Content, Complexity, and Why Strategies Don’t Work

Strategy works until it doesn’t. So goes the old management saw that is especially relevant of late to content marketers. According to the most recent North American B2B Content Marketing survey, 83 percent of respondents have devised some form of strategy. Yet fewer than one-in-ten believe their efforts are “very effective.” It is not for lack of trying. To the contrary, there have been any number of attempts to define, codify, and document best practices for content strategy; and that is a big part of the problem.

Content has become the lifeblood of modern marketing as brands apply an infusion of trendy techniques. But much of what passes for original thinking these days are generally operational retreads. Content marketing, for example, borrows liberally from public relations. Native advertising replicates past practices of print advertorials and video news releases. While the doctrine of “paid, owned and earned” is rooted in decades-old principles of integrated marketing communications. In each case it is less a matter of reinventing the wheel than simply renaming it. But contemporary labels belie the outdated methods behind them.

The Fallacy of Documented Strategies

Content marketers are endorsing conventional strategy at a time when others have begun to question its value. “In a world where a competitive advantage often evaporates in less than a year,” writes Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor of management at the Columbia Business School, “companies can’t afford to spend months at a time crafting a single long-term strategy.” Nonetheless, many content marketers are doing just that. Browse the myriad how-to articles, books, and blogs online and you are bound to come upon numerous prescriptions for “repeatable frameworks” that can be used, as is, again and again. For its part, the Content Marketing Institute urges brands to “take the time to record your strategy and follow it closely.”

A generation ago, management scholars Henry Mintzberg and James A. Waters coined the term “deliberate strategy” to describe this approach, and little has changed since. Conceived primarily from a company’s perspective – and usually mandated from the top down – such schemes are still designed, developed, and executed with explicit directions; and with the expectation that results will play out as intended. Mintzberg, however, has noted that their success rests on two questionable assumptions: first, that an organization has the most topical information to formulate workable strategies; and second, that the external environment is predictable enough to ensure the strategies remain viable after they are implemented.

Given the unprecedented volume and velocity of new data, marketers must, at the very least, constantly rework their models just to keep pace. Moreover, even the most conscientious among them are unlikely to consistently foresee correct outcomes in a complex world. That is because a complex system is one in which many distinct parts interact in spontaneous and frequently unexpected ways. This is certainly true with respect to marketing, where interconnected of networks, the proliferation of devices, and fragmenting audiences multiply complexity exponentially.

Beyond the Capacity of Mere Mortals

Yet what may confound content marketers most is a mode of strategy far more advanced than their own. Not long ago, content plans mainly favored short prose studded with keywords and targeted by sundry links. That was, until Google’s menagerie of algorithms – Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird – turned the logic on its head and certain sites saw their search rankings plummet practically overnight. More recently, Facebook and Twitter have fiddled with their own formulas to determine what content their users do and don’t see.

An algorithm, after all, is a calculated series of steps for solving a problem; though in an infinitesimal fraction of the time it takes a person to do so. These increasingly ubiquitous and highly sophisticated instructions are also capable of learning from their surroundings. So whether managing access to information; masquerading as humans in the form of bots; or creating content themselves, algorithms are getting technologically smarter, says physicist Sean Gourley. More so than mere mortals. Furthermore, when processing big data within complex systems they generate surprising phenomena. This is known as “emergence,” and can wreck havoc on the most meticulous methodologies.

Which is why professors Minztberg and Waters introduced the notion of “emergent strategy.” Unlike its premeditated counterpart, an emergent strategy develops at the juncture where an organization’s objectives collide with the environment’s realities. It is analogous to a conversation, since conversations are sometimes uncontrollable, often unpredictable, and almost always self-adjusting. Consequently, dealing with emergence requires considerable flexibility, enabling strategies to handle ever-changing circumstances.

Buddhists Have a Word for That

Content marketers, too, must be more versatile. Although pundits are fond of exhorting brands to think like publishers, this is dubious advice considering how many publications have fumbled the transition to digital. Rather, marketers ought to adopt a more comprehensive mindset. What they can learn from publishers is how to listen to their audiences and respond accordingly. Yet they can also take their cues from information designers, who manage various platforms and techniques to translate complicated concepts into intelligible ideas. And from data scientists who use metadata to put facts in context to enhance their value. Indeed, there are a host of disciplines from which content marketers can draw inspiration for emergent styles of strategy.

Complex situations call for diverse solutions. Swift and seemingly infinite changes make it impractical, if not impossible, to contain communication systems within hardbound rules or templates. What is more, genuinely successful strategies are rarely transferable because they address unique combinations of people, ideas, and events. Thus, codifying best practices makes it that much harder to learn and innovate.

Instead, content marketers can jettison inhibiting parameters and first think of every strategy at its most basic level: as simply a way to achieve a goal. From there they can proceed with what social scientists call “systems thinking,” and Zen Buddhists refer to as Shoshin or Beginner’s Mind. That is the capacity to set aside assumptions and understand how all of the separate parts of a problem intersect and influence each other. Then they can incorporate whatever components are most appropriate. So no matter how circumstances change, every strategy can effectively adapt.

This piece originally appeared in Medium