I’ve learned a lot in the last few years, much of it has helped me become a better content strategist, writer and speaker.
Even the frustrating stuff has made me a better and a more qualified evaluator of the marketplace and the role I can successfully play in it.
Recently, I was thumbing through an Evernote folder, when it hit me that I hadn’t chronicled many of the ideas running around in my head. In the course of jotting down (copious) notes, I had a wild idea: Write a “What I Learned…” post.
In the past, I’ve found such content to be hit or miss as regards usefulness to others. I was not deterred, however.
These are but a few of the things I’ve come to realize in the last 18 months:
Strategy > Content
In nearly every initial meeting with a prospect, when the topic of content comes up, the mood in the room seems to change. I sense apprehension. They’re typically dealing with an under-performing website that needs to be overhauled; there is an obvious need for new content. What they really want to talk about are SEO and PPC, which they seem to view as more valuable.
It’s not until I say “Content strategy is the glue that binds it all together” that I get their attention. “Strategy?” they almost always ask. It’s as though, to that point, they’ve only seen content as part of their problem. By tying it to strategy, content all of a sudden has purpose and, most important, new life in their eyes.
Let’s be honest: To most brands, content strategist means writer.
I’ve set up alerts for content strategy jobs posted on LinkedIn, even though I’m in no way looking for a job. I do this because I’m interested in reading the job descriptions for content strategy positions to discern what percentage of the openings entail heavy writing work.
With rare exception, writing is one of the main tasks for every one of the content strategy jobs I view on LinkedIn.
My problem with this? Brands don’t need more writers; what they need most are strategic direction, alignment, someone who is wiling to (a) ask the tough questions, (b) get her hands dirty in disparate parts of the business and (c) advocate internally for the brand.
#1 – Too much currency is wrapped up in being the smartest person in the room.
As much as I love online marketing, the one thing I can do without is the frequent pissing matches among SEOs and other digital marketers. We get more done when we don’t care who gets the credit.
#2 – Clients will never realize true, lasting success for their brands until they get out their own way
If 2014 was the year of transparency and authenticity, 2015 is the year of caring less. I’m still rabid about helping brands create meaningful connections for prospects and customers.
What I now refuse to do, however, is take personally the bad decisions brands make when they ignore sound advice—advice they previously agreed to—in favor of what feels right. Every brand I work with deserves my best; brands who earn my best will be those who don’t get in the way of their own progress.
#3 – The agency model is broken.
I’ve interviewed owners, executives and staff members from over 80 digital marketing agencies across the U.S. and Europe, and the overriding sense I get is, to borrow a line from The Wire’s Prop Joe, “[They’re selling] sh-t and calling it p-ss.”
With content marketing being all the rage, digital marketing agencies are stepping all over themselves to grab the business from brands large and small. The bad news is few of these agencies have the infrastructure in place to manage content in a way that’ll allow them to maintain the work long-term.
Unless and until online marketing agencies start making content a priority, and not a value-added service, clients will continue to hop from one agency to another, finding happiness at nary location.
#4 – Content is a much tougher sell than most people realize.
Getting brands to blog or to create e-books is easy. Selling them on the value of content, too, is easy. But getting brands to invest heavily in content for the long haul is an entirely different matter.
This journey begins with brands defining who they are and what they hope to accomplish, which sounds easy enough but too easily falls on deaf ears once the real heavy lifting starts. Instead of being willing to answer the tough questions and get their ducks in a row for long-term success, most brands want to skip right to tactics.
#5 – Empathy is more than a buzzword.
The first time I saw Jonathon Colman’s writings and presentations on empathy, I wondered “What the hell does that have to do with content?” Well, it didn’t take me long to realize the answer is “a lot.” Concern for the needs of users must be a priority, if brands hope to be successful online or offline.
Having empathy leads us to think of products and services not as they are designed to be used, but in all the ways possible that consumers might endeavor to use them. It means we begin by understanding “it’s not about me,” placing users’ needs in the seat normally reserved for our own selfish goals.
#6 – I’m better off for having female geeks (and nerds) in my life and career.
One of my proudest moments as a parent came when my then-eight-year-old said “I’m a math and science nerd; I’m proud of that.” She’s always taken learning seriously. I love that she appreciates learning, seeing it as cool but normal.
In the last 18 months, I’ve come to appreciate a lot of nerds and geeks, many of them female and all of them super- awesome people.
Also, through them I’ve come to recognize the challenges women face in the online marketing world, and beyond.
#7 – Clients need real help, not babysitters.
I knew my days of working at a digital marketing agency were numbered when members of the executive team called me into a meeting, on a Friday afternoon, to say “We need a content strategy for [a new client], fast. …Can you put one together in four days?”
I made them aware that the circumstances were less than ideal, but they’d get my best effort.
Fifty-two hours of work later (which was spread over four days, two of which were the weekend), the strategy I created impressed the client, and my team, but doomed my role as a strategist: Whenever a client screamed about anything in particular, we threw a content strategy at them.
Always on short notice. Always without the needed follow-through.
#8 – Working with clients is my true passion.
I long ago learned that, though I love people, working inside a large company as part of a large team was not my thing.
I don’t suffer arrogant jerks, pettiness or meetings very well without becoming resentful and, as my wife likes to say, “aloof.”
Professionally, my goals are rather simple: I want to help clients reach their goals in the shortest time possible and with the least amount of energy expended.
So, during my initial conversation with a prospect, I make one thing very clear: This is a relationship, so if ever either or our needs aren’t being met, we can and should seek a remedy without lingering.
My evident passion for being the best teammate possible is dwarfed only by comparison to the work I’m willing to put in to help them reach success.
#9 – Writing content for brands is a chore I don’t much enjoy.
The sentence above likely strikes many as weird coming from a writer. But one of the most honest assessments I’ve had to make is, while I love writing, I don’t enjoy most of the types of content writing (e.g., blogs especially) brands like to hire out for.
I actually had this realization in 2015, when it occurred to me that were I to actively court content-only work, I could easily double my salary.
I’d be miserable, however.
I enjoy showing brands how to create the types of content that will move their brand’s needle and then see them fly off and do so.
This helps brands develop an appreciation for the effort that goes into a successful content endeavor; it also serves to ensure that the folks they do hire—which is what they often do once they see how much time and energy creating worthwhile content takes—will be given the time and support to do their best work.
(I also enjoy helping brands find talented content writers.)
#10 – Digital marketers spend too much time in the echo chamber.
It took me a while, but I’ve come to love social media, especially Twitter and Google Plus. I use both primarily as learning tools and as a means of keeping abreast of the important conversations ongoing in the digital marketing landscape.
However, on a daily basis, I find myself wondering if marketers don’t spend too much time talking to one another and not enough time talking to our customers and prospects.
Frequently I’ll see a question from one marketer to another that could easily be answered with a simple email or phone call to an existing customer.
We need to remember what we think of as our customers’ problems might differ from the reality of their situations.
A simple fix is picking up the phone and talking to them.
Personally and professionally 2014 & 2015 was about transparency and authenticity; 2016 was all about “It’s not about me”; 2017 was about clarity; 2018 is the year of write/talk/teach.
I’m eager to see where that goes.
What’s your mantra for 2018?