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A Major Executive Move In Content Marketing — Q&A With Michael Brenner

Rebecca Lieb

Michael Brenner, SAP.Michael Brenner has long been a recognized leader in content marketing in his role as VP marketing at SAP.

Very recently, he joined content marketing technology vendor NewsCred to head strategy for that company. NewsCred is a rapidly growing content marketing technology platform that also offers licensed and original content. Clients include Bank of America, Time Inc. and P&G.

This is a rare moment when an executive from the brand side of content marketing has decamped to the vendor side of the industry. In light of this, I decided to interview him to hear his motives for the move and to look back at his accomplishments at SAP.

What’s the new role?

Head of strategy. Basically, my main area of responsibility is to help each client build out a content marketing model, which obviously then get supported by the technology by the content marketing cloud platform.

This is the first time, to my knowledge, that an executive has moved from the client to the vendor side in content marketing. What prompted the decision?

At SAP, I was building content marketing as a practice, and I had tremendous support from the CMO. We built a blog presence for thought leadership, not only creating an effective platform butdoing so on a very limited budget. It wasn’t a significant investment; if anything, it was a reduction in some other expenditures — for example, on the advertising landing page side.

So when I was looking at what to do next, the options were to continue to mature that model in the brand that I was working with, or to take a leadership/CMO type role within a small company.

I jokingly define content marketing as the gap between what businesses generally do when they market and what customers are actually looking for. So I made the decision to help other brands take the journey to close that gap.

Most marketing sucks — or at least most marketing is highly ineffective. This move will allow me to help other brands be more effective, to reach more customers and generate more sales.

I hear education will be part of the new job?

The first step when I talk to marketing leaders is to explain the value of content marketing — or, more specifically, to arm them with the knowledge to help them obtain buy-in from higher-ups.

CEOs (and even some of the older-school, traditional marketing professionals) still see marketing largely as promotional activity: the email blasts, the ads, the logos all over everything, etc. That’’s why most marketing is still in the stage that it’s in. But as consumers, the digital/social/mobile world has changed the way we expect to interact with brands.

We’re not going to put up with cold calls at dinnertime, or with emails we don’t want, or with banners that interrupt the content experience we’re looking for online. So if we, as marketers, are not going to be doing those things anymore, what do we need to do instead?

That’s the educational part. It took me some time, but I’ve slowly come to realize that ineffective marketing is not really the fault of the majority of marketers — they’re just doing what they’ve been asked to do. So we’re arming them with the information to educate those who are asking them to execute.

Most organizations don’t have infrastructure, roles, or even a documented content strategy.

Where will you start?

After education, the next step is to identify the problem. When I worked at SAP, we helped the organization understand there was a definite content problem.

Part of that process included highlighting all of the customer conversations we weren’t a part of. For example, we looked at our analytics to estimate how much of our website traffic was coming from people who are in the early stages of the buying process — and we realized we weren’t getting any traffic from early-stage search terms.

None of the people who were in the early stages of the buying process for products related to SAP were being exposed to the brand through search. That’s a massive content problem.

We then did an inventory and found that we were already creating content and targeting the people talking to our sales guys. So we identified that budget and that content and asked, “How much of that content is actually being used?”

To this day, I’m shocked. We looked at all the content repositories we had — I think there were 62 — and noted the content that was either viewed or downloaded by the intended recipient. Something like 60 percent of the content uploaded to these repositories was never looked at or downloaded by a single person.

That’s why often I tell people, “You don’t need any more budget. Just look inside your organization at the places that are creating content and see if it’s used at all.”

That’s the most rudimentary type of content audit you can perform.

Exactly. So if we took 40 or 50 percent of this budget, we would have more than we would ever need to build an effective content marketing platform.

So the first step is education. The second step, as you said, is the most rudimentary type of content audit.

Then it’s building the new thing. That starts with understanding search, understanding content requirements by stage. Personas can be helpful here, but only when done correctly. When creating personas, a lot of companies stop short of understanding the types of content each persona is looking for, the channels through which they can be reached, and their stage in the buying process. Yet that’s where a persona actually becomes effective — you can implement an activity against a persona when you know what they’re looking for, where they’re looking, and when they need it.

Once you know that, that’s where the infrastructure, tools and the technology come in.

Looking back at your SAP achievements, what are you proudest of?

In my seven years at SAP, the first three and a half years were specifically online lead generation. An inbound marketing project turned into a content marketing role. My legacy is building the thought leadership blog. I’m proud of it because it was really up against the tide and flow of the organization. I really had to fight every step of the way to get it done.

There were detractors, and it was surprisingly easy to prove them somewhat wrong — and to do so with very little budget. I had to find the resources around the organization… but with 60,000 employees, you’re going to trip over a few smart people who understand the context of online marketing.

A lot of the interaction we had was with external thought leaders. We were looking at Klout scores, we were looking at bloggers we already knew in big data and cloud computing and analytics. We didn’t have the budget to create our own positions, despite the fact that that it was what my boss wanted, so we decided to “curate” the position from thought leaders. I was proud not just that we built it, but that ROI was so clear from Day One.

What are your new success metrics?

We’re going to figure that out as we go. The main objective is to make sure they’re not walking around with a hammer so that every problem looks like a nail. We truly want to help the entire discipline of marketing get better and improve. It’s not just technology that can do that. Our mission is to help marketers evolve to the changing world.

That involves three different things:

One, there’s going to be a services business helping customers build an effective content marketing platform.

Two, we’re going to work on pipeline acceleration — helping customers get onboard quickly and effectively and generate a return from their investment.

Three, we’re going to focus on retention. That means going back to the happy customers and making sure they’re stretching themselves to think about what the next thing is. It also means helping with the product pipeline and make sure the product is staying up to pace with the needs of the marketplace.

Where do you see the content marketing vendor landscape going?

In the last six months, this industry has changed so rapidly. Some early players are starting to relegate themselves to the position of niche players. Folks like Contently and Percolate and NewsCred almost came out of the blue. At SAP, we were talking to Percolate two years ago and thought they were an interesting sort of CMS — it’s unbelievable what they’ve built in such a short period of time. You’re starting to see these new horses in the race.

This conversation was edited for brevity. Originally published in MarketingLand.

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