Author: Jessie Kwak

How to Build Content Marketing Paths that Actually Convert to Sales

How to Build Content Marketing Paths that Actually Convert to Sales

The term “content marketing” was first coined in 2001, but of course, the concept goes back for centuries. 

(As a farm girl now living in the city, my favorite example is John Deere’s The Furrow, which was first published in 1895 and continues to grace farmers’ coffee tables today.)

Content marketing is hitting its prime in the Internet Age — but even though most consultants, speakers, entrepreneurs, and other small business owners know content marketing is a valuable way to promote their businesses, they’re not seeing even a fraction of the ROI they’ve been told to expect. 

Why? 

They’re thinking about content strategy horizontally rather than vertically. Let me explain.

The lure of horizontal content marketing

Many business owners who engage in content marketing start by thinking about the platform. They want to build a solid base of blog posts, podcast episodes, or YouTube videos to educate and entertain their audience. Or, they know they should have a gated course or other resources to generate leads and educate current customers.

But planning your content strategy is like building a house. 

Imagine that the horizontal categories (the blog, the case studies, the resource library, the training materials) are each a floor in the house. Occasionally, a lone staircase or ladder will beckon the audience to the upper levels, where the more premium services live. 

The problem is, most people end up building rooms (writing blog posts or creating case studies) that don’t have a direct link to the floor above. They may be interesting on their own, but if they’re not designed with the explicit goal of attracting and qualifying your core customers, they’re not actually part of your marketing funnel. 

Time to think vertical

Instead of planning content marketing in broad horizontal categories, I recommend planning your content strategy in vertical categories as a series of interconnected ladders that directly connect with one another. 

An example: If your business is sales training, your ultimate goal might be to sign on more clients for your signature service, a 12-week group coaching course for business owners. Start with your ultimate goal, then plan your content as a series of supplementary services you can offer on the way to top.

Here’s what that ladder might look like:

Billboard content (cost to your audience: free): Posts/podcasts/videos/articles that let your audience know you’re out there. Each would take a high-level overview of the problem your signature service solves, and end with a call to action to download a more in-depth lead magnet. Goal: get business owners to download your lead magnet and get on your email list.

Lead magnet (cost: your audience’s email address): A short but actionable ebook guide that helps business owners solve one part of the specific problem your 12-week group coaching course covers. Goal: Solve a problem and provide enough value that people look forward to being on your email list.

Email autoresponders (cost: a few minutes of your audience’s time): Expand on topics related to your small group coaching, and alert them to your upcoming free training. Goal: Build rapport and get people to sign up for your free webinar.

Targeted webinar (cost: a longer amount of time): A webinar aimed at business owners that expands on your ebook guide or shows a step-by-step demonstration of the principles there. Goal: Demonstrate the value of your coaching, give a taste of what it’s like to work with you, get people to sign up for your next 12-week group coaching course.

Webinar follow-up materials (cost: must have attended webinar): A checklist or guide to help your target audience solve the problem you went over in a webinar. Goal: Provide added value and proof of your system — after all, they’ve now tried it themselves and it works!

Ultimate goal: 12-week group coaching course (cost: $$): Sign 8-12 business owners up to your next group coaching course, where you lead them through your signature 12-week process to improving their sales strategy. Goal: Give clients a stellar experience and get them to recommend you to their friends.

This way, you’re starting with the ultimate value you add (your core service), and creating content that is an extension of — and creates a direct path to — that service. 

Once you start thinking vertically rather than horizontally, you’ll notice ways to link your existing content together into other mini-ladders through clear calls to action. This will both improve the ROI of your existing content and ensure you’re making the most of the next content you create

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Mapping Your Content Marketing to Your Customers’ Journey

In an earlier post, I talked about defining the journey your customers take from being casual browsers to your biggest fans. Now, I want to look at how that’s useful when it comes to actually mapping  your content marketing to your customers’ journey.

When you define your customer journey, you start to get a clearer idea of what your customers want out of your content — which means you can be highly targeted in delivering it to them.

  • You can get them your “how-to” videos when they’re looking for DIY solutions
  • You can get them your thought leadership articles when they’re hunting for a new way to approach old problems
  • You can get them your most “sales-y” content when they are on the verge of buying

In order to do that, you need to thoughtfully map out how each piece of content fits along your customer journey. This creates a robust content marketing strategy that deliberately leads potential customers through each stage of the journey, ending with them purchasing your product or service.

The best way to think about creating content is as a series of laddered services leading from free to premium, with each rung on the ladder taking your lead that much closer to converting into a customer.

But right now, you may just have a pile of ladder rungs with no rhyme or reason.

We’re going to fix that.

 

Step 1: Audit Your Existing Content

Chances are, you already have a great library of existing content out there in the world: a blog, guest posts, podcast episodes, LinkedIn Pulse articles, newsletters, etc. But if you haven’t been creating it with your customer journey in mind, it may not be converting the way you want it to be.

Sometimes, the reason is because you’re targeting the wrong audience. You may have a popular blog series on how to land an interview out of college — but if your core service is coaching small business owners, you’re speaking to the wrong crowd.

(For example, I still own an abandoned hobby blog about crafting and bicycling that still gets almost 10,000 hits a month — but it’s never convinced anyone to hire me for content strategy or copywriting.)

Other times, the content may be perfectly geared toward your audience, but you’re presenting it to them at the wrong stage of the journey. For example, you may be aiming a masters-level summary of your consulting method at an entry-level prospect who doesn’t yet know what problem they need solved.

Or, your content might be perfectly targeted — you just don’t have a clear call to action (CTA) telling your lead where to head next.

It’s tough to tell until you can take a step back and look at the big picture. Take an inventory of all your existing content. What topics have you written about, and where? What videos have you made? Where have you been interviewed?

Gather all this in a list. It’s time to see how it measures up.

 

Step 2: Grade Your Existing Content

To help you evaluate the content you’ve already created, I’ve created a handy content audit rubric that grades content and indicates where it fits along the customer journey. (You can get that for free here.)

When you run your content through the rubric, it will help you prioritize what content needs updating, understand where to cut the fluff, and identify gaps in your content marketing funnel.

As an example, let’s look at a common customer discovery path for a consultant or service-based business: casual browser —> email newsletter subscriber —> customer.

Take a look at the type of content that moves people along that journey:

  • They may discover you on your personal blog, through a guest post, podcast interview, or social media post. (I call this type of content your Billboard content — it alerts passersby that you exist.)
  • They decide to sign up for your email for some reason, perhaps because of a freebie you’re giving away in the form of an ebook, guide, or email course.
  • They decide your list is valuable because your autoresponder series provides them with interesting insights and helps them to get to know you better.
  • They’re intrigued by an offer in one of your emails: to join you for a webinar, or take you up on the offer of a free call.
  • They enjoy the information you provided in the webinar or free call so much they decide to hire you.

For this example, you’d want your Billboard content to have a fairly low Journey Score; it should be free to your target audience and easy to consume in order to attract the widest number of potential subscribers. Your freebie might score a bit higher, depending on how you want prospects to engage with it, and your initial emails should be a mixture of low to medium scores. Your webinar should have a higher score, since you’re targeting people who already know a fair amount about your topic.

Everything should have a high Relevance Score.

 

Step 3: Optimize Your Content

Now that you have your existing content organized in terms of where it fits in to the customer journey, it’s time to optimize each piece to make it perform its best.

At this stage, you may end up junking old pieces that no longer align with your current content strategy or business mission. It’s natural to want to keep up irrelevant blog posts and other pieces that no longer fit — especially if they’re a big traffic driver for your business. But remember, even if they bring in more hits than the rest of your efforts combined, they’re not doing you any favors if they’re not attracting the right audience.

Take the remaining pieces and ask yourself:

  • Does each piece of content have a clear signpost pointing to what your reader should do next?
  • Is there a strong CTA leading each customer further down the content marketing funnel?
  • Is each piece written to the right level of understanding for the stage you’re using it?
  • Does each piece of content relate fundamentally to a service or product you offer?

Going back to our email example, does your Billboard content tell people to “sign up now” and explain why they should? Is your lead magnet geared at the right knowledge level for a prospect at that stage? Does your sign-up form explain exactly who will benefit from your freebie, and tell them to “click here”? Does each email in your autoresponder series invite the reader to stay tuned for the next bit of correspondence, or encourage them to hit reply to get in touch?

 

Step 4: Fill in the Gaps

At this point, you should clearly see the gaps in this content funnel. Maybe none of your Billboard blog posts, podcasts and guest articles are along the same topic as your mailing list. Maybe your freebie is attracting the wrong type of subscriber. Maybe you’re not nurturing them with an autoresponder series. Maybe your monthly newsletter articles don’t really relate to the core service you’re trying to sell.

