CEO, Content Insight
Owner and Principal Consultant, Strategic Content
"...if you are regularly monitoring your content you can create a cycle of constant improvement. It’s like a garden—if you neglect it, the weeds take over. But if you regularly tend it and weed out the stuff that isn’t working anymore, you don’t have to do a time-consuming and expensive overhaul."
What three resources help you keep up with the latest content strategy thinking?
I sample a variety of sources for content strategy thinking, but spend the most time with: Twitter (I have two accounts myself, @content_insight and @plland), since so many of the people I look to for thought leadership are very active there and I can follow along with conferences I’m unable to attend as well as particular topics of interest to me, like content auditing, content management systems, etc. I also frequent the content strategy groups on Google groups and LinkedIn. In general, these are valuable resources with a good signal-to-noise ratio.
Describe a typical workday:
Because I do both content strategy consulting and my software company management, my days bounce around a lot. I have meetings with clients and work on project deliverables interspersed with doing customer service, product management, and marketing efforts for CAT (the Content Analysis Tool, the software as a service product my company built). I work from home, mostly, and although my clients are a mix of local and non-local, the bulk of my meetings are via phone or Skype, meaning I have a pretty casual work style and no commute, which is nice. I travel to client sites occasionally—local and elsewhere—as well.
As an example, right now, I am working on new project work for two clients, ongoing maintenance-type work for two other clients, and working on a new business opportunity. At any given moment, depending on my inbox, phone, and calendar, I’m doing any one of those tasks. For example, right now, I’m working on a content matrix, page-level content strategy, and taxonomy for one client and editorial and taxonomy guidelines and governance policies for another.
Because I have so many different types of things to work on at any given moment, I can always task-switch to whatever I am in the right frame of mind to work on—deadlines notwithstanding, of course!
How did you become a content strategist?
I began my career as an editor—a content strategist by another name! I have worked on content for my entire career, starting off in book publishing, moving to digital content for a large software company (okay, it was Microsoft), then into the agency world. I was a content strategy lead at Razorfish (where I first got the title content strategist), then started my own consulting company in 2010. For me, it was a very direct path.
What is the best content strategy advice you’ve ever gotten?
I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten a single piece of advice that stands out, but I will say that the fact that content strategy has become so much better known and valued, to the extent that clients now realize that they need it and they ask for, has helped reinforce the value of content and has been super encouraging. Beyond that, I think that I have learned from every project I’ve done and it’s shaped the way I do my work—so in a sense, the best advice is the on-the-job training.
Your book, Content Audits and Inventories, goes into great detail about why auditing content is necessary and how to use it to develop effective content strategies. What do you think most people don’t understand or get wrong about content audits?
One of the reasons why people often argue against doing content inventories and audits is that they don’t see the value of spending time looking at the current state—they say “we know it’s bad, let’s just throw it out and start over.” What that implies is that they don’t recognize that content is a business asset that you’ve already made an investment in. It was presumably created for a valid purpose and if it were tended to over time and its effectiveness regularly measured, it wouldn’t have to be completely replaced necessarily. And improving existing content is usually less expensive than creating new content. It isn’t to say that you never create anything new, of course, but that you care about the investments you’ve already made.
Which brings me to another misconception about inventories and audits—that they are activities you do once, at the start of a project, and that’s it. Again, if you are regularly monitoring your content—what you have and how it’s doing—you can create a cycle of constant improvement. It’s like a garden—if you neglect it, the weeds take over. But if you regularly tend it and weed out the stuff that isn’t working anymore, for whatever reason, you don’t have to do a hugely time-consuming and expensive overhaul.
Describe a recent challenge and how you solved it:
The biggest challenges I face are rarely to do with the actual content strategy. They are with the people aspect. Quite often, I’ve had the perspective, as an outside consultant, to see how siloed a client organization is—groups who should be working together toward common goals not even knowing about the others, for example. I’ve been in the position of introducing people within their own organization, saying “you two should talk!” This is one of the ways that a content strategist can play a really valuable role—since you’re usually the one person who has the broadest view of the content landscape, you can be the content expert and make those connections in a way that someone internal may not be able to, for political reasons or just the plain fact that everyone is busy in their own area.
The other challenge related to people is organizational change and trying to help people understand and be ready for what they might have to start doing differently, whether it’s changing their content focus, their writing style, the tools and processes they use to create and review content, and so on. As I mentioned, with one current client, I’m working on helping outline what kind of governance model needs to be in place and what that’s going to take in terms of people’s time and roles. I think it has been eye-opening for them to realize that this stuff does have to be planned for and resourced.
How do you see content strategy evolving or changing in the next few years?
I think some of the trends we’re already seeing will continue to grow in importance—mobile, for example, as a significant factor in thinking about user context. Video is and will continue to be an important venue for content distribution. And we’ll continue to integrate data into our planning and optimization of content strategy. But I’m also hopeful that we’ll continue to see a return to the basics of good content—content that’s written and designed for humans, not machines.
What would you advise someone who wants to get into this field?
The good thing about being interested in getting into the content field is that the people in the field are content producers! And they are very willing to share their expertise. What that means is that there is a ton of great information out there and a lot of opportunities to learn from people with experience. Go to conferences if you can, read everything you can get your hands on, take a content strategist out for coffee and pick their brain.
This goes along a little with how content strategy is evolving. I see the profession itself evolving in that there are starting to be more formalized opportunities (classes, certificate programs, etc.) to learn how to do content strategy, which means we are developing a body of knowledge and a set of best practices and deliverables that will allow people new to the field to follow a learning path.