winter / 2015

The magazine of branded content
Traffic Source
Kristina Halvorson’s views on content marketing frequently clash with the industry’s conventional wisdom. Let’s get her started.
Sep 28, 2015

Kristina Halvorson, the founder/CEO of Minneapolis-based content agency Brain Traffic, relishes a good joust, be it about content marketing ROI or CMOs building a business case. But to really get her blood boiling, you need to ask her about the ballooning number of technology platforms in the industry, and whether the message they’re sending to brands and businesses is an accountable—or ethical—one.

We asked her about that, among other topics, and Halvorson, the co-author of Content Strategy for the Web and a frequent conference speaker, had no qualms about speaking truth.

Content Magazine: Why do brands dread content audits?
Kristina Halvorson: It's like opening up the closet that you haven't cleaned for 20 years. And once you get in there, you're just not quite sure what to do with everything. It opens up of a lot of politics and a lot of technology considerations. Ultimately, it's a lot easier to just say, "Well, we'll just leave it in there, and go ahead and do the content migration or redesign the website. We'll figure that out after we go responsive." It just gets worse over time.

How can an agency help the client manage that politics problem?
I think the number one thing to do is be sure that when you go in and you ask to speak with stakeholders, that you're being clear that not only do you need to speak with people who have a vested role and responsibility with the content itself, but that you're also speaking with people who have really high emotions or strong opinions about what's going to happen with the content, whether it's the website or the program. A lot of times, people just need to feel heard.

What happens if, when you begin a content project with a client, they’re lacking a brand identity?
I'm actually working with a client like that right now, with a lot of loose ideas about what they stand for and what they believe, but they're really unclear about how they want to present themselves to an external audience. I think it is really important to get them to stand in the shoes of their audience and say, "This is what I understand. This is what I perceive. This is how this comes off to me," and then working with them to hone in on that messaging and voice and tone. It's very, very difficult to help people shape or structure content plans without having that as being one of the key inputs.

You’ve said that you “can’t find any resource about content marketing that wasn't conducted or commissioned by a company that sells it." Why is that a problem?
I think that some of the loudest voices, the ones that are really working to shape attitudes in content marketing right now, are the technology platforms. They are the ones that have sold this idea of demand generation and the awareness and visibility part of the funnel wholeheartedly. And I have yet to see any sort of study [to support it]. We point to a half-dozen case studies, right? Intel, Marriott, Red Bull, Kraft, American Express, and then that's about it. And these are all good case studies. But there are people in content marketing who are demanding that every single company must be doing content marketing, saying it's the only kind of marketing left. Nothing could demonstrate to me that this ongoing onslaught of content that's being delivered in a bunch of different places and being reused is being positioned as the thing everybody has to do. I have found nothing that demonstrates clear ROI or business results from that.

It sounds like you don't believe in content marketing.
I don't believe it's an industry mandate. It's not that I don't like it. It's that I don't like the way that we talk about it. I don't like the way that technology companies are jumping on and profiting off of it all day, that's half of it. And it's frustrating to see the people who used to be SEO experts, who used to be social media experts, and who used to be blogging experts, now they're all rebranded as content marketing experts. And that is frustrating.

Why is that frustrating?
You know, I remember SEO people 10 years ago were saying, "you have to publish a ton of content every day or else you're not going to be visible in search engines.” Well, now they're just saying that with regards to content marketing. And I feel like everybody's an expert about what the trend du jour is, and very little or no attention is really paid to the boring, hard, nasty work which is we need to get a line around the strategy that is going to help us make decisions, provide executives with a business case about what we are going to do, and what we are not going to do.

What do you say to CMOs who tell you that they’re struggling with too much content across their digital properties?
Well, I think it's because [they] don't have a strategy or guidelines in place that help people know, "Yes, this is something we publish. And no, this is something that we don't." People aren't accountable for results. I see that all the time. Some [brand] is spending $100,000 with an agency over the last three months to produce a bunch of content that's now out there. And the [brand manager] can say, "See, look at how productive I've been. Look at all this stuff that I have done. And look how cool and pretty it is. And look at those several thousand clicks." Well if that's what we're measuring, what did that $100,000 really do for our business and our customers, frankly?

Many brands have multiple teams that talk about content and content strategy in different ways. How do you help them align?
Well, I think that this is an important part of getting in there and getting a lexicon in place. I don't know necessarily if it's super important that people agree on what content strategy is, as much as they agree on why they're doing what they're doing and what that means for future activities.