Diving in and framing the framework

Inspired by recent talks and discussions in our Content Strategy PDX meetup, I’ve decided to dust off this ol’ blog that gathered a couple years of dust and a nasty case of malware. (Actually, I deleted the whole damn thing on account of the malware, then relaunched from scratch… but found in my archives an old back-up with a few old blog post gems to import.)

Questioning and defining Purpose and Strategy have driven my interest in all projects I have tackled since the first business web site I produced in 1995/1996. There were no frameworks then. No content strategy. No guidance whatsoever, except for a few books on html, and a broad notion of this is what a business web site looks like, and the marketing boss’ directive that the copy should be “We’re the number one gizmo in the gadget industry.”

Over the years I have given generous thought (and some exercise) to the big picture strategic view of marketing, sales, product, business, people, purpose, technology, customers and content (in no particular order) and a myriad of things related. A few ideas and theories have emerged and evolved over the years. Some are clear and some half-baked.

One “big idea” I have toyed with for years is that of a strategic framework web application — some kind of tool where one might plug in a few business variables, push a few buttons, pull a few levers, and — wala — out pops a strategic roadmap. Fun to think about… but the more one sketches it out, the more the tool gets ridiculously complex with variables and unknowns, to where I’m happy keeping it as a childish fantasy.

The strategic roadmap web app may remain a fantasy, but I’ve decided to dive into another of those “big ideas” that I have been chewing on for close to a decade. I’ll call it (working title) The Mathematical Marketing Model. It’s a tool I’ve sketched out in my head, that pulls together bits-and-pieces (and perhaps whole elements) of spreadsheets and other documents used over a few decades in Marketing. The purpose is to illustrate the mission critical role of Marketing and Content on the success of the business to executive decision-makers, to corporate leaders, to interdepartmental colleagues, and to other collaborators and contributors.

The Mathematical Marketing Model. I’m not sold on the title, but the premise is to develop a multifaceted spreadsheet with a variety of variables and data around products, services, markets, customers, channels and other valid inputs, and use it to develop a broad picture of the influence (or lack thereof) of marketing on business success. A basic level version of this tool may enable better conversations among marketing and sales. A deep and hearty version of this tool may prove to be a framework for making strategic decisions, and measuring success. We’ll see.

I plan to document the development of this tool here. I’ll look forward to sharing concepts and drafts, and will look forward to getting feedback and ideas from colleagues and comrades. As it shapes up, I’ll look forward to presenting it to a larger audience of peers, and solicit additional feedback from critics.  Thoughts and ideas are welcome.

Content Strategy and the Paradigm Shift

During my ongoing quest to help (big M) Marketing and (big S) Sales organizations find better ways to succeed through more strategic approaches to engagement with prospects and customers, I have become a practitioner of, and an evangelist for Content Strategy. I have helped a number of organizations to understand and realize the value of Content Strategy based marketing initiatives. On the other hand, I have often felt like Sisyphus while trying to get my colleagues in Marketing and (especially) Sales to not only understand what Content Strategy is, but why it matters, what its value is, and why it represents a paradigm shift in marketing that ultimately *finally* brings Marketing closest (back to?) to it’s purpose of delivering the right message to the right customer at the right time.  Allow me to step onto my soapbox to deliver the premise:

Technology companies are frequently started by engineers with good ideas, from which companies emerge with a “Field of Dreams” culture — focused on building and messaging the features and functional components of products. Marketing is all too often the puppet of Sales, who all too often own the messaging around products/solutions/services, which is overly focused on “What we need to say about our product” and “Why our product is so great” and “What are the features and benefits of our product.”   Marketing is all too often the execution arm of Sales, who’s singular demand is that Marketing produce fresh hot leads.  This has prompted the emergence of “Lead Generation” and “Content Marketing” (which, in a sense, is just the digital-ification of “Cold Calling” and “Direct Mail”).

Technology marketing – more often than not – is reactive.  Even as Marketing has come to understand that the world around us has become more digital and social, all too often Marketing’s execution is still reactive – creating “digital marketing programs” and “social media programs” and “email marketing programs” and “content marketing programs” and “lead generation programs” – better ways to deliver the same old “why we are so awesome” Sales-driven message.  More often than not, Marketing’s “________ Strategy” isn’t truly strategic.

The approach to B2B marketing and sales is evolving (or needs to evolve) to address the paradigm shift in the relationship between prospects and company/product.  While traveling through the “buyer’s journey” — more and more of prospect’s time and energy is spent searching for and consuming content. The time they spend with Sales is diminishing, and coming later in the sales cycle. Meanwhile, there is so much noise and information for prospects/consumers to digest, that the same old “features and benefits” and “we’re the greatest” messaging is barely ever even heard, much less resonates with a target audience.

