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Content Marketing Resilience: How To Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough(er)

When you’ve just produced the millionth content piece on a subject you know better than you know yourself and you manage to find the inspiration to produce the million-and-first, that’s endurance.

When you find a new way of understanding the audience or creating a new content type after senior management complains that your content isn’t driving the results, that’s resilience.

To create truly resilient content marketing, content leaders must be able to reinvent and find inspiration despite the most arduous circumstances. Resilient content marketing is about reinvention, reimagination, and renewed insight despite the challenges.

Creating resilient processes and frameworks and ensuring clear communication are absolutely critical – as I’ll explain later – but they’re not enough. Truly resilient content marketing requires a combination of strategic and political savvy, humanness, endurance, and grit: the ability to have courage and resolve or strength of character.

But what makes content marketers gritty or resilient? I spoke with a corporate resilience expert who says it takes personal accountability, investment, and time. But it’s also about more than the individual. The whole organization must be willing to contribute.

I drew on his advice about business resilience in general and combined it with my own experiences and observations to create a resilience model for content marketers. You can use these ideas to build resilience – a readiness for whatever comes – into your content marketing programs and teams.

Content marketing resilience model

This content marketing resilience model can help your organization build and sustain gritty and resilient content marketing. Resilience requires:

  • Structures: Create the right structures or frameworks like LEGO® blocks to support interconnectivity, collaboration, and support. Allow these to be adapted, moved, and repurposed as necessary to serve relevant goals, but keep people focused on a central piece (like the old green base plate on which you built your LEGO® house.)
  • Leaders: Think of your leaders as conductors, not commanders. Work with what you already know, what needs to be fixed now, and figure out the best move together. Then lead people in the right direction.
  • Flexibility: Realize that the framework itself has elements of flexibility and even ambiguity but empower people and trust them to serve their role when the time comes.
  • Adaptation: Help your team members adjust without changing everything. Don’t ask them to drive a new car on the wrong side of the road, teach them how to drive the same car in a different environment instead.
  • Customers: If in doubt, put the customer’s needs first.

This model sets the framework that helps create resilient organizations over time. But, while this process is being built, how do content marketers carry on creating brilliant content day after day?

Day-to-day resiliency

I chose five challenges content marketing teams often face– executive pressure, turbulence, losing a project, criticism, and the creative doldrums – and developed these suggestions to help you prepare for resilience in each case.

1. How to prepare for executive pressure

When your execs say you didn’t hit your numbers, business priorities have changed, or there’s top-down pressure on content marketing, being a content marketing leader sucks. You have to defend your team, your work, and sometimes even your very profession.

It often helps to deal with this kind of frustration by taking deep breaths in the moment, naming the emotion this confrontation evokes in you, and then getting an external, trustworthy perspective on the next steps.

Professionally, it’s worth considering these resilience lessons and techniques:

  • Be aware of the human, technological, environmental, and political elements. These elements all interact to create the bigger picture. This situation might not be about you, your work, or your team. In fact, the pressure you’re facing may simply be the executives passing on their disappointment in the financial results that may come from market factors or elements beyond anyone’s control.
  • Remember it’s OK not to have all the answers or even know a way to solve the problems right now. Even if you don’t have the answers, you probably have a good idea about where to start looking for them. You just need to give yourself time to reflect and investigate.
  • Have a flexible mindset. Be like bamboo so you can bend without breaking.
  • Use the tools at your disposal to your best advantage. You’re a professional communicator – communicate. Use every method, tool, and tactic at your disposal to help people understand why you’re facing the challenges and how they can help you overcome them. It’s OK to communicate that you need help, too.

2. How to prepare for turbulence and team disconnect

Over time, content marketing teams may change, and team members may lose focus or choose to go in different directions. You may have to deal with a horizontal team structure where once it was vertical or adapt to account-based marketing and the challenges it entails.

At other times, team members just lose their way. It’s understandable – we all get tired, cranky, and frustrated, particularly when the content we’ve fallen in love with doesn’t seem to be supported by the rest of the business or we just run out of ideas (more on this later). So how do we adapt? Here are some resilience lessons:

  • Focus people on solving the right things at the right time. The greatest idea may not be suitable at one time, but perfect on another occasion. Help team members understand this.
  • Keep elements in your core content processes that provides familiarity and consistency. Create touchpoints people can refer to when they feel like things are going astray. Remind them what they need to do, who’s doing it, and why everyone is in it together. If in doubt, dig out your content strategy or refer to your company mission and vision.
  • Remember, your team isn’t just content creators. They’re people. Building strong and deep connections throughout the organization can help bring the right people together to address an issue. Siloed organizations aren’t conducive to long-term resilience. But, when they work well, cross-organizational teams can provide brilliant support to one another, particularly during times of stress that affect one division more than another.

3. How to prepare for (and get over) having your ideas killed or losing a project

Occasionally, as content marketing leaders, you’ll have to say to your team members, “This is a great idea, but we have to pull it.” It’s hard when your team has invested deeply in something (whether it’s a blog post, a webinar, or an in-person event) and it’s pulled.

Not being able to pursue something they were excited about can be a severe blow. In fact, the more invested an individual or team is in a project, the harder it is to get over. It may seem extreme but recovering from a loss like this can take people through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, until they finally reach acceptance. Here’s what to consider:

  • Realize that adaptability takes personal accountability, investment, and time. If you put a lot of work into a project, it’s going to take time to get over losing it.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions or be resistant to explain why things have changed. When people ask you questions, they aren’t necessarily challenging you or being aggressive, they’re trying to understand.
  • Don’t make people responsible for activities they don’t understand or can’t do – especially in the middle of a crisis. But do allow others who can help to step in. Sometimes this means admitting that you can’t do it all yourself and need to get extra help in the form of contractors, outsiders, or even agencies to support you.

4. How to prepare for criticism

Being proud of the work you’ve done is wonderful. (If you’re proud enough to show your work to your folks, even better). But just because you think it’s fantastic, sadly, that doesn’t always mean it will be liked or accepted by other stakeholders or convert.

To prepare your team for criticism or adapt to receiving criticism yourself:

  • Accept the emotions. It’s OK to be angry, sad, disappointed, or hurt. But don’t wallow in them. According to Harvard brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, 90 seconds is all it takes to identify an emotion and allow it to dissipate.
  • Reflect honestly on whether the criticism has a grain of truth in it. Often criticism that “hits the mark” is the most hurtful. Try to learn from this.
  • Get an external perspective. Preferably, turn to someone who can help you find something positive in this experience.
  • Remember that sometimes criticism has nothing to do with you, your efforts, or your ability. You’re just caught in the firing line.
  • Use what you’ve learned to do something different in the future. Address the real issue behind the criticism.

5. How to prepare your content marketing team for creative doldrums

Some may know it as writers’ block, others may just call it lethargy. It has even been referred to as work fatigue. It’s that feeling which the Mayo Clinic explains as: “unrelenting exhaustion that isn’t relieved by rest, a nearly constant state of weariness that develops over time, reducing your energy, motivation, and concentration.”

I call it the creative doldrums. The term “‘in the doldrums” is what happens in nautical waters where sailing ships can’t proceed because the wind just stops blowing. You can’t go forward; you can’t go back. You’re just stuck.

In content marketing, it’s easy to get stuck in the creative doldrums when you’ve done the same thing for a long time, have felt unappreciated for a while, or fail to see the results of your work.

When you need a big idea and can’t get it and are creatively stuck, it’s time to find new, resilient ways of coping with this challenge:

  • Get out of your rut. Do something different. Go somewhere different (virtually if you’re stuck in lockdown). Learn something new or review something old.
  • Take care of yourself. It’s very, very hard to be creative when you’re exhausted. Schedule me time and follow through on it. Take more time than you think you need and allow yourself to be blissfully unproductive for a while. (Ironically, taking time off actually helps you be more productive.)
  • Ask for help. Turn to your team or even people from outside your team for their advice, recommendations, or suggestions.
  • Ask for ideas. Talk to customers about what they need and help create content that solves their problems.
  • Revisit an old content type with a new view. Think about what served you well in the past and how you can reinvent it. Direct mail (aka snail mail) is making a comeback in several industries.

When the going gets tough, retrain your brain

At the end of the day, being a communicator who leads other communicators is hard. We have to be creative yet efficient, empathetic yet focused, brave yet able to take the knocks. I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote that has helped me and many of my communication and leadership coaching clients.

Even rock erodes
Patiently: water, wind, sun, cold, pressure breaks it down.
But, having weathered, beauty remains.
Pink, orange, black sandstone
And marble-like surfaces
As white, smooth, and tiered
As a wedding cake.
Nature is a patient teacher.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
Even a pearl is just a slimy sea creature in a shell without grit.
By Gina Balarin

This poem was inspired by the beauty of the rock formations in the Royal National Park, Sydney, Australia.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute