their audience, what subject matter resonates most with them, how their content and channel mix stacks up to the competition’s, or what content is really working. Being able to answer those questions and others is the difference between a content strategy that’s grounded in data versus one that’s largely guesswork. Sadly the notion of guesswork largely sums up the state of content marketing today, and I’d argue that it’s time for a change. Here’s how: [caption id="attachment_1365" align="alignright" width="245"]Will Willis Will Willis[/caption] Use data to understand the value of your communications. This sounds like a no-brainer but companies today still lack a holistic view of the value of their communications – by channel, by content, by effectiveness – that prevents them from realizing the maximum return possible from their marketing budgets. There are a number of contributors to this: organizational silos that reinforce outdated content strategies, competitive pressures that force immediate action in sacrifice of data-driven decisions, or the inability to measure certain channels to name a few. It’s not easy to solve all of that, but it’s certainly easy to address some of it. Putting some of that data behind your content decisions can start to get at the true value of your communications and the business impacts, far more than just “Likes” or retweets. Sure, you can have no data to inform you content strategy, but that’s a lot like taking a trip without a map. You may get their eventually but it will take more time and money, and who’s to say that your competition will forgo the same due diligence. Think ever more progressively about marketing and communications. Many businesses are operating on an outdated view of the communications landscape either reinforced by organizational structures and antiquated job descriptions, or because marketing plans have been built off of last year’s plans and metrics. Meanwhile, agencies who are charged with bringing that fresh thinking are too often mired in the churn of executing to do so. Today’s division of labor among social, ad, and PR people or agencies doesn’t align with the fact that channel boundaries are blurring. Owned content can become paid content with a few clicks, but most marketing structures are happy to ignore those advances, effectively eliminating some of the most potent benefits modern channels have to offer in lieu of isolating people in communications silos. Ideally you want a progressive, adaptive content strategy. That doesn’t mean jumping on a new channel just because it’s there. It means staying abreast of the latest platform changes, understanding how you can take advantage of them, and monitoring what channels and content is working or not and adjusting on the fly across owned, earned and paid mediums. In lieu of reorganizing the way teams are structured, part of the solution is having the strategic rigor to assess your content strategy more regularly than annual or semi-annual planning. The other part is about being willing to invest in tools designed to help give you those answers. Segmentation and targeting technology like People Pattern, or engagement technology like SocialFlow can help automate some of this and while that means spending, these tools often pay for themselves based on the results they deliver. Reinvigorate your client-agency relationship. What is somehow slowly being lost for many client-agency relationships is the sense that both companies are one, that it’s a deep partnership where both fight equally hard together as one team to succeed. As budgets shrink and content production is commoditized, the first thing to go is the type of strong strategic thinking that guides success (or in this case, drives a data-driven progressive and adaptive content strategy). Content marketing, the type that yields measurable business returns, is extremely difficult to do well and it’s made harder because of the financial pressures all businesses continue to face. There’s no easy fix to this, but if you as a brand marketer can have the mental discipline to stop and understand the pressures your agency partners are under, and as an agency partner, you can throw your brain trust at your client’s content strategy as if it were your own job, you’re on the right track. Trapped in “race to the bottom” budgeting and mired in execution in the absence of strategy is an unfortunate recipe for status quo content marketing. Like anything, it takes a lot of will and effort to break free from a set way of doing something, especially when the current way is easier and accepted. The benefits for persevering – an understanding of what every dollar is buying you, smarter content that works to grow your business, and a modern communications team that’s at the leading edge – are well worth it. Will Willis is founder of the Willis Collaborative, a communications and marketing consultancy.