Creating a single piece of truly good content is hard.
The journey from an idea seedling to written masterpiece to getting into a true rhythm of publishing valuable brand content can be a psychological journey to Mordor. One does not simply walk into content marketing success.
The purpose of this article is to uncover the roots of your challenges and strengthen your foundation and help you create more content that matters.
There are many obstacles on the path to providing value to the individuals who make up your audience.
Comparing your thinking and writing to others.
Imaginary critics sitting in the corner smoking a pipe, watching, judging, laughing at the number of tweets you received.
Even your respected colleagues’ opinions and constructive criticism can be deflating when you think you’re almost to the finish line on an important piece of content.
Look! Here comes your favorite pal, Johnny Surprise Stakeholder, wondering why you are even covering this topic. By the time the content goes live, the heart has been sucked out and nothing happens.
Next, someone on your team gets impatient and declares the efforts to be failing. If you oversee the entire marketing effort, you might care about content marketing but are 2-3 steps removed from the actual creation process. So, you’ve trusted a big chunk of your brand to people who you might not have hired yourself. Now, your team is asking for a Blog Editor and a Sr. Content Marketing Manager, but you just had a bad dream about your CAC.
Or, say you’re in the trenches and creating or directly managing individual pieces of content. You’re under pressure to report exponential growth in Marketing Qualified Leads and rigorously tie your efforts to revenue. You don’t have much wiggle room for experimenting, even though you know that’s exactly what you need to do to find a breakthrough.
Over time, many teams grow until content is published like clockwork on microsites created by agencies of record who spent 780 billable hours customizing a Tumblr site. But no one is listening. IIRC, beat poet Allen Ginsberg once lamented, “I saw the finest minds of my generation destroyed by vanity metrics, building efficient machines for creating mediocre blog content in the night.”
It feels like this:
Of course, there are moments of sunshine and success. You hit a rhythm, and the narrative arc is a double rainbow. You’re all crying tears of joy. That was great! The views! The social shares! The cash register! Make a triple rainbow that bends up and to the right without additional budget, ok?
Why is it so hard for so many companies to produce enough engaging content, as the Content Marketing Institute Study shows us every year?
The root of the problem is cultural
Whether you think about it much or not, your company’s culture is right there with you. It is alive, at once an independent thing to which you belong, and a part of you as an individual. On the marketing team, your collective traditions and ways of communicating shape the ideas you voice and the choices you make about what to create.
As your company and the worlds (communication contexts) around you change, your culture evolves and either thrives or shrivels. If your leadership doesn’t reinforce a shared understanding of what you are creating together, your kingdom is divided and you cannot stand. You have many individuals gathered in one place but living in ambiguous, alternate realities. The world your company lives in, including your marketing effort, becomes stuck in confusion even if everyone looks busy.
The key symptom: feeling scattered
This isn’t just an indictment of you. We (the Visage and Column Five teams) face the same challenges, as we are content marketers and have been creating and promoting content for ourselves and other brands for almost 10 years.
We can be blinded by what others are doing.
We sometimes get tugged in many directions.
We are swamped with new tactics.
We haven’t always made bold choices about the conversation we want to own.
With so many distractions, how can we—and our content—stay focused?
The fix? Think critically about your culture. Again and again.
To stay sane, you have to simplify and clarify what’s important, both to your own company and the ideal customers you want to reach.
To do this, let’s examine the core thinking of your organization. This is the Mission Control of your Spaceship Earth.
If you’re a salty veteran of this process, take this red pill and call today a willing suspension of disbelief. Set aside kneejerk reactions such as “yeah, I understand vision, mission, etc. but I just need to generate leads” and “I don’t have time for ethereal fluff.”
The important work isn’t always novel.
This exercise will help your team shore up the real fundamentals and create content that matters.
What is a culture checkup?
This is a simple tool to help guide and focus your decision-making process and your content creation.
Conducting a culture checkup is a bit like a medical exam; you check your vitals, take inventory of symptoms, and diagnose any problems that need further care.
There are three fundamental elements to review in your culture checkup:
1. Vision statement (your organization’s purpose, or why you exist)
2. Mission statement (how you fulfill your vision)
3. Values (who you are as a team)
You can dig deeper later, of course, but getting these pillars right is your first order of business before moving into strategic and tactical considerations. If you believe there are elements that you want to add to your core thinking, or terminology that resonates with you, go with the language and hierarchy that makes sense to you.
How to get started
Here are the steps to running your culture checkup.
1. Gather any and all articulations of this thinking.
2. Find out if these core elements still resonate with the core leadership team.
3. See if this thinking has been shared with all employees.
4. Ask if it activates and guides people in their day-to-day decisions.
5. Assess which areas are already influencing your marketing efforts.
6. Get leadership attention on the weak spots.
7. Focus content creation efforts on aligning ideas to the strongest elements of your articulated culture.
Now, let’s take a closer look at each element of the culture checkup.
A vision statement contains your company’s DNA. It answers this simple question: Why does your company exist?
It’s a snapshot of your past, present, and future. It’s often a reflection of why the founder(s) started the company. It’s the purpose that guides you now and can be owned in the present. And it inspires you to keep going into an uncertain future.
You can bring this into your daily work by referring to your vision statement as a guidepost to ensure your content is helping fulfill your company’s reasons for existing. If your team really owns it, this becomes a deep, potent well to draw from in your ideation and creation process.
Here are a couple of good examples of companies who tie their collective efforts to a strong vision statement:
“Our motto—Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet — emphasizes that our vision reaches beyond food retailing. In fact, our deepest purpose as an organization is helping support the health, well-being, and healing of both people — customers, Team Members, and business organizations in general — and the planet.”
Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
These organizations aren’t perfect, but you see these statements manifest in the content they create, from published books to in-store displays to digital content. They are welcoming the accountability by bringing the company vision to the center of business communication.
As you continue to dig deeper, ask how your marketing team relates to the company vision.
Your mission statement shows how you are going to fulfill the purpose outlined in your vision. The most effective mission statements are often succinct. In fact, all employees should be able to memorize and recall it.
Mission statements might evolve more often than vision statements. They don’t need to be updated frequently—perhaps every two or three years. As my friend Mark Eckhardt at Common has pointed out, mission and vision are commonly collapsed into one, and this can pose its own challenges. Your collective expertise and focus are connected to but distinct from your actual reasons for showing up at the same building every day to do your work together. It’s helpful to have a shared articulation of both.
Great mission statements mobilize people and also serve as a gut check in the content creation process.
“Empower people to rise above poverty.”
“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.
*If you have a body, you are an athlete.” – Bill Bowerman, Nike Co-Founder
Note: Missions are reflective of how you are meeting your consumers’ needs. This is powerful to consider as you craft content; you want to make sure you are expressing what matters most to your market.
Your brand is comprised of a group of people. Your shared values form the reality of your work world. This is the heartbeat of your culture.
In the context of a culture checkup for your marketing team, let’s focus on values as who you are collectively (as opposed to personal values). It’s a shared code of conduct – what’s required of the group to survive and thrive in pursuit of the vision.
How do your values relate to content marketing? You don’t need to explicitly articulate your values in every piece of communication you create; individual elements can be implicit as a powerful undercurrent in any context or creative format. This is a source that first unites your team, but then becomes fuel for original ideation and expressions of your brand.
Inspiration for bringing your values to life:
The team wanted to communicate an important value, “Be Good to Each Other” to clients for a holiday gift. Rather than prominently displaying the words, three artists were engaged to illustrate unusual examples of animals in nature being good to each other.
As a cofounder of Column Five, I’ve witnessed the team take ownership of the Five Columns as a potent source of creative firepower in content creation.
Clif Bar & Company
Tapping into their “Employee Ingredients” and their “Five Aspirations,” Clif Bar & Company dedicates serious resources to both living their values and crafting content that shows the evidence of what they are doing. From the All Aspirations Annual Report to several content hubs that further their commitment to a sustainable future, Clif represents a model company for inspiration as you seek to align your content to your values.
How else does a culture checkup help focus your content creation?
On an ongoing basis, taking a moment to run through this culture checkup helps you decide which of your good ideas you can say “no” to—and which are most important to do right now.
Ideas either align with the intentional direction of the company—or they don’t.
Three real-life examples:
1. A culture checkup can help you choose collaborators—content creators, publishers, clients—that align with your worldview, increasing your ability to fulfill your vision.
2. It’s common for marketing teams to prescribe a content format as if the medium is the solution (to what?). Say your team has decided to write an e-book. Before writing a word, take a moment to review your culture checkup; have it present in your mind (or better yet, in front of you) as you’re starting to think about your outline for that e-book. Is there a more powerful message or story that needs to be told to your audience, and if so, what is the right medium to use and the distribution channel where you can reach them?
3. Use a simple approach to content ideation and experimentation: a) pick a strong culture element b) select a specific audience and c) choose the publishing context where you can reach them. You can get quickly get 20-25 ideas in one session with some notes on what is required to bring each of those ideas to life, and then critique your ideas the next day.
If you’re having a hard time choosing which ideas to execute—or it feels like you’re moving in a lot of different directions— culture checkups help you get your bearings. I love sharing our own challenges in this area and hearing the stories of other marketers as well. Feel free to reach out to me at jason at visage dot co if you’d like to share some ideas about building your content marketing on a solid foundation.
For more inspiration on creating original content, download our free e-book, Culture Marketing: Brand Content That Matters.