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Why Your Brilliant Content Strategy Doesn’t Stand A Chance
Greg Satell

April, 2016

One of the biggest cop-outs in corporate life is to say, “we had a great a great strategy, but just couldn’t execute it.” Hogwash. Any strategy that doesn’t take the ability to execute is a lousy strategy to begin with. Strategy is not a game of chess, but depends on operational capacity.

The problem is particularly pervasive when it comes to content. For all of the talk about “brands becoming publishers,” most marketers are simply tacking on publishing functions to their existing operations without implementing any new processes or practices. That is a grave mistake.

As I previously wrote in Harvard Business Reviewmarketers need to think more like publishers, but they also need to act more like publishers if they are ever going to to hold an audience’s attention rather than merely broadcast messages. If you can’t create a compelling experience, it doesn’t really matter what your content strategy is, it will fail.

 

Where Content Strategy Went Wrong

Back in the heyday of advertising, when giants like Leo BurnettBill Bernbach and David Ogilvy still reigned, the industry was driven by creative ideas. At the time, there were relatively few media outlets and the general idea was to reach large masses of consumers. The most important decision marketers had to make was what ad they were going to put on TV.

Yet in the ensuing decades, both markets and audiences fragmented and strategy came to be seen as prime creator of value. Before you knew it, everybody became a strategist. First media strategists, then digital strategists, search engine strategists, social strategists and on and on. Why be a Creative Director, when you could be “creative strategist?”

So it was natural that when digital technology made brand publishing possible, we quickly saw the rise of “content strategists,” very few of whom had ever published or produced anything. Mostly, they were former planners and copywriters who started from a target audience and worked back to craft a message. In effect, they were taking ad strategies and applying them to content.

Yet for publishers, the editorial mission reigns supreme. That’s what creates meaning for the audience. Editors like Anna Wintour of Vogue and David Remnick of The New Yorkerdidn’t get to the top of their profession by targeting readers, but by attracting them. It is their commitment to an editorial mission that inspires others to join them on their journey.

Now imagine if Vogue put out surveys to determine which fashions its readers want to see or The New Yorker polled its readers to decide what issues they want discussed. Would they still be considered original, authoritative and path blazing? Would they be able to maintain a consistent voice and point of view? Or continue to attract top talent?

Not likely on all counts. Great publishers seek to serve their audience well, but are not defined by it.

Don’t Target Your Audience, Discover It

Marketing strategies are essentially backward looking. They start with market research to define a specific target market. From there, a plan is created to achieve a specific set of marketing objectives related to predetermined business goals. So an brand publishing initiative often starts with a tactic, like an infographic; or a target, like soccer moms.

Publishing works the other way around. It is, at its core, about creation. Vibrant publishers are constantly putting forth new ideas, new ways to express them and new ways to deliver them to their audience. These are less like strategic initiatives and more like hunches. Yet they also serve a strategic purpose, they allow you to discover your audience.

A nice thing about publishing is that your worst work goes unnoticed. You’re not paying millions of dollars to squeeze your work in between an ad break, so you’re free to experiment. As long as you don’t do anything incredibly stupid, you don’t really have to be unimaginably brilliant. You can keep trying new things until you hit upon something new and interesting.

When that happens, your audience will let you know immediately. In the process, you discover something about them and, often, about your editorial mission as well. The ongoing conversation with the audience is one of the most important—as well as the most rewarding—things about publishing.

Committing to Operational Excellence

Content is a new idea for marketers, but publishers and producers have been doing it for a very long time. Over the years, they have developed best practices that have evolved and survived the test of time. Magazines have flat plans, radio stations run on clocks. TV shows have clearly defined story structures, character arcs and so on.

Many people assume that producing stories that are powerful and engaging is the result of some intangible quality. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. There’s a reason that Time Inc. has dominated almost every category it competes in decade after decade, just as there is a reason that Cosmopolitan is a market leader in over a hundred countries.

That reason is operational excellence. Content is not a campaign with a defined beginning and end. You have to be able to set and meet your audience’s expectations consistently over a long period of time. That’s what breeds trust. Trust, in turn, creates the bond that leads to a loyal audience.

Dick Stolley, one of our greatest American editors likes to say that every great publishing product has two things: consistency and surprise—and you can’t have one without the other. Surprise usually takes care of itself. The hard work lies in creating a consistent product. You need to implement best operational practices and continually improve them over time.

Ideas Aren’t Born Great, They Become Great

At the core of every traditional marketing strategy is the “big idea.” That’s why marketers spend countless hours in brainstorming sessions, looking for that one killer concept that can drive a campaign. The ‘big idea” essentially serves as an organizing principle.

Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, espouses a different view. He insists that “early on, all of our movies suck.” In Creativity Inc., he writes that his company’s initial ideas are “ugly babies” that are “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” Originality is fragile,” he continues. “Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly.  Our job is to protect the new.”

Think about that for a minute. The manager of what is possibly the world’s most successful creative enterprise not only doesn’t expect to start with a great idea, he doesn’t even expect to start out with a good idea.  Instead, he puts his faith in the process that Pixar has built, confident that ugly babies, when nurtured, can become beautiful swans. Not all of them of course, but enough to win 15 Academy Awards and billions at the box office.

And I think that gets to the heart of the matter. Great publishing is not about ideas, but about creating a process in which ideas can be honed and flourish. If you can do that, strategy really doesn’t matter. And if you can’t, it won’t matter either.

A previous version of this article was first published on Harvard Business Review.

Many consider me to be an unconventional thinker and that’s probably because I’ve led an unconventional career, spanning five different countries and a diverse group of businesses.

After spending 15 years living and working in Eastern Europe, building some of the premier publishing brands in the region, I returned to the United States in 2011 and served as SVP – Strategy & Innovation at Moxie Interactive, a division of Publicis Groupe, one of the world’s leading marketing services organizations.

Previously I was Co-CEO of KP Media, an integrated media publishing company, where we managed brands such as Bigmir, Ukraine’s leading digital platform, and Korrespondent, a news organization that played a pivotal role in the Orange Revolution, as well as a variety of female and lifestyle brands.

I now regularly contribute to Forbes and Harvard Business Review and am available for consulting and speaking engagements.

If you’d like to know more about me, please visit my LinkedIn profile or follow me on twitter: @DigitalTonto .



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