Over the course of my career, I've held positions in both corporate marketing departments and advertising agencies. Among the jobs I am especially proud of was being in charge of global digital marketing and content at two different Fortune 500 companies. 

These were fun jobs. I worked with people around the world, helping them use digital channels to tell stories and launch products. One day, I would find myself working on something that was brand-related. The next day, we were building an app for conference attendees. This variety made the jobs exciting and gave me a solid understanding of the different functions of the companies. 

At most larger companies, many different marketing efforts by different teams are usually going on at once. This is why it’s extremely important to know why any particular content marketing program is being started. If a compelling content vision isn’t created upfront, the program will lack the clarity it needs to be successful. 

What's the best way to start? Craft a content vision statement.

The content vision statement is typically three to five sentences describing what the content marketing is going to be used for. The statement usually answers these five questions: 

  1. Why are we using content marketing in this marketing program?
  2. What is the business problem we need this program to solve? 
  3. What audience are we talking to with this program?
  4. What is this program not going to do?
  5. What happens once this program is successful?

The answers to all these questions are extremely important. Why? An ill-defined content marketing effort will be ineffective, and, if leadership doesn’t understand and agree with you about its goals, you’ll end up creating a program, and content, that lacks purpose and is probably a wasted effort.

What happens if you don’t write one of these vision statements? For the first couple of months, nothing; you’ll be fine without one for a while. But several months later, you’ll find that all those involved in creating the program, as well as its stakeholders, have crafted, at least mentally, their own vision statements. As a result, you will end up spending your days tweaking, perhaps even dismantling, the visions of other people. Can you tell I’ve been in this situation before? Trust me: Craft a vision statement before you start creating content.

I’ve seen five different types of visions, and therefore vision statements, for content marketing. Determining which one to adopt will provide clarity about the type of content you will publish. You need to understand all of the approaches and use the most appropriate one for the particular business problem you’re trying to solve.

1. Brand-centric vision

Brand-centric content marketing usually has a high-level purpose, most often the creation of greater brand awareness. The content focuses on creating a new brand, or supporting an existing one, through emotional storytelling that demonstrates the company’s positive impact. If your company has a tag-line, the content probably brings it to life. Branding, communications, and public relations departments tend to use this approach the most.

Example of a Brand-centric Vision Statement

Our business serves a higher purpose, one beyond helping customers with our company’s solutions. We use content marketing to bring the stories of people (our customers and/or our employees) to life and demonstrate our impact. This content isn’t about hitting a quarterly sales number; rather, it’s about building a human connection with our customers. We want to show the outside world that our company can make a difference.

John Deere creates brand-centric content and publishes it in its magazine, The Furrow. According to publication manager David Jones, Charles Deere, the second son of company founder John Deere, started the magazine in 1895. Jones said, “Charles recognized that there was potential promotional value in providing an accurate, unbiased source of information to farmers at the time.”

The Furrow is all about farm life. For example, what challenges do one’s fellow farmers face? What new technology is available? What’s the best way to manage soil? These topics don’t relate to farm equipment, Deere’s product, but they are of interest to Deere’s customers and potential customers. John Deere wants readers to think, “Deere gets it. They understand who I am.”

Deere has also moved into podcasting, a perfect medium for reaching an audience at work on a farm. One episode, called “Out of the Darkness,” focused on the mental health of farmers. Field editor Steve Werblow discussed with Dr. Robert Fetsch the ways farmers can identify depression and have often-difficult conversations about the condition. This podcast episode has probably saved lives, literally. What a great example of content that shows that Deere is a brand that cares about its community.

None of the content of the magazine and podcast feature John Deere products, because even a whiff of self-promotion would taint the customer trust the company has built up over the years. Jones said, “We do not talk about ourselves in the editorial space of the magazine. We take believability very seriously. We know that a reputation that has taken 180 years to build up would take only a fraction of that time to tear down.”

2. Helpful-friend vision

Looking to build trust a bit faster? The “helpful friend” approach might be a good option for you. As with the brand-centric approach, the content has nothing to do with the brand or products being marketed. It’s all about creating content that demonstrates that the company wants to solve the customers’ problems. 

