Alicia Johnston AMA: The intersection of content and communications

Jimmy Daly
September 21, 2020

Alicia Johnston is the Senior Manager of Content & Communications at Sprout Social. Over last five years, she's worked at the intersection of content, communications and PR. During that time, Sprout Social has evolved from startup to publicly-traded company.

In our second-ever AMA, Alicia answered questions about diversity in marketing, her own career growth, building an employer brand, collaborating with product marketing and so much more.

You follow follow Alicia on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn. We'll be doing more of these. To participate in realtime, join our free Slack group.

How are you incorporating diversity in your marketing and your marketing team?

Alicia: One of our core values at Sprout is to champion diversity, equity and inclusion, and that is woven into our culture, hiring and operations. It’s something our whole marketing team considers when sourcing event speakers, researching interviewees for thought leadership pieces, finding social and brand examples for our posts, selecting vendors, etc. For some content inspiration, I wanted to share these great questions that Kerri Pang, the Lead Video Producer at Sprout, recently shared during a presentation on customer storytelling.

We need to proactively seek out and prioritize diversity in marketing—especially in tech. When we don’t, it’s easy to fall prey to good intentions with nothing to show for them. One thing we do is try to bring different perspectives and underrepresented voices into our brainstorms and content planning. We’ve worked with employees from different departments as well as people who are part of our Business Resource Groups (e.g. Black at Sprout, Women@Sprout, etc.) to co-create content that supports our marketing efforts, and to help facilitate their goals as well. This is beneficial in multiple ways!

I also think it’s really important to report back on performance, just like you would any other marketing effort. I share the results of our efforts with my stakeholders on marketing but also with any of the other groups like network partners, the People Team or BRG leaders that work with us. Knowing something is the right thing to do is a good start, but when you align your investment in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion with the success of your marketing efforts...fireworks.

In terms of the marketing team, recruiting and retention are major pieces of DEI, including sourcing, mentorship and career investment. One example mentioned in our 2020 DEI Report is a sourcing pilot program we’re doing to expand and diversify our networks, focusing on BIPOC marketers. As part of this program, I’ve identified 10 people I’d like to connect with and started setting up conversations with people with skills we might be looking for in the future. These conversations have been a lot of fun and surfaced some great, mutually beneficial opportunities! This is a great place to partner with your recruiting or people team, but you can also start your own solo “pilot program” to build and diversify your network, share opportunities and set yourself up for hiring success in the future.

How do you encourage a client to go deeper into their brand voice, a commit to it?

My clients often have a very weak idea of what their brand is. They have a font, colours, rules about logo resizing - But nothing on their voice and the audience they are talking. Every month their audience is different.

How can I get them to understand the importance of speaking with one voice, to one audience for a long period of time?

Alicia: That’s a great question! A few thoughts…first, I’d bring research on the value of building a brand—I don’t have this on hand but there are some great stats out there on the ROI of brand and creating recall among customers.

Second, I’d approach this with a curious mindset. Ask them questions about why their audience is changing and really try to get to the heart of what’s happening in their business that creates this inconsistency.

Then, are you looking for them to set the voice or is developing it something that you could take the lead on? I’m doing this with a nonprofit right now and it is definitely a case of lots of education and getting buy-in from non-marketers, but when we get to that moment of agreement and realization…it’s fantastic!

I’ve been using Sprout Social recently for some blog inspiration! you have multiple levels for content- Insights, Resources, Case Studies, training, etc.

Can you tell a little bit about your strategy for deciding where content goes and where you find it’s most effective?

Alicia: In terms of where content goes, once we have a topic or idea, we riff on what people would most want to know or do in relation to this topic. That makes it a pretty easy process to decide if an informative article, interactive worksheet, customer story or fiery op-ed is the best approach (or a combination of all of them that support each other). We do have output goals for different types of content, like gated content, blog articles, case studies etc. so we also make sure that each quarterly editorial plan is set up to help us accomplish those.

How does your team work with Sprout’s product marketing team? Where are the lines of responsibility drawn?

