Operationalize for Effective Content Marketing

Michael (MJ) AllenMichael J. (MJ) Allen
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Jan 21
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Transformation has been the theme with CMO’s the last few years, and will likely continue over the next few.

This marketing transformation we keep hearing, appears driven from the rate of change in customer behavior, and the deep insights now attainable from the wealth of data DNA available in their digital environment.

We’ve seen this DNA trail of an individuals digital behavior give rise to numerous new technologies at marketings fingertips, which never before has provided marketers so much understanding and insights into the customer and deliver marketing effectiveness at a level never witnessed before.

In my past experiences helping leading transformation in marketing, I’ve uncovered a guiding theme that often determines success or failure. Marketing leaders seek to truly make the leap, it begins with evolving the culture within marketing, and across the organization.

The transformation begins with shaping collaboration; instill agility and empowerment, marketing teams with technical skillsets (marketing technologists), and a data-driven mindset across an organizations cross-functional structure (marketing, product, sales, customer service, etc.).

The transformation journey embeds digitalizing the cornerstones of the marketing mix, an integrated marketing technology stack, and cross-pollinating these new tools with marketing technologists across a holistic environment between marketing, IT, sales, and even customer service.

So what does this have to do with effective content marketing? Everything.

At the top of CMO’s lists of transformational plans is the modernization of marketing through technology that delivers meaningful insights across the business, and use of these insights to influence and accelerate the buyers-journey through each customers unique omni-channel experience.

But beyond all the great insights that technology, and the data it rests upon can now shows us, it has created a customer-understanding;  in order to create the relationship and earn the permission to sell, a brand strategy must deliver relevance and value at multiple touch-points to deliver rewarding customer experiences. These experiences can be delivered in multiple ways, including various forms of content.

This customer-understanding awakenings a new found view, or lens on how a brand treats a customer, or potential customer. We know brands now must earn permission and deliver multi-touch value. Easier said than done, and the answer is not a new GTM strategy, or a segmented marketing campaign, or new creative ad.

To deliver against these new customer understandings thanks to the insights from “big data”, much of what you can do that has shown to be very effective is begin with a measurable content strategy designed against business objectives. Keyword is ‘measurable’. This realization is why CMO’s and marketing leaders have now gone past the ‘why’ of content marketing, and asking “how”.

The fundamental shift from ‘why’ to ‘how’ is understood by qualitative and quantitative evidence the buyer-journey has changed…and not a small change, but a significant pivot.

Forrester Research has qualified this pivot by uncovering evidence that in the both the B2C and B2B world, prospects are already 50%-80% through the buyer’s journey before initiating contact with a brand. They have qualified the potential fit of a product or service, even before reaching out to a CSR or sales executive.

In theory it should make the sales job easier – but the truth is time previously spent through traditional prospecting, has shifted towards sales spending more time bed with marketing to achieve greater collaboration to optimize the pre-sales process.

This optimization lends itself to the obtaining deeper customer insights, resulting in the development of more meaningful brand experiences and creation of valued content used to get found and accelerate more qualified prospects and hand them off to sales.

The collaboration of a content strategy and creation between cross-discipline teams is a recipe that works. Adobe is one such example that has pioneered a digital content strategy and the application of content marketing via CMO.com and other offshoot brands, employed to attract and qualify B2B leads throughout into their sales funnel.

Brands as Adobe and others have netted significant results across both marketing and sales, and the customer experience. While Adobe delivers against the ‘how’, the approach to their content factory is likely unique to their organization and culture. Yes, the content strategy aims to produce results similar yours (traffic, leads, sales, revenue), but it’s the perspectives of different marketing leaders that varies on the approach or operations, especially at different stages of the strategy.

A quick truth moment for any marketing leader or CMO’s seeking a content strategy is that there is no one silver-bullet solution to deliver an effective content strategy. It’s unique to the organizations culture, and different approaches to operationalize a content strategy can work; whether the operational working machine executing the strategy be centralized, decentralized or a hybrid.

