No One Can Break Your Content Rules If They Don’t Exist


You’re a rule breaker, iconoclast, rebel. You are somebody who won’t take “no” for an answer. Sounds like an ad for Apple doesn’t it?

These days we tend to celebrate the rule breakers. We’re taught that great leaders take risks and disrupt the status quo. They innovate by breaking the established rules with something better.

Until, that is, the rule breaker breaks a rule that we like.

If an iconoclastic business leader embezzles money from the company, cheats on their spouse, or simply cuts in line at Starbucks, they’re not a rebel. They’re just a jerk.

There are rules we set and follow. And there are the inexplicit rules that become patterns over time – “the way things are done.” We typically follow both kinds of rules because we recognize that they keep things functioning smoothly and/or safely. And we break them because either we don’t agree that they help things function smoothly or safely or because we’re unaware that the rule exists.

When the iconoclast zags while the rest of the world zigs, we appreciate the innovator because they didn’t agree with the conventional pattern of how things are done. They stress test the existing rule with a new one. For example, when Elon Musk broke the “rule” that cars are to be sold through a network of dealerships, no one except his competitors really cared about that rule. It was just the way things had been done. The new rule – cars can be sold on demand – was a welcome change.

In business, both the formal and informal rules become part of our corporate culture – and make up (in both good and bad ways) the fabric of our strategies. But the challenge arises when the way-things-are-done practices become problematic. People can’t break rules that don’t exist and continue to practice “the way things are done.”

In our consulting and advisory work, we see this challenge prominently when it comes to content strategy. We hear laments from practitioners such as:

  • “Anyone with a budget and executive support can publish to the website.” (Is there a rule to state they couldn’t?)
  • “Sales doesn’t use the content that we create.” (Is that because no one has said sales is not allowed to create their own content?)
  • “We don’t have time to manage the quality of our blog because we’re too busy producing content for other groups.” (Is that because there are no rules about how content requests are managed?)
  • “Our content marketing is only as good as the paid social campaign that promoted it.” (Is that because you measure content quality based on how much money you spend to promote it?)

Sound familiar?

CMI’s B2B Content Marketing 2020 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends – North America research backs these challenges up. (Results for B2C marketers were similar.) Consider:

  • 48% of B2B marketers don’t think their organization provides an optimal experience.
  • 59% of B2B marketers don’t document their content marketing strategy and make it a socialized and communicated approach.
  • Over half (54%) are either unsure or expect to see a static or slightly decreasing budget in 2020.

There are seven simple words that explain why marketers and their brands experience these problems: Content is not treated as a strategy. Therefore, there are no set rules for content, there’s only “how things are done.”

Breaking rules is fun. Lacking rules … not so much

Whenever I see these numbers and hear the associated complaints, I know they originate from an imbalance in the operating models of content. And that means content marketing teams are suffering from the lack of useful rules.

Complaints from #contentmarketing teams often reveal an imbalance of operating models, says @Robert_Rose via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Defining, documenting, and implementing a content operating model gives teams the ability to enforce a strategy – and the flexibility to stray from it.

I recently worked with a mid-sized technology company whose content marketing team experienced the downside of a rule-free approach to content operations.

That small content marketing team was tasked with supplying content assets to the rest of the company. The assets included infographics, white papers, and webinars for the demand-generation team, PowerPoint decks for the C-suite, and customer success stories for the sales teams.

They were swamped. To keep up with the demand for content, they outsourced a greater and greater number of creative projects to freelancers and to their agency. Other teams in the company started creating their own content assets because the content marketing team couldn’t keep up with demand. (The quality of those content assets was about as good as you might expect.)

Despite how slammed they were, the content team itself managed to produce many thought-provoking pieces. But, because their content marketing strategy was simply to produce bait for demand-generation campaigns, conference sessions for the C-suite, and enablement collateral for the sales team, they never got to any standard of quality. Put simply, there was no standard of “enough content,” because without rules of capacity, there could be no priority. The most important piece of content became the one the team was latest in delivering.

Without #content rules of capacity, there can be no priority, says @robert_rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

The team fixed this by fundamentally reshaping their contribution model. By cultivating a 60-40 prioritized split of content led and created by the content team vs. the content created on request, they were able to prioritize their strategic efforts (the 60%) and the reactive fulfillment (the 40%). By tracking and measuring this balance, the team not only had the ability to say “no,” or “you must wait” to content requests, but to provide better value to the business.


Content marketing is cool, but content strategy makes it work

One of the biggest trends we see is content marketing teams being asked to take on much more than creating cool blogs, resource centers, and content hubs. They’re now being asked to create value at every level of the content-driven experiences that a brand manages.

As companies integrate content more deeply in their business strategy, they need guidelines, protocols, and standards that can provide for scalability, and balance for the operation of content. Put simply: They need to define and plan for the unique operating models of content. By definition each model has optimal team structures, engagement, and governance approaches.

The models have rules. This is the heart of a functional content strategy, one that focuses on the planning, creation, delivery, and governance of content across an enterprise.

