The People Problem Of Content Strategy

Jane is the Senior Director of Marketing at MacGyver Solutions (a fictitious healthcare company I’ve created – but the story itself is real), and she was really stressed out. Healthcare is a sector that’s is moving at unprecedented speed, evolving almost every day.

Jane had a solid content marketing strategy and new structure in place. Her newly organized team was ready to take advantage of new budgets, new technologies, and new headcount. Everyone had aligned around the new governance and process, and the goal of building a new consumer-facing audience.  So what was the worry?

Would the people get it done?

Executing Content Marketing Strategy Is Hard

Now, this is exactly what Jane should be concerned with. It’s relatively straightforward to work up a creative idea and a strategy to develop a content-driven experience. It’s 10x harder to get people to execute on that strategy.

And, in many cases, it’s to be expected. We’re asking people to change well-worn behaviors. We’re asking them to adopt new ways of thinking and of doing their work.  Just think how hard it is for you to break a habit that you’ve had for years.  I think back to how difficult it was to quit smoking. I would change my schedule, remove old reminders, and quite literally try just randomly pick things to do that would support my new “strategy”.

It’s the same when we develop a new, innovative, content marketing strategy and integrate it into our business. It can be very tempting for people to just start randomly picking things within the strategy to start accomplishing. This can lead to everyone working a pattern that is not necessarily resistant to the goal – but certainly not leading in the same direction.

In short: the biggest challenge to content marketing strategy isn’t the strategy – it’s actually getting everyone to act upon it and moving in a new flow.

Taking Content Marketing Strategy From Idea To Execution

As Carla and I discuss in Chapter 6 of our book Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, part of the role of your cross-functional content marketing group is to provide both a forum and an incubator for new and innovative new platforms. But simply brainstorming, while fun and often very productive, often leads to a list of great ideas that end up abandoned for a host of reasons. Additionally, because of the cross-functional nature of your teams, these meetings can end up in a list of siloed “to-do’s” that simply get relegated to the teams because they are most likely to “own them”. Then, you know, life gets in the way – and at the next team meeting, that task hasn’t been completed because of any of a million reasons.  Or, worse, the task’s purpose start to get modified based on the agenda of that particular department.

Then – the entire structure is threatened. Innovative new ideas killed because of excuses such as “that’s not how we do things” or “that will never get sales support.”

Other reasons include:

The objectives seem too complex.

Buy-in was never obtained from the executive suite.

The ideas made it to the execution stage, but never met estimated measurement goals, so they were dropped a month later.

Truly innovative ideas are stuck in small sandboxes.

To make these changes stick, and to provide a foundation for getting everyone flowing the right way, we’ve found that there’s a helpful approach in how you architect these big, overwhelming initiatives.  Story mapping is a great way to create that structure.

Story Mapping: Breaking Down A Content Marketing Strategy

So, the term story mapping is used in a number of past and current contexts. It is most predominant as a component of Agile software development, where it refers to the idea of grouping user “behaviors” (or stories) as a workflow to describe how software should behave.

This is, in turn, a byproduct of the “Extreme Programming” movement in the late 1990s, which employed user stories (or use cases) as a way to develop products.

Today, the practice of story mapping in software development enables architects to arrange the user “stories” into models that help them understand how the broader functionality of a larger software product should be developed. It helps establish a context for the developers to identify gaps or omissions in the development—and more effectively plan and map larger releases or versions of the product.

Additionally, story mapping is a term used by those in the creative narrative space. From screenwriters to playwrights to novelists, the term is used to describe how to effectively map (usually in some graphical template or outline form) the key elements of the story’s characters, setting, conflict, major plot points, and resolution development.

In our approach to mapping content-driven experiences, we use the spirit of both the software and narrative contexts to create a high-level structure. We enable focused workstreams to add a structural form to a larger idea that will have to be executed by a cross-functional teams that won’t see each other every day.

As we’ve said before, working on this new Content Marketing Strategy is an ongoing process. In order to sustain this managed process, as well as to scale it as a functional piece of the business, each initiative (just like every product development) needs a structure, a purpose, and (perhaps most of all) a way to measure the value created.

In short, the marketing organization (or the  governing body within content strategy) starts to operate not like a media company—but as a media company.

It manages a portfolio of one- or multiple-owned experiential platforms that create value for audiences. The story mapping process is a method to create the clear structure, to define the workstreams and measured tasks that will make up creating success for each individual experience within the portfolio.

Parts of our story mapping process will be familiar territory to those who follow Agile methodologies, the work of Eric Ries and his Lean Startup approach, or the work of Rita Gunther McGrath and the Discovery Driven Growth idea.  Of course, we’ve also adopted many successful and sticky “best practices” that we’ve observed while conducting research on brands and working with hundreds of large companies in our consulting engagements.

Starting At X Marks The Spot In Content Marketing Strategy

Borrowing somewhat from the interesting work of Rita Gunther McGrath and Ian C. MacMillan, which is presented in their book, Discovery-Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity, we begin the story mapping step by starting at the end.

McGrath and MacMillan suggest starting a product development process by creating what they call a “reverse income statement,” which allows you to:

…model how all the various assumptions in the initiative affect one another and whether, as you gain new information, the plan is getting traction or is at risk. The documents are intended to change as you learn, not to be a finished product.

Story mapping takes the reverse income statement idea and synthesizes it, using ideas from the concept of “backward design,” and transforms it into an idea we call “backward mapping.”

What this means is that we start with our “X” that marks the spot, and then work backward.

Content Marketing Strategy – Story Mapping Step One

So, we start with an exercise with the cross-functional team. We start with a list of “all the things that need to be true” in order for this initiative to be considered a success.  Everything is listed here from budgets, to teamwork, to roadblocks that need to be removed etc…

A good way to think of this is without regard to time (that will come later). Think of it this way. Ask yourself what are ALL of the objectives that you have, and list them out as if they have all been achieved. Then, and only then, ask yourself and your team – when is THAT date.

Content Marketing Strategy – Story Mapping Step Two 

Then, once you have that list – the next task is to categorize them.  Go through each one and ask the team:

Which ones of these are show stoppers?  A show stopper is defined as that goal that if it is NOT achieved in its entirety then the initiative isn’t worth doing, or cannot be done.

The second category is “testable”. A testable success is if there are actually shades of gray associated with the goal that can (and should) be tested, OR if we find out the goal itself turns out NOT to be true the team can adapt around it.  For example:

We achieved the right budget for this initiative (is most likely a show stopper).

We get to use our choice of software for this platform (is most likely testable).

You should end up with very few showstoppers and quite a lot of testables.

Content Marketing Strategy – Story Mapping Step Three

Finally, once you have your list – the next step is to plot WHEN, these things need to be true. Here we start with our “what success looks like list” and we plot backward in time to today.  Go through each show stopper, and each testable, and plot it on your timeline.  When does it need to be true?

A Story Map
A storymap starts at an end point in time, then works backward to plot various value points in time.

Once you complete that (and you will almost assuredly add others to the list as you do the exercise), and interesting thing emerges.  Themes of tasks, work streams and project emerge. But they are usually cross-functional themes.  These themes of tasks can then be assigned to project managers who are responsible for getting them done.

The timeline, and whether a work stream is testable or a showstopper helps to drive the priority of when these things need to be done.  And breaking it all down for the team – illustrates the flow of the activities that need to happen.

With this in mind, we can clearly communicate and inspire our teams and our C-suite, and propose a reasonable budget, timeline, and measurable strategy that will move our business forward.

If we’ve carefully planned our map, we should be well on our way to success.  The key is to use this map as a tool, a living, breathing tool. It will change – it will evolve.  Because this is a process, we can anticipate that new tests and challenges will get in our way. So, we must also be prepared to make iterative changes along the way, based on both successes and failures.

But this can help us deliver a team that can know exactly how to move in the same direction. A map, if you will.

It definitely helped Jane. She is now executing on all cylinders and she has weekly meetings with her cross-functional content marketing group (her Editorial Board). They are reviewing progress toward the integration of their two major initiatives, and they are quickly building a content-marketing led strategy which will help them build an audience.

Hopefully this mapping process can help you.  Of course, if you need a Sherpa on your journey – we would be honored to help.

Robert Rose
Chief Strategy Officer at The Content Advisory
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS.

Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.
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Author: Robert Rose
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS. Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.