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This article is an extract from the book “Content Marketing Strategy” by Robert Rose ©2023 and is reproduced and adapted with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.
This article is the first in a series of three (Read: Designing The Content Marketing Strategy Measurement and Defining The Responsibilities In The Content Lifecycle) on Search Engine Journal that delve deeper into the concepts discussed in the book, which officially launched on September 26, 2023.
As a token of appreciation for your readership, Kogan Page Ltd. has generously shared a 20% discount code exclusively for Search Engine Journal readers. If you’re interested in purchasing the book, please use the promo code CMS20 at www.koganpage.com/content-marketing-strategy to redeem it.
The content marketing strategy begins with three core pillars: Communication, Experiences, and Operations (which bridges the other two).
These pillars overlap slightly and thus frame five specific categories of activities that managers in the business will perform.
Following are descriptions of the pillars and their associated activities.
1. Coordinated Communication
As we established at the beginning of this book, business content is communication.
So, the business must perform certain activities to better coordinate the use of content in order to acquire, keep, and grow customers and other audiences.
A successful business communicates clearly and with a consistent voice. It is also able to communicate in creative and uniquely relevant ways that reflect the diversity of its people and audiences.
To achieve that delicate balance of consistency and diversity, coordination is critical. This means that the first core category of activities in the communication pillar is Purpose. This is content-as-a-capability.
Many businesses fall into a trap because they believe that content marketing can simply be created as a “skill position” within the business.
They hire a few journalists, editors, creative copywriters, and subject matter experts, and set them off to be “good” at creating and managing valuable content.
But, as I said in the previous chapter, businesses that are managing successful content marketing strategies realize that the primary purpose of a capable content team is not to be good at creating content.
It is, rather, to enable the business to be good at the operation of content. Those journalists, creative copywriters, or subject matter experts are usually thrown into a business with only the task to “create great stuff.”
There is usually no shortage of that demand, but they quickly become swamped and don’t have the skill, power, or infrastructure to say “no” when things get to be too much.
Quality starts to suffer, and then doubts start creeping in as to whether or not these are the right people, or whether successful content marketing is even possible.
The Purpose activity, then, is to develop and manage a clear set of core responsibilities and processes that build and continually assess the allocation of resources, skill sets, and clear charters that a content marketing team will need in order to become a differentiated business capability.
One of those skills may be the actual creation of content – but there are assuredly others as well (and we’ll explore them later in this book).
That leads to the second activity category in the Communication Pillar: The Model, or content-as-coordinated-communications. The Model activity also overlaps into the Operations Pillar, which we’ll describe shortly.
Every business that succeeds with content marketing strategy will have a well-defined and well-understood governance/operating model.
For example, the business we just discussed, with all those journalists, may end up with an entire department devoted to content marketing as a “centralized” team.
The Cleveland Clinic is a great example of this. The world-renowned hospital has created a centralized content marketing department that is a functioning business unit.
They started with a handful of content creators and evolved into a diverse and multi-functional, but centralized, team with clear and standard operating processes.
Other businesses may deploy a “federated model” in which the content team is responsible for creating only a small percentage of content. In fact, their entire functional model may be devoted to enabling the other departments in the business to create, manage, activate, and measure quality content across multiple channels.
Their role – much like a federal government – is really to provide a centralized place where “laws” (e.g., standards, playbooks, workflows, etc.) are created and kept so that everyone is working in the same way. A great example of this is Anthem Blue Cross Insurance (now Elevance Health).
This company employs 98,000 people and consists of multiple businesses, including pharmaceutical insurance, dental insurance, long-term care, and disability.
You’ll read more about their journey in the next chapter, but one of the keys for the content team leader there was to create a formal charter for her team.
They created an organizational process where the different product groups have coordinated representation, allowing each to interface with the content team.
The brand content team is responsible for curating, creating, packaging, and making available Elevance-level brand stories.
2. A Portfolio Of Experiences
You’ve just learned that a coordinated communication/content approach is managing the quantity, and quality, of what the entire business wants to say.
That leads us to the second pillar of a content marketing strategy – Experiences – all the way at the other end of the spectrum. Experiences are the designed containers of content being created for audiences.
No matter how big a business is, it needs a strategic approach to how the content it creates will be utilized to power designed platforms such as emails, websites, resource centers, print magazines, PDF files, events, blogs, or even social media channels.
This is a critical aspect of operating like a media company that has owned media properties.
For example, when a media company thinks of its next production, it may start as a movie – but then, almost immediately, operational and management processes kick in to explore how that same content will be leveraged in books, television, podcasts, interactive entertainment, etc.
The story comes first, and then the thinking for all the different kinds of containers that might express that story in different ways.
Remember, for media companies, the experience that they monetize is the product. And they have two primary ways of monetizing it.
They monetize access to the experience with models like subscriptions or selling a limited number of tickets.
Or media companies will monetize the experience by selling access to the audience consuming it by allowing sponsors to create content that will be contained in it. This is the model of advertising or sponsored content.
Our owned media experiences for business should be no different. All of a brand’s owned media channels – the website, blog, resource center, ecommerce catalog, print magazine, etc. – should be treated with the same care and consideration as the existing product/service lines.
Just like a media company, we should think “content first” and then how we will create all the different kinds of containers to deliver that content.
We manage all of these as a portfolio of experiences that exploit valuable content for audiences. Each container should have strategic purpose, goals, and objectives.
Arguing, for example, that our website or our blog is less important than any of our products and services is essentially arguing that they shouldn’t exist at all.
So, as with any product or service, someone needs to be responsible for ensuring that these experiences are updated and that they have charters, goals, and specific strategies that are optimized to meet the needs of the consumers (audiences) they serve.
They should be designed and evolved to meet new market demands, promoted in a standard way, and measured against shared business goals. Further, like any of our products and services, they should be easily discontinued when they no longer suit our business objectives.
This pillar is founded on the idea that there is a team focused on the process of producing and managing the platforms of a company’s owned media strategy in a way that is optimal for the company’s business goals.
The two activity categories within this pillar are Audience and Value.
Audience is where the business must define each experience as a product. In other words, Audience is content-as-product. This harkens back to the earliest days of the 4 Ps.
Just like we would create a plan for every product or service we would bring to market, we now need to create product plans for our owned media experiences.
This means crafting a solution that fits a market need, initiating market research into the audience and understanding them well, and having specific, measurable goals for each content-driven experience being launched.
This book dives deep into the Audience activity.
Treating experiences this way helps us deliver their ultimate goal, which is Value. Value is content-as-insight. Meeting all of the designed objectives of a portfolio of experiences delivers the value of the content marketing strategy.
This activity is where we integrate insight and map out exactly where, when, and how the content marketing strategy will provide it. Designing a measurement and value approach is a core piece of this book.
And that gets us to the third content marketing strategy pillar, the glue that holds Coordinated Communications and Experiences together.
3. Strategic Operations
Consider for a moment the practice of accounting.
It is one of the oldest business practices in the world, dating back to the 1400s when mathematician Luca Pacioli created the double-entry accounting system and introduced the idea of ledgers, journals, and bookkeeping.
The reasons for standards and predictable guidelines in accounting are easy to understand.
Finance touches every part of a business. Everyone in business does some form of accounting, from the way timesheets are completed to procurement requisitions, vendor relationships, product sales, and even the use of raw materials for products and services.
Now think about content and marketing. Today, it is just as pervasive as accounting – or even more so in some cases. Creating content for business communication touches every single part of the business. It’s the water in which we swim.
Yet, most businesses handle the creation, management, distribution, and measurement of content in an ad hoc manner.
In a 2022 article for McKinsey Consulting, one former retail CEO said,
If that is true, then it’s also true that it’s hard to separate company strategy from our content strategy.
Today, marketing departments are looked at as factories – places where something successful should be replicable a million times.
In order to achieve consistency in replicating success and become a core business strategy, content marketing must have a clearly articulated and replicable process that can flex and accommodate new ideas as they emerge.
