You were an early practitioner of content strategy in Canada (or anyone). How did you get into the field?
Yes, I’m very fortunate to have had my career grow organically alongside the growth of the Internet from its very early days. While I’ve been online since 1992, I didn’t make the transition to working in the digital field until 1999. Before that, I worked in traditional marketing and communications for a few years after graduating from university with an English degree.
It was only when I decided to go back to college in 1998 after a few years of working that I took the leap of faith and refocused my efforts solely on digital. I say leap of faith because the Internet was so new to most people back then that they looked at you as if you had 3 heads when you told them that you were focusing your entire career path on this thing called “the Internet.”
I had just been accepted into this prestigious 3-year college advertising program and in my first semester I had to take a course on coding HTML. It was revolutionary at the time for a college to incorporate something so new into their curriculum. But, I loved it and I soon realized that the web was going to revolutionize business. Based on this very real gut reaction, I dropped out of the program and refocused my efforts entirely on learning everything I could about the Internet - from coding to e-business. I ended up graduating with 2 diplomas — one in web publishing and one in e-business — from one of the very first college programs in Canada.
After working as a webmaster for a massive bilingual (English and French) website for the Government of Canada, I soon started my first company where I designed and developed websites for small and medium-sized businesses. There was no nomenclature for content strategy back then — this would have been around 2003 — so I differentiated myself in the market by selling clients on the idea of “digital communications strategy.” My services included what we now call information architecture, search engine marketing, content modelling and content writing.
It provided a unique selling proposition when everyone else was just selling web design services. Web project lag times were chronically long between ideation to launch because everyone was waiting on their clients to provide them with content to fill the blank spaces of their beautifully designed web pages. And the clients were waiting on their design and development teams to empower them with the knowledge they needed on how to plan for and create content, and then manage it once the site had launched.
I understood very early on from my coding days that the web pages we were designing were based on content first and design second - - not the other way around.
Six years later, in 2009, the term “content strategy” was popularized and I started using it instead of “digital communications strategy” to describe what it was I had been doing. By then, I had dropped the design and development aspects of my business and was solely focused on my expertise in content.
Looking back, I remember one of my English professors in university asking me what I had hoped to do with my degree. At the time, I was minoring in business and was convinced that there was a way to marry my love of business with my love of language. I told him that I just knew the business world had underestimated the importance of writing and communication to doing business and that I was hoping to change that. I remember clearly telling him that I had a feeling the career I was going to do just hadn’t been invented yet… and it turns out that I was right.
What do you like most about the field?
I focus my efforts almost exclusively on enterprise content strategy now. It’s where I think I can effect the most change and have the greatest impact on content downstream within an organization where content becomes more tactical. That’s not to say content strategy at the product level isn’t important, but if you spend enough time trying to get to the root of any content problem you’re facing you’ll soon find yourself peeling back layers that lead to bigger issues around organizational design, operations, corporate culture, digital fluency, employee experience and collaboration, and change management. These are the things that excite me.
Digital transformation has become a huge buzzword these days, and it’s certainly the focus and priority of most companies. But the dialogue and proposed solutions almost always focus on “digital." There’s a spotlight and investment on enterprise-wide software and applications, the shift towards flawless omnichannel communications and service, and the acknowledgement that companies have to change in order to support the increasing demand for content — but they don’t know how.
Transformation doesn’t just happen as a result of digital. The successful shift to digital happens because of an organization’s ability to transform how they work internally, and how they pivot to changing market conditions. In a world where content is both business asset and commodity, I believe the transformational “how” rests squarely on the shoulders of enterprise content strategy and the solutions it brings to how business operates today.
Enterprise content strategy’s strength is in finding these efficiencies, operationalizing content efforts and finding synergies between projects, departments and teams. It provides a roadmap to guide content operations strategically through efficient governance and workflow in order to plan for, create and manage useful and usable content assets across internal and external channels.
Because whether you’re working at the business level or the product level, the one critical aspect content strategy brings to any project or business is its ability to exist between the cracks and strengthen whatever product or service it is applied to. There really isn’t any other discipline out there that functions as this proverbial mortar. It’s why I’m so adamant to correct people who use content marketing strategy and content strategy interchangeably. It’s not because I want to get mired in semantics, but I think that not having this distinction risks diluting the power of content strategy as an agnostic, solution-based approach to content that exists very much separate and apart from branding, messaging, positioning and engagement.
