I’ve run five marathons and have hit “the wall” every time. The wall is the invisible barrier many runners run into near the end of a marathon. It hits me around mile twenty or twenty-two. My body says, “What are you doing to me? . . . Slow down!”

When you hit the wall, the body wants to stop, but eventually the mind takes over and provides the adrenaline rush required to cross the finish line. Sometimes, I get a minor leg cramp. Other times, the pain is more severe. One time, my calf muscle tightened up so much that I had to visit a medical tent. After a five-minute massage, I was back on the course. 

What does marathon running have to do with content marketing? Both take the same sort of dedication. You don’t just go out one day and run a marathon. You go through months of preparation. You follow a training program. You equip yourself with the right gear. 

Continuing the running analogy, in content marketing there are two primary approaches companies take to publishing their content, a short-term and a long-term approach.

1. Short-term sequences (like a sprint)

The first, and less common, approach uses what I call sequences. This is when the marketer communicates with a specific customer with the goal of getting him or her from point A to B. 

Sequence communications are shorter and require the marketer to demonstrate speed and nimbleness. A sequence might consist of communicating at all the touch points that are required to get a prospect to become a customer. Or a sequence could be a drip campaign that lasts for a certain amount of time and has the goal of onboarding a customer. 

Sequences use a mix of inbound and outbound marketing. Even though the marketer wants everyone to get to the same endpoint, there’s no single path for the customer to reach it. The content and timing change based on how the audience responds. Some audiences might take two weeks to get through an entire sequence; others never make it to the end.

The marketing team usually creates the content that enables the sales team to do its job. The sales team runs the actual sequence based on opportunities its members are developing. Fifty percent of the communication for a typical sequence can be based on templates, with the other half customized based on how the audience responds during the sequence.

If during a sequence you learn that a customer has a specific interest, you may want to either create a new article or use an existing one specifically for that customer. For example, the customer might receive an email like this: “Nancy . . . I remember that you said productivity is important to you. I’ve attached an article you’ll be interested in. Let me know what you think.”

The level of difficulty of managing sequences depends on whether the right tools are in place. You need a CRM system to manage the touch points. The good news is that most CRMs have built-in automation tools, which make the whole process fairly straightforward and allow the salesperson to organize and track the effort more easily. (See Chapter 11, “How Do I Generate Leads?,” for more about CRMs.)

The goals of a sequence of communications vary, but some goals that sequencing is commonly used to achieve are converting prospects into customers, onboarding customers effectively, raising the customer referral rate, and cross-selling products or services.

Here’s the fun—or maybe not so fun—part, about sequences: their creation and refinement are never finished. Because your goal is to improve how each sequence converts, you test the variables—such as the channel, content, email subject lines, personalization, and frequency—by changing one at a time and seeing what happens. Rigorously testing and learning will help you land on a sequence of communications that performs better than others. And, once a sequence performs well, the conversion rate will grow a lot more quickly.

2. Long-term pulses (like a marathon)

The second publishing approach uses what I call pulses. Using pulses is more like a marathon than using sequences is, because there is a long-term commitment to publish content. This content isn’t written and distributed to one person, as it is for a sequence. Instead, the content is sent to many people at the same time.

Brand, marketing, or communication departments are typically responsible for these long-term programs. They usually make a commitment to publish content on a regular basis, often once a week or every other week. More mature programs may be more intense, publishing up to four or five times a week. 

Ongoing pulses aren’t designed to get the audience from point A to B. Their goal is to create top-of-mind awareness among the recipients. Pulses are typically sent from platforms that reach many people, and articles and email newsletters are commonly the types of content they use.

A good example of such a program is the Marketing Solutions blog that LinkedIn has been publishing for several years. In addition to using this platform to publish the individual perspectives of its employees, LinkedIn also uses it to publish the work of several outside contributing editors. 

I've been one of those contributors for a while, and it’s a win for both parties. I get access to the LinkedIn audience, and LinkedIn gets free content that keeps its content-marketing machine going.

Sean Callahan, the senior manager in charge of the program, told me, “Frequency is important. You need to stay in touch with your audience.” Publishing content regularly and frequently has led to some impressive results for LinkedIn. 

Why do so many more companies use the pulse approach than the sequence approach? The biggest reason is that they want to stay in front of their customers. After all, the worst thing that can happen to a company is not to have a seat at the table. Creating, expanding, and maintaining its own platform, and constantly sending pulses of content to its audience, is a great way for a company to increase its likelihood of having that seat. And once a company has built up its audience, no media cost is involved, because the company owns the audience.

While the pulse and sequence are the two most common approaches, some companies choose to take other approaches to publishing content. For example, when the time of year determines how people interact with or buy from a company, the company might publish content using a seasonal approach.

Whatever approach your company takes, you need to know how to determine what the content will be about and how to shape it.

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