Skip to content

The Zen of Content Marketing: Higher Consciousness, Better Performance

zen-content-marketingWeek after week since January 2015, CMI has sent a Content Strategy for Marketers e-newsletter written by CMI Chief Strategy Advisor Robert Rose. In this newsletter, Robert delivers marketing insights through a zen sensibility, leaving many of us inspired as businesspeople and as people. (Since December, the Content Strategy Newsletter merged with the weekly newsletter, bringing Robert’s thoughts to even more subscribers.)

Every year I highlight some of my favorite messages from this newsletter to give subscribers a second chance to savor some of Robert’s insights while giving everyone else a taste of what they’ve missed.

I hope this year’s post gives you an opportunity to step back from the demands of your job and rekindle your enthusiasm for (dare I say meditate on?) what this marketing business is all about – or could be.

1. Take the long view of your job

When I refer to Robert’s sensibility as “zen” (lowercase “z”), I’m talking about, for one thing, an inclination to take the long view. When marketers come up against frustrations, for example, Robert has a way of reframing their situations in such a way that new opportunities – for the individual and for the company – emerge.

For example, in the Why Are You Cutting Stones? (October 7, 2017) edition, Robert relates his conversation with a marketing director who was considering quitting his job. After putting everything he had into working with his team to create excellent content, he was left “frustrated over where his work was going.”


Robert told him the story of the three stonecutters, all doing the same work. When asked what they were doing, the first said he was making a living. The second said he was cutting and polishing “the best-crafted stones in the entire country.” The third declared he was building a cathedral.

“You’re the second stonecutter,” Robert told the marketing director.

I advised him to adopt some aspects of his job that he was less comfortable with. I suggested that he integrate more strategically into the business rather than see himself as separate from it. I urged him to build proposals for cathedrals.

Robert urges all of us to do the same: set our sights way out. When we lack a cathedral to build, we may “find ourselves moving from job to job, taking our commitment to excellence – and our frustration – with us everywhere.” He suggests we “tune in to the why behind the what – the larger vision that our efforts contribute to.”

What are you building?

2. Promote the difference that marketers make in the world

Robert looks beyond “what’s in it for me?” to “what’s in it for all of us?”

In the How Well Does Your Marketing Sell Marketing? (September 30, 2017) newsletter, he addresses the difficulty many marketing departments have finding talented people to hire for their content teams. He cites research showing college students increasingly want meaningful careers – and they don’t see marketing as one of those.

College students want meaningful careers & they don’t see #marketing as one of those via @GfK #study. Click To Tweet


He encourages marketers to band together to convey the value of the profession:

To compete for the new marketing talent, we need to promote the meaning of what we do, not the tactics of how we do it. We need to … express the creativity and wisdom that content creators, editors, and producers bring to our business. Yes, we marketers wear many hats. We create ads, we run A/B tests, we optimize keyword strategies, and we implement content management technology. But if we don’t talk about the meaning behind those activities – the difference that all our efforts make in the world – we risk mechanizing the soul right out of the story we are trying to tell.

Robert closes his plea for camaraderie thus: “Marketing itself, as a worthy career, may turn out to be one of the most important things we sell.”

Are you in?

Marketers, are you selling #marketing as a worthy career? @Robert_Rose Click To Tweet

3. Unfetter your thinking before you make editorial plans

Just as a zen mindset enables us to discern and remove the artificial limitations we’ve placed on ourselves, Robert proposes that we unfetter our thinking when we put together editorial plans so that new possibilities can show up in our businesses.

In the Choose Your Own Waypoints (September 9, 2017) edition, he makes this point while tackling a topic that rarely pops up in conversations about marketing: the nature of time.


Time, of course, is an illusion. Einstein showed that there’s no dividing line between past, present, and future. Time is relative to where you are. Other physicists have argued that time isn’t even real, that everything in the universe is an arrangement of ‘nows.’ Every ‘now’ is a waypoint.

As always, Robert anchors his metaphysical musings in the world of business, equating “waypoints” with deadlines, which “help us find our way together” and “define our progress and measure the things we want to do.” He prompts us to question the waypoints (deadlines) we’re given:

Passively accepting waypoints can hinder us. For example, many businesses are trapped in a quarter-to-quarter performance race that prevents them from making longer-term investments. As marketers, we may feel forced to run campaigns to meet established monthly sales goals. As content creators, we may see no alternative to scrambling to meet an editorial timetable that ‘has always been that way.’

