Rising Stars Winner Ashley Callahan on Taking a “Playful” Approach to Content Marketing

Ashley CallahanWe caught up with new Rising Stars Winner Ashley Callahan, who runs PR and Content Strategy for Chick-fil-A, to discuss what it takes to step up your content game and how self-help books and user data lead to better marketing.

OB: In our previous conversation, you said that one of the biggest misconceptions in content marketing is that it pretty much just means blogging. What do think it will take for more marketers to see content marketing differently and approach it with a more holistic view?

AC: I think the perception is changing as content marketing has become more sophisticated both in the quality of content produced and the platforms that host it. People are inundated with all kinds of messages. What people are craving is unique, quality content. People want to see quality articles, authored and created by credible people. Blogs are great in their own right, as people use them to share their lives and their experiences. But anyone with a computer can create a blog. That said, I think it would be inaccurate to call a rich, multimedia publishing site hosting high-quality content from dozens of contributors—including Emmy award-winning journalists—a blog, which is more commonly the name for a first-person, opinion-style online narrative.

I have a mentor who’s been known for saying, “data beats politics.” As I’ve continued to grow in my career, I’ve found that to be more than just a line. It used to be easy to discount digital marketing and communications as your “plus one.” It was an afterthought tacked on to the end of a marketing plan. Digital jobs were for the intern or the social media person… but as social listening platforms, data, and analytics tools, as well as personalized delivery platforms and distribution models have grown and evolved, so has the perception of the work. It’s the only area of marketing where the customer can interface with the brand directly; not only that, it’s by far the most measurable and a great testing ground and determiner as to whether new concepts are going to take off. It’s now an invaluable tool to marketers and communicators in supporting the business.

OB: Speaking of holistic views – I know quite a few people who have either read or are reading Marie Kondo’s books (“The Life-Changing Magic of Cleaning Up” and “Spark Joy”) and are really affected by them. This idea of eliminating the clutter in our lives and instead holding on to the things that bring us the most joy has really resonated. It seems just as applicable to our professional lives as it does our personal lives. Do you think marketers could benefit from this kind of outlook in some way? Either as it applies to their customers or their approach to their own jobs? Is it something you’ve considered personally or professionally?

AC: Well if it weren’t for Ms. Kondo, I would still be folding my clothes all wrong! I think the fact that a self-help book on simplifying and de-cluttering is a number one New York Times Best Seller speaks volumes about where people are mentally. We live in a busy world where it’s become increasingly difficult to be still and fully present in the moment. Suddenly the words “intentional” and “purposeful” are the more common adjectives being used to describe not only our work approaches but strategies to living life. Many are seeking to find simplicity and balance. How many times do you go out to a restaurant and place your cell phone on the table? Or observe families that aren’t even having conversations with each other because they’re otherwise preoccupied with glowing screens?

Marketers benefit when they understand the consumer’s current frame of mind. I believe that’s the same reason Chick-fil-A’s Cellphone Challenge —where customers are encouraged to put down their phones for dinner—  has been incredibly popular and received so much media attention. At times, people are overwhelmed by technology. They want someone to say, “It’s OK to put it down. You don’t have to do it all the time.” Understanding that mindset and providing a counterculture alternative is the genius of one of our restaurant operators and highlights why marketers benefit from understanding this simplify movement.

OB: I read  recently about the Cell Phone Challenge and that there’s even a “cell phone coop” where customers can store their phones during their meal.  Seems like a big social idea around staying connected to our physical world and the people around us, when it’s so easy to look at our screens every 5 seconds. Do you plan to support it with content? 

AC: It’s an idea we’ve been supporting both operationally and through content. Because we’re one of the few quick-service restaurant chains that’s not open seven days a week, we produce a lot of service content. This is content that serves the reader with ideas they can put into practice in the physical world—so anything from chef-created recipes you can make at home (or on Sunday when we’re closed), to simple, affordable decorating tips from our designers, to dinner conversation starters and ideas for sharing meaningful moments with your children. In regards to the Cell Phone Coop—we’ve shared the backstory on Inside Chick-fil-A on how that came to be, but otherwise I think too much digital content here would undermine the whole premise (you’ll have to read the story to find out why!).

OB: You joined Chick-fil-A from Coca-Cola. What did you learn in your time managing Coca-Cola’s content strategy that’s informing your approach to Chick-fil-A’s content marketing? Is there any benefit to both companies being based in Atlanta and, therefore, part of the same local marketing community?

AC: My time spent at Coca-Cola taught me more than I’m likely to be able to articulate. I worked on an amazing, leading-edge project with really smart people. While I arrived at Coke with a strong foundation for storytelling and video production, what I learned at Coke was to speak up, dream big and experiment often. My approach evolved from spending the majority of time on content production to thinking big picture about how to best incorporate analytics practices and form a proactive distribution model. That still informs how I approach the work today at Chick-fil-A. Chick-fil-A has allowed me to expand upon that experience and create an entirely unique, thoughtful and even playful approach to the way we produce content here. Once again, I’m working with really smart people using sophisticated tools towards a goal to deliver digital customer experiences that are as personal as our restaurants.

For me there is great benefit to Chick-fil-A and Coca-Cola being based in Atlanta—it’s my home. Both companies are raised in the American South, and that’s reflected in the hospitable, quality products and moments they continually create. But more than that, they’re incredible, recognized brands that have been doing business together for a long time. While southern culture and food are having their moment in the spotlight, I think it goes without question that both Coca-Cola and Chick-fil-A are sustainable, highly-regarded brands with global appeal and bright futures. They’re local in address and, at the same time, part of a much larger global community. I work five minutes from Hartsfield-Jackson airport where you can pretty much fly directly to almost anywhere in the world—it makes a difference. It makes us a global community as well as a local one. So yes, it’s a benefit and great to see these companies sharing their learnings and expertise throughout the Atlanta marketing community, but also representing Atlanta in marketing communities around the world.

OB: What is the most interesting content distribution opportunity you think marketers should consider these days? A lot of marketers probably see the “marketing” half of the content marketing equation as kind of a chore, where you’re just sort of going down a list and checking the boxes – a little bit of social, a little bit of e-mail, a little bit of paid, etc. Is there anything you would encourage marketers to do to mix things up a bit more and really make a splash with their content?

AC: If storytelling and content marketing were the buzzwords from a few years back, I think distribution is the new one. Once you produce content, how do you get it in front of people and differentiate it from all the surrounding noise? While I don’t think there is “a most interesting” opportunity, I can tell you at the moment I am personally most interested in how to make our owned property and digital real estate work harder. We have millions of users come to the site each month, so we should do something with that information and provide a top notch experience for the folks seeking us out. The tools are really customizable now and allow us to think through the paths people are taking to and throughout the site. There doesn’t have to be one-size–fits-all homepage anymore. We can tailor what the reader sees based on his or her interests, location, familiarity with the brand, etc. That’s what I’m most excited about. Otherwise, I appreciate the distribution mix of paid, e-mail, social, etc. Rather than check off each channel in the form of a to-do list, I look forward to seeing what performs well and where it had an impact; then I’m challenged to do it all over again. I would say the mix is important, but that it’s easy to overlook the more obvious opportunities like optimizing your site or using Facebook to share stories—those can pay off in dividends! And of course, what would we do without Outbrain?

OB: Data is certainly an area that can be tough for marketers to get their arms around–customer data, behavioral data, Big Data, little data… what role does data play in your content strategy and what advice would give marketers struggling to act on the data they have access to?

AC: It’s everything. Combining customer and behavioral data is incredibly powerful in tailoring people’s experiences with a brand and creating a personalized experience through technology.  It’s who I’m trying to reach. It’s who I’m currently reaching. It tells me what’s working and what needs to be adjusted. I can see not only how many people engaged with a piece of content, but where they came from geographically, how they came to find the content, what time they came, whether they stayed to read it and the number of times they’ve been to the site. Using data helps me understand what to publish and the best place and time to deliver each piece of content.

My model has been to focus on creating exceptional content, then distributing it and analyzing it to determine whether we should produce more, move on to another approach or change topics entirely.

OB: What is your biggest priority for 2016 and why? How do you plan to keep yourself on task and evaluate how you’re doing throughout the year?

AC: My biggest priority this year is relaunching our company’s flagship website as a completely new digital experience. It’s a project I’ve been focused on for several months. I work with a great cross-functional team where we hold each other accountable. We have a tight timeline we adhere to and because this project is our priority, everything else is secondary. Each day, I can look at that timeline and see what needs to be accomplished in order to hit our deadlines. Fortunately, I’m employed by a company and work on a team where I’m well resourced and encouraged to prioritize and pushback on tasks and distractions that could jeopardize the project. Back to simplifying, right?

For updates on #OubtrainRisingStars 2016, make sure to follow Outbrain on Twitter.

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