Enterprise Content Planning Interview Part 1: 3M’s Carlos Abler On Cracking the Content Inspiration & Success Code at Large Enterprises

It should come as no surprise that at large legacy enterprise organizations, marketers looking to fast-track content programs can face big barriers. Ever wondered why?

It’s for good reason. At most large companies, there are simply more stakeholders, internal politics, competing timelines, agendas, and managers who fear that taking risks will result in getting the boot. And this isn’t a knock on the big guns. With shareholders to please, complex legal issues to overcome, and brand complexity to simplify, some of the content shipped from global corporations can start to look a bit… well… stale.

For content marketers in the trenches at these companies, it can often seem like every creative angle has already been considered, like every agenda has already been rejected, like most everything is a foregone conclusion that someone at some point already tried.

But does it always have to be this way?

Sure doesn’t! If you play your cards right, carving out opportunities to create huge impacts within your organizations is within reach. And the first simple step you can take is to realize that dozens of opportunities exist right under your nose.

Enter Carlos Abler at 3M

A great example of this theory in practice can be found in Carlos Abler, Leader of Content Marketing and Strategy at 3M, and all around content Jedi. With over 30 years of experience directing and creating mixed media communications, Carlos has become a cornerstone of 3M’s content operations.

Lucky for us, Carlos was recently willing to sit down and share some of his secrets to success. In this first contribution to this two-part interview series, Carlos reveals secrets about his work at 3M, what he enjoys most, and where he finds inspiration for content.

Get out your post-it notes and put away that light saber, because we have a lot of ground to cover.

Q1: What does your role as Leader of Content Marketing and Strategy at 3M entail? And what does your average day look like?

You are never more than 10 feet from a 3M product if you are in the industrialized world. @Carlos_Abler Share on X

A: “At 3M, I work across organizational boundaries to help accelerate organizational capacity to apply content marketing as a business strategy. I want to help 3M realize the fullest value of the thousands of scientists and researchers to apply their craft in a manner that benefits humanity, and help build a prosperous business.

For those unfamiliar with 3M, some context will help frame this up what this entails. 3M is a complex conglomerate, with over 20 divisions, 55,000 products, sales in 200 countries, serving—in one way or another—about every vertical segment you can name. They say you are never more than 10 feet from a 3M product if you are in the industrialized world. 3M products could literally be in, or involved in the manufacturing of just about anything, in addition to our more visible finished products such as Post-it® notes.

3M serves many of the same audiences, but in very different ways across the organization, and therefore has many opportunities for cross-selling and better aligning activities cross-functionally to deliver value to customers, accounts and vertical segments.

So what this entails is an enterprise content marketing strategy for an approach to develop competencies and collaborative alignment across organization boundaries, for planning, producing, delivering and management of content and customer experiences. It entails transformational roadmaps addressing customer engagement programs, technologies and human resources. It entails change management and transformational tools that support the learning of new competencies while producing actionable results. It entails tremendous evangelism and patience. It entails a transformational point of view focused not just on content, but on customer experience creation, which the enlightened understand is inextricable from content, as content, data and customer experience are the three architectural horizontals that unite modern marketing capabilities into a practice that can drive results. It entails using content as a fulcrum of customer experience creation, because content is a tangible deliverable that cross-functional stakeholders can collaborate to design with maximum business requirement and knowledge capital input.

To activate against all of this, we have created a program called Content-2-Revenue, which is composed of tools and methodologies for achieving all of this. Over the last 5 years I have worked with really amazing colleagues in the business to validate and evolve the methodology. Furthermore I work in support of the culture of practice. I invest a lot of energy into our internal social community network, in events, workshops and endless dot-connection between stakeholders and their programs.

On any given day I may be creating, customizing or evangelizing tools from the tool kit. Consulting with an organization on human resource transformation or business process. Drawing more attention to the rockstars in the organization so they can get more support, and so the organization knows what it is we should be replicating. I may be coaching less mature teams on how to get started, or coaching more mature teams on how to get greater value from their programs. I may be consulting on niche publication creation, or harvesting of unnecessary properties.

My days vary widely. But I’m like a kid in a candy store. While there are definitely trade offs in going from freelance consulting to a full time engagement, digital transformation is a long game. It’s hard to round out skills as a transformational professional if you don’t spend quality time in an organization networking, connecting dots, and nurturing arcs of maturity.”

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Q2: What do you like most about your current role?

Content marketing is a tremendously creative endeavor. @Carlos_Abler Share on X

A: “My favorite part is definitely the latitude that I have to work entrepreneurially across the organization in a boundary-less manner, connecting with energized colleagues who want to invest in others to help move the company forward. I am somewhat lucky in that I am able to cherry-pick relationships with fast movers, and then leverage these “quicker” wins to feedback direction to the organization as to what to support or replicate. I put “quicker” in air-quotes because in the world of content transformation nothing is quick. It’s hard work without an easy button. Unless you love it. Then it’s not hard, really. Content marketing is a tremendously creative endeavor.

I love working in such a global and diverse company as it creates an opportunity to connect with truly amazing people. Early this year we had a Content Marketing conference internally with several industry thought leaders such as Robert Rose, Rebecca Lieb, Michael Brenner, Pam Didner, Carla Johnson and Jason Miller. In this context we were able to showcase the work of 30+ 3Mers mapped to keynote speaker themes. Raising the visibility of the excellent work people are doing, and helping make the global content community network more visible to itself is truly inspirational and energizing.

The opportunity to connect with and help connect so many people globally and to get to be a catalyst within this community is an incredible privilege that has helped me grow tremendously as a professional and as a human being. Driving change in a large, slow-moving, 115 year old organization can be very stressful. There are easier things to do in life. But the people make every single bit of it worth it. And the people need it. Pushing for content and the customer experience is hard work that many people around you won’t really quite understand if it isn’t in their backgrounds or DNA. So sometimes it can be lonely. Having someone who really understands what you do, and validates you, can really keep you going during the hard times. My content people keep me going, and I do what I can to help keep them going.

It’s a big ship to move here, but we are doing it.”

Q3: Where do you find inspiration for content?

If you want to do great content...You need to get your mind blown on a routine basis. @Carlos_Abler Share on X

A: “I find inspiration in helping people achieve their highest goals and aspirations, and to help serve immanent human need. For me it is all about the customer. And it’s all about driving as much value to any and all players in the stakeholder ecosystem. I am very much an entrepreneurial problem solver by nature. And content marketing and the applications that deliver content, provide an excellent product delivery modality that serves human need.

Content can change the way people perceive the world, and in a manner that reduces self-limiting factors, empowers new lines of action, and reveals opportunity. Content can keep people informed about what is happening around them and make them more effective agents in the world. Content can help people achieve mastery of their chosen skills. Content can help people get things done faster and easier, giving back the gift of time, which is the most important gift. Content can help people diagnose their situation and find a right path out of sickness or other challenging situational status. Content can delight people and open up worlds of fascination to them. Content inspires and empowers. How content helps is my root inspiration.

From there I find inspiration in great art. I find inspiration in what my colleagues are doing in the content marketing community. I have the privilege of sitting as a judge for awards programs like Content Marketing World supporting the content marketing professional community, and the UN World Summit on the Information Society award supporting people using information and communication technologies to help further the UN Sustainability Development Goals. The privilege of having quality time to focus on how people are helping empower others and creating a more sustainable prosperous world is endlessly inspirational.

I also get a lot of inspiration from great writers. Really great ones like James Joyce, Henry Miller, Helene Cixous, George Perec, Carlos Fuentes, William S. Burroughs, Juan Rulfo and Cormac McCarthy. It’s a long list for me. But if you want to do great content, you have to study the best. You need to get your mind blown on a routine basis. If art doesn’t make you cry, keep you awake one night, or froth at the mouth trying to explain to someone why they should be moved by something, there’s a good chance you’ll not do anything truly great.

Hanging out in the echo chamber of marketing discourse and swirling from one John Doe’s Pretty Good Blog to another is no way to to be stretched towards excellence.

Inspirational moments don’t just come from art of course. They could come from the way a baby looks at you. Or from a rotting flower in the morning mist. Something. Things have to seize you. When the mundane ceases to be normal and becomes extraordinary, that is where great content is born. That and the space of human needs and goals aspirations can be served.

I love artists who dissolve the barrier between personal life and art. Jean Paul Sarte is an interesting example from a political, artistic and philosophical perspective. Picasso. Kahzuo Ohno and Hijikata Tatsumi are great examples from the dance world. I used to be a dancer. I hate saying ‘used to be’, but there you are.

Great philosophers and academics inspire me to think about things radically differently. Paul Ricoeur is amazing. Hans Georg Gadamer’s work on interpretation, the hermeneutic circle, historically conditioned consciousness, how art opens a world…all great stuff.

Great films. I love some of the great classic directors. Kurosawa and Bergman are who I want to be when I grow up. I accidentally ended up in the digital space on my way to trying to become them. I also love the great storytelling coming out today online. Game of Thrones, Black Mirror, House of Cards. So much great work coming out. We are lucky to be able to experience this storytelling renaissance.

I often wonder what Rod Serling would think if he could see Black Mirror today. Would he be jealous of the freedom storytellers have in mainstream media today versus in the 50’s and 60’s? Or did he need that kind of restrictive oppression push against the stream to be who he was?

Even though I dissed blogs a second ago, there are great professional resources out there. TopRank Marketing, run by another great Minnesotan Lee Odden, is fantastic. As is of course Content Marketing Institute’s blog. MarketingProfs is great. Seth Godin is crazy inspiring. Convince and Convert. So much great stuff in the content marketing community.

I’m really inspired by podcasts. Of course the professional ones are great. P&R from Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose, MarketingProfs, these are all staples. But I love the great storytelling podcasts like Serial, as well as those that delve into cultural matters. I studied history of religions and cultural theory for a lot of my life. So podcasts dealing with modern spiritual and philosophic evolutions are fascinating to me, like Rune Soup and Aeon Byte. I also inhale anything having to do with startups and entrepreneurs. Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale is incredibly brilliant.

Comics, graphic novels, etc. Anything dealing with visual storytelling. Great geniuses of the medium like Will Eisner, Sergio Aragones and others should be studied closely for those in our profession in my opinion.

And I am a huge magazine fanatic. Especially the independents. I love how people are pushing the medium. I think the cold dead hand of the internet has helped drive us back to the tactile haptic synesthetic world of the senses. We crave what we can touch and smell. What has weight. What reflects light across surfaces versus just pushing beams into our brain. Don’t get me wrong. I am an internet evangelist. I think the nay-saying against the internet and social media are largely absurd. It’s the most empowering invention in human history. It’s our fault of we screw it up. Like usual. Anyway, magazines. For those who love print, checking out Magculture.com is incredibly inspiring.

I also am really inspired by the world going on that combines art, code, installation and content. There is an event my buddy Dave Schroeder puts on here locally called Eyeo Festival. All of their conference videos are accessible on the Vimeo channel. If any conference gives TED a run for its money in being inspiring, it’s Eyeo festival hands down. They showcase some of the most inspiring thinkers and doers in the space where art, design, technology, purposefulness and divine randomness, and social activism all come together.

I’m inspired by journalists. I read the Columbia Journalism Review and follow a lot of great journalists on Twitter. My Twitter feed is probably the best news source on the planet. You get a lot of great backchannel, off-the-beaten path stuff when you follow journalists on Twitter. It’s crazy.

I’m inspired by Burning Man. That so many people come together and create the most labor intensive experiences without compensation, just for the sake of human ecstatic generosity and scale, and then BOOM, it disappears, is a semi-nomadic miracle the gives me hope in humanity. People really need to check that one off the bucket list. There are a lot of snarky things people say about Burning Man. But bottom line, it’s the world’s largest gathering of cool people, from all walks of life, at their most generous. So if you can’t have an amazing time there, it’s your fault, not Burning Man’s.

I’m inspired by a lot. But I’ll stop here.”

Q4: What do you think are the essential elements required for a successful content marketing strategy?

It is hard to align content and customer experience efforts globally if business strategy work is incomplete. @Carlos_Abler Share on X

A: “There are so many! I have identified 12 categories of success factors for content programs. But I will focus on just two facets here.

First, a 100% focus on what customer pain, goal, aspiration or experience you are trying to solve with content. On this foundation you can act as an entrepreneurial start-up and create content that is truly a strategically informed product that delivers value, and not just propaganda the talks about value. If you don’t clearly identify the value you are delivering, you will not achieve relevance. Your content will likely just be more noise that robs people of precious moments of their lives—which I think is actually criminal—if they pay attention to you at all. Respect your audience, respect their time, respect their lives. Help them, or get out of their way.

Secondly, proactive, collaborative aligned planning across the organizations. Content is typically produced in siloes of various types: different divisions, departments and geographies. The more complex the organization, the more likely these groups produce redundancies, gaps, fragmented incoherent customers experiences,  and missed opportunities for leverage and efficiencies.

The best way to reduce waste and lost opportunity is to work upstream with cross-functionally aligned planning, aligned to customers, verticals and accounts. This can be challenging for a number of reasons. Planning rhythms may be out of synch geographically, operating against different calendars. People might think that rigorous planning exercises take too much time—like getting 50 people together to do workshops for 3 days—because they don’t have a mental model for how much time is lost in more ad hoc processes, and how programs might take a year or more longer to hit the market than they should, if they are able to be launched at all. Also the types of planning required for good upstream input will intrude on planning cycles that functions don’t realize are critical to content program dependencies, and inversely don’t realize how core to value realization content programs are for the strategic goals of their plans. Marketing planning is an obvious one here. But also general business strategy planning. It is hard to align content and customer experience efforts globally if business strategy work is incomplete with minimum viable elements across geographies. Regardless, planning alignment is a huge competitive factor.

Thirdly, for a global conglomerate, you need to take a global-first approach. The cost savings and value realization of minimizing redundancy and slow-to-market for under-resources geographies, and of maximizing asset repurposing and reuse, demands a global-first approach. This is a big challenge because identifying what factors for any given content asset or program requires a lot of Pareto principle analysis. Is your content 80% global or 20% local, or the other way around? Are there content assets that truly only apply 100% to a single geography? Is this mix highly chaotic? Or are there clear repeating rhythms of global/local proportion across the cadence of content programs? This is a hard problem, and one that is impossible to address from a downstream approach of localizing existing content. Global/local balances can only be optimized if you have upstream, cross-geo aligned planning, along with well-focused content management practices that include methodical storage and metadata practice.”

What’s Next?

If you are struggling to expedite or improve content at your organization, implementing even a few small tips from Carlos can certainly help. But, becoming a Jedi mastermind and change agent doesn’t happen overnight. Subscribe to the DivvyHQ blog today if you wish to receive part two of our interview with Carlos. The next feature will include more advice for becoming a change agent, his thoughts on the future of customer experience, and tips on how to prepare for digital transformation.

In the meantime, you can learn more from Carlos and 12 other content marketing masterminds by downloading our latest eBook, The Future Proof Guide to Content Marketing Strategy.