I spend a lot of time creating content, talking about content, and creating content about creating content. So much so that the word content is hard for me to even say without feeling a little weird about it. Say any word enough and it begins to lose meaning. Sometimes I feel as if I’m trapped within a slightly-bigger-than-me-sized content bubble, that I’ve lost any objectivity when it comes to what it means to create content and understand how it operates in the world. That may or may not be true. But despite the disorientation that is sometimes at the heart of the content experience, I can see that content has taught me a thing or two.
Creating content requires planning, investment, systems and management, teamwork, and time. That much is obvious. But it also requires self-awareness, curiosity, patience, restraint, perseverance and humility. You may not initially bring those qualities to your content marketing strategy, but eventually, you will come out with them.
I’d like to assume that you’re already persuaded that adopting a content marketing strategy is the best way for a firm like yours to make its expertise known. Are you? If not, consider that your firm could be like thousands of others that in the last several years have shifted their marketing focus from push to pull, saving enormous sums on staffing miserable cold-callers, deadtree advertising, and potentially even millions more on otherwise demonstrating their capabilities by doing work on spec (commonly known as the RFP—for more information on why RFPs are evil, see Blair Enns).
Content marketing isn’t a trend, it’s the result of a logical progression of ideas, beginning with the “flattening” power of the internet and maintained by another power: our collective, earnest desire to prove our expertise to those who need and are willing to pay for it, and to waste as little time in the process as humanly possible. When not abused—where pretense outweighs capability, or noise exceeds signal—it is truly the most efficient means of connecting those who ask with those who answer.
And yet, another abuse is when we assume content marketing as a default strategy. For agencies especially, the first caveat to keep in mind is that while content may work for you, it may not always be the best approach for your client.
There are, in fact, plenty of instances in which the written content model is undeniably inadequate. With a few exceptions, most consumer products are not easily marketed with text. Typically, consumers prefer to let products “speak for themselves” in use and research their performance in reviews—which, of course, are found in abundant supply on the web—rather than defer to what the maker has to say about his wares. In most cases, our aversion to being sold is so strong that it leads us to struggle to believe the seller even when we believe in the value of his product! Those in the healthcare industry may also perceive reasons to take up content strategies of their own, but often locality and emergency are the primary factors in a consumer’s choice of care providers, rather than researched, advance consideration. Similarly, utility-type services—plumbers, electricians, mechanics, cleaners, etc.—are more likely to be selected on the basis of what is nearby, immediately available, and affordable than any pitch a blog or newsletter may provide. That isn’t to say that some form of content shouldn’t occupy a piece of the overall marketing strategy; there may be opportunities to use audio, video, and social media that could be quite effective, while not being the lead marketing initiative.
On the other hand, there are instances in which written content marketing works quite well. At the product end of the business spectrum, those manufactured for businesses, rather than consumers, are typically heavily researched by buyers—who make active use of search engines to do so—before purchase. Case studies, white papers, blog posts, and other articles can satisfy the researcher’s need for sharable, decision-reinforcing information, especially if they are enabling a buying decision that will ultimately be made by someone else. And obviously, the same dynamic exists within any “knowledge industry” service. For professionals in design, advertising, marketing, public relations, law, or finance, the essential intangibility of their expertise must be carefully described in-depth in diverse ways to qualify the specific nature of what they do and for whom they are best suited to do it.
I list these considerations in order to point out that our role as strategic advisors to our clients is not to promote the latest marketing practices, but to diagnose their needs and prescribe the best solution. Even if that ends up being an “old school” approach. Content marketing, though essential to the success of some enterprises, will not be the best fit for others. Naturally, our own fraught experience in employing content marketing for ourselves may be instructive of that point as well.
Even those who make content marketing look easy struggle deeply to do it well. Whether it’s a matter of setting the right goals, creating the system needed to achieve them, the creative process itself, promotion or even coping with its myriad practical, psychological, or emotional strains, EVERYONE is struggling. On that note, I’d like to share with you some observations I’ve made in my time doing (and helping others do) this content thing.
