"These days every agency under the sun sells “content strategy”—and every one of those offerings is different. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s confusing. I think as the industry matures, specific subsets of content strategy are emerging that are more clear, standardized, and sellable. "
Describe a typical workday:
I own a content-focused agency with two business partners, so I have a lot of flexibility in my days. I start every by day by talking to my assistant, Tilde (a.k.a. Tilly the Labrador), about whether we’ll work at home or at the office. After that, every day is different. Some days I work all day (and all night) on client projects, some days I do research or admin stuff for our agency, and some days it’s all sales meetings or client workshops. If I’m on a big client project, I’ll work heads down at the computer for 10+ hours a day, for several days in a row … and Tilly gets really bored with me. But most of the time, I’m able to contain things to a normal work day. This is the best job I’ve ever had.
You’ve studied archaeology. There must be commonalities with content strategy?
When people hear that I have degrees in journalism and archaeology, they usually scoff at the archaeology degree and say something like, “Bet you use that a lot.” Well, actually, I do. Maybe even more than the journalism degree at this point.
Archaeology is a study of people—understanding their needs and behaviors. It involves creating big-picture hypotheses and proving/disproving them using extremely detailed research, mapping, and categorization. Archaeology is a team activity, but it also includes a whole lot of self-directed alone time. These are all skills that have been immensely valuable to me as a content consultant.
I intended to be a science journalist for National Geographic or Archaeology, but content work is the next best thing. And, it’s less dusty than archaeology.
So many people—even those we work with, sometimes--still don’t understand what content strategy is. You co-wrote Content Strategy for the Web, Second Edition, with Kristina Halvorson and are credited with developing the content strategy quad. How did you become so adept at explaining our field and its processes to others?
I’ve just practiced a lot. I’ve been in the content industry for more than 20 years, so I’ve had plenty of time to work on my messaging. Honestly, though, I rarely launch into a detailed explanation of content strategy in my daily life. I didn’t even come up with the quad as a way to explain content strategy. I came up with it as a way to organize a big client deliverable—and realized it worked for other projects, too.
The biggest hint I can give to people is: don’t get hung up on trying to “define the field” or using the phrase “content strategy.” It’s not necessary to most conversations. Just like any other content, you need to tailor your pitch/explanation to your audience. Use the words that are clear and meaningful to them. Put the work you can do into the context of their situation. Let’s look at a few scenarios where you might feel the need to explain your content work:
· Family reunion (you need a one-liner to give Aunt Maggie the basic idea): “I help my company create and organize all the information we give to our customers on the web, in brochures, and other places.” (I know that’s overly simplistic, but it’s enough for starters.)
· Professional networking (you need an elevator pitch that sets you apart): “I specialize in content projects for large organizations. Most of my projects focus on [YOUR FAVORITE WORK HERE (e.g., messaging, editorial planning, taxonomy)].”
· Discussion with a prospective client or internal project sponsor (you need to find out if you are a good fit for the job): “I hear you have some content needs. What’s going on?” Then launch into services and examples that are relevant to them.
Can you describe a recent challenge and how you solved it?
I have a current client (a global organization) that doesn’t sell products online—even though their customers are begging them to. They have good reason for limiting ecommerce: It’s in the customer’s interest to buy the product with the help of professional. So, we have to find to make the online brand experience valuable with content alone.
By researching successful similar content models in other industries and reviewing user research the organization already had, we are working on:
· Creating a clear path for users to get to the professionals that can help them
· Providing messaging that tells why the organization doesn’t sell online and how that’s a benefit to the user
· Designing a site full of educational information that the users and professionals can use together
How do you see content strategy evolving or changing in the next few years?
The phrase “content strategy” appeared about a decade ago, as a rally cry to get the people to realize that content was an important part of creating online properties. And, as a rally cry, it worked. Most people in marketing and technology today will acknowledge that content is, in fact, critical to success—not just for online properties but for their business as a whole.
However, as the label of a distinct discipline, “content strategy” jumped the shark. These days every agency under the sun sells “content strategy”—and every one of those offerings is different. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s confusing. I think as the industry matures, specific subsets of content strategy are emerging that are more clear, standardized, and sellable. (Actually, some of those subsets—such as information architecture or editorial planning—were defined before the “content strategy” label and are making a comeback.)
What would you advise someone who wants to get into this field?
1. Be flexible and don’t be afraid to try things outside your comfort zone. Never done a content audit? Try one. Asked to work on a taxonomy? Go for it.
2. But, you don’t have to be an expert in all areas of “content strategy.” Nobody is.
3. No matter what the books and blogs say, there is no one right way to do content strategy stuff. Sometimes you need to look outside content strategy for answers. Solving a hard workflow problem? See what human resources experts recommend. Need to know more about creating sharable content? Talk to some public relations pros.
4. Last, and most important, remember content work is a service. You aren’t Hemingway writing a pièce de résistance on beach in Cuba. You’re serving your client (internal or external) and the user. Your work is going to be constrained by user preferences, budgets, timelines, legal guidelines, etc. It’s your job to make the best content you can within those constraints. (Sorry about the dreams I just crushed, you can still be Hemingway on your own time.)
What are three resources that help you keep up with the latest content strategy thinking?
Oh, boy, I’m not the right person for this one. I learned a long time ago that I if I go onto social media every day, I never get any work done at all. There are too many interesting things to learn about. And once I start learning about a topic, I need to learn alllllll about the topic. I can’t do it in short bursts—I’m not wired that way. If I do go on twitter, it’s for a specific client project … or J.K. Rowling and Carrie Fisher.
I reserve time once a month or so to scan the whole industry instead of following a specific blog or person on twitter. My favorite sources aren’t content strategy-specific, they’re scientists and researchers who study things that help me understand how people learn and how media use impacts us. (I’m still a science geek at heart.)
For example, I like to check out:
· Annie Murphy Paul’s blog on education
· Dr. Pamela Rutledge’s blog on Media Psychology
· Trendwatching’s free stuff