Sarah Richards

 
COURTESY OF SARAH RICHARDS

COURTESY OF SARAH RICHARDS

 
...organizations will see they are going to be left behind if they don’t get their butts in gear.

Founder, Content Design London

Twickenham, UK

Content Design London

 
 

How did you get into this field? 

I studied design. But, at the time, copywriters earned more money. I was a mercenary 19-year-old so I switched disciplines. I spent time in ad agencies then went to work on a digital government project. I was hooked and stayed.

Congrats on speaking and leading a workshop at Confab this year! On two very different topics, accessibility and measuring content ROI. Is there a connection?

For me there is. Scope says there are 13.9 million people in the UK with a disability. That’s a lot of audience organizations will miss if they don’t provide accessible solutions.

We say measure the intention of the content. Not the format or the delivery. Just the intention. We also measure success and value differently. To do this, you need to have defined what each piece of content is meant to do. Example: if your content is meant to help a prospective chemistry student apply to a university, success might be to make the 'top 10 universities to study chemistry' of a well-respected source but it’s not valuable. Value is to have the student visit the campus open day and apply. We advise looking at traffic as a single metric to be taken with other metrics. Alone, it's meaningless. Clickbait may get a million likes but if you are instantly forgettable, is that valuable? I don’t think so. So we take the intention of the content (eg: show chemistry students what they can achieve with us) and measure it appropriately. It does mean that the intention needs to be clearly defined. Putting up content because someone in the organization thinks it is a good idea is not going to cut it. Each piece needs to be set to a user need. I’ve blogged about the different ways to do that.

What were some of the challenges of working with content for the UK government? What did you enjoy most about it?

This made me laugh. Some of the challenges? I could go on for weeks just on one of them: the main one was people. We work all over the world and the challenge is always the same: some hate change, some organizations impose change on their staff badly and most organizations still work in silos.

Change can be hard and we didn’t always get it right at GOV.UK. For my part, I saw a goal and just kept my eyes on the prize. There were points where I didn’t act kindly. I was more like a human bulldozer. But I learned from it and we now have some great results bringing people together during organizational change. We have a much kinder, better approach that works very well.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about content design?

There’s two: one is that it is front-end design. We get a lot of designers not reading job descriptions and sending off standard letters and CVs to our jobs. We always put the content part of the position in the first sentence so it’s unnecessary to get it wrong. The other is that it’s just another term for copywriting. The thing is, some copywriters do all that we do in content design. They get evidence, work to a user need, can influence the format the communication is to be displayed in etc. But most don’t. They are still given the format (”you have a tube ad, just write some words to go with this art direction”) and have no insight to audience (“your audience is everyone”). Content designers know that their audience is never everyone, there will be different ways to get to them and will be able to completely fulfill that user need. 

It’s changing though, which is great to see.

I feel like a lot of US organizations don’t understand what content strategy—let alone content design—is, and why it’s worthwhile. Do you face similar challenges in the UK and if so, how have you addressed them?

Oh yes. I haven’t been in an organization yet that has a strong content strategy. One with metrics and deliverables. We published an example strategy a while ago just to show what ours looks like. 

I think we are at a very exciting time. The organizations that are working to content strategy and design are having success. This is growing and organizations will see they are going to be left behind if they don’t get their butts in gear.

We run two-day courses and sprint work all over the world. A sprint is where we come in for two weeks and work on whatever project you have. We will take the org through the whole process: research, journey mapping, channel mapping, user stories, sketching, writing, crits, the lot. At the end of it, we have a ’show and tell’ for anyone in the org to see how user-centered and targeted their information can be in a very short space of time. This can lead to longer projects, where we do more. We always work in the open, inviting anyone interested in the organization to come and see the work. It’s the number one rule: show, don’t tell. Show everything you are doing.

We haven’t had an instance yet where people remain disengaged. Once staff see the outcome, they usually start moving to a more content-led position.

What changes do you see coming in content design in the next few years and how can we get ready for them?

I think more will pick it up and want to push it. We are focusing on accessibility and measuring the intention of content this year. I think we can go a lot farther than our current state. We are running a global project called the Readability guidelines if you would like to see what we are up to. 

The other thing on everyone’s radar seems to be voice search. We may see organizations realizing that concise content that answers a user need is the only way to go. I hope so.

The one thing I would like to see on everyone’s radar is concerted effort to break down silos. I see content and design people starting this but at organizational level, this change is still slow. Some marketing departments see digital as an add-on to their current, established job. Legal still thinks it’s their job to make content legally compliant, not to have someone understand the law that applies. With more organizations blogging about their digital successes, I think this will change too. To be honest, if orgs don’t change, they will be left behind.

 

Padma Gillen

 
Photo courtesy of PADMA GILLEN

Photo courtesy of PADMA GILLEN

 

Digital content consultant and trainer

"Digital transformation…involves a shift from telling people what you want them to hear to meeting the needs that they actually have. The whole organization must work together effectively to give one voice and one version of the truth across multiple channels at all times.“

Brighton, United Kingdom

LinkedIn
Lead with Content

 

 
 

 

Does “digital transformation” mean just going digital with all your content or do you see it meaning something more?   

I think it means much more. "Just going digital with all your content" sounds easy doesn't it. But when you try to make that happen in any meaningful way you realize the entire organization is going to have to think differently, act differently and work together differently. The pace of production and pace of innovation will speed up significantly. You'll also need a different approach to risk and a different way of measuring it. 

All of this a big deal for a large organization that's been around since way before digital came along. 

One small example: Years ago I was working in a central government department in the UK when they decided they ought to start using Twitter. It's amazing, you can talk directly with citizens! 

The trouble was, they used the same sign-off process for a tweet that they used for a press release. So someone would get in touch with them on Twitter, and before they could respond, someone needed to write the tweet, then it got checked by a bunch of different people, including the legal team (and amended several times) before they could put it live. By this time the conversation on Twitter had moved onto other things, the tweet sounded like a government robot wrote it, and the person who tweeted them in the first place felt utterly ignored and unimportant.

Being a digital organization means being able to function effectively in a digital world. The digital world has a different tone of voice (more conversational, less stuffy), doesn't expect you to know all the answers straight away but does expect you to be honest about that, wants a quick response, wants a high quality user experience, and most importantly wants to be able to trust you and your content.

Digital transformation is about making all that possible. It involves a shift from telling people what you want them to hear to meeting the needs that they actually have. The whole organization must work together effectively to give one voice and one version of the truth across multiple channels at all times. It doesn't just happen. You need changes to governance, changes to workflow, content specialists writing content, cooperation from the rest of the organization, support from the top, and a commitment from the digital specialists to bring the organization along with them. You can't do digital transformation to an organization. The organization must understand what it means and commit to going in that direction together. 

At that point someone like me can help make the changes required. Before then my work is generally about helping the people in an organization who get the need for this make the case to everyone else.

Could you explain the difference between content strategy and content design? I’ve heard the latter term mostly coming from the UK but can’t believe that’s the only difference.

Different people mean different things when they say 'content strategy'. When some people say it, it's quite similar to what we mean by content design. But the way I see it content design sits within content strategy.

For me, content strategy is more about looking at the big picture whereas content design is about creating and maintaining content within that big picture.

For example, a content strategist will seek to answer questions like:

  • what's the current situation, what needs to change and why?

  • what content is needed?

  • who requests it and how?

  • who creates it and maintains it?

  • what kinds of content formats do you need?

  • how does content go from request to published?

  • how might content be reused, or personalized, or automated?

  • how will users find the right content for them?

  • when it comes to making content decisions, who can say no to whom, and when?

  • how do all the channels work together to achieve the business goals and meet the needs of the users?

  • what kind of team do you need and how should they be organized?

  • what style and tone is appropriate and in which circumstances?

  • etc

The content strategist will then create a strategy that contains processes, systems and structures to enable the right content to get to the right user through the right channel at the right time. But they don't actually create the content.

A content designer creates the content. Their aim is to meet user needs. This involves:

  • working with other UX professionals, such as user researchers and interaction designers

  • analyzing data and making content decisions based on it

  • structuring and writing content that matches the user's mental model so they can consume it and act on it easily and quickly

  • using plain language

  • creating user journeys that work for users, not creating websites that reflect the structure of the organization

  • using agile approaches to iterate content

That's a little overly simplistic. A senior content designer may well get involved in content strategy work and a content strategist may well get involved in content creation. So there's often overlap but they're not the same thing. 

Your book, Lead with Content, was interesting and fun to read, expressing a lot of complex content strategy ideas in a way that’s easy to understand. What was your purpose in writing it?

Over the years it's become clear to me that getting some content designers into an organization is a good start, but it's only a start. In itself it doesn't result in any significant improvement in content quality. This is not because the content designers aren't any good. It's because the structures, systems and processes in the organization actually prevent quality content from going live.

The result is a poor experience for users, a frustrating experience for the content designer and a waste of time and money all round.

My book is for the people in the organization who know things aren't working and want to know how to put it right. I'm hoping that content designers will show it to their bosses. I'm then hoping the bosses will read it, have an aha moment, and commit some energy to putting these strategies into practice.

When you worked in content design for the UK government, what was the most frustrating aspect of the work and how did you deal with it?

The most difficult thing was the culture clash aspect. We had pretty lofty goals with GOV.UK but we were the new kids on the block when it came to working in government. We really believed in what we were doing but it was considered radical at the time. In 2011, blogging about your work, admitting you don't have all the answers yet, writing in plain English and not publishing anything that didn't have a user need was quite shocking to many people in the civil service. We had to argue - A LOT - to get good quality content live.

We were fortunate at that time in that we had the backing of our bosses and they had the backing of certain ministers. So we were often able to win those arguments.

How did I deal with it? Making government content understandable for the people they serve is a good thing to do with your life I think, so I had a strong sense of purpose. We had a great team, so that helped a lot when things got tough. And finally I think you have to take a long view when you're trying to change things. It doesn't happen in two minutes. 

What do you like most about what you do?

I get to go into organizations and help managers and teams do things differently. I see them go from spending all their time and energy just trying to keep a poor website from getting worse to seeing them empowered, knowing what they're going to do and knowing how they're going to do it. And then I watch them (and sometimes help them) deliver. For me that's a great buzz.

Where do you see content design going in the next few years? 

I think we'll do a lot more writing for voice. It won't be too long before we stop thinking about web 'pages' (a convention carried over from the print era) and think about how to have effective digital conversations with users (which is more like the pre-print era and will demand a different approach to content creation). I also think we'll be increasingly thinking about content for IoT - so user journeys will be about moving through physical spaces as well as digital spaces. And I think content design will become increasingly recognized as a discipline internationally.

 

Tracy Playle

 
Photo courtesy of TRACY PLAYLE

Photo courtesy of TRACY PLAYLE

 

CEO and Chief Content Strategist, Pickle Jar Communications Ltd

"I’m quite a creative and visual person, but I’m also very analytical and favor evidence-based decisions. Content strategy brings those together for me. I get to work with both my head and my heart."

Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom

Pickle Jar Communications
Content Ed

 

 
 

 

How did you get into the content strategy field?   

In a way I accidentally fell into content strategy. I was doing it without realizing that there was a label for what I was doing until I started to read a lot of blog posts and emerging literature, around 8 or so years ago.

In the 2000s I was working in a whole range of communication roles for the University of Warwick, one of the leading universities here in the UK. Those roles included working on websites (intranet, external facing website and building a department website for a newly acquired department of the University), mostly in content creation and editing roles. I was also managing other forms of communication including video production (I served as Head of Research-TV, a broadcast PR service for a couple of years), PR activity and events, then morphing into more work in social media. The thing common to all of those roles and experiences was content and content management, including the co-ordination of a whole load of people and other moving parts to make that content happen.

While I was at the University of Warwick, the web team built and launched a custom blogging platform for the whole community to use (the first university in the UK to do so), and a colleague was really doing some great and waaaaaay ahead of its time work in podcasting too. Plus our online content editors took it upon themselves to really embrace and explore emerging social media (this was in the early 2000s, so it was all very new). I was therefore exposed to a world in which experimental forms of content creation and exploring new ideas in content ownership were really encouraged. And the work we were doing at Research-TV was really about the power of storytelling.

In 2007 I decided to set up my own consultancy and so over the next few years I morphed into a content strategist by spending my life advising people on how to use content effectively online – but mostly on third party platforms initially instead of their own websites because everybody wanted to explore emerging channels so that’s where the money was to get myself started and established. Plus the social media side of things and the destabilizing power of that excited me.

What made you decide to specialize in content strategy for education? 

This was by accident rather than design, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Since I was working in an education institution before, that’s really the world that I knew and therefore where my contacts and potential market was for being able to do this. So, that was what made me decide to focus my efforts there, but the reason that I’ve stayed committed to that sector is probably the better answer…

The education sector is a funny beast. Everyone thinks they know it because they went to school and perhaps to university. But there’s so much that you don’t know about it until you work in it. And that’s what I love about it. The breadth of work, the world-changing research, the conflict of trying to retain a consistent brand and keep everyone happy while working in a sector that protects academic freedom and therefore has an interesting relationship with freedom of speech. And, of course, it’s a sector that truly changes lives.

You’re constantly challenged in the education sector to offer value for money since we work a lot with taxpayers’ money and constant financial pressure. Add on to that constant policy changes and the whims of politicians and, again, you never quite know what direction it’s going to turn. So it never gets dull or repetitive.

When it comes to justifying the decisions that you make through evidence-based approaches and audience research, you’re frequently reminded that you’re often working with academics who will really scrutinize and question the validity of your methodology or reliability of your testing sample or approach. So that really keeps us on our toes to ensure that our research approaches to inform content strategy and content design are pretty robust and the best they can be. That’s an area of work that we’ve developed a lot in the last few years.

It’s also a sector that people see as being stable (the fundamental model of schools and universities hasn’t really changed a great deal in a thousand years or so) and yet there are so many potential threats emerging through new technologies and modes of thinking and working that could completely revolutionize the sector in years to come. That really excites me.

It’s a sector with incredible stories to tell, but a complexity of vast organizational structures and mini empires. Information needs to connect in complex ways and there are so many areas of the education sector “business” where the discipline of content strategy, content design, content operations and systems design can really make vast improvements not just to how we communicate, but also to how efficient we are as institutions. We have a public responsibility to embrace that but this sector is only just getting started.

Congratulations on speaking at Confab this year! Your talk about workshops sounds exciting! Could you give us an example of a workshop that wasn’t going well and what you did to turn things around?

Thank you. I’m excited to be back. The Confab crowd is my professional family and I learn so much from being there, so it’s always an honor to be invited back as a speaker.

I think there’s something that you can learn from every workshop. Even if the activity that you planned didn’t quite go as you intended it to, or the discussion session went off on a weird tangent, the insights that you gather from those “failures” tell you a lot about the organization. The people component of content strategy is probably the most important part of it, so workshops that go in weird directions tell you a lot about: 

·      What people really care about even if it’s not the thing that you asked them about. That gives you clues for how to bring them onside with your ideas further down the line.

·      How they work together. If they’re awful at team work, or someone dominates a session too much, then that will tell you something about how to manage the rest of the project or how to adjust your approach later on to give everyone else a voice.

·      Their levels of knowledge and understanding. If a workshop activity fails because they don’t really understand what’s being asked of them, then that also tells you a lot about how you’ll need to present things to them later.

One example though…

I ran a workshop once to gather insights from a large number of people in a marketing and communications team. The project was to assess the institution’s digital engagement strategy and approach and provide some recommendations for them. Now, normally when I run such sessions the folk in the room are super engaged. This one took me by surprise.

