- August 8, 2017
- Posted by: Robert Rose
- Category: Business Transformation, Content Marketing, Content Strategy
As business managers, we work together at conference tables. Speckled laminate. Glossy birds-eye maple. Delicately oval. Squarely utilitarian. Conference tables vary in style, but serve a practical function in both simple team and monumental executive-level meetings alike.
My friend Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, often says something about content that I continually use in my work. “If the content we create is a business asset,” Scott says, “it’s worthy of being managed well.” So my focus is content marketing and my work, when I get asked to the conference table, is squarely focused on how content and storytelling can be a driver to business results. And one of the first things I commonly ask is, “Where is your content strategist?”
There is no doubt that the practice of content marketing and content strategy are different. Whatever the table surface, however buttery-soft the chair, the two roles are complementary, yet are separate nodes in the same circular loop of communication running between brand, target audiences, and effective communication. As both are trying to earn a seat at the decision conference table, the two practices would do well to work together.
Marketing & Content Become More Strategic
Being present at the decision-making place is a psychological sign of achievement as much as a physical one. Why is it that we don’t wonder why some departments have long held a seat of distinction—IT, HR, legal, R&D, accounting—while others are still yelling “Shotgun!” as they race to snare the wobbly-legged chair in front of the one remaining rough-edged corner? Go on; think about your company’s organizational makeup. Who might the discussion latecomer be? Customer service? A technical team member? Marketing-slash-Web-content folk? Yes, let’s look there.
Marketing and content should be more strategic processes in today’s company. That might seem an odd statement, but in my experience I still find that the practice of marketing and content strategy is subservient to almost every other department in the company. Can marketing folks talk to customers to understand their needs? No. Why? The sales department won’t allow it. Can content strategy even be recognized as a strategic part of the organization? No. Why? Because they’re often viewed as the nerds with red staplers (and pens), hidden away in dark crevices of the organization handling the documentation.
The process of marketing is changing. It’s becoming a fluid discipline, one that transmutes as technological, cultural, and economic levers alternately release and tighten in a wary, uncertain economy. Businesses can’t afford to ignore new communication platforms, like mobile and social, any more than they can cram wi-fi, Bluetooth, and hyper-connectedness back into the suitcase phones of the early 1990s.
Today’s marketing strategy uses content. It reaches around the weekly circular, through the TV commercial break, into the mailbox, down the phone line, and over the billboard to land on 32 simultaneously open browser tabs, 4 stacked-up webinars, who-knows-how-many smart phone apps, and two extended monitors. And that just describes today at the office. We haven’t even begun to talk about multi-tasking in front of the television.
The point is, as consumers and content creators alike, we’ve taken our long-standing communication channels, wrapped them in self-selected filtering platforms, and layered on functional task expectations (is there an app for that?), and tied them up with a collective demand for information. Good technology, unlimited data packages, “free” audience access (thanks, social media), and a content-hungry society means marketing opportunities abound, and there are a thousand ways for a brand to make Gawker.com (and not all of them are good).
Excuse Me, Can You Validate Me?
Marketing and communication haven’t been centered on traditional media for some time. Yes, those elements may still comprise part of the mix. But smart companies are learning to change the lens through which they view their efforts to keep up with consumers. Overt selling has given way to problem-solving. Sweeping statements have evolved to conversation-like messages. How customers feel when using our products and whether their lives are made more enjoyable and stress-free have become one of the litmus tests of success.
And this transformation is where savvy content strategists are seeing their fast-growing opportunity to get a seat at that table. As the process of marketing changes, the content strategist can find a way to demonstrate true value in understanding how to make marketing teams better. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, content strategists make marketing want to be better communicators.
And it is because of marketing’s ongoing fluidity—a true asset, I maintain—that some not-as-savvy content strategists believe marketing to still be of lesser value, more subjective, and only moderately empirically effective in achieving business goals. Marketers select hero photos and pen soft blog posts, nothing as cerebral and critical as actualized UX design or content inventory modeling. Right? Wrong.
