How To Build a Content-Driven, Audience-Centric Content Strategy

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I spent last week in Washington, D.C., for Content Marketing World. So many incredible experiences shared with so many amazing people.

Two personal highlights: The very kind response to my new book, Content Marketing Strategy, and the presentation from my friend (and fellow content marketer) Ron Zwerin of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Ron’s session explored how he developed a content personalization approach for the organization.

A great content marketing strategy focuses on the continual growth of the audience as an asset with many attributes. Audiences are people who trust us, engage with us, want to hear from us, and will exchange value with our business in many ways over time.

Great #ContentMarketing strategies, like the one by @MSSociety, grow the audience as an asset, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

I know Ron understands this because I interviewed him. Here’s an excerpt from my book that tells the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s story:

Evolving into audience-centricity

One of my favorite examples of an organization taking an audience-centric approach to its content marketing strategy is the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS).

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis, and there is currently no cure. The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are leading to better understanding. An estimated 1 million people live with MS in the United States.

As a key foundation of its mission, the NMSS funds cutting-edge research, drives change through advocacy, facilitates professional education, collaborates with MS organizations around the world, and provides programs and services designed to help people with MS and their families move forward with their lives.

Ron Zwerin joined the organization in 2018. At the time, the society was moving from a distributed model — a local chapter-driven organization — to a centralized national organization.

This was a big organizational shift, and his new team of 65 marketers had to adapt from focusing on marketing challenges at the chapter level to a national focus. But, of course, they couldn’t forget the local nuances.

Ron decided that the NMSS needed to become an audience-focused organization, driving content marketing and inspiring a national audience to take action. The organization’s entire marketing focus revolves around getting people involved, whether participating in events, learning about research, volunteering in the organization, or, of course, donating.

The entire shift for the brand became about how to tell better stories at a national level and use the scale of the audience to gain insight through the data it would produce, which would feed the capability to drive better and more impactful stories that drove even more actions. They began to think about the best ways to restructure their current marketing efforts.

Then, the pandemic hit.

Staying true to course through a disruption

Ron engaged one of the leaders in his marketing effort, Lindsey Read, to create a new content marketing strategy that would become the central focus and enable them to optimize their brand and audience-building efforts.

The first thing they did was to create specific teams with a specific content-oriented set of responsibilities (this first step should sound wonderfully familiar to those who read the first few chapters of the book).

Then, they created a growth and acquisitions team to focus on acquiring audiences. They created a constituent experience team to manage the portfolio of digital experiences they would create with content. And they created a content and digital team to start creating the content that fuels those experiences and the operations to make it all cohesive.

Their first test of all these new structures and processes was to apply their new model against Bike MS, their largest peer-to-peer, coast-to-coast ride to benefit the society.

During COVID-19, the one thing people couldn’t do was to get together for a bike ride. So, they creatively decided that they would digitize the experience. They transformed it into a story of “why you would choose to ride.”

It’s not about technology, it’s not about tools, it’s not a story of joining a big group. It’s a story about why you, as a human, would ride anytime, anywhere, to benefit a cause like NMSS.

They created multiple experiences with this story, including live shows, rock concerts, and video and digital experiences. People could ride any time they liked, on their stationary bikes, or even just go on a walk.

Then, beyond the one event, the team began to expand the content experiences, building an ecosystem of content and operating more like a media company with connected experiences focused on building audiences. As Ron said to me in our interview:

“We started thinking bigger than a website because it’s not about a website. It’s about the ecosystem. How are we going to get people to engage with us and have a frictionless experience with us as an organization? Whether they come in as a rider or whether they come in as a volunteer, we know them and can talk to them as though we know them and give them the best experience.”

It’s not about a website. It’s about getting people to engage with us as an organization, says @RAZ10 of @MSSociety via @Robert_Rose @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Understanding the center of the audience

The critical next step for them was to do audience research. They knew from previous experience that they had nine core audiences, so the key was to understand what was valuable to each, not from a “donation” perspective, but what was valuable to them full stop.

They employed the classic jobs-to-be-done framework and did both qualitative and quantitative research. And in doing so, they debunked a number of assumptions that they’d held.

For example, they assumed that some people just want to go on the well-known bike rides to benefit MS, and that’s all they will do. But they discovered that being a “bike rider” was simply an attribute of people who valued doing many other things.

But, because the organization had siloed “riders,” that’s the only way they communicated with them. That was the content they received. But now they discovered they should be connecting other experiences to those “riders.”

That was when Lindsey and her team began to organize content not by the nine audiences they believed they had but rather by the jobs-to-be-done framework. This was a way to recognize the multidimensional aspects of people that evolve over time.

They decided to look at their content marketing strategy not as targeting nine different people, each with one job, but rather targeting 14 different jobs that could be part of any one person.

Then, they started rank ordering the success statements of the jobs to be done. For example, if someone is newly diagnosed with MS, what should their journey be? If they are looking to do Bike MS (be a rider), what is their journey? They then created a beginning, middle, end, and circle-back framework for all these jobs.

As I wrote the book, the organization was beginning to implement this new way of looking at audiences and beginning to build out the coordinated communication between the teams, the content operations, and, ultimately, the connected experiences that will bring this all together.

They have begun to add these jobs as the goals for all of the cross-functional teams. And they have started to map that against one of the more unique business goals of all time.

They want to end the organization.

Yes. You read that correctly. Their ultimate goal is to end the organization.

As Ron said to me in our interview, “The organization is 70 years old, and we are at a point now where we need to start thinking about the endgame here. So, our job is not to do this for 50 more years. If we end this organization, it’s because we’ve cured MS. That is where our sights are set now.”

That might be the most important content marketing goal I’ve heard in a very long time.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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