Alicia: We started working with PMK more this year and it’s something I’d love to keep expanding in the future. Right now there are a few main ways:

  • We join go-to-marketing planning to determine the content strategy, audit what we already have (we have so much existing content so there are often opportunities for updates) and develop a plan for what to create.
  • A member of the PMK team joins our quarterly content brainstorms and sits in our monthly content update meetings, so we’re always seeking out that perspective and weaving it into consideration and decision-stage content. Our team writes these pieces, and then the product marketing manager for that area will review them and give feedback.
  • We share priorities between PMK, sales enablement and content, and our team weaves those into our case study and customer storytelling plans to ensure we’re creating collateral that tells interesting stories for a variety of customer use cases.

From a responsibility standpoint, PMK and our tech comms writer create things like product launch announcements, all of the Help Center content, key messages, etc. Our team develops decision-stage content for our blog and case studies, then works with sales enablement to share those out with the sales team.

As a social media tool, do you think differently about how you do marketing over social?

Alicia: Yes, absolutely. Our social presence is very meta in that way! But, a lot of what we do reflects the same best practices we’d recommend to other brands: focus on engagement, be creative, represent diverse perspectives, ensure your paid and organic efforts work together…but all with the recognition that our community’s eyes are on us to demonstrate interesting, different and hopefully industry-leading social efforts.

I think the most important part of this is actually internal. Our social team members are marketers first, and social media experts second. They create and lead marketing-wide campaigns, they are brought in at the outset of planning for any major marketing effort, and they share their data back with the creative, content and demand gen teams so we can maximize our efforts.

One other thing that is incredible as a content marketing is their analyses--they use our social listening tool to evaluate things like brand messaging, content themes, audience trends, etc. and they report that back to the marketing and sales orgs. That’s another internal piece, but it reflects how deeply social is woven into our business as a whole.

Would love to hear more about your intersection of content and PR — we also combine these at Quorum, and I’d love to know how you balance the two, what your ideal team makeup would be for those functions, how your make the case for brand-focused content that may not hit SEO or other sales quant benchmarks.

Alicia: Definitely! There are a lot of good questions to unpack here.

  1. Content and PR balance: I’m not personally leading our PR efforts anymore, but I got into content via PR—when I was focused there, I would create a quarterly data report as thought leadership content to pitch, and I would write or edit media bylines as needed. When we went through a restructure in 2018, I moved into a content (and internal comms) role. Having that PR background helps me identify and advocate for ideas that will support both content + PR goals. From there, I err on the side of overcommunication and so does our PR lead, and that presents a lot of opportunities to maximize our resources. A lot of our content can serve two or more goals, so we try to ensure we have a healthy mix of content to support the awareness efforts of PR and social as well as our content marketing and acquisition goals.
  2. Ideal team makeup: I love our makeup now, which is two separate but closely-collaborating teams under the overall “Buzz Team” (content, comms, PR, social, events)! If I were on a smaller team, it would depend on overall marketing goals and where the company was in terms of market share and brand awareness. I’d want to handle content in-house and have a second person in a more cross-functional comms role (PR, internal, speaking, etc), likely managing an external PR agency. This gives content the ability to build close ties with demand gen, sales, success and other internal teams with no gatekeepers; whereas a PR has a major external influence—media—and is often focused on telling your brand’s high level stories. Owning media relationships and keeping a pulse on that giant ecosystem is something a strong agency can do for you if you want your internal team to focus on PR strategy, working with exec stakeholders, etc. But, that team structure is also based on my strengths/interests so it might be the opposite for others!
  3. Making the case for non-SEO content: I’m lucky here, for two reasons: 1, I sit on the “Buzz” team which is primarily focused on brand awareness and perception; 2, as a social media software company, we place a huge value on our social presence. So the metrics we look at aren’t solely acquisition-focused but also measured by things like supporting PR (media placements, target placements, impressions) and our social efforts (impressions, engagements, and so forth).

Every piece of content has a specific goal and different dimensions of performance based on that—for example, I’m not expecting a 500-word op-ed to be an SEO slam dunk, but I am expecting it to drive social engagements and impressions because it gets people talking and sharing. I think it’s a combo of educating your stakeholders on different opportunities that content can contribute to, and constantly reporting back your results and learnings. Even positioning something as an experiment or a short-term test with an end date can help ease exec discomfort if you’re branching outside of business as usual.

