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The 9 Awful Circles of Content Operations Hell

Over the last five years, I’ve seen a lot of content operations. I’ve met founders in their garages and flown to corporate towers. One thing that’s true of all of them? They are their own worst enemy or even their worst super villain.

The amount of friction that prevents good content within an organization is intense. Sometimes, the more hands that touch it, the worse it becomes. I sometimes think if your company truly understood how hard your competitors are working to mangle their own content, you could plot to topple them by investing in them.

Organizations profess to want to tell unique, clear, and interesting stories, and many do. But time after time flawed content operations declaw catchphrases, jargonize headlines, and draw the company into mud wrestling matches over calling the system a “service” or a “platform.”

Let’s stroll down through the nine circles of content operations hell and discover how to escape them.

1. No content mission

If you don’t stand for something, you write anything and drive readers mad. In our personal lives, we keep our relationships because people know what to expect from us. We have trust and familiarity. It’s the same in business. Readers expect a consistent, discernable perspective at every touchpoint.

Readers expect a consistent, discernable perspective at every touchpoint, says @cgillespie317 via @CMIContent. Share on X

Many content teams, however, come across as the glad-handing sycophant at the party who works the room telling everyone what they want to hear. The person tells you, a travel lover, they are a pilot. A few minutes later, you overhear them say they’re a veterinarian to your friend who is an animal lover. Any trust gained by telling you what they thought you wanted to hear is broken.

Companies without a content mission tend to:

  • Confuse their audience by writing blog posts for every persona rather than one or two
  • Let anyone contribute to the content, creating a quality whipsaw effect
  • Write e-books and white papers that may be fun but don’t map to the funnel

In the end, nobody has any idea what they stand for.

Exit this level of hell

Declare a mission that thrills your audience first and serves your interests second. It should be part of two components – what you do (the mission) and the change you want to see in the world (the vision). That is your content North Star. Evaluate everything you create by its light .

Declare a #content mission that thrills your audience first and serves your brand’s interests second, says @cgillespie317 via @CMIContent. Share on X

2. Cheap reflex

This level of content operations hell is furnished with cheap knockoffs. The handbags peel. The dressers emit an odor. The shampoo colors your hair a subtle green. Nothing is exactly as promised – because everyone here thinks they are so clever they could break the cost-quality equation.

Cheap content marketing services tend to be cheap because they aren’t good. And when they turn out to be inferior products, they end up being really, really expensive. The SEO contractor who promised cut-rate backlinks can get your domain on a deny list. The writer who costs pennies writes things no one would ever read, forcing you to rewrite it outside your regular work hours. The effects of cheap content marketing are not always extreme, but they usually bring diminishing results.

The effects of cheap #ContentMarketing are not always extreme, but they usually bring diminishing results, says @cgillespie317 via @CMIContent. Share on X

Exit this level of hell

Consider the total cost of ownership. Add to the cheap price the value of the time to rewrite, double-check, and request endless rounds of feedback.


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3. Tracking, but not watching

Long ago a client requested an e-book, loved it, and ordered another. And then another. When they ordered the fifth, we asked, “How are the first four doing?” Terribly, they found. One e-book got a mere 147 views over six months in an industry with heavy search traffic.

If you aren’t tracking content success, even if it’s by something subjective like “love note” replies to your newsletter, it would be just as effective (though perhaps less gratifying) to burn the money.

Exit this level of hell

Don’t just install Google Analytics or a marketing automation tracker. Look at the numbers, establish a baseline, set hypotheses, and judge success based on past performance. Do this at regularly scheduled intervals.

4. No style guide or process

In this circle of hell, everyone in the review process shouts, “That’s not how I would have said it.” Without a rubric to judge good writing, everyone has their own ideas when they’re looking at the content. Often, the resolution is kowtowing to the HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) even when writing is not their forte. In the end, a simple article soaks up 30 hours of time and turns out worse than when it started.

Seniority alone does not confer writing expertise. But that’s just one part of the problem. The other is that too many people are involved. More people do not make for better work – studies from all manner of industries show this not to be the case.

Exit this level of hell

Produce a style guide and define a process for content review. Limit it to only those who need to be involved, outline the expectations of each review level, and establish review timeframes. Then, empower the writer or project manager to enforce it.

5. Succumbing to broetry

At this level, you add spaces to your writing so it “feels” less difficult to read. As you spend more time on LinkedIn and see how liberally people use spaces there, you add even more to your content. Before you know it, you’re composing broems. You have become a broet.

Broetry – short for “bro poems” – is the new clickbait. It happens on blogs too. Every paragraph is one sentence and reads like a strange poem. They usually begin with a surprising declaration (“Today, I was fired”) and end with a clichéd life lesson or inspirational thought (“And that’s why I keep my eye on the prize”). It is almost entirely a gendered phenomenon, hence, “bro.”

Image showing an example of broetry.

People tire of this writing quickly. In an informal survey, 34% in my LinkedIn network had heard the term and most of those hadn’t recognized the form. Many indicated they treat this content like they do spam – ignore it.

Exit this level of hell

Save the spaces and write something truly engaging and substantive.

6. Eternal fire drill

Sometimes when beginning a new project, we ask the client, “How soon do you need this?” They reply, “Yesterday.” We laugh. They laugh. Then they stop laughing and we realize they’re serious. They, like thousands of marketing teams, are living through an eternal fire drill.

Every deadline is unrealistic. Meetings designed to make the process better are missed to play catch-up with the existing work. Workflows are out of whack. Project timelines are in a constant state of disruption.

This drumbeat of constant pressure creates a scarcity mindset, which can reduce your IQ. The team becomes more error-prone. Someone accidentally emails the entire database instead of one segment. Someone else misses a glaring error in the content. They also can’t be as creative. In sum, too much pressure makes marketers worse, not better.

Exit this level of hell

Set realistic deadlines. Allow your team free time to be creative. Give them their nights and weekends to catch up on sleep and come back refreshed. Our team uses the last week of each month as “Mastery Week” where we work only on projects that have fallen through the cracks and that excite us.

7. Write first, research later

At this level, you are doomed to play an endless match of tennis with Serena Williams except you don’t get a racket. Your boss wants to see you beat her before they buy you a racket.

In content marketing, that racket is research. Executives often are pained to have content teams study their audience. Often, the argument comes down to cost. Who can afford the fee or time? The better question is who can afford not to arm their content team with information on what buyers want to hear? Withering volley after withering volley of tennis balls from competitors is your just reward.

Exit this level of hell

Give your team the resources (time and/or budget) to study your audience and get answers to questions like:

  • Where do you get your news?
  • What’s the last email from a business you clicked?
  • What brands do you like and why?
  • What brands don’t you like and why?
  • How would you explain our product to a colleague?
  • How would you share it with them?
  • Which of these topics most interests you?
Give your #content team the resources (time and/or budget) to study your audience and get answers to questions, says @cgillespie317 via @CMIContent. Share on X

8. Putting baby in the corner office

At this level, the junior team member manages all external contributors. This person means well, but they have little experience and do not exude that indelible air of unwavering certainty. They run all the content contractors ragged.

They edit work based on academic rules, with notes like, “Never begin a sentence with ‘but.’” (There is no stronger way to start a sentence.) They lack a sense of prioritization, requesting changes in a never-ending stream of emails that allows no peace.

Exit this level of hell

Trust your external resources – contractors, agencies, etc. – to do what they do best. As a happy side effect, they may even train your junior team members for free.

9. Towering martech stack of babble

The ninth level of hell is the hottest because it’s full of so much “hot” tech – smooth-talking chatbots, AI data cleansers, and email signature marketing tools. There is so much that it morphed into a giant martech transformer robot. Now it, not you, calls the shots.

Here, content decisions are no longer based on what buyers want. They’re based on getting an ROI out of this tool we purchased. To your audience, it feels like a multichannel assault by a robot army all screaming their first name.

Exit this level of hell

Let your content marketing strategy drive your content. Then, figure out if your technology can help.

Be your own superhero

Don’t let yourself, your content team, or your executives be your brand’s own worst enemy. But to become a content marketing superhero, you need to exit all nine circles of content operations hell. It requires thinking, listening, and committing to permanently remove the hurdles that trip up your content operations and keep your content marketing down.

What ideas do you have to exit these levels of hell? Share in the comments.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute