Monthly Archives: February 2014

How much content is enough?

How much content is enough?  Neither content strategy nor content marketing currently offers a complete framework to guide how much content a brand needs to produce.  Each has a distinct orientation that is largely reactive to the problems it is most concerned with.  These orientations conflict with each other.  Brands need better guidance.

Why the quantity of content matters

Everyone involved with content agrees about some basics:

  • content is important to the success of brands
  • doing it well can be expensive
  • it is important that brands make an appropriate investment

Brands will reasonably want to know what is the right amount of content to create, and how much is enough.  They don’t want to waste money creating unnecessary content, and don’t want to miss the benefits that can be gained from quality content because they produce too little.

This seemingly simple question — how much content is enough — turns out to be surprisingly difficult to get a consistent, straightforward answer to.  It’s a basic question with profound implications, affecting both the size of investment in content, as well as how that investment is structured.  It’s also the question, more than any other, on which practitioners of content strategy and content marketing are likely to disagree.

If we look at general tendencies, we see that content strategists more often than not advise brands to offer less content: to be more selective in the content they present and the messages they communicate.  Content marketers tend to advise brands to offer more content: to be more active in how much content they communicate with audiences.   I am sure each approach will acknowledge exceptions can apply — but the contrast between the emphasis of the approaches is stark.   The question of how much content to offer reveals a deep philosophical difference between the approaches, and the different ways each perspective values content.

Let’s review a few anecdotal statements for clues into how each approach thinks about the issue.  I will then ask “lateral” questions to consider strategic issues related to the statement.  These “food for thought” questions aren’t intended to challenge the value or accuracy of a fact or opinion expressed, or meant to imply anyone said something they did not say.  Rather, they are meant to spark a wider exploration of ideas associated with the topic of the statement.  I present them because I feel that much of the discussion to date has not been giving sufficient attention to these issues.

Content strategy perspectives on content quantity

Content strategists emphasize the tradeoff between the quality of content, and its quantity.  Improving the quality of content for audiences is a major purpose of content strategy.  Offering less content can result in better quality, for many reasons: the content gets more attention when created, it is keep up to date, it is easier for audiences to find, and it provides a clearer messaging to audiences.  Among content strategists there is even concern that content marketing is worsening the perceived problem of too much poor quality content.

Margot Bloomstein, an influential content strategist and author, speaks about having a“quantity verses quality discussion” with clients, where she asks them:  “Can we do it better, not just more?”    “Should we be just writing more content, or should we be looking at that content and saying, is it laser focused” to meet communication goals?  She asks clients “are they meeting objectives, or are we just doing more content marketing, and hope?”  Food for thought: Can you shrink your way to greatness? 

Jonathon Colman, a respected content strategist, currently at Facebook:  “If you want to see who the leading organizations of tomorrow are going to be, take a look at who’s doubling down on content — not quantity of content, but quality of content experiences and services.”  He summarizes: “Quality > Quantity!”  Food for thought: Can having high quality content alone substitute for not addressing a topic your audience is interested in, and expects you to provide to them?

The UK Government Digital Service (GOV.UK), implemented one of the highest profile examples of content culling: it cut out 75% of its web content, and improved the experience for audiences in the process.  “We don’t care about traffic, we don’t care about numbers. We just need people to get the information,” Sarah Richards, content officer, told  a Confab session last year.  Food for thought: Does this approach work for organizations that don’t have a captive audience?

Content marketing perspectives on content quantity

Content marketers believe that content is a cornerstone of marketing, and consequently more content needs to be created to support marketing.   There has been a rise of content agencies, and in-house content staffs have expanded quickly, an indication that more marketing content is being created than ever.

Like content strategists, content marketers acknowledge that content quality is important, and should not be sacrificed for the sake of producing more content.  But while they recognize the potential tradeoff between quantity and quality, they don’t see it as an iron law that can’t be overcome.  In other words, more content doesn’t necessarily have to be poorer quality, and therefore more content can be desirable.

Content marketers worry about not being seen by audiences.  So while quality is mentioned, the clear emphasis of the content marketing community is on producing more content.

Joe Pulizzi  of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI): “Australian, North American and UK marketers all produced more content over the last year compared with one year prior.”   Food for thought:  Are all these brands wrong to be producing more content? Alternatively, are they all seeing benefits from producing more?  Are some wrong, but others right, when following the same basic advice?

A CMI survey of B2B marketers: “Producing enough content is the biggest challenge.”  Food for thought:  What’s the true constraint?  Is this a real problem, or a manufactured one?

Red Rocket Media, a content marketing agency, writing in econsultancy: “Creating more content gets results,” and they present data they say proves it.  Food for thought:  Will offering more content get the brand more love, or just better vanity metrics?

Is quality or quantity more important?

There is a philosophical difference between content strategy and content marketing.   I’ll use a grossly simplified analogy to illustrate this difference (accept my apologies in advance).  Content strategy is about magnetism; content marketing is about outgoingness.   Content strategy believes people will find you if you are likable, while content marketing believes if you find people they will like you.  Quality enables magnetism for a brand; quantity (or at least the availability of fresh content) enables its outgoingness.

The focus on quality verses quantity by itself does little to inform us about how much content is enough.  It’s important to understand what someone has in mind when they talk about quality.  Everyone agrees quality matters, but don’t necessarily agree what quality is.  Most people agree what quantity is, though they don’t always agree why or how it matters.

Quality is rarely robustly defined, so it remains largely a subjective judgement. People have many different ideas of what constitutes quality: ranging from like-ability to high production values to informational accuracy to content utilization.  Personal ideas about quality shape many of the assumptions used to develop goals for content.

Content strategists will argue the right amount of content is the amount that supports the goals of a defined content strategy, which will be unique to each organization.  Content marketers will argue as well that a plan with goals are needed, and the right amount of content is the amount that satisfies these goals.  Both perspectives might scoff at the idea that one would ask how much content is enough, in the absence of a strategy or plan.  They might consider the question naïve.  But brands would be reasonable to push back and ask: What is so mystical about the utility of content that prevents us from getting a sense of what is the right scale for content?  Can getting a sense of appropriate scale for content only be determined after some lengthy strategy review process?  Are there no guidelines at all?

Given the conflicting advice about how much content to produce, brands need better guidance.  This guidance needs to look at the complete picture, and not just react to worries about falling behind other brands in some particular area.  And that guidance needs to be specific about what is helped and hindered by a particular approach to increasing or decreasing content.  Most general advice either unrealistically promises “you can and should do it all” or vaguely advises that “it’s necessary to strike the right balance.”

Quality verses quantity is just one strategic trade-off that needs to be addressed in a content strategy.  It’s an important tradeoff, and one that deserves a deeper examination, especially given the wide variation in how people refer to quality.  There are other factors such as engagement, visibility and relevance to consider when determining how much content is enough. Each of these factors has its own tradeoffs.

So to answer whether a brand should be creating more content, or less, it pays to understand how different content goals will influence different directions for content quantity.  In a follow-on post, I will discuss in more detail how looking at four dimensions of content can help brands understand better the appropriate level of content to produce.

—Michael Andrews

Strategy silos, and knowing what leads when

Increasing numbers of people these days have the word “strategist” in their job title — content strategists being only one such role.  When so many functional areas now have a strategy, and strategists responsible for these strategies, it can be confusing what strategy leads when.  It isn’t obvious when your strategy needs to take the lead, or a support role.  Sometimes conflicts arise.

The best way to tame the mess is to understand the blind spots in one’s own strategic focus area, and to work with colleagues to develop a more complete understanding of dependencies between all strategic focus areas.

The rising importance of everything

Strategies have multiplied as organizations realize they have no margin to be surprised by anything.  Change is happening everywhere.  Everything matters, and these things are often inter-related.  Consider of the kinds of strategies that may be in place in an organization:

  • brand strategy, preparing for how the brand will evolve in the future to respond to the changing market environment
  • channel strategy, considering how to prioritize and coordinate between all channels: digital, physical and legacy such as call centers
  • content strategy, dealing with how to develop the right capability to deliver all kinds of content to the right audience that the right time through the right channel in a changing environment
  • customer experience strategy, covering future direction of user experience and design of services across platforms accounting for new technologies and customer sensibilities
  • digital strategy, covering prioritization and coordination of all digital platforms, from digital signage to kiosks to traditional websites
  • marketing strategy, covering future offers and pricing, positioning, and outreach to customer segments, including responding to new trends in advertising
  • mobile strategy, addressing changes in smartphone use and capabilities, tablets, and potentially smart wearable devices
  • product strategy, outlining how the product architecture needs to change, including what new products to introduce
  • social strategy, preparing for how to adapt to changing the social media landscape and obtain more value from social channels

If you are confused about the boundaries between these strategies, you are not alone.  Some sound similar to others, but there is often a good reason to develop strategies for these specific areas, because they focus on different factors and metrics.

Organizational strategies reflect the fluid, complex environments the organization must address.  It’s important to appreciate how the orientation of your strategic focus is distinct compared with others, and accept that there will often be overlap.

The warning signs of strategy silos

Some people responsible for developing a strategic focus have trouble seeing beyond their speciality.  They are beholden to their specialist view of the world, and become “silo strategists.”  Their evangelism becomes preachy, trying to convert others to their perspective, rather than to share knowledge and support others.

As strategies vie for attention, mantras have emerged to communicate the virtue and importance of a particular strategy.  Mantra-tinged discussion is widespread, revealing how strategies often developed in silos, and discussed in isolation from other issues.  Rhetorical mantras, invoked either competitively or categorically, yield little mutual understanding.  We hear competitive sloganeering: “Content is king — NO, Customer is king” or “Mobile first — NO, Content first.”  The internal rallying cries of a team get transformed into external battle cries.  Other times the mantas are more subtle in what they imply: “People aren’t buying a product, they are buying an experience,” or perhaps some sweeping statement like “Word of mouth is the single most important reason people choose a brand.”  The issue is not the truthfulness or truthiness of these mantras, but their completeness.  The attitude of the simple mantra treats everything else as an executional detail that is less important.

When discussing a project with another stakeholder, we may hear the eager silo strategist comment: “Actually, that’s part of [my strategy area].”  Like a modern Narcissus, the silo strategist sees his precious domain in everything, and wants to direct others’ areas of responsibility.  It’s great to make connections with the work others are doing, but it’s important to go further and understand fully what those areas are aiming to accomplish — which will generally be more involved than first realized.

The silo strategist may try to colonize other areas because he considers competing strategies as deficient, or he feels undervalued.  Other times the silo strategist feels set up for failure: he doesn’t feel he’s been given sufficient time or resources to accomplish his goals.  These are often legitimate concerns, but they are rarely best solved by trying to elbow someone else out of the way.

In my experience working on large complex projects over many years, those who are true believers in the value of a strategic approach most often are sincere, enthusiastic people with a passion and desire to realize their goals. They have pride, but feel they don’t get respect.  They become frustrated, and become frustrating, when their vision seems threatened by a lack of buy-in from others, or an unwillingness to prioritize it.

Distinguishing strategies, priorities and readiness

Strategy is about goals, and long term evolution to reach those goals.  Please note I did not say a strategy is a plan.  Colleagues can’t wait for another team’s long term plan — and customers and competitors are not going to pause while that team works on its plan.  By all means they should develop a plan, but they should make sure it’s an agile one that can evolve over time and adapt to new situations.   Too many strategies sound like a waterfall style project plan, with other stakeholders asked to wait until it is their turn to act.

Strategy should not be confused with readiness — the stuff that needs to be completed before other things can be completed.  When the two are confused, strategies can become statements of what one would like to happen when one is ready for it to happen.  Readiness is only partly under one’s direct control: it is subject to the actions of other stakeholders, and the urgency necessitated by external circumstances.  This introduces an important aspect of strategy: the acceptance of constraints, and the ability to address them.

A particular strategic focus may not have articulated key constraints on the realization of its strategy, or revealed hidden assumptions about the actions expected by other areas of responsibility.   It’s important to understand both one’s own assumptions and constraints, and those of other focus areas.   The best way to do that is through conversation with other stakeholders.

Strategy has the potential to change the culture of how things are done, but it’s important not to base a  strategy’s success on changing culture wholesale.  Cultural change is an exhausting long term project, and  short term success with a strategy is necessary to earn credibility.  That involves delivering results not only for one’s own goals, but helping other strategies succeed.

Synchronizing approaches

Influencing other stakeholders — be they colleagues in your organization, or rival contractors supporting a project — is best achieved by working hard to understand what they are trying to accomplish.  The further one goes toward understanding other strategic focus areas, the more one can see:

  • what proposals and responsibilities are overlapping
  • what themes seem similar but are actually different
  • what goals and proposals are complementary
  • what dimensions might be in conflict if not clarified

Even though each specific strategic focus embodies the broader goals of the organization’s overall business strategy, how each focus interacts with all the others often has not been formalized.  As a first step, it can be useful to capture what is known about expectations for each the strategies.

Managing newness

The coordination of different strategies is hard because of the many dimensions of change involved.  External changes in the market, technology or society prompt the need for companies to respond.  Companies plan changes in what they offer to customers through various initiatives, involving new things.   These initiatives offer each functional area or team in a company an opportunity to implement some of the changes they had in mind, as represented in their respective strategies.  Each may hope that a certain initiative is the right opportunity to realize their specific goals, and need to negotiate how to do that with other stakeholders.  At a certain point, it may seem as if there are too many new things being introduced at once, collectively involving too much complexity and risk.

To prevent from feeling overwhelmed, stakeholders need to develop a common framework for understanding.  They should work together to define how different strategic focus areas contribute to the overall success of corporate initiatives.

Clarify the criticality of a strategy for a specific initiative.  Company-wide initiatives involve major new activities, while strategies involve changes to current practices and capabilities.  When are new practices or capabilities required to accomplish a new activity?  For any initiative, it is helpful to agree what strategic changes need to happen to make the initiative a success, and what strategic changes would be desirable.  Each strategy focus offers a range of possible changes and improvements; it is helpful to know the contribution expected from each.    For each new enhancement proposed by a strategic focus area, consider how it will affect the overall initiative:

  • the business contribution (revenue, engagement, etc.) possible from changes implemented by each strategic area, and how important these are to the success of the initiative
  • synergies with other new activities being introduced
  • criticality to success in terms of time to launch, or long term viability
  • the budget and time resources involved
  • the risk involved

Leveraging contributions

Specific focal strategies should describe their expected contribution to two components:

  1. to overall business strategic development (enabling general change)
  2. to specific company-wide initiatives (enabling success for specific initiatives)

Sometimes they can do both these things at once, but more often the emphasis is either on general change or specific initiative contribution.

A multi-prong initiative might mobilize several strategies to realize change.  Suppose a brand wants to introduce a location-based mobile coupon program.  This initiative could reflect ideas from the marketing strategy, the mobile strategy, and content strategy, among others.  In this example, marketing might take the lead requesting the initiative, while the mobile team uses the initiative to evolve the mobile app closer to a long term vision, and content strategy refines the taxonomy architecture to enable aspects of the coupon offer.

A spearhead initiative might involve one strategy driving the implementation of change, but require other areas to adapt.  A rebranding effort might fall in this category.

In other cases, more narrowly focused initiatives need to happen to enable capabilities that will ultimately benefit the realization of other strategies.  The change happens quietly behind the scenes, and no immediate change is required of other areas.   Some types of content strategy work falls in this area.  It may be possible to pilot a change to demonstrate its overall value and benefits to other strategic areas, and to reduce any risks involved.

Enabling collective self management

How different strategies work together entails an ongoing process of negotiation.  Rarely will there be a strategy czar to decide what leads when.

Generic questions, such as whether customer experience strategy is more important than mobile strategy, are not meaningful.  Sometimes mobile strategy will drive a need for changes in customer experience strategy, sometimes the reverse.  Each strategy can produce requirements for changes that others will need to implement.

As awareness of how various strategies relate to each other grows, it is useful to capture this knowledge in an accessible format.  Documenting these interrelationships, and the requirements they create, will help all stakeholders involved be on the same page, and not be surprised by unarticulated requirements and hidden assumptions.  Ideally, a mutual appreciation of each other’s contributions will develop, gained through the systematic consideration of each other’s visions.

Strategy is important as a tool to address change — in a growing number of areas.  In the past organizations prioritized strategic focus, giving special attention to one particular area, then moving on to another area.  Now many areas can be undergoing transformation at once.  When everything is special, everyone involved needs to understand that they are not alone in being special.  That does not diminish the importance of what they working on, or the uniqueness of their contribution.

Strategies in silos cannot work successfully.  It’s time for all people involved with strategy to understand better the strategic perspectives of others with whom they work.

—Michael Andrews

What makes an effective story?

Storytelling has emerged as one of the hottest categories of digital content.  But as with other kinds of content, it is important to distinguish between popularity and effectiveness.  Brands need clear goals for their stories, and know how their stories will benefit the audiences they want to reach.

image courtesy Getty Museum open content program
image courtesy Getty Museum open content program

Ineffective stories lecture

To understand how storytelling can be ineffective, let’s consider a typical example used by a software startup.  I’m not going to embarrass anyone by singling them out, especially startups working hard to build their customer base.  But the kind of example I’ll illustrate is a story pattern I see used widely, and I expect you may have seen it as well.  Many firms making apps have a short animated video pitching their product that appears beside their “Get it now” button on their homepage.  They try to make the pitch a story, but it doesn’t work effectively from an audience perspective.  The prototypical story might sound like this:

Meet Mary.  Mary is a busy graphic designer at a design firm.  She’s always having trouble keeping track of all the tasks she needs to coordinate with her clients.  Then one day Mary’s friend Beth mentioned NewApp.  NewApp can help Mary manage everything.  Mary has discovered the power of NewApp, and now has more free time to spend with her dog Checkers.  Mary’s delighted with NewApp, and Checkers is pretty happy too.

