Talking Content Strategy with Industry Experts: Kristina Halvorson

This is the first part of what will become a series of interviews with experts in the field of content strategy.

In this segment I speak with Kristina Halvorson, Author of Content Strategy for the Web, CEO at Brain Traffic, and Founder of the Confab Content Strategy Conference.

Listen to Kristina and I discuss her inspiration for the book, some of her favorite content on the web, and why the notion of ‘is long-form content better’ makes her cringe.

Can’t Listen? Read the Full Interview Below

Nick: Hello, guys. Nick Eubanks here. This is my first-ever podcast on SEO Nick, so I hope you like it.

Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Kristina Halvorson, the author of ‘Content Strategy for the Web’, CEO of Brain Traffic, and founder of the ConFab Content Strategy Conference. How are you doing today, Kristina?

Kristina: I am great, how are you?

Nick: I am very good, thank you. I know you have exploded onto the scene,although I know you have been doing this for many years, and you have a background in marketing software. You are at the forefront of the whole concept of content strategy, so I thought it would be really cool for some of my readers, and just some of the people within the industry, to hear some of your thoughts on what I would consider to be some of the less-asked questions in the realm of content strategy and content marketing.

Kristina: Excellent.

Nick: Awesome. I guess we will just get started. The first question is:

What was your single biggest inspiration for writing ‘Content Strategy for the Web’?

Kristina: My single biggest inspiration was probably frustration and rage.

I was a web copywriter for many years, and I got very frustrated, because I was being called in at the last minute for all of these really large web projects. None of the documentation would be ready for me. There would be a ton of source content that was missing, there were a lot of assumptions about content that clients would be creating. Oftentimes, I was handed a list of SEO requirements that I did not know what to do with because they did not necessarily serve the audience needs and the page.

I just ended up backing into content strategy, which I often refer to as just asking the right questions about content early enough in the process. No one was talking about it; there were not any other books out there really addressing it. I figured that there were other people that were out there talking about it, so I went and tracked those people down, got a lot of their insights, and wove them together in this little red book, and that is the story.

Nick: It is crazy to think that this was not just commonplace, as far as the industry goes, at some point in time. It is also crazy to think that TVs were black and white, because now they are sheets of paper. It just seems to crazy at the end of 2012 to consider a time when content strategy was not just the focus of most marketing efforts, especially in the digital space.

Kristina: It was recent. When I went searching, my colleagues make fun of me because I love telling this story, but when I went searching for information about content strategy online, there was nothing. Google turned up 8,000 results, and most of it was not related to the information I was looking for. That was early 2008. I think that once people figured out that there was a name for this, that this is a huge missing link in online marketing, in online user experience, and how we were crafting that, it was just the time was right.

Nick: That makes perfect sense.

Coming from a background in software marketing, what drove you to take, and this is a repeat of the last question, but what really drove you to take the interest?

I guess you just saw a need and you said, ‘Nobody else is doing this. I have to do something about this’?

Kristina: That was a lot earlier in my career. I was doing marketing and public relations for a software company here in Minneapolis, and it was just a small company. Even the small changes that I was able to make to the copy on their website, the way that I was telling the story to the media and PR folks, it was just really striking to me how shaping that story online was so effective, with regard to how people were responding to and talking about the software.

That was really inspirational to me, just seeing that it is not necessarily all about the features that you design, it is not necessarily about bombarding people with all the benefits, it is about really beginning to inspire this conversation, or inspire interest and trust versus just this push of information. That was where I really became interested, I guess, in storytelling online, and the opportunities there, where you have multiple audiences that you can be reaching out to from a single platform.

Nick: I think that makes a lot of sense. A question that I think everyone is very curious to find out the answer to.

What would you say is some of your favorite content that is out there, and what makes it stand out to you, personally?

Kristina: I think that the easiest way to respond to that question is, I would say; what are the websites that I depend on? What are the ones that I have a really good experience with that I go back to over and over? I do a lot of shopping online. There have been a couple of companies that have earned my business simply by remaining very consistent and respectful in their communications, giving me choices about how I interact with their site, how often they email me, and so on.

I think an example that is brought up so often is Zappos I think that there is something to that. They have invested a lot in content. If you are buying shoes, many of those pairs of shoes will have a little 30-second video that they took time to record, and it is just one of the employees talking about, ‘Check out this shoe; how awesome this shoe is.’ Spending those 30 seconds is such an easy way to draw me in and begin that sales conversation with me. I really appreciate the voice and tone of their emails, and how consistent that is across the site.

