Ilona Hiila (left) and Ida Hakola, of Vapa Media (photos by Jason Scott)
The Breakdown: Welcome to the first in a series of posts on “Content Strategists of the World.” Most of the Content Strategists we know are operating in North America or the UK. Since my personal resolution for this year was “to think about content strategy more globally,” I thought it would be interesting to share profiles of people who are practicing CS in the wider world.
In this first installment, we profiled Ilona Hiila & Ida Hakola, founders of Vapa Media in Helsinki, Finland. I met them in February when they hosted Sisältöstrategiaseminaari 2012 (in English: “Content Strategy Seminar 2012”). It was the first ever Content Strategy event in Finland, and it was co-organized by the University of Finland.
Ida and Ilona met in University, where they studied communications and journalism. Since then, they have each held various jobs in media, including in the newsroom of a newspaper, custom publishing, and broadcast media. But they also both worked in PR and communications. This is unusual for Finland, where most writerly people choose to go either into media or marketing, but not both. They both chose not to choose.
The idea behind Vapa Media
They also share a fondness for travel. While traveling in South America they started thinking about starting a company together. They shared the perspective that PR messages weren’t working, and talked about how things could be done differently. Since they also had a background in journalism they thought, “What if we bring the laws of journalism to marketing content?”
About two years ago the timing worked out and they started Vapa Media. In Finnish “vapa” means “rod” – as in fishing rod. Their word for the Web is the same word they use for “fishing net” (and of course, we’ve been known to refer to it as “The Net” in English too). That brings to mind a sort of passive way of capturing an audience’s attention, while the rod – a much more directed and active way of catching fish – is a better representation of their philosophy.
How they learned of Content Strategy
They had already publicly presented Vapa Media, they were looking for an office space and they were doing some industry research. They found Kristina Halvorson’s book (Content Strategy for the Web), my own Nimble report, and other publications. They started following Content Strategy discussions online and they were relieved to discover that other people were tackling the same issues.
The concept of Content Strategy was unknown in Finland, where it’s called “Sisältöstrategia” (a challenging word even for Finnish people!) No one was using the word until Ida and Ilona started writing about it and organizing local events, and no other agencies were working with content this way. The experience that galvanized it all for them was attending Content Strategy Forum in London in September 2011, and confirming that this is something that people actually do. “Are we crazy that we think this way?” Ilona had been asking herself. “In London we realized ‘No, we’re not. This is important.’”
Vapa Media produces content, but they also do web strategy. Ida & Ilona help companies figure out what they should be saying and employ journalists to create high quality content that aligns with their client’s business goals. They also do design and wireframing to support their concepts. Vapa operates somewhere between digital agencies and communications/PR agencies. They also work with a wide range of clients, mainly B2C and some NGOE. They’d like to work with more B2B clients, but in Finland many of those companies aren’t yet convinced that they need a strong, content-driven online presence.
Practicing Content Strategy in Finland
What makes practicing CS in Finland particularly interesting or challenging?
- Language. Without hesitation, Ida and Ilona both mentioned that you can’t outsource content production in Finland because so few people outside the country speak Finnish.
- Technology. The country is very tech focused, with a strong startup culture. This can be both a challenge and an opportunity. Sometimes tech drives decisions more than content considerations and clients fall into the trap of thinking the technology will solve everything. They’re willing to invest more on trying the latest thing than on developing a strategy.
- Experimental. The positive side of this strong interest in technology is that Finnish people and companies are open to trying new things.
Where we’ll hear from them next
On February 8th, the day of the seminar, they published a trend report called Hiljainen Signaali (“Silent Signal”) that “discusses the digital revolution and the multiplicity of consequences it has for the lives of companies, consumers and media.” It’s available in Finnish and English.
This coming fall they’ll be publishing the first Finnish book on digital content and Content Strategy. The title is still to be determined, but it will be published by Sanoma Pro, a division major European media company, Sonoma Group. Look for it in late August/early September.
The founders of Vapa Media are continuously trying to set an example for thought leadership and entrepreneurship. So you can also read more from them on a daily basis on their website (some of the posts are even in English), Facebook, or Twitter (@VapaMedia, @idahakola, and @IlonaHiila).
What they’d like you to know about Content Strategy
- Ida: “It’s, in the end, quite concrete. Although the word might sound like consultant bullshit at first, pardon my French, it’s actually a very useful tool for gaining insight into a company’s web content and the content the audience creates. I was very pleased to know that there are actually processes, really material things that are considered. It’s like a guidebook to yourself of yourself.”
- Ilona [To all communicators, marketers, or brand managers]: “Content Strategy will make your life easier.”
- Ida [For executives who have struggled with the pain of publishing online]: “This actually supports your ideas and your business strategy.”
- Ilona: “Content strategy is something that takes their hand and says ‘It’s ok. You’re going to make it.’”
What they’d like you to know about Finland
- Ilona: “We are the center of Scandinavia. We have two languages – Finnish and Swedish. So if companies want to invade Scandinavia, Finland could be a good base for that.”
- Ida: “Finland has a lot of technological potential. Now that we’ve started to spread the word about content meeting technology, I think we can create something big.”
- Ilona: “Third thing: There are no polar bears in Helsinki.”
- Ida: “Nor penguins.”
- Ida: “Good saunas.”