By Pontus Staunstrup published April 7, 2014

3 Steps to Overcome the Fear of Building a Content Marketing Strategy

arrow crossing over fearAccording to a 2014 report by Content Marketing Institute and the UK Direct Marketing Association on Content Marketing in the UK, lack of a documented content marketing strategy is one of the biggest threats to successful content marketing. We can all agree that a strategy is vital, but an interesting question is, why do so many companies not have one?

Lee Odden wrote in a recent blog post that the reason many companies do not have a content marketing strategy isn’t because they lack sufficient time, resources, or funding to create one, but rather it’s due to a lack of vision and empathy for the customer experience. There is much to be said for the case Odden makes, but my experience as a strategist tells me that there is an even greater and more profound reason: fear.

A key aspect of strategic development is that it forces us to make — and commit to —decisions. That’s the core of what a strategy is designed to do — help us decide what actions to take, what to target, and how to reach our ultimate goal. To many managers, this is a frightening prospect.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review notes, “All executives know that strategy is important. But almost all also find it scary, because it forces them to confront a future they can only guess at. Worse, actually choosing a strategy entails making decisions that explicitly cut off possibilities and options. An executive may well fear that getting those decisions wrong will wreck his or her career.”

A content marketing strategy forces practitioners to define our brand, to identify target groups, to select tactics and channels, to devise KPIs, etc. However, this process also requires that we consciously decide not to focus on certain target groups and channels, as well as to abandon some we may already be working with.

Creating a content marketing strategy forces us to make choices and decisions that can be questioned and second-guessed. It’s much safer to skip the hard work of coming up with a strategy and dive straight into creating content — more content, all kinds of content, content aimed at everybody. It’s content mud, and if we throw enough of it onto the wall, some of it is bound to stick, right?

For me, the key question is, how can content marketing professionals get managers and other stakeholders to invest the time, money, and courage required to create an actionable strategy, and then commit to it? And the one answer I’m coming to more and more often is this: We have to get better at explaining what strategy is, and what the benefits are of having one. Sound obvious? Well, in many ways, it isn’t.

Very often “strategy” at a company means a collection of broad goals, ambitions, visions, and values. It’s something that has been discussed and developed at the highest level of management, by executives who likely will not have a hand in how it ultimately gets executed on. Unfortunately, these sorts of strategies offer little direction for how content marketing teams should work off them, and often end up collecting dust somewhere, rather than being implemented, tested, and continuously improved.

But that’s not really what a strategy is meant to be. In his book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, Richard Rumelt defines strategy as, “A coherent set of analyses, concepts, policies, arguments, and actions…” In other words, it is a real plan that will help you get from here to there.

We need to change the perception of strategy. That means establishing that a “real” strategy is hands-on, creates efficiency, and actually helps everyone involved in the work. This will make it easier to achieve the end result — in the case of content marketing, that means better content, and better ways of creating, handling, and measuring it.

If you want to change the perception of strategy at your company (or among your clients), here are some specific steps you can take:

1. Make sure that any strategies developed can actually be used: According to Rumelt, all good strategy has a basic underlying structure that he calls a “kernel.” It has three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and a set of coherent actions. If your strategy doesn’t contain such goals, actionable guidelines, and specific activities, it is just a wish list.

First, you need to identify your strategic objectives, and then be able to break them down into manageable decisions and tasks, such as what messages to use; what formats to create content in, and for which channels; what to measure, and so on. Next, you must convert those guidelines into tactical activities, such as developing content themes and topics to focus on, building editorial calendars to organize your efforts against a realistic schedule, determining available resources, and dividing the required responsibilities.

Now, getting buy-in on this from executives will probably require that you highlight the key points of your strategy and present it in a non-technical fashion, as many executives may not have a background in communication/marketing, let alone in content marketing. For example, a recent study from Sirius Decisions shows that 85 percent of people currently in B2B marketing positions were not professionally trained in marketing prior to stepping into their roles. Just like you put in the effort to understand the language of your customers, you must understand the language of your management team. The key to getting its buy-in is to make sure that the team understands that your content marketing strategy is tied to your organization’s overarching business goals and will be measured against those goals to determine what results have been achieved.

Let’s consider a prospective example. Say you work for a B2B company in the high-tech sector. Your content marketing strategy could begin with an outline of your business goals, your target audiences (perhaps in the form of buyer personas), and the content guidelines you wish to establish for your brand — including voice, preferred channels, and KPIs.

Your next step should be to devise a structured, efficient process to ensure that the type of content your analysis has helped you decide on actually gets created, distributed through the best channels, and measured for its impact. To do this, you will need to break down the process into a set of manageable activities. This “process and activities” phase is where you really need to focus your strategy-development efforts, because this is where the realities in your organization take over, in terms of budgeting, resourcing, and so on. It’s where you transform your ideas from a wish list into a viable strategy — by deciding where and how your resources will be used in the best way.

2. Define what format your strategy should take in order to be clearly understood  — and be successfully implemented: The only way your content marketing strategy is going to avoid becoming the dust collector I mentioned earlier is if it can be executed on successfully. So you will need to document your strategy in a way that it can be understood and used to guide your team’s content efforts, from the buy-in phase all the way through creation, distribution, and measurement.

For example, should it be created in a primarily visual format, like an infographic? Should it be built using a particular digital sharing tool, such as a Google Drive document or spreadsheet? Does it have to be built as a single document, or can you break it down into components that can be distributed as needed? For example, maybe your content creators don’t need access to the full strategy, but rather just the components that directly pertain to their own responsibilities, such as audience and messaging information. Depending on what kind of organization you work in, you might need more or less of this thinking — smaller companies tend to have less of a need for some processes to be explicitly planned out, while in larger organizations, the clearer your processes are, the greater potential for you to save time and budget, and to eliminate the potential for confusion and mistakes.

3. Be clear that your content marketing strategy is meant to be a living entity — not a static, permanent fixture. Any viable content marketing strategy should be revised, tweaked, and improved based on the results and the key performance indicators (KPIs) you set, so it will be helpful to communicate that nothing needs to be set in stone right from the outset.

For this reason, you should also plan a clear process for revising and honing your strategy, as new needs arise, and new information becomes available. Metrics can assess the success (or lack thereof) of different types of content, how channels compare to each other, interactions in social channels, and so on, which will help you identify areas of your strategy that are in need of improvement. This is a key part to show to executives, because it will demonstrate that you will continuously evaluate the success of your content marketing program, and that they will not be indefinitely tied to a program that may not be achieving its goals.

These steps make it easier not only to encourage decision makers to commit to having a strategy but, even more importantly, to explain the actual benefits of having a strategy in place before beginning any content creation efforts.

What’s your take? Have you seen fear frighten companies away from creating a content marketing strategy? And can greater understanding of what a strategy is — and what it can do — change this perception? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Want more instruction on how to develop a documented content marketing strategy? Sign up for our new Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program. Access over 35 courses, taught by experts from Google, Mashable, SAP, and more.

Cover image via Bigstock 

Author: Pontus Staunstrup

Pontus Staunstrup is Content Strategy Director at JG Communication, a content agency based in Stockholm, Sweden. He works with customers in all aspects of content marketing and content strategy, from planning and analysis, execution and content creation, to distribution and measurements. Pontus is also a frequent speaker on topics like digital strategy, content marketing and social media. Find him on LinkedIn or on Twitter.

Other posts by Pontus Staunstrup

  • http://www.toprankmarketing.com/ Lee Odden

    Glad to have provided some inspiration Pontus. It might be argued that fear mitigates the vision necessary amongst marketers to create a strategic plan :)

    With a lot of marketing best practices, there’s the “right thing” to do and there are the “doable things”. Many marketers stick with the more comfortable latter, staying within their comfort zone of MBOs even if they’re not strategic. This is the root of the mechanical vs. meaningful disease that runs rampant within marketing departments overly focused on scale vs. long term performance.

    Thanks for giving readers more confidence in what to do and to become inspired to better understand their bigger business goals, customers and how content can make connections between them.

    • Pontus Staunstrup

      Lee, thanks for stopping by. Fear does indeed do a lot of damage, to visions and to the equally important part of believing in what you do. And I fully agree with your point about the “doable things”. It is so easy to remain inside the comfort zone and focus only on mechanics and tried and tested ways. I’m not advocating getting rid of what works, but in this time of rapid changes we must question everything we do. Thanks for your encouraging words

  • Summer

    Really great summary! Examples with company names removed or replaced with mocked up names would also be helpful.

    • Pontus Staunstrup

      Summer, thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that real life examples are very helpful when communicating strategy. Good point!

  • Nathan Hegedus

    Smart and honest take. This is exactly what we should all be doing. But I have a follow up question – what do you do when you are stuck with clients gripped by that fear? Of course, “doable things” is good. But how do we push farther in the face of the obstacles?

    • Pontus Staunstrup

      Nathan, thanks for commenting and for your question. In one way “doable” is good, because it helps us focus on the realities. It becomes a problem when, like Lee pointed out, it becomes the alternative to what needs to be done. My suggestion, and I would welcome your views on this, is to try and move them step by step into another mindset. One way of doing this is to propose a pilot project. Changing your ways in a limited area might be less scary than a complete change. Thanks!

      • Nathan Hegedus

        I agree that a pilot project is good. It sets the tone and provides cover for other people who want to be brave. But it also comes down to management buy in and the company culture. I’ve worked with big companies where one business unit is progressive and the other is totally locked down. That’s hard to change from the outside without getting the higher ups to acknowledge the fear.

        • Pontus Staunstrup

          Yes, I completely agree. Buy-in from above is essential and culture always beats strategy. Thanks!

  • http://hashimwarren.com/ Hashim Warren

    Writing strategy is a scary thing, let’s be honest. It’s like asking someone to predict the future. That’s why I like to write my strategy on a napkin, rather than a stone. I’d rather plan how to navigate the content waters than map out where every river could be

    • Pontus Staunstrup

      Hashim, thanks for commenting. Could we figure out a middle ground between the stone and the napkin? I totally agree with your point that a strategy needs to be fluent and adaptive, but in my mind a napkin is very easily thrown away and a strategy needs to be more than that. I totally agree with you on the scary part, but I guess you end up with the same conclusion I do: it’s even scarier to do nothing or just start creating content. Thanks!

  • Sean_Duffy

    Great post Pontus. I agree that the fear factor is the silent killer of many strategic marketing initiatives. I think a better understanding of strategy and online marketing in the C-Suite could help foster a corporate culture that frowns on risk avoidance and instead encourages intelligent risk management among marketers. This post is an excellent first step. Thanks.

    • Pontus Staunstrup

      Sean, appreciate you taking the time to comment. You make a great point about the importance of the C-suite, and what they add to the corporate culture, in creating an environment where strategy is taken seriously. One question I ponder a lot is how we as marketers can learn to speak a language that the C-suite will understand (or help our clients do that if we are consultants). Any thoughts? Thanks.

  • http://www.LinkedMediaGroup.com Linked Media Group, Inc.

    Nicely done Pontus: well thought out, great strategic and tactical overview. We see similar issues with clients; i.e. no decision is some times better than one they are uncertain about.

    • Pontus Staunstrup

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope this provides some openings, and would very much like to hear how you help your clients overcome this.

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  • Debby

    Well put! A large component of fear is ultimately a lack of knowledge. Knowledge is power. The more effort that can be put into analyzing and understanding a situation, the better equipped we can be at defining a strategy to deal with it.

    • Pontus Staunstrup

      Hi Debby, thanks for taking the time to comment. Totally agree, lack of knowledge is a big factor. Analysis plays a big part in that, and I would also suggest knowledge sharing and seminars tailored to needs and agendas of internal stakeholders. Thanks!

  • Kevin Avery

    Pontus, you had me at Rumelt! Content Marketing is an amorphous mass, so let me home in on one specific area: sales execution content–a term I use with very specific meaning: what marketing gives sellers to use to engage customers, to develop opportunities and ultimately close business, that’s measurable for its efficacy allowing improvement or replacement. If it doesn’t help them sell more, it changes or it’s out. Same strategy principles apply to other content, but the lens may be different, though there should be the same business driver foundation.

    The crux of the matter is that Marketing has an impossible job unless Sales provides what I call a consistent execution framework–preferred approaches with key milestones and tactics/activities within the milestones called out, atop a business driver foundation that maps to one’s portfolio.

    Remember Rumelt’s comment about good strategy being unexpected, your competitors don’t expect you to have one because they don’t either? Ditto for this concept of consistent execution framework. For complex sales, there’s also an integrated resourcing strategy that’s nearly always missing too, but that just compounds the challenge.

    Here’s the interesting part. Mediocrity is so pervasive that it’s much like the wife who tossed out her drunk of a husband of eight years, reporting to her mother that what took her so long was “last night he came home sober.” Breakaway is achievable, but it takes a design-style strategy to solve a chain-link system problem.

    • Pontus Staunstrup

      Kevin, thanks for commenting and good to hear from a fellow Rumelt fan! You make a great point about sales execution content, and the need for a clear framework. Have you written about this elsewhere? I think you’re spot on in terms of many businesses lacking this, especially in complex B2B cycles, and any company that does will have a competitive advantage. Good strategy can be a very unexpected advantage, indeed, and just like the wife it’s this revelation that can change the way you look at how to approach marketing and sales in your industry. Thanks for sharing!

      • Kevin Avery

        Pontus, I haven’t blogged it, though I’ve written about aspects of it in various places in response to blogs. Happy to send you a thumbnail if you’re interested. To me there’s tremendous implications, mostly opportunity, for content marketers whose jobs are horrendously challenging absent a consistent execution framework which is just about as rare (and thus unexpected) as good strategy. I’m on LinkedIn or kavery411@gmail.com

        • Pontus Staunstrup

          Kevin, I’d very much like to hear more about your thoughts. Will send you an invitation on LinkedIn.
          Best, Pontus

  • Akash Agarwal

    It’s a great
    article on overcome fear in build a content marketing strategy. It’s a great
    help to me. Thanks for sharing.

    • Pontus Staunstrup

      Thanks Akash, appreciate your kind words.

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