Can A Smart Content Strategy Be Sexy Again?

smart content strategy

When it comes to a smart content strategy, can content strategy be the kind of change that is meaningful in business. Can content strategy be sexy again?

Change fatigue. It’s a thing.

My good friend and amazing consultant Jenny Magic wrote a whole book on the topic.

Undeniably, fewer businesses have worked on innovative or incremental marketing change over the last 12 months. I’ve seen it. Technology companies have seen it. Consulting firms have seen it. The number of new, active, innovative marketing change projects has been fewer and farther between than at any time in recent memory.

A CMO I know at a large technology company uses the term “change absorption” to describe the challenge businesses face from the waves of changes and disruption that have barely slowed since the pandemic. 

With digital marketing and customer experience transforming, paid media and social strategies evolving, and AI integration looming, leaders have to absorb a lot of change.

But here’s the thing. All that change remains hampered because so many businesses still haven’t evolved their content strategy.

But why is a smart content strategy the kind of project that businesses don’t want to take on?

Smart content strategy projects still aren’t the sexiest

Despite the state of change absorption, I see one challenge again and again at businesses, both large and small: Improvements in content strategy fail to excite people enough to motivate the big changes they will require.

When a company’s content strategy is suboptimal but not so broken as to undermine success, the anticipated pain of changing feels greater than the pain that might (or might not) arise if nothing changes.

It’s a Catch-22. No one wants to throw out the existing approach to a new, smart, content strategy even if they recognize it might be better.. Why? Because the way it’s working now is the way it’s worked for years. And people rightfully question whether any reinvention will prove as amazing as promised.

Inevitably, companies struggle to implement a smart content strategy because it risks failing. On the other hand, they don’t give themselves the chance to make a change that could produce remarkable results.

A decade ago, marketing leader Seth Godin wrote these words about making something incrementally better:

“If you define success as getting closer and closer to a mythical perfection, an agreed-upon standard, it’s extremely difficult to become remarkable. Particularly if the field is competitive. Can’t get rounder than round.”

– Seth Godin

These days — almost in spite of the innovation of AI — I see content and marketing approaches stuck in a rut more than ever. Yes, marketers tried to initiate big changes coming out of the pandemic, and some of them worked, and some didn’t. But now, teams push harder for every single incremental improvement.

New approaches provide a much-needed shake-up. But you can’t sell them in a way that promises those “big evolutions of efficiency or productiveness” that everybody is still trying to absorb four years later. Rather, pitch them as new windows into what’s possible.

Selling change is hard when things ‘aren’t that bad’

I recently helped a client audit their content development process and found the content team suffering. Despite implementing a cool new collaborative workflow system a few years ago, siloed product groups still held all the marketing budget. So, the content team couldn’t control content requests. And because the workflow system was implemented using the same process that worked pre-pandemic, the product groups still lacked insight into other teams’ requests. They often asked for new content pieces without realizing something similar already existed.

We discussed how a new approach to content creation could help create a new possibility of insight and measurement capabilities. We would add a step for collaborative content planning to the initial development process.

Unfortunately, many of the product teams viewed the efficiency promise as an incremental improvement to an otherwise working model. They resisted adding “yet another step” to their content process.

For them, not changing anything was easier than changing the way they worked for a possible improvement for the content team (and thus the business).

Nothing changed. What happened?

Well, nothing. Nobody got fired. No massive failures occurred. Content development just kept going inefficiently and with no increases in content quality or performance.

But the ongoing stress and drudgery felt insidious. How long will members of the content team stay inspired and engaged before they start churning out pieces that fit the request but go no further? And worse, the company failed to gain any new perspective on how much better things (including content and employee satisfaction) could be.

Most people do things based on what they think they know today. But what if they’re wrong? What if you took the time to test something new, even if the change caused temporary discomfort? The only way to know if things could work better is to try something different.

No change gets you nowhere

Now, I know the idea of creating a smart content strategy and the processes that go along with it seems esoteric. Sometimes, even raising the suggestion raises hackles. People eye these conversations with suspicion based on their experiences with frustrating brand value discussions that didn’t move the needle.

But doing nothing new rarely leads to success.

I know a large B2B company where the global marketing team created incredible experiences for customers, partners, and even prospective employees. Over the last 10 years, though, the steady drip and monotony of not doing anything new reduced the team to doing almost nothing. They only send brand emails created by an agency, review and distribute internal sell sheets created by the design team, create content on the company’s sustainable practices, and ensure the correct use of the logo in press releases by the comms team.

Is it any wonder that much of this team ended up in the company’s recent bulk layoffs — all of which were blamed on (yup, you guessed it) generative AI. All the things they did were seen as easily replaceable.

When selling change feels hard, what can you do? Turn your maps upside down occasionally. Adopt a new perspective on what it takes to differentiate your business.

Here are some ideas.

Tell the change story the South Park way 

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who created the hit series South Park, have a clever technique for telling stories that hold people’s attention by creating tension and a sense that the outcome really matters. The technique seems remarkably simple:  When they write a sequence, they follow all the “and then” phrases with “but,” which leads into a “therefore.” It changes the nature of the script.

What if you create a new way to deliver content to sales through training events rather than distributing it through the digital asset management (DAM) system? It might even be less efficient, but it might give the sales teams a new perspective on how to enable a better sales experience.

Explain the project using “but” and “therefore” phrases, such as: “You want to get the most relevant and up-to-date content to your customers. But finding it takes multiple searches through confusing file systems. Therefore, by the time you reach out to the prospect, they’ve already moved on. Wouldn’t it make sense to try a different way?”

Even if you don’t try this tip with your colleagues, experiment with it in your storytelling. You’ll be surprised how it energizes your work.

Do something new because you don’t know how

Even when teams say they’re open to changes to building a smart content strategy, or better content management, distribution, structured content, or content platforms, I hear this: “But we don’t know how.”

Oddly, these responses usually don’t come from content practitioners but from senior leadership. Their reluctance to adopt a fundamentally new approach happens because the organization doesn’t understand it. It is unfortunate that “not knowing how” is the equivalent of “we can’t do it.”

Ultimately, you need to be comfortable with only one change — your desire to push for and attempt something new.

As you exercise the business muscle of content marketing, customer experience, and expanded customer touchpoints, understand all these goals depend on your ability to create new.

New what?

New ways of engaging audiences. New stories to move them and earn their trust. New reasons for them to engage with you again. New everything.

You have the power to develop these new maps. It’s a choice. You can continue to fix only those things in such disrepair as to qualify for demolition. Or you can look for things that could be better and try a new way of doing them.

You might fail. Or you might not. Either way, you’ll have a new perspective on what to try next.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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