How to (elegantly) say ‘no’ as a content marketer

Most content marketers know that content doesn’t function as a vending machine. Yet that is how some organizations look at it (and yes, often with the best of intentions): the content team is our bunch of creatives who create creative stuff on request basis.

Hm. Not quite. As I’ve explained before in a number of blogs (such as this one) content marketing only works if it fulfills a strategic function, has the C-suite stamp of approval and is done consistently and well.

And doing it well means that sometimes content marketers have to say ‘no’ to content requests which, frankly, can come from all areas in an organization: sales, business, executive committee, big boss, even the marketing team itself.

But how can you say ‘no’ – elegantly, emphatically and based on fact or agreements – when you don’t have that strategic plan yet? Here are three ways, and one bonus tip.

1. Craft a content marketing mission statement

A content marketing mission statement helps to keep all eyes on the ball. Not just the marketing eyes, but those of the entire organization. This is how it works.

According to Joe Pulizzi, a content marketing mission statement (CMMS) includes at least the following three things:

  • Who you create content for (= your core audience target)
  • What you will deliver (= the types of content you will create)
  • The outcome for the audience (= what they will get out of it)

Let’s look at this simple example from

Welcome to, the place where entrepreneurs and business owners ( = core audience) can find useful information, advice, insights, resources and inspiration (= what you will deliver) for running and growing their businesses (= what they will get out of it).”

Well, that’s as clear and concise as it gets, no? When a content piece is not addressed to business owners, it doesn’t go on When the value it delivers, is not helping them grow their business, it doesn’t go on And so on.

A CMMS acts as a guide mark which points everyone in the chosen direction, and no other. So whenever someone in the organization asks you to create and/or publish content that is not aligned with the CMMS, you really are in a position to say, “No, I’m sorry, this is not the function of content in this organization.” To which you could of course add: “But maybe there’s another use or channel for it?”

You can create a CMMS for content as a whole, but depending on your specific context, it is possible and often advisable to craft one for every major platform you have.

Take this superb example from Northwell Health, a large US healthcare provider. When they launched a digital platform called The Well, they phrased its raison d’être as follows:

The Well is our commitment to the future of healthcare. In this time of information overabundance, much of which is inaccurate, unhelpful or even difficult to understand, Northwell Health is on a mission to make a difference as an honest, trusted and caring partner. We’re connecting with consumers to provide them with personalized content that reduces their stress, makes them laugh and ultimately feel more confident and capable on their healthcare journey.”

Wow. And this CMMS – because that’s what it is – is published on the homepage of the platform too. Talk about clarity of purpose.

In a Content Marketing World talk, available for students of the awesome Content Marketing University, Gina Czark (VP Content Management at Northwell Health), points out that this CMMS is really used as a means to counter specific types of content requests within the organization. It doesn’t align? Sorry, we can’t do this.

2. Make an impact/effort matrix

An impact/effort matrix can help you prioritize tasks or projects, based on the amount of effort they require, versus the amount of impact you believe they will have.  There are four quadrants in such a matrix:

  • Quadrant 1: Low effort/High impact: Low-hanging fruit, too good/easy to ignore. Quick wins.
  • Quadrant 2: High effort/High impact: Major projects or tasks, that are a lot of work, and need to be planned well in advance.
  • Quadrant 3: Low effort/low impact: Stuff that is relatively easy to do, but which will not make waves. People-pleasing things, mostly.
  • Quadrant 4: High effort/low impact: Meaningless tasks that just suck up energy.

When the content team is flooded with requests, it helps to plot them in an impact/effort matrix, and to try to get buy-in from your superior for this. If you have ‘x’ amount of time, it only makes sense to devote that time as much as possible to the tasks and projects that will most likely have the most (immediate) impact, no?

Ideally you decide in advance what your actions will be for each quadrant. For example: 1 and 2 =  do, 3 = outsource or backburner, 4 = ignore. Or you can define how much time you will devote to each quadrant: 1 = 20%, 2 = 50%, 3 = 5% and 4 = 0% (always allow for some margin, 25% in this case).

An analogy is I often use is of the glass jar, that has to be filled with large pebbles, small pebbles and sand. Let’s suppose the large pebbles are the big projects, the small pebbles the low-hanging fruit and the sand the low impact/effort, people-pleasing tasks.

If you fill your jar with sand first, it will be hard to get the pebbles in. Chances are you will have to leave some out. But if you start with the large pebbles, then throw in the smaller pebbles, and finally pour in the sand, the small pebbles and the sand will arrange themselves around the big pebbles.

3. Provide the data

If someone asks you to devote ‘x’ amount of time to create, revise or publish a piece of content you just know it won’t have much impact, look for the data to back that up. Maybe you did this kind of thing before, and you are able to prove it didn’t reach the intended goal. That’s always more effective than saying “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

Now when this happens, it turns out that for the majority of these requests  – well-intended though they are – the goal has not been articulated. Or the targeted audience is not clear. Or there is no call to action whatsoever. (I have this rule, and I’m not alone in this, in that I never validate a piece of content without a CTA).

These are of course opportunities to demonstrate how content does work, and maybe to craft a MVCP (a minimum viable content plan). It takes time to develop a vision and a strategy, and you shouldn’t sit still until you’ve done that. Work with what you know, keep learning and collaborate with the people in the organization who are enthusiastic about creating content, even if that enthusiasm needs to be a little more focused and disciplined. Show them how!

And this is my bonus tip, which I also articulated in my blog on 3 content resolutions for 2019: never stop evangelizing: “When everyone in an organization understands how content marketing works and does not work, content creators will gradually get more time to work on the high-impact stuff, and the request for the umpteenth piece of content cr*p will diminish and ultimately cease.”

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Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash