Jodi Harris: Content marketing can create a cache of trust

June 12, 2020

Jodi Harris has been with Content Marketing Institute (CMI) for almost nine years. She started as editor of the blog, then transitioned to curating and creating content, as well as helping with strategy for other CMI editorial products. In addition to her role as CMI’s Director of Editorial Content & Strategy, she’s also the editor-in-chief for Chief Content Officer (CCO), CMI’s digital magazine for content executives and team leaders. Jodi describes CCO’s editorial focus as “higher-level, more strategy-oriented, and a little bit more future-facing” than the tactics-driven focus of the CMI blog.

Does your ideal magazine audience already have company buy-in for content investment, or do you cover how to demonstrate the value of content and secure that commitment?

No matter how experienced the company is with content marketing, there’s always a measure of buy-in that’s required. Whether it’s securing buy-in for content marketing in general (which is common at start-ups or organizations that are new to the discipline), gathering the additional support necessary when there’s a need to create content differently or under a new strategy, or whether it’s, “We’re doing this well already. How do we optimize?”

Those innovative ideas may come from the content team or the marketing team, but they need to get buy-in from the executive management and corporate team in order to secure the budget and the permission to move forward — and to make sure everybody understands what they’re trying to do and how it’s going to perform in terms of the business goals, not just the marketing team’s goals.

It can seem like these stronger investments in content are more recent, but you’ve been at CMI for nearly a decade. Has this been a long-term trend that is just more obvious as companies focus on “editorial” content?

It’s always been there to some degree, whether or not it was called “content marketing.” The title of our industry has evolved over the years, from branded publications and advertorial content to content marketing. The distinction is more about understanding what separates content marketing from typical advertising content, or from content as a more broadly-applicable term.

[For content marketing], we’re focusing more on what the audience wants to know — the information they need to do their jobs and make their decisions — versus advertising, which focuses a lot more on the messages the brand wants to drive home. Content marketing is a different way of thinking about content, and its focus is on being helpful and valuable to the audience, as opposed to purely focusing on the value for the business itself.

Have you found that that’s your main argument for how content actually works, focusing on the audience instead of just putting content out there?

Yeah, if you want content marketing to work, you need to focus on providing value and service to the people you’re speaking with. If they don’t see what’s in it for them, they are not going to follow you. They might enjoy that big viral video, but if you want them to stick with you when they’re looking to make a purchase, you want a cache of trust. That comes from making sure that they know that you’re looking out for their best interest, and you’re eager to educate them and make sure that they feel as prepared as possible for every purchase.

When you start with that strategy and look at who the audiences are that you’re trying to reach, what they’re looking for, where they want to engage with that information, that’s going to enable you to focus more on [creating] content that’s going to serve those needs and stand out. It will really convince them that it’s worth having an ongoing relationship with your brand versus just engaging in a single piece of content. It’s knowing their purposes — and strategizing against those purposes — that makes content marketing so successful.

Is Chief Content Officer (CCO) primarily internal or external writers?

We rely on a lot of external contributors. With any trade publication, you’re really only as good as the people you can talk to who know the industry intimately. While I’ve worked in different roles, there are certain parts of content marketing that I have never led initiatives for, like audience development and social media. I’ve consulted, but I’ve never led those projects.

We need the people at an enterprise brand like Johnson & Johnson to give us their insights on how they do their job in an environment that’s outside of our editorial experience. We use practitioners and content leaders from all over the marketing industry (different brands, agencies, and consultants) to share their insights. We rely on them to help us share that with our audience.

So are they writing the pieces, being interviewed, or are you ghostwriting for them to get their industry expertise?

Some of them are fantastic writers, and we are always happy to get behind articles from the ones who really understand how to connect with an audience and impart wisdom. Some contributors are not writers, they’re more in the classic marketer arena. They might contribute via an interview, or for some of them we take material from their event presentations and work with them to fashion it into an article.

There’s a lot of different ways that we generate content with their participation. It’s a spectrum, whether they’re just purely being interviewed and asked questions, or they are actually writing, or they’re participating in one of our podcasts, or being interviewed on video at our events.

I like to work with people who I know have smart ideas. If that means that the only way I can get the ideas is through an interview, or they present an outline and I do the writing myself, then I’m absolutely willing to do that. I want to be able to share the unique, powerful, and interesting things that they know about that I don’t.

How often does CCO publish? How does the development cycle work?

We publish three issues a year, but we release new content every month. It’s a little bit of an experimental distribution format. We divide our content into issues based on a broad theme, and then each of the four months during that issue, we release new content that approaches that theme from a different vantage point.

The [editorial] development cycle is somewhat of a hybrid between planning for a monthly publication and a quarterly publication. Each issue’s content is aligned under that bigger, broader concept, but we’ll focus on a different consideration that’s relevant to that theme each month. When I’m planning content, I’m looking at what the main theme is and how to divide it into sub-themes, as well as how to solicit and plan articles so that we can connect the dots and explore those big concepts from multiple angles.

We started with the planning of the overarching systems theme and how each month was going to divide it into relevant topics. Then for each of those months, there’s a separate editorial planning and content solicitation phase. It’s a little multi-layered and somewhat complex, but we think it makes us more flexible. Instead of only coming out with content once every four months as we were doing before, we’re able to share new content every month and cover the themes from a wider array of entry points.

We noticed your April content has a social distancing article, and if you had planned to release everything in January, it wouldn’t have covered that. It leaves room to adapt and remain more timely in your monthly releases.

Exactly. Not only does our audience not have to wait four months to get new content from us, but we can be a lot more responsive to emerging topics. That article was written after the rest of the content for April was nearly finished. We realized, “This is something people need to know about right now. Let’s arrange or move something to the next month and find a place.” This allows us to plan our editorial in advance, while still having the flexibility to be responsive as new trends and issues come into view.

You’ve only been EIC for a few months, but what has been your greatest strategic challenge with CCO?

It was re-orchestrating our publishing schedule. In 2019, we did publish digitally, but we published it under the traditional three issues a year, 12 articles per issue structure. When I started, my first challenge was to see how we could distribute the same amount of content on a more consistent and frequent basis, and be able to accommodate new trends as they’re happening. 

That took a great deal of time in my first few months to really work out. How do we do this? How do we present it? How do we change our website structure and the user experience so that they know that we’ve changed this pattern? And now there’s the next phase: How do we keep doing that and how do we improve this new structure? Or how do we adapt and continue to evolve it if it isn’t what our audience wants?

We’re just now publishing the final month under our first issue [in the new structure]. So it will be at least another couple of weeks before we can get all of the metrics together. We had to change how we’re measuring because we can’t just look at the performance of each article per month. We have to look at how the compilation of all four months compares to what we were doing in 2019. We probably won’t really know for another four month cycle, when we start to develop patterns and can look at the first and second issue metrics. Then we can let that inform us as to whether and how we continue this structure for the third issue.

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