I first picked up Content Strategy For The Web in the summer 2012 and immediately I was hooked right in. My eyes were suddenly opened to the tangled mess the internet had become and that, when it came to companies creating content online, common sense had left town a long time ago. Fast forward to early 2014, when I learned Confab Europe would be hosted in Barcelona, I jumped at the opportunity to get involved, promote the movement and (hopefully) get some face time with the author of the big red bible of content strategy, Kristina Halvorson.
In addition to authoring some of the most widely read literature on content strategy, Kristina is also the founder of Brain Traffic, a world-renowned content strategy consultancy, and the woman behind Confab, the international conference dedicated to content strategy. Barcinno had the chance to sit down for an interview with Kristina Halvorson during the event and pick her brain on the past, present and future of content strategy. We hope you enjoy.
(Reading time: 12 minutes)
Content Strategy: US vs Europe
Scott: Hi Kristina, thank you so much for joining us. You were in Europe for the first Content Strategy Forum in Paris in 2010 and then you had your own event, Confab Europe in London last year. What have you noticed in the evolution over the last few years in content strategy in Europe?
Kristina: You know it’s difficult to say because in London there’s a very large Meet-up there of content strategists, like 300 people. So that’s a unique community and the content strategy conversation has evolved fairly quickly. I think also the content strategy literature is almost all in English so that’s where those books are really being passed around.
I think being here is very interesting because we definitely don’t sense the same momentum that we did in London. I know that simply because of the language barrier content strategy is gaining moment more in pockets, rather than sweeping across the continent.
There doesn’t seem to be a large movement like there has been in the United States.
Having said that, the folks that we have met, and as is evidenced by the quality of the sessions, the work being done in the different countries is top-notch. I hope that this is an opportunity for folks to get in front of people and share those insights and tools.
S: Absolutely, and I think Confab is a great venue for that. Do you feel that the level of conversation around content strategy in the US is more advanced than it is in Europe?
K: I’m not sure I would agree that it’s more advanced in the US, as much as it is more evolved into specialized topics. We see a branching off of specialties within content strategy. Because the work that’s being shared here is not any less advanced than what I’m seeing in the US.
The Story Behind Brain Traffic
S: Going back in time a little bit, how did Brain Traffic get started?
K: I started out as a freelance copywriter in 1999 and I hired my first employee Aaron Anderson 9 years ago. We were small, there were about 5 of us in 2008 and that was when I decided that we were going to figure out this content strategy thing and start offering it as a service. We actually lost every single one of our local clients when started saying “we’d really like to bring content strategy in becuase these web writing projects are always kind of a mess.” And they were like “No, we don’t need strategy, we just need copy.” So, those were a quiet few years.
But we stuck with it and it was good time to be talking about it because the tools were coming into place like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter – I know it’s hard to remember life before those things, but we were finally able to connect with other content strategists or people doing that type of work even if that’s not what they called themselves. So with that level of connection and knowledge share I was able to gather a bunch ideas from different people and write Content Strategy for the Web. Then that sort of helped raise the profile of Brain Traffic.
Since then almost 90% of our work is content strategy. We still do offer writing services and we’re actually growing that practice and talking on larger web writing projects again. Which is great.
We have three full-time event staff, two full-time consultants, a full-time copywriter, a business manager and two junior staff who support both the events and consulting practice. It’s a nice little group – just the right size and we can pull in select contractors as needed for writing and consulting practice.
I’m very picky about who I work with, but boy there are some really, really great content strategists that are working on their own.
S: That seems to be the M.O. You start as a freelancer and cut your teeth a little bit and as you refine your specialty and area of expertise you can expand your team and take on bigger projects.
Content Strategy in Fortune 100 Companies
S: Are there any types of companies, industries or clients that you really enjoy working with versus others?
K: I don’t know if it’s because of our profile in the industry or just the nature of what we’re offering, but we get contacted almost exclusively by fairly large companies now. We’ve worked with several Fortune 100 companies at this point. The bigger the company obviously the more complex the issues. I think that what has been interesting to see is that the core challenges that exist with content are the same. I think there are a finite number of problems: you’re dealing with a legacy technology that isn’t supporting what you want to do in the future, you are dealing with an outdated organizational structure that is forcing people to create content in silos, you lack standards and oversight from an editorial perspective, your content isn’t prepared to be delivered across platforms, etc.
So I think I could sit down and list probably 20 things that every company would be like “yep, yep, yep, yep“, but because of the different kinds of leadership and company cultures and obviously the nature of the products and services that they sell and the size and scope of their different digital properties the challenges manifest in a million different ways. It’s always very satisfying for us to go in and do that kind of discovery and research and early analysis and be able to come back and say, “here are the symptoms you talked about, here is where we think your core problems and challenges are, here are our recommendations about tackle them, here’s the framework, here’s the overarching strategy.”
I love untangling that stuff. I love talking and getting to the root of what people are concerned about and what they’re excited about. I really love working across groups to bring them together and synthesize with each other and get them to decide on their priorities for content efforts and investments and so on. But, it’s really challenging work.
The main thing that is the most challenging is that people call and they’re like “We need a content strategy!” and more and more don’t know if all of content strategy is a “thing.” It’s like all these different pieces and as I talked about this morning, strategy should just really say “we’re going to tackle this piece first and this is the direction we’re going to go in.”
I guess that my answer is that there really isn’t a specific type of client. It’s always lovely to work iwth a company that gets the importance of content as an asset versus just something we need to make a lot of.
S: That’s very interesting. Along those same lines, how do you establish a sense of leadership? Do you ask for carte blanche to go around the different departments heads and say “Hey! You’re in here with me and you’re going to take this information back to your team.”
K: Well, sometimes companies will bring me in as a third party expert or a kind of secret weapon because they’re like “They won’t listen to me, but they’ll listen to you!” and so I certainly don’t mind being employed or contracted under that. I can say “tell me what you think is going on and I will go in and represent you and tell you if I think it’s accurate.”
There’s really two things that we’re doing at Brain Traffic. One is the area of consulting that I’m moving into that is new for me and I’m feeling my way through, which is at the executive level. I do have to say “I need to talk to this person” and hearing “Oh, we’re totally aligned, everybody gets it” then hearing all of the different priorities everywhere I go.
Trying to bring those people together is tough. Sometimes they just don’t want to listen or they don’t want to hear what other people have to say. So that really deals with what alignement on what are we going to focus on. And what message or what strategy do we need to convey to the people on the front lines so they feel like they know where they’re going and what they’re doing.
The other main work that we do is content strategy for websites, which is really focusing on process and asking the right questions far upstream. In that instance, we are able to gather a bunch of stakeholders, talk to them, the alignment is more like “here’s the content that we’re going to include and prioritize and here’s the content that we’re not.” So it’s a little more finite. It’s rare that people are like “We have 100,000 pages on our website and we want you to help us redesign.”
No, so you can never demand carte blanche from a client. YET! Maybe I’ll get there someday.
On the Topic of Content Marketing…
S: Soon. This one stems from something you mentioned in your keynote this morning and I’ve seen you tweet on this topic before. It has to do with content marketing. The idea that in most cases in your experience is more content is usually the last thing a company will need. How do you reconcile that with the inbound marketing boom that is going on right now?
K: I’m still waiting for anybody besides RedBull to demonstrate results with inbound marketing. And even RedBull is a total anomaly because it’s a lifestyle brand. It’s a lifestyle brand and so many other companies that have gone chasing after that are just not. If a client calls me and they’re like “We have a content marketing strategy and we need your help implementing it“, usually I’m like “Nope.”
I’m working with a client right now where I went in thinking one thing and now they’re like “we’re launching this gigantic content marketing strategy and we actually need you to help implement that.” I’m just like “I will give you your money back.” Because I see the path of destruction. It’s difficult because I don’t mean to dismiss the movement as a whole. It’s custom publishing. It’s a marketing technique that has been used for hundreds of years.
But the frothing at the mouth that I am seeing, it’s dangerous just like the hype around social media was dangerous and the properties that were launched that weren’t taken care of. It’s the same with search engine marketing. People loaded up their websites with a bunch of crap content hoping to get eyeballs. Then it was Flash – people made their websites entirely in Flash and then they weren’t working and it was a crap user experience. I can go on and on.
Marketers pay a lot of lip service to strategy, but what I see is they mistake strategy for a detailed plan of what they’re going to do. Today, when I talk to marketers I say “We need to decide what we’re NOT going to do. And what are the tradeoffs there? And if we are going to move forward, what are the sacrifices that we’re going to make?”
When people are like “We need content marketing!” I just want to say “How do you know? How do you know that’s what you need?” And when I hear people say “this is a given. It’s a must! Every company needs to do this!” There’s so much joking like “we’re going off to engage with some brands today! Can’t wait!” Nobody wants that. Or if they do it’s a very limited niche. And that’s where content marketers say that you really need to find and focus on that niche, but ultimately what that niche wants to do is go to the help section on your website and find what they’re looking for and leave, and that’s what’s going to define their relationship with your brand. Not your video channel on YouTube.
S: So brands as publishers may have gone a little too far on the other end of the spectrum?
K: I think it’s crap. I think it’s crap. Now having said that, when I first started talking about content I said “the minute you put anything online you are a publisher.” What I’m saying is not that companies should shirk their roles as publsihers because we all are. But to assume that we all need to be custom publishers of content that “amplifies” our brand or whatever, that that is a huge mistake and we are really putting the cart before the horse in that instance. It’s difficult for me to celebrate content marketing. It’s really difficult.
The Help Center as a Customer Engagement Channel
S: You mentioned help centers or help section of a website. Is that something that you believe is a universal necessity of any company that has a specific product, software or service?
K: Oh yeah, I think that people have problems. People have challenges. You need to be able to deliver support somewhere. Now, do I think that you should not have a phone number that they can call? No, I think that’s a terrible service plan.
If you just want the phone number and want to get in touch with people that way, then that’s fine too. However, if you’re going to put help content online, make sure that it is clear, that it’s readable for all levels of reading. That your site’s search engine works. That you give people another way to function.
If you’re going to have help content, make sure that it’s solving people’s problems and it’s not just a bunch of gobbledegook that you’re engineers put together.
S: That’s what Ray (Gallon) was covering in his lecture. He wasn’t calling them “help centers,” but the idea was there. I think Ray called it a “Customer Engagement Channel” that is not left alone. We see a lot of companies that will set this amazing resource up and then just forget about it.
He was also mentioning the importance of having it match the style and tone and configuration of your product.
K: Oh, companies treat help content completely separately from product and marketing, and I believe that help content is your marketing as well. The marketing lifecycle doesn’t end with the “buy”.
K: And when they talk about retention or selling again or increasing loyalty, fix your help content. Don’t worry about engaging people. I mean I talked to this guy who used the word “webisodes” 22 times, I wanted to shoot myself. But that’s not how you build customer loyalty.
S: Or you take advantage of people that are already trying to engage with you on your help center and just don’t ignore them, because they’re going to be your biggest evangelists.
K: That’s exactly right.
Content Strategy for Startups
S: They’re going to guide your moves and tell you what they want. Ok, shifting gears a little bit. A little bit about Barcinno, we started about year ago as a platform celebrating Barcelona’s startups, tech and innovation. What advice would give to startups as far as: 1) How can they establish a sustainable and healthy content strategy? and 2) How can they use that to their advantage to the bigger incumbents of competition in their space?
K: I think that your content strategy plays a part in that, of course you need a larger marketing strategy, PR and outreach I would assume. Using social media intelligently and so on. If we’re talking about content strategy with regard to the content that you’re going to be creating and caring for and how you are going to do that and the platforms that you will be using to get it out; for a startup, I would definitely recommend to start small because you usually have limited resources.
I commented in my workshop yesterday on the importance of messaging and how that can drive your content goals, and I walked through today about strategy and the kind of content that you will be delivering.
First, identify your core messaging. What is the benefit that you’re delivering? Make that very clear and easy to understand. Also from a voice and tone standpoint, startups everywhere have an opportunity to learn from so many of the apps that have taken off so well, so conversational and clear, friendly and intimate…in a non-weird way. For voice and tone, I think that that’s very important. Put together an editorial calendar so that you are clear on the content you are producing, what you’re doing with it, the channels that you’re going to send it out, etc.
And there’s one thing in sort of trying, “oh let’s try an email campaign that goes out once a week and see how people respond to that. Or let’s think about changing out the content on our home page and see if that encourages people to come back.” I think there’s room for experimentation, but when you’re creating your foundational content just remember to start small and build out from there. Don’t try to do all of the things all at once.
If you’d like to hear the full audio recording (26 mins) of Barcinno’s interview with Kristina, you can download it here. It contains even more tips on strategic tools, when and how to kill content, and a teaser on the comeback of Brain Traffic’s blog…
Thank you so much, Kristina! It was fantastic meeting you and we’ll see you at the next Confab!