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In the past decade or so, content marketing has gone from the fringes to the mainstream of the marketing world. Or to use a baseball analogy — since America’s Pastime finally got started last month — it has been promoted from the minor to the major leagues.

Given this, it’s surprising to me how many businesses are still playing small ball when it comes to their content marketing efforts. Lots of marketers seem content to create a whole lot of content without devising a strategy for how all this content is going to bring them new leads and sales.

In other words, they don’t have a strategy for using content to build their business.

Strategy is Hard

The truth is, creating content is the easy part, relatively speaking. Devising and executing a comprehensive content marketing strategy takes a lot more time and effort.

So what exactly is a content marketing strategy? Let’s stick with the baseball analogy. On the surface, baseball looks like a simple game: Hit the ball where the other team’s players aren’t and score more runs than them. But below the surface there’s all kinds of strategy that goes way beyond just getting base hits and getting the other team’s players out.

Content marketing also looks simple on the surface: Create and publish content that gets your business noticed and brings in more leads and sales. But it takes strategy to bridge the gap between the creating and publishing part and the lead generation and sale closing part.

I like Copyblogger’s definition of a content marketing strategy: “A plan for building an audience by publishing, maintaining and spreading frequent and consistent content that educates, entertains or inspires to turn strangers into fans and fans into customers.”

A 5-Step Strategic Plan

The next obvious question: How do you go about creating this kind of strategy? Here are 5 steps to help you create a content marketing strategy for your business:

1. Perform keyword research. It all starts here because if you don’t choose the right keywords, you won’t be able to accomplish any of your content marketing objectives. Your goal is to figure out which keywords and phrases your customers are likely to use when searching for information about businesses like yours online.

For example, when I built my first website a decade ago, I tried to think of what search terms businesses would use to find a freelance writer with my skills and knowledge. After doing some brainstorming and research, I settled on “freelance financial writer” and “freelance business writer.” I soon ranked on the first page of Google for these search terms and have remained there ever since.

2. Think of topics that incorporate your keywords. You’re looking for three main things when choosing topics based on your keyword research: topics with high traffic potential, high business value and low competition.

High traffic potential means that lots of people are searching for this topic using your keywords. High business value means that your product or service ties closely into the topic. And low competition means there aren’t a lot of other businesses also trying to rank high for the topic and keywords. There are lots of free tools that can help you here, including these.

3. Create the content. Lots of marketers start with this step, but the actual writing shouldn’t begin until you’ve completed the first two steps. I’m not going to cover this in depth here because I’ve written numerous blogs about content creation that you can read on my website.

However, I will stress that your content, especially articles and blogs, should be largely informational and value-added — not self-promotional. Tooting your horn too loudly and often is a sure-fire way to turn your readers off and sabotage your content marketing program.

4. Promote the content. No matter how great your content is, if nobody reads it, you’re not going to see any results. The good news is that there are lots of easy ways to promote your content nowadays.

For example, you can include share buttons for the most popular social media channels (like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter) alongside your articles and blogs like I do at the left. Also send your content out as an e-newsletter and use the sharing tools featured on most newsletter publishing platforms. And share links to your content in forums and discussion groups, print and online ads, press releases, direct mail pieces and emails.

5. Measure and monitor the results. One of the biggest benefits of content marketing is how easy it is to measure results and gauge the ROI of your campaigns. Google Analytics is usually a good place to start — this will show you the actual traffic numbers for your content. There are also automated tracking tools that monitor your rankings over time and send you reports.

Now is a good time to go back and review the goals and objectives you originally set for your content marketing program. (Read this blog for more on setting goals.) For example, do you want to build brand awareness, boost customer retention, generate better leads or cross-sell products and services? These will help you determine which metrics you should measure to gauge your ROI.

Remember: These metrics should be directly related to your business goals and objectives. Otherwise, you’ll be measuring the wrong things.