First, Consider Your Constraints

This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by content26, on Santa’s list of 2013 gift posts.

“Such channels! Many content! So opportunity! Wow!” That’s the voice of the average marketing department as they begin to learn about using custom publishing as a marketing tool.

When your marketers are continually bombarded with the mountains of enthralling and original content being produced by large organizations like Red Bull, it’s pretty easy for them to get a little too fired up about the opportunities offered by all these newfangled devices, media channels, and social platforms.

The problem, of course, is that you are probably not Red Bull. You are probably not Coca Cola or Disney either. You are probably another organization altogether, with your own unique business environment and culture, and your own very specific constraints. And you cannot go ahead and plan your content production and publishing efforts without a solid understanding and acceptance of these constraints, and then label this planning process “content strategy.”

As content strategists, part of our job is to help our marketing departments to temper their enthusiasm with a healthy dose of realism. The aim is to build a content strategy for the company you have, not the company you wish you had.

So before getting swept up in an excited frenzy of content planning, it would be wise to sit down with others in your organization and figure out the answers to (at least) the following questions.

1. “Do we have anything to say?”

You may assume you already know the answer to this. “Of course we have things to say! We’re experts in our field. We know stuff. Look at this diverse topic map and very, very full editorial calendar we’ve already put together! One lifetime could never contain all the stuff we can share with the world.”

Yeah, that’s great. But here’s the real question: Does the world want to hear all that stuff? Will your clients and prospective clients actually read or use all the infographics, blog posts, how-to articles, Facebook photos, and “Happy Friday, everyone!” tweets you’re planning?

Be honest with yourself. Is your content really going to add value to the lives of the people reading, hearing, or watching it? Or is it going to be just one more clamoring billboard heaped onto a pile of ultimately pointless, transient stuff? Will your content be worth their attention, and relevant to their lives?

Too often organizations flail around trying to maintain a presence on every available channel, when it’s clear that they have nothing useful to offer their audience. As my mother always said, “If you don’t have anything useful to say, then don’t say anything at all.” (My mother wasn’t great at proverbs and idioms, admittedly.) You don’t need to post prolifically–or even at all–on every channel at your disposal. Rather, pick just one, one that makes sense, and do a great job of it.

2. “How much content can we afford?”

Content is cheap. But good content–the kind you’d want associated with your brand–is not.

No, good content is expensive. It takes real skill to produce mature, smart content that is well-written, clear, and 100 percent on brand, and that skill costs money. But you would be far better off investing in this kind of content, and producing less of it, than approaching content as a commodity and squeezing as many words as you can out of each dollar.

So it’s essential that you figure out up front what your financial constraints are. How much budget can you realistically put towards content development and distribution? Can you afford in-house writers and editors? How many? How much content can they realistically push out each day, week or month? (Note: realistically. It is not realistic to expect even the best writers to produce content for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Writing is a creatively exhausting activity, and they’re going to need breaks.)

3. “Do we have buy-in at all levels?”

constraints-smallI have yet to see a content-related initiative of any kind survive without senior-level buy-in. If the people responsible for decision making at your organization are not on board and prepared to champion your efforts, your first step should be to understand why that is. They may very well have totally valid concerns that you had not considered. If you’re absolutely sure that’s not the case, then you need to find new ways of getting them involved and committed. This is part of the job.

Senior-level buy-in is not the only kind you need, though. If you don’t have a dedicated content team, or if your content creation efforts are going to be reliant on input from subject matter experts and other non-editorial staff, then you need to have them wholeheartedly on board from the start.

If you will be relying on non-editorial staff to play any role in publishing, you should make sure that this role is formally written into their job descriptions and forms part of the KPIs on which they will be assessed.

Content cannot be produced through sheer willpower and desire–not even if you add in pixie dust and unicorn tears. It takes the time of real people, people who almost certainly have other responsibilities that they consider far more pressing. Make sure that you have a realistic grasp of what you can and can’t expect from people, regardless of the promises they make to you.

4. “Do we have the skills we need?”

Writing skills are just one part of the picture, and often writing is the workpiece that is easiest to outsource. Regardless of how your content will actually be produced, you need to ensure that you have adequate editorial support at a higher skill level. Who will be responsible for editorial oversight? Who will sign off on each piece of content?

What about publishing and distribution? Do you have the knowledge and skills within your organization not just to create the content, but to publish it too?

Are there legal constraints around the kind of content your organization can publish, and if so, are your editorial and publishing staff familiar with these constraints? Are there risks associated with publishing certain types of content? Do the people who will be hitting the “publish” or “Tweet” button understand these risks fully? Are they mature enough to handle a potential communications crisis or the fallout of an editorial error?

5. “Are the basics in place?”

This might be the most important question of all. Are you ignoring the fundamentals in favor of the fun stuff?

Does the information architecture and page structure of your website leave your visitors bewildered and frustrated? Is your call center taking too many calls because the support content on your site is inconsistent or outdated? Is your monthly email newsletter littered with typos and grammar mistakes? If so, then perhaps the budget you’re about to allocate to producing new content should be going towards improving the basics first.

There are few worse marketing crimes than drawing an audience of prospective customers through informative industry content or an eye-catching campaign and then promptly chasing them away with shoddy help pages, confusing content, and inconsistent information. Before you embark on any drive to produce new content for marketing purposes, make sure that your existing content is both usable and useful–across all channels, not just digital.

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