This blog is part of Brandpoint’s ongoing interview series where we talk with marketing professionals about their career, their unique opinions about the industry and some key advice they’ve learned along the way.
Understanding the nuances of content strategy is extremely difficult.
Kristina Halvorson literally wrote the book on it.
Kristina is one of the leading experts on content strategy, and like us, she calls Minnesota home. In this interview, she pulled no punches, giving me a candid take on content marketing and revealing why content strategy is still such a mystery for so many organizations.
Nels: You went from being a St. Olaf grad to being the CEO of Brain Traffic for 18 years. How did you connect those two dots?
Kristina: I hit a point in my 20s where I wanted to buy a new car and working for $8 an hour in a theater wasn’t going to help me get that.
I gained some marketing and sales experience selling cell phones when they were just starting to become a thing. I went in and did a little PR. Then I became super fascinated with how people used websites, both the usability and user experience pieces of it. And I decided to try my hand at writing copy for websites. That was about 1998 and I worked as a freelancer until I founded Brain Traffic in 2001.
I built up a small army of copywriters and then, in 2007, started authored content strategy as a service.
N: What’s the key to keeping it interesting after 18 years?
K: Our clients, for sure. We see the same issues coming around over and over again but they rear their ugly heads in a million different ways. Being able to work with a lot of different organizations is so exciting and fascinating. We work with big clients mostly, so there are many problems to solve and many big opportunities to take advantage of.
That, plus producing our Confab Content Strategy Conferences, are what get me out of bed in the morning. There, we have the opportunity to continually engage and serve all of these amazing thinkers and doers in the field of content strategy. We can engage with people who are continuing to grow the discipline and undertake new stuff, even in the areas of apps and AI and bots. It’s just really interesting to watch it evolve.
N: You mentioned you keep seeing the same problems over and over again, just manifested in different ways. Tell me a little more about that.
K: We’ve said over the years that there are no content problems, there are only people problems.
No one likes to hear, “Your content is not the issue, it’s you.” But what we’ve found in organizations is that people who have been put in power to make decisions think ahead to tactical things, like a new blog or 12 new Twitter feeds, or totally redesigning the homepage of the website, without thinking about other parts of the website. Those teams have not rooted those decisions in any sort of strategic foundation.
And that’s hard to get at. Because you have to frame up not just the problem, but also the very specific outcome you’re trying to achieve. And sometimes people are rushing so quickly that think they have it, but they’re working with a bunch of assumptions that maybe aren’t true or real. They just end up throwing a bunch of money at a problem that either makes the problem even worse or it manifests in a different way.
We also get a lot of phone calls of people telling us the main problem is that their content is so inconsistent across all these different channels when really, the content isn’t the problem. The problem is how their content operations and publishing infrastructure are set up.
Another one we’ve seen a lot of in recent years is people diving into content marketing thinking that it’s a mandate and it’s something they have to do without considering their larger, holistic marketing strategy so that it’s something that actually makes sense for their company. And then we’ve got a big mess to clean up.
N: You recently tweeted a link to The Discipline of Content Strategy, a piece you wrote almost 10 years ago, and mentioned how it could have very well been written yesterday. Why do you think content strategy has been such a hard sell over the years?
K: Because it’s such unsexy work. The principles of content strategy, the activities within content strategy, the very ethics of content strategy is not what gets people excited.
What gets them excited is “transforming their business with content marketing” or “the new frontier of chatbots” or “transforming customer engagement with social media.”
That’s the sort of thing [that makes] people say, “Yeah! Let’s change everything!”
I’m not saying those things can’t be game-changers. But we see so many companies create big content messes that continue to get worse and worse. And they don’t want to slow down to do the foundational work of figuring out why they’re doing this in the first place — where does it make sense for this content to appear and what are we going to do with this broken content that’s not serving the users.
N: So we’re all sort of getting wrapped up in the headline version of content marketing?
K: Oh yeah. And we’re wrapped up in the idea of the silver bullet. So many pundits will say, “This isn’t the silver bullet” out of one side of their mouth and then turn around and say, “This will transform your company!” That’s just not how it works.
N: What’s the difference between a “good” content strategy and a “great” content strategy?
K: I guess when I think about a “good” content strategy, I think of one that’s “good enough.” And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a “good enough” content strategy, especially when people are dealing with resource constraints. We can identify all these challenges and opportunities when it comes to content creation, re-use, rebuilding or reorganizing. Whatever you can focus in on that will have the biggest impact with those limited resources in audience satisfaction and on the business’ bottom line is a “good enough” content strategy.”
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In terms of a great content strategy, I’d define it as having all your content touchpoints choreographed no matter what channel they appear on so that people are getting an interesting brand experience. Your audience is having their tasks supported and their informational needs met wherever they encounter or go looking for your company. I think that’s a truly great content strategy. And that’s really difficult to pull off, whether you’re at a big company or even a small company.
N: What do you think is the most damaging misconception about what content marketing is?
K: That it’s a mandate. That every single person should do it. The silver bullet promises, all the misconception of what strategy actually is when it comes to marketing. All of that pales in comparison to the misconception that content marketing is the only marketing that’s left.
N: What’s your favorite marketing tool?
K: My brain and my computer. As we’re launching a bunch of initiatives at Brain Traffic, we DO think content marketing works for our organization. (See, I don’t hate content marketing — I just hate the way we talk about content marketing). There are a couple of tools we use for workflow and distribution.
But for us, it’s more about people, less about tools.
N: Is there a marketing tactic you think is overrated?
K: That’s a tough one for me. I think different tactics make sense for different organizations. So I don’t think there’s any one tactic that’s overrated or overused.
I’ll go back to say, however, anything that’s promised as a silver bullet, like you HAVE to be doing video or you HAVE to be on Snapchat or brands HAVE to be doing this, I don’t believe any of that.
N: So that concept is overrated more than any particular tactic?
K: The idea that a company has to do anything other than serve its customers well is overrated. Look at every company that’s pointed to as a success. Their core tenet is that they take care of their customers. And whether you’re doing that in person, online, through texts, through chat bots you launch to take care of them, those are the companies that win. It seems like such a no-brainer to me.
N: What are you working on right now?
K: We are working on relaunching our company website. We’ve had a one-page website that’s served us beautifully over the last five years, believe it or not. I’ve received zero complaints, and 100 percent of our incoming leads.
But, since the phrase “content strategy” has been appropriated in so many different areas, we felt it’s really important to really clarify what we’re talking about. It just needed an update, too. So we’re working on building that out a little bit. It’s still going to be a very small site.
Then we’re working on relaunching a blog and I’m working on launching a series of webinars. We’ve been working super hard and all of our time and strength has been used on client projects and our conferences for the last several years. I’m really excited to buckle down and share that knowledge we’ve learned again.
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N: Do you have a plan for a new edition of the book?
K: Yep! I’m in conversation with my publisher about that, but nothing is for sure yet.
N: Do you have a favorite book, either marketing-related or otherwise?
K: I really love my co-worker Meghan Casey’s book called The Content Strategy Toolkit. When I’m working on projects I’m constantly flipping [to] that. I also really like a book called Good Strategy, Bad Strategy [by Richard P. Rumelt].
And my NEW favorite book that I’ve really loved is The Content Trap [by Bharat Anand]. That’s basically about cranking out too much content and thinking of it as an expense center instead of looking at it as an asset that needs to be put to work.
N: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received or stumbled upon?
K: In terms of running a business, the best one is: Hire slowly and fire quickly. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way but it’s now resulted in a superior staff. We’re running a very tight ship now and it’s a joy coming to work every day.
Another good one is that you have to take care of yourself if you’re going to take care of anybody else. You know if you’re in an airplane and the oxygen masks drop, they tell you to put yours on before helping anybody else. So as a parent and as a business owner, that’s important advice.