When content marketing is broken, this is how you fix it

21st of Jun 2018

Michelle Bourke


If you’ve ever worked in corporate marketing, that sentence is probably a more familiar one than you would like to admit.

“That paragraph will take 6 weeks to get through legal and will come back unrecognisable once the sign off process is done with it.” 

Legal Sign Of In Marketing Cartoon

But the legal sign off component of digital content marketing is just a very small piece of the broader challenge: how do we create an environment that allows content to be responsive? When more than 50% of companies with over 10k employees take between a week or one to three months to go through an approval process to publish content, something is seriously broken with how content marketing teams are structured.

Content Marketing Approval Process Research

Source (Conductor Anatomy of Content Team Report)

Why are we still choosing to see content marketing in the framework of an archaic medium of pen and paper, sent to the offset printer for thousands of copies which cannot be changed for months, in an environment when updates can be published immediately?

The time of information asymmetry is dead. In his seminal book “Influence”, Robert Cialdini talks about the concept of information asymmetry being critical to the persuasion process (whether that be in sales, marketing or any other scenario). It’s the idea that when one person holds more information than another, that imbalance of information creates the power of persuasion for its holder.

But what about a world where customers now have access to information before salespeople do? What about a world where customers are discovering, reviewing, blogging and sharing what they believe are a product’s differentiators before marketers do?

Information Asymmetry In Marketing Cartoon

In that world, we need a different solution to hiring, structuring, strategising and operationalising content marketing teams.

As traditional newsrooms have turned into freelancer hubs, corporates are just starting out with this “brand new” concept called “storytelling.” Are corporates choosing to take on board the immense storytelling, investigative and strategic talent that lies within the journalism mindset? After all, telling a story well is exactly what journalists do, isn’t it? A journalist’s task is to:

  • Find the story, the “unique difference”
  • Communicate it in a way that connects with an audience
  • Connect it to other events that make sense

In an ideal scenario, yes. But here’s the thing. Mostly, companies haven’t hired experienced journalists to weave that story. Most content marketing teams are fairly junior heavy, and quite new. Over 56% of them in fact.

Age Of Content Teams Research

In the meantime, storytelling, content marketing and throwaway lines such as “Content is King,” have become phrases so overused that we’ve started to view a vapid blog with 300 words (just because that’s what some SEO article said Google wants) as an acceptable piece of customer communication.

As Avtar Ram Singh made the point in a recent post, “there’s a wide held notion that videos shorter than 60 seconds work better. Try telling that to anyone that works in the auto or hotel industry, they’ll laugh you out of the room.”

Blanket rules, without considering and applying your customer, your journey, or your differentiators to the content you’re creating, just doesn’t work. It’s a recipe for short-term wins and long-term brand damage.

Avtar Ram Singh Post

Of course it’s very easy to say quality over quantity. It’s a lot harder to do. Content creators or writers who are strategic thinkers and marketers are as rare as designers who are also UX experts.

And so the challenge becomes threefold:

  1. How do we get the right mix of skill sets in content marketing teams and individual team members?
  2. How do we distribute responsibility for content production and governance across our organisation?
  3. How do we keep the end consumer of information, the customer, at the centre of the process?

Let’s start with the last question first because without content that resonates with customers, we have nothing.

How do we keep the end consumer of information, the customer, at the centre of the process?

An Ideal Government Design ThinkingFor the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, Director of Digital Engagement, Jithma Beneragamawrote about how they started by putting the customer at the very beginning of the planning process with design thinking exercises.

These design thinking exercises such as customer empathy mapping and customer journey mapping (made famous by David Kelley of the design company IDEO) should really be the critical starting point for any content marketing strategy and planning exercise.

As Lou Schirmer rightly pointed out when we recently caught up for coffee, the concept of journey mapping and personas is actually marketing 101! This is just a new term for an old concept. Regardless, it makes it no less important. And I’d argue that service design and digital design teams have done a better job of connecting those exercises to the final customer communication than marketers have in the past.

In large associations, government or sporting organisations there are often long chains of complex stakeholder groups, all looking after a mix of B2B and B2C channels which take a highly departmental view of content.

These exercises are what help break down those barriers as a starting point, and if each content piece is mapped back to both the customer persona and their position in the journey, it becomes so much easier to keep content from going off onto irrelevant tangents…which it very much loves to do when left to its own devices.

