By Marcia Riefer Johnston published December 30, 2015

Content Strategy Musings for Forward-Thinking Marketers 


“Quick story.” If that phrase makes you think of CMI Chief Strategy Officer Robert Rose, you’ve probably been following Content Strategy for Marketers, the weekly newsletter that he kicked off a year ago.

Every Saturday, subscribers eavesdrop on his conversations, learn about what he’s reading or watching or listening to, and discover, as he weaves one quick story into another, his latest observations on content marketing and content strategy.

You can download an anthology of all of Robert’s Content Strategy for Marketers musings, and keep reading for a sampling of Robert’s messages that I’ve found especially thought-provoking, useful, and inspiring.

(Note: I’ve identified the newsletter’s edition title in applicable references so you can find the rest of the content more easily in the e-book.)

Treat content as a strategic asset

“Content is perhaps the most important business asset that we fail to manage as well as we could,” Robert says.

What does it mean to treat content as a business asset – a strategic asset – and why should we do it?

“We mostly rationalize the value of content against the priorities of individual functions of the business rather than its entirety. In other words, we look at content as a feature of the business, not as an ultimate strategic value of the business … Content created and managed well, repeatedly, defines a business. That’s why it’s so important.” – Content Is What We Are

Content created and managed well, repeatedly, defines a business. That’s why it’s so important via @robert_rose Click To Tweet

The volume and complexity of corporate content make treating content as a strategic asset one of the biggest challenges of our day.

“I believe that a crisis is fast approaching for many enterprise marketers who are scaling their content-production efforts … We all know that we need to produce content like a media company. But our existing people, practices, and technology are not there yet.” – What Is Big Content?

In that newsletter, Robert also tells us of a dream in which his third-grade teacher appears holding a goat. What does it mean? Tune in next time, he says. (Robert has worked in the movie biz. He will mess with you.)

Ponder this: In what ways does your organization already treat content as a strategic asset – something that people plan, distribute, promote, and manage so that it supports your business goals in measurable ways? What more might you do?

Look beyond the content to the content experience

It’s not surprising that, as co-author of a book called Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, Robert talks about the importance of the ways customers experience our content. Here are some examples:

“Content defines every experience we create for our customers – including our product or service. Thus, it cannot be a neutral part of any one experience. Content either enhances the experience or degrades it.” – Content Is What We Are

“Content strategists and marketers need to push interfaces beyond their traditional boundaries. (How quickly yesterday’s ‘innovative’ becomes today’s ‘traditional.’) We need to imagine ways to hack content-driven experiences.” – Hacking Content Experiences

“For some reason, customer-facing content – the thing that creates the customer experience our business will be known for – is treated differently. When a company is stuck in this pattern, content … may be hurting the brand.” – Who’s Afraid of Strategy in Content?

Having once worked for a company that excluded content from its user testing, I want to cheer every time I hear this message. The company I worked for in those days had formed a UX group, a big deal back when the term “user experience” was new. I wrote user documentation for highly regulated products that might affect life-and-death decisions. It seemed only logical to me – mandatory, even – that the UX group would test not only the product usability but also the information usability. Customer-facing content is part of the customer experience, right? Customers, you know, face it.

Didn’t happen. I couldn’t convince anyone in the testing group to include the documentation in the usability tests. The company defined user experience as product experience. Content wasn’t seen (by the suits) as part of the product; it didn’t count.

I still get worked up when I think about that mindset. Deep breaths. Robert is here. Content, he says, is part of the customer experience. It may just be the most important part.

#Content is part of the customer experience. It may just be the most important part. Click To Tweet

Ponder this: How does your organization find out about the customer experience of your content? How could it find out more?

Get techier

Content pros resemble – or need to resemble – IT pros. Robert talks about the “blistering speed” at which enterprise technology is evolving. Even at that speed, technology is not changing fast enough to keep up with what publishers want to accomplish with it. He quotes Zemanta CEO Todd Sawicki: “We’re sort of all dancing around, waiting for the tech to get better.”


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In the meantime, content professionals have to embrace technology, despite its imperfections, lest we put our employers and ourselves at a disadvantage. Robert illustrates this point with numbers:

“In just one year, the number of marketing-technology companies has gone from 947 to more than 1,800. It has doubled in a year … I searched through a couple of job sites for ‘content strategists’ and found on one site almost 5,000 jobs that contained ‘well versed in technology’ as part of the job description … What does all this mean? … As you move through your career as a content marketer or content-strategy practitioner, how well do you need to know technology? The answer is, as well as possible.” – How Well Do You Need to Know Technology?

You might wonder why Robert’s research included looking at what it takes to do a content strategist’s job. Content marketers are not content strategists. But content marketers do have a lot to learn from content strategists. That’s one of CMI’s big themes for 2015.

Getting techier is just one way in which we need to learn from the folks in related content professions.

Content marketers are not content strategists. But they do have a lot to learn from content strategists. Click To Tweet

When it comes to IT, we’ll never keep up with the changes. Keeping up isn’t the goal. The goal is to keep learning.

Robert pursues a similar theme when he evokes Bruce Wayne just after he has climbed a mountain in the movie Batman Begins.

“Bruce Wayne, searching for training to master his fears, gives a symbolic blue flower to Henri Ducard (no spoilers). Bruce has been told that delivering this flower to the top of the mountain will enable him to find what he’s been looking for. Henri takes the flower and says, ‘To manipulate the fears in others, you must first master your own.’ Then he asks, ‘Are you ready to begin?’ Breathless, Bruce says, ‘I can barely stand.’ With a powerful kick to the chest that knocks Bruce halfway across the room, Henri yells, ‘Death does not wait for you to be ready!’” – Are You Ready for the Next Level of Digital Content?

We are Bruce Wayne, and technology is about to deliver that kick to the chest. How about it? Robert asks. (Is that a blue flower in his hand?) Are we ready to begin?

Ponder this: What do you need to learn next about technology? How will you get that knowledge? When will you do it?

Don’t get too techie

As important as it is that we get techier, Robert reminds us not to overvalue the role of technology in our jobs. He says that great content “strikes the right balance between human care and technology – between art and science – resulting in more-resonant audience experiences.”

He compares the classic movie Jurassic Park to The Hobbit trilogy and other movies produced today. Whereas Steven Spielberg struck the right balance between human care and technology, blending in computerized effects “only when he needed them,” many directors today “overuse computer-generated imagery. And audiences can sense that something is wrong. The suspension of disbelief is broken.”

One place where marketers need to avoid overdoing tech is in personalization. Robert tells of a colleague who wondered how personalized email can get before recipients feel “weirded out.”

“Yeah, this is the same ‘snap’ that today’s moviegoers experience. Computer and robotics engineers have a name for this phenomenon: the Uncanny Valley. The ‘valley’ is the dip in people’s comfort level when they encounter a nearly human image – a likeness that’s a little bit off. People feel repulsed rather than attracted to the almost-but-not-quite real. With our marketing content, this ‘snap’ into the Uncanny Valley is not good. It’s lazy directing, and it’s lazy content.” – Can You Be the Steven Spielberg of Content?

How do we as marketers avoid the Uncanny Valley? Be like Spielberg. Use technology only when you need it. Strike a balance between technology and humanity.

Use technology only when you need it. Strike a balance between technology and humanity by @MarciaRJohnston Click To Tweet

Ponder this: In what ways might your customers feel weirded out or even repulsed by the experiences they have with your organization’s content? If you think no one is ever repulsed, how do you know? How could you test your assumptions?

Face your fear

Robert calls for marketers to change. At the same time, he understands the paralyzing fear of change. He stares down fear in several newsletters.

He channels Seth Godin, noting that when people raise their hands, they often unthinkingly keep them low. Robert urges us to raise our hands all the way up and avoid making “half-hearted attempts to tweak traditional marketing campaigns into ‘content campaigns’”:

“Expanding the remit of marketing into a group that creates valuable, content-driven experiences (rather than simply describing the product) using product-development methodologies for that content (rather than campaign-minded tactics) is the evolution of marketing … We’d better not be afraid to give it our all to make this evolution happen.” – Are We Reaching High Enough?

Robert again urges us to take action in the face of fear. In that newsletter, he recalls the Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign, which encouraged baristas to write the hashtag on cups and to talk about race.

“It was immediately met with a backlash on social media, and it was ridiculed by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight and on marketing blogs all over.  It doesn’t matter what you think of the Starbucks campaign. It doesn’t matter whether its strategy or execution was flawed. They tried something big.” – Action Reduces Fear


Image source: Starbucks

All of us should try big things, Robert says, and we shouldn’t stop just because we get scared. Trying big things “is the key with becoming strategic with content for creating differentiated customer experiences. Every action we take reduces the risk of the next. It’s only through continued inaction that the risk of the first step increases.”

While leaders at all levels need to take action in the face of fear, those who control the big budgets often find themselves in Robert’s sights: “We have to change. We have to get over the fear of the different. The C suite must see content as one of the most important things to get right.”Who’s Afraid of Strategy in Content?

Content is one of the most important things for your organization to get right. Don't let fear stop you. Click To Tweet

Whether or not we have the support of the C suite, though, he challenges each of us to look for opportunities to do what we can as he shares with a characteristic flourish:

“Can we pick one? Take one action? Even if we fail at it, that one action reduces the fear of the next. And one of those actions just might be the one that changes everything.” – Action Reduces Fear

Go ahead, apply those words to your life. Robert dares you.

Ponder this: What one action calls to you right now? If you took that action, what’s the worst that could happen?

The Content Strategy for Marketers newsletter goes out via email every Saturday. I look forward to reading it every week. I bet you would, too. One of these weeks, we’re bound to find out what happened with the third-grade teacher and the goat.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

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  • Mike Myers

    Great summary, Marcia, thank you. I have no idea how I wasn’t subscribed to Robert’s email NL, but I’ve remedied that (don’t tell him). Thanks again!

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Mike, I’m delighted that you enjoyed this summary – and that you’ve subscribed. Welcome!