When it comes to planning content that delivers winning results, many marketers follow one of two popular approaches:

  1. They plan content that answers the questions of their ideal customers on their path to purchase, or
  2. They conduct keyword research around a few industry-related words in order to produce a list of highly searched phrases and then create content around those phrases.

Advocates of one approach often don’t bother with the other.

Each method has its undeniable strengths. But on its own, each method also has its limitations.

In this article, I’ll argue that the best course of action isn’t, in fact, a choice, but a hybrid, the strategic alignment of the two methods.

With the use of concrete examples, I’ll show you how you can marry both approaches into a single system that produces the best content to attract the right visitors and turn them into customers.

Let’s get started.

But first, let’s discuss a couple of fundamental truths about content planning.

1. Understand a couple of fundamental truths about content planning

Content planning is essential

According to the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs’ 2019 B2B Content Marketing Research report, the most successful B2B marketers are more than five times as likely as the least successful to have a documented content marketing strategy.

And 81% of all respondents said that having a documented strategy is beneficial because it makes it easier to decide what types of content to produce.

So whether you’re using keyword research and/or the buyer’s journey to create the your content plan, you may already be ahead of the game for having a strategy.

Keyword research is insufficient

The typical SEO keyword research approach to content planning takes you through these steps:

  1. Start with a few basic, industry-related seed terms.
  2. Expand the list of terms using a keyword tool, like Google’s Keyword Planner.
  3. Select the best keywords from the list, qualifying the terms based on high search volume and relatively low competition.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s assume your company produces payroll software and you want to use keyword research to generate content ideas.

You start by plugging in a generic industry term like “payroll software” into your keyword tool. When you expand your list, you generate some high-volume keyword ideas and create content around those keywords.

Here are the problems with that approach:

  • Your generic keywords don’t take into account who your ideal customers are and the questions they need answered on their path to purchase.
  • You could miss out on prime Google real estate by limiting yourself to those generic terms.
  • Beating out the competition for your industry’s most popular keywords can be tough. You may not succeed in ranking for them for a very long time, if at all.
  • Even if you do manage to rank for popular industry search terms, your content will likely be too generic to resonate with your visitors and to turn them into customers. I.e. you might drive traffic to your website, but your conversion rate will be disappointing.

Instead, you need to do the work required to really connect with your customers and to supply the information they need before they purchase your product.

That’s where personas and the buyer journey come in.

“Content created merely to further a search engine ranking is a waste of time and effort. What matters now is creating useful content that solves customer problems, shoulders their burdens, eases their pain, enriches their lives.”

Ann Handley, author of Everybody Writes

2. Map content topics to personas and the buyer journey

A content strategy that delivers results is grounded in a solid understanding of your target market, and how your prospects’ content needs evolve on their path to purchase.

Define marketing personas

A persona is a fictionalized character assembled from traits that are common to your best customers.

Developing personas can help you form a clearer understanding of who your buyers are, so that the content you create resonates with them, builds trust, and leads to conversions.

(For more information and a helpful template on how to develop your personas, check out this post: How to Optimize your Marketing with Buyer Personas)

Persona development can be an in-depth exercise, relying on data gleaned from many sources.

At the very least, your persona should include some basic information about your customer, their business goals, the challenges they face, and how your offering can help them.

For our payroll company scenario, this is a simplified definition of our persona:

content planning example_simplified persona

Map content to the buyer journey

After you develop your persona, the next step is to understand, from conversations with your customers and customer-facing team, how his or her needs evolve through the three key stages of the buyer journey. This will enable you to provide the content they need at each stage.

content planning example_buyer journey

If you can supply the content your prospects need when they need it, you’ll reinforce your authority and gently nudge them along from stage to stage until they become your customers.

Content for the Awareness stage

During the Awareness stage, prospects become aware that they have a problem and conduct research relating to that problem.

For this stage, you need content around the pain points that your solution addresses for your persona.

In our scenario, Fiona the Finance Manager may need convincing that she has to make a change to address her payroll issues. What content can you produce to convince her? Here are some examples.

content planning example_content for awareness stage

As you might expect, people searching for awareness-stage queries are not likely to make a purchase on their first visit. Still, getting in front of prospects at this early stage is a great way to build trust and authority, to be seen before your competitors are, and to nudge them along the path to purchase.

Content for the Consideration stage

During the Consideration stage, your prospects discover, evaluate and compare the different approaches they could take to solve their problem.

Ideal content for this stage will:

  • Present the different approaches available to solve your customer’s problems.
  • Highlight the pros and cons of the different approaches.
  • Steer your prospects toward your type of solution.

In our scenario, Fiona the Finance Manager may need convincing that she has to make a change to address her payroll issues. What content can you produce to convince her? Here are some examples.

Content for the Decision stage

During the Decision stage, buyers may be evaluating different solution providers and validating their decision to buy from you.

Your content should:

  • Present the relative strengths of your offering.
  • Address any lingering concerns and objections.

In our scenario, here are just a few examples of content you could produce for the Decision stage.

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So we’re done now, right?

Using the persona and buyer stage approach, we can brainstorm loads of content topics to cover, and even some of the questions we need to answer for our persona.

But we can do better. How? By introducing keyword research to enrich the strategy with data-driven insights.

3. Use keyword research to select the right keywords for each persona and stage

Keyword research removes dangerous assumptions

It’s true: Without any further research, you could start creating content based solely on the persona and buying journey approach.

The problem with doing that is that you risk making some big assumptions. Assumptions about:

  • The specific questions your prospects have with respect to your broad topics
  • The precise search queries your prospects are using in their research
  • Which search terms you’re likeliest to rank for
  • The right language to use in your content to resonate with your ideal customer

Making those assumptions can be costly.

Keyword research is about so much more than SEO. Keyword research is market research. It offers insight into the way buyers think.

Applied correctly, keyword research can be a powerful partner to personas and the buyer’s journey. I asked Andy Crestodina, co-founder of Orbit Media, to weigh in on the role of keyword research. This is what he had to say:

“Keyphrase research isn’t just about the top of the funnel. Prospects who are deep in the considerations stages are still researching options, still searching for key information. Smart marketers create content that answers sales questions. The best marketers make that content discoverable through search.”

Andy Crestodina, co-founder of Orbit Media Studios

Align keyword research to the buyer’s journey

Earlier, we talked about the limitations of using keyword research on its own as a means of generating content ideas.

Now, we’ll see how we can go about keyword research the rig