A Better Way To Build a Content Strategy

I’ve heard about more organizations kick-starting their content marketing strategy lately. That’s a welcome change from the past year when teams hunkered down to figure out generative AI and all the changes in social media and search.

But I too often hear these teams say they’re trying to rebuild their airplanes while flying them.

I don’t know where that phrase originated, but a 22-year-old advertising campaign from Fallon for digital consulting firm EDS helped popularize it. The comical TV and print ad showed people assembling an airliner in the air and professing how much they love their jobs.

The ad’s tagline explained that EDS could help you “build your digital business even while you’re up and running.”

Fallon created the ad as part of an integrated campaign with two other funny videos: Cat Herders, about managing the complexity of digital business, and Running With the Squirrels, which claimed EDS could help legacy businesses compete like disruptive startups.

Any one of these ads would be relevant in 2024.

But let’s explore why it’s time to ground the “build the plane while flying it” approach to new content marketing projects once and for all.

The frustration of in-flight construction

The to-do list for implementing a new (or rebooted) content marketing initiative includes:

It’s a lot. Frustration sets in quickly when team leads realize they can’t shut anything down while they work to implement all the new ideas. And everybody else is busy, too. They all still need to launch campaigns, write blog posts, craft event materials, and feed content to the website, all while trying to master technology they haven’t fully implemented.

I recently worked with a B2C e-commerce company that identified an exciting new project: a new physical event supported by a digital hub and newsletter that would build an addressable audience. 

The problem: It required cross-functional support across several marketing and technology teams. No one on those teams had extra bandwidth or resources to devote to the new initiative. And no one wanted to give up on existing projects to make room for the new one.

They didn’t want to build a new plane while flying the existing one.

So, what’s the answer? It’s simple: Stop building planes for a bit.  

New strategies, not new tactics

Whenever marketing teams cite the airplane cliché, I suggest a spin on the metaphor: Don’t try to build another airplane while flying the existing one. Instead, let the existing planes fly while you build an airplane factory.

Let me explain.

I recently worked with a client in the B2B technology space. Enabling content (educational content that helps customers improve at their jobs) is hot in that space.

My client initially planned to tap its digital and PR teams to modify the existing PR newsrooms on its website to create a new online learning platform. But neither the newsroom nor the website suited that content marketing strategy.

Everything from the website hierarchy to the audiences it attracted to the technology platform it ran on posed challenges to the new project’s success. The content team wanted to build a new learning destination using different technology.

However, the firm’s existing processes were built to focus all digital efforts — and paid and earned media — on its website. So business leaders resisted.

They said, “We already have this technology and that team with that skill set. Why don’t we just use what we have?”

It was as if the company said, “OK, you can bring us into the jetliner age — as long as you do it by repairing and upgrading our propeller plane while it’s in the air.”

Instead of pressing forward by explaining why the new project needed this or that, the content leads found a different answer. They pulled back and audited all the existing teams, workflows, technologies, and processes used for content marketing across the business. And they found that the company had room to do something new.

To tie into the metaphor, they found that by changing how they manufactured all airplanes, they could upgrade their factory to handle new projects without having to rebuild old ones while in the air.

Handling sustaining vs. disruptive innovation

The idea for my airplane factory metaphor comes from Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael Overdorf.

When the article came out in 2000, businesses faced disruptions due to the growth of the internet and globalization. And its advice remains relevant as companies grapple with the disruption of generative AI.

The article explores how to respond to disruptive innovations, which create something entirely new (e.g., launching an online university), vs. sustaining innovations, which improve something already considered valuable (e.g., replacing stock photography with AI-generated imagery).

The authors advise against approaching disruptive innovation the way you would approach changing something existing. Instead, you should approach it as building something within a new organizational space.

That’s what my technology company client did.

I know – because I meet them every day – that content and marketing practitioners are scrappy, resourceful, and innovative. Requests to build the content equivalent of new airplanes come in all the time.

And I know content teams can hack planes together and manage some repairs and changes mid-flight. But when you’re rolling out a new content marketing project, it’s more productive to set up a new space.

Christensen and Overdorf outline three ways to create this new organizational space:

  1. You can create a new team within the existing organizational structure.
  2. You can spin out a new and independent organization from the structure.
  3. You can acquire a different organization that becomes a new part of your existing structure.

Create a new space for new content projects

Every successful new content strategy follows one of those three options. Here are some examples of each approach.

  1. A new content team within the existing organizational structure: When a new content team gets formalized, named, and documented, the chance for success immediately improves. Red Hat Linux offers a great example. At Red Hat, for example, Laura Barnes (2019 B2B Content Marketer of the Year) created a new strategic team to handle all the organization’s content marketing. Over the years, the team has grown, changed, and morphed as the organization has evolved. And it remains a core piece of the company’s strategy.
  2. A new organization separate from the existing structure: Content as a strategic function in an enterprise is a powerful business model. When ServiceNow wanted to build an audience through thought leadership, for example, it didn’t add new e-books, videos, or white papers to the marketing team’s load. Instead, it built a dedicated content product team and launched Workflow, a digital publication, along with online learning, a print magazine, and an email newsletter.
  3. A newly acquired group: Content brand acquisitions continue. For example, software company Pendo acquired Mind the Product, a product management community that provides content, training, and conferences that serve a global audience of more than 300,000 product managers, designers, and developers.

Regardless of which approach your organization takes, the first step on the road to content marketing success involves creating a factory that lets you build any kind of airplane you want.

Doing that won’t completely eliminate the need to build airplanes while flying them. But if you expect to stay in the air, you’ll occasionally have to come back to Earth to build something new from the ground up.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

Updated from a January 2022 post.

Robert Rose consults and hosts workshops on helping marketing teams align their marketing processes to all kinds of technologies – including generative AI. Contact him to learn about those programs.


Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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