Interview #16 Transcript – August 28, 2013
Participants: Mark Smiciklas and Martin van der Roest

Martin van der Roest: Thank you for joining us today. My name is Martin van der Roest and I will be hosting this session of the Content Marketing Examiner. Joining me is Mark Smiciklas of Intersection Consulting. Mark has his business in the Vancouver area and last year published a book, The Power of Infographics: Using pictures to communicate and connect with your audiences.

Mark, thank you for joining us, it’s a pleasure to have you.

Mark Smiciklas: Thanks for having me, I much appreciate it.

Martin van der Roest: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your business and the kind of things you’re doing in the content marketing space.

Mark Smiciklas: I am a digital strategist. My company is Intersection Consulting and I’m a solo entrepreneur and I basically have a network model, I have different vendors that I use and bring in on specific projects. Those projects vary; anything to do with digital marketing, and content is obviously is a big piece of that, so anything from strategy developments to implementation assistance, managing ongoing programs, and some training and education as well. Some of that implementation also includes actually creating content and developing the content strategy.

Martin van der Roest: That’s great and it fits in with what we want to talk about today, which is strategy. As you know, with the Content Marketing Examiner we’ve taken a more structured approach to addressing the so-called best practices for content marketing and we’ve done that by organizing the activities into seven lifecycle steps. The first being goals, then strategy and following with the other five lifecycle activities that basically include the planning, the production, publishing, engagement and measure. This segment, the second step, we might refer to as the bridge between the goals that are set and how to launch into execution activities. This second lifecycle step is what I’d like to focus on. Mark for starters, give us your thoughts on the importance of goals as maybe the cornerstone of the content marketing activity and how does it influence strategies?

Mark Smiciklas: Goals are important for any marketing initiative, and they would apply as well to content marketing. A lot of people look at goal setting as this process that has to be complex and formal, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that onerous. What the process will look like for a lot of organizations is going to depend on their capacity, feedback loops, and what the organization is used to as far as measurement. Goal setting to me is something obviously, it’s the underpinning, it’s the base of any implementation. But the thing about setting goals, setting objectives, is more just the idea of having that strategic thinking. For big organizations that have a measurement protocol in place or that are working with defined metrics, that’s something that’s going to be fairly formal. But for individuals or small organizations, goal setting is something that could simply be accomplished by taking an Excel Spreadsheet or a piece of paper and taking the time to actually think about, “Why are we getting into this process?” You really do need that. A lot of organizations go straight to implementation, but it’s difficult to have a really effective tactical plan if you don’t know why you’re doing all those things in the first place. Goals are obviously a critical part of that.

Martin van der Roest: You said something interesting there, that maybe for smaller organizations there’s the idea of the goals or spending time addressing them that may not be as important. As we continue to talk to a number of folks and marketing teams and brands, I find that goals seem to be sometimes light. It’s maybe set by another part of the marketing activity in a broader sense like marketing, you drive so many leads but that’s comprised of PPC, etc., and so on. Any quick thoughts on organizations that are doing content marketing but they’ve decided not to spend any time on goals, what might some of those reasons be that goals aren’t necessarily clarified?

Mark Smiciklas: There are a couple of reasons. One is that some organizations simply don’t have a culture of measurement in place. Basically they don’t measure anything, so content marketing is going to fall into that. Whether that’s legacy marketing programs, they don’t track. They’ve been doing things for such a long time, that they just do them because the budget is there. They spend the money, it might be working, it might not be working; they’re not a hundred percent sure. They don’t really have that culture of measurement in place. Another reason, you touched on it earlier, if you’re a small organization—and I run into this as a sole entrepreneur—sometimes you just need to get stuff done. Some smaller businesses are basically going to move, they have an idea of what they want to do, so they move on to implementation, they’re not taking the time to do the strategy or goal setting. Another reason might be because content marketing is relatively new as a discipline; they might not know what to measure. They may not be comfortable with what that looks like. They may not have a thorough understanding of some of the things they can put in place to measure the outcomes of these initiatives or campaigns. Those are probably the main three reasons.

Martin van der Roest: That’s good. So as you get engaged with strategic consulting, if a company reaches out to you and says, “We need some help,” what is the guidance that you provide around the topic of strategy? What are some of the “homework assignments” that you advise your clients to do around creating strategy? What are some of the guidelines you use?

Mark Smiciklas: Strategy is an interesting term. It’s defined differently by different people. For me it’s clearly understanding the purpose of why we are doing anything, that’s strategic thinking. The strategy phase usually consists of telling clients to stop what they’er doing and take a couple of steps back and start thinking of things from a little different perspective. When it comes to content marketing, some organizations may say, “It’s content marketing, I see some of my competitors are publishing things, whether it’s infographics or other different things and we need to get into this.” What I try to encourage people to do is to take a step back and think of the reasons. Obviously business goals are a big thing, I really try to get organizations to make a connection to something that is tangible for them. So what is the goal? Is it revenue? Is it a reality check like why are we even in business? And how is content marketing going to move that needle as far as the whole organization? How do we measure success? These are things that they need to start thinking about strategically before actually starting the program. For me a lot of it is about planning and development since strategy has to guide implementation. I look at it as doing some of that work around over-all business goals and then trying to come up with an executable play book that’s going to help guide implementation. That’s essentially the strategy phase. There are lots of different components of it, how you get to that point can come in a lot of different ways, but that’s essentially what it means to me.

Martin van der Roest: I looked at your website and one of your areas of focus that you offer and talk about is digital strategy. In that you have an iceberg motif, and I think it’s worth pointing out to our listeners and readers because I do resonate with these strategic elements that you want to bring into a conversation. I’m going to read it real quick and maybe you can comment. You’ve got something called measurement and ROI, you’ve got guidelines and policies, shareholder participation, monitoring, social research, content planning, which I might even put into the next part, execution. And then you have audience analysis which is the biggest print in that illustration. Are there some other things that maybe we should be aware of that you haven’t characterized or are there a couple of these that you would stress maybe beyond the size of the print shown on the illustration?

Mark Smiciklas: The iceberg is a good visual metaphor for a lot of different things, for content strategy in particular, for what people see when it comes to content is that final delivered piece. Whether it’s that ebook that’s sitting on the website, or that infographic that you’ve created, or the blog or the newsletter, whatever that piece of content is, that’s sort of above the surface, that’s what everybody sees. But there’s so much below the surface that you first need to understand strategically in order to get to that point. The two biggest things are understanding who your audience or audiences are, and understanding their informational needs. Every organization is going to communicate with different sets of targets, different audiences, whether the basic ones would only be prospects versus customers. They have very different needs, so understanding who your audiences are and then really taking the time to learn what their information needs are. A big mistake a lot of organizations make is they assume that they know what the customer wants because it’s what they want. The two are not connected. What the customer wants and what the marketing department, the CEO or the owner wants, the information they want to put out there, the two are not necessarily congruent. Taking the time to understand what those information needs are can be done in so many different ways. Some organizations aren’t going to have the capacity to go out and do big surveys and really dig into the customer base that they have, or those prospects. Even tapping into your own organization and looking at different departments, there’s always a lot of information around or information needs that are sitting in the organization that just need to be extracted, whether that’s through the sales department or support or even through distribution. One of my favorite philosophies is that if you’re in the distribution business, a lot of times your drivers and the people that are actually delivering that product to the door have a lot of opportunity to talk with the customer and they probably have a lot of insight that you would never think of tapping into. That’s just one example. It’s understanding the audience and understanding the information needs; that’s the two biggest things.

Martin van der Roest: Let me run something by you related to audience, because I resonate with that and the Examiner is drilling down a little more into this but let me get your reaction to this. One of the things that we are beginning to hear about is this idea of the “buyer’s journey.” So as you say, who is my audience, but my audience could come in stages, the buyer’s journey of, “I’m just trying to discover something,” then, “I want to better understand it,” and then I might engage in the purchasing process and then I become a customer and maybe an advocate. That may dictate some different messages that are communicated. Here’s the overlay of what I’d like to get your reaction on, and that is not only is there a buyer’s journey but there might be generational influences of the audience. In other words, I’m a Boomer and Boomers have certain experiences and messages based on history, etc., that might resonate with me more than others. Then take it out to the other end and we’ve got the Generation Z which is the 1995 to 2007 birth period and it represents people who probably grew up with an iPad or a SmartPhone versus a pacifier. Would you see any validity in a generational overlay consideration on the buyer’s journey as an organization looks at analyzing the audience?

Mark Smiciklas: Absolutely. Whether it’s through the buyer’s journey or through those demographics it’s going to be important at every specific stage. Not even necessarily evolving across the whole process, because that journey is going to be different for different demographics. If we go back to the content discussion, those different personas are going to have different needs and different expectations around how they want to communicate or how they want to be communicated with or the information that they need. You can also throw on top of that learning styles. If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of it, and a lot of organizations are not going to get to that level of understanding their customers, but does your audience prefer to see content visually, auditory or written? Do they want to experience a product or service as opposed to reading about it? There are lots of different factors, but I definitely agree that by generation there are going to be different expectations just through culture and the time that they grew up, their access to technology, just the way they communicate—so many different factors to consider.

Martin van der Roest: Part of that was based on a recent conversation I had with someone who said they had stopped doing email newsletters, they are strictly into online presence and their audience is the range of the generations so I thought that was interesting. That’s good feedback.

Mark let’s do a shift here with a case study approach. Not too in depth, but if you could share a recent engagement or activity you had that represented a successful strategic planning effort and what contributed to that?

Mark Smiciklas: In my experience to date, I think the biggest contributing factor (and it’s almost universal) is commitment on behalf of the client. This is going under the premise that clients already understand the benefit of content marketing and they embrace the idea that this is something that is going to make sense for their business. There needs to be a level of commitment to really lead to a successful program. This involves a commitment to learning about your audiences, a commitment to understanding their information needs and not your idea of what content they need to consume, a commitment to building capacity, there’s a monetary investment as well. A commitment to measurement, so really having a commitment to the program holistically, to say, “Ok, if we’re going to be successful we need to make a commitment to actually measuring and looking at that data and going back and optimizing our programs.” Commitment is definitely the biggest success factor. A lot of that comes from the top of the leadership pyramid. Like many initiatives it’s difficult to manage those from the middle, so getting buy-in at the top really does facilitate a smoother transition and the likelihood of a program being successful based on all those factors.

Martin van der Roest: I think you said it earlier that culture is a key part of that and sets the stage. Continuing along that line, what is a deliverable of a strategic plan? What do you do or what have you seen that your customers have done that represents a deliverable—what does that look like?

Mark Smiciklas: My view on the “strategic deliverable” might be a little bit different than some people. I tend to look at it a little bit more practically. What I try to deliver is a sort of “play book” that would summarize the strategic discussions that you’ve had, whether that’s the business objectives or an audit process in there. Gathering some organizational information and using that as something that is going to introduce the document. For me a strategic deliverable is going to essentially be a list of things that that organization needs to accomplish in order to launch that campaign. It gets into some of the tactical recommendations and what that’s going to include is one of the big deliverables which is having an editorial calendar. Within that deliverable as well, a content audit is something that is pretty important. So really understanding that once you go through that process of, “Yes, content marketing makes sense for us, these are our business objectives, so what have we created?” In marketing in general we have so many acronyms and terminologies that don’t necessarily resonate with the customer so to them content marketing might be something different. A lot of organizations have created great assets they just don’t look at them as content. That audit can usually surprise quite a few people who have inadvertently been creating videos internally to do training. Those things can be repurposed. The newsletter they’ve been doing, it’s not digital, but it has some really great information in it and the articles can be turned into blog posts. Organizations might already be doing some of the things that are really a key part of content marketing; they just don’t realize that that is what they are doing. Getting them to understand that process and going through and figuring that out is something that is always worthwhile.

Martin van der Roest: I like your point about the audit. When I think of a digital marketing audit I think of what has already been done in the digital finger print. What channels have I set up, what kinds of things do I post, etc. I think you hit on an interesting point there to look at other assets as a part of this audit that could represent content contributions that exist throughout other parts of the business that could be of significant value. That’s a great suggestion.

Let’s segue back to the brief conversation about advice that you might offer to someone just getting started with content marketing. They’ve been brought into the organization and realize that they’ve got to play, they maybe have just a website and the obligatory Twitter and Facebook accounts that aren’t doing anything and now someone’s going to get started on a content marketing initiative. What advice would you lend to someone in that position that’s looking at the strategy segment?

Mark Smiciklas: I can’t reiterate enough times that if you want to get into content marketing one of the first things you have to do is figure out who your audiences are, that’s sort of the starting point. Understand what kind of information is going to be helpful to those people so get those information needs and document that. From there you’d probably get into some detailed planning, what are some of the things that we are going to do, probably get some editorial calendars. Some organizations what to think of a budget first, but I would encourage them to think of a budget last. What I try to walk people through is, let’s develop a strategy for where you need to go and then let’s figure out what your capacity is, what your budget is. And then let’s adjust accordingly as opposed to the other way around. I think it’s better to really understand the whole content picture and what that could look like and then scale it, as opposed to starting off with, “I only have X number of dollars, let’s just do this.” Get a high-level view of what that whole project should potentially look like. I like to do all the work first and then figure out what the resources are. One other interesting thing that gets into one of the universal issues that almost every organization has when it comes to content marketing is capacity. Some organizations have a lot of money but they don’t have the internal structure to actually create stuff. Some organizations maybe have the bodies but they don’t really have the money to spend on different types of content. One of the things to think about and what I try to help clients see is understanding that they can leverage existing resources to ease the burden of creating content. Try to get people to build up “content ambassadors” within the organization. One example of that, I had one client in the design space when they were looking at launching a fairly big sort of blogging project to be one of their main content deliverables. When that started, it was, “Well we don’t have anybody, we only have three people in our marketing department we don’t have time to create content.” But they had a bunch of employees across the country that were already blogging and interested in the space that they were working in, so taking time to understand who those people are and getting them to participate in the program can help with that. A lot of times it’s looking inward first to see what’s available and getting creative that way. Obviously the next step in that if there are capacity issues, there are more and more organizations and individuals that are in the business of helping organizations create content—writers, video producers, designers. There are lots of different options once you get to the point of figuring out what you need.

Martin van der Roest: I think your point is well taken about the idea of build that strategy not necessarily based on budget right away because if you start with that, it can predispose your thinking about what you can and can’t do. It’s good advice to build that strategy first. Of course I would plug your business, call you up and cut to the chase.

We’re going to wrap it up here. Any other comments that you didn’t get in or that I didn’t ask that you would like to offer up?

Mark Smiciklas: It’s not really a super complicated process; it’s just a matter of organizations taking a little bit of time to understand two things: audiences and information needs as opposed to what you think they need. It seems really common sense, but I’ve talked with a lot of potential clients that still have a hard time of letting go of trying to control the message, that old adage, instead of trying to build something that the actual customer wants to consume. It’s the same with products or services; it’s the same with content.

Martin van der Roest: I think some good points were made. Mark thanks for participating and sharing. I respect your significant background in this space and I’m sure readers/listeners will have some good take aways.

Mark Smiciklas: Thanks again for having me and I really appreciate the opportunity.

Martin van der Roest: And thank you all. This is Martin van der Roest with the Content Marketing Examiner where we continue to explore the content marketing lifecycle for best practices.