Move faster, take punches, and validate content before creating it

Part three in a three-part series on “The Intersection of Product & Content”
← Read the first article | ← Read the second article

Too many content marketing activities are the result of extensive strategic planning. By the time decisions get made, assumptions that were relied upon prove to be outdated, irrelevant, or completely false to begin with. That’s why, despite endless editorial calendars and keyword tools, a remarkable 60% to 70% of content goes untouched by customers. Nearly half of salespeople think that their marketing teams are creating ineffective and inaccessible content. In today’s fast-paced landscape, content marketers must test and iterate on assumptions faster to validate content before creating it.

In the first article in this series, I explained how customers don’t buy products, but instead buy the aspiration of what those products enable them to do or be. Organizations should use content to quickly communicate and even to validate that aspirational state before building a product. As I illustrated in the second article in the series, to create such content and ultimately align potential buyers with a product or offering, marketers need to be customer centric. Now I’ll outline how content marketers should redefine their success metrics and realign their processes to operationalize customer centricity. We’ll find inspiration yet again at the intersection of product and content.

The absurdity of planning

Indeed, content marketers aren’t in uncharted territory. Entrepreneurs and product teams have long struggled to execute on customer centricity, often netting similarly lackluster results. Somewhere between 75% and 90% of startups fail, while extensive research across companies of all sizes has shown that 50% of features developed are rarely or never used by customers.

In 2011, Eric Ries published The Lean Startup which built on practices documented earlier by the likes of Steve Blank and Bob Dorf. It acknowledges that any business plan, no matter how well-researched, is rife with untested assumptions. As Blank would later write in Harvard Business Review:

Business plans rarely survive first contact with customers. As the boxer Mike Tyson once said about his opponents’ prefight strategies: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Given this extreme uncertainty, Blank argues that product teams should favor “experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional ‘big design up front’ development.” Instead of emphasizing traditional metrics like profitability, product teams should measure progress in terms of validated learning, which Ries defines as a “form of data that demonstrates that the key risks in the business have been addressed by the current product.” In other words, entrepreneurs should intentionally strive to get punched in the face early and often, before investing in a strategy.

In the context of new product development, validated learning can materialize in many shapes and sizes. One common practice is to design mockups for a yet-to-be-built product and capture the reaction of prospective customers. Another involves rolling out a feature to a small subset of users and measuring its adoption before exposing it to the entire user base. What connects all ‘Lean Startup’ practices though is contact with customers.

Given the focus on continuous customer interaction, product developers have shifted from a traditional ‘waterfall’ methodology, wherein a project is outlined upfront and then rapidly built to specification, to an ‘agile’ methodology, for which a project is broken into functional iterations that are evaluated at each step.

In fact, research shows that by merely breaking large projects into smaller chunks that can be tested with customers, product developers are 90% less likely to fail.

An uncomfortable reality

There is a growing community of content marketers that already embraces agile principles and reaps its rewards. In fact, the editor of HubSpot’s Medium publication, ThinkGrowth.org, predicts that “content marketers will start to look (and act) more like product managers,” creating a lot less content overall as they refine their activities and eliminate waste. Further, McKinsey & Company found that:

In many companies, revenues in the segment offerings and product lines that use agile techniques have grown by as much as a factor of four. And even the most digitally savvy marketing organizations, where one typically sees limited room for improvement, have experienced revenue uplift of 20 to 40 percent.

Nevertheless, there is a stark lack of best practices. Many content marketers struggle to break the status quo and identify all the techniques to effectively adapt to an agile workflow. That’s understandable given that agile wasn’t specifically intended for content marketing activities, not to mention that it’s even difficult to embrace in new product development.

Noting the latter challenge, legendary product leader and partner at Google Ventures, Ken Norton, makes an interesting comparison. “Jazz is a continual conversation where listening is more important than talking,” he argues. “A performer is said to have Big Ears when they pick up on what the others are doing, anticipate, and create.”

But not knowing what comes next can be stressful and uncomfortable. “An ordinary leader would stop the tape and start over, trying for perfection. They would seek to avoid discomfort and stick to the plan,” Norton admits. “Making innovative products requires [the] ability to surrender to the unknown, to follow the music wherever that goes.”

His advice is tough to swallow for anyone who has traditionally relied on a command-and-control management style. It’s much easier to follow the overwhelming majority of content marketing guides that don’t recommend customer interaction as a first step (or as any step at all), but instead focus on comforting internal assessments, adopting ever-more tools, and frameworks for brainstorming and strategery. But alas, we already know how such ‘enlightened’ plans will unfold. To paraphrase a Pardot marketing leader: ‘In an ever-changing marketing world with multiple campaigns and channels to maintain, agile marketing isn’t just a good idea — it’s a necessity.’

