This is an edited version of a talk that was presented to marketing leaders and managers from around Australia and the world at B2B Marketing Leaders Forum in Sydney on 22 May 2019.
I’ve been doing this thing called content since forever, and content has come a long way in internet-land.
For me, content has been about precedent and persuasion; about where, why and how to explore the world. It’s been about helping students learn and it’s been about helping businesses succeed. Right now, for me, content is about getting energy right for people and the planet.
Early on, during my Lonely Planet years, my work was heavily weighted towards print, but pretty soon I became entrenched in the creation, organisation and categorisation of content so that we could move to a digital environment.
I’ve seen content go from sometimes to real-time to all the bloody time!
For me, the most interesting thing has been that while the technicalities, the infrastructure and distribution models have completely changed, at its core, the guts of what I do has stayed the same.
Creating, categorising, communicating
ideas, inquiry, insight, inspiration
creating emotional connection
Recently, I was asked to present at the B2B Marketing Leaders Forum in Sydney. It’s a wonderful conference, with marketing leaders from all over the world coming together to learn from each other and connect.
The topic of my presentation was The Rise and Rise of Content Marketing and with such a long and complex history, it was hard to know where to start when talking about the exploding popularity of using content to underpin marketing.
The market has been through cycles. While the genesis of content marketing can be traced back for centuries, things really started to heat up with the advent of the internet. Then about a decade ago, things really started to explode. There were the content creation and amplification efforts of creative in-house marketing and communications practitioners, followed closely by the growth of content marketing agencies, right up through to the mega-agencies like the now-defunct King Content.
Now, we’re seeing a backswing to some degree, with a move towards keeping strategy in-house and creating content teams or hubs staffed with strategists and storytellers to build content assets and execute and amplify them from a macro to a tactical level. Smaller, customer-centric boutique agencies are also doing really well at ideating and taking on discrete or larger pieces of content work and operating as an extension of in-house teams.
In the end, I approached my talk by sharing three things that have stayed the same since the beginning of my content career, and three things that have really changed.
Content is a craft.
One of the things that has stayed the same in my years as a content practitioner and leader is that content is a craft. Craft is a form of making where you end up with a thing that you can use.
In my experience, if you start thinking about content solely in terms of marketing, you’re losing.
The best content marketers don’t think of themselves as marketers at all.
The best content marketers are researchers. They’re curious about people and how and why they do what they do. What do their days look like? What keeps them up at night? What do they care about?
One of the industries that I spent the longest time in was retail, while I was a secondary-school and university student. The most powerful thing I learned was on Day 1 of my training at Myer to ask an open-ended question: How may I help you today? Sometimes the thing people needed was not to buy a thing at all.
At MYOB one of our biggest content assets was a long-running survey — started in 2007 and still going — called the Business Monitor Report. Twice a year, every year, they talk to their customers to find out how their businesses are going, what keeps them up at night, and what they think about the things that were happening within the economic and regulatory landscape. Not only did this give us plenty of PR hooks, but it was the perfect way to create content that would be useful and meaningful for our different audience groups.
The best content marketers are publishers and executive producers. They develop, commission, produce, market, print and distribute words, pictures, film and audio for profit. They know that success is a blend of creative and commercial skill.
To publish for travellers, fashionistas, educators and business owners, I considered a whole bunch of things like target market, demographics, budget and resources. The most important thing I learned was that to figure out what people would consume, you had to figure out what they believed about the world and about themselves.
The best content marketers are designers. They think ahead, to figure out where people are coming from, which doors and passageways they enter by, how people find their way around when they arrive and where they go after they leave. They arrange the entire content experience so that people can find what they need, when they need it.
The best content marketers are builders. They know that if you try to build a house on shaky ground, it will fall, but that if you build it right, with an eye on the future, it will be an asset that will yield returns. They know that functionality is only as good as the trades and materials that go into them.
