Karen Hesse, 256: ‘Content is the future of marketing’

Podcast: Ep 40: Karen Hesse from 256, one of Ireland’s first dedicated content marketing agencies, on why content marketing matters in business today.

256 recently won three international awards at the Content Marketing Institute’s (CMI) annual award event and was also identified as the CMI’s agency of the year globally in 2019.

Led by Karen Hesse 256 helps a diverse range of businesses and brands from Failte Ireland to Fyffes, Roomex Special Olympics, Linsey and others engage with target markets through the medium of engaging content.

“We focused on the quality of our work and the quality of our process. Creativity can really thrive where you have a structure around you that allows you to do that”

It does so by creating engaging content across print, digital and social channels to deliver on marketing objectives.

Content is Queen


For Hesse the new epoch of content marketing is the missing link in terms of what brands have been doing with digital and social media. Ultimately, brands need to be better at telling their story and educating existing and would-be customers by bringing these stories to life.

Hesse began her career as a journalist, starting like many by working in trade publications. “I always wanted to be a journalist and I was always making my own magazines as a kid.”

The world of trade publishing gave Hesse insights into a range of different industries. “It was a brilliant training ground because you had to very quickly become an expert in an industry you probably knew nothing about a month before.”

In many ways Hesse is leading the charge for how traditional journalism skills are now in high demand within businesses that need to reach core customers in an empathetic way. “Journalism is not just the ability to write, it’s the ability to see a bigger story and to be actually able to pull the disparate parts of that together in a way that is interesting and accessible to a wider audience.”

The obituary for traditional media has been written many times but as far as Hesse is concerned, media isn’t dying. It is evolving.

Having experienced business setbacks in traditional magazine publishing just under a decade ago and while watching closely how media was evolving in the US Hesse decided to step back for a while and take a different tack.

With mentorship from Catherine Goodman whom she had met while studying at the Irish Management Institute, Hesse worked up a new strategy with content at its core.

“We’ve been delivering on that strategy since then. We wanted to become known for content marketing and my attitude is that as Irish people we’re good at this. We’re storytellers, we have this heritage that’s so rich.”

One of Hesse’s first goals was to become the international Content Marketing Institute’s Agency of the Year by 2020, a feat 256 accomplished a year earlier than planned in 2019. This validation and recognition has put 256 on the global map and Hesse is now scoping business opportunities in the US.

The key, she said, is to create unbeatable work. “We focused on the quality of our work and the quality of our process. Creativity can really thrive where you have a structure around you that allows you to do that.”

She intuitively knew that achieving an ISO quality standard was the right way to demonstrate quality to a business audience.

“It has definitely helped us to put a structure around our business. And we have maintained it every year, even through remote working.”

To understand the content marketing journey Hesse wants to help businesses embark on she cites large organisations like GE. “They would take the most innocuous sounding things like jet engines that not everyone would have an interest in and they actually manage to bring it to life by bringing their passion to their audience.

“If you’re genuinely passionate about your business you can create content that is relevant. The story is not just in the facts but the emotional connection it offers. How do you make a person feel when they consume that by watching or reading?”

In many ways Hesse is spearheading a content revolution in the corporate space. The core of it is marketing and targeting by optimising that content and sticking rigidly to SEO (search engine optimisation) principles.

“There’s no point blasting your message out to lots of people that have no interest. It’s about trying to gather that audience that’s right for you and have a proper connection with them.”

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 11 December 2020