content tree

How to Develop a Content Strategy: The ‘Content Tree’

“Content may be king, but it’s all in the marketing” once said Gerald Levin, then CEO of Time Warner. His maxim translates well to the professional services industry, where often the key challenge with content is how best to leverage – both externally and internally.

One model to address the content marketing challenge in professional services is a derivative of the ‘Content Tree’ concept used by many. A five-step approach, it has phases to get buy-in, create and deploy content. It begins with the ‘seeds’ of an idea, lays down ‘roots’, develops into ‘shoots’, grows into a solid ‘trunk’ and ends most importantly in multiple ‘branches’. Bear with me! This approach is not ground-breaking, but hopefully, it is simple to follow and communicate to stakeholders and colleagues.

The ‘Content Tree’ helps to make the most of the time and effort, of partner stakeholders and of the marcoms and other team members managing the project. At all points, we focus on the outputs from the content, considering how these meet business objectives and resonate with the target audience. The steps below mention various roles – stakeholder, marketer, analyst, writer and designer. Of course, sometimes, others can be involved, or the marketer can wear more than one hat!

1 Seeds

The ‘seeds’ are sown by the stakeholder for whom content is being developed. Here we seek to get buy-in from the stakeholder to put their time into the project. We strive to elicit their thoughts on whatever timely topic or issue is keeping their clients awake at night. We then question the audience demographics that we are seeking to reach and identify preferred channels to market we will later use to output through – the ‘branches’ of the ‘tree’. Normally, a 30-minute meeting is sufficient. We ask the stakeholder simply to talk about their key clients: what matters to them, and what’s happening in the outside world right now that weighs on their minds. Questions around who the clients are, what media or channels they consume and what outputs would be appropriate can help ensure focus. We aim to capture the essence of the discussion and, before ending, confirm this in the meeting to ensure all are on the same page.

2 Roots

The ‘roots’ are laid down by the marketer developing a hypothesis for the stakeholder to confirm or edit. At this stage, we aim to detail the ideas to be tested. We look to succinctly explain the situation clients find themselves in, why this matters, and what can be done about it. We test whether this topic is fresh and timely, or has already been done to death by close competitors in their own content marketing. We then detail the most relevant outputs and channels given the topic, audience and competitive environment. In terms of deliverables at this stage, a paragraph of bullets is normally about right. This should talk to the audience, the problem they face, how we will test, what our point of view might look like and what we will produce. Some research at this stage on sources of evidence, likely channels to market, and, importantly, a double check on whether others have published on this is essential. This should then be sent to the stakeholder for review and explicit approval, and a timescale, costs and metrics agreed before moving forward.

3 Shoots

The ‘shoots’ are developed by the analyst through the acquisition and interrogation of data, case studies or evidence. We seek to find multiple proof points of both the problem/situation and the solution/importance. Designing the research methodology or survey, or choosing desktop data tools may require advice from experts. At this stage, we should take a clear view on whether this particular ‘Content Tree’ will survive and how it will make it into the outside world in the name of our firm. The key point to make on this stage is around having clarity on what is required to validate the hypothesis built in the ‘roots’ step. It is all too easy to commission interviews or ask people to download data without a clear endpoint or sign-off in sight. Some organisations have a house style on what is required to substantiate a point of view, but where this is absent, agreement with our stakeholders is needed.

4 Trunk

The ‘trunk’ grows to form the written whitepaper, article or series of outputs being produced by the writer. We develop material that summarises the problem identified, the evidence at hand and the solutions of most merit – our point of view. And we seek to clearly answer the ‘so what’ question – why does this matter to our audience, as well as the ‘what now’ question, by providing clear calls to action where possible. Varying approaches are taken here depending on budget and scale. Often a writer is employed to build out the agreed hypothesis with key findings from the research, data or case studies. Whether a house style for such content exists or not, a designer might be engaged to turn the written work into a clearly presented output. Most importantly, final sign-off on the material should be planned and secured, to fit with diary constraints of stakeholders and any others who might need to review, e.g. lawyers.

5 Branches

The ‘branches’ are output from the process – owned, earned and purchased channels to market being managed by the marketer or wider marcoms/BD function. We look for channels to market that offer a strong likelihood of an acceptable return on investment, where metrics are available. And we carefully consider which of these options will satisfy the needs and wants of our stakeholders – sadly, sometimes the channels offering the best ROI, do not energise stakeholders. Each of the chosen ‘branches’, which were selected with reference to considerations at earlier stages around relevance to the audience, presence of competitors, etc., should be linked with appropriate consideration of measures of success. Many organisations will have a house view on these, and weighty textbooks exist on the subject. Importantly in the professional services environment, thought must be given to what internal stakeholders will value.

Growing your own

The ‘Content Tree’ ‘grows’ from ‘seeds’, to ‘roots’, to ‘shoots’, to ‘trunk’, to ‘branches’. Each step of the process aims to set out how a piece of content can not only be developed, but also meet Gerald Levin’s test that the marketing outputs are what matters most. When considering these outputs, it’s critical to think of the outcomes – their value, both externally and internally, to stakeholders.

Leor Franks

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