Content is marketing, not product
The first objection I usually hear voiced to doing content marketing is that it just takes up too much time. The problem with this objection, though, is that it’s unhelpfully vague. How much time specifically, do you think is worth allocating to doing content marketing? And more importantly, how do you determine the value of that time?
Those aren’t rhetorical questions. You should answer them. If you’re unsure how, start with looking at how much you budget for marketing in general. How much of that budget is going toward push methods? How have those campaigns performed in recent years? If you see a decline—or, frankly, can’t clearly measure them anyway—then you should be motivated to replace them with pull methods that are measurable.
Assessing the value of content marketing, like any other marketing expense, shouldn’t be on a unit-value basis. If, one day, you are able to turn your content into a direct revenue source, more power to you. But initially, you won’t. It’s marketing, not product. The new wrinkle is that you’ll now likely be spreading the effort across your firm; it won’t just be marketing staff spending time creating content. Just about everyone—principals, account managers, planners, project managers, designers, developers, etc.—should contribute in some way.
Avoid gluttony at the buffet
If skepticism is an obstacle to content marketing, so is unbridled enthusiasm. In fact, as the objections diminish over time, the appetite problem increases. With all the different content options available—public speaking, books, articles, whitepapers, newsletters, blogs, webinars, audio and video, and of course, social media, which I’ll get into later—it’s hard to exert caution when getting started. But the reality is that we all have to grow into our approaches to content marketing. Burnout is a very real risk with even a modest approach, but it’s a guarantee if you try to do it all at once.
Here’s what I recommend: Start with the formats that you know you can do well right now, and plan a specific but limited escalation strategy. For most firms, that means beginning with a newsletter and a blog. While a newsletter provides you with a long-form venue for routinely developing a single idea contained within one article—sort of a periodic opportunity for your firm to go “on the record” about something—a blog fills in the gaps by taking a cumulative approach to telling the ongoing story of your thinking through many shorter and less formal posts.
Once you’re able to stabilize that system, you can expand into other kinds of content production. Typically that means adding things like webinars or audio and videocasts, and eventually being recognized enough for your expertise to be offered opportunities to do offsite writing, speaking engagements, or even publish books.
In other words, all this content looks delicious, that’s for sure. Just don’t load up your plate with more than you can finish.
Congratulations, you just became a publisher. Who’s your content editor?
Yes, content is marketing, but the process of creating content still needs to be managed as if it’s the highly valued product of a publishing house. Specifically, you need personnel and systems in place to ensure that your content is consistent and effective.
Start by putting someone in place who, like an executive-level editor, can not only shape your content strategically, but also manage the entire process—organizing writers, creating an editorial calendar, reviewing and editing material, and promoting the finished product. While you may not be at a size where these responsibilities would fully occupy an individual employee’s time, this role should be a highly prioritized component of someone’s job. It should not be shared by several people; there needs to be a focused point of view, one point of contact for coordination, and a single authority.
As far as the editorial calendar is concerned, it needs to actually exist in a meaningful way. It’s not going to work if it remains in a document somewhere on a manager’s computer, or worse, in a series of promises and email exchanges. Set up a company-wide calendar, to which everyone has access, that includes every content deadline—blog posts, newsletters, webinars, etc.—and a clear indication of who is responsible for what. And plan as far ahead as possible, bearing in mind that all sorts of things should be expected to interfere and when they do, you’re not going to freak out about them.
Set ambitious goals that exceed your minimum (e.g. “We’re committing to a couple of blog posts a week across the entire company, but if we can get closer to 5-7, that would be great.”). It’s okay to fall short of your goal if you maintain your minimum level consistently. It’s just not worth it if striving for something greater causes radical swings in production because people are fluctuating between inspired and burned out.
And it would all work too, if it weren’t for those meddling egos!
The structure I just described would be easy to set up and maintain if it weren’t for one little detail: ego. Most people in leadership tend to agree that putting someone in charge of managing the processes behind content marketing is a good idea. But when it comes time to actually hand over control of that portion of a firm’s public image, that’s where theory collides with human nature.