Hey Alicia, 3 questions (if I can!):

  1. Tell me more about building an employer brand! What are some of your big wins or pitfalls you'd recommend to avoid?
  2. What do you love about working at Sprout?
  3. What are some of Sprout's biggest areas of opportunities when it comes to content and comms? How can/does performance marketing support you there?

Alright, upon review, that was like five questions.

Alicia: Yes! Let’s go one by one.

Building an employer brand: Employer brand is a really cool discipline, because to be an expert in employer brand, you need to have an understanding of all aspects of communication and branding—storytelling, building relationships, PR, content, social, copywriting—and be able to build a marketing strategy based on recruiting goals. It also requires a close partnership with the recruiting team and for us, our video and social teams as well.

I think some of the biggest wins are getting your employees involved. You’re never building an employer brand alone--actually, marketing is following on the coattails of what your employees are already out there saying to their friends and family. Our team members are constantly planning events, sharing photos of team outings (well, in pre-COVID days, now they are mostly screenshots of virtual events!) and mentioning Sprout in their social posts. All of that content can help you understand what your target audience (ideal candidates) see as your employer value prop and differentiators, and you can run with some really creative ideas from there.

Pitfalls--not starting with your recruiting strategy. Being too restrictive about what employees can share, or, on the flip side, not giving any guidance at all.

What I love about Sprout: I could go on forever but it boils down to constant learning, a team that cares deeply and people who are truly generous in spirit—always willing to share their expertise, not afraid to ask hard questions, and genuinely invested in the success of everyone on the team. I didn’t expect to stay at the same company for more than two years, but I lucked out!

Biggest opportunities: Right now we’re in an interesting place; Sprout is 10 years old and we’re really in a phase where we know what works and are focused on optimizing. I think our biggest opportunity is to lean into our differentiators and go big on brand to start reaching more of our adjacent audiences (e.g. not focusing our content only on SMMs and marketing leaders but creating more for customer care leaders, communications teams, etc.)

Performance marketing: Well…the best way performance marketing can support us right now is joining us! We have an open role for a Director of Performance Marketing so if anyone is interested, hmu.

Could you share what internal initiatives you lead/produce content for, and how that differs (in terms of tone/style) from your external outreach?

Alicia: My team leads content strategy for all of our owned content, working closely with our SEO team. That covers blog posts, guides, gated resources, case studies and working closely with social, PR and events, but those disciplines are also all creating content that’s tailored for their goals, too.

Our owned content is really focused on drawing people into, and through, the funnel. We create content ranging from the awareness stage down to decision stage, where we’re showing them exactly how to use Sprout to solve their social media challenges. Our PR team and agency lead earned content efforts like writing media bylines.

All content follows the same brand voice and tone, but content we’re writing for a media outlet would generally be an awareness piece where we’re introducing Sprout (who we are, what we believe) to our reader. So it presents more of our opinions, beliefs and values than some of the tactical or education we might focus more on in our blog.

Would you mind sharing your professional growth journey at Sprout over the last 5 years? I’m in a similar boat at my company and would love to hear about pivotal points in your growth and how you advocated to get there!

Alicia: Yes absolutely! I have been lucky to have a manager who is a great mentor and a very thoughtful leader--I’d be remiss not to mention that she is a key factor in my growth over the years.

I started as a communications generalist; I had a couple years of nonprofit and freelance/blogging experience but it was an entry-level role doing some PR support, supporting speaking, award submissions, employer brand…and Sprout was small so I also helped the social team and wrote SEO blog posts. Really anything that came my way.

From there I moved into a role leading our PR and managing our agency. Then, Sprout kept growing and I added internal communications (so kind of a corp comms role). We hired someone else to take over PR, and I moved to internal comms and specifically thought leadership content. Then we hired an IC lead right before our IPO (thank goodness) and I moved to focus solely on content.

