How Content Operations Magically Balances Creativity and Scale

Last updated: 05-25-2021

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How Content Operations Magically Balances Creativity and Scale

You’ve probably heard people describe marketing departments as places for trying fantastical things where no one has a bad idea, and everybody’s work gets a star and gets put up on the refrigerator.

If that was ever true, those days are over.

CEOs now see the marketing function as a driver for growth, according to an article in McKinsey. As one former CEO said, “Data has changed how the C suite is interacting with marketing. Now it’s very hard to separate company strategy from marketing strategy.”

Today, marketing departments are looked at as factories – places where something successful can be replicated a million times.

Is either of those views accurate? Ideally, the creative studio and factory facets of marketing exist in a balance. But how do you get there?

On the surface, the answer is simple. You must put a process behind marketing that can flex and accommodate new ideas. You have to create an operation to support it.

And since the creation, production, and activation of content is now the heart of marketing, content operations make the heart function.

Getting content operations right frees marketers to act like creative kids and still produce an efficient, scalable product.

In episode five of our Marketing Makers series, I walk you through the magic of making content operations work. You can watch the whole show here or view each chapter as you read this post.

The term “content operations” refers to the combination of people, processes, and technology that ensure content says creative, meaningful things and says them most effectively.

In section one, I explain how content operations grew out of marketing operations, which itself grew out of the idea of “marketing science.” I dig into history here, so watch the video segment and follow along with the text if you’re interested. Want to get to the world as it is today? Skip down to the section on the four models of content operations.

In the 1960s, marketing science started changing the perception of marketing by incorporating sophisticated analysis into the research. The concept of profiling customers and developing deeper research to analyze their needs grew out of the marketing science view.

In the 1970s and ’80s, marketing departments built teams to handle these research projects along with more complex financial analysis and the ongoing development of computer technology within the department. Those teams became what we call marketing operations today.

Originally, marketing operations focused on efficiency through metrics and measurement, processes, best practices, and ongoing research to develop the best creative and media strategy.

As the digital age dawned in the 1990s, the concept of customer relationship management swept the industry. Marketing operations once again encompassed the complex technology and workflow aspects to handle the new digital approach to marketing.

And this gave birth to a new type of enterprise technology tool called marketing resource management (MRM).

Early MRM systems handled workflow tasks like creating marketing calendars and assigning tasks as well as managing digital assets, publishing digital content, and even printing content on demand.

Then, they took on tasks such as automatically sending emails based on triggers such as purchases or sign-ups to loyalty events.

It should. The MRM systems of the early 2000s performed many of the same functions as today’s workflow systems, digital asset management tools, marketing automation platforms, and content management systems.

So what happened to MRM systems?

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As the 2000s kicked into high gear and websites, blogs, landing pages, email, social media, mobile technologies, and so many other content-driven experiences drove the marketing departments. The technologies began to separate from the MRM umbrella.

Marketing automation sprang up to offer a better way to manage the email channel. Web content management systems emerged to manage big, complex websites. Digital asset management rose as a way to manage all of the digital files created by marketing.

In time, marketing operations focused more on the resources, financial analysis, and research areas of marketing. And the content tools created organizational silos. In some companies, the team that worked with these tools became the digital marketing team. In others, they became the web team or the digital technology team.

But as content marketing and content strategy become more strategic and operational functions within businesses, a new breed sprang up within marketing operations.

As Cathy McKnight puts it, “Content operations, when done right, unifies the customer experience across the enterprise by standardizing content-related teams, technology, and supporting processes – enabling marketers to focus on creating and delivering authentic, resonant, experiences that drive revenue and growth.”

In other words, content operations is a core piece of how great marketing departments scale their ability to create differentiated content.

In the financial analysis of marketing operations today, the cost of content is probably the most expensive line item. Everyone creates content – from the web team to the marketing automation/demand-gen team to the content marketing team to agencies, executives, frontline account representatives, salespeople, human resources, even accounting people with invoices, contracts, and onboarding documentation. In fact, it’s probably easier to count all the people who don’t create digital customer communication these days.

But the cost of content is one line item in marketing that probably isn’t counted as part of the financial analysis. It simply gets lumped into other buckets.

Is it even possible to make content a line item?  Just as some say content is a meaningless word (and trying to create a content strategy is like trying to create a word strategy), some say there’s no way to get your arms around content, much less put a strategic operation behind it.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: Want More Method and Less Madness? Check Your Content Operations

Sure, it’s not easy. But it can be done. And it’s more important than ever to put an operation behind your content.