It’s time to fill those gaps. Use what you’ve learned about targeting your audience at each stage of the journey to write compelling content perfectly tailored to draw potential leads further into your funnel.

You’ve got this!

For a more in-depth look at this whole process — and a guide to writing content that fills in the gaps — check out my book, Get More Leads: How to Create a Constant Flow of Inbound Leads with Content Marketing.

Define Your Customer’s Journey

Think back for a minute to the last product or service you bought.

(For me, that was the impulsive purchase of an ebook boxed set about a supernatural catering company. It looks hilarious.)

At some point, you’d never heard of this product or service — but now you’re a customer. Ask yourself: How did you first hear about it? How long has it been on your radar? How much research did you do before buying? What prompted you to finally pull out the credit card?

If you think hard enough about the steps you went through, you can probably see a coherent journey from completely unaware to a (hopefully) satisfied customer. You may even be telling your friends about it already. That path — from Awareness through Consideration, Purchase, Retention and Advocacy — is your customer journey.

The customers of your business go through that same series of steps. If you’ve ever wondered how your customers are finding you — and how you can get more of them to do so — it helps to understand their journey.

Why?

  • More effective content marketing: When you understand what information your customer is looking for — and where they’re looking for it, you’ll have a better sense of whether your blog, YouTube channel, podcast, or lead magnet is doing its job.
  • More effective advertising: Along the same lines, you’ll also be able to better gauge the ROI of taking out an ad in a specific location.
  • Better conversion rates: When you understand your customer’s journey, you can identify moments of conversion between stages and work to optimize them with better CTAs, education, and incentives.
  • Improve you sales funnel: You’ll also start to see where customers are falling out of your sales funnel, so you can start filling the gaps.

But the main reason is that when you spend time thinking about your customer journey, it creates an important mental shift in the way you look at your business. Rather than thinking about your content marketing and advertising strategy from an internal point of view, it forces you to look at it from your customer’s point of view.

Defining the customer journey

There is no one singular journey. Every business is different, so while the latest social media trend or advertising fad may be drawing customers into your sister-in-law’s construction business, it may not work for your software startup.

While there may not be a single path to purchasing (even within your own customer base), there are five common stages that every customer goes through:

  • Awareness: Your potential customer learns about your brand or product. They may already be aware of the problem you solve, or they may not have realized their need until they learn about your product.
  • Consideration: Now that they know you exist, they need to figure out if your product or service is for them. They’re taking a look at your benefits, your pricing, and your competitors. (This stage may involve deliberate research, or a more subconscious thought process.)
  • Purchase: Success! They’ve decided to buy. Often, the initial purchase is something smaller that they can use to validate whether or not your company is a right fit.
  • Retention: Once they’ve used your product or service for a bit, the customer becomes brand loyal. They’re more likely to purchase other products or services from your company, because they trust your brand’s quality.
  • Advocacy: They’re really digging the experience they’ve had with your brand. This leads to them referring your product or service to others, whether in person, on social media, or through your referral program.

Every customer goes through those same stages, whether you’re selling books about supernatural catering companies, software-as-a-service, or high-end architectural design. The trick is in finding out what those stages look like for your specific customer.

One way is to scope out your competition. Where are they focusing their marketing and advertising efforts? Are they taking out ads on certain websites? Do they have an active blog? Which social media platforms are they using? Don’t simply copy their marketing plan or you’ll still be behind the curve. But seeing what they do can help you understand how customers in your industry think.

You can also look for hints in case studies and industry research put out by big firms like Deloitte, Accenture, or whatever the big name is in your particular industry. Sometimes these customer trend reports can be pricey, but you can often find press releases or articles in industry trade journals that can give you the highlights.

My favorite way is to simply talk to your customers. Get in the habit of asking new customers how they found you, and send out periodic surveys to your email list quizzing them about their buying habits. You can also invite some of your best customers to have a heart-to-heart about their experience, whether in-person or over the phone.

Once you have a good idea of your customer journey, you can focus your advertising in places your potential customers hang out, use content marketing to help them through the consideration and purchase stages, and then give them a stellar customer service experience to retain them and transform them into brand advocates. We’ll cover that in a later post. Stay tuned!