A version of this article first appeared in CCO magazine in April 2020.
Technology can make content marketers more productive and accountable. But too often we overlook the old-school systems, processes, and resources to optimize our content marketing engine.
Here are the five must-have, low-tech concepts you need to focus on in the rest of 2020 and beyond.
1. An editorial resource center
You need to document your why. Why do you create content? What are your goals? How do you operate in a way that’s disciplined and scalable?
The act of writing these things solidifies your vision and unites your team under a single purpose. And by making those documents easily accessible, you enable everyone involved in content to execute on that purpose with clarity.
Your resource center should include:A content marketing strategy: The most successful content marketers are 4.9 times more likely to have a documented strategy compared to the least successful marketers, according to the latest findings. Your strategy document crystallizes your why. You may not refer to it daily or even weekly, but team members can take a deep dive to understand your audience, personas, buyer journey, and content goals. (You’ll find good advice about how to document your strategy here.) A content planning framework: A content framework is a cheat sheet for understanding what types of projects you should greenlight. Back in 2016, Dusty DiMercurio from Autodesk explained they use the organizing mantra of head, heart, and hands as their content framework. “Head” content was future-looking thought leadership content authored by executives. “Heart” encompassed inspiring stories from customers. And “hands” was content with a more practical bent. Summarizing your content portfolio succinctly is particularly valuable when signing on thought leaders and other subject-matter experts to contribute their knowledge to your content program. A creative brief template: For some organizations, this template is supplied by their content development platform, but in most cases creative briefs are homegrown documents created to outline the topical focus of the content piece and provide creators with pertinent details on its intended voice, style, format, and distribution channels. An informative brief should also include summary information about your company’s (or your client’s) mission, its target audience, content purpose/goals, main topic, keywords, and deadline. An editorial guide: Which style guide should your writers rely on (AP? Chicago Manual of Style? A customized version)? What tone of voice and personality should your content emulate? An editorial guide helps writers understand the audience they’re writing for, special language considerations, and even preferred formatting and visuals.
Finally, make sure all your content team resources are gathered in a single, easy-to-access place – or even better, indexed clearly on an intranet or collaboration platform your team uses regularly.
For example, at Cleveland Clinic, all these resources are gathered into a microsite called OnBrand. More than a brand style guide or press kit, OnBrand offers a wealth of information for both internal and external content creators – something that’s critical for an organization that publishes thousands of articles, videos, and guides about health topics. The site offers an overview of Cleveland Clinic’s history and mission, its pride points, digital assets, and detailed guides about design, writing, printing, and formatting for web and mobile.
2. A well-defined content ideation and review cycle
High-performing content teams always seem to have an abundance of valuable content ideas at the ready, as well as the ability to develop and deploy those ideas seamlessly. It’s an enviable goal for all content marketers, but it doesn’t happen magically. It takes a sound process and ongoing optimization effort to pull off consistently.
Rachel Haberman knows a thing or two about content ideation. She was the content marketing manager for Skyword for nearly two years before moving on to lead the content effort at Avid. Rachel says her experience at Skyword drove her to implement a disciplined, process-oriented approach – a philosophy she says she hopes to cultivate in her new role at Avid.
Rachel says defining the content ideation and review cycle depends on the specifics of your company’s program, including your publishing frequency. But you must define it. “It sounds very basic but having that discipline in place kept me sane and let us produce high quality at volume,” she explains.
From brainstorming to well-honed ideas
Rachel says ideation requires a disciplined, multistep approach. This process, she says, ensures that your team has a steady flow of ideas informed by your audience insights and inspired by your business needs:Identify collaborators. Figure out who inside your company has a direct connection to your customers and products and get their buy-in to participate in the process. Define tempo. Decide how to regularly solicit and gather ideas from key stakeholders. Rachel recommends a cadence of one-on-one calls to source new ideas. Winnow the list. Based on these calls/meetings, you’ll have a long list of inchoate topics. Narrowing that list involves appraising the potential value of each idea by asking questions such as: Is it a topic our audience cares about? What business initiatives does it support? Which actions will it drive? Refine ideas with your editorial team. Take your focused list and put it in front of the editorial team. These expert storytellers should wrestle with it, ensuring that the best ideas rise to the surface. Document your ideas in a creative brief. The brief development process fleshes out your ideas and provides the direction your content creators need to turn the ideas into impactful, shareable assets.
