Katie Ryan O’Connor

VP of Content at Okta

Katie Ryan O’Connor on Leveraging the Power of Storytelling to Boost Business Growth

In business, growth is all about finding new opportunities and ways to expand. Storytelling can be a powerful tool for helping businesses achieve this goal. By sharing stories about your brand, products, or services, you can connect with potential customers on a deeper level and inspire them to take action.

In a conversation with Prasad Shetty, Sr. Account Executive - North America at Pepper Content, Katie Ryan O'Connor, VP of Content at Okta sheds light on using storytelling to boost business growth.

Here are some excerpts. 

1. Can you please start with a small introduction? 

I was a journalist for quite some time. I covered school boards, town hall meetings, courts, crime, etc., and one of the things I learned is that there's never a slow day in the news business. The pace was attractive to me and when the news business started to contract, I was really surprised at how many B2C and B2B brands were looking for the competency and ability to tell a story quickly, efficiently, and at scale. 

It seemed like a natural transition. My first bridge from journalism to content marketing was at a hyper-local news startup where I got bitten by the startup bug. I loved being given ambiguous problems to solve, ones where there wasn't an easy or obvious answer. Since 2009 I've been working almost exclusively in high-growth startups. I love building content teams from scratch, assembling talented people, and giving them a positive and encouraging place to work and be creative at.

2. What got you into this space? What would be your takeaways for somebody who's starting as a content marketer? 

In journalism, you are fundamentally trying to solve a story problem and trying to figure out if you have enough and correct information to tell a story that will be publishable. In content marketing, you have that same problem, but you have to do everything in a business context. You have to toggle away from just being a storyteller, a gatherer of information, and a curator of stories and experiences, to understanding the business context of what you're trying to do. 

I was fascinated by how you could leverage storytelling to solve a business problem. The key is to tell a story, but try telling it in a specific way that a company can derive value from. The value that content marketers have in any business, whether it's a pizza shop or Salesforce, is to enlarge the pool of educated, engaged, and brand-aware potential. 

3. In terms of content marketing, what do you think are the key KRAs or goals of a content marketer?

Think of yourself as a content marketing team as you're embedding into the strategy of another team. Locking into and sharing KPIs and becoming one team can be beneficial for the business. But content marketers deal with demand generation, engagement rates, earned media metrics, organic social, etc. They must work with the global comms team or have a whole-scaled SEO project. 

The fundamental challenge for a content marketing leader is marrying multiple metrics together to tell a coherent story back to the business. Ultimately, the problem that we have to solve is articulating the totality of the engagement that we are creating for the entire business. We keep pushing at it and finding newer, better ways to tell that complete story. It starts with understanding that fundamentally great content is a team sport.

4. What's your take on the debate between the quality and quantity of content? 

Quality is the standard cost of entry now. The contest bar is so high that if people think of quality versus quantity as a binary choice, they are losing before they even start. That being said, there are times when scale and quantity are critical, particularly for businesses that are coming at content from a deficit. There just has to be a certain level of scale and you can't just dip your toe in and out occasionally. You should have a consistent plan or drumbeat which can depend on the company. 

You'll know when you've hit it because that's where you have the engagement and the click-through rates pick up. That's where you see people coming back, spending time with your content, and looking at your videos or your newsletter. Where you see that smoke, keep experimenting. 

5. Do you have a secret sauce for success in content marketing?  

The one secret sauce and advice that I've given out a lot is to hire people who want to solve content problems, and not a specific niche skill set where they can only do one thing because you never know the changes that you might encounter in the course of business. 

If you make it intentional to hire those thoughtful people, you almost can't miss it. I've had people who have been broadcast and print journalists, people who have worked at girls' schools in Rwanda doing classic SEO at scale, and who have MFAs in creative writing. Assembling a great team is the biggest secret of all and it's also the most fun. Who doesn't love to hire, train, motivate, and work alongside smart, wonderful people?

If your current appetite and need for content marketing exceeds your ability to assemble an in-house team, (content marketing) tools can give you leverage. And leverage is one of the most strategic things you can employ in almost any business problem.

6. What is that one thing that you love about content marketing and one other thing that you get tired of? 

I love telling stories. Most companies do not invest enough in co-creating great storytelling with their customers. When you're talking about the full buyer journey, the place and time where people are not even aware of a problem or solution, that is where companies can build a lifetime of brand loyalty and action. It starts with being curious, empathetic, and putting yourself out there. Forget about my world. Tell me about your world and that is one of the most powerful things that we do as humans, let alone as content marketers.

Companies that can apply a level of empathetic storytelling are always going to stay ahead of the competition. 

The challenge is when people view the content marketing team as a fulfillment function. If that is the sole way that you're interacting with your content marketing team, whether it's internal or an agency, you're missing key opportunities to be more strategic, tell a better story, and improve that quality bar. 

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