Content Marketing

Why Empathy Matters in Content Marketing: Q & A with Kyle Monson

This post is part of the Content Q&A Series, featuring interviews with top content strategists and bloggers about their work and insights about the industry.

It’s praised as a holy grail for brands and a rising revenue stream for publishers, but what’s the secret to content marketing?

Kyle Monson’s company, Knock Twice, cites being-in-the-know as a founding principle. That’s not where the mystery ends — according to the company website, some of Monson’s biggest clients are “the ones we don’t talk about.”

However, Monson did give The Content Strategist a peek into how he thinks about content campaigns and what parts of the industry could be better, from search algorithms to more beautiful content and empathetic creators.

The Content Strategist: Tell me about Knock Twice — when did you launch and how did it come about? 

Knock Twice was an idea I had with a long-time friend, Mike Barash. He was one of my favorite PR guys to work with back when I was a tech journalist — very sharp, always on the ball, no B.S. We were hanging out at a SXSW party, and talking about how the tech PR industry was just garbage, and we could do it better. He went ahead and got the company off the ground a couple years ago, and I finally joined in April.

The name “Knock Twice” refers to our philosophy that marketing agencies should be neither seen nor heard. The constant push for publicity that I see in ad agencies and PR firms drives me crazy, and I’m sure it drives clients crazy, too. At Knock Twice, we want to be in the background making things happen. It’s like a secret door to a cool club — you either know where it is or you don’t.

What’s your personal background and how did you get into content strategy?

Ever since I was in high school, I wanted to be a journalist at Newsweek. I worked all through college toward a communications/journalism degree, worked at a bunch of newspapers and finally got my dream internship at Newsweek. It turned out not to be a great fit (isn’t that the way it always happens?). I spent the next 5 or 6 years as a tech journalist and editor at PC Magazine, eventually rising up the ranks to senior editor.

After a while, though, I started to feel like I had read every tech news story that could possibly be written, so I moved on to a new career in advertising, as content strategy director at JWT. I was hired to bring my journalistic sensibilities to big ad campaigns for companies like Microsoft, and we had a lot of success with that strategy, winning a pile of awards, including a Cannes Titanium Lion.

This is remarkable not just because the award-winning campaign was from Microsoft, but because it was a B2B campaign targeting IT guys. B2B campaigns don’t often win piles of awards. After three years at JWT, I moved on to partner with Mike and Knock Twice. We’re having a great time doing PR for a bunch of small tech startups and digital/content strategy for some huge companies that will remain nameless.

There’s a lot of definitions for content marketing — based on the work you do, how would you define it?

I’d define it as using content to achieve brand or campaign goals. “Content” can be entertaining videos, informational white papers, humanizing blog posts, silly tweets, whatever, but when correctly deployed, they support the brand’s overall goals. That might be building awareness, changing brand perceptions, moving the needle on sales, boosting SEO, or any number of other things.

I tend to stick to campaigns that use content to activate niche influencers, in order to effect wide perception shifts. These kinds of campaigns let me make content for the smartest, best-informed people in my target audience, and that’s where I want to play and frankly, where I think more brands should play.

What does your process for prepping a content product for a client look like? 

That’s a proprietary question! I can only say three things on the subject:

1. It’s not that different from the typical planning process. Who’s the audience, what’s the desired perception, and what content gets them there? And then what channel gets the content in front of them?

2. I love to target the smallest, most niche, most inaccessible audiences. They’re usually the core influencers of larger groups.

3. I always stress honesty with clients. We aren’t “infiltrating” these small niche communities, we’re trying to gain credibility and access to them. The worst thing a brand can do is barge in where it isn’t welcome or wanted.

Favorite case study out of anything you’ve worked on?

They’re all my babies! But my favorite wins from campaigns are the personal moments with community members I’m trying to reach. These are very rare, but I remember each one: A big name in the IT community leaving a friendly comment on my personal blog, a tech influencer with a million Twitter followers finding and tweeting a piece of campaign content on her own, an email from a community member expressing appreciation for our transparent marketing tactics, and, a heavy hitter agreeing to write a piece of branded content.

These magical moments generally aren’t included in our campaign metrics slides, but they’re indicators that we’re doing good work for the brand, and that perceptions are shifting.

Looking forward, what will the content field be like five years from now?

I really struggle with this as I try to figure out where the industry is headed. Content marketing can make the web a better place or a worse place, and I think the jury’s out on which side will prevail.

I was talking with an old ad guy in China this week, who was bemoaning all the shady content marketing tactics in use over there, and I see a lot of the same crap here. My hope is that more brands will see that they can use their marketing dollars to make beautiful things, and to create amazing content that the audience wants. Or they can make crappy videos and pay for them to “go viral” and get a bunch of positive fake comments.

Hard to tell which approach will be more popular going forward. The good news is that search algorithms will always, always be on our side, and they’ll only get better at keeping the crap away from the audience, and surfacing the good stuff.

What skill or personal trait do you find to be a differentiator in developing content?

Empathy is by far the most important trait. That is, the ability to get in your audience’s heads and both understand their needs, and see the content the way they would see it.

I think it’s nearly impossible to make good content or advertising if you look down on your audience or you don’t understand them.

Any industry-related pet peeves?

1. Lack of empathy. Snotty NYC creatives making snotty content because they don’t really like the Middle American moms they’re trying to reach.

2. Valuing the wrong metrics. X number of Twitter followers does not tell you anything about how those followers view your brand, and whether your tweets are improving that perception or hurting it. Likewise, X number of views and comments doesn’t indicate whether your content was successful. If views and comment counts really are all-important, we should be making porn videos. Seriously.

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