What product do you build?

No, I’m not asking about the software your engineers code or the services your company offers—I’m asking what product your team, the marketing department, serves up to the world.

More likely than not, you’ve never been asked this question. And that isn’t surprising. It’s only in recent years that marketing departments have finally begun to be considered as revenue generators rather than cost centers. But if we really increase our companies’ bottom lines, we must be creating something of value.

That something, argues strategist Ardath Albee, is content.

But, she points out, we don’t yet consider content something deserving of “roadmaps, development processes, releases, and a lot of other organization and structure” the way we do for other, more traditional products. Instead, we continue to tackle it the same old way: working in silos, churning out as many deliverables as possible, and hopping from ad hoc request to ad hoc request.

Isn’t there a better way?

Luckily, we don’t have to wonder. Instead, we can take a cue from observing our fellow creators, who are finding huge benefits from structured approaches left and right. Developers are increasingly adopting Agile processes while designers flock to “design system” thinking, each of which allows teams to scale their output strategically and efficiently.

Isn’t it time we marketers caught up?

Let’s Work Smarter, Not Harder

It’s old news that content is king, but just because we all know it doesn’t mean we know what we’re doing.

We have a vague idea that companies that do content right are winning, but often, our only directive from the powers that be to catch up to our competitors is “create more, more, more!”

Let’s take a minute to consider the absurdity of the idea that the answer to our marketing woes is to increase our content output. Would we ever tell a car manufacturer that their best strategy was to produce as many new models as possible every year? Of course not, because we know that successful automobile brands balance quality with quantity, carefully researching, prototyping, and producing cars designed to win the day in their particular niche.

And while I know that a white paper isn’t a Chevy, the foundational principle isn’t so different. What we need isn’t to throw more blogs, emails, and videos into the void—instead, we need to strategically plan, create, distribute, and analyze so we end up with the right content for the right audience at the right time, every time.

Doing so requires putting more trust into your content creators in order to empower them with the time, resources, and support they need to dream up and produce truly effective content. Many well-meaning managers would assume that creatives need to be left alone—that they need space to think and create without strict process or timelines. But however counterintuitive it sounds, it turns out constraints can spur creativity—not kill it.

But how?

Building a Content Operation

Before you tumble into the mental gymnastics required to build a new, systematic approach to marketing from scratch, don’t despair: one is already emerging. We call it a content operation, and it’s basically content marketing 2.0.

If you’re a frequent reader of the Kapost blog, you’ll know that a content operation is the set of processes, people, and technologies for strategically planning, producing, distributing, and analyzing content. When properly implemented, it unifies the customer experience across all departments and channels and allows marketers to focus on authentic, resonant messaging that drives revenue and growth.

If you’re suspicious that this lofty ideal can only happen with a substantial investment of time and resources, you’re not wrong. A content operation requires teams to commit to spending more time planning strategically (this includes taking the time to dig deep into the performance of completed campaigns!), holding one another accountable, and ensuring visibility across teams, to name a few. But taking on extra processes in the day-to-day could make all the difference in the long run.

Overhead or Overdue?

You’re busy. I’m busy. No marketer is searching for extra work. Our overloaded schedules make it tempting to see the concept of introducing new processes or adopting new tools as impossibilities. “No one has time for that!” you say. And good leaders are rightfully concerned about the workloads of their teams. Creators working on tight deadlines can’t drop everything to restructure their processes and learn something new.

But here’s the kicker: content creators stand to gain as much as—if not more than—managers do when they take on some additional day-to-day work in service of building a world-class content operation. The very processes that may appear stiff and supremely anti-creative can actually open the door to more productivity, imagination, and a lot less unnecessary stress.

Because, though our jobs are very different, managers and creators both want the same thing: to build a cohesive, cross-channel message that drives real impact. And ultimately, this can’t happen unless we change our operating model.

Content Operations: A Win for Creators

It’s not hard to recognize the benefits a content operation offers high-level marketers. If directors and CMOs can increase the impact of their marketing organization through better customer experiences, improved conversions, and accelerated sales cycles, they’re likely to see major professional rewards.

