Everything in Its Right Place: An Interview with Ahava Leibtag

These days, it seems that nothing’s more hotly contested than the role of content within our organizations: content is the brand, content is conversation, content is king. It’s a confusing landscape even for content strategists, those of us who specialize in the stuff! And that’s what makes Ahava Leibtag’s new book so special: Ahava takes the problem of “crafting good content” head on.

In addition to being President and owner of Aha Media Group, Ahava Leibtag is a content expert, focusing on content marketing and strategy. In her recent book, The Digital Crown, Ahava provides a whirlwind of brand and messaging best practices, examples of successful persona creation and messaging architecture, and even shares advice on how to present content strategy to C-level execs.

After reading the first chapter (free!) of The Digital Crown, we were keen to interview Ahava and get a deeper understanding of her motivations and influences in bringing this book to content marketers and content strategists. Join us as we learn from Ahava’s experience—and then find out how you can get a free copy of The Digital Crown!

You begin your book by comparing a website to a conversation, a comparison that author Ginny Reddish also made in her classic, “Letting Go of the Words.” —
The idea of content as a conversation definitely came from Ginny, although it was also shaped by The Cluetrain Manifesto’s conception of the Web as vast marketplace.

Another one of the guiding principles I advocate in the book is aligning your content with your business objectives. I know that seems obvious and most organizations think they are doing it, but oftentimes they aren’t. Instead, they’re creating content to satisfy stakeholders (rather than customers).

Thinking about content as a conversation between the brand and an audience gives businesses a pragmatic framework.

What other books and ideas inspired you as you wrote The Digital Crown?
Other books that were very inspirational to me were Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson, many of Gerry McGovern’s ideas, and Switch by Dan and Chip Heath. Kristina’s book is foundational; it covers a lot of the details of how to do content strategy; Gerry really wants us to focus on our customers (something I also stress in the book); and Switch spoke to me because, so often, content professionals are tasked with shaping organizational change.

One of the things I write in the book is, “In essence, a company has to experience a cultural shift in order to create outstanding, winning content. Shifts only happen with guiding principles and support.” I learned more about how to do that from reading Switch and I think it’s critical for any content professional—whether in-house or at an agency—to understand how to suggest those changes for organizations.

In one of your examples you discuss the infamous “United Breaks Guitars” video, a shining example of a conversation in which a company lost control. Many companies are criticized for being too controlling of the brand (and losing valuable free advertising), however, such as when Microsoft sued a fan for getting a tattoo of a Halo character. How do companies find the right balance?
Businesses need to decide when to get involved based on risk assessment. We can measure damage in the past, but it’s a lot harder to measure the positives that might have been. (That’s why it’s a good idea to have post-mortems after things like this!)

Strong businesses develop a matrix—something unique to their company—for when and how to should get involved. I also think companies think “control” means directing the conversation, but control can also mean just letting fans know that you are watching, letting people know that you care.

Brand consistency is a very hot topic addressed in your book. What recommendations do you have for companies whose brand is shifting, if the current employees don’t exemplify the new brand?
Brand training. Training is critically important. It’s also important to have employees on the front lines—what about making them do a shift in the call center or going out to the retail stores to learn what is going on?

Being in touch with the customer is vital. In chapter one I tell the story of Brian, a salesperson who initially sells products really well because he focuses on customers. When he goes to product training, though, he starts focusing on products and soon learns he can’t sell a thing because he’s shifted his focus from what the customer needs to what he’s trying to sell.

If all else fails, I think companies are right to change employees, especially when those employees don’t get the brand personality. Let the employee find a job better for them and let the company fulfill its goals. J.C. Penney is the perfect example of this: they hired the wrong CEO, their profits dropped precipitously, and they got rid of him. Right decision. I hope it doesn’t sound ruthless. At the end of the day, employees are paid to do what the company needs them to do.

I love that you compare a brand to a promise. What should a company take into consideration when choosing the right “promise” to make?
Three things:

  • Can employees actually deliver it?
  • Do they truly believe in it?
  • And can they easily communicate what it is to everyone in the organization?
Marshall McLuhan famously suggested that the “medium is the message.” How do you think that relates to the work that we do? Does crafting a unique brand—or a unique message—require crafting our own medium?
I actually cover this exact phrase later in the book, but think it’s the other way around—every unique medium means we need to tweak the messaging. For example, visual content does really well on Facebook because it shows up in the news feed. On Twitter, providing a link to a picture may or may not do well considering how well the link is teased and if people feel like clicking on the link.

Our job is to make sure that content is fueling the sales process (or the achievement threshold: increasing donors, patients, students, public health downloads etc.) I’m not sure how we would craft our own medium, but I do think we need to choose content formats wisely so they appeal to the right audiences in the right place at the right time when they are primed to buy or listen.

Last question! Many companies struggle with the gap between “how they’re perceived” and “how they want to be perceived.” How do you recommend companies deal with this gap?
I have an entire exercise called identity pillars and articulation statements that comprises the bulk of Chapter 7, called Framing your Content. I talk about how to create identity pillars (a tool I created for just this type of brand management), messaging architecture and voice & tone. When you have those three tools, as well as your customer personas fleshed out, you’re ready to start creating some killer content that will convert your web traffic into customers.

Many thanks, again, to Ahava for sharing her insights with us! If you have a question that wasn’t answered above, feel free to ask it in the comments below.

Want to win a copy?

Interested readers can pre-order a copy of Ahava’s book, The Digital Crown: Winning at Content on the Web, on Amazon.com. If you’d rather just win a copy, though (and who wouldn’t?), simply like Ahava’s Facebook page and you’ll be entered in a weekly raffle!

About the Author

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a love of education and games. Her work spans game design, web applications, and mobile. Marli can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on UX Design, literature, and Muppets.

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