Cleveland is known for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, its excellent hospitals and its terrible football team. It’s also home base for the annual Content Marketing World conference, which started in 2011 and now attracts 4,000 attendees.

A quick glance at the schedule was enough to provoke a minor panic attack. More than 120 sessions broken into 14 tracks, from content creation to SEO to sales enablement to audience building to research and insights.

The sheer magnitude of the facility – Huntington Convention Centre spans 225,000 square feet – and the amount of content means you need a game plan. With the caveat that I hardly scratched the surface of #CMworld – attending 13 sessions over three days, or roughly 10 per cent of the programming – here are six themes that stood out:

1. Make creativity a habit, not a Hail Mary

It sounds impossible, but creativity should be something you do consistently – not be some random act, says Jay Acunzo. Think of the world’s most innovative brands: Apple, Nike, IKEA, Red Bull, Google. Their employees don’t jump in the boardroom every time they’re inspired to brainstorm. Nor do they chase every shiny new tech tool that rolls into town.

They’ve figured out how to infuse ‘creativity’ into their every-day work lives, and in turn, they’ve made the act relatively straightforward. Acunzo lays out a plan for making creativity a habit, which involves mixing up what your audience has come to expect: Before things get stale, give that audience small change – a ‘wrinkle’ as he calls it – for a refreshing twist on the status quo.

It’s not about pulling off big stunts. It’s about constantly adding little wrinkles (reuse, repurpose, replace, remix, refine) while things are still working.

2. Humans respond well to humans. Oh, and humans like stories

We have access to more data than ever and artificial intelligence is handy for sifting through massive amounts of information on customers. But as marketers, it’s still important to connect emotionally. To succeed, we must build trust and affinity, says Ann Handley.

This won’t occur if it’s not authentic to the brand telling the stories. What we share about ourselves must be true to who we are. If it’s not, our audience will see right through us. This is how we gain trust.

We also have to be likable and relatable. Whether or not they realize it, our audiences are always asking themselves: do I see myself in your marketing? Are you speaking to me? Is this product something I want and need? And if so, do I trust and like you? It’s when we reveal our flaws and quirks and imperfections that brands become human. 

3. It’s not a question of quality versus quantity. It’s relevancy that matters

Twelve hastily made videos that don’t satisfy an audience need aren’t necessarily better than one costly, highly produced video. But the polished, professional video that set you back $20,000 isn’t necessarily better than the poorly shot iPhone video of a man fixing a faucet on YouTube. Why? Because it isn’t relevant and doesn’t answer the viewer’s Google search query: “how to fix my leaky tap.”

Too often, we rush to create content to fill a scheduling gap or check a box, rather than address an actual need. Relevant content that’s specific and well placed in terms of its target will always win. Chris White of Capital One says the equation for great content is aligning audience, business and brand goals (easier said than done).

For the audience, this means educating them or solving a problem. For the business, this means driving a specific behaviour (building awareness, driving to the site, purchasing a product) and brand goals are to build awareness and consideration.

Relevancy = content + creative.

Surface your message in the places that make sense, and be as specific as you can, even if it means alienating others. This is how you become relevant. 

4. Treat your customers as if you want to date them

No one likes the creepy dude at the networking event who shoves his business card in your palm before introducing himself. The same goes for the company that tells you to ‘buy now’ before you know what it’s selling. That style reeks of desperation.

As in real-life, connections are forged over time. You can’t fake it, at least not for long. Yet the industry remains short-term focused and campaign based, where the average CMO tenure is three years. No wonder it’s nearly impossible to build trust and affinity with customers.

At CMWorld, the message was clear: sometimes we need to slow down to move fast. Be more thoughtful (or ‘strategic’) with your content marketing and build relationships with your audiences that will endure. No more one-night stands.

5. If you want to succeed, sell internally

Marketers wear many hats and expectations for their roles are large and complex. Are salespeople wearing 400 hats? No, they’re not, says Marcus Sheridan. But if you want salespeople to see the value of content marketing, and how it can help them sell, you need to make them look like geniuses.

Channel your energy into making your sales team look like stars. Exploit their subject-matter expertise by creating content, such as videos. Once you become indispensable to salespeople, silos melt away and relationships change. That’s when the magic happens.

Salespeople can become content-marketing champions, but it’s up to us to show them why they should. Sheridan recommends creating content that answers the questions buyers really care about: cost, problems, comparisons, reviews and what makes your products the best. This content, in turn, can become a valuable tool for your sales team. They’ll soon be addicted to the benefits: shorter sales cycles and increased revenue. 

6. Measure time spent. Your own

Does your boss ever ask how much time you spent on a project to get a particular result? Why don’t we ever include ‘time’ as a variable in the return on investment (ROI) equation? As marketers, we all do way too many things (just check a job posting to see how many skills you’re expected to have mastered: “I have to be an influencer, a data genius, a copywriter and a designer, now?!”). How are we supposed to get everything done?

A good first step is to audit an average workweek, says John Hall of Calendar. How much time did you spend in meetings? What did you get out of them? How long were they and was there an agenda?

Then reflect on areas of waste (waste, by the way, is not ideal when you have a lot of things to accomplish, which is partly why agile marketing has taken off and it’s now being implemented in marketing departments everywhere, according to Andrea Fryrear of AgileSherpas).

Be more conscious and deliberate with your time and place careful bets with your attention. Pick two to three things to zero in on. As part of this focused strategy, you must learn to say no. This was a big theme at the conference. Protect your time and don’t be a pushover.

If a request or a new project doesn’t align with your personal or corporate goals, it’s not worth your time. Just for fun, here are some (shocking?) stats to leave you with:

  • The best time for meetings is Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. (people hate meetings on Monday, apparently, and any later in the week, people are thinking of the weekend!)
  • Limit meetings to 22 minutes (it will keep you more on schedule).
  • The first eight minutes of a call should be used to catch up and build rapport (check off ‘yes, we’re friends now’ box faster).
  • A whopping 63 per cent of meetings begin without an agenda.

Katherine Scarrow is the general manager of Globe Content Studio, the content-marketing division of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national media organization. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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