How to un-plan

There happens to be some catharsis in coming to grips with the reality of adapting agile principles, whether it’s to product development or to content marketing. Moving fast and getting customer feedback is going to be painful, but knowing so is the first step to doing so. We’ve learned that and much more from the 2,000 experiments my company’s platform has powered for the world’s leading product teams. And we’ve translated the lessons to content marketing in order to create and iterate on wildly successful inbound channels.

Once organizations buy in with full cognizance, they too can then shift their content marketing efforts from waterfall to agile by realigning objectives, techniques, and stakeholders. However, aside from the aspirational goal of being customer-centric, there are virtually no steadfast rules. Content marketing teams should consider recommendations in context, and experiment to learn what works best for them.

With that said, product management serves as a powerful starting point, particularly with regard to the paradigm of measuring success in terms of validated learning. Recall that instead of measuring revenue or profitability, agile product developers strive to capture customer reactions and demand for new offerings. Rather than focusing on traditional metrics like traffic, growth, or conversion rates, content marketers should aim to substantiate critical assumptions. That, in of itself, is the objective.

To that end, content marketers need to master the techniques needed to validate an offering. For example, despite being carefully written and designed, a typical ebook is made up of countless assumptions that often aren’t tested until after being published. With validated learning as the objective though, content marketers can flip the script to validate an ebook before even creating one.

Think about the steps that would need to be taken once the ebook is published and execute those first against prospective buyers. Send an email announcing the proposed ebook with a call-to-action to pre-order it. It’s best to know whether or not recipients click that link before investing any further resources. Then create a landing page to pre-order the ebook and follow the same guidelines. My team won’t even get started on an ebook until more than 300 prospects have pre-ordered it. For a smaller initiative like an article, we’ll use a standing panel of industry experts to provide feedback in Google Docs. We’ll often split the panel into cohorts and send variations of the article with different titles and key points to each, in order to maximize the value of the comparative feedback we receive. We kill duds and identify big hits long before they make their way onto our blog.

Of course, this workflow is distressingly unpredictable. Without the certainty of knowing how any experiment will end, it’s impossible to determine what to work on over any extended period of time. My team keeps a backlog of untested assumptions, with their corresponding levels of difficulty to test. Here again, we take a page out of product management playbooks and rely on kanban as a methodology for balancing our capacity for testing new assumptions at any given time. We’ve accelerated experimentation and increased our bandwidth over time by deploying an assortment of built-in tricks, like setting up recurring happy hours with prospective buyers to including short surveys throughout email drip campaigns.

Newly-formed content teams can and should spend as much as 90% of their time testing assumptions. They have much to learn before it makes sense to invest resources in any particular initiative. Over time, efforts shift from testing new opportunities to primarily executing on existing ones. Most team compositions can’t accommodate this to any significant degree, and must be restructured accordingly. At scale, such a makeup will resemble the product and innovation capabilities of leading digital brands. New offerings are tested by a dedicated team led by someone whom I introduced in the previous article as a contentrepreneur. Once validated, initiatives fall under the purview of a content manager who is responsible for its continued engagement and conversion. Content managers share access to resources spanning from copywriting to analytics to development, as needed. Each channel focuses on one or more steps in a pipeline, moving prospective buyers further down the purchase funnel.

As with everything in life, practice makes perfect. Content teams that stay true to agile principles are sure to get better at experimentation, continually refining their own methodologies and empathy for customers. Eventually, being uncomfortable becomes the new norm, and publishing something no one reads becomes a distant memory from an archaic past.

Recap and ramifications

Replacing waste with validated content is only possible once marketers shift from planning to iterating. But continuously iterating on customer engagement needs a workflow to facilitate it. By borrowing lessons from product management, content marketing teams can adapt an agile framework to effectively execute on customer centricity and align buyers with their offering.

Stop assuming. On company blogs across the internet, there is an epidemic of “mirage” content that is bound to fail. Not only is such misguided content a waste of resources, it misaligns and turns off prospective buyers. Content marketers that are guilty of these activities must immediately recognize that they are relying on untested assumptions.

Get punched. To test assumptions, content marketers must interact with customers early and often. And while doing so may be uncomfortable, it’s assuredly less uncomfortable than explaining why campaigns aren’t converting visitors and leads.

Adapt agile. To leverage the insights learned from customer interactions, content marketers must embrace a new workflow. The agile methodologies deployed in product management offer a promising starting point for doing so, although practitioners would be wise to adapt them over time to their own needs.

Up next

Working on both product and content for two startups has enabled me to realize the potential at the intersection of the two disciplines. This article concludes my three-part series on “The Intersection of Product & Content.” Next, I’ll publish real-world examples to better illustrate how content marketers are leveraging these lessons to achieve success.

← Read first article | ← Read second article

Thanks for the feedback: Yair Aviner, Mike Fishbein, A.J. Lawrence, and Michael Bamberger.