You recently tweeted, 'Content hoarding impedes collaboration, exposes the organization to risk and impacts creative efforts.' What do you mean by content hoarding and what prompted that tweet? I’m picturing a newspaper-filled garage but I know that’s not what you mean!
Ha ha! Yes, perhaps this could be a new show on TLC. My tweet was actually prompted by work I am currently undertaking with a few clients right now, using content strategy to ameliorate content hoarding behaviours.
You know, the biggest success factor when it comes to content starts with the letter ‘c’ but it isn’t actually content itself… it’s culture. An organization’s corporate culture and the tools it uses internally to support (or undermine) that culture is absolutely critical to content’s success.
So, if a company has a culture that supports collaboration between teams and departments, the content it produces will be stronger and more seamless across channels with fewer instances of redundancy and duplication. If, however, content publishing is viewed as a solo operation, integrated into a gatekeeper function or celebrated as one lone team’s achievement, the company’s content will suffer as a result.
I didn’t come up with the term “content hoarder," I give full credit to James Price and Nina Evans, but it’s a brilliant way to describe what happens in companies when their culture doesn’t support collaboration. Content owners and creators are emotionally invested in the content they create. With this attachment comes a sense of pride in regards to their expertise, knowledge base, and efforts. Of course, this is great. But, when you couple that with a lack of defined governance, proactive workflows, defined attrition planning and technology tools to support freely sharing information, the conditions are a perfect catalyst for content hoarding.
Content hoarding happens in organizations large and small. But, in small companies you’ll find employees have adopted a familiar workaround that is easy to identify with — walking over to a colleague’s desk and asking them to email you a file that they might have saved on their local hard drive.
This same workaround scenario doesn’t bode well for multinational companies or companies that are moving towards remote work, particularly if their digital workplace hasn’t been optimized with the tools necessary for building team collaboration. In this instance, many different people are creating content not just within their own siloed departments, but within their own siloed microcosms.
Symptoms of content hoarding within an organization can include publishing dissonance across external channels, content or information blocking between departments, rogue systems that circumvent company sanctioned information management or content management applications, decreased ROI on content marketing efforts, and potentially public relations crises due to the wrong information being shared at the wrong time.
There’s a lot to unpack with content hoarding. Suffice it to say that the two key defenses companies have against it is to increase internal communications, value collaboration and ensure technologies are optimized to support the first two.
What do you feel many clients don’t understand about content strategy and how do you educate them?
Whether you’re a content strategist working on apps, digital products or at the enterprise level, I think the biggest opportunity we have as a discipline is to raise the level of awareness about what we do and the problems we solve. We do an excellent job of this within our own communities of practice, but few of us preach our message to the broader business community at large.
Clients are more apt to seek me out with a list of symptoms or problems that they are experiencing, than they are to specifically identify that they need a content strategist to fix them.
I have frequently been in meetings with representatives from large consulting companies, internal IT and IM departments, even marketing and communications and they don’t realize that there is a discipline that can not only help them with the problems they are facing, but can actually strengthen and support the work that they do.
To me, that is a huge opportunity. So maybe it’s a grassroots effort that you privately undertake within your own company, or maybe you seek out business conferences to speak at; either way it’s important to not just tell people what you do but educate them about the problems you can solve.
Whenever possible, that’s what I try to do. Even if you were to meet me at a social event and ask me the common introductory “What do you do?” question, I’ll usually start with projects or solutions that I have recently worked on for familiar companies, and then end with my job title. It works well for lead generation too.
In a post on InfoDesign you wrote, “Content strategy isn’t really a discipline but a defined approach to handling an organization’s content consistently across departments and channels. It can only be effective if it becomes ubiquitous to the processes and procedures that already exist within business – communications, public relations, customer service, marketing, graphic design, IT, etc.” So, how do we make it ubiquitous? What luck have you had?
