April 1, 2024 #ContentChat Recap: Why a Fractional Content Leader is a Smart Marketing Investment

A Content Chat header image featuring an array of flowers behind a text overlay that says today’s topic is why a fractional content leader is a smart marketing investment, with guest Robert Rose.

Marketing is an essential business investment. However, many organizations—especially startups and early-stage companies—are unable to justify a full-time hire. Adding to the challenge, it takes a very different skill set to build a content marketing foundation than running the day-to-day content and marketing operations.

But there is a potential solution: A fractional marketing leader.

In this #ContentChat recap, Erika Heald is joined by Robert Rose, fractional marketing leader and chief strategy advisor for the Content Marketing Institute, to explore why a fractional content leader is a smart marketing investment. They explain what a fractional marketing leader does, how they benefit an organization, and why they may be the right fit for your team.  

Watch the entire conversation on YouTube or read through the highlights below.

Q1: Why is content marketing so important for organizations today, especially for VC-backed startups and other early-stage, high-growth companies?

Content marketing is an integral part of a successful marketing strategy.

“Content marketing has become part of the fabric of marketing. In my latest book, I talk about the idea that we always thought content marketing would become part of marketing. But what we didn’t really count on was how marketing is really becoming part of content marketing.”—Robert Rose

It helps earn your buyer’s trust and engage customers in authentic ways (especially given that audiences are wary of advertising). 

“When I got started a million years ago in my marketing career, B2B marketing was about who could outspend each other from a technology standpoint. Who could have the biggest booth at Moscone at a big tech event. But people don’t trust brands and advertising the way they used to. Content has been what has allowed some of these brands to really maximize their budget and build relationships with people that have really helped them up their business.”—Erika Heald

And importantly: Content marketing supports sales.

“It’s that idea of enablement. We talk a lot in B2B marketing about sales enablement. And what that has really transformed into from a content and a marketing perspective is creating that deeper level of trust with buyers who are more than ever self-directed, committee-based, and account-based. Enabling those people with education, with inspiration, with vision, with entertainment. Enabling those all throughout their journey. For example, if you’re a CRM company, not just helping somebody become a better marketer, but helping them do their job better regardless of your particular platform.”—Robert Rose

“Marketing itself becomes sort of an educational enablement platform for your customers at all parts of the journey, thus, content becomes a central piece of it.”—Robert Rose

Content marketing requires a different approach than traditional marketing, however, and many professionals don’t have the know-how to run an effective content marketing strategy.  

“When you think of marketing and modern marketing these days, it really is just how do we operate with content in a most efficient and effective way to create great customer experiences at whatever part of the journey. It is a very content-centric function in the business. Thus, the skillsets, the ideas, the executions, and the measurement all become a little bit different than what we’re used to in classic marketing.”—Robert Rose

“As we start thinking for businesses, how do they sort that out? There is some level of upskilling and leveling up that needs to happen. There are certainly some technologies that need to happen. There are certain specialties—content structures, content strategy, all of the different aspects of things that become much more important. But it becomes important not from the perspective of laying out a roadmap and a strategy; we actually have to roll up our sleeves and get stuff done. And that’s why fractional has taken off in such a big way.”—Robert Rose

Q2: What does it take to start a content marketing strategy from scratch?

A content calendar is not a content marketing strategy.

“When you talk to most B2B content teams, their content calendar is literally just a to-do list. It’s not a calendar at all. It’s just this stuff that they haven’t gotten to yet because of the on-demand orders that are coming in from the rest of the organization.”—Robert Rose

“[A content strategy] is not just throwing a bunch of ideas out and vomiting them into a spreadsheet.”—Erika Heald

A content marketing strategy details who you are trying to reach, what they need, why they should listen to you, how you position yourself as a credible resource, and how your team will accomplish its goals. 

“90% of content strategy has nothing to do with the content you create. It has everything to do with how you collaborate, how you get consistency, and how you create a consistent point of view across [content]. What does the business believe, not the individual writer, or the VP of marketing, or the head of customer service? What does the business believe, and [what is] the story that they want to tell? How do they want to transform their customers into better customers, more knowledgeable customers, more valuable customers?”—Robert Rose

“If you’ve already agreed upon who you’re writing for, what they care about, and what you can help them with, it makes it so much easier to actually create that content and to say no to things that you get asked to do that you don’t want to do.”—Erika Heald

Q3: Who is often responsible for content marketing in the earliest stages of a new company?

In many startups, everyone has some role in content marketing. 

“As an early-stage startup, I did the typical Silicon Valley two rounds of funding. I was the CMO and head of product for that company. Everybody was in marketing, all 12 of us. And then it was 25. Then it was 30. And then it was 55 of us. As the company grew, we were all doing some form of marketing, because we all touched the customer at some level.”—Robert Rose

But company executives have too many priorities to dedicate the necessary time to develop a content strategy and create content consistently.

“Marketing and content creation, specifically—because it’s everybody and there’s usually one or maybe a handful of people that are in marketing—is job number 363 of the things that I have to do as a product manager, or the CEO, or the founder of the company, or the chief revenue officer, or whoever it is in this small company. Yeah, I’d love to be able to blog, but I gotta go to this conference, I gotta close that deal, I gotta get on that deal.”—Robert Rose

Too frequently, nobody owns the content strategy at an early-stage company.

“Content strategy is everybody’s job and nobody’s strategy. Everybody’s supposed to do it, but it becomes nobody owns it in the organization. Thus, it becomes the squeakiest wheel gets oiled, and it’s always in triage mode.”—Robert Rose

Setting a content strategy and creating processes for your team is a very different skill than managing the day-to-day content creation. 

“All of a sudden, a few pieces of content take off. Then somebody somewhere decides we need somebody to put together a content strategy. Having been somebody who’s been brought in to build a global content team, you do all of that great work for the first year or so—you build the team, you hire the people, you train them, you get all the technology—but then I would get really bored after that first year of hitting all those goals. I don’t think people understand that what you do upfront in order to get a content strategy, to get that buy-in, to get that understanding, is not what the job is for running content marketing forever.”—Erika Heald

Startups often face the dilemma of choosing between hiring a subject matter expert who can manage ongoing content creation or hiring someone who is an expert in building content marketing strategies. 

“The classic in a small company, and especially in a startup company, is: Do you hire a subject matter expert who does care about the content and isn’t going to be bored once you get to the ongoing maintenance? Or do you hire someone who’s really good at creating a content marketing approach? It’s hard, because there are arguments to be made for both. So you start to try and look for somebody who’s not only good at SEO but also good at storytelling but also good at measurement.”—Robert Rose

“Teams will say, okay, let’s hire a CMO. But you don’t even have a marketing department. What on Earth is that CMO going to do?”—Erika Heald

“You can occasionally find the CMO who will roll up their sleeves and get to work as well as command. But the early CMO is usually someone that you want to bring a little bit of flash to your organization. They’re bringing their personal brand, their network, and their rep in the industry itself.”—Robert Rose

Fractional leaders can solve this challenge and get organizations on the right path as they determine their full-time support needs. 

“It’s a very different skill set. And that’s where the fractional thing comes in. When we start to look at solving the content problem in marketing, and this goes to content marketing—which is classically going to be thought leadership or entertaining or inspiring; your content that is basically valuable outside of your product or service. And then you’ve got marketing content, which is the brochures and the landing pages and the web copy and the email copy and all those things. There’s definitely overlap around all those things and, increasingly, the same people are in charge of all of it.”—Robert Rose

“You have a lot of people who are working hard. They’re working hard at things that they’re not good at. Things like creating the collaborative environment, the governance, the workflow, the SEO, the meta tagging strategy, and helping implement this content management system. All of those things are very niche skills and only needed at very specific times, and you’re trying to find one or two people to encompass all of that. It just becomes really difficult.”—Robert Rose

Q4: What is the role of a fractional content officer?

Fractional content leaders can help create a content strategy and the foundational elements (like a content style guide and content marketing templates) needed to sustain a content marketing program. 

“The lifecycle of implementing a great content strategy. Think about it over the course of a year when you’re new, you have the very basics, but you have zero content strategy. Maybe you have some marketers who are creating content, but there’s nothing in the way of process. If you start to think about that, what’s the lifecycle for us to get to a year later where we’re managing stuff, we’ve got an engine, we’ve got a team, and it’s all organized, and it’s being measured. There’s a big lump in the first third of that middle, which is you need people to think through all the things you just talked about. The SEO, the meta, the governance, the workflow, the technology, the operations, the standards. There’s all those things that take very special, niche skills that you’re only going to need for those 3-8 months. After that, theoretically, the organization should be taught to fish. That’s why fractional can make a really great application there.”—Robert Rose

“My background is integrated communications. I always owned PR and the comms, because, especially in smaller organizations, they can’t have a director-level person for all those different roles. They need somebody who understands how all this stuff works together. And that’s how they figure out what they do need for the full time.”—Erika Heald

Fractional leaders can teach a team how to run the program after they leave.

“I can bring someone in as the head of content for 3/6/8/12 months while I stand up this new organization. The fractional leader can not just do the job but actually teach the organization how the job is done. So when it does require an ongoing part-time head of content or an ongoing full-time head of content, you’ve identified the right areas and the right places.”—Robert Rose

Fractional leaders play a major role behind the scenes without needing a flashy title.

“It’s about someone who can come in and be behind the scenes and not have a big flashy title but just be someone who can get some shit done.”—Robert Rose

Q5: How can organizations decide if it’s smarter to invest in a fractional content marketing leader or hire a unicorn who will excel in both the strategic implementation and ongoing day-to-day content marketing management roles?

Look at your internal talent and existing priorities. Does anyone have time to give the content program the time and attention it deserves? If not, it’s likely smart to hire a fractional leader.

“In my experience, when you talk to a company—this is usually the early stage or mid-stage startup—you’ve got a group of founders. Typically these founders come to the table with a certain skill set. You can look at what you have. That basic blocking and tackling of a marketing operation might be one, it might be two people, coming back to those specialized, niche skill sets. It might be three people at a fractional level to build that sort of virtual or fractional marketing team to work together.”—Robert Rose

Making a full-time hire is one of the most expensive things a startup company can do. Fractional leaders bring the necessary expertise and guidance without the commitment of a full-time hire.

“One of my board members, when I was a CMO of a startup, he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever heard: The only expensive thing you’ll ever do as a founder of a startup company is hire somebody. So do it carefully. Do it really, really carefully. That can be a great way to judge whether you want to hire somebody. If you find somebody who’s an expert in the industry and you love and the chemistry is fantastic, 100% get them on your team. But in the meantime, a fractional or consultative approach can be the best way to get some of your basic blocking and tackling in place that can help you propel forward without having to make that level of investment.”—Robert Rose

Q6: What opportunities do you often see for companies to better connect with their buyers through content, that benefit from hiring an experienced, fractional content professional?

Fix your website.

“The stock answer—and every marketing person is about to smile—fix the website. That’s the first thing. It’s always the first thing, you’ve got to fix your website.”—Robert Rose

Craft a compelling story you will champion throughout your content. 

“The earliest win is figuring out the story. Not only the sort of core value proposition, the competitive advantage, the differentiator that you have in the market, but the story like what do you believe about the world that you’re going to change. Find where those two things meet as sort of the center of everything you’re going to focus on from a content perspective.”—Robert Rose

“What you’ve done as an early-stage founder team is slap a bunch of stuff up that you thought looked good from your competitors’ website. And yes, it’s fantastic, it’s closing a few deals. But you’ll find that the low-hanging fruit is now getting harder to find because leads are getting harder, and you ran through your network of former clients. The first thing I would absolutely focus on is making sure that what you’re saying is good, consistent, differentiated, and is compelling. Because otherwise, everything else is just decoration.”—Robert Rose

Define your brand voice.

“The first thing I did when I was at Highwire running their content business for a year whenever we would onboard any client is do a brand voice exercise. It has to have all the different leaders in the room, the CEO has to be there, to find that brand voice. Because if you haven’t done that and figured out how they’re different from their competition, then how can you create differentiated content, especially now with people using AI?”—Erika Heald

Q7: As someone who takes on fractional content marketing roles, what myths about this role and about content marketing overall need to be dispelled?

A fractional leader can be a team mentor, coach, or advisor and can work alongside a CMO or existing executive.

“It’s not always about someone who can be front-and-center to lead the team. I find that there are two distinct flavors of the fractional services. One is you’re hiring someone to serve the role of CMO or head of marketing or head of content, whatever it is. You’re going to become part of the team, they’re going to put your name and headshot up on their website, you are becoming part of the public-facing part of that team. Then there’s what I call the best-kept secret idea, which is you are literally just an advisor to the CEO or the CMO. You can bring in a sort of head of marketing or head of content fractional person to help and advise [the CMO] and be in the background.”—Robert Rose

“One of my clients, I’m just in the background helping the content marketing person there navigate the politics and everything that they’re doing and basically navigate what it is that they have to do as part of their job. They’re young and this is their first big management job, and they just need some help. And the company recognized they needed a little help. And all I’m there to do is help provide some of that advisory role.”—Robert Rose

“I joke that the reason I get rehired by clients multiple times everywhere they go is the marketing therapy service. Because there is so much of it where you need to have that person who feels their pain.”—Erika Heald

External professionals can create an effective content strategy (and they’re often the best people to do so!). 

“There are people who feel really strongly it’s impossible to do content strategy as an external person. Actually, it’s better. Because the external person is going to come in and ask questions and not have a bunch of their own biases and is going to be able to figure things out without the politics getting in the way. Because they’re literally being hired to do the thing. They’re not being hired to become friends.”—Erika Heald

“I’ve been doing content strategy as a consulting service for 15 years. In every single case, it has always been for us to have been outside, and it’s the reason we’re hired.”—Robert Rose

It is possible to find a fractional leader with the industry expertise you need.

“You can find a fractional marketing leader who has that industry background that you need, who will understand things from that perspective. I think it’s actually pretty easy to find people who have backgrounds you need.”—Erika Heald

“I found when I was a CMO that I would rather hire strategic people, and I would teach them the world of web content. My attitude was I just want good people who can write, create, and are strategic, and then I can teach them all the vagaries of enterprise content management and cloud computing. But having said that, I don’t think you can just step in, especially in very specialized spaces. You don’t want just anybody writing something on healthcare.”—Robert Rose

Q8: How do you manage the balance between ensuring content quality and not being a roadblock to content generation?

Take the time needed to set a content strategy and detail your brand story. This will accelerate your content creation. 

“There’s the quantity versus quality idea. Assuming we have a content strategy and the content team is leading that, one of the things I find is really helpful there is you start putting that very considered priority story development insertion into the workflow. You’re prioritizing, you’re deep diving in, and you’re understanding what the core story is before you think about its container. What’s that core story so that it can be transformed into multiple outputs? Taking that extra time to think about the depth of the story and all the different ways we want to express that story exponentially speeds up your production process and your reuse and repackaging of content so that it can be reused across multiple channels. And that really starts to pay off.”—Robert Rose

“If you’ve got somebody on your team who is taking screenshots of the graph and your awesome cool research project, but they have to take screenshots to post on Facebook, or LinkedIn, or Twitter, you’re doing it wrong. Because all of that should have been figured out beforehand. And there should be a special version of the graph for the thing that’s going to go on Facebook, there’s a special version of this infographic from this research report that’s going to be available for LinkedIn. Thinking all that stuff through absolutely slows things down, but absolutely [is better than] throwing screenshots up.”—Robert Rose

Create content marketing templates and frameworks to cover all your planning bases.

“When you put together those templates and frameworks and they’re reminding people that [when they’re] having the idea for something, you always have to think through how you are reusing it. I always try to have every single customer interview have a video recording, because you’re going to want at least a couple of those snippets. If it’s really good, you’re going to want the whole thing for a three-minute video cut. And you have to get a transcript because you want to have things be in the customer’s voice.” — Erika Heald

Q9: How can fractional leaders suggest changes to an organization’s strategy?

Start small. Position a change as a “new approach” you can test. 

“Start small. Don’t try to rip it all off at the same time. Start [with] one part of the buyer’s journey, one content type, one division, one group. The second thing is, when you position it, don’t position it as change, position it as new. When we position things as change to people it suggests that everything they’re doing now is wrong. So they immediately have a negative reaction to it. When we position it as new, it means we’re going to try this new thing and see if it works better.”—Robert Rose

Are you looking for fractional content marketing support? 

Our founder Erika Heald is a seasoned fractional marketing leader who loves to define a content strategy and create processes and systems that help you sustain your content marketing program. Reach out to us today to tell us about what support you’re looking for. 

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