The Content Strategist

Emergency Alert: We Need to Rethink Content Strategy

Netflix drives how we think about so much: dating, friendship, introversion, internet memes. But I’m a total dork, so when I think of Netflix, the first thing I focus on is content strategy.

In a book I co-wrote with Contently founder Shane Snow that’s being published early next year 1, we write about Netflix’s foray into original programming. In 2011, Netflix did something unprecedented for a technology company—it invested $100 million in a show called House of Cards. Even though famed director and producer David Fincher was attached to the project, most people thought Netflix was crazy. But they didn’t know the company had a secret weapon: data.

Netflix knows everything about how its users watch video. What they watch and for how long. When they rewind. When they skip. What they watch next. And Netflix knew three things: People who watch Kevin Spacey movies love Kevin Spacey movies. People who watch David Fincher films watch all David Fincher films. And people binged hard on the original British House of Cards.

Netflix wasn’t crazy. What was House of Cards besides a David Fincher project starring Kevin Spacey based on the original British House of Cards?

Compared to the blind bets that most TV execs make based on vague Nielsen data and statistically insignificant focus groups, Netflix’s decision was incredibly informed and logical. According to analysis by The Atlantic, the $100 million bet paid off in three months based on new subscribers. It’s a formula the company has repeated with original series like Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things, which is a big part of why Netflix shows get renewed at twice the rate of network programming.

I love this story because it illustrates how we need to think about content strategy. At many organizations and agencies, strategy is as outdated as how TV networks green light shows. Insufficient inputs inform decisions—a few user interviews, some misguided assumptions (“millennials hate Facebook!”), a bloated content audit, and a helping of overpriced “creative brainstorms.” Given all the powerful data and tools at our fingertips, this is a total waste of resources.

Finding your inner Netflix

Content audits are the absolute cornerstone of content strategy. It’s hard to get your content program on solid footing without a sense of all the assets at your disposal. Then once you find everything, you can start asking important questions. Is your content optimized for search? For UX? Is it any good? Or are some piece of content actually detrimental to your brand?

Unproductive, low-quality content will kill your brand. This slide from SiriusDecisions sums up the situation perfectly:

Most organizations are plagued with a lot of content rot. According to SiriusDecisions, 65 percent of all B2B content goes unused, either because it’s undiscoverable, irrelevant, or bad. You need to identify those pieces and figure out how to use them (if they’re high-quality and relevant) and fix or eliminate them (if they’re not).

However, marketers often fall into a trap at this point. We start to believe we’re Netflix. After spending dozens—or hundreds—of hours conducting a content audit, the numbers in those spreadsheet become sacrosanct. We get tunnel vision and have conversations like:

Marketer A: Our white paper on millennial investing trends got 400 views.

Marketer B: Our white paper on AI and the future of robo-investing only got 100 views.

Marketer A: Wow, that’s 4x for millennial investing trends! Let’s make that a core focus for next year.

Don’t make strategic decisions purely based on the past performance. Your content accounts for a fraction of a fraction of what your target audience looks at. As we explained recently, there are millions of readily available data points that tell you what type of content your target audience is engaging with—down to the format, topic, length, and channel where they find it. Much like Netflix, we can analyze this data to find powerful cross-sections of opportunity.

Adopting this data-driven mindset goes beyond the echo chamber of your own historical performance. We often see similar faults with other cornerstones of content strategy:

Audience personas can get sidetracked based on false myths and assumptions: Facebook doesn’t work for B2B. Pinterest is a more important social network for millennials than Facebook. High-skill professionals and the C-suite prefer white papers. Time and time again, data-backed content trends contradict the persona work driving brand strategy.

The buyer journey can also be improperly mapped. For instance, articles and infographics are seen as pure top-of-funnel formats, yet, per SiriusDecisions research, they have almost the same impact in each stage of the buyer journey. And case studies—typically considered mid or bottom funnel—actually have a huge impact in the education phase when they’re geared towards a specific problem, not product features.

I could go on. Content strategy is one of the hottest disciplines in marketing, but we can’t just rely on the same old tactics. We can’t keep missing out on an opportunity to gain deeper insights. We’re rebooting another version of Criminal Minds instead of creating our own Stranger Things. We’re making our audience miss out on a chance to binge.

Shameless Plug: We’re looking for data-driven strategists with experience building breakthrough content strategies inside enterprise organizations. Check out our open roles here.

  1. We’re still figuring out the title and release date with our publisher, but be on the lookout soon.