The business value of content and content strategy

With apologies to Peter Drucker… or…  “Dammit, Jim, can’t you just leave “well enough” alone?”

I recently wrote a piece (of work) in response to an argument against content strategy. Although I enjoyed ripping it up and tearing it apart, and received a number of virtual high-fives for doing so, it’s worth noting that merely disproving an argument against something doesn’t necessarily establish proof positive. Granted, it’s a relatively simple endeavor to provide positive proof to the question “Is there such a thing as content strategy?”  For example:

  • One might argue that a well written, annotated entry defining just about *anything* in Wikipedia is a good indication of proof. (That’s an un-tested hypothesis, however, and I’m sure I would be humored by examples to discredit that argument.)
  • One might argue that a Google search for the exact phrase “content strategy” which returns 6.2 million results is a good indication of proof.
  • One might argue that proof can be found in the thousands of businesses and consultancies who promote “content strategy” as a service offering, a component part of a process, or even *the* focus of the work they do.
  • And, one might simply argue that the great books, conferences, blogs and other platforms provide a wealth of proof within the greater conversation about the application and value of content strategy.

Blah blah blah, glug glug glug.  Enough said. Or is it?  Reflecting on the conversations and comments stimulated by that post, there remain a few unanswered questions floating in the ether:

  • Is content merely writing… and content strategy merely the act of creating content?
  • What role does content play in creating customers? How does content provide value to a business or organization?
  • How does content strategy provide value to the business or organization? How might content strategy provide deeper and broader value than, say, a focus on user task flow, for example?
  • Why would anybody want to elevate the topic of content to the executive level of an organization? Why would anybody want to learn more about content strategy, for that matter?
  • Are we advocates and evangelists of content strategy, are we simply a bunch of writers saying writing is important, and that we should talk about writing to other people and tell them how important writing is… that the whole discussion about content strategy is an internal conversation among content professionals, one that senior management shouldn’t be bothered with and wouldn’t care about, and that perhaps your career is in jeopardy if you even *think* about mentioning the C-word to a senior manager?***

First things first

To the latter of these questions, I use an analogy that sounds not unlike what many others in the choir have sung: Writing is to content strategy as brick-laying is to architecture. Content strategy goes beyond creating content to include identifying what, why and how content should be created, and how it should be delivered, optimized, maintained and governed.

It’s true that many of the thought leaders and leading practitioners of content strategy have emerged from backgrounds in writing, and perhaps good writers are generally wired for content strategy. Others have emerged with backgrounds in communications, PR, user experience design, information architecture, visual communications, library science, content management, and many other relevant and perhaps not-so-obviously-relevant fields. Me: Although some of my best friends are writers, I am not. I can write (long, drawn-out convoluted rambling hogwash), but I came to content strategy through many years dancing between the corporate side and the agency side of marketing, advertising, interactive and creative services — through which I honed my talents and skills at applying the principles of strategy and strategic thinking to the work that I do.

Aside:  Writing is to content strategy as brick-laying is to architecture.  Dammit! It *just* struck me that semantic zealots might latch on to one of the *other* meanings of architecture. So, to be clear, I mean the practice of architecture.  Or do I have to say the practice of doing architecture. That makes for a boring-er analogy.

Now, depending on the scale of the organization or the project, the resources, and/or the talents of the individual, it may indeed prove to be the writer is also the content strategist or the one who does content strategy (crazy!), but the point to be made: The discipline or practice of content strategy is much closer to marketing strategy or business strategy than it is to execution.  (You know… where the writing part lives.)

Consider, also, that content isn’t limited to text. Broader that just text, content is a the combination of text (that’s writing!) and graphics and motion and audio and function — the stuff that conveys meaningful information.

So, it’s not about writing but rather about strategy, because as the great Peter Drucker once said, “Action without thinking is the cause of every failure.”

The business value of content

OK, so content is more than just words. La-dee-freakin-da. Why should I give a rat’s ass about your stupid content? Why should anyone care about content except for the people who produce it for a living?

Let’s try this on for size: According to a recent study by IDG Connect, B2B technology buyers now spend only 21% of their journey through the buying cycle in conversations with sales people. They spend more than 55% of the buying cycle searching for and engaging with content.

Now, more than ever, the content a business produces is its primary and most critical tool to attract and engage prospects, and to move them through the life-cycle toward becoming customers… and repeat customers… and brand-loyal evangelists.

How, then, does content have an impact on the buyer’s journey? What can/should content do for a company or organization?  Does content provide value?  How?

Content — especially good content — can have a significant impact on sales and business success by helping to:

  • attract and engage new prospects and customers
  • establish credibility, authority, trust and brand affinity
  • educate prospects about the need to change (I like Sirius Decision’s term for this: “loosen the status quo”) and to commit to change
  • stimulate prospects to explore and evaluate a product or solution
  • speed up the sales cycle
  • empower “buy” decision-making, and support/validate that decision
  • enable customers to realize the value of their purchase and build brand-loyalty
  • reduce support costs
  • stimulate brand-loyal customers to evangelize a product or service

So, it’s not about words but rather about how you use content to attract and engage and influence and convert prospects into customers, because as the great Peter Drucker once said, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.”

The business value of content strategy

In a B2B setting, how do we create content that works? One *could* reduce it down to scientific research, analysis and optimization of user task flow through a web site. After all, it has been proposed (proven? accepted?) that a user’s ability to easily complete a desired task on a web site has one of, if not *the* biggest positive impacts on brand perception. Yes, measuring and analyzing task flow is an important part of optimizing how well your content is delivered and used by your prospects and customers. On the other hand, if that’s the your primary approach to creating a customer, then you’re missing the boat:  You’re focused on the audience and content that you already have, which might be only a tiny percentage of the prospects and customers you *could* have. To illustrate the point: You could spend a lot of time and effort optimizing the layout, the lighting and merchandising of the products in your grocery store and document a measurable increase in the number of apples you sell. That’s a good exercise, but if that’s the only focus of your approach, then you remain narrowly focused on the people who happen across your store and come in the door to begin with.