Despite their outward appearance of free-spirited, egalitarian creativity and cooperation, many agencies are strict autocracies. Very little—perhaps even down to the desktop backgrounds of employee computers (yes, I’ve seen this)—is approved that does not conform to the vision of the leadership. For years now, the question of how much control should be exerted over an agency’s image, particularly as portrayed by content like blogging and social media, has been fiercely debated. And while it seems that, slowly, the grip is being loosened, it is still common for repression to hold sway.
If you’re in leadership, don’t assume that all of a firm’s content should be signed by the people at the top of the food chain. Content should be created by those best suited to the job. Ideally, that would include the leadership, but that may not always be possible, nor is it always best.
If you want to make the best decisions about content, no matter what role you play, the first rule is to check your ego at the door. Phil Johnson expressed this in a way that I will always remember when he wrote about his policy to never be the smartest guy in the room:
“There are obvious risks. You can make yourself obsolete. You might introduce competition for your own job. Worse yet, you may lose some of your star power. My stock expression at the office is that I take care of my ego at home…and I go to work to build a successful company. But it still hurts to see my ideas tossed on the agency trash pile. You’ve got to take these risks or you’ll stagnate and become a one-trick agency that will never grow beyond the limits of the top guy’s ideas and judgment.”
This is a principle that has obvious implications all over the management map, but applied strictly to content strategy, it means that though you may want to preserve your level of authority, importance or influence—whatever that may mean—by being the only public voice of your firm, that level of control could just as easily cripple what you’ve built than strengthen it. Your responsibility as a leader or manager requires a deep level of self-awareness, one that should honestly acknowledge your limits and seek out those who’s strengths fill in the gaps. Not every great leader is a great writer.
If you have surrounded yourself with intelligent, capable people, realize that in letting them do their jobs, you have already let your firm be defined by them—how they think, how they speak, and how they write. In many cases, your clients’ experience of your firm is more greatly defined by your employees than by you. This is usually a good thing. Why handle content any differently?
With your limits and your firm in proper perspective, you can begin to distribute content responsibilities in terms of individual and group priorities. Because successful content tends to beget opportunities to create more content, it’s likely that you’ll have some people who might do a mixture of things: Some doing lots of public speaking and a little writing, others lots of writing and the occasional event. But if you define your individual success on the basis of conquering every level on an equal basis—prolific blogging, writing for the influential publications, speaking at important events, publishing books—you are inviting burnout. You may be that talented. But if you are not, that is OK. Those are all positive goals for a firm, and easily obtained by a group that works together.
A brief note on the importance of engagement
Someday, you will run out of ideas. Then, your content well will dry up. But you can avoid that.
Talk to other people. Listen to what they have to say. Read what they write. That is engagement. Do it in whatever form works for you. There is no viable content strategy that does not rely almost completely upon engagement.
An even briefer note on promotion
There are many channels for promotion, but few that probably make sense for you. Choose wisely, keeping in mind that what we say to get attention is often very different from what we say when we have it.
Writing, Et Cetera
Content marketing isn’t all writing, but it certainly can be a lot of writing. The trouble, of course, is that many people who need to be doing content marketing never wanted to be writers in the first place. They wanted to do something else. They studied that thing, got good at that thing, and eventually got a job doing that thing. But now, in order to keep doing that thing, they have to write about it.
It’s not that they can’t write. Thinking of writing in terms of those that can versus those that can’t is a bit too blunt for reality. We all can write and already spend most of our day doing it in some form (it’s called email). But feeling obligated to write in a more formal way is not likely to draw good writing out of anyone, especially when the stakes feel so high and especially for those that just don’t enjoy writing.
Fortunately, there are ways to make it easier. But they’ll only work if you want them to work. If you don’t want to write and spend the time working on it, no trick or motivational speech will make you a good writer.
Before you fall into the trap of thinking, “I’m no good if I don’t write good,” remember, this is not a question of literacy. You can write. In fact, if you’re willing to spend the time, you can probably write quite well. But writing isn’t your only option. If you are part of a team, there are other ways to contribute, ways that are equally important components of how a firm describes its expertise. But they’ll take time, too. Every aspect of content marketing—writing, speaking, audio and video production, illustration, editing, and management—requires a large investment of someone’s time. Whether that time is spent by you is entirely up to you. The question you must ask is how are you best suited to make a contribution, and are you interested in spending your time to do so?
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