Content marketing can be very effective for small and medium-sized businesses, but before you can begin to reap its benefits, you have to figure out what to write about. For many companies, that first step is incredibly challenging, says Jacqueline McDermott Lisk, head of digital product at Mediaplanet Inc., a multinational firm that creates sponsored custom content supplements that run in major-market newspapers. “Many marketers’ first instinct is to write just about their company, which makes sense since they know their business inside and out,” she says. “The problem with that is you risk producing sales material as opposed to a true content campaign. There’s a huge difference between a promotional brochure and a high-quality, well-written, and strategic article, for example.”

The way to approach content creation is to “think bigger,” Lisk advises. “Address industry issues in your content, not just your own product or service. Whether you’re outsourcing or working in-house, make sure you have your persona down pat. What does your brand sound like? It’s imperative that one person oversees all content initiatives. Someone needs to have the bird’s-eye view and ensure all company content aligns with your goals, strategy, and brand persona.”

Start by creating a mission statement and clear goals for your content strategy, and communicate them to everyone involved in the effort. “Consider asking your audience what they want to read about. Float a story idea to your Facebook or Twitter network via a quick, fun post,” Lisk suggests. “You’ll engage your audience and see if your editorial synopsis is on the right track.”

It’s a good idea to create an editorial calendar filled with the subjects that matter by month, week, and day, says Mira Emmerling, cofounder of R&C Media, a conversion-focused marketing agency that develops content strategies for SMBs. “Take into consideration your audience and your messaging to create topics that fulfill your needs, then fill the calendar with content ideas that are in line with each element,” she says. “Include tent-pole events that are relevant to your audience, and directly align your content ideas to capitalize on the power of search trends, editorial opportunities, and partnerships. With the editorial calendar in hand you will always know what to write about without giving up the flexibility to switch to a more relevant concept at the last minute.”

There are different metrics and benchmarks you can use to gauge the effectiveness of your content marketing program, and they should align with the program’s goals, says Lisa Gerber, president and founder of Big Leap Creative, an integrated communications agency. If your goal is to raise awareness of your brand, then measure Web traffic, social shares, and mentions. If you are most interested in lead generation, count landing page forms submitted. “Offer your audience something of value, like a free e-book or download, in exchange for an email address,” she suggests. If you are measuring ROI in terms of sales, CRM programs such as and Highrise can track if your customers are coming from leads generated by your content campaign.

Perhaps the most important thing to measure is engagement, Lisk contends. “That’s our magic word. Engagement is an important step in relationship building, and it’s a two-way street,” she says. Average time on page and site are very important stats. Page views are also important, and if you’re linking to additional resources, exit CTR (click-through rate) should be monitored as well.

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