While marketing leaders figure out how best to design content operations that work within their business, the biggest threat to a marketing leaders face in this area is managing expectations to build, manage and scale the strategy.

These expectations derive from not just finding the right people (content writers with digital disciplines, content hub managers, marketing technologists and strategist, data analysts, conversion optimizers, seo experts, etc.), but building a collaborative environment where they work in synergy – all with the aim to help the CMO build a measurable content factory that delivers against the brands customer journey strategy and related business objectives.

Since marketing leaders are finally asking ‘how’, instead of ‘why’, let me share with you how I’ve led the content strategy, and operationalized this strategy in both small and enterprise-level organization cultures.

Strategy

For brands to mature digital across their organization successfully, there must be a unified approach its strategic framework, and collaborative execution and management across various lines of business. Before this can happen, answers to key questions need to be understood.

Similar approach to concepting your content strategy and building out a content factory, marketing leaders should seek the following answer to manage expectations, and most importantly shine the light-of-reality on any delusional optimism around delivering a successful content (and digital) strategy.

Noting we should no longer be asking ‘why’, but focusing on the ‘how’ of a content strategy…

  1. What is the current state, and future desires (against business priorities) of operations for a content factory: Think process, teams and culture, budget, tools and measures.
  2. What organizational challenges do you face? For example, people composition and skillsets, team integration needs, budgets, distribution, and overall marketing effectives.
  3. How can we best operationalize, and scale disciplines within our company?
  4. What team or org. structure needs to help with strategy? This means creating content audience values, distribution (paid, earned and owned channels) to where customers and prospects can find the content?
  5. Are we capitalized to continually measure and gain insight on how content, and types and topics of content, deliver the best utility?
  6. If our organization is a global enterprise or complex, how can we simplify for a content MVP plan, and find internal advocates who can provide value on as many different levels of the company?
  7. Content production: Who are subject matter experts within the business – on a global scale and regional.

There is no one right way to operationalize and structure a content marketing team. All structures of centralizing, decentralizing and hybrid can work – but among the most effective is a hybrid approach.

CMO’s who employ a hybrid approach will face similar challenges as they attempt to mature their organizations digital maturity. A hybrid approach can help bridge the gaps in an organizations digital framework, in the organization across multiple disciplines and cross functional teams to execute a cohesive plan.

Bridging the gaps across teams and technology one of the biggest challenges I’ve been privy to be part of for organizations facing to truly transform marketing and reach digital nirvana. It’s a cultural transformation that begins at the top, and must happen all the way down.

Foundation

View your content operations as a content factory. The foundation of your new content factory must operate in synergy with all parts, and the final output must deliver against measures that influence and move the customer or revenue needle.

Like all things digital in marketing, it all maps back to key objectives; “getting found’ and attracting new prospects, increase quality lead conversion through top-funnel nurturing, accelerate pipeline lead velocity and into sales hands, or a brand-focused story that can also be tied to unique KPI’s.

The goals of your business objectives may be unique for your content strategy, but the measurement models are similar. Depending what your content strategy should achieve – and it may be multi-purpose, the models of measurement will likely be one or a combination of the 3 models:

  • Behaviorial:
    • These are KPI’s against prospect-behavior and a leads body language, which are more popular at the upper-funnel. What behaviors contributed to drive goal success from an unknown user to a prospect or lead? This is also a good measurement model to identify existing customer’s behaviors that indicate future needs or cross-sell opportunities. Amazon.com does this extremely well.
  • Engagement:
    • These KPI’s attribute to the events and activities (and when) that took place to move the lead through the pipeline. These KPI’s tend to be more valued against the mid-funnel with the aim to accelerate the leads speed or velocity through the sales stages.
    • Scoring leads against engagement activities is important to so you can feed to sales which leads are cold, warm or ready to buy.
    • Engagement and behavioral models do not need to be restricted to the funnel. They are very much applicable to other non-funnel areas as customer activity, churn, etc.
  • Sales & Financial
    • The ultimate goals, bottom line number KPI’s – CPA, sales and revenue, CLV

I’ve outlined these measurement models as foundational understandings to content strategy that with everything you do it needs to lead back to measurable results.

