A Star Wars theme permeated this year’s Content Marketing World in Cleveland – featuring Mark Hamill and many Yoda quotes for inspiration. That seems appropriate given the sense I got that content marketers are accelerating their journey through the trough of disillusionment and towards enlightenment [see this year’s Gartner Hype Cycle for Digital Marketing].
Over the last few years, content marketing has proliferated as marketers jumped on the bandwagon, often without a well-devised plan. The ensuing content shock left in its wake many who asked, “Is content marketing worth it?”. This question is forcing a bit of a slow-down – which Ann Handley suggests is a good thing. She emphasized quality over quantity — along with many other inspirational speakers whose similar message has been echoing in content marketers ears for the last year.
That said, my takeaways are not about the art of crafting exceptional content — there are a slew of roundup posts doing just that — instead I’ll share some key opportunities for content marketing practices and technologies. In the words of Yoda who encourages us to “Always pass on what you have learned,” here are the #CMWorld trends that I noted in marketers’ path to maturity.
Shape Teams, Processes and Cultures to Scale and Operationalize Content Marketing
Many attendees I spoke with and sessions I attended emphasized a shift from the experimental and tactical early days of content marketing to a more structured approach with firm strategic objectives, a considered organizational structure and the discipline to yield better results. This was echoed on the show floor where exhibitors reported that more marketers were ready to think about tooling whereas last year many were still struggling to make the basic business case for content.
Amanda Todorovich of the Cleveland Clinic shared her organizational structure and the story of how the healthcare organization’s blog became the top read health site in the nation. The team operates at scale – having grown from 3 to 24 members in 18 months – using agile style standups, workflow management tools and a consistent test and iterate approach to get the right content to their audiences. There is no dedicated analytics function as all members of the team are expected to own their numbers and respond to audiences in real time. When they plan a new content asset or campaign, they span teams from editorial to social to creative and ensure that they are planning promotion from the start. Much of Amanda’s role is evangelizing the role of content across the organization as she leads her team who have successfully moved to a Level 5 in terms of marketing maturity (see Maturity Model for Content Marketing – subscription required) – differentiating their brand with content and even monetizing the traffic they generate as an added benefit.
In the spirit of efficient operations, Stephanie Reid-Simons, who leads content marketing at Zillow, shared her COPE philosophy: “Create Once, Publish Everywhere”. I once spoke to a CMO who said that if her team couldn’t use a piece of content seven times, it wouldn’t be approved. That seems a bit extreme – though the rationale is sound. I like Stephanie’s approach and suggestion to think like a French chef and ‘use the whole pig’. A single subject matter expert interview can become an ebook, webinar, several blog posts and a variety of social media posts (if not more). If COPE-ing isn’t built into your strategy, now is the time to embrace content reuse.
One final organizational quote that really stuck with me had to do with culture. ‘Default to Open’ is a governance principle that the content team at Google embraces. Veronique Lafargue explained that editorial calendars are public, campaign briefs and work-in-progress are all open and freely available to others in the global Googleplex. This open approach has led to a collaborative culture across teams and time zones with more creative ideation, content reuse and promotion across teams. While talking to clients about centralizing or decentralizing their content operations, I would encourage any brand to ‘Default to Open’ to start breaking down barriers and improve maturity.
Plan Promotion into Content Efforts from the Start
Build it and they will come is being debunked from all angles (phew). Vendors, agencies and brands alike espoused the importance of planning promotion ALONG with content ideation and creation for optimum impact. It’s not just the team at Cleveland Clinic that thinks this way.
Marriott’s M Live studios all around the world decide on content not just based on ‘what audiences might enjoy’, in fact, content producers think about how they can engage influencers, organic social and PR each time they identify and build out a concept. Most campaigns have little to no paid promotion behind them. Instead the team leverages ‘in kind’ items like hotel points and stays to piggyback off viral efforts like the global race to capture Pokemon or social marketers smartly engage other brands like Disney’s Club Penguin to re-promote a guest story that involved one of their characters. Each content idea is selected based on the team’s ability to leverage free media sources to amplify their efforts.
A different – but no less admirable approach – worked for the GE Momentive sealants team whose remit it is to sell more caulk and home repair products. Working with their agency Marcus Thomas, the brand researched and built out customer journeys for their target personas. This yielded content assets for every stage – ranging from ‘How To’ articles on replacing windows to direct response ads that drove browsers to helpful buying guides. Through the use of detailed audience targeting techniques – including geo-fencing in the home improvement store aisles – paid promotional vehicles got the right content in front of the right audience at the right time. Impressive granularity allowed the team to surface different content for buyers miles from a store versus in the aisle making a final purchase decision, beating their sales goal of 7% growth by nearly 100%.
Chad Pollit’s session entitled ‘Paid Media that Works’ was founded on the same concept. Yes, great content will get shared – but it also deserves a boost. In fact, the native media space aimed at content marketers has matured from a completely fragmented space with brands reliant on agencies to consolidate purchases across a variety of publications or networks to an environment where companies like OneSpot, Storygize and Zemanta are aggregating content promotion outlets to help marketers scale beyond email and paid social.
Build Analytical Muscle with Talent and Tools (Spoiler: Biggest Maturity Gap)
I was pleasantly surprised to find no less than 12 sessions dedicated to measurement and analysis of content marketing programs. That said, sessions ranged from a very basic 101 presentation about the metrics to build your business case for B2B content marketing all the way to a sophisticated case study on how market mix modeling and attribution were combined to measure the impact of a large brand’s content efforts.
The questions asked in each session reinforced the notion that we remain in the early days of content analytics. Religious wars about last touch attribution versus funnel influence abound at B2B and B2C brands with few content marketing platforms addressing the need for sophisticated insights.
One new vendor, Trendemon, shared a very useful and intuitive content journey mapping and attribution tool that will benefit marketers when it comes to making better content – but it doesn’t address the ultimate attribution question – ‘did content marketing work?’.
On the path to content marketing maturity, more teams need to embrace Cleveland Clinic’s attitude of everyone being responsible for analytics and AMEX Open’s goal of delivering the most leads to the business so that brands stop questioning the value of content marketing programs and start optimizing them. Hiring for analytical chops and making marketing analytics part of the team will be necessary. Along the way, brands need help from vendors whose products currently lack the insights to help narrate this ROI story without significant effort (an opportunity for MarTech vendors).
All in all, I was excited to see the energy, attendance and increasing maturity exhibited by this year’s CMWorld attendees. It’s clear that content is not going anywhere soon – we’re just going to get a lot better at making meaningful, resonant and valuable marketing.