3M is big–really, really, big. The company has $31.8 billion in annual revenue, operates in 70 countries,and employs nearly 90,000 people. The range of its products is mind-boggling, spanning from well-known consumer brands like Post-It to highly specialized industrial materials.
What are they keys to developing an effective content marketing strategy for an organization of this size? How do you create content that’s consistently interesting, useful, and onbrand? Who needs to be part of the process?
To find out we recently chatted with our latest All-Star, Carlos Abler, 3M’s head of content.
Abler’s official title is “Leader - Content Marketing Strategy :: Global eTransformation”
but even that doesn’t fully capture the breadth of his responsibilities, which
includes everything from thinking about content strategy across the entire
organization to developing multi-day internal training programs.
Prior to joining 3M Abler worked for a number of
agencies, creating a series of award-winning interactive experiences. He also
has a theater background, including training in miming and puppetry. This blend
of creative and strategic experience gives him a unique perspective on the
challenges, and possibilities, of content marketing.
OK, to start off, the best content
I think the best content is effective at helping
people achieve their goals and serving their experiential interests.
Effectiveness is the key there.
There are a lot of reasons that content
can be ineffective, but often it seems like the team that was collaborating to
create and publish the content didn’t have a clear goal in mind as to what that
content was supposed to do.
Right. It really means understanding what the
needs, goals, and the experiences are that people want to have. For that you
need to clearly understand people outside your own skin; you need to talk to
them, you need to research them. The next step is how do you create something
that relevant and well suited to serve those goals?
A lot of times in the world of content
marketing, you’ll hear two main centers of gravity. You’ll hear that content
marketing is all about stories and we all need to be great storytellers. Then
you’ll have people who are more on the utilitarian end of the spectrum asking
how is content the helpful, how is it useful as a utility? That tension
has been a big struggle for people certainly here in 3M.
The focus for me is helping to transform content
culture in the organization, to train people, to orient them, to provide them
with the tools that they need to be more strategic. And part of that is
shaping their worldview and their thoughts to help shape the mental model they
have about content.
What I developed here are eight content personas
to help people understand the function of the content at the moment that it’s
relevant. When I say persona, I’m not talking about the customer persona, not
the dentist or the nurse, that kind of persona. I’m talking about the persona
that the content actually is, depending on the type of relevance at its
So one of these is the Storyteller/Entertainer. The Storyteller/Entertainer opens worlds
to someone emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. They take the ordinary and
make it extraordinary.
Another is the Thought Leader. Great leadership content delivers a new way of
seeing the world for people or understanding something that creates a new
productive value in their lives.
Another is the Journalist. Journalism has its own relevance and helps people. When
it’s effective, it helps people better understand what’s going on around them
and helps people become better citizens.
Then you have the Diagnostician. A Diagnostician is a kind of a consultative
salesperson who helps people better understand the nature of their current
situation and helps them find a path forward to improve that situation. Diagnosis
Then you’ve got content that is way more Functional. It’s assisting people
helping people get from A to B. Helping people do things like install a television,
or getting their Bluetooth device to connect.
Then there is the Mentor. Mentorship content helps people achieve a greater degree in
mastery and excellence. That’s where Mentors comes in and are really relevant.
There’s also the Spiritual Advisor, which tends to be less relevant in business. But
ultimately exists to help people achieve their highest aspirational purpose in
The final persona is the Friend. The friend is kind of a mode of delivery; it’s about
timeliness and personalization. The friend really anticipates what you
need–sometimes ahead of your own realization of it.
Developing those personas has been really
helpful in helping people break down what content is and who are we are as an
organization at the moment that we’re delivering relevance. It’s actually a
very useful tool in ideation when matching what is the right content to choose
for a particular situation. If you don’t have a methodology like that, it gets
a lot more arbitrary.
Do you think there is
one type of persona that is more dominant inside 3M?
No, 3M is “all of the above” in different
situations. We are such a big complicated company, and are in just about
every market there is, so somewhere in the organization you’re going to find a
valid purpose for every type of content there is, and for every type of content
persona there is.
Something like the thought leadership is really
key for us because we have so many deep subject matter experts in the
organization. So there’s a lot of internal subject matter expertise that can be
used across all those personas.
The thought leadership persona seems to
be the default persona many organizations go after. Would you say that’s a fair
I’m not sure. I don’t think that I have
enough of a grasp broadly over what everybody is doing to answer that well.
I do think that sometimes people might use the
term “thought leadership” too widely. For example, for me if you’re not
really transforming how a person sees the world or a particular thing, on an
ongoing basis, then it’s probably not strong enough to be real thought
I would challenge a lot of people’s definition
of thought leadership, because that kind of stuff doesn’t really happen every
day. When people say: “Should we produce more content even if it’s not that
great or should we invest more time and energy in producing really incredible
content that may have more enduring value?” That’s where I think the definition
of thought leadership can be very helpful, in that it makes you examine what is
really, truly, a new and relevant perspective that you bring to a situation.
How do you determine which format of
content will best convey the persona?
It’s really a challenge because you can translate the same
communication in many formats. Sometimes people get really prejudiced about
what is the best format for certain kinds of things, which tends to reflect
their own bias. It kind of reminds me of my time in theater when people
would argue we need a human actor to tap into true emotions and move an
audience. That’s a bunch of crap; you can make people cry with finger puppets
if you know how tell a good story. Effective communication is not about the
format per se, or at least not exclusively.
Formats do have their strengths and unique
contributions; you certainly can’t create an infographic with a sound, you
can’t hear a color. By in so many cases you can translate the same
message in many formats. You can take an article and translate it into an
infographic, then turn that into animations, etcetera.
So, since you can translate the same message
into different formats, the key for deciding what to use is to really
understand the customers’ use-context, their media preferences, and their
culture. You need to identify how the target audience will consume the
content; for example, will they be consuming it with an iPad, standing on an
oil drill? Are they scanning and snacking? Or using it for business training
with their entire team?
Do your experiences in theater have an
effect on how you approach content marketing?
Yes, it has had influences. One of them is the fact that
theater, similarly to publishing a magazine or a book, is a content product.
In the world of content marketing there’s a lot
of discussion around what content marketing means; what’s the definition of it?
One of the ways that I help people in our organization understand the nature of
what content marketing is and why the word “marketing” is justified as a term,
is because in the case of content marketing, you are marketing a content
product. You are not just creating content that describes and talks about
something that is valuable; you’re creating a product that has value. It’s
self-contained and has its own relevance, which is why people will seek it out
and pay for it and all those kind of things.
My background in producing content products certainly
informs my perspective because what people like me are trying to do is to help
these organizations that don’t create content products as their core revenue
stream adopt the methodology of those who do. So there’s that connection.
The other connection has to do with shaping
experiences. So when you’re a theatre director or a filmmaker you’re thinking a
lot about how your audience perceives what’s next. You’re trying to get a story
that comes across; you’re trying to emotionally connect with the audience.
You’re shaping experiences with a lot of inputs that are very subjective. You
have to understand a lot about human beings and the ways that they process and
interpret information and what all those inputs are. The more you understand
your audiences in depth, the better stories you can tell.
My background in theater and understanding all
of these things has heavily influenced not only the kind of content that I
create, but understanding what it is that you need to cultivate in an
organization to help transform people to act as if they have that level of
3M is so big; with so many different people that are
creating content from different parts of the company, how do you manage consistency
across the body of work, in terms of both quality and effectiveness?
Well in the future when we have dozens of robust content
channels the job becomes much easier because you’ll have a lot of strategic
alignment around who the audience is and how you are trying to develop that
audience. You’ll have a lot of production alignment. Furthermore you’ll have a mature
editorial process which can create alignments across all of the distributed
entities involved in targeting similar audiences or engaging around particular
topics that unite otherwise siloed divisions and customer-facing functions.
The challenge is for organizations like 3M who
are still evolving now. What should their customer or market focus publications
look like? How they should be structured? How many of them should there be?
There isn’t a maturity of a vision yet. In building toward that, there’s a
process of helping the organization develop a vision; what does the world look
like five years from now?
