And the content marketing journey continues…

And the content marketing journey continues...

Another year zips past in the rear vision mirror and the journey continues.

While the road ahead seems endless with plenty of twists and turns, we know where we’re going. It’s just going to take a while to get there.

Happily the scenery is great, the car is strong, the music: entertaining and momentarily at least, no one in the backseat is complaining. Of course there is the ever present threat of car sickness, comfort stops and mechanical failure, but all things considered, as we roll past the end of 2015, we’re travelling nicely.

The year started with contentgroup stepping out from behind the desk, taking a deep breath and saying out loud;

“We will be the world’s leading public sector content marketing agency by 2020”. That’s right. “We will be the world’s leading public sector content marketing agency by 2020”.

A big ambition, a bold vision but entirely achievable.

We have the talent, strategy, skills, collaborators, resources, attitude and location to make it happen.

It will just take time.

The reactions were immediate. Some inspired, others horrified.

“What if it doesn’t happen?” said one colleague.

“You are kidding right?” said another.

Another didn’t say anything but if spitting out his tea said anything, he wasn’t entirely convinced.

My long experience, and unfortunately I can say that now because I am over 50, is that nothing worthwhile ever happens without a vision. In my book, if you’re going to have a vision, you may as well make it a big one, a bold one and a clear one.

One of contentgroup’s long standing values is to “dream big dreams” so we’re staying true to our promise to always reach for the stars.

But while the skeptics mumbled under their breath, others fell in love.

“Good on you” was one reaction.

“I wish I was brave enough to say the same thing”, another So, ‘World’s leading’, what does it mean and how do we measure it?

In terms of creating meaning, it’s an ongoing discussion. We’re forever filling in the blanks. It is three parts performance, two parts culture and one part reputation. It certainly shapes expectations with the team and our clients and suggests that if you are coming along for the ride, you better bring your ‘A’ game. And as for measurement, that too is a work in progress. But we will define a series of measures that will constitute a clear yes or no answer on January 1, 2020.

An interesting thing I’ve discovered about big visions is that when you write them down, they focus your thinking, activate your imagination and solutions emerge. We live in the age where technology has shrunk the world and aspiring to be a genuine global player is not aspirational, it’s mandatory.

Big thinking does inspire new ideas and solutions. Seemingly big, almost absurd goals suddenly become more attainable as you take seriously the task of breaking up the challenge into its component parts. The destination defined and the strategies and behaviours agreed, you then put your head down and start ticking tasks off the list one day at a time. I well remember standing in ACT Brumbies’ team room in late 1995 ahead of our first season. Speaking to a group of cynical professional rugby players who had no idea who I was, I told them that our vision was ‘to ’be the world’s leading provincial rugby union team’. It certainly got their attention and their buy in. As they took to the field at our first camp, their training shirts carried the words ‘ACT RUGBY, Taking on the world’. They quickly realised that I was serious. They accepted the challenge, responded to the aspiration, worked hard every day and by 2000, we could legitimately claim to have achieved our original goal.

contentgroup’s accompanying mission is “helping the public sector strengthen communities and improve the well-being of citizens through effective content marketing”. Our long standing values complete our cultural architecture which creates a certainty of expectations for our staff, clients and collaborators. All teams need to know what they are trying to achieve and why. All team members need to know their role and what is expected.

So with our all-conquering vision and mission in place, and as part of our preparation for the big road trip, we decided to send the car to the mechanic.

I thought we needed an oil and grease change. Instead, we got an engine rebuild.

The engine noise, the rattle, the petrol guzzling and the slow leaking tyre to which we had grown accustomed meant we were firing on two cylinders.

So we set out to find a talented engineer to solve our problems. To correct our poorly designed processes, policies and work habits that we had either willfully ignored or simply overlooked.

It was a difficult exercise but extremely worthwhile.

To borrow another analogy, imagine inviting someone into your house and asking them for their unbiased and professional opinion about your furnishings, the blinds, your clothes, the fixtures, your cooking and family photos. You have to be completely transparent and open to hearing things you are not going to like.

It’s hard work! Bloody hard.

