Build This New Framework for Agile Content Ops in Talent-Starved Times

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When it comes to managing content and marketing operations resources, 2024 will be complicated.

For one thing, marketing budgets will receive plenty of scrutiny (as they always do).

In 2023, Gartner research found that 71% of CMOs believe they lack the budget to execute their strategy fully. New complexities (data, automation, and AI disruption) only add more budgetary and skill pressures. Yet marketing departments must continue to evolve and expand as company-wide initiatives dominate the needs of the business.

Where’s the crunch? What’s not getting done?

Well, Gartner reported that 79% of cross-functional leaders experience “high collaboration drag,” meaning teams won’t work together. This drag makes them 37% “less likely to exceed revenue and profitability objectives.”

That’s challenging enough. But add to this complex stew the ongoing marketing talent acquisition challenge, especially in content, technology and data, and artificial intelligence.

The need for niche skills and the scarcity of talent, compounded by uncertain economics, create a problem for marketing and content teams. Marketing teams attempting to evolve new operational models feel this sharply because most lack the time, specialty skillsets, experience, and models.

As Sharon Carter, Gartner vice president of research, recently put it, “With the introduction of GenAI (generative AI), CMOs’ talent plans are at a crossroads; they must look to adapt and realign roles or risk teams becoming obsolete.”

But how should you do that?

Are fractional content and marketing services the answer?

CMI’s research substantiates these trends for content and marketing teams. Over half (58%) of B2B content teams cite “lack of resources” as their No. 1 situational challenge. But the next three top challenges center around the operational processes across business functions — aligning content with the buyer’s journey, aligning content efforts across sales and marketing, and workflow issues/content approvals process.

However, I’ve observed another trend over the last 12 months: Marketing teams are bypassing the traditional hiring process to meet the speed of change. Even as brands develop in-house agencies (registration required) as a core strategy, fractional or semi-permanent marketing roles have increased.

But this move isn’t the same as the classic outsourcing to an agency. In many cases, these engagements involve specific skills or leadership positions. This approach gives the company the flexibility to outsource some elements of its strategy or subject matter expertise and the efficiency of engaging one or a few people rather than an entire agency.

However, this approach assumes a clear set of tasks can be assigned to the new fractional leader and that the team understands what tasks should be assigned.

Yet, one in four marketers say a lack of strategy is one of their biggest challenges, according to CMI’s research. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Almost half (48%) say core team members were laid off or resigned last year, and half (49%) mention they have new team members acclimating to their brand’s ways.

Put simply, engaging a fractional leader like a chief content officer, chief marketing officer, or even subject matter expert can work well if you have an existing strategy and process, a need to fill a temporary budgetary gap, or a position that requires only a little time.

However, the fractional model doesn’t help without a foundational plan, cross-functional alignment, or existing workflows. Unfortunately, with no plan, the team can’t even define what it needs in the first place.

These challenges and the complexities of managing remote workforces lead to a broader trend: the “taskification” of jobs.

In this task-focused environment, the classic corporate structures that had teams owning entire areas of responsibility have shifted. Work gets broken down into tasks or workstreams, and individuals or teams own those areas of responsibility.

Content operations implementation is a workstream, not a day job

Working with clients over the past 10 years has taught me a lot about the biggest challenges in establishing (or rebooting) a foundational content marketing operation. Having worked with every level of businesses, from the C-suite to the content practitioners, TCA (CMI’s consulting arm) has helped fine-tune the range of best practices (efficient workflows, great teamwork, and process excellence) and heard about the worst (abysmal technology implementations, lack of strategy, and zero governance) in about every industry and company size.

Across these engagements, the common lesson is this: The hardest part of a successful content strategy is the change management necessary to bring new team charters, standards, processes, workflows, measurements, and coordination to content. And no client has ever claimed they were a rock star in change management.

It’s not as if content teams can step back and say, “While we sort out all these new changes across business lines, can y’all just hold up on new content requests?” No. New content and marketing operations approaches must be phased in over time. And, because change is hard, it’s exceedingly easy to fall back into old habits.

I’ve found these five steps facilitate a better content marketing operational approach:

  1. Strategy/plan development: Understand the current approach to content and create a roadmap for what improvement and success look like.
  2. Socialization/feasibility: Multiple teams, constituencies, or stakeholders must align and get on board with the proposed changes. Budget and training considerations also may need addressing. Create a business case and secure leadership and practitioner buy-in.
  3. Implementation/training: The heart of the operations implementation, and undoubtedly the most challenging part of a new content operation, involves the creation and adoption of standards, workflows, and approaches. Most marketing teams lack experience with this step. And it requires a high degree of cross-functional participation, including leadership, finance, technology, legal, and all affected practitioners.
  4. Management/expansion: Once the new operational approaches have been “pressure tested,” they must be managed continuously. At this point, most businesses begin seeing the overall benefits of the new approaches and take steps to expand the efforts to other functions, content types, regions, or new-phased approaches.
  5. Measurement/planning: As the new foundational content strategy achieves scale, measurement frameworks are applied. The costs, benefits, and ongoing metrics offer insights into how the strategy should evolve.

This five-step process requires broad involvement from people across the organization because content touches so much of the company. However, many tasks are unique to each stage and may require niche expertise, which might best come from outside the company.

Without adequate resources for this process, talent gets crunched, and content strategy plans fail.

Think about it: Even if the content team can pause its day-to-day activities, it probably doesn’t have the time, expertise, or resources to achieve the cross-functional alignment, implement the new models and workflow, and socialize a plan that may only exist in its members’ heads.   

What about a new content talent cloud?

I’ve seen more companies looking for a different kind of help over the last six months.

For example, TCA has worked with the content team at Hilton for many years. We’ve provided holistic evaluations (e.g., strategy) of the company’s global content practice, examined the team’s resources, technology processes, and budget, and provided frameworks for the content strategy’s evolution and maturation.

Additionally, we’ve executed a series of workstreams, including a content skills audit, content operations assessment and evaluation, document creation for change management planning, and workflow assessment and optimization process.

We’ve functioned as an outsourced member of Hilton’s marketing and loyalty content orchestration team. But it’s not one fractional role or a traditional agency relationship.

We work with Hilton to build the strength of its talent muscle over the long term. In traditional agency service, company teams work from methodologies developed by the agency and must adopt the agency approach to align with how the agency works. The in-house team never owns its process and strategy.

This tail-wagging-the-dog approach means the content workflows, processes, and standards are only as strong as the relationship between the client and the agency. To further complicate and confound, engaging any new agency requires the process and learning curve to start all over.

Conversely, the service model I’m seeing these days operates more like a guide or train-the-trainer approach. The goal is to implement the right niche skill at the right time to help an in-house team understand how to manage it going forward.   

Whether strategy, socialization, implementation, management, or measurement, the goal is to teach the company not just how to fish but also how to evolve and adapt to new fishing methods.

As the process moves from strategy to measurement and back again, each cycle grows the internal strengths. The goal is to support, service, train, and build the in-house team, not just supplement it for isolated projects.

How do you start?

To reboot or create a new foundational content strategy, especially one that leans into owned media, consider these three practical steps:

  1. Form an editorial board or center of excellence focused on operationalizing content. Even in a small company, the goal is to get together a cross-section of functions to identify the priority needs that make operating with content more creative, efficient, and effective. Ultimately, its purpose is to identify priority gaps and define the problems.
  2. Develop a co-created content and marketing roadmap. You may tap external help or decide to do it on your own. The goal is to audit current processes, approaches, and models against the defined problems, identify what success looks like, and then set the prioritized objectives that can be “taskified” and assigned.
  3. Implement the taskified workstreams with assistance from external experts. Find an open talent platform or network that can work best for your organization. Have the editorial board (or a smaller core team) use it to source the right talent for the right set of tasks internally and externally.   

Pay special attention to identifying gaps in understanding across the functions. Here’s a topical example. I’m often asked if, which, and how big a generative AI solution a company should acquire for its content and marketing teams. To assess that, we need you to use your implemented or defined cross-functional and content operation to pressure test generative AI use cases.

The talent crunch in content and marketing most likely will only get more pronounced as generative AI integration, automation, owned media, first-party data, and personalization rise in priority in marketing strategies.

Focus on a collaborative strategy

The integration and cross-functional capabilities of marketing are paramount to business strategy. As Gartner pointed out in its action items for 2024: “CMOs must help guide the enterprise toward a new era of collaborative customer success via a compelling and clearly understood strategic narrative.”

To me, “collaborative” is the essential part of that statement. To deliver the right message to the right person at the right time in 2024, content and marketing teams must bring the right skills to the right task at the most appropriate time.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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