Steel BucketI was speaking to a colleague recently who expressed a common lament. She had launched a beautiful looking marketing campaign three months prior, and it wasn’t working. Nobody was clicking. It looked great. It was running in the right places, and she couldn’t understand what was happening. I had seen this before, so, channeling Click and Clack from Car Talk , I asked her one more question to confirm what I suspected her problem was. “How did you come up with the campaign?” I asked. Here it came.

“Well, we hired an agency. We sat in a conference room a couple times over a few weeks, and the agency came back with some concepts, and we narrowed them down to the final two,” she told me. “Then we showed them the CEO. He liked the one with the cheetah, so we went with the cheetah. It looked really cool, and we thought it was going to be great, but it didn’t work.”

As I suspected. This is the common trap of building your campaign before you plan out your content – what I call an “empty campaign.” Shiny on the outside, hollow on the inside. Think about it. How many buyers wake up and think, “I’ve got to find me a cool campaign today,” or “Something with a car and a really sexy girl is what I’m looking for,” or whatever? What buyers really want are solutions to their problems. Content, in the form of how-to articles, instructive videos, comparisons guides, will provide those answers. The big mistake my colleague made was building her campaign before she had a content strategy.

For those of you who are still doubting if content before campaign is the right order, think about campaigns you remember. The only campaigns people remember cost a lot of money. Apple, for example, spends over one billion dollars a year. So unless you work at Apple, or Coke or Budweiser, you don’t have that kind of money. So go where your buyers go – Google. Be there when they are searching for a problem they’re trying to solve. Whoever has got the content, whoever has got the articles, the how-to’s, the videos to solve that problem is the one who will gain the views of the buyers.

I saw this problem myself first hand working at a larger company with an entire campaign team, and working at a company where I ran marketing where I created a theme for the year that was cool looking but didn’t move the needle. At the larger company, my team was constantly asked to create new content that was then shoehorned into templates by the campaign team. That’s inside out thinking. At the company where I ran marketing, the campaign was nothing more than an image library we’d slap on tradeshow booths and certain new brochures, but was not nearly as effective as the well thought out content we wrote for our key buyers.

You’ve got to actually know what your buyers are looking for, and you’ve got to produce the content. Then, after you have that, you can decide on whether you need a campaign theme for the year, or whether your content and your brand will win the day.

How do you go about doing this? Here are four steps:

Step One: Nail your buyer – Do not go past step number one if you don’t know exactly who’s buying your product. I’ve written about buyer persona research before, and creating content without a solid understanding of the buyer is a common mistake because it takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of debate. Sometimes you can’t agree on who your primary buyer is. Figure out if you are selling to CEOs, paralegals or auto mechanics. Whoever it is, be very, very specific. That’s the first step in building great content that is relevant and useful because you’ll know exactly who the person is, and what their problems are.

Step Two: Write Your Mission Statement – I stole this from content marketing heavy Michael Brenner. He had this great and very simple idea. Write a mission statement for your content. Again, be very, very specific. “We are writing useful how-to articles for lathe operators who want to enhance their skills.” Or, “We are writing for harried IT operations staff who are dealing with downtime issues.” Or maybe, “We are writing useful and educational articles to help paralegals be more efficient with the aim toward getting a promotion.” Whatever it is, the more specific you can be, the more on target you’ll be with your buyer, and the more of an authority your domain will become, and you’ll rank higher in Google.

Step Three: Create a Content Calendar – A content calendar is a convenient way to track who is writing what, and for what outcome. Be very specific about which buyer you’re after. You may have multiple buyers, and that’s okay. What type of content it is, what action you want them to take after reading the content, and of course, who the author is going to be, whether it’s somebody inside your company or outside your company. With that in place, you’ll be able to execute on a very targeted, and probably very good content marketing campaign.

Step Four: Decide If You Need a Campaign – Would it move the needle? Do you have the money to make it matter? Maybe great content plus your brand will be enough for people to trust you and come your way. Of course, they’re going to find your content. If you think you want a campaign, then I want you to send your mission statement and content calendar to your agency before they ever come into your office. Have them study these for at least three hours. Then, using our example from above, they would come in with ideas that revolve around paralegals and job advancement.

Using this process, my colleague would probably never have come up with the cheetah theme. And how bad would that be? It might be something more professional, but now your campaign ties nicely into your content, and it will reinforce what you’re trying to do. Otherwise, you’ll have an empty campaign. It looks shiny. You’re all impressed with it. It doesn’t yield results. It doesn’t move the needle.

Don’t be that Director of Marketing or CMO that just spent half a million dollars on a campaign that looks great hung on the marketing bulletin board, but doesn’t do anything outside the building. Make sure you know your buyer and what they want. Put content first before you even think about hiring an agency to build that campaign.