The practice of Content Marketing – the use of content to attract and engage prospects and convert them to leads – is a more recent discipline.  The focus on content marketing has helped elevate the need to engage with prospects earlier in the customer lifecycle, but the focus of Content Marketing is all too often on the format of and channel through which content is delivered – in order to capture juicy hot sales leads – and is all just new and effective ways to deliver the same old “features and benefits” and “we’re the greatest” Sales-driven messaging, with an occasional poorly executed sales pitch disguised as a “thought leadership” piece.

In sum, although we have (nearly) realized the full paradigm shift from outbound to inbound, marketing strategy has generally failed to evolve. Yes, we have our “web strategy” and our “email marketing strategy” and a “social media strategy” and… holy crap, now we need a “mobile strategy.” These various strategies are generally based on outdated targeting and messaging as dictated by Sales. The “strategy” that Marketing generally touts is at the content channel and execution level, not in the overarching approach, methodologies and processes. The end result is that Marketing’s over-emphasis on channel-specific strategies and programs has generally ignored the overarching tenet of marketing: Delivering the right message to the right customer in the right place at the right time.

Although some discredit “Content Strategy” as even being a thing at all, I posit that its emergence and growth over the last few years is a solid sign that not all in Marketing shoot from the hip and/or focus their strategic thinking at the channel and tactical level… that those who fundamentally “get it” are developing effective ways to introduce real strategy back into marketing. This has been articulated by others better than how I describe it, but the fundamental awesomeness of Content Strategy is the turn-the-tables paradigm shift it represents for Marketing and Sales. Content Strategy is a 180 degree change from the execution of promoting Sales-directed messaging (“Here’s the message we need to deliver to prospects, so figure out how to deliver it”) to a higher, more strategic starting point that begins by questioning who are the people we need to engage with, and identifying what their  needs are  (“Who are the people we need to engage with to be successful? Who are the buyers, and who are the influencers of those buyers? What are the needs of each?  How can we help each of them? How can we engage with each through the channels they prefers at each point in the lifecycle?”).  Content Strategy turns the camera around and forces Sales and Marketing to look through the lens at the universe of content from the (desired) audience’s perspective.

Content Strategy is essentially *the* critical marketing communications strategy (or strategic process), upon which all content channel-specific strategies need to be based.  You can’t have an effective “email marketing strategy” or “social media strategy” or “mobile strategy” or any kind of fill-in-the-blank strategy without first establishing the core Content Strategy framework and/or process (depending on if you’re the type that refers to Content Strategy as a thing or a verb — I don’t take sides, I see it as both).


If this diatribe had a sidebar: Ask a room full of practitioners who self-describe as “Content Strategist” what Content Strategy is, and you’ll get dozens of different answers.  Ask each to describe how it’s done – the steps, the processes, the deliverables, the outcomes – and you’ll get an even broader variation of answer. So, for what it’s worth, I’ll offer mine:  Content Strategy is the practice, methodology and/or processes that enable an organization to achieve success through a strategic framework for identifying, defining, prioritizing, creating, delivering, promoting, measuring and governing the content that effectively engages the organization’s segmented target audience(s) throughout the lifecycle of relevance to and engagement with the organization. (I was going to leave it as “…the lifecycle of engagement with the organization…” but that doesn’t capture the very important pre-aware/pre-engagement awareness-building phase of said lifecycle.  Perhaps someone could suggest a better way to articulate that.)  The diatribe above presupposes that pillars of Content Strategy are (a) the goals, objectives and needs of the organization, and (b) the relevant logical and emotional content needs of their buyers and their influencers.  (Depending on the organization, replace “buyers” with “prospects,” “members,” “customers,” “consumers,” “subscribers,” “partners,” or whatever else properly describes the organization’s primary “target.”).  Point is – what I would describe as “true” Content Strategy (hey… who am I to make that claim?) assumes that it’s entire construct is around the needs of the organization’s target.

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.

Yes there is.

A colleague sent me a link to a post by Gerry McGovern entitled “Is there such a thing as content strategy?” I made the mistake of clicking-through and reading it late last night before going to bed. At first I took it lightheartedly, thinking, “That’s an interesting perspective… although I don’t think I agree with it.” Then it started to gnaw at me, and sure enough, I ended up NOT falling asleep for about an hour while getting increasingly bothered… to the point that I *almost* got out of bed to draft a response. I didn’t. Fortunately it was wasn’t top of mind in the morning, and I’d all but forgotten about it, but I happened upon that link again while clearing out the inbox at the end of the day.

The two things that bothered me the most:

  1. The premise that strategy lives alone at the executive level…. and that everything below that is execution. Yes, strategy *should* be established at the executive level (and too often it isn’t), but not only does it exist at levels below that, but it *should* exist at every level below, otherwise everyone is shooting from the hip.
  2. The idea that you shouldn’t talk about content to senior management. From my perspective (as narrow and near-sided as it may be), content is increasingly *the* interface between company and customer. Good content results in good sales performance and happy customers. So, not only *should* we talk about content with senior management, but the more we do and connect the dots between content quality and business results, the more we can push for dedicating more resources to generating and publishing good content… in turn netting better results for the whole company.

I could leave it at that, but the lost hour of sleep left me with a chip on my shoulder…. and I’m bothered by the strongly worded arguments that really didn’t make any sense.

For example, to the point that every organization or role wants a fill-in-the-blank strategy, the author states, “This silo-fication of strategy does not lead to a better customer experience.” Aside from introducing me to the awesome word “silo-fication,” the statement is troublesome. I would argue that silo-fication in organizations is more likely due to the lack of strategic planning than the result of it. I would continue, then, to suggest that good content strategy is, in fact, a strong progressive force to reducing the silo-fication of organizations.

To the author’s point that Kristina Halvorson has done a great job promoting the importance of quality content, he adds, “However, I would argue that content is strategic, not strategy.” What does he mean by that?  That’s the same as arguing against the need for business strategy by saying, “I would argue that business is strategic, not strategy.” The meaning of his statement is either hovering above my intellectual reach, or it just doesn’t make sense. On the other hand, what is growing clearer and clearer is that Mr. McGovern doesn’t seem to understand what content strategy is.

Bothered as I became about this post in general, as I started to deconstruct it in order to grasp the logic (still haven’t), the last paragraph actually made me start to feel sorry for the author in the same way you might feel sorry for a sad, lonely drunk who is proudly and passionately singing an 80’s rock ballad – off key and off beat – at the local dive bar’s not-popular Karaoke night. (Don’t ask me why I’m there, too, but I’m sure it’s something to do with drowning my sorrows for not being able to write a brilliant, yet brief analogy.)

The bulk of the last paragraph serves up a series of statements that each alone may or may not be correct, and together they fail to add up to any real argumentative statement against content strategy.

“To me the essence of strategy on the web is customer centricity.”

Yes, customer centricity is an important part of web strategy, but one could create a fabulous customer-centric web site that does nothing to support the business. The essence of web strategy, I might argue, is more like that elusive sweet spot that is customer-centric and perfectly satisfies the needs of the organization. Am I too nit-picky?  Customer-centricity is a good point to make, after all. OK… let’s let the author continue to make their point:

“The Web is about the rise of customer power. Social media is just one example of that. Is the organization truly going to focus on and organize around the customer? That’s the key strategic question. How do we frame content in that context?”

Hey Sherlock! This series of statements, if anything, supports the need for content strategy – the strategic planning for identifying, creating, delivering and governing content – which in any strategically-driven business *is* all about framing content that helps the business succeed in the context of what the customer wants and needs (and in the format and through the channels where they consume it).

But can the author finish with a punch to drive the point home?  (I think that’s a mixed metaphor. Sorry. Kinda.)  No.  The author concludes:

“So, it’s not about content but rather about culture, because as the great Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Two things irk me about this:

  • Without a doubt, culture is a strategic consideration when planning content, whether it’s the cultural landscape of your target audiences, or the culture of the silo-fied organization who is creating the content intended to engage those targets at various points on the customer lifecycle (or not). Culture is relevant to the discussion about content and strategy, but to say “it’s not about content, but rather about culture,” is like saying “it’s not about pickup trucks, but rather about utility vehicles.” The author’s series of statements is illogical and irrelevant — it isn’t either/or when it comes to culture and content.
  • Although I don’t claim to be a Peter Drucker scholar, I believe his statement “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is in reference to the culture of the organization, and the notion that business strategy (or any fill-in-the-blank strategy) is not effective in an organization who’s culture is in the dumps… that business leaders need to foster a strong positive culture in their organization in order to expect any success from their lofty strategic plans. Well, I don’t claim to be an organizational psychologist, either, but that makes sense to me. What doesn’t make sense is how Drucker’s statement supports an argument against content strategy, other than how it minimizes any kind of strategy if there isn’t a culture that will support it.

In conclusion, I mostly walk away with the idea that the author just doesn’t understand content strategy. It is the lack of content strategy that helps promote the silo-fication of content creation, in which the silo with the strongest voice prevails, however disconnected from the customer’s needs and culture that voice might be.