How do you develop your content strategy? Do you begin by considering tactics? We need video! We need an infographic! It can be exciting to think about those tactics and cool they could be, but it’s starting in the middle. It’s the wrong approach, and yet so many companies start there, often because someone influential in the organization has some kind of fascination with one of these tactics.

We need to stop this.

Before you start thinking about tactics, you need to understand how all these content tactics will fit together to form an ongoing conversation. In other words, you need to start by creating a strategy. That’s not a revolutionary idea (although plenty of companies skip over the strategic step and start spraying and praying). But here’s an important idea – before you can begin to develop your strategy, you need to have an understanding of your audience; if you don’t know who your customers and prospects are and what resonates with them, how will you create something they want?

Data is good, but not everything

While we have become increasingly sophisticated at tracking content journeys over time and calculating the ROI of our content marketing efforts, it’s rare that we work to gain an understanding of who the people are behind those data points. What are their stories? More importantly, what do they really care about as individuals?

Data is essential to the way we run our marketing organizations today. However, the numbers can only tell you so. Similar to advanced analytics in sports, sometimes you need to watch the game, because the numbers can lie. Without context from a two-way dialogue with your customers, it can lead you to mistaken inferences because it can’t really illustrate the motivations behind a change in customer behavior.

The temptation, the trend and maybe even the demand is that you develop really intricate persona profiles of your audience. This can be significant work, and can take significant time and resources. However, you have to do it. You have to spend the effort to understand your audience. At the same time, you need to understand that you will never create the perfect persona profiles and so you need to know when to stop – there is a point of diminishing returns. (I once heard a marketer from a global enterprise you’ve heard of talk about how he spent six months developing persona profiles; it was all he did, 40 hours a week, for 26 weeks. By the time he finished, I’m sure at least some of the information was no longer valid – yes, content consumption habits change quickly!)

So, you need to interview current customers and prospects. You need to understand how they buy and why they buy, and you certainly need to get an understanding of their content consumption habits.

Once you understand the audience, you can begin to build your strategy. And then you’re off and running.

You need experience and empathy

The “running” part begins by putting together a content team that understands this audience – you’re just beginning this relationship with the audience, and you need to understand that you’re going to learn more about them as you go.

At Scribewise, we think people who are trained journalists are best at this; journalists are taught to get to the heart of a story, bring together disparate facts and information, and weave it into a compelling story for the audience. Over time, journalists come to innately understand what the audience wants. They don’t need a data scientist to tell them what to write; through experience and empathy, they intuitively understand the questions on the mind of the audience, and seek to tell stories that answer those questions.

Once you’re creating great journalistic content – compelling narratives delivered to the right people at the right time in the right way – you’re building that relationship. You’re showing your audience that you’re making an investment in the relationship. As you do this, you learn more about the audience (at least, if you’re paying attention). And the more you learn about the audience, the more it will inform your strategy and help it evolve.

It starts with the audience. Don’t expect to learn everything about them before you start, but you have to start by learning something about them, and then use those learnings to shape your strategy. And then start discussing tactics.

Because until you have a bit of a clue about the audience, you’re guessing.