It's tough to create awesome content.

It's even tougher to get your content, no matter how awesome, in front of the people you want to see it. Building an audience--one person, one link, one share, one favorite, one tweet at a time--can feel like an impossibly uphill battle.

If that sounds like you, LinkedIn Sponsored Updates could be a way to get your content seen by thousands of the people you most want to see it. Think of Sponsored Updates as a little like Google AdWords, except you distribute it through LinkedIn and not through keywords and search results.

And it's a prime audience: The average income of a LinkedIn user is $83,000, according to Brian Thome, product marketing director at LinkedIn.

We'll start with setting up your account, go through the steps for creating a campaign, and then look at how to create awesome content people will want to share.

1. Set up a company page.

A Company Page is similar to a Career (personal) page. You create your profile, list your products and services, get recommendations from customers, vendors, etc. If you've set up a personal page, setting up your company page will be a breeze. (If you'd like a good example, Exact Target's company page is nicely done.)

(Aside from connecting with potential customers, a company page can also be a nice recruiting tool. You can talk about your culture, give potential employees a look inside your company, and list open positions. HubSpot's career page is a solid example.)

2. Create a business account.

In order to fund your campaigns you'll need to create an advertising account. Log in to your account at LinkedIn Ads, click "Get Started," and click "Create your business account" in the drop-down menu at the top right under your name. Name your company account, fill in some forms, add billing information, and move on.

Billing is done through a credit card. Your account will be validated by a one-time $5 charge that is then credited to your first campaign. After that you'll be billed for the actual impressions or clicks that your campaigns incur.

3. Determine account access privileges.

You can assign user privileges to people in your company. An "admin" user can add and modify campaigns, view reports, create sponsored updates, and add users. A "standard" user can do all that except add other users. A "viewer" gets shut out of everything except downloading reports. And you can set individual billing access as well as primary contacts for campaign related emails or if there are problems with one of your updates.

Keep in mind any person you want to give admin privileges must be one of your LinkedIn connections, so if Joe is going to assume day-to-day responsibility for your campaigns, get connected first.

4. Make sure billing is in place.

LinkedIn allows you to skip the billing setup when you create your account. If you did, you'll see a message at the top of the Campaign Manager home page indicated your account is on hold.

Click the "Billing" tab, click "Manage Billing Info," and enter your information. (If in the future you need to make changes to your billing details, that's where you'll go.)

Now that you have the admin stuff out of the way, let's look at creating a campaign.

5. Set up a campaign.

Creating a campaign is easy. Go to your Campaign Manager home page and click "Create new campaign," choose "Sponsor an update," and click "Next."

You'll then be asked to create a campaign name; this name will only be seen by you so there's no need to be clever or compelling. Choose the appropriate Company Page to attach the campaign to (in case you have multiple Company pages.)

Now you have two choices. If you've already created the content you want to sponsor, select that update. If you haven't, that's okay. You can select an update or updates to sponsor after you create them.

You can also sponsor an update directly from your Company page. Just find the update and click the gray "Sponsor update" button. If you have set up multiple campaigns, select the one you wish to attach the update to.

Keep in mind you can turn off sponsored updates for any update. Just go to "Manage Sponsorship and un-click the update you wish to quit sponsoring. But don't worry that updates will be sponsored forever unless you do; you can select a time period or a budget amount for any campaign. (We'll look at that in a minute.)

6. Target your campaign.

Unless you have unlimited funds--and who does?--you'll want to target the right audience based on your goals. There are a number of criteria you can use:

  • Followers and/or non-followers. Followers have opted in to receive updates. Non-followers, though, could become followers. Since followers will have access to your updates organically, you could decide to start with non-followers. Again, it all depends on the content you create and your goals for that content.
  • Location (continent, country, state, and metropolitan area).
  • Industries (company sizes, and even company names).
  • Job titles (job functions, seniority).
  • Schools (skills, LinkedIn Groups, gender, age).

Just keep in mind that the smaller the net you cast, the less fish you can catch. But if you truly know your audience, targeting can be a great way to accomplish your goals at minimal expense.

7. Determine your ad type.

Updates can be delivered on a cost-per-click (CPC) or cost-per-thousand impressions (CPM) basis. CPC is just what it sounds like: You only pay when a user clicks on the update. CPM charges are based on "impressions," or the number of times your update appears on a user's screen.

Think of CPM updates as a brand awareness tool; if you want people to know you or a certain product exists, CPM updates are a good way to get lots of exposure. CPC updates are direct response tools; your goal is to compel users to click and consume your content.

Keep in mind you do not incur any CPC charges if a user likes or shares your content or adds a comment. Sharing content is one of the benefits of using LinkedIn, because sharing tends to beget more sharing, likes beget more likes... and your content can quickly take off in an organic way.

If you create great content, sponsoring an update could yield significantly more traffic than that generated by users who click on the update--and that organic traffic is free.

8. Set bid amounts.

Sponsored Updates are like AdWords in that bidding for placement is competitive. But say you outbid someone by $1 for a CPC campaign; you'll only pay one cent more for each click than the next highest bidder. Since the auction is a generalized second price auction that means you can bid the highest amount you're comfortable with while knowing that you will only pay one cent more than the person you out-bid. If nothing else, that means you won't need to stay glued to your account constantly adjusting your bids.

Still, being the highest bidder may not guarantee that your update "wins." LinkedIn also gives your content a relevance score, which is its measure of how valuable your content is to the users you are trying to reach. While the company doesn't publish the exact formula, it's based on things like click-through rates, shares, likes, and other feedback.

The principle behind this approach is simple: You may be the highest bidder, but if you're running a CPC campaign and no one clicks your update, LinkedIn doesn't make any money. Put another way, 10 clicks at $4 is worth less to LinkedIn than 100 clicks at $1. While it can get complicated, factoring in relevance could mean that you need to seriously out-bid a more relevant competitor in order to win an auction.

So how do you increase your auction success? Use common sense: Bid wisely and create content that will attract and engage your audience. After all, you want to engage your audience--so why wouldn't you try to create content that is relevant as possible?

9. Set budgets.

You can set a maximum total budget, a maximum daily budget, and a time period for how long your campaign will run. And of course you can change any of those parameters at anytime.

Now let's create great content!

Winning an auction is only half the battle--now you need to engage, inform, entertain, and hopefully call your audience to action. Here are some simple tips for creating relevant--and sharable, since your goal should be to generate lots of organic traffic, too--content.

10. Craft a compelling headline and introduction.

Headlines matter--a lot. Give great content a terrible headline and it will probably never be seen. (Unfortunately, terrible content with a great headline is often seen--much to the chagrin of readers who feel baited and switched.)

They key is to craft a headline that attracts the attention of your intended audience and speaks to their needs/interests/goals/desires. What you hope to accomplish is irrelevant; just like the best marketing, headlines should be benefit-focused for the potential reader.

We'll use some of my Inc. articles as examples. 10 Things Extraordinary Bosses Give Employees works on several levels: bosses may be interested in finding out what constitutes "extraordinary" while employees may be interested in finding out how their bosses stack up. 6 Habits of Remarkably Likeable People also works--who doesn't want to be more likeable, or to find out how likeable they already are?

Why You Need to Struggle More is not such a great headline. Who wants to struggle more, even if there might be a good reason? And This is What Small Business Success Looks Like, while an article I'm extremely proud of, isn't a compelling headline. Too bad I couldn't think of something better, like 10 Things Extraordinary People Say Every Day, an article viewed by hundreds of thousands and shared by about 70,000 people.

Even so, a great headline means nothing if the content doesn't pay off on the promise made by the headline. In fact, the quickest way to lose your audience is to over-sell with a headline and under-deliver with actual content.

11. Create valuable and snackable content.

Duh, right? Quality is important. Brevity (this article notwithstanding) is, too.

The best content allows readers to get in, get out, and think about how what they just consumed can make their lives better.

Also keep in mind the issue of sharing. People like to share content that reflects well on them. If I think you're remarkably successful I may want to share that post with you. (Who knows; if my ego is sufficiently large, I might want to share it because I think it describes me.)  If I'm into non-traditional management styles, I'll share that kind of content with my network. If I'm a proponent of building an awesome culture, I'll share that kind of content with my network.

Create content that benefits your readers and speaks to their interests and not only will they click your update--they'll share it for you. For free.

12. Think helping, not selling.

I know you have goals for your content. You want to generate connections, or leads, or sales, but that will only happen after you build engagement. LinkedIn members tend to want insight on jobs, careers, industries, personal success. They want information that helps them improve their lives and make better decisions.

So your job is to provide that assistance. Don't sell. Create helpful content and your company will bask in the reflected glow.

13. Include images or rich media.

Images result in significantly higher view rates. On the LinkedIn network, images generally result in 98 percent higher comment rates. Embedded YouTube videos encourage sharing; links to YouTube play directly in the LinkedIn feed and typically result in a 75 percent higher share rate.

14. Pay attention to what works--and what doesn't.      

Your Campaign Manager provides a variety of metrics and details. Spend time determining what works and what doesn't.

One thing it's easy to do is over-target. Some of your potential customers won't fall into specific categories. Business buying decisions are increasingly made by teams and not by individuals. And many decisions are made--or at least prompted--at a much lower level in the organization than you might assume. Think about all parties involved in making a decision even if they are not the final decision maker. If you're running your campaign on a CPC basis, you can afford to test different types of targeting.

And don't be afraid to experiment. Post updates at different times or days of the week. Experiment with sponsoring updates for content that did well for you in the past--after all, like a used car, and old piece of content may not be new but it may be new to me.

15. Keep thinking engagement.

Content creates a brand. Say you're a cycling vacation company like Trek Travel. I may see one of your updates about how to plan for an adventure vacation, enjoy it, and move on. I may see another of your updates about how to train for a specific trip, enjoy it, and move on. Then I might see an update about your Etape du Tour trip and think, "Oh my gosh I've always wanted to do that" (in fact, I have) and because we've built a "relationship" of sorts through your updates, I decide to explore the possibility.

Don't think of updates as one-off incidents. Respond to comments. Respond to questions. Give potential customers a chance to see the human faces behind your company.

Never forget, people buy from people, not companies, so any sponsored campaign should operate through that lens and help potential customers get to know you better.