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The Content Strategy Podcast

27 // Ryan Skinner, Forrester // How to Treat Content as a Business Asset

September 24, 2019

Ryan Skinner is a London-based principal marketing analyst at Forrester, where he advises enterprise clients on content marketing activities through a strategic lens. In this episode, he and Kristina talk about the blind spots marketers (or sometimes entire companies) have when it comes to the customer experience, specifically in creating content that ties back to both the user needs and business goals. Ryan offers advice for those tasked with shifting an organization to a more strategic approach to content as a business asset, including specific examples of things to start on first. Kristina also pitches an exciting new idea for podcast merch. (Okay, we’ll tell you. It’s a bobble head.)

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About this week’s guest

Ryan Skinner is the principal analyst at Forrester, a research and advisory firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ryan primarily contributes to Forrester's offerings for B2C marketing professionals. He analyzes how marketers should pivot from campaign- and channel-focused strategies to content- and customer-focused ones. In this context, Ryan leads Forrester’s research on content marketing, content strategy, customer engagement, and content intelligence for marketers.

Prior to Forrester, Ryan worked at London-based Velocity Partners, a specialist and pioneer in content marketing and digital marketing strategy for the B2B market. Prior to that, he worked for 12 years in PR and communications for a number of large Scandinavian corporations, where he focused on digital outreach and engagement, as well as social media and community-building.

An American, Ryan speaks Norwegian fluently, giving him working proficiency in Swedish and Danish. He also speaks French at a conversational level.

Chris Corak has been obsessed with making SEO more helpful since 2001. At his consultancy, Onward, Chris helps people understand search intent to bridge the gap between UX, content, and technical SEO. His human-centered SEO approach has helped clients like Avnet, Olive Garden, and Colonial Life keep up with ever-changing search engine algorithms. He also guest lectures at Arizona State University—go Devils!

Episode transcript

Kristina: Hello again. Welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at BrainTraffic.com.

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Hey, thanks for coming back. It’s really great to be here with you again virtually via our podcast. I’m Kristina and with me today is one of the smartest dudes I’ve talked to and his name is Ryan Skinner. I’ve been speaking with Ryan about content strategy since 2013 and I am super psyched to have him on the podcast today.

Ryan is a London-based marketing analyst for Forrester, which is a research and advisory firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ryan primarily contributes to Forrester’s offerings for B2C marketing professionals. He analyzes how marketers should pivot from campaign- and channel-focused strategies to content- and customer-focused ones.

Ryan, welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast.

Ryan: Hey, Kristina. Good to be here. Thank you very much.

Kristina: I was saying to you before we started recording that all these many years I have had you placed on the East Coast, in fact in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in fact you are in London, and in fact you came to London by way of Norway. I am wondering if you could share with me and the listening audience kind of your journey to landing in London and talking about content strategy to B2C marketers. Tell me everything.

Ryan: Yeah. Sure. Really quickly in a nutshell. I went to Duke. I grew up in the states, of course, went to Duke, and then studied abroad for a year in jolly old England and loved it. I went back to Duke after that at my degree and then basically set sail for Europe and haven’t come back.

Kristina: What did you—

Ryan: What?

Kristina: What did you get your degree in?

Ryan: English, basically. Literature.

Kristina: Great. Great. I just always love hearing about all the amazingly useless degrees that all of us who work in the internet had got a liberal arts college. Okay. Continue.

Ryan: Renaissance history, very practical for internet purposes. No, so yeah, studying post-structuralism and stuff was really helpful for HTTP.

Yeah, I went over to Europe after I graduated and traveled around a bit and just got offered a job in Norway to start doing some PR work for some of the big Norwegian international firms. Norway is very big in shipping in oil and gas, so they need your help talking to the rest of the world because they’re very international industries. I started doing that with agencies and then just grew that and then eventually managed to finagle my way to a very exciting little agency in London called Velocity who was doing some really exciting content marketing work for big tech companies.

Then after doing that for a few years, Forrester called up. They were looking for an analyst to focus on content marketing. They were getting a lot of clients, this was around 2011–12, asking questions around “What should we do with this content marketing thing? This is blowing up and we have to have an approach.” Forester wants to have an approach, so they wanted to get an analyst to do that.

They brought me in and I started doing research on content marketing and made a playbook for content marketing back in 2013–14 time frame. I’ve been covering less kind of decreasingly with a focus on content marketing per say is that got a lot of clients kind of on the wrong foot and more on content strategy, and customer experience, and customer engagement type topics. Today, I do research on all those things as well as diving down into specific executions like influencer, where we have a lot of clients asking questions, and in content marketing platforms, and all that kind of good stuff.

Kristina: This is a content strategy podcast. This is not a content marketing podcast. But one of the things that you and I have connected on and off, whether it was, I know we’ve been on the phone at least twice and sort of been back channeling via Twitter or wherever over the years, is interestingly kind of what you said at the start when you were talking about your work in Forrester that you said that you feel like clients got off to the wrong foot in content marketing, which is what I was banging my fist on the desk about for lo these many years. Tell me a little bit about what you mean by that.

Ryan: There was a tactical window, I think during, what, 2000, probably from 2008–09 onwards, to maybe 2013–14 wherein to a certain degree, it was, yeah, going on, starting publishing a bunch of content was almost like printing money in terms of driving traffic. There was an opportunity, kind of a tactical window, where getting visibility on Google search and getting people to share your content was a big, wide, gaping opportunity, and there were a lot of businesses that sped through that window and really blew up and had a lot of success, tons of traffic, and potentially been able to close a lot of business off the back of it. This is very much a kind of tactical opportunity. Suddenly there were a lot of people evangelizing this notion of, “Just go out and crank out the content.”

Starting to analyze the thing in 2013, 14, 15 etc., it was quite obvious that that tactical window had quickly closed again and that you needed to look at this thing from a more strategic perspective. That kind of context, you have to think about what does this going to do for the business and what is this going to do for the customer? A lot of the traditional way that content marketing was being discussed, “Think like a publisher, get out there, what are your publishing pillars? What is your editorial strategy?” It didn’t make a lot of sense from a business or a customer perspective because it wasn’t necessarily going to serve the business in any kind of clear way and it wasn’t going to serve the customer because the customer wasn’t asking for that, or even finding it terribly useful or valuable. That’s what led me of make some of those transitions or that’s what we were kind of seeing in advising clients.

Kristina: This is of course I’m like, you know, nodding my head violently, which I often do on this podcast, which nobody can see. Actually, what people should do is we should get Kristina bobble heads so that when they’re listening in their car and they’re listening to people talking, I’m just nodding the whole time.

Ryan: There we go. Yeah.

Kristina: That’s great. I’m going to print money for bobble heads. What’s interesting to me about the fact that you have seen that, and been a part of, and witnessed that shift over so many clients that Forrester works with, is that coming up from content strategy for websites essentially, I personally have been talking about with other content strategists who work on websites forever working to create content there that specifically bridges the gap between user needs and business goals, and that is always been such a clear need on websites in particular because people are there to get things done, right? They’re there to complete tasks.

Ryan: Yeah.

Kristina: Where do you think the blind spot is or was, I guess, with marketers when it came to asking some of those basic questions like “Why would anybody care about this content, if we’re going to spend money on this content, how is this coming back to the business?” Where are those blind spots?

Ryan: I think it depends upon the kind of marketer you’re talking to and what their kind of strategic perspective is. For a lot of marketers, they have very kind of clear brand building or product sales types of perspectives and thus they, you might say, very tactically focused on accomplishing what is asked of them. For a lot of those kinds of contexts, things around customer experience, and customer experience is often times how we discuss things around user needs, is trying to focus on what the customer is actually trying to accomplish, and making sure that that’s easy, and they get done what they want to get done and it’s a good experience for them, isn’t something or hasn’t been something that they’ve focused on because the business wasn’t focused on it because the business was largely built up around establishing kind of more transactional product-based value propositions. We have researched and developed a lot of analysis around what it means to support a great customer experience, that is starting to focus more on those user goals, trying to make sure that people as they’re relating to your business are finding it easy, and they’re getting done what they want to get done, and they’re leaving ideally with a smile on their face or at least not a scowl.                                          

But that’s a kind of long and ongoing process because just in terms of how businesses report, in terms of how businesses traditionally talked about value, so it’s just a kind of slog in getting marketers to open up their eyes to this different way of managing marketing, and supporting the business, and how the business should be thinking. In some instances they get the memo and then they struggle to convince the business leadership, and some instances the business leadership has gotten the memo and is wanting to pivot more towards a customer-centric or CX driven vision and where marketing is still stuck in its kind of tactical weeds.

Then in some instances we see that the business sets up a separate group four customer experience which is outside the purview of marketing, where marketing maintains this very tiny little, “We’re the ad guys,” and what is actually the business driver and how customers experienced the businesses and managed entirely outside of marketing. It really depends upon the marketer that you’re talking to, and how they think about their job, and how they’ve traditionally thought about their job, brand, and the category, and all those kind of good things. Some categories it can be more focused around user needs and some are going to be a lot less. Yeah. The question is the marketer.

Kristina: Right. You spoke briefly that sometimes leadership is the department or the people who kind of get the memo and are like, “Oh, customer experience.” One time I, just for fun, Googled “year of the customer” and I was able to pull up magazine covers or articles dating back from like 2003, right?

Ryan: Yep.

Kristina: I mean, every year has been a year of the customer for like the past 20 years. The thought has been, well now it’s the Internet, and people have the control, and they get to jump from site to site, or they get to fill up their cart and then abandon it, and it’s our job to sort of serve their needs, and so on. What is taking so long for certain companies, for leadership in particular? Maybe let me ask this, do you actually see that things at large are shifting or do you feel like it’s a few companies that are getting it and that the rest of the marketplace is still lagging?

Ryan: You know, I think most businesses are slowly getting the memo. I think if you look at some, a lot of your digital experience, at least my own, we have a tendency to, or at least I have a tendency to, overlook the fact that a lot of things have gotten a bit easier, so in businesses in a way when the water rises, if you will. Like for example, it’s rarely the case, at least in my experience, that the shopping cart for a transactional site just borks and dies and I got to do the whole thing all over again. It happens more often than I’d probably like, but zooming back just kind of five years or more ago, that was something that happened almost all the time were very frequently and happens a lot less now. It’s almost like there has been an improvement in that direction, but it’s just slower than I suppose we’d all like. It’s one of those things where culture moves slow, business moves slower than people think.

Everyone talks about how everything moves super fast, but in terms of culture, businesses in terms of how people work, it oftentimes can move a lot slower than we think it really does. Getting a whole like business leadership, people who have their MBAs, etc., and been running businesses for a decade and that focus exclusively on a lot of things around managing supply chains, etc., to drive competitive advantage, or trying to differentiate based upon access to information, or things like that. The idea of differentiating based upon customer experience, even if it is going to drive the business more than any of the other things that should become table stakes, is still something where they’re not entirely there and this still having to learn, and gather the data and make that kind of evolution, I suppose, in their heads.

So yeah, it’s a combination of things. I think we’re making progress, but also things are slower than we’d like them to be, but we’re getting there.

Kristina: One thing that’s really interesting to me as I’m listening to you talk is that in my experience at least, what I have seen is that a lot of times when you sit down to talk with a content marketer or somebody who’s responsible for the website and they’re saying, “Our content is a mess,” when you push it, what they’re really saying is, people who are coming to us aren’t finding what they’re looking for or they’re just not interested in what we are offering, and that it is in fact that conversation around the content that drives towards the larger conversation around the importance of customer experience, and around the importance of connecting and understanding your customer needs and expectations, and how those it needs and expectations can be met in order to kind of fulfill these different business goals.

What are some ways in which you have seen coming in to talk about, whether it’s tactical conversations around content or larger conversations about content operations or talking to content strategy. What are some examples of what you’ve seen in terms of larger conversations that have been surfaced when you start talking about content itself?

Ryan: Well, it tends to spread out and all kinds of different directions. We get asked around content as it relates to, for example, many different efforts by the business to enhance engagement, for example. As the team is talking about their email program, or they’re talking about a customer loyalty program, or they’re talking about an acquisition program or an awareness play, they’re trying to say, “How can we manage this experience to be more effective? What role can content play in that?” Those kinds of conversations that are just purely kind of engagement level conversations, what does good look like? Then there’s the conversations that we get a lot of that are almost more like governance level kind of questions where, as you say, they’re saying, we’re creating content for customers across a lot of different channels and all that content, like content in one channel is very different from the content in another channel, even though it’s going to be consumed by the same person, oftentimes in the same journey. That can’t be good, and we’re duplicating content, and all these kinds of things that happen in large businesses.

They say, you know, “We know a lot of this is just cost of doing business, but there must be some smarter ways of working.” We get questions like that that are very kind of open-ended governance related kind of questions, that oftentimes the reason that it’s come to a head is that they’ve decided they want to personalize a lot more, for example. In the context of personalization, they’re saying how do we manage, for example, personal identity and the content that matches that across the different channels. That drives that conversation. It kind of motivates it. Then yeah, they want to talk to us about how to kind of organize the teams and and address it. That as well as just content technologies types of questions, which I then typically, depending upon what they’re looking for, partner with other analysts, focus on, say, well I have Mark Grant in here at Forrester or focusing exclusively on CMS and different aspects of digital experience. It really depends. It comes in and kind of at different angles, but I would say those are the major questions that we get coming inbound.

Kristina: What’s interesting to me is that the span of those conversations is so vast. I mean, you are talking on the one hand to people about how can we make this content more engaging and on the other hand about operationalizing content across multiple touch points, both customer facing and also on the back end in terms of how you’re managing it. You must have an opportunity with your different clients, then, to just sort of see organizations at all different stages of maturity when it comes to how they think about content as a business asset or if they do at all.

Are you seeing any trends in terms of there are more organizations who are maturing through that process? Do you see that some are just stuck and some are moving very quickly? Is there a certain kind of organization who is better equipped to kind of move along that path? Tell me some of your observations there.

Ryan: Yeah. I had experience, and I had experience, with a number of businesses that wanted to address, take kind of a holistic view of content. One kind of major hospitality business that owned a lot of hotel brands wanted to centralize content. I know the person who’s running that there had challenges in convincing all the brands that there was any point in them collaborating with each other around content because they took such a tactical perspective on what content was going to do. That was kind of classic experience of challenge and I saw the same from, I can’t say who, but a major auto maker who also found they cross all their car brands. They were having challenges in terms of just consistency with content, bad customer experiences, and so on and so forth.

A lot of these efforts to centralize have been, well, very challenged because it immediately touches, for example, each of these brand owners and the teams within them, the moment that somebody from head office or whatever as we want to like talk about harmonizing, or optimizing, or centralizing, or anything like that, they can feel the puppet strings in the new way, and a pull, or maybe describe it as like the somebody reaching into their pocket. So they hesitate, they don’t want to cooperate with those kinds of things, and it becomes a big, big kind of governance kind of issue, where sometimes the central organization just doesn’t have the mojo to push it through or they’re just like, “No, I think that’s probably going to be a no go. Those kinds of projects become very challenged.”

There’s businesses where I’ve seen it become or have been most successful are oftentimes those businesses where in, like say retail, we’ve seen businesses in retail where they recognize that content and content around retail experiences has a very specific benefit and that this continuity or bad content experiences can have a real immediate impact on the bottom line in terms of sales, in terms of the availability of their products.

Another group that’s been, I suppose, at least pushing on this front has been some of the financial services companies. As they see more challenges around compliance, then that has led them to focus more on getting serious about how the content is managed and how customers relate to them. They’ve also, as they’ve been challenged in the investment company space by a lot of the smaller investment apps and so on and so forth, who specialize a lot more in customer experience, I think they’re really feeling the heat in terms of improving their customer experience and in terms of making things easier in the content, more consistent, and supporting rich and valuable experiences. That’s kind of from worst, in a way, to best, I suppose, at least from what I’ve seen.