I think that from a media standpoint, a publication I have really been enjoying is called ‘The Week’. I like that publication because they are essentially curating news content, but with a real editorial point of view. They are not just aggregating it; there are people going out there, reading about these different topics, making editorial decisions; with regard to what the most important things that people need to be aware of on the frontiers of politics, the arts, or entertainment? and delivering that information in a way that is really easy for me to read and useful to me. I am really enjoying that website a lot, as well.

Nick: That is a really good example, and that cracks open a whole other realm of curation, with the deluge of content that is being produced now. Something like 60 hours of new audio and video content is being produced every couple of minutes now. With just this massive amount of content, having somebody to distill down what is really important, what is really going to make sense, and impact your life is probably increasing in importance at an exponential rate, I would imagine.

Kristina: I think, too, what is critical about that, and the only way that it is going to be effective, is if you really know and understand your audience. I cannot tell you how many clients will come in and sit down, and these are clients who are passionate about their product or their service, and they are Fortune 500 companies who are successful for a reason. They all really want to do the right thing, but we will start asking them, and they will say, ‘Our audiences are like this, and our customers are like this.’ We will say, ‘Great, OK. How do you know that?’ It will turn out that the majority of the information that they have been acting upon is assumption, opinion, or based on research that was done 18 months ago, which frankly, even research that was done 6 months ago is probably no longer relevant.

You have to understand your audience in order to be able to, even if you are just talking about curating, deliver things in a way, in a format, and on a timeline that is going to be useful to them. For example, ‘The Week’ is perfect for me, because I get a Tweet once a day that says, ‘Here are the top ten things that you need to know today.’ Now I can click over, I can skim those top ten things, I can feel like I am fairly caught up in what is going on, and get on with my day.

Nick: That is such a good example. I also think that it is really interesting that you mentioned respect, and Zappos stands out to you specifically, because they respect you as a customer, they respect you as a stakeholder, potentially, in one way or another, of their brand and of their business. From what you have said, it seems like that really comes across in their communication with you.

Kristina: Yes, it really does. It is not just . . . People talk a lot about, ‘Zappos, they embody customer service,’ which is really true, but you cannot fake that in your communications. It is not just about, ‘They will ship for free both ways.’ It is also about their continually inviting my feedback in a way that is not a freaking popup poll the minute I get to a certain page.

Nick: Those are the worst.

Kristina: Or, ‘Do you want to chat live with a representative right now?’ No, I do not. Get out of my way. They invite that input. When they send me email confirmations, they are direct, to the point, and they are not trying to market other stuff to me, they understand that all I want in that email is just confirmation that this has been sent.

I think that so often marketers are so focused on eyeballs, because that is the rule that we have always had; we need to get eyeballs. SEO is like that, social media, product placement, and all of that stuff; we need eyeballs on our stuff. There are a lot of people competing for the same sets of eyeballs, so why not take this opportunity to create, share, and take care of content that resonates with
people, moves them, or that is at the very least, clearly relevant to what it is that they need to do every day?

Nick: You are hitting the nail on the head. If you are not going to be the best in the industry, why bother doing it at all these days especially?

Kristina: Yes. At the same time, I will say this, I think that part of what is difficult or challenging about content marketing and SEO is that everybody is really focused on this ‘Top Ten’ anything,’ this ‘Top One’, ‘Top Two’ anything. The fact of the matter is that not everybody can have those top spots. I think that what is important is to identify your audience, and do not be afraid to be niche, do not be afraid to identify, whether it is demographics, preferences, or whatever. Here is who it is that you are talking to.

Again, you do not have to be the best in the business.

Everybody wants to be Apple, which makes me want to slam my head into the wall. You do not have to be Apple. Figure out what it is that you care about, get a good writer, get
somebody that is good at planning communications, and invest and empower them to do their job.

I think that is another big problem, that we do not give enough credence or empowerment to the very people that we are asking to create this content for us, nor do we invest in the infrastructure that we need within our companies to take care of it over time. I think that that is part of the mind shift that the discipline of content strategy can really bring into organizations; this content is an asset of ours, and it does deserve our strategic consideration.

Nick: This next question is something that I have heard just as an undertone within more so the SEO industry, probably, than anything. I think obviously, as marketers are beginning to try to embrace this concept of using content as communication, and again like you said, not just to get the eyeballs, not just to get the rankings, but to engage their audience.

There seems to be this common problem that the people who are trying to implement content strategy from the top-down are running into, which is getting over that ‘stay on brand’ hurdle, which I think sometimes can seem nearly impossible when it comes to brainstorming new content with the client.

What are the some of the ways that you have gotten clients to accept some fresh or sort of out-of-the-box ideas?

