<strong>How'd You Make That Awesomely Innovative Content?
<strong> Get behind-the-scenes insights from leaders of award-winning content programs at Salesforce, AARP, HBO, and other B2C and B2B brands.</strong>
How Salesforce Uses Content To Lead Through Change
In March 2020, the world changed seemingly overnight.
Salesforce responded to the new reality of business seemingly overnight, launching its Leading Through Change content initiative on March 17.
That’s not a typo. The first blog of the program launched days before California issued shelter-in-place orders and travel essentially shut down.
How did this huge company pivot so quickly – and deliver results that surpassed expectations?
Leading Through Change won Project of the Year in the 2021 Content Marketing Awards. And it's one of the reasons Jessica Bergmann, who drives content strategy at Salesforce, earned the 2021 B2B Content Marketer of the Year honor.
Here's the remarkable story of how the program came together. –Stephanie Stahl
The answer to how Salesforce launched Leading Through Change so quickly sounds simple. The company relied on a documented content strategy and trained all of its 1,300 marketers to follow it.
But that simple answer obscures the months of effort behind it. The underlying work started in July 2019, when Jessica kicked off a “content revolution” at the tech giant.
VP of Content and
As part of that revolution, the team launched an integrated planning effort that had content strategists working with each line of business and industry team to document their content strategy for the year.
The content series that grew out of that work (360 Perspectives) paused when customers’ business challenges changed due to the pandemic.
But the revolution’s principles laid the groundwork that enabled Leading Through Change:
- Make content an integral and strategic partner in marketing planning.
- Co-create content with Salesforce customers and partners to earn trust.
- Stop “random acts of content” in favor of series and content that leads the audience to a next step.
Turning in time
When COVID hit, Salesforce stopped all marketing, including the 360 Perspectives series Jessica’s team had spent months preparing.
“Companies’ needs had changed,” Jessica said. “The messages and campaigns we had planned prior to COVID were no longer relevant.”
When the pandemic hit, Salesforce canceled planned content series that no longer felt relevant.
In rethinking their marketing approach, Salesforce made three pivotal decisions:
- Every new program needed CMO approval.
- Nearly all content offers were ungated for the first time (gating didn’t feel right when their goal was to help during COVID, Jessica said).
- Customer and market insights teams informed all new plans and messaging.
From listening to customers (and their insights teams), the company found a need for information about how to go digital fast.
Companies needed to figure out how to keep employees working successfully remotely.
And they needed to tackle new business challenges, like deciding when to go back into the office and how to operate safely.
Out of those and other insights, Leading Through Change was born. The goals were straightforward:
- Provide actionable, global leadership content from the community, world-class experts, and Salesforce leaders.
- Create a forum for community and conversation with peers.
- Show humanity in a time of turmoil, while positioning Salesforce as a trusted partner.
Bringing change to life
Taking the series from goals to a quick launch took some doing. Everyone got involved.
“We put all the wood behind one arrow,” Jessica said, “We went through one weekly approval process.
We worked in one system. We all worked through one planning process.”
In a way, the crisis brought about the content revolution the team had been working to bring about for months. The content team had a seat at the strategy table. And the desire to co-create with customers proved helpful for the Leading Through Change initiative, just as it had for the earlier series.
“When the pandemic hit, no one had all the answers,” Jessica said. They had to ask, “How can we lead through change with our customers, experts, and partners?”
The answer was to put customers at the front of the series. “They were telling us how they were navigating the pandemic’s impact,” she said.
As Salesforce explained in its Content Marketing Awards submission: “We created content about what we knew — leading with values and customer-centricity — while tapping into the expertise of international medical experts, CEOs, and government leaders.”
Salesforce teamed up with CEOs and luminaries from various industries. Tapping into experts helped the team take on topics they hadn’t covered before, including well-being at work, upskilling, success from anywhere, and vaccine management.
For example, they published a series of articles and videos based on interviews with Dr. David Agus, such as this one about why companies should consider hiring a chief health officer.
They also created a resource center and filled it with helpful guides, including the COVID Response Playbook and How to Safely Reopen Your Business.
The content also recognized other big changes happening in 2020 and 2021 as conversations about justice, race, and inclusion were elevated in the world.
Music for Change: Hear the Next Generation Raise Their Voice for a Brighter Future helped Salesforce enter conversations around justice, race, and inclusion. The virtual event highlighted original songs from students around the world and featured celebrity judges will.i.am, Jewel, Dave Wish, and Dr. Ron C. Smith.
For example, the company hosted Music for Change: Hear the Next Generation Raise Their Voice for a Brighter Future, a live competition featuring original, digitally produced songs from students around the world. The event featured celebrity judges will.i.am, Jewel, Dave Wish, and Dr. Ron C. Smith.
Leading Through Change content focused on challenges – like how to safely reopen a business – identified by the customer insights team at Salesforce.
"This combination of interviews with experts, thinking at the forefront of change, talking about product innovation, and then bringing in a moment of entertainment and levity got customers excited,” Jessica said. “They were proud to be part of it.”
Ultimately, Leading Through Change took a multimedia, multinational approach that crossed broadcast, on-demand video, blogs, audio, online learning modules, and social media channels in over 20 countries and 15 languages.
In the first month of the series, organic prospect traffic to the site increased 47%. The live broadcast series reached more than 600 million viewers on owned and social channels, with an average of 10 million views per episode. Salesforce’s blog newsletter audience grew by over 70%.
Organic traffic to the site increased 47%. And Salesforce’s newsletter audience grew by more than 70%.
Form completions through webinars grew 80 times, which led to nearly all of the 5% year-over-year engagement growth in the first month of Leading Through Change.
Leading Through Change helped Salesforce internally, too. It aligned to the need for new products that empowered sales teams and met that need with products like Work.com and Vaccine Cloud.
Salesforce used the project’s success to attract new attendees to Dreamforce – its biggest event of the year – which took place virtually in 2020.
Through LinkedIn engagement retargeting, the company earned more than 600,000 impressions for the 2020 Dreamforce registration page and 1,400 clicks.
It also got the notice of the business world. As Matt Derella, global vice president of Twitter, explains:
"The Leading Through Change show has been a lighthouse example of a business adapting to change to create value for their customers and advantage versus their competition.
"The quality of the content and the scale of the conversation is breathtaking. After their initial envy, other leading brands are learning from and trying to catch up to Salesforce’s innovative approach."
Leading Through Change proved transformative for content strategy and content marketing at Salesforce. And, as with any transformation, it wasn’t easy.
When you tell everyone there’s one content initiative they all need to get behind, you can expect pushback. As Jessica said, “Of course, there’s friction.”
Working in a single system helped because everyone could see what they were working toward.
What really helped, Jessica found, was to change the conversation from “No, you can’t do this,” to “No, this doesn’t align to our approach, but here’s how you can modify or consolidate this idea to be included in the series.”
Eventually, the results spoke for themselves.
And the lessons learned continue to inform their work on new content projects (including the print magazine Vantage Point, which launched this summer, and the all-new Salesforce+ streaming service).
Ultimately, the experience “was a major learning curve for a lot of the team, " Jessica said. "We were stronger afterward. It streamlined our processes and changed the way we operate and develop content across the board.”
Now, that’s leading through change. CCO
AARP Goes Deep With Niche Content
If your content is for everyone, it’s for no one.
No one would accuse AARP of ignoring that truism. The association’s massive-circulation publications offer pitch-perfect content for the over-50 crowd.
In the last few years, they've gone even deeper, creating niche publications for often-overlooked audience segments.
Sisters From AARP, which targets Black women over 40, is one shining example of this strategy. The weekly newsletter and website won the 2021 Content Marketing Award for Best Digital Publication.
Sisters From AARP
Sisters' editor-in-chief, Claire McIntosh, established the pub's keen editorial focus and fresh, distinctive voice –and it earned her the 2021 B2C Content Marketer of the Year honor.
We asked Claire to share the Sisters From AARP story and for her thoughts on building a successful content product and team. Here's what she told us. –Kim Moutsos
“I remind Sisters From AARP’s multigenerational contributors that the organization touches every generation,” explains Claire McIntosh, editor-in-chief. “The younger you are, the more you need AARP. Sisters’ outreach and strategy takes that into account.”
When Sisters launched in 2018, the website served as a home for the articles in the weekly e-newsletter.
An April 2020 website redesign made room to showcase themed Spotify playlists featuring Black artists, as well as polls, games, online events, and other exclusive content. It also marked a more concerted push to engage readers and create community.
While the pandemic raged and social justice concerns dominated the news, the team stepped up communication on its Facebook and Instagram channels. Content choices prioritized lifestyle, informational content, and even humor to promote “a sense of belonging and contentment,” according to AARP.
And it worked – the Sisters team sees more engagement on (including enthusiastic comments, not just likes) social channels and more subscribers. They now reach an audience that numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
Establishing visual branding and a distinct voice
Before building Sisters’ web, email, and social channels, Claire and the team conducted audience research and tested concepts with its audience.
Claire established Sisters’ content categories, editorial calendar, and brand voice, which she conveys to writers as “the same conversational tone they’d use with a bestie at brunch.”
And when a writer's content doesn’t quite hit the mark, she makes the advice even more specific: “Write it as you would share it conversationally after ordering the second mimosa. We want it to be really friendly.”
Claire takes an ear-to-the-ground approach to guiding editorial decisions and her writers.
“Early on, I shared with senior vice president and editorial director of AARP Media Myrna Blyth that I saw my role as a listener-in-chief,” she explains.
She’s tuned into reader feedback, taking ideas and inspiration from reader emails. “It’s the readers who are driving what we talk about. That comes from subscriber surveys, my mailbox, what people are asking for, what they tell us they like, what they tell us they don’t like.”
Readers drive what we talk about. That comes from subscriber surveys, my mailbox, what they tell us they like, what they tell us they don’t like.
–Claire McIntosh (@ClaireRMcIntosh), Sisters From AARP
Claire also listens to colleagues and contributors. “I’ll meet a writer for lunch or virtual coffee. She’ll tell me how she handled things with the school principal when her daughter was being bullied, and I’ll ask her to write about it.”
Working as a content team
Claire works closely with Sisters’ creative director Dian Holton, who shapes its visual branding, and senior editor Leslie Quander Wooldridge, who manages its social media and produces Q&As, celebrity updates, first-person stories, and polls.
All three women are part of a team led by Shelley Emling, executive editor of specialized content, and AARP General Manager Sami Amad. That team produces Sisters and two other niche platforms: The Girlfriend (for Gen X women) and The Ethel (for women over 55).
A group of project management, marketing, design, business development, and web development colleagues supports all the newsletters, social channels, websites, events, and e-commerce offerings that arise from the project.
Claire contributes to AARP print publications, too, shaping the food content for AARP The Magazine.
All that collaboration adds up to signal-boosting power for all the specialized publications. “When you collaborate with innovators from across the enterprise,” Claire says, “you access a breadth and caliber of talent that wouldn’t be available with a dedicated team. You can punch above your weight class.”
Creating meaning and fulfillment
Sisters From AARP connects with a niche that Claire describes as “unaccustomed to targeted media that celebrates and supports them at the age and stage that they — we — are at now.”
Engaging this often-overlooked audience in a way that makes a real difference in their outlook and lives brings meaning to the team’s work.
“This engagement makes a difference as the African-American community faces grave challenges linked to the pandemic, voter suppression, employment and wage discrimination, and racist violence.
"I’m equally proud of how we kindle joy and resilience by elevating fun, friendship, and fulfillment,” she says.
On the horizon
Sisters sends every reader a birthday greeting, which is a great prompt for the recipients to share how they think about the newsletter and what they want. In general, Claire says, “They just want more.”
Look for more of that sense of fun and friendship as Sisters rolls out some new social media initiatives that will make it “more of a party” and a new e-commerce project to support readers with stylish self-care options.
While Claire and her team work on making sure Sisters content reaches its audience in more ways and more places, the team knows its purpose.
