A perspective from Content Marketing World 2018

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Our team attended Content Marketing World in Cleveland, Ohio, where we learned that the difference between good and great content comes down to you.

Kate Thompson

Recently Nick (our Managing Director) and I attended the 8th annual Content Marketing World conference. Recognised as the largest content marketing event in the world, 4,000 delegates gathered in Cleveland, Ohio where they could experience more than 150 keynote presentations, breakout sessions and workshops – as well as a jam-packed social calendar – across four days.

With an event of this scale, which curates many different perspectives from all corners of the globe, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But Content Marketing World is what you make it. If that’s rubbing shoulders with the industry’s sharpest thinkers over a cocktail or two, getting hands-on learning code in a technical session about artificial intelligence, or getting your dose of inspiration from some of the most theatrical and insightful speakers on the planet, it’s up to you.

In fact, for me that’s the key take out from the event overall: the difference between good and great content comes down to you. The way your brand behaves, shapes experiences and creates content is a conscious choice. While in Cleveland I realised that there are a few common traps we can all fall into that prevent us from reaching content greatness.

So, instead of offering you a different spin on some of the existing wrap ups out there, including those from NewsCred, Contently, and even fellow Aussie Zeina Khodr, I'm going to share three common barriers content marketers face and what we can do to overcome them. 

1. Engineers versus philosophers

Listening to Scott Monty (CEO, Brain+Trust Partners) toward the end of day two, I started to understand that many content marketers seem to operate with an engineer’s mindset. We analyse a situation before building a practical ‘on spec’ solution using systems and processes that enable an efficient workflow. Then we rinse and repeat; again and again (sometimes without knowing what worked, what didn’t, and why – but that’s another story). This mindset can be great for the development of public infrastructure, or perhaps even manufacturing products, but is it right for the business of building brand relationships?

Don’t get me wrong, marketing process and workflow is essential to enable content creation and distribution at scale, but even the technology panel of Ed Breault (Aprimo), Tricia Travaline (CMO, Skyword) and Paul Michaud (Sprinklr) unanimously agreed software isn’t a silver bullet. And Noah Brier (CTO, Percolate) shared his ‘marketing variance spectrum’ framework, which argued that low variability or routine tasks can be automated, while creative ideation and production breeds on our imagination.

Simply, marketing is first and foremost a creative discipline. The most important thing is putting meaning and purpose at the forefront of everything we craft: the very essence of what Kathleen Diamantakis (MD of Strategy, T-Brand/New York Times) shared in her keynote. Our engineering mindset has many of us chasing the wrong goal – quantity with efficiency – and it’s preventing brands from being genuine, useful, relevant and making meaningful connections.

From where I sit, we all need to challenge ourselves to embrace more attributes of the modern philosopher; a person who is deeply curious, has genuine empathy for the people at the centre of the situation, challenges conventions, and casts their mind to what’s possible, not just practical.

I’m not the only person who is thinking about this. Jay Acunzo built quite the argument about why we need to think more critically and “be better than best practices”. He provoked marketers in the room to ask “what if” rather than chase down the latest tricks of the trade as best practices just don’t work best 100 per cent of the time. 

In short:

PROBLEM: Marketers tend to think like engineers instead of philosophers.
SOLUTION: We need to ask, ‘what if’ and inject meaning into all the content we create. 


2. Channels versus customers

It‘s surprising that even in the age of customer experience, many of us can’t help but think in channels. And in order to be more customer-centric, we focus on providing choice and control, which means we often throw around words like ‘omnichannel’ and ‘multichannel’ without thinking about what our customers want to achieve, and why. Hey, even I’ve been guilty of it. Truly understanding people and finding the gold nuggets that guide our content operation is hard work. But it pays off.

Nearly every speaker at Content Marketing World 2018 had something to say about starting with the end in mind (what your customer wants and needs – their future state), knowing your audience (who they are – and far beyond demographics or what channels they use along the journey), and ignoring the limitations, myths and conventions that come with a channel mentality (for example, don’t listen to a person who tells you that web articles have to be 500 words or less for a mobile reader).

Early on day one Robert Rose (CSO, Content Marketing Institute) talked about a new player that’s entered content marketing: trust. In the era of fake news, this is a bit of a no brainer. I tend to think that this ‘player’ has been around for some time. But earning trust requires a deep commitment to the audience, and an ongoing effort to forge a relationship by being consistent and impactful. It has nothing to do with channels. It has everything to do with purpose. 

Following on from Robert, Andrew Davis (best-selling author and keynote speaker) talked about some of life’s biggest scarcities: time and attention. He believes people are “capable of paying attention as long as we grab and hold their attention.” In a captivating presentation he convinced everyone with his spin on basic advertising theory, encouraging those in the room to create a curiosity gap in their storytelling and “delay the reveal” – while live editing an accounting firm’s testimonial clip. Hilarious. 

The most powerful point Andrew shared was the idea that our relentless focus on optimising for channels, and blind belief that the mobile revolution has shortened our attention span to eight seconds, has caused us to eliminate “every element that makes it (content) interesting”.

A content marketing world talk

Joe Lazauskas
 (Content Strategy Director, Contently) spoke on a similar theme when demonstrating that the power of emotion creates a deeper connection with an audience. Again, not new news, but he brought this idea to life by conducting a live neuroscience experiment and was able to show that there are four keys to content success: being relatable, novel, fluent and building tension. These are not channel attributes; they are about people and how we process information.

All in all, the things that stuck with me the most across the event were anchored in the philosophy of questions like “who are we talking to?”, “what do they need?”, “how can we be relevant?”, and “what would it take to build brand love”, not “how do I improve my email newsletter performance?”, “why is my social engagement so low?”, or “how do I get more web traffic?” Perhaps the best advice to avoid this trap comes from Scott Monty when he quoted Cicero, “if you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings and speak my words”. Or maybe it was Jay Acunzo with his quote “when we pay more attention to the customer than the industry, the customer pays more attention to us.

In short:

PROBLEM: Marketers often think channel-first.
SOLUTION: Invest the time to truly know your audience and craft the right story.


3. Differences versus similarities 

The third barrier challenging content marketers across the globe derives from how our teams are structured to create content. 

For many of us the idea of content nirvana – having a completely integrated enterprise content operation – feels light years away. In many cases we work in a company where there are multiple teams across different departments creating and publishing content without any coordination, and certainly no central strategy or shared visibility of content plans. We are set up to focus on our differences, often our channel or department goals. This lack of collaboration and direction usually means senior leaders are jostling for ownership, causing an ‘us and them’ mentality; a cultural challenge that affects the quality of the content, limits its performance and influences the value people place on it – not to mention what it does for the customers’ experience.

But keep dreaming, because content nirvana is possible. After listening to Marc Graser (Content & Creative Director, Marriott International) and agency partner John Fernandez (VP Revenue Marketing, Contently) talk about how Marriott built a ‘Content Centre of Excellence’, the journey became clearer to me – though it certainly won’t happen overnight. 

The Marriott we hold in such high esteem today is the same Marriott that once operated content marketing as a ‘side project’. Getting it to an international scale has involved building relationships across the business, assembling the right internal talent and agency partners, documenting a shared process, implementing technology and ultimately crafting a single strategy. Today, every piece of content Marriott creates delivers on the brand idea “we are why we travel”, with a blended agency and in-house operation that spans editorial, video and social media.

For any content marketers starting or mid-way along this journey it seems like the best thing you can do upfront is find your people, knock down the silos and quickly identify some common ground. Identify your similarities – the things that can bring you together (hint – it’s probably the customer). You may not be able to affect organisational structure right now, but you sure can build relationships and work together to prove the value of content one step at a time. 

The maturity curve exists on four dimensions: strategy, people, process and technology. Early on, it will be chaos, content will be campaign-based, and you won’t have a documented strategy. But as they say, “from little things big things grow”. It seems from everything Marc and John were saying the tipping point is when there’s a shared content vision and centralised team, which they call “organisational interlock”. Hence why it’s critical to build relationships early and be the content leader today that your organisation needs for tomorrow.

In short:

PROBLEM: Operational limitations create differences that prevent us unlocking content’s true value.
SOLUTION: Knock down the silos and make small steps with people, process, technology and ultimately strategy.

For the sophisticated marketer you might get to this point and feel it’s all a bit fundamental. But that’s interesting in itself – plenty of people are still struggling with the basics. So count yourself lucky and have a think about how you can pay it forward. Hopefully this digest has been a good read for you if nothing else. I also crafted a snappy ‘key outtakes’ deck which you can flick through below:

And, Kingman Ink did a great job of visual note-taking through 20 of the talks.

Overall, there were plenty of great sessions on artificial intelligence, technology, SEO, data and video production, so please reach out if you’re interested in learning more or have questions you think I might be able to shed light on.

Hardie Grant Media will also be hosting some in-house sessions over the coming months featuring select presentations direct from Content Marketing World. With access to official footage of the event, we plan to stream some of the keynotes as part of our regular staff ‘lunch and learn’ series and we’d love to see as many of our clients there as possible. Get in touch with your Account Director for dates and times.

If you can’t make time to join us, I’m always happy to field any specific questions or get together separately. Email me at katethompson@hardiegrant.com

Kate Thompson is strategy director at Hardie Grant Media. If you want to win her over it’s best to bring coffee, craft beer, or both.