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Why Internal Customers Will Kill Your Content Strategy

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Why Internal Customers Will Kill Your Content Strategy

I see one mistake derailing great content marketing strategy again and again in my consulting practice.

Businesses set up their content teams as internal agencies to serve internal ‘customers’ in other departments.

Why is that a problem?

Sometimes this approach incorporates some priority planning. Usually, this planning involves internal “stakeholders” who decide the significant themes or the priority for tackling content requests.

But just as often, no planning or prioritization occurs. The content calendar is a to-do list based on ad hoc requests from various other teams. And the content team becomes Kinkos, racing to churn out assets as orders pour in.

Eventually, the content team fails to live up to expectations, the content is imbalanced, and the creators and producers burn out.

So, when the content strategy needs a reboot – and it will – how do you align the new content approach with internal customers’ expectations?

First, stop thinking of them (or letting anyone else think of them) as your customers.

To reboot your #ContentStrategy, stop thinking of internal teams as customers, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Stakeholders are investors, not customers

In marketing, we throw around the term stakeholders to refer to people affected directly by your efforts. That list is long – content and marketing touch almost every other function (business leaders, IT, sales, communications, public relations, product, and external groups like partners and investors).

But a funny thing happens when I ask the content team if they consider themselves to be stakeholders in sales or comms. The content team leaders laugh softly and say, “Oh no, they’re our customers.”

That’s not ideal. I once worked with a B2B company where the content marketing team existed to respond to the product marketing team’s requests for “thought leadership” to accompany new product launches. But the product marketing team viewed thought leadership as lightly veiled customer success stories or fact-filled technical schematics of how their product worked.

How did this approach work? Not well. The product marketing team loved the content. But the potential real customers didn’t.

Content teams achieve consistent success only when they’re elevated to stakeholder status. In other words, content strategy and content marketing teams only succeed when they lead strategic content efforts alongside their peers instead of serving as on-demand content production resources.

#ContentMarketing teams succeed only when they lead strategic content programs instead of producing on demand, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Marketing and content teams are skilled practitioners of a professional discipline. They’re not there to “service” the stakeholder groups but to learn, align, and work with them. Those groups are invested in content’s success because it means that, as a result, they succeed.

Internal stakeholders (also like investors) can serve as independent sources of information. They can offer details to inform priorities and insight to improve processes, and cooperation to attract new investment. Or they can also sabotage every effort you make and profit from your misery.

So, interviewing and getting stakeholder alignment is critical when implementing a new approach to content strategy or content marketing.

Here are three steps you can take to treat stakeholders as investors in your process and get alignment on your proposed approaches.

1. Segment your investor stakeholders

One of the keys to getting alignment is to identify the different types of stakeholders that will be critical to ensuring traction for your new content approach:

Influencers. Get input from and align with stakeholders who hold an influential position or control your budget. Influencer stakeholders may not have much to do with the content or even care much about it. But unless you win them over, your cause is sunk.

Champions. These cheerleaders will stand behind you, support your efforts, and be early adopters of new ways of doing things. Identify these quickly (some might also be part of the influencer group).

Detractors. You’ll potentially encounter two categories of these naysayers. One set includes people who oppose change because they see nothing in it for them. The other set consists of those who are apathetic. When you ask about their participation or agreement, they say something like this: “Well, it’s not no.” They sit back and see how the politics play out before helping or actively detracting.

Decision makers. Decision makers are just what they sound like – they’re the people who make decisions that help or prevent your efforts from turning into success.

Participants. These individuals have an active stake in your approach and will be responsible for making it work. They have functional expertise in one of the adjacent areas your content strategy will affect.

As you might expect, people may share multiple attributes. You may have champion influencers or detractor participants. The key is to not view them in terms of how to get their nod of approval or “buy-in” to the content team process. Instead, see them as investors in an additive piece of your shared process.

2. Design discussions, not interviews

Once you’ve identified who’s who, it’s time to meet with them to gather information and gain alignment.

Remember, every objection to change is an explicitly stated fear of uncertainty.

A common mistake in stakeholder alignment is to hear objections from detractors as “customer” requirements that you must meet to pass their approval. But the objections may be simple concerns about their own challenges that, once addressed, disappear.

Another mistake is to consider approvals from champions as full-throated agreements. The approvals might be lukewarm – like the “not no” detractor response.

Stakeholder interviews aren’t focus groups that show you what your customers need. If you treat them that way, don’t be surprised when those same stakeholders don’t care about all the features you added to your service – even if they were the ones to suggest them.

So don’t design your discussions solely around what information or requirements you need to gather to complete your business case or plan. Instead, use the chance to uncover what each stakeholder needs to become an investor in your mutually beneficial approach.

With that understanding, you’ll gain the ability to lead them, leverage them, or learn from their needs.

3. It’s a process, not a project

The investor relations part of your job begins once you get your initial buy-in and continues throughout your tenure in whatever role you have.

You’ll have multiple discussions with stakeholders before you’ve built your case, once your case is approved, after implementation has begun, and again as you manage your overall process.

I remember one successful, award-winning content marketer hearing her project invoked as a best-in-class case study for the zillionth time at Content Marketing World and saying to me: “I wish somebody would tell my stakeholders that. I’m still fighting for budget, relevance, and buy-in every single day.”

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All customers are stakeholders, but not all stakeholders are customers

Now, of course, customers are the one missing group in my list of stakeholders. And they’re the critical stakeholder in any marketing content strategy.

But they’re a different class of stakeholder. Don’t conflate them with internal stakeholders.

Don’t conflate internal stakeholders with customers, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

The strategist and author Eli Goldratt once wrote, “Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave. If you measure me in an illogical way, don’t complain about illogical behavior.”

Seeing content teams as internal vendors built only to delight internal customers sets the wrong objective. It encourages the idea that all internal stakeholders are the same as customers – and that success means meeting all their needs.

But while all customers are stakeholders, not all stakeholders are customers. Most are better treated as investors – a key constituency that benefits from a co-created approach to content as a strategy.

Don’t serve them. Instead, lead them. That’s how you’ll make their investment of time, money, effort, and information more and more valuable.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

Get Robert’s take on content marketing industry news in just five minutes:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries

Watch previous episodes or read the lightly edited transcripts.

Subscribe to workday or weekly CMI emails to get Rose-Colored Glasses in your inbox each week. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

Did you follow the Apple iPad Pro content debacle?

Here’s a quick recap. A recent online ad for the new iPad Pro showed a large hydraulic press slowly crushing various symbols of creativity. A metronome, a piano, a record player, a video game, paints, books, and other creative tools splinter and smash as the Sonny and Cher song All I Ever Need Is You plays.

The ad’s title? “Crush!”

The point of the commercial — I think — is to show that Apple managed to smush (that’s the technical term) all this heretofore analog creativity into its new, very thin iPad Pro.  

To say the ad received bad reviews is underselling the response. Judgment was swift and unrelenting. The creative world freaked out.

On X, actor Hugh Grant shared Tim Cook’s post featuring the ad and added this comment: “The destruction of the human experience. Courtesy of Silicon Valley.”

When fellow actor Justine Bateman shared the Tim Cook post, she simply wrote, “Truly, what is wrong with you?” Other critiques ranged from tone-challenged to wasteful to many worse things.

Actor Justine Bateman shared Tim Cook’s post on X, which featured the ad, and added this comment: "Truly, what is wrong with you?".

A couple of days later, Apple apologized and canceled plans to air the ad on television.

How not-so-great content ideas come to life

The level of anger surprises me. Look, the ad does show the eyeballs on an emoji-faced squishy ball popping under the plates’ pressure, but still. Calling the ad “actually psychotic” might be a skosh over the top.

Yes, the ad missed the mark. And the company’s subsequent decision to apologize makes sense.

But anyone who’s participated in creating a content misfire knows this truth: Mistakes look much more obvious in hindsight.

On paper, I bet this concept sounded great. The brainstorming meeting probably started with something like this: “We want to show how the iPad Pro metaphorically contains this huge mass of creative tools in a thin and cool package.”

Maybe someone suggested representing that exact thing with CGI (maybe a colorful tornado rising from the screen). Then someone else suggested showing the actual physical objects getting condensed would be more powerful.

Here’s my imagined version of the conversation that might have happened after someone pointed out the popular internet meme of things getting crushed in a hydraulic press.

“People love that!”

“If we add buckets of paint, it will be super colorful and cool.”

“It’ll be a cooler version of that LG ad that ran in 2008.”

“Exactly!”

“It’ll be just like that ad where a bus driver kidnaps and subsequently crushes all the cute little Pokémon characters in a bus!” (Believe it or not, that was actually a thing.)

The resulting commercial suffers from the perfect creative storm: A not-great (copycat) idea at the absolutely wrong time.

None of us know what constraints Apple’s creative team worked under. How much time did they have to come up with a concept? Did they have time to test it with audiences? Maybe crushing physical objects fit into the budget better than CGI. All these factors affect the creative process and options (even at a giant company like Apple).

That’s not an excuse — it’s just reality.

Content failure or content mistake?

Many ad campaigns provoke a “What the hell were they thinking?” response (think Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad or those cringy brand tributes that follow celebrity deaths).

Does that mean they’re failures? Or are they mistakes? And what’s the difference?

As I wrote after Peloton’s holiday ad debacle (remember that?), people learn to fear mistakes early on. Most of us hear cautionary messages almost from day one.

Some are necessary and helpful (“Don’t stick a knife in a live toaster” or “Look both ways before you cross the street.”) Some aren’t (“Make that essay perfect” or “Don’t miss that goal.”)

As a result, many people grow up afraid to take risks — and that hampers creativity. The problem arises from conflating failure and mistakes. It helps to know the difference.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to become a rock ‘n’ roll musician. I failed. But it wasn’t a mistake. I wasn’t wrong to try. My attempt just didn’t work.

Labeling a failed attempt a “mistake” feeds the fears that keep people from attempting anything creative.

The conflation of failure and mistakes happens all too often in creative marketing. Sure, people create content pieces (and let’s not forget that there are always people behind those ideas) that genuinely count as mistakes.

They also create content that simply fails.

Don’t let extreme reactions make you fear failures

Here’s the thing about failed content. You can do all the work to research your audience and take the time to develop and polish your ideas — and the content still might fail. The story, the platform, or the format might not resonate, or the audience simply might not care for it. That doesn’t mean it’s a mistake.

Was the Apple ad a mistake? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Was it a failure? The vitriolic response indicates yes.

Still, the commercial generated an impressive amount of awareness (53 million views of the Tim Cook post on X, per Variety.) And, despite the apology, the company hasn’t taken the ad down from its YouTube page where it’s earned more than 1 million views.

The fictional Captain Jean Luc Picard once said, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness. That is life.” The Apple ad turns that statement on its head — Apple made many mistakes and still won a tremendous amount of attention.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t criticize creative work. Constructive critiques help us learn from our own and others’ failures. You can even have a good laugh about content fails.

Just acknowledge, as the Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote, “Not every mistake is a foolish one.” 

Creative teams take risks. They try things outside their comfort zone. Sometimes they fail (sometimes spectacularly).

But don’t let others’ expressions of anger over failures inhibit your willingness to try creative things.

Wouldn’t you love to get the whole world talking about the content you create? To get there, you have to risk that level of failure.

And taking that risk isn’t a mistake.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

Subscribe to workday or weekly CMI emails to get Rose-Colored Glasses in your inbox each week. 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute 



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The Future of Content Success Is Social

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The Future of Content Success Is Social

Here’s a challenge: search “SEO RFP” on Google. Click on the results, and tell me how similar they are.

We did the same thing every other SEO does: We asked, “What words are thematically relevant?” Which themes have my competitors missed?” How can I put them in?” AND “How can I do everything just slightly better than they can?”

Then they do the same, and it becomes a cycle of beating mediocre content with slightly less mediocre content.

When I looked at our high-ranking content, I felt uncomfortable. Yes, it ranked, but it wasn’t overly helpful compared to everything else that ranked.

Ranking isn’t the job to be done; it is just a proxy.

Why would a high-ranking keyword make me feel uncomfortable? Isn’t that the whole freaking job to be done? Not for me. The job to be done is to help educate people, and ranking is a byproduct of doing that well.

I looked at our own content, and I put myself in the seat of a searcher, not an SEO; I looked at the top four rankings and decided that our content felt easy, almost ChatGPT-ish. It was predictable, it was repeatable, and it lacked hot takes and spicy punches.

So, I removed 80% of the content and replaced it with the 38 questions I would ask if I was hiring an SEO. I’m a 25-year SME, and I know what I would be looking for in these turbulent times. I wanted to write the questions that didn’t exist on anything ranking in the top ten. This was a risk, why? Because, semantically, I was going against what Google was likely expecting to see on this topic. This is when Mike King told me about information gain. Google will give you a boost in ranking signals if you bring it new info. Maybe breaking out of the sea of sameness + some social signals could be a key factor in improving rankings on top of doing the traditional SEO work.

What’s worth more?

Ten visits to my SEO RFP post from people to my content via a private procurement WhatsApp group or LinkedIn group?

One hundred people to the same content from search?

I had to make a call, and I was willing to lose rankings (that were getting low traffic but highly valued traffic) to write something that when people read it, they thought enough about it to share it in emails, groups, etc.

SME as the unlock to standout content?

I literally just asked myself, “Wil, what would you ask yourself if you were hiring an SEO company? Then I riffed for 6—8 hours and had tons of chats with ChatGPT. I was asking ChatGPT to get me thinking differently. Things like, “what would create the most value?” I never constrained myself to “what is the search volume,” I started with the riffs.

If I was going to lose my rankings, I had to socially promote it so people knew it existed. That was an unlock, too, if you go this route. It’s work, you are now going to rely on spikes from social, so having a reason to update it and put it back in social is very important.

Most of my “followers” aren’t looking for SEO services as they are digital marketers themselves. So I didn’t expect this post to take off HUGLEY, but given the content, I was shocked at how well it did and how much engagement it got from real actual people.

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

Writing a book is a gargantuan task, and reaching the finish line is a feat equal to summiting a mountain.

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