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Content Marketing Strategies for Purpose-Driven Brands

In Conversation with Shannon Emmerson

For this episode of E-Coffee with Experts, Ranmay Rath interviewed Shannon Emmerson, CEO & Founder of Forge & Spark Media Ltd, a content marketing agency located in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Shannon spills the beans on all things content marketing, sharing her own awesome entrepreneurial journey and the keys to creating killer content strategies. She dives into the wild world of AI-generated content and why it’s important to keep it real with a human touch.

This episode is a must-watch for anyone looking to elevate their content game!

AI can speed up processes, but content needs a human touch.

Shannon Emmerson
CEO & Founder of Forge & Spark Media Ltd

Hey, hi everyone. This is Ranmay here on your show E-Coffee with Experts. Today we have Shannon Emmerson, who is the CEO and founder of Forge and Spark Media. Welcome, Shannon to our show.

Hi, thanks.Thanks for having me.

Great. Shannon, before we move any forward and pick up your brains, uh, you know, on digital marketing at large, I’d request you to introduce yourself and talk a bit about Forge and Spark Media, and we’ll take it forward from there.

Sure. Yeah. So I am the founder and CEO of Forge and Spark Media. We’re a content marketing agency for purpose-driven brands and leaders. Um, we focus on premium and organic content marketing and, uh, in general, provide content marketing strategy services and then ongoing content development for, um, content marketing in general and for campaigns.

Superb. So you do, you know, let’s start this conversation by, you know, you telling us how this journey started, you know, of you being an entrepreneur and how you became involved in the field of content marketing and communications.

Yeah, I was thinking about this. Sometimes it feels like a long story. Sometimes it feels like a short story. Um, yeah, I feel like I’ve always been involved with content and communications. Um, back in university, I studied journalism first, and then I studied literature at a master’s level. So I think the story has always been kind of in my heart, and in my DNA.

Um, I never thought, however, I would become an entrepreneur. I was, uh, kind of a bookie type and, uh, an introverted. And I, I think I had a concept of what sort of a business owner entrepreneur was, and it was probably just shaped by, uh, kind of television and movies way back when, and kind of a masculine lens.

Um, But I think in just about every job I ever had, and I worked in the corporate world for, uh, yeah, 15, 15 years before I started my own business. Um, I didn’t realize that. Yeah, I realized that I had an entrepreneurial spirit. So I, when I would work in companies, I would always, you know, start a project or, uh, invent something or create a division or, um, form a team to do something. And, so I found myself kind of working. Like, uh, creating businesses within businesses.

Um, and I think it wasn’t until I was, I had me, my son, who’s now 12, uh, when I was 40. And, uh, that year when I was on mat leave, I, I started thinking about going off and starting, uh, starting my own business. Um, at the time I was working in magazine publishing as, as a VP. Working super closely with, um, other leaders, uh, brand leaders who wanted basically to talk about their products and services in a way that connected with people beyond what was available then. That was in kind of the, the 2005s, uh, going beyond display ads and like click ads and things like that to think about microsites and custom magazines and like deeper digital storytelling.

Um, and so I was very much working in, they called it custom publishing sometimes, I became, uh, increasingly called content marketing back then. I was working within that. Um, and so after, after my son was born, when he was, uh, one, I, I started forging spark, um, as a consultancy. And I worked with many other agencies, really learning from some of the best agencies in Vancouver about how to work as an agency and how to serve clients successfully.

Um, so after a few years of that, I, sort of transformed, my sole proprietorship and consultancy into an agency model that was in 2018. And, uh, we, uh, just last year became a benefit corporation and a certified B Corp as well.

So just really proud of that. And we’ve got about a dozen, a dozen awesome content pros
working for us.

That’s wonderful. Agreed. And, you’ve been in this space for quite some time, right? As so, um, I’m old as an ex. You do not look like one. Oh, bless you, Thank you. So see, you know, as an expert, uh, in content marketing, you’ve been there, done that, right? So, you know, what do you believe are the key elements that make a successful content strategy for any brand in a big or small and today’s digital landscape?

that’s a great question. Um, So, it always comes back to me, to clarity. I’ve done content marketing, I’ve done magazine publishing, I’ve done writing, um, and having a clear understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish.

That sounds basic, but most people skip that step. And go to the tactics and go to actually writing a piece. Um, but you’ll probably hear me say this. Uh, maybe at several points during our conversation. We’ve developed a clear and, I think proven framework, for establishing strategy, which starts with goal setting. We use a system that, we call OCRAs, which are built on OKRs, uh, and targeted actions. That’s the A. Um, we get super, super deep into personas. So really. It flows for me with understanding exactly what you want to accomplish with your content, uh, and then really having a deep understanding of who, uh, those people are that need to help you accomplish that objective, what you need them to do, what you need them to understand, what you need them to believe, uh, to, uh, to meet your, your objectives.

So just like having that clarity really about what you want to accomplish and who you need for us allows us then as content pros to be able to, to much more clearly outline the messaging that’s going to work, the content types that are going to work the channels that are going to work, all of that kind of thing.

And I will add just like in terms of content strategy success. I think, like, that investment that you make in strategy today is It does become your differentiator. I think we’re very much in a world of AI right now, of AI glamour. Everyone’s obsessed with figuring out how it works. And it’s like, it’s amazing at spitting out stuff, right?

But if you don’t want your content to just be stuff. You need to invest in, uh, in that clarity of what you want to accomplish and sort of a heartfelt understanding of your audience. Um, so yeah, that I would, I would say my, my answers to your question are probably clarity, strategy, and, I’m going to add authenticity to it too.

So really getting, um, getting clear about what makes you different and how you want to sound different. Uh, um, coming from a, coming from a truthful place. Yeah, absolutely.

And, you did touch upon a very interesting point here about, you know, AI, chat GPT, Bard, right? So, you know, what is your take on it?

Uh, a general opinion. Another point that I want you to talk about is, you know, content people getting scared for their jobs and stuff. You know, where do you think we are headed in terms of this AI-related or generated content?

Yeah, I mean, I’ve been watching several webinars and doing a bunch of training on AI, as has my team, it is a fact. I think, um, you know, if you feel afraid of it, that’s normal. Um, but I think as marketers and communicators, uh, if you don’t learn how to use it, you will, You will be eclipsed. I think, uh, I saw a podcast recently by, uh, Orbit Studios, this amazing content marketer, Andy Crestedina, um, was talking about just the fact that you know, it’s not AI that’s going to win, it’s marketers who understand how to use AI that is going to win.

And I think that there is a lot of truth to that. Um, it’s quite marvelous and, and terrifying. Um, But it can really, it can speed up a number, of processes that maybe you love or you hate them. But when it comes to outlining a blog post, uh, it’s magical. Um, when it comes to coming up with kind of starter ideas.

It’s amazing. Um, when it comes to, I don’t know, like even creating copy for ads and like starter copy for social media posts. It’s not a good copy. It’s, you know, it’s not what you want to end up with. But I don’t know. There’s this writer named Anne Lamott. Uh, I’m a writer, too. She talks about doing. Are we allowed to swear on your show?

Don’t worry. Go for it.

Okay. She talks about doing a shitty first draft. So, creating a draft that is shit just to get it out of your head. So that’s where I think about AI content. Sometimes it’s like you just want something on the paper that you can then use your higher-level thinking and your strategy, your unique tone of voice to shape and create something, uh, really, truly valuable from, but yeah.

