Content isn’t a commodity; it’s a valuable business asset that must be achieved with clear intent and a solid strategy. You need to know your audience and how you’re going to measure success. But, what does a sophisticated content marketing strategy look like?
In this episode of Augurs on the Town, Josh speaks with Kristina Halvorson – CEO of Brain Traffic – about what content strategy is and how businesses can benefit from strategic content development.
Explore more digital marketing tips, insights, and interviews at our blog or visit Brain Traffic to learn about Kristina’s work.
Josh Becerra: Well, hi everybody. I’m Josh Becerra from Augurian. I have the pleasure to be sitting with Kristina Halvorson, founder, and CEO of Brain Traffic.
Kristina Halvorson: Hi.
Josh: Kristina and I have known each other for quite a while.
Kristina: Lo these many years.
Josh: We actually are neighbors. Our kids have gone to some of the same school, Bella and Gus are in the same grade.
Kristina: Yes, still in the same school.
Josh: Yes. There you go. We’ve known each other for a while.
Kristina: We have.
Josh: Then all of a sudden, I realize you wrote the book on content strategy.
Kristina: I wrote a book on content strategy. That is true.
Josh: Yes, you did. That’s awesome. Here we are doing an Augurs On The Town talking to you a little bit about content strategy. Why don’t you, for the audience, give us a definition or tell us, what do you think of when you’re talking about content strategy?
Kristina: I’m sorry, it’s so funny talking to you on camera. We just usually are chatting at school functions or passing each other at the neighborhood grocery store, so anyway, yes, let’s be–
Josh: Or at a fabulous Christmas party that you throw every year.
Kristina: For example. That I’m sure you were invited to and your invitation just got lost in the mail. Sorry.
Josh: No worries.
Kristina: You were– No, it’s fine. Josh was there.
Josh: That’s great.
Kristina: Yes, well, thanks. Okay, you asked me what is content strategy?
Kristina: Okay, when I first started talking about content strategy in 2009, it had been in practice for 10 years, basically with a small portion of the web design community population. These were people who were working hard to ask smart questions about content requirements very, very early in the design process. Because what still happens today is that people tend to leave content until the last minute and then it will just blow up a website in the 11th hour, especially if you’re doing some gigantic redesign. That was where I first started talking about content and the need for content strategy.
I will say that at exactly the same time, a guy named Joe Pulizzi started talking about something called “content marketing”. Joe and I were in conversation a lot in that 2008, 2009 about what was content strategy, what was content marketing? In the years following, a couple of things have happened. The first of which is that the marketing industry has a little bit co-opted the phrase “content strategy”, which I’ll get back to in a minute, but also the phrase “content strategy” has begun to really encompass a wide range of fields and disciplines. Content strategy is talked about in the content management system community. It’s talked about in, obviously, marketing.
It’s talked about in user experience design, it’s talked about in product design, it’s talked about in how we prepare and structure our content for things like AI or voice conversation. Content strategy as a thing has morphed into this giant world of content. In fact, I tend to talk more about the world of content these days, even more than content strategy. Pulling that all back, when we talk about content strategy in content marketing, there is such a thing as content marketing strategy. I just prefer to call it that.
Josh: Okay, sounds good. Your Brain Traffic is all about helping companies with their content strategy.
Josh: What are you seeing from companies or brands that are making them really successful? What are you doing in your work with them that you would say are like best practice or things that companies or brands need to be thinking about?
Kristina: Sure. Well, the first thing that I’ll say is that one thing that we have really noticed over the years is that organizations really exist at different levels of maturity when it comes to how they think about and treat their content.
Kristina: Some of them treat it like it’s just a commodity, like, “Let’s just create the stuff and get it out there and we’ll hire some writers to do it and we’ll throw it over the fence and see what happens, or not even pay attention to it.” All the way up to organizations who have really invested not only in the content that they create, but also in the infrastructure that they have built to see this content through. All the way from ideation and requirement setting, through to archival or deletion.
Josh: Yes, treating it almost like an asset of the business. Something of value that needs to be done right.
Kristina: Exactly. That is correct, yes. Beyond just content marketing, right? I think that we’re like, “Okay, the blog is a valuable business asset.” Well, yes, it can be, but it can also just be a content beast that we’ve committed to that we have to feed content to over the–
Josh: I feel like that sometimes.