Even though that quote is a few years old, I think it still rings true. But I do have a caveat — I think content strategy does hold its own as a discipline unto itself by virtue of everything we’ve talked about so far in this interview.
I think it’s also important noting, however, that just as an accountant can exist as a specialist role, accounting can be done by anyone.
So content strategy as an approach is something we should strive to integrate into existing processes and procedures. While the ideal future of work might be, let’s say, a holacracy, many companies are still structured in very traditional ways. Working within these structures, or in spite of these structures, is where content strategy shines.
The User Experience community is having similar conversations right now. That is, shouldn’t UX be automatically baked into the business processes we undertake — absolutely!
The same is true of Content Strategy. And, I am starting to see this particularly in traditional content areas. Five or six years ago, I would have to explain the value of an editorial calendar or content audit to a Communications Director. Now, when I arrive at a kick-off meeting, they proudly present the inventories and calendars they are keeping — even if only rudimentary. So that ubiquitous desired state is slowly starting to happen.
I launched the first content strategy meet-up in Canada in 2010, and eventually brought it under the IABC banner a few years later because I felt very strongly (and still do) that content strategy should be one of the pillars of effective business communications today.
I have recently broadened this thinking to the realization that content is one of the key aspects of business operations, and this shift opens up the possibility of integrating content strategy approaches into all processes and procedures. In doing so, the buy-in and ease at which an enterprise approach to content could be adopted, is greatly increased.
This isn’t just a pipe dream. It is possible. I have some incredibly forward-thinking clients who are making in-roads towards making this future state a reality. But, in my experience, the success of these efforts is greatly dependent on executive level support and the ability to tether enterprise content strategy efforts to concrete digital transformation projects. In addition, a formal change management strategy is critical to ongoing adoption and new way of working. None of this happens overnight.
How do you see this field changing in the next few years and how can we content strategists be ready for it?
I’m not a futurist by any means, but based on my experiences and what I’m seeing in the Content Strategy market in Canada, I think there are 2 areas that will impact the discipline: education and the shift in generational workforce.
From my perspective, the nascent days of content strategy are starting to come to an end. In 2016, Canada had its first census of its citizens in over 10 years and it was the first time “content strategist” was listed as a profession — which is exciting!
While there are some areas of the discipline, and certainly geographic areas as well, where the growth phase of content strategy is apparent, I think we’re starting to see a maturity of the profession as well, as indicated in things like these census results, and the fact that traditional colleges and universities are now offering programs in content strategy, information architecture and user experience.
So where once the barriers to entry in calling yourself a content strategist were low, it is becoming harder to simply self-identify without some kind of third-party validation of experiences and qualifications. There are some core competencies that are rising to the top of the list of standard content strategy know-how, and a fundamental knowledge and application of these topics is important. But standardization brings greater competition for jobs, and the requirement to either bring a depth of knowledge within content strategy or complementary disciplines will be important to establishing a sustainable career path as well.
In tandem with this is a paradigm shift in how business operates today. As millennials replace baby boomers, corporate cultures are going to become inherently more collaborative. The next generation of business is being run by digital natives who are familiar with the importance of content strategy but may lack the deep knowledge or experience needed to leverage its strengths in business. This means that content strategy won’t be as much about raising awareness and buy-in, but about being able to provide solutions through new and evolving tools.
And as part of gaining this new sustainable career path, the demand for senior level strategic guidance will also be greater. I think there’s an amazing opportunity for professional development to help senior content strategists continue to hone their craft. Right now, there’s still a lot of “Content Strategy 101” information out there, but it’s harder to find senior level case studies or business knowledge that can augment your practice once you’ve mastered the basics. I’ve talked to many senior content strategists who are craving that kind of information, and I think there’s an opportunity in conferences and workshops to explore this deeper and tangential knowledge.
A few years ago I wondered if content strategy was here to stay, and from evidence of evolving language to describe the various aspects of content work — content design, content engineering, etc. — I think others, as well, were starting to see the need for segmentation in terms of what it is, and what it is not. I still believe in the value and need for content strategy — not the diluted sense that content strategy supports content marketing, but in the truly value-added sense that it is imperative to be strategic about content whether that’s to improve customer experience, employee experience, brand value, or the functioning of a digital product.