By Marcia Riefer Johnston published February 23, 2017

Content Technologies: How to Realize the Promises and Avoid the Pitfalls


Content technologies. Can’t live with ’em; can’t live without ’em. How can marketers take advantage of the promises while avoiding the pitfalls – or at least tip the scales in favor of the promises?

We recently put that question to the folks speaking at the Intelligent Content Conference March 28–30 in Las Vegas. One warning came up over and over: Don’t expect technology itself to solve your problems. As Marketoonist Tom Fishburne recently said, “Trying to make an organization ‘customer-centric’ through technology alone is relying on pixie dust.”

Trying to make an org ‘customer-centric’ through technology alone is relying on pixie dust, says @tomfishburne. Click To Tweet

You’ll find our speakers’ advice grouped under these headings:

  • Don’t fall for the trap of technology as solution
  • Use artificial intelligence to deepen your insights but not to replace them
  • Safeguard the security and privacy of customer data
  • Choose technology that you can use fully
  • Hire people who can make the most of your systems – and the content put there
  • Keep up with the tech changes
  • Try before you buy

Don’t fall for the trap of technology as solution

The promise is that technology allows humans to be better humans. It allows knowledge workers to be better at gaining and sharing knowledge. It allows designers to design, writers to write, and producers to produce content with better, faster, stronger, more consistent output. It supports collaboration, data-driven results, visibility, accessibility, connectivity, and intelligence.

Yet the success or failure of all marketing and content technology is determined by people, processes, and strategy.

Common pitfalls to avoid when rolling out content technology:

  • Be careful not to ask your team to change their processes too much too soon. Make your team’s life easier; don’t add more work to their day.
  • Keep it simple so people will use it with little pain.
  • For each person who will use the technology, answer this question: What’s in it for him or her?
  • Don’t require a ton of administration.
  • Don’t expect everyone to become an expert at the tool. The best tools enable users to be better at their jobs – simply using the tool to do their jobs.
  • Make sure that your buyers talk with users. Someone who makes a buying decision for new technology has different needs than the users of the system.

Jake Athey, director of marketing, Widen | @jakeathey

Success of marketing & content technology is determined by people, processes, & strategy. @jakeathey Click To Tweet

To prepare for any technology implementation, document the holes or weaknesses in your processes. This knowledge will help you make a more informed technology decision and give you a chance to eradicate poor processes before you replicate them inside of a new technology.

Peg Miller, co-founder, B2B Marketing Academy | @pegmiller

Document the holes in processes to prepare for any technology implementation, says @pegmiller. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

The pitfalls lie in over relying on the promises. Technology can be powerful, but it can’t fix a broken team or fill in for a missing content strategy. Enterprise marketers need to focus on technology that will augment, extend, or streamline what they’re already doing. Technology won’t magically make the hard work go away.

Andrea Fryrear, founder and chief content officer, Fox Content | @andreafryrear

Technology can’t fix a broken team or fill in for a missing content strategy, says @andreafryrear. Click To Tweet

The promise of automated personalization leads to a pitfall in that marketers may think that they no longer need to work at their content’s semantics and structure. Manual effort is still needed. The better you do this up-front work, the better your personalization outcomes. Even self-learning tools need input from humans. Tools are not intelligent out of the box.

Erik Hartman, owner, Erik Hartman Communicatie | @erikmhartman

Tools are not intelligent out of the box. Manual effort is still needed, says @erikmhartman. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

Solutions require work and thought before you can automate them. If we take the time to understand problems and opportunities in an analog sense, we can often apply technology for speed and efficiency.

For marketers, the big tech wins for content are in instrumentation-enabling analytics that yield insights into what content is working, what isn’t, and why. These insights contribute directly to success with personalization or targeting, for example, and other strategies that drive conversions, revenue, loyalty, and advocacy.

Andrea Ames, enterprise content experience strategist, IBM | @aames

Big tech wins for content are in instrumentation-enabling analytics that yield insights, says @aames. Click To Tweet

The biggest pitfall is slapping technology on our old ways of working and then blaming the tech when the “solution” fails. With great power comes great responsibility. Learn what it takes to manage intelligent content and how it’s different from planning and executing on your old deliverables.

Noz Urbina, founder and chief content strategist, Urbina Consulting | @nozurbina

Learn how managing #intelcontent is different from planning & executing on old deliverables. @nozurbina Click To Tweet

The pitfall I’ve observed is relying on technology to solve strategic problems. First, understand your customers, their use cases, and the issues they face. Tools are helpful for marketers to listen to customers, but they don’t take the place of user research and analysis.

Laurel Nicholes, director of technical communication services, F5 Networks | @laurelnicholes

Don’t rely on technology to solve strategic problems, says @laurelnicholes. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

While technical advances bring new promise each year, the pitfall is always the same: expecting the tools to improve things without substantial human planning and guidance.

There is hope, however. Marketers are gaining more technical experience and sophistication. Perhaps the greatest promise this year lies in bringing a selective approach to shiny new ideas. Tools have different characteristics and weaknesses; some will meet your needs while others simply appear to. Technical solutions must reflect and enhance organizations’ strengths and competitive opportunities. To put it glibly, we must now make our content strategies more strategic.

Joe Pairman, consulting practice lead, Mekon | @joepairman

We must now make our content strategies more strategic, says @joepairman. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

We’re still not there with a fully integrated insights platform that makes recommendations based on the full life cycle of a user or target audience. Marketers may have a false sense of security about the data they’re using to make decisions. We still need smart marketing and analyst teams.

Erin Robbins, president, GinzaMetrics | @texasgirlerin

We still need smart marketing and analyst teams, says @texasgirlerin. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

Use artificial intelligence to deepen your insights but not to replace them

We’re seeing a trend toward the use of artificial intelligence, including machine learning, in marketing tech. Some platforms are making use of AI algorithms to powerful effect. Some potential AI applications will make marketing easier and better for both marketers and their prospects.

AI promises to give us the deeper insights we’re looking for in martech – as long as we use it to help with our understanding, not substitute for it.

Nick Edouard, president and chief product officer, LookBookHQ | @nickedouard

AI promises to give us the deeper insights we’re looking for in martech, says @nickedouard. Click To Tweet

Much emphasis has been put on marketing automation, with huge advances in automating the machinery needed to scale marketing. In the meantime, the content itself has gotten a little lost.

Artificial intelligence technology is going to play a key role in improving the content itself. Recent advances make it possible for machines to read content, score it against established goals, and provide insights on brand voice, tone, and liveliness. This technology integrates easily with a plethora of authoring tools, giving writers immediate access to the practical guidance they need. The result is better content, which ultimately leads to better business results.

Dr. Andrew Bredenkamp, founder and CEO, Acrolinx| @abredenkamp

AI technology integrates easily with a plethora of authoring tools, says @abredenkamp. Click To Tweet

Two promising trends are AI – seen in tools such as chatbots and semantic technologies, which make content more open, shareable, and search-engine friendly. AI tools are going to be helpful in some cases, and disappointingly primitive in others.

Semantic technologies, like linked data (a large-scale collection of interrelated datasets on the web), could bring more far-reaching changes. I’m excited that something I’ve evangelized for years is becoming mainstream.

Joe Pairman, consulting practice lead, Mekon | @joepairman

Semantic technologies, like linked data could bring far-reaching changes, says @joepairman. Click To Tweet

Safeguard the security and privacy of customer data

As content personalization moves beyond proxies to individual users, companies are racing to acquire first-party data (customer data owned by the company). At the same time, cybersecurity and data privacy continue to concern businesses and consumers alike. Marketers must take security and privacy matters seriously and collaborate with the IT and risk-management departments to safeguard the rights of customers.

Victor Gao, vice president of digital and managing director, Arrow Media Group | @wvictorgao

Marketers must take security & privacy matters seriously, says @wvictorgao. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

Choose technology that you can use fully

Most businesses that have implemented marketing automation are using only a small part of its capabilities. When implementing new technology, do the following:

  • Think of all the use cases this specific technology can be used for. Ask these questions: Are these use cases realistic for your team to handle? If the answer is no, don’t buy the technology in the first place.
  • Start small. When implementing the technology, focus on one or two use cases. Analyze the results. Optimize. Only after you’re happy, move on to other use cases.
  • Develop a clear roadmap. Ask these questions: How else could we use the technology? Who else on our team could use it? How does it fit with our overall long-term goals?

Yael Kochman, head of content and inbound marketing, Mapp | @yaelkochman

Most businesses that have implemented marketing automation are using few capabilities. @yaelkochman Click To Tweet

The cost of implementing a marketing-tech stack has lowered to within reach of all types of marketers. This democratization of marketing automation is a great thing, especially for small companies involved in innovative work. With an investment of just a few hundred dollars a month, you can build a marketing engine and create a fairly large echo chamber for your brand story.

Here’s the rub: Your tech stack can also steal your precious time. Just because you can use sophisticated tools doesn’t mean you should. Invest only in technologies that you have the time and capacity to embrace and fully use. If you can’t fully use a technology, you’ll just be throwing labor toward a tech that doesn’t deliver on your priority goals (for example, selling your product or service).