When deciding what to publish, ask yourself: What can our company provide customers that isn’t available elsewhere? How can our company solve something that’s a common issue in their industry—in other words, fix something in the world of the customer that’s broken?

The goal is to get the audience to think, “Wow, this company really understands what I’m up against, and they created something that helps to solve my problem.” Once you have demonstrated your company’s helpfulness and goodwill through your content, the customer will be more receptive to your agenda. There are no short-term business benefits when using this approach, a factor that can impede buy-in from the powers that be. But the goodwill that this approach engenders can be incredibly helpful in the long run.

Example of a Helpful-Friend Vision Statement

We’re creating this content exclusively to build trust and goodwill with our customers. We do this by demonstrating that we want to help them with [INSERT CUSTOMER PROBLEM HERE]. Once we’ve earned their trust, they’ll be more open to having a conversation with our company. We’re not using content to explain the details of why they should work with us—that comes later. This is about genuinely understanding their problems and being viewed as the company that will be able to help them solve those problems (without mentioning our products and services).

HubSpot, an SaaS solution for midsize companies, is really good at helpful-friend content marketing. It works with advertising agencies that influence software purchases. To get in front of these influencers, HubSpot decided to create helpful content just for the agencies. Rather than repurpose their existing marketing content, spinning it to be more agency friendly, HubSpot created brand-new content with titles like “Why Your Agency's Culture Matters,” “How 12 Big Brands Chose Their Marketing Agency,” and “The Guide to Marketing Your Agency.” 

Not one of these pieces discusses what HubSpot does or how HubSpot could help the customer. Of course, the content includes contact information for HubSpot. And, as long as the customer considers HubSpot content valuable, he or she is usually willing to provide, at a minimum, an email address in exchange for access to HubSpot’s gated content—which allows the company to get the most from its content marketing efforts. (See "Content Types,” for more on gated content, including when and when not to gate.)

3. Sales-journey vision

Every salesperson faces two problems. First, getting an initial meeting with a prospect. Second, having something to say when staying in touch with the customer during the often-lengthy period between meetings and when the deal is closed.

The sales-journey approach to content marketing provides content that accelerates and increases customer conversion. The goal is to reduce friction and make it easier for the prospect to say yes. The content marketer starts by getting inside the prospect's mind. What information does he or she need? How can you reduce the risk the prospect thinks he or she would be taking by agreeing to a meeting with a salesperson from your company? What facts does the prospect need before saying yes to another meeting? Would sharing testimonials from current customers be helpful? These are the types of questions you need to answer in order to take the sales-journey approach.

To determine the topics and formats of the content, start by drawing a timeline. On the left is the starting point. On the right is the finish line. Map out what prospective customers are likely to be thinking during each phase of the journey. 

Then ask yourself what content they will need at each phase. At the beginning of the timeline, the content is about demonstrating your company’s understanding of the prospect’s industry, and perhaps includes an overview of your company. Moving along the timeline, the content might include customer testimonials, case studies, or even a customized proposal. The best part about this approach is that it can be highly customized, based on what is learned about the prospect during the journey. For example, the salesperson could send the prospect an article on a topic the prospect mentioned during a meeting. 

The key is to refine your content over time, based on the customer’s journey, as patterns emerge that indicate the type and frequency of content that is working. Working thoughtfully with the salesperson, the content marketer can test multiple paths for a prospect and pursue the one that proves to be most successful. Companies that commit to experimenting with new content marketing techniques will continue to improve and are likely to close more sales over time.

Example of a Sales-Journey Vision Statement 

We know what it takes to close a sale and need content to advance the customer relationship. We’re using content to demonstrate our expertise, better explain what we do, and show examples of how we’ve helped other companies. After our potential customer sees our content, he or she will be more likely to agree to meet with us and, ultimately, buy from us.

4. Customer-retention vision

The customer-retention approach to content marketing also uses a timeline but one that starts where the sales journey ends. It's about asking, “What content can maximize customer retention?” For example: What combination of messages would help to retain customers? Or how far out should communication about a customer’s approaching contract renewal begin?

