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For Better Content Marketing, Listen First, Create Last



For Better Content Marketing, Listen First, Create Last

I write and talk a lot about creating content. But learning how to listen is just as (if not more) important.

Think about that last Zoom meeting you had. Your coworker was talking about the state of the business, the results from last quarter, or the proposed new project, and you had this internal dialogue going on as you nodded at the camera.

“Wow, that’s a lot of data she just laid out. Do I agree with it? Which statements should I respond to? Should I ask a question now? How about now? I’m ready with an answer. What should I say to sound smart? I wonder what time the dry cleaner closes.”

We hear, but we’re not listening.

Hearing is a simple physiological act. But listening involves taking in the meaning of the words and the implied communication in the silences in between.

As Henri Nouwen put it, “Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond.”

Most marketing involves waiting to speak

In the latest CMI research, 68% of all respondents said they prioritize their audience’s informational needs over the organization’s sales message in content marketing.


But when asked about looking forward, content marketers mentioned understanding what content appeals most to different roles within the target audience as their top challenge.

In other words, they want to say something meaningful, but they don’t know what that might be.

Research shows #Content marketers want to say something meaningful – they’re just not sure what that might be, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent @semrush. Click To Tweet

Many of my clients feel confident that the company they work for knows what kind of content it wants to produce for audiences. But they feel less convinced that the company understands what these audiences want.

Too often, content marketers are waiting to speak (or offer content) rather than listening to what’s happening with the audiences we’re trying to serve.

Here’s an example. The marketing team at a B2B IT services firm I worked with a few months ago sends leads to the sales team based on the number of articles or thought leadership papers a visitor downloaded. In one case, an audience member had downloaded two papers in one visit to the site. Conversion triggered!

The algorithm automatically tagged this person as a lead, and sales got the notification to call. The salesperson felt frustrated when the “lead” indicated she had no intention of buying and wasn’t even convinced she needed to change.

In this case, the prospect was saying, “I’m trying to understand this concept, and I have unanswered questions about why I would change.”  But marketing was waiting for the chance to say, “Great, thanks for all that information. How much change would you like to purchase today?”



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Active listening isn’t a technology problem

You may know that the answer to the “waiting to speak” challenge is active listening. This skill involves concentrating on what someone says, responding to it, and remembering it. Research shows that active listening can improve relationships, promote deeper trust, and motivate those we communicate with.

Many modern marketing technologies promise to help deliver more relevant, personalized content experiences. Some even say they use artificial intelligence to examine a customer’s content consumption and present the “best next” experience.

Don’t be fooled. Personalization isn’t active listening. While it removes some friction for some areas of the customer’s journey, personalization is just a faster way of waiting to speak.

Personalization isn’t active listening. It’s just a faster way of waiting to speak, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent @semrush. Click To Tweet


Real active listening in content marketing

One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned in nearly three decades of marriage is to listen with no intention of fixing something. A critical component of active listening is to be present but resist the urge to improve, repair, or have a prepared response to the information given.

This may be one of the hardest things for marketers and sales practitioners. Most of us are trained to provide the next piece of compelling advice to fix a customer’s challenge or serve a need or want.

Active listening means resisting the urge to offer a prepared response – and that’s hard for sales and #ContentMarketing teams to do, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent @semrush. Click To Tweet


But listening to customers without the intention to prepare a response offers real value.

Here are some ways you might employ an active listening approach in your content marketing.

Polls and surveys

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in trying to find data to support your decisions that you succumb to the temptation to make every survey question multiple choice. Even “Rate this article” widgets at the end of thought leadership pieces offer a scale from 1 to 5 to feed an algorithm or analytics tools. Consider running polls or surveys where the questions are open-ended and designed to foster understanding rather than being able to serve up a chatbot response or other piece of pre-programmed content.

Customer persona interviews

Persona interviews often get lumped in with buyer research. The questions become about listening for opinions on products, services, or the brand. But customer or audience persona interviews should include fewer questions about what they think about us and more about what they think. Full stop.

Registration forms

Instead of asking visitors for an email address, name, and phone number in exchange for a digital asset, why not ask the recipient something that doesn’t require identifying information? For example, instead of requiring an email address for your latest white paper, just ask people: “Tell us why you’re downloading this paper.”

Each of these approaches can return valuable information to fuel your marketing and personalization efforts.

By actively (and consistently) listening to our audience personas, you can make better decisions about the what, where, and when of the content you create.

You can also better inform others in your business who may be still just waiting to speak. Active listening with your audiences can empower you to know when, where, and how to cue the many business voices to speak with greater intention.


That’s when your marketing can evolve from simply saying something to having something valuable to say.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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the second key persona for modern marketing operations leaders



Marketing operations talent is suffering burnout and turnover

This 4-part series presents a framework that helps rationalize the roles and responsibilities modern marketing operations leaders are taking on. This installment summarizes the framework briefly, and dives into how MOps leaders are now “orchestrators.” 

In case you missed it, part 1 is here.

Inspiration for this framework

Two years ago, marketing technology pioneer and editor Scott Brinker outlined the four key responsibilities of marketing technologists, summarized here.  

That work espoused the view that you could be both a marketer AND a technology leader. They are not mutually exclusive! It was my inspiration for this framework, explaining how today’s MOps leaders are instrumental for marketing and business success.

X-Axis:  A range of skills from a focus on technology to creativity and arts

Y-Axis: A range of decision-making skills, ranging from emotional to rational approaches

The resulting grid captures four MOps archetypes or “personas.” MOps leaders exhibit characteristics across all parts of this framework and will operate in multiple quadrants, similar to Brinker’s frameworks.

Modernizers – Are most likely to be the “original” technologists, constantly modernizing their martech stack.


Orchestrators – Are the closest to Brinker’s Maestros and the focus of this article. He described this archetype in 2020 as the “Operations Orchestrator — MAESTROS who design and manage the workflows, rules, reports, and tech stacks that run the marketing department.

Psychologists – Are now increasingly responsible for “reading customers’ minds,” i.e. interpreting customers’ interest through intent data and digital engagement.

Scientists – Are constantly testing and evaluating. Experimentation is their specialty.

Orchestrators: Leaders of the band

Now that you’re familiar with the framework, let’s dig deeper into the Orchestrators!

I’ll start with a personal story. My exposure to orchestration started with 8-straight years of practice in violin and trumpet during my formative years. Each week was literally a blur of private lessons, group lessons, orchestra and/or band practice. I probably spent as much time with music directors as I did with my family.  

It was painfully obvious to those conductors when we hadn’t prepared or practiced. Moreso, we would get – literally – an “earful” from the conductor when we were not listening to the other instrument sections. If we were not coordinating our efforts and timing, the outcome was awful for anyone listening.

Source: Unsplash

This orchestration metaphor is powerful because there are multiple levels for MOps leaders:

  • As a project management team within marketing, and often as a conductor across external agency partners.
  • As a cross-function business partner and primary contact for IT, compliance, and legal, in addition to the traditional MOps role of achieving marketing/sales alignment

Notably, all marketers have to be project managers for their own tasks/deadlines. They must be aligned with overall campaign and program timelines. 

However, as organizations scale they are more likely to have dedicated project management teams to handle coordination across the specialist teams within marketing. The orchestration responsibility may include timeline, scope, and capacity trade-offs even after campaign briefs have received approval. 


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The orchestration responsibility multiplies when agency execution teams are delivering on individual tactics and media buys. Last year, Optimizely described these evolving orchestration duties as a “transformative shift and approach towards how marketing synchronizes their teams, content, channels, workflows, and data!”

I believe the shift is even more impactful, with orchestration benefits being felt beyond marketing. The highest value “program orchestration” responsibilities occur when MOps leaders are representing marketing’s interests in enterprise-wide programs with other functions within the organization, including product, compliance, and IT. Examples of orchestration duties with these other key functions can include:

  • Product teams – Coordinating campaigns with major product feature/functionality launches, and managing brand standards.
  • Legal/Compliance – Overseeing compliance with Can-Spam, GDPR, and CCPA, and customer preference and data privacy initiatives that may be initiated by a marketing touch-point. 
  • IT/Procurement – Technology stack management, vendor evaluations and negotiations, platform integrations and data management.

All of this departmental and cross-departmental coordination requires skill sets that can be analogized as the difference between a chamber orchestra (marketing) and a full symphony. It’s the highest level of conducting across the enterprise. 

MOps leaders are holding individuals and teams to target timelines while managing the scope of a particular campaign and business initiative. They do this while also overseeing targeting of customer and prospect segments.

In order to accomplish this complex segmentation and coordination, MOps leaders are now responsible for cross-functional data – embodied by the modern martech stack imperative: integration. Integration across systems has been the #1 issue for marketers since the modern marketing tech stack started exploding in the early 2010’s, but software and solutions providers finally listened. A tipping point was reached in 2020. Marketers reported that we were finally working within an integrated, multi-system environment, according to a CDP Institute member survey analyzed here.  

Continuing with the orchestration analogy, the conductor is the integration “synchronizer,” deciding if/when the data flows across the stack. The sheet music is the data model standard showing how to map common attributes. 


However, just because we now have this more integrated environment does not mean our work is done. The instruments do not play themselves (yet!) and they require configuration and deliberate training to play effectively — both individually and in groups. 

Training was one of the top responsibilities for marketing ops leadership, ranking it in the top 5 of MOPS tasks by percentage of work, according to the 2022 MarTech Salary and Career Survey, published jointly by MarTech and (free, ungated download here). conducted by chiefmartec.

In the 2020 version of that same study, training was highlighted as one of the top two responsibilities for many of the primary marketing technologists personas, and 91% of operations orchestrators reported that training and supporting technologies were among their top priorities.

MOps leaders are never done

Finally, under the category of “MOps leaders are never done”, the last several years have also forced a whole new category of orchestration duties – a combination of conducting, training, and martech growth: marketing work management.

The largest growth (67%) over the last several years was in the category of “work management”, according to the 2022 edition of the Martech Landscape. Established entrants such as Adobe expanded with the acquisition of Workfront, while newer players like Trello and Monday gained traction.  

Although this was already a prevailing trend BEFORE the pandemic, the hybrid/remote work environment brought on by the last 2+ years forced these project management and agile-planning tools to the forefront.  The marketing work management category grew to over 1000+ tools, according to the State of Martech 2022

Source: State of MarTech 2022 – and Martech Tribe

MOps leaders are Maestros

In summary, modern MOps leaders are indeed Maestros. They are skilled orchestrators, conducting a symphony across multiple levels. They lead:

  • Omni-channel campaigns within marketing and across business functions
  • Integration across an ever-growing, integrated martech stack
  • Training and deployment as one of their primary responsibilities 

Editor’s note: In Part 3 of this 4-part series, Milt will expand on MOps leaders’ growing role as Psychologists. For background on this framework, see Part 1 of this series here

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Milt is currently Director of Customer Experience at MSI Data, an industry-leading cloud software company that focuses on the value and productivity that customers can drive from adopting MSI’s service management solutions.

With nearly 30 years of leadership experience, Milt has focused on aligning service, marketing, sales, and IT processes around the customer journey. Milt started his career with GE, and led cross-functional initiatives in field service, software deployment, marketing, and digital transformation.
Following his time at GE, Milt led marketing operations at Connecture and HSA Bank, and he has always enjoyed being labeled one of the early digital marketing technologists. He has a BS in Electrical Engineering from UW Madison, and an MBA from Kellogg School of Management.

In addition to his corporate leadership roles, Milt has been focused on contributing back to the marketing and regional community where he lives. He serves on multiple boards and is also an adjunct instructor for UW-Madison’s Digital Marketing Bootcamp. He also supports strategic clients through his advisory group, Mission MarTech LLC.


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