Under-appreciation (from both perspectives) can present quite a disadvantage to emerging content strategists, content marketers, social media specialists, and community managers. Success requires education, validation, patience, and (most of all) communication. Champions of the new age of content-at-the-center-of-strategy must develop these nascent positions into more seasoned forms with a goal on advancing content-rooted disciplines by increasing understanding and acceptance among members of other departments.
Gaining admittance to the big-kid discussions is the first step for folks like content strategists and content marketers. The second may be busting preconceptions and resistance. For all the value a sound content strategy brings to marketing, there are times when content assets—like a blog post—are as they appear. No more, no less.
But also, marketers need to understand that, on the whole, content assets are more impactful when planned and developed as a holistic unit supporting a strategic objective to be distributed around multiple channels. People consume content in myriad ways throughout each day, and multiple platforms provide the means by which to concentrate on distinct message points to support the spectrum of learning modalities.
Our society’s increasing connectedness demands greater availability of information and increased functional sophistication. Content strategy plays a pivotal role in creating quality branded user environments, but may be overlooked in critical early planning phases of project management as an unnecessary investment or superfluous step. How can this be? As practitioner kinfolk, how can content marketers help validate content strategists so they can take their rightful seat at the discussion table? The answer may lie in how we help them tell their story.
Content Strategy Could Use a Little Content Marketing
The dichotomy of storytelling is that it can be as much (or more) about showing, about demonstrating, than telling. Through thoughtful use cases, illustrative examples, and experience-based solutions, content marketers and strategists alike can show users a path to resolution. Eliminating pain points—from lingering questions like “How do I …” to “what makes brand X different …”—is an objective of both content marketers and strategists alike. Marketers must step up and help the content strategist tell this story in a compelling way both internally and externally. And the content strategist must make sure the story is accurate and told as effectively as possible.
One of marketing’s many ironies (including that it’s frequently the first to be gutted when times are tough) is that it’s often dismissed as having a soft, dotted, or indirect financial business impact. In reality, marketing encompasses, enables, and supports short- and long-term critical business functions from service to retention to acquisition to reputation.
Marketing’s usefulness to these business functions stems both from its stalwart principles (think 4 P’s, SWOT, and KPIs) and its adaptability. What other area of business can serve so strong a resource to so many others, internal and external to the company? The list is short.
Similarly, the practice of content strategy informs visual and information design influencing user experience; content marketing is a vehicle for imparting brand stories influencing decision-making. There’s some overlap, as I’ve described. But there’s plenty of separation, too.
And the value of the content strategist to the marketer is as palpable. Content strategy can be as pragmatic as content marketing can be indulgent. The former methodically strips away the unnecessary and the excessive, drawing on commonly held and prioritized communication objectives to present information.
As I like to say, content strategy is a fine-edged scalpel while content marketing is a set of colorful magic markers. Both should rest in the top tray of the customer engagement toolbox, close at hand.
But no one gets a seat at the table—regardless of the discussion topic—without first demonstrating core competencies and a minimum depth of experience. Plus a bottle of peer juice to help fill in any unfortunate gaps (never doubt the power of networking). Lack those career assets? Stop. Do not pass go. It’s nose on the glass time, and you’re watching the meeting from the outside.
Today’s successful brands aren’t throwing open the doors to invite just any fresh-face, tablet-toting content person up to the table. Competition for good jobs remains stiff and the expectation of demonstrating results is more pervasive than ever. Content strategists and content marketers alike are tasked with growing proficiency in an ever-increasing number of technical programs and software as well as developing cross-discipline fluency to improve collaboration with developers, designers, project managers, and editors.
While some seat holders remain skeptical (heck, sometimes even openly hostile), still others support content’s place in the conference room. Truth is, companies need qualified, talented people to corral the content, shape it into something useful and interesting, and deliver it in usable formats. As we all know, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
With greater collaboration between all the roles under marketing’s umbrella, content strategy will eventually distinguish itself as the mission of the folks that care about user goals and behaviors like no other.
And doesn’t every brand need someone to advocate for the customer as much as it needs someone to spread its unique story? I think yes.
Now, will someone please go fetch that table leaf? It’s time we made more room.