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Chief Content Officer: A Year of Insights

Has it been a whole year already? Well, not really. As I write this it’s still November and as you’re reading this, it’s the third week in December. A lot can happen in that time. But, assuming this ball of rock we live on successfully completes its routine circuit of the sun once more without major incident, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on how much has changed over the previous 12 months.

One of the biggest changes for Chief Content Officer magazine happened at the beginning of 2018. After seven years and 36 issues, Clare McDermott handed the editor’s red pen over to me in an emotional ritual involving arcane incantations, a branding iron, and a pledge to forever cast out the Oxford comma. (Stares hard at the blog editor. Get out of that!) (Blog editor’s response: Sorry, we use that comma here. We can’t afford any penalties resulting from missing commas.)

While I waited for the burning pain from the ritual to subside so I could sit down again, Clare’s final issue in February set a high bar for me to follow.

Finding the right words (February 2018)

The theme of content effectiveness – never mind how many people clicked on the content but is it any good – popped up more than a few times across 2018. Fergal McGovern kicked things off in February with an article on the UX of words.

I’m a word nerd, grammar pedant, and clarity zealot in the same way a car mechanic is a pedant about the right and wrong way to connect the flange to the whotsit. (The last sentence is also why I don’t service my own car.) So, Fergal’s article felt like a rallying cry for me and any other writer who has had to argue with stakeholders about why their buzzword bingo content does not sound more “professional.”

Fergal points out that the average U.S. resident reads at a seventh- or eighth-grade level. Before you complain about the education system, a user’s experience isn’t just about reading capability. As he argues, “even highly educated people disengage rather than spend the mental energy to unpack dense, complicated prose.” If you’ve ever struggled to get past the opening paragraphs of an overly formal, dry-as-biscuits white paper, you’ll know what he means.

People don’t have the mental energy to unpack a dry-as-biscuits white paper, says @kimota. Share on X

“While web analytics can show page views, dwell times and usage paths, they won’t reveal issues with the content itself,” he writes. Now that’s a hill I’m willing to die on.

Also in February, Dan Hatch explained How to Train Your Journalist. Disappointingly, his piece wasn’t a low-budget sequel to the popular animated film series about dragons. Instead, Dan described how to overcome the challenges many journalists face when they first start to write on behalf of a brand.

“Journalism is a vocation,” he writes. “It’s also a profession that has a special place in democracy – holding governments, corporations, and individuals accountable.

“Gosh, but that can give you an ego. For some reporters, that can be hard to let go. And what you, as the person employing them, end up with are writers who think they’re too good to be writing the content you’re commissioning.”

Ouch. But before you think Dan is arguing that journalists are prima donnas to be avoided, he provides advice on how to harness a journalist’s nose for a strong story and knack for compelling and highly readable prose.

“They will adjust, I promise. But they might find this uncomfortable to start with – after all, someone who likely isn’t a writer is telling them how to write.”

Changing tools and strategies (May 2018)

The May issue was my first as editor, so I’m incredibly indebted to the rest of the team for helping me to make it such a great one. I still adore the cover by CCO designer Crystal Madrilejos, who has an enviable knack for turning vague, half-baked ideas from me into incredibly striking imagery.

Inside, I interviewed the always fascinating Joe Chernov to get to the bottom of account-based marketing (ABM) and why content marketers should care. “Yes, the funnel still has a top,” Joe explained. “It’s just a narrower top.”

You still need that top-of-funnel content, but you need to resist the temptation to aspire to a larger audience. What you want is a greater composition of the right audience.”

ABM resists the temptation to aspire to a larger audience in favor of the right audience, says @jchernov. Share on X

A couple of pages later, Clare talked to strategist and cultural mythologist John Bucher (winner of this year’s coolest job title award) about whether the oft-heralded virtual reality boom is ever going to arrive. “VR is a popular buzzword, but as far as everyone having a headset … we’re not quite there,” he said.

VR is a popular buzzword, but as far as everyone having a headset … we’re not quite there. @johnkbucher Share on X

However, John’s enthusiasm for VR isn’t dampened. He is encouraged by the ways in which some companies have begun to experiment with augmented reality (AR), which he sees as a gateway into VR for many people. “Creators of this technology are using the tools people already have, their smartphones, to add practical functionality to their daily experiences – something that lies at the core mission of so many brands,” he said.

If you’re still not convinced, Clare and John provide examples of how brands are using AR and VR successfully today. AR/VR may not be everyone’s reality just yet, but it has certainly become enough of a reality for some brands to create powerful new experiences for their audiences and consumers.

Different pathways to great content (August 2018)

The August issue celebrated the gaming theme of this year’s Content Marketing World by turning the magazine into a choose-your-own-adventure book, which some of you may be old enough to remember (please don’t let me be the only one). Every article concluded with a series of options to determine which article to read next and which page to turn to.

Whether any readers followed these options from article to article or merely chuckled at the running gag, I don’t know. But I can assure you, all the possible pathways through the magazine link up to lead the intrepid reader to the final confrontation with Andrew Davis’ Unsolicited Advice column on page 54. I know because I spent far more hours than I should have making sure all the options and pathways worked.

Click to enlarge

Speaking of Andrew, one page is never enough to contain his genius. I was more than excited when he agreed to also give me (and you) a feature article for this issue as well – Capture and Keep Your Audience’s Attention. This article was also the perfect appetizer for his knockout keynote at Content Marketing World, which kept the audience hooked to the end while telling us how to hook an audience to the end.

“If your ‘learn more,’ ‘download now,’ or ‘buy now’ buttons are the destination and your content consumers never make it to the end of the video, how can you expect them to take action,” he asked.

Andrew described how to create suspense within your content – not by adding monsters or serial killers but by keeping the audience curious, holding back the answers to central questions until the end. “When someone says, ‘Your content is too long,’ what they’re really saying is ‘I ran out of questions before you ran out of content,’” Andrew writes.

Create suspense within your #content by keeping your audience curious, says @DrewDavisHere. Share on X

One of the most fun articles I worked on this year was Comics: The Most Powerful Medium You’re Not Using. Not only could I release my inner geek, but I got to interview content marketer Buddy Scalera (about his other life as a comic writer) and Darren Sanchez of Marvel Custom Solutions.

“We are visual learners,” Buddy said. “A picture can help somebody to understand what you want them to do, whereas prose requires an abstract to concrete translation that not everybody’s going to be able to do.”

Of course, most people associate comics with certain genres and particularly superheroes. In the same article, Elissa Johnsen of Takeda Pharmaceuticals described how partnering with Marvel resulted in a graphic novel and ongoing comic series designed to spread information and provide support to people suffering from inflammatory bowel disorder. “Using superheroes and the world of graphic illustration allowed Takeda to help empower people living with IBD to overcome the unpredictability, anxiety, and stigma around the disease,” Elissa said.

Data crunching or data crunched (November 2018)

The November issue delved into data-driven content, with a series of articles that explored data’s changing role at different stages of the content strategy. Carmen Hill spoke with Julie Wisdom of London agency ALIAS Partners about the types of data that can sharpen the focus of your content strategy before you really begin. Meanwhile, Clare discussed data’s role in the production stages, and how conducting some original research can give your content greater authority.

Finally, Sarah Mitchell took to her soapbox in 20/20 hindsight to argue that some commonly used metrics don’t actually reveal very much. With additional comments from Rand Fishkin, Sarah describes why certain metrics might look impressive but are quite useless when determining how the content impacts the business bottom line.

Too many marketers mistakenly rely on the same metrics regardless of #content’s purpose, says @SarahMitchellOz. Share on X

“The marketing metrics we use are disconnected from the things that actually impact the business goal,” Rand said.

Beyond the numbers

My wrap-up started with Fergal McGovern arguing that most metrics don’t reveal that much about content quality. It ended with Rand Fishkin making a very similar point.

So what is quality content? What are the opportunities (and limitations) of data? I think it’s safe to say these are just two themes CCO will continue to poke with variously shaped sticks — and expert opinions — throughout 2019.

Ready for one more spin around the sun?

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute