Here Comes Big Content

The social Web has made content the new currency of trade. Big Data may be the intelligence behind microtargeting, but the precision of your aim doesn’t matter if the customer experience falls short. Content, once again, is king. And brands that fail to develop a content strategy will find themselves in a very lonely place as social engagement fails to happen.

So, it’s perhaps no surprise that Gartner’s 2013 social marketing survey pointed to content as the bottleneck for social marketing; it’s seen as primary skills gap, the most outsourced function and, it would seem, the area of most consternation when it comes to activating social engagement.

Old idea, new meaning

The excitement about content is by no means new. We’ve talked about content for ages. But content in the age of social and multichannel is far different from content of yore. Here’s how:

It’s human. It speaks with a conversational voice, from one human being to another. Gone is the self-congratulatory chest-thumping and stilted corporate speak.

It’s neutral. The best content is brand neutral. It favors audience-centric issues and points of view over self-congratulatory claims and, frankly, boring value propositions.

It’s simple. Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. Great content gets to the point, fast.

It’s visual. Content relieves audiences of the burden (and eye strain) of dense text, telling stories in ways that are highly visual, artful, inspiring, and emotionally evocative.

It’s borrowed. Leverage happens when you curate third-party content, where you add your own perspectives in the form of annotations that advance your storylines.

It’s conversational. Communities talk back to sustain dialogues. The best content marketers welcome contribution that defends or argues against their point of view.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Content marketing is hard work and it can run headlong into incompatible cultures, process, and governance models. So, you need a plan of attack.

The content supply chain

What’s required is a process that supports a sustainable, replenishing content supply chain, which is governed by a set of policies that balance the seemingly conflicting objectives of speed and control. Too much speed means chaos. Too much control? Stasis. Production grinds to a halt. But when you blend the two, you get something powerful: agility.

Large manufacturers have taught us about driving quality and efficiency at scale. Smaller technology companies have shown us how to learn fast and turn on a dime. As a content marketer, you need both skills. It starts with a content supply chain. Here’s what that means:

  • Sourcing is about combing three content streams: creation, which is the original rendering of text, videos, infographics, etc.; curation, where you discover, organize, and annotate third-party content; and cultivation, which happens when you mobilize a community to create and contribute content on your behalf.
  • Manufacturing is the creative work required to produce high-quality storytelling viathese three streams. To scale, like traditional manufacturers that blend in-house and outsourced capacity, you should tap internal resources together with agencies and freelance networks that aggregate creative talent. Despite of how you choose to scale, be sure to assign an in-house leader—an editor-in-chief, or chief content officer—to direct and inspire your efforts and to capture and internalize learning.
  • Distribution follows a three-tier cadence of ambient, responsive, and calendar-driven production. Ambient is the day-to-day pulse—or drumbeat—of content that helps you sustain and grow engagement by distributing content assets and elements both great and small. Responsive is the result of social listening, where brands use breaking moments to inject themselves into a shared experience, engaging in an approximation of real time. This is an advanced skill that most content marketers struggle to pull off. Finally, calendar-driven distribution involves longer-fused investments, often organized around themes, not unlike the editorial calendars that drive magazines and other journalistic forms.

The glue that holds all this together also comprises the artifacts of manufacturing: demand planning is a combination of social listening and communications strategy; master production schedules drive sequencing of content production and publishing; blueprints are the models that define how content elements fit together to support a variety of content assets, across a variety of channels; and bills of materials are the inventory of all of your contents, variants, and derivatives.

Of course, what I’ve described is the basis for a large-scale content supply chain. But whether you’re just dipping a toe in the water or ready to scale, begin your content marketing journey with the end in mind.

Jake Sorofman is a research director with Gartner Inc., where he is part of the Gartner for Marketing Leaders team, sharing insights on digital marketing essentials for CMOs. Read his blog and follow him on Twitter @jakesorofman

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