There was so much I didn’t want to hear. But if you are brave enough to do it, (and there are government grants to help) insist on a good chemistry with your “engineer” and strap yourself in for the inspiration, anger, laughter, insult, achievement and regret. It’s not for the faint hearted, but when you emerge on the other side, the world seems like a better place.

In 2015, we also nailed our evidence based public sector content marketing methodology to the floor.

We now have a stripped down, ninth dan black belt approach to content marketing. It’s taken years of trial and error and it will continue to evolve, but the steps are clear and proven and we know it creates value for our clients. This has been a huge step forward. We can scale our template approach and produce measurable, accountable and effective solutions for our clients. There is opportunity everywhere as public sector organisations the world over discover the gift of being able to build their own audiences through publishing consistent, useful and relevant content over time.

Our other highlights were the hiring of our data science team, the introduction of contentgroup innovation, building out our training and education offering, being notified by the National Library of Australia that our website is being archived, assisting in the development and announcement of the world’s first Bachelor of Journalism majoring in content marketing at the University of Canberra and winning  a content marketing specific a Government tender.

Let’s take them one at a time.

The tech people are in the house. The UK Government’s report into the future of public sector communication has belled the cat.

The future of communication is as much about science as art. I don’t completely agree with all the findings, but there is increasingly the need to have people on your team who can identify, evaluate and analyse data. As we swim around in the increasingly deep oceans of data, we need the scientists, engineers and analysts to organise the data-sets, apply their critical thinking and create the insights from which to create deeper meaning in our stories. We have two great new staff members with a real passion and interest for how information and data can describe and influence behaviour. In a few short weeks they have proved their worth.

Innovation is at the heart of everything we do. Every day, we commit to finding better ways of creating more value for our clients.  We look to the future, ask questions, validate needs and always challenge our practices, assumptions and processes. We are exploring innovation in training, consulting, data, research, process, collaboration, events, publishing and media. Like painting the Harbour Bridge, it’s a job that will never end. I do sometimes yearn for the days when things were stable and change was slower, but at the same time I’m energised by the daily challenge of staying relevant in the digital age. It’s interesting but exhausting.

This year we put well over 130 people through our content marketing and social media training and education program. We’ve now been training public sector communicators for well over 6 years and it’s an increasingly important part of our mission. There is a massive need for people working in the public sector to understand how content marketing can enable their policy, program, service or initiative objectives. We are now operating in the post media age that requires different skills, attitudes and processes. Content marketing will become the default communication approach for all public sector organisations and they will have to build these skills internally if they are to be relevant to stakeholders. It won’t be a service that can be reliably and effectively delivered by external agencies. It will be a capability that sits at the heart of an organisation, at the right hand of the leadership.  It will be central to every organisation’s effectiveness. Beyond that, there will also be an increasing need to build content marketing skills and capability in the people who work beyond the traditional communication team. These skills will need to be deployed closer to the point of engagement with the community. The need for speed driven by the expectations of the community will crush the centralised “command and control” structures and we will have to put the content marketing tools and the skills in the hands of our staff closest to the people. Communication areas will become more strategic and expert as part of a central hub, but the delivery of the story will rest with those on the front-line. This will be an uncomfortable transition and it will require cultural change and training. And lots of it. That too will be another job that never ends.

Playing a small part in convincing the University of Canberra to introduce the world’s first Bachelor of Journalism majoring in content marketing was satisfying. 16 months ago, a couple of my friends who are journalism academics turned up in the contentgroup offices to discuss the job prospects of their students. Their concern was that the traditional media had stopped hiring. I assured them that while the media wasn’t hiring, brands, not for profits, non-government organisations, governments and national associations were. The great gift of technology means that everyone can be a publisher and the need and demand for journalism skills was high and getting higher. The University’s academic board agreed and the announcement of the new degree coincided with Content Marketing World in Cleveland. It was a highlight when the Content Marketing Institute’s Founder and CEO Joe Pulizzi announced the news in his opening address on day two of the conference to a crowd of over 3000 content marketers from 57 countries. Their spontaneous applause had me out of my seat leaping with joy. It was of double delight when the following keynote address was delivered by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the distinguished Washington Post journalist and editor who is now working in content marketing for Starbucks.  Game, set and match. The first students enroll to study in 2016.

