How much did you spend on content last year? How much should you spend on content this year?
You can’t know.
Outside of the most abstract of estimates, you can’t know the answers to both questions.
As I’ve shared, “content” is a big word. I describe it as the operating system of a business and the water you swim in. It’s everything that encompasses communication.
So when someone asks you, “How much did we spend on content,” they’re really asking, “How much money did we spend communicating?” You can argue the answer is “everything in the company’s total budget.”
Now, I get it. That explanation of communication expenses is clearly hyperbole. My point is this: You can’t ever know how much your company spent on the entirety of “content.” Further, you have no way to predict how much you will ever spend because the answer is always “more.”
Knowing the answer to the total content expense question isn’t anything other than trivial. Ironically, that very conundrum makes a content strategy important to your business.
Defining your content strategy
I worked with a global technology company last month. During the stakeholder interviews with both practitioners and senior leadership, we talked through their perspectives on how content could be more strategic in the business.
The head of marketing had a common comment and question: “I don’t think our business has a good handle on what we mean by content. For some, it means every headline, email, and social post. For others, it only means the long-form white papers, brochures, e-books, and videos we do … How is it even possible to get our arms around all of that?”
You won’t. You can’t. And you don’t have to.
Let me borrow from author and Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter who says in business, “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” The essence of any great content strategy is choosing what NOT to manage and measure.
Given the scope of content in the business, it is inevitable that you will make tradeoffs. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need a strategy because you could do everything.
A great content strategy creates a clear link between the actions people take based on a business’ well-defined set of content and the financial results of those actions. It is simply a choice.
Making the choice yours
My first and most important message for the head of marketing was that they must define “content.” That definition helps frame the necessary actions to put a strategy around it. Then and only then can you make choices about further actions or new areas of content to build into your strategy.
This exercise helps you define the content and informs what you’re not going to address in the initial strategy.
Step 1: Define content types
We worked with one company that saved $500,000 a year by having a common definition of an e-book. Previously, one global region defined an e-book as a 50-page, designed thought leadership piece produced as a PDF. Another region used that definition for a research report. A product group budgeted for an e-book as an interactive HTML-driven digital experience, but other groups called that a microsite. Still, another defined an e-book as a three-page article with an infographic. Others called that a market outlook. Those wide-ranging definitions meant they required a wide-ranging amount of work. You can see e-book development would lead to dramatic budget differences across regions and groups.
Take the time to define your content types and formats. What is a white paper? What is an e-book? What is a blog post vs. an article? What is a campaign vs. an initiative vs. a theme? Whether you are a marketing department of one who reports to the CEO or have 85 people in a global, cross-functional group of teams, you must ensure everybody across marketing and communications uses a common definition for each content type.
Step 2: Identify content purposes
You can’t put a strategy around a content format, so this step focuses on your content’s purpose. I call it the content class stack.
I strongly encourage you to see these as “content classes” based on business purposes (e.g., thought leadership vs. advertising) rather than content formats (e.g., text vs. video). Sort them by priority – content that changes often and/or has a high level of velocity behind it should be at the top. The goal is to create clarity for your major content classes, not identify every single thing created.
Though your content stack will be unique, this visualized generic example may help in understanding. It starts at the bottom with a content class of data and then moves up to application-level content (account information, internal instructions, etc.), followed by client-customer-level content (client services, training, emails, invoices, onboarding). Then it moves to product-level content, sales content, and standard marketing content (campaigns, web copy, events). Premium content marketing (presentations, blog posts, infographics, white papers, etc.), PR/comms content (press releases, news analyst relations), and social content round out the content classes.
Working from the content class priority list, you can begin to define the scope of the first iteration of the content strategy, the second phase, and so on.
Where do you start
The tech company’s head of marketing had one more question: “What is the best practice for where to start?”
I replied, “Yes.”
In other words, make a conscious choice about what is most important to your brand, not which or how many content classes to tackle first.
Only after you have agreement and a business-level decision on what you are and are not going to put a strategy around can you plot the responsibilities for creation, management, flow, and measurement.
With all that in place, next year, when you hear, “How much did we spend on content last year?” You will have a better and more useful answer because everybody knows the choices that were made.
It’s your story. Tell it well.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute