How do you make the case for content work? I often advise our midsize and enterprise clients to make the case for content strategy (including analysis, editorial planning, architecture planning, and evaluation) by arguing the work improves operations. Generating sales leads will be more efficient or getting content to new channels will be faster, for example.

I offer those operational arguments because they’re true and effective in winning immediate funds for content work and maintenance. (Plus, you can make wonderful jokes out of the pain and frustration of operational problems. Everyone relates!) But, after offering those arguments, I often feel we (our team at Content Science, our clients, and our industry) are settling. Why? Because the value of content work is exponentially more than making content work efficiently operational.

But, because that deeper value is mostly strategic and intangible—competitive advantage and innovation potential, for example—it’s tough to argue for it with financial executives without getting abstract. It’s easy to say “we need to stop creating duplicate content because it wastes time and resources.” It’s harder to articulate the value that a content marketing property (such as American Express Open Forum, for example) brings until it brings an increase in sales or insights about your customers that leads to a product innovation.

And, frankly, arcane accounting methods that count everything to do with content—from researching and planning through creation and maintenance—as an expense don’t help. Neither do agencies’ self-undermining penchant for pricing content based on the labor it requires to plan and create rather than the value it brings to a company.

Enter a new article from McKinsey Quarterly that I find very encouraging:

Measuring the Full Impact of Digital Capital

It’s one of those rare articles when I nod a little after reading just about every sentence. The article notes that in a digital economy…

The need for growth and competitiveness will force companies to build strong digital capabilities. Viewing them as assets rather than additional areas of spending requires a new set of management and financial lenses. Embracing them is a major shift—but one worth making for companies striving to master a still-evolving landscape.

Let’s think through this shift a bit for content.

As accounting evolves in our digital economy, digital content can be counted and evaluated as digital assets, or capital. And, I’ve long believed that content assets go far beyond the individual content files (video, images, text modules, etc.). Using those assets well requires important capabilities. For example, the capability to disassemble and reassemble content in many ways across many channels quickly. If you can be more agile with your content assembly, you have a serious advantage over competitors.

And, these content assets often are tied to important data, another intangible asset. When you understand who is using your content and how, you have insights that can inform ideas for new products or other kinds of innovations. I have no doubt that data about how people use content on American Express Open Forum, for example, has informed American Express’ products and services for small businesses. You cannot divorce the content from that data. The value lies in both because you wouldn’t have that data without that content.

So, the value of these assets and capabilities is high. How high? So high that McKinsey rightly hints that businesses should think carefully about what digital capabilities (including content capabilities) they outsource to agencies and what capabilities they build in house.

When businesses value content as digital capital, then those of us who advocate for content work will enjoy another benefit. The connection between that strategic capital and the many operational details of content will be clear (or clearer than they are now). Instead of executives seeing those details as “getting into the weeds,” executives will see them as important tactics to sustain and scale their strategic capabilities—at least, the forward-thinking executives will. For example, structuring content becomes less a nice-to-have detail and more an essential tactic to expand your content capabilities across channels and markets. As another example, evaluating whether your content is effective (bringing together analytics, qualitative feedback, and more) becomes vital to building data about your content and your customers.

As a result of this new perspective, we can make a more accurate, complete, and compelling case for content ROI. It’s not just about operating more efficiently. It’s about investing in strategic advantage. I can think of few things more exciting right now for content work.

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in August 2013.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the CEO of Content Science and cofounder of ContentWRX. She regularly consults with executives and practitioners to improve their strategy and processes for content. Colleen shares insights and guidance from her experience in these highly rated books:

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