Get to Know Mark Traphagen, an AIMCLEAR Q&A

Mark Traphagen

AIMCLEAR recently added yet another marketing superstar to our team. Veteran marketer, mandolin maven, and content marketing/SEO strategist Mark Traphagen now calls AIMCLEAR his professional home. We first announced Mark’s arrival earlier this month. Veteran AIMCLEAR SEO Analyst Lea Scudamore first met Mark during a Zenith Conference several years back when she shared the stage with him for a powerhouse conference session. She reconnected with Mark for a conversation shortly after he arrived at AIMCLEAR to dig into his thoughts around the intersection of content, marketing, SEO, and all the other cool stuff we marketers do on a daily basis.

The following captures the highlights of their discussion:

Lea Scudamore (LS): Let’s start with the basic question – what makes good content marketing? (Simple right?😉 )

Mark Traphagen (MT): It’s kind of counterintuitive, but marketers should approach content as a full-orbed strategy where content isn’t the end in itself. Instead, content is the food that fuels the machine.

I’m convinced that every aspect of marketing has to come from a content mindset. That doesn’t mean that content is necessarily the most important thing. Having a content mindset means there’s a substantive idea, thought and human connection in everything we do in marketing. At the end of the day, that is what content is. It’s thought joined with humanity: emotion, motivation, all the things that make us human and that’s at the heart of what makes marketing work.

The most important thing is helping people in every aspect of marketing to have that content mindset. Helping others understand the content mindset is the hardest part. A secondary aspect of really good content marketing is not only building content strategies but also content that is adaptable across channels.

LS: Marketing can be magic when marketers connect with users through their soul. How can marketers strive to create content that connects as opposed to “proving” someone is smart?

MT: Traditionally, someone doing persona work builds a profile for each persona that’s meant to represent a typical type of person in the target market. Oftentimes I’d see team members use stock images of someone to build the persona around. I’d tell them to get that out of there because the images were probably hindering them by introducing biases we can’t control, no matter how good we think we are.

I’m not denying the usefulness of persona building. We do that here at AIMCLEAR, and I think we do a good job with it in ways that make it truly useful. But when constructing content, I find it far more important to have in mind the hierarchy of needs of the people I want to reach. That doesn’t just mean what their pain points and desires are, but also what moves them, what inspires them, what concerns them. I want to create content that is substantive and useful, but also memorable and affective. And yes, that’s affective with an “a,” as in relating to moods, feelings, and attitudes.

Marketing content is magic when it both informs and moves its audience.

LS: What are the biggest misses when it comes to content?

MT: I’ve talked about this a lot recently but I see most content stuck on one of two islands, Brand Island or Prospect Island. Failed content tends to be stuck one or the other. On the one hand, brands can be so focused on branding or their product’s great features that they lose the connection between the two islands and more importantly to the audience. There’s no outreach to the potential customer that, “You matter and we’re trying to help you with something in your life.”

We see brands stuck on Prospect Island a lot in the organic social world. Brands are so desperate to gain traction in engagement, etc. that they are hung-up on trying to be entertaining. But even if their audience is amused by the content, talking about it, sharing it; it doesn’t matter if the audience doesn’t remember who the brand is, what it does, or what product it was trying to sell.

The trick is to build content and a content strategy that is engaging is to focus on creating a strong connection back to the brand. The content needs to make the emotional connection between the audience and what the brand does or what it sells.

LS: How do you find the true north for content when starting out with a new client?

MT: The biggest thing for every brand is that they know they need content. But they don’t always know why they need it. They don’t have a purpose. Content is critically important; however, clustering your content is equally important. Brands need to call attention to their primary purpose and say to Google, “We are the best resource for this topic because we have all this great content that will answer all of the questions that someone could have around it.” Content needs to be clustered this way so users are happier with their search result because everything is there. The testing I have done has proven that companies need to identify the half dozen subjects they want to be known for and structure the content around it.

LS: Stepping away from work and content. Let’s talk about your life outside of work, how does your passion for music and performance feed the ‘mandolin maven’s’ creative funnel?

MT: I’ve always had that side to me. Music is the best when it is collaborative and performative. Most of my practice is when I go to a jam on Wednesday nights. Playing with other people teaches you so much because you have to listen and communicate. But also there are so many levels of communication between members of a band that can almost be spooky but critical to make it click. It teaches you to listen and make your contribution fit. When you take that mindset over to content and content marketing, that is a critical skill. We think of content as a voicing, a speaking out, but it needs to be a two way conversation. You have to imagine you’re having a conversation and answer the questions that would arise as you talk to your reader.

LS: You’re a natural born storyteller, where does that power of story come from?

MT: Wow! I guess my mom. Origin story… if I take after either of my parents, I take after my mom. She was an extrovert, loved people, loved to laugh. Toward the end of her life she did some community theater, and I loved seeing how it lit her up to be on stage. She also introduced me to literature early. We had the sci-fi classics in our home from Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Silverberg. She was a member of a science fiction book club and as soon as she was done with a book she’d pass it down to me. To hone any creative craft you have to have influences, whether its music or stories, and you have to be listening. If I’m listening to bluegrass music, it isn’t just listening to music. I’m listening and learning where the mandolin player is coming in, where they’re holding back, how they are crafting the solo to fit the song. When I decided to be a conference speaker and even when I attend a conference now, half my brain is trying to pay attention to the content, but the other half of my brain is watching the speaker. The way the speaker says something, how it’s presented, how the audience is responding to the speaker and how and what is presented, etc. Then I try to bring that into my own storytelling and presentations.

A little lesser known thing about me is I’ve done competitive storytelling. I recently got back into it and was asked to join an event of curated queer storytellers. I told my life story as the Wizard of Oz going in the closet as a teen and then coming out 40 years later. Watching how it really hit and connected with the audience reminded me why I really liked doing this. It was fun and I’ll be doing that a lot more in the future.

Footnote to our conversation:

We trust this visit with Mark provided some inspiration. Learning how brands should cluster their content to better answer questions for their users. That brands can find the right users by listening, and listening will provide the brand’s true north. It all starts with something very fundamental we should have learned as children first and marketers second, we need to listen and then communicate.

Mark’s flair for storytelling will converge with his deep marketing acumen when he presents his, Content Marketing to Drive All the Channels, at this year’s Zenith Conference.

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