Here’s an overview of the four content operating models from an article I wrote last year:

Each model falls along two scales. The first is the business integration scale. At one extreme, content exists to simply support other, isolated parts of the marketing and communications teams as a contributor. The other end of the business integration scale is content marketing as a core business strategy.

The other scale is function. At one end, content marketing is internally focused, supporting internal constituencies for their strategic needs. On the other end, content marketing is externally focused on direct relationships with audiences, drawing in audiences to be managed with the same care that you might give customers.

Now, consider these two before-and-after examples of content teams that eventually chose a content operating model.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: 4 Business Models for Content Marketing

Health-care company discovers a ‘web of capabilities’

One large health-care company I worked with faces a big challenge in the way the content team is balanced. The team is seen as a “service organization” that publishes content to the corporate website, creates blog posts for the lifestyle blog they manage, and provides some support for the customer service team.

They’re so swamped that their governance model is built around the idea of offloading more and more content strategy responsibility to regional offices.

In fact, (and this is a topic for a whole other post) their enterprise content management vendor leans on this approach as a key selling point: “If you deploy our solution, content management will be democratized and every business manager can help manage your content.”

All of you who manage an enterprise CMS for any sizable company are cringing right about now. You know exactly how wrong this is.

The challenge is, of course, that the regional folks not only don’t understand the enterprise content strategy rules, they don’t really care that much. So they use the enterprise tool in the wrong way or they deploy other CMS solutions because “they’re easier to use” or, you know, “just because.”

No rules.

This was a great reason for the content team to rebalance and adopt the processor model. This model empowers the content team to be responsible for the website and the blog, but also to lead the strategy for how content is managed as a “product” of the company.

A #content operating model empowers the team to lead how content is managed as a product, says @Robert_Rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

As there would be for any product, there are rules for content creation, governance, execution, and measurement. Now when regional offices apply for responsibility to manage content, they’re brought into the content strategy team with training around content protocols.

They become part of the whole content team – not just the team managing regional content. As a result, the organization is building a network – a “web of capabilities” as I like to call it.

There are rules, which can (and often are) broken. For example, one doctor in one region has a popular microsite. Because it works, it is acknowledged to be outside the rules so that others can’t copy the exception. This company now has a handle on its content strategy – and can scale it appropriately.

Software company finds its media product groove

A mid-sized software company I recently consulted with faced a different kind of challenge (and chose a different solution).

The three people managing its content marketing had been charged with creating a new thought leadership platform for the company. The challenge was how to add the content to populate this new publication to their already stacked pipeline of content assets.

The team was creating tons of assets for the enterprise software sales team. They engaged influencers and analysts to write white papers. They conducted webinars. They helped produce the annual customer event.

To make it all work, they decided to use the thought leadership platform as a distribution channel for all the content assets they already were creating. There was only one problem.

Everybody else hated that idea.

The sales team didn’t like it because it meant their content would be accessible without a registration gate. The demand-generation team didn’t like it because they felt it would compete with their drip campaigns.

The model was imbalanced. There were no rules.

The team decided to reboot by strategizing, documenting, and deploying an operating model that combines the player and performer operating models. They asked, if they were to launch a new thought leadership platform:

  • What purpose would it serve?
  • What differentiated value could it give the audience?
  • How would it integrate into the business’s content strategy?

This renewed strategic approach gave them the ability to launch a new intake and production model – rules – for sales-enablement assets. Some assets would be appropriate to re-use or repackage for the thought leadership platform.

The process of creating their content operating model also helped them map what they’d need to operate a strategic, differentiated (internally and externally) thought leadership platform that wasn’t competing for audience engagement with the company’s other content experiences.

Now this content team has the appropriate editorial strategy to manage their publication and their ability to supply the rest of the company with assets.

Learn like a scientist, perform like an artist

There’s a wonderful quote, usually (and probably falsely) attributed to Pablo Picasso: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

One objection we hear to developing a strategic and highly structured content marketing strategy is that it can take the spontaneity and speed out of the creation process. We hear protests such as “it will slow us down,” and “we won’t react as quickly,” or “creating content will feel like procurement or accounting,” and “we’ll lose the ability for everybody to create content.”

My reaction to that? “Yup, you’re exactly right. You will experience all those things.”

Rules and structure will slow down the creation process. They’re designed to do that. Our advice is to let it feel slower. You will make up speed on the back end when your team is looking for better structured assets in the content management system – and can find them instead of re-creating them.

Rules and structure will slow down the creation process, says @robert_rose via @cmicontent. #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Rules do remove the ability for everybody to create content. But let’s be honest – not everybody in the company should be creating and publishing content. Creating great content is not everybody’s job. It’s not everybody’s calling. If it’s a skill worth hiring for, it’s a role worth specializing.

Rules do make content feel like a strategic function – yes, like accounting or procurement. And it absolutely should be. Businesses create as much or more content than anything else they do. It deserves the same care, deliberation, and strategic approach as any of the most strategic functions in the business.

#Content deserves the same care, deliberation, and strategic approach as any of the most strategic functions in the business, says @robert_rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Content is communication. The right strategy, structure, and rules help you communicate like a professional – even when you choose to break them like an artist.

Spend a few days this October at Content Marketing World where the theme is all about breaking rules. Register today for the best rates.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute


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