I've spent a few years now trying to convince people of the merits of a content-led marketing and communications programme. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see, first hand, how these things can work. By extension, I’ve also seen how they can grind to a halt and why they typically fail. With that in mind, I set myself the task of coming up with five of the most common barriers to generating great content.
These can afflict any nascent content programme so they're worth keeping an eye out for. In typical countdown fashion, let's get this started with revealing what made it in at number five...
#5 - A distinct lack of joy
This might seem an odd choice for my opening pick. The word “joy” is not one you’ll often see in a corporate environment. But that’s the point. We need a bit more joy in our lives. Who said corporate content had to be boring? But it is – and that’s probably related to the cultural norms I'll get to later on. Why must it be so dry and prosaic? Why can’t it be witty, incisive or engaging? There is no compelling reason why it can’t be.
If you’re not a writer, imagine what life is like in the corporate writer’s shoes every now and again. Yes, you’re a professional writer but – believe me – when you’re writing yet another self-congratulatory press release or turgid case study, you begin to question your life choices. Now imagine being given the chance to really showcase your skills and indulge your creativity (yes, corporate writers are creatives) and imagine how much effort you’ll likely put in.
Even the most professional of writers fears the descent into writing-by-template; the same old content with new company names and more platitudes in quotation marks. It’s a never-ending hamster’s wheel of uninspiring corporate language and non-existent stories from which no-one emerges with any credit.
An anecdote for you
I think that I write quickly but a writer in my team a few years ago gave me a real run for my money. She was talented and super-fast. But she also got bored quickly. Despairing of the writing-by-template, she banged out required pieces quickly but was then left twiddling her thumbs. I did what I could to keep her busy and engaged but I was fighting a losing battle.
Then the chance came along to try something different. She was to write a fictional account of someone going through the criminal justice system to highlight the current processes and intervention points. In a “Sliding Doors” style treatment, she then wrote the story in a second, alternative way. The idea was to imagine a better application of those intervention points, thus showing the client what they might be missing out on.
It wasn’t the most original creative treatment. But for those next few weeks, we saw the absolute best of her. She was writing a creative story in an austere corporate environment (and the end result really resonated with the client, by the way).
Anyone scoping out a new content programme is well advised to remember this. What’s going to really fire up your writers? Because, if they’re fired up and feeling the love, there will be a joy in their content which the reader can latch onto.
No-one becomes a writer to churn out press releases. Every writer has something going on in the background. That could be an idea for a novel, a screenplay, poetry, a personal blog or maybe a newsletter for a club or society. Tap into that passion and creativity. Your writers are valuable, scarce resources so make the most of them. Allow them to bring a bit of joy to proceedings. Corporate doesn’t have to mean boring.
#4 - Culture; not putting content front and centre
I've worked in some big marketing and communications teams. Talented people, ambitious projects, healthy budgets; we had them all. However, there was also a sizable disconnect between the marketing and sales teams. And it always felt that the corporate sympathies lay squarely with the sales team. The prevailing culture was one where marketing was a nice-to-have but the sales people were the ones who brought home the bacon.
That wasn’t necessarily anyone’s fault; it was just that a culture had emerged where the heroes were the people who closed the big deals after months of one-on-one sales targeting. It felt that marketing was something these people merely indulged in when they were less busy; to maintain a bit of noise in the market.
This meant was that marketing and comms activity wasn't really a critical part of the sales process or supported as whole-heartedly as it should have been. Trying to push forwards a content-led sub-strand of that activity was harder still because it was so counter-cultural.
In my ideal world, producing high quality, engaging content is part of the pervading corporate culture. More than that, it represents business as usual for many people in the organisation. It’s not something to be syndicated out to the marketing team. It’s inextricably linked to relationship building and the sales pipeline. Generating content is as important to a sales team as the regular phone conversations they have with their clients and targets.
No quick fix
Corporate culture doesn’t change overnight though. You have to demonstrate the value of what you’re proposing and you need buy-in from the people that matter.
For many new content programmes, that level of support may not be in place right at the start. That’s fine; it provides a target to aim for. However, it is something you must at least be aware of. How comfortably does the proposed programme sit within the current corporate culture? Believe me, when you’re lacking cultural support, the writer's desk can be a lonely place. This is what makes 'the wrong culture' one of the most head-bangingly frustrating barriers to generating great content.
Having sufficient support from your senior management is a related point worth mentioning here. A content programme can get by without mainstream cultural acceptance – temporarily at least - so long as it has senior leadership sanction. Such support can give it time to breathe and – hopefully – to prove and establish itself. However, trying to push ahead without cultural acceptance OR senior support is an exercise in futility.
To find out what made it into the top three slots on my problem 'hit parade', check out Part II in due course...