When Experience Kills The Unicorn

I have a content campfire story for you.

Once upon a time, a company that still lives today was founded in a city by the bay. It has lived its entire life in the digital age. It was founded around the time that many of today’s social platforms emerged, and it leapt to early success by creating an entire category of content and experience.

The company disrupted the status-quo foundation of a classic business approach. It created a differentiating, thought-leading, content-driven experience across its industry. From its inception, it has owned the space it created. It is the very definition of Clayton Christensen’s term disruptive innovation – what the venture community calls a unicorn. From angel-funded startup to venture-funded behemoth, it has been enormously successful.

And its use of content has been its beating heart.

Now, market forces are compelling the business to expand in two directions. Their success means that they are placing bets by both expanding into different markets and adding breadth to their solutions. As a result, their once niche, remarkable content experience is in danger of breaking. It’s becoming generalized, too general for sophisticated customers, too complex for basic customers, and losing all sense of differentiation.

If the content experience breaks, the unicorn may stumble along with it. The question is, what to do? Should they dismantle the experience? Should they change the experience to fit the business direction? Launch another?

I think we’ll see more and more of this type of challenge as valuable content powers more and more of our marketing and customer experience strategies. The story above is an extreme example; there are other smaller examples as well.

One company I worked with sold an entire product division of their company, but the very successful blog and resource center didn’t go with it. What should the company do with that content? Should they pivot it or abandon it completely? Should they have sold the blog and its audience with the product division? What would that have been worth? These are new questions that we will have to grapple with.

I met with another company that had recently merged with a like-sized company to make a new huge company. My client was in the content marketing group of the smaller of the two. As if they were boarding Noah’s ark, every marketing group was paired within the merged companies. The challenge? My marketing director friend had no one to pair with in the other company. Now he’s alone, trying to figure out how to create a new story in a place were he has no relevance. This is a new kind of problem.

Will we ever reach a point where corporate leaders will see a company’s assets as including content and content-driven experiences?

Here’s a more interesting line of questioning. (We’re getting to our campfire story.) What should a unicorn company do when forced to stretch – perhaps productively, perhaps not – into new markets? How can that unicorn retain its uniqueness, preventing its industry-leading, content-driven experiences from becoming just another commoditized voice in a wider market space?

I believe that, as leaders of content-driven experiences in our businesses – as unicorns ourselves – we must retain our own uniqueness by following the advice of one of my heroes, Rita Gunther McGrath. She says,

“To stay ahead, [we] need to constantly start new strategic initiatives, building and exploiting many transient competitive advantages at once.”

To me, that means a couple of things. First, even if we are abundantly successful in launching an industry-leading media product that defines thought leadership, we need to stay capable of launching new content-driven experiences as frequently as we might create new media buys. Second, we need to be able to pivot and dismantle any experience as soon as it ceases to provide that transient advantage.

In my campfire story, the unicorn company in question has seemingly decided to completely re-define its old content experience into a new type of experience that matches everything the business is trying to do. The audience isn’t quite buying it. They may stretch it too far and kill the unique experience. At that point, the reverse may happen, and the experience may actually kill the unicorn.

What’s the moral of our little story? Yeah, let’s not kill any unicorns if we can help it.

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.
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  • That’s really interesting that the content didn’t go with the division that was sold off with the company. That content sounds like it was a key piece of the brand. Why wouldn’t the acquiring company want everything associated with the brand?

    I’ve been through several M&A’s and divestitures. In almost every case, the content goes with the brand (which was a huge pain in the ass for those of us who had to audit the content by hand).

    Branching out into wider markets is a huge gamble for any business, but as you mention, it’s a really tough stretch for companies to make with content as well. I’d say the key to making this process work is to have a TON of research about the market you’re going into (specifically the content that your new competitors and industry are seeing success with). I have a client right now that is doing this exact process, and they are looking at their new competitors as well as the industry publications to identify the topics that are resonating in the new space. They’re then taking this information back and identifying how they can lend their own unique voice to the industry. It’s a lot of work, but it has to be done to make this transition.

    • Brandon… Thanks so much for that wonderful comment. Yeah, it’s a puzzler for me as well. As best I can tell, quite frankly, when I’ve seen this it’s simply because “they didn’t think to ask or do it…” Now, it’s easier when the acquisition is holistic (i.e. the whole company is getting swallowed). For example, when Adobe bought Omniture, there was no doubt that CMO.com would go with it.

      But, in other cases, where the acquisition is a “part of a bigger entity” (as it was in my first example)… It’s not quite as clean. Sometimes there’s other product content mixed in, or the corporation sees the blog as part of it’s overall marketing strategy – even though it’s dedicated to that one division.

      In any event – you make a great point – and it’s one I think we’re going to see more of as we start to see marketing and customer experiences that are managed more like products than campaigns. They become part of the assets – and so should be part of the research and due diligence as well.

      Thanks for adding great value to the conversation.

      • ” I think we’re going to see more of as we start to see marketing and customer experiences that are managed more like products than campaigns”

        EXACTLY. The brand isn’t just a logo and a tagline. It’s the entire user experience from marketing, sales, CS, etc. Those have to be seen as assets in and of themselves, instead of just the product being seen as the asset being acquired. As always, great stuff, Robert!

  • Ardath Albee

    In addition to the discussion you and Brandon are having, what I find interesting is your Noah’s Ark story. I see the same type of thing happening internally during reorgs of companies. Kind of like musical chairs.

    • Ha… Yeah, it seems to be happening more and more. Especially with so many niche players being introduced into marketing – where you’re either easily assimilated or they don’t know where to put you. I, literally, just met with a company today where they have lost almost 40% of their smartest people, because they didn’t fit into the new “corporate marketing” bucket. And, hey, awesome to see you here. Looking forward to catching up in a month.

      • Ardath Albee

        I hear you. I’m working with a client in recruiting software and the research on talent acquisition is startling. Beyond marketing but so much reliant on recruiters adopting a content marketing approach.

        Hope we actually get some time to talk at CMW, rather than the drive byes that we seem to get. Your’re just too damn in demand!