3. Clearly established metrics
While most content marketers equate metrics with technology, it’s still important to step back from the laptop (no really, step back from your laptop) and simply define how – and how often – you plan to use performance data. What metrics matter, how often do you need to view them, and when should you apply the insights you receive from them? The answers, of course, depend on your company goals, your publishing tempo, and your available resources.
For example, Rachel says she aims to look at higher-level metrics, such as traffic and lead flow, every month. In addition, she consults the “in-the-weeds” data from Google Analytics at least weekly.
When Amanda Todorovich won Content Marketer of the Year for her work at Cleveland Clinic, she told CMI that her team even looks at some of their metrics daily to make sure important trends and opportunities don’t pass them by. “If something is trending and we need to react to it quickly, or if something has a lot of comments that might drive a follow-up story, we’re on it,” she said.
No matter what cadence you establish for monitoring your content’s performance, you need to determine when to act on new insights immediately, and when it’s OK to wait and see if the data indicates an ongoing trend or just a one-off anomaly.
This often comes down to a matter of preference, team agility, and available team resources. Enterprise marketers might do well to adopt a formal process of analyzing and reviewing metrics data on a set schedule (e.g., a monthly team meeting, or timed to coincide with their organization’s quarterly performance reviews), while smaller or more nimble teams might tweak certain content components (think headlines, keywords, or distribution channels) on a rolling basis to see how those shifts might move the needle.
But one technique all marketers should incorporate in their performance management process is the ability to conduct A/B tests, which can help home in on how specific variables might affect your audience’s engagement habits.
I’ll admit that this one can be a bit challenging to manage without technology tools, but it can be done manually on a small-scale basis simply by adjusting one component of your content at a time (say, the format of your subject lines or the placement of your calls to action) and tracking whether it makes a noticeable impact on your key performance indicators (KPIs).
4. Team energy reserves
Lastly, let’s talk about work ethics and feeling overworked. We may jokingly refer to the work being created through an “engine,” but we all know it’s real people – not mechanical gears, carburetors, or pulleys – that keep our content marketing pipelines fueled and functioning. If we don’t allow ourselves and our team members to recharge our mental batteries, we put both the quality of the work and marketing performance at risk.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, content marketing systems need to include the ability to step back, look around, and source new supplies of inspiration and energy. This process is as critical as any other to enhance productivity. But how can content leaders make it happen? Here are some suggestions:Schedule inspiring gatherings. Your team likely gets together regularly to solve specific business problems and source new ideas. But consider a meeting less about the here and now and more about vision. In a Medium article, Nathan Waterhouse, an innovation consultant who works with famed design firm IDEO, says planning well in advance is critical, as the idea is to ease your team’s stress, not add to it by forcing them to drop what they’re doing at a moment’s notice. And be sure your plans allow for flexible “detours.” He explains, “If you’re just following a scripted agenda you’ll not be responding to tensions or opportunities that arise in the moment. One way to do this well is to have a “parking lot” of questions and ideas. Address these issues at the end of each day and the start of the next.” Encourage clarity breaks. Sometimes even small changes can generate big gains. Leaders at PixelSpoke, a marketing and design firm, wanted to help their employees be more creative, so they adopted a practice called the “clarity break.” It’s modeled on Google’s 20% ethos but scaled to work for smaller companies. In this Inc. article, PixelSpoke’s CEO Cameron Madill explains that during clarity breaks, employees “go outside with nothing but a pad of paper and spend an hour thinking creatively.” Physically leaving their workspace is part of the exercise – getting away from screens and other distractions can help quiet the mind and sharpen focus on how to make a meaningful impact on the work. Encourage vacations. Years ago, I worked for a company where the boss prized hard work and never took vacations, so the rest of us felt awkward asking for time off. Yet we all know that sustained overwork leads to poor quality ideas. Content managers should lead by example by taking time to recharge. And if you notice that team members aren’t using vacations, encourage them to do so. Taking regular time off to recharge should be as important as delivering on metrics.
Technology factors in to so many things we do to maintain optimal levels of efficiency and performance in our content marketing initiatives. But it’s important to remember that these tools don’t do the job alone – they work best when they are balanced by human insights, well-thought-out processes, and meaningful commitments to help team members stay properly focused, creatively energized, and highly productive.
A version of this article originally appeared in CCO magazine’s April 2020 edition. Subscribe to the magazine today so you don’t miss the next digital issue.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute