Give "content" more than lip service: Q&A with Robert Rose

In an exclusive interview with PRWeek, the Content Marketing Institute's chief strategy officer decries the way content has become everyone's job and no one's job, while urging PR agencies to reclaim their strategic position.

Robert Rose, chief strategy officer for the Content Marketing Institute
Robert Rose, chief strategy officer for the Content Marketing Institute

Robert Rose helps companies develop content marketing and customer experience strategies. Names like Oracle, The Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation and Allstate Insurance have all called on him to put the content in their marketing. He is also co-hosts the podcast, This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. Both he and Pulizzi will be speaking at Campaign’s Content Marketing events this March in Singapore and Sydney. The pair co-authored the book, Managing Content Marketing: The Real-World Guide for Creating Passionate Subscribers to Your Brand. In this frank discussion Rose lays out how PR practitioners can best bring content marketing on board.

Many PR firms are starting to hang a ‘Content marketing available here’ sign on their door, but isn’t content marketing pretty much what PR agencies have done all along? What’s the distinction?

It certainly used to be a piece of what PR did. PR used to be the "corporate storyteller". But it has really lost its way, and is candidly in a full-on identify crisis. I’m a huge fan of the PR function, and have spent many years on both sides of the PR equation (client and agency side). What PR has become over the last 15 years or so, as digital has disrupted more broadly, is simply a different way to "describe the value" of a product or service. And to be fair, many are quite good at it. Whether it’s helping a company manage a crisis, or developing core relationships with media outlets—and even helping to develop a more conversational tone across social media, many PR agencies have become "digitally savvy". But what hasn’t happened—and this is a trend even in marketing and communications more broadly—is the evolution of content in the organization.

Today, content (and thus communication) is everybody’s job and no one’s job. And, thus, it gets done in ever-fragmented ways across the myriad channels that the business manages. Brand managers manage the high-level television, radio and print channels. Digital managers manage the digital channels. And PR teams are—well, in many cases—left managing press releases.

The distinction, such as there is one, is that content marketing is truly about creating content-driven experiences that are separate and distinct from the product or service being offered. They are stories that are created, told, promoted and ultimately measured with a drive toward building audiences that can ultimately be monetized by the business. I absolutely believe that PR can be the driver of this approach, but only if PR agencies stop giving lip service to what "content" really means and actually reclaim their strategic position and serve up the strategically important function that it can be.

What are some core guidelines you would recommend to PR agencies in particular for creating a successful content-marketing campaign?

The first thing is to stop looking at it like a campaign. Great content marketing is not a campaign—but much more like a product launch. In theory, a great content marketing initiative is something that creates more and more value over time and becomes synonymous with the brand itself. Think about Red Bull’s suite of initiatives, from Red Bulletin to their television series etc. These are platforms that are built over time and then draw in and engage audiences to make consumers think differently about the brand—and thus their product or service.  So the key "first step" and "guideline" is for PR agencies to stop thinking about campaigns and [think] more about sustainable and valuable platforms that can build increasing value over time.

Are there particular content-marketing specialisations that benefit PR in particular?

Indeed, I think content-marketing strategy and then the creation and management of powerful "owned media" platforms. This is truly where it gets "out of the box" for PR, because they have really ceded the "owned media" strategy for the last decade or so. PR agencies are particularly built for this kind of structure because they usually have so many talented journalists, storytellers and media-savvy consultants on staff who can help with this.

But instead of pointing them at getting "coverage" in other media platforms (the earned-media bucket) or simply managing the social channels, these talented people can help a brand strategize, create, launch and manage fantastically valuable owned-media properties.

What mindsets need to be changed for PR to succeed in this arena?

We touched on two already, which is the need to get beyond the "campaign" mindset, and to get beyond just "describing value" and into "creating distinct value" with content. But the biggest mindset shift that I often see with PR (and maybe the most difficult) is to truly believe that PR and content can be a part of an integrated marketing strategy. So often, "corporate communications" or "PR" can be seen as almost entirely separate from marketing. And a great PR strategy is truly an integrated piece of a demand generation, brand and loyalty strategy. 

Once agencies can start to re-position their offerings this way—and empower their "client stakeholders" to actually cross the silo and deliver value—that’s where PR agencies truly start providing differentiating value.

There’s a trend of PR agencies hiring journalists to help deliver content solutions. Do journalists make better content marketers? What can PR practitioners learn from journalists?

