By Robert Rose published July 18, 2018

How Tech Debt Is Bankrupting Content Marketing

tech-debt-bankrupting-content-marketingThe pizza was delicious. It was May 2014, and the content marketing team was celebrating the one-year anniversary of its digital magazine for one of the most prestigious financial services brands in the world.

By all accounts, every goal had been met. It launched on time and only slightly over budget. The audience was growing steadily, and the sales group loved the insight and new opportunities that the magazine produced. Content marketing was a hit at the firm.

The lead account director for the content agency sidled up to the content marketing director and congratulated him. “You know,” she said, “we’re ready to start phase two. We’ve got a promotion and audience development plan, and the audience analytics dashboard ready.” The content marketing director smiled. “I know, I know. I think we’re ready. Let’s sit down on Monday and road-map that.”

Monday never came.

Tech credit card hits its limit

The following week, the team learned the new vice president of digital worked with the CIO to institute a new “One Site 2015” initiative. The company was to centralize all blogs and microsites into the main corporate website and integrate it into the main enterprise CMS.

The content marketing director desperately pleaded his case. Re-platforming the magazine’s WordPress site and Google Analytics into the enterprise CMS would take months and hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, it wasn’t even clear that there would be any benefit.

He lost.

The content marketing team spent the better part of six months re-platforming the magazine into the enterprise CMS. Some magazine features that didn’t meet corporate security and IT conformance were lost. The magazine’s look and feel changed because the enterprise CMS “can’t do that.” The audience promotion and development plan, along with the analytics plan, were sidelined.

Then, a new CMO joined the firm, and budgets were put on hold. Her first order of business was to change the corporate brand architecture, and subsequently the website design. All sections of the website (including thought leadership) were part of that redesign. And, they would innovate by upgrading to the newest version of the enterprise CMS, which included marketing automation and personalization capabilities. Once again, the audience promotion and measurement strategy had to wait.

The content marketing team spent a year re-platforming the magazine yet again. As it turned out, personalization took the budget too high, so even after hundreds of hours of planning and architecting, the personalization part of the solution would be phase two for the magazine.

In June 2017, the team quietly celebrated. It successfully relaunched the magazine as one of the website’s phased releases. Gone was the original magazine design and in its place the new magazine section looked much like the corporate website. There wasn’t enough time or budget to create templates to match the magazine’s original design or features.

As it turned out, the upgraded CMS was more complex to use. The content marketing team now spent hours instead of minutes preparing posts. New workflow rules required posts go through extra regression testing through IT, taking publishing from days to weeks. The cadence slowed to a crawl. Subscriber growth stalled. The team now spent 50% of their time working in the technology, managing digital assets, addressing the new configurations, looking at personalization features, and trying to integrate enterprise analytics.

An upgraded CMS was complex to use. Posts took hours, not minutes, to prepare. Sound familiar? @Robert_Rose. Click To Tweet

In November 2017, the content marketing director was called into the CMO’s office. “Why,” the CMO wanted to know, “are there no real results from the thought leadership content?”

The content marketing director started to explain the last two and a half years, but the CMO interrupted: “I’d like you and your team to provide me a business case for why this ‘content marketing’ idea will provide value.”

In February 2018, three months shy of its 5th birthday, the financial services company’s digital magazine was killed. The content marketing team was restructured, and the content marketing director left the company. Content marketing, as a tactic, remains at the company. It is simply a handful of writers creating “investor outlook” PDFs emailed to clients and tracked through the enterprise CMS.

Technology debt: Higher than ever

This story is extreme (and true) but all too common. With the constant pressure of innovation and results, C-suite leaders underestimate the true cost of incrementally upgrading existing technology infrastructure, while they ironically incur more and more time, money, and effort to “innovate” their way out of a constant state of software implementation. This invisible but insidious resource drain is called “technical debt.”

An invisible but insidious drain on #contentmarketing is “technical debt,” says @Robert_Rose. Click To Tweet

Technical debt is an increasingly known IT challenge in larger businesses. According to an Accenture survey, 69% of C-suite executives report that “technical debt makes their IT function much less responsive to changes in the market.”

As a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article put it:

(A)s IT software and infrastructure age, and as more features are added to legacy systems, technical debt grows and puts additional fixed operating costs on the company, diverting precious investment in innovation and new capabilities.  

In marketing, the issue is more pronounced. In a recent study, half of marketers (50%) say “too many technologies” is their top frustration, followed closely by “integrating technologies” (49%). The average number of marketing software technologies in a company is 16 and ranged as high as 98 in larger organizations. Is it any wonder that 80% of marketers say their least favorite thing is “learning and using new marketing technologies”?

In most cases, the primary challenge is the inability for the business to move quickly due to the old, legacy systems that are patched, upgraded, and hacked together to try and keep up.

However, the marketing challenge has an added burden. Many content and digital marketing teams seem perpetually stuck in a software selection or implementation cycle. The net result is either a blindside by corporate IT strategies (as in the above story) or digital content marketing strategies that look at the landscape of marketing technologies, asking “how can we learn how to do that?” The sad truth is teams never “learn to do that” because just as they start, some new technology implementation awaits around the corner.

In short: Marketers continue to make the minimum interest payment on the technology debt that grows every day.

Marketers make minimum interest payments on tech debt that grows every day, says @Robert_Rose. Click To Tweet

Getting debt relief: Realizing the ultimate form is change

There are, however, ways out of this mess. One critical factor for content marketers is to have a formulated strategy, which includes a technology landscape, from the beginning. In other words, as content marketers we must get out of “how can we learn to do that” and get into “this is what we aim to do, and here’s what we need to do it.”

It’s critical to create and maintain an early, often, and honest discussion with both the CMO and CIO about the view of the customer’s journey. The word “alignment” gets thrown around a lot when the relationship of the CIO and the CMO are discussed. But success or true alignment is not built from a mutual understanding of separate agendas. Rather, the technology and marketing teams must come together to develop a single collaborative strategy for customer/audience engagement.

Technology & marketing teams must come together to develop a single collaborative strategy. @Robert_Rose Click To Tweet

This communication – as part of a content marketing business case – can be built on three fundamental core values:

1. Orchestrating content experiences, not guiding siloed buyers’ journeys

Put simply, managing a portfolio of content-driven media experiences should not be focused on pulling people through some singular technology-driven buying path or journey. Rather, companies should look to decouple customer/audience data management, and experience presentation and management, and optimization of those experiences. I spoke to this approach and a new way of selecting technologies in the keynote talk at CMI’s Content Tech event this year.

2. Meaning-driven, not data-driven

Data by its definition has no meaning. It is a collection of facts, figures, and attributes about people or their behavior. To make data meaningful, businesses must develop new strategies to find the emotional value in data that is given rather than gathered. Focusing on connecting interactive experiences is critical. I wrote about this last year in CMI’s original research report: The Symphony of Connected Interactive Content Marketing.

Businesses must develop new strategies to find emotional value in data that is given not gathered. @Robert_Rose Click To Tweet

3. Organizing for agility, not speed

Much has been made about the need for marketing departments to be more agile, but it’s not necessarily about moving faster. The inability to find the calm in the chaos and the constant pressure of more capability are due to a fear of moving too slowly. Rather, a reinvented content marketing team can find joy and reduce technical debt in the balance of creating strategic, customer-centric experiences that evolve customers and reorienting to more agile strategies. I’ve written quite extensively about what we call “content creation management” and some organizational thoughts – most notably outlining a process for content marketing to take root.

Reinvented #contentmarketing teams reduce tech debt by customer-centric & agile strategies. @Robert_Rose Click To Tweet

Technology is not change – it is what facilitates change

Ultimately, marketers cannot measure themselves by how fast they can deploy new technology. That’s like saying that you can get out of debt by purchasing more, less expensive cars. You not only accrue more debt, you spend all your time learning how to drive all the cars you have.

There is simply no way to accurately predict what the content marketing organization will need to look like in five years. It’s only been 10 years since any business could even think about how to address such media disruptions as Facebook, or the iPhone, or Android. It’s been less than two since we started talking about voice-activated search.

What will the next five years bring? Who knows. Virtual reality? Artificial intelligence? Pokemon Go round two?

Instead of looking at each new enabling technology (hardware or software) as a need for a new innovative capability or team, node on a matrixed structure, or even a weed that needs to be pruned in your legacy garden, marketers should look at structures where collaboration, content, and data flow more fluidly to handle any new disruption that threatens the focused strategy.

To get out of technical debt, content marketing organizations absolutely need to be built to change – constantly. You need to deploy technology nimbly and decouple from the mother ship of legacy systems. CMOs and CIOs should stop trying to figure out what content and marketing should change into and focus on giving content and marketing the ability to change.

That would be a huge down payment on the principal of our technical debt.

Get more insight from CMI’s chief strategy advisor and other experts in content marketing to help you avoid tech debt and other challenges to your content marketing program. Register today for Content Marketing World Sept. 4-7 in Cleveland, Ohio. Use code BLOG100 to save $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Robert Rose

Robert Rose is the founder and chief strategy officer of The Content Advisory - the consulting and education group of The Content Marketing Institute. As a strategist, Robert has worked with more than 500 companies including global brands such as Capital One, Dell, Ernst & Young, Hewlett Packard, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert is the author of three books. His latest, Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has been said to “rewrite the rules of marketing”. His last book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, was called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” Robert is also an early-stage investor and advisor to a number of technology startups, serving on the advisory boards for a number of companies, such as DivvyHQ and Tint. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

Other posts by Robert Rose

  • Brian Driggs

    Preach it.

    Last I heard, there are something like 6,000+ MarTech products/services out there these days. Most of them promise some variation on the same thing—better outcomes through data collection, reporting, and automation accelerating sales and so on—only to differentiate through increasingly ultra-niche focuses.

    And since so much of the space is marketing narrowly-focused features (because they’re building acquisition targets moreso than businesses), the average marketer is inundated with pitches touting specific solutions to every challenge they face.

