By Marcia Riefer Johnston published September 17, 2015

Content Strategy for Marketers: Insights From Kristina Halvorson


Quick. When I say Kristina Halvorson, what term do you think of?

“Content strategy”? Probably. How about “content marketing”? Probably not, although she did deliver the opening keynote presentation at Content Marketing World (prompting one veteran conference-goer to tell me that it was the best talk she had ever heard there). But while Kristina is not a content marketer, much of what she says about strategy applies to the work we do.

This truth became clear to me three months before Content Marketing World as I listened to Kristina address a roomful of content strategists at a Content Strategy Meetup in Portland. She wasn’t talking directly about content marketing that night, but the subject came up more than once. Many of the strategists in attendance said that their companies and clients ask them to help with content marketing.


Shown here addressing the Content Strategy Meetup in Portland, Kristina Halvorson is the CEO and founder of the content strategy consultancy Brain Traffic, the author of the seminal book Content Strategy for the Web, and the founder of the Confab content strategy conferences.

In this article, I share some of Kristina’s Meetup insights that could go a long way toward making content marketing more effective. If you heard her speak at Content Marketing World, many of these points will sound familiar.

First, a definition

Here’s Kristina’s definition of content strategy from the first edition of Content Strategy for the Web:

Content strategy guides planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.*

You might be thinking, that sounds good, but how do I do it? How do I think — and act — more strategically if there’s no content strategist in sight? Here are some tips from Kristina.

  • Think “better,” not “more.”
  • Ask the journalistic questions early.
  • Figure out when to say no.
  • For starters, pick one problem.
  • Tie content to business goals.
  • Focus on the user experience.

*For Kristina’s updated (substantially longer) definition of content strategy from the second edition of her book, co-authored with Melissa Rach, see Slide 7 of the Meetup presentation.


Think ‘better,’ not ‘more’

Content marketers often feel that their job is to “keep calm and create more content.” This create-create-create mentality creates “big problems” for companies. The demand for more “is not our customers’ demand; it’s the demand of bosses,” bosses who say things like “You have Word – you can make content – get it to me by Friday.” I could’ve sworn that I heard CMI founder Joe Pulizzi cheering from seven states away. “More is not better” is one of Joe’s favorite drums to beat. For example, in his August 14 newsletter, “Create Less Content With More Impact,” he quotes CMI Chief Strategy Officer Robert Rose as saying, “We need to create the minimum amount of content for the maximum amount of impact,” and then he adds, “Go back and read that about 17 more times … It’s never about more.”


Strategy requires “patience and thinking and time,” Kristina says.

Our culture is so activity driven that we often value activity over productivity. What’s the worst-case scenario if we slow ourselves down and do some analysis? What if you stopped putting content out there for 30 days? What if you did? What if you sat down and asked, What are we doing that makes sense? Do we have the right people in the right seats? How much content do we really need to create and how often? Do we have the right technology? What are we going to do with all that content once it’s out there? What would that do for your results?

Some attendees said that taking a content-production break would put them out of a job or give their bosses heart attacks. It has been done, though, and to significant advantage. Want an example? Read this story from Buffer describing their one-month hiatus from creating new content.

Ask the journalistic questions early

“The most important part of content strategy happens way upstream when you’re asking questions about the content,” says Kristina. By “questions” she means the journalistic questions: What? Why? How? When? For whom? By whom? With what? Where? How often? What next?

Too often, we stop at the what.

When you don’t ask these questions up front, your company accumulates bigger and bigger piles of content — content that’s not useful, not usable, and not maintainable. When you fail to answer “the big, smart questions,” all the content problems you’ve ever had “multiply like rabbits.”

If you can’t tackle all these questions, start with one. “You’ll unearth things that you hadn’t thought of, and that changes the conversation.”

Answering why is especially important — and especially difficult. “This content will make us a thought leader” is not an answer to why.

Figure out when to say no

Content marketers often excel at generating ideas. “There’s so much we could make and so many cool ways in which to make it,” Kristina says. “The Internet is a big place. We can create as much content as we want.” But it can be hard to figure out which ideas to say yes to and which to say no to. Do you have written criteria that help your team determine priorities? A content strategist would. A core strategy “provides clear boundaries for what you will do … and what you won’t.” Warning: Good governance, which includes rejecting content ideas for strategic reasons, may make some people mad.

For starters, pick one problem

Feel overwhelmed by the content issues facing your organization? Don’t tackle them all at once. Pick one. Then get out there and discover who can help. Connect with those people. Meet them for coffee. Start the conversations. “Doing this can be good for your career.” When you think beyond your domain, people notice.

Tie content to business goals

Each piece of content must be tied to at least one business goal. Putting out a ton of content does no good unless the content supports your organization’s objectives. As simple and obvious as this sounds, most of us have created content that had no clear tie to a business goal. (“Publish daily!” is not a business goal.)

What business goals might content marketers tie content to? Here is a chart that shows some common goals.


Click to enlarge

Focus on the user experience

“A good user experience leads to good business results,” says Kristina, echoing what the UX community has been saying for years. It’s true for products and it’s true for content. What does she mean by “user experience”? She points to this definition:

The overall experience of a person using a product such as a website or computer application, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use.

Note the word “easy.” It’s not easy to create easy, pleasing content experiences. Also note the word “overall.” The overall experience of content includes every encounter our audiences have with content across the enterprise, on the web, and beyond. Obviously, no single team can create a good user experience alone. Content marketers have to collaborate with others who contribute to the overall content experience – information architects, user-interface designers, IT teams, technical-communication teams, customer-service teams, etc. We have to think about content holistically across all content types and channels. Unless our content contributes to a worthwhile experience for the people we want to reach, Kristina says, “none of the rest of this advice matters.”


What do content marketers need to know about content strategy? CMI VP of Content Michele Linn recently touched on three suggestions. Kristina has given us even more to keep in mind. Which tip is calling to you? What’s missing from this list? Help us learn from each other by leaving a comment below. Check out Kristina’s presentation on SlideShare: Content Strategy for Everything.

Want more? Sign up for the Intelligent Content weekly email newsletter. When you do, every Saturday we’ll send you an email about content strategy and an exclusive letter from Robert Rose, Chief Strategy Officer for the Content Marketing Institute.


 Photo credit: Fallon’s Photography/Content Marketing Institute

Couldn’t make it to Content Marketing World this year? You can still catch up on the biggest issues, ideas, and innovations in content strategy. Check out Kristina’s opening keynote talk, Content vs. the Customer available through our Video on Demand portal

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

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  • Robert Gibb

    Love the write-up, Marcia, almost as much as I love Raymond Carver (wink)! Regarding content strategy and production volume/velocity, the only time I feel pushed to produce more – and faster – is when the company pressures me, not the market.

    I recently abandoned this non-strategy though for something more planned-out and poignant. And the initial piece of content under this new movement has done better than any other piece of content in over 2 years. It has generated leads, put us in the Twitter feeds of top influencers, and sparked frutiful debate within the entire community. Thanks to us! Thanks to playing the long (smart) game.

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Hi, Robert. I remember you from your comment on my first CMI post: I’m delighted to hear from you again and not surprised to hear that (a) you’re a fellow Raymond Carver fan and (b) you’re taking such a thoughtful approach the content you create in your job.

      Thanks for sharing your inspiring story. Those are the kinds of results every content marketer dreams of. I’d love to hear more about this “long (smart) game” you’ve described. Are you at liberty to give us a peek into what were you doing before (in “nonstrategy” mode), and what exactly you did differently in your “more planned-out and poignant” mode? Any other insights into this turnaround would have a lot of value for anyone reading this post.

      Thanks for taking time to comment!

      • Robert Gibb

        I’d be happy to talk about it more briefly here. Loz of the Content Champion podcast actually saw my comment and reached out to me, so hopefully in the future there may be a more detailed story. Anyways …

        In “non-strategy” mode, I was producing 1-2 posts per week – and at least one PDF – like clockwork. Every post had value in some respects, but not INCREDIBLE value that 1-2 more weeks of dedication (research, expert insight, etc.) would have produced. In fact, I wouldn”t even call the post I mentioned that did get those extra 1-2 weeks of attention”incredible.” It was very good, but there can always be more time paid. You just have to know when to stop and keep going. It’s an art that content marketers can only get better at through experience.

        Regarding specifics: On average, in “non-strategy” mode, which Halvorson might call “more” mode, we received ~200 unique pageviews within 24 hours of initially publishing and sharing. In “strategy” mode, which Halvorson might call “better” mode, we received 1,000+ unique pageviews in the same circumstances. We also got 15 leads (free trial sign-ups) that came from the post in those 24 hours. This has never happened before. If we were lucky, we would get 1 lead from posts created in “non-strategy” mode on the day of publishing.

        For some readers, those might seem like small numbers. But for us they’re pretty big. Which brings me to some takeaways:

        – Often I come across case studies of bloggers growing their list by thousands from one post, or getting their post to go “viral.” My advice is to forget about virality and focus on quality and what your audience REALLY wants. Even if the resulting numbers aren’t huge, I guarantee you they’ll be a lot better than average if you do this.

        – How great does the content have to be? That should be the question you ask yourself, especially if you’re just starting to work on creating better quality. Don’t ask yourself “Is the content the best it can POSSIBLY be?” That will drive you crazy, especially if you’re working with a small team and trying to stick to a content calendar. The difference between “have to be” and “can be” is that the former is startup-friendly (less resource-intensive) but still gives your audience everything they need to be better. The latter, on the other hand, requires more resources and gives your audience everything they need in a flashier way. With that said, if you’re a startup or small team, be okay with forgoing flashy. If the content is quality, it will do almost as well as its more gussied up version.

        – Escape what makes you feel trapped, even if others don’t want you to. What I mean is that if you have a content calendar that higher-ups hold you accountable to but it doesn’t give you the time to make quality content, go off course. Take a risk, ignore what others want you to do, and do what you feel is right. That’s what I did. If you think the risk is worth it (i.e. you have a content idea that will take some time), go with it. Your gut is right. I promise. This might not be the case in gambling, but in marketing, it almost always is.

        – If you’re not excited about the content project, scrap it fast. While creating the content, you and your team should be saying to each other: “I think this is going to do really well.” That is what my colleague was saying to me the entire time we were producing this piece: And while I was skeptical, deep down I knew he was right. And he was!

        Hopefully this helps a little and I’ll definitely link to the podcast regarding this if it ends up getting produced 🙂

        • Marcia Riefer Johnston

          Robert, This is an inspiring story. I especially like your description of how things went (quantitatively) in “more mode” vs. “better mode.” Thanks for the details.

          I’d love to hear more stories like this if others have them to share!

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  • Vinish Garg

    Finally, we are seeing more acceptance that content marketers should work with strategists, and for the right reasons. I wish a few leading technical communicators too join the echo because ‘all content is branded content’ as we often see but we do not realize strongly enough!

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Thanks for your note, Vinish. I couldn’t agree more.

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