Mentors can make a major difference in people’s careers. Always willing and able to answer questions, even after you leave a job or company. They are generous with their time to provide expert advice, insight, and guidance. Today’s guest is Ben Sailer’s former supervisor and mentor, Dean Froslie, EVP of marketing at Western State Bank in North Dakota. Dean uses the term, Content Super Connector, as a way to bridge the gap between two worlds—content strategy and content marketing.
Ben: Hi there and welcome to this episode of the Actionable Marketing Podcast. I'm your host, Ben Sailer. On this week’s show, we have Dean Froslie, who has been a great mentor of mine throughout my career.Dean was my supervisor back when we both worked in an agency, maybe a few years ago now at this point. Even though he’s now EVP of Marketing at Western State Bank (which is a regional bank where we're based here in North Dakota; if you didn't know that CoSchedule was based in North Dakota, now you do), he's continued to be very generous with his time and insight anytime I've had a question on anything.I can say with all sincerity that I would not be where I'm at, doing what I'm doing now here at CoSchedule, without Dean's expert guidance. I'm really glad that we're able to share some of his insight on bridging the gap between content strategy and content marketing with all of you on the show.Now, here's Dean. Welcome to the show, Dean.Dean: Thank you for having me.Ben: Would you mind sharing a brief timeline of your career in the content world?Dean: Yeah, definitely. I've always enjoyed writing. In college, I really assumed I would probably do traditional PR or media relations work after I graduated. I had a pretty unique opportunity. For perspective, this was the mid-90s. I had an opportunity in my senior year of college to work on my college's first ever website. They were just creating at that time. I was hand-coding HTML pages and just the basic text editor. I didn't really think too much of it at that time because the web was obviously really new. As it turns out, my career has revolved around just that intersection of marketing, content, and technology ever since in my work in agency and corporate roles. I think a turning point of sorts was about closer to 10 years ago, was working as a senior writer in an agency setting, writing for digital channels. It always felt like I could or should be doing more than just cranking out copy. It seemed like there is so much to learn about user experience, technical aspects, and just other user experience considerations.I dove into SEO for a while and kind of poured myself into that. I just started reading more about content strategy. Kristina Halvorson’s early work, [...], Karen McGrane, and others. I really had this “aha” moment and really knew that was what I was meant to do. In some ways, I've really been preparing myself to do that kind of work without even realizing it, which was cool.Built a content strategy practice at the agency, later moved into content strategy role in more of a corporate setting. I’m in more of a traditional marketing communications leadership role right now, but I really feel my content strategy background is still a big part of my work.Ben: Very cool. How would you say that that is applicable for you even now being more in a broader marketing leadership role?Dean: I think part of it is that as much as we still tend to organize teams around channels or a digital team or a social team, I think the channels are just converging more all the time. Content is obviously at the heart of that. I think I enjoyed the convergence of all of those areas and really trying to find the right mix for our company. I think we're a small enough team that we can tackle a lot of things without some of those silos that often happen in larger organizations.Ben: For sure. Something that I'm really interested to get your perspective on is it seems like there are so many different interpretations and arguments against what content strategy means that it's hard to keep track off of all of them. When you say the term “content strategy,” people could take that to mean so many different things. There are so many different places where people's minds can go. How have you seen that term in the industry evolve personally?Dean: I think you used the word interpretation. I think that's a pretty great descriptor of what content strategy is today. It's become this broad and somewhat squishy term. It's used for all types of different roles, all types of different functions, and just get supplied in a lot of different ways. I think it's worth reminding ourselves that the term really originally had a strong website focus. That certainly holds true today. It’s not like it’s a thing of the past. Literally, in the early days of content strategy, Kristina Halvorson wrote a book, Content Strategy for the Web. I think that's the key part of that book title. It was really built around that idea that website projects had just become way too focused on the visual interface, the underlying technology. Content (in many ways) had just become an afterthought in the process, yet it wasn't the heart of the experience.We really introduce not only the substance of the content but also just considerations around workflow and governance—the people aspects of content—that tends to be overlooked. The websites became this “one and done” kind of project. "That's done. Redesign's done. I guess we can move on to something else." I was fortunate to attend several of the early Confab—content strategy conferences—and I was at the first one, in fact. There's this cool energy around defining the practice, what it stood for, and just really a group about making the web a better place. They've branched out into lots of topics like UX writing, content models, SEO, accessibility, you name it. You still really have this community of content strategists that's dedicated to this original notion of content strategy. In their view, it hasn't been influenced or maybe blemished a little bit by content marketers. They haven't really been affected by how the term itself has evolved.Ben: Got it. That's something I think is very interesting. When you bring this topic of what people who are coming out content from working perspective, I feel like they don't understand where some of that frustration comes from. From people who are on the traditional content strategy side who feel like they owned that right. In your opinion, what do you feel has led to their being such sharp divisions around what that term does or doesn't mean or what it should or shouldn't be about?Dean: It's a fascinating discussion, or debate, or tension (I guess) in many cases. I think along the way, content became a more fashionable job title compared to writer or editor. I think that may be contributed to some of the muddiness around the content strategist’s role than as you mentioned. Content marketing became a thing. Social media exploded. Everything really became even murkier. I think the content aspects of the role took off, but the strategy side got left behind a little bit. From what I can tell as an observer or maybe someone who's a bit neutral on that debate, I think a lot of the tension revolves around the content strategy in the content marketing communities. maybe the roles being used interchangeably. I think some content marketers, not all but some, get overly focused on quantity over quality without considering what's sustainable, what their teams can crank out on a regular basis. The content strategy community, at least in a traditional sense—we're talking about in 10 years, this isn't decades necessarily—looks at the content marketing world and they often see a lot of unsustainable practices. There's just more and more channels, more posts, more engagements. Fundamentally, strategy, no matter what type of strategy we're talking about, forces choices about what to do and what not to do. I think content marketing (in particular) has been guilty at times that made me lose sight of that. There's emphasis on doing more and more and more.Ben: I think that's only fair. Something that you had mentioned to me once (a while back), that I believe might have been based on a quote that you had read in an article on content marketing somewhere that is lost in the sands of time. There is something that you were talking to me about that was really interesting. It was like this concept of someone becoming like a content super connector where you're bridging these two worlds, at least that was what I took that to mean. I'd be really interested to get your explanation and perspective on what that term means and why you think that that kind of way of thinking about it might be useful. Dean: As you mentioned, I stumbled upon that term a few years ago in a marketing blog post. I expanded on the concept a little bit and did a talk on it a while back, to make some of the content strategy types of work a little more practical or give some examples. The fundamental idea is that all brands disappoint customers at some time or not, even the best ones. They fall short on customers expectations certainly unintentionally. Hopefully, not often enough that they lose customers, but I think it does happen. These types of disappointments are just naturally becoming more common on digital channels just as we turn to online channels more and more. I use the term digital disappointments. I think there's a lot of different common types of digital disappointments. You might have an unanswered question or need. We've all had those moments where we've gone online to try to find an answer. Sometimes even a basic answer. We struggle to find it. We get down the rabbit hole and half an hour later, we still haven't found the answer to our question.I work in banking. Sometimes, there might be some inconsistency with the offline experience where you have someone helping you. If you walk into a brick and mortar location, they walk you through the process to answer your questions. They stick with you until your needs are addressed. In digital, we don't have that same type of hand-holding and follow-through, and I think that can lead to disappointments. You might have a poor experience on a particular device, whether the navigation is not intuitive or there's websites out there that are still aren't responsive. That can lead to disappointments.It could be accessibility-related disappointments. Somebody's vision is impaired or cognitive barriers. Another big one is technology gaps. Most websites have 3rd party systems that plug into the experience. Sometimes those hand-offs can be really clunky. That could be another type of digital disappointment. Where I'm getting now with all of these is I embrace efforts to do customer journey mapping and really look at customer experience as a whole. Those are incredibly productive efforts but they're also pretty ambitious efforts as well. I'm a big believer that content on a smaller scale can serve as that super connector. In small ways, content creators can just create or enable a more connected experience just by thinking differently about the content they're creating. Just doing just those little things that help audiences.Maybe even something as basic as auditing your channels and reminding yourself that, "Oh yeah. We do have this email marketing plugin. We do have this hand-off to this payment system," or whatever that may be. A lot of it is just the fundamentals of content strategy, thinking about the audience's needs, thinking about those customer micro moments that could [...] a few years ago. I think another one is just keeping promises across channels. I think sometimes we have this mentality that we posted this on a social channel, everyone saw it. We all know that's no longer the case. Just getting into that mindset can really help content creators think a little bigger, think beyond the thing that we're creating. Just make the experience much better for the customers. Just one quick small example is those hand-offs in some of those third party systems. If you have maybe a legacy system that's a little clunky, a little dated, the interface maybe isn't the best, you might not be able to change that. The window of opportunity to change that is probably long past. However, from a content perspective, you might be able to do something to make it less painful. You might be able to set expectations around something, how long it’s going to take or help customers know what they need to complete that task. Some of those hand-off points that can be opportunities to create better experience and can be opportunities for content.Ben: Something Dean touched on, in regards to content marketing, that I feel is worth pausing for a moment to think about is this tendency to want to produce more work, rather than higher quality work or even the work that's best aligned with what our customers need from us. Strategy plays a very important role in figuring out what that content should be and if you'd get it right, you can potentially reap greater rewards from producing fewer but better targeted pieces. I feel like sometimes, it can feel counterintuitive in the sense that you are going to do less work but produce more results. But I can tell you, speaking from personal experience, that's absolutely the case. Now, back to the show.So, why do you feel it's valuable? Actually, you probably answered this somewhat indirectly already. Why do you feel it's valuable for content folks to develop both content strategy and content marketing skills?Dean: I think there's a couple common threads between disciplines. One of them is your audience. It sounds so basic but it really is, I think, one of those common denominators. I often go back to my favorite definition of content. There's a bazillion of them out there. Mine is a relatively simple one from [...]