Lee Odden

Essential Stages of Content Marketing Evolution – If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying

Lee Odden     Content Marketing

content marketing evolutionAn important part of developing skills and expertise is to understand where you fall on a continuum of what’s possible and then take action to evolve and advance accordingly.

With so much digital marketing advice and information on the web, it’s easy to follow along with the latest best practices. But what about 1 or 2 years from now? How valuable would it be to anticipate the challenges and opportunities beyond the current 6 or 12 months of marketing planning?

What is in your future for content marketing?

Along these lines, I’ve been developing a model of content marketing maturity to help companies better understand where they are and where they could be with their own content marketing and as a guide for using outside content marketing services. This is especially relevant as the need to develop more integrated strategies has become the minimum to compete.

content marketing stasisStasis – The focus is on the status quo. Content is created because it’s necessary or required. Press releases, new web site content when products and services are launched and the occasional blog post.

Few dedicated resources are allocated to the content marketing effort and while there may be some experimentation with online content through blogging and basic social networks, the content tends to be very brand centric. SEO works independently of social media and is focused on promotion, distribution of brand messaging.

Organizations at this stage aren’t looking to grow outside of what they’re already doing until they start to see competitors overcoming them on multiple earned, owned and shared media channels.

content marketing productionProduction – With the realization that more content means more potential destinations for links, social shares and entry points through search visibility, companies in production mode find ways to create more content.

The “more content” approach tends to be very SEO centric, with an emphasis on creating specific, keyword focused content to justify search engine rankings.

With this predominantly SEO perspective, content is seen mostly as a link building tactics. In other words, create content so good (and promote thought social channels) that people will link to it and share on social networks.

There may be dedicated resources to content production as well as a SEO focused strategy for content and the use of social media for amplification. Processes and tools are used to make the content ideation, management, optimization, promotion and measurement efforts efficient and more effective.

A shift begins to occur where keywords are not the sole focus for determining the topics for a content plan and some emphasis is placed on mapping the customer journey through the sales cycle. Content is developed according to specific customer segments and their information needs through the buying journey.

Companies at this stage reap rewards pretty quickly as they grow their footprint on the web. However, traffic increases do not always indicate an increase in leads and sales. A common issue is a boost in search visibility and organic referrals without a corresponding increase in inquiries. Thus begins investigation into more specific opportunities from the customer point of view and more empathy with the buyer journey.

content marketing utilityUtility – As marketers develop their content marketing programs, processes, use of tools and skills, a shift starts to happen. Rather than letting keywords and brand messages about features and benefits drive all content planning, investments in content that empathizes with the customer and that contributes to useful experiences are made.

As distinct customer segments are developed, with their common characteristics and information needs, content planning emphasizes answering customer questions and they move through the sales cycle. That content is optimized for search and social media discovery and promoted through multiple channels.

Content usefulness is the standard, versus simply being informative. The content or media creates value in and of itself. Imagine a buyer’s guide, or advice about how to get more value from a product or service – beyond its intended use.

Jay Baer has an entire book about creating this kind of useful content called, Youtility, that I highly recommend.

Building connections though social networks is a key component for content promotion and growing influencer relationships starts to emerge as a critical skill.

Companies that master the creation of truly useful content also attract growing social communities. This creates a robust ecosystem of content and engagement. Competition amongst mature content marketers creating utility is already tough and will only increase. In order to create a more meaningful connection with buyers and the community, marketers start to tap into more emotional appeals in their content.  It’s not enough to inform, but to help buyers feel what the brand stands for.

content marketing storytellingStorytelling – As companies come to know the questions their target customers have during the sales cycle, there are also efforts to define and put forth a brand narrative – the story a company tries to tell to a specific target audience.

Evolving content marketing beyond features and benefits and incredible usefulness means connecting with customers on an emotional level. What better way to do that than through stories?

One way to think of this stage is that rather than just informing your customers, you’re creating experiences across channels through stories that contribute to both intellectual and emotional needs of the buyer.

Answering questions about what customers care about and how the brand wants to be known, are filtered through buying cycle analysis. Content planning identifies key brand narratives as part of the content marketing strategy and those stories drive content ideation across owned, earned, paid and shared media.

Social Networks mature at this stage and interactions with communities and influencers often contributes many of the content ideas. Along with growing influencer relationships is the growth of brand authority and subject matter experts as influencers themselves.

This is where “being the best answer” wherever customers are looking becomes a key driver for content. Also, integration of content with search, social, PR and influencer marketing is dynamic and optimized.

Evolving skills at integrating marketing messages across channels is a distinguishing feature of mature content marketers. Most companies are satisfied with the growth rates in community, engagement, customer acquisition and revenue at this stage. And yet, some will want more as they evolve their publishing capabilities and see even more opportunities to become the dominant authority in their industry.

content marketing monetize 360Monetization 360 – Of course the goal for any stage is to monetize based on how effective content is at creating awareness, interest, driving consideration and ultimately purchase. This is the core function of marketing – create awareness, educate and inspire leads and sales.

However, for this stage, we’re talking about the ability to monetize through customer acquisition as well as through syndication, advertising and sponsorships. In other words, the marketing content is so good, so useful and such a great experience, that it can generate revenue on its own. Few content marketing programs can or need to achieve this stage, but of course it’s fantastic when you can.

Very few companies are able to monetize content marketing in this way, but I think we’ll see a lot more in 2014 and beyond. Some of our projects are just starting to enter into this stage and I’m looking forward to being able to share case studies and examples to complement movement through these 5 stages.

Not all companies will follow a model like this, 1 2 3 of course. That’s the point of the model: to anticipate where a company wants to be with their content marketing program and to create a strategy to evolve to the stage that makes the most sense.

Content Marketing Maturity

TopRank’s Content Marketing Maturity Model

It’s also unlikely that an entire organization’s content marketing program can be summed up as just one of these stages. But when you look at the characteristics of each stage, it’s easier to see how to align content marketing strategy to be more effective – for customers and for your business.

What do you think of this model? Do you see any similarities in your own experience as you’ve matured your content marketing capabilities?

Top image: Shutterstock

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. This is an excellent resource that really helps identify what stage you are at and where you want to be. There is such a huge jump between some of these smaller steps. Organizations need to know that they aren’t failing if they haven’t yet hit storytelling or monetization, but there is certainly opportunity to do better and be more successful.

    Even those of us in the content marketing space must make a concerted effort to keep moving forward. Thanks for always inspiring us to do so and for breaking it down so simply. Luckily I have a copy of Youtility that Jay kindly signed at WOMMA Summit. Time to hit the books again!

  2. Lee, excellent post as usual. I think I have to process this for a while in the context of what I’m doing at my company. I am very clear that we aren’t in the storytelling phase, we are a young startup, 3 years old, still unfolding our overall game plan to the public and working hard to fine tune our messaging. Thanks so much for sharing, I aspire to spend more time thinking and sharing everything I can as you so eloquently do on a regular basis. Warmest regards, Seth

    • Thanks Seth, I’m glad it has you thinking and I’d definitely welcome feedback for refinement. I see this as a working model and it’s usefulness is definitely dependent on the collective wisdom of our community.

  3. 10 years ago: The Motorola Razr was hot as hell, The Mac G4 was crushing it even though it was a horrible computer and Zuc was just getting started. Congratulations on thriving and surviving the last decade.

  4. This is a very interesting model Lee – and I agree that bench-marking the current state of an organisation’s content marketing efforts is an important first step in building a strategy to achieve their goals.

    I’m also a proponent of firm, preferably quantitative goals (where possible) when it comes to content marketing. I believe that attaching relevant numbers (such as; ideal number of subscribers, unique visits, etc.) and tracking them properly enables you to really optimise and evolve the content creation and promotion. Ultimately the ROI should be demonstrated right back to increased revenue – although this isn’t necessarily the end-goal for all organisations of course.

    Within your model, firm goals would also be a way to determine when the next stage of content maturity (as defined in a given organisation) has been reached – what do you think?

    • Thanks Hywel. Goals are definitely a component for quantifying one stage to the next. From what I’ve seen it’s more of a transition than a switch from one stage to the next. Utility marketing starts to percolate with Storytelling in an organic transition.

      You make an excellent point about using those metrics for performance optimization – something I firmly believe will drive scale and efficiency with a qualitative marketing program.

      So in addition to performance metrics and KPIs, I’d look at the qualitative measures, such as the nature of the strategy and plan, the use of customer segments, common narrative, integrated tactics, and other characteristics of the content. I think that combination of quantitative measurement and qualitative assessment will help companies identify and then manage their transition.

  5. Thank you for explaining the model and providing a graphic. Trying to get a better grasp of utility and storytelling.

  6. Avatar Sahail Ashraf says

    I think many small businesses find themselves stuck at the Production stage, with a focus on building traffic and the subsequent realisation that this does not always mean increases in leads.

    As content marketing starts to come of age and become more visual, people will start to understand that having a small business means being more daring and bold with content, not just pulling in traffic that ‘bounces’ in seconds (or less).