"Content marketing strategy" is a phrase that gets thrown around quite a bit, but how well do we really understand it?

Let's break down this terribly abused phrase into its three components:

Content refers to the creation of something (anything) that is on some level enjoyable to consume.

Marketing refers to the act of promoting and distributing content to guide consumers toward a defined goal.

Strategy refers to the processes for getting content distributed to and consumed by the right audiences.

Content marketing isn't just about writing blog posts and hoping that's effective for search engine optimization. Content marketing is about actively creating and distributing work that's intended to lead consumers toward some predefined goal.

Unfortunately, that basic concept is lost on many content marketers, which is why (for example) a frequent result is an underperforming blog.

So let's delve into the top 10 content marketing mistakes and how you can avoid or correct them.
1. Your content doesn't have specific goals

When you look at all of the content on the Web that is designed to sell something, you can distill it into four categories.

  1. Viral: Content that is designed to spread organically. Usually, the content is at the extreme end of a spectrum: It could be hilarious, cute, heartwarming, controversial, or downright scary. Usually, it has little substance beyond the initial spark that makes viral content unique; thus, it has a fairly short shelf life.

    The main goal with viral content is to get your consumer to click the social share buttons.
  2. Discussion: Content that is designed to spark a conversation within a community. Like viral content, it could also be hilarious, cute, heartwarming, etc.; but, unlike viral, its shelf life is much longer. The content can play on the same extremes as viral, but it's more thought-provoking.

    The main goal with discussion content is to get its consumer to leave comments and to interact with other readers.
  3. Lead: Content that is designed to draw people into some sort of opt-in. This content exposes a gap in the consumer's knowledge and hints at a promise of closing that gap if the user enters his email address or fills out a lead form.

    The ideal lead conversion outline takes the viewer on a journey, at the end of which he realizes what can be summed up in three words: "I need help."
  4. Sales: Content similar to lead content, but with one important difference. Instead of getting the consumer to say "I need help," this content convinces him into making a decision to alleviate whatever problem he needs help with: "I will buy this."

Many content marketers don't recognize or make distinctions among those four types of content; accordingly, they want every piece of content they create to perform all of those tasks. Of course, the result is a confused mess, and content consumers take no action at all.

Strategy comes into play when you get all of those content types to work together, attracting consumers with viral and discussion, deepening the relationship with lead content, and closing the loop with sales content leads to sales and back again.

Ever notice how you can spend multiple hours on some websites but not others? Understanding how content works is what separates such sites from all others.

2. Your content doesn't have anything to sell

The biggest tragedy of the information age is that you've been led to believe you can build an audience first and figure out how to make money later.

To a certain extent, that can be true, but only if you have a goal in mind first, such as "I'm going to use my blog to market my consulting business, but I won't make my consulting services public until I've reached X number of subscribers."

However, because many of us who do content marketing don't look beyond what we see on the surface, we start creating content with no idea on how it's supposed to lead to money. So people launch digital products (usually e-books) because they think it's the right time, without knowing whether anyone is going to buy.

Conversely, when you start with something to sell, you can reverse-engineer your content to expose the gap that your paid product solves. On the outside, it looks like you have nothing to sell, but the truth is you've been priming your consumers and waiting to release products based on benchmarks you've established (such as number of email subscribers).

3. Your content didn't bother asking for the transaction

If there are four types of content, that means there are four types of transactions we can ask people to take:

  1. Viral = Share with a friend.
  2. Discussion = Leave a comment.
  3. Lead = Enter your email address or fill out the form.
  4. Sales = Enter your credit card number.

That said, you have only two ways to ask for those transactions: direct and indirect.

Anyone who has kids can easily understand the difference between these two: "Mommy, can I have some chicken nuggets from McDonalds?" vs. "Oh man, Jimmy just said he got that new toy from the Happy Meal and said it was reeeeeealllly cooool. By the way, have I told you you're bee-you-tee-ful."

Jon Morrow of BoostBlogTraffic.com is a master of the indirect ask for discussion content, usually using the last paragraph to inspire and to draw comments. Consider the closing paragraphs to "How to Be Unforgettable":

I don't know about you, but when I pass into the great beyond, I won't be thinking about comment counts or traffic stats or the number of subscribers on my mailing list. I'll think about the guy who decided not to commit suicide, the young girl who made enough money to get off food stamps, the overworked dad who was able to quit the rat race and spend time with his kids.

Those are the things that matter. Those are the things we are working for. Those are the things we need to build our entire businesses around.

That's why we're here. That's why we matter.

So get to work.

Your readers are waiting for you.

Powerful right? I mean, how could you not want to comment on that?

Now, on the flip side, you have Derek Halpern of Social Triggers, who uses a much more direct approach. In the conclusion of his "How to email influential people" video, he says this:
I want you to do two things. First, leave a comment below this video and tell me what types of emails do you respond to, and what types of emails do you ignore. Be as specific as possible...

And second, send a link to this video to a friend if you think it could help them get in touch with people they'd like to get in touch with.

Derek's close is also powerful, even though it's as direct as direct gets.

Both of those closes are effective because they are authentic to their creators' style.

As you develop your style, study how other creators who close the various types of content, and ask yourself what about it works and what about it feels generic. Because nothing kills a piece of content faster than when it feels generic.

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Top 10 Content Marketing Strategy Mistakes, and How to Correct Them (Part 1 of 3)

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image of Tommy Walker

Tommy Walker is an online marketing strategist and the host of Inside The Mind and The Mindfire Chats, fresh and entertaining shows that aim to shake up online and content marketing.

Twitter: @tommyismyname
LinkedIn: Tommy Walker