By Brian Kardon published February 14, 2013

Content Marketing Best Practices: 5 Tips for the Modern CMO

tips for the modern cmoI am a seasoned chief marketing officer. I went to an Ivy League college, have an MBA from Wharton, served for many years as CMO of a billion-dollar publisher, and most recently, served as CMO of a major technology consultancy. 

Yet just a few years ago, I was well on my way to becoming obsolete. You see, nearly everything I learned, did, and experienced as a marketer was wrong. I was analog in a digital world. I tended to be more creative than analytical. Content marketing was barely on my radar screen, let alone content marketing best practices. 

Perhaps I had become what Brian Halligan, HubSpot’s CEO, calls a “press release CMO” — pedigreed, gray haired, and no longer relevant in a marketing world turned upside down. I really didn’t understand SEO, linking strategies, web analytics, or blogging. My marketing team was beginning to speak a language I didn’t understand. I could feel myself becoming less relevant, being lapped by younger digital natives.

Getting out of my comfort zone 

I spent six years in the publishing business, leaving in 2000 just as digital began to supplant print. In publishing, I had seen my share of ad sales guys — the Willy Lomans of publishing, carrying around the most recent issues of their treasured magazines. I knew that these guys were dinosaurs, and that extinction was only a few years away. But of course changes were happening so much faster than I ever thought possible.

As the changes in marketing emerged and accelerated, I saw the analogy to publishing. Marketing was also “going digital.” People who were unable to evolve were disappearing.

Even more fascinating: Content was becoming the fuel of marketing’s shiny new engine. All the lessons I learned in publishing — foremost, the critical value of great content — were suddenly relevant to marketing as a whole. “Think like a publisher” was becoming the next new thing for marketers.

In my journey from mossy marketer to modern marketer, I learned five big lessons on content marketing best practices that I’d like to share.

1. There is no substitute for doing 

The only way to become a modern marketer is to do it. Now, I write my own blog posts and presentations. I am active on Twitter. I try new apps and tools all the time. I am engaged in all of our content decisions and lead-nurturing programs. Trust me — I’m no geek. Getting comfortable with new technologies, sites, apps, and behaviors did not come naturally to me. But, the more you do it, the better you get. After a certain point, it becomes part of who you are.

There are lots of CMOs with slick PowerPoint presentations talking about new marketing. Far fewer are doing it. Doers rule.

2. Learn from the best — the people out in front 

I have met some amazing people on my journey — Josh Bernoff and George Colony (Forrester Research); Charlene Li and Jeremiah Owyang (Altimeter); David Meerman Scott, Ann Handley, and CC Chapman (authors); David Reibstein (The Wharton School); and Joe Chernov (Kinvey), among others.

My “teachers” share two important qualities: 

They are risk takers: For example, I started working with Josh and Charlene on what would later become the best-selling book “Groundswell” back in 2006, when few people thought social media was more than a passing breeze of hype. These guys put a big stake in the ground in the very early days of social media. They developed compelling frameworks and case studies to prove its value. 

Their passion is contagious: They love what they do and bring extraordinary energy to it. I recall one particularly memorable lunch with David Meerman Scott at an Indian restaurant. David managed to simultaneously educate me about Indian cuisine and location-based apps on his iPhone. David’s ideas and passion for real-time marketing and content touch everything I do as a marketer.

I want to thank each of them, and many others, for showing me the path to modern marketing. Now go find your own teachers.

3. Don’t fear mistakes — they are chances to learn

I remember George Colony asking me if he should blog. This was in 2007. My answer haunts me to this day: “George, you are the CEO of Forrester. You should be running the company, not blogging. It’s a distraction.” In retrospect, this is among the worst advice I have ever given. Fortunately, George had the wisdom to start a blog right after I left Forrester. It’s a great blog, too — and blogging is part of his job.

It is from this mistake that I came to realize the power of individual voices, and that a blog is central to your content and search strategy.

I am fortunate, too, to have worked for CEOs who are cool with my mistakes — those who understand that risk-taking is essential and that not all risks pay off. I produced a video holiday card last year that was so bad I pulled it after we had pushed it to just 10 percent of our database. I hired a creative agency that could only create clichés. When I make mistakes, I don’t bury them. I bring them to my team, tell them “I messed up” (they love that part!), and we discuss what happened and what we learned. We also analyze our successes in great detail: Why was this so successful? How can we do more of this?

4. “When you go to a pizza place, don’t order a bagel”

A modern marketer lets go of some control. When I work with a new agency or partner, I don’t micromanage like I used to — I accept that each brings a unique perspective, and I want to celebrate that perspective, not dilute it.

The best example is Eloqua‘s partnership with creative agency, JESS3. The people at JESS3 are masters at data visualization and interactive experiences, and Eloqua chooses projects in that sweet spot. My kids once told me, “When you go to a pizza place, don’t order a bagel.” The pizza place is passionate about pizza and is highly experienced in making it. Sure, it could make you a bagel. But why would you want one?

Get the most out of your partners by trusting their instincts and learning from them. 

5. Get out of the ‘hood 

Earlier in my career, I wanted to replicate past successes by hiring people I had worked with successfully in previous jobs. I don’t do that anymore. I am less interested in replicating past success than in finding new success. Now, I like to hire digital natives and people with diverse backgrounds. I like to try new technologies and agencies that are less proven than many CMOs would find acceptable.

You see, the things that made me successful in the past are not necessarily the things that will keep me successful. You need to find new ideas, people, technologies, and partners that can take you to the next level. To do that, you have to explore outside the comfort of your ‘hood.

My transition is not over. I recently became CMO of another technology company and I’m sure I will make plenty of new mistakes — and will continue to grow as a marketer, as a result.

As marketing evolves, so too must the CMO. I hope you approach your own journey with the open eyes and enthusiasm of a child. It’s a lot more fun that way.

There’s still time to get more insight on the changing face of content marketing from today’s successful CMOs. Register now to attend Content Marketing World 2013.

Cover image via Cummings Properties

Author: Brian Kardon

Brian Kardon is the CMO of Lattice Engines, a company that applies Big Data to sales and marketing. He is responsible for the company's market positioning, demand generation, thought leadership, and integrated marketing. Prior to Lattice, Brian was a driving force behind Eloqua's explosive growth and leadership in the revenue performance management sector. Before Eloqua, Brian was chief strategy and marketing officer at Forrester Research. Follow Brian on Twitter @bkardon.

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  • Douglas Burdett

    Brian, boy does this post resonate with me! I’ve walked and worked in the same dinosaur parks that you describe and a couple of years ago started to evolve my professional skills and my business. It was terrifying at first, but now I haven’t been this excited about work since I first started out on Madison Avenue in the 80’s. Thank you for this heartfelt post!

    • Brian Kardon

      Douglas — glad you are making it out of the dinosaur parks! Thank you for your comments and for reading the post.

  • Sergey

    Such inspiring words! And great advices provided based on your own experience which makes them even more appealing. I like part when you write that everyone should approach their own journey with the open eyes and enthusiasm of a child. I think it really makes it easier and more fun that way. Great post full of wisdom. Thank you, Brian.

    • Brian Kardon

      Thanks for reading the post, Sergey, and for your comments. Very much appreciated.

  • Elizabeth Kellner Suneby

    Hello Brian, liked your post before realizing it was from YOU. Onward to the next adventure.

    • Brian Kardon

      Hi Liz. Very small world! Glad you liked it.

  • Susan Ganeshan

    Great post Brian. Curious, what do you think are the most important measurements (or KPI’s) for the modern CMO?

    • Brian Kardon

      Hi Susan. I have started using 11 KPIs that I report to the CEO and the Board. Of couse, the Marketing Team here uses lots more. The 11 fall into 2 buckets: awareness and demand. Here they are:


      1 All Visits
      2 LE1000 Visits (visits from our targeted accounts — the Lattice 1,000)

      3 Top Tier Business Stories (# of stories)
      4 2nd Tier Business Stories (# of stories)
      5 Contributed Content (# of articles/posts)

      6 Positive Reports from Top Tier (# of reports)
      7 Positive Reports from 2nd Tier (# of reports)

      8 Addressable Database
      9 Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs)
      10 % of Closed Deals Sourced by Mktg
      11 New bookings (millions)

      Hope this helps.

  • Rochelle Watt

    Thanks so much Brian for your “personal” insight. I thought it was just me struggling to keep up with the many changes and evolution of Content Marketing. As I find these great reads, I learn that I am not alone and that being a part of this wonderfully diverse industry, one is always learning and never bored! As I am relatively new to Content Marketing – I feel vindicated when I read posts that clarify/verify my challenges and directions. There are so many wonderful people willing to share and to make it all worth the almost exhaustive efforts needed to be successful. Thanks again Brian – proof that we can never be too old to learn!

    • Brian Kardon

      Hi Rochelle –
      Indeed, you are definitely not alone (…and never too old to learn). Thanks so much for your comments

  • Todd Mumford

    Hi Brian, thanks for sharing your personal thoughts on what sounds like a fantastic new journey for you.

