Producing quality content is often thought to be every content team leader’s primary job responsibility. But what if I were to tell you that the real focus of the leader’s role isn’t on making content happen but rather on making change happen?
When you think about it, the best stories inherently revolve around change: changing people’s hearts and minds, inspiring them to pursue a new course of action, helping them realize your product or solution is the answer to the problem they’ve been trying to solve, or helping them recognize that they have a problem to solve in the first place.
But sometimes, even the soundest, most inspiring, most impactful ideas never see the light of day. Politics, budget, or time constraints are common culprits. But what often lurks deep beneath the death of innovative, game-changing content initiatives is a single four-letter word: fear.
The four faces of content marketing fear
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has fundamentally changed in the last few months. It’s a scary time, and we’re all struggling to find our footing and figure out the best path forward – in both our businesses and personal lives.
Some have been more adept at adapting than others, but since this accelerated pace of change is likely to continue in the weeks and months (or even years) ahead, we all need to find ways to push past our fear of the unknown so we can start making the changes that will matter most.
While the circumstances currently forcing us to make big changes are unfortunate, we can take inspiration in the results we’ve seen already stemming from them – reduced pollution rates, neighbors helping neighbors, and brands exploring new ways to work that protect employees and serve customers.
The same often holds true for the changes we lead in our brand’s content marketing efforts. We focus on the unknown consequences of taking action, so we often choose inaction until a change is forced upon us.
Why does this happen? Often, our reluctance to initiate change in our content programs – or our inability to bring those new ideas to fruition – stems from one of the four faces of content management fear.
Let’s conquer them one by one, shall we?
1. Internal fear
If you’re struggling to get game-changing content projects off the ground, it’s time to take a hard look at what’s really standing in the way. While you might be tempted to blame your team for dropping the ball, as an enlightened leader, you must be prepared to face an uncomfortable truth: When big ideas fail to advance, the problem might actually start and end with you.
Internal fears commonly stem from a lack of confidence in our skills and ability to perform certain tasks, in our understanding of and experience with certain concepts, or in our ability to instruct or motivate others to get the job done.
We all have things we fear. But newly promoted leaders, marketers faced with unforeseen challenges, or those who work in organizations where failure is condemned as a personal flaw seem to be particularly subject to its negative influence.
Giving in to this kind of internal fear means we might not take on new challenges that could lead to personal growth and greater satisfaction in our careers. From a content marketing perspective, it can keep our content programs mired in old, familiar processes and projects that are no longer providing satisfying results.
But there is hope. When your content management fears are mainly in your head, you have a choice: You can let it hold you back or you can push past the fear and keep moving toward your goals. Fortunately, courage is like a muscle: The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes.
2. External fear
While our inner fears often stem from self-judgment, external fears may come from the confidence we have (or lack) about how well we know our audience or, sometimes, whether we’ve done our homework and used this knowledge to inform content decision-making appropriately.
External fears might erupt as doubt about whether we’re making the right changes, are executing them properly, or whether a change is even necessary in the first place: What if we are basing our assumptions on insufficient data or flawed analysis? What if we’ve misread the audience’s signals or our idea has failed to account for a critical insight? What if making this change will actually turn customers away from us rather than drawing them in?
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Sure, it’s important to do due diligence before launching an idea, to check that assumptions are well supported and ensure data is unreproachable. But there comes a point when you simply have to push past analysis paralysis and accept that you will miss 100% of the shots you never take. Even if your assumptions are wrong and your content experiment fails, learning from experience is what makes the next initiative, idea, or program even better.
3. Communication fear
Think that content leaders are always communication experts? Not necessarily. Sometimes communication fears arise because, no matter how good we are at producing content, we’re not always confident that what we’re trying to achieve will be understood by others. Typically, the larger a project grows, the greater the risk of misunderstanding, mistranslation, or mismanagement between ideation and execution. Put more simply: What if we’ve gotten it right, but can’t explain it to others in a way they’ll accept and support?
There’s something to be said for acting first and asking for permission later. But in enterprises – where there are many teams that may be impacted by the results of your marketing actions – moving forward without everyone’s blessing could come back to haunt you at some point. Getting broader buy-in can pay dividends (sometimes, literally).
Plan your approach and prepare for battle: Planning is great. Practice, consultation, and engagement is better. Being brave enough to proceed is best.
Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter wrote in his book A Sense of Urgency that the first – and most important – step for change management is to create a sense of urgency among those who will go through the change. Not establishing urgency “produces failure, pain, disappointment, and … a 70% failure rate.”
This is probably why Robert Rose has said that the best way to create this imperative for change is to issue a “call to adventure” – something that kicks people out of their comfort zones, confronts them with sound reasons why your idea is particularly relevant, and compels them to take immediate action.
When you’re communicating a new idea or initiative, remember it’s not just about you. It’s important to consider both how the business will benefit and the all-important what’s-in-it-for-me factor for everyone else involved. If you are able to share the personal benefits of following where you lead, you’re more likely to spark a glimmer of excitement, perhaps even hope, in your colleagues.
To get it right, consider practicing your pitch in advance, workshopping it with your own team members, and perhaps even running it by a trusted colleague of an equivalent (or higher) position than yourself. At the end of the day, the combination of preparation, conviction, and good business sense should increase stakeholder confidence in both your ideas and your ability to see them through.
4. Collaboration fear
These fears are not based on perceived flaws in our (or our team’s) creative content vision or how we express and explain it, but rather in how we get the work done.
Many organizations work in silos. This limits our team’s access to the data and direction that could help our content succeed. Like communication fears, fears about collaboration can often stem from the confidence we have (or lack) in our relationships with other stakeholders. No one likes a bully, so it makes logical sense that enforcing change without first inspiring our colleagues to want to change is rarely going to win us friends, let alone enable long-term content success.
Here’s an example: John (not his real name) was a project management guru who had led successful change management teams for years and was banking on this experience to get his team to adopt a new productivity tool. Knowing there would be some resistance, John erred on the side of caution by mandating adoption rates, requirements, deadlines, and penalties for non-compliance.
His directives succeeded – initially – and teams reluctantly started using the new tool. But it disrupted their workflow, and they still didn’t see why John felt the change was necessary in the first place. Soon, strict enforcement of the new process created a rift of resentment, which led to in-fighting across the organization and resulted in several project managers quitting, one person getting fired, and a backlog of work so severe that they had no choice but to revert to their old processes just to catch up.
In contrast to John’s story, take a look at how marketing manager Frieda made marketing change a collaborative, team-wide effort: Frieda was challenged to ramp up content creation to increase audience reach. Her small team had limited writing resources, so she looked for ways to motivate other organizational teams to contribute. Using Passle – a mini-blogging and multimedia sharing platform – she organized cross-disciplinary teams of writers across her organization and held a friendly competition between them. The gamified approach attracted a huge number of new participants – from software developers to user-acceptance testers, from customer service reps and sales reps to the CTO – and resulted in a seven-fold increase in the number of blog posts her team was able to publish.
Unsurprisingly, Frieda worked hard on getting buy-in from collaborators up front. John didn’t.
Success is more meaningful when it’s shared
The difference between these two approaches comes down, essentially, to the psychology of connection and collaboration. When leaders are able to create a common goal that serves a bigger purpose, team members from within the content marketing team and beyond are able to strive for success: together.
The takeaway here is to ask others for their input, follow up with a plan, and share ownership of the idea so everyone can recognize, accept, and even get excited about bringing it to life. Some of the most triumphant content ever produced is great precisely because it leverages the power (and insights) of multiple stakeholders across the business.
Fighting the fear of change on all four fronts
As actress Ruth Gordon once said, “Courage is like a muscle. We strengthen it with use.” The more we confront the things we’re afraid of and enable our team members to do the same, the less we will view change as a risk rather than an opportunity.
How can we help our teams (or ourselves) develop stronger courage muscles and facilitate meaningful change? Start with these guidelines:
- Have faith in your abilities. If you’ve risen to your position as a content marketing leader through hard work and diligence, those resources are still there. Apply those skills – and don’t be afraid to learn new ones – as you face challenges on the road to beneficial change.
- Ask for feedback from others. No matter how good we are at our jobs, there is always room for improvement. Getting 360-degree feedback is helpful. It might show that you’re not as bad at some things as you thought or help you understand how to create positive change to improve yourself or your team.
- Invest in education. Training isn’t just for your team members. Sure, it can help them in areas where they’re weak. But arranging team training and attending it yourself can also help you in areas where you’re struggling. Your team doesn’t need to know that you were actually the one who needed it in the first place.
- Do your homework, but don’t let caution stop you. Gathering more information, insights, input, and evidence can undoubtedly improve an initiative. But the best way of getting over the fear of something is actually to do it. Don’t let caution and restraint derail progress.
- Create a sense of urgency that can move mountains. Presumably, there’s a reason that you created this initiative in the first place: You felt compelled to do so. Let that conviction shine through. Provide evidence from research and experience as to why this will work and help others understand why it’s important to make it happen. Then, leverage the power of their enthusiasm and your own to build excitement and urgency.
- Make it a collaborative journey. When everyone sees the value in working together, something almost magical happens: People collaborate, they learn, they help others who are struggling, and they gain a communal sense of pride in what they’ve achieved. Far more can be achieved when people work together. Everyone benefits, not just your team and your business – your customers can, too – when they read content that is helpful, engaging, and valuable.
The only way to fight fear is to face it
Remember, no one is fearless. Not even intrepid entrepreneur Richard Branson, who once said, “We all feel fear at various times in our lives, especially when starting out at something new. Fear is a healthy human emotion, so long as you don’t let it get in the way of opportunity.”
Truly great content often requires us to be brave. No matter whether it’s a new type of content, a new approach to an audience, a new angle on an old theme, a new design, or any other way of reaching out that hasn’t been done, it’s understandable that there may be risks. Don’t let those risks overwhelm and prevent you from creating what could potentially be amazing content and letting it see the light of day.
Whether you have suffered from internal, external, communication, or collaboration fears in the past, please remember that it is only by facing your fears that you can grow. And the same applies to your team members who may well be afraid of things themselves.
If there’s anything we can all learn from these tough times, it should be this: We all have the capacity to adapt, and sometimes, in the process of changing, we can learn things we never expected. Don’t be afraid to apply this lesson to your content marketing, too.
Editor’s note: The author would like to thank Jodi Harris for contributing to this article.