By Jodi Harris published December 22, 2020 Est Read Time: 9 min

8 Lessons on How to Steer Your Content Through Chaos

Before we close out the year, let’s look at some of the expert advice, innovative approaches, and novel thinking from CCO magazine this year – all of which hold lessons that can help you keep calm and carry on successfully in 2021 and beyond.

1. Focus on top priorities

We all may have had to throw out our reliable strategy playbooks this year, but inspirational industry leaders were on hand to help guide our content planning efforts and steer us through the choppy seas ahead.

CCO gathered seven such experts to share their big issues and priorities for the upcoming year. In 2021 Planning Guide: Content Leaders Weigh in on What Matters Most, you’ll likely recognize the major themes that bubbled up, but a few newer concepts in the mix signal a refreshing change of pace for our industry. Among those are actions you can take to better support the needs of diverse audiences. (More on this concept in a minute.)

Here’s what Marcus Collins, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, says about focusing your storytelling around shared human experiences rather than driving transactions from it:

It’s not enough for us to ‘walk a mile in their shoes.’ We have to see how they see the world and remove our own biases, our own judgments, right? Because if we understand how people make meaning, then we can take that understanding of who they really are and solve the problems that they have … If we take cues from what we as humans digest and think about that when we’re programming the stories we’ll tell as marketers, then we’ll be far better off than just thinking of consumers as people who eat messages and crap cash.

2. Evolve your audience understanding and adapt your processes

If you listened to your audience members throughout 2020, you probably noticed that their priorities shifted as they were homebound. For example, many consumers simplified their daily routines to stay productive and maintain a healthy work-life balance while working from home.

What was relevant for your audience in January 2020 likely differed from what is relevant in December 2020. As communication agility and targeting precision becomes more relevant, we asked Buyer Persona Institute founder Adele Revella how to generate the audience insights to create the content your customers want most right now. As she sees it, implementing agile buyer personas is critical.

Implementing agile buyer personas is critical as audience priorities shift, says @buyerpersona via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

In Yes, You Do Need New Personas Now, Adele shares how building and activating more adaptive, buyer-focused personas can inform and refocus your content decision-making when customer priorities are in flux. “It is time to seriously rethink your marketing messages and stop talking about long-term strategic outcomes. Your buyers are under stress, and in this kind of environment, it makes more sense to focus your messages and content on a single, vital aspect of your segment’s short-term objectives,” she says.

Adele also discusses how this technique can contribute to greater sales-marketing alignment in your organization:

Marketing and sales teams will use these insights to determine which segments are ready for engagement content that moves buyers rapidly into and through the buying decision and which customers will only be annoyed or unresponsive.

3. Use tech to deliver experiences your audiences crave

One of the biggest challenges faced this year was how to meet, converse, and create personal connections with your customers in the absence of face-to-face communication. Fortunately, our industry rose to the occasion by exploring virtual ways to foster a sense of community in a touch-free, travel-averse world. 

In How to Bring Audiences Together in the Social-Distancing Era, On24 CEO Mark Bornstein says both brands and audiences can gain from well-planned, thoughtfully executed virtual event experiences – including benefits that aren’t possible in an in-person setting.

Virtual event experiences can have benefits not possible in in-person settings, says @4markb via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

While marketers first think webinars when taking in-person events into the virtual space, they have other options to actively involve the audience in the content experience. In this article, you’ll find best practices and tips on how to implement several such alternatives, including multiple-presenter panel discussions and community forums, hands-on demos and training sessions, and even live performances.

4. Turn to tech once the tracking cookie crumbles

Another big shift poised to shake up customer engagement is the impending loss of third-party cookie tracking as tech giants like Google, Apple, and Mozilla reengineer their offerings to make it more difficult to follow audiences across digital platforms. The move will make it harder to get a full picture of those audiences’ needs, behaviors, and intent.

As Brain+Trust Partners CEO Tim Hayden points out in If You Can’t Give a Customer a Cookie, algorithm changes like this are nothing new nor are they valid excuses for failing to lean in to more efficient, direct, and personalized content marketing.

There’s a big customer data complication on the horizon, and it’s one that’s poised to cause the next seismic shift in marketing: the end of the third-party cookie, says @TheTimHayden via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

He shares details on tech-driven approaches that can help bridge the three critical gaps that stand between our current state of content marketing and our ability to deliver truly customer-centric content experiences:

  • Clear and transparent customer consent to collect and leverage their data
  • Increased contextual awareness in our content creation and customer segmentation strategies
  • Improved operational stewardship and use of that data
HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: Data Privacy Law: Ignorance Is No Excuse

5. Keep going boldly forward

If nothing else, the difficulties encountered in 2020 have forced us to look outside our comfort zones and test novel ways to create and deliver satisfying content experiences. Experimenting with advanced techniques and technologies – like AI, virtual reality, or voice response – can be a positive step in that direction.

