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Is Cooperative Content the Future of Content Marketing?

Is the high-volume, low-effort approach of cooperative content at odds with smart content marketing? Joel Klettke examines this emerging trend.

cooperative content

What if polished, high-production value content isn’t where content marketing should be headed?

In fact, what if experts—really smart people—were arguing that the future of content marketing didn’t lie in the kinds of gorgeous, often lengthy pieces we see being put together by top journalists, copywriters and marketers?

And what if instead, they were arguing for the merits of a large (gigantic, in fact) quantity of lower-effort content—even going so far as to call it a “Marketing Trend for 2015“?

On its face, that sort of sentiment spins counter to everything we’ve grown to believe about companies creating “great” content, especially when we’re seeing an ever-increasing number of long, gorgeous, well-thought-out pieces floating around out there.

And yet, that’s exactly the argument that the respected Jay Baer of Convince and Convert is making when he discusses what he calls “cooperative content” as the future of content marketing.

Has he lost his marbles?

There’s actually a lot of merit to what he’s proposing—though it’s a bit of a jagged pill to swallow—and, in my opinion, much more complicated to take advantage of than he makes it sound. More on that later, but first, let’s clear up what we’re really talking about here:

What is Cooperative Content?

Baer defines cooperative content as “a triangle approach to marketing, where the company works together with its employees and customers to create high volumes of massively specific content against the widest possible topical array.”

It’s content not produced by journalists/copywriters necessarily, but by “large groups of employees and current customers.”

In that sense, it’s similar to user-generated content in that customers become a part of the content creation process, but differs in the fact that it goes further to involve employees and those not traditionally involved in producing content (as in, not just writers/journalists/designers) as well.

As practical examples, Baer lists cooperative content as things like:

  • Employee blogging
  • Transforming customer emails into blog posts
  • Transforming reviews into blog posts
  • Turning customer photos into a searchable gallery
  • Collecting customer stories and experiences and publishing

And so on. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate cooperative content is to give some examples.

Rent the Runway realized that their customers were already creating content in the form of photos from the events they attended while wearing the dresses they rented. By creating the infrastructure to make it possible and using some smart marketing, they now encourage women to leave photos and reviews of the products that help other users in hyper-specific ways (e.g., showing how a dress will look on different body types).

rtr

Gymboree actively solicits and promotes the stories of families who enroll in their programs, giving consumers that inside look and specific information they need to make the call on participating in a class.

gymboree

Both of those examples are customer generated, but an example of employee generated might be a sales employee receiving a specific question over a phone call, putting it together in a quick blog post and firing it over to be pushed live.

This content is hyper-specific to just one topic or question, appealing to one specific subset of your audience.

At the core of cooperative content is a decentralized content program with the singular goal of producing as much relevant content as is possible, on as many topics as it’s possible to be authoritative on.

If you’re like me, that description has probably already set off some red flags:

  • How could you possibly organize all that content?
  • How could you encourage/force/coerce employees outside of marketing to get involved in content creation?
  • Wouldn’t opening the floodgates to client/employee creation damage brand voice and tone?
  • What about Panda?
  • How does this fit in with the polished content we know and love?

Before we can answer those, we need to dig into WHY Baer is making the case for a content model that may seem complicated and counterintuitive.

Why Cooperative Content?

Because the current model of relying on polished branded pieces is both inefficient and imperfect on its own.

As an industry, we’ve come to define “great content” as synonymous with polished content and polished production value. Those kinds of assets take significant time and budget to put together, and come with inherent risk—if the content doesn’t take off, it’s a very expensive, polished turd.

It’s not that this visceral, gorgeous content doesn’t win customers or secure leads—nor is cooperative content meant to replace the value of polished pieces from creative professionals and experts.

But pumping 100 percent of your resources into these larger, usually more general pieces leaves them with the responsibility of doing all the heavy lifting, neglecting an enormous array of opportunities.

In Baer’s words:

“…there is simply no way you can create content – especially expensive, high effort content—for every one of your customers’ questions and scenarios.”

The kind of low-effort, high-volume, relevancy-focused content from cooperative content efforts will address the long-tail and the growing number of searches seen daily that Google has never seen before, and also falls in line with the emerging trend of voice search (where queries are significantly longer) and the recent Hummingbird update designed to address these types of queries.

This kind of content allows you to cast a broader net online and satisfy the needs of more customers while also leveraging the power of stories/insights from those outside your own company as social proof and support.

Combine that with the usual brand-building, polished content we know and love, and you’ve got a recipe for success on two fronts.

How Can I take advantage of cooperative content?

Here’s where I feel like Baer makes things sound a little bit easier than they really are. While the content itself might take “low effort” to produce, putting the proper people and processes in place to make cooperative content a reality is anything but a low-effort undertaking.

1. Get used to the idea of surrendering control.

It’s challenging enough to get professional copywriters, journalists and content creators to adhere to a style guide and learn your brand’s voice and tone.

Getting customers and the average employee to stick to the program is essentially impossible. When you open up the doors to contributions outside of a professional sphere, you need to do so knowing that you are giving some degree of control over the messaging and content.

That doesn’t mean you take your hands entirely off the wheel though, which brings us nicely to our next point…

2. You’re going to need an editor.

If copywriters, journalists and designers are the heroes of polished content, then editors and curators are the heroes of cooperative content. If you have any ambitions of creating a huge volume of content without steering your brand straight off a cliff, you need a very busy someone to sit in the editor’s chair.

To be clear: Trying to produce TONS of low-effort content without embarrassing your brand, falling afoul of Panda or letting something awful slip through is a daunting, time consuming, high-effort task.

The ideal role here is something of an editor, coordinator and curator. They need to be able to draw the line between enforcing a style guide and keeping content from outside sources natural, they must know how to work with a large team of amateur content creators, and they must know how to create and enforce processes throughout your content marketing workflow.

Also interesting is that much of cooperative content will be incidental—a specific question asked by a customer triggers a blog post, a specific customer using your services triggers a review or photo. As a curator, your editor will need to determine what is relevant, what stays, what goes and how it is all applied.

You can’t just flip on the “cooperative” switch and hope for the best.

3. You’ll need to get customers on board.

Some forms of cooperative content use customer insights without needing customer involvement—emails from customers triggering new content, for example. But other forms, like reviews and stories, require that your community actually wants to be involved and will share this content with you when asked.

In that sense, cooperative content requires some degree of community building. You’ll need to learn the essential building blocks of establishing and growing a community of advocates (this post from Mack Fogelson is a great start).

4. You’ll need to get employees on board.

You can ask your sales staff politely if they’d blog the questions they get, and they’ll probably write something once or twice out of obligation, then conveniently forget to follow up. Your content aspirations are competing with what they see as the core of their job—helping customers—and to get them on board, you’ll need to prove the value and give them some sort of incentive to get involved.

As noted by The Sales Lion, getting employees on board means a few things:

  • Management has to be “all in.”
  • There must be a catalyst employee (like the editor I just mentioned) in charge of organizing and maintaining the process of content creation and the culture behind it.
  • You’ve got to allow employees to produce content in their preferred method and style.

That last one may be the most problematic, especially if you have specific formats you’re pushing for as an organization.

Cooperative content on the employee side comes with a cultural component and mandate; it’s not something you can just decide you want to do in the moment.

You’ll need to introduce a culture of idea sharing, set expectations, showcase a precedent and encourage your staff every step of the way. You’ll also need to make it easy, which brings us to…

5. Infrastructure and processes will be critical.

From the technologies and software you use to collect customer stories, reviews, questions and photos to the internal systems and processes necessary to take conversations and transform them into digestible content, you’ll need to set up the necessary infrastructure to make cooperative content not only possible, but brain-dead simple.

Long before you open the floodgates for cooperative content, you need some semblance of a system for intake, evaluation, refinement and publishing that makes the entire process seamless.

