The 7 C’s of a Collaborative Content Culture

As a “David” in a field of housing portal “Goliaths,” Homes.com is the kind of underdog that makes headlines when it does great and gets little recognition when Google takes away its slingshot. Actually, getting hit by Google’s Panda update was more like Goliath stepping on us.

That’s where content comes into play.

Content that goes beyond our “for sale” and “rental” listings is really the bread and butter of our branding initiatives and our attempts at differentiation. I say “attempts” not because we haven’t succeeded—we have—but rather because content marketing is a journey, not a destination. It’s a journey where trying lots, failing some, and pushing limits are key components of the strategy.

“Content marketing” is one of those buzzwords that irk me every time I hear it. Many folks think it’s a new concept. But for me, it’s just marketing. After all, marketing is about contextually connecting with your audience at the right time, in the right place, with the right message (i.e. content) and ensuring that the message is delivered within the most satisfying medium. That’s the journey Homes.com is taking with gusto.

So what components have worked—or failed—for us? Here are my seven “C’s” of a collaborative content culture.

1. Crowdsource: Once a quarter our search team (including paid, SEO, social and content) gathers together to plan our quarterly content strategy. We invite other departments to join our meeting, too. It’s a “throw-every-idea-up-on-a-board” session where there are no bad ideas, no judgments, no limits, and no budgets discussed. We ask, “If we could do anything, what would we love/want/need to do to connect with our audiences?”

And because everyone is competition for our audience’s attention, we don’t limit content research or examples to just our search competitors. We can learn from an insurance company’s marketing just as much as we can learn from a vertical competitor’s ad.

2. Condense: After creating a big list of ideas during the meeting, we start to apply the filters of practicability, cost, time/resources, themes/topics, and timeliness for the next quarter. The main questions we ask of each idea are as follows:

• Does this align with our brand?
• Will this satisfy a company, customer, or prospect goal?
• Do we have the internal resources to do this?
• Do we have partners that can do this?
• Can we afford to do this?
• Is now the best time? (We have a “parking lot” for great not-right-now ideas.)

During this filtering process, we also break ideas into sub-ideas, series, themes, etc. This helps us organize and align our content with goal-focused topics.

3. Calendar: Execution is the key component of a content strategy. Without having everything planned (in-process and trackable), the strategy is doomed to fail. Calendaring each piece of the content puzzle requires centralized management and communication amongst stakeholders. Although there are some great end-to-end platforms out there, Homes.com hasn’t found the right fit; therefore, we tend to mix and match project management and scheduling tools to ensure consistent communication and visibility for content deliverables. For instance, we use Asana for project management; Tailwind and Rignite to manage Pinterest postings and social campaigns, respectively; and Co-Schedule to post blog content.

We organize smaller (single-discipline) projects by team (e.g., social, paid, SEO project); however, we give larger (multi-week/multi-discipline) projects their own section to assign timelines, tasks, and responsibilities. The calendar ties everything together with a 10,000-foot view of what should be happening when, where dependencies exist, and who’s responsible for each moving part.

In an ideal world this all just works; in reality, it’s where most things break down—generally due to missed deadlines, resource constraints, and external influence. We take a “least imperfect” approach to our overall strategy, understanding that the fluidity of the market and our competitors may usurp our “brilliant idea” the morning we plan to release. The calendar is structured, but flexible, and accessible to all.

4. Coordinate: Given the complexities of the content process, as well as its many contributors (internal and external), the overall coordination requires a dedicated person to manage it all. I cannot stress the importance of this. Ultimately, a strategy without management is a tactical nightmare. But it’s one that can easily be overcome by doing the following:

Set expectations early. Ensure that everyone is aware of high-level project objectives, delivery dates, dependencies, and direction (why and where it’s going to end up).

Get buy-in and agreement on more granular commitments and goals. Highlight the success metrics (and/or goals to meet/exceed), and get everyone to agree on the feasibility, effort, and work ethics needed to get there.

Follow the rowboat mantra. Communicate the opportunities of everyone working together, moving in the same direction, and “rowing” in sync to meet deadlines.

Use tools as support mechanisms. Justify deliverables through the use of your timeline, tasks, and milestones reports. Set automatic follow ups, status updates, and reminders to prod, push, or cajole contributors and leverage weekly or monthly in-person meetings to review those reports.

Nothing stymies success like micromanaging a process to death. Keeping the process impersonal, leveraging automation, and only resorting to one-on-one email (or meetings) when reinforcing accountability, can keep the process smooth and contributors happy.

5. Courage:  I mentioned that we often fail, but failure is relative. So maybe it’s better to say, “We don’t always succeed to our expectations.”
Courage comes in two flavors:

Launching rather than waiting. For our “Game of Homes” project, we had a lot of moving parts and an immovable deadline for the series premiere. When we looked at the project a few days out, we had to make the call of whether we were going to launch a desktop-only version or wait for the mobile version to be finished. In the end, though we knew it wasn’t the perfect scenario, we decided to launch as a desktop play to meet the deadline. Although not ideal, we still garnered some great online coverage, earned authoritative links, received thousands in traffic, and gained valuable brand awareness through social engagement. Sometimes “least imperfect’” is better than “not at all.”

Recognizing and learning from failure. We spent time and effort on a Valentine’s Day contest that we expected to gain search prominence, social visibility, and the collection of valuable content assets. However, we ultimately failed to meet our expectations and goals. At the post-campaign debrief, we discussed the reasons behind the dearth of entries (a little more than 250), amplification opportunities missed, and messaging faux pas that diminished the promotion’s effectiveness. We didn’t take any of this as negatives, nor allocate blame. Instead, we asked, “How can we do better next time?” and leveraged learnings and suggestions to improve subsequent initiatives.

6. Calculate:  Too often the outcome of a content strategy is lost in meaningless metrics rather than metrics that matter. I mentioned above the necessity of high- level and granular individual, team, and project goals. In an age of data-driven marketing there are little to no excuses for not having definitive metrics of success, even though I often hear the contrary at industry conferences and events.

There’s a definitive mantra we live by in the Homes.com search team: “Track everything and leverage the metrics that matter.” Ultimately, these metrics give us insights in three ways:

  • What have we done? Checklist of progress: Have we (to date) delivered on our timeline, budgets, and tasks?
  • How are we doing? Status of progress to goals: Are we where we expected to be, and is the momentum able to meet the end goals/timelines?
  • What could we do? Issues to overcome: Have any ‘gotchas,’ barriers to success, or recognized opportunities necessitated a pivot, correction, or realignment in our process? Plus, what will the expected outcome be if so?

Tracking is easy with most tools available. We use both Adobe and Google Analytics, as well as rank tracking software (STAT/Conductor), social tools (Buzzsumo, Co-Schedule, Tailwind, and Rignite), as well as leveraging these same tools for mentions, competitive insights, and trend tracking.

7. Celebrate: The last component of any strategy is the celebration of success. Share outcomes with key stakeholders, partners, and management to inspire and set a foundation of alignment for future projects. At Homes.com, we have some company-driven forums where we share content and other initiatives’ successes, providing team members across the company with an idea of efforts, challenges, and results. We also conduct weekly meetings within the search team where we highlight individual or team successes, including metrics, graphics, and other proof of progress.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Remember to give kudos to the originator, which could be a participant in the brainstorming sessions.
  • Cite reasons for any change to original concepts or ideas, including cost considerations, feasibility, and/or timing factors.
  • Demonstrate the visuals used in the content execution. Seeing an idea come to life speaks volumes over just talking about it.
  • Highlight wins in an easily digestible format (graphs, charts etc.).
  • Communicate learnings and follow up if ideas have spawned “child projects.”

At Homes.com, we’re always iterating to improve what we do across all departments, and content is a bridge across many of our teams and something that’s becoming an even more important collaborative component of our business.

How will you use the seven C’s?

About the author:

Grant leads the search marketing team at Homes.com, one of the nation’s top real estate sites. Previously, Grant served as senior director of SEO and social media at The Search Agency, where he helped in differentiating the agency’s search product, leading key partner initiatives, and acting as a advocate of the agency’s SEO and social search POV. Grant has over 22 years of agency & brand experience serving industry-leading organizations, such as Paramount Studios, Red Bull, M&M/Mars, Disney, Napster, Warner Bros., UPS, Move.com, YPO, GE, Amgen and Fox Sports. He is also a popular speaker at major search and real estate industry events worldwide.

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