The story may be cute (especially the dog), and it helps convey a bit of what NewApp does.  But it presumes the audience has already bought into this vision of NewApp managing their stuff.  NewApp enters the story deus ex machina, and solves all problems. Mary can’t resist.

The story has a clear goal: to drive conversion.  But the didactic “you will feel this way” kind of storytelling doesn’t help audiences make decisions.  In real life, Mary may have looked at other products similar to NewApp, and resisted using them.  We have no hint of what the hesitation might be. A story that glosses over deeper concerns appears facile.

Stories can showcase decisions

The renowned advertising creative director Sir John Hegarty counsels: “you don’t instruct people to do something — you inspire them.”

Providing inspiration involves speaking to the audience’s concerns.

Effective stories for brands need to have what Berkeley narrative theorist Seymour Chatman calls a “kernel” event that “advances the plot by raising and satisfying questions…branching points which force a movement into one of two (or more) possible paths.”

The story protagonist needs to make a choice that isn’t clear, and there’s some tension around that decision, because they may be wrong.  That choice needs to reflect an existential issue your audience is facing themselves.

Effective stories reveal dilemmas

To illustrate an effective brand story, we will look at a product announcement from another young firm, from thirty years ago.  Apple’s famous 1984 ad for the MacIntosh, produced by the film director Ridley Scott, is widely familiar, but what makes it effective as a brand story is less immediately apparent.

The ad of course generated extreme publicity when it aired during the Superbowl in 1984, the year of Orwell’s eponymous novel.  The ad presented the story of a lone woman defying the mindless behavior of an enslaved populace and escaping pursuing police to rise up and smash the screen of Big Brother.  The story told about the ad’s narrative was that it represented David (Apple) challenging Goliath (IBM), who was  endowed with the sinister qualities of Orwell’s Big Brother.  Apple and the press loved that interpretation, but for the general public, the ad presented a deeper narrative.

While Apple obsessed about IBM, comparatively view Superbowl viewers were worried about IBM or thought of it negatively.  But IBM was significant on a symbolic level to the audience, and the ad played on this symbolism.

The personal computer was still new, and its role and destiny were still largely undefined.  People were excited by personal computers, but anxious as well.

One big source of anxiety concerned what technical standard to choose.  Consumers were already familiar with the standards wars for another consumer product, the video tape player, and knew firsthand the confusion and worry such choices forced on them.  Among personal computers, consumers had many standards to choose from: IBM, Commodore, Atari, Apple and various others.

Apple’s story had to address the appeal of going with the herd and embracing the apparent safety of choosing IBM.  Computer buyers worried about being enslaved by the wrong choice, something they’d regret later.  Apple reframed the choice from being about choosing which computer would be victorious in the market, to being which computer would be triumphant for the individual.  The individual viewer could identify with the hero smashing the screen of Big Brother, and be inspired to choose something that might feel outside the range of comfort in one respect, but feel more reassuring in another respect.

The other anxiety the story played on was concern about the office-like character of the personal computer.  At that time (unlike today), the separation between home and work was sacred, so the idea that you were bringing the office into your home was unappealing.  So the storyline in the ad suggested the corporate-provenance of IBM represented the incursion of the corporation into home life.

The defiance of the lone woman portrayed a decision for the audience: go with the herd, or make one’s own choice.  The story raised and answered a question: what is the real danger, and do you have the courage to challenge it?

Why story criteria matter

Storytelling can help brands reach and engage audiences in ways other forms of content can’t.  There is a difference between whether a story is liked, and whether it is effective.  Without defining what makes a story relevant, stories risk being bric-a-brac that gets seen and perhaps prompts smiles but has no lasting impact.

Stories need to address audience concerns to deliver outcomes.  The most effective stories are ones that speak to deep emotional worries, desires, or even sources of indifference to show how choices matter to the audience.  Lots of brands are trying to create stories that will be liked, but it’s more important that the story be deeply relevant to the lives of individuals.

— Michael Andrews