The activity in this pillar is the Frame, or content-as-standard.
If activation of engaging content is now the heart of marketing, content operations are what make the heart beat.
As we’ve established, everyone in the business creates content: the web team, the marketing automation/demand-gen team, the content marketing team, agencies, executives, frontline account representatives, salespeople, human resources, and even accounting, with invoices, contracts, and onboarding documentation.
In fact, it’s probably easier to count all the people who don’t create digital customer communications these days. We’ve established that setting up communications coordination is a primary pillar of a standardized approach to content.
Additionally, today businesses operate in a multichannel world with, typically, dozens of channels (experiences) that have to be populated with content in multiple formats.
For example, consider a company that launches two to four new products each quarter. For each new product launch, there are 10 assets planned, including brochures, product tech briefs, a thought leadership paper, etc.
That may not sound like very much, but each of the 10 assets needs to be customized for the 5 major service partners that will support the marketing, and each of those service partners has promotional assets that need to be customized for different content types or channel specifications (social media, video, etc.).
Finally, all of those assets need to be translated into four languages. The net result is that 10 planned pieces of content turn into approximately 300 digital assets that need to be designed and produced.
Multiply that by 2 new products per quarter, and you end up with approximately 2,400 digital assets created every year just for new product launches.
So, it doesn’t matter how big the business is – a repeatable set of processes must be put in place that are governed by standards, guidelines, playbooks, and technology.
We call this the Frame activities because, very much like the frame of your house, it’s what holds everything up. It is content-as-a-standard.
This third pillar, Operations, is the people, processes, and technology that help create a repeatable, consistent process to connect the coordinated content creators (pillar 1) with the experiences powered by the content they are creating (pillar 2).
With the right content operational model in place, you can scale and measure enterprise content.
Together these three pillars and the five building-block activities form a competency framework for the entirety of your content marketing strategy. They are pressure points that help to determine how strong or weak your strategy is.
For example, when I work with a company that is struggling with the purpose of their corporate blog, I might first press on the Audience button. I can see how strong we are at a company-wide understanding of how well we perform that activity.
I can examine what makes that category of activity different or optimal.
That, then, helps me as a strategist understand where I may need to change the activity or strengthen any of the other pillars of coordinating communication, operational processes, or managing the experiences.
This framework puts a conceptual structure to meaningful questions that must be answered:
- What competencies and skill sets are needed for different roles of people, processes, and technologies in the business in each of the pillars?
- What working models will be required, valued, recognized, and rewarded with regard to a functioning content strategy?
- How will we define the internal processes of operating like a media company so that this can be scaled and measured as an effective business function?
- How will the framework provide for measurable objectives, the results of which will provide insight into the value being created both for the audiences and the business?
- How do we guide the differentiating operational focus for content marketing that can provide the evolving competitive advantage that the business wants?
You may wonder whether there is an overarching template, a cheat sheet, or standardized answers to these questions. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately for those of you who are looking for a quick answer, there is not.
Welcome to the art and science of content marketing strategy. It reminds me of the challenge that James Culliton faced in 1948 while introducing the marketing mix, and Jerome McCarthy had in 1960 introducing the 4 Ps.
While the framework may be useful, there is no single answer for any one company about a template marketing mix or use of the 4 Ps. The ingredients for your perfect mix of content marketing strategy will be yours, and very different, indeed.
There is no template. There is no perfect recipe.
One of the most important things we’ve learned after working on content marketing strategy for hundreds of brands over the last decade is that what you put into those categories of activities is much less important than consciously making the decision to put something in there.
As statistician George Box once said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
Successful content marketing, either consciously or unconsciously, uses elements of this model to bolster its operation. As I said at the beginning: successful, happy content marketers seem to have a similar way of working.
This is a model that we’ve seen work – it’s been tested.
In fact, you may have realized at some point during this chapter that the rest of this book is organized by covering each of the categories of activities in our content marketing strategy model.
If you can formulate, structure, and pressure-test your activities in each box, then you are well on your way to creating a great content marketing strategy.
Let’s get to it.