What Makes Content Effective? The Keys to a Real Strategy for Content

Just about everybody’s an amateur social media strategist. They’re thinking about which platform is worth being active on, what content they should post and why, gauging success by engagement, and trying to craft their own ‘brand’ — whatever it may be.

But then there are professionals, those that ply their trade in the digital, social, and content space. They represent businesses and organization, and everything they do is subject to scrutiny and analysis. They also have to keep up with the ever-changing nature of the platforms, as well as fickle user behaviors and consumption patterns.

The level of intellect and understanding inherent in content strategy really came out in my recent interview with Jonah Ballow, Head of Content Strategy & Production and founder of HEARTLENT Group, a strategy and content collective. Ballow is one of those pros, innovating with content for several major brands and organizations, including full-time stints with the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves, among other stops. I couldn’t focus on just one area in this piece stemming from the interview, so I’ll let the wise words of Ballow lead the way. (Lots of good stuff below 👇)

(listen to the full episode)

The Importance of Crafting Voice and Copy

Words are important. How individuals, businesses, and teams speak, how they approach the most delightful and the most difficult topics conveys a brand, a personality, a point of view. And yet many, even still today, kinda just wing it. Ballow understood the importance of copy early in his career and expertly elucidated why it’s so important to take a strategic, thoughtful approach to what we say and why.

“What changed [at the Knicks] was we had a copywriter and we sat down and we said: how are we going to speak? Like, literally, are we going to say we, or they?…And we made the change to go to a we — like ‘we’ are the Knicks…And it helps so much; even though that copywriter wasn’t writing every tweet or post on Instagram or on Facebook — it helped us to clarify the role of that person. And I would advise that every department has a dedicated copywriter that is working day to day on that messaging.

“Again, it’s more of a guideline. We developed a whole book on here’s how we do the messaging during the game, here’s how we do it on off days, here’s how we talk about big events, right? Like September 11th is very important in New York City. So those things are so important because, again, this the level of responsibility that you’re putting on these people and for myself, I felt it all the time…the New York Knicks channels can reach millions of people with in one click and I’ve got to somehow craft the right tone and messaging for Charles Oakley getting tossed out of the arena or Kristaps Porzingis going down for the year with a knee injury. It’s a lot to ask for. 

“You really need the people there to help craft that voice; it’s very important. And it’s so important — not just what you’re expressing to the public, but for those staff people, those people who are running the accounts that feel comfortable and have the guardrails of how they should talk so that you don’t see a moment — what we see many times before where people can get in trouble and they always [blame] ‘the stupid social media intern’, like that’s such a dumb phrase. Again, a lot of these people who are running those accounts are seasoned vets and have been in marketing, branding and are very experienced and very talented. You’re going to make a mistake and things are going to happen. And it’s unfortunate, with that job, it happens in front of everybody else where things can get taken out of context. So I think it’s really important that the teams work on having that structure or having that department that can really help craft what the voice is and how they’re going to express information to their fanbase.”

Appreciating the Why behind Content: Understand the Goals

There is so much content produced, it can start to feel like teams and brands are content factories. But the point of producing content is not to just fill the feeds, not to elicit engagement for engagement’s sake. If you don’t know the why of it all, then what are we even doing? Ballow talked about the process of working with clients at HEARTLENT Group to understand their objectives, because that’s where content strategy starts.

“So it’s always kind of a fact-finding mission of what is the content that you’re trying to create and why? I think we start there [and then] try to backtrack a little bit, and then that develops the strategy for the content; (it’s) not just to do things because it’s cool, but to do things that are going to (accomplish your goals).

“I just treat every client very differently based on what their needs are, but it really works best when they’re very transparent about budgets, about what their end goals are for the project and how we can accomplish that together. I think you get the best out of it, because essentially what you’re looking at is internally that that client can’t achieve what they’re looking for you to do. So if you can find ways to make them look good on whatever it is, or really fine-tune their objectives, you’ll land in the spot where what you’re creating will work for that organization.

“But I think that the first step is ‘What is the reason for this? What do you want to do with this content?’ And sometimes they’re just like, ‘Hey, we need to do cool stuff to make my boss happy.’ I mean, it can sometimes be that simple, but most of the time I think that there’s been a genuine need for the content.” 

Understanding and Appreciating the Value of Good Content

In a world where people check their phones hundreds of times per day and consume ridiculous amounts of content every day, the notion that every single piece of content — that every post — should drive direct ‘ROI’ is rather shortsighted, if not foolhardy and naive. It’s a long, emotion-driven game that we play in most cases. Ballow discussed the idea of fan/customer development through content, because when it does come to time make a purchasing decision or go toward the bottom of a funnel and see an ad, that relationship — built up over time — delivers ROI in droves.

“Let’s be honest, how many millions of dollars do brands spend on 30-second TV ads that sometimes I watch and I’m like, I don’t even know what the fuck this is for. Like some of these Geico ads, I’m like I don’t even know what this is. It has nothing to do with what they’re trying to do, but they’re trying to get your eyeballs, right? So they’ll spend millions of dollars on that. I mean, millions. And yet for some reason the social and digital doesn’t get the same allocated dollars or the bandwidth to succeed in a way that doesn’t have an immediate ROI. 

“Now there are certain ways to achieve that. And certain brands need to have a way to sell. I mean, ultimately that’s the bottom line, but…everything goes into that pot, and there are certain levels that will be content that you need to consistently do that will not have a direct [line to ROI]…

“I think there’s some really great D2C brands that do it [well]. They have good content, they serve it up well from a strategic standpoint and it’s delivered to you in a way that makes you want to be a fan of the brand and then purchase. So it has to go hand in hand.

“I would love to tell you I got the answer to it. I don’t. I think it’s always going to be a difficult discussion with a brand; if they’re not willing to see the value in it, it’s unlikely to have success in my opinion…

“The team thing is the same deal. You gotta build that loyalty, that fan base and have those people fall in love with the brand; and when they get good, it’s great…

“[For example] the Warriors were terrible for a decade, right? And now that they got Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, [and] had Kevin Durant. They’re a team that has cache and will have followers. The content always does well. Let me see what you can do when the team isn’t good.”

Content Strategy is not about Conformity

Content tropes and trends move at a mile a minute. Memes, pop culture stories, and even creative platform hacks blow up in an instant and spread like wildfire. But big, meaningful wins don’t happen by riding the waves of the masses — nobody cuts through the noise by staying inside the box. Ballow and his partners at HEARTLENT Group really do such a good job of leading true innovation in content strategy, so listen up:

“We live, I think in, in almost like a golden age for the creators; these kids who are 20 or younger, or even mid twenties who have taught themselves that on all the Adobe products or the ability to bring this content to life a little bit different version of what I was doing earlier on when I was teaching myself HTML. And there’s so many creative ways to be deliberate. So it’s thinking outside the box, always challenging the norm, not just looking at something saying let’s replicate what Nike did or what a brand did or what another team —the Brooklyn Nets did this, let’s do that, and I think you’ll find yourself in a good spot of [finding] innovative ways to bring the content [to life] and match that with unique storytelling. I think that’s a pretty basic great recipe for winning on social.” 


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