“Above all, we’ll advance AARP’s mission to empower people to choose how they live as they age.” CCO
Learn more about the Content Marketing Awards and see the complete list of 2021 winners at contentmarketingawards.com
‘Secrets’ of Award-Winning B2B and B2C Content Programs
Ever look at an organization’s content and think, “How do they do it?” Yeah, same.
So we asked a group of admired content leaders – 2021 Content Marketer of the Year finalists – for a peek behind the curtain. (Each nominee this year worked on a winning entry in at least one category in the Content Marketing Awards.)
You’ve likely heard variations of their advice before (hence the quotation marks around “secrets” in the headline). But their input proves that the fundamentals of content marketing work.
Here’s what they told us about why their content programs resonate with audiences and keep the support of business leaders who invest in them. – Kim Moutsos
Senior Vice President,
HBO Max and HBO
Build teams that mirror your audience
Our team reflects the audiences we speak with daily, and our partners also reflect the audience. Both are very passionate about multicultural audiences and creating moments that give back to underrepresented groups.
Our focus is on Black, AAPI, LGBTQ+, and Latinx audiences. In each vertical, we have audience experts, and that was very intentional. We are the experts when it comes to these audiences.
If there’s a multicultural marketing or emerging markets team in the organization, I encourage you to work closely with them to develop your strategy. If that expertise doesn’t exist within the organization, then absolutely
find an agency partner who knows and has experience with the audiences you want to engage.
The Well by Northwell
The key to The Well’s success is our data-driven approach to content creation. We know what our readers are interested in because we study them. We learn about their needs and curiosities at the different stages of life and formulate concepts for content around those findings. And we don’t do it in a stuffy, formal way.
When we started, we were “intuition-driven,” meaning the team (made up of all women/chief medical officers of the household) would brainstorm about the things that mattered to us.
We assumed we knew what people wanted because we were the target audience.
Now that we're data-driven and spend a good amount of resources studying trends to really know what our demo is searching for, I’d say we weren’t wrong, but we didn’t understand how much more people were interested in – topics we hadn’t even thought of.
My advice is to get to know your audience and give the people what they want.
Promote your content inside to connect outside
We use Bambu by Sprout Social to share content internally so that it gets shared externally. It’s been a wonderful tool for us.
We had great success in leveraging that for our sales team during the early months of the pandemic, which allowed them to keep in contact with their clients and stay relevant.
We just kept sharing content and data points through this platform internally, and they could then put it right onto their own LinkedIn. They can put it on Twitter. Now we do it two to three times a week, and it’s a constant flow.
Senior Marketing Manager –
Understand what matters to your business
One of the main things we care about is seeing how many Workflow readers engage with the ServiceNow brand in a way that increases the chance that they will become customers (things like what percentage of Workflow readers click off to get assets on ServiceNow.com either directly or indirectly).
I think the exciting opportunity in content (at least the editorial thought leadership side) is to show how you’re contributing not just to brand awareness but ultimately to the business funnel. We’re not product marketers. But it’s important to be able to show that we’re sending people from an editorial experience to the top of the marketing funnel, where they can be captured as leads.
Richard McGill Murphy
Get executives on board
It’s important to have some type of champion at the executive level who will enable you to have the tools you need to get these things done.
That’s it. We couldn’t have done it without the support of my boss at the time.
Strategist – B2B
<strong>Curiosity Could Save Your Content (Don't Tell the Cat)
<strong> Clickbait never pays (at least not for long). Here's how to use curiosity wisely. </strong>
You Won't Believe What Happens Next!
There's a reason clickbait headlines work. But there's risk in manipulating curiosity in your content. Here's how to get it right.
By Jonathan Crossfield
I am a curious person. No, not in the sense that I’m bizarre or odd (stop snickering).
I’m curious in the sense that my ADHD-addled brain becomes obsessed with finding answers whenever it stumbles across an interesting question. Interesting to me, that is.
I recently spent an entire Saturday afternoon confirming exactly how many issues of the weekly British comic Princess Tina were published between 1967 and 1973. (Or rather 1974 – I eventually proved all of the published sources wrong. Take that, Denis Gifford, and your Complete Catalogue!)