My main pivotal points/tips would be:

  • Stay open to opportunities. I originally thought I wanted to stay in corporate comms and it was my boss who asked me to shift focus entirely to content. She saw something I didn’t, and she was right.
  • Ask a ton of questions. There is no stupid question. I am constantly asking people on other teams how they pulled a certain report, how they made a decision, etc. These can help you grow, and help you improve your own reporting on performance in order to make a case for growth/new positions.
  • Talk to other people in the industry. Truly, this group has been incredible this year. I have met so many smart people and I love reading perspective from this group. Thank you, @Jimmy Daly!

I feel like I should say more about the self-advocacy piece but I’m seeing a ton of q’s come in, so let me save this one and come back to you more later!

Can you tell us a bit more about how do you go about finding subject matter experts or subject matter quotes for your content?

YES! I made you a list for this one, here’s my toolkit. These are my typical go-to’s for subject matter expertise:

  1. Our marketing team: Because we market to marketers, our team has a lot of expertise and opinions we can incorporate...and most people love to be consulted and positioned as a thought leader!
  2. Other departments at Sprout: Our customer success and sales teams in particular have a lot of vertical-specific expertise and insight into our customers; our creative team is a wealth of insight.
  3. Our Agency Partners: We have an Agency Partner Program where agencies that use Sprout can also access exclusive resources, educational content, templates and opportunities to collaborate on content. They work with so many different clients that this is a great pool to tap for expert quotes.
  4. Our customers: Same deal here—I love to speak with our customers and listen to Gong calls to identify standout content collaborators to tap.
  5. Our social community: Not surprisingly, there is a thriving community of marketers and social media managers on social. We work with our social and community teams to use features like Twitter and Instagram Polls to weigh in or get data points for content, to pose questions to our community and to source SMEs for quotes.
  6. My network, specifically Twitter: I follow a ton of social media experts and try to intentionally cultivate relationships with a diverse group of marketers. I’m not above cold outreach when I think someone is incredible and I want to interview them!
  7. HARO: HARO is a tool that I only use when I need really specific expertise outside of our core areas; for example, my team member used HARO to connect with a psychiatrist for a blog post about creating psychological safety at work.

How you balance proven ROI-led content activities vs. more ‘experimental’ bets (and how you measure success in both cases)? How far in advance you plan, and how much room for change do you leave in your & team’s schedule?

Alicia: Yes, I love these. And honestly the first question is a challenge I’m constantly presenting to myself, because when we’re doing a lot, it can be easy to just keep your head down and not make big experimental bets.

Generally, I try to bring opportunities to experiment into the day-to-day (e.g. if you don’t have time to create a huge piece of interactive content, what can you do to bring interactive elements into the blog posts you’re already writing?). That can create a proving ground, give an initial sense of performance by whatever dimension you need to measure, and lay the foundation for a bigger investment in the future. For larger projects, can you attach an experimental bet to a larger marketing campaign or project that will also receive “traditional” support? That way, you can pair it with content you know works for core metrics, while giving the team something exciting to rally behind. In terms of measuring success, it really depends on the goal of the effort but I’d want to have very clear goals and KPIs at the outset so we can assess progress as we go, iterate, and ultimately say whether this did what we thought it would.

Right now we plan quarterly and lay out a three month editorial calendar. That includes some placeholders for timely content, supporting new projects that arise, etc. We try to fill the calendar to about 80% of what we expect our capacity to be in order to flex. We moved to a much higher volume of publishing this year and candidly, this has been an adjustment and constantly learning for me! I’m used to shooting for the max, e.g. if our strategy calls for 15-20 pieces, I want to plan 20 and we’ll add on top of that. I’ve had to adjust my mentality to ensure that my team collectively has the time and creative wherewithal to not just meet what’s on the calendar but to riff, adapt and follow great ideas where they lead.

Since Sprout is geared more towards enterprise companies, do you work closely with the sales team? If so, what does that look like (any tips to share)?

Alicia: We actually are not only for enterprise! We do serve many enterprise customers, but our customer base actually ranges all the way from those shops to solo SMBs or local businesses.

However, to your question, I do work fairly closely with the sales team, but my main partners there are demand gen and sales enablement. A few things we do:

  • As part of content planning, we get feedback from the Sales and Customer Success teams. Either a couple people join our brainstorm or we send questions/prompts to them in advance.
  • I am part of a monthly meeting that we informally call the “sales empowerment team”--demand gen, product marketing, sales enablement, content and solutions engineering. We share visibility into priorities and workshop challenges.
  • I try to personally build relationships with sales managers so they know who to go to with ideas or interesting customers who’d be interested in a collaboration. I also have a workflow in Slack that sends a “content ideas form” to sales and success once a month.

There are a lot of other smaller touchpoints but I also can’t take credit for everything here--our demand gen team and sales enablement team handle a ton of things like regularly producing Content Digests for sales that include content, Outreach email templates and links to Showpad, our sales content platform. We try to make it as easy as possible for Sales to read, use and benefit from our content, and we report back on the results when they do!

These are a tiny bit outside of the realm of “content marketing” questions, but I’m curious due to your unique role at Sprout Social:

Is there anything interesting or unique about content marketing directed towards marketers? Are we a tougher or easier group to convince through content marketing?

Do you have a sense of how empowered social media/content marketers are at different companies based on content conversions at Sprout Social? Do individual contributor marketers subscribe directly or do conversions happen at a higher level (e.g. Head/Director/VP)?

Alicia: I love these questions. I’m going to answer as a two parter.

For marketing to marketers: There’s definitely a greater need for authenticity and subject matter expertise when you’re marketing to marketers. We know every trick in the book, so we can usually pick up on it when someone’s deploying them on us, and we can’t abide fluff. But one of the great things is that it also allows us to be perhaps a bit more conversational and use our content and voice to communicate, “Hey, we’re marketers too—we get it! We get you, and we’re in this together.”

Generally B2B buyers are making a bigger investment than your average B2C purchase, so there’s a greater focus on ROI and cost efficiency from your software. The sales cycles are longer so you need to have more touchpoints, and more types of content that can speak to what a buyer needs at each phase of their journey.

Empowerment: I have so much to say on the topic of empowering social marketers as a whole. But in terms of seeing this via conversions, that’s an interesting question! We offer a free 30-day trial that doesn’t require a credit card--so there is really no barrier to entry. We have more than 20k customers, from a one-person small business to a global enterprise, so a lot of different folks are evaluating Sprout, downloading our content and starting free trials.

But when it comes to the decision-making process and actually buying, that can range from a single decision-maker to a global, enterprise-wide team. From a content standpoint, that means it’s important that we speak to the end user (typically a social media manager) as well as someone who will never need to open Sprout (like a CMO), but does need to have trust and confidence that we’re experts and we have the right solution for their team.

What internal systems (if any) do you use to share content with your team? How do you equip your sales team to best utilize the content you're creating in their social presence, email cadences, etc?

This is a great question! I talked about this a bit in my response above. But our tech for this looks mostly like:

  • Showpad: sales content platform
  • Outreach: email outreach platform where you can create templates or snippets featuring content
  • Bambu: Sprout makes this employee advocacy platform and we curate the best of the best content by, for, and about Sprout (e.g. marketing content, awards, customer tweets, media placements) with sample messages so it makes it easy for everyone on the team to share.

We also leverage our other internal comms tools to further promotion…lots of emails (though we try to focus them, e.g. we’ll send out a campaign roundup with all content created for a specific vertical), Slack messages and Wiki pages.

What skills are you working on/thinking about next? What kind of work do you hope to being doing in 3-5 years?

I love this question because it is top of mind for me right now! I got into content via PR and communications, so my comfort zone is brand and awareness. The main skills I’m focused on now are on the content marketing side. I’m working more closely with our acquisition team to better understand our funnel, how each discipline is leveraging content and where we’re seeing success or challenges. I also want to continue testing how different types of content (formats, themes, levels of interaction, etc) perform for us.

In 3-5 years, I’m honestly terrible at thinking that far ahead. My career has been driven by a desire to learn constantly. As long as I’m learning, I’m thriving. My favorite parts of my job are people management and strategy, so continuing to grow my team, empower other leaders in content and really know what an impact we’re making on the business.

You can follow Alicia on Twitter at @AliciaBJohnston.

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