Katie Ryan

VP of Content at Okta

Katie Ryan 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 off with a small introduction? 

I didn't start in content marketing at all. I was actually a working journalist for quite some time, like boots on the ground. I covered school boards, town hall meetings, courts, crime, you name it - real small town life. And one of the things I learned very quickly is that there's never a slow day in the news business. The pace of that was really attractive to me and when the news business started to contract and, as we all know, the industry has gone through a tremendous amount of change. I was really surprised at how many brands both B2C and B2B were really looking for that competency, that ability to tell a story, but also to tell a story quickly and efficiently and at scale. 

It seemed kind of like a natural transition. My first bridge from journalism to content marketing was at a hyper local news startup that was trying to bring, local news across the country. I got bitten by the startup bug there. I loved being given really ambiguous problems to solve, one where there wasn't an easy or obvious answer. That has really been where I have stayed since then, and that was in 2009. Since 2009 I've been working almost exclusively in high growth startups, give or take. But that's where I find I get the most energy. I love building content teams from scratch. Assembling really talented people and giving them a positive and encouraging place to work and be creative is an honor. I mean, it's just really lucky that I'm able to do that. 

2. What got into this space? Was that more of an accident followed by one more question. What would be your couple of takeaways for somebody who's starting off as a content marketer? 

In journalism, you are fundamentally trying to solve a story problem every day. You are trying to figure out if you have enough and the correct information to tell a story that will be publishable. In content marketing, you have that same problem, but then you have the additional problem of doing all of that in a business context. So you have to really 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. 

My undergraduate major was actually business. It was kind of just a fluke. I just thought it seemed quite practical at the time. I wouldn't say I had a particular passion for it, but it seemed like a no lose situation to make your own business. What I found I was circling back to that, I was actually pretty fascinated by how you could leverage storytelling to solve a business problem. I think that's the key is you're telling a story, but you're trying to tell a story in a very specific way that a company can derive value from. The key 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?

Yes, I have a tremendous amount of thoughts on this. I think about it every day. 

There's many ways to tackle it. You can think of yourself as a content marketing team as you're embedding into the strategy of another team. Let's take financial creation for example. They're going to have a pipeline goal and they're going to live or die by that pipeline goal. So I view it as really powerful for the business if I can lock into and share that KPI and become one team. So my best is not separate from your success. That is hugely beneficial for the business. Now that's not the only thing that content marketers do, right? So they're not just doing demand generation, they're here working with the global comms team or they have organic social or maybe they have a whole scaled SEO project that they're working on, those completely separate KPIs. Where you're looking at engagement, you're looking at engagement rates, you're looking at earned media metrics. 

So I think the fundamental challenge for a content marketing leader specifically, is how do you marry all of these metrics together to tell a coherent story back to the business? I think ultimately, the problem that we have to solve is articulating the totality of the engagement that we are creating for the entire business. And when I crack that and do it perfectly, it will be a very happy day for me. But we keep pushing at it, and we keep finding newer and better ways to tell that complete story. But it truly starts with you understanding that fundamentally great content is a team sport and we do it together. 

4. There has been a lot of debate going on in terms of the quality versus quantity of content. Which side of things are you leaning in? 

Great question. Quality is the standard cost of entry now. The contest bar is just so high that I think if people think that it is this binary choice of quality versus quantity, they are kind of losing before they're starting. Now, having said all that, that quality is the cost of entry, there are times where scale and quantity is critical. Particularly for businesses that are coming at content from a little bit of a deficit. I read somewhere that we're consuming digital media to the tune of 13 hours a day as individuals. There just has to be a certain level of scale to break through that. You can't just dip your toe in and dip your toe out occasionally. You have to have a consistent plan or consistent drum beat. I don't think that has to be like 30 articles a month for your blog, there's no set number. It's going to be very dependent on the company. But, yes, you do have to kind of have that repetition and that footprint. 

You'll know when you've hit it, because that's where you have the engagement, where you see people coming back, where you see people spending more time with your content, looking at your videos for a longer time or your newsletter. Click through rates are picking up a little bit higher. Where you see that smoke. Just keep applying a little bit of the experiment there. That's always a good policy.

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. Not a specific niche skill set where they can only do that one thing because you just never know the changes that you're going to have to encounter in the course of business. So whatever successes I have had has truly been where I've hired people who just like solving content problems. 

If you make it very intentional to hire those really thoughtful people, you almost can't miss. And they come from a wide variety of backgrounds. I've had people who have been broadcast journalists, print journalists, people who have worked at girls schools in Rwanda, people who have done classic SEO at scale. I've worked with people who have MFAs and creative writing. I think it's assembling that great team is probably the biggest secret of all and it's also the most fun. Right? Who doesn't love to hire, train, motivate, work alongside really smart, wonderful people? 

If your appetite for content marketing and your need for content marketing currently exceeds your ability to assemble that inhouse team, (content marketing) tools can give you leverage. And leverage, as we all know, 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 being able to tell stories. I think that most companies do not invest enough in co-creating great storytelling with their customers. I think that your customers are out there on the front lines trying to solve really critical business problems. And oftentimes companies go in at a level of altitude that surprises me. 

When you're talking about the full buyer journey, the place and time where people are not even aware that they have a problem, let alone that there is a solution, then that solution belongs to your company. That is where you can build a lifetime of brand loyalty and action. And 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. So I lean on my journalism background all the time because that is literally what I was taught to do. Forget the notebook, forget this press credential. We're just two humans talking. That is how you get people to open up to you in sometimes really difficult circumstances. So companies that can apply that level of empathetic storytelling are always going to be ahead of the competition. So that gets me excited. 

The big 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 really missing key opportunities to be more strategic, tell a better story, and improve that quality bar. 

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