Kristina: As you’re working with these teams, as they’re sort of shuffling, and wrangling, and restructuring, and succeeding, and failing, and so on, what kinds of positions are you seeing become available at organizations? Which ones are they really hiring for? Which ones are they hired for and now they’re cutting back or restructuring? I ask this because just the other day I went on LinkedIn to their Jobs, not because I am looking for a job as far as you know, and just typed in “content.” I swear to you on the first two pages there were like 40 different titles with the name content, with the word content in them, which is insane because not that long ago you would go looking for content and there were like four jobs available. Tell me about the kinds of roles that you’re seeing right now.

Ryan: Yeah. I mean, there’s of course a lot of content openings that are around where they’re basically just looking for people to write stuff for them, so kind of relatively, not terribly senior positions. I would say that the notion of there is, I would say in in a lot of businesses, maybe somebody who has some kind of quote unquote “content marketing leadership” type title, which is oftentimes a director, maybe a VP level.

Aside from that, I mean, we see some kind of content strategy type roles, but I haven’t seen as many of those in the large enterprises. Sometimes I’ll see like head content strategists within kind of a kind of a smaller business or an interesting startup or app where they focus on content strategy, so I haven’t seen as much of that.

I would say we’re seeing, obviously, a big growth in terms of customer experience titles wherein the person who is responsible for customer experience might have also a focus on content. I’m seeing some positions, and it’d be a very narrow group, but emerged specific to content governance in helping some of these large organizations discuss and govern their content. But yeah, I think the vast volume that I’ve seen of growth, it seems to have been more around the creators and people who are going to be like sourcing content or producing content, especially for some of the B2B businesses who have a high volume of need for content and different versions of content, etc. Unfortunately, not as many on the content strategy sides from what I’ve—

Kristina: Yeah. I was going to say, that is a huge disconnect for me. Right?

Ryan: Mm-hmm.

Kristina: To hear that some of these organizations are finally starting to tackle “what is customer experience and what does that mean when we’re considering our content strategically,” but what you’re seeing is still a push for content creation and sourcing over people who are really thinking about content efforts from a strategic perspective.

Ryan: Yup. Yup. The organizations are very focused on just making stuff to get out the door to drive the leads or the short-term tactical stuff. I mean, it’s not surprising from a volume perspective that there’s going to be more of those than there are the bigger strategic heads, so that’s natural. But yeah, it’s relatively limited.

Kristina: Do you have hope that that will shift?

Ryan: What I’d like to see, especially for the big enterprises that we advise, is there’s kind of a combination of things, but the best kind of approach that I feel like I’ve seen has been to establish a few roles at a central level that is kind of a center of excellence that helps with some of the governance, helps with establishing some clear guidelines, templates, etc., it make things easy for the different content creators, or content marketers, or whoever throughout the organization to work collectively.

Then within the different business units, or lines of business, or whatever, to have content professionals who are kind of connected in matrix-y kind of way with their peers, but working primarily towards the business where they’re able to combine a focus on the business and the customers you described. That’s the ideal, I think, because there’s some things. I mean ideally, content people are contributing to the customer experience and the business value in the context of what the business is trying to do, but there’s some aspects, some rules, some definitions, some governance, etc. That has to happen typically above that, otherwise you just have a lot of smart people doing dis-coordinated things.

Kristina: Yeah. You just described content. What advice would you have? Let’s start with internally at the enterprise or in large companies. What advice would you have for those smart people who are doing disconnected things, who are seeing that this stuff needs to be more connected in order for the organization to provide that seamless, satisfying customer experience and they don’t know, like they’re having trouble getting other marketers to listen or the people that are tossing content requests over the wall at them and saying, “Get this done before a day after tomorrow.” Where can those folks start the conversation to begin to shift towards that strategic consideration of content as more of a business asset?

