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Content Marketing Best Practices: 5 Tips for the Modern CMO

tips for the modern cmoI am a seasoned chief marketing officer. I went to an Ivy League college, have an MBA from Wharton, served for many years as CMO of a billion-dollar publisher, and most recently, served as CMO of a major technology consultancy. 

Yet just a few years ago, I was well on my way to becoming obsolete. You see, nearly everything I learned, did, and experienced as a marketer was wrong. I was analog in a digital world. I tended to be more creative than analytical. Content marketing was barely on my radar screen, let alone content marketing best practices. 

Perhaps I had become what Brian Halligan, HubSpot’s CEO, calls a “press release CMO” — pedigreed, gray haired, and no longer relevant in a marketing world turned upside down. I really didn’t understand SEO, linking strategies, web analytics, or blogging. My marketing team was beginning to speak a language I didn’t understand. I could feel myself becoming less relevant, being lapped by younger digital natives.

Getting out of my comfort zone 

I spent six years in the publishing business, leaving in 2000 just as digital began to supplant print. In publishing, I had seen my share of ad sales guys — the Willy Lomans of publishing, carrying around the most recent issues of their treasured magazines. I knew that these guys were dinosaurs, and that extinction was only a few years away. But of course changes were happening so much faster than I ever thought possible.

As the changes in marketing emerged and accelerated, I saw the analogy to publishing. Marketing was also “going digital.” People who were unable to evolve were disappearing.

Even more fascinating: Content was becoming the fuel of marketing’s shiny new engine. All the lessons I learned in publishing — foremost, the critical value of great content — were suddenly relevant to marketing as a whole. “Think like a publisher” was becoming the next new thing for marketers.

In my journey from mossy marketer to modern marketer, I learned five big lessons on content marketing best practices that I’d like to share.

1. There is no substitute for doing 

The only way to become a modern marketer is to do it. Now, I write my own blog posts and presentations. I am active on Twitter. I try new apps and tools all the time. I am engaged in all of our content decisions and lead-nurturing programs. Trust me — I’m no geek. Getting comfortable with new technologies, sites, apps, and behaviors did not come naturally to me. But, the more you do it, the better you get. After a certain point, it becomes part of who you are.

There are lots of CMOs with slick PowerPoint presentations talking about new marketing. Far fewer are doing it. Doers rule.

2. Learn from the best — the people out in front 

I have met some amazing people on my journey — Josh Bernoff and George Colony (Forrester Research); Charlene Li and Jeremiah Owyang (Altimeter); David Meerman Scott, Ann Handley, and CC Chapman (authors); David Reibstein (The Wharton School); and Joe Chernov (Kinvey), among others.

My “teachers” share two important qualities: 

They are risk takers: For example, I started working with Josh and Charlene on what would later become the best-selling book “Groundswell” back in 2006, when few people thought social media was more than a passing breeze of hype. These guys put a big stake in the ground in the very early days of social media. They developed compelling frameworks and case studies to prove its value. 

Their passion is contagious: They love what they do and bring extraordinary energy to it. I recall one particularly memorable lunch with David Meerman Scott at an Indian restaurant. David managed to simultaneously educate me about Indian cuisine and location-based apps on his iPhone. David’s ideas and passion for real-time marketing and content touch everything I do as a marketer.

I want to thank each of them, and many others, for showing me the path to modern marketing. Now go find your own teachers.

3. Don’t fear mistakes — they are chances to learn

I remember George Colony asking me if he should blog. This was in 2007. My answer haunts me to this day: “George, you are the CEO of Forrester. You should be running the company, not blogging. It’s a distraction.” In retrospect, this is among the worst advice I have ever given. Fortunately, George had the wisdom to start a blog right after I left Forrester. It’s a great blog, too — and blogging is part of his job.

It is from this mistake that I came to realize the power of individual voices, and that a blog is central to your content and search strategy.

I am fortunate, too, to have worked for CEOs who are cool with my mistakes — those who understand that risk-taking is essential and that not all risks pay off. I produced a video holiday card last year that was so bad I pulled it after we had pushed it to just 10 percent of our database. I hired a creative agency that could only create clichés. When I make mistakes, I don’t bury them. I bring them to my team, tell them “I messed up” (they love that part!), and we discuss what happened and what we learned. We also analyze our successes in great detail: Why was this so successful? How can we do more of this?

4. “When you go to a pizza place, don’t order a bagel”

A modern marketer lets go of some control. When I work with a new agency or partner, I don’t micromanage like I used to — I accept that each brings a unique perspective, and I want to celebrate that perspective, not dilute it.

The best example is Eloqua‘s partnership with creative agency, JESS3. The people at JESS3 are masters at data visualization and interactive experiences, and Eloqua chooses projects in that sweet spot. My kids once told me, “When you go to a pizza place, don’t order a bagel.” The pizza place is passionate about pizza and is highly experienced in making it. Sure, it could make you a bagel. But why would you want one?

Get the most out of your partners by trusting their instincts and learning from them. 

5. Get out of the ‘hood 

Earlier in my career, I wanted to replicate past successes by hiring people I had worked with successfully in previous jobs. I don’t do that anymore. I am less interested in replicating past success than in finding new success. Now, I like to hire digital natives and people with diverse backgrounds. I like to try new technologies and agencies that are less proven than many CMOs would find acceptable.

You see, the things that made me successful in the past are not necessarily the things that will keep me successful. You need to find new ideas, people, technologies, and partners that can take you to the next level. To do that, you have to explore outside the comfort of your ‘hood.

My transition is not over. I recently became CMO of another technology company and I’m sure I will make plenty of new mistakes — and will continue to grow as a marketer, as a result.

As marketing evolves, so too must the CMO. I hope you approach your own journey with the open eyes and enthusiasm of a child. It’s a lot more fun that way.

There’s still time to get more insight on the changing face of content marketing from today’s successful CMOs. Register now to attend Content Marketing World 2013.

Cover image via Cummings Properties