    We have seen a parallel wave in the world of search engine optimization and online marketing. The ability to stay agile as a marketing company and move with changes is paramount – and accelerating. But the ability to embrace and understand new changes, new technology and listen to customers is paramount if marketing companies expect to stay alive in the next 2-3 years.

    Change is movement, change is prosperous. But it requires passion to grow, energy to drive and motivate yourself, and the self-direction and discipline to stay the course.

    The next 3 years will mark some of the largest changes in online (and offline) marketing the World has seen, and those with the passion, enthusiasm and savvy to unlearn what they know and listen, will be the ones who embrace and move with the changes. The biggest single change will be death of traditional marketing and the birth of value marketing – providing value to consumers first.

    • Brian Kardon

      Hi Todd. Couldn’t agree more. Huge changes ahead. It’s a great time to be a marketer, I think. I really like your point about the need to “unlearn”! Perhaps that is the hardest part.

  • Doug Rekenthaler Jr.

    I’m so burned out on the “X Steps to….” this or that (most of which is just rehashed content from elsewhere) that I almost bypassed this piece. Glad I didn’t. I too hail from the publishing world and ventured into digital waters around the same time. Your advice is spot-on. Well done.

    • Brian Kardon

      Hail, fellow publisher! So glad you found the post, Doug. I agree — way too much of the “X Steps to …” titles with (mostly) recycled content. Thanks for your comments.

  • Vince Giorgi

    Nice post, Brian. In today’s world of marketing, if you’re feeling challenged and even scared, you’re probably growing, right? And congratulations on your new position with Lattice Engines.

    • Brian Kardon

      Thanks, Vince. Hope you are well. Thank you for reading and for your comments.

  • Tom Repp

    Great top-level and personalized advise. The best kind!

  • Harry Henry

    Brain — well done!. Good read

    • Brian Kardon

      Hi Harry. Thanks so much for reading. And thank you for your interest in Lattice and your thoughtful writing about analytics and big data.

  • Heather MacLean

    A great and thoughtful post. There are many people who cannot acknowledge the need to change and advance themselves. Your willingness and ability to discuss this need says a lot about who you are. What struck me most however, is your willingness to both celebrate and recognize that mistakes are not all bad. They are only bad of course if you don’t learn from them. People have become so afraid to make a mistake that they miss many great opportunities. The more leaders who share your vision, the better off we all are. Thanks again for a great post.

  • Jason Kort

    Thanks for publishing such an honest and well thought article. I love the ‘ordering a bagel at a pizza place’ analogy as it really sums up the need to let go of some control on new marketing initiatives. “If things seem under control, you are just not going fast enough.” — Mario Andretti

  • Brain Molecule Marketing

    Anecdotes and platitudes are fine but “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”

  • Ed Gaskin

    Brian, I was that CMO. Around 2005, 2006, I started hearing
    more and more about social media marketing, social network marketing,
    conversational marketing, Inbound marketing, viral marketing etc. I went to hear anyone, anywhere talking about this topic. Watching candidate Obama use social media in 2007 was eye opening as this unknown candidate no one thought could win was using social media to mobilize people and raise phenomenal amounts of money. Books have been written on the topic and companies such as Blue State Digital were formed. It was at that point I came to terms with the fact that Web 2, 0 was real and my
    marketing skills were becoming obsolete.

    The shift was much larger than new technologies, e.g. writing ads for smart phones and tablets or using Facebook as a communications media. My skills were honed to be an expert in outbound marketing in a world that was moving toward Inbound marketing. I was focused on reach as in reach, frequency and gross ratings points, and reaching the right segment, in a world that was moving to discovery; discovery through SEO, PPC, affiliate links, and personalized recommendations. The world was moving from monologue to dialogue, from one screen to multiple screens, from developing an annual campaign to real-time marketing.

    When you do not realize the world has changed you try using old techniques in a new world e.g. Banner ads, pop-ups, interstitial ads, taking over a home page, or sending out digital versions of junk mail (Spam) through e-mail, Twitter or any other channel. I liked Brian’s post because I could identify with it. I did a weekly Webcast called CMO Advantage because I knew other CMOs had a similar challenge. I thought Brian provided five great tips for becoming a modern CMO. Thanks Brian.

  • gire30

    Recently I was extremely low on money and debts were eating me from all sides! That was UNTIL I decided to make money on the internet. I went to surveymoneymaker dot net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and surely I’ve been far more able to pay my bills!! I’m so glad, I did this!!! With all the financial stress these years, I really hope all of you will give it a chance. – u5po

  • Ankit Das

    Hi Brian, I am no CMO or for that matter i dont even have a designation starting with “C”. I found the article quite helpful. Thanks for sharing your insights.