B2B marketing departments have limited resources and limited budgets. They are cranking out so much content, they can barely keep track of it across a bunch of different channels. They may not even know why they’re doing it in the first place. What they need is an effective content strategy.
Kristina Halvorson is the CEO and founder of the content strategy consultancy Brain Traffic and was instrumental in establishing content strategy as an essential practice for agencies and companies across every industry. She initiated the 2009 Content Strategy Consortium, which was the first official gathering dedicated to the topic of content strategy. In addition, Kristina is the founder of Confab, the first US conference dedicated to the topic of content strategy. Her book, Content Strategy for the Web, is considered the gold standard for content strategy literature and is credited with creating the foundation for what is now a rapidly evolving industry.
Recently, Halvorson joined Act-On’s Nathan Isaacs on the Rethink Marketing Podcast to discuss the ins and outs of content strategy.
This transcript has been edited for length. To get the full measure, listen to the podcast.
Nathan Isaacs: Welcome to the Rethink marketing podcast. I’m here today with Kristina Halvorson. Kristina, can you tell us more about yourself and Brain Traffic?
Kristina Halvorson: Sure. Thanks for having me on. I am a content strategist by trade. I own a small content strategy consulting company called Brain Traffic. We’re headquartered in Minneapolis. And we every year host Confab, the content strategy conference that brings together professionals whose work has an impact on content quality for organizations. It’s going to happen May this coming year. Confabevents.com. There, I got my plug in early.
It’s held here in Minneapolis. It’s a really, really great event. It always sells out. And lots of bright folks. There are so many different fields that the professionals there have an impact on content. And they all sometimes speak different languages or have trouble connecting on each other’s priorities. We want to get everybody under one roof to learn each other’s languages and work towards better content.
Content Strategy vs. Content Marketing
Nathan: Speaking of content strategy, that’s why we have you on today. Can we start out with just talking about what content strategy is not?
Kristina: Sure. So I will say one of the things that causes me to bang my head against the wall pretty regularly: Content strategy is not content marketing. We could start there. Content marketing is a pretty specific marketing strategy or marketing play that organizations will make in which they are publishing content that they hope has value to their end users, who will then trust in the company and do business with them.
Content strategy is more of a discipline that works to connect the dots between a lot of disciplines that already exist. Marketing can be one of them. But the content that gets created in marketing has all kinds of layers of complexity, which can include the technical aspects behind the building and distribution of that content, the user experience design of how people are interacting with and accessing and searching that content, and the governance component, which is an organizational design question: How are people making decisions about that content and what are the success metrics in measuring the performance of that content? So it’s really a very complex world of decisions and relationships that content strategy sort of works to define, and untangle, and choreograph, and synchronize, and all that good stuff.
Making Crucial Decisions
Nathan: We mentioned that content strategy is not content marketing. Do you think marketers have a content strategy? Or is this something that they’re just missing all together?
Kristina: Yeah, that’s a good question. Really, when we talk about content marketing, a lot of times people say, OK, here’s how you get your content marketing strategy. You need to figure out what your business goals are, you need to figure out who it is that you want to reach, and then you need to brainstorm a lot of stuff that you think that they’re interested in, or go out and research it, and then put together a plan for all the channels you’re gonna push the content out, and push that content out.
And really what that is, is it’s an editorial plan. That is really you’re making a decision about here are our goals and here are our people, now let’s think about all the things that we could talk about that would engage those people, or things that we’re specialists in, or even things that we’re not necessarily experts in, but we want to make a play for that in the search engine results. And that is sort of jumping over the strategy piece all together, which is where are you going to focus your content efforts in order to achieve these business goals in a way that is offering constraints on what you will and will not do.
So deciding which customers to go after is part of it. But you’ve got to make some decisions about who you are going to try to reach and appeal to, and thereby making decisions about who you want. And the mistake I see so many companies making is they’re like, well we want to reach everybody, we want to reach people just in case. What if somebody stumbles upon us and they know somebody else who’s interested in shopping for insurance and they send us their way? And that’s the content marketing trap that I see a lot of companies get stuck in.
Content Strategy and the Big Picture
Nathan: When we’re thinking about content strategy, how does it fit in with the overall business strategy and all the other strategies that are floating around within a company?
Kristina: I read a good article recently that broke down four different types of strategies. And at the last two were operational strategy and then functional strategy. And I really see content strategy as a functional strategy within an organization. So it’s helping figure out how to prioritize resources and people in order to get things done that are going to ladder up to the overall business strategy.
So typically what I say is that when you’re thinking about where to focus and prioritize your content efforts, you want to specifically consider three or four things. You definitely want to consider the overall business strategy, whatever’s been delivered by leadership, your user personas, your target customers, who it is that you’re trying to reach or serve. And then whatever function you’re reporting up to or serving, what are their core strategies, and how can you map your efforts to those, how do those act as constraints to your activities? And I’m sorry, brand strategy is the last one that has to inform it.
Nathan: We’ve talked about the user experience. Can you talk about some of the other activity areas of an effective content strategy: the editorial strategy, content engineering, and the workflow and governance?
Connecting the Activity Areas of an Effective Content Strategy
Kristina: Yeah. Those are really the four I’d say, whether you want to call them fields of activity, or disciplines, or functions within an organization, that in my mind the role of content strategy sort of works to connect. And you can talk about content strategy in any of these four areas and [be] using the words correctly. The editorial strategy piece is where I see a lot of content marketing efforts falling. What are you going to publish? Why are you publishing it? What’s your point of view? Who’s it for? What’s your voice and tone? It’s a story you’re going to tell, the information that you need to convey, or the information needs that need to be fulfilled.
And then you think about experience design or user-experience design, which is where and how are people connecting with, accessing, searching for, browsing, and experiencing the content across a variety of platforms, and screens, and tools, and so on. And that requires thoughtful design as well. And then there’s what we can call the content structural components or the content engineering, which is all the things that makes the content work across a variety of platforms. So this is the structural work that happens within the content management system, and that creates the categories and the relationships between the pieces of content.
And then there’s that workflow and governance, which is really just the people and process component. How is content moving throughout the organization, and what are the rules and guidelines that are governing it over time to make sure that it maintains its relevance and integrity and so on? … Phew.
Nathan: If I created our 2018 content strategy, does it need to line up with what you’ve already previously created, all that stuff you’ve done? Or can you start fresh and just toss everything aside?
Kristina: What I would suggest is that what’s happening or what’s been done should act as an input to the decisions that you make around content strategy moving forward. At Brain Traffic we do an exercise called the assessment or the situation analysis, where we go in and assess what we call your content ecosystem, which are all the different living, moving parts that have an impact on content quality. And that can be anything from current content relationships to the people who are working on the content to stakeholder perspectives, competitors, technology opportunities or constraints. There are a lot of different things that we can look at.
And then we analyze all that information to kind of pull out any themes that we’re seeing, where there are opportunities, or threats, or weaknesses, and so on. And then from that set of information that we make decisions around content strategy, which is what we need to focus on to improve our content so that the work that we’re doing is mapping up to and helping us succeed in our other larger strategy areas.
Constantly Changing but Always Collaborative
Nathan: Right. Is there anything I did not ask that people should know about when we’re having this conversation about content strategy?
Kristina: Well I would say that people need to know that content strategy is an ever-evolving thing. It’s difficult to pin down. It’s difficult to put a circle around it and say, this is the content strategy thing. If you are not doing this thing, you are not doing content strategy. There is a small faction of content strategists that want to be able to do that. But for the most part content strategists are incredibly collaborative, curious people who are really focused on just making sure that our companies are creating content that is worthy of our brand, embodies who we are, fairly represents what it is that we have to sell or how we’re going to serve, and that meets the user or the customer where they are.
And so I think that if you’re working with content like that and that’s where you’re coming from, you’re doing content strategy. And the opportunity that lies in front of you is to really go out and start to have conversations and make connections with the other people within your organization whose work is having a direct impact on that end-content product. So I really want to make that point that content strategy is not an exclusive club that you have to earn your membership in. It’s open to everyone. And we welcome all. It’s a party. It’s the content strategy party and you’re all invited.
Nathan: Oh, there you go. Definitely do that. Well I appreciate your time today. Thank you for being on the podcast. Let me backtrack. How do I learn more about you and Brain Traffic?
Kristina: Sure. You can just go to braintraffic.com. I am on Twitter always having a good time, @halvorson. And you can go to confabevents.com to learn more about our super awesome, epic conference in May.
Nathan: I’m definitely going to try and get over there and see that.
Kristina: It’s good times.
Nathan: Hey, well thank you for being on the podcast today.
Kristina: Thanks for having me.