The oxymoron of content strategy

This post was originally published on the ISITE Design CMS Myth blog.

Bob Johnson photoThe other day I had the opportunity to connect with Bob Johnson, Vice President and Principal Analyst at IDG Connect after attending a local SMEI Boston meeting. Years before “customer experience” became a household phrase, Bob was VP of the Customer Experience Practice at IDC, and before that VP of Sales Effectiveness at the META Group. I took some time to talk with Bob about leveraging content strategy for the sales force, an area he’s both well-versed and passionate about.

Great seeing you at the SMEI meeting on mobile the other day, Bob. I’m excited to share some of your thoughts on content strategy with CMS Myth readers. To start, the term “content strategy” can mean different things to different people — what does content strategy involve when you’re talking about it?

The content strategy is the objectives and goals the content is supposed to address for your organization, and the sources, technology and people decisions you’ll make to maximize a return on content. Strategy requires execution, which leads to problems we typically see in content strategy.

The content strategy is often disconnected from the MBOs that individuals have. The strategy doesn’t include goals such as closing gaps in the content portfolio or making the content more modular or increasing its pass-along value. So often the strategy is not followed by tactics that reflect the real world. The strategy is often done by someone who has responsibility but not authority, but the person in charge of executing the content strategy needs to have the authority to mandate.

Another thing that we see is that content strategy tends to be done in a vacuum. That sounds funny, but it often doesn’t take into account platforms such as mobile, or social, so sometimes you’re trying to do something in your strategy but it’s not reflected in the content you’re producing for social media.

Many people think of content strategy as being about marketing. How does it relate to sales enablement? 

In terms of sales enablement, content strategy should also provide sales support. Currently content strategists are typically focused on lead gen and brand awareness, rather than the sales support. You need to get sales involved right up front when setting up your strategy to see what they need, use, like and don’t like, and what’s taking their time. Not a lot of companies do that. They tend to be more organized around specific campaigns rather than enabling success at the later stages of the buying process.

Some people might say sales people are tough to please. How can content strategy support them better?

The sales person wants content to be relevant, and to drive forward the selling process, and to answer questions that buyers have. Only about a third of content is used, though, because it doesn’t do one of those three. And then they create their own content, spending hours and hours, adjusting existing content to make it relevant for the buyer.  Content creators must see what sales people actually use by getting out there and observing. So ask yourself “when the last time was that someone responsible for creating digital content went on a sales call?” The answer is they likely haven’t.

How can customization be made easier for sales people?

Most of the customization done today is in documents or slide decks. Salespeople also sometimes try to gather relevant articles and show insight that way. Relevant content might compare and contrast products but do so by providing a discussion framework rather than feature by feature comparison. The key thing for the content creator is to create content that says up front who it’s for and what buying stage it covers – a decision-maker versus a recommender, and so on.

Most content needs to be short, focused on a topic, role or value area, and concise. A salesperson doesn’t want to side track a conversation, they want the content to enable speaking to their value and differentiation. So if the asset you provide is a 20-page white paper but only pages 7-9 are relevant to the point of conversation, that’s problematic. So you have to think short, think modular and enable the sales person to use aspects of an asset not just the whole thing.

Who is doing it well, do you think?

Despite people‘s focus on content strategy and making it modular, we’re still seeing 20 page white papers when, according to IDG Connect buyer research, it shouldn’t be more than 7 pages. Now, organizations are starting to get the message and not measure the value of their new content by the pound. There is a $500 million dollar software company where the new CTO said, “Okay, all of your content on the website will be taken down in 12 months unless you prove it still serves a purpose and need.” It was extreme, but the message served a valuable purpose. That is, you have to reassess assets and not simply create them, post or use them and then leave them up forever in some pseudo asset graveyard on your website.

Marketing and sales automation technologies are moving to help manage content and the race is one between them, Now, while content management systems support web content they are not sufficiently integrated into how sales people work. These two areas see overlap in functionality. And content is the battlefield. Whichever platform does a better job at leveraging the large investments in digital content into the sales process will have the best chance at victory. A lot of the marketing automation tools are doing a better job of helping to profile the content that they have, but they need to be moving that information over to sales automation tools that the sales rep uses actively.

You’ve said that “content strategy” is an oxymoron.

Right, I’ve written that. An oxymoron is something that’s nonsensical; it just isn’t true. A lot of people don’t know what a content strategy should be or why they should be doing it. They just know they have a lot of content. So when they set out to do a content strategy they don’t address the underlying things that need to be addressed to be effective.

There are process issues, roles and responsibilities, communication and coordination, set tasks that repeat and others that are driven by upcoming or single events. You must look at consistent common metrics, definitions, guidelines and ensure that the organization is aware of the existing content portfolio mix as well as the gaps to fill.

In many ways, it is a change management process. You’re changing how your organization looks at the role of content as buyers look to go deeper into the decision process before they engage sales. You must overcome the fact that humans are creatures of habit, and if they’re used to producing 20 page white papers unless you give them a reason to not do it and give them new goals, they will quickly snap their behavior back to the same shape. If you’re going to have a successful content strategy you have to tie desired behavior to the systems you use, goals and requirements/methods. That way, if the creators, whether they reside in product management, marketing communications or sales support, fail to meet those objectives they also fail to attain one of their individual MBO goals.  

So put together the rewards: I’m going to reward you more for creating a piece of content that addresses a gap in our portfolio. Or that is modular and can be used in different ways, because it is broken up into self-contained sections. They need to learn how to put linkage into an asset to increase its pass-along value. A lot of people don’t know how to do this, you can’t expect them to know, so that makes content strategy for many organizations something that they give lip service to without thinking about the hard work to make it stick. You’ve got to educate individuals on how to create optimized content as part of the overall change. Then, content strategy becomes part of the fabric of how they work and is an enabler rather than oxymoron.

Content experience touches everything that you do. It’s central to customer experience. It’s central to customer service, it’s central to sales, it drives marketing. So let’s not treat its creation as reactive afterthought, driven by a new campaign, rather as something as important and central as breathing. Something you consider every day as you connect assets, repurpose them and build them based upon how they improve alignment with buyer needs and drive the sales cycle.

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