Take your content operations to the next level

17 minute read

In our recent series of ContentOps webinars, Colleen Jones, Head of Content at Mailchimp, shared her practical advice and varied examples to help organisations improve the maturity of their own content operations and take them to the next level. What follows is an edited transcript of the webinar (or you can watch the recording).Content operations is really important to achieving whatever it is you're trying to achieve with your content strategy. I have a lot of experience with different companies and organisations. That has taught me a lot about all aspects of content, including content operations. I've seen it all when it comes to what is going on behind the scenes with content.

Why content operations now?

More than 50% of the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000. When I learned this, I was really shocked and started wondering what really is causing this kind of mass distinction of companies as we know them today.Digital disruption is a big driver. Because of the rise of digital, we are living in a different era when it comes to business.

A diagram showing the different eras of content over time

This summarises some insights and research in the world of business and economics. I think you could argue reasonably that today we're in a much more relationship centric kind of business world.

A visualisation of the customer relationship with content

Many businesses are looking for long-term relationships with customers. A lot of them are some kind of subscription, and even if they aren't exactly a subscription, a lot of them are looking for repeat, loyal, long-term business. This is happening more and more in all kinds of industries.The Dollar Shave Club has turned getting razors into a subscription model, where you have a long-term relationship with the supplier of your razors and other personal care products. Peloton has turned fitness equipment into a subscription business.

Visualisation of elements needed for customer retention

Even if your business, or your organisation isn't explicitly using subscriptions, I bet more now than ever the idea of keeping a relationship with your customers, or your members, or your audience is top of mind. Today, customers, or audiences, or users really expect the right content at the right time, regardless of the channel. That's important to winning over new customers who are growing an audience, as well as keeping customers around, keeping an audience engaged. This is a relatively new kind of need that intensifies the demand for content.

Dollar Shave Club content assets

Dollar Shave Club offers content to attract new customers and entice them to join, but they also offer a rich set of original content, a lot of editorial lifestyle content. They even include a little magazine with each delivery of a package. They have embraced content as important to conveying their brand and maturing their brand as well as keeping their customers engaged over a long period of time.Peloton is a spinning bike, and it's also essentially a media property. Peloton offers subscription to its classes, and has developed this into a rich set of content. The class leaders have developed into media personalities, and content is really core to the offering of Peloton. It's content as a product.Content is super important to lots of different businesses and organisations, whether it's doing marketing, customer support, or core to the product or offering. A lot of people recognise that content is important. We need content strategy. But, what isn't as well recognised is the fact that making all this content happen isn't magic. There certainly is no content fairy. That's where content operations come into play.

There is no content fairy

You've got to think about your supply of content. How are you going to really keep that supply going? Is it really the kind of sophisticated and interactive content that your customers or audiences are expecting? How are you going to make content compelling, and really keep it that way over time? How are you going to marshal together a great diversity of content? It's not just about video. It's not just about long articles.Usually, you need a spectrum of content in a variety of formats in order to really meet your customers' or your audiences' needs in a variety of contexts. Making content effective, at scale, over time is a challenge. There's a lot of investment in content these days.

These are a few stats just indicating where we are in terms of pretty big scale investment. This kind of investment really reinforces the need for content operations in order to make the most of the content that we're planning and creating, or sourcing, and delivering, and managing over time.Content operations can help large companies and organisations quite a bit. But, content operations can be valuable for smaller businesses and organisations as well. Here's an example from a little spinning studio called Burn, in Atlanta, Georgia. I've been very impressed with how this small business has embraced digital and has embraced content as part of that. I bought a package of classes through the website, and also downloaded their applications, and I signed up for a class through the application, picked my exact seat, and that went very smoothly.Then I went to the studio, and I checked in with a digital kiosk, and then went to the studio and got on my bike, and my bike was connected to the studio computer, my results, because I opted in to share them on the dashboard, or display it on the dashboard at the front of the studio during the whole class, and immediately saw my final stats at the end of the class.

Example of a small business content strategy

Then, about a minute later I received this email that summarised all of the stats for me. This small, one-location studio, had all of this content, and data, and information together in a variety of digital touchpoints, and made my spinning experience quite extraordinary.Big businesses, while they need content operations and benefit from content operations, they aren't necessarily the only ones who are doing this well. As a matter of fact, this studio has content down to more of a science than a lot of large companies and organisations I've worked with.

A graphic showing an old world content strategy versus a new world content strategy

By content strategy, I'm really talking about moving from this kind of old world where we're kind of guessing at what content approach we want to take. We don't really put much effort into thinking about it. We might copy just what someone else is doing, because it seems to work for them, or we might not think much about it at all. We're really moving from that kind of world to having a clear vision for what we want to accomplish with content that's informed by great data and analysis, and insight about what's happening in and around the content ecosystem that affects our customers or our audiences.We really take time to make good solid decisions about content as much as possible. Now an example of a business that is threatened in a way to become extinct if they didn't really step it up. That is TurboTax. TurboTax, a few years ago, faced the challenge of, how do we move our customers from desktop software and really get them to use the web-based version. TurboTax recognised that it was critical to the growth of their product to really make that happen.

They realised that having a fantastic product experience, including a fantastic approach to content was critical. As the principal designer mentioned, "Our language was very credible, but it was very tax-y and we thought this is not easy for anyone to understand deductions and credits and schedule fees, and the like." So, TurboTax established a vision for the experience overall, and a vision for the content with some principles like these guiding the approach.Really seeking to be conversational, and sound very human. Looking to offer information at the right time, ask information at the right time. Really create an experience that feels reciprocal, not invasive, and also not leaving people in the dark as to what's going on. Being direct, and also anticipating the questions and concerns, and the emotions that people would be experiencing as they move through the tax experience. Especially a new experience with the web-based version. This is an example of some of the expression of the content strategy at the time.

Turbo Tax content strategy example

This is an example of in the onboarding of new customers into TurboTax, asking about how they feel, and then providing different answers of course. Simply asking about this, the feeling that someone might have as they approach their taxes. That's very human. That's not something you would expect software to ask you. The approach really illustrates a lot of the principles that I just mentioned.

This offers some facts and some reassurance to people who aren't feeling all that great about doing their taxes, and what they're going to discover or experience during the process. You might wonder, does this really make much of a difference in terms of TurboTax's business? Of course, we know Intuit is still around, TurboTax is still around, going strong, so they did not succumb to the more than 50% who disappeared.In fact, Intuit not only made TurboTax successfully shift to web-based, brought customers with them, but they actually succeeded in acquiring new customers, and really growing the market share. So they went above and beyond the goals that they had in approaching content for the experience.

The goals that you're trying to achieve through content might be different, but I bet you are really making a concerted effort the way Intuit did to put strategy, and planning, and thought into your approach to content. When you have an approach to content, a vision for content, if you will, maybe a high level strategy in mind for your content, you've got something that you can really anchor the rest of your approach, including the content operations around. I wanted to share these five questions that I have found to be super helpful in a wide variety of situations. I've found them helpful at MailChimp, for example.

5 strategic questions to win on content

These really start to take you from what your vision is, what you're aspiring to do, down to content operations, and some of the key concerns there, and starts to paint a picture for how all of this stuff connects. It's really tough when you see this all together, even if it's just captured at a very high level, the way this is. It's really tough to start to demand a vision that isn't supported by the capabilities that you have, or the management systems that you have in place. This is a really useful set of questions that can help you start to bridge the new world of content strategy, which is really key to your company or business, and the new world of content operations.

These two questions "What capabilities must be in place? And, what management systems are required?" are especially focused on content operations.

What do I mean by content operations? There's been a lot of good discussion of this over the past year especially, and I've been really excited about the different perspectives that GatherContent has been offering in their resources. What I've been meaning by content operations is really the behind-the-scenes work of managing content activities effectively and efficiently, and doing that at scale, oftentimes, and doing it persistently. So, doing it for the long-term.

What this really gets into is moving from the old world of what I just call chaos, where you don't have a lot of planning, or you have planning that's happening in pockets within the company or the organisation. It's not very coordinated. You also have a lot of outdated roles. Having someone who's really trained as a technical writer, for example, try and create very engaging social content probably isn't going to work. But, it's writing, it's content, so someone who's not really thinking through content operations might find themselves trying to put people who don't have the right content skills and capabilities in positions where they can't succeed. Or, probably most commonly having one content related person or professional try and do it all.

Let me share an example I experienced a few years ago. Dell reached out to me to work with them on providing some training around content strategy and related issues and topics, including operations. They did that because they recognised they had a lot of opportunity to mature in this area. What really prompted that for them was the launch of Windows 7. One of their marketing leaders commented to someone, "Yeah, Windows 7, coming, we're getting ready. We're creating a lot of videos and rich content for the launch."

The person he commented on that to said, "Oh, that's interesting. We're working on that kind of content for the launch as well. I wonder if we're working on the same thing. We should probably chat and see what's going on here." Someone else overheard them and said, "Oh, well we're working with an agency, and we're creating some content for this as well. We should probably all get looped in." In that moment, all of these people realised that they were experiencing something like silo syndrome, where the left hand, if you will, of the company or organisation doesn't quite realise what the right hand is doing.They realised that they had a lot that wasn't in sync. There were some duplicate efforts. Some of the content that these different groups were creating overlapped. There were also some gaps, because one team thought another team was covering something, and it turned out they actually were not. So, Dell recognised that they really needed to mature in this area. The good news is, by the time the next Windows launch came around they were more coordinated and prepared, and it was a good experience for everyone, and the content itself was successful.

New world content operations

What does that mean for the new world of content operations? It means thinking about how to be scalable and efficient. That can mean different things for different companies and organisations. What you most need to get out of content operations might be a little bit different depending on what your situation is. Really thinking through how you're going to get the supply chain of content that you need. How are you going to source it and create it on an ongoing basis.Thinking through workflow. Who is going to do what, when, who needs to approve what. That's something that we're thinking about at MailChimp as we have a new website with our new brand and are offering new types of content this year. We're really looking at how do we sustain that, and how do we make that efficient. Just scratching the surface here, but the new world is thinking about how do we keep that content going in a way that makes sense for our company and organisation, and really ensures that the contents is as effective as possible.

Sample ContentOps considerations

Content operations often involve a mix of people, process, and technology. On the people side, of course there is the need for leadership around content, and having that leadership advocate for content operations in particular. With process, I mentioned workflow. There also are a lot of opportunities where process can help make the operations smooth. For example, localising content, having an approach to working with your office or with partners in a particular market or region, that process and approach, having that mapped out makes life much easier when you need to localise content to meet a certain need.Then, the technology side. There is a lot of good news on the technology side. Certainly some great capabilities that tools and technology had today to help not only big businesses, but also small businesses and organisations. Let me share a slightly different example of content operations in action. I shared Dell, which was a big enterprise. The Rack is a small business, a very successful gym here in Atlanta that's focused on strength. Even though The Rack is very small, they have made content a priority for its business, and come up with a really clever way to keep quality content going on a regular basis. The strength coaches at The Rack, they don't have to create content. They get to create content when they meet certain goals or accomplish certain things. Because The Rack has the overall strategy in place, especially around the topics that they cover, it's pretty straightforward for the strength coaches to create some quality content that's in line with their strategy.They have a little workflow to review, and publish that content efficiently. Even though The Rack is very small, they have thought about and developed an approach to content operations that really makes sense for them.

How to take advantage of content operations

A useful place to start is with thinking about where your level, or your company's, or your client's level of maturity with content operations is. To help companies and organisations do that, I developed a little maturity model that's based on surveys from a couple of different studies.

A diagram showing he 5 different stages of ContentOps maturity

This model isn't intended to be perfect. It's intended to be useful. What is this maturity level model? I've got five levels outline here, starting with chaotic. That's really before even thinking about content ops, moving onto piloting. Your company, organisation has recognised the importance of content to something in particular. Content is important to your website, or to a blog, or some component of the company or organisation.