Content Marketing Cartoon

The second question is then, how do we distribute responsibility for content marketing production and governance across our organisation?

I think one really interesting way to look at this is through the lens of web development. The way web development has evolved over time has been on the basis of frameworks. Take Ruby on Rails for example. Ruby on its own is a language, just like english, designed to help developers give instructions to computers and web browsers and ultimately, create cool web applications.

Rails was a framework actually created by David Heinemeier, founder of the much loved project management app, Basecamp. And in the same way as Basecamp was created to organise the chaos of projects, Ruby on Rails was created to organise the chaos of code language. However, it’s not just the Ruby language that has a framework. PHP code has a framework named Laravel, one of the frameworks for Python code is Django, and the list goes on.

Think of these frameworks as a series of agreed rules, structures and templates that are nicely packaged up so that when a developer comes a long and decides she wants to build a web application, the framework makes it 10 times faster to get things done, and with best practice applied. But the most important component about these frameworks is not their speed, but that they are open source.

Take Citibank for example. Last year while I was at SXSW and in some random hotel lobby (which is where everyone gets stuff done between talks), I overheard a conversation between a journalist and the API lead from Citibank who was talking about their API hub. For marketers who may not be aware, an API is what helps allow two applications to talk to one another and access information from one another.

The leader of this department was talking about how they treated the development of the internal API as a Product Manager and Product Marketer would. They were effectively creating an “open source” framework within the organisation so that instead of becoming a governance roadblock, their “product” was supporting the organisation to make its own decisions.

Now that is a cool way of looking at governance don’t you think? And what’s even cooler? That is exactly how the internet came to be what it is today, so we know that this approach can scale really well.

Back in 2016 at a Telstra Vantage event, I spoke with Andy Penn who referred to the centralisation of a team to manage Telstra’s single sign on process. Single sign on is what enables hundreds of thousands of Telstra customers to login to various different Telstra services on different platforms at different times. The then VP of Cisco made the point that having an API as well as an open source framework for teams across Telstra to access would address what might otherwise become a serious bottleneck to getting anything done at all.

What’s the difference with the Citibank approach? Centralisation and governance of the management and support of the best framework, not centralisation of decision making and development responsibility.

So my challenge to content marketing operations teams would be this. How do we build on these frameworks and “open source” concepts so successfully used in web development?

  • Create a team responsible for a centralised “Content Marketing Framework” function in the organisation that ideally sits under marketing (where marketing has full ownership for the customer and their experience.)
  • In this centralised team I’d envisage these roles:
Content Open Source Framework

And at an operational level, we could take a lot from agile methodology and again web development best practice. Things such as:

  • Content stand ups
  • Agile content delivery
  • Constant content reviews and sprawl checks (what coders call “code refactoring”) – particularly focussed on core website content. Here you might ask questions like “is this content in the right spot?”, “where it is in relation to the original customer journey”, “is it needed and valuable or is it just corporate vanity?”

These processes would be documented and championed by the core content framework team, but on a day to day basis, decision making would remain with individual marketing teams.

Where does the customer fit in?

Further to that, I’d add that a critical missing piece in every governance structure today is the customer. Think of them as the “fourth department”. If marketers were actors and the audience were customers, we should be actively trying to break the fourth wall.

The Fourth Wall Of Marketing Cartoon

From there, how might we determine who should own what content streams? In some ways that depends on how much control you have around the existing structure of the marketing team, but I’d argue for as much alignment with the customer journey as humanly possible.

Interestingly you’ll find that the customer journey view also aligns more closely with particular marketing channels. For instance, a content marketer with a specialty in SEO will be much more useful covering off content targeted at the “research and consideration” phase of decision making for a potential customer, because that’s where SEO, as a marketing channel so to speak, is the most useful.

Traditionally we may have:

  • Segment / category marketers – owning a particular customer persona, for instance at the top level this may be B2B or B2C.
  • Product marketers – owning the value proposition, marketing and input into development for a particular product or service set.
  • Digital / channel marketers – may have specialisations in social, search, email etc.
  • Content marketers – great at creating awesome and engaging content.
  • Brand marketers – responsible for associating the highest aspiration of the customer to the brand, developing and owning the brand’s voice as its own entity.

In this new world, ideally every segment marketer also has a channel specialty interest (just like a General Practitioner might have a special interest in Obstetrics) which can be applied to a particular length of the customer journey.

The “produce once, publish many” approach is a great aspiration, but it can also be a roadblock in a digital setting where there are so many nuances to success within each channel.

For instance, the objective of SEO is to drive organic traffic and to do so by increasing site authority, ranking for more keywords which leads to more impressions and there for more traffic. Voila! But to do this, links from other authoritative and credible sites are necessary.

It’s the ultimate practice in social grooming. And the important part is that unlike the mainly B2C proposition of social media, SEO focussed content is ultimately a B2B content sales proposition. “Hi I’m from website A and and I think we could collaborate on content type X”. If website A and other sites don’t link to the content, then regardless of how many social shares it gets, that content piece hasn’t done its job.

Search isn’t something you can just retrofit at the end by “optimising” content for some random blog idea. Determining link worthy content needs to happen in the strategy and then the rest becomes executional best practice.

In practice, this means outside of the role of a content marketing framework two rules are now in play:


Content planning needs to happen collaboratively.

A content marketing strategy development process should ideally involve a specialist representative from each digital channel, PR, advertising and sales, and it might look something like this:

  1. Customer research…go out there and meet some customers! Talk to them learn who they really are!
  2. Collaborative customer journey and empathy mapping exercises to walk in their shoes.
  3. Channel research using search, social and PR data to prioritise keywords, concepts, questions and interests along the entire customer journey and mapping those to core company differentiators.
  4. Content strategy workshop for content ideation (by breaking into groups along the customer journey you’ll then ensure channel planning covers off the entire customer lifecycle).
  5. Channel planning – mapping those ideas from the workshop to channels and fleshing out what success looks like for each.


Customers are involved. Not just at the beginning. Always.

We don’t live in a world anymore where our customers are brand consumers. They are brand creators. Not recognising your customers are a part of the creation process will be the death of any good content marketing strategy. Apps such as Usergems and Wooly now allow us to load up a list of customer emails and use data to determine which of our customers are influencers. We should be tapping into consumers as fuel for a creative, healthy, agile, responsive content marketing team that can make relevant and astute changes in response to the changing needs of customers.

And finally, how do we get the right mix of skill sets in content marketing teams and team members?

Lots has been said of the “T shaped marketer”. Managers complain they’re very hard to find (because they are), and part of that is simply that we are in the middle of a generational shift in skill sets and knowledge base. 1 in 10 mothers are now millennials (born 1977 to 1990) and these millennials are now in the throes of taking over the workforce.

The majority of marketers are now digital marketers by default (whether they want to be or not) and in being so, they need a much deeper technical / channel capability than they ever have before. The need to marry left and right brain functions has never been greater.

Reluctant Digital Marketer Cartoon

Marketing is now a constant stream of conversation happening often in published real time between a corporate entity and thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of private citizens.

It is no longer “advertising” as it was in the days of Madmen: one message, one medium. A digital marketer needs to think about a single piece of content in the context of multivariate testing, personalisation, multi channel attribution and accessibility by multiple devices from visitors (some human, some robots) choosing to read and interpret the content they design.

Econsultancy do a great job of highlighting the core responsibilities within a modern marketing team using their content marketing team matrix, but it’s unrealistic and in fact not at all ideal to separate these into distinct roles. All this does is create more silos.

If we overlay onto their matrix what skills an ideal T-shaped senior segment marketer with a specialty in SEO channel marketing should have – it might look something like this.

T Shaped Marketing Skills Overlay

Do this across each member of a marketing team and you start to get a much deeper understanding of the foundation of a solid content marketing team.

Add a dash of the “marketing pod” approach from Jay Acunzo (former Digital Strategist at Google and Head of Content at Hubspot) and now you’re really cooking. The key difference between organisations would be in organising these mini pods across customer journey or segment lines (or both).

In our version, at an organisational level the structure might look something like this:

As Bernard Baruch acutely observed:

Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.

As marketers we need to elevate ourselves to more than just curators of the present or the past, but be curious enough to go deeper, to use more than just our words to question our environment and distribute content about what matters to our customers. And to do that, we need governance structures that empower, not stifle.

That way when we are called upon by our customers to be leaders, to say or do something important, we’re not just ready to respond, we’ve already started the conversation.

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