Why media leaders must focus on creativity, connections, relevancy, efficiency

By Katherine Scarrow

The Globe and Mail

Toronto, Ontario, Canada


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

The Content Marketing World conference in Cleveland offered sage advice for news media leaders.
The Content Marketing World conference in Cleveland offered sage advice for news media leaders.

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% 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. It shouldn’t be some random act, says Jay Acunzo.

Think of the world’s most innovative brands: Apple, Nike, IKEA, Red Bull, Google. Their employees do not jump in the boardroom every time they are inspired to brainstorm. Nor do they chase every shiny new tech tool that rolls into town. They have figured out how to infuse “creativity” into their everyday work lives, and, in turn, 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 a small change — a “wrinkle,” as he calls it — for a refreshing twist on the status quo.

It is not about pulling off big stunts. It is 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 about customers. However, as marketers, it is still important to connect emotionally. To succeed, we must build trust and affinity, says Ann Handley.

This will not occur if it is not authentic to the brand telling the stories. What we share about ourselves must be true to who we are. If it is 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 realise it, our audiences are always asking themselves questions that reflect upon us: 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 is 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 do not satisfy an audience need are not necessarily better than one costly, highly produced video. But the polished, professional video that set you back US$20,000 isn’t necessarily better than the poorly shot iPhone video of a man fixing a faucet on YouTube. Why? Because it is not relevant and does not 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 is specific and well-placed for its target will always win. Chris White of Capital One says the equation for great content is aligning audience, business, and brand goals — which can be easier said than done.

For the audience, this means providing education 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 equals content plus 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 is selling. That style reeks of desperation.

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

At Content Marketing World, 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. Their roles are large and complex. Are salespeople wearing 400 hats? No, they are 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 is when the magic happens.

Salespeople can become content marketing champions, but it is 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 will soon be addicted to the benefits: shorter sales cycles and increased revenue.

6. Measure your time spent.

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 focus on. As part of this focused strategy, you must learn to say no.

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 the “yes, we’re friends now” box faster).
  • A whopping 63% of meetings begin without an agenda.

This was an important theme at the conference: Protect your time and don’t be a pushover.

About Katherine Scarrow

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