Whether results are showing a sales executive which leads are can be easily warmed up or actively hot, or insights a content editor will use to glean what content is working best to attract or convert a prospect, every marketer person on your content team will value different insights in order to excel in the content factory.

Thus knowing what you’re measuring, and why, is the guiding light to all strategy. Without it you’re flying blind.

Organizational Mindset

For a small business or large enterprise to embrace content marketing as a strategy, teams and the entire organization must change the way they think and function.

With this obvious statement, the majority of marketing leaders will face the following core challenges. I’ve outlined these for your awareness, as before you dive heads-first into a content strategy, have honest conversations with your team(s) and executive-levels around these points:

    • Top-level buy-in: Common knowledge here, and without it will be an uphill battle to show effective gains.
    • Bridging silos: Applies across the marketing technology stacks, marketing disciplines (brand, content, SEO, social, strategy, etc.), business units, product, and sales.
    • Closing the skillset gap: The cost to upgrade existing skills, and a conversation to be had with HR about the expectation of marketing skillsets and disciplines applicable today. This includes an understanding of managing and measuring the editorial process, SEO, social SEO, reporting and analytics, marketing technology stacks skills, audience understanding and buyer-journey behaviors, etc.
    • Developing subject matter experts: Not just developing, but finding the subject matter experts who are scattered throughout your organization.
    • Cultural transformation: Begins at the top. Show don’t tell, and reinforce through leading by example, over and over and over again.

Bridging the Gaps

Bridging the gaps is not just about applying new tools and technologies. It’s about a greater demand on collaboration among lines of business and teams. Unlike many traditional marketers, content teams should be familiar with this as a content team is not a silo’d function in an organization or team.

An example of the application between cross-functional collaboration is the sourcing of content. A collaborative and integrated team is crucial to finding and leveraging subject matter experts throughout the business.

Subject matter experts, who are likely scattered throughout your enterprise, will have the first-hand knowledge on great customer and brand stories, or thought-leadership insights from an individual or the collective intelligence of a team. All in all, a high collaborative organizational culture and environment can be phenomenal opportunity for sourcing content across various channels of the business.

To bridge the gaps in your business, consider the following areas:

  • Create cross-functional teams:
    • This may include the website team, digital marketing, technical and field marketing, creative services, communications product, demand gen team and sales executives, R&D, customer service, PR and even executive-level department heads, legal and even HR.
  • Build a global view with local execution
    • The most effective content teams showcase a balance between a centralized and decentralized structure. The hybrid of both should aim for global consistency, with local relevance.
    • Defining what activities each team will manage. In a hybrid approach to operationalizing your content strategy, consider the activities at both the centralized and local levels
    • Centralized: Oversee the overall content marketing strategy, the core pillars or themes, brand guidelines and style guides, and some distribution and promotion.
    • Local: At the local or regional level, the focus should be on translation and localization of content to fit the local market needs and their specific audience, but also with accountability on distribution.

To bridging the gaps in marketing or across any line of business can demand significant organizational changes….cultural changes…to make significant impacts, and inherently deeper collaboration. But those organizations who can begin to fill the gaps in the lowest friction areas, will begin to see a hybrid structure form between a centralized strategy and decentralized strategy, as it relates to their content teams.

The centralized team would cover off strategy, define the framework and approach, core content pillars or themes, and offer production functions more so for corporate wide content (ex. Greenfield content).

Whereas a decentralized team would operate the process of getting various people involved, and tailoring content for specific business units or locales.

This is not a set-in-stone approach as I’ve worked with other structures for content teams that work. Again – consider what will work best for your business and experiment. For example, I’ve led teams where there has been divided ownership among different lines of business, and use of an internal agency that is both silo’d in some aspects, and cross functional in others. I’ve seen others that outsource most of the production side to freelancers, industry experts and journalists with an editorial repertoire.