Ryan: Yeah. I mean, that’s a business case to be made to the business leadership. Now, that not might not necessarily be like CEO level, but ideally marketing leadership, or a head of business strategy, or some kind of president level. To say of that automaker, a case was made at the president level of the brand to say, here’s all the ways that we are losing value. We’re seeing value slip away just through, for example, referring to a similar thing in different ways, or recreating the same thing 10 different times, or you know, all that laundry list of things that happened from discoordination. Here’s the kind of specific things that we can do. For example, a consistent taxonomy across the business to just tag and label things in a consistent way.

Maybe a clear shared content system to enable us to have common workflows, maybe other tone of voice types of definitions, etc., to say these are some clear steps that we could do that would have benefits across all of our lines of business. That’s the kind of business case that needs to be made in order to get the go ahead to say, “Okay, now we can address these things at an enterprise kind of level.”

Typically, then, they’re going to say like ... and the challenge here is how in depth that can impact each of the lines of business. There’s a kind of combination that has to be done where you’re arguing up but you’re also arguing across, so for each of the content teams within the line of business to feel like that’s something that they want to contribute to and get value out of. But given that a lot of our content people are, generally speaking, heading in the same direction, that’s not typically a hard case to make. It just becomes kind of maybe a question of a little bit of internal politics and ambition.

Kristina: This is my last question. Now I’m going to do that looking into the future. Looking into the future of content and content strategy. You know, if you think about organizations four to five years down the road who are still spinning around, “Why do we have all this content? What are we making this for? Why do we keep hiring more content creators? What kind of a shift do you hope to see or do you think we will see within those organizations really? I mean, five years seems like forever in internet age, but it’s not that far out. What do you hope to see?

Ryan: Yeah. I spoke with someone who worked at an agency that’s helping, oh, it was one of the big European internet retailers. I think it was like Asos or someone like that. They were describing for me, because they were relatively savvy in terms of their content management and they had gone from, interestingly, very rich descriptions of their different products and then paired it way back to like the most simple of simple, like literally just a handful of images and a very short, and concise, and pithy product description. She said what they were trying to do was to increase, kind of, the engineering around the contents, so just basically stripping it way back then, before then building it up against a way that could be automated in a way that they were sure was going to have value to the actual consumer at the end.

I think that’s probably a process that’s needed in a lot of organizations is this notion of stripping things back, like taking the foot off the gas pedal of creating so many things and trying to look at the customer journey and saying, “Where are our customers actually going to get value from us creating content, or hosting content, or maintaining content, updating content, and these kinds of things?” That oftentimes may lead to making less stuff, having a smaller kind of creative services department potentially, but having creative or content people who are embedded with the business teams who are working to support, say, a customer journey or something like that.                                        

I’d like to see, you know in four to five years, a business get more focused around understanding their customers, supporting those customer’s journeys, and then where content plays a key role supporting that. I don’t want to lift up content for its own sake, but lift up the customer. What you know you or I are trying to do is we’re relating to REI, or Crest toothpaste, or god knows what business we’re doing, and getting more value out of that experience and helping those marketers as brands and the content people within them to be supporting those customer journeys as opposed to just a tactical output, if you will. That’s where I’d like to see things going.

Kristina: Me too. Let’s go out there and make it happen, folks. Ryan, this—

Ryan: Hey.

Kristina: Hey Kristina bobble head nodding especially violently right now.

Ryan: And the Ryan bobble head.

Kristina: That’s right. Special edition.

Ryan: Pretty good.

Kristina: Ryan, thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your insights. it’s great to talk to you and I look forward to staying in touch in the months and years to come to see more of what you’re seeing and thinking and hoping for. I really appreciate it.

Ryan: Great. Yeah, it’s been a pleasure, Kristina. Thanks for having me on.

Kristina: Thanks so much.

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You’ve been listening to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at, of course, BrainTraffic.com. Thanks and we’ll see you next time.

About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

Follow @BrainTraffic and @halvorson on Twitter for new episode releases.