But the incentive for the little guy to embrace content operations isn’t just to get his boss a raise. The very same practices that transform the impact of marketing teams at scale also translate into major benefits for the lives of each individual contributor, from writers to editors to designers.

Here are a few examples of these benefits in action:

Focus via Strategic Planning

While creators, especially at larger organizations, may not be involved in the planning itself, a commitment to agreed-upon, strategic campaigns that align to business objectives transforms your writers, designers, and videographers into a well-oiled strategic machine that can credibly turn down everything but the most urgent ad hoc requests. That way, teams can throw their full attention behind a project without having to worry that they’ll be pulled away halfway through to do something new.

Clarity via Pre-Set Workflows

With established timelines and set handoff points, you’ll eliminate the endless email chains, unclear expectations, and projects that fall through the cracks. Spending the time with your creators to agree on set workflow processes (unique for each type of content) will take some wrangling up front, but will save countless hours down the road.

Here’s an example of from SiriusDecisions. They call workflows service-level agreements (SLAs):

Creating workflows isn’t a “set-it-and-forget-it” activity. Done right, these agreements should be reviewed regularly to identify bottlenecks and make sure everything is flowing smoothly.

In addition to enabling project stakeholders to plan their own schedules better and anticipate potential blockers, workflows enable managers to protect their teams from requests for urgent jobs. With clear expectations (e.g., an infographic takes ten business days to complete), you can show external requesters your standard timeline and keep track of repeat last-minute offenders.

Confidence via Alignment and Visibility

Alignment is a process—even within a single team. It requires stakeholders to take the time to talk to each other about their projects and commit to keeping their plans and progress notes accessible and up-to-date.

The extra effort that goes into abandoning existing processes to work within a single platform (updating timelines, campaign details, and workflow progress) and communicating status updates with others are layers of administrative effort that are often the first to go in a time crunch.

However, keeping team members and even other departments in the know leads to better collaboration (and with it, valuable insights that can make content better), reduces the risk that creators will waste time creating content that already exists, and improves teams’ abilities to tell a cohesive message across channels and through the funnel—all of which ultimately improves the value of the final product and gives creators confidence in their contributions.

Efficiency via New Tools

Adjusting behavior will take you far, but eventually, a content operation—like any other undertaking—requires finding and incorporating the tools for the job. But of course, with new tools come training, set up, and the general inefficiency that comes with doing something you haven’t before.

Kristin Fallon, Marketing Communications Executive at GE, likes to think of the challenge of adoption as a curve: a peak of optimism and excitement followed by a harrowing fall into the what she calls the “valley of death.”

Don’t get overwhelmed wading around in the trough. Instead, take a look at the end of the curve, where we see that gradual acceptance becomes a genuinely positive experience. When creators finally get used to using the new tool—provided it’s one that enables efficiency, visibility, sales enablement, analytics, and creates a single source of truth—they’ll embrace the chance to use its capabilities to work more efficiently and collaboratively, build content that matters, find what they need, assess their success, and see plainly the impact they have on the business.

Is a New System Worth It?

With the challenges that come along with introducing new tools and processes, it’s tempting to stick to the status quo. If it’s not (completely) broke, don’t fix it—right?

Luckily for us marketers, we don’t have to be trailblazers. That’s because we can simply follow in the footsteps of our fellow creators and the investments they’ve made that have paid off. Asking a developer to abandon Agile or a designer to lay off design thinking and you’ll likely be laughed at. These creatives and problem solvers can tell you that the extra processes are worth it for the improvements they see to the final products they produce and how they produce them.

Adding new systems and processes may feel like busywork, but the results are well worth it—for strategists and creators alike.

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Zoë Randolph

About Zoë Randolph

Zoë serves as a Marketing Manager at Kapost, where she writes long- and short-form content, conducts research, and runs webinars. When she's not contemplating the future of B2B marketing, you'll find her immersed in a book, talking politics, or agonizing over the mediocrity of Cal Bears athletics.