Driving that vision is really key, but so is
connecting the dots between entities in the organization, whose objectives,
ultimately, are aligned even if they are not currently aligning yet in a
For example, human resources departments from a
talent acquisition perspective may be very interested in marketing the
organization to communities of subject matter experts. Similarly, businesses
that have engineers within them would benefit if they turn their engineers into
content marketing rock stars and are leveraging more of their expertise in a
marketing context. Therefore both those divisions and human resources can
benefit from aligning to the same target audience and adding value around
common topics by leveraging and creating transparency to existing internal
So people like me are actively trying to connect
dots between different people’s content initiatives–their various customer and
audience development initiatives–and to help align them and ultimately,
Very often in organizational development we talk
about big philosophical questions like whether there should be a content ‘centers
of excellence’ or should there be a content boss or chief content officer that
runs everything from a top down perspective. Certainly there’s value in those
kinds of roles. However, there’s also the concept of a ‘matrix of excellence’,
where you’re developing federated relationship across entities whose strategies
and tactics and resource management can benefit tremendously from aligning, but
that don’t always necessarily need to report to the same boss. They just
need to come together and federate from a process perspective to get that done.
These federations can be very powerful, but also very vulnerable. If they are purely
informal and not institutionalized they can collapse with the disappearance of
a single individual.
In other interviews you’ve mentioned
3M’s content ideation guide. Can you talk a little bit about what it is and how
Well, I created a program in the company called Content-2-Customer,
C2C for short. The Content-2-Customer program is a framework that helps
to accelerate organizations to achieve excellence for content, and ultimately,
add value to the customer relationship across its total life cycle.
There are five components to C2C program.
There’s 1) operational and organizational development; 2) a planning
process; 3) a workshopping process; and 4) an architecture and deployment
process–and by that I mean architecting in the initiatives or ‘campaign’; and
5) ongoing optimization and maintenance. So there’s those five sections.
The ideation guide that you are asking about
relates to the workshopping section, that’s the third part. During the second
part, strategic inputs, we identify who the customers are, what are their roles
in the influencing and purchasing process, what their goals and pain points
are, what channels they use–all those inputs we gather. Then the
information is filtered into a tool called the ideation guide, which
facilitates the workshopping process. That process has a lot of exercises in it,
such as mapping topics to tactics, mapping tactics to pain points and goals;
there’s a number of journal mapping related exercises, exercises relating to
goal development and key performance indicators, and exercises that relate to
setting up straw man deployable campaigns and initiatives.
The ideation guide is a key tool because it
supports the different exercises in the workshopping session. The guide takes
the information that was gathered during that preparation work and it
structures it into an almost gamified kind of framework, so that when people
are doing brainstorm type exercises, they are not just relying what’s in their
heads, they’re actually able to create very solid ideas at high volume that are
well-aligned to strategy.
So, the ideation guide is an 11x17 book that
leverages information design and storytelling to create an ideation machine
that accelerates both the quantity and quality of ideas in a structured way.
The teams in the workshop are all
cross-functional; we have marketing, customer care roles, sales roles and in
many cases, technical services roles. We have them working together and by the
end of the workshops they are able to go into a room for 90 minutes and come
out with very solid, detailed concepts for campaigns and strategies,
initiatives that ladder up to quantifiable business goals.
We came across this photo that 3M
retweeted of the Ohio state football team wearing the uniforms with reflective
numbers… what’s the value of a picture like that from 3M’s perspective?
What you’re talking about strikes a really core
challenge and opportunity for 3M; 3M is the “Intel inside” that nobody knows
about. They say you are never more than 15 feet away from a 3M product, and we
have somewhere between 60,000 and 250,000 products; nobody really knows. We’re
what people very often call an “ingredient brand,” because even though we have
some brands that some people recognize from a consumer perspective, like Scotch
tape, we have all these technologies that are also invisible and inside a lot
of things. A lot of our clients might be the more recognizable brand name.
So this photo itself I think wasn’t actually put
out by 3M, it was user generated content, but more broadly, showing 3M in the
context of its applications is something that we really need to work hard to
do. Visual content is really helpful for it.
It gets more difficult when our products are
inside of a phone, or a computer. Many people don’t know that 3M makes many
screens brighter and sharper; that the color is richer because our films are
channeling the light inside of a device. How do you convey that? It’s
very difficult to get these things across but whenever we can, certainly,
visual content is very helpful.