Content marketing at small companies is like riding a bike—you jump on and start pedaling. If you pedal long and hard enough, you’ll eventually get where you need to be. Content at large companies is more like captaining a cruise ship. You have a destination, but you have guests to serve along the way. You need navigational instruments as well as a few nice restaurants, a good band and probably a water slide or two for the kids.
How to Run a Smooth Content Operation at a Large Company
As we wrote in 2019 Content Trends Gleaned from 160+ Sales Calls, we often see small companies outperforming large companies when it comes to traffic. Individual content creators at a startup can often generate more pageviews per capita than their counterparts at an enterprise company. If you don’t look closely enough, it appears that large content teams are less than the sum of their parts. Upon closer examination, nothing could be further from the truth.
Content can have an outsized impact on the business.
The business has diversified customer acquisition channels.
Lots of pressure on content to succeed quickly.
More runway and budget to take on ambitious projects.
Content operation is very lean, often just 1-2 people plus contractors.
Larger teams create the need for more management, process and software.
Content focused solely on traffic and lead generation.
Content may be used to support teams across the org.
Content supports a single line of business.
Content may be asked to support multiple lines of business.
The primary task of a content team is content creation and distribution.
Large blogs and legacy content necessitate ancillary projects like content audits, custom analytics solutions and reporting.
Teams can move fast but don’t often invest time in content projects that take more than ~1 month to finish.
Big projects are possible but require long-term planning, resourcing and budgeting.
Most work is done in-house, meaning that content marketers get experience doing different kinds of work (landing pages, email campaigns, etc.).
Hire contractors or agencies to take on specialized work.
Today, we’re going to share some key lessons for content folks at large companies thanks to insights from Sean Blanda (Invision, Behance, Crossbeam), Andy McIlwain (GoDaddy) and Sonja Jacob (AppDynamics). Thanks to them, we now have a better understanding of the challenges—and the many opportunities—that content teams face at large companies. It’s easy to assume that enterprise organizations are all red tape and bureaucracy, but Sean, Andy and Sonja have a different story to tell.
Demand a Clear Charter From Your Leadership
Business strategy must inform content strategy. This is true for startups too, but startups’ missions tend to more clear than enterprises, so it breaks down less often.
Enterprise business strategy is often a complex, moving target. A marketing org is likely made up of a number of teams, each with their own specialties (product marketing, paid, SEO, social, brand, etc.). Without a clear edict from leadership, it’s difficult to know which projects can have the highest impact.
All three of the people I spoke with for this article emphasized the importance of a clear mission. Sean pointed out that once you understand that mission, it becomes the constraint that catalyzes creativity. “Don’t ask for the tactic. Ask for the strategy, then work backward to the tactics. The creativity comes from being boxed in ... when someone tells you the end goal and you have to figure out how to get there.”
One other challenge is the potential for layers of hierarchy between a CMO and her content team. But this isn’t always a bad thing. Andy points out that being three layers removed from senior management means he is rarely putting out fires. Instead, he has time and space to carefully consider how to best use his team’s time. As he explained, “The lead time is just so much longer in the enterprise. There's a little more freedom to just kind of step back, take a breath and spread things out. No one is breathing down your neck.”
All content teams—regardless of company size—should document content strategy. This exercise gives your team and your boss an easy way to show the rest of the company what you’re working on. It also forces you to consider how well you understand the business strategy. If you find that it feels vague, ask for clarity for your boss, her boss or her boss’ boss.
Managing Agencies and Contractors Is a Core Skill
Managing agencies and contractors is a highly under-appreciated skill, but it’s hugely important for content teams at large companies. This is because:
- it’s much easier to find budget for agencies than it is to add headcount, and
- vendors enable one employee to manage a huge amount of work.
Entrepreneur and investor Auren Hoffman writes that, “Fortune 500 companies have increased the number of vendors they have by 10x in the last 10 years. But during the last ten years, most of them increased headcount by less than 15%.” He goes on to say that, “Not only is vendor management and selection the most important skill … it is also the skill least likely to appear when you poll business people about ‘what is the most important skill?’”
“I've learned that I have to drive deeper relationships with the contractors and agencies I work with,” says Sonja Jacob, of AppDynamics."
She prefers to carefully select her contractors, then build long-term relationships that benefit both parties. Treating contractors like partners rather than outsourced vendors means they can work with more context. This, in turn, means Sonja spends like less time explaining, preparing, editing, revising and correcting their work. An an example, she created a template that all of her freelancer writers use. It provides answers to a number of common questions and collects all the meta data that Sonja needs for publishing. Even the smallest process improvements can create better, more efficient work.
