Content & ExperienceHow content really works for business: the operating models of content and more

How content really works for business: the operating models of content and more

A rare, in-depth discussion on content's role in business that senior leaders need to be having with their teams in order to expand in digital

30-second summary:

  • Robert Rose examines the significance of content operations for brands and investigates what drives the current in-house agency service trends
  • He identifies four operating models of content: player (content-as-contributor marketing tactic), product (content-as-product marketing strategy), processor (content-as-asset business standard) and platform (content-as-business business model)
  • Giants such as Amazon, Apple, Google, and the likes have installed strategic owned media operations as a core operating model with their business

Are you looking for the one, super-secret, revealing question that makes a business case for a smart content strategy in your business?  Well, I have it. How much did you spend on content last year? Go ask your CFO. Spoiler alert – you are not going to get a good answer. And when they, and you, realize that there is no possible way to currently get a good answer, you may start to estimate. When you come to the realization that content is almost certainly one of the (if not the) most expensive (and inexplicably untracked) activities your marketing team does, you’ve just made the most compelling business case for a strategic approach to content. I reveal a lot about the operating models of content and how you need to approach them.

Content is treated like a tent without a skeleton

In many businesses today, creating content is everyone’s job, and no one’s strategy. Arguably, the most important activity that every person does to communicate the business’ intention to customers has no strategic process behind it.

But is that even possible?  Some say that “content” is a meaningless word. They might argue that trying to create a content strategy is like trying to create a “word strategy”.  That’s silly hyperbole of course. Content is an easy enough defined term for business. It is, in a word: communication. And, last I checked, we’ve had no problem wrestling with trying to wrangle the function, scalability, and measurability of a “marketing and communications strategy” for the last century.

The primary difference is that, historically, a marketing and communications strategy was developing the processes of “what” it is we mean to say. Some might call it a messaging strategy, or an IMC (Integrated Marketing and Communications) plan.

But now, the overarching challenge now is not just what we want to say it – but how and where we say it at scale. The exponential explosion of channels, and formats, along with the technological enablement of frontline workers to create and manage communication means that businesses must get their arms around not just what we are saying, but how the organization manages the process of saying it.

Owned media: an evolved business need  

In my book with Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi, Killing Marketing, we offered an argument for the strategic value of owned media (what we would call content marketing) as a function in the business. We identified this idea as follows:

“as the production and distribution of content becomes more commoditized through technology, the business value of original, high-quality content increases. Put slightly differently, as “reaching audiences” becomes more difficult, fragmented, and filtered, the capability to capture and hold attention with original content platforms becomes increasingly more valuable to the business.”

You can certainly see this happening on a tectonic scale. Amazon, Apple, Google, AT&T, Microsoft, and Facebook are quickly becoming among the largest media companies on the planet. Why? Because their original content gives them direct (and in many ways exclusive) access to audiences, providing tremendous value and competitive advantage.

You can see it happening at much smaller levels as well. Just within the last year, Salesforce acquired The CMO Club, Hubspot acquired the email newsletter The Hustle, and Consulting firm Sykes Enterprises acquired The Penny Hoarder.

Meanwhile, product and service companies are also expanding their existing owned media efforts. Cleveland Clinic’s Health Essentials blog is now not just a marketing platform, but a revenue-generating product for the organization.  Sports betting company DraftKings has recently launched a “media division” along with the company’s first-ever “Chief Media Officer”.

Put simply: these successful companies have installed strategic owned media operations as a core operating model within their company.

But, okay, if content can and should be structured as an integrated business model in a company – what is the best way to structure it?

Why you need to define the operating models of content

Before we explore the structure of each operational model we should ask?  Why do we care?  Can we not simply say “skip to the end. We understand the increasing demands the organization has for content assets.  Can’t we just to producing high-quality content as a factory?”

Well, as it turns out, Steven Sinofsky has the answer. Steven is a product marketing guru and former president of the Windows division at Microsoft. He is most famous for saying,

“Don’t ship the org chart.”

It’s great advice.

Make sure what you’re offering – whether it’s software like Windows, a device like a phone, or something less tangible like content and customer experiences – is built to satisfy the customer needs and desires instead of reflecting your internal organizational structure, your silos, your turf battles, your budget constraints. It just makes sense.

But as it turns out, when Steven said “don’t ship the org chart,” he didn’t mean that you shouldn’t ship the org chart.  In fact, he meant the opposite. It’s not a warning about something to avoid. It is a statement of fact about something that is, well, unavoidable.