Vishal Khanna, director of marketing and communications, HealthPrize Technologies | @bediscontent

Invest only in technologies that you have the time & capacity to embrace, says @bediscontent. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

Hire people who can make the most of your systems – and the content put there

Technology promises:

  • Deeper and more actionable insights into customers and audiences.
  • Reduced cost of customer acquisition and sector penetration.
  • Rich first-party data.
  • Extended touchpoint range and related value delivery.
  • Optimized corporate asset management and repurposing.
  • Reduction of content redundancy.
  • Automated activities.

Technology pitfalls:

  • Many organizations will fail to stitch together their multiple technologies to serve coherent business processes, making it difficult to realize the potential value of those technologies.
  • Many organizations will neglect their need for dedicated process architects (people who understand customer relationships and overall marketing/sales/support processes) in favor of seeking out technology specialists (people who lack insight into the way things get done in that environment).

Carlos Abler, jedi: content marketing strategy, 3M, | @carlos_abler

Orgs will fail to stitch together multiple technologies to serve coherent business processes. @carlos_abler Click To Tweet

Content marketers must act as self-publishers, but many of them lack experience with the kind of editorial planning essential to publishing. Technology can address some of your challenges, but many can be solved only by humans.

Hire people with digital-publishing experience. A lot of former journalists and editors are looking for work – people who know how to build an editorial calendar, host editorial meetings, and guide the marketing team through a publishing plan.

Buddy Scalera, senior director of content strategy, The Medicines Company | @buddyscalera

Hire content marketers with digital-publishing experience, says @buddyscalera. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

Keep up with the tech changes

Marketers should pay attention in 2017 to shoring up mobile content presentation, with specific attention to Google’s new AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) project. Google is moving toward preferring to direct visitors to clean and fast-loading mobile experiences. Anyone with a significant mobile audience – all of us these days – should render article-based content in AMP format along with a traditional responsive presentation.

Ultimately, publishers who don’t use AMP markup will sacrifice Google ranking.

AMP markup can be added to the stack of other standards that publishers are being asked to embrace, including OpenGraph, social microdata, and microdata. Where possible, incorporate these standards at the CMS level, making your content more portable and giving you more control over the presentation of the content you syndicate to social channels, search engines, and other third parties.

Cruce Saunders, principal, Simple [A] | @mrcruce

Publishers who don’t use AMP markup will sacrifice Google ranking, says @mrcruce. #intelcontent Click To Tweet

Try before you buy

One of the pitfalls is failing to adequately evaluate the technology. Every kind of cereal looks delicious sitting in its box on the shelf, but you won’t know whether you like it until you taste it. The same goes with technology. All the tools look great in demos.

Consumer-level technology – WordPress, for example – is relatively easy to taste test. You just install it for free and play with it to determine if it’ll be an effective solution.

Enterprise-level solutions can be more challenging to try out. Self-service freemium versions are not always available. In those cases, you need to work with the sales team to experiment with the software. They may give you a technology “sandbox” or do a WebEx or in-person demo.

For your enterprise-software evaluations, create a testing plan that allows you to consistently assess the functionality and user experience for each platform, giving you a way, as much as possible, to compare bananas to bananas. (Hey, we’re talking breakfast cereal here.) For example, ask each vendor to create the same article so that when you view the dashboards, the differences will jump out and you can more easily see which system works best for your team.

Finally, include a content engineer and at least one of your end users in the conversations. You want them to ask questions and contribute insights as early as possible ­– and then later feel invested in whatever decisions get made.

Buddy Scalera, senior director of content strategy, The Medicines Company | @buddyscalera

Marketers need to adequately evaluate the technology before buying, says @buddyscalera. #intelcontent Click To Tweet


This article concludes our three-part series that shares insights from ICC speakers. Here are the other two articles:

I can’t wait to see what these guys have to say at the conference at the end of March. I’ve been to every ICC since 2012, and I always come home jazzed about what I’ve learned, inspired by the smart people I’ve met, and excited about the promises – and even curious about the pitfalls – of what lies ahead.

Come find out for yourself. See you in Vegas!

To hear these pros – in person – share their expertise on content strategy for marketers, register for the Intelligent Content Conference today. Use code BLOG100 to save $100 on the main event and all-access passes.

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.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

  • Thinesh Sridhar

    That’s the problem with all the tools and tech. You actually will have no idea on when it would break or where it would break. Experimenting and trying new tools and tech is a good idea, but we live in an era where the manager walks upto you and says “I needed this yesterday” 🙁

    Although I’m all up for processing the tools and tech. Build a process around the marketing especially content marketing so you don’t waste too much time on a single tech.

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Thanks for the insight, Thinesh.


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