Which part of a tightrope walk takes the most courage?
Most people believe it’s the first step out on the rope. But the tightrope walker who narrates one of the short stories in the collection Vigilantes of Love says that’s not the case:
“The hardest was the step after the first. That’s where you gained or lost your balance. That’s where it becomes a walk or a fall. After the second step, there is no going back.”
The same holds when developing an innovative content strategy – the second step is the hardest.
Can you follow and still produce an innovative content strategy?
I had an interesting chat the other day with a vice president of content operations at a technology company. She’d recently gotten the mandate to build an innovative content strategy and a new team. But she wasn’t sure how to start.
“I’ve spent so much time at conferences and workshops,” she told me. “I’ve read successful case studies and thought, ‘I can do that too.’ But now that I have the OK to start, I want to find the best map to follow.”
The desire to find a content strategy map, template, or guide hits nearly everyone starting a new initiative. But I’ve found developing new content strategies by looking through someone else’s lens rarely produces impressive results.
I’ve noticed that when people ask, “Can we do what they did?” they usually come up with one of these three answers:
If they did that, we surely can
This response often comes with a hint of jealousy. It dismisses the person or team but weirdly applauds the map. The NFT that recently sold for $69 million (created by computer scientist turned artist Beeple) offers a great example. Many people who heard about the sale thought, “Wow, an overpriced JPEG? I could do that!”
But here’s the thing. They didn’t. Beeple did – and got paid for it. That’s the lesson.
Give me the map to their content program, and I’ll be just as successful
This response, which I call the template model, comes up often in marketing. People look for the prototypical case study, the template, or “proven” best practices to follow. And they expect to get the same results.
I’ve rarely seen teams following this approach end up with the results promised by that original template or fascinating case study. The map is never exactly right for where they’re going.
Why? Because it doesn’t allow for your particular skills or unique context.
You have to customize a template or map to suit your circumstance. Think of meals you’ve prepared for friends and family. How often do you change the recipe to suit what you have on hand, what’s in season, or what appeals to the people you’re making it for?
Does anything like what I want to do already exist?
The most helpful response involves looking for guidance in content projects or strategies that reflect the essence of what you want to achieve.
You may find it useful to look outside your industry or even the most similar examples and study the essence of what made those efforts successful. Looking beyond the familiar pushes you to interpret the idea through your creative lens.
Instead of duplicating the exact form of the projects you study, look to spark innovation.
My client at the technology company benefited from this approach as she considered the challenges of leading new people, creating new workflows, and producing new outputs to support a new content strategy.
I advised her to look for projects involving a disruptive change at a company that’s nothing like where she works. She ended up studying how a colleague of mine had implemented an internal product design team for a financial services company.
The details differed, yet the example inspired her to discover new approaches she could bring to her process.
Why the first step isn’t the doozy
This kind of answer to the question “Can we do that?” reveals why the second step becomes the most difficult.
Think about it. Discovering the spark of innovation offers direction. You’ve found the North Star to work toward.
But that second step involves committing to your vision. That’s when you walk or fall. That’s when there’s no going back – and there’s no one to pin the decision on but yourself.
I helped my client prepare to take the steps she needed to make the changes her new content strategy required. Try the process we followed whenever you need to introduce significant changes in your content strategy:
Step 1: Make the map yours
Start with your vision for what success with your new strategy looks like. Use that “inspirational spark” model that you found earlier as an example. Then, ask yourself, “What would need to be true for all my successes to be realized?”
Write it all down. It sounds overwhelming, but you’ll be surprised at how settling it feels to create your visionary to-do list.
Explore the emotions you feel around the uncertainties involved. List all the things that scare you or could go wrong. List the things that could go right and that make you feel joy. Acknowledge that you can’t control how these things make you feel, but you can control how you react to them.
Then, of course, plan and map. Go back to your list of all the things that need to be true for the program to succeed, then identify any “rocks” that might get in the way. Which ones need to be settled first? Second?
You’ve just imbued the plan with your vision. You’re ready to take that second step.
Step 2: Commit to the walk
The first step was challenging. But the most challenging part will be saying “yes” to the adventure you’ve designed.
One thing happens in almost every client consulting engagement I’ve had. Once we finish the approved business case and plan, I congratulate the client. Then comes a sigh and the inevitable words: “Yeah, but now we have to go do it.”
That’s step two. Commit.
You commit to walking. You tackle that first big initiative. You go all in. You’re not following someone else’s template. You haven’t dismissed those who came before you because you felt you could do as good or better. You’ve developed your own recipe instead of trying to improve someone else’s.
The steps get easier
In the story I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the tightrope walker says, “The third step is the beginning. It’s the complete motion forward on a new course.”
Completing that first initiative or overcoming your first challenge is the beginning. That’s when you start to see that things are working the way you thought they would. It’s much more satisfying than looking at the next step in a templated map.
From there, the book says, “The fourth step is an affirmation. And after the fifth step – it’s just walking.”
You’re on your way.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That most challenging second step helps you have confidence in your journey.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute