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Scaling Your Content Marketing Team: 3 Lessons From the Field

time to share-content marketing teamsMaking sense of a career in content marketing has never been easy: It’s media, but it’s marketing; it’s art, but it’s science; it’s about quality and audience, but it’s also about quantity and company metrics. Let’s face it: It’s exciting (yet scary) to create content for a living while simultaneously navigating an ambiguous career path.

Yet, sooner or later, if everything we all believe holds true, content marketing teams will explode everywhere and go the way of sales, HR, or development, becoming established teams that function across the business enterprise. In other words, our teams will start to scale. And when that happens, to quote Samuel L. Jackson, “Hold onto your butts.” 

Several people (who are a lot smarter than me) have peered into their crystal balls to articulate the evolution of the content marketer, from Doug Kessler’s notion of the Center of Content Excellence to Joe Pulizzi’s list of 10 Marketing Roles for the Next 10 Years. And while we should all be thankful people like Doug and Joe are looking ahead, I firmly believe instances of scale exist today, in practice and in businesses that don’t necessarily have the brand clout of Coca-Cola or Red Bull. If those of us experiencing the early signs of scale can share loudly enough, then perhaps we can turn the great promise of content marketing — a world built on content people actually love, rather than on interruptive ads — into a reality. So…

This is a call to start a loud conversation, sharing the good, the bad, and the unavoidable, oh-so-important ugly that come with scale.

From the field: Three lessons on the scaling of content marketing teams 

Within the past few years, I left a position at Google (where everything down to the sticky notes is done at scale) and built a small start-up’s content team. Based on conversations I had around town about content careers and best practices, I also co-founded a content community group for content marketers in the Boston area (Boston Content), and began hosting quarterly events. Thanks to the efforts of the Boston community, we grew to 300 members, each of whom had experienced similar problems to those of my start-up job at the time: understanding, adopting, and finding initial success with content marketing.

But stepping into HubSpot earlier this year to lead its content team, I noticed some stark differences and obvious signs of scale. By sharing, comparing, and contrasting them here, I hope to accelerate the discussion of where all this content marketing stuff leads. Based on my experience working with the HubSpot team and the Boston Content community, here’s what you might expect as your content team scales:

1. You will remember that content is for resonance, not just reach

You start to increase your focus on what C.C. Chapman calls the “soul” of your content. These are the words, or the video footage, or the audio where real conversions happen, and where your audience actually chooses to spend time. It’s, you know, content. Unfortunately we get caught up in things like headlines, SEO practices, social sharing, and email — all are wonderful distribution mechanisms, but content is about resonance, not just reach. Something great has to happen after the click, so if your content mission is to “get eyeballs,” you are overlooking the fact that you’re targeting real people who have thoughts, emotions, nuances, and biases.

One way we’re tackling this issue of what resonates, in addition to knowing our audience and having conversations with them, is by installing a content-specific Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey that readers can fill out. NPS is a survey used by thousands of companies to measure audience approval. The survey asks how likely you’d be to recommend something (a product, service or, in our case, content) to a friend on a 0-10 scale, with 10 being the most likely. By calculating the difference between your “promoters” (9-10) and your “detractors” (0-6), NPS helps you create a benchmark score for your organization to measure month-to-month progress with audience favorability.

By adding the NPS survey at the end of our longer-form content, we’re starting to measure sentiment and gather feedback about our content. Does it resonate? We aim to find out, and then make improvements in the name of resonance.

2. You’ll develop niche playbooks to be able to move more quickly and create content with purpose

Over the past 6 months, our content team has quickly added head count and responsibilities, and we’re set to grow even more in the coming months. Faced with balancing more people, better quality, higher volume, and the needs of a company that’s now much larger overall, we’re constantly looking for ways to grease the wheels and keep our content marketing machine moving as quickly as possible.

While a small, emerging content team might only need to have a single content publishing “playbook,” or approach to content creation, our team has found itself with a dire need to create multiple playbooks, each addressing a different strategic goal, in order to scale elegantly.

For instance, let’s say a company’s major product launch required the creation of a large volume of awareness-stage content. Our content team goal would be to hear the words “product launch” and “awareness” and instantly understand the exact types of content we would then need to create — and to be able to apply the same content processes to the next product launch. The narrative and “soul” of the content might change, making it wonderfully unique to the audience, but the way we execute should be sustainable and scalable for the long-term.

3. You’ll start to specialize and hire complementary team members

With scale often comes specialization, as well as the need to work smarter against specific goals, not just really hard against every goal (though the hard work never goes away). Some of the personalities or areas of specialty that will likely start to emerge include:

“The optimizer” – As your content team’s “asset” grows, whether it’s a blog or a centralized content library comprising many content formats, you’ll need someone to focus on content as a unit, and optimize it accordingly. His or her projects aren’t as day-to-day as a writer’s work, but rather would help move the team forward in larger leaps and bounds.

“The creative energy” – Whether you designate it as a senior or junior position, it’s critical to have at least one person on staff who isn’t afraid of the crazy idea. These people come at content marketing with an earnest giddiness for creation. They may never look at analytics reports a single day in their life, and that’s okay. Their gut feelings and understanding of how to produce ideas that will resonate with your audience make them incredibly valuable.

“The machine” – There are, indeed, people in this world who are happy to just put their heads down and write like the dickens. Or just write like Dickens. (There go half my readers. For those still with me, sorry for that pun…) These hires usually come from journalism or freelance writing backgrounds, and I recommend starting to work with them on guest posts or contract work at first to feel out the relationship before hiring someone to play this role on a full-time basis.

“The sprint manager” – I mentioned HubSpot’s specific playbooks above. We tend to create in sprints, or short bursts of production that center on telling the same story across multiple formats, perhaps with a flagship piece of content at the center of it all. One of our team members is insanely good at running the entire campaign: organizing, people-wrangling, some production, and post-campaign analysis. Having this person on board, again, greases the wheels that let us move quickly, hit specific goals, and understand how we performed — and how to improve. And yes, he or she may create content, too, if needed.

“The sprinter” – A more junior role, this person gets handed a flagship piece of content (e.g., a manifesto or deep analysis of an important industry trend) and helps turn that one piece into an entire sprint. He or she creates blog posts, checklists, and other content formats, and generally extends the life of an important narrative or single pieces of content that required a heavy initial investment.

What changes have you observed as content teams start to scale?

Ultimately, the robots haven’t replaced the writers. We still need great people, with great ideas and skills, to create great content. And as teams scale by adding these people, we need to all start talking loudly about what we are learning, what’s working, what’s not, and how we can ensure that, 20 years from now, we will look back at 2013 as the year our industry really took off in the right direction.

We’ve all bought into the need to plan, produce, distribute, and analyze content. And, sure, most of us aren’t Red Bull. But who’s to say we can’t start adding a little energy to the content marketing world and do something huge too?

For more insight on the future roles that will lead content marketing to new levels of success, join the CMI team at Content Marketing World 2013.