Two things I know for sure: 1) As a company grows, there is a tendency to segment departments into silos and 2) interviewing Scott Abel for Content Marketing 360 Radio Show was a real hoot! Having the chance to bring Scott on the show to talk about tearing down these content silos was a perfect combination. This interview is a great primer for Scott’s session for Content Marketing World 2012, Thinking Outside The Content Marketing Strategy Trap.
Here are some issues Scott addresses in the interview:
- What the content marketing strategy trap really is.
- Why all your departments need to connect to one content message.
- Why the ability to change may be your company’s most important strategy.
- How the Apple’s initial marketing of the iPhone is a great content marketing 360 example.
- How marketers can develop repeatable, scalable processes that leverage technology to make things better, faster & cheaper.
There are several ways you can get the interview with Scott:
- Subscribe to Next Stage Online Radio via iTunes. [Note: This feed includes additional topics beyond content marketing.]
- Download the MP3 from Content Marketing 360′s Facebook page.
- Read the transcript below.
Pam: My guest today is Scott Abel. He calls himself The Content Wrangler. I love that. He’s an internationally recognized content marketing strategist and social networking choreographer. And he is live and in person on Content Marketing 360 Radio Show. We’re going to have a great conversation about this topic, around content marketing strategy and the traps that companies fall into.
Scott Abel, welcome to our radio show.
Scott: Well, hello. Welcome. Thanks for having me.
Pam: Excellent. Well, I’m very, very much looking forward to our conversation. You have a no-holds-barred approach to this topic of content, content strategy and doing things right. And I know that’s exactly what our audience needs to listen to, whether a business owner or a marketing professional. We get a little from both sides of the fence here at Content Marketing 360.
You have a very interesting background you bring to your consulting practice and working with businesses. You’re a journalist by trade, and you’re bringing all that wonderful information that you gleaned in your previous career into this content for business. Tell us a little bit, Scott, about your background, and how you got to do what you’re doing today, and kind of what drives that passion for you.
Scott: I was a journalist by education until I realized that I would never be able to afford a house or an apartment. So, I became a bartender, which a lot of people do, and I did that for longer than I choose to admit. In the interim, I eventually thought, “You know what? I can’t be that old guy at the bar. I’m going to have to get a real job some day.”
So, I started looking around, and I found the career of technical communicator or technical writer, which, at the time, there was a boom in Internet websites, and this was kind of the dotcom boom, if you will. And so, everyone was developing software. And they were paying very good money for people with writing skills that could communicate well and understood user interfaces and that kind of thing. And I just happened to be good at it., and I convinced a recruiter and one thing led to another.
And I had numerous jobs being overpaid to talk on the phone and surf the internet, which is kind of what I did instead of doing content development work because most of the companies that I ended up working for were huge, multi-national corporations that were organized in hierarchical ways. And everything was slow. I’m not trying to say the people weren’t intelligent. But the process they went through in order to accomplish everything was cumbersome and unnecessary.
And so, I would get done with my work first and because I wasn’t an employee, I wasn’t doing all the things that the employees were doing. I was a contractor helping these organizations. And the employees were frequently at meetings. They’d have to have a committee and then a committee about meetings. They never really got anything done.
And it was just the way that they were organized and governed. And I chalked that up to one of the problems that we have in the content development world, which includes content marketers. As the, “We’ve always done it this way here,” problem. “Just because we’ve always done it this way here, this is how we do it.”
The flip side is we’ve never done it your way here. Which means that we’ll continue to do it the way we do. Which isn’t a business reason. So, I found myself an accidental strategist, if you will. And probably just after 9/11, I changed my business card and went off on my own as a content strategist.
Pam: I know we’re going to dive into some of these challenges that companies have. And you are so right that change is one of the hardest elements of any business. Especially if it’s been around for a long, long time and has a lot of different layers of decision makers. And so, what you’re talking about is coming in and saying, “OK, that’s maybe how you did it; the way you’ve always done it. But here’s a whole new way and I’ve got something that’s going to work better.” And sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Scott: Yeah, exactly.
Pam: So, the title today is “Avoiding the Content Marketing Strategy Trap.” I’m really interested in having you break this down for us, Scott. Because we do think, I think, sometimes in terms of strategies. But you come at this from a slightly different angle, which I think is one our businesses need to really hear. First of all, tell us what this strategy trap is. When you say avoiding the content marketing strategy trap, what are you talking about?
Scott: The strategy trap is really about silos. About the way that we’re organized. And I didn’t come up with this idea myself. I actually borrowed it and kind of accommodated it to my needs. It originally came from a book I edited 10 years ago called “Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy” by Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper. Which has just recently, maybe a month ago, been re-released in its second edition. So, it’s up to date. And something I recommend for all people who are interested in content marketing.
And Rockley defines the big problem, which she calls content silos. And I’ll just read what a content silo is so you can kind of get the gist of it:
“Most organizations don’t set out to create silos,” Rockley says. “Rather silos are a result of organizational structure and other pressures. Frequently, authors lack awareness of what others are doing elsewhere in the organization. They have a lot on their plate, always too much to do and rarely enough time to do it. As requirements grow, there never seem to be enough resources available to do what needs to be done. There isn’t adequate time for them to go find out what other groups are doing, especially when those other groups are just as busy focusing on their own activities. This is the content silo trap.”
So, if you think about it, all the different groups and departments have different ways of doing things. And that’s just the way they’ve always done things. And when there’s a new kind of mantra, let’s say content strategy, all of a sudden, they just apply the same old principles in the same organizational structure to a new thing. So in very, let’s say, conservative organizations, where everything is highly structured and very controlled, when you move to social media they try to apply controlling, siloed, historically-relevant-for-their-organization principles to this new medium.
Or they’ll treat Twitter like a fax machine. They’ll say, “Because we’ve always created press releases and we used to mail them to people. Then we faxed them to people. Then Twitter’s like the new fax machine.”
And so, I warn people that content strategy ends up being the same kind of thing. If you have a content strategy for social media and somebody else has a content strategy for television advertising. And another one has a content strategy for something else. And then, there are 50 or 60 other parts of your organization, they all have varying degrees of content strategy, even if they don’t call them that. Now, you’ve got a content strategy silo. You just can’t work very efficiently when everybody does something a different way and no one talks to each other.
Pam: And it’s such an interesting point. Because before I started my consulting practice, too, Scott, I worked for Fortune 100 companies. A couple of them. In marketing, in training and sales. You know just kind of that three-pronged area. But it all kind of fell under marketing. And, man, the silo process can really inhibit the ability to get consistent messaging information and good stuff out.
And so, here you are basically looking at this old traditional model of how these companies do business and shaking it up a bit. But yet, at the end of the day what I’m hearing, if I’m hearing you correctly is, “Let’s talk to each other so we have a consistent message. And we have a consistent idea of who our audience is.”
Scott: Yeah, exactly. In fact, I don’t even have the answer. The answer is really changing the question. The answer is hidden in the details. And so, often I’m brought in to help think through a content strategy problem. And it may not be all related to marketing, that content. But when we start to talk to each other, I sometimes realize that myself and the client, we start to understand one another.
I start to understand that they’re all different people who work in different departments and they all do things differently. And they start to understand that perhaps they should be talking to each other. Because they’re trying to explain it out loud to me. And it starts to sound really stupid. I’m like, “And you’re surprised that you’re not able to do this? I mean, you guys don’t even know what each other do. You have different software, different processes and different reward structures, even governance.” The way that they manage the people and the processes in their organization is different.
Pam: One of the things that drove me crazy when I worked for this type of siloed organization was when you’d come up with a new idea or you had the courage to actually share it across silos, for example. Along with “Well, that’s not how we do it,” was “Well, that’s not my department.” Or, “That’s not how our department does it.” How do you tackle that? How do you start to take on this idea of getting folks to break down their silos when it’s such an important part of this, for lack of a better term, new marketing that we need to embrace?
Scott: I don’t know. I used to think I had the answer to that. So, your listeners may be disappointed to know that the secrets will not all be unveiled here today. I was talking with a content strategy friend of mine, a peer. Her name is Karen McGrane. And she was doing a presentation in London at PayPal/eBay. They host a conference called “Content Strategy Applied” every year. And she basically had a question from somebody in the audience that was something similar to your question.
She answered succinctly: “You don’t.” It’s a generational problem. It will all go away when you people are out of here.
There’s probably some truth to that. I start to think back and I look around the room when I’m doing presentations sometimes and I think, “You know, I’m going to change my flight deck before I start.” And I launch a slightly different version of my presentation. That presentation starts with, “It’s not your fault. We’ve all been taught certain ways of creating information.” And depending on the age of the audience, I might start with typewriters and big, huge computers as images. And I start talking through how we used to do things. Things like mimeograph machines. Which somebody born in the ’80s would be like, “I don’t even know what he’s talking about.” That smell, the ink, the blue ink.
People start to remember that. And that generation — not all of them, I’m not an ageist — but that generation comes with pre-conceived notions. And yet, I point out that we did migrate from the typewriter to the computer through the word processor or the desktop publisher and all that. We did do it. It took a long time, though. And I have to admit that these devices, they pop into our life and they promise these big changes. And really, as you know, the people slow it down. And so, I think these things will all go away. Over time, we’ll realize the necessary changes that we’re going to have to make. But we may not all be willing or able to do them. And our organizations may not be very flexible.
Now that said, my role is I’ve been trying to figure out how to influence organizations to move faster. One way I’ve discovered is that when I talk to people who invest money in publicly traded companies — so let’s say journalists from investment magazines. And I explain that all this money is being wasted by companies that do all this work over and over and over again repetitively in each department. And they all do it differently. They find that very interesting. And they’re like, “Can you help me explain that?”
So maybe, by putting some pressure on the investors and asking investors to expect more from organizations. Maybe, the news media can play a role. Maybe, people like us and podcasters and internet radio show hosts and bloggers can also play a role. But internally, I think it’s an education process. And we shouldn’t expect to change it automatically.
Now, I guess the last point I would make is that sometimes change is triggered for you. And in that case, you might get drug around for the ride. And it may not be very nice. And it may not be what you want. And you may be one of the people dragging your feet slowing things down. And you’ll be drug along to the new change. That’s when an organization is in some kind of crisis, like a lawsuit or regulatory noncompliance. Or they’ve been featured on the media in some bad way for wasting money. Or doing something like that. Sometimes, those things do trigger drastic organizational changes that make things like a unified strategy possible.
Pam: I think, too, you’re breaking down this concept of what you call unified strategy. Which I think are two really good words to marry together. As you’re talking, I’m thinking there’s actually kind of two layers to this, and maybe more. Off the top of my head here, there’s that top layer. You’ve got to have buy-in from the powers that be, that they’re willing to start breaking down these silos and getting conversations among different departments talking.
But then, the people in those departments, there’s a mindset shift. And you talk about these generations, which is a part of our marketing conversation I don’t think I hear enough of, personally. So, I’m really glad you brought that up because I think we do have to respect that which came before us. And learn to embrace where we’re going. Where we are today and where we’re going.
And, of course, this is the first time, Scott, in the history of our planet. We’ve had five, sometimes, six generations inside of a community. So, when you talk about mimeograph, fax machine, rotary phone.
It’s really interesting. And you mentioned you don’t have the answer or the silver bullet. But it’s funny how when we’re kind of put on this, because social media/content fell into marketing, I think, too, that might have been part of the trap. Is that it fell into the marketing department, but yet there are other departments that need to be having these conversations.
Scott: They do. And I think also that we do a lot of navel gazing. So, what I mean when I say that is that you go to a conference dedicated to any topic, you will find lots of people that do that job all chatting about what they do. That’s not helping.
It’s not. A bunch of marketing people talking to each other might seem like this is some kind of good idea. To me, I’m like, “Oh, please. Could you bring in other people? Because we already know this.” We’re just chatting amongst ourselves seeing who can one-up each other. Who can have a better social media this or a better marketing that. What we need to do is be bringing in people from different departments and learning what are they doing strategically with their content to help create, manage and deliver it more efficiently. Can we learn from them? Can they learn from us? Can we learn to work together? Can we learn to, maybe, team up with a couple of other departments?
I’ll give you a great example. So, in the technical communication industry, technical documentation professionals, or tech writers as they’re sometimes called, document software. They also document processes and procedures and how people do things. Everything from making tacos to disassembling a nuclear power plant would be the job of a technical writer. But that’s not the only kind of content that organizations provide to people who need to know how to do certain tasks. Perform certain tasks. Sometimes, they get training materials. So, eventually technical communication and training learn that they were creating some of the same kinds of content.