A documented process will make the knowledge transferable throughout departments and to new staff.

6. Organization is going to be a serious challenge.

Here’s the thing: “huge amounts” of content might sound like a positive, and if that content is useful and relevant, it certainly is.

But how should this content be organized and presented? Is it wise to have 5,000 blog posts jamming up your blog, creating a whole lot of noise? And given how much content is being produced, how will you decide which pieces to promote and which pieces should sit passively, attracting long-tail traffic?

From a content strategy standpoint, cooperative content could quickly become a serious headache as you struggle to keep architecture manageable, messaging clear and content consistently useful.

You also need that content to be accessible in multiple formats so that you can deliver it to the right customer at the right time. That may mean incorporating this content into emails, blogs, across microsites/guest posts, social media and so on. This requires some form of organized repository you can easily access, search and execute on.

is cooperative content the future?

I think we can safely say that at very least, it’s a big part of it.

There are quite a few considerations for integrating cooperative content as part of your strategy, and it’s not as “cheap” or “low effort” as it might appear on first blush.

To be successful, cooperative content requires a carefully thought-out process, buy-in from your team, infrastructure to accommodate customers and, perhaps most importantly, an internal editor/curator hybrid with the experience, time and space to handle the job well.

But while the cooperative content approach of high-volume, low-effort pieces may seem counterintuitive given the current focus on beautiful, “great content” and the tremendous importance of quality (which absolutely still applies, regardless of the smaller investment into production), cooperative content is not at odds with smart content marketing. It, in fact, complements the overall goal of giving customers exactly what they need, when they need it to win their trust and secure the sale.

Cooperative content just might be the next piece of the puzzle for those trying to attract and win over a broader audience; so long as you take the time to do it right.

6 responses to “Is Cooperative Content the Future of Content Marketing?”

  1. Jordan Molotsky says:

    Hey Joel, super comprehensive, solid article, that really tackled things from every angle.

    Is your vision of what this all would look like be something along the lines of a Wikipedia-style blogging platform? Where each individual who has posting privileges, has the ability to upload individual blog posts?

    • Joel K says:

      Honestly, I’m not sure what this will look like, and I think it will differ depending on the organization, their community, and their offering. Part of the problem with this whole process is the curation aspect of it – you need someone who can monitor, edit and control – an implicit bottleneck. You can eliminate some of this bottleneck with a “power to the people” solution like a wikipedia-style blog/resource centre/reviews section, and you can maintain better control internally with things like style guides, persona sheets, guidelines and so on.

      So, for some companies, giving your sales team the ability to blog would be a wise step, and for others, a disaster. It’s up to companies to define their process surrounding this, I think.

      Importantly, I think this all goes beyond blogging, too – even having your sales team populate a questions database/resource centre/FAQ is a way of incorporating cooperative content, it doesn’t all have to live on the blog.

      • Jordan Molotsky says:

        Yup. The vision of the company & what it will/won’t stand for must be clear to the bloggers. And an editor to uphold these standards is necessary.

        What types of incentives do you think would encourage people to create genuine content aligned with the integrity of the company?

        • Joel K says:

          You can’t force people to write. I think you gotta get that straight right away – if people don’t want to write, if they absolutely hate writing or don’t see the value in it, there’s nothing you can do short of forcing them that will get them to take part. Dragging people into it is a recipe for disaster.

          I think that’s part of the role of a good curator – understanding how your creators create. Some might work best with a quick phone call where they explain what they told a customer. Some might love writing. Some might not mind just doing a follow-up at the end of the week.

          Before you do that, though, you need to get them to buy in to the value of what they’re being asked to do. Show them how it’s working, what it will accomplish. Share the vision.

          Then, I think it’s a matter of finding how people prefer to create before incentivizing them to do something they already don’t want to. After that, it’s infrastructure and process. Give ’em the tools. Make ’em simple.

          And finally, just recognizing the effort. Showing them it’s appreciated. I don’t know of any greater incentive than feeling like you’re contributing to the success of something and that what you’re doing matters.

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