By Doug Kessler published April 25, 2017

The Content Assembly Line is Broken

content-assembly-line-broken

As companies turn their content marketing efforts up to 11, we’re seeing our own little industrial revolution, moving the content creation process from the craft workshop to the high-volume assembly line.

The conditions are right:

  • We have the division of labor – research teams, copywriters, designers, developers, experts in search, and social.
  • We have enormous pressure to create more content faster – to lubricate our lead-nurture flows and fill our virtual funnels.
  • And we have a precedent – as Henry Ford and earlier pioneers proved that assembly lines dramatically increase manufacturing productivity.

It’s no surprise that we tend to make content the same way we make cars and coffee machines – in sequence:

  • The researchers hand the findings to the writer.
  • The writer turns it into copy.
  • The designer makes it pretty (boy, am I going to get in trouble for that).
  • The illustrator adds the images.
  • The animator makes them wiggle (see above).
  • The developer codes it for the web.
  • The promotion team pushes it out.
  • The analytics geeks measure the impact.
  • And we do it all over again tomorrow.
We tend to make content the same way we make cars – in sequence (but we shouldn’t), says @DougKessler. Click To Tweet

It’s not at all uncommon that this whole thing happens without any team member even talking to the person immediately to the right or left of them along the conveyor belt (much less skipping a level and talking to someone two steps away).

For an increasing number of content teams, this is only a slight exaggeration. A freelance writer may never even know who designed the piece. A research strategist may not even know that a social media pro will one day flog the findings on Facebook.

It’s evolved this way because it’s efficient. Because it means a small team of specialists can churn out an awful lot of work to an acceptable standard.

And that’s the problem.

Because assembly lines were created to put together identical products made from standardized parts. As my favorite smarty-pants, Gustav Wikipedia, says, an assembly line means that “a finished product can be assembled faster and with less labor than by having workers carry parts to a stationary piece for assembly.” (How does he know so much?)

I’ve bold-faced the words that power the whole sentence – and the whole model: Faster. Less labor. That’s what assembly lines are for.

If your content strategy is simply to generate more content faster and/or with fewer people, this series of hand-offs from one blindfolded specialist to the next is your go-to go-to-market model (your GTGTMM).

But if you actually want someone to enjoy the content experiences you create, to be changed by them, to learn from them, and to recommend them to their friends … maybe it’s not such a great idea to produce your content the same way children and slaves produce smartphones. (No, I won’t take that back. Look it up.)

Because great content is not like the billionth Ford Focus to roll off the line.

It’s unique.

Crafted.

One-off.

Unlike toaster ovens and leaf blowers and photocopiers, it’s different every time.

Unlike toaster ovens & leaf blowers, great #content is different each time it’s created, says @DougKessler. Click To Tweet

As a grey-haired, B2B agency guy, I’ve been involved with both kinds of content creation processes: the assembly line and the agile, group-hug-based collaboration. And the latter runs circles around the former (while making that beep-beep roadrunner sound).

At Velocity, our best pieces are the ones where designers, developers, writers, researchers, and geeks work together – from the start and all along the way, in cute little stand-up scrums.

designers_developers_writers_researchers_geeks_work_together

Click to enlarge

That’s my plea to all you chief content officers (and pretenders who somehow got a hold of this blog post): Break up your assembly lines. Get your weird and wonderful teammates into the same room. Order in some cronuts (I recommend the Pumpkin Maple Cinna-munch Cashew Twirl™). Brief them to change the world.

And stand back.

A version of this article originally appeared in the April issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly, print magazine.

Want to meet Doug Kessler and talk more about how to break out of the content assembly line? He’s presenting at Content Marketing World Sept. 5-8 in Cleveland, Ohio. Register today and use code BLOG100 to save $100 on early-bird rates.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler is co-founder and creative director of Velocity, the London-based B2B marketing agency. He helps clients tell great stories, then drive those stories into the market using content marketing. Doug wrote Velocity's 'The B2B Content Marketing Workbook' and 'The B2B Marketing Manifesto'. Doug is also an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program. You can follow Doug on Twitter at @dougkessler.

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  • George Stenitzer

    Doug, Dead on. Assembly lines deaden the soul as they create clone after clone. Great content is artisanal, made with loving care, creativity and craft by people who put customers’ needs first.

    • http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/our-blog/ Doug Kessler

      Amen, George. One at a time.

  • DD

    Hi Doug, I’d add – coming from the professional services world – that a collaborative group hug that goes beyond the agency folks and also includes a client company’s resident experts, thought leaders and customers at some phase, can lead to some truly unique and long-lasting content.

    • http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/our-blog/ Doug Kessler

      Terrific point.

  • https://www.linkedin.com/in/kopacz/ Ola Kopacz

    Ultimately also, there are limits to how much information audiences can process. I’ve been watching the output of this assembly line approach for a while and I feel that we’re reaching a point of diminishing returns. Content fatigue is real! It doesn’t help that the lifecycle of a content piece is so short these days and people don’t even read things completely before they share them on. A key takeaway from your article is that true meaning is created by connecting with others. So in addition to fostering the communities of content creators, it is also important that brands foster communities of audiences that can connect with one another over fewer but more meaningful content pieces, and build common meanings around them. A great example of such a community is the Facebook group of Daily Burn. DB is a media company that offers live workouts over the web. They have all kinds of online real estate – the streaming app, a blog site, various social accounts. But in addition to that, they built a closed FB group for their subscribers, which is an egalitarian space where users interact with one another and with the company trainers. People form relationships, give each other lots of support, develop and cultivate group rituals. They formed a real tribe that gives the daily content a whole level of meaning. Seth Godin would be proud.

    • Ben Putano

      Very interesting insight and examples. Thanks!

    • http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/our-blog/ Doug Kessler

      Great points and a cool case study — hadn’t heard of DB (maybe that’s why I’m so out of shape).

  • http://www.urbinaconsulting.com/ Noz Urbina

    HI Doug,

    I really like this piece. And yet I don’t. Hear me out.

    You make excellent points on the importance of addressing broken “over-the-wall” collaboration models, and that the final measure of content being that it delights and engages the audience, not that it flew off the presses at blistering speed. On the other hand, I think that there’s some nuance still to add to this discussion. I’m going to argue the opposing view here not because I disagree with what you said, but only because you’ve covered one side of the thinking very well, so I’m going to flesh out the other side for balance.

    As you’ve pointed out, taking the assembly-line thinking to one extreme is bad, but it’s just as valid to say the same about the group-hug approach. (Or most approaches when taken to extremes…)

    First, should every piece of content unique? Is the fixed-width, beautifully designed printable brand-magazine layout of a content piece completely different than the web-layout incarnation of the same piece? Or the text-to-speech version? Or the infographic version even? I read the Economist, and I read on their website, in print, and on their app, and I listen to their awesome professional studio-recorded audio versions. In each channel it’s the same piece, but at the same time it isn’t. Only with a certain level of assembly-line division of labour can you make that smooth, fast and still deliver a breath-taking result as they do.

    Similarly, I’ve worked for brands who want to do all this, but rather than simple stories, they’re creating rich deliverables with embedded videos, related offers and calls to action, and case studies or quotations – all of which might be optimissed and varied by audience (industry, application, demographic segment, geography, etc).

    So, all these personalised deliverables – are they really “unique” or are they partially unique? At best, they’re uniquey or uniquish, no?

    Finally, the result of content processes is measured first by customer delight and engagement, then immediately after that, by ROI and benefit to the business. There is lots of “stuff” in the creative process which is not adding real end-user value. Some of those non-value-added tasks, when allowed to be done too creatively, end up with branding and styles that drift as artists lovingly add their personal touches and flare to the point where the brand no longer appears to be participating in a seamless and clear conversation with the audience.

    Enter adaptive, intelligent content. This is where the assembly-line mindset helps automate the parts that can be automated, allowing humans to lovingly add their value inside a framework that has been purpose-built to keep the brand sounding like a coherent entity, AND able to create assets that are backwards- and forwards-compatible. Assets that work as part of a greater whole and be able to be leveraged (either in part or in full) in future without breaking the machinery.

    Guru of gurus, Lisa Welchmann says, “No human endeavour scales without the introduction of standards”. We can butter ourselves up and say we should just be tasked with unleashing our creative awesomeness and that’s it, but that’s not in the brand’s interests. They want us to channel our awesomeness into certain models and vessels that have been designed by our predecessors. If you want to be the lead guitarist and bang out amazing solos, that’s great, but you have to be leading a band that’s supporting you by playing in an agreed key, genre, and time signature, using musical scales which are fixed, standardised quantities. You can’t saying you’re playing a game that has no rules.

    I totally get where you’re coming from and I’ve also seen both “over-the-wall” and huddle processes – in fact, I wish I was grey. I’ve simply gone straight-up bald in a small part thanks to the journey 🙂 – however, assembly lines today (either content or manufacturing) are not blind shove-the-thing-along operations. They’re tightly networked machines that have splits, and rejoins and constant communication. They can create variation in the right amounts, and they can do it at scales that make sense for global operations and brands.

    • http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/our-blog/ Doug Kessler

      All good points, Noz. Thanks for the thoughtful response to the post.

      The more collaborative approach doesn’t have to be (and rarely is) an unconstrained, creative free-for-all. Everyone is still laser-focused on goals, ROI, brand and the wider content and marketing mix.

      But I do agree that we can’t and shouldn’t get the whole team together on every project. Some are served well by an assembly line (once that line is grooved and everyone on it knows the gig). Others demand more teamwork, early and often.

      A blog post spun-out from an eBook can go straight to a writer and get published in an existing web template. No problem.

      An original, interactive digital piece? That will be much better served by getting – at the very least – the project leader, writer, planner, designer and developer together on day one.

      I’d hate to dictate the collaborative approach just as I hate that the conveyor belt is too often the default. But I want to see collaboration on the spectrum of content creation processes — and used when it fits.

      Thanks again.

      • http://www.urbinaconsulting.com/ Noz Urbina

        Thanks for this. I think often our perspectives as “experts” (cough cough) is often slanted by the type of problem we get invited in to solve.

        You’re seeing a “default” in your experience, and I’m seeing a different one. I’m guessing there has to be a function of self-fulfilling prophecy going there. If you’re getting invited in to do the engage and delight within the content itself, you’ll begetting invited into environments where that’s what’s lacking (or could be taken up to the next level). If by contrast I’m seeing many environments where too many chefs and unconstrained practices are diluting the brand, hurting efficiency, and hobbling the delivery experience across channels, maybe our respective reputations/backgrounds just get us brought into different environments?

        I think this is where the great research that orgs like CMI do comes in. They bring in numbers to help know what’s hurting most. Are both problems valid and critical to success? Absolutely.

        I don’t mind if one type of problem is more or less prevalent percentage-wise. What’s definite is that (as you said in your other reply) “the mix” is right. A band of unconstrained creatives will create pure art, unready for the industrial, omnichannel purposes it’s supposed to serve. A finely oiled machine without gifted artists feeding it turns out shapeless lumps of tin that no one will consume.

        That keeps us both gainfully engaged nudging projects back from either extreme. I think it’s important to try keep brands aware of is that no one has *all* the answers, we’re just steering them back onto the golden path of optimal balance (queue zen music). : )

  • Vee Moda

    Hi Doug / Noz,

    I agree with both your view points and you make a strong case for each approach.

    I’m starting to get grey hair, so I guess I’m on my way to becoming a content marketing guru.

    My take is that content requires a good amount of creativity and process in order for it to work well. Without a plan, workflow and schedules you cannot produce content – and that’s where the assembly line approach comes in. Where you assign key aspects onto those specialist to churn out great or unique pieces of content.

    I think both approaches can work together when you have open collaboration with your team of specialists. For me, the collaboration stage is the most important phase of content creation. That’s when you group-hug with your copywriter, designer and webmaster, and brainstorm your ideas. This stage is the most vital when creating content.

    Also during that stage, you must agree on the topic and vision, and have a robust review process to ensure you stay on track with your original theme. When like-minded creative and talented people are involved – often ideas change. Use this as an opportunity to capture those and work through them. Then agree on those themes and build your content engine around those ideas.

    When it comes to unique content – a series of content can be unique, as well as a single piece of content. And, whilst some brands might be able to consistently churn out large volumes of content, others might not be able to or some make a choice to produce fewer pieces of content.

    I personally believe in the idea of ‘less is more’ because you maintain focus. I don’t think every piece of content can be unique, but your goal should be to engage, inform and educate your audience through your content offerings.

    I think the key ingredients to content creation are – relevance, topical, informative and challenging. Provide your audience with new insights to continue engagement. If you can give a new perspective or a new angle and contribute – that’s when you create unique content.

    • http://www.urbinaconsulting.com/ Noz Urbina

      Hi Vee, I like your list of key ingredients a lot! Nice one.

      I think we’re mixing up two definitions of “unique”. Maybe Doug was also using your definition, but to be clear, when I was questioning “unique”, I don’t mean special or differentiating for the brand. Your content should *always* be unique in that sense as compared to other providers.

      I was saying that it may be differentiating for your brand from other suppliers/publishers, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually literally, different from other incarnations of the same content that your own brand may be publishing.

      For example, CMI publishes a CM Play Book for B2B. They could easily (and they may, I don’t know) have a CM Play Book for B2C, or for everyone, which reused some content from the B2B version. So, this content is unique to CMI, and sets them apart in the market, but the different versions of it are not unique when compared to each other. Creating cleanly repurposable content isn’t so easy. It’s got to be designed and planned and when different roles are working together in parallel or separated by projects and time (CM publishes this every year) the rules and standards have to be clear and consistent, which means that if one manager stands back *too far* and allows creatives to go wild on the 2016 B2C version, it may cause issue down the line or compared to other assets in the collection.

      So, again, I don’t disagree with either you or Doug, but I wanted to round out the conversation to make sure that both creativity and assembly-line thinking are contextualised and the merits of both mindsets are represented.

      • Vee Modha

        Hi Noz & Doug,

        I am glad I could contribute to this conversation and you found my insight of value.

        Noz – You’re absolutely right that we were mixing up the definition of ‘unique’ content. And, I agree that maybe Doug was referring to ‘unique’ content in both those ways.

        Doug – In response to your comment about goals, this is how I feel about goals…

        It is a challenge to convince management teams to think of content in a humanised way. Businesses today are too focused on lead generation, conversion and ROI. These goals have become standardised and this is where – in my opinion – the quality of content is suffering.

        We are creating content for the wrong reasons. That might seem like a bold statement to make and many would disagree with me. But I feel we have set up a standardised way of approaching content.

        I believe, you cannot create unique content – for your brand or differentiate from other providers in your industry – if your goals are to simply drive awareness to generate leads by directing them onto various landing pages and hoping for a conversion to happen because of a striking Call To Action. I think we’ve all experienced that this limits actual results. We don’t get desired results from this type of – assembly production line of marketing.

        I believe that content is created for humans. As humans we feel with emotion, we connect to emotions and we experience emotions. Content should be created when we’re able to understand those emotions. We need to dive deeper into our audiences so that we can reach those emotions and show we understand that through our content.

        As I said earlier, content should be topical and/or informative because it needs to appeal to those emotions. People enjoy learning and discovering new things. If they feel they’ve learned something of value – they will return.

        Content should serve a purpose or fulfil intent. Even before you begin the content creation process, we should ask ourselves:

        1. Why am I creating this content – and who for?

        2. Does this content serve a purpose of fulfil intent?

        3. Does/will this content appeal to my defined audience?

        4. What emotions does this content stir?

        5. How will they feel when they read this piece?

        This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of questions, but when you look at content in that context then you could ask plenty more questions. Your goal for every content you create should be to serve a purpose. That for me is a primary goal and then the awareness, driving traffic become secondary goals. We need to change the way we understand content.

