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Karen Pate, Ph.D.
Vice President -- Content Strategy , iCrossing

When it comes to content marketing, a siloed approach can be a company’s worst enemy. Karen Pate, Vice President of Content Strategy for iCrossing, explains how having a united vision and taking steps to develop a more integrated content strategy can help companies take advantage of otherwise missed opportunities.

In a connected marketplace like we have today, how has the role of content marketing changed or grown, and how does it fit into the overall marketing strategies and goals of your clients?

I think it dominates marketing strategies. If you're looking at marketing strategies in a broad sense where you're including actual product development and things like that, I don't think it takes their place because those are still critical. iCrossing builds connected brands through content. We follow a basic philosophy—it has to be useful, usable and desirable, but it also has to be engaging and visible, which is the search component of it.

Another key thing that is part of our methodology is looking at content from what we call an indirect perspective, as well as a direct perspective. If you think of content on a continuum, anything that's directly related to your product has been done well by companies. The true opportunities lie in the indirect spaces, so the further I move out on that spectrum, it's an area where a brand can publish content or information that is useful, usable and desirable. It's not necessarily directly related to their product, which means they're not going to be doing a hard sell of any kind, but they are providing valuable information. That's where the true opportunities are to connect.

When you add the different channels and devices that we now have at our disposal to present that content, it allows two-way communication with consumers, which amplifies it even more. Some things resonate better in a social phase, and some things resonate better on a website, but it's all mixed in, and marketing departments are starting to realize that integration is more important. Most people have a long way to go, and a lot of it is just restructuring the thinking of their organizations to make content more integrated.

What do you believe should be involved in that integration process?

One of the biggest barriers I've seen companies have is their organizational structure. If you look at the organization as a whole, you have company heads who have different departments, but they also have different business units. Part of the challenge is that businesses today may focus on a certain set of products and business needs, and there is some crossover in many cases where the audience or customer is touched by both. However, they're not taking advantage of what they could do collectively.

When you start layering other departments, you might have a social media person, an SEO person, a media person, etc., and their goals are to do something within that single channel. And really, the planning of the content should be channel agnostic at the beginning. You should first determine what the user wants and let that be the driver. When you silo it into channels, you end up forfeiting things just because of the channel. But if you solve the problem collectively in terms of what you're trying to publish and then determine how you want to distribute it, that part becomes easy. Then you gain synergy by looking at how the content might be used in some other channel for the consumer, which in turn works well for the brand 

Please provide some detail around the strategies for delivery and proliferation of content that iCrossing is using.

As far as different strategies for content use, the most common one is to optimize our content from a search standpoint so it can be found. With the changes in Google and Bing, it's not just about a keyword volume; it's also about social signals. If you look at the content topically, you can optimize it and create additional content objects that could be separated and shared, such as infographics. Because people like to share infographics, we're constantly looking at behaviors of users and what they share and talk about to generate social signals. We make sure to layer that back into the original content recommendations to generate the most value from that content.

When content sharing takes place in a social networking setting, it's fairly easy to track and measure, but content sharing often takes place off of public social networks. How are your clients addressing the issue of understanding and tracking where content goes?

Tracking is becoming stronger every day, but as we know, what you're really getting into is attribution modeling, which is being able to track the value of a single piece of content throughout the whole digital enterprise. Because we have enough technology and ways to predict behavior, I do believe we will eventually have more information. While we can't track exactly how a piece of content is shared through every mechanism, I think we'll know enough about behaviors where we can piece together a better estimate of its value. The best strategy is to always plan. When you create something that's shareable, assume that it's going to be shared in all different ways and make sure that it fits those different formats.

What do you feel are the best practices around measuring the value of content marketing programs?

It's still evolving for most companies. I have found that having clarity in goals coming from the top of the organization is critical. When you get down to mid-management and the layers within a company that are actually executing the content, I'm amazed that they often don't know the ultimate goal. And we can say the ultimate goal is to sell more products, but I'm talking more about true targets and breaking down the silo because each silo or channel will have their own target. It is important for them to have integrated goals where they are working together. You can't measure the value of anything if you don't have the true goal articulated.

The second layer to that is on the IT side. Within the last 10 years, companies have really stepped up the implementation of all these different technologies. I think a lot of companies bought certain systems and technologies that are great, but they are prohibitive of doing other things, with measurement being one of them. If you're the CEO of a company or even the CMO, you should really be pushing for these changes because you'll never make the full traction that you need until you get your systems right and your goals aligned.

A lot of companies want to decentralize content creation from a cost standpoint. Do you see that as a trend, and what are the pros and cons of this?

I do agree that content should have a local voice and expertise, so decentralizing content allows that. But topically planning and really understanding and collectively integrating can still be more centralized through an editorial calendar, where all parties use and participate in it so there's a common ground, but it’s not mandated. The best example I can provide is with social media. When we say we're going to build a content strategy for a client for the next year, immediately the social media person is panicking because they think we're going to walk in and say, “Here's everything you're going to blog about, tweet about, etc., and it's going to be logged in,” but we know social doesn't work that way. Once we describe the process and determine the topic areas, there's enough freedom for those decentralized entities to do what they need to do to reach their audiences directly. 

How much effort do you put into the delivery of highly qualified leads? 

For certain clients, we have mapped our content recommendations through the funnel. Obviously, when you're in the awareness part of the funnel, the leads aren't going to be as strong. You have more people, but there's going to be some fallout. We have what we call a content prescription that’s really a balance of that. The ones that are further down the funnel are qualified. The value is to be able to balance the amount of content you have throughout the funnel, and that's where we find a lot of companies are falling short. We actually show them percentages to demonstrate where they are off balance and where they are missing opportunities, so the new recommendation is to go after those areas of opportunity.

“The best strategy is to always plan. When you create something that's shareable, assume that it's going to be shared in all different ways and make sure that it fits those different formats.”