I don’t believe they do or don’t. Some journalists make fantastic marketers, and some just don’t. It’s really no different than why some journalists make great copywriters or novelists and some don’t.

But what I do believe is that journalists usually come with an inherent talent to tell stories and are usually (not always) better at how to deliver that separate and distinct value of content—rather than ad copy. In other words, if I’m creating an owned-media property, I’d probably first staff it with journalists and then layer marketing talent over the top. This is why I think the opportunity for PR is so ripe.

What sort of people should agencies hire that they are not currently hiring in order to produce better content?

Great storytellers. Plain and simple. You can outsource operational execution… Great storytellers are rare.

Is content marketing ready-made only for owned channels or should agencies aim to place it on paid and earned media as well?

It’s truly the convergence of all three. It certainly has its heart in "owned media", because that’s what it’s really about; building an audience. But a paid program to promote that valuable owned-media platform is essential (including, by the way, paid newswire services). And it usually includes earned media as well. 

That’s why we always say that content marketing is an approach that is integrated, not separated, from your entire marketing and communications strategy. The best programs are those that are truly converged across the paid, owned and earned spectrum.

What are some signs to know you are doing it wrong?

The biggest is if you’re not building an audience or if you can’t identify what you're building at all. If you’re spending your time doing what I call "small marketing"—maintaining those 5,000 people on Twitter, or trying to "engage" the 2,500 Facebook "likes" that you have—then you’re spinning your wheels. 

As Deming said, "If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, then you don’t know what you’re doing." And the funny thing about Deming is that he couldn’t get traction in the US, so he went to Asia and created some of the most forward-leaning management methodologies that are still used today. Maybe that will happen again.

Sometimes PR agencies still seem to struggle with delivering information to media that diverts significantly enough from a promotional message. But consumers do not want to read or watch overtly ‘promotional’ content. How can PR firms better bridge this divide?

I think this is all about differentiating the creation of value vs. describing it. As I was talking about above, it’s truly about understanding the strategic difference of value that we’re creating that’s separate from the product or service. It aligns with the brand, but it’s separate.

For example, I look at what King Content did with Empire in Australia—the wonderful vaudeville and burlesque show that was on Broadway in the US. They didn’t just try to publicize the show coming to Australia with US-centric content or repurposed assets. Instead, they created a microsite and localized social program to build an Australian audience. They created content that would resonate locally, and built a separate content-focused platform that ultimately made Australians aware of this exciting show.

In your opinion, how successful have brands been at producing content in-house? Are there brands you think have done a good job, and what is behind the success?

They’re getting better at it here in the States for sure. In-house content studios are starting to emerge here as a function in the business that can de-silo the traditional communications departments and provide some unity and cohesion for a content strategy.

Red Bull is, of course, the poster child here, with its Red Bull Media House. But, of course, Marriott has also just launched an in-house content studio as well. I think this is a trend we’ll continue to see. And it's yet another reason that agencies need to get good at this—and fast.

Data comes up again and again in marketing discussions. Is there a data dimension to content marketing? How can PR firms best leverage it?

There is a data dimension to all things marketing today. But I think the data-driven marketing thing is overblown. Marketers have always sucked at measuring their efforts. From the time of John Wannamaker saying that "I know half my marketing is successful I just don’t know which half" to even today, businesses have historically struggled to get to a "marketing-as-algorithm" type of science. 

And my belief is it won’t ever get there. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be using data heavily. And data is more than just metrics. One of the things that I think gets missed in the data question is information about audiences and how valuable that can be (in itself) to the business. Really forward-leaning content-marketing strategies are looking at building rich profiles of audiences who are much more willing to give up information in exchange for a valuable piece of content—and use that to enhance what they’re doing from a sales and advertising perspective. Kraft, for example, uses its Food and Family print magazine, along with its online recipes web site to look at 22,000 audience attributes with more than 100 million visitors per year. That’s 2 trillion pieces of data they analyze every year. And they use that data to make their programmatic ad buys more efficient, to help with product development and to increase intent to purchase. It’s an amazingly valuable program for them.

Is the content-marketing term getting overused? Is it getting harder to define due to people labeling everything they see as content marketing?

Yes. No doubt. It’s become a buzzword and is overused and misused. Many companies and agencies are "content-washing" (that’s my term) their messages—claiming that it’s content marketing—when it’s really just clever advertising.

The Content Marketing Institute is a partner with Haymarket on the upcoming Content Marketing Sydney (16-18 March, 2015) and Content Marketing Singapore (19-20 March, 2015), where Rose will be a speaker.


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