So, it’s not about optimizing what we have but rather about the strategic planning that identifies the content we should have, and how to create, deliver and govern it, because as the great Peter Drucker once said, “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.”

How well an organization’s content performs across the customer lifecycle is a result of how well that organization identifies and plans for what content should be produced, how to produce it, how to deliver it to the prospect or customer, and how to maintain and govern it over time.  (That strategic planning… Hey! That’s content strategy!).

Our colleagues down the hall in the Sales organization shepherd the customer through a critical part of the journey, especially for complex technology products with long sales cycles involving dozens players in the decision-making process. It used to be, that if you wanted to boost sales of your “under-performing” product, you would focus your time and resources on things like building your sales organization. In today’s noisy B2B marketplaces, however, it takes more than just hiring a few shark-hunter sales professionals to sell your better mousetrap. B2B technology companies still struggle with the way things are done, however, and frequently fail to address the dynamic and evolving marketplace that is pushing content front and center.

Historically, sales-driven marketing organizations have all-too-often produced ream after ream of white papers and datasheets that proclaim “We’re the best!” and “We’re the leaders!” and “We’ve got the best solution for everyone!” — messages that fail to engage prospects who are mainly trying to discover “Who has a solution to my problem” and “What does this tired, lofty and overused claim of “We’re the best” have to do with my very specific problem or need?”

At the same time, marketing organizations have focused all-too-often on planning their programs around channels and tactics. “We need a web marketing program!” became “We need a lead generation program!” became “We need a webinar program!” became “We need a social media marketing program!” — all of which has resulted in spending more time and effort pumping out (usually) mediocre content through channels that may or may effectively engage the target audience.

Throughout this de-evolution, marketing has all-too-often failed to keep its eye on the prize of delivering the right message to the right customer at the right time in the right place. The silo-fication of organizations, and a lack of effective strategic planning near the program and execution level, combined with under-funded and under-valued marketing organizations has left many well-intentioned marketers with few, if any, resources to affect positive change.

Fortunately, the tide is changing.  More than ever, discussions around the marketing conference table are about the customer’s needs and the customer experience. More than ever, these discussion are resulting in strategic planning to identify, create, deliver and maintain content and how we use it to attract, engage and nurture prospects, to help them through the evaluation and buying process, and to help them realize value from their purchase (and to yell from the top of Twitter Mountain about their great experience).

Fortunately, people are beginning to understand and embrace the idea that content is a business asset, and not just *any* business asset. Not just a cog in the sales and marketing machine anymore, content is the kingpin.

Yes we can talk about content with (gasp!) Senior Management

We’ve been saying something like that for years:  “Content is King!” Yet the perception of the value of content to the larger organization remains low. That, my friends, that is why the discussion of content needs to be elevated to the upper floors of the ivory towers. If you haven’t already, it is time to start bringing the discussion of content to senior management.

That’s right, people, It’s time to rise up and strike down with vengeance the naysayers… and… uh… well… no. That’s a futile effort and not an appropriate approach in a business setting.  Rather, if you haven’t already, it’s time to arm yourself with the tools of persuasion at your disposal — be it your laptop and some crafty PowerPoint slides, or a well thought out response to an email from a senior manager about lackluster sales performance, or a new thread on that shiny new inter-office-social-media-platform, or a diagram of content’s role in the customer life-cycle on the conference room whiteboard.  It’s time to start talking about the business value of effective content, and to connect the dots between content and salescontent and revenuecontent and performance… content and success.  It’s time to start educating those who don’t get it — to show them how the influence of Sales on sales is diminishing, and the influence of content on sales is growing.  It’s time to teach them how to learn about the changes that are happening, and how to use new ways of  content strategy to exploit that change.

So, it’s not about business as usual, but rather about educating those who don’t get it, because as the great Peter Drucker once said, “We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.”

Shining the (guiding) light on content and content strategy

Teaching people how to learn applies to the content we create to stimulate prospects to explore our products. More importantly, teaching people how to learn applies to how we demonstrate, to the powers that be, that there are perhaps better ways to proactively and strategically guide the buyer through their journey.

If you don’t yet grasp the value of content and content strategy to your business or organization, then it’s time to learn.  If you do get it, then it’s time to step up and start teaching the executive team about the value of content.  It’s time to illustrate that without good content to attract and engage potential customers, to educate them about their pains, to convince them to commit to change and to explore your solution, then the phones down the hall in the Sales organization will not be ringing much… or as much as they could be.

I end here, so Peter Drucker can stop rolling over in his grave, with an invitation:  A rising tide floats all boats. Please share anecdotes, examples or links to stories about pitching content and content strategy to senior management (gasp!) — and their reaction to the topic. Share examples and evidence that illustrate how content has demonstrated value to an organization… that content is a business asset.

To the lovely Ms. Halvorson and to all of the organizers, sponsors, participants and attendees at Confab 2012 in a couple of months, I’d like you to join me in raising a glass of bourbon — no, make that Irish Whiskey — to toast the writers, the content creators, the content strategists, the content evangelists, the progressively-minded senior managers, and everyone else out there who gets it — who understands the value of content and embraces content strategy.


*** By “C-word” I mean “content,” not the other really inappropriate c-word… and I should also note that this whole question is largely plagiarized from the text and comments of someone else’s blog post.

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