Kristina: Yes, everybody does, right? But the whole thing then, if you step back and you’re like, “Well, why do we have this blog in the first place? Oh, we have it to promote our business or to establish that leadership.” Okay, around what, and why, and with what end, and how are you measuring the success of that? Do people even care?
Kristina: There’s all these strategic questions that really need to be considered way before you ever decide, “Let’s launch a blog.” Now, extrapolate that to these giant content initiatives, like, “We’re going to centralize all of our websites onto the same CMS platform, and we’re a company of 300,000 people, and we’ve got 8,200 website plus– Whatever.”
Josh: Good luck.
Kristina: This is stuff we see all the– We see it all the time, and people are like, “We’re just going to do it wholesale.” What we have found, sort of our sweet spot these days is that large companies will set strategy and then they’ll call us in to validate it, so then we’ll come in and look at that strategy very specifically through a content lens with the understanding that the decisions that are made way at the beginning of the game are going to have tremendous impact down the line, and so choices that you make at the beginning of a three-year initiative could make or break the success of that initiative a million ways down the road.
Josh: Give me an example of a choice that companies are making.
Kristina: Sure. Well, as I said, a very simple choice would be we have–
Josh: Wholesale [crosstalk].
Kristina: Yes, exactly. We have one primary web property, and then we have 18 other auxiliary web properties that we manage. We’re going to roll all those up under this primary property. That sounds like a really good idea but that needs to be really carefully vetted. Another thing would be, “We’re going to really double down on our content marketing investments this year. We’re going to create more content in more places. We’re going to spend more money.” Why? Right?
Josh: What’s the purpose?
Kristina: Yes, exactly. Beyond just things like reach, or establishing thought leadership. That is a– we always joke that– It’s so funny, but I joke that the number of times I have seen as a content marketing strategy, “We are going to be the number one source of content on topic X so that people, when they think about topic X, will come to us as a one-stop-shop and we’re trusted and blah, blah.”
Josh: Then think of our brand.
Kristina: I mean it is like living in Groundhog Day, going to organizations and seeing that strategy set over and over again.
Josh: What is a sophisticated strategy set? How does that differ from Groundhog Day then?
Kristina: Honestly, what we see are a couple of things. I always say that when you are thinking about content strategy, there are three primary things that you need to have defined. The first of which is your clear business intent, and how you’re going to measure success. The second of which is deep audience understanding of their needs and expectations and preferences, and that’s not just, “What do we want to get audiences excited about?” Go find out what they’re excited about now, or interested in, or where the need is.
Josh: Don’t try to change their idea. Just give it to them, what they’re looking for.
Kristina: Well, yes, I think there’s a difference though between identifying a need or an expectation, versus wanting to persuade. That is legitimate but that belongs at the marketing level. That does not belong at the strategy level. That comes into messaging and positioning. To really just understand who your audience is, what they want, what they need and not what you wish they would do.
Kristina: Right? That is business intent and has to be balanced with audience state. Then the third is understanding really clear brand standards and guidelines. If an organization does not have those three things well-defined, either we will– when we come into vet, we will just surface that and identify it, and then either help them get that information or we have to back up and wait until they do.
Josh: This idea of the maturity of an organization, I think that’s a really interesting one. We talk about that at Augurian from a digital marketing standpoint.
Josh: How mature is an organization in their ability to do some of these things, execute on these things. Have you identified some of the places where you really look to see if an organization is ready or mature? How are you– What scales are you using? Do you have any sort of a sense for that?
Kristina: Yes. I would say that the number one indicator for us is how siloed the organization is. I was actually just thinking about this this morning.
Josh: That’s a bad thing?
Kristina: When it comes to content, yes, because that’s– if everybody is fully in their own lane when it comes to, “What content are we going to create? How will we manage it? How are we structuring it? How are we treating it first, shaping it for search engines? How are we designing it? Where are we publishing it?” If everybody is just like this with blinders on, and then a user, an audience member, comes to the front door of your organization and they’re seeing all of these different kinds of content babbling with messages or intent or information or accuracy or timeliness. That person is– That’s a trust issue. That’s like a– this is chaos and I don’t want to deal with this.
Where, if you think about it, brand experiences, where you are seeing the same messaging, across no matter what touch point it is, and not just messaging but also the same voice and tone and help content. That help content is just as well-organized as when you call them on the phone and they give you menu options, right? All that stuff is aligned and that cannot happen without having routine– Actually, I just had a client that talks about their rhythms and routines of communication.
Where there is really coming from the top at leadership, a very clear understanding of how those different roles need to be in constant communication with one another. Also, that there need to be shared principles and guidelines across all of these different areas so that people know why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s really, really difficult to get that it takes time and it takes really strong invested leadership who believes strongly in the importance of content as a business asset, and you know as well as I do, there are lots of leaders– there’s a lot of leadership that does not think about that or care about that at all.
Josh: Yes, or they just don’t get it. They need to be educated.
Kristina: Or they don’t get it. Right. Which is– Executives are sometimes not interested in.
Josh: In learning that stuff. Yes. Who’s doing an awesome job? Maybe it’s a client of yours that you’ve helped and have gotten them into a great place? Who should we look to to say, that’s like the North Star? The guiding light?
Kristina: Yes, what I would say is, we have definitely helped our clients evolve. I would say that our sweet spot in working with clients is probably not at the very beginning of their maturity stage, but if there are five stages from, “We don’t even think about content”, to, “We’ve got our–
Josh: Complete system figured out.
Kristina: Yes, “We’ve got it all figured out. We’re at level five”, or whatever. We do well with levels two and three. We’re really helping them assess their larger situation at analyzing that. Helping them understand what their content ecosystem looks like across all of these different disciplines and functions within their organization. Again, helping them begin to vet this larger strategy that they set within whether it’s customer experience, digital experience marketing, right? To understand, here are questions that if you asked them now, that we haven’t thought about, how that’s going to affect you down the road. Those are the organizations that we do really well with. We’re helping turn the tide.
In terms of companies that I think are just nailing it, from a customer–
Josh: Yes, level five or whatever.
Kristina: We talk about that, not just in like a customer life cycle standpoint, but across the customer experience. I actually– I have been talking recently about T-Mobile. Who’s your cellular carrier?
Kristina: Okay, AT&T has been my carrier for 15 years. You and I both know when we see that bill, we are just like, “What is even happening with my age with this? Oh well, it must just be how much cell phones cost”, and because, largely, I don’t know how many times I sat down with that bill and tried to untangle and was just like, “I don’t even know what’s happening here.” I call and they go through all of this crap and it takes an hour and a half on the phone.
Josh: Yes, it doesn’t help when you have teenagers.
Kristina: No, exactly. It’s me and these two kids and I don’t even–
Josh: What’s all this data stuff? What are you watching, streaming movies?
Kristina: Yes, exactly. I can never change because I’m going to lose all my stuff, right? I finally was just– My brother was like, “Look, they’ve got this great deal. You got to get off AT&T.” I finally went online, and I am telling you, from the minute I went online to when I went into the store, to– which I had to do a couple of times because I was dealing with a lot of phones. To the communication I received with them in the mail when I received my phone and I had to trade in my other one, to getting on the phone with them, to doing– I got on chat with them at some point to– I’m not getting too much email communication from them. On their app, all of it.
Josh: It all just worked together.
Kristina: It is plain English. It is cheerful without being annoying.
Josh: Nobody likes annoying.
Kristina: It’s not too much. It is driven by not a couple of things, product performance, which I’ve had great coverage. I am not being sponsored by T-Mobile.
Josh: No, this is not sponsored by T-Mobile.
Kristina: Not sponsored by T-Mobile. However, I have a referral code for you that I’ll get– No I don’t. Okay. If you think about the customer experience, it really does show up or manifest in a couple of ways. Product performance. Right? The people that you come into contact with, right? The content.
Josh: Yes, it’s interesting. I’m thinking of a company that I recently had an experience with. Where I was just amazed at how easy and seamless and well it went with them. It was SmileDirect. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them.
Kristina: I don’t, no.
Josh: They do the clear aligners, this was for my teens’ teeth, what she’s going to hate that I’m mentioning this on camera, but her teeth look great now.
Kristina: Here’s a photo that we have.
