Brain Traffic’s Kristina Halvorson on content marketing and strategy

Content is often a tricky concept for startups to get a proper handle on.

As we’ve written before, the phrase “content marketing” often undermines the value we as creators should be delivering to our audience. And that doesn’t even account for where it fits into “content strategy”, which has long had its own meaning and purpose in product and UX design.

To explore the role content should play in forward-looking organisations like startups, I recently hosted Kristina Halvorson on our podcast. Kristina is the CEO and founder of Brain Traffic, a world-renowned content strategy consultancy. There her team does everything from website and enterprise content strategies and process design to workshops and events – the largest of those is the well regarded Confab conference series. Back in 2009, she published “Content Strategy for the Web”, which remains a seminal work on the topic. In short, Kristina lives and breathes content.

In our chat Kristina shares her perspective on the evolving definition of content strategy, how it intersects with content marketing and the common mistakes many startups make when it comes to content. If you enjoy the conversation check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

John: Kristina, welcome to the show. Can you give us a quick rundown of your career in content strategy and the work you’re doing today at Brain Traffic?

Kristina: I started out as a web copywriter and got sick and tired of being called in at the very last minute to fill in all the lorum ipsum in designs. So I started to insert myself earlier and earlier into the process and pretty soon discovered that what I was doing was called content strategy. I was assisting people in understanding all the nuances of the content planning, creation and delivery process.

My company, Brain Traffic, started offering content strategy services formally in about 2007, and we’ve been doing it ever since. A lot of our services focus on website redesigns, but we still do a lot of copywriting for websites. We also have moved into more enterprise content strategy, which focuses on content operations design.

The intersection of content marketing and content strategy

John: It’s been eight years since you published “Content Strategy for the Web”. How did you define content strategy then, and how would you define it today? It’s shifted a lot over the last couple of years.

Kristina: It certainly has, and that shift really came along with the rise of content marketing. When we first started talking about content strategy, it was in the context of the user experience design process. We were really encouraging people to think far more strategically about the content beyond just the stuff that you get to fill in once the designs are ready to go.

With the rise of content marketing, the phrase content strategy was adopted by a lot of the pundits and thought leaders to describe the kind of content you are going to create as a part of your content marketing campaign, or your commitment over time. As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, that has been a source of frustration for me. Simply because we felt like we had made so much progress in getting people to really think about, “What is it that we are trying to do for our business, and more specifically, for our users?” The content strategy that’s often referred to in the content marketing field is really more of what are you going to do, what is that editorial calendar going to look like, and where are you going to put your content?

I don’t want to say this as a global thing because there are organizations that are doing a really good job integrating their branded content programs and sites across their entire business in terms of the sales cycle and the user journey. But for the most part, when we talk about having a documented content strategy in content marketing, I’m seeing people creating editorial calendars. While there has to be some strategy behind it, it’s a more tactical implementation of the idea that they want to do content marketing.

John: A lot of people are coming to this with an editorial focus rather than a design or a UX focus, where they’re trying to solve a problem. Should content strategy then be a distinct and unique thing?

Kristina: I’ve lost a lot of sleep over the word “content” and the word “strategy.” What does it mean when they sit next to each other? If it were up to me, content strategy would not need to be a separate thing from user experience design. It would just be part of the natural process. We would consider content as a core asset and what people are coming to your site for in order to complete the tasks that they need to complete.

The thing about content is it’s impacted by so many different areas of an organization. It’s not just marketing. It’s also technology, it’s design, it’s people that are creating digital products, it’s the people that are delivering the help and support content. The content strategist’s role, or opportunity, lies in starting to connect the dots between all of those different organizational functions.

When we talk about content marketing and content strategy, what ends up happening is that content strategy sits squarely in marketing, and so the primary focus is going to be on promotion and driving leads. And that’s really only a small part of the overall content ecosystem within organizations of any size.

The role of content as a part of your greater marketing mix

John: Do a bit of Googling and you’ll realize that so many people are writing about how you can transform your business with content marketing – quick wins, silver bullets, etc. Some of it feels quite like a snake oil salesman, but that’s only a tiny sliver of the power of content for a business these days.

