Before You “Go Global”: the Role of Pilot Programs in Global Content Marketing

I cannot remember a time in my life where I was not travelling. In a way, it has been a constant whether I was doing it for business or pleasure. Citing Imogen Hall, Lonely Planet’s writer: “Travel is a force for good: it broadens our mind, develops cultural empathy and gives us a better understanding of the world” And so I thought I knew the world; but when you have to develop content for different geographies, well, it feels like you never stepped outside of your front door.

If I look back at my first global content marketing journey, started in mid-2015 in Schneider Electric with the definition of the content strategy for one of the Division of the energy firm, and the process that would sustain that strategy, we spent one full year with central execution as a required preparation for the global launch. The way we prepared ourselves for the global launch was through multiple pilot programs. Learning from our own experience – and, also, from our mistakes.

Content Marketing takes time, especially if the plan is to rollout the program across different geographies. This is even more true for large enterprises where traditional marketing models might prevent the need for change to be understood in time.

Once planning has been completed, the roles of headquarter vs. the countries clarified, a process has been established, personas and audience defined and a local editorial board is in place, the content marketing program is ready to start. In large enterprises, running pilot programs across geographies to test and prove viability and deliver an agreed outcome is (or should be) common practice. 

Content Marketing takes time, especially if the plan is to rollout the program across different geographies.

Many companies adopt a phased approach: they introduce a central content program first to develop a foundation of content and then progressively launch in local markets over time. It’s the case of my experience in Schneider Electric, it’s the case of LinkedIn, and of many other enterprises I have been working in the last months. It doesn’t differ too much from our travel analogy – after a proper planning phase, the preparation will start: you might want to buy the right clothes and equipment in order to be fully ready for your trip and you might learn some basics of the languages of the countries that you are planning to visit.

In a global content marketing model what you need to do is to set up the pilot program as a test in one or two countries and with no more than two different languages. If possible you will do it with a full integration of the existing marketing technologies (marketing automation software, content marketing platform, etc.) and then, if successful, you will roll out the series. Great ideas often receive resistance: you need to start small, test that your strategy works, get results, create a proper business case, and then move to the next step.

How to select a pilot market? Language, team expertise, willingness of the sales team to adopt a new innovative content model, size and agility of the country and finally the preparation of the marketing team (small and agile should better work) are all criterias for selection of a marketing pilot. My suggestion is to pilot with one country per region (I call it “regional champion”) before rolling out at regional and then global level. Rolling out a cross-regional model without any pilots is a risk that I wouldn’t suggest you should ever take.

Reasons why enterprises always consider a Pilot program:

  • minimization of risks;
  • creating a culture of best practices;
  • testing all content and tactics before going global;
  • testing internal dynamics before going global.

Central team and regional champions should create a solid and cohesive team. Champions should be carefully selected. Once the pilot program will be completed, the program will be rolled-out at regional level.

Reasons why enterprises should go with a Regional rollout – instead of immediately thinking Global:

  • Regions will benefit from a local champion;
  • Culture, target audience, tactics, channels have more similarities at regional level than at global level;
  • Also regional clusters will benefit from closer time zones and wont need to rely on central team.

Pilots and regional rollouts should follow a phased approach. The one below is just an example I used with a B2C client in the financial sector:

  1. Phase 1 (two weeks/1 month): select regional champions for the pilots, based on language, strategic priority, market opportunity, local marketing team’s maturity, budget, local resources;
  2. Phase 2 (1-2 months): preparation for the selected champion(s) to roll out. Create guidelines, educate champions, establish local editorial boards, local editorial plans, manage global vs. local balance in term of content creation, implement a content hub if missing, implement minimum integration.
  3. Phase 3 (3 months): rollout Regional champions for at least one quarter. Central team will define guidelines and will establish governance. Champions go live. Weekly reviews will be established. Testing all options in term of content and distribution mix.
  4. Phase 4 (1 month): feedback analysis and lesson learned; preparation for the global rollout by Region, incorporating the inputs coming from the Regional champions;
  5. Phase 5 (1 to 3 months): preparation for the Global program, internal education, repeat actions of phase 2;
  6. Phase 6: go live with global rollout.

For instance, before going global, Schneider Electric piloted five content marketing programs: 1-3) “big rock” content launches in US, UK and India, 4) integration between content marketing / big rock model and marketing automation in the UK, 5) SEM in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. We have tested different methodologies, identified “big rock” content working for each of the countries, identified the right content hub for each of the pilots, we have run and optimised SEO and SEM and tested marketing automation tools. In a few words, we have dissected our content marketing model in many different pieces, assigned some of the pieces to countries, run individual programs and then evaluated the results after 2-3 months of intense execution.

To facilitate pilots we created a special taskforce – well, actually 2-3 people of my team, including myself, coordinating synch calls with the countries piloting programs and dedicating special attention to all things happening in those countries.

The central team – my team – created content, guidelines and distribution packages; the countries, then, can further edit the content in order to adapt it to their own culture. The country guidelines link to shared content rooms, samples and suggestions in term of timeline for content publishing. It’s what Jay Moye, global editor-in-chief of Cola Cola Journey calls “freedom within a framework”.

Specifically, we created guidelines for each big rock content. We defined central weekly reviews and bi-weekly calls with the countries. We analysed results, discussed figures together, requested inputs.

The country guidelines link to shared content rooms, samples and suggestions in term of timeline for content publishing.

We found that our content performance increased 5x (in term of downloads and conversions) versus traditional campaigns.

We also learned that we had challenges and operational issues to solve. In fact, while as a central team we were focusing on content and its quality, we soon realised that day-to-day operational challenges were the most dangerous enemies: issues with resources, people who left (so the pilot had to stop to redistribute the tasks), new hires or agencies coming on board (who had to be educated), internal processes that slowed down the plan, publishing platforms that didn’t work as expected, building Marketing Automation landing pages, and in general, any process that involved other departments (IT, Global Marketing) which dramatically affected and slowed down our initial plan.

If not properly planned and discussed with the countries, all those factors could get the content pilot to fail.

I replicated the same approach with several clients. The large insurance mentioned above went live with two pilots, one in Europe and one in Asia, before they went with a regional rollout. A large European technology company went with pilots in three english speaking countries: USA, UK, India. A global talent recruitment company decided to go live with the most “prepared” countries, from a marketing, branding and content perspective: Italy, Germany, France. I could go ahead with many other examples.

When the central team is finally in a position to analyse the results and content performances have been discussed with the countries piloting the program; when the inputs from the countries have been understood and integrated into the process, when all countries have been properly educated on the content framework, model, distribution, tools, then it’s time to go global.

Exactly like it’s time to start your trip once planning and preparation are finally completed. Always keeping in mind the lessons learned from the pilots and in a continuous positive dialogue with all geographies.

However, unlike a trip, your content marketing journey doesn’t end. You will closely measure the effectiveness of your programs by tracking a series of KPIs. And then you will iterate based on your key learnings.

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