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Industry experts share their advice for scaling content operations successfully
Industry experts share their advice for scaling content operations successfully

Scaling up your content operations can seem like a daunting prospect. There are so many ways to approach the challenge, myriad agencies and external partners trying to convince you to work with them and almost too many marketing technology providers to even consider.

How do marketers successfully scale up their content operations and help their marketing content go from good to great to epic? There may not be a single ‘silver bullet’ or magic formula to get this right, but there are some important considerations that will get you off the starting line and help you stay focused on your journey.

1. Start with the big questions

Many brands will start or scale up their content operations as a way to counter the expensive, uncertain media landscape, especially in the digital world. Earned and paid channels are less efficient and reliable than they were in the past and traditional owned digital channels can’t keep up with consumers’ expectations; so a content play seems like the right way to go.

Matt Allison, head of global content strategy at Bupa, started out with a similar ‘why’ when he began developing the healthcare and insurance brand’s content operations in 2014, which came to be known as The Blue Room. “With the marketing and the media landscape changing so much, the goal was around how could we build a platform that would, in a lot of ways, enable us to control our own destiny and be a lot more cost efficient in doing so.”

Kate Brown, global social media and content manager at SFI Health, is responsible for the natural medicine brand’s content operations in multiple markets and languages around the world. She says that creating a consolidated vision and securing buy-in is the next most important step and, along with that, changing the organisational mindset.

“That's the biggest challenge in order for an operation… to be successful. When you have a clear vision and you know you need to achieve that vision, you've got to start with changing people's mindsets. You have to pitch it to them and take them on that journey in order to get them on board.”

The scale-up journey at SFI Health has been about iterating and building on small victories along the way. This has allowed Brown to continually secure stakeholder buy-in and their investment in content operations at every step

“You can't get everything right away,” says Brown, “just focus on what’s going to make the quick impact, and then build on that once it’s done.”

Bobbi Mahlab, founder and managing director of Mahlab, has more than two decades of experience in developing branded content for clients across industries as diverse as human resources, engineering and insurance. Before that, she worked in journalism and publishing roles at a number of media outlets including The Sunday Age. 

Mahlab validates Brown’s assertion that shifting the mindset of your key stakeholders and teams is important when you’re scaling up your content operations. 

By developing consistency in governance, you’re more likely to create comfort and buy-in with the decision makers and your allies. “If they’re informed, they feel comfortable,” says Mahlab. “Having systems and process where all the people involved can, at a glance, see where things are up to, and know what needs to happen next, I think that's really vital.”

What’s more, Mahlab says that mindset shift and solid governance can help when you’re facing a challenge or as you start to experiment with different approaches to content during your journey of scaling up.

“You need to constantly be talking about what's working and what's not working. Sometimes that means making a lot of small changes often, sometimes it means you've tried to introduce something new, just to change your thinking, and you found that, given a certain audience behaviour, it's not the right thing to do,” Mahlab says. “The test-and-learn approach, particularly when you've got a program that's looking to engage diverse audiences, has to be part of the mindset."

2. Prioritise value and utility to create relevance

Recognising the importance of staying useful and credible to the audience was a guiding light for Allison and his team at Bupa. He makes it clear that this approach was a cornerstone for the success of The Blue Room as it went from nothing to one of the world’s leading content operations in the health space: “relevance was key for me. I guess probably the most overused word I'd used for the last few years is 'utility',” says Allison. 

“We were extremely conscious that if we wanted this to work and to build a sustainable traffic pool and highly-engaged audience, we had to over-index on humanity and utility. That for me is something that enabled us to build trust and relevance with an audience and differentiate Bupa.”

How can marketers make sure they’re delivering this humanity and utility in spades as part of their scaled-up content operations?

Identifying the key lessons from Bupa’s journey, it’s obvious that the organisation developed a rich and detailed understanding of their customers’ needs and then cross-referenced that with where Bupa had the credibility to provide content.

“When we were developing a strategy, it was really around how do we find that nexus between customer needs and also business requirements so that we could identify that sweet spot that made sense for us to play in,” adds Allison. 

3. Invest in the right technology

One of the other major pieces of the puzzle that can be overlooked is technology, says Allison. Without a centralised, uniform platform (or a very small number of them), it gets very taxing to run a full-scale content operation and, for many organisations, this lack of technology can lead to uncomfortable budget pressures and the opportunity cost of duplicating content and processes.


Brown echoes Allison’s point of view and says “you can’t do one without the other”. Implementing a content strategy without the right technology to support and enable it may mean that you’re setting yourself up for failure. “The technology gives you that holistic view, that vision of ‘this is working, this isn’t working’ and the ability to move quickly and stick to your strategy.”



While the right technology platform is crucial to helping you scale up your content operations, Allison says that, once you’re in full flight, the ability to measure engagement and impact in real time is another important reason to get the technology right. “You've got to have real-time measurement in place, otherwise, you're simply guessing." 

"The real-time measurement also enables you to start to commercialise your operation and articulate the business value of your content marketing ecosystem and that, for me, is critical.”

Along with a holistic content strategy, whether that’s across a range of products under the one brand, across multiple markets and languages or across all your marketing channels, the implementation of a central, cohesive technology solution is a game changer for creating traction and visibility.

Allison is unequivocal about this point and it’s easy to see why: “I'd say, personally, I don't think that you can do it in an efficient manner without having the right technology. People are spending incredible amounts of time and money producing the same content without recognising or understanding that traditional manual systems don't give access to or visibility of what content is available.”

4. Own the data, don't let it own you

While real-time measurement might sound like a great idea in principle, one of marketers’ major concerns is dealing with the deluge of data that is often created when they go from a small operation to a much larger one. 

All of a sudden, there might be five, 10 or even 20 times as much information coming at you about the way your customer or audience is engaging with (or not engaging with) your marketing content. 

This can lead to a sense of paralysis or ‘death by data’ where marketing teams either look at surface measurements just to make sure they’ve avoided tanking the brand, or they simply ignore the data altogether.

But that approach isn’t going to get you anywhere. The important thing to remember is that, as Mahlab puts it, “data is crucial, but not all data is important.” Data and the insights it can lead to are vital to running a successful and effective content operation of any size, but especially a large one.

Drawing a key lesson from the way she and her team works with data, Mahlab says “we identify the really important things we need to measure and then we collect data and report only against those. You could be collecting data on everything and reporting on everything, but that's just not useful to you… good practice is to very clearly define what your objectives and metrics are at the outset.”

When it comes to data, however, perhaps most important is the need to temper the stats and numbers with real-world insights into the audience you are targeting; Mahlab argues that those with an editorial background can be of great service at that point. 

“There's that really deep connection that a good editor has with an audience, which is the human element. It's when you combine that element [with data] that you get the best content. If you're just looking at the data and you don't have that connection with your audience, the results are not as likely to be as strong.”

5. Think your big moves through and then make them decisively

Involving different teams, external partners and going global are some of the most challenging parts of scaling-up content operations for marketers. As more and more stakeholders enter the mix, the stakes get higher and the fight for relevance with your audience and teams becomes trickier to navigate.

For those marketers making these big leaps in their content operations, Allison has some hard-won advice that can make that transition easier. He says you might be tempted to just scale out your existing model as is, but don’t assume that will work because of the operational realities of other teams, countries or markets. His experience working with teams in countries such as Hong Kong, Spain and the United Kingdom has taught him that one size definitely does not fit all.

“Instead of replication, for us it was how do we take the best bits of each country and optimise it, so that we're working as a cohesive global team, as opposed to working [as silos]. It's a change management program to try and drive an enterprise-wide change so that you're actually able to collaborate,” reasons Allison.

Brown also knows the challenges of scaling up to a very complex level of operations. Her work at SFI Health has her deploying content operations to such diverse markets as Singapore, Nigeria, Poland and South Africa. 

She recognises the challenges of scaling up but also encourages marketers to not overthink things, “it doesn't have to be that hard,” says Brown. “It is about simplifying and breaking [your goals] down and just going for what is fundamentally going to make a difference to your business.” She concludes, “focus on that, drive those things forward and test and learn.”

Scaling up your content operations is not the sort of aspiration a marketer can take on light-heartedly. It’s certainly a challenging and difficult path to tread, but it can make a massive difference between good, great and epic marketing. But regardless of the size of your operation, whether you’re starting out with a small content operation or scaling up into a modern, effective content factory, it all comes back to relevance.

“As you scale, you have to continue to ensure you're exceeding customer needs. You have to exceed those needs with utility, credibility, and quality,” reiterates Allison. “Because if you lose that, and you lose your focus, you won’t be able to answer the hard questions or deliver for the audience.”

So, sure, successfully scaling up your content operations is an operational and transformational victory for marketers, but it must also be a victory for your audience or customers. Being able to serve them at a larger scale, not just serving the brand, is the only way to create an impact and stay relevant.

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