Frank Strong

Five Ways to Inspire a Culture for Content Marketing

By: Frank Strong | April 23, 2013 | 

Inspire a Culture for Content MarketingCulture eats strategy for breakfast.”

That’s a quote credible sources attribute to Peter Drucker.

I’ve come to realize companies tend to fall into one of three culture camps: Those who believe in culture, those who don’t, and those who pay lip service to the concept.

There’s a divide among these camps—a distance that will widen with the increasingly important role of content marketing—the number one priority for marketers in 2013. Why?

Because the “pressure to produce more and more content tends to push marketers up into the shallows,” as Doug Kessler said in interview on culture’s importance in developing content.

At the same time, search engines such as Google are actively devaluing shallow content, while evidence is mounting that in-depth content is regaining shareability.

The contrast will be stark because few people can’t fake the funk for long. For many, it’s hard enough to produce valuable content with passion day in and day out. Great content marketing stands to benefit from a team effort and a team needs something in which to believe.

Culture as a Key to Brand Building

Content is a means to build a brand. It’s in part what we say, but more importantly, it’s a reflection of what we do. Content marketing therefore is not an act, but a habit.

For example, a business that wants to be known for excellent customer service has to actually provide great customer service and share those experiences. This may come in the form of media channels it owns, like a blog; media it earns through media or blogger outreach; or the curation of customer-generated content.

A corporate culture is not an award plaque mounted on the wall or merely a list of corporate values—it’s when those values are exercised habitually. Few would be inclined to disagree, so what’s the big deal? It’s the people in the organizations who pay lip service that I worry about. Those organizations need convincing, and the rise of content in marketing provides a sense of urgency.

Lip Service is From Mars

In the movie “Mars Attacks,” a satirical take of sorts on nearly every other high-budget doomsday movie, there’s an illustrative example. As the invading Martian forces comb the streets of America, shooting everyone in sight, they are simultaneously broadcasting a message that says, “Don’t run! We are your friends!”

It’s saying one thing while doing another, which is by definition, hypocrisy. In many ways some businesses have been able to treat customer service the same way. As Scott Stratten wrote, “Really, to be great at customer service, you only need to be mediocre, because everyone else sucks.”

Customer service is just one example. In business, hypocrisy can be rendered in many forms: A product that doesn’t match the marketing message, a service that does not withstand its guarantee, or even pricing practices that are designed to maximize profit at minimal effort and at the expense of the customer.

In a world where social media and content is increasingly blurring the lines between what is personal and what is professional, this is a hard reality for an employee to disguise merely for the sake of a paycheck.

What is Culture?

Rand Fishkin, founder and CEO of SEOmoz, does an effective job of breaking down what is and what is not company culture. It’s not, he says, karaoke nights, bean bag chairs, or catered lunches.

“Those are fun things people who work together might have or do,” he wrote. “They may be indicative of a certain type of workplace environment. They may even stem from the culture that’s been created. But, they are NOT company culture.”

Fishkin says culture boils down to three organizational characteristics: Values, mission, and vision, and the way it manages the careers of its people.

“If you’re trying to figure out what a company’s values really are, look at the decisions management makes when lots of money, risk, or loss of face for executives are at odds with the stated values. Want to know the company’s mission and vision? Look at what they’ve intentionally chosen not to do, even though it could be lucrative. And if you’re seeking answers to why a company hires and fires, talk to the managers about their most unorthodox hires that have worked out, and the most regret they’ve felt when letting someone go (and why).”

Though by his own admission, it took years for Fishkin to appreciate the importance of culture in business, he has from my vantage point, largely succeeded. From business partnerships to new products to online marketing, he has developed a culture that fosters highly engaged and passionate employees. Their enthusiasm is reflected in its content and that is attractive to customers.

Inspire a Culture for Content Marketing

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are corporate cultures. The good news is, Rome was expensive and culture doesn’t have to be. But it does cost something: Hard work, diligence, and leadership.

Here are five ways to create a culture of content marketing:

  1. Lead by example. Data from eMarketer tells us social CEOs drive corporate visibility and use it as a leadership tool. Eight-one percent said a CEO’s social media presence helped in talent acquisition and that social engagement made them more effective leaders. Imagine what that does for employee morale and enthusiasm when leadership is visibly doing their part—and taking risks—with content marketing.
  2. Empower employees to make decisions. Social media moves far too fast for bureaucracy; user-generated content can be published in a short time. The web is rich with case studies about employees who were empowered to make decisions to the delight of a customer. Why not give them leeway in content as well?I’m not suggesting an absent minded free-for-all, but provide a task and purpose to serve as guiding principles, and give teams the latitude to discover their own voice. Nothing crushes passion and reduces enthusiasm like a stringent and exhaustive review process for content. It’s a matter of perspective, and I believe most employees want to do right by their employer.
  3. Be forgiving of mistakes. There’s certainly more risk in empowering employees, so it also requires a higher tolerance for mistakes. One of the most memorable moments in the last five years of my career was when my former CMO corralled the team after a social media crisis and asked, “What did we learn from this?” The discussion that ensued was a quantum leap in knowledge and experience for everyone on the team. I have used that anecdote for that company’s own content marketing.
  4. An atta-boy or atta-girl is the most underused tool in a manager’s toolkit. This is about acknowledgement. People want to know they add value—and they need to hear it regularly. Recognize good work and great content. A simple compliment costs nothing but acts like jet fuel to fire-up employees.
  5. Champion employees. “The company is the product,” wrote Jack Stack and Bo Burlington their 2002 book, “A Stake in the Outcome.” Stack turned around a company with just $100,000 in cash and some $9 million in debt. By a stake in the outcome, he means breaking “employee think”—that is the habit of “focusing on your little piece of the company instead of looking at the whole thing.” One PR firm that’s championing this idea in more recent times is SHIFT Communications, when it announced it was being acquired by its employees.

Content marketing is not a buzzword, but it’s also not a panacea. Time, dedication, and the contributions of a highly engaged team, as a result of a corporate culture, are the foundations of a good program. With apologies to Mr. Drucker, if we can foster a culture for content marketing, we’ll all be eating three squares of strategy a day.

What leadership strategies have you developed for inspiring a culture of content?

About Frank Strong

Frank Strong is a classically trained PR professional with content marketing savvy. Find him on Twitter, Google+ or read more from him on his blog, Sword and the Script.

  • Frank, really good post. Thank you so much for your contribution! A couple of things stick out to me: What is culture and how key executives can use content marketing. First, the culture thing is very near and dear to my heart. As you know, we went virtual about 18 months ago and it’s been interesting to see our culture flourish without our being in the office together every day (with bean bag chairs and catered lunches). It brings me strong down on the side of what Rand describes as culture.
    On the content marketing side of things, I agree with you and I also disagree…if that’s possible. In the beginning of this crazy digital world, I thought it was imperative executives be involved and share their voices. Now I’m not so convinced. Yes, I do think it does wonders, but it also makes them much too accessible, which is hard to scale eventually. There has to be a happy balance. I hope I can figure out how to balance it within my own company yet this year.

    • ginidietrich It’s an interesting thought on access and scale. My thinking is it comes down to priorities. Steve Jobs didn’t respond to everyone, but he was known to fire off a few email responses.  Even though he didn’t respond to everyone, people still cared what he had to say.

      • Frank_Strong Sure, but he was Steve Jobs. In fact, I remember his team begging him to stop firing off emails. There is such a thing as too accessible and I’m not sure where the balance lies.

        • ginidietrich But Steve could be nasty too, that’s what they objected to. 
          So…what does that mean, too accessible?    
          Is it and a thriving small business owner being a thought leader and trying to run a business?  Is it a S&P 500 company CEO setting aside a few hours a month to blog? Does a CEO have to respond to every little comment or can they pick and choose?

  • Great post Frank! I create a lot of content daily and my team is really good at the “atta-girl’s.” You’re right, a simple compliment goes a long way to fire me up. And even letting me know if my content isn’t as good as it could be really fires me up too. I appreciate the honesty of my team.

    • yvettepistorio It’s a frame of reference isn’t it?  How we choose to view things!

  • belllindsay

    “Champion employees” – gold Frank, pure gold.

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  • Great post! Points 4 and 5 really ring true to me- I am very motivated by knowing my work matters. Also- quoting Mars Attacks in a business blog??? You are my kinda guy!

    • RebeccaTodd Analogies — compare and contrast — that’s how we understand things. How do we explain things no one has ever seen?  We say it’s like _________.  Mars Attacks I thought was well suited for communication types since that example comes with a clear distinction between message and actions.  Besides, the Monty Python’s been so over used. “It’s but a flesh wound!” Thanks, Rebecca!

      • Frank_Strong RebeccaTodd So true! Do you also have an education background? You certainly know the theories.

        • RebeccaTodd Sorry, Rebecca, can’t say that I do!

        • Frank_Strong RebeccaTodd Ahh no need for sorry! You instinctively use sound educational theories. Well done!

  • Right good stuff Frank. On a kick lately, seeing this theme: TIME. All of this takes so much time and work; it’s not a quick fix, not a one-year campaign or five-year strategy. This is ethos, this is DNA, this is hard-wired into a company that won’t happen overnight. 
    The company is the product and the products/service are the marketing, are the content; insert [big brands] here. Lip service from Mars; been fighting that battle a bit lately (and working on the obligatory blog post) – changes made in the name of ‘branding’ a ‘new culture’ when all the moves amount to changing the color lipstick the pig wears. That’s my other kick lately; tired of ‘looking’ like you’re ‘doing social’ or touting some relatively tiny media buy as comprehensive marketing. Token efforts for appearance sake.. just won’t cut it. FWIW.

    • 3HatsComm I saw a great quote somewhere recently — content marketing isn’t a program — it’s a philosophy.  To get beyond all the content that simply looks like someone is trying too hard, we have to inspire.  We have to find what motivates people and ignite that passion.  Leaders are in a great position to do this.  Thanks for the comment Davina!

  • rdopping

    Hi Frank. This post was truly inspiring. I work in a firm that prides itself in the type of inclusionary participation of its leadership in the day to day work of the firm. A roll up your sleeves and get it done type of attitude which has created a culture of hard work which gets results.
    What’s odd is that with the vast expertise at hand there is little in the way of sharing that knowledge with the outside world.
    I am sharing this piece with the firm because it not only demonstrates excellent

    • rdopping

      Darn smatphones. It not only demonstrates excellent examples of leadership but ties them well into a way to increase the visibility of that awesomeness. Thanks for that.

      • rdopping Cheers Ralph. You know there’s an old soldier’s saying about never asking your boys to do something you wouldn’t do or haven’t done. Lot of value in that with applicability elsewhere.  Thanks for the comment.

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