Experimenting with VR, AR, and new content tech shouldn’t change your strategic direction. It should add new dimensions to your existing brand story, says @Joderama via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

But these digital enhancements can come with steep learning curves. And without the right preparation, even smaller-scale tech updates and pilot programs can spiral out of your control.

Fortunately, you can make your innovation efforts more manageable. In What to Expect When You’re Experimenting, you’ll find workflows, tips, and examples to add exciting new dimensions to your storytelling without putting your brand’s reputation for excellence on the line.

Image showing an example of a simple swimlane diagram or Kanban board that maps out the key stages of production and illustrates where team tasks overlap.

6. Balance your team’s innate skills and strengths

No matter what strategies and goals your content program aims to achieve, you’ll rely on the skills and expertise of your team members to execute it. But could the common structure of content teams prevent you from implementing unique ideas and adopting new approaches effectively?

According to Carla Johnson, when content leaders build their teams based on tasks and roles, they aren’t enabling the team to function at its natural best. They are enabling collaborative conflicts, personality clashes, and bland, boring content that doesn’t perform to expectations.

Teams built on tasks and roles don’t function at their natural best, says @CarlaJohnson via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

In her article Crush Your Content Goals With a Team Built on Talents, Not Tasks, Carla outlines an alternative approach content leaders can follow to balance each team member’s innate personal strengths and clear the way for more innovative ideas to thrive.

7. Recognize that conflicting ideas serve a purpose

However, a compelling argument can be made about the value of embracing collaborative friction and conflict as a natural – and necessary – driver of business growth.

As Clare McDermott points out in her story, Why Friction and Disruption Aren’t Always Content Enemy No. 1, incorporating divergent ideas can add powerful dimensions to marketing conversations. Even better – it can also improve marketing results.

Clare explores the concept of creative abrasion – how challenging status-quo thinking about marketing efforts and problem solving can lead to exciting breakthroughs that propel businesses into the hearts and minds of their customers. She also shares some actionable ways to foster greater diversity of thought in your organization by adjusting your hiring processes and terms of engagement with external partners.

Creative friction is absolutely critical to content marketing success – it helps us surface new questions, expand our perspectives, and build audience connections on a wider range of needs and experiences, says @clare_mcd via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

8. Reflect and check biases at the door

If you’re searching for a silver lining amidst all the confusion and conflict we’ve encountered this year, look no further than the (albeit small) strides made by brands to increase diversity and inclusivity – in organizations and operations, as well as in communication with audiences and each other.

Implementing the necessary changes starts with acknowledging the problem – and sharing in the responsibility of solving it. For our July cover story, Can We Do More Than Talk About Diversity?, we spoke with four marketers on the front lines of these complicated issues. Each one offered their views on the work marketers can do – personally and professionally – to ensure that no one is left out of content conversations.

One topic they address is how to find the right words to speak or the right approach to take in your brand’s response on diversity. Televerde’s head of marketing and marketing services, Deanna Ransom, offers this advice:

For me, a good step one is taking an honest assessment of how you, as a company, really feel about diversity and inclusivity … If you’ve not formally created a stance, what an awesome opportunity you have to do it now … It’s about asking, ‘Who are we right now and who do we want to be?’ It’s OK if you do find a gap([between those states), but then ask, ‘Do we have voices that can help us be authentic in how we speak to that gap?’

Not sure how to create authentic connections with BIPOC audiences through #ContentMarketing? You have the power to say, “We don't know … but we want to,” and then ask your brand partners for help, says @DeeRansom3 via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Move ahead in 2021

If 2020 taught us nothing else, it taught us to be flexible in 2021. But, as the experts and industry leaders shared in CCO magazine, being flexible doesn’t mean being unprepared. Analyze your priorities, know the possibilities and the potential (team, technology, audience, etc.), and be ready to adapt.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Jodi Harris

Jodi Harris is director of content strategy at Informa Connect. She describes her role as a combination of strategic alchemist, process architect, and creative explorer. Jodi previously served as director of editorial content at Content Marketing Institute and spent over a decade developing and managing content initiatives for clients in the entertainment, CPG, health care, technology, and biotech industries, as well as agencies and media brands. Follow her on Twitter at @Joderama.

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