How can we “question inherited waypoints” without irritating our colleagues? Robert proposes a mind-opening exercise:

At least momentarily, remove the waypoints that might limit your ideas. What could you create if there was nothing you ‘had’ to create: no daily blog post, no weekly newsletter, no monthly report, no quarterly call, no annual customer event? As investor billionaire Peter Thiel says, ‘If you have a 10-year plan of how to get [somewhere], you should ask: Why can’t you do this in six months?’ Put another way, if you were free to move your goal, what waypoints would you create to get there?

Robert consistently nudges content professionals toward an unlimited way of thinking, a freedom to return to the drawing board and ask, “What if?”

What inherited waypoints could you rethink?

4. Aim for popular AND substantive content

Some marketers see quality as an either-or choice between content that’s popular and content that’s substantive. For Robert, this dualistic (un-zen-like) thinking misses the point. To serve our customers and our companies, our content must be substantive and popular; the two characteristics can’t be separated.

Our #content must be substantive & popular; the two characteristics can’t be separated, says @robert_rose. Click To Tweet

Robert makes this point in the Zen and the Art of Content Maintenance (October 8, 2016) edition:

When it comes to creating quality content in our businesses, many of us increasingly face tension between the romantic idea of popularity on the one hand – views, clicks, positive comments, shares, etc. – and, on the other, a depth of substance that some people in the audience may find inaccessible.



This tension, he says, is based on a false dichotomy:

If we define quality one way, we may find ourselves always chasing after blockbusters. If we define it another way, we may find ourselves always settling for creating the equivalent of critically acclaimed movies that few people see.

He compares quality content to an enjoyable motorcycle ride:

The tension between popularity and substance reminds me of one of the many great ideas in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance … You can’t have a quality ride on a motorcycle that hasn’t been properly maintained. At the same time, without understanding the joy of riding, there is no purpose to maintaining the motorcycle. A zen approach – nondualistic thinking – is called for. Quality isn’t either-or.

Does your content exhilarate your riders?

5. Be willing to see your business role in new ways

A zen attitude requires a willingness to see oneself in new ways, unattached to the thoughts and behaviors of the person you’ve known yourself to be. Robert often calls on us to let go of our familiar roles so that we – and our companies – can grow.

He does just this in the Learn Early How to Be Big (August 19, 2017) edition, in which he describes a startup business that has exploded from nothing to “officially big” in just five years. These entrepreneurs had been creating content for marketing programs all along “as something everybody does.”


As they described all the content projects they wanted to launch, Robert suggested that they create a content team, a governance plan, and a standardized process – key components of a strategy. “They grumbled and mumbled,” he says, and “wanted to jump right into what kinds of content they’d create.”

For the moment, he rolled with their request, mapping their desired initiatives on a whiteboard: a digital magazine, two blogs, a customer community. He worked with them to identify success metrics and timelines.

Then he asked a few how and why questions. They didn’t have answers.

“That was my moment,” he says. He revived his suggestion: “Now can we talk about how to manage content as a strategic function of your growing business?” The time had come for the people on this team to see themselves in a new way.

See, big means that you can afford things. Big means that you’re ahead of the game and can take risks. Big means that you use words like ‘process,’ ‘ownership,’ ‘governance,’ and ‘standards.’ It means that you have meetings that focus not on deliverables – the content itself – but on how your content teams are working together.

It isn’t easy, Robert says, for any of us to transform the way we see ourselves as our businesses mature. Yet this is what’s required. We may have to give up work we love. We may have to give up the informal way our teams make decisions. We may have to “replace one overwhelming workload with another.”

Might as well embrace the opportunity and evolve.

What old ways do you cling to?

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: Other posts that highlight themes from Robert’s Content Strategy for Marketers newsletter:


What have you most enjoyed about Robert’s Content Strategy for Marketers newsletters? In what ways does your marketing team take a zen approach to content? Please let us know in a comment.

As 2017 comes to an end, so too does Robert’s Content Strategy for Marketers newsletter. Robert continues to share his original thinking, though, crafting his column appearing only in CMI’s Friday newsletter edition. Subscribe today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute