It’s that time of year when most marketing directors are underway with their marketing planning.

I’ve been doing the same.

In doing so, it struck me how difficult content and content marketing can be to plan and budget for. After careful consideration and no little head scratching, however, I’ve come up with the following guide – a content marketing budget planning doc, fully priced and considered, to help you get your ducks in a row for the next twelve months.

To be clear (because the term is not), I’m talking here about blog content – regular articles and features for a business website – not static content like web copy or landing pages.

Onward.

Step 1 – Get absolutely crystal clear on why you’re engaging with content marketing

One of the great things about content is how it positively impacts every area of your business – from brand awareness through to customer retention. That said, businesses become disillusioned with their content efforts when they don’t pick the one key reason for doing content and prioritise that.

I’ll give you a few examples:

We work with a lot of agencies. One of them, an events agency, has set data collection as their key content goal. We’re putting our time and effort (and their budget) into creating lead magnets – ebooks, whitepapers, webinars – that encourage people to enter their data in return for the insights. In conjunction with a fairly aggressive PPC campaign, this approach is quickly building a targeted, warm email list.

Another client, an app development agency, is equally interested in leads, but can only take a few big projects a year. They already have good visibility in search (too good in fact – the quality of the traffic is not great), so we’re focused on improving the conversion rate of visitors to leads.

Last example – we have a packaging design agency. These guys are keeping their core team small and cherry picking opportunities. They’re using their blog to differentiate themselves as thought leaders with their existing network – and so the priority for these guys is biz dev. They’re sending the articles directly to their network and seeing what gets a response. We’ve also developed ebooks which they’ve designed and printed for face to face meetings. Direct, effective content, aligned with their goal.

I highlight these examples to show that, even though they’re all doing content marketing, they’re doing it in slightly different ways. All three are seeing benefits in other areas of their business from the content – which is nice – but it’s focus on the primary metric for them and their business model that keeps them producing content week in, week out for years. It’s a long term play.

Without a single goal to hang your hat on, you run the risk of diluting your content, of trying to do too much, of measuring success by the wrong metrics.

So that’s step 1. Answer the question – what is the one main reason for us to engage in content?

Step 2 – Know what’s working and what’s you holding back

Yup, I’m talking content audits.

The size of this job will vary wildly depending on where you are in the ‘content journey’. If 2018 is the year that you’re finally get started, good news! You can skip this stage. For those with a few months’ or years’ worth of blog posts under your belt, this is a fair chunk of work.

Where to begin?

Simply set up a spreadsheet with a row for each of your pages and answer the following questions:

  1. Why does this page need to exist? What type of content is it? What do we want people to do here? What are the key metrics for this page?
  2. How well is this page performing? Take a look at Google Analytics and look at bounce rate, entrances and exits and goal conversions.
  3. Is the content on brand? Does it work as is? Can it be left as is/need a quick edit/need a total rewrite/to be archived?
  4. Is the rich media (images, videos, tools and calculators, widgets) optimal? Are the images compressed, alt tags added, is the video hosted on Youtube? Where does it link to – and is YouTube recommending your competition?

What you now have is a to-do list for getting the core of the site up to scratch, and a simple user journey thrown in to boot. This is great fodder for for a copywriter. If you can hand them this spreadsheet along with a tone of voice guide, they’ll have more than enough to get stuck into.  

And what if you’ve got a bigger site? If you’ve been producing content for years, it’s time to roll those sleeves up and get stuck into an big, ugly, steaming pile of auditing (although the good news is that you’ll have a few treasures hidden in that unruly site map of yours).

I highly recommend that you follow the process outlined above, but support your unlucky marketing exec with a content audit tool like Trim or CAT to help speed up the process and provide structure. You have more content, so a little automation in the scraping of your site will go a long way, plus a tool like Trim can also pull in the relevant data from Google Analytics.

You’re following the same set of questions I’ve listed above, but you’re looking for the specific posts and graphics and videos that perform surprisingly well compared to all the rest. The quick wins lie here. Add these as big edits to your editorial calendar.

So for step 2, answer the question- what content can I archive, edit or leave as is?

Step 3 – Face up to reality; how much is your content plan really going to cost?

Creating high quality content week-in week-out takes effort and skill. It is a team game, too. Whether you recruit in-house or work with an agency like us, it is important that you understand the true ‘time-cost’ that’s involved, along with any cash implications.

We’ve produced a very detailed article on the processes and people needed to execute a high performing thought leadership content marketing program. So, rather than repeat the 3000 words here, I’ve simply detailed costs. For more context, I highly recommend the full piece.

To help, we’ve added the likely costs for both content strategy and implementation below. (Disclaimer – costs are based on a B2B business that has approx 20-30 pages on their site and 10-50 blogs).

Step 4 – Documenting a content strategy

A documented content strategy is a worthwhile investment. It does not have to be done before you create any content, but it does help. It will change over time, as you find out what content your organisation is capable of producing and what works for your target market, and it will document the approaches you’ve tried and discarded over time.

In the same way that your marketing plan is only as good as the research you do, so the same is also true of your content strategy. Here are some of the key elements for you to consider:

  • Content audit. Time required – 2-4 weeks. £1 – 2k
  • Customer persona research. Time required – 6-12 weeks. £4k – £10k (dependant on number of persona’s and interviews to conduct)
  • Keyword research. Time required – 1-2 weeks.  £500 – £2k
  • Documenting content strategy. Time required one full day with core team. one day to document.

Content creation

There are two ways to execute a thought leadership content marketing campaign over the long term.

  1. Pay thought leaders outside of your organisation to produce that content – specialist journalists, researchers and academics. These specialists charge a premium – expect to pay between £450 – £600 per article – but the advantage is that (when it works) there’s very little that you need to do. You pay for the insights.
  2. Pay skilled generalist writers to extract knowledge from your team’s subject matter experts, and create content based on those insights. For most small to mid-sized businesses this is the more viable option. Be warned though – what you save in cash, you pay for in time. (Again, please see the content marketing machine ebook for full details).

For most of our clients, option 2 is best. It’s more cost effective, for one thing. For another, the content you create is crafted around the insights within your business: it is more authentic and offers the added benefit of helping your team discover what they know. That sounds incredibly wooly, but we’ve seen it happen so many times that it can’t be ignored.

As a guide, our retainers range from £1500 – £3000 per month for content creation. We are not the cheapest. You will find one or two man bands who will offer similar deliverables for half the price – but hopefully we don’t have to make the case to you to focus on quality over quantity.

There is a third way… combine options 1 and 2 so you get the in-house expertise but have a specialist team to drive the editorial forward. Often, solely relying on in-house teams means content gets pushed to the back of the queue when business comes in.

A key note for cost-cutters: in my experience, any business that attempts to do it all in-house, without recruiting anyone specifically to be responsible for content creation as their full time role, is destined to run out of content after three months. Six at the absolute maximum.  

If you do choose to recruit in house, a managing editor is a must. A managing editor has a unique set of skills that you’re unlikely to find in a marketing exec: they will likely have experience working news and features desks, and their salary expectations are around the £40k mark.

Content distribution

Content shock is real.

When I started Future Content back in 2012, life was easy. We would write a few blog posts, Google would find them, and we were off to the races. With our first client – an ecommerce business that had been trading for eight years – we started their blog, published 12 posts in 12 weeks and generated more traffic in that time than their long established website. Rely on that happening now though, and you will be sorely disappointed.

Your distribution plan will very much depend on the maturity of your content marketing. If you’re just starting out, you will need to think much smarter than a well established company blog that is already generating good amounts of traffic. The same for any new venture, I suppose.

For the purposes of making this relevant I am going to assume that your business has attempted content marketing in the past, and amassed some traffic (1000-ish unique visitors per month), some data (500-ish relevant opted-in email contacts) and some social reach (1500-ish followers across Twitter and Linkedin).

Email Marketing

You’ve got to run a regular newsletter – monthly at the minimum. It’s the sharp end of your inbound marketing.

Email is 1:1. You and your contact, in their inbox.  It’s part of your referral marketing and your inbound marketing and your business intelligence. The reporting you get is fantastic – who clicked what, how often? Who’s opening all of our emails? Combine that with a bit of IP tracking on your site and you have your prospect list right there.

500 relevant contacts is a good start, but you will want to quadruple that over the coming year. Achieving those results by inbound only will be tough. If you’re reading this before May 25th 2018 (GDPR Day), buy a list and work hard to get them opted-in. If you’re not… well, with any luck our content governance process will have worked and I’ll come back and edit this section.

So, budget for a monthly newsletter at a minimum (½-1 days work or £300 per month for an agency like us to run it for you). If like us you want to stay front of mind and have plenty to say, you could go for a weekly newsletter but speaking from personal experience it’s one hell of a commitment. (Budget £1k per month)

Paid social media

“No one has a traffic problem.”

“Facebook knows who you are, Google knows what you want.”

I often find myself trotting these lines out, not because I have shares in both of these digital leviathans (I wish), but because they offer us the chance to get our wonderful content in front of the right people.

Facebook ads should be used primarily for brand awareness, but they can also be used to split test headlines, header images and so on. Rather than publish a post and leave it for a few months, set aside a little budget each week to test an element of your blogs. With the split test results in, optimise the post – then put in a little more budget to get eyeballs on your blog and on your site. £200 per month would be a good start.

PPC is well established, but we’re now hearing tales of diminishing returns. In some sectors, using a bit of PPC budget for the articles that sit further down the marketing funnel is can be money well spent. How you use it will very much depend on your product or service and the sales process, but a little budget put behind your top converting posts (those that lead to new contacts and ideally enquiries) is money well spent.

This is especially true for your ebooks, white papers and other premium content. This is high value: it will answer the needs of your target market and it will sit behind a data capture form. Do not wait for organic search to bring you leads. Use PPC to generate them. Again, £200 per month should give you enough traffic to make calls on the effectiveness of your calls to action.

Organic social media

5 years ago, SEO agencies would stuff your site full of keywords and get you to the top of Google by brute force. Now they’re more likely to commission content for you and focus on site speed: how fast does your content take to load on a smartphone?

The main areas to look at in 2018 is the speed of your site and to get clued up on the incoming mobile first index. Another (more old skool) technique is commissioning (and actually using) a bit of keyword research – keywords still matter.

Budget for these things. Getting your site ready could mean an entire rebuild or a few tweaks, which could run from hundreds to tens of thousands depending on who you use and the size of the job in hand.

Keyword research for B2B can cost from £500 – £2000 and don’t, whatever you do, be tempted to do it yourself. It is mind numbingly dull.

I’ve not mentioned links. Sacrilege! You will need to build up your link profile. Get started with your own content, as already discussed, and then start to look at digital PR to build up relevant links.

There are plenty of agencies who specialise in just this activity: their monthly costs range from £400 – £2k depending on the competitiveness of your sector. Agencies like ours will also offer it as part of the service, at a similar cost. The money pays for the time of pitching and securing the placement, creating the content and editing it to the publications spec. If you do it in house, set aside 1 day per week for your marketing exec and managing editor to focus entirely on this.

Distributing directly

When we talk about distribution, we often think about spreading the content far and wide – but a sniper rifle is more effective than a machine gun. Your sales and accounts teams can be content snipers of the deadliest effect.

The point, as you well know, is not to increase visitors to the site for its own sake. The point is to generate business and your content can be the outreach tool you need.

“Hey John, congrats on the new round of funding. I see in the news that you’re looking to expand in Europe, you may find this article we wrote on [insert their industry] companies expanding into Northern Europe and thought it might be helpful.”

That’s the real sharp end of new business: Linkedin sales navigation, and a content strategy that aligns sales and marketing. This approach works right the way down to getting contracts signed. Every stage of the funnel.

The only cost here is educating sales and accounts on the content program you’re engaged in, the value of it for them in their day-to-day, and what content is available to them. That will take quite a bit of your time, but it’ll pay off when your outreach team can make concrete recommendations to potential clients and customers.

To Conclude

Your content marketing plan and budget flows from your marketing plan, which in turn flows from your business plan. To spell out the obvious – what’s right for your business really does depend on the goals that are most pressing this quarter, and in three years’ time. Everything else follows on from that.

Take the time, enjoy the process, get excited about the future and look forward to success.

The best businesses in the world are fully committed to content marketing. There is still space for newcomers to find their niche and create a real assets that grow your business.

Are you ready to get started?

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Tom is the founder of Future Content, a specialist content agency located in Bristol, UK. Tom is the winner of the 2016 'Acceler8' award for Entrepreneurial Leadership from RBS and Entrepreneurial Spark. You can find Tom on Twitter @HTSandford. If you ever visit Future Content's offices you'll find Tom near the table tennis table.