By Patrick Hayslett published December 12, 2013

How ‘Vertical Silos’ Can Lead to Better Content Marketing Strategies

cubicles in an office-silosI’m going to advocate a lightning rod for criticism — the dreaded silo — and share my vision of vertical silos actually improving our content marketing strategies and moving the industry a step forward.

Before I can do that, what exactly does the word “silo” mean?

  • I’ve seen discussions about breaking down departmental silos between sales, marketing, PR, customer service, and so on.
  • There are also media silos for channels such as video, graphics and design, website, and social media.
  • SEO gets its own silos and sometimes even content creators are siloed.

While the meaning of silo is interchangeable, opinions that silos need to disappear are consistent. But will taking a hard line here really benefit our content marketing strategies — particularly for niche marketing efforts?

The good

Content is marketing, so every department and media channel needs to be integrated and aligned with one brand voice. This is extremely beneficial because no brand can afford a split personality.

The bad

One brand voice sounds so neat and crisp. The problem is that marketing verticals don’t fit on this spectrum.The same thinking doesn’t apply to them.

Content is marketing, but retail is definitely not B2B. Home improvement is not aerospace. Construction is not consumer packaged goods. You get the idea.

If you try to be everything to everyone, you end up being nothing to anyone.

When you serve more than one niche, a uniform brand voice can stop you from achieving some of the most sought-after goals in content marketing circles:

  • Engagement: It’s easy to think of engagement as people interacting with you. True engagement is having your niche accept you as “one of us.” This requires you to reach out in the specialized language of the community even if you have to color a bit outside the lines of your uniform brand voice.
  • Thought leadership: Again, you need to speak the lingo of the community and adopt its beliefs, attitudes and values. One voice does not fit all.
  • Disruptive innovation: Can we really expect a uniform brand voice that’s agnostic to a specific vertical to resonate with such a relevant chord that it truly disrupts the community?
  • Big data leveraging: Segmenting your audience helps to mine through the seemingly endless stream of big data and extract insights you can actually leverage.

After a tongue-in-cheek apology for this edition of buzzword-bingo, I’d like to summarize on a serious note. Many of the good things in our industry come from specialization.

The ugly, redeemed

If silos have failed in the past, how can they work? Isn’t insanity doing the same thing twice and expecting different results? Absolutely, so we need to change our approach.

The easiest way for me to characterize this change is with a metaphor: If a unified brand voice is speaking, then content for verticals written with specialized terminology is using the same language, but with a slight accent.

They key is to keep vertical silos flat. Experts from each silo should all get together and update each other regularly on their specialized communications. They should be able to explain to each other how those communications still fit the uniform brand voice and narrative, and to create one if it does not already exist. There is accountability across the board.

Implementation tips

Anything can look good on paper. The true test is how it performs in the real world. Vertical silos are being phased in at my company, but below are some tips I can offer to get started and learn as you go:

  1. Choose your vertical silos, and assign team members: Try to think about the reason you chose to segment a particular niche. Is it a mature market that needs to be maintained? A growth area that needs some extra heat? What are your resources? Do the personalities of team members match the personality of the niche? Are they interested in the subject matter or bored with it?
  2. Create buyer personas of yourself: If content marketers spend time and resources to get a 360-degree view of our audience, why not do the same with ourselves? Have your silos create a buyer persona for your unified brand, voice and narrative. Next, try making a persona for your brand in each niche vertical. Look them over and make sure that all your personas speak the same language, but with a different accent. This lessens the risk of your brand voice having split personalities.
  3. Build up your subject matter experts: There are two key areas here: knowledge and reach.

Knowledge can be found in many different places:

  • Try subscribing to the main periodicals your vertical reads: Learn the terms and topics that are part of their everyday life. Be sure to pay attention to how the periodical positions itself with readers. Publishers do extensive and costly research on their audience, so why not ride on their coattails with virtually no investment on your part?
  • Be creative: Look for free information from novel sources such as MOOCs (massive open online courses). If you are marketing to pharmaceutical companies for example, take a class on the stages of clinical trials. MOOCs like edX and Coursera might have just the class that could help you.

