Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Lessons Learned from the Content Front

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.



Avoiding 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 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?


Christopher Butler | February 6, 2012 11:50 AM
Sergey: Thanks for the compliment!

Jon: Very, very noisy! Thanks for the link.

Elizabeth: You're spot on there. Having an editor, whether formally or informally (i.e. someone other than you to read over what you've written before it's published) is essential. But editing on a deeper level, as you describe, is even better: someone who understands you and your ideas so that they can help you to better communicate them.

Amber: Sure it can. There are some "firms" that are essentially one person that handle content strategy just as well as we do. The only difference might be in the amount of content created, the frequency, or the variety of formats that can be implemented. But the core concept driving content marketing—that it's about describing your expertise for those in need of it—can scale anywhere from one person to much larger corporations.

Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting!
Amber James | January 31, 2012 7:47 PM
Hi Christopher,

As a new reader to all things content marketing, I appreciate your article immensely.

And as a freelance copywriter, I'm wondering if the content strategy for a firm can be converted onto a miniature scale for a one-woman show like mine. Or would the strategy require a completely different approach?

Thanks again for all the work you put into this article.

Elizabeth | January 30, 2012 12:25 PM
Great article. A lot of people will benefit from your experience. Regarding your last section about contributors who don't feel confident writing -- that's why an editor is such a good idea. As long as other employees share their ideas and expertise, the editor can write or assign a writer. It takes far less time for a writer to interview a subject matter expert and then craft a piece than for a non-writer to stew over a hated task and then hand in something that will probably need extensive editing anyway.
An editor can also spot ideas that non-writers don't recognize, so it's important for the editor to mix with employees throughout the company and hear what they have to say: content by walkabout.
Jon Yoffie | January 27, 2012 11:30 PM
As more companies adopt content and inbound marketing, it's bound to start getting pretty noisy out there. Do it well, or, "Just publish"? Easy decision, not an easy process. Great post.
Sergey M Silaev | January 27, 2012 5:33 PM
Quite difficult for me but I understood the essence)). Beautifully written, thank you.

Think, read one more time..
Christopher Butler | January 27, 2012 8:56 AM
Thanks, everyone, for reading this and taking the time to leave a comment!

Bill: There certainly is. In fact, I'm going to follow this newsletter up next month with a "sequel" of sorts that addresses your questions. As a preview, though, I'm going to outline a four-stage approach to content strategy that allows firms to ease into something that will be effective and consistent.

JJ: My answers aren't going to be great: I'm often my own editor, though I often run these articles by my colleagues at Newfangled, as well as a few other friends who I trust to tell me when I'm not being clear, when I'm not being concise enough, or any other problem. I also do the illustrations for all but just a few of these articles (incidentally, I just wrote a blog post giving a behind-the-scenes look at what went into writing this article, as well as creating the imagery. You'll see some of the rough draft images, if you're interested). I'll occasionally get relief from Justin Kerr, Newfangled's Creative Director, though. He did the illustration for last January's piece on persona development, which, coincidentally, was also a suited man on a yellow background.

Steve: I think the adjustments you're describing are sound. Keep me posted on how it goes—I'll be interested to hear.
Steve Kieselstein | January 26, 2012 5:18 PM
Great and (painfully for us) timely article Chris, thank you.

Our content strategy, put in place last year, did center on a blog and a newsletter. We wrote a lot less than we would have liked, yet found it took up a lot more time than we expected. We had a firm meeting during January to try to figure out why. Our conclusions: too many starts and stops, resulting from key-person (me) bottlenecks; a too-complicated review and editing procedure; and over-ambition in attempting what should have been shorter, one-idea blog posts. Trying this year to learn from our mistakes.

I will admit this: ego aside, when it comes to the firm's entire image, it is very, very difficult to delegate decision-making even when you are comfortable with the people on your team. You feel like if there is anything you should be deciding, this is it.
Chris Sholler | January 26, 2012 12:33 PM
Good stuff and great advice, especially on biting off more than you can chew when getting started with content marketing. It can get exhausting quickly if you don't consider your limitations and resources.

Leban Hyde | January 26, 2012 12:08 PM

Another great read. I appreciate your word of caution on burn-out. It does oftentimes feel like we are all racing from one venue to another to churn out content. Starting small and building out is definitely a lot more productive (and easier to measure).

Eric Torres | January 26, 2012 11:50 AM
I really like the images, woow simple and attractive.
The Fiver of Content, i totally agree !

Thanks !!
Tom Lanen | January 26, 2012 10:52 AM
Well-stated Chris, and timely.
Jonsie | January 26, 2012 9:18 AM
very much on point. thanks for sharing.
JJ | January 26, 2012 9:13 AM
Love it. Very helpful stuff!

Two questions:

Who is your editor?

Who does the illustrations (who is your art director)?
Bill Rossiere | January 26, 2012 9:08 AM
Chris, fantastic piece.

Content is an abused term and it's great to see someone bringing some clarity to what it should mean to all of us. Would love to see a plan or framework for how to handle content so that we don't fall victim to your "gluttony at the buffet" problem. I get how centralizing mgmt of it will help, but is there any more structure you can recommend?

Thanks again for your thoughts.
alexa | January 24, 2012 8:28 PM
thanks for another must-read. I detest hearing the usual "content is king" stuff, but you're pov on this is definitely for real.

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