English Español Deutsch Français Italiano Português (Brasil) Русский 中文 日本語

Content Marketing for Teams: Collaboration, Structure and Leadership




Andy: Welcome, everybody. I'm Andy from Orbit Media Studios, and you are here live with us now in real-time for another SEMrush webinar. I'm really excited because, despite all the things happening in the world, we're going to take a break from 24-hour nonstop news media coverage, take a deep breath, step back, and focus back on our content, focus back on our strategy, on our marketing, and we've got a great person to talk to about that today, which is Robert. 

Robert, you all should know the name. I'm not sure where you've been if you don't know the name. If you don't yet, this is an amazing opportunity to introduce yourself, familiarize yourself with the man who knows content strategy intimately. It's in his blood. We're talking decades. I'm going to say, you've got like 20 years of digital strategy, right?

Robert: Yes, you can see it written all over my face. I have the gray hair and the wrinkles to prove it. Yeah, indeed. Content's a tough business, kid.

Andy: Robert is very closely aligned with the brand of Content Marketing Institute, where he's led research and coverage on topics of the day. Their content strategy is fascinating, he may tell us a bit about it. 

Specifically, we're talking about teams today. There's a lot of us who are part of micro teams, onesie, twosie, but Robert's going to help us from smaller teams see the future, how we will grow, the things we need to have in place when we grow, and for anybody who's collaborating with more than two, three people, what the frameworks are, what the structures are. 

He and I have both worked together on some very large brands with some really interesting challenges, but he's going to break it down for us. Without further ado, Robert, share with me and the SEMrush audience your approach to talking to your clients day in, day out about working on teams.

The Impact of Your Content Reflects How You’re Organized 

Robert: The key is whether you're a team of one, a team of five, or a team of 100, how do you start to structure so that you can actually scale? The two questions that we get all the time in content is, how do I scale this thing, in other words, how do I do more basically, and then two, how do I actually measure this thing? 

When we go into any client... and again, it really is independent of how big they are or how big the team is, whenever I hear the complaints of, "Well, we're an on-demand vending machine of content to the sales team," or, "We don't really have a content strategy," or, "Our editorial calendar isn't really a calendar, it's more just a to-do list of all the stuff that we have to do that's been assigned to us," or, "Our SEO is really struggling right now because we don't have the time to put into the pre-work and all the metadata and everything we want to put into the content. We're too busy trying to churn stuff out." 

Whenever you hear those things, what ends up happening is it immediately tells me that we're imbalanced, we have an imbalanced operating model for our team, for the structure. Let me share a couple of slides here that might help here in terms of what we're seeing out in the marketplace. And so, I'll just share that and hit play. 

It starts with something that for many of you in the audience you might be familiar with, which is this saying called “don't ship the org chart”. It was made famous by a guy by the name of Steven Sinofsky. Basically what he was saying is that when you're communicating, whether you're developing a product, whether you're looking at communicating, building a website, building a content strategy, whatever it is, don't communicate in the same way that you're organized.

And we still see this today. We still see it in the way websites are developed, in the way that we develop products, and it is reflective rather of the way that we're organized, rather than how we want to be customer-centric, or how we want to be more audience-centric in the way that we communicate. 

We still have websites where there's a section called products, separated out by the different product groups, rather than by how customers actually think about them. Because why? Well, we're separated that way internally by teams. 

We have a separate section called news or PR because of course, that's where they manage. And we have a separate area of the website for bios and for our brand and where the brand people manage. We've segmented this off into those silos, and it's in many ways the way that we institutionally communicate.

But the interesting thing, of course, is that he wasn't actually issuing a warning. He wasn't saying, "Don't do that." He was saying, "No, no, no. It's inevitable. You're going to do that. You're going to ship the org chart. However you communicate will reflect the way that you're organized, and basically, that's the way you're going to talk." 

And of course, that is something that represents a guy by the name of Melvin Conway who created in the 1960s a thing called Conway's Law, which was basically in a very complex way, he basically said, "Look, organization design is the way you're going to create communications or your product. Organizational design is product design. You will speak in the way that your team is organized." 

Basically, what we've come down to is how well you communicate as a business, how well you create content, how well content operates, is in direct correlation with the balance and the importance you put on the strategy of it. In other words, the more strategy and forethought and thinking you put into the balance of your team's exercise, what they do for a living, the way it's going to actually work. That's the way you will communicate.

In so many ways, the business doesn't do that. We throw crap against the wall and we hope some of it sticks, and a lot of it doesn't.

Andy: That's a little bit counterintuitive. So, you're saying that to improve the messaging, to improve the connection of the content with our audience, we need to first look at how we are structured, improve the organization's streamlines, efficiencies, balance, and therefore, and that will cause improved marketing as a result. It's like not trying to change the content. It's first looking at ourselves.

Robert: We've just watched it happen over the last decade, which is, you can't really change the way that you communicate and use content until you actually operate in a way that is balanced against what it is you're trying to say. 

The key is, okay, when we hear those complaints, “we're siloed, we're struggling to scale, we can't measure this thing, we're trying to get the SEO”. What it tells me...is we have to get what we call the right operating model balance.

Taking Responsibility for Your Content Strategy

You're running programs. You've got a plan. You're producing... Yes, you've got a webinar, and you know how you're going to repurpose that in other formats or content, and it's going to get promoted over here, and you've got channels that the dots connect. In your experience, where is the most common gap for not the Symantecs, but the smaller teams, the teams with three or five people, the $10 million to $50 million business?

Robert: The biggest gap is that what they look at is content is everybody's job and nobody's strategy. And so, many of those people that are really smart, talented people lie in that lower right-hand side, where, okay, we're just going to give it up, that sales guys are going to create content, the C-suites going to create content, marketing people are going to create content, web team is going to create content. They've got agencies creating content.

That gap between where our content strategy is going and where it currently is from a content production standpoint is the most common gap. And then you say, "Well, great, how do I, as an SEO guy or a gal focused on figuring out how I'm going to create templates into CMS and the translation and the taxonomy and the keyword strategies, how am I going to fix that?" 

Well, the key is that leadership has to come typically from wherever we are. And so, the leadership there is to say, "Listen, what we're trying to do, if we're squarely in the processor model, what we're trying to do, and our expertise as a team or my expertise as an individual is to get our arms around the structure of content." Because that's what we're talking about with SEO, really. SEO is about content structure; how do we structure it in a way that helps us optimize its distribution and viewability and all of the rest of the things that we're trying to do.

And so, taking that bigger strategy for what the model is and saying, "I need permission, or I need to go just take responsibility for the overall structure, guidelines, protocols. Here's the training. Here's the best practices. If that's going to be the anchor of our new operating model, let's take it, let's build it, let's build it enterprise-wide so that we are a leading integrated business service." 

What that does, and I've just watched it happen, is it frees up resources. Getting organized and better about content typically frees up resources, time, for you to think about other things. And what those other things might be is to say, okay, now is the time for us to go look at marketing and say, "Hey marketing, here's what we might do to help you evolve how you're actually producing these assets, how you're actually changing the workflow of those things."

The Importance of Clearly Understanding Your Content Production Costs

We did an exercise where we, and quite frankly, it was the SEO team as well as the CMS team, we basically did... we're not accountants, but we kind of did forensic accounting where we had them print out all of the expenditures in marketing, and we went through and reverse engineered all of the expenses in content. 

The fascinating thing was, was what's an ebook? What's an article? What's a blog post? What's a presentation? What's a project versus an initiative? All of those things, they had no common nomenclature for and no common taxonomy, no structure for. 

Europe was spending maybe 15,000 euros for a white paper, and where Asia-Pac was spending maybe $5,000 or yen for an ebook; there wasn't apples to apples. It's like, you're spending way more money on this same kind of output over here than over there, and even just wrangling a common nomenclature around what they were calling content pieces, gave them savings of millions of dollars every year because quite frankly they were just wasting money because it was being hidden in all of these costs.

Structuring even just the nomenclature of what you call content, and that's arguably the job of the processor model, is to get our arms around what it is and how we're spending on assets that we're creating.

Andy: Yeah. I think that's... it's a question... time is harder to manage and measure than money. Money's very easy to measure. Service-based companies like ours, we have to track time, and we're very serious about tracking time. For years, I don't do it lately, but for years I tracked time down to the quarter-hour increment. I don't think most people have a sense for what their content costs them.

Robert: One of the biggest savings that came out of this exercise that we did for this company, was what they were spending on what they thought were synonymous things. In other words, what is a blog post? Really, what is it? What is a blog post? Is it a 2,500 word with images set of text, written in a Microsoft Word document that ultimately gets published...and then there's time associated with the production, the SEO-ization, all of the stuff that we have to do to it, that is time-based as well.

How much does that cost us? Versus, how much does a 2,500 word white paper cost us, that we don't go through SEO on, that we don't do all of those things with? Or, what does an email cost us, or what does a social post cost us, or whatever?

Do you need to go that granular? I don't know. You can make your own decision there. The point being is, if we get a common structure, a way that we define the standards of the way that we communicate, and arguably, us as content strategists should be responsible for that, we can take a leadership position in the organization to say, "We can not only help you optimize the activation and distribution of your content, we can actually help activate the better way and more efficient way to create, manage, and produce the content as well."

Andy: Just bear with me for a mini thought experiment. You and I are executives in a mid-sized company, and we just decided to measure the actual cost of our content and we're now looking at spreadsheets that show it. Examples of hypotheses and ideas we might have immediately.

Wow, our marketing team is actually spending a huge amount of time making presentations for salespeople doing just sales support. That would be a very likely outcome. Or, wow, it might be more efficient for us to put paid dollars behind this piece of content than to have our team run around in circles doing a ton of outreach or social promotion for which we're getting very little traction. Paid dollars behind content, you don't see it enough. You and I have both seen the research that shows that there's value there.

Another example might be, hey, based on how hard this content works for us, even though video is 10x the effort and cost, the results are 100x, we should really be doubling down on this format and pulling back from this other format.

Robert: That's a huge one, because so many times... and this can happen in small businesses, we create that amazing thought leadership... amazing white paper or article, we put it out there, and it does great, and then two quarters later, it's completely forgotten about because we never revisited it, we never cared about it again. 

And so we go, “oh, well, it was two quarters ago. Of course, we don't ever do it again.” Well, why not? Why haven't we revisited it or created a video out of it, or created a webinar out of it? There was a huge idea in that little article, and we never explored it because we just did it as part of our to-do list and never revisited it again.

Andy: I think that, if nothing else, one thing we've just heard as a challenge to each of us to take steps toward measuring the cost of content production promotion and aligning that with the outcomes, and just having a truthful conversation with yourself, your team, about where your time is going.

Content Costs and Team Budgets

Got a question coming in from Jeannie Hill. I'm going to read this to you, Robert. Let's see what you think. How do you discuss delicate real content cost if team members are vying for the same budgets? Thanks, Kate, for putting that up.

Robert: Fantastic question. The real answer is, so it already tells me that if that's a real issue for you or your clients or whatever you're dealing with, there's a model imbalance there. Because if we're all fighting for the same budget, then something's wrong.

I see this all the time, where groups are competing with each other, where you've got the blog team that's competing with the thought leadership or sales enablement team for budget around building assets because we're weirdly competing for the same audience. And that's a challenge. What I can advise is that everybody needs to get together. And so, changing up the operating model... 

Andy: What do you do when team members are vying for the same budget? Finite resources, territorial defense, people trying to protect. It's the prioritization when you've got fixed resources and unlimited demands. 

Robert: One of the things that I might suggest for you, Jeannie, is that you start to look at the planning and production process for content across all of the different groups. I can't address the emotional or the politics or if any of them are not nice people or whatever. I can't address that part of it.

Andy: I think this could help with politics, but continue.

Robert: It can help with politics. Can we rebalance what we're doing across all those different groups and say, all right, our production process, we want to shoot for maybe 60%. Basically... can we get 60% of our efforts to be proactive? 

In other words, a proactive looking forward calendar. Whether that's assets or blog posts for our product or whatever it happens to be. We're going to have SEO focus, we're going to have editorial ideas, we're going to have our target goals, et cetera. 

And then 40%, because we know we won't cover the whole thing, will be reactive. The business needs this. The CEO wants his video. All of those things. All of that goes into a cross-functional group, call them the editorial board, call it a center of excellence, call it whatever you like, and basically, that's where we're going to set our priorities because chances are you all have similar needs. Similar needs that could be synergized around strategic projects. 

Those strategic projects then are the priorities that get created in a structured way, in the way that we can break them apart, to meet the needs of the social team, the other team, the blog team, the sales enablement team, my web team, et cetera.

We have a shared calendar where we create all of these things and the production of them, et cetera, when they're going to be available. Slow down the process and create more strategic big rock pieces of content that enables everybody's budget to go further, and out of that, in your typical production stamp, your plan, your build, your distribute, your manage, all of that standard production process, out of that comes activations, so that everybody's getting their activated needs, and you're leveraging a shared... not necessarily technically shared budget, but a joined process that meets everybody's needs.

Andy: So, something else between the lines there for Jeannie is that you've got limited budgets. What you just described is a process for reducing waste.

Robert: That's right. That's exactly right. That editorial board can help settle disputes, hopefully. Again, emotions and politics notwithstanding. But it can also help eliminate all of the reduplication. 

A classic example of this was we did some work with an insurance company, and quite frankly, the woman who runs the program there is a super smart woman, and she said to me one day, she said, "If I have to see one more damn article on distracted driving in my CMS system I'm going to kill somebody." 

They had 37 articles on distracted driving in their CMS system. Why? Because it was just simply easier for some marketing manager to go, "Oh, let's just hire a freelancer to write an article on distracted driving," than it was to go search the CMS system for something they could reproduce. And so, they could've literally saved themselves 35 iterations of distracted driving articles by simply just getting together and saying, "Here's a structured piece that can be broken up into multiple pieces, an article, a blog post, a social post, infographic, whatever, on distracted driving and that becomes the single source of the truth."

Andy: Boy, that just made it really real for me, because as an SEO, I just think about the huge lost opportunity of having 35 URLs that are all medium quality articles on the same topic.

Robert: Don't even get me started on that one, because all those articles, by the way, are public. They're stuck on the website. They're stuck in the resource center. They're stuck in the blog. They're stuck in the PR newsroom. 

Andy: Yeah. That's sometimes called keyword cannibalization. You've got a bunch of URLs that are all slightly relevant for the same topic instead of having one URL that's an amazing URL on the topic.

And this is something, just a side note for this audience because a lot of SEOs here, you will often get way better results by going back and updating an old article than by publishing a new one. 

If you've got an editorial board who has that has conversations and says, "Wait, that is a good topic, but before you make something new on that, let's go back and look. Do we have any URLs on our site that have link equity? Do we have any good answers, expert contributions? Do we have any videos or supportive assets on this?" 

Build up one page to be the best page on your website, in fact, the best page on the internet for the topic, distracted driving. If you're going to write another article about it, let that be a guest post for another site that links back to your best page on the internet about distracted driving, for which you wouldn't use a freelancer. 

Robert: It's just a great example of how the SEO managers, director, the team's job is bigger than just making sure that it ranks high on Google. It's to structure content in a way that we don't have waste. And so, beyond the SEO implications, which you just outlined beautifully, which are so powerful, there's also a cost there. 

Andy: We're going to save at least eight or 10 minutes here for the elephant in the room, Coronavirus, how to do marketing and should we be doing marketing. Massive, interesting questions, important questions for us right now. Can't avoid it. 

Balancing Paid and Organic Content Promotion

But first, very briefly, Stephanie asks, “what's the criteria for balance between paid and organic promotion?” Thank you for your question, Stephanie. I'll say briefly that it really might depend on the piece, because there are things there organic just won't work very well and paid might work beautifully. There's other things where paid might be a big challenge. I think it comes down often to the topic or the format. 

But, what do you think, Robert? Do you have any thoughts about just generally speaking? We know that paid is often an under-investment. What do you think?

Robert: It's a little bit like what we were just talking about with the balance of how much time and effort and money do you put into creation and production. So, it's a very similar thing here, which is basically, when we think about the marketing mix of organic versus the marketing mix of paid promotion, what's the right mix, and the right mix is basically dependent upon your goals. 

Ensuring Content Quality within Teams

Andy: “How do we ensure the quality of content within the team? Any tools for ensuring quality? Also, how can quality be tied to metrics considering quality can be so subjective?”

I talked to someone recently who said that the value of attention is something like one cent, this is the US, one cent per minute per visitor or per viewer. Now, if you think about content, how hard it's working for you, as in average time on page multiplied by the number of page views, or for video, the average duration multiplied by number of views, you probably can get to metrics across formats that will give you a sense for how engaging that content is for an audience, at least in total invisibility.

But really, the quality is probably better connected to the conversion potential of that piece of content. What is the conversion rate from it? Visitors who read this article are how likely to download the ebook or subscribe to the newsletter, or is this page, a page on the user flow, a popular page, on the way to becoming a lead? Quality equals ability to persuade. If you think of it that way, then the best tool for that is analytics.

Robert: Yeah. A version of that is my answer as well, because whenever quality comes up, I always say, "Well, what does quality mean?" Because it's different for different people. To a Hollywood producer, quality is how many butts did I put into the seat, and quite frankly, so I'll do anything to get there. I'll make a show about the Kardashians, or I'll make some crappy thing, but it's very popular and it puts butts in the seat. 

For an auteur, for a director, for some artist/director, it may be, quite frankly, the quality for a very niche audience and how many awards it wins or how many, quite frankly, people did it affect. And then for someone else, an educator for example, it might be, did I actually teach the thing successfully? Quality is such a subjective thing.

I always get to what you just said, which is persuasion. I put it into the category of, did they do what I want them to do, on the other side of it. Did they click? Did they subscribe? Did they get educated and say they got educated? Did they actually get the effect that I intended? And that's what defines quality. 

All of that can be measured with varying tools, whether it's something qualitative like a poll or a survey or a five-star rating on how well did this content meet your needs, to everything from conversion rates to SEO results, et cetera. All of the tools combined can help you measure, are we increasing over time the quality of our content because we're having people do more things.

Andy: Thank you, Robert.

Robert: Thank you. Thank you for having me. This was fun.

Andy: And thank you, Anton, thank you, Kate, thank you, SEMrush, thank you, everyone, for attending. You will all be getting a recording of this live.  And I will see you next time. Keep an eye on this space for future webinars. Take care, everyone.

All levels