How to Set Up a Content Marketing Practice with a “Lean Enterprise” Mindset

Last night I spoke at a great event put on by Lean Enterprise T.O., a Toronto-based meet-up focused on applying “lean enterprise” approaches to business (or as the related website describes it, “bringing a start-up mindset to larger organizations”). My talk was focused on how to create a “start-up” content marketing practice within a larger organization using a “lean” approach, i.e. without significant budget, resources, buy-in, etc.

Below are my speaking notes outlining my experience in, and advice on, starting up a thought leadership capability within a large financial services enterprise – enjoy!

“So I’ve got 10 minutes to tell you everything I know about being a content marketing “start-up” within one of Canada’s largest asset management organizations  – so we should have five or six minutes left over once I’m done so hopefully there will be some questions. [Note: this was intended to be a joke, i.e. every single thing I know about his topic can be summed up in only 4 minutes - it went over like a lead balloon!]

And as it happens, though, I’m well suited to this topic because since 2010 I’ve been using content marketing to help organizations of all sizes grow, first at a 15 person boutique brand strategy firm, then as a brand and content marketing consultant myself to other organizations, as now as the first VP of Thought Leadership at one of Canada’s largest asset managers, with a total team count of one – me

Before I jump into my experience, I quickly want to review the structure of today’s marketplace that makes content marketing so effective, and it can be boiled down into three characteristics:

  1.  Buyers are so overwhelmed by “interruption marketing” (aka advertising and corporate messaging) that they don’t pay attention to it as much as they used to – i.e. it’s not as effective as it used to be
  2. Buyers want  a solution to their higher order problem, they don’t want your product or service – that just happens to be a by product; the ole quote from Theodore Levitt ‘people don’t buy a quarter inch drill, they buy a quarter inch hole’ definitely applies
  3. Buyers themselves, especially B2B buyers, are doing between 57-90% of their investigation into solutions they need online via Google, before they ever contact an organization

So that’s the way the market is shaping up these days and indicates why content marketing can be so effective.

In terms of my experience at one of Canada’s largest asset managers, and any advice I have for others trying to start-up a content marketing practice in a larger organization to meet the needs of that new market structure, there are three key steps I’m going to highlight.

The three steps are: developing the strategy, developing the content itself, and developing and implementing a distribution and promotion plan for the content.

Within the context of being a start-up, my approach to developing the strategy is pretty straight forward because it has to be – as a team of one, I’ve got very limited resources so I have to nail the fundamentals first

For me, the strategic fundamentals required for success start with defining the organizational goals, and then move on to finding the sweet spot where the answers to three questions intersect:

  • What is the competitive advantage of your organization?
  • What are the key, higher order, problems or needs of your market?
  • What are the topics that address those problems and reinforce your competitive advantage?

As a start-up, you’ll probably be working without much of a budget, which means the initial data gathering that’s needed for any good strategy will be driven by lots of conversations with internal stakeholders – for me, I spoke with over 55 internal people

I also think it’s important to speak with your clients to validate the internal perspective and get directional guidance. This last part is critical because many internal stakeholders don’t really know what their clients are thinking because they’ve never asked. Unfortunately, many internal stakeholders are also worried about sending someone in to ask their clients questions because they think it may send the wrong message. I couldn’t disagree more but happy to talk more about that later.

Before you can even think about setting up interviews with your clients though, you first need to define who your clients are (which may be a new process for some organizations) and choose one client segment – or one set of needs – to focus on.  As I’ve often said to my colleagues, I don’t have a quiver full of arrows to use, I have a quiver full of arrow, and it needs to be aimed squarely at one set of needs

Identifying your competitive advantage and target market will then lead you to a variety of themes and topics that could be developed into thought leadership, and the selection of a topic is where you want to involve your editorial board.  For me, my editorial board is made up of the key decision makers within my organization who see the big picture and have insight into our clients so they can guide my efforts to ensure I’m pointed in the right direction.

The final part of the strategy process is to identify the metrics that define success.  For us, our primary goal is to grow brand awareness outside of Canada so our metrics of success will be compared with benchmarks regarding media mentions via PR, web traffic, email open rates, time on page, downloads, and other digital metrics. Deciding on the right digital metrics is a much more nuanced process than I had realized and requires an expertise all its own since any given metric may seem to measure what’s important, but in reality doesn’t.

