Content strategy can be the difference between a stale, rarely updated blog swept in the corner of your website and a powerhouse that drives targeted traffic to your doorstep. Content strategy is what fundamentally makes content marketing possible--and extremely relevant to SMBs. If you have a blog on your website--and you should--and a few hours to dedicate to content strategy, you have everything at your fingertips to start driving the traffic you want and building a solid conversation with your audience.

But we know--content strategy can seem daunting, like a buzzword only applicable to large corporate organizations with manpower to spare. Fortunately, the web had leveled the playing field a great deal when it comes to content development and the ability to get it to your audience. In fact, SMBs generally see a higher ROI from their content strategy than large organizations simply because, when executed properly, it's an excellent method to getting found. That's what content strategy comes down to: making the most of your existing structure (you've already invested in a website) and making sure that your message reaches the right people in the most desirable way.

Content strategy doesn't have to be time-consuming or tedious, although you can easily find more detail and data than you could ever hope to apply, as with any marketing research. But we've been in the content strategy trenches and have outlined below a no-nonsense 9-step guide to getting your content strategy done and applied to your online presence.

So put on your marketing and analysis hats and let's get started.

1. Review your marketing plan

You do have a marketing plan, right? It may be dusty. It may only exist in the back of your mind, filed somewhere between a crumpled business plan and the dozen logo styles you poured over. Wherever it is, it's time to review it.

If you're currently in the middle of a marketing initiative, what you need to detail is exactly how your content strategy will affect that initiative. Will it support it? Or will it take the center stage? Will it promote a new service to a peripherial audience? The more specific you can be, the better. Just as you would for any other initiative, determine success metrics. If you can't decide between competing goals (Should we focus on Stream X of our business, or serving Stream Y?), remember that your content strategy can--and should--reflect the same ratios your marketing plan does (eg: 40% Stream X, 60% Stream Y). You might find that Stream X is more responsive to your content as you go, and that's okay.

Your marketing plan is only the very beginning for your content strategy. Know that it'll grow and evolve as you make discoveries. So the important thing to know is to make the most informed decisions you can (and make decisions!), and keep your marketing goals and plans in mind throughout this.

2. Brainstorm

Now that your marketing plan is fresh in your mind, consider all of the aspects of your business: your services, your products, your people, your culture. Think of what you excel at, who you are, who you serve. Write everything down. Brainstorm. Start connecting your marketing goals with terms and place an emphasis on your audience. At the end of the day, it's all about them. What do they need to know? What information will help them out?

3. Conduct keyword research

As far as content strategy goes, this step is crucial. You won't get where you want to go without it. There are many excellent tools out there to help you with keyword research, particularly if you're considering investing time in SEO, but if you want to start small (read: free), you can't beat Google's keyword tool. You'll need to sign into Google AdWords to access it (you can make an account without launching a campaign).

The data you're looking for will build your blog posts. Search for a term and make sure you sort your results by Global Monthly Searches. Google's keyword tool will let you switch between its normal interface and a beta version; we suggest that you make the most of the beta version and this is why. You're not interested in the raw numbers as much as you are in associations: the beta tool will tell you your related terms, and from that you can extract what your audience is actually searching for. We're talking nitty-gritty details. Brian Clark of Copyblogger fame provides and invaluable guide to keyword research that is highly recommended.

As you go along, it's time to break out the spreadsheets. Start outlining terms and associations by theme. It's fine to focus on the numbers--after all, they can be quite indicative of market demand--but be sure that you aren't simply pasting in a collection of the highest searched terms. These must tie back into your individual SMB and your current marketing plan. Content created to drive large amounts of traffic is unlikely to succeed--and the traffic won't be the high quality you want.

Most of all, look for exploitable gaps. Certain terms that are highly searched for are also already saturated with content. Remember, get specific (eg: "best tent for tropical climates" as opposed to "best tents"). You want to find ways to bring value to your audience that aren't highly competitive yet.

4. Research your audience

One of the most effective ways to create a solid content strategy is to repeat steps 3 and 4 multiple times. In fact, that's the only way you'll get anywhere. After you've gathered a basic feeling for how your industry is being searched for on the web, it's time to take a look at your audience. Your marketing plan likely has good information: charts and figures and the like. But what you need to know now is their habits and habitats.

Find out where your audience spends their time: which websites, which social media platforms, which forums? Are they also interested in a related sector? Once you have a firm grasp on these things, return to your keyword research and see how you can apply it.

5. Think SEO

Whether or not you've invested in having your website search-engine optimized, content strategy works best when created with SEO in mind. Start thinking about ways to package up your findings from steps 3 and 4. The most important principle of SEO to keep in mind here is to tackle one thing at a time. Because search engines base results on a page-by-page basis, you need to frame your blog article around a single topic. This will prevent diluting your message by creating content that addresses 3-4 tangential aspects of a topic. Of course, if this broader format would better suit your audience, then by all means, go for it; if you can, turn those tangential aspects into spin-off blog posts and link back to the original article. Each article should be related to another article without focusing on the exact same term.

Create a web of articles, each focused on a single primary topic, that will be easy for bots to crawl.

6. Think sustainably

Now for a dose of pragmatism. You're starting to formulate what you want your content to be. How frequently will you post it? How many team members will participate and when?

Create a publish schedule of when your articles will go out--and stick to it. You can do a little research into specific timing for your industry (it varies widely, but many industries see a peak around Tuesday and Wednesday, and typically between 9 am and 11 am); if you're running Google Analytics, you can review when your site is hit the most often.

More frequent posts are generally better, but keep in mind that content strategy is a long-term initiative. You don't want to embark on a blog post a day and burn yourself (or your team) out in two weeks. You can stay real and organic while still maintaining a plan. As far as content marketing goes, quality always trumps quantity, and reliability trumps sporadic timing. Plan to be in this for the long haul.

7. Think socially

You've got the what, the by whom, and the where: now you need to determine to where you will send your articles. SEO can do wonders, but it can take time. Review your results from step 4. If you're already on Facebook and Twitter, you can start stunning your audience with your articles there. Consider also sharing on G+, or sites like Reddit.

Good content strategy always includes social thinking because the right content will create an opportunity for a conversation with your audience. And conversation creates conversions. Be prepared to engage.

8. Commit

That brings us to committing. Decide that you'll allocate a specific amount of time to seeing your content strategy to fruition. Give it six months or a year, at least, and retouch your strategy every few months. Nothing's worse for an SMB than starting something and leaving it unfinished on the internet. Keep your success metrics in mind and give your content time to do its thing.

9. Use your resources

No entrepreneur is an island unto himself; you aren't alone. Many SMBs have made content strategy a valuable part of their marketing; smart content marketing is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of spreading a young brand. Make the most of your resources by encouraging your team to spread the word and get involved, share with your community, broadcast your content through email and social media. Your tribe is almost always one of your biggest resources. But if external support is called for, we're easy to get in touch with and will be glad to see how we can help out.

Has your SMB tackled content strategy yet? If so, what was your process? Drop us a note in the comments below and don't forget to share our content strategy guide on Facebook or Twitter!