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6 Content Ideas Every Marketer Should Steal From IBM


Last year, I interviewed IBM’s Andrea Ames, whose job title alone makes me tired: enterprise content experience strategist, architect, and designer. In this article, I share some steal-worthy ideas from that interview – ideas that can help you, as a marketer, scale your content processes and provide your customers with more remarkable experiences.

Create content that builds customer relationships (Content is the new salesperson)

Today more than ever, we build customer relationships not face to face but through content. Andrea points out that in 2011 technology buyers’ engaging with content encompassed 56% of the sales cycle and 21% talking with salespeople. “When you realize that content has a bigger relationship-building potential than talking to a person, that’s huge. Your content is your sales opportunity,” she says.

Your #content is your sales opportunity. Your readers are influencers by @aames via @cmicontent Click To Tweet

The people who read your content aren’t researching just for themselves. As Andrea explains, “They curate it. They share it with executives, who send it out to their evaluation teams. Your readers are influencers.”

Every customer journey includes pre- and post-sale phases. Typically, the final phase is called advocacy, IBM’s term for it, or a similar synonym. Here’s what Andrea says about this coveted phase:

You don’t get to advocacy unless customers feel like they have a relationship with you, your company, your software, your hardware, your woodworking patterns, your cookbook, whatever it is. You’re not going to have someone write a blog post saying, ‘That was the best cookbook I ever read’ or ‘IBM software is the bomb’—you’re not going to get that level of advocacy unless you have a relationship.

And you don’t get a relationship by saying, “Hello, IBM customer. How do you like your product? Please go to this online survey.” IBM knows who its customers are. IBM knows what they bought. To build customer relationships, Andrea says, marketers “need to target our content so that people feel like we know who they are.”

Create #content that builds customer relationships by @aames via @cmicontent #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Set up your content to get to the right people (This takes serious planning, and it’s worth it)

Marketing’s holy grail is getting the right content to the right people at the right time. It’s simple in theory, but not necessarily easy to achieve. Making it happen requires planning and coordination.

Marketing’s holy grail is getting the right #content to the right people at the right time via @MarciaRJohnson Click To Tweet

For starters, Andrea says, you must structure content in consistent ways. You must identify elements – titles, paragraphs, numbered lists, and so on – in such a way that not only people but also machines – computers – can recognize what those elements are.

In other words, you must tag content with metadata – information about the content, like what kind of content it is, who the intended audience is, when people need that content, what department it belongs to, who created it, who needs access to it. When you set up your metadata appropriately, you enable machines to deliver the right content to the right person at the right time.

Andrea gives this example. We might say, “Give me all the content that’s intended for cooks, and pull it together into a cookbook.” A machine can do this instantly if the content has been set up for this request.

Magnify that example by all the personas for which your company develops content experiences – IBM has 60 or 70 – and you can see why you must plan metadata thoughtfully if you want to deliver content that’s relevant and, to an extent, personalized (adaptable).

“We don’t want to deliver administrator information to a developer,” Andrea says. “We don’t want people to have to sift through 50 million things to find the five things they care about.”

Prepare to scale your personalization (Manual methods don’t scale)

To deliver highly relevant content on a massive scale – and, Andrea says, even a small company with a single content person is looking at a massive scale if he or she has 10,000 chunks of content to worry about – it’s not practical to use manual personalization methods. Manual methods don’t scale.

The kind of setup required to automate your content personalization may seem like too much to ask, Andrea says, “but marketers have to face up to customers’ expectations.”

To underscore this point, she tells this story:

My nephew is 23. He takes for granted the Amazon plus-plus-plus kind of experience, where the company knows what he’s interested in. Like many his age – the 35 and unders – he expects that kind of personalized experience. In exchange, he’s willing to share a whole bunch of information about himself.

All companies face the reality of high expectations for personalized content. If you’re among those who are moving toward an intelligent content approach, you have the best chance of meeting those expectations – and of reaping the reward: customers who trust you enough to share information that money can’t buy.

From a marketing perspective, Andrea says, “that’s pure gold.”

Coordinate with other content teams (This effort is complex – and necessary)

I can’t tell you how to coordinate with other content teams at your organization, but a peek into what IBM is doing may spark some ideas.

Like other companies, IBM has multiple customer-facing systems: A knowledge center for documentation, a support portal, DeveloperWorks (a web-based resource center for software developers, IT pros, students worldwide), and more. “The same impetus that creates those channels also creates the various back-end systems that manage that content,” Andrea says.

Internally, since IBM acquires a number of companies every year, it also ends up with many content management systems and authoring tools. Andrea is part of the team that owns the strategy and enablement for all these systems.

You thought you had silo challenges?

As IBM’s content groups encounter issues and needs, they go to Andrea’s group to talk through the content-experience issues. Another team handles the technology strategy, the vision for how to deal with all those systems.

We look at the systems in a hybrid way. We don’t have a mindset of ‘we’ve got to have everything in one place.’ We have to be flexible and agile with managing content on the back end.

IBM has the same problems that most companies have. For example, marketing information may live in one system while technical documentation lives in another. The systems might sync or give a virtual view of multiple repositories that make it look like there’s a single repository – or they might not.

Coordinating across content teams is a complex effort. “It takes a lot to get your brain around this stuff at any company,” Andrea says. “In a large enterprise like IBM, the problem is bigger by orders of magnitude. It can seem overwhelming. It’s also fascinating.

Find out what keeps your management up at night (Then you’ll know how to pitch your content ideas)

Marketers must understand their managers’ dreams – and their nightmares. Learn what’s driving your marketing executives, Andrea says. What’s keeping them up at night? What are their biggest issues and biggest goals? Typically, those goals involve developing customer relationships, getting customers to advocacy, and – surprise – boosting sales.

Does a certain executive want to build more one-on-one customer relationships? Good. Look into what that takes. Present your ideas and results in terms that that executive can relate to.

To win the support you need for your content ideas, tie those ideas to your boss’ boss’ goals and worries.

Go to conferences (People’s stories give you ideas for what to try and what to avoid)

All these things that Andrea talks about require that content professionals keep learning. She suggests “scooping up some of the industry-success data that’s available,” especially at conferences, where you can learn from people who are sharing their stories.

Go to the case-study sessions, where people say, ‘We did x, y, z. This is how it turned out.’ You’ll get ideas for what might work for you – and ideas for what not to do.

You can find webinars and other information sources for free, of course, but, for Andrea, there’s nothing like an in-person conference to bring together a lot of these stories from all kinds of companies.


Of all the insights I took away from my conversation with Andrea, six stand out as especially relevant for marketers. Steal these:

  • Create content that builds customer relationships.
  • Set up your content to get to the right people.
  • Prepare to scale your personalization.
  • Coordinate with other content teams.
  • Find out what keeps your management up at night.
  • Go to conferences.

You’re already doing some of these things. Which of them call to you as next steps for your team? What will you do today to move in those directions?

Missed the Intelligent Content Conference? Don’t fret. You can purchase the Post-Show Video pass and catch Andrea’s talk by signing up. Access is good for one full year and contains video, audio, and slide capture for the Main Conference sessions. I’ve seen her on stage many times; she always inspires me.

Cover image by Siyan Ren, Unsplash, via