Reach is obtained by expanding your networks, including in-person and social media. To become part of the community, you need face time:

  • Build the personal brand of each subject expert: As The Cluetrain Manifesto said over a decade ago, the personal brand is increasingly synonymous with the company brand.
  • Join groups on Google+ and LinkedIn.
  • Subscribe to blogs of influencers and comment on their posts.
  • Do everything you can to be recognizable as “one of us.”
  1. Engage with unique content that is still brand compliant: There are so many great resources out there on how to create engaging content, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel with this one.
  2. Meet, evaluate, repeat: Your different silos should meet together periodically to review each other’s work and make sure that everything is still in the same ballpark as your unified brand voice. They should discuss what’s working, what isn’t, and the most popular touch points for engagement. Refine and adjust the strategy for each silo, and go back for round two!

So what do you think of the vertical silo idea? Is there potential, or too many cooks in the kitchen? Is it relevant or an identity crisis waiting to happen? Everything relies on execution. Is it likely to be smooth? I’d love to hear your take!

For more great ideas, insights, and examples for advancing your content marketing, read Epic Content Marketing, by Joe Pulizzi.

Author: Patrick Hayslett

Patrick Hayslett works with LinguaLinx, a global marketing firm specializing in language translation and localization, to help companies and government agencies communicate with today’s diverse world. He has over 10 years of B2B and B2C marketing experience. Patrick blogs about content marketing, curation, social media, and brand journalism. He loves to chat with like-minded professionals on Twitter.

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  • Allen Graves

    Nice article, Patrick.

    No criticism here. As a long-time SEO and writer, I’ve always been a fan of the silo in content marketing.

    I think the toughest part of the whole thing is building up your SMEs. In a vertical environment, SMEs are vital to giving your target personas the right information in the right voice at the right time. Any expert in any industry can see right through a freelanced piece of content written by an industry novice. This makes SMEs and their insight invaluable to your success.

    Also – I love the idea of taking a MOOC course. Even if you’re not going to write the content, it’s great to have the industry insight in whatever vertical silo you’re working with. You can never be too sure when you’re trying to write compelling stuff for a specific audience.

    Thanks a lot for your insight.

    • Patrick Hayslett

      Hi Allen, thank you for the nice comment.

      Building up SMEs can be tough. Other than yourself, it’s out of your control somewhat. The internal buy-in is definitely hard to earn and a major force to consider. I can only imagine the additional difficulty coordinating different freelancers.

      What do you think is the easiest ways to get SMEs onboard apart from the old standby bribe with cookies and such? 😉

      I’ve been loving the MOOC courses. It’s a free insider’s view to any vertical. The idea has paid off for me already.

      • Allen Graves

        Managing the freelancers isn’t as tough as one might think – that is, if you’ve vetted them properly and have a reliable team. I have 20 right now and they’re all amazing.

        They’re great writers, but for the most part they’re generalists, they’re not SMEs on any one topic.

        I put the SMEs in a different bucket – and handle it with kid gloves.

        For the SMEs, initially you just have to keep looking until you find one that’s willing to help you help the industry. If you can convince them that you can get them significant exposure not only as an industry expert, but also as an industry “helper” – an advocate – then you have a good chance of establishing a relationship. Then you just have to nurture them as long as possible – with cookies and such. You just can’t get around that part of it.

        Your strike out rate will probably be high until you can build some momentum. I guess the point is to never stop. Always strive for “one louder.”

        Never stop learning, never stop striving for more. If you can get one expert on your side, it’s easier to convince another – and another.

        That’s my experience anyway. 🙂

        • Patrick Hayslett

          B2B is very tough like that. Momentum is definitely the key. That chicken before the egg factor is a struggle for a lot of small and medium sized businesses. I agree the only way to get it is networking and sweat equity. Sounds to me like you’re doing good things.

  • ajlovesya

    This is a fantastic piece and an issue I’ve been exploring for a while now.

    I work at a nonprofit where we connect people to a variety of opportunities to take
    action on causes they care about, including jobs, volunteer opportunities, and internships. Needless to say, while this all falls under the banner of “taking action” the needs of each person (a volunteer vs a job seeker vs a hiring manager, for example) vary considerably. And given that our audience is quite large, it’s become
    increasingly clear that we need to segment better. (We say segment instead of siloing for the very same reasons you mention above — the negative connotation.)

