Tech-Free Tricks for Dialing Up Your Content Operations

Marketers’ reliance on productivity tools can mask operational concerns that lead to low content quality and sub-par team performance. Forget the tech Band-Aids and focus on these four concepts to streamline your workflow and reduce system-wide stress.

Tell a fellow marketer about your content woes and more likely than not the response will be something like, “There’s an app for that!” In our obsession to solve marketing problems with technology, too often we overlook much more basic, operational issues that prevent us from maximizing output and supporting quality. This isn’t to say technology doesn’t make us more productive and accountable – because of course it does. But it also pays to consider the old-school systems, processes, and resources you need to optimize your content marketing engine.

Here are four must-have, low-tech concepts to focus on in 2020.

1. An editorial resource center

Once a team grows beyond a certain size, you’ll need to document your why. Why do you create content? What are your goals? How do you operate in a way that’s disciplined and scalable?

The act of writing these things down solidifies your vision and unites your team under a single purpose. And by making those documents easily accessible by everyone involved in your content, you enable them to execute on that purpose with clarity.

These are the minimum resources a well-run content marketing team should include in their resource center:

  • A content marketing strategy: Research from CMI has long proved documenting your content marketing strategy matters. According to the latest findings, the most successful content marketers are 4.9 times more likely to have a documented strategy compared to the least successful marketers. Your strategy document crystallizes your “why.” You may not refer to it daily (not even weekly), but team members can take a deep dive to understand your audience, personas, buyer journey, and content goals. (You’ll find good advice about how to document your strategy here.)
  • A content planning framework: A content framework is a cheat sheet for understanding what types of projects you should greenlight. Back in 2016, Dusty DiMercurio from Autodesk explained they use the organizing mantra of head, heart, and hands as their content framework. “Head” content was future-looking thought leadership content authored by Autodesk executives. “Heart” encompassed inspiring stories from customers. And “hands” was content with a more practical bent. Being able to summarize your content portfolio that succinctly is particularly valuable when signing on thought leaders and other subject-matter experts to contribute their knowledge to your content program.
  • A creative brief template: For some organizations, this template is supplied by their content development platform; but in most cases, creative briefs are homegrown documents created to outline the topical focus of the content piece and provide creators with pertinent details on its intended voice, style, format, and distribution channels, as well as its submission deadline. An informative brief should also include summary information about your company’s (or your client’s) mission, its target audience, content purpose/goals, topical focus, and target keywords.
  • An editorial guide: Which style guide should your writers rely on (AP? Chicago Manual of Style? A customized version)? What tone of voice and personality should your content emulate? An editorial guide helps writers understand the audience they’re speaking to, special language considerations, and even preferred formatting and visuals.
Technology isn’t always the best solution for the productivity problems that plague #contentmarketing teams, says @clare_mcd via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Finally, make sure all your content team resources are gathered in a single, easy-to-access place – even better, indexed clearly on an intranet or collaboration platform your team uses regularly.

For example, at Cleveland Clinic, all these resources are gathered into a microsite called OnBrand. More than a simple brand style guide or press kit, OnBrand offers a wealth of information for both internal and external content creators – something that’s critical for an organization that publishes thousands of articles, videos, and guides about health topics. The site offers an overview of Cleveland Clinic’s history and mission, its pride points, digital assets, and detailed guides about design, writing, printing, and formatting for web and mobile.

Amanda Todorovich, director of content marketing at Cleveland Clinic, explained to CCO magazine, “We are a big organization; there are countless uses of our brand every day by many, many departments. We can’t police everything. The best way to reduce the number of brand violations is to educate different groups and maintain our OnBrand site as an easily accessible, go-to resource for the entire enterprise.”

2. A well-defined content ideation and review cycle

High-performing content teams always seem to have an abundance of valuable content ideas at the ready, as well as the ability to develop and deploy those ideas seamlessly. It’s an enviable goal all content marketers should strive for, but it doesn’t happen magically. It takes a sound process and ongoing optimization effort to pull off consistently.

Rachel Haberman knows a thing or two about content ideation. She was the content marketing manager for Skyword for nearly two years before moving on to lead the content effort at Avid. Rachel says her experience at Skyword drove her to implement a very disciplined, process-oriented approach – a philosophy she says she hopes to cultivate in her new role at Avid. She explains, “One thing that has been very helpful for me is building a defined cycle for content ideation and review.”

Rachel says the content ideation and review cycle hinges on the specifics of your company’s program, as well as your team’s publishing frequency. She explains, “At Skyword, we used a monthly cycle in which we came up with ideas, refined them, decided which we would complete, scheduled them, and then assigned them out to our writers. It sounds very basic but having that discipline in place kept me sane and let us produce high quality at volume.”

From brainstorming to well-honed ideas: Rachel also shares excellent advice about how to introduce rigor into your brand’s content ideation process. She says, “I find the process of idea gathering is typically much lengthier than what a lot of people recognize. There’s a stereotype of creative people getting in a room, whiteboarding ideas, and coming up with the list. But ideation requires a disciplined, multi-step approach.”

Content ideation requires a disciplined, multi-step approach, not just brainstorms and whiteboards, says Avid’s Rachel Haberman via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Rachel recommends the following process to ensure your team has a steady flow of ideas that are informed by your audience insights and inspired by your business needs:

  1. Identify collaborators. It’s key to keep a steady flow of ideas from people inside your company who have a direct connection to your customers and products. Figure out who these people are and get their buy-in to participate in the process.
  2. Define tempo. Decide how you’re going to solicit and gather ideas on a regular basis from key stakeholders. Rachel recommends a cadence of one-on-one calls to source new ideas.
  3. Winnow the list. Based on these calls/meetings, you’ll have a long list of inchoate topics. Narrowing that list involves appraising the potential value of each one by asking questions such as: Is it a topic our audience cares about? What business initiatives does it support? Which actions will it drive?
  4. Refine ideas with your editorial team. Finally, take your focused list and put it in front of the editorial team. These are your expert storytellers who will wrestle with them, ensuring the best ones rise to the surface.
  5. Document your ideas in a creative brief. The brief development process will help you flesh out your ideas and provide the direction your writers need to turn them into impactful, shareable assets.

By repeating this process regularly, your team will always have a supply of viable ideas to work with for their ongoing publishing efforts like blogs or weekly email newsletters. But what about your campaign-based content initiatives?

Jeanette Burton, content marketing manager at Sinch, says there’s no replacement for a team-wide, hands-on meeting to solicit and refine campaign ideas – particularly for bigger, more complex undertakings. She explains, “When we start a new email campaign, whiteboard meetings are useful to flesh out ideas and map the content flow.” Jeanette says they currently do this on an ad-hoc basis for project kickoffs – and, ideally, they invite the entire marketing team to participate in this type of brainstorming meeting, which helps ensure a diversity of opinions and buy-in from key team members.

3. Clearly established metrics

While most content marketers equate metrics with technology, it’s still important to step back from the laptop (no really, step back from your laptop) and simply define how – and how often – you plan to use performance data. What metrics matter, how often do you need to view them, and when should you apply the insights you receive from them? The answers, of course, depend on your company goals, your publishing tempo, and your available resources.

For example, Rachel says she aims to look at higher-level metrics, such as traffic and lead flow, every month. In addition, she consults the “in-the-weeds” data from Google Analytics at least weekly.

When Amanda won Content Marketer of the Year for her work at Cleveland Clinic, she told CMI that her team even looks at some of their metrics daily to make sure important trends and opportunities don’t pass them by. “We look at data and traffic every day; it’s not just something we put into a report at the end of the month. If something is trending and we need to react to it quickly, or if something has a lot of comments that might drive a follow-up story, we’re on it,” she said.

This raises an interesting point: No matter what cadence you establish for monitoring your content’s performance, you need to determine when to act on new insights immediately, and when it’s OK to wait and see if the data indicates an ongoing trend or just a one-off anomaly.

If we don’t allow our teams to recharge their mental batteries, we are putting our content quality and performance at risk, says @clare_mcd via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

This often comes down to a matter of preference, team agility, and available team resources. Enterprise marketers might do well to adopt a formal process of analyzing and reviewing metrics data on a set schedule (e.g., a monthly team meeting, or timed to coincide with their organization’s quarterly performance reviews), while smaller or more nimble teams might tweak certain content components (think headlines, keywords, or distribution channels) on a rolling basis to see how those shifts might move the needle.

But one technique all marketers should incorporate in their performance management process is the ability to conduct A/B tests, which can help home in on how specific variables might be affecting your audience’s engagement habits.

I’ll admit that this one can be a bit challenging to manage without technology tools, but it can be done manually on a small-scale basis simply by adjusting one component of your content at a time (say, the format of your subject lines or the placement of your calls to action) and tracking whether it makes a noticeable impact on your key performance indicators (KPIs).

4. Team energy reserves

Lastly, let’s talk about work ethics and feeling overworked. We may jokingly refer to our work as being created through an “engine,” but we all know that it’s real people – not mechanical gears, carburetors, or pulleys – that keep our content marketing pipelines fueled and functioning. If we don’t allow ourselves and our team members to recharge our mental batteries, we are putting both the quality of our work and our marketing performance at risk.

This is why, as counterintuitive as it may sound, content marketing systems need to include the ability to step back, look around, and source new supplies of inspiration and energy from time to time. This process is as critical as any other we rely on to enhance our productivity. But how can content leaders make it happen? Here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage clarity breaks: Sometimes even small changes can generate big gains. Leaders at PixelSpoke, a marketing and design firm, wanted to help their employees be more creative, so they adopted a practice called the “clarity break.” It’s modeled on Google’s 20% ethos but scaled to work for smaller companies. In this article from Inc., PixelSpoke’s CEO Cameron Madill explains that during clarity breaks, employees “go outside with nothing but a pad of paper and spend an hour thinking creatively.” Physically leaving the office to do this is part of the exercise – getting away from screens and other distractions can help quiet your mind and sharpen your focus on how to make a meaningful impact on your work.
  • Encourage vacations: Years ago, I worked for a company where the boss prized hard work and never took vacations, so the rest of us felt awkward asking for time off. Yet we all know that sustained overwork leads to poor quality ideas. Content managers should lead by example by taking time away from the office to recharge. And if you notice team members aren’t using vacations, encourage them to do so. Taking regular time off to recharge should be as important as delivering on metrics.
  • Schedule inspiring one-off gatherings: Your team likely gets together regularly (whether it’s in-person or remotely) to solve specific business problems and source new ideas. But consider holding additional, one-off meetings that are less about the here and now and more about vision. In a Medium post he wrote on the topic, Nathan Waterhouse, an innovation consultant who works with famed design firm IDEO, says planning well in advance is critical, as the idea is to ease your team’s stress, not add to it by forcing them to drop what they’re doing at a moment’s notice. And be sure your plans allow for flexible “detours.” He explains, “If you’re just following a scripted agenda you’ll not be responding to tensions or opportunities that arise in the moment. One way to do this well is to have a “parking lot” of questions and ideas. Address these issues at the end of each day and the start of the next.”

Technology factors into so many things we do to maintain optimal levels of efficiency and performance in our content marketing initiatives. But it’s important to remember that these tools don’t do the job alone – they work best when they are balanced by human insights, well-thought-out processes, and a meaningful commitment to helping our team members stay properly focused, creatively energized, and highly productive.

Want to share your thoughts on this article or suggest additional ideas? Email us at [email protected].


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