contentIt is a popular trend these days. When asked what is a golden strategy for gaining traction and sparking conversation online, the default term that gets tossed around with more reckless abandon than a frisbee at a Phish concert is “make great content

And I have to be honest, though I’ve been guilty myself of uttering this tidy little idiom, I have also found myself extremely dissatisfied by the use of this platitude as a good explanation for a successful content strategy. In my opinion it is tantamount to saying the secret to weight loss is “eating less food”. If only it were just that easy. The trouble is, saying that the secret to online success with content marketing is to “make great content” is not an incorrect explanation, but it is with absolute certainty, an incomplete one.

Any time you are dealing with a product that can be observed by an audience subjectively, whether it be a song, a film, a web tool, an application, or an infographic or a blog post, the most important step that must be taken before creating that product is to thoroughly understand how many people actually care about what you are making, and what it is that makes them care about it in the first place.

So let’s take a step by step approach to crafting something that will engage your audience.

Step 1. Take Inventory of the Size of the Conversation

You’ve decided to engage in content marketing, excellent choice… it works extremely well when done effectively. However, the whole name of the game is maximizing conversational reach with minimal effort.

What’s the easiest way to gauge reach? An effective first step is to simply count the blogs that are already talking in your space. One way to do this is with Google operators. For this chart I used the “allintitle” operator and then plugged in the applicable title tag that webmasters use to describe their sites (i.e. “wedding blog” “car blog” etc). Use it as a quick resource for outlining some of the more voluminous blog conversations on the internet. For more info on how I sourced this data: Google operators cheat sheet

Once you’ve taken inventory of the size of your conversation, the amount of people actually talking about your potential topic of interest and whether or not you feel it’s substantial enough to get you some traction, then you can move on to the next step.

2. Identify Your Topic of Interest:

Now, I do realize that there is no such thing as “perfect content” nor should there ever be. However, it is entirely possible to make something that is “very good” if you just understand what people are interested in beforehand, and how you can contribute to that interest in a meaningful way.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation as an example. Say you work in finance as an independent consultant. You have looked to engage the small but influential inventory of bloggers in the “finance” category and get them to advocate for you by sharing your content. Blog conversations directed toward you mean more than just engagement, they mean social shares, connections, relationships and links… all the necessary elements that make the world of internet commerce spin around.

Working in finance, it would immediately occur to you to craft content specific to only-finance, but is it completely out of the realm of possibility that you might be able to engage other bloggers as well? Perhaps jump into the “food” and “travel” conversation while you are at it? If you shook your head and said “that’s preposterous” then I’d like to direct your attention to the “Big Mac Index” an interactive tool created by the Economist for gauging worldwide currency that uses a McDonald’s Big Mac as a form of utility.

That landing page on the economist has links from all over the blog landscape pointed at it, from travel to finance, economy and food… lot’s of people are talking about it. Now, I know what you’re saying, “Well sure people link to it… it’s from the Economist” but check out a similar strategy from Kaiku Finance who used ice cream to gauge international travel costs. Kaiku had nowhere near the editorial platform of the economist, but they still were able to tap into the same venn diagram of multiple conversations.

Open up your content so it radiates into more categories, while still maintaining relevance, and your chances for expanded exposure will increase exponentially. Remember, the whole name of the game in content marketing is maximizing conversational reach with minimal effort.

Step 3. Identify Influencers

This one sometimes borders on the platitudinal precipice that “great content” sits on. Of course you want to identify influencers! The idea of using famous or influential people to endorse your stuff predates the internet. However, when we are talking about content marketing on the internet, the approach to identifying and engaging them has definitely changed.

A truly useful engagement of an influencer online is a two way street. And I’m not talking about sponsored tweets or endorsed posts, but something much more organic that will get markedly better results. If you want to engage an influencer in a meaningful way that benefits both you and them:

A: Identify an influencer who regularly talks about you topic of interest using social search and analysis tools such as Topsy or Followerwonk

B: Analyze their interests and conversation. What aspect of your conversation are they most interested in?

C: Ideate a piece of content that you think they would be interested in promoting or sharing, and pitch it to them. For a downright dirty (but extremely effective) approach to pitching influencers, check out Noah Kagen’s Pitch to Seth Godin a few weeks back… then maybe shower afterwards.

D: If they say “yes” then make your content and make it fast… you’ve got a precious window of time where you hold their attention, and you’ve got to maximize it.

The below chart is just a visual representation of a tracked hashtag over a period of 20 days… the large red bar all the way to the left, that’s the easy target influencer… but not necessarily the most “influential” one. Experiment with your own combinations of social and web signals, Alexa is still a great resource to gauge how much web traffic a site actually gets, and if all else fails, the twitter search function isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.

Step 4. Craft Your Content

Ok, so you’ve identified your influencer, you’ve gotten to know their content strategy, you may have even gone the extra mile and acquired their email address. Now you’ve got to identify and ideate the content that’s going to grab their attention. Easier said than done. This is where good old fashioned psychological intuition can come in handy.

Are they verbose? Given to thought leadership and pontification? Make them an infographic that takes a fresh data driven approach to their topic of interest. If you’ve got the gumption, try to challenge a closely held hypothesis that they often speak about… if your data is sound then you may not only earn their endorsement… you might also earn their respect. Probably wouldn’t hurt to do some serious homework first. Your more prolific economists, entrepreneurs, and social media and SEO bloggers fall squarely into this category.

Or, are they the creative type, possessing an extremely well honed stylistic eye? These bloggers are typically not interested in spreading new or inflamatory information, they are however very interested in spreading new techniques that can compliment their work. Design bloggers, copywriters, photographers, musicians and some more sanctimonious music bloggers fall into this category. Targeting and reaching out to them requires an intimate (almost inside joke worthy) knowledge of their work and interests. Try building something that makes their life easier, see if they respond.

No Matter what type of personality you are targeting, they typically have one thing in common, a low threshold for time-wasters. The online space is full of busy individuals who love when a conversation is dropped in their lap. A good piece of content contributed by you gives them a fresh perspective on a topic they hold very dear.

John Steinbeck once wrote “Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person-a real person you know, or an imagined person-and write to that one.”

And I know what you’re thinking, “Hey Ryan, did you just punchline this post about content marketing with a quote from Steinbeck? Whoa buddy! better watch it, your megalomania is showing!”

And yes, I tend to agree that quoting Steinbeck in a post about marketing is something of a literary blaspheme, but that doesn’t mean it does not apply. The only difference here is that you as marketers in the online space have an advantage over Steinbeck. He had to imagine his target audience, you get to read their tweets.