That’s because the primary concern of content operations is what your organization wants to say, plus how and where to say it and how to make it scale.

Now there are hundreds if not thousands of places to say things. Data-driven micro-segments of audiences and contextual variables such as mobile or desktop, or physical location, or affinity to other content, all are mechanisms of how and when to deliver a message.

And many content teams have to figure out how to say it in multiple languages and across the functional teams such as brand, sales, accounting, HR, and all those other areas that want and need to say things.

“If we have metrics in place, a style guide in place, terminology that is supposed to be followed, these become the foundation on which things are built,” says Val Swisher, CEO of Content Rules, Inc. “Don’t cut corners when it comes to having … that operating plan for your content groups. On top of that [plan], you can build a great strategy. Then you can have great execution.”

How do organizations build content operations teams to handle all of this?

In my work with The Content Advisory, CMI’s consulting arm, I’ve developed several content operations models. Each has a different investment strategy, optimal team structure, discrete measurement goals, and road map.

Organizing your team and balancing your operations against the model you pursue helps deliver a clearer content strategy.

As you listen to part two of this Marketing Makers episode, follow along below.

A successful content strategy typically happens using one or more of these four content operations models.

The diagram above shows how four models fit along two axes. On the lower part of the y-axis, the models are internally focused – organized around supporting internal teams. On the upper part of the y-axis, the models are more externally focused ­– organized around building audiences that can be monetized over time.

Along the x-axis, models are departmental (siloed) services shading into integrated business services as they move to the right.

Each model has its roles, responsibilities, output, integration structure, and measurement structure. The goal isn’t to move from one model to another. It’s to structure and scale the strategic operation to meet the goals of the business.

The quick and easy way to explain and distinguish the models is to look at the output.

The player model (in the lower left quadrant of the diagram) is the most common. Often two or three people – although it can be many more – are tasked with fulfilling the needs of the business by creating, producing, and merchandising content.

The player model team creates infographics, e-books, sales sheets, blog posts, and often presentations for the CEO. This team is the “creator of assets” or sometimes the “internal content factory” for the business.

Software company Symantec started with a player model before switching to a product center-of-excellence model.

The processor model (lower right quadrant) is content-as-a-service. Internally focused, this model leans toward a more integrated business service used by the whole enterprise. A team or teams may work on SEO strategy or localization, scalability, best practices guidelines, protocols, etc. They set the standards for how content will be created and managed in the organization or by outsourced agencies.

The product model (upper left quadrant) focuses on building audiences through content products.  An editorial team may manage a resource center or a dedicated blog, magazine, or video channel – discrete, immersive experiences aimed at building or moving audiences.

The critical difference is how the content product supports the business. It must be managed as a cohesive and strategic offering of the business rather than a feed of assets that supports campaign marketing.

A wonderful example of this is how software company Frontline created its original research institute.

The platform or content-as-a-business model (upper right quadrant) makes content more than a marketing and sales tactic. Content might be an integrated product or business strategy. It also could have a revenue stream.

Examples range from everything from Red Bull Media House, a separate division of the beverage brand, to Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter.com, acquired as a business unit. And then there’s Arrow Electronics – the distributor of electronics parts – and their creation of a media division that has acquired 53 magazines, websites, and email newsletters. Arrow Electronics is now the biggest media company in the electrical engineering space.

It’s tempting to look at the four operating models across a maturity scale where you start with baby steps in the player model and grow up to become a platform model content business.

Though that has some element of truth (e.g., you almost always start out in the player model and have some aspirations to platform), it’s misleading to see these models as stages.

The idealized content operations model is a balanced combination of all four.

For example, Cleveland Clinic’s content team is the main creator of all content for the hospital’s website, ads, posters in the hallways, etc. But their focus on scale, measurement, and value has been done under a platform model for the last few years (monetizing and staffing Health Essentials and creating a separate division of the business). Now, they’re squarely developing a deeper processor model.

It’s not a question of which one you are now and how you grow to a new model as quickly as possible. Rather an intelligent content operations strategy is about which balance of the four content models makes sense both today and tomorrow.

That’s what we’re after, isn’t it? When it comes to content and marketing – we really want to feel creative, free, ready to play and offer new things to the world. But we want to operate in a way that’s scalable, measurable, efficient, and lets us deliver what the business needs.

With the right content ops model in place, you can scale and measure enterprise content. And that is the future of strategic content marketing – a business strategy to drive the creation and retention of customers as a profit for the business.


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