The best craftspeople create things you can use. The best content returns value for its maker and its user.
Content must create value.
The next thing that has stayed the same is value.
Firstly, if your content offers no value to its audience, it will sink.
And secondly, if you can’t demonstrate the value of your content to your organisation, your budgets will be sunk and your content operations compromised.
Value for audience
The best lessons I’ve learned about creating commercially successful content were at Lonely Planet. There was a great regional publisher I was working under in London who’d begin every meeting by reminding us that our sole reason for existing was to meet travellers’ needs, which ranged from the inspirational — like gorgeous photography and videos — through to the deeply practical advice for the traveller on the street.
Meeting my customers’ needs is a mantra and a methodology that continues to serve me well.
Who am I serving today?
How can I meet their needs?
What questions are they asking?
What content will they value?
In a commercial publishing world, I’d ask what kind of content would they pay money for?
In a branded publishing world, I ask what kind of content would they pay attention to?
Value for organisation
Which brings me to my point about demonstrating the value of content to your organisation. Because I’ve been in enough businesses to know that when things are tight, it’s the marketing budget that’s often the first to end up on the chopping block.
Offering value means publishing great information that your audience can view or download for free.
It means offering entertaining, thought-provoking or educational films for no monetary value.
It means producing short- or long-form articles or books for people to read, use or discard wholesale.
And this is where content leaders within businesses can hit budgeting roadblocks.
In the content-creation world, you get what you pay for — and great content costs money.
But while your audience might not be paying dollars for the content, they do give you their time and their attention.
With the right content, over time they learn to trust you to answer their questions, offer them insight.
It’s this trust exchange that delivers your value, because that’s the thing that gives you permission to introduce your product to your prospective customers and ask for the sale.
Broadly speaking, the metrics that execs look for when working out whether your content program adds value haven’t changed: cost per acquisition and overall return on investment.
I’ve experimented with the cost per acquisition aspect, and I’ve found that by using an extremely targeted combination of audience-specific content plus social amplification to that specific audience plus an audience- and content-specific digital ad, it’s possible to vastly reduce cost per acquisition (sometimes by up to 70 percent). This is a very compelling return on investment for any business.
Content needs a purpose.
The last thing that I’ve found has stayed the same is the importance of clarity of purpose for your content. Not the organisation’s purpose (which your content should absolutely be aligned to), but your content’s purpose both at the strategic level and the tactical level.
Whatever content you’re creating or commissioning, be really sure about what its purpose is.
Determine your long game. Are you trying to build a lead pipeline? Or are you trying to shift brand perception? Are you trying to build content properties that have value in their own right, much like AFL media or Red Bull, in order to sell or leverage them in the future?
Or are you creating short-game, tactical pieces designed to achieve a really specific goal, like audience engagement or clicks for a seasonal campaign?
Knowing the answers to those questions means you’ll easily be able to chase and create the stories that matter to your customers.
When I joined MYOB a few years ago, there was a pretty decent content base to start building on, but no-one had been paying content much attention for a while. But one amazing thing was that there was a huge generosity of spirit towards content — everyone was extremely excited about it.
I had an army of content-enthusiasts throughout the organisation coming at me with ‘content opportunities’ which was fantastic — but considering and following up content opportunities takes time and effort, which is hard when resources are tight. The fact is that everything is a content opportunity. Life is a content opportunity.
The only way to filter through the content opportunities efficiently is to clearly and articulately document your content strategy.
I get a lot of questions about how I document a content strategy. And the answer is concisely.
My content strategy at MYOB was articulated on one page; my content strategy at Origin is the same. It’s designed to be a decision-making tool, something for every team member to have next to them on their desk to focus their day, their week and their year. It’s something for everyone to focus on when considering content opportunities.
It outlines the mission at the top: what is the PURPOSE of content at the organisation?
It outlines the types of content we’re producing, the audiences we’re speaking to, the channels we use to amplify content, the topics we focus on and the big-picture priorities for the year.
And you know how you know when communicating your content strategy has worked?
When it’s gone viral. When it’s so easy to understand that the whole organisation knows what your content priorities are. When you have the CEO approaching you and saying things like, “Hey, Stef, I’ve got a great idea for the podcast…”
Considering tech for content.
Now I’ll share some of the things that have changed since the beginning of my content career. And the things that have changed haven’t just changed a bit — they change yearly, weekly, hourly. They’ve changed continuously, dramatically and exponentially.
The way we create content, manage it, distribute it and measure its effectiveness is all influenced by changing tech.
Most marketers are familiar with the famous Martech supergraphic slide — the one with thousands of teeny tiny logos all over it representing all the possible martech vendors. In its first iteration back in 2011 there were around 150 logos on it. The 2019 version has over 7000 company logos on it.
As a content leader, I’d have to say this is one of my biggest challenges — it always has been and likely always will be. Finding the right mix of creation and distribution platforms is both an art and a science, and there can be a lot of anxiety around getting it right.
It’s something that needs to be assessed on a monthly and yearly basis and there’s always a really fine balance between choosing a tech platform and giving it the right amount of testing time — especially when new options continuously emerge.
Here are my top three points for consideration.
1. Strategy first
Remember the purpose stuff from before? Get really clear on that. Really clear.
The best tech stack in the world will topple if you’re unclear about what you want your content to do and how you’re going to measure its success.
Every vendor will tell you about shiny new features, but the bells and whistles they talk about might not be aligned to your end game at all. What content are you creating? Who is it for? How will you deliver it to them? What will success look like?
Figure out all that before a vendor presents, so you’ll have your checklist of must-have, nice-to-haves, and really-don’t-needs.
2. Know thy vendors
Get to know your vendors — and help them get to know you.
In the past five years especially I’ve spoken to countless tech vendor representatives, and I’ve been mostly impressed with them. Sometimes we’ve agreed that what they’re offering won’t really help us solve our content problems, and other times we go really deep to figure it out.
In all cases, the more information you can give them about the problems you’re trying to solve, the better a match you can make.
Get them to sign an NDA if you need to, but make sure you give them as specific info as you can — and go into actual examples.
3. Understand onboarding and support
Last but far from least, rigorously question the onboarding estimates and ongoing vendor support.
If it’s going to take months to implement the tech in question and get your team working effectively, seriously question what kind of a lag that’s going to create for your team and your goals.
Similarly, if it’s going to be too hard or complicated to use, your team won’t use it and create their own workarounds instead.
What are your team’s capabilities? What capabilities are you planning for your team’s future?
Tech is created for and used by people. Without the right training for the right people, a probably-expensive platform will deliver no value.
Get a level of service, a level of training, and a level of ongoing support included in the purchase or license agreement. Don’t sign anything until their level of commitment to you as a customer is rock solid.
Content and SEO.
SEO and I have a love-hate relationship.
What day is it? Wednesday? I can almost guarantee that something has changed since yesterday. Ranking your content for organic search basically just means playing nicely with Google. Since Google has 95 percent market share in Australia, that’s where I focus.
Who remembers keyword stuffing? Is anyone still doing it? I hope not!
I’m not spend time and bandwidth discussing the difference between white tactics and black ones — I think that as an industry, we’re well past that.
But I will tell you that some of my favourite conversations, every single day, are with the SEO specialist in my team. He’s so passionate about it, watches data daily, hourly, gets so excited about SEO news and advises me of what to do when the algorithms get pissed off. We banter back and forth for a while, and then agree that actually, we’re on the right path.
Because here’s the thing: Google is only interested in keeping their customers, the searchers, happy. And, funnily enough, that’s exactly what we’re interested in too.
In my team, we focus all our work around two words: relevant and excellent.
Relevant means that we have the answers to our customers’ questions.
Excellent means that we answer them well.
It’s not rocket science, but I will say that keeping it simple can sometimes be challenging. There’s no shortage of people who’d like to overcomplicate things.
And a huge part of relevant and excellent means speaking to your customers using the words they themselves would use.
In my first week at Origin, I was in a meeting acting as a content consultant for one of the innovation teams. We were talking about some upcoming product offerings for electric vehicles and we were analysing the current content and where its gaps were.
The on-page copy, tools and widgets were based on sound principles — addressing the things people wanted to know. Things like how much would it cost, how much would it save, what was an electric vehicle’s range.
To me, something didn’t ring true.
One of the things I noticed about the user comments and anecdotes was that when they were talking about things like range (as in, how far can an electric vehicle go on one charge), they didn’t actually use the word “range”.
In the customer interviews, people were asking things like can I drive from Melbourne to Sydney in an electric car?
Once we started using the actual words that people were searching with, instead of what we perceived as their intended meaning, our search rankings went up.
This strategy serves us time and time again. One of my favourite things to do is to pull up the top few thousand searches for a given topic and manually sort them into categories or similar queries. I know there are macros and programs that can do that for me, but there’s a huge advantage to doing it this way: by the time I’ve been at it for a couple of hours, I’m well into the mindset of my target audience. Figuring out what answers they need comes easy after that.
Playing nicely with Google isn’t rocket science.
Pick a topic.
Get into your customers’ heads to understand their questions.
Create relevant and excellent content that answers those questions in the language that they would use.
Build links to it.
Amplifying your content.
Distributing content has changed a whole lot over the past few years, most rapidly in the last four to five years.
Frustratingly, you could create the best content in the entire world, but if you can’t get it in front of your customers, you may as well pack up your bat and ball and go home.
Once you’ve listened to your audience, and then created content that’s excellent and relevant, you’re actually only halfway there.
In the early days of content marketing, you could publish blog articles and, if they were any good, feel reasonably confident that a search engine might match it to related search queries.
Not so anymore.
Now you need to get it out there via owned, earned and paid means. This usually involves a degree of rolling your sleeves up and putting in the hard yards to figure out what works for your business.
The first thing you need to do is to figure out where your audience hangs out. I’ve had great success with amplifying content via Facebook, because — let’s face it — everyone still hangs out on Facebook (even if they’re too evolved to admit it).
According to Yellow, 91 percent of Australians who use social media are on Facebook, and the average Facebook user hangs out on the platform for about 10 hours a week. It’s Australia’s biggest online audience.
Amplifying your content via Facebook is relatively inexpensive, and when coupled with a robust retargeting strategy, quite excellent at warming up leads.
There’s another huge advantage of reaching your customers via social media, and that is that you can use it to gauge content effectiveness. There’s no faster way to tell whether your content has either hit either a nerve or captured their imagination than by measuring response and engagement.
My top tip in relation to socialising or distributing your content are to make sure you plan for it.
When creating your content strategy, think about how you’re going to amplify the content you create, and budget for it.
And now for the three things I know for sure. And I know them for sure because I set and seen them in action.
Content is an acquisition strategy.
Content is an acquisition strategy.
Relevant, excellent content in front of the right audience at the right time increases the propensity to buy your product or service.
Content is a retention strategy.
Content is a retention strategy.
Relevant, excellent content in front of your customers at the right time increases the propensity for them to continue to buy your product or service.
Content is a branding strategy.
Content is a branding strategy.
Putting consistently relevant, consistently excellent content in front of your customers encapsulates and articulates who you are, why you exist, what you do, and how you communicate.
There’s nothing new about content marketing. It may have gone from strength to strength, but it’s all stuff you know.
Creating, categorising, communicating
ideas, inquiry, insight, inspiration
creating emotional connection
Go hang out with your prospective customers. Find out what makes them tick. Find out how you can answer their questions (in language that they understand). Do your tech homework.
Go on — do something great and get it out there!