I mean, yeah, it gives you a head thought, right? I mean. If you are on the clock, you know, I just want some stuff, you know, just to kind of give you a head start. It does that for sure, before you kind of, you know, uh, start from scratch, but it can never, at least till now, it does not look like a final product for sure, because you have to kind of, you know, then find units. Put a human brain to it, put those emotions of storytelling and stuff, you know, uh, to a brand’s image before it goes out because at the end of the day, the consumer as a human being, the consumer of that particular content is a human being, right? So the human brain is going to interpret it. So that touch is very important before it goes out, uh, because a human brain and a mind are going to read, interpret, and then take actions on that content.

So it’s pretty critical you know.

yeah, I would, I would add to just the really interesting thing. Uh, Going on right now is that I mean, really what chat GPT in particular, is doing is pulling in everything that marketers have said about brands, right? And do we all know that that’s not the gospel truth?

So, yeah, I mean, Read, uh, and use that writing with several grains of salt.

Yeah. Can imagine. And then, uh, you know, as an agent fee, which is so heavily invested. into content. So let’s say a new brand walks in, a new client signs up, you must be doing a lot of content audit and which would reveal some gaps and some areas of improvement, right?

So, you know, we’d like to understand what is your way of doing those audits. What are the key parameters that you look at? And let’s say if you kind of discover some gaps, you know, what are your next steps? How do you kind of move forward from there? So let’s say I have an agency or let’s say even a business owner if they understand that those gaps are there next so what are the next steps we should take from there on to, you know, kind of ensure that everything is plugged in.

Sure. Yeah, we just did a really deep audit on a site that has been around for 12 years. And they had 3,800 blog articles, um, that they wanted us to audit because, um, obviously some were performing, some weren’t, some needed to be thrown out, some needed to be improved. Yeah, so we began with that same framework that I talked to you about really just getting them to be clear with us about what they wanted their content to achieve. And then the next little piece that we always use in determining the steps is sometimes we call them stair steps. So it’s like you understand that you have an objective and maybe that’s spending time on the site. Um, then the question is what? What are the things that you need to do? What are the little stair steps that you need to create for your audience to get them to do that? Well, you need them to find out about you first, and then you need them to, um, read something on your social and then you need to make sure that they follow the link.

Whatever those steps are sort of become pieces of the puzzle. Um, and they become ultimately, like criteria for your content audit matrix. So you decide with the client, like, which pieces are vital. So if a blog does not check any of those boxes then maybe, it’s out of there, but if it checks all the boxes or if it checks the most important ones, then, it gets slotted into the category of either keep as is or needs improvement.

Now there are lots of other questions that we ask. About the content to just, you know, in terms of whether it’s on brand, whether it’s relevant, whether anyone has read it in the last whatever, six months or whatever period that you use, but ultimately, it’s working again at the beginning of the process.

The more in peace is identifying what criteria you’re going to use to gauge effectiveness. And that’s the crux of it. And then, for us, that took the most time on that project. And then it’s, you know, having your team of people go through it methodically and fill out the spreadsheet and make their notes and make the recommendations.

Yeah. Great. So once you’ve done that audit, you know, uh, fixing it up, obviously it takes time. I mean, content is not an overnight. Job. Right. So, you know, how to do you kind of manage the client’s expectation that you know, these are the problems this is going to take so much of time and, you know, their expectations are any kind of like, you know, kind of wanted as of yesterday. So how do you manage those expectations while interacting with the clients, you know, to make them understand that it’s going to take time to see some results to see the needle move forward?

I know everyone wants results right away. We’re clear from the outset that content marketing isn’t like the salve for everything. It doesn’t solve every problem. Content marketing is especially good at building trust and developing authority. It can be really good on a social level for gaining awareness. But you almost always need other techniques, like SEO, and paid advertising, to sort of help and support and amplify your content efforts.

So we just, we, we do a lot of education upfront about, you know, what content marketing will help you achieve and what you might need elsewhere.

Um, so just in terms of setting expectations we always say it’s a slow game, but it’s, you know it’s an important game. You need to be either in play, when it comes to like fixing stuff from an audit. I think we would just give the client, a period. So, what we did for this one is anything that needed to be optimized or edited we simply just estimated the time that it would take a reasonable person to do that. Um, for this particular client too, we made, uh, several loom videos using, I think we picked out 20 pieces of sample content and we walked them through the process of actually updating them, fixing them, what they needed to do.

There was a lot of SEO in the backend that they needed to, fix too. So, we just walked them through the process of doing that. So just, yeah, education then and clear, timeframes.

Right. And when it comes to content, you know, a lot of it is like a powerful tool, you know, so how, how do you go about, you know, creating that story for any particular, uh, you know, client in a specific niche, because like we were discussing before this, you know, kind of are so diversified in terms of your clientele, right? So how to do you kind of ensure that storytelling resonates with the end audience and, you know, kind of helps them to also you know, resonate with the brand and, uh, makes them understand that, you know, what they’re looking for is, you know, is there with this particular client of yours.

I think that is again, really tied up. That piece is tied up for us with the persona development. So when we, um, look at any client’s audience segments, when we look at our audience, um, we go deep in terms of understanding, like, Um, sometimes it’s called empathy mapping, um, in terms of understanding what they’re trying to set out to achieve, what they’re trying to set out to gain, and what they’re trying to accomplish.

So, um, we use, uh, a framework that was, um, developed, I think, by the Strategizer folks, you’ve probably seen, seen their books, I have a bunch of them, uh, back there, but it’s, uh, it’s pains, gains, and jobs to be done. For us is important, to identify. So really just understanding, yeah, the client’s mindset, empathetically understanding their mindset when it comes to, you know, what they’re typing into Google, that sometimes that’s a job to be done.

Sometimes that’s a pain point. Sometimes that’s a gain, but it’s like, what, what are they there to accomplish? We sort of think about that too, when it comes to messaging in terms of the message market mix. So once you kind of understand where they’re coming from, you have to think about what you have to sell, what you have to offer, what content you have to offer, and where those two interests meet.

So that’s the Venn diagram, the message market. But I think by really getting clear, uh, from your audience’s perspective on what they’re there for, and knowing what you have to offer, it’s like a conversation. Um, it’s going to be boring if you’re both, uh, worlds apart. You have to find where that intersection is, I guess.

Um. Absolutely. Yeah. So storytelling comes in that space. For us, we work from that space. This is part of what we call our messaging framework. We work from that space to identify kind of, um, we call them story pillars. Um, sometimes they’re content pillars, but then, the buckets of stuff that you’re going to talk about.

You sort of think, uh, about back to the goals, back to the audience, back to that mix. You think about the things that you know, both of you are going to care deeply about. Um, for us as an agency, for example, we talk a lot about purpose because we serve purpose-driven companies.

We serve B Corps, uh, social ventures. So we have, like a story pillar that’s all about what purpose is, um, why it matters to be in business, be on profit, why social impact matters, that sort of thing. We talk about that a lot. Um, one of our other pillars is, are we just call it us and our work because we know that our audience very much needs to understand what it’s like to work with us and kind of who we are and what we stand for?

We’re in, uh, Long term partnerships sometimes for years and years. So we need to show very transparently very authentically who we are and what we’re all about. And then yeah, one of our other story pieces just for example is about quality premium quality and what that means what it looks like what inspires us that sort of thing.

So for us, those stories. Get told in our blog writing and our social media, because they help our business and we believe, they help our clients as well understand, uh, what content marketing is, what it can do for them, and what we can do for them too. That’s a long answer to that.

No, in fact, you covered, you know, I was about to, kind of gonna ask you about, you know, about, you being a B cop now So how you kind of, you know, collaborate with organizations with that focus. So yeah, you’re kind of touched upon that. Yeah, please. I mean, if you want to add more.

Yeah, I think I would just add, um, I’m working on a blog post about that because there are some unique storytelling, sort of tips, I guess that we, that we would apply to be a corpse and other purpose-driven brands. I think most notably like every B Corp that we work with is scared of coming off as fake or phony or preachy in their content. Um, other organizations aren’t as deeply concerned, but I think if you’re like real values-driven and if you’ve. Been through the ringer. That is the B Corp evaluation.

You, you are walking the walk. You have your DEI principles and you are, you know, sustainable and you’re doing all this kind of stuff, but you don’t always want to talk about it because it sounds, I don’t know we worry that it sounds braggy or preachy or things like that, I would just say there’s like an extra little, um, reluctance, I think, on the part of people that are, that are out there and really like doing, you know, principled work, um, to, uh, they’re very concerned about how they, how they sound.

And so for them, I think we take even greater pains too, um, You know, uh, sort of, uh, fill in the, the, the strategy when it comes to things like brand tone of voice. And, uh, we get a little more prescriptive, about the stories they can tell and how to inject a little bit more fun and play and humility into, into their content.

Wonderful, Shannon. You know, and before I let you go, you know, first of all, thank you so much, you know, but before I let you go, you know, I want to play a quick rapid fire with you. I hope you’re game for it.

Sure. Let’s do it.

Yeah. Great. Uh, now, since what we have in your background, I cannot stop myself from asking you this, you know, your favorite book?

My favorite book.

We see a lot. We see a lot of them in your background. Yeah.

I don’t know. I always come back to, um, I always come back to, like, classics. Weathering Heights is one of my very favorites. That was one of the, like, first real grown-up books I ever read, and I read it every couple of years. Uh-huh? I wrote, my thesis back in, uh, um, in school on, on Michael Ondaatje. So, I will say In the Skin of a Lion is one of my very, very favorite books.

Great. Uh, what did you do with your first? Paycheck.

My first paycheck, boy, um, well, I mean, I delivered newspapers. I don’t know if I got a paycheck for that.

I probably bought some candy. I used to like that pink candy corn. I’m going to guess that.

Super. And you know, let’s say if we were to make a movie on you, right, what genre would it be? Say that again? what? If, if we were to make a movie about you. Okay. Movie. Yeah. What genre would it be?

Oh, comedy for sure.

I could have imagined that.

Yeah. Maybe a tragic comedy. I don’t know.

Why do we add the word tragic to that? This comedy was fine.

Comedy is fine. Yeah.

Yeah. And, uh, where do we find you on, uh, weekends or let’s say Friday evenings? Post work.

Sure. Um, I have lately been found playing Zelda with my 12-year-old son or we jump on the trampoline outside a lot. We’re pretty home-bodied. So definitely at home trampoline. Okay.

Great. Okay. Last one. And I’m not going any further beyond this. What do you like the most about, you know, your job or your office or, you know, this industry at large, you can answer any one of them.

I love my team so much. Um, yeah, I’m so, so grateful as I was saying, we worked in, I worked in corporate for a long time and I worked for some fantastic people, but I worked for some jerks too, and when I started my company, I had a no jerks policy—not working with any jerks, not hiring any jerks, not, like, working for jerky clients. And I am like, I’m so lucky. I, I just, I genuinely, uh, admire and love, um, everyone I work with on my team. And, my client roster is just full of some incredible people. So I just learned something from somebody just about every day. Really.

That’s wonderful. And before we kind of, you know, wrap it up, Shannon, uh, you know, people who are listening to us, uh, today, if they want to reach out to you, how do they do that?

You can reach me just at Shannon at Forge and Spark. com. Um, yep, We’re online. I’m happy to chat. Just reach out.

Shannon, thank you so much, you know, for taking out time and doing this podcast with us. And I’m sure our audiences would have benefited a lot from what they heard from you, you know, and yeah, It’s an absolute pleasure hosting you tonight.

Oh, it was a pleasure to talk to you, too. Thank you very much for the invitation. It was lovely. Thank you.



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