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When Mahlab met Robert Rose

The chief strategist at Content Marketing Institute talks content marketing's future and exploding turkeys.

When chief strategist at the Content Marketing Institute, Robert Rose, came to Sydney, we invited the internationally renowned marketing expert to share his insights. What followed was a conversation spanning the topics of measurement, creativity, strategy, William Shatner, exploding turkeys, and the future of content marketing.

Mahlab Robert, could you tell us a little about your career history?

Robert Rose I was born in Texas and moved to Los Angeles with every intention of becoming a rock star. That didn’t work out so I got into marketing and began my marketing career in television – the cable television business, specifically – working for Showtime.

After working there for a number of years, in 1995 I moved to Washington DC and became involved in internet – I absolutely fell in love. I worked with a website design company, a move which at that time was unheard of, and did everything from content creation and strategy to website design and development. After a while, I moved back to Los Angeles to join a big consulting agency where I worked with, Paramount and Sony to build entertainment websites.

Then the dotcom boom exploded and I started running strategy for an ad agency. After everything dot-related went bust, some friends of mine offered me a role in their software startup to run product strategy, marketing and sales. They got me drunk enough to accept the position and I stayed for more than eight years. We had just eight people when we acquired funding – I was told to go out, spend all this money, hire people and ultimately build a marketing department. Much to the consternation of the board and management team, I chose to hire journalists, literature graduates and people who really knew how to write and how to communicate. My reasoning was that I could teach them how to ‘do’ marketing. I could teach them how to do an email campaign and search engine stuff; I could teach them how to create a print ad campaign, but what I couldn’t do was teach them how to be great communicators.

Without even knowing it; without recognising what content marketing was, I turned the marketing department into a media company. And it worked – the company grew and made sales.

M So where does Joe Pulizzi come into the picture? How did your paths cross?

RR I met Joe in 2007. We were both speaking at conferences. I was speaking on the marketing practitioner and publishing side –  come to think of it, Joe and I were practically giving the same presentation! We were both passionate about content and its ability to drive businesses. Joe was in the very early stages of forming CMI, and I was looking for work elsewhere. He said to me, ‘if you ever get out from under your job we should do something together’. Two years later, when I had left my job and was looking to set up my own consultancy, Joe approached me and asked, ‘why don’t you run a consulting practice for us? Why don’t you become our chief strategist, help us market our brand while building your clientele?’. I suppose you could say the rest is history.

M You say that you were engaged in the practice of content marketing without knowing what it was. When did you experience that content marketing ‘aha!’ moment?

RR It was 2007 when I read Joe’s book, Get content, get customers. There’s a funny story behind that actually. After reading his book and realising there was in fact a name for what I did, I went out and registered, under the company that I was working for at the time, – idiot! The domain name remains with the company to this day. Joe and I can laugh about it now, I think!

M During your time in Australia, what content marketing pain points did you encounter most?

RR There was one that really stood out for me, and it’s a particularly painful point for bigger organisations: content marketing is a difficult thing to enact holistically across a company. At Content Marketing World Sydney, we had as key speakers the social media managers, web managers, online marketing managers and digital officers of some of the country’s biggest brands and businesses. They’re working on content in their own worlds; silos that communicate and cooperate with other departments on an ad hoc basis. They’re forced to take an ‘if we wanna do something big we gotta get permission from the corporate marketing guys’ kind of approach to their work.

M So, for content marketing to succeed, for marketers to create truly great content and connect with audiences, these departmental barriers must be broken. What’s your advice to marketers working in heavily-siloed spaces? Where do they begin to break the status quo?

RR They start with themselves. If you’re a manager, an assistant, a coordinator or someone who’s low on the organisation’s totem pole, it’s near impossible to simply go out and begin to change the entire company – you’re just not going to do it.

But what you can do is change the way you operate. Build a little centre of excellence within your own space and then go and find someone within the company who shares your passion. Start to build a network of like-minded colleagues, create small projects together, share editorial calendars and conduct weekly meetings where the primary goal is to voice content ideas. These things, particularly if they gain traction, inevitably attract a greater following for a couple of reasons: one, it’s fun and two, it’s more interesting than marketing generally is. Find someone to champion your efforts: a VP perhaps, who can say, ‘this thing you’re doing over here is pretty neat. Let’s go figure out how to bring it to life.’ Before you know it, this movement you’ve created is part of your job and you’re leading it. It’s like building an electrical grid: one house, one street, one neighbourhood, one city and one country at a time.

M Did anything surprise you during your time in Australia?

RR The biggest surprise was witnessing the sheer growth of Australia’s content marketing community. At last year’s event, almost all the presentations were about building a business case for content marketing; about the whys and the whats. The content marketing 101 workshop was completely full! In just twelve months the landscape has matured dramatically. If I was going to move anywhere I’d move here because the market growth is so ripe; it’s just so ready.

M Any other notable observations of the Australian content marketing landscape?

RR I like that you’re avoiding some of the pitfalls that the American market experienced. You’ve taken the opportunity to look at what’s gone wrong in the States and use those insights to avoid all the crap that we had to endure – the whole SEO linking hysteria, for example – and go straight to the important stuff: quality content, social, mobile optimisation and responsiveness, sentiment analysis and so on. Because your market is slightly behind that of the US, you have the benefit of informed foresight; you’re learning from our mistakes.

M You’ve been quoted as saying: “If the past few years of content marketing have been focused on how we can actually build the business case to use content as a means to engage, help, inform, and change beliefs in customers, then the next few years should be dedicated to learning how to actually create a strategic, repeatable process to do just that.” Where do you suggest those marketers who are yet to create and implement a strategic marketing process start?

RR This is a journey for me and I’m just now starting to figure this stuff out. It comes down to that old adage, ‘the first step is admitting that you have a problem’. The first step is admitting that content marketing works, that it can help ease and potentially fix a variety of business problems and that it’s something that your business should be doing. Right now, all over the world, content marketing is something that businesses kind of just do: email campaigns are assigned to So-And-So and it goes out whenever they can get around to it; they hire an agency to ‘do’ social and blogging, but the businesses involvement goes no further than a monthly paycheque and an occasional meeting here and there.

Instead of being everybody’s and nobody’s job, content marketing needs to become a tangible, measurable and valuable part of the business. It’s like when you hire a personal trainer: you don’t hire them to teach you how to do a sit up. You hire a personal trainer because you want to make a tangible, emotional and financial commitment to your health and wellbeing; you want a reason or an incentive to get up at 5am every morning to meet him or her at the gym. Content marketing is the same thing. When the business starts really investing in it, it becomes something of value. That’s the first step – actually giving a damn.

M Vanity metrics aside, measurement – particularly when looking at something as complex as emotional connection – is something marketers continue to struggle with. What is your advice to marketers looking to gain deeper insights from their data and to better understand their customers and their wants and needs?

RR It’s difficult. I think you need to get in front of your customers, talk to them and try to understand what they care about. At this moment in time, it seems to me to be the only truly effective way to gauge just how connected your customers are to your brand.

It’s amazing how often I will have this conversation with both B2B and B2C businesses:

Me: “When was the last time you sat down with a customer and spoke to them?

Marketing team: “What? Never. What do you mean? We never talk to customers.

Me: “Why not?

Marketing team: “Because sales won’t let us,” or, “because our CEO won’t let us.

It’s just insanity. Customer engagement and the level of emotional connection a customer feels towards your brand is only going to come out through real, face-to-face conversations.

Having said this, there are things that we can do at a surface level that aren’t necessarily meaningless. Things like sentiment analysis: you can use tools to measure the chatter that’s happening out on the web about your brand and graph it, for example. With these types of measurement tools, my advice would be to stop paying attention to the number and just watch the trends. The Klout score is a great example. I don’t care about my score, but what I do care about is that it’s trending up. I don’t care that it’s 65, 67 or 68 on any given day. The point is that if it goes from 67 and is progressively declining over a period of time, I need to asses why this could be happening and act accordingly. It’s the trend that matters, not the number itself.

M Many marketers find it difficult to manoeuvre their creative, story-centric efforts around their board and C-suite’s need for numbers and proof of ROI. How can they communicate and justify the ROI of their content marketing efforts when, so often, what needs to be measured is sentiment and connection?

RR I get this question a lot. We have grown to believe as marketers that CEOs and the C-suite care about numbers – they actually don’t. What they care about are goals and reaching certain measures. I’ve watched marketers deliver reports as thick as phone books covering everything they can possibly muster from their data: ‘here are my numbers, my proof of life as a marketer!’. As agencies, we do that all the time: ‘here’s why you should hire us next month!’.

Stop compiling numbers and graphs that aren’t goal orientated – you’re wasting your time. Your board wants numbers that relate to goals, measures that prove you’re on your way to reaching a goal.

I don’t want to get measured on marketing qualified leads or on traffic. I want to get measured on revenue because that’s my job as a marketer – to increase revenue and decrease marketing cost, break even or make the ratio the same. Businesses need to reassess the paradigm of what measurement really means. We get so trapped in this state of myopia in which every graph has to go up and to the right and, as a result, we lose creativity. We lose the ability to say, ‘let’s try this thing. Web traffic might fall flat on its face but if we deliver a goal, we don’t care’. I’d rather have 1000 visits that deliver me my goal than 100,000 visits that make me look impressive – it’s just near-meaningless noise.

M You say that marketing teams are so often kept within the confines of the office, forbidden to communicate directly with the audiences they are trying to reach. But the role of the marketing department – more specifically the CMO – is undergoing dramatic changes. The CMO, it seems, it fast-becoming the voice of the customer within a business, a facilitator of discussions between the brand and its customers. Do you agree with this?

