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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.