In What is a Content Supply Chain? I identified the shortcomings of the traditional and still prevalent process by which B2B organizations create content. I concluded by saying the question is,
How do you design a content supply chain process that will optimize 10 essential content criteria, especially the need to scale without concomitant investment, or compromises to important criteria?
In our 20 year content creation business we discovered the answer in a different approach, process and set of techniques we refer to as a leveraged content supply chain process.
If you Google content supply chain you will discover the content workflow management software category that some claim IS the content supply chain. This isn’t what we’re talking about here. This is like saying ERP software IS the manufacturing supply chain.
Manufacturers learned they first had to change their supply chain process to realize the big value ERP software investments would produce. The same is true for the traditional content supply chain process.
However, some kind of content marketing platform is one of several technologies that play an essential role in helping to coordinate and manage a leveraged content supply chain process. (See category graphic below)
Why Change to a Leveraged Content Supply Chain?
What drives the need for a leveraged content supply chain is a content strategy based on:
A strong belief in high-value content as a strategic business imperative. Content really is an organization’s first “product.” It’s also the currency by which attention, interest and invitations to customer conversations are earned.
A business strategy to invest in long-life, re-usable content, as assets.
The appreciation that content performs better and produces better functional results when it is insightful, useful and relevant to audiences. Relevance is a function of situational context, audience type and interest, as well as business purpose. Content serves two masters in this regard: audiences and the organization’s business users.
The realization that the need to scale output is inevitable from such a strategy. This is due to the many versions required for relevance. Audience preferences and digital delivery channels also mean content is needed in different forms and formats.
The understanding that the traditional production process cannot meet, let alone optimize, 10 digital content criteria for high-performing content and high business results.
The intent to future-proof significant content investments, and to prepare for imminent trends:
- Real-time content creation
- Dynamic assembly and editing by front-line users who tailor for situational relevance
- Content as a Service (CaaS)
Difference Between Traditional and Leveraged Content Supply Chain
To achieve strategic business objectives with a leveraged content supply chain, organizations will need to up-level their professionalism and make important changes for every aspect of their content strategy, planning, and operation management. We’ll look at this in three primary categories:
- Mindset and Approach
- Unified Content Strategy and Preparation
- Content Operations Process and Techniques
Mindset and Approach
On purpose, by design
Traditional content decisions are typically made in silo’d functions and tactics, often by individuals who create content. Subject matter experts for example, because they are the domain expert, are often left to design and create content. This work is done without clear definitions of the purpose and context in which content will be used.
We advocate replacing the conceptual term “content,” with the term “situation-ready content.” This term inherently focuses everyone on a specific context and purpose.
But this is just one example. Similar examples can be presented for every element discussed below. Professionalism in the content area means everything must be done on purpose, by design.
Professional operations and creative objectives
Content creation is primarily considered a creative endeavor. And rightly so. In the digital era, professional operations objectives and criteria require higher consideration.
We have discovered a better process can actually enhance creative opportunities. First, it “operationalizes” lower-creative” working content. (See Coca Cola 70-20-10 content strategy.)
Second, a professional, leverage content supply chain results in more creative time. Better inputs and less project preparation time puts less time pressure on true creative work.
Content creation process must change
It’s important to realize that for many people, this will be both a mindset as well as process challenge. Clear communication about the reasons why the process must change is critical. As is explanation and support for specific new process elements.
From periodic projects, to continuous process
Most organizations appreciate the continuous and fast paced nature of today’s digital content operation. An important reality is the need to scale operation, both up and down as needs arise. The traditional process doesn’t provide this flexibility, especially in a timely and low cost way.
Shift from asset or persona oriented work-streams, to outcomes and topic-based work-streams (See Avitage Extension to SiriusDecision Product vs. Persona Content Framework)
With the elevated focus on buyer personas, content marketing teams (and analysts) have focused content creation on meeting the interests of key personas.
Greater leverage will come by setting up regular content work-streams based on “topics” that are informed in content strategy work by specific “outcomes” each asset must affect. This approach makes clear what specific versions of key assets are required. Versions that meet situational context is a primary example. More will be addressed below.
Audiences, not just personas, are another relevance example requiring unique content versions. Audience types include customers, analysts/influencers, prospective buyers (the current predominant focus), industry verticals, and others.
For many organizations, we recommend industry vertical content be prioritized over personas. Greater impact with less time and effort can be realized by aligning with the language, examples and customer stories that are relevant for each vertical.
Pre-produce content well before it’s required (on purpose)
As the graphic illustrates, the inevitable migration of content operations from traditional “just-in-time” is moving into the “pre-produce” phase that will ultimately prepare for, and lead to, real-time, dynamically assembled content. Initially, this will be a manual process, supported by the right systems. Over time, as operations mature, more will be automated, even for non-website content.
The B2C world is there now. This interim stage will help operation teams to learn how to pre-produce content needed for instant assembly.
The methods below will prepare you for future and more advanced operational requirements.
Unified Content Strategy and Preparation
Leverage starts with shifting strategy and preparation from tactical functions, and specific content initiatives, to universal development at the business or even enterprise levels.
As marketing organizations broaden their thinking about content, and definitions of the functional use cases they must support, this will become more evident. In many ways sales and sales channel content raises the ante for flexible configuration of highly targeted, relevant content. But what about content and operations that are shared with training, customer service and HR, for example?
Three competencies of our 6 Competency Framework for Unified Content Strategy apply most here:
- Understand Audiences and Customers
- Assess and Document Use Case Requirements
- Define Communication and Conversation Support Elements
There is much confusion around content strategy. The term is most often applied to web site and content project support. Consider a business level, unified content strategy as the work that answers this strategic business question:
How will we know what content to invest in and create, why, and how to create it?
Strategy is about priority setting. This also includes decisions about what content not to create.
Content is a tactic. This means content strategy must derive from the higher level business, go-to-market, sales and marketing strategies. This background provides context for content decisions.
Three primary content strategy activities provide universal preparation for all content initiatives, and a leveraged content supply chain:
Start with documenting a deep understanding of your primary audiences and their interests that you address. For prospective customers, determine how and why customers make problem-solving decisions for the business problems your products and services address. Starting with the problem-solving process will provide a wider context and improve your understanding of customers. This should naturally take you into an analysis of their buying decision process.
B2B organizations should remember that B2B buying teams tend to average 6 stakeholders. They orchestrate a more formal decision process than in the B2C world, where consumers “journey” to their purchase selection. Leverage in your content supply chain starts with deep understanding of customer and communication requirements at each key touchpoint.
Use the buyer decision process to identify key engagement “touch points.” For each touch point, identify primary use scenarios for which situation-ready content is required.
We recommend you make this assessment by analyzing two preliminary requirements. Assess the knowledge that both users and audiences require for each scenario. Since knowledge must be delivered to be used, this will help you define the nature of the “packaging” that supports this requirement.
Marketing and selling are communication activities. Assess communication and conversation support requirements associated for each scenario, as type of content.
Don’t leave decisions about the “contentS” of content up to creators. They are creative specialists, not situational experts. Define and document content specifications for each key use case scenario, the way you would define product feature specifications.
Communication and Conversation Support — Topics, Themes, Language Inventory
The two activities above, together with the key capabilities of your offers, should inform the key business “topics” focus for your conversations and content. Often these are customer problem areas.
Two important goals are to improve message consistency, as well as execution efficiency. Also identify a set of core message themes. Topics and themes frame and should permeate your content and conversations. Develop and constantly maintain an inventory of language that effectively conveys your key points, themes and business insights.
Your language inventory can be individual words, phrases, or entire stories. A words-to-use and words-to-avoid list helps focus everyone on consistent delivery. It provides a baseline for assessing feedback and making improvements.
Topics and themes, along with content key words, provide a good start to a content taxonomy. This makes tagging and retrieving content faster and easier for all involved. A robust taxonomy will also help your analysis of content consumption metrics. Then you will be ready to make data-supported content investment decisions. Today there are predictive content applications that will help you do this. But they work better with focused content based on rich taxonomies.
This competency provides leverage because content teams, in each content initiative, don’t have to figure them out. Review and approvals occur more quickly. Over time, feedback improves the quality of these essential message elements.
Content Operations Process and Techniques
Design and Create Situation-ready Content for Re-use First
Many companies have adopted an approach referred to as “pillar content and derivatives” as part of their content strategy. In our content operations maturity model this represents the second stage of maturity.
To realize greater leverage, organizations must design and create content for re-use first, and “on purpose.”
This means you move beyond producing finished content products in each work-stream, to creating re-usable content components. This will become clearer with the additional points below.
Document content specifications
To make better decisions about what content to create, as well as to optimize content operations, content briefs must become more robust.
Detailed outlines explain the exact nature of the “contents” of each asset or component (see below). This includes sequence, key points, and what’s not included in the asset (among many other factors. See Content Requisition Template for an example).
This work follows immediately from the use case assessment work cited above.
The principle here is, other than users creating their own content (zero leverage), all creation is outsourced.
Acquire and process inputs for new content, continuously
If you analyze your content creation process you will find that planning as well as input acquisition most often happens after the project has been defined, or assigned to a creator or creation team.
Leverage comes from continuous acquisition, on purpose. Again, purpose is the foundational preparation conducted in content strategy work. This work should define topics and themes that guide input acquisition.
An example is interviewing internal and third party subject experts when they are available, rather than at the time of a specific content project. It also means curating third party content as it is discovered. This might be through regular consumption, or more mature curation techniques, such as Google Alerts or automated systems.
Examples of important, curated input elements that provide leverage to new content include: third party research, facts, stories, quotations, images, and links to related content assets.
Acquired inputs should be immediately processed, edited, and tagged based upon your taxonomy and metadata schemes. This prepares them for fast and easy re-use. More techniques cited below will apply here.
Content Source is a critical, and generally missing component for a leveraged content supply chain. This is a repository of editable text and graphic source of all content assets, as well as modular content components (see below). New elements should be added as you curate your new content as well as 3rd party acquired content.
This repository goes beyond finished documents. We refer to this type of content as “editable text and graphics.” If you think about it, this is your most important and prevalent content type. Yet few organizations manage it.
Some organizations have discovered the value of Evernote and Microsoft OneNote for this work. We have found the structure of OneNote provides a useful organizing capability. Maintaining a Content Source repository is an essential and under-used technique.
Distribute content creation to best resources and time
The manufacturing supply chain gained leverage by “outsourcing” component manufacturing to the best resources. This technique applies equally well to content creation, as it also has for software development. But in the case of content, outsourcing means created by someone other than the primary users.
Create micro, modular, configurable components
The shift to create content for re-use first works best by creating configurable modular content components. This is the opposite of the pillar and derivative technique. Modular content is also referred to as “atomized” content. This is a key recommendation by analysts including Gartner, (see Your Content Supply Chain is the Rate Limiter to Your Content Marketing Maturity) and McKinsey (see “configured asset” example.)
This question should help you understand the reason for this approach:
How would you create content if you didn’t know the intended:
- Audience (type, industry, persona)
- Specific audience interest
- Context and Purpose (including competitive context)
- Desired outcome
- Buying Stage
- Key points
- Length or timing?
When you want to “re-purpose” content, isn’t this the reality you are in? (See Repurpose Content, Not a Panacea)
When you create content on purpose, based on content strategy decisions, use case assessments, and detailed content specifications, you can create more and better reusable components, faster, right from the start.
An important technique that makes this work we call “core” and “extension” components.
Core content components are universal to most versions and use cases.
Content extensions apply to specific use scenarios, audiences and business purposes. Creating content extensions might even occur much later in the process, within specific business functions, or even by users at the point of use.
Use a concurrent design and creation technique
This technique is lifted directly from both manufacturing and software creation methods. It will be the most challenging process change. But it will pay huge dividends.
The leveraged content supply chain process involves assessing common content requirements based on all use case specifications. These could be for related functional purposes, audiences, or different situational context.
Concurrent design and creation involves creating modular content components in each work-stream, for all versions, content forms (micro, short, medium, long) and formats .
Once the design and writing techniques are learned, it actually becomes fast and efficient to produce many modular versions.
Assemble “Configured Assets”
Just like the manufacturing analog, a modular core and extension content approach means finished work products are assembled from source components.
When primary finished content products are defined in the assessment / specification phase, assembly can be completed by the content production team.
Two key differences here. Finished content from a component assembly process can be subsequently edited, re-configured using other components (core or extension), and re-assembled to meet situation and relevance objectives.
Over time, you will find more and more content will be assembled within business functions. They are closer to the use situations, audiences and business purpose for which the content is required. They often know best how to tailor for optimum relevance and effectiveness.
Group complete sets of use case scenario assets
Here’s a simple example. Imagine ordering a new computer. You open the box, lift out the gorgeous new computer. Then you realized, there’s no power cord. New or specialized connectors and cables are required, but they aren’t included either. There’s no documentation, warranty card or help errata.
When you create and deploy single assets — a blog, e-book, or video for example — without required associated content as part of the “package,” your user constituents have a similar experience.
Use case assessments and content specifications define this requirement. It will identify associated assets such as email, social media and landing page copy that are required to deliver those gorgeous assets.
It will identify knowledge and communication support elements that prepare and help users make effective use of content assets. This will lead to better content outcomes, as they are created “on purpose, by design” to achieve specific business purposes.
Conduct regular Content Health Check
Just as business financial and inventory systems are regularly audited, professional content operations and content assets should be audited.
We have learned that before content can be effectively audited, you have to know how and why it will be used. From this we adopted the practice of conducting annual assessments of content strategy (first), content inventory, but also content operations.
Key to any process-based system is the principle of continuous improvement based on good feedback. Systems require regular check-ups and external evaluations to verify the health and readiness for their tasks.
Technology Support for a Leveraged Content Supply Chain
Just as the re-engineered manufacturing supply chain wasn’t possible without ERP software, the leveraged content supply chain requires technology support.
Two under-appreciated but essential systems are Content Source (mentioned above) and Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMs).
So much focus over the last decade has been on web and finished content asset management. Management of source image, graphic and video assets has been overlooked and under-invested by many companies.
Yet visual and video content are significant and rapidly growing asset types. They require very different capabilities than document management systems provide. Of course, this is the case for modular, editable text and graphic component management as well.
This is not just the case for smaller and mid-sized companies. Business units and content functions within large companies experience lower leverage without these systems.
Content workflow management systems are another essential support technology. In just the last couple of years, this category has seen significant maturation and new vendor entrants.
With notable exceptions, the main difference involves desire, good guidance, and disciplined focus on executing on the guidance.
For businesses that view situation-ready content as a strategic imperative and key driver of top business results, there is no option to professional content operations execution.
Adopting a leveraged content supply chain is the next stage of content operation maturation.