RR I’d agree with that. Actually, I’d go one step further. I think content marketing could perceivably elevate the profession of marketing into the the upper echelons of the professional world. The CMOs who can draw meaning from their data and harness it to become the voice of the customer will be what elevates the status of a VP of marketing to that of, say, an attorney, a doctor or a lawyer. It’s a skill that will very soon be in such high demand because the content that they create and the experience that they provide will be the only differentiator for their business. When I can print out a sneaker, why the hell would I buy Nikes? Well, I’d buy Nikes because of the narrative that the brand creates, because of the legend of the brand and the value of its narrative.

M You’ve been quoted as saying, “marketers, we are not in the business of truth. We’re in the business of persuasion” – so many marketers are still creating content in the mind set that they must exhaust all arguments, all points of view, leaving no room for conversation, and keeping everything very safe. What are your thoughts on this approach to content creation? Do you think it is an effective one?

RR It’s a natural inclination. We want to get everything out so that we are able to point at it and say, ‘there! There’s the answer!’. It’s like the sales guy who wants his brochure to cover every single sales objection he’s ever going to get so it becomes this 50-page monster that nobody is ever going to read – it’s the same with content. We try to tell the entire story in one fell swoop.

M Do you think fear is what drives this inclination? The fear of potential backlash from our customers and contemporaries?

RR There’s a lot of truth to that. Brands are fearful to take a point of view of any kind when they’re creating content. So what ends up happening, and this is especially true when the content works its way through committee after committee after committee, is it becomes nothing but bland words. It’s still 1000 words, but the words have lost their meaning.

The goal should be to take as strong a point of view as we can on a particular topic that we want to cover. This can be difficult because the marketing professional inside wants to have you mould yourself to whatever your customers want but you simply can’t do that in this day and age. Today’s customers want to be surprised, educated and entertained. The only way you’re going to do that is to be persuasive in selling an idea – the only way you’re going to do that is by taking a side.

M “Facts don’t change beliefs. Facts need the context of stories in order to change beliefs.” When you said this, what examples did you have in mind?

RR State Farm Insurance. In the lead up to Thanksgiving in 2011, State Farm wanted to raise awareness about the dangers associated with the well-loved and practiced tradition of deep-frying turkey. They called on the help of William Shatner to create a video series chronicling his own story of turkey-induced injury as well as how best to engage in the age-old tradition. The series immediately connected with audiences – they wanted to watch William Shatner and an exploding turkey! After everything was said and done, State Farm estimated that they received millions of dollars worth of media coverage from the campaign and – this is the best part – deep-fried turkey-related insurance claims that year went down by $2,000,000!

The company could have sent out a generic press release citing numbers and stats relating to the incidence and dangers of deep-frying turkey on Thanksgiving but instead, they used the power of storytelling, humor and emotion to connect with audiences. They educated, they altered behaviour and beliefs, and they reduced their company’s spend – it’s genius.

M What antiquated ideas do you find yourself coming up against most often?

RR More is better. Busy is successful. It’s incredible just how much value a business will put into busyness. We look at the marketing department and they’re running like crazy creating more sales collateral, more presentations, more blog posts – creating more stuff that never gets used. Nobody’s stopped to think about what they’re creating, why they’re creating it and exactly who’s using it.

Instead of producing 22 pieces of content a month, what businesses should be doing is producing just one. In the time that they would normally spend on the 21 others, they should sit in a room and make that one amazing. We all feel like we’re a part of the knowledge economy, that we’re knowledge workers and we’re paid for our creativity, our knowledge and our ability to express that knowledge through something, but we’re not paid to think. We’re only paid when our fingers are moving across a keyboard, when there’s stuff coming out of the printer and when our inboxes are blowing up. Busy does not equal successful!

M “Marketers describe value. Content marketers create value.” Could you elaborate?

RR That’s my big idea for this year. Content marketing is a way for businesses to differentiate themselves from their competition. Content marketers create value for their customers because they’re providing extended value on the product or service that the customer is buying.

With this in mind, I want to take it one step further and say that content marketing has the potential to transform marketing from a cost centre into a profit centre. When I sat down with Jonathan Mildenhall, Coca-Cola’s VP of Global Advertising Strategy and Creative Excellence, we spoke about the work that they did during the World Cup in Brazil. The Coke team filmed about 17 hours of content showcasing the event – with a focus on the Coca-Cola brand of course! Mildenhall noted that with minimal expense, his team could put together a movie-length World Cup documentary that HBO or ESPN might want to purchase, that he could create marketing material and make profit from it. If marketers can create valuable content and if businesses can build media companies within their existing structures, there’s nothing stopping them from charging sponsorship, advertising – whatever the revenue model is – and actually making money from their marketing.

If you can transform your marketing into something that creates value for your customers, they will be more than willing to pay for it. Traditional marketing models could never achieve this but content marketing has the potential.

Robert Rose is Chief Strategist at the Content Marketing Institute and co-author of Managing Content Marketing. You can get in touch with Robert on Twitter or through his website.

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