With your strategy completed, the next step is to develop the actual content, and again, as a start-up, you probably won’t have the budget to bring on freelance writers so you’d better be able to write competently yourself

As well, you may not be an expert in the theme and topics that are eventually chosen, so you’ll depend on subject matter experts within your company to provide the clay which you can shape into a variety of types of content, including white papers, videos, inforgraphics, slideshares, whatever – my approach is to create content in whatever format the market wants, not in the format we want

What I’ve found is that certain subject matter experts are already pretty busy [Note: being facetious here - they're swamped!], and they may see your efforts as a make-work project, not the beginnings of an organization-wide transformation that you and I know it is [Note: another failed attempt at humour].  In these cases, it’s vital that you develop strong and personal relationships with them to enhance your “soft power” while at the same time having buy-in from their bosses who can, if needed, “encourage” them make the time

An important part of the content development process is creating a workback plan to ensure deadlines are met. In an ideal world where you’re rockin’ on multiple content initiatives at the same time , an editorial calendar should also be developed to track everything and ensure all the content is aligned.  But again, as a start-up, your mandate may be more like dipping your toe in the water with a few executions vs. jumping right in with a full-blown program, so that calendar may not be needed at the start.

Shortly after the strategy is set, and in parallel with developing content, you have to address the third step which is developing and implementing a distribution and promotion plan.

Luckily, since you work within a large organization, you probably have access to fully outfitted creative, PR, and digital departments who you can work closely with to distribute and promote your content.  Since you’ll have very little, if any, budget, your challenge in working with these established departments is to encourage them to make time, and apply their budget and resources, to your endeavours. You’ll probably have support in this from your sponsor, who has encouraged you to become this start-up in the first place, but in addition, once again, it’s vital to develop those relationships that will help this process along.

And that, in a 10 minute nutshell, is how you can develop a start-up content marketing program in a lean enterprise environment.

Any questions?

Focusing Your Content Marketing on Your Competitive Advantage

I’ve talked a lot in past posts about understanding and using your competitive advantage to develop content that helps grow your business.

But, the question that both of my readers are probably asking themselves is: how do you identify what your competitive advantage is? What process can you go through to figure that out?

One of the ways is by answering another related question, which is: what business are you in? To many, it may sound simplistic – “we’re in the accounting business” or “we’re in the restaurant business”. But those answers, more often than not, are not the best ones and they don’t help identify your competitive advantage.

To get a sense of what a strong answer could be, think about Grocery Gateway. They deliver groceries to your home and if the average person was asked what business they’re in, that’s probably the answer they’d give – grocery home delivery.

But if you caught the billboard ads they’ve used in the past, you’d get a glimpse into what business Grocery Gateway thinks they’re in. One ad carries the tagline, “we deliver more ‘do not disturb’ time” with an image suggesting a woman relaxing in a bath (very non-sexual). The business they’re in, then, is the time-saving business, not the grocery delivery business, and this has big implications for the direction their content marketing efforts could take.

As a grocery delivery business, the range of themes and topics they could develop is relatively limited to – you guessed it – groceries and food, speaking to an audience passionate about those topics. Now there’s a lot of topics that could be addressed in that area but far fewer that would help differentiate Grocery Gateway in the minds of consumers from other grocery delivery services that exist.

However, as a business focused on saving consumers time (or enabling them to spend more time on the things they love to do vs. the things they need to do), this opens up a whole range of content topics related to time-saving tricks and hacks for a busy life, or on topics related to living a more passionate life. Either of these ideas has a much broader audience because, arguably, more people are interested in productivity, lifehacking, or “do what you love” content, for example, then food-related content; Grocery Gateway could become a daily read for a market not enamoured with groceries or cooking but with living a more enjoyable life, yet who still need grocery delivery, vastly expanding their reach. Or, at the least, it’s a topics that clearly differentiates them from the competition.

So to develop content that will focus your business on your competitive advantage, take a dip in Grocery Gateway’s tub and ask the simple question of, “what business are you in?”