It is inevitable. Inescapable. Pre-ordained. And in fact, Steven was deliberately invoking what’s called ‘Conway’s law‘. Melvin Conway was a computer scientist and developer.  In 1968, he noted that,

“organizations that design systems… are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”

In other words, operational design is product design. When we see a media company like Disney, Warner Brothers, or Vivendi launch product divisions, they don’t operate them as their media. They run them like product companies. Conversely, if product and service companies are going to operate more like media companies – they must learn how to structure and operate those teams as a media company would.  As both Steven and Melvin teach: since we are inevitably going to communicate in the way we are organized, you better organize and operate in the way you want to communicate to customers.

So, going back to the question of “can’t we just skip this, and get to producing content as a factory?”

Yes, you can – but you’d better understand where the limits are. When that “factory” model hits an inevitable ceiling of quality, and quantity and costs start to skyrocket, and suddenly the content factory “team” feels like an on-demand vending machine of assets, the business will inevitably have to start over.

Put simply – it pays to think through how we design the operational models of content.

Four operating models of content

In our client work over the last decade, we have identified four types of business models: player, product, processor, and platform.

When a content strategy succeeds, it typically happens in one or more of these four content operating models along two axes. On the lower part of the Y-axis, models are more internally focused, vs. moving to external focus and building audiences that can be monetized over time. Along the X-axis, models are departmental (for example, siloed) services shading into integrated business services as they move further to the right.

operating models of content

To be clear, this model is not meant to imply maturity or value. Each model has a unique value to provide the business. And each has its roles, responsibilities, output, integration structure, and measurement model.  The goal is not to move, as much as it is to structure and ultimately scale the strategic operation in a balanced and clear way against the goals of the business.

For the purposes of this post, the quick and easy way to explain and distinguish the operating models of content is to look at the output.

1. Player content model

In the lower-left quadrant, the Player model is certainly the most common. Often two or three people – although it can be many more – are tasked with fulfilling the needs of the business by creating, producing, and merchandising content. The Player model team creates infographics, ebooks, sales sheets, blog posts, and often presentations for the CEO. This team is the “creator of assets” or sometimes the “internal content factory” for the business.

As an example of this model – you might read about how software company Symantec evolved from a Player, campaign-focused business model to a Product center-of-excellence model.

2. Processor content model

In the lower right quadrant, the Processor model is content-as-a-service. Internally focused, this model leans toward a more integrated business service that the whole enterprise uses. Maybe a team or teams work on SEO strategy or localization, scalability, best practices guidelines, protocols, etc. They set the standards for how content will be created and managed in the organization or by outsourced agencies.

A great example of this is how Carlos Abler led the content enablement initiatives at 3M. As he said in this interview, his team’s job was to “work across organizational boundaries to help accelerate capacity to apply content marketing as a business strategy.”

3. Product content model

Moving to the upper left quadrant is the Product model. The focus is on building external audiences through content products. An editorial team may manage a resource center or a dedicated blog, magazine, or video channel – discrete, immersive experiences aimed at building or moving audiences.

The critical difference here is in how the content product supports the business – and must be managed like a cohesive and strategic offering of the business, rather than simply a feed of assets that support campaign marketing.

A wonderful example of this is how software company Frontline created its original research institute.

4. Platform content model

Finally, in the upper right, is the Platform model or content-as-a-business model. Content is not only created as a marketing and sales tactic but might be an integrated product or business strategy. The Platform model could have a revenue stream too.

Example here of course range from everything from Red Bull Media House to Johnson & Johnson’s and Arrow Electronics creation of a media division.

Not a maturity model

Now, again, it’s tempting to look at the four operating models of content across a maturity scale where you start with baby steps in the Player model and grow up to become a Platform model content business. While this has some element of truth (for example, you almost always start out in the Player model and have some aspirations to Platform), it’s misleading to see these models as stages.

The idealized content operation can be seen as a clear, shared, and rightfully balanced combination of all four models.  For example, Cleveland Clinic’s content team is still the main creator of all content for the hospital’s website, ads, posters in the hallways, and more. But their focus on scale, measurement, and value have been on building the Platform model for the last few years (monetizing and staffing Health Essential and creating a separate division of the business).  As we enter 2021, they are now squarely developing a deeper Processor model.

It’s not a question of which one you are now and how you grow to a new model as quickly as possible. Rather an intelligent content operations strategy is about which balance of the four content models makes sense both today and tomorrow.

Yes, you can scale and measure enterprise content

As you might expect, we see the future of strategic content marketing as a scalable, measurable business strategy. As we move through 2021 and beyond, we can already see this trend accelerating. It is the strategic use of content that will not only build audiences and drive the creation and retention of customers but can ultimately do so at a profit for the business.

When we get the question of “how much did we spend on content?”

We can not only answer that question succinctly and accurately but add an additional question. How much did we make on content?

Robert Rose is an author and keynote speaker.


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