Marketing Content Strategy

If You Want to Move from Content Marketing Strategy Novice to Expert, Let Go of Complexity

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It’s a scene that’s played out so many times in my marketing career. It was dawn and I reach my destination, a block of office buildings surrounded by construction of modern, glass high-rises.

Through the window, the morning light shone in, and I sat quiet, alone, and focused. I was gearing up for what felt like the biggest campaign of my life—yet again. A calendar reminder went off on my iPhone. I pulled up the final strategy presentation and headed into the conference room to present.

Cut to four weeks later. I sat in the same conference room with the whole marketing team. The setting sun colored the bare white walls. The excitement of the campaign launch had long since passed, and my boss and the marketing team (heads of digital, social, PR, product marketing, marketing operations, email, and events marketing) gathered to celebrate some campaign successes, to address some shortcomings, and to agree to shelve some campaign tactics that did not go as planned. I felt pure dread, knowing that a bad media buy was going to overshadow the weeks of planning and execution.

I decided that I was tired of the cycle—of working weekends planning for complicated win-or-lose campaigns and a content marketing strategy that might not resonate with people. I was tired of spending big money to borrow the attention of an audience for just a few weeks. I decided to never put my fate in the hands of a media planner again. Instead, I resolved that the next project I took on would make a sustained change that would benefit the business for years to come. My personal quest was to go from content marketing Novice to content marketing Expert.

To read the rest of this series, click on the stories below:

1. Confessions of a Content Marketer: Admitting Where We Sit on the Content Marketing Continuum by Patricia Travaline, CMO, Skyword

2. How the Content Standard Moved from Expert to Leader on the Content Marketing Continuum by Jon Simmons, Managing Editor of the Content Standard

3. At Visionary Companies, Storytelling Runs Deep by Tom Gerace, CEO, Skyword

Take the 5-minute assessment here:

Content Marketing Continuum

The Increasing Complexity of Marketing and Content Marketing Strategy

Whether we are selling products or services, today’s marketing mixes grow more “inventive, more expansive, and more involved.” The desire for each campaign to be more creative, to be in more places and channels, and to be optimized in its execution can feel like an obsession sometimes. It’s not an obsession that I always understood; I thought I never would. At first, growing marketing complexity became a compulsion that I blamed for chaining me to my laptop.

But as my marketing career advanced, I came to appreciate the full extent of the dilemmas marketers face each day:

  1. Be more creative than (and know the audience better than) your competitors—a difficult challenge in a world in which at least 250,000 new products are launched each year.
  2. Reach an audience that doesn’t want to be interrupted with advertisements and is splintered across a million different media platforms. Mass media are disintegrating so quickly that it’s not too hard to imagine a future in which all newspapers have folded.
  3. Build trust in a digital marketing environment in which only 10 percent of people trust ads on websites.

We know the painful state of marketing in 2016 all too well. In a hurt-ridden world, it’s no wonder complex campaign plans still have appeal. They amount to heavy-duty security blankets that insulate us from failure. But if campaign-driven marketing is broken, then what’s the answer?

The Prodigal Marketer Returns

The event that brought me to Skyword and inspired me to build a long-lasting content marketing engine was also a failed ad campaign. Previously, I had been a product manager for a Facebook advertising platform and service. When Facebook opened API access to its marketing and advertising platform to us in 2010, brand marketers came rushing in, seeking the first-mover advantage into a new channel that accounted for an increasing amount of people’s time and attention at home and at work. But many of our clients, direct marketers with little to no branded content, spent money and failed. After a foray into the world of data-driven, direct marketing, I decided it was time to learn how to build a brand and create great content as a way to succeed in digital marketing. In choosing to come to Skyword, I chose the opportunity that would help me accomplish a few top priorities I had at the time:

  1. Become a subject matter expert in an industry and establish credibility and authority.
  2. Shape a brand and the perception of that brand in the marketplace.
  3. Discover what it meant to build an audience, and also what it meant to build trust with that audience.

At the time, Skyword had recently launched the Content Standard, a digital publication and enterprise information hub focused on the future of marketing, creativity, and storytelling. It was the marketing initiative that drew me in and helped me decide to join Skyword. In 2012 when I joined, content marketing as a topic was seeing explosive growth. And here was a new opportunity to help shape an industry, develop a new publication, and help determine how the company went to market. I was so excited to learn the ropes of publishing content, but little did I know that this would be a baptism by fire.

The Content Standard in 2013

Publishing Comes Easy—Being Great Does Not…

In my first year, the Content Standard published 559 articles, or 10 articles per week—every week—including holidays. Reaching a sustained publishing cadence was a big, personal accomplishment. Looking back, I am very proud of our early achievements: developing an early group of contributors, building an editorial calendar, and establishing a workflow for editorial review and approvals. Publishing felt easy. Through the lens of pride and inexperience, I projected immediate results, including website traffic increases that would compound over time due to our growing base of published content.

Today, we know that sustained publishing is a major part of being a content marketing Expert—but at the time, our traffic was stagnating. Instead of growing in authority, our content disappeared from SERPs soon after the publication date. Neither Google Search nor our audience heeded the authority of our published content. And, traffic to our publication stalled from month six through month 12.

As a result, the marketing team was losing faith in our own ability to publish effectively, and I was at a crossroads. It was time to either:

  • Break from the program, or;
  • Get close to the audience and the content strategy by developing new goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) that would truly differentiate us in an increasingly competitive content environment.

Putting the Audience at the Core of Marketing

Our content strategy and content creation efforts were not evolving quickly enough to survive. It was time to put pride aside and ask for help, and we began our search for a new marketing team member who would focus on creating a more audience-centric content strategy. Our existing strategy had been based on insights from a single point in time (an examination of the most popular content marketing topics in the news and in blogs), but we needed regular use of data as a primary tool to help improve assignment and topic ideation as well as writer development. So in September of 2013, we hired a content marketing manager who would also act as the managing editor of our digital publication.

And in February of 2014 the two of us collaborated on our first major relaunch of the site. This launch marked a major strategic shift with a focus on user experience, as we called it. We stopped pushing the corporate agenda and started talking about topics the industry and our audience cared about. We developed new KPIs, such as audience satisfaction scores. We conducted surveys of our readers to find out what they wanted to learn and how they wanted their stories delivered to them. Readers told us this time and time again that the site lacked an original voice and the depth of coverage:

  • You’re not saying anything interesting.
  • You’re not saying it well.

The Content Standard in 2014

So we set about fixing that by giving our new managing editor the freedom to invent a new content marketing strategy and taxonomy. And we tasked him with taking a more nurturing and direct role in the lives of our content contributors. Those early surveys bruised our egos, but when the audience moves to the core of your marketing, two things happen:

  1. You and your team members become activists for the audience—everyone from the CMO to the marketing specialist.
  2. New opportunities to create relationships with internal business partners and stakeholders from throughout the organization are created.

All of a sudden, our little content program felt like an established publication with culture, identity, and traditions. We had evolved to the point where we could reach out to and benefit from conversations with celebrities, creative luminaries, and even Pulitzer Prize-winning editors. We understood the finer nuances of building trust with an audience.

Combining Art and the Science of Marketing

Thanks to our foundational work of connecting our content destination to a technology stack (web analytics, the Skyword Platform, CRM, and marketing automation) we were also able to show that our audience was growing, returning regularly, engaging further with our content and the overall site, and entering the sales process. Comparing our first year in market to the previous 12 months, we’ve grown traffic by 10x. Return on content marketing costs is 400 percent, and we can attribute some of our largest customer partnerships down to the original article they read on this publication.

The Content Standard homepage in 2016

Our commitment to in-depth storytelling and long-form content is paying for itself. But in an effort to become the most relevant publication in our space, we released our fourth major redesign of the Content Standard. This latest redesign is the content marketing team’s contribution to Skyword’s mission to become a global leader in storytelling. We’ve built out a container that can house even longer-form, moving stories that apply the principles of story craft as taught to us by the visionary Robert McKee. It’s the biggest creative risk that I’ve taken as a marketer—closing a place that I knew and loved in order to create a new place that can only hope you’ll enjoy.

Want to see where your brand falls on the Content Marketing Continuum and learn how to move up the spectrum? Take the 5-minute assessment.

As Skyword’s Senior Director of Marketing, Ruben heads content, design, and development for the company’s flagship Skyword.com. Ruben also leads strategy and operations at The Content Standard, focusing on product and design. Connect with Ruben on Twitter.

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