Robert Rose to Hippo Connect attendees: content strategy is “stuck in average”

SUMMARY:

Robert Rose gave a blistering keynote at Hippo Connect 2016 on the state of content marketing. But it’s not all grim – he also shared memorable use cases. After his talk, Rose and I hashed out some quibbles in a post-keynote interview. Here’s my review.

robert-rose-keynoteIn an acerbic keynote that somehow wound up optimistically, Robert Rose of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) told Hippo Connect 2016 attendees that the state of strategic content was “stuck in average.” He used fresh CMI survey data to hammer a grim picture of small, overworked content teams spewing collateral without direction, flailing beneath indifferent corporate paymasters.

But Rose peppered his talk with use cases of content teams that turned this problem on its head, mastering owned media while achieving bottom line results even the fussiest of bean counters can’t argue with. After his talk at Boston’s Calderwood Pavillion, Rose joined me for a post-keynote interview where he elaborated on how companies can get out of the content cul de sac.

We also debated a few points of contention, including the friction of audience acquisition. (You can nab Rose’s slide deck at returnonaudience.com – no sign up required for free mini-audiobook, slides, and white paper).

“Strategic content is stuck in average.”

Rose warned attendees that we’re out of runway for spray-and-pray. Treating content as a “supercharged form of advertising” is a fail. Marketers must now “create and communicate value to a target market, at a profit.” (emphasis mine, but I suspect Rose would feel the same). It is no longer the marketer’s purview to throw content against the wall and hope it sticks.

Rose has disdain for the two main content approaches. To paraphrase:

We still view content through either the transactional lens, hoping for campaign value (or naively praying something goes viral), or from an inbound lens, hoping for magnetism. Neither is working.

Rose’s slam of the darling concept of inbound may surprise. Rose sees “inbound” as quick hits in disguise, swapping PDFs for short-term leads. Rose brought fresh data to prove his points, previewing CMI’s 2017 survey of 3,500 marketing professionals. This slide reeked of quiet despair:

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CMI survey results preview – photo by Jon Reed

Oh, and the 71 percent of respondents who are “just taking first steps”? That number has remained a depressing constant the last six(!) years. When Rose talks to companies, he hears:

We don’t have a content strategy; we have a giant to-do list.

But Rose didn’t stop there. When it comes to buy-in, only 20 percent are “committed to the [content] practice”:

So we’re doing more with less – with 20 percent buy in. The value of content is very short-lived. We’re producing more and more content, hoping some of it sticks for a little while… We are unable to measure the efficacy because it’s not a program; all we’re doing is creating a different kind of sales collateral material.

Then the punch line:

That’s how we spend our year – creating a disconnected pile of “assets.” We have assets coming out of our assets.

Three use cases of companies doing it right

So what’s Rose’s alternative? Craft a sustainable, owned media approach. That means creating a true asset: an audience of subscribers. That audience – which (hopefully) perceives value in the “experiences” we provide – becomes willing – even enthusiastic – participants in content results. What kinds of results? Rose frames such victories as “subscribe an audience,” “win a customer,” and “grow an advocate.” He gave a real-world example for each:

  • Subscribe an audience – Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter.com, with 4.5 million subscribers.  “Why would they do this?” Rose asked. “They’re not even advertising their own products on it.” BabyCenter.com makes money through outside ad revenue. But the big payoff is the insights gained: “They know that Moms plan their first baby’s birthday at ten months, because they’ve got the data to show for it… It is a esearch/insight gold mine,with 4.5 million mothers who opt-in to this particular platform and give their data willingly, because they get such value out of the platform.”
  • Win a customerIndium.com, which has become the “biggest media company in soldering.” Indium now publishes 17 different blogs, translated into six different languages – all written by engineers, sometimes with the help of ghost writers. Rose says Indium’s blogs produce “700 percent year over year in marketing leads over anything else they do.”
  • Grow an advocate – TD Americatrade’s thinkMoney magazine (an acquired print magazine). Once you become a TD Ameritrade customer, you trade on average one time per week. The more you trade, the more money TD Ameritrade makes. They’ve done studies that indicate six or seven months after they send customers this magazine, visit the web site and become a subscriber, their trading velocity goes up to five times a week. Rose says TD Amertrade’s media department says this print magazine is “the best marketing investment they ever made.”

