What is content marketing without a content strategy? Interview with Kristina Halvorson, CEO of Brain Traffic

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Kristina Halvorson has held many different jobs over the years – all involved with content in one way or another. She started out as a freelance copywriter for web projects, but found her client’s content strategies unclear. So she got involved earlier in the web development process to ask more questions. What did her clients really need, from a content perspective? Why hadn’t they done research or analysis to validate assumptions about their content? And what exactly was driving their web content development? Through her questioning and digging, she came across the practice of content strategy and today she is the CEO of Brain Traffic, a world-renowned content strategy consultancy in Minneapolis.

Widen caught up with Kristina this summer, shortly after her keynote presentation at the Confab Central conference, to talk about content strategy. Here’s what she had to say.

Kristina Halvorson, Founder and President, Brain Traffic - Photo by Pete Karl II

 

1. How do you see content marketing today vs. three years ago? And what is most important today for any marketing team interested in content marketing?
There is a fear of being left out in the cold with content marketing like there was earlier with social media. All of our clients feel like they need to do content marketing, but I try to shut that conversation down by really pushing the question WHY do you need to do it? With this fear of being left out, they end up rushing without thinking through the goals or what they hope to gain from it. 

People need to ask themselves why they’re interested in content marketing. Is it truly an opportunity for competitive differentiation? Have they done audience research that shows this is a need their audience is open to? Do they have the time, skill sets and means to do content publishing and be consistent with it over time? What are the measures for success over time - how do they know the content they’re publishing is effective? In my experience, very few companies have concrete answers to these questions. They just think “more content equals good content” and forge ahead.

You have to think of your content as a product, as a company asset that exists in a lifecycle. It requires people, processes, and technology to keep it going. Marketers have to take the complexities of content marketing very seriously—it’s not just about capacity for more content. 

 

2. What are the top three things good marketing content can do for a business?
First and foremost, it should serve and satisfy the people who see it.

In some instances, custom publishing can be a competitive differentiator, but that needs to be well researched first to be determined. 

Finally, content marketing can be a great way to tell the stories about an organization’s efforts to make the world a better place: charity support, community involvement, and so on.

 

3. When do marketers need to establish a content strategy? Is there a quantifiable difference when you put a strategy in place before you start creating content?
Your holistic marketing strategy always has to come first. Content marketing is a tactic. It needs to serve a larger strategy – one with meaningful goals. If you want to try it as a tactic, fine. But recognize that it has to map back to that strategy and be realistic about where the money to support it is going to come from budget-wise. 

The biggest difference is that a strategy makes your efforts intentional and targeted, rather than “let’s create as much content as possible” … which can result in a big landfill of useless, irrelevant, undifferentiated content. And as marketers, we don’t like to go back and clean up messes. All that unsexy work like cleaning up microsites from forever ago or organizing a website – keywords and page descriptions – so people can read and find what they need. There is so much unsexy work that marketing people don’t want to do, yet that work is often what really defines good marketing practices. 

My number one frustration is the misconception that more content is good content. It’s killing my clients. Keep asking yourself why? Why do we need to create more content? Who is this for? What is it going to get you in return?

 

4. What are the must-have components; the bare bones you need for a content strategy to be successful?
We call content strategy what it is because it’s the missing link between the bigger business strategy and the tactical marketing plan. But content strategy has to clearly define what your organization is going to invest in - educational oversight, new technologies, workflow, analytics, audience research. The strategy has to tell you what you WILL and WILL NOT do. 

So at the very least, you need to have an assessment and analysis of your current content substance, structure, and workflow; well-articulated business goals and audience needs; a core strategy statement that narrows and focuses your efforts; metrics to benchmark your strategy’s success; and a roadmap for how you will execute tactics against that strategy.

 

5. What does success look like? What things should you look at and measure in order to determine if your strategy has succeeded?
It totally depends on an organization’s unique metrics for business and customer success. 

“Engagement” is a lousy metric. We link engagement to things that mean nothing like clicks, views, shares, follows, and saves. Those are nothing, they just show the consumer passed by. Clicks and such don’t show intent to purchase, any likeliness to refer, or any interactivity with your product or service. It’s a lazy metric.

Ultimately, it’s got to go back to what you’re trying to do as an organization – active referrals, contact rates, conversations in the comments section about your product and service. A friend recently called content marketing “a way to increase brand goodwill,” which is actually quite lovely. But let’s not assume that a click or a share equals any sort of goodwill other than a nod from a passerby.

 

6. Where is content marketing going in the future? What should we expect to see changing?

I believe that companies will continue to evolve their content marketing plans as a part of their larger tactical marketing roadmap, so that if they choose to move forward with content marketing it will be well aligned and measured alongside their other marketing initiatives – from brand advertising all the way through customer support.

Eventually, the hype will die down. Companies will start to question the actual ROI, and the minute the next big trend comes along, they’ll immediately reallocate budget to wherever they hear other companies are spending money. I realize this sounds really jaded, but look back over the “marketing mandates” we’ve flipped out about over the years—companies have gotten smarter about things like QR codes, “fun” apps, trying to “go viral” with video. 

Ultimately, I hope there will be more talk about what we SHOULDN’T do. I hope we see organizations doing a better job of planning and thinking through what they’re doing. There are not a lot of leaders setting strategy and holding people accountable in a meaningful way beyond “I need to produce more content” just for the sake of it. 

 

7. What advice do you have for seasoned content marketers versus those just getting the content ball rolling?

Be brave about questioning the value of your efforts and how you’re measuring success. Think about why you need to do what you’re doing. What would happen if you didn’t spend your money on this. Where else would you spend it?

Be judicious. Be honest. Be the person at the table willing to question the norm. That’s what will keep “seasoned marketers” at the leading edge of what’s next.

Topics: Marketing

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