Surfers say waves travel in groups of seven. They call them a “set.” Having the patience to wait for the biggest, most powerful seventh wave is the key to a great day in the water.

In reality, there is no seventh wave. Or, more specifically, the “seventh” wave could be any wave. There are bigger waves and smaller waves, but patterns – though they exist – are elusive.

Even so, great surfers can sense when that big wave is imminent.

It’s like that for content practitioners as well. I regularly speak with many great content practitioners. And these days, I hear a repeating theme: “It’s time for big ideas to take shape.”

Today, executives are more convinced than ever that content is a strategic function in business. But they don’t quite have a feel for how it all works yet. The waves pass by.

Content production workflow has become an even bigger bottleneck because marketing leaders know they need more content assets, but the business can’t quite count the waves yet. More waves pass by.

Owned media properties (e.g., websites, blogs, magazines, resource centers) are important for enhancing customer experience. But businesses don’t quite have the hang of managing them as products yet.

Owned media properties are important, but businesses don’t have the hang of managing them as products yet, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. #Research Click To Tweet

Anna Griffin, chief marketing officer of enterprise platform Smartsheet, said during the company’s Engage conference in October:

The primary role of both our jobs is not only to ensure good content from all of our organization’s creators, but also to ensure that it’s being effectively and efficiently produced across hundreds of different writers covering different topics across hundreds of workstreams and that it can be ready for distribution across a multitude of different platforms: apps, web, television, streaming video, print, mobile. And all of that effort must be relevant to the subscriber or customer opting into our content.

But content practitioners can feel it. They know. They’re paddling out. They understand 2021 is different. They know a swell is coming.

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Content as a core business strategy

For the fifth year in a row, Content Marketing Institute conducted its 2021 Content Management and Strategy Survey to get a snapshot of how marketers use technology tools to help create, manage, deliver, and scale enterprise content and marketing. Additionally, we examined how content teams use people, processes, and technology to precisely target and engage audiences to provide a better and more valuable customer experience across the customer journey.

This year’s study provides a bit of a unique lens on our world of content-as-business strategy. 2020 was no doubt a unique and challenging year. This year’s study was fielded in April 2021. While it’s clear the world is still dealing with the unprecedented disruption of COVID-19, we can see glimpses of optimism and resurgent growth.

But we also can see some lingering challenges for the business environment and fundamentally accelerated changes in the way we live, work, and take our products and services to market.

2021 Content Management and Strategy Survey offers glimpses of optimism and growth and lingering challenges from the accelerated changes in the way we live, work, and market, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. #Research Click To Tweet

Overall, the big takeaway is a fundamental sense that big change is coming.

Here are a few results that jumped out to us and the questions they might have you asking.

Struggling to master tech

Like last year (and seemingly every year), around 40% of respondents said their organization isn’t using its existing content technology to its potential.

40% of respondents say their organization isn’t using their existing tech to its potential, according to @CMIContent’s 2021 Content Management and Strategy #Survey via @Robert_Rose. Click To Tweet

The top three reasons cited for this: integration issues (56%), lack of training (55%), and lack of communication about capabilities (50%).

We fielded a new question to ask about changes to content management technology due to work-from-home shifts caused by COVID-19:

  • 67% reported few/no changes and 33% reported drastic/moderate changes.
  • 57% indicated their organization has a strong/moderate desire to add new content management technology as it adapts to a post-COVID-19 world; 43% indicated little/no desire.

This desire to add new technologies isn’t surprising. Last year we predicted a much greater need for more collaborative solutions to help content teams work remotely. This trend has been accelerating as more and more businesses demand more and more content. The growth of freelance networks and content contributors from all around the world also creates pressure for businesses to get their arms around how they engage and facilitate all the work done outside the traditional corporate campus.

It’s about that content experience

Following on that technology question, another finding indicates teams are becoming more focused on their owned content marketing platforms (e.g., websites, blogs) than reacting to internal ad hoc requests.

Consider the following: In 2020, we asked respondents to “indicate the typical approach taken by content creators in your organization.” Forty-three percent selected “project-focused” (creating content in response to internal requests), whereas only 14% picked “platform-focused” (creating specific types of content such as blogs or videos).

In 2021, we changed the question to: “Which one of the following most closely describes your organization’s current content operating model (i.e., where the content team spends most of its time, effort, budget)?” Interestingly, half (50%) indicated a “content products” model (focused on content marketing platforms such as website, blog, magazine, resource center), followed by 32% who indicated a “projects/campaign” model (operating as an internal agency, responding to ad hoc internal requests).

In our content operations consulting work with more than 30 clients in the last 12 months, I can tell you that while those numbers ring true, there is another side of that coin.

While we frequently see the focus shift to direct-to-customer platforms (e.g., publications, improved website, digital magazine, resource center),  the pressure on the content team to increase their content projects and ad hoc asset production remains high. Put simply, many businesses are simply adding things to the grocery checkout conveyor belt instead of rebalancing the content team’s charter.

Get ready to surf

It’s time to get ready. All the accelerated change we began to see in 2020 is coming. The case is there. It’s time to take action. Here are some things we see that can help you catch that next wave.

1. Assess your content operating model

There’s a good chance your content team has been in triage mode the last 12 months – or maybe it always has. If you suffer from too many demands or production bottlenecks or are unable to measure content effectiveness, you probably lack a clear charter and operating model for your content team.

Put simply, if you’re not implementing a standard – there is nothing to improve.

Assess your content team’s current operating model and create a roadmap for how to get where you believe you should be. The gaps between where you are now and where you want to be should become the priority initiatives.

2. De-silo the customer’s journey

When and where you can, start using technology to connect digital experiences for your customers. Trying to de-silo your marketing department may be too big a hill to climb right now. Instead, explore how your content technology can connect to create one source of the truth for your audience/marketing database. That alone will pay huge dividends. It’s the first step toward having groups like sales, marketing, demand gen, and brand teams work together.

3. Manage ALL your owned-media properties like products

Your website, blog, resource center, or digital magazine are as important to your customer’s journey as the products and services you put into the marketplace – treat them as such. Each owned property deserves a managing editor and to be budgeted and measured as a digital product.

It’s time. Get your surfboard out, wax it up, and paddle out. We have to show our executive leadership that we’ve got a feel for the big wave and it’s here. The waves aren’t new, but we can sense that the one we’re about to take on is going to be the “seventh.”

Time to shoot the curl.

Download the full report of CMI’s 2021 Content Management and Strategy Survey.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute






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