Rose sums up these use cases:

There is real business value being generated from these properties. The one thing they all have in common: it’s an owned media experience that creates an audience.

Four action steps for overburdened content teams

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Robert Rose at Hippo Connect

So where are we headed? Rose believes we are moving towards content-as-business-strategy and, ultimately, content-as-business-model (2020+ timeframe). To get there, we have to stop force-fitting content into the advertising mindset. Owned media is changing the way we view paid media. Rethink.

So what about these overburdened content teams? How does Rose advise them on next steps? He has four:

1. Stop doing the stuff that doesn’t work – as in, don’t publish an email newsletter no one is reading.
2. Put together a media product plan for owned media – a content investment should increase in value over time, rather than one-off moonshots.
3. Map “tentpole pieces” to drive multiple areas of value throughout the year. Nutshell: define big/compelling content ideas that seed multiple pieces from lots of smaller, related concepts.
4. Integrate content value with business priorities, “Build an operation of owned media, not a campaign.” Do it gradually, with attention to quality. Rose suggests learning from agile/scrum software methods to generate content in an iterative way. It’ s easier to produce content in this style, and it’s easier to involve your audience in the process.

Contrary to marketing-speak, the real “asset” isn’t the content piece – it’s the audience you win. And once you earn that audience, it’s easier to maintain that attention over time.

To get “return on audience,” companies must play the long game

To tie it all together, Rose walked us through the case of a software company client, which built an online academy that’s served 100,000+ students. Results time:

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Then Rose made the most important point of the entire keynote:

None of that happened overnight… They planned it out over two years. They did all the tentpole pieces, built the content program. In the first couple of quarters, that’s when the “data append” started to appear. The 25 percent effectiveness on digital ad buys appeared a couple quarters after that. Then optimizing the site came after that. Then marketing 2x leads though the pipeline, and so on and so forth with the increased subscribers, and ultimately the ability to target at regional events.

This happens over time. Some of them they knew about; some of them they planned for; some of them just came as surprises. {They got there by] slowing down, and looking at this transformation as something different – as an owned media experience they were investing in.

And yes, the entire content operation runs at a profit.

My take

Rose made his case more effective by freely admitting the problems that plague content teams. I don’t take issue with the gist of what he advocates – though I have seen B2B companies get into trouble attempting to monetize content, rather than using it as a free, welcoming front porch to their big ticket items (example: too many enterprise software vendors charge for training that could be an invaluable opt-in resource). However I do think content can change marketing’s relationship to sales, getting the right folks to sales at the right time rather than tossing lists over the wall so salespeople can irritate registrants and waste time on poor fits.

During the post-keynote interview, we debated nuances. Rose sees the biggest friction as acquiring audience for the first time. I actually see the tougher problem – at least in the B2B space – as keeping the attention. Search can win one-time visitors, and do it with regularity, as long as daddy Google smiles. But even visitors that like you don’t necessarily come back – hectic projects distract.

You can combat this with opt-in scenarios. Rose admits they use opt-in pop-ups on the CMI site, “because they work.” But in the B2B space, you have to be wary which influential readers you alienate with aggressive opt-ins. Rose granted the point. We settled on one thing: the biggest friction is getting the opt-in. Once a visitor shares data, you’re onto something.

I should also mention when Rose talks about “subscribers,” he’s not talking about just an email address. He means a much deeper profile. Rose is amenable to the concepts of “progressive sign up” Hubspot has advocated, where audiences share more info over time as value and trust increase.

Robert Rose’s new book, co-authored by Carla Johnson, is called Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing. I was pleased to hear he fully credits The Experience Economy (1999) for prodding so many of us. The Experience Economy was one heck of a forecast of things yet to come.

Rose and I talked in more detail on the impact of AI on content and the hype of the data-driven enterprise. I’ll get to that in a future installment.

Image credit - On-site photos of Robert Rose by Jon Reed.

Disclosure - Hippo provided me with complimentary access to Hippo Connect. Diginomica has no financial ties to Robert Rose.

    Comments are closed.

    1. says:

      Wow… thanks for such a thorough, thought provoking and wonderful overview of that talk. Very refreshing…. Really enjoyed our Conversation Jon…

      1. Jon Reed says:

        Robert gladly – thanks for taking the time and distilling provocative and useful ideas. 🙂 The hard part was all I had to leave out, but that’s usually a good sign.

        – Jon