. He says, "Content is what your user wants right now. If the user needs it, it's content." What I love about that definition is it's audience-centric. It's about what the user wants or needs. It also isn't concerned about who creates the content within the organization. It doesn't say marketing content. It doesn't reference customer service content. It's just content. I think with that audience-focused mindset, some of those turf battles maybe between content strategy, content marketing, just come a little less critical and diminished a bit. I guess for me, it's valuable to develop skills in both areas just to understand the strategic foundation in each. If you go back to just some of the basic content strategy foundational aspects around business schools, audience needs, the people aspects of content, what's sustainable for the organization, that's going to (in turn) inform the content marketing side of things. On the content marketing side of things, there's a lot of opportunities there to really better define and understand what your brand stands for. What is your true differentiator? Where's your opening to create differentiated content? And where can you really stand out to customers? There's so much commoditized content out there. We know that. I worked in a very commoditized industry where it's very difficult to truly stand out and find a niche that hasn't been covered by thousands of other sources. Along with that, true content marketing strategy helps you become much more intentional about your channels, why you're there, what you'll do, which ones you won't do, which one's you're really going to focus on, that sort of thing.Ben: Got it. That sounds great. If someone is listening to this episode and they're interested in bridging both content strategy and content marketing within their skill set, how would you advise they get started?Dean: I think the biggest suggestion I would make is to get a strong understanding of strategy just like what I was talking about a moment ago. If you look at your strategy and it's basically a list of tactics or channels, to me, that's not a strategy. There's just this temptation to dive into channel platforms, tactics, and really not address the fundamental strategy behind why you're doing all of this. That's hard work. It takes time and it's not always easy to get the right stakeholders in the room to hammer that out. If someone's just getting started out, there's a handful of books within each of the camps that could really help you become much more grounded in strategy and just really have a much more differentiated brand. The one I think that I come back to a lot is Content Inc by Joe Pulizzi. It's one that really shaped a lot of the strategy work I've done over the last few years. Joe really outlined a methodology, a step-by-step process just for creating differentiation. Finding that niche where you can really stand out, that you can be the best at.Joe talks in the book about nobody really sets out to be the fourth best at anything or a tenth best in anything. Really, your content marketing strategy, whatever you want to call it, should be no different. Really work and you stand out in ways that aren't being addressed today. Maybe there's a niche that you can address, maybe there's just some gaps that you can address.Another one that I just read actually recently was Seth Godin's, This is Marketing.Ben: That's a great book.Dean: Yeah, it is. I think the biggest take away from that for me was just this, shifting your focus to who it's for, rather than, "I made this," or, "This is my product," but, “Who is this for?” Really focusing on that “tribe” as he calls it, that you're really trying to build and engage in that minimally viable audience.On the content strategy side, I think I will go back to some of the tried true books in that space. Content Strategy for the Web. It's been out for a few years now, but I think it's still highly relevant, everything in that space. I've looked at Gerry McGovern and his focus on really task-oriented website experiences, focusing on the top tasks that matter most to your customers. I think that's a great guide for content and just for driving user experience as a whole.Another one I would highly recommend is the Content Strategy Toolkit by Meghan Casey. There's just a ton of great tools, ideas, and techniques to maybe operationalize our strategy if you've nailed the core strategy. Taking that to the next level, really just getting some tactics and exercises to help you refine it, and act upon it.Then just a couple of books, other books I've mentioned, too, are really around more than just the writing and content creation space. So, Ann Handley, Everybody Writes is a great one. One that I know a lot of writers come back to, time and time again. What I love about Anne's book is when I first got it, I really wondered, even though I really admired her work for a long time, I wasn’t really sure there was much more to be said about the writing process or writing for digital and she has found a very accessible way to refine your writing, to just really focus on your audience and I think it's just a great all around guide.The other one I come back to from time to time again is Janice Redish, Letting Go of the Words. That's a book on really writing for the web, just different writing techniques to make sure your content is scannable, actionable, that kind of thing.I've unloaded the booklist on you here, but I think I would advise focusing on those types of books rather than books that maybe focused on channels or tactics, just because I think the fundamentals are so important.Ben: Absolutely. Well, this has been great. Before I let you go, is there anything else on this topic that you really feel is important to know or to mention, that we haven't touched on yet?Dean: We've talked about some of the inside baseball with content strategy and content marketing. It's probably worth some perspective, that for a lot of people, these [...] don't matter or aren't all that important. It matters to a lot of us who work in those fields, but at the end of the day, if you're using those disciplines for good (as we like to say), you're going to be fine. A lot of those turf battles and distinctions are just going to not matter all that much, maybe within your organization or to your customers. They're important to understand as marketers, but we have to keep some perspective on them, too.Ben: Yup, absolutely. Well, this is fantastic. Thanks so much for coming into our office this morning and having this conversation. I think this is something a lot of our listeners will find a lot of value in, for sure.Dean: Awesome, thanks for having me.
Ben was the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.