        When we are able to do that only then will we reduce an – assembly line – or standardised approach to content creation.

        I might sound as though I’m contradicting myself now, but I think once you know what the purpose of your content is then you can focus on building a team of stakeholders – copywriters, designers, developers, agents and PMs etc.

        We need to change the way we understand and approach content for it to be high-quality and/or unique.

      • Vee Modha

        Hi Noz & Doug,

        I am glad I could contribute to this conversation and you found my insight of value.

        Noz – You’re absolutely right that we were mixing up the definition of ‘unique’ content. And, I agree that maybe Doug was referring to ‘unique’ content in both those ways.

        Doug – In response to your comment about goals, this is how I feel about goals…

        It is a challenge to convince management teams to think of content in a humanised way. Businesses today are too focused on lead generation, conversion and ROI. These goals have become standardised and this is where – in my opinion – the quality of content is suffering.

        We are creating content for the wrong reasons. That might seem like a bold statement to make and many would disagree with me. But I feel we have set up a standardised way of approaching content.

        I believe, you cannot create unique content – for your brand or differentiate from other providers in your industry – if your goals are to simply drive awareness to generate leads by directing them onto various landing pages and hoping for a conversion to happen because of a striking Call To Action. I think we’ve all experienced that this limits actual results. We don’t get desired results from this type of – assembly production line of marketing.

        I believe that content is created for humans. As humans we feel with emotion, we connect to emotions and we experience emotions. Content should be created when we’re able to understand those emotions. We need to dive deeper into our audiences so that we can reach those emotions and show we understand that through our content.

        As I said earlier, content should be topical and/or informative because it needs to appeal to those emotions. People enjoy learning and discovering new things. If they feel they’ve learned something of value – they will return.

        Content should serve a purpose or fulfil intent. Even before you begin the content creation process, we should ask ourselves:

        1. Why am I creating this content – and who for?

        2. Does this content serve a purpose of fulfil intent?

        3. Does/will this content appeal to my defined audience?

        4. What emotions does this content stir?

        5. How will they feel when they read this piece?

        This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of questions, but when you look at content in that context then you could ask plenty more questions. Your goal for every content you create should be to serve a purpose. That for me is a primary goal and then the awareness, driving traffic become secondary goals. We need to change the way we understand content.

        When we are able to do that only then will we reduce an – assembly line – or standardised approach to content creation.

        I might sound as though I’m contradicting myself now, but I think once you know what the purpose of your content is then you can focus on building a team of stakeholders – copywriters, designers, developers, agents and PMs etc.

        We need to change the way we understand and approach content for it to be high-quality and/or unique.

    • http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/our-blog/ Doug Kessler

      Great points. Just as we have a content mix, we need a process mix: a range of approaches that we deploy according to the project’s goals and needs.

      It already works this way at Velocity. Sometimes we get a team together to shape a new, original concept. On other projects, we let the assembly line do its thing, with each person knowing they can stop the line and call a meeting or walk over and chat with someone up or down the line.

      • http://secure93.com Oliver Dunn

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        • http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/our-blog/ Doug Kessler

          ThAnK u OliveR. I tHiNK ThAT wUd be Gr8!

          • http://www.urbinaconsulting.com/ Noz Urbina

            That’s funny…

  • https://www.pugno-in-faccia-opinioni-notizie-economia-finanza.it/ Dario Fumagalli

    Hello Doug,

    I am a living “buyer persona” and I’d like to tell you how I am living this “content ingestion fatigue”.

    At first I loved those ultra-curated, 3000 words long mega-posts where I get teached “112 ***quick*** things” (yeah, just 112, I am going to take 2 days to read all of that), or I have to jump over 72 different infographics.

    But me, the Average Joe, am getting to the point this is going the “way too much, way too often” status, which precedes full rejection.

    It’s now a while I am downright skipping page 1-3 of Google SERPs.

    I want to read an ***useful***, ***actionable***, ***synthetic*** piece of content that goes to the point on 3, maximum 5 points, 200 words tops each. No 15, 20, 37, 93, 118 points “because Google loves 700,000 words posts”.

    Plus, I am sick and tired of donkey proof bullets everywhere, “catchy” titles that pour in a keyword plus 50 characters of “double digit + adjective + power word + other boilerplate”.

    It’s been good for a while, but now everybody are doing this. There’s not a single post in competitive business niches that does not come with a copycat catchy title.

    Plus, there’s close to NO WAY for a person looking for real information, to find objective (even just a bit) information. Whatever you google about, the first 3 pages are affiliate marketing / infomercial stuff. Beautifully crafted, awesomely written, 3000 words long stuff that talks well of what pays the most.

    Real informative stuff? Buried at page 4, all with 2011-2012 date tags, because nobody with real knowledge cares to put out truly informative content when he’s put against squadrons of perfect SEO engineers, Pulitzer grade copywriters and Raffaello grade graphics designers.

    Think about this: I am a software developer, 30+ years worth of experience in the most diverse fields. I could share 1/10 of what I know by creating a 1000 pages website. However I am not going to do that. I’d write technical, relevant content but it is not going to get videos. It’s not going to get a team of content marketers tuning it to whatever *market* (not *user* or *citizen* or *worker*) niche.

    I am “just” going to write about my business, therefore I know it won’t even get to page 100 in Google.

    Above my true piece of work, I’ll see dozens of “kitten video” fake software developer content. Fake “software tools review”. Fake but REALLY well made, 3000 words each. Fake “experts opinion” with someone with 3,7 million Facebook shares who should work at PR and not at software. And so on and on.

    I truly hope Google will change algorythm and start discerning all this beautiful but just “similar to true” content getting amassed every day.

    There are 2003, black on white pages without a style with more ground breaking, awesome material, clearly written by someone who knows the inside out of his business than 2017 amazing, curated, long, illustrated posts that at the end offer some funny free PDF or the CTA leading to some affiliate link.

    The 2003 page of course sits at page 100, it needs *effort* to even find it.

    Yes, I have put 800 tons of stuff on the table and partly mixed it. It happens, when someone is just a “persona”. 😉

    • http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/our-blog/ Doug Kessler

      Hi Dario
      Wow, sounds like the Internet has really let you down — and content marketers are the primary culprit!

      I totally understand where you’re coming from (and even wrote about in a SlideShare called Crap that you’d probably hate).

      It’s hard to argue with the idea that marketers ruin everything, I guess. But my own experience is different.

      I’m still in awe of how much really good information I can get on any topic, with a quick Bing search.

      Sure, there’s a lot of dreck mixed in with the good stuff (often disguised as the good stuff), but I rarely get past page one of the SERPs.

      If that’s. It your experience, I can only apologise for my profession!

      Thanks for your honest rant. Had to be said.

      • https://www.pugno-in-faccia-opinioni-notizie-economia-finanza.it/ Dario Fumagalli

        Internet per se did not let me down. However I use it for my profession. I need accurate, solid, “no frills all juice” actionable material.

        For many years I could get that with a simple Google search. Now, the same information I’d get with 30 seconds of efforts, is perma-buried at page 4-5, above it there are all sorts of nicely crafted marketeer efforts.
        I am not even accusing marketeers of doing their job. It’s perhaps search engines that cannot discern a casual user browsing for some neatly packaged commercial offers vs a professional who needs in depth data or information.

  • https://www.pugno-in-faccia-opinioni-notizie-economia-finanza.it/ Dario Fumagalli

    Hello, Doug / Noz,

    I have replied to the discussion with a lengthy post but for some reason Disqus flagged it as spam. I asked them to fix it but they say it’s you who have to un-flag it. Therefore I am here to ask you to do that.
    Thanks in advance.

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com Lisa Dougherty

      Hi Dario, I can un-flag it. Consider it approved. 🙂

      • https://www.pugno-in-faccia-opinioni-notizie-economia-finanza.it/ Dario Fumagalli

        Thank you!