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Content strategy

Tinkering with ideas about excellence

I’ve been doing a bit of internal blogging at work. It’s been fun. I asked what people might want to read, and someone asked me about creating a culture of excellence in a content marketing team. Not my usual wheelhouse, but it got me thinking. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

Firstly, what can or should a content marketing team be excellent at? The way I see it, excellence can boil down to thinks like:

  • Writing and editorial excellence. Crafting pieces that, stylistically, could sit in any publication.
  • Analytical excellence. The better you can objectively judge the effectiveness of your content, distribution channels, and campaigns, the quicker you can improve them. If a team excels at this, then they can work their way around other weaknesses by following the data to better decisions.
  • Customer-targeting excellence. Being almost psychic in the way you publish exactly what your audience wants to know. Having great insight into the questions that people are asking, and publishing answers before anyone else does.
  • Workplace excellence. Working in a truly enjoyable way, as a team that likes spending time together and which naturally interacts in ways that boosts each others’ performance.
  • Informational excellence. Being the most informed and informative group of people in your market. Being known for the quality of your insights, which no competitor can match.
  • Imaginative excellence. Adopting and trialing new ideas quickly and confidently, and being able to accurately evaluate their usefulness without any wasted effort. This can affect any part of the production process, like content formats, targeting and distribution methods, how you choose what topics to cover…etc. If you’re the best at experimenting and learning, you’ll soon be trendsetters.

I’ve attempted to order these examples in an order that begins with technical ability (“right brain” stuff) and goes through to creative abilities (“left brain”, in the psudeo-science).

Realistically, no team can be the best by all of these different measures. But sustaining excellence in any one of them will pay off a big ways. And there are overlaps, so by focusing on one area you’ll improve in others.

So it makes sense to me to pick a particular aspect of your work and stress excellence there, rather than generally exhort yourselves to greatness. It follows that you need to collectively agree on what sort of excellence you want to achieve.

Situation report

To decide where to focus, you need to know where you are now. An easy-ish way to work this out is to look at:

  1. Whether your approach to content marketing is brand-based or product-based
  2. Your team’s current strengths and weaknesses

Brand-based and product-based content marketing

Content of any sort needs to be appealing. Appealing content is informative or entertaining (or both). Without either of these traits, content fails.

This makes content marketing an exercise in giving: You start by giving your audience something new to think about, or something to be entertained by. Only then can you hope to extract value (in the eventual form of increased sales) from the exchange.

To earn that value, your content has to meet another criteria for success. It has to make something more attractive to your audience. In brand-based content marketing that “something” is your company’s brand. In product-based content marketing it’s a particular product, or service, or an entire product category. Something that you sell.

Entertaining content suits brand-based content marketing. The content doesn’t need to be particularly relevant to your product so long as it’s going to earn attention. A good example is Red Bull’s popular, and plentiful, coverage of extreme sports events that it creates in order to sell cans of drink. Their brand is all over it; their product is usually absent.

Informative content suits product-based content marketing. In my home country of New Zealand a very popular example is the Edmond’s Cookery Book, which you’ll find in most kitchens. Since 1908 more than 3,000,000 copies of this book have been printed across 60 editions. (For context, our entire population is around 5,000,000.) This book was started by the producer of Edmond’s baking powder, which happens to be an ingredient in a lot of the recipes. It’s gone from being a successful piece of content marketing to a cultural icon.

So, work out which of these two approaches best describes the stuff that you produce? To coin a phrase that will 100% never catch on, are you a Red Bull or an Edmond?

If you don’t know the answer, you probably need to develop a firmer strategy.

Current strengths and weaknesses

This bit can be hard because it requires introspection and honesty. But your team needs to know, and acknowledge, what you’re good and bad at.

Rather than directly asking for positives and negatives, I recommend writing down 6-10 general capabilities that teams like yours have (or ought to have). When you’re writing your list, don’t think specifically about the people in your team. You could start with the list above: Writing style, Analytical ability, Customer mindset, Workplace spirit, Insightfulness, Innovative thinking…

Finalise your list and put each item on a separate card or sticky note.

Once you have that list, ask where you how your team would compare to the average content marketing team in your industry. Let everyone vote each item up (if they consider it a relative strength) or down (weakness). The ranking that you end up with will be a useful continuum of where you stand today.

Record that order. You’ll need to refer back to it, but your cards are about to get mixed up again.

Squad goals

Go back to the cards that list out team capabilities. You all have another round of thinking to do. This time, rather than asking what you’re good (or bad) at today, ask how much each capability could possibly contribute to your team’s performance. If you were optimally great at all of them, which would have the biggest impact on your output and results? This requires more of a conversation than a simple vote.

Keep in mind the sort of work you do. If you’re a branded entertainment machine then one set of capabilities will come to the fore. If you’re a category-boosting information source, then your set will be different.

Let everyone contribute. Place things in an order, then look at which items are close to each other. Focus your efforts on breaking deadlocks.

Once you have an agreed order, record it and compare it to your current strengths and weaknesses.

We’re heading somewhere now. Updates to come.

By Max Johns

Content strategist and web writer.