Okay, so maybe I’m a little odd.
Everyone is curious in one way or another. After all, curiosity is what makes us human.
And, sometimes, it’s the seemingly trivial questions that lead to the most incredible findings. To Isaac Newton, a falling apple wasn’t just a bonk on the head but a question that demanded to be answered – and led to his theory of gravity. That’s some industrial-strength curiosity.
To Isaac Newton, a falling apple wasn’t just a bonk on the head. It was a question that needed an answer.
To the rest of us non-geniuses, curiosity is what pushes and pulls us every single day to try this, go there, read that, investigate the other.
It’s a big reason why people seek out content. It’s also what keeps someone reading or watching.
With any luck, curiosity can lead them to click on more links (hopefully ours) as they go further down whichever rabbit hole has captured their imagination.
Curiosity explains why people fall for clickbait, too. It may be tempting to take a darker, more manipulative approach to exploit curiosity. But it probably won’t pay off. Here’s why.
Curiosity clicked the link
You’re probably familiar with headlines like these: “Number Four Will Shock You” and “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!”
But clickbait isn’t always so blatant. Merely leaving out a crucial (but ultimately trivial) piece of information from a headline signals clickbait territory.
Consider this headline from my news feed this morning: “Expat baffled by common Aussie supermarket item.”
What is this item?! Is it that baffling? She looks stunned. What are we doing in Australia that would deserve such a reaction from an ex-pat? (To be honest, that’s probably a long list.)
Yes, I clicked. The answer was a capsicum. If you’re reading this in the United States, you call them peppers. Or bell peppers. Just know that you’re wrong. They are called capsicums. Oh, and the other, hotter peppers are chilis. You’re welcome.
Was the answer really worth a dramatic headline, never mind 500+ words of overstretched copy? It was thirty seconds of my life I won’t get back.
Is this clickbait?
Another common clickbait technique uses the headline to pose a yes/no question. This form makes the reader curious by calling into question something they previously had no reason to doubt.
As Betteridge’s law of headlines states, “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’”
Ian Betteridge of TechCrunch gave us his tongue-in-cheek maxim in a 2009 article that excoriated the practice. “The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.”
Don’t panic. We’ve all used questions in headlines at some point.
Betteridge’s law targets headlines where the question is disingenuous. The curiosity is misplaced. The answer is as underwhelming as an expat’s capsicum.
Content marketing is far from immune to clickbait. I see social media posts and headlines that promise to reveal the one big trick, the five essential ingredients, the key to success in whatever field of interest the marketer is trying to target.
Yet they fail to provide the slightest clue to whatever specific information lies beyond the link.
Of course, the trick, ingredient, or key almost always turns out to be more metaphorical capsicums – particularly for anyone with more than a basic understanding of the topic.
If your ideal audience persona is a novice or amateur still grasping the basics, then capsicum may be enough. But a novice won’t be satisfied for long and will soon start looking for more nutritious fare.
Clickbait headlines might satisfy an audience of amateurs and newbies – at first. But even novices will soon start looking for more substantive fare.
Capsicum content won't cut it when you want to attract more experienced, skilled, or deeply curious readers. Of course, these readers are also more likely to be high-value audience members such as influencers or even potential customers.
Appealing to curiosity can be extremely powerful – when your content can deliver the goods.
Curioser and curioser
You might think interest and curiosity are synonymous. If you’re interested in a topic, you should be curious to learn more about it.
Yet it’s possible for your audience to be passively interested in your content without ever being actively curious.
Consider how many cookbooks are purchased by people who never cook a single recipe contained in those pages. Or how many people avidly watch gardening shows when all they have is a window box.
It’s possible to be involved in an activity without necessarily being curious about it. According to Amanda Markey and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University, interest and curiosity are distinct.
A person interested in pottery may want to sit down and throw pots. Or, they may want to know more about the technique, the materials, and the history.
Curiosity arises when a specific knowledge gap occurs, such as, ‘What is the difference between high and low fire pottery?’ Thus, curiosity and interest differ by their objects of desire (specific knowledge vs. general knowledge/activity engagement).
This isn’t specific knowledge in the sense of “How to create awesome Instagram Reels.” That’s appealing to an activity-based interest no different from throwing pots.
Instead of taking the information and advice at face value, the curious might be more interested in learning how and why a specific technique works.
In other words, some content is about providing quick answers just to get the job done – no further curiosity required.
Other content seeks to explore, explain, or expand the topic to deepen the reader’s understanding and open up new possibilities – or even lead to new, independent conclusions.
The problem with clickbait is that it creates an information gap that is either an illusion or not worth filling.
The problem with clickbait
In 2012, Loewenstein and Russell Golman published a paper on factors that determine the intensity of a person’s curiosity.
- Importance: How much the information matters to the person.
- Salience: How attention is drawn to the information gap.
- Surprise: Does a new piece of information contradict or violate expectations?
The problem with clickbait is that it fakes or overstates the salience, importance, and/or surprise to create an information gap that is either an illusion or not worth filling.
So how do you ensure your content provides a satisfactory filling for your audience’s curiosity gaps?
Know – Want To Know – Learned
One educational technique used in schools to boost salience and curiosity among students is a Know – Want to Know – Learned chart (KWL).
Before starting a new unit of study or book, for example, a class would brainstorm what they already know about the topic and list it in the Know column.
Then they write what they want to know in the second column – identifying and highlighting their information gaps and fuelling their curiosity.
After completing the book or activity, the students write what they learned in the third column.
A chart with separate columns for Know, Want to Know, and Learned can help content marketers plan content that induces curiosity and retention.
This approach treats curiosity as a product of prior knowledge. In contrast, many brands seem to plan content in reverse: Start with whatever information is easiest to research and tell the audience they need to know it.
This approach assumes the audience isn’t already better informed. It’s more concerned with easy content than with what information the target persona is burning with curiosity to find out.
Content marketers don’t get to whiteboard a KWL chart with the audience before each piece of content. However, a similar approach can help in planning content to induce greater curiosity and retention.
Know: What does the target persona already know – or believe to be true? This also ensures the content matches their skill level and depth of interest. You might assume they’ve already read the articles that come up for relevant keyword searches.
Want to know: What information gaps might they have that your content can satisfy? If the persona isn’t aware of the gap – perhaps because new research challenges previous assumptions – how can you create salience by framing the content in relation to their prior knowledge?
Learned: Does the final content satisfy the highlighted information gaps? Are the answers as fascinating, relevant, or useful as the questions implied?
No capsicums allowed.
Why, why, WHY?!?
If your content is unequivocal and absolute, if it refuses to acknowledge the information gap exists, it risks curtailing the reader’s curiosity.
Unfortunately, content marketing’s obsession with thought leadership means a lot of content frames itself as complete or definitive, under the misapprehension that any hint of doubt might undermine its authority.
If curiosity is created and fuelled by information gaps, it makes sense for your content to be at least a little bit open-ended to give the reader’s curiosity somewhere to go.
As Markey and Loewenstein wrote:
“When information is portrayed, implicitly or explicitly, as complete, curiosity is stifled. But when an information gap is highlighted, curiosity is aroused and exploration increases.”
The people who produce your content need to be just as curious about the topic as the audience is.
Be willing to admit what isn’t known as well as what is. Be open about what’s opinion or theory and what’s a provable fact. Be honest about whether there are other viewpoints or interpretations.
Celebrate information gaps, don’t hide them. Instead, use them as springboards for further research, further content, further links for readers to follow.
And that means the people who write and produce your content need to be just as curious about the topic as the audience is.
Otherwise, you risk running out of answers before your audience runs out of questions. CCO
Jonathan Crossfield describes himself as a storyteller because writer, editor, content strategist, digital marketer, journalist, copywriter, consultant, trainer, speaker, and blogger wouldn’t fit neatly on a business card. He has won awards for his magazine articles and blog posts on digital marketing, but that was so long ago now it seems boastful to keep mentioning it. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Kimota.