POV: Interview with Kristina Halvorson, CEO of Brain Traffic

Kristina-HalvorsonWelcome to The Agency Post! Tell us a little about yourself.

I am the founder and principle of Brain Traffic. We are a content strategy firm based in Minneapolis, MN. We specialize in web content strategy consultation for pretty large clients with large amounts of content and lots of content opportunities and problems. I co-authored the second edition of "Content Strategy for the Web," with Melissa Rach, and I founded Confab, a content strategy conference. We just hosted our second event this May, and we sold out of tickets five months in advance. I also host — on occasion — Content Talks, a podcast where I discuss different aspects of content strategy and planning.

What is your definition of content strategy and how does it relate to marketing?

The high-level definition is that content strategy guides planning for the creation, delivery and governance of content. Content strategy balances business objectives with specific user needs. You define an audience and understand what those audiences need or value — and those two things will inform a strategic plan that includes a real focus on the content itself.

There are all kinds of dimensions to content strategy. What is the messaging? What are the channels? How much content needs to be created? Where is it going to come from — the organization or the agency? What happens to the content once it's out there? There's just a ton of questions about digital content that are very rarely asked up front in these projects when they're undertaken.

What are some of the challenges you see when marketers are trying to develop a content marketing plan?

Many of our agency projects are very tactical in nature — they're campaign-based, or it's a website redesign, or it launches into a media campaign or channel. The thing that is often overlooked is that content in a digital world is not a linear publishing process, which I think is what so much of the marketing industry is really struggling with. It's not a matter of just planning it, creating it, publishing it and then moving onto the next thing. Because once your content is out there, it's out there. People are going to see it, they're going to interact with it, and it's still going to be out there.

Social media and search engine optimization are different kinds of tactics that agencies will often propose and manage, but ultimately, all of these tactics are fueled by content. Presentation is fueled by content, messaging and brand information, calls to action, support after a sale — everything is fueled by content! And that content then becomes a real asset to an organization. Content has been churned out as a by-product of other activities or sort of served up as a commodity that just keeps piling up. And so what content strategy does is that it helps us consider the content itself and the people who are responsible for it all under the same umbrella. Practice is helping us move from a linear process — a “watch it and leave it” mentality — to really understanding and investing in content as something that lives within a life cycle.

What is the difference between content marketing and content strategy? How do they inform one another and interact?

Content marketing is where traditional content publishing has evolved. And so at the heart of content marketing is creating customized content to publish and distribute. Right? So the difference is that content marketing now today exists in the digital sphere, in that we also have search engine optimization to consider. We also have social media channels and different platforms like mobile and tablet to consider. Where before it was just, “Let’s create it and publish it. Then we’ll have this custom content that will help build our brand, and we’ll create thought leadership within these different industries.” That's fine, and that is at the heart of the content marketing business. What is different though is trying to coordinate and integrate content with the other existing online marketing tools and processes that have already evolved over time. Content strategy can and should inform your content marketing, because ultimately, any content that you create, drive traffic to, publish to establish thought leadership in different circles — all those efforts have got to be integrated and coordinated. They need to be choreographed together if you're ever going to see, over the long term, any real return on investment.

So what that means is that a content marketing campaign, for example, is a really bad idea. If you're going to “do” content marketing, it needs to be a long-term investment and commitment that will shape your brand and help you engage with the audience that you actually desire. And in order to do that, you've got to have a larger strategy that is going to be at the core of all these other technical initiatives that you undertake.

Content marketing is very much part of the larger implementation plan, because you also have to consider technology, cross-channel strategy, optimization and audience performance. What do the conversations look like in the channels that you choose to participate? What different metrics will you use to measure visibility? Visibility — meaning number of Twitter followers or whatever — does not equal engagement. There are very, very smart people who are talking about content marketing from a very strategic perspective, but "launch a blog," "be a thought leader," "be authentic," or "be first in rankings" — these are all tactics, not strategy.

What was your vision for the company when you founded Brain Traffic?

We started in 2002, with six people, and at that time, web content creation was still sort of a specialty or creative product. We started out as a web copywriting agency. Today, we help people solve messy content problems. We help create a system and a foundation on which you can plan long-term content initiatives that you actually can sustain over time. We're trying to help marketing organizations move from a campaign-launch mindset to creating and leveraging content across channels as a strategic business asset. We approach it from a different standpoint.

We no longer see it as only copywriting or text creation. A lot of people disagree with this, but text is something that everybody thinks they can do. And that's where we get into problems online. It's that everybody is publishing “wants,” and everybody “wants” an extra page or another module on the homepage or whatever. They don't really have a firm process in place to take care of digital content over time. There's a lot that has to happen behind the scenes to ensure that that content is measurable and findable and appropriately structured, no matter what channel it is.

I don't want to just minimize the different types of content assets that are available, it's just that in my opinion, I think we have had processes in place to shoot and edit video or record podcasts or publish images and so on, so it's the text part to me that gets the messiest at least on the front end.

Anyway, that is also how we evolved into content strategy. We were a web-writing firm that was continually getting called in at the 11th hour to basically fill in the pictures online with content. Once we started asking questions about where the content was coming from, what content they currently had and letting them know that we were finding inconsistencies, the conversation began to change. Subject matter experts were pushing back on the way we were creating it, and so we were sort of backed into the consulting role. In 2008, I said, "We've gotta start putting our foot down about some of this stuff. We can’t just be the people cranking out the copy. We've got more to offer than that.” We started calling ourselves a content strategy firm, and I wrote "Content Strategy for the Web," and that's where we are.

How are social and mobile or even responsive websites changing the way people think about content?

The primary thing is (and this is always the case), we have to get people to slow down and really take a look at the lay of the land, because we've been in a reaction mode for so many years.

We can’t be: Oh! We can use email for marketing! Hey, we need a website. How's the email going to relate to the website? Oh, we need more websites, or we need a microsite. What do you mean we have to have search engine optimization? Oh, let's launch a blog! How does a blog and SEO work together?

We've just been in this constant, "Oh, there's a new thing, oh there's this new thing, oh we have to get into this, we need a presence on this... ." A perfect example is that I spoke at a content marketing conference in Chicago, and I asked them, "How many of you know where exactly your content lives, who's paying attention to it and when the last time it was updated?” Only one person in the audience raised their hand. And then I said, "How many of you are on Pinterest?" and almost every single person raised their hand.

For me, it's just a skewed priority that is basically being driven by client demands and clients who are not necessarily educated in what that long-term priority looks like. Not just from the money we are making from our efforts, but also with strategic consideration, internal planning and the money that we are saving based on things like content reuse, which specifically needs to play in the responsive design arena.

All agencies want "a seat at the table;" they want to be involved in strategy. But if they want people to start using them or looking to them as a strategic resource, they've got to start asking some really tough questions. They need to get away from the wining and dining the clients and the old Mad Men-agency model or going for that agency of record and claiming to do everything, when in fact they're just doing the same old thing.

How did the field of content strategy come about? How do you view the evolution of the industry?

Content strategy and content marketing have almost simultaneously rose in prominence. You can almost look at it on a Google keywords trends map — side-by-side that they started taking off. Content strategy first took its foothold in the web design community, where websites kept blowing up because they weren’t considering their content from a strategic standpoint. Content marketing also blew up with the same people who have been talking about SEO, social media, blogs and email marketing for the past 12 years.

So, what's happening now is that the content marketing people are selling their clients on content creation and marketing, and their clients are like, "Well, what are you going to produce? What don’t we have now? How do you know what to produce? Where are our audiences? What are their personas? What do they need? How do you know that's what they need? How can we use the people and the processes that we have internally and make changes so that we can sustain this effort over time — not just from a creation standpoint, but also from a maintenance standpoint.”

And the content marketing agencies are going, "What? I have no idea." Because that's not their core competency. Now, should it be? I don't know. Is Brain Traffic in a good position to be able to take the lead and create the foundation for the agency to launch and continue a long-term content marketing campaign? Yes. Absolutely. We sort of fit perfectly into that competency gap that content marketing agencies typically have. And I also want to mention that a lot of agencies that say they're doing content strategy are really doing more content planning. And again, content planning is great for a campaign or launch, but it doesn’t work when trying to understand who's going to take care of it, where it has an impact on other content that's being created and distributed on all these different channels — that all bites them in the ass.

Do you help train a lot of companies and agencies on developing and implementing content marketing?

We don't do a lot of training with agencies because in some ways we're very particular about it. And more and more we're pulling back from that, because we'll go in and get paid a chunk of money and do training, but then that agency becomes a competitor.

What we've started to offer instead are these public conferences, such as Confab, and we're about to introduce these online seminars that agencies are welcome to attend. The seminars will basically walk through our methodology and our deliverables. While we are very passionate about knowledge share and participating in the community, we would much rather explore the opportunity to sort of take the lead of preparing an organization for the work the agency is going to commit to so they can create a longer-term relationship with us. So that's really how we are continuing to work with agencies.

What is your perspective on the roles of video, short-form and long-form content? What's most important? What's the hardest to develop? What underperforms?

There is no blanket answer to that. It all comes back to what is it that you're trying to achieve? What is it that your audiences already values, and what do they want? For example, someone says, "Hey, we've got these new videos, and we want to put them online. What can you do to get people to understand the value?" Well, we ask: why did you put them online? Just because you have them does not mean you should publish them. What are you trying to do? How are you engaging with this audience? What is your objective? How can you measure it? Therefore, I can't say how video can be or cannot be effective in any kind of marketing campaign because I don't know what you're trying to do.

Why do brands typically fail at content marketing? What misunderstandings or failures to execute lead to this?

I think that every once in a while, a really stellar online campaign in particular will hit and then everybody's like, “Oh, this campaign really sets the standard for creativity or engagement.” Well, that's fine, but why would you do that? Why does it make sense for you to follow their lead? Just because a company’s customer service did a great job on Twitter, doesn’t mean you should be trying to provide customer service on Twitter. I see it time and time again. Executives will ask, "How many views do we have? We want to have 800 Twitter followers." Well, what's that going to do for you? Who is it that you're targeting?

They’ll say, “We want to get rid of half the content on our website.” You don't know what you want your website to do or even which audience it is targeting. These sort of random mandates that come down from executives or the agencies or the clients — they're just spinning their wheels and meanwhile all this content is piling up all over the place, and it's inconsistent, off-brand and irrelevant.

I think that is part of the danger. People are saying you need more content. More content! What? You don't have a blog? You absolutely need a blog! And if you are not participating in these media channels then you need to jump on that. And it's just like, why? The example I always use is that Brain Traffic isn’t on Facebook. There's absolutely no reason for us to be on Facebook. We're a B2B brand. Our audience is on Twitter. Our audience is at conferences. People will buy our book. We have limited resources, so that's what we're focusing on. We blog once a week, and we ensure the quality of our posts. We try to practice what we preach.

Connect with Kristina by following her on Twitter @halvorson or @braintraffic.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user alangrlane.

Don't forget to share this post!