I recently thought of this old joke.
Two hikers walk around a bend in the trail and come face to face with an angry bear. One hiker drops to his knee, fetches his running shoes from his backpack, and laces them up. The other hiker says, “There is no way you’ll outrun that bear.” The kneeling hiker stands up: “I don’t have to be faster than the bear. I only have to be faster than you.”
I’ve noticed a fascinating trend where marketing teams lace up their running shoes to out-innovate their peers within their companies. But in the long run, they don’t outrun the bear.
Five years ago, we worked with a Fortune 500 financial services company. This year, we are working with the same company on a new content strategy project. As I relayed our previous project’s activities – and how successful that team had been – to the marketing director, she was confused and asked who was on the team. She laughed when I shared the names and said, “I remember them. They were a fast-moving team. Most of them are gone now, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard the details of that project.”
But that’s not the first time I’ve heard that scenario.
Are you outrunning yourselves?
I frequently encounter people from large companies where the innovation gap between marketing teams is wide. I hear things like, “Oh, yes, that team is innovative in its approach to [fill in the blank with some marketing approach]. But the rest of our marketing is still antiquated.”
It fascinates me. When you read case studies or hear at a conference about some company’s innovation of a new content platform or cool marketing strategyyou believe the whole company leans into that strategy. You assume they integrated that innovation throughout the company. You picture the CMO kicking their heels and nodding with satisfaction, “Yes, I approved of that strategy.”
But the truth is, most of these organizations fail to integrate the innovative approach across marketing, and the rest of the organization doesn’t even know it exists. As the “bear” of evolving strategies chases the business, one part of marketing may simply be outrunning its “friends” – the other parts of marketing and the business.
That speed doesn’t last. The bear inevitably catches all of them.
Speed can reduce communication
No doubt the need for content strategy moves fast today. Marketers increasingly shift content creation and management from agencies to in-house studios. As a result, you must adapt to an always-on content strategy. This transition demands greater flexibility and a more coordinated, cross-functional, data-infused decision-making process.
Yet, when brands infuse interesting, innovative approaches into their overall content strategy, the teams become so focused on development and implementation that they forget to bring the rest of the organization. And some who do think about internal communication dismiss the idea, saying, “We don’t involve them because that will just slow us down.”
This approach can provide short-term agility and speed, but it also leaves you alone in the long run. At a company I worked with recently, the content marketing team had been so heads-down on their “cool, innovative new customer-facing digital publication” that they failed to notice the rest of the organization pivoted to a new account-based marketing strategy. They spent months trying to get retroactive buy-in from the larger team and pivot their platform to support the new goals. It didn’t work; ultimately, the digital publication was turned off.
Many, many times, I find myself saying – as I told the new/old financial services client: “Ninety percent of a modern content strategy has nothing to do with the content. It’s all about ongoing communication.”
Fast, innovative change in a silo rarely sticks – even in the silo where it was made.
Treat communication as a process, not a project
Any innovative content strategy requires proactive communication and activation. What does that look like? At a high level, start with these four steps – with the last step as the real key.
1. Identify the stakeholders and the WIFM (what’s in it for me)
As you roll out a new innovative change, identify all the stakeholders. Include not just the ones directly affected by the change but the ones whose lack of direct knowledge about it could affect its success. Then, segment these stakeholders by their role in the organization and level of involvement in the innovation.
2. Craft a clear message
Develop a clear and concise message that explains the change, how it will work, the impact on the organization, and, most importantly, the impact on them.
3. Create a two-way dialogue
Encourage feedback and questions from people throughout the organization. Use that to inform your communication plan so the new project integrates with their plans or needs.
4. Monitor progress and, most importantly, keep it up for the long haul
Continuously monitor the effectiveness of your communication and collaboration plan. Adjust it as needed. Use metrics, such as employee engagement survey results, feedback from change champions, and adoption rates, to assess the success of the communication plan. Finally, and most importantly, build that internal communication work into the content strategy process rather than evaluate it only at the end of the project.
At this point, you might think, “Hey, wait a minute. If this is the recommended approach you took with your financial services client five years ago, why didn’t it stick? Why were the other teams unaware of the successful content strategy?”
When no news isn’t good news
Ironically, long-term content strategies can go too well in the early days. Teams, like the one at the financial services company, often stop thinking about the endurance of communicating the change. It’s how most businesses view “communicating change.” You only create internal communications when you need to get buy-in or relay new tasks that somebody probably doesn’t want to do.
So, when things are going well, you assume that everybody knows.
After more than 20 years of seeing large marketing teams siloed from one another, I know “de-siloing” teams is not terribly realistic. Thus, your ability to keep teams from outpacing each other when creating new innovative processes is limited.
But a great communication process can help bridge those silos. Ensuring you bring along the organization – even if it slows you down a bit – can contribute significantly to long-term success.
If you outpace other parts of your organization, you may find yourself ahead of the bear. But you also risk getting so far in front that you never realize the other teams “met” and tamed the bear, and moved on, leaving you running alone.
It’s your story. Tell it well.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
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