In beige conference rooms all over North America, the following event occurs every day. It starts when an executive asks, “What’s our content strategy?” Another senior person responds as if she’s found the fountain of youth: “Wow, that’s a great question. . . . You’re right, we don’t have a content strategy. And we need one!”

Why is this question raised so often during senior-level meetings? First, it makes the inquirer look smart—even nonmarketers have heard of content marketing these days, even if they’re not sure what it is. Second, it might prevent the questioner from being asked some tough questions during this meeting. Third, whatever problem was being discussed has now become a marketing problem, and dealing with it has been pushed off probably onto the marketing or digital team. 

The problem with this sort of content strategy discussion is that it lacks the context of the organization’s business objectives and overall marketing strategy. “Content” is just a bunch of tactics; there’s nothing strategic about it. Sure, you might get some traction in the short term. But, eventually, you’ll wonder if any of the tactics really worked.

At my content marketing company, 26 Characters, we’ve stopped using the term “content strategy,” replacing it with “content planning.” Why? People expect a “content strategy” to be a solution for all the different sales and marketing challenges the organization is up against, from declining sales to a dysfunctional website to a tarnished corporate image. Because people seem to think there’s something magical about a strategy in general and a content strategy in particular, later on they can only be disappointed. Full disclosure: I’ve authored several of these magical so-called strategies in the past, so I’m speaking as a reformed criminal.

What’s the best way to start your content marketing journey? Don’t start with a list of tactics, and don’t start with a grand plan. Instead, start with the business problem that your content marketing effort is aiming to solve. I go into more detail in other blog posts, but broadly speaking, the journey consists of three phases:

1. Define the business problem or problems to be solved.

2. Turn that problem, or those problems, into questions.

3. Answer the questions.

I know, it seems like an absurdly simple three-step effort. But it works. Why? The simple act of turning the business problem into a question illuminates what you’re trying to accomplish and how to go about it. Formulating the question makes you think, “Is this the right question to be asking?”

Remember what Albert Einstein said about the power of questions? “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” 

Coming up with the right questions is the hard part, but, once the right questions have been formulated, everything else gets easier. 

This problem/question approach has many advantages. First, it focuses and engages the content-marketing team. Second, you’re aligned with the decision maker from the very beginning of the content-marketing journey. Third, the act of asking a question is provoking; asking questions invites exploration. Questions force people to think over and over again about potential responses to the problem to be solved, whittling down the options and refining the possible solution until the questioner can say, “Yes, I’ve found the best answer.”

First, ask open-ended questions. Asking open-ended questions encourages critical thinking. This technique is evident all around us. For example, ever notice that when you open Twitter it says “What’s happening?” The same goes for Facebook, which uses “What’s on your mind?” Once the brain sees an open-ended question, it requires an exertion of energy to fill in the missing information. The mind is engaged. Thinking is stimulated. That’s the beauty of asking open-ended questions.

Second, make sure a metric is associated with each question. Be sure the question is connected to a clear business objective and that a metric is associated with the question—that is, how to measure the answer needs to be clear, because that’s how to know whether a marketing effort has been successful. How can we increase retention among current customers (measured by churn)? How many people are familiar with what our business does (measured by awareness)? How can we provide a better customer experience (measured by net promoter scores)?

So the next time you hear “What’s our content strategy?,” ask the questioner to define the business problem first. Turn that problem into a question. Then solve it. 

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