You might consider The Rack to be at this level. They have decided that the website that they have is important, and needs a steady stream of content that shows their expertise and helps them be findable on search engines and on social media. Scaling is really about expanding content operations across different areas of your customer experience. Like Burn Studio did.

Airbnb is also a great example of expanding and having well coordinated content operations across a variety of content to support the customer experience. Then, Red Bull is a longstanding great example of really going all in on content, including operations. Red Bull is at a point where they're very sustainable in terms of their approach to content, and they also have room to innovate and experiment quite a lot.

As one simple example, I watched Red Bull Rampage over the weekend, and noticed that Red Bull had come out with a virtual reality application that you could use while the race was going on, and get a really interesting perspective on the crazy mountain biking route that the competitors in Red Bull Rampage were taking. About 71% of companies and organisations fall into one of the first three levels, and about 50% of that 71% actually fall under scaling. You're not alone in feeling like you're at a level that maybe you don't want to be at with content operations, and you might have big aspirations for content operations, which is something that I've also found.

A lot of people really see the need to mature content operations, and are looking to do that in a very concerted way.  If you want to take your content operations from the current level to a new level, or you want to just ensure, if you are at a higher level, that your organisation stays there, these are some success factors that you can explore and experiment with applying.

If Yoda was here with us today, I think he'd say something like, always in motion is the future, because that certainly is the state of content and content operations in particular. Now that you've got a sense of where you are, what you're trying to accomplish from a vision or strategy standpoint, and what it might take in order to do that from a content operations' perspective, you probably see some things need to change. You need to move some things around. But where do you start?

Moving your content operations to a more mature level

I want to offer a few success factors that you can consider as you think about your approach to moving your content operations to a more mature level.

Success factors in ContentOps

Because I'm a content geek, I have an anagram here with categories of success factors. I'm going to focus most today on the E and the A, but all of these are important, and there's a lot more about this in the GatherContent resources and in my book, The Content Advantage, but I wanted to share some examples that I think are especially pertinent to you.

Leadership, of course is critical to content, and it is definitely an important success factor to content operations. When you have an established leader actually saying something about content operations, that goes a long way. It makes your company or organisation more likely to succeed in maturing it. Then also having members of your content team trained, educated about content operations so that they can advocate for it where it makes sense. That also is a factor in the success of companies maturing their content operations approach.

Next is experimentation. Companies that establish an approach of experimentation, a culture of experimentation around content are more successful in establishing and maturing their content operations.

Netflix does a lot of small and frequent kinds of testing, as you might anticipate. This is an example of just testing, artwork promoting, some of their original content in their platform, and getting a clear understanding of what's most effective. Now, from a content operations' standpoint, if you have this as a capability, it of course helps you ensure your content is effective, but it also can save a lot of time and hassle in making detailed content decisions, and take some of the emotion and the pain, if you will, of making the best possible content decision away.Testing is something that is available in ways that are just kind of mind boggling. Today compared to seven years ago, even small businesses, even individuals have more access to different kinds of testing than ever before. MailChimp is one example where it's really easy to test campaigns, and test a variety of aspects of them through A/B testing or multivariate testing, and a lot of this, especially the A/B testing is free. Netflix took data that they had about their content and decided to conduct a really big experiment. Netflix realised that content that involved David Fincher and Kevin Spacey were well watched. The British version of House of Cards performed really well in terms of keeping people's attention, and a movie by David Fincher tended to be watched to absolute completion.

These are some of the data points that Netflix considered when they decided to make bets on House of Cards, which is entering its final season now. This experiment really paid off for Netflix. This big experiment really accomplished a lot for them. They did recover the costs very quickly, and they met a big goal to grow their subscribers, and of course revenue along with that. Perhaps even more importantly was the long-term value of this experiment, which was creating a model that they could repeat, and really establishing their approach to developing original content.

That is not only a strategy issue, but also an operations issue. Because, at the time having the operations in place to support original content, that was very new, very young, and the experiment really confirmed for them that it would be worth and very critical to their company to establish those kinds of operations. That gives you a sense of some of the considerations with experimentation, and how experimentation tends to be a success factor in content operations.The other category is automation, thinking about how technology can help you with automating repeated tasks in your content operations setup, as well as help you make your content even more effective than it ever could be if everything was done manually. Automation is available in a more sophisticated way to a wider variety of companies and organisations than ever before. GatherContent is one example really focused on workflow, and taking the pain and hassle out of getting content together, and really managing the creation process, and review process, and all of those key steps in a seamless way. It's something that MailChimp has developed quite a bit, especially for marketing related needs.In this case, you see a welcome automation setup, so that anytime someone subscribes to say your email list, you can send a series of useful introductory kinds of emails to them, and make them start to get value out of being a part of your list right away. That's just scratching the surface of the kinds of automations that are available at MailChimp, and many of them are free. It's really an exciting time to think about and consider automation, and how it can help you with your content operations.

An area where there's a lot of opportunity to automate is personalising the delivery of content, and connecting the right people with the right kinds of content, so that they don't have to search through, sort through, navigate so much stuff, and get exactly what they're needing.Netflix, again, is a really fantastic example of this. They are not shy about proclaiming their efforts about personalisation. They talked about having 33 million versions of Netflix, because their experience is so dynamic and personalised. Understanding and using data's a big part of that. I wanted to share the stable partner problem, which is really the key kind of algorithm that tends to come into play when you think about this kind of automation. Really what this is is figuring out how to put the right kinds of partners together.

If you think about your customers as one partner, and your content as the other partner, this really comes down to figuring out the logic to match up people's preferences. Another way of looking at this is a kind of love connection.Having two people who prefer each other enough in order for them to be a decent match.

Content automation flow diagram

This could work by starting in the upper left here. A user requests content from your site or application, and because of the data that you have you can get some insight into who they are and what they're doing or what they have recently done, and get a sense of what they are intending to do, what their goal is.

At the same time, your system can review your content, especially if it's well structured, tagged, and engineered, to determine what's relevant. Then also review data about that content's performance, especially as it relates to how other users who are like the user that you're dealing with at the moment, how that content has performed with them.

This involves comparing your user to a cohort, so users who'll be like the user who has come to your site, and trying to understand even more about them based on how they compare. Then going through the process, and matching up content that tends to perform well with that cohort, and offering that to your user. When you have this kind of system in place, this kind of automation in place, you can create some content delivery magic.

Consider whether you need the same content roles that you have always had. Do you need a writer/editor for everything? I once worked with a large company that had a large set of content teams, about 200 people, and the vast majority of them were writers/editors. They were trying to do a lot with content and had very ambitious goals. They saw the value of content, and they really were struggling.

We talked, and worked out an approach to shift those writers/editors into a variety of more updated roles, and also to bring new people in with more of expertise in different kinds of content roles and skills. For you, your company, your organisation, you might need to think about that as well. What kinds of roles do you really need? I'm sharing a few of the emerging roles that might be important. These don't necessarily always map to exact job titles.

If you're a smaller company or organisation, you might need someone to act as both the content analyst and the content strategist, for example. But, this gives you a sense of what, especially the more mature kinds of companies and organisations are thinking about and really considering when it comes to content roles, and having the right people do the right things.

Think about whether you need a rock star, or more of a constellation. I really like how Aaron Burgess has talked about the kinds of qualities and skills that people in maturing content operations really need to have. He points out the value of having curiosity, tenacity, being able to think in terms of systems, as well as think in terms of design, problem solving, and really bring together a lot of pertinent data and information, and turn that into really valuable and effective content solutions.

These kinds of people can help figure out the content operations pieces as well. Usually solving a problem when it comes to content is not just about figuring out what content to offer. It's also about how are you going to really make that happen on a regular basis? How are you going to get it done? Magic you will make, when you make the most of content ops, Yoda might say. Even though there isn't a content fairy, we do have ContentOps, and I'm really excited for you to take things to the next level.


Content Operations: The Guide

How to build a scalable and repeatable process for producing effective content.

About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Head of Content at GatherContent. He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and regular contributor to industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, 24 Ways,WebTuts+, UX Matters , UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy and ContentOps at leading industry events.

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