    The clearest place for us to segment was along the job side: we generate most of our revenue from jobs and the majority of the people who come to our site are looking for jobs. We launched a blog for nonprofit job seekers which has brought in new users while better supporting our current community. It’s been a fantastic and fun challenge!

    However, one area we are struggling with is building up the other aspects of content and our brand. We are launching a new program and are trying to get people
    to look at us more than a job board, yet the elements that are making
    the career side successful (a strong product, subject matter expertise,
    clear audience) are not so clear for other aspects of our work. Part of
    it, i think comes down to being clear about the mother brand/persona and sub-personas (or, as you mention above, same language different accents) and, of course, patience. It takes a while to break in and build up a brand in new territory. But right now, it does come off a bit as multiple personalities. Would love to hear how others have dealt with this!

    I think a good example of vertical silos is Fast Company. They have Fast Company CoExist, CoCreate, CoDesign, and CoLead. The topics they explore might be different, but the tone and impact (actionable innovation) feels the same across each vertical.

    Thanks again for writing this I am looking forward to the conversation!

    • Patrick Hayslett

      What an excellent comment – the industry really needs more of a bridge between thought leadership and implementation. Thank you for giving a concrete example to think about!

      I’ve always seen push and pull between segmentation and brand consistency. I’m a bit of a maverick so I favor the “get the people what they want and need now and worry about the architecture and cleaning up later” approach.

      I’m aware of that bias though, so I try very hard to consider the other side of it and find out what people have to say.

      I worked a short while for a Fortune 150 company and EVERYTHING they did segmented down to the most minute detail. Practically every product (and the content associated with it) became its own brand managed by a spinoff company.

      Here at LinguaLinx where I work now, brand consistency is very important to our identity. I’m a work in progress in terms of finding that balance.

      What are you thinking the next steps are for your organization?

      • ajlovesya

        “I’m a bit of a maverick so I favor the “get the people what they want and need now and worry about the architecture and cleaning up later” approach.”

        Same here! At my org, I had originally proposed multiple blogs, each connected to each other (so it’s clearly part of our main brand; you could navigate to each blog easily and I think the visual proximity might force us to think a bit more about how other vertical are operating). Each blog would really dig into what our audience wants, what we’re good at, and what no one else doing to strengthen our brand, our relationships, and grow our audience. We started with one new blog (the careers one) for time/resource reasons as well as wanting to figure out a bit more what we want to be known for.

        Because the careers blog was spun off of our original blog which tried to talk about too many things at once, the original blog is now getting a new identity…what that identity is, we arent sure. Because while we want to give people what they want, we also want to have a central place that speaks clearly to our mission, and isn’t solely about how-tos and such. It’s that struggle, perhaps common with nonprofits, of wanting to be timely, helpful, and relevant while wanting to clear about our mission and talk about our mission in action and get people to help us fulfill our mission. These arent opposing needs, obviously, so the next question/step for us is really about getting clear about our brand and what exactly we are trying to shift, why, how, and what role content can play in it.

        It’s an ongoing conversation/challenge!

  • Terry palmer

    I enter this discussion from a separate point of view. My writing is purely as a fiction novelist and white papers rather than pure business non-fiction. I chose white papers as a means to generate a funding funnel to support my novels. White papers can become very focused on presenting my client to a narrow niche as a thought leader in their respective industries. While that is true, the writing itself is going to change with the coming of video, etc.
    I can see a day when those of us who struggle using all of the media available to us in a concentrated effort will be able to use the standard white paper form to include video in order to move past a simple black and white presentation. Others are way ahead of me on this but it makes a point to me when writing to make the content as multi-use friendly for marketing while still focusing on single niche for the white paper.
    I can do the same approach in my novels. I write for a single niche , as Y/A, but use fantasy world scenery, poems and songs, video gamer language and power levels, and imagery as much as possible, making my content move for marketing purposes toward several audiences but still have a single message for my Y/A audience.
    In this manner, when all those reading devices can load up plain text like you would an eBook today, mine will be set up to come alive with light, color, symphony music, etc. We’re not there yet, but you might be able to see how a single niche can be exploded into several markets in this manner. Hope a separate point of view here might help and not hinder. Terry Palmer

    • Patrick Hayslett

      “a single niche can be exploded into several markets in this manner”

      Hi Terry, glad you joined us!

      What you’re saying takes my idea and adds the next logical level.

      Instead of just segmenting the content creation, now you’re segmenting that content into all of the different media formats for each single niche.

      The irony of needing consistent multi-use copy to fit any medium really made me pause and think. It’s a great consideration to keep in mind.

      I’ve been leaning toward creating medium specific content as part of the strategy for each silo. At some point, that has to hit diminishing return and I needed that reminder.

      I like the specific perspective you come from. Are there any unique challenges that might be different and we could learn from in the business arena?

      • Terry palmer

        Years ago we were taught in marketing how many times we needed to ‘touch’ a potential buyer before he/she would make the move our way. We used radio, newspaper ads, newsletters, campaign selling, etc., all focused on ‘touching’ that consumer several ways within a short time. Now I propose an entirely separate strategy. How about ‘touching’ that same consumer from several separate thought platforms, so that the consumer hears about your platform through separate niche listening. what would the customer think if your ‘brand’ came pouring through as a poem/song, as part of a video game format, as part of a fairy tale, etc, and it all came back pointing at you. Will this be enough to sway tomorrows consumer? I’m betting it will and I’m putting a six novel series together to prove it. Don’t know how to clarify my process any better than this. when the next generation of tablets comes out, I want to be positioned as a leader, not an also ran. think it will work?

        • Patrick Hayslett

          Terry: They call what you’re talking about “the customer journey” or “the customer experience.”

          It’s going to become not only multi-platform (all the different platforms you mentioned) but also cross-platform (for people hopping from one device to the next, such as smart phone to laptop to tablet). Google has good info on this called ZMOT.

          CMI has a nice post on this too with some good examples and a roadmap. It describes the idea better than I can in a comment:

          At LinguaLinx, we learned that Brazil, Russia, India and China will soon have as many cell phone users as the U.K. and North America. That’s a lot of new customers coming within reach, so my guess is that cross-platform is the way to go!

          • Terry palmer

            Thank you again for the comments. I put together a better version of what I’m doing on a mini-white paper. I will value your opinion.

            Content Marketing,

            Thank you for your continued series of essays on
            content marketing. In answer to your
            previous question, several challenges lay ahead for the writing business. First and foremost is ROI. It would seem that many writers might accept negative
            returns as a normal ending to placing a story into publication. About 90% of writers sell between 80 – 200
            copies of content that they labored over for several years. Yet authors are still told this is
            normal. “Don’t write if you want to make
            money”, is way too prevalent among many fiction authors. Instead they write into a very small niche
            that carries natural appeal for them, and rely solely on social media
            techniques to ‘get the message out’.
            Costs are staggering to accomplish this limited reach, forcing a very
            real and financial loss onto each attempt.
            Yet they come by the thousands, determined to be the one who can break
            from the swamp and succeed. Indeed, some
            of them become the next Jack Canefield and that spurs on the rest.

            Part of this stems from the publishing and agent
            world telling new authors – “You don’t know how to market or sell. We will do it all for you.” This need for control dooms the publishing
            industry into a tight downward spiral as eBooks and crowd funding take over the

            Another problem it a strong tendency toward
            oversupply toward any niche that may seem to be holding market share, making
            the above mentions problems acute. Many
            writers find it increasingly difficult to attract investors in another rerun of
            the same old thing, further decreasing their market reach.

            A similar problem would be to bind several
            disciplines together, such as song writing, animation, gaming, along with our
            editing and publishing to accomplish our purposes.

            This is why I and a few others are pushing the
            boundaries of flip marketing. Flip
            marketing, (not as in real estate), is simple doing the opposite marketing
            techniques that your peers are doing.
            Instead of writing into a very narrow niche with very limited marketing
            potential, I choose to explode my content into several marketable groups within
            the same manuscript. By adding ‘Imagery’
            a writer can take a simple black and white page and transform it into dialogue
            with pulsing light, color, and symphony.
            In this manner a writer may position his work for the next generation of
            tablets that might accept this new style of writing It would make sense to marry the two
            processes together. For both writers to
            write in color, light, and sound, and for the tablet makers to establish software
            programs that enable them to do so. The
            simple addition of tiles on the bottom of each page could act as an originator
            for ‘Imagery’.

            Which would you prefer if you had two tablets side
            by side. One with a story in plain black
            and white, or the other, exploding onto the screen with bright displays of
            shifting colors, light, and sound to correspond with the scene being read? I call this Imagery, because in my scenes the
            earth, sea, and sky, including the natural setting of each scene, interacts
            with the characters as a third or fourth character. In this manner my book series will accomplish
            the following.

            Offer marketing
            potential to several market segments, introduced as flip marketing, within each
            script placing both the book and the process as a leader for the industry.

            Offer ‘Imagery’,
            making each scene ‘come alive’ with light, color, and symphony, making that
            part of the process as marketable as the book series.

            Offer potential to
            overcome the ROI disadvantage inherent in the book world.

            Offer a new way to
            market to those thousands of fellow writers who are in desperate search of a
            better way, making the process as marketable as the book series.

            Offer exciting new
            marketing processes to investors, in order to fund both the primary and
            secondary marketing functions of injecting PR multiples into the above
            equations which is an entirely separate paper.

            Chronicles of Orm stands ready to accomplish these
            goals as a test plot for the next generation of writers and the next generation
            of readers. Our next generation of
            readers won’t sit still for commercials, plain black and white reading, or
            non-involving material. No, this video
            crazed generation will demand more and will pay for more. Chronicles of Orm is positioned to meet these
            new needs of a new generation.


          • Patrick Hayslett

            Hi Terry,

            You can find freelance copywriters who specialize in whitepapers to write and critique your copy. I would go that route. It’s a relatively specialized skill. With the passion you have for what you are doing, I’d explore that option and try a full scale whitepaper with graphics. Just my two cents. I’m assuming you have an e-mail list, squeeze page etc. or else the content would be better suited for blog posts, guest posts and so on.

          • Terry palmer

            You are correct again. I have a white paper editor who does a fantastic job. It will be interesting to see how content marketing as you describe it can forge business alliances and broader platform to acceptability. I agree with all of you. The rapid demise of cable TV, regular commercial TV, to tablets and smart phones will force people to offer valuable content bits in order to be heard and gain market share. Keep those market letters coming. Terry

  • Steven Wilson-Beales

    Hi Patrick. Great article – how do you see this approach differing from editorial ‘voice and tone’ as exemplified by the likes of Mailchimp for instance?

    • Patrick Hayslett

      Hi Steven, glad you enjoyed the article.

      Thank you for sharing that link. I’ve never seen it before and I’m glad to have it as a reference. I’ve learned from it already and plan to study it more.

      In short, I don’t think my approach differs from Mail Chimp’s style guide. Their style guide is more of a brand brief which is great because many companies lack training. If this combination of information availability with writer freedom was more common, there wouldn’t be a need for my article.

      I love how each section has the user persona, the user emotions, and a typical Mailchimp response. This is a framework that empowers writers rather than hindering them. It leaves room to keep a main personality but still speak to varying segments in a specialized way.

      On the opposite spectrum, I know of companies that make their writers keep an MLA style guide at their desk and abide by it. I’ve even been in a meeting where two “combatants” flirted with violence over whether a logo could change colors. I’ve seen brand style guides with so many rules on wording and logo use/location that I couldn’t even keep track to comply if I wanted to.

      Marketers are a great bunch, but it pulls on my heartstrings when content’s foot is cut off for the sake of radical brand consistency.

  • Kizi 1

    You always gives me useful information and complete what I liked yours

    • Patrick Hayslett

      Thank you, much appreciated!

  • Tommy Änst

    Allen Graves has many valid points that I agree with, and at large the article mimics my personal opinions – I could just not put words to the logic before. Thanks,

    Being responsible for two vertical silos in a medium sized B2B it company I’m flabbergasted every day about the stupidity in trying to harmonize messages, channels and content for several, very different industries. Synergies content wise between oil and gas and media industry segments are… slim to say the least.

    Destroying the investment in content marketing, intended to fuel dialogue and engagement, with bland coupled topics is right-out stupid. It’s a decision you have to make though and if you want to be a “one-size-fits-all” company competing on price alone – so be it. Make templates for everything and go right ahead.

    But if I want to offer value to the customer, visitor, occasional blog reader, etc., in my humble opinion I need to be in context, at par with the industry lingo, and have
    enough business acumen to also reply to the comments on the blog.

    • Patrick Hayslett

      Hi Tommy, thanks for joining in!

      Allen had some great points and I was glad to hear them coming from the perspective of working with so many different freelancers.

      As for your situation, A-M-E-N. I’ve shared your experience and sentiments many times in my career.

      The “one-size-fits-all” pundits come up with ‘content’ like “industry-leading provider of disruptive marketing innovations including our trademark platform of synergistic solutions designed to provide superior quality and ensure customer satisfaction.”

      I wonder why professionals that clearly mean well devolve into becoming their own worst enemy…

  • Jim P in CA

    Thank you for your post. I don’t think I fully grasp your point. How are ‘vertical silos’ different than getting the ‘right message to the right audience’? My common use for the term silo is in discussing data, specifically customer profile/behavior, and seek to limit silos. It seems to me the vertical silo you describe seems more like vertical messaging as I provide different content for prospecting, lead nurturing, new customers, reactivation, loyalty, advocacy, etc. Plus, my SMB audience likely crosses over into multiple message silos as they often crossover multiple functions (finance, sales, marketing, IT) while my Fortune 1000 audience may consume the more specialized (vertical silo) content. Am I missing an important distinction? Thanks again.

    • Patrick Hayslett

      Hi Jim, thank you for posting that comment. Perhaps it would benefit us all in the conversation to clarify.

      For my purposes, vertical silos and right message to the right audience are no different. Right message to the right audience seems common sense to you, and I’m glad. You’re obviously doing good things, but I think many other organizations are missing out on what you practice.

      Every day I see many organizations fail to get the right message to the right audience at even a basic level due to their hardline stance on “brand consistency.”

      In content marketing, tech comm, user experience etc., there is dogmatic talk about breaking down silos internally within an organization, i.e. the way personnel are arranged into functional groups. Basically, they urge you to flatten an organization and stop trying to be GE if you’re not GE.

      I’m concerned that this common sense notion has been absorbed into a “one good idea fits all situations” mindset. As far as content marketing goes, vertical markets need specialized messaging. Period. As such, I advocate arranging staff writers in silos to match – and create the content for – the message silos you specified. They are in essence to become an actual member of their silo’s community so they can create content from a “boots on the ground” perspective, rather than relying on a persona that was created more “from a distance.”

      What do your experiences with the data have to say about this? I hope I was able to clarify. Thanks again Jim!

      • Patrick Hayslett

        Another distinction is for “verticals” as niche markets and groups of people. I would create different content to market to pharmaceutical manufacturers than finance companies for example. This needs to be done even if the global brand voice doesn’t include or accommodate a concept that optimizes your communications to a specific market. I’m not afraid to color outside of those lines, but I try to relate it back to the global brand as closely as possible.

        • Jim P in CA

          Thanks Patrick. I think you nailed describing the challenge
          and what makes it fun – how to best manage and find balance between centralized
          functions and autonomous business units. Centralizing marketing, ops,
          production etc can provide better efficiencies, but you may loose access to the market
          insights only available to decentralized groups and necessary to be viewed as an authentic and credible brand, solution or product. My
          experience has been finding balance between centralized vs decentralized (silos,
          if you will) are on a pendulum that needs constant attention and
          corrections to optimize efficiencies and marketplace insights as neither is
          sustainable over the long run without the other.

  • Patrick Hayslett

    @blur_Media asked a great question worth bringing up in this discussion. On a Twitter link to this post, they asked “Content marketers, would you like to be siloed?”


    As a content marketer, would you relish the chance to specialize, or chafe at being siloed?

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