Content Confab & Careers > An Interview With Kristina Halvorson

Richard Marriott 5 years ago

Kristina Halvorson is a revered figure in the content strategy space. She's also one of the most effervescent, passionate and friendly people you are likely to meet and for us that's a killer combination. We caught up with her as part of our ongoing Big Interview series to talk career, content and thought leadership as she plots the next Confab, the first U.S. conference dedicated to the topic of content strategy.

Below the Minnesota-based content expert opens up about everything from her own mentors and childhood to the secret of what makes great content. Read on and prepare to be inspired...

Q - Tell us a little about yourself

I started out as a copywriter in the late 90s, and decided early onto focus on websites, and became really intrigued and engaged by how differently people interacted with media online when people were still trying to get their heads around it all. So I worked on several large scale website projects, hiring my first employee in 2005 and becoming a small agency in 2008.

I realised that I had graduated from sorting out content requirements to taking on more of a consulting role. I didn’t know what to call my role so I put on my business card interactive content strategist, which I thought I had made up. But in December 2007 I came across an article by Rachel Lovinger named ‘Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data’. I thought: “It’s the thing I do!”

I searched for content strategy and there were fewer than 8,000 results, which was disheartening. So I knew I needed to gather information from the very few people I could find who practiced it, and found 15 or so individuals. In 2009 I helped facilitate the very first content strategy consortium. There were 20 of us and several were folks who became leaders in the ‘conversation’, such as Samantha Starmer, Rachel Lovinger, Karen McGrane, and Margo Bloomstein.

Shortly after that I shifted our focus from web writing to content. No-one knew what that was, and as we went to local clients and introduced that service one by one they all dropped off! But I started gaining national attention. I published the first book on the traffic and looked for speaking opportunities.

We now have a wonderful community of clients, most of them Fortune 500s, and we’ve settled into content strategy for website and web redesign. It was exciting times, and it continues to be so.

Q - Before all this, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I never had a specific career path. I’ve always subscribed to the theory of doing something you love and when that stops do something else. I majored in Theatre which has served me well in public speaking.

I worked in a small cell phone dealership when they were the size of bricks for a few years. Then I did PR, comms, and a little bit of everything in my 20s. I was laid off just after 9/11 when everyone thought the economy was going to collapse. So I decided to put my toe into freelance copywriting.

Q - If you could have dinner with 3 famous people who would they be, and why?

Katharine Hepburn because she has been a kind of role model, a badass who didn’t care what anybody thought in her career. I really admired her principles and how she aged in the industry.

Peter Drucker, one of the big thinkers in the world of strategy at business level. His teachings have had a big impact on how I think about content strategy.

And Shakespeare!

Q - Have you ever had any mentors? Who’s the best content person you have ever worked with and why. And who's your content crush?

There are folks that supported me and I might contact them during a career crisis. Jared Spool is one – a newsability consultant and a leader in the field of creating solid experiences for users.

Another is Lou Rosenfeld who wrote the book on information architecture. Jeffrey Zeldman has been an influence and provided me with a ton of opportunities. One of the people I go back to is a guy named Tom McCullough who I worked with at the cellphone company who is always supportive. He taught me about entrepreneurship, and was always enthusiastic and honest with clients. A lot of his values have translated to the work I do. I’ve also had good friends and support along the way.

I strive to be a role model; it’s still a nascent industry and I want everyone who does the work to blog and speak and I do my best to spread the word. I do my best to answer every email I get.

Q - Are you working on any new books right now?

I’m starting work on two books. One is a book on practitioners going back to the roots of where good content comes from.

The second is my ‘big scary book’. My roots are in website creation and planning and web content development, but this will be directed at the marketing industry, digging into the myths and helping people understand the realities of content marketing. It’s a big book and I’m terrified (laughs) but looking forward to announcing that next year.

Q - Confab has been a big success story – what’s been the secret to that?

It debuted in 2011 and we’ve sold out our central conference every year. The earlier conferences were a similar experience to what we had at the consortium. Hundreds of people showed up and were like: ‘These people do what I do, I’ve never met anyone else that does!”

It’s still an extraordinary community-building experience and accommodating to the folks that come. We’ve seen that the desires and needs of our audiences are shifting which means that we’ve had to do some hard thinking about offerings because the number one thing, as well as new voices, is advanced material.

Everyone now knows that content is important and we’re digging in to explore how it has a larger impact on organisations and infrastructure, and where the evolving opportunities are. We’ll soon be announcing a new event that we’re hosting next year that will cater for folks looking for more advanced information for content strategy.

Q - What is your biggest day to day frustration?

Content marketing!

No matter how much lip service we pay as leaders in the field I think that the underlying message seems to be that you need to get more content to more people in more places. That’s having a detrimental effect on clients’ return on investment, and frankly their employees’ states of mind, and creating more silos across organisations.

As marketers for 15-20 years we’ve been saying that it’s all about the user, and we need to get content that the user cares about, but so many decisions organisations make are fuelled not by personal careful research and feedback, but much more about what’s the new shiny thing to work on and what other companies are doing or spending money on. They’re asking: “How can we be the Red Bull, or get the next Oreo tweet?” I think that ultimately it will collapse in on itself.

I did an exercise I made a list of all the brands I came into contact with in the first half an hour of my day, from sheets to pyjamas to cereal. There were 150. All of them except for three are on Twitter, and I thought -why the hell would I want to follow a toothpaste company on Twitter?

That’s a financial commitment they’ve made to sink money into these sites, but how are they measuring return? Right now they’re measuring on clicks and eyeballs and reach, and I just think it’s inefficient and making companies crazy.

Q - How do you identify what a client actually needs VS what they think they need?

Great question. More clients are saying they need a content strategy to take them to ‘content Nirvana’. I’ve had to start pushing back and say that marketing strategy is never finished, it evolves, and that’s how I’ve started to see content strategy.

We’ve seen huge RFPs that touch every part of an organisation. I explain that there are a lot of questions that need answers, and information that needs synthesising across silos, before we can establish a strategy to build up over time. Sometimes clients are like “great”, other times they’re like “Woah – this gigantic consultancy agency elsewhere say they can fix it all”.

Six months later they come back and say: “We’ve paid for $500,000 of work for this agency and we can’t implement any of it because they want us to do everything at once which doesn’t work with our infrastructure and culture, and we’ve had had shifts in leadership.” So that’s the mind shift I have to help them undergo.

Q - What qualities make a good content strategist?

You have to know how to listen to clients and challenge their assumptions. Be able to synthesise input from across a variety of sources. It’s not just competitive review, content audit, the next shiny thing, or just executive mandate. It’s bits and pieces of all of that pulled together that will inform a smart actionable strategy.

Q - How will the rapid ascent of digital marketing influence traditional channels?

Organisations aren’t set up to deal with it. They’re bogged down with how they’ve hired in the past, and a lot aren’t sure where the ‘website teams’ should sit. Scott Brinker talks about the bridge between marketing and technology and I think those lines are blurring, which is a huge challenge because priorities are very different on both sides. That translates to dilution of brand and losing track of quality.

Ultimately customers don’t care where they find you, you’re all the same to them, and if you’ve got one brand happening in your packaging and a totally different one on your marketing site that’s a problem.

Q - What advice would you give yourself, if you had to start your career all over again?

Don’t ever step away from work.

I felt I did that when I was on a run of speaking and writing and I left the work and business in the hands of other people. I stepped so far away that I lost touch with what was important and core challenges, and was relying on second-hand information form audiences and staff. That was a mistake.

It’s difficult to balance everything from client work, and writing and speaking to parenting and friendships, that has to take priority if you’re to have real valid true insights into how things are evolving in the industry.

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