The National Library of Australia sent us an email asking if they would mind if they archived our site. I had to do a double take. The National Library of Australia was asking us (contentgroup) if we would mind if they archived our site. Ahhhh let me think about that for a second? Of course you can archive our site! To think that someone, somewhere in that distinguished institution believes our content is of sufficient value to be archived for future reference gave the team a real sense of achievement.  You do sometimes wonder if anyone is paying attention, but there you go. News like that lifts the spirit and encourages us to remain in service of our niche audience (public sector communicators). I do hope that someday into the future when content marketing is the default communication approach for all organisations that we have played some small role in making that happen.

And finally, the tender.

The government content marketing tender. I did a double take when it arrived. Again there was a sense of, “Someone has been listening”. And to think it was one of the big government agencies with an enviable record for effective communication. It was a complete validation that we are on the right path and an inspiring consulting project. Presenting our findings to their national team was fabulous. When the big boss said he was regretting heading into retirement at a time when things are getting so interesting was tremendous. Everyone knows it. Everyone can see it. We just need to keep working hard to make it a reality.

And of course there were the many project moments where the team created value for their clients and made a difference. Where we understood a problem and applied our knowledge, skills, behaviour and attitude to get a result. A special thanks to every one of our clients. We love you all!

Our team at contentgroup has never been stronger, better equipped and prepared for the long journey ahead. I extend to them my sincerest thanks for all of their efforts. Another of our other company values is “Best effort, everyday”. Our team owned it this year.

Now of course the year has had its challenges.

The roads are not paved with chocolate where we skipped from one success to the next.

There were the inevitable black moments that come from running a small business at the sharp edge of an emerging trend.

There were plenty of “thanks but no thanks”. There are the gatekeepers whose job it is to keep you at arm’s length. To keep you out of their bosses crowded diaries.

I also had countless presentations that ended with “Thanks for your time but we’re already doing it”.

I had to laugh a few weeks ago in one of his final reports as Australia’s Chief Scientist; Professor Ian Chubb noted the pervasiveness of that response and its impediment to innovation. He said that if people are already doing it, why aren’t we making any progress.

But strangely when your vision, mission, values are clear, rejection seems to count for less. The destination is clear it’s only a matter of days before it happens. Now don’t get me wrong, I take rejection has hard as the next person. You desperately want everyone to say yes and to like me, our team and our ideas. But that’s not the real world is it?

There are a number of good reasons why change is hard and introducing this sort of approach to communication in conservative, risk averse organisations is a challenge.  The key is to not take it personally, listen to the wisdom of the feedback, improve and go again. Find a better way to sell the value. Relate the solution to a bigger more immediate problem.

This year’s Mary Meeker State of the Internet report confirmed what we had already known. Government, or the public sector, is the least disrupted of any sector by the internet.

The change will come; it’s just going to take time. Happily we have plenty of that on our hands.

To those who have trusted us and trusted us in a new way, thanks. It’s never easy being first.

When the new Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke to the media after winning the ballot for the Liberal Party leadership in September, he spoke of the need for innovation and agility. He is now talking about the public sector taking risks and suggesting forgiveness will be at hand for the things that don’t quite work out. This is a massive cultural shift from the top and in strict hierarchical organisations like the public service that counts for a lot. It has changed the atmospherics in Canberra and there is an appetite for new approaches and ideas. Evidence based, measured experimentation that solves problems and creates values for citizens is in.

The fresh air generated by the introduction of the Digital Transformation Office is also pushing change through government as they promote design principles that put citizens at the centre, at the heart of everything they do. This audience first approach to service delivery is entirely consistent with a content marketing approach to explaining government policy and programs.

There is a spring in the step of the Australian Public Service and despite the ongoing challenges with pay negotiations and reduced head counts, I detect a professional optimism that has been absent from Canberra for many years.

99% of public servants are motivated by doing the best job they can. They take their community service seriously and are genuinely committed to making Australia a better place for everyone. They just want to get on with it. It now looks like they will be able to.

There is no question the next and future years will bring further achievements, change, disappointment and opportunity for contentgroup.

But as we continue on our journey approaching Christmas 2015, the destination is clear, the petrol tank is full, the temperature gauge is steady and as yet, no-one has asked to stop the car for a spew.

Merry Christmas.

See you in late January.


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