Josh: It was amazing how easy it was, how well they communicated, how everything they said they were going to do, they did. It wasn’t overly annoying or anything like that. It all worked out. We got great results. Here I am talking about them on camera.
Kristina: Now I want to you to go back. But it’s more than, again, it’s more than the product. It’s more than the service. It’s more than the design. If you back up through that process. Think about the communication that you received from them, right?
Josh: Yes, no, it was great, and always on time. They were– It just appeared when it needed to appear to trigger, “Okay, we’ll need to do this thing.”
Kristina: Yes, well, and I can guarantee that it was well-written. It was well-organized. Your questions were answered. If you needed help and you went to the website or whatever, it was appropriately organized. That’s content strategy driving that. Really effective cross-channel or omni-channel content strategy. It’s really exciting. There are going to be companies that just never get to it.
Josh: Sure. Yes. We’re in 2020. Just started.
Josh: I know. January is almost over, actually. From our content strategist, I’m going to ask you to look into your crystal ball here. What’s the future look like? What’s coming down the pike that you’re excited about in 2020 and beyond?
Kristina: Yes. It’s been a long run. In 2009– I feel so old. I am not that old, but I feel– I’m like, in internet years, I’m extremely old. When we started, really when this conversation caught fire–
Josh: You’re wise. You’re wise.
Kristina: That’s right, I’m wise. I’m wise beyond my very young years. That’s not true. Okay, but when we first started talking about this again, it was like, content in the website experience. That was the main thing, because smartphones were just beginning to come up in the American market.
Josh: The first iPhone was 2008 or something. You’re right there.
Kristina: Yes, exactly, but it was very focused on website content. I have just been– I’m really lucky to have been at the very beginning. The reason I bring that up is I’m lucky to have been at the beginning of that conversation, because I’ve had really great purview into these different communities that have continued to spring up. We host a content strategy conference called “Confab” that’s been going since 2011. We’re able to gather some of the best and brightest voices in the industry to share their knowledge, and to feature it and to send that off. The conversations about content strategy not only have gone far and wide, but they’ve become more and more specialized.
What’s exciting is to be able to begin to say, “Okay, there is a whole conversation and community and practice that is evolving at lightning speed around content and design.” Right? Content in the user experience. Content marketing, I think there’s still a ton of crap out there, but it is evolving. It’s sort of like separating the wheat from the chaff. There is a whole area called the– I call it “content engineering”, which is how are we structuring and thinking about and preparing our content as an asset to be managed and distributed across a variety of channels and touch points. Those mature organizations, they’ve got that– they have really invested in that.
Then there’s also this understanding, and this is the underpinning of it, of content operations, where a lot of times people talk about it as like, “What is the technology that we’re choosing?”, but it is way more than that. It is infrastructure that goes from people and roles, responsibilities, technology, organizational structure, guidelines, policies, governance. It is a really, really complicated ecosystem, but that there is some really great leadership talking about it. That’s how I see the conversations.
People are saying, “Oh, it’s really fragmented”, but again, if we can think about it, as them being really tied by this concept of content strategy, which at its core is, as I mentioned, those three things, but also making decisions about what not to do across those four areas that you can focus in. Now, we’ve got a great conversation going. I’m really excited.
Josh: Yes, very cool. So, let’s plug Confab. It’s happening this year in Minneapolis. Right?
Kristina: It’s happening this year in Minneapolis in May. It has sold out all the years.
Josh: Well, why are we plugging it then.
Kristina: No, no, I’m sorry. It has sold out all the years in the past but it has not sold out yet. Buy your ticket now.
Josh: All right.
Kristina: Buy your tickets now.
Josh: There you go. I know that Collin, our president, went to Confab last year and he said it was awesome. I might have to get myself there this year.
Kristina: It is. I can hook you up with somebody who might be able to give you a discount.
Josh: All right. Sounds good.
Kristina: I know people.
Josh: We won’t put any promo codes on the website today, but– All right. Well, this has been awesome. I really appreciate your time.
Kristina: Yes, for sure. It was lovely.
Josh: Yes. You’re a great friend and an awesome thinker and you have a great business with Brain Traffic.
Kristina: Go on.
Josh: Look Brain Traffic up, attend Confab. Thanks, Kristina.
Kristina: Thank you, Josh.
Josh: All right, signing off.
Kristina: See you later.