Updated Sept. 2, 2020
I’m going to give you the secret, revealing question to make the business case for content strategy. Are you ready? Here it is:
How much did you spend on content last year?
Go ask your CFO. When they toss you out on your ear without an answer, know you just made the most compelling business case for a strategic approach to content. Though the dollar amount is difficult to calculate, your business probably spent more on the creation, management, activation, promotion, and measurement (or lack thereof) of content than just about any other expense.
How the heck are we ever going to get organized around content? It seems overwhelming. We are simply drowning in the amount of content the business creates every year. How will we ever measure all of it?
As our annual research has shown repeatedly, a successful content marketing program is strategic, has involvement from the highest levels, focuses on building audiences, and uses content at all stages of the buyer’s journey. In short, businesses successful at content marketing integrate a combination of changes to install the function of content as a business model.
Evolved business model of content
In my book with CMI founder Joe Pulizzi, Killing Marketing, we offered the historical, strategic value of owned media (your content marketing) as a function in the business. We identified this idea as follows:
In a post-innovation world, as the production and distribution of content becomes more commoditized through technology, the business value of original, high-quality content increases. Put slightly differently, as “reaching audiences” becomes more difficult, fragmented, and filtered, the capability to generate and hold attention with original content becomes increasingly more valuable to the business.
You can certainly see this happening at tectonic scale. Amazon, Apple, Google, AT&T, and Verizon are quickly becoming the largest media companies on the planet. Why? Because their content gives direct access to audiences, providing tremendous value and competitive advantage.
You can see it happening at the smaller level as well. Salesforce recently acquired The CMO Club, and the Girl Scouts launched a new media brand for women. Neither initiative has to do with enhancing their existing product lines. Both organizations are adding those content opportunities to more easily reach and engage audiences without having to rely on rented media.
Put simply: All these incredibly successful companies have installed owned media as business models within their company.
But, OK, if content marketing is best structured as an integrated business model in your company – what is the best way for you to structure it?
Why care about content models
As part of CMI’s consulting and education practice, we’ve worked with companies for the last 10 years on figuring out the right method of mechanizing content marketing for companies.
Recently, we established a bit of a new framework for companies to consider when looking to structure their content marketing business model. We took huge inspiration from the remarkable media strategy work of PwC’s Deborah Bothun and John Sviokla expressed in summer 2016.
As they looked at the overall structure of owned media, we looked at four internal business models for content marketing against two scales. The critical conclusion? No model is better than another (though perhaps there is a maturity curve to be seen).
Rather, the insight is this: Businesses integrating content marketing more deeply in their strategy have clarity around how they are balancing and prioritizing the models they are installing.
But, OK, won’t we figure that out as we go? Perhaps you should ask: Why should we care? You might say to yourself, “We’ve got so many demands and so much content to produce, why take the time to plan? Let’s just get to it!”
Well, as it turns out, Steven Sinofsky has the answer. Steven is a product marketing guru and former president of the Windows division at Microsoft. He is most famous for saying, “Don’t ship the org chart.” It’s great advice.
Make sure what you’re offering – whether it’s software like Windows, a device like a phone, or something less tangible like content and customer experiences – is built to satisfy the customer needs and desires instead of reflecting your internal organizational structure, your silos, your turf battles, your budget constraints. It just makes sense.
But as it turns out, when Steven said, “Don’t ship the org chart,” he didn’t mean you shouldn’t ship the org chart. In fact, he meant the opposite. It is not a warning about something to avoid. It is a statement of fact about something that is, well, unavoidable.
It is inevitable. It is inescapable. It is preordained. It’s like a natural law. And in fact, Steven was deliberately invoking what’s called Conway’s law. Melvin Conway was a computer scientist and developer. In 1968, he noted that “organizations that design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”
In other words, operational design is product design. Marketers’ products are content and communication. And Steven and Melvin teach: Since we are inevitably going to communicate in the way we are organized, you better organize and operate in the way you want to communicate to customers.
Our experience with this organizational constraint is summed up in what I might humbly call Robert’s communication razor:
“How well a business communicates is in direct correlation with how much importance it puts on the strategy of content.”
So, you should probably think through how to design your content operations.
4 operating models of content
In our client work over the decade, we have identified four types of business models:Performer Platform Player Processor
When content strategy succeeds, it typically happens in one or more of these four content operating models along two axes. On the Y axis, models are more internally focused, building audiences that can be monetized over time. Along the X axis, models are departmental (e.g., siloed) services shading into integrated business services.
The quick and easy way to explain and distinguish the models is to look at the output.
Player content model
In the lower left quadrant, the Player model is certainly the most common. Often two or three people – although it can be many more – are tasked with fulfilling the needs of the business by creating, producing, and merchandising content. The Player model team creates infographics, e-books, sales sheets, blog posts, and often presentations for the CEO. This team is the “creator of assets.”
Example: Read how software company Symantec evolved from a successful Player, campaign-focused business model to a Performer center-of-excellence model.
Processor content model
In the lower right quadrant, the Processor model is content-as-a-service. Internally focused, this model leans toward a more integrated business service that the whole enterprise uses. Maybe a team or teams work on SEO strategy or localization, scalability, best practices guidelines, protocols, etc. They set the standards for how content will be created and managed in the organization or by outsourced agencies.
Example: Read how Carlos Abler led the content enablement initiatives at 3M.
Performer content model
Moving to the upper left quadrant is the Performer model. The focus is on building external audiences through content products. An editorial team may manage a resource center or a dedicated blog, magazine, or video channel – discrete, immersive experiences aimed at building or moving audiences.
Example: This is the model that software company Frontline created with its original research institute.
Platform content model
Finally, in the upper right, is the Platform model or content-as-a-business model. Content is not only created as a marketing and sales tactic but might be an integrated product or business strategy. The Platform model could have a revenue stream too.
Not a maturity model
Now, it’s tempting to look at the four models across a maturity scale where you start with baby steps in the Player model and grow up to become a Platform model content business. While this has some element of truth (e.g., you almost always start out in the Player model and aspire to Platform), it’s misleading to see these models as stages.
The idealized content operation should be seen as a balanced combination of all four models. It’s not a question of which one you are now and how you grow to a new model as quickly as possible. Rather an intelligent content strategy is about which balance of the four content models makes sense both today and tomorrow.
Perhaps when you look to the balanced goals of your business’s idealized model, you choose to balance more heavily toward a Performer model.
Your content team focuses more on the product development of content experiences, such as blogs, websites, e-newsletters, etc. It might be balanced with a smaller effort of team members who repurpose the creative assets for the content products as marketing campaign-oriented content. And another team may focus on making sure that all this content is structured well, translated efficiently, and optimized to the degree it can be.
Yes, you can scale and measure enterprise content
As you might expect, we see the future of strategic content marketing as a scalable, measurable business strategy. As we move through 2020 and beyond, the beloved practice will permeate the function of not just marketing but every department of the business. It is the strategic use of content that will not only build audiences and drive the creation and retention of customers but do so at a profit for the business.
Content as a distinct business model will evolve the practice of marketing and can move some or all the functions of marketing from cost center to profit center.
As Joe wrote in the introduction of Killing Marketing: “This is the future of IBM, of General Motors, of Cisco Systems — creating owned media that not only can generate more leads and opportunities but is so good that the marketing pays for itself.”
That’s something you can hang a career on.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute