She was the natural choice for a conversation about content strategy, given the progress we have made in our practice here.
You were probably one of the first people in my network to write about Content Strategy for the Web. When you talk about content strategy, what exactly does that term encompass in your mind?
Kristina: Content strategy plans for the creation, distribution, and governance of content. So when I talk about content strategy, I’m not just talking about what content to create or how it should be shared. That’s actually the easy part of the conversation!
We can talk about how to make our content engaging and persuasive (how it sounds, what it looks like). We can make lists of content distribution channels and platforms (where). Content marketing largely focuses on these components of our content planning and creation.
What’s difficult—and what regularly derails even the most well-intentioned content marketing initiatives—is actually figuring out the answers to far more complicated (and, oftentimes, less sexy!) questions that take into consideration workflow and governance: the parts that will make our content marketing plans achievable, effective, and sustainable:
- Why are we creating this content? Is it just so we can have more content, or are our efforts tied to specific business objectives and user goals?
- What content do we have to work with? Is it any good?
- Who is the content for? What do they want and need? Do we know this for sure, or are we making assumptions? (Assumptions are the enemy of all marketing strategies!)
- Who will create the content? What are the required skill sets?
- How much time will it take to create and maintain the content? Do we have it?
- By what standards and metrics will we measure the content’s success?
- Who is empowered to say “no” to requests for new or different content?
- What happens to the content once it’s published? (This speaks to the “launch it and leave it” mentality that results in bloated websites, dead microsites, and abandoned social media campaigns.)
It’s these questions that really get at the heart of content strategy: the questions that address not just the product (or content) components, but really dig into the people components that are required to make any sustainable content initiative a success.
We need to stop thinking about content as something that’s “launched” or even simply “published”, and think of it in terms of a content lifecycle. And that means thinking clearly through what it’s going to take to make our big content marketing visions come to life.
Our digital content consumption continues to go up with our participation in social networks. Why should brands have a content strategy and what is the best content is for a brand owner to use to cut through the noise?
Kristina: One of the favorite quotes used by content marketing advocates is something Seth Godin said to Joe Pulizzi a few years ago: “Content marketing is the only marketing left.” Generally speaking, I agree. If you’re not sharing useful, relevant information with your customers to support their decision-making process… if you’re not working to deepen relationships with them by sustaining a conversation that focuses on them, not you… if you don’t invest in quality content that your customers really care about…your competitors will. And they will win.
Brands need to invest in a solid content strategy and the accompanying infrastructure to ensure that their content initiatives are achievable, sustainable, agile, and measurable. It’s also important that you’re coordinating content initiatives (yes, including social media conversations!!) across the spectrum of your efforts. Otherwise, you’ll end up with irrelevant, inconsistent content, and that’s terrible for any brand. you’re wasting your money and your customers’ time.
What’s the best content to cut through the noise? It totally depends on where your customers are, how they’re consuming content, what they tell you they need (and want) related to your company and product or service… basically, there isn’t One Kind of Content that will help you win. Similarly, just getting your company on Facebook and Twitter doesn’t mean you’re bound for social media success. There isn’t a silver bullet when it comes to this stuff.
Having worked for years in corporate America, I know that one of the hardest parts for any organizations is the question of who owns the content for the Web. What would you recommend is a good approach for beginners and for middle of the road companies who have already started producing content? How do you take things to the next level? What do you prioritize?
Kristina: This is an excellent question with some really complicated answers. However, I do have some fairly simple, specific advice for companies that are first starting to face these issues:
If you’ve started producing content, step back and ask yourself: how is this content helping our business achieve its goals? Is it? How do we know? Content for the sake of content (or social media, or SEO… content that’s just demonstrating activity to higher ups, for example) creates a big garbage dump for your organization.
Next, figure out if and how you’re measuring the effectiveness of the content you’re already producing. If you’re not sure, sit down and put some metrics in place.
Then, take inventory of what content you have. Where is it? What does it say? Who owns it? When was the last time it was reviewed or updated? Then look at why and how it’s getting created. Who’s asking for it? Who’s doing it? Who approves it?
Next, take a close look at all the content “impact factors” over which you don’t have control: customer preference, competitor activity, industry trends, and so on. Most importantly: talk to your customers. Don’t make assumptions.
Bottom line: before you take another step, do a serious reality check about your content products and people. If you don’t know where you are now, you can’t make a map to get to where you want to go. Having all this information provides context for making smarter, more informed decisions about what to prioritize. You’ll stop spinning your wheels or just trying out random tactics to “see what works.” That’s what it takes to create a real strategy.
What are your thoughts on the role agencies play when it comes to content? Some organizations like to outsource the whole lot, and there are agencies that will happily take it on. While others, I see us at Powered, Inc. in this camp, prefer to be like training wheels and provide a framework on how to think about it.
Kristina: It absolutely depends on the client. For example: Is there top-level support for investing in quality content over time? Are they willing to develop an editorial infrastructure to maintain long-term content creation and governance? At the very least, will they dedicate resources to content, instead of just making it everyone’s (and therefore no one’s!) job? If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then probably outsourcing the work to an agency makes sense.
The thing I really love about content strategy is that there’s really nowhere for agencies or consultants to hide when it comes to “blue sky thinking”, “brand visioning”, and the like. I realize that there are myriad consultancies and agencies who deliver real value when it comes to The Big Idea. However, how many of these “big ideas” and “visionary strategies” languish over time, because they weren’t rooted in the reality of an organization’s resources, culture, and so on?
Content strategy forces us to look at the real world of what we have, what we need, and where exactly it is we’re going with all this content.
I always tell clients that Brain Traffic can “think big” with the rest of them, but we’re not interested in just delivering good ideas. We want to make achievable recommendations. We want to see our content strategies executed, and successfully.
One of the reasons why businesses push back on developing outposts in social networks is how content-intensive they are. And when they do create a presence everywhere, they hardly participate in the dialogue. How do you help organizations see the value of having a conversation strategy along with a content strategy? Do you? Why/why not?
Kristina: You know, I recently had a Twitter showdown with Guy Kawasaki about his continued battle cry for organizations to “just dive in” with social media. I think that’s the single most harmful piece of advice marketers can take, for exactly the reasons you’ve just described.
If businesses don’t have people to manage social conversations, then they absolutely shouldn’t develop those outposts. Having a dead community forum, abandoned blog, or worthless Twitter feed is far more damaging to a brand than having nothing at all.
Does this mean brands should just give up on social media as something that’s beyond their means, so to speak? Absolutely not!! But it does mean that, rather than just experimenting with a bunch of different tactics, marketers need to take the time to make a social media plan they can actually execute and sustain.
And, to me, that means making your “conversation strategy” a core component of your content strategy. You can’t have the first without the second: understanding how that larger conversation is going to happen, how you’ll measure success, and how you’ll maintain those efforts over time.
(You might have noticed by now that I’m not a big fan of random acts of content!)
If you had one thing you could say that would help businesses see the value of content to their bottom line, what would that be?
Kristina: Here’s the thing. None fires up their iPad thinking, “I can’t WAIT to see what brand experiences I’m in for today!” or “Let’s go looking for pretty website designs!” or “I wonder if I can find x company across all twelve of the social media channels I’ll participate in today?”
I don’t mean to denigrate any of these critical considerations. However, I think companies need to do a serious reality check: people go online for your content. Relevant, consistent, well-structured, engaging, informative content. They don’t want to search everywhere for it. They want it when, where, and how it’s most useful to them. Getting that right requires content strategy. Period.
The companies who’ve launched winning social media and content marketing initiatives didn’t just try a bunch of different tactics to see what would work. They’ve made serious investments in planning and executing smart, well-informed content strategies. They don’t treat content like a commodity. They treat it like a critical business asset. And it’s that mindset that will give brands the leading edge, starting now.
Kristina Halvorson is the CEO of Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. She is the author of Content Strategy for the Web, host of the Content Talks podcast (5by5 Studios), and the founder of Confab: The Content Strategy Conference [disclosue: I will be speaking at the conference next May] She lives in St. Paul, MN with her two children, whom she regularly quotes on Twitter.