What is a Content System?
A content system is the process of creating, engaging, managing, and optimizing data-driven information that serves an unmet need for a niche audience. This process both creates and grows a network. If you’re still with me, I understand that sounds like a very techy and non-creative endeavor, but this definition provides the necessary framework to create compelling content that engages audiences. Rather than constrain us, it frees us.
It frees us from feeling overwhelmed. Where do I start? What’s next?
It frees us from anxiety. Is this what my audience wants? Will anyone read this?
When you have clarity, creativity flourishes.
There’s a lot packed into my definition of a content system, so let’s break it down.
A content system is a structured method for consistently creating and publishing the right content for a target audience. Pellet Media’s Stairway to STEM is an example of a content system. Under the hood of this site is a powerful engine. This engine sends each piece of content through an agreed-upon process from ideation to publishing. Like an engine in a customized car, each content system is built to meet the needs of the project and its team. No two content systems are the same, but the fundamentals of how to engineer one that delivers engaging material to your audience are.
At the center of a content system is a niche audience. Every decision you make and every activity you undertake must be in the best interest of this group. Content is what fuels your system and it is shaped by eight elements. These evidence-based elements are critical to creating compelling content that resonates and engages your audience. Your content traverses through four stages of your system and as it does, it attracts, retains, and expands a captivated audience. This engaged audience becomes a network. And, eventually, the network’s growth is self-sustaining. Members attract members who attract members. Facebook, FabFitFun, and Uber are all examples of networks.
The Niche Audience
In This is Marketing, Seth Godin suggests identifying the smallest viable market for your product or service. We should obsessively focus on a specific, tiny group of people who share a similar worldview. Godin is referring to a niche audience, and that’s where your content system begins. A self-sustaining content system is built on serving the unmet needs of that niche audience. The World’s Fair Community, Ravelry and ProBlogger are examples of content systems serving niche audiences. Whether it’s people interested in fairs, knitting, or blogging, these sites have become trusted resources because they consistently serve their audiences. Sure, there may be other sites that touch on the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but if I want to learn what Grover Whalen was wearing on opening day or engage with other 1939 NYWF fanatics, I’m heading to the World’s Fair Community. This site has been around for some time and Bill Cotter, its owner, has yet to monetize it, which tells me that it’s a labor of love. Cotter’s dedication to serving his audience by building the site’s infrastructure and facilitating its content has resulted in a thriving network.
Darren Rowse started a personal blog almost 20 years ago and in 2004 created ProBlogger to document and share his experiences as a blogger. When it launched, ProBlogger met the needs of a niche audience by helping them learn blogging skills. Rowse’s content system is monetized. He built a loyal following by consistently publishing free, relevant content that serves his audience’s needs and, in turn, his audience purchases his books and courses. These are two examples of content systems laser focused on their niche audiences and which, over time, have built their networks.
The key takeaway: obsessively focus on a small group of people who share a similar problem or interest and are currently being ignored or under-served.
The Four Stages of the Content System
Our underlying process is grounded in a framework of creating, engaging, managing, and optimizing. Working through these four stages transforms your team’s mindset to that of a media organization.
To attract and grow an engaged audience, think and act like a media organization that consistently publishes relevant content.
This is critical in our audience-centric world. It’s no longer about you or your product. No one cares about that. It’s about them. If you’re not thinking like a media organization, no one will pay attention to what you have to say. The fact is, we are bombarded with content from our phone, computers, TVs, watches, cars, and even refrigerators. Alexa, please make it stop! Thinking like a media organization helps you make informed decisions on how to best serve your audience. And that’s all that matters.
The media organization mindset is to create content, engage with your audience, and manage all the moving parts of your content system while continually optimizing your content, engagement, and processes.
Your systems must create content your niche audience needs. This content must solve their problems, answer their questions, or entertain them. There’s a lot happening in the Create stage. For example, building processes that will develop your ideas into published pieces. Here’s where you’ll also create personas to understand your audience through empathy and their behaviors and attitudes. Technical decisions are also determined at this stage, including which media formats your audience prefers and the ideal channels and social platforms for delivery.
Reads, views, and likes are nice, but they are vanity metrics. Your content system has to engage your audience. This is accomplished online and with live events. You can engage with your audience via comments and forums or with webinars or other online events. Your content system will have a prescribed method to help ensure that you have high-quality engagement that adds to the conversation by providing value. As you grow your network, members of your online community will want to participate in live events, such as workshops, conferences, or even sporting events. Live events will grow your audience and will strengthen your network.
Content systems usually begin small and manageable, but they scale. As your system grows, you’ll need documented procedures and strong internal controls. Documented procedures, or what I like to call SOPs (standard operating procedures), are basically checklists that anyone can follow to accomplish a given task within your system. From how to publish a piece of content to the technical specs of a graphic, documentation makes scaling possible. Of the four stages, some would say that Manage is their least favorite because of its focus on establishing and maintaining processes, and that can be intimidating and time consuming. However, it’s critical to your success and, in subsequent posts, we’ll explore ways to build these key skills.
How do you keep your audience engaged? Keep improving everything in your content system. Improve your content. Improve your user experience. Improve your processes. If you listen to your audience, it will tell you exactly the changes to make. Your niche audience’s needs, attitudes, and behaviors will change and you’ll need the flexibility to adapt to those changes. If not, you risk losing your audience. (Think: Blockbuster, Kodak, Polaroid, and MySpace)
The Eight Components Shaping Content within a Content System
Now that we know our four stages, what are the specific elements within each stage that allow us to achieve the media organization mindset? The following components are interwoven throughout our four stages of content systems:
I am a data-driven decision maker, and this is because I understand that research guides me and mitigates risk. My research activities are present in all four stages of a content system. For example, during the creating stage, I conduct audience research. In addition to online research, I study a segment of the population by having conversations and conducting small focus groups to understand their world, their problems and their dreams. My research goal here is to identify a niche audience that has an unmet need. Once I have that audience, the deep dive research begins. I learn everything I can about them so my team and I can create personas – fictional characters that accurately represent our target audience. I also identify and confirm the audience’s unmet need so I can develop a proposed solution. This is how I mitigate some of the risk. My research validates that the audience’s need is real and there are no other significant resources addressing it.
During the managing stage, however, the research might be qualitative (small focus groups) or quantitative (data analytics) depending on my research goal. All research at any stage seeks to answer a question. This question is my research goal. My research goal keeps me focused on finding and collecting the data I need. Not all data, just the right data. Data is easy to access, so it’s possible to get overwhelmed. My research goal acts as a filter to ensure I’m only seeing relevant, high-quality data.
My team and I analyze data throughout all four stages. Online tools, including the ability to conduct virtual focus groups, allow us to collect lots of data. Again, having access to virtually unlimited data is often problematic for companies unsure of their specific needs. Just log into Google Analytics for an example of a data deluge. To keep us focused, analysis is tied to our research goals. My analysis processes include organizing the data and reviewing it to find patterns for answers to our research questions.
Business strategist Michael Porter says strategy is knowing what not to do. So, what do you do? Within our content systems, strategy is an output of research and analysis. Here’s the key when building and maintaining a content system: the entire team needs to be involved with development and implementation, and everyone needs to understand that it is fluid—it is open to revisions. Strategy is our roadmap. From developing objectives through execution, strategy is present at every level of a content system.
Unless you work for a large organization willing to invest money into the R&D of a content system, chances are your system will start with you or a small team. Some of the most successful content systems have had very simple beginnings with no financial resources. In these cases, for example, an individual created a blog that resonated with people and slowly built a community. As the audience grew, the content creator needed to bring on support people to develop engagement. Gary Vaynerchuk’s story is a great example. He started shooting simple videos explaining different wines sold at his father’s store. (Check them out here.) Week after week, month after month, he created content that people looked forward to and shared. Eventually, this evolved into a multimillion-dollar business, and today he’s a digital marketing expert. Content systems scale. Generally, they grow slowly which makes it easier to manage and monitor finances. We’ll share simple tools and techniques to help you manage your budget. By the time you grow your audience to the point where you can monetize your content, you’ll have the financial resources to hire an experienced business manager to support you.
Lean Startup Principles
Today everything is lean thanks to Eric Ries’s book, The Lean Startup, which details a method for building new companies or products. At a very high level, implementing this method involves identifying a problem, using data to develop a minimum viable product and testing it with a target audience to achieve validated learning via the Build – Measure – Learn feedback loop. So why is this baked into our content systems? The principles of The Lean Startup are necessary to achieve the media organization mindset.
A media organization is a business, and most content systems are built from the ground up; therefore, I see them as a startup. Applying Ries’s startup acumen to content systems is another way to build success. My team and I apply Lean Startup principles within our content systems because it ensures we are creating content our audience needs. That is, we fully understand our audience’s problem and our content system achieves product market fit. Ries’s principles also improve efficiency. The typical months of business plan development is replaced with creating a hypothesis, testing it quickly, and iterating. This saves lots of time and money.
Robert McKee—Fulbright Scholar, author of Story, feature film consultant and screenwriting teacher—argues that storytelling is the future of marketing and is the only way to connect with an audience.
From Paleolithic cave art to Instagram posts, humans have always told stories. Some researchers say our brains are hardwired for story because that’s how we make sense of the world. Stories can fill the gaps. They can help us understand. But most importantly, stories makes us feel. McKee shows how stories can create bonds with an audience via empathy and curiosity. Applying his storytelling principles – along with the principles from others like Aristotle and Joseph Campbell – ensures your content resonates with your audience on an emotional level.
Understanding the science of psychology is necessary for employing evidence-based strategies to empathize with your audience. This doesn’t mean dusting off your DSM-5. We turn to people like Dan Ariely, Jonah Berger, Charles Duhigg, and Daniel Kahneman because their analysis of behavioral and cognitive psychology is important to dynamic content systems. Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion are must-reads for people looking to connect through story.
In fact, psychology is in play throughout the entire content system. Psychographics, not demographics, for example, empower us by giving insight to our target audience’s attitudes, behaviors, and values. Understanding our audience at this level helps us predict and influence behavior.
Within a content system there are two types of communication, internal and external. The internal communications exist within the content system’s team and the external communications are with the content system’s audience.
Internal communications are usually interpersonal or within small groups. That’s been true for decades, but now with virtual workplaces and global teams we have to consider cultural diversity and technology when developing an internal communications plan. Creating an internal communications plan during the early stages of developing a content system ensures that the team is sensitive to cultural differences and has identified the optimal technology platforms or tech stack to facilitate the interactions.
In terms of external communications, you might think our mode of communication would be mass communication. And you would be dead wrong. Mass communication means broadcasting your message quickly to a large group of faceless people. That one-sided form of communication is gone. Content systems need to engage a niche audience. Our communication is narrow and deep and invites engagement. Today’s audiences want to interact with brands. Remember, it’s all about them and not what you’re selling or pushing. This external communication is at the heart of the content system. Don’t let the fact that it’s at the end of this blog post diminish its importance. A content system is a communication system – it’s an on-going cycle of interactions.
Understanding how we communicate with our niche audience, including language usage, the media formats and platforms, is crucial to a successful content system.
There you have it, a brief overview of a content system and its components. Of course, this only scratches the surface. There’s so much more to discover and learn as technology changes and as innovations create new untapped niche markets. My intention is that Content Systems Academy will share existing knowledge and expand on and revise these ideas. I’ll feature stories from content creators who are engaging with their audiences so you can learn from their experiences and mistakes. I also want to hear from you. Let me know what you’re doing to engage people. Let me know if you agree or disagree or if you want to learn more about my processes.