Kristina: Not only the power of content, but the necessity of it. People are not coming to you online for your design, or even necessarily for your gajillion articles that you’ve purchased or cranked out for your content marketing program. For the most part they’re coming to your site to get a question answered or to make a decision or to get information to support that decision-making process. Or once they’ve become a customer, they’re coming to you for support. Yes, content marketing can be a part of that, but what has made me insane is this idea that content marketing can transform your business, like a silver bullet.

Content marketing needs to be considered as a part of a larger integrated marketing strategy.

Content marketing needs to be considered as a part of a larger integrated marketing strategy. So many organizations that I talk to or who call us for assistance, even with their content marketing programs, have started with the idea that content marketing is a mandate. That they’ve got to engage, they’ve got to launch this program without considering a larger marketing strategy and whether or not content marketing as a tactical commitment even makes sense for them.

How are companies using content marketing to differentiate? Are they seeing a lift in search engine visibility? Are they able to make a clear connection between the content marketing that they’re doing and customer sales, retention satisfaction, and so on.

Joe Pulizzi has stood on stage at Content Marketing World for the last several years and said, “We have this huge upswing in spend on content marketing.” And yet the large majority of organizations are not able to demonstrate any profitable or meaningful results from that. His answer has been, “So we need to try harder.” My answer is, “We have to step back and see whether or not content marketing makes sense for your organization in the first place.” That’s not been a very popular opinion among marketing folks.

How content becomes commoditized

John: I tend to agree. There’s certain business that are not going to lend themselves to content marketing or certainly very easy types of content marketing. If you’re making a widget or a very transactional type product, it’s not immediately obvious what kind of content you can create that’s going to attract buyers. Intercom has invested quite heavily in content marketing, but we’re able to create content that appeals to and helps people who are going to buy our product. It’s quite clear why we’re creating the content and what kind of content these people want to read. But there’s a lot of people ticking the box saying, “We’re going to do content.”

Kristina: What’s funny to me is that some of the very best content marketing programs are coming from content marketers, from people who are selling products or services geared towards content marketing. That irony is not lost on me.

At Brain Traffic, we’re a content strategy firm, and we made a conscious choice not to do any sort of content creation or content marketing over the past several years because we are such a small organization. We are so busy serving clients and doing client work, and we thought, “If we can’t do this right, we’re not going to do it at all.”

Having said that, we’re getting ready to relaunch and begin investing in that content creation, but we’re an organization that people are looking towards for very specific information. So many companies are just creating content to keep up with the Joneses and because so many of them are focused on quantity, what they end up doing is trying to be everything to everyone.

So many companies are just creating content to keep up with the Joneses.

Take for example a large hotel organization. They say, “We need to be creating content about things to do and local attractions for every single one of our properties. Maybe what we also need to do is launch an online magazine that really speaks to the lifestyle, the traveler, and maybe the business traveler, and the family vacations.” They start cranking out all of this incredible content without thinking about if, or how, it’s going to differentiate their organization, and whether or not it’s going to perform in the search engines against all the other content that’s being created by individuals and standalone magazines.

That makes me crazy. Why are you doing it? If you don’t have a specific, set editorial strategy that’s going to differentiate you, all you’re doing is crowding the experience of your property websites and your brand.

John: And devaluing the content as well. It just becomes commoditized then.

Kristina: It’s totally commoditized, and the fact of the matter is, as a consumer, am I going to be more likely to trust content on vacations from a hotel who’s trying to get me to go to their hotel, or am I going to go to a blogger who specializes in family vacations?

If you do the search online you’re going to see Google is sending you to those individual content creators. So without any sort of clear differentiation or platform, those companies are just throwing money away. This is where it comes back to the idea of focusing on content in the customer experience. Because these companies that are pouring money into content that’s not differentiated, that isn’t performing at all for their company’s bottom line, or isn’t adding any real measurable value to their users. I would love to see those marketing departments investing in online customer experience, which can go anywhere from getting out of the way when they’re trying to book a property, to really transforming their help and support content.

REI: A case study in content done well

John: What brands are getting content right? Who’s doing something that’s clever or well thought out?

Kristina: A brand that I point to regularly is REI. They had that content marketing game figured out long before content marketing became a thing. Their brand platform is something like, “A life lived outside is a better life.” So they have been creating content specifically from their in-house outdoor experts around your first time camping, or how to choose a mountain to climb. They’ve created how-to videos, they’ve created inspirational videos, and they’ve aligned their online experience with their in-store experience. They’re offering events, and trips, and classes that you can take, and then repurposing that information online.

This all makes perfect sense because they’re wanting to teach people about living in the outdoors, and of course selling the products along the way. I very much admire the way they have taken their brand values and their audience needs into consideration, and really helped bring those to life with their branded content.

Take into consideration the content marketing that they do, and it makes sense as a part of their larger marketing strategy. They have made a set of integrated choices within what they are delivering from a marketing perspective. They started with that holistic marketing strategy versus starting with, “We should do some content. Everybody says we need to do content marketing.”

I’ve sat in organizations where I push and push and push, and finally somebody says, “We are doing content marketing because everywhere we look we are told we have to do it,” and that is the big sin of the content marketing industry.

Where your startup can get started with content

John: You see content strategy as an integral part of experience design. A lot of our audience comes from early-stage companies. How can should they think about making an investment in content strategy? When and where should young companies start?

Kristina: Even for the very large companies that we work with, I’m often surprised at how – whether it’s at the marketing level or the content management level – people are working with these very large, broad goals, which if you step back and look at them are more of a vision. They say, “We’re going to become the leading provider of content of ‘fill in the blank’ industry for audiences everywhere.” That’s not a strategy, that’s a vision, and an undifferentiated, uninspiring one at that.

Everybody’s got to start with their company vision, their company mission, and so on, but you need to be able to hone in on those longer-term measurable goals, and then gather information about your audience and about your users, which means talking to them.

The heart of any good content strategy is putting your audience or putting your users at the center of everything you do. It’s hard for me to think of any content strategy statement that does not include serving prioritized audiences, based on their preferences and to support what their top tasks are when they come to you online. Start by gathering that information, and being willing to really listen and accept what people want instead of what you wish they would want. Without that information I don’t think it’s easy to really undertake any sort of larger holistic customer experience design initiative or to be able to think about the role of content.

The heart of any good content strategy is putting your audience at the center of everything you do.

Everything from the words we choose for a user interface, to how we are scripting a chatbot, to the information that we’re delivering to people on our websites, whether it’s at the article level or within our email, or an online magazine, or social media platforms, that’s all content. Getting that right, getting it to be consistent, which is difficult no matter what size the organization is, that’s where content strategy comes in. That is where content strategy needs to be informed by those business goals, by those audience needs, and then also by your company’s constraints when it comes to resources.

We’re a small company. We did not have the bandwidth to be able to effectively manage a blog and a podcast,and social media channels, so we made a very conscious decision to focus our resources into events, because that’s what made sense for us.

So start with your concrete business goal, your shorter-term objectives and your audience, and then craft a content strategy that’s going to help you make a decision about where you are going to invest in your content, and where you’re not. Do you use video? Do you use podcasts? Do you have an online magazine? Often it’s, “You have all this opportunity, so go get it”. That is very, very damaging to brands.

John: You highlighted being user-centric and looking at what your users want and what they’re interacting with. A lot of that research did come with costs in earlier times, but there’s really little excuse now in terms of the tools and services that are available to people, to really find out and get close to your customers. If you’re not that user-centric now, you’re not at the races.

Kristina: Even if it’s as simple as calling your customer support or sitting your sales folks down and talking to them about what customers want, if for whatever reason you can’t have direct contact with your customers, talk to the people who do.

But honestly, there’s a part of some organizations where they don’t really want to know. They don’t want to hear that customers don’t want to follow them on Twitter or that they don’t care about their online magazine. What they’re really frustrated with is how hard it is to get a hold of customer support, or trying to register for something through an experience that is really awful. Because marketers so rarely have say over that, I don’t think they want to hear that’s what’s most important. It might be easier to focus on analytics, to create meaning in those analytics, and to assume that we know what user intent is. But no one out of analytics are going to tell us why people are doing what they’re doing. We’ve got to talk to our users.

There are no silver bullets

John: What tactics are you seeing clients having really good results with at the moment in terms of the newer things that are out there?

Kristina: People want a blanket answer. They want that silver bullet. They want to hear, “Companies everywhere are using video. I should use video too because that’s the new hot thing and surely my users expect me to have video.” There’s not a single answer to that question. There are so many companies that say, “Yes, we do need to invest in video.” and then they end up putting summaries from their last board meeting, and nobody cares. They’ve got 12 views. Instead, they do need to invest in some kind of chatbot, where they provide some way for instantaneous two-way communication with their organization.

There are some organizations that have really great results with events. There are some organizations that are just killing it with their online magazine. Some organizations are having huge success with their Twitter platform. So I don’t see one thing that companies are doing that, across the board, everyone is seeing great results – except continually optimizing their website experience. And that’s not sexy. Nobody wants to talk about that. But the fact of the matter is everyone on the front lines at these organizations, when they hear our message around the importance of content strategy and taking care of your content over time, and not rushing out after the next silver bullet, that resonates. It’s continually working to optimize the customer experience and to be realistic and to be brave in hearing what is important to them, because it might not be important to you.

John: People get very enthused with new content initiatives, and then as you say, don’t do the work to optimize it and review it regularly to make sure it’s current.

Kristina: And to figure out how to demonstrate that it’s contributing to their business success. People say, “We want to engage people. We want to get people coming back.” Well, if you can demonstrate that people who come back three or four times are more likely to fill out a lead form, that’s great. That kind of level of engagement is something to chase and something to work towards because there is an end result that has business impact.

What are we hearing from customers is broken or could be optimized?

But a lot of this is, “We want to create loyalty and we want to shift brand perception.” Well, look at customer retention. Measure brand perception as best you can in the marketplace. Go out and get those results. And you know what? If you can’t or you’re not seeing results, take a step back and ask, “What are we hearing from customers is broken or could be optimized?”

Even if it’s as unsexy as fixing your site’s internal search engine, you’d be shocked at how important that is to people, and yet how few companies are investing in making that work. The basics are often not exciting, but the basics are what are going to differentiate you from the competitors.

Adding events to your content mix

John: How did you zero in on conferences as something that could be successful for Brain Traffic as a marketing tool? It’s such a large piece of work compared to a podcast or a blog, but clearly it’s been a really successful strategy for you.

Kristina: We also love it. It’s really fun. With our organization and the culture that we have, we like throwing big parties and we like throwing parties for people who really, really care about content strategy and the role it plays in the customer experience. That’s really where it started in 2011. I looked around and thought, “I’ve met all these smart people. They’re so awesome. Let’s get them together and throw a conference.” I had no idea what I was getting into.

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But it was a huge success, and so we’ve built a business around those events, and it has certainly fed into our consulting business. When I talk about our business strategy at Brain Traffic, we really have three parts to the stool. We’ve got our conference offerings, we have our consulting and project services, and then we have the content that we’ve created, which includes my book, and Meghan Casey’s book, “The Content Strategy Toolkit”. I’m also trying to hammer out another book.

I’ve given tons of talks, so there are lots of decks of my work available online. Things like this podcast, guest blog posts and so on. Those three things work nicely together to help us be successful, but that is a very clear business strategy where there is a clear relationship between those three offerings.

Would it be okay if we took the conferences away? Yeah, probably, and it would be a lot less of a headache for us as well. But it’s something we’re passionate about and we feel like it really helps move the industry forward.

John: Kristina, we could probably talk about content for hours. Thanks for taking the time to join us.

Kristina: It was just a pleasure. Thanks for having me.