Evolving from someone who creates content to someone who manages vendors that create content is a big leap. In my own experience, it was challenging to let go of something I knew well (writing and promoting content) to something that felt very uncomfortable (vetting contractors and giving them the tools to succeed).
This is just the type of soft skill that is a near-requirement for content folks at large companies, but it’s also a great way to elevate your own career. As Sean wrote in a recent blog post, “To truly increase your value, you need to understand what drives the company’s long-term growth and focus maniacally on that. This means elevating your mental frameworks from tactics (i.e. ‘I must publish three articles a week’) to strategy (i.e. ‘I must find a way to help our events team sell more tickets’)."
Move at the Same Speed as Startups
Enterprise companies have a reputation for moving slowly. If you’re used to working in the startup world, it’s hard to imagine spending weeks or months making decisions, approving budgets or planning for next year.
Sonja spent years at startups like Drift, Docsend and Mattermark. When she felt ready for change, she decided to try to find a content role at a larger company. She landed at AppDynamics, a company that was acquired by Cisco. She now has 74,000 coworkers, a ton of upward mobility and resources to tackle all kinds of cool projects.
Startups are in her DNA, though, and she was used to working fast. “In moving to a larger company, I noticed that projects can take a lot longer, mostly because you're going through layers of reviews. Coming from startups, I'm just accustomed to moving at a different speed. And, ultimately, it's an advantage if you can move faster and get stuff done. People appreciate it.”
Keeping your team lean and quick could be the secret to avoiding bureaucracy and red tape. Andy explained that his small team acts in the same way a content team would operate at a startup. As he says, “We’re a handful of people with a WordPress site.”
Embrace the Opportunity to Serve the Entire Org
Content teams are increasingly asked to support other teams. The partner marketing team wants to create a case study, the sales team needs a new one-pager, the demand gen folks are eager to publish a new ebook, etc. (We’ve discussed this trend at length here.)
On one hand, this makes it harder for a content team to achieve its KPIs. If your team is tasked with growing traffic, it’s hard to do that and help other teams. On the other hand, this elevates the role of a content team within the company. If your team has a reputation for helping other teams achieve their goals, it should be easier to ask for additional budget and/or people.
Sean and his colleague Kristin Hillery split the content team to address this challenge. One team worked like an internal agency, using content to support the work of other teams. The other team focused on publishing on the blog and growing organic traffic. This allowed them to create great processes for each team and measure how each was doing.
Sonja’s experience at AppDynamics has been similar. “I have my own traffic goals, plus our team supports the rest of our 75 person marketing team as well as marketing product releases,” she says. She notes that it’s easy to see the value of the work, but hard to tie it to KPIs all of the time.
I experienced this at QuickBooks. Our content team was inundated with requests from other teams. We couldn’t say “yes” to all of them, but we couldn’t say “no” either. We created a simple intake form for any content requests, then reviewed them in our weekly meeting. We set aside a percentage of time that we could dedicate to supporting other teams and made sure our bosses were aware of the work we tackled each week, month and quarter. Interestingly, our intake process reduced the number of requests we got. It turns out that some requests were half-baked ideas and our intake form forced them to consider whether the project was important or not.
Take on Non-Writing Content Projects (These Can Move the Needle)
Content teams at startups spend the huge majority of their time creating content. Content teams at large companies often a lot of time on non-writing content projects that can move the needle as much as (or more than) creating more content.
Here are just examples of projects we took on in my one year at QuickBooks:
- consolidating multiple articles that covered the same topic
- migrating legacy content to a new subfolder
- auditing old content for quality and accuracy
- pruning old content (and nearly doubling traffic)
- creating training videos our team of contractors
- working with the legal team to create a disclaimer (this replaced one-off reviews of our articles)
- hiring an agency to help us build interactive tools
- working with the UX team to add better navigation to the content hub
I didn’t spend much time writing content, but I was able to take on some really interesting projects that proved to be a great use of time. Each of these projects either increased traffic or saved our team time. Startups don’t often need to undertake projects like this, but large companies benefit from them all the time. A content team should always consider if content creation is the best of use of time.
One other non-writing task that all content teams should embrace is creating great processes for every workflow, then create extensive documentation about how to do this, where to find that, who to ask about that thing, etc. This provides visibility into the work for your managers and makes it easier to onboard new employees, agencies and contractors.
Content marketing at large companies is its own beast, but it’s endlessly interesting and rich with opportunity. These companies have a wide range of content challenges and writing only solves a few of them.