    All this tech presupposes you have the basics down and actually have processes worth automating. Absent the basics—understanding the audience, empowering them through knowledge share, and building community around long term relationships—it’s all vanity.

    I feel sorry for those who have to deliver the goods at the bleeding edge of scale. It can’t be easy. And to spend years working toward something a relative outsider can simply toss aside like that can’t be good for the market in general.

    Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Back to basics. Where are we now? Where do we want to go? What tools do we really need to get there together?


    • garry umphress

      “Light” tool box here….
      Psa 37:14- Rom 10:23

    • Robert Rose

      Brian… Such a great point… I see so many strategies that are formed by looking first at what technology can do rather than what would be best for the business or the customer… And, yeah, thank you for bringing Dylan Thomas to the table…. And I miss it too.

  • Mike Myers

    OMG. This is so true. Sadly, half —no, three-quarters — of the battle in enterprises has nothing to do with content marketing and everything to do with internal barriers. And one of the biggest is technology. I laughed, I cried. I nodded a lot. Great piece, RR.

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you so much my friend. It’s become so much of what we do!! See you in September my friend. We’ll share a beer or four…

      • Mike Myers

        Done and done.

  • Carlos Abler

    This article resonated with me a lot. Tech debt is a real deal to be sure. But also collision of tech implementation with other monolithic program concepts like rebranding that come along with big symbolic activities like website redesigns and consolidations (which Robert references) are as much an issue here as the tech per se. Clumsily conceived programs that play their chaos out in technical implementation landscapes can wreak havoc on the more nuanced and niche programs that are what assemble into the greater whole. In the world of audience development, scaling niche focus is key. But doing it is super hard and requires true holistic content strategies that orchestrate niche audiences, intents and topical interests. Can’t be done through what are truly another siloed intitiative masqueradeing as a universal initiative; like a rebrand or web presence overhaul.

    • Robert Rose

      As always my friend…. Fantastic point. The “holistic” nature that you speak of is definitely one of the hardest things …. “Yay, it’s monday let’s change everything we’re doing” said no business person ever… Thank you for your wisdom as always.

      • Carlos Abler

        One more thing I thought of about the CMO discussion scenario you describe. I would bet my book collection that in (possibly career-shortening) theory, the accountability table could have been turned on the CMO. I have yet to see a brand publication that was FULLY leveraged for all the possibly business value it could yield. Why? Because silos. You could speak to this better than I because of your view across so many companies. But, it’s likely something of a minor miracle that so many great (or okay) brand pubs get off the ground and generate audience and survive to that point, not just because it’s hard work, but because there is (I suspect) always some silo dynamic that keeps the pub from delivering the full value it could. Likely a two-way silo dynamic where the pub itself is silo’d due to lack of enterprise content strategy, priorities, etc. Also because it’s hard to get others to integrate in a way the drives business value while maintaining the integrity of the product. IT’S THE CMO’s JOB TO HELP. So, probably in many cases, the ROI table could be turned to the CMO to say, “here are examples of how we can be driving value, here are our obstacles, what are YOU going to do to help”.

        • Robert Rose

          LOL… Yes my friend…. “in theory”…. So many business books and cautionary tales start with those prophetic words…

  • Vinish Garg

    I see it so often and I see that even when you get a buy-in for strategic and near-future-friendly content architecture, things may change quickly.

    For example, the sales leadership changed for whatever reasons and the new chairs propose something else. Of course it is about the business goals and so “new leadership in sales” should join whatever the roadmap is but it was very tricky when they bring their own perspective that was reasonably valid.

    • Robert Rose

      Great Point! It’s definitely not just the CMO… I had another client where the new CEO has put in a mandate that a new CRM system, plus a new CMS system, plus a new PIM system be put in next year. I told my client (the VP Of Marketing) to forget about doing anything new of size for at least 24 months. They were going to be up to their eyeballs in tech…. The CEO isn’t necessarily “wrong”… But yeah… How much further in debt to we want to go? Thanks for the great comment.

  • Stacy B Miller

    Thanks for this wonderful article. Yes it absolutely correct that in a content marketing organization its very tough to get out of technical debt. The only way is constant upgrade and change. As too much technical debt can lead a organization to serious problems near future. Like financial debt, organizations that don’t pay back technical debt may end up having to allocate the bulk of their budgets to interest with very little remaining for development that can support new opportunities.

    • Robert Rose

      Stacy – so true. And thank you for the kind words. In fact it’s exactly like Financial debt in that the time we spend configuring and learning new technology takes away from time we’d spend engaging or creating… And that doesn’t just affect morale.. It’s budgets, revenue, everything…

  • markarmstrong

    I especially liked one line in particular which sums up where so many content marketers go wrong: “We design strategy not by where we want to go, but rather where the capabilities of technology tell us we can go.” Great post, thanks.

    • Robert Rose

      Mark…. Thanks.. I’m so glad it resonated… Isn’t it funny how the features of technology have really turned into our “north star” for our engagement strategies…