When they do work together, they’re able to have a unified process and unified procedures for creating and delivering content, which means that they can share it. They can re-use it. They can create it with it in mind that it’s going to be used in two places. And I think that’s the important part. They can actually create it, knowing that it’s going to be both training and documentation.
Now, Apple takes this to the best example ever. If you remember the first iPhone commercial with how to find a sushi bar? That was training, documentation, marketing, and advertising. You learned how to find a sushi restaurant, how to use the actual tool they were trying to sell to you. It was enticing enough to make you want to buy it. And when you bought it, it was successful advertising. All four of those things. They knew they were creating a piece of collateral. That was their strategy that would accomplish all four of those tasks. It also helped save huge amounts of money. Because they don’t have to throw that content over the fence and say, “Here, we invented this thing. Here’s some marketing information about this. Go make me a commercial.”
Scott: So, their strategy was minimize the amount of collateral we need to create. Create something that can hit multiple audiences for multiple intent, which then, of course, reduces downstream costs. Because in a company like Apple that’s global, they also are going to create versions of that for other countries in different languages. It’s just very interesting when you look at some company like Apple in a different light. And don’t look at them for their product, but look at them for their ability to think through the content marketing deliverables they create.
Pam: And it really is, as you share that example, broken down into a very simplistic form to communicating. Just simply communicating and then connecting it to your audience. Because the product is brand new. It’s brand new to everybody. It never existed before. The iPhone never existed. So, we can get excited over the look, the feel, the screen, the stuff it does. But if we don’t know how to use it, it’s not really going to do us a lot of good.
Scott: And I guess the other part of it is that you can lose the content marketing war at all points during a process. And so, what I mean by that is there’s the cradle to grave. They initially think of an idea. We’re going to develop this nifty little thing that does all these things an iPhone does. We’re going to name it the iPhone. We’re going to create marketing materials. We’re going to make training materials. We’re going to have advertisements. We’re going to manufacture the product. We’re going to distribute it in stores. And we’re going to sell it and make money. They had this whole big plan.
And yet, there are many failure points along the way. So, if the device fails. And the marketing department’s all congratulatory because they’ve gotten 4,000 people to watch the new iPhone video. And then, 40,000 people buy the product. They’re like, “Wow, look at how well we did.” All very self-congratulatory. But as an organization, if the device were like the HP ThinkPad, when 4,000 people a day started returning it, then what happens? The glitz and the glamour of the marketing outshines the ability for the product to really deliver. And when the product fails, the marketing people go back to this, “Well, that’s not my department.” And it may not be. But I’m just saying it doesn’t need to be that way. That we need a kind of a closed feedback loop. Because if you listen to people online, which now we’re telling marketers they should be doing by having conversations with customers, and they tell you your device sucks. And they want their money back. What’s your strategy? What’s your plan?
Are you just going to say, “Well, that’s not our department. Too bad for those people upstream. We’d better be looking for a new job before they get rid of us“?
Pam: Right. And you’re really talking about, again, that 360 degrees looking at the content in an organization. And looking at all the different layers that content or the different people and functions that this content can touch. So, how do you approach this with the audience? So, in that perspective if we know, like you use the example of, “Your tablet sucks.” So, that’s a customer service issue, which in a lot of companies it is a different silo from marketing.
So, what have you done in your experience just kind of tackling that audience? The audience might be the same person, but they’re coming from a different perspective. Buying it and then complaining about it. So, how do you start to create content for all those different audiences, but keep that consistent message?
Scott: Well, that is a large topic for a much longer show. But the gist of it is, you have to have a unified strategy to do so. And that means you have to get all the people together, all the players. You do have to have buy-in. You can begin to do it on your own. And sometimes, it does happen at a grassroots level.
Witness the Comcast guy that started the social media question and answer thing long before social media was a job title. And they realized he was really good at answering people’s questions on Twitter and Facebook. And he was taking it upon himself to do so. And so, he got lucky. Because his organization was forward-thinking enough to snatch him up and give him a job. And then, eventually they started looking seriously at it.
But I think the bigger problem is trying to figure out how to have a 360-degree loop of listening to your customer from the beginning, when you bring them into focus groups and try to figure out, “Should we develop this product? What should it look like?” And continue measuring everything that you do all the way through the cycle, including your internal processes, so that you can be as efficient as possible.
What I think is the biggest problem with content silos is that they drain us of the time that we could use to innovate at the end. So, the reason we don’t have time to listen to everybody else in different departments and work together is because we’re too busy doing all this busywork. So, I really think that the bigger problem is that we haven’t learned yet how to manage and communicate what effort we put into our content development. And so, I think it’s about return on investment. Whenever you hear return on investment you usually hear, “You can do this faster, better, cheaper. And so, therefore, you’ll save money. That’s a good return on investment.”
Well, the other end of the return on investment coin, the other side of the coin, is return on your dollar for profit. So, how much money can we make? How many more dollars? How many more customers will we sell if we invest this money in this marketing effort? And so, I think that you have to marry both of them. You have to become more efficient at what you do. You have to allow for more automation. You have to allow for all these things to save you time, so you can become more efficient. And work with other departments and overcome challenges that we historically have set up for ourselves that just don’t work today. They’re not scalable.
Pam: And you kind of touched on a point that’s really been, I think, part of a company, especially the bigger it gets, challenge always is spending time on or making sure that you’re investing the right time on what is tangible and what feels intangible. So, when you talk about development it all sounds great to say, “Yep, we’re in a development phase.” But that takes time, energy, resources. And we aren’t going to see the return on that for some time. So, in the development part, and here’s the irony. Whether it’s a marketing plan or a business plan or even taking a trip from point A to point B, the planning becomes the most important part of each process.
Scott: Yeah, it’s the 80/20 rule, really. It’s that whole Pareto principle that you invest all this time up front and then you can implement better. It makes perfect sense if you look at the world of eBooks right now. There will be, there are a few already, but there will be many, many tools that allow us to copy and paste information from our word processing environments and eventually import them into templates that will be in web browsers.
That will allow us to enhance the information, save it and automatically upload it to various eBook shopping malls. Like Amazon.com or the Apple iTunes store or the eBooks store. And that process will be very easy. And when it is, we’ll do it. And we’ll do it a lot. And then, there’ll be people, that’ll be their full-time job, is to take our marketing materials and turn them into eBooks and enhance them and make them interactive.
And yet, we’re not planning for that right now. Everything is a deliverable. So,we just chuck it over the fence to a company. And we say, “We need you to enhance our marketing content and make it into an eBook.” One day, we’ll do that work. It will just be like desktop publishing replaced typography experts and layout experts. And we started learning how to do it ourselves. At first, we created really bad newsletters.
My desktop publishing teacher in college used to say, “Just because you have all those fonts doesn’t mean you should use them all.”
So, we’re in a period of great change right now. Where marketing professionals are starting to learn that there are all these new opportunities for them. And it’s got to be a giant tug-of-war on their time. Because we’re trying to cram them all into the existing data we have without eating up the rest of our lives. And we’re going to have to be more efficient.
Pam: Yeah. And it’s interesting that you bring up that your concept of the technology improving so the implementation can become more efficient. And I know we were chatting offline here a little bit. And you were recently at a book publishing conference. And I also attended a local book event, a writer’s festival event here locally in Minneapolis over the weekend. We were having conversations about that. The eBook or just the digital process.
Remember the day when it took, like what I’m doing today, Scott, would have taken tens of thousands of dollars not that long ago. And it would have been quite the process to put together my own radio show. And I probably would not have been able to do it from my office. I would’ve had to go to a studio.
Pam: When you look at the technology that does continue to improve, and we were chatting about this at our book conference, the day will come when we will be able to literally publish a book from our office, from our desktop. We’re getting there, but now there are still layers and steps to creating a self-publishing process. And so, it is a fascinating time. And as you talk about that, the kind of planning for the future while still making those deliverables, balancing that process. And being innovative in your organization to start to get a sense of who do we need inside this organization to make this work better, more efficiently? And to also take what we already do well and be open enough for change.
Scott: And I think that’s what the point of the discussion today is about. In order to have a content strategy or content marketing plan, if you will, you have to strategically think about it. And I think the missing component that I don’t usually hear content marketers talk about, and it’s very irritating, is the concept of having it be a repeatable, systematic process.
If it’s not, then we’re just flailing around. Running from here and there. Blogging over there, Tweeting over there, faxing over here. Creating a document over here. Chucking something over the wall to a service provider. And at the end of the day thinking, “Where do I go? What’s next? I’ve got this stupid to-do list.” It’s just not something you can continue to do.
Now, think about it this way. Now, you’ve got eBooks and marketers are going to have a hard time doing this. They’re already talking about it. And most of them have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. Because they don’t have good examples from the publishing industry. And that’s because publishing, much like the music recording industry, was caught off guard by Apple and the device makers. So, now all the devices are dragging the publishers around. That means they’re dragging all of us around, too. Now, that’s not bad. It just means they invented the devices first. And they said, “Put your content on here or we’ll just start making content. We’ll just start making agreements with the content providers. We’ll skip you altogether.”
I don’t see very many Blockbusters popping up as video stores when you can have Netflix and Apple deliver most of your video content or Hulu. I don’t see very many record stores in shopping malls anymore unless they’re vinyl record stores, which is back a generation. CDs and DVDs and all that, cassette tapes and 8-tracks, they’re out of here. And we don’t need that delivery mechanism any more.
So, marketers are going to have to think about what does it mean to create an eBook version of a marketing piece of collateral. And then, how do you prepare it for the Kindle? For the Kindle Fire? For the Apple iBook? For the Sony readers? For all the different players out there. For the gaming machines. For laptops. Guess what? They don’t all use the same standard.
So, that means you’re going to have to do it different ways. You can’t do that. And in the global audience, now you’re going to have to do it in multiple languages for multiple cultures. It’s just crazy. So, I think in order to have a sane life, we’re going to have to figure out how to create systematic, repeatable processes that leverage technology to make things better, faster, cheaper for us. So that we can use that time to strategically think about how to maintain our sanity.
Pam: Right. And you make a very valid, important point. And I think it’s a great point to kind of wind things down today. Because systems, they sometimes get a bad rap, especially from the creative set. But I’m telling you, more creativity comes from the system process. Now, you have the ability to be creative because you feel confident you have a foundation that is repeatable.
Scott: And not only that. I think that you get to add one more thing to that. It’s much more creative. And so, what I see is a lot of people say, “Oh, well this my job. I’m a marketer. I do marketing. We’re different than those other people.” And so what I say, it’s a lot more creative if you think about it. If I say, “Write some content or create some kind of content. Video, audio, whatever it is, that’s appropriate for multiple languages for multiple purposes.” That’s creative. I’ll pay for that because it’s going to save me money in the long run to pay you to strategically create something that’s of value. That I don’t have to pay four or five different people in different departments to do it inefficiently and differently.
Pam: And you’re providing very focused direction. And the more focused you are, the more creative you can become. Because you’re working inside the idea or the end-result premise. And you get to actually create as opposed to, like you said, flailing all over the place.
It’s a great visual, by the way, for our radio show. Well, Scott, this is, like you said, we’ve, I think, touched on a couple of items that could definitely fall into a longer, bigger, greater conversation. So, perhaps somewhere down the road, we can reconnect on Content Marketing 360 and have you share more of the good work that you do, because you definitely have a passion for this. And I appreciate that. But let’s make sure we know how to connect with you if we’re listening today. An audience member wants to know more about Scott and The Content Wrangler, what’s the best way to do that?
Scott: Well, you can read my blog at TheContentWrangler.com. I have to admit I’m not as much a daily publisher as I used to be. But I am on Twitter where I share all kinds of content. And my Twitter handle is @scottabel, S-C-O-T-T-A-B-E-L. And you can also find me on LinkedIn. I have a group there of about 8,500 content professionals. And it’s called The Content Wrangler Community.
Pam: Excellent. I love it. I think LinkedIn is one of our least appreciated content areas. So, I appreciate that you have a group out there. And I’m definitely going to check it out. I know I’ve been checking out all sorts of things that you do. So, I appreciate you being a part of our radio show. And thanks for sharing about the traps that we as content marketers need to be aware of. Appreciate it much.
Scott: And thanks for having me on your show today.