Kristina: I think that probably the best thing is showing them the success that other people . . . I am so sorry. I am not going to . . .(laughing) I will just interrupt your podcast and tell you. I got a sick kid at home who will not leave me alone, so I am running all over the house. Sorry, podcast listeners (laughs). Welcome to the life of a working mom. I am trying not to crack up.

Nick: (laughing) No, that is totally fine.


How do I get my clients to embrace new ideas?

I think there are two things.

First of all, either they are open to it or they are not.

I think that with content strategy in particular, ensuring that you have got a sponsor within an organization is really critical. When people call us, and this does not happen so much anymore, but in 2009 or 2010, when we first stepped up and said, ‘We do content strategy,’ people would call us and they would ask, ‘What is this content strategy thing, and why do we need it?’ What we found is that we were spending so much time trying to convince people of the value of the work that we did, when nobody in the organization got it. Nobody understood that this is an old-new thing, that just embraced best practices of creating awesome content, and that until you get that foundational work set out, you cannot really start talking about any of the risky, highly-visible, or new different storytelling that are available online. It is interesting that the new stuff that we needed to sell-in was the most basic.

You need an editorial calendar.

You need to have somebody within your organization that actually owns the content. You have got to have actual funding, not just for the big, fancy campaign, but also for the technology infrastructure and the right skill sets to be able to execute on this stuff, and to care for it over time.

How did we sell that in? Unless we had somebody that really got the value of it and understood the foundation that needed to be laid, it was really hard, it was really difficult. That was part of why I took to the road, banging the drums for content strategy.

Look, we are all talking about the next viral YouTube video, or we are all excited about our Facebook page, but this is all dust in the wind when it comes to being able to respond to whatever the next new big thing is, in terms of being able to deliver good content that is going to be consistent across channels for our audiences.


Do you have a process for testing new content?

I guess if you are able to have an internal, I do not want to call them an internal champion; that seems so out of date. If you have a sponsor, I think that is a much better word, a sponsor within an organization who trusts you, who is willing to put their name on the chopping block and say, ‘This is a good idea. We do need to do this.’

Is there a way or a process for testing those new content ideas before deciding to commit a chunk of the budget to them?

Kristina: Yes, that is a good question. I think that the age-old answer of ‘it depends’ plays in here, because it really depends on what it is that you are trying to do. It depends on what audience you are trying to reach, what you are trying to build.

Are you trying to launch something or are you trying to revitalize a brand? What are the different ways to test those? You guys live and breathe metrics. That certainly is something, the age-old AB testing. You can do user testing of actual content, with regard to where it is placed on the page, how they are navigating through a site to get at it. Doing qualitative content testing is something that people are trying to figure out how exactly that works, and I think there are some people that really . . . One of the things that we do at Brain Traffic is we will offer what is called a ‘qualitative audit,’ where we will sit down with the client and we will dig into what are their objectives? What do they know about their audiences? What is going on with their current clients?

We will literally go through with a score card, and identify, ‘Here is what is of value to you. Here is what not of value, from a best practices standpoint. Here is what is working, here is what is not.’ I think that that is the crazy thing with content, that it is not just a numbers game. I do not believe that you can simply depend on quantitative analytics to measure content effectiveness, that you actually have to get people in there, either people with an editorial viewpoint, content experts, or your customers to figure out what is working and what is not.

Nick: I do not need to tell you how well you know this stuff. I guess, to come back to, once the content is created, once you have a piece of content that has proven itself valuable within some period of time, whether that is resonating with your audience, driving more sales, driving more eyeballs, or expanding on the reach of the brand and what the brand stands for,

how do you approach maintaining a piece of content to maximize its lifetime value?

Kristina: I am sorry. Can you repeat that last part, how do you approach doing what?

Nick: Maintaining a piece of content.

Kristina: Maintaining, right. I think that the first thing is certainly to put into place a rolling audit process, where you know where that content is, who owns it, the last time it was updated, and why it was published in the first place. Then when you can return to it, you can better assess its value based on your current business objectives, what you have learned about what is working with your product or service, what is not, what your audience responses are. Simply going back, it is critically important that you keep track of that content and that you maintain, basically, a scorecard of what is working and what is not. Some of it may very well be, ‘This is out of date. This is no longer relevant.’ If content was migrated, now we have an audit plan, and now we go in there and, ‘This whole section that we assumed was really valuable turns out to be really bad, and is not up to standards, or off brand, or whatever.’

I think it is a matter of just ensuring that your content success metrics are really kept up to date and really mapped back to whatever your business objectives are, and then ensuring that you have the right people who are just continually looking at and caring for that content. I will say that this has been an interesting thing, that I think CMS vendors have been promising that for 15 years; ‘We are going to take care of that. We will keep track of all your content for you. We will make sure that all of it is where it is supposed to be and it is being updated and checked over time.’ You cannot just make that happen with electronics, or technology, sorry.

Nick: That is such an interesting concept, because honestly, any SEO listening has probably just cringed when they thought of deprecating a piece of content. It is like, ‘What do I do with my URL now? What do I do with all of the signaling factors that I have built up to that URL?’

Kristina: Right. Exactly.

Nick: I think that is a really important point, that is coming away from being a marketer and just focusing more on, coming back to your Zappos point, that is really focusing on your audience and what is going to best suit the people who advocate for your brand, who appreciate your brand, and it is almost like showing respect, to a certain extent, that if this piece of content does not offer any value anymore, it should be deprecated.

Kristina: Not only that, and this is what I have always said, and I want to get back the role of SEO in just a second, but this is what I have always said for years. If your content sucks, it does not matter if you are in the top ten results on any search engine, because they are go click through, the content is going to suck, it is not going to draw them in, they are not going to see anything relevant, they are going to be overwhelmed by the amount of content on the page, and they are going to click the back button. That happens immediately. Then what is your investment worth?

I think that the SEO folks today really get that, they are getting their heads wrapped around it, they are understanding that they cannot operate in a silo apart from designers, developers, the editorial team, or even stakeholders, they have to understand, who is it that we are trying to get on this page, and what expectations are we setting once they get there? Again, there are a ton of really great SEO people out there who are working from exactly that vantage point.

Nick: You just brought up a point that is at the forefront of the SEO industry, at least this week. There is a lot of talk this week in particular about long-form content. Jonathon Colman wrote this amazing retrospective piece on, ‘We can do better than this.’

Kristina: Yes, that just was published.

Nick: Yes. He is brilliant.

Kristina: Yes, I deeply admire his work; I am already on him to write a book.

Nick: I am jealous. I need to do a better job of getting in front of him and getting a chance to work together with him, because I think his approach to agile management and how it plays a role in the entire user experience lifecycle, I think is phenomenal.

Kristina: Yes, he is a smart cookie.

Nick: There is this big push, or at least there have been post coming out, it seems like every 2 hours there is a new one, this week especially, on long-form content, and it is almost polarizing the industry, with people saying, ‘No, they need to be short, sweet, to the point, and engaging. People do not read long-form content anymore.’ Then there are other people saying, ‘It really takes long-form content to really dive into an idea, distill all of the points, and express truly the deep value of whatever this concept is.’

I guess, generally speaking, have you found long-form content to be more or less effective?

Kristina: Statements like that make me insane. It is just this, ‘This content works for everything and it works for everyone.’ Generally speaking, this is what long-format content does. That is just so outrageous to me, that anyone would think that. In order for Kristina to really, fully appreciate the quality of the leather on these shoes she is looking at, we need to click her through to long-form content about what makes good quality leather, and who makes the best leather. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes people want that long-form content. Who is the audience? What are they trying to accomplish? What are their preferences? What information do we know that they are looking for, or they need to assist them in their customer lifecycle, in the purchase process? What are those things that need to be shared with them, that will help them to take the next step?

Nick: Again, I think, to bring it back to the old adage that you had mentioned earlier, it depends. I think that is always the right answer.

Kristina: Yes, sorry dudes.

Nick: I think it always depends on . . .

Kristina: It depends. Again, that is content strategy; ask the right questions up front. What are our business objectives? What are we trying to do? Who are we trying to reach? What is it that they want? Where do we know that they are? How do they want us to talk to them? That all takes time and it takes an investment, and I think that is the bottom like. People say, ‘We do not need to spend that money, we already know.’ Guess what? The people that are beating you are spending that money.

Nick: I think you are absolutely right. I do not want to tie up any more of your time, especially if you have got a sick child.

Kristina: Let us use the word sick loosely. Let us put some air quotes around ‘sick’. But thank you.

Nick: I cannot thank you enough for taking some time to speak with me this morning. I think this has been just an awesome interview. I personally, gained some insight into a few new items, that extended beyond the book.

Kristina: Great.

Nick: For anybody listening to this, if you have not read ‘Content Strategy for the Web’ yet, go out and buy it. It is a phenomenal book. I bought 5 copies, I have given them to everybody I know who has questions. It answers so many questions, and is just an amazing resource for diving into some of the ideas of what content should be and where it is going.

Kristina: Excellent. Thank you so much for your kind words, I appreciate that.

Nick: Thank you again so much, Kristina. Have a good day, and good luck.

Kristina: Thank you. You too, Nick. Bye-bye.

Nick: Bye.