Content Marketing Fundamentals: Keys to an Effective Content Strategy

Understanding the fundamentals of content marketing and customer intent will enable you to create targeted content that your prospective customers will actually find when they search online—content that prospects want to read, watch, and listen to.

Here’s what you need to know to maximize your content marketing.

Topic overview.

  • The definition of content marketing.
  • The importance of understanding “customer intent” as prospects search for solutions online.
  • How customer intent relates to the buyer’s journey and the full funnel content marketing stages as prospects search online.
  • How understanding customer intent helps companies reach marketing and business goals.
  • How to get started with content strategy creation (sample dialogs).

What is content marketing?

Content marketing is defined as “the creation and promotion of text, video, audio, or image-based content that furthers business goals.”

The three key players in content marketing.

The content marketer (you) is an internal digital marketing specialist, or an external content specialist like a freelance content marketing writer or content strategist.

The customer is a prospective buyer who wants to find solutions to problems and challenges that they have. They typically want to find the solution immediately as they search on their phones and devices for products and services that fix their problems.

The client is a company that wants to sell more products and services, and to reach the business goals of the company.

Company business goals include:

  • Increasing awareness and engagement (helping prospective buyers to discover the company’s brand, products, and services).
  • Getting new customers.
  • Getting more leads (prospects that the sales team can contact).
  • Selling more to current customers.
  • Getting more positive online reviews.
  • Getting referrals (customers telling their friends, who may buy also).

Content marketing has its own language. This is the language of the client (customers are usually oblivious to the role they play in content marketing).

The content marketer needs to speak the content marketing language so they can help their clients reach business goals.

Why ‘intent’ is the most important word for a content marketer to understand.

In a nutshell, intent refers to what the customer is trying to do when they go online to search for something. What’s the problem or challenge they’re trying to solve?

Customer intent has a lot to do with what’s going on in the person’s mind. What’s their purpose, goal, target, or dream? What’s causing them pain? What’s driving them to search for solutions?

KEY: The content marketer needs to anticipate customer intent so they can build content that satisfies that intent.

As the content marketer, you need to put yourself in the shoes, minds, and hearts of prospective customers in various scenarios to envision what the customers want and will be searching for. Then you can work with your client to build content that gives customers what they want.

Customer intent in action.

Let’s say that Roland, a potential customer, is out shopping and his stomach starts growling. He’s hungry and wants to eat now. Roland wants Mexican food, but he isn’t familiar with restaurants in the area. So, he picks up his phone and searches for “best Mexican food near me.”

Up pops an El Burro Restaurant landing page. Roland sees that it has four stars, and he places an online order. He drives to the restaurant, picks up his order, eats his meal, is happy with his choice, and everything is good. Roland even went on Yelp and left a great review for El Burro.

El Burro Restaurant had someone doing content marketing for them who anticipated Roland’s intent and his online search term, which brought them a new customer—and another positive review.

The buyer’s journey and how customer intent changes along the way.

The buyer’s journey is the path that the customer follows as they interact with your client’s online content. The buyer’s journey is a marketing term that helps content marketers visualize what the customer is trying to do.

The four stages of the buyer’s journey are research, compare, buy, and succeed. The customer’s intent shifts as they move through the stages in the buyer’s journey.

Quick note: There is some variation in the terms that marketers use for the buyer’s journey stages, but the marketing principles are the same. These happen to be my favorites.

A potential buyer is searching on their phone and using social media.

Research stage intent: The customer is searching for solutions to problems and challenges that they have. They are often seeking to understand their problem more clearly, and to find out if products or services are available that solve their problems.

Compare stage intent: The customer has identified possible solutions and is searching for content that helps them to compare products and services. As they attempt to answer the question “Which solution is right for me,” they may want to compare two or more of your client’s products. Or they may want to compare your client’s product with other companies’ products.

Buy stage intent: The customer is seriously interested in buying your client’s product, and is searching for more content to:

  1. Answer questions and assure them that the company’s product or service is their best choice, or
  2. Learn how to purchase from your client.

Succeed stage intent: The customer has already purchased your client’s product or service and is searching for information on how to use the product, how to assemble it, or how to get the most value from it. Clients sometimes neglect this stage when creating content, resulting in unhappy customers who can’t find the information they need to be successful using the purchase. This can lead to more returns, subscription cancellations, and bad reviews.

Full funnel content marketing and how it relates to the buyer’s journey.

Full funnel content marketing includes the same four intent stages described in the buyer’s journey (research, compare, buy, and succeed).

Marketers use a variety of terms for the levels in the content marketing funnel. I prefer to call the levels TOFU, MOFU, BOFU, and POFU because these levels zero in on customer intent and company business goals.

You’ll see in the image below how these marketing funnel levels correspond to the customer intent stages in the buyer’s journey.

  • TOFU means Top of Funnel Content (research stage).
  • MOFU means Middle of Funnel Content (compare stage).
  • BOFU means Bottom of Funnel Content (buy stage).
  • POFU means Post-Purchase Content (succeed stage).
Full Funnel Content Marketing vs. the Buyer's Journey. This image shows a funnel with four levels. The research stage maps to TOFU. The compare stage maps to MOFU. The buy stage maps to BOFU. And the succeed stage maps to POFU.

When prospects search online, it’s not always a textbook top-to-bottom trip through the funnel.

When you think of a funnel, you typically think of something entering at the top and exiting at the bottom. In the example of Roland and the Mexican food he purchased, his buyer’s journey was pretty much a textbook trip from research to succeed—from the top of the funnel through to the bottom.

As you think about your own online research and purchases, you know that not everyone starts their online search at the research stage.

Sometimes you’ve already done the basic research, so the online search you do takes you to content in the compare stage (e.g., a product comparison page or FAQ page).

Or you’ve done the comparisons already, so your search takes you to content normally produced for the buy stage (e.g., a video sales letter or product page).

When you get to the buy stage, you may decide you need more information before you purchase, and you go back to the research or compare stage.

How to discern what your client (the company) really needs.

So, what does your client company want? How can you give them what they need, and become the client’s trusted advisor and go-to favorite content marketer?

When you talk with your client about what they need, they may say something like “I need two blog posts and a web page.” If you just want to write some content and move on to the next project, you could reply “Okay, when do you need them.”

A better approach is to talk with the client about the problems they’re having that are preventing them from reaching their business goals.

Put on your Dr. Content Marketer hat and come to the rescue.

Your client likely contacted you because something isn’t right with their business, and they are experiencing pain. They need help with their content marketing, and they may not know how to fix what’s broken.

So, like a doctor, you ask questions. You listen carefully. You diagnose the problem. And you “prescribe” a solution to your client.

Your solution may include a brief content strategy and a list of the content types (e.g., blog posts or case studies) needed to help fix the problems your client is having.

Your client will be impressed with your expertise as you listen intently, speak their language, and prescribe solutions to fix their business and content marketing problems.

Sample client conversations—Dr. Content Marketer in action.

Here are some samples of what to listen for when you meet with your client, and the types of content that you can prescribe for each problem your client describes.

You generally won’t prescribe all of the content types at the same time (unless your client has a large staff of content creators). You’ll pick the most important things and suggest them first. For example, for the TOFU level sample dialog below you might suggest writing four blog posts and a monthly newsletter.

TOFU level sample dialog.

  • Client: “If only more people knew about us, they would love us.”
  • You: “That sounds like a top-of-funnel problem. You need ads and foundational content to increase awareness of your brand and to generate leads.”
  • Your prescription is research stage content: One or more blog posts, brief videos, web pages, social media posts, email newsletters, white papers, or ads linking to content.

MOFU level sample dialog.

  • Client: “Customers are reading our blog posts, but they aren’t buying from us.”
  • You: “That sounds like a middle-of-funnel problem. To get new customers and sell more to your current customers, you need to build more content that highlights and compares the features and benefits of the products you sell. You also need content that compares your products with your competitors’ products.”
  • Your prescription is compare stage content: One or more product demo videos, FAQ pages, comparison pages (client’s products), comparison pages (client’s products vs. competitors’ products), or case studies (customer stories).

BOFU level sample dialog.

  • Client: “We have too many people who look at our product demos and case studies but don’t buy from us. We also have a lot of customers who put products or services into the shopping cart but leave without buying them.”
  • You: “That sounds like a bottom-of-funnel problem. You need to increase the “persuasive” content for your products and services to overcome any objections your prospects have—and to help them justify their decision to purchase from you.”
  • Your prescription is buy stage content: One or more sales letters, product pages, video sales letters, or ads linking to offers.

POFU level sample dialog.

  • Client: “We’re getting too many product returns. We also have too many customers who cancel their subscriptions to our products and services.”
  • You: “That sounds like a post-purchase level problem. You need more support-level content that helps your customers to be successful using your products, and to find ongoing value in your services.”
  • Your prescription is succeed stage content: One or more videos, email newsletters, podcasts, FAQ pages, blog posts, or help pages.

Your next steps.

You now know more than most marketers about content marketing and how to give clients and customers what they want and need.

How do you zero in on the customer intent so you can create the content that customers will be searching for?

It’s important to create customer personas (AKA buyer personas) for each of your client’s products and services.

What is a customer persona, and how do you create one?

To find out, check out my article on customer personas (coming soon to this blog).

Marilyn Crowell provides strategic content writing and copywriting services for startups and established companies. Learn more about her services.

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