At the end of the day, content marketing is everyone’s job. Your president can offer strategy or visionary thought-leadership in your industry, whereas your social media coordinator can offer a tactical tips and recommendations for sales on how to best leverage LinkedIn to prospect new business.

Team Composition

The DNA makeup of a content team can, and will vary from business to business. So finding comfort in that there is no one-right-way to build a content team, then before establishing what your team will look like, consider these two questions:

  • How can the team be best organized to manage content production / creation, distribution and promotion in my company?
  • How can I get the best involvement in producing content between the appropriate teams – especially the subject matter experts.

 

Building and integration of team members with other marketing and business functions will take time to fine-tune, so give patience to adjust where needed as it is vitally important to deliver an effective content strategy.

Budgets

To share insight on where things are trending for investing into this area you can turn to any industry leading media to find more and more CMO’s and marketing leaders are prioritizing content programs, and the spends have become a reality.

How much? Budgets for content marketing obviously vary across every business, and from what I’ve found can range anywhere from 5% upwards to 80% of the marketing budget.

But the marketing investments required shouldn’t restrict any size of business from entering the content game. While a large enterprise may employ a content agency, hire new staff and acquire new marketing enterprise tools as BrightEdge for keyword or content research, Adobe Experience Manager for a CMS, or Omniture / Adobe Analytics for web analytics, small businesses can be just as effective. For example, small businesses can source content production from professional network freelancer services as Elance or ContentRunner, and technology tools as a CMS as WordPress or Composite C1, or Google Analytics for web analytics.

Investment and time should not be a crux to your content strategy. Budgets and time are tight, start with an annual content calendar for one new content piece a week or month. Build and scale over time.

For enterprises, similar approach and warm up to a content strategy and build and scale the operational side. As this builds momentum, consider budget allocation against distribution (social, paid media, co-authorship, blogs) and promotion of the content (PR, social ads, native advertising, etc.)

To help determine who much investment to budget, consider first what you define is part of your content marketing budget. It’s necessary to define this now, as not only will it help define how much to allocate, but a big part to help you understand ROI.

It’s worth noting too, that you may find your budget is not a direct allocated cos as it may be a cross-functional effort across different areas lines of business or teams. Many organizations do not have a dedicated ‘content team’, but instead collaboration between individuals and disciplines. Thus your content budget may not be as a direct cost as you think, and instead a percentage of the overall marketing budget or various departments – marketing, sales and product.

Success

Success in content marketing is found in the numbers – the results. Whatever your specific business objectives are, your content efforts must map back to these and an understanding of its measures.

While it’s a somewhat tunnel-vision to think just in the numbers, marketing leaders will face many challenges to reach this ROI understanding. The path of least resistance to reach this, could be considered hitting success in these key areas along your journey.

  • Executive-level vision, buy-in and support
  • Applying a long-term approach, with constant test, learn and optimize methodology
  • Time. This goes back to the long-term. Give ample time dedicated to this investment.
  • Team and cultural collaboration, and an integrated approach
  • A loyalist to content marketing who can take a leadership position
  • Measurement. How will you demonstrate ROI and value from the content marketing
  • Maximizing your reach and access to subject matter experts.

In summary, I’ve embedded little consistency with how I build content marketing teams as each organization and their culture is unique on its own. The fundamental I’ve described above are the same, but the approach and execution to operationalize content marketing in an organization has been unique.

There is no perfect way to deliver content marketing, but some of the most effective content strategies I have found success within resides in leveraging a combination of internal and external resources, and a centralized management model with a hybrid operation or a central and local team.

But its effectiveness will always be overshadowed by the necessity of a cultural mindset shift around content and data. CMO’s and marketing leaders who truly seek to deliver a content strategy that makes an effective impact, and operationalize their organization towards reaping the benefits of this need to transform their cultures and their way of thinking.


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