As with the customer-journey approach, you won’t need to treat all customers the same way. Based on what you know about each customer, you can create multiple scenarios. For example, a group comprising unhappy customers might receive more personalized outreach and more in-person visits. Very satisfied customers might receive messages that reinforce the positive attributes of the brand. You may even ask a happy customer to provide a testimonial. 

The number of scenarios can differ based on what is needed to retain a customer. The content marketer might factor in considerations such as a particular client’s financial status, the client’s satisfaction with the assigned account manager, or the likelihood of a competitor trying to steal the client from your company. To find out what’s on the client’s mind, you might send the customer a survey or set up a lunch with a subject-matter expert from your company.

Example of a Customer-Retention Vision Statement

We have already established relationships with current customers; now we need to gauge how things are going. Is our company delivering great work? Are there shortcomings we don’t see? What should we know today so that we can make changes before it’s too late? How can we do a good job at retaining this customer?

Having the right tools in place is critical to understanding client engagement, an indication of the likelihood of a client’s retention. If done the right way, with customer-retention marketing, the company will learn a lot about its customers. 

For example, I recently worked with a Fortune 500 B2B company that used content marketing not only to speak to its customers but also to understand what their engagement looked like. Why was that important? The company discovered a correlation between clients’ content consumption and their likelihood to renew their contracts—an important and useful lesson. The company could then understand which accounts were at risk, and they found out months before any renewal decisions were being made. The sales team could then use these insights to develop a specific plan for each customer.

5. Product-centric vision

The traditional way to launch a product has three steps: (1) put out a press release, (2) hold an event at a trade show, and then (3) unleash the sales team. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy today.

Why not? Companies launch new, or tweaked, products and services daily—making it difficult or impossible for either the press or customers to keep up. In addition, people consume media in a different way—for example, they don’t rely on industry publications the way they used to. According to Statista, overall magazine ad revenues have declined rapidly, from $13.87 billion in 2010 to a projected $4.83 billion in 2021. Although being mentioned in the press, whether industry publications or the general news media, is usually still a good thing for a company, it just doesn’t have the same impact as in the past.

This is a big reason why many B2B companies have turned to content marketing. They realize that a launch doesn’t happen in one big day; it can occur over several months. Many companies use the terms “soft launch” and “hard launch” to reinforce the idea that everything doesn’t happen on a particular day or two. Similarly, it’s common for software companies to launch a beta version of a product before rolling out a version that’s closer to final.

Example of a Product-centric Vision Statement

We need people to understand the problem before we announce the solution. We use product content marketing to make sure that prospects are aware of why we created this product in the first place. Once they understand, we’ve earned the right to go into more detail about how the product works. But we’re not going to tell the story from our perspective. We’re going to capture the stories of people who have used the product so that prospects can understand the potential real impact in the marketplace.

These five common approaches to creating a content vision constitute a powerful tool at your disposal. Use them to attain alignment within your organization.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of getting alignment on your content vision. The people you need to buy into your vision are likely to nod their heads when you show them the vision statement you have crafted. Don’t settle for that, though. Make sure they have focused on it, are completely on board with it, and have signed off on it. Without such an effort on your part, when it comes time to show them the actual content, they may not recall the context within which they agreed to the vision statement.

I usually get a little dramatic when seeking a stakeholder’s buy-in to a content vision statement by spelling out the consequences if he or she doesn’t focus on it now. I say things like, “It’s really important we’re all aligned; otherwise, the company will be throwing away weeks and months of work on content.” I might add, “I’m not asking you to sign off on the vision today—I realize it’s a big decision. Think about it for a couple days, and then let’s regroup.”

Another technique for getting buy-in from stakeholders is showing them the five different approaches to crafting your content vision—with four vision statements crossed out and the one that you’re using circled.

These tips might seem a little silly, but, trust me, they will help you to get the alignment you need to reduce the chances of doing a lot of wasted work and experiencing frustration down the road.

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