We were conducting a “start, stop, more, less” activity where I get them to work in small groups and move between different discussion stations with a timed number of minutes at each station. They rotate around the room, each building on other groups’ comments. At each station there is a single topic, and they must jot down what they think their organization should start, do more of, stop, or do less of in relation to that topic.

So, with this particular group, they were fine during the exercise itself, but afterwards we pulled everyone together as one large group to assess and understand all the comments and analyze them. As we worked around each discussion station, there was a group of staff who had peeled off and were just doing their own thing, giggling, talking about their personal lives, chatting over other people and just not engaging in the analysis at all. It was quite disruptive. So, at each station I would make sure to address a question specifically at that group. Or I clocked which comments were theirs by recognizing their handwriting and would pick on those comments to discuss, so they had to contribute. But it was really hard work and I’ve never experienced such a disengaged bunch.

In reality though, they were able to disengage because the group of people in the room was so large that it gave them a degree of invisibility. I normally know how many people to expect in a session, and had agreed to have 12 with that client. On the day, about 30 people turned up! So, even when you know how many you’re going to have, always be prepared to adjust and adapt your activities to allow for different group sizes. Being able to think on your feet and adapt to what is going on in the room is probably the most important skill for facilitating workshops. 

It also told me a lot about the levels of engagement that staff actually had with digital engagement, and their interest in it. So among our recommendations we were also then able to reflect on that and suggest ways to get them more engaged across the board. See… no bad experience is a useless experience. It all tells you something that you probably need to know.

You’ve spoken at conferences all over the world. Are there any significant differences you’ve noticed in audiences or approaches to content? 

There’s a huge risk here of making big generalizations and playing to stereotypes. But I’ve definitely delivered talks and run workshops in cultures where the norm is to really get involved and to ask questions throughout. Then I’ve worked in other cultures where the norm is actually to sit and politely listen and to pay serious attention. I remember delivering a session once in a Nordic country where I really thought I was totally bombing as they sat stony-faced the whole way through. Then when we broke for coffee they were all coming up to me to tell me how great it was and ask questions. A totally different vibe. I’ve delivered sessions in that country quite a few times now, so I’m always prepared mentally for it now. But it really threw me to begin with.

When it comes to thoughts about content, then I think it’s fair to say that content strategy is a more developed discipline in Western countries. In my sector, we see some good expertise emerging in the UK, the USA and Canada particularly – and there are definitely some leading voices from Australia too - but some of what we see elsewhere in the world isn’t quite so well developed.

The importance of more emotive storytelling varies across the world too. I was recently at lunch with a university fundraising professional in Hong Kong and she was telling me that storytelling isn’t such a big thing for them – yet! They tend to rely more on factual content.

Attitudes from the audience themselves to authorship can vary too. But, honestly, I tend to find that these differences are hard to pin down to specific countries or cultures. They’re more down to individual personalities and value systems rather than their country of birth. It’s why as a content strategist when I’m working with segments and personas, unless we’re dealing with immigration information, currency or language variations, I actually don’t find personas designed to represent a particular national “identity” very helpful at all.

Did being a competitive swimmer in your teens teach you anything that you use in your business life? 

I wish I had a compelling answer to this question, but it’s not something I’ve ever really reflected on before. So, let’s reflect on it now: 

·      It definitely taught me a lot about time management. As a competitive swimmer, you’re in the pool every day doing long training sessions. Having to fit that in around school work was tough going. I’d regularly be sat at competitions at the weekend doing my homework on poolside while waiting for a race.

·      It should have taught me a lot about the positive impact that exercise has on your intellectual capacity. But I think I was probably too young to understand that at the time. But I was a straight-A student, and I’m convinced part of that was because I invested a lot of time in my physical health, not just my work. I’ve started to embrace that more in recent years, but I’ve had too many years of my working life where I’ve let my health fall by the wayside.

·      One of the really nice things about swimming is that you have to learn how to be part of a team while also really also knowing how to perform as an individual. I think that’s really important in content strategy work too. Knowing what your individual strengths are in order to see how you contribute to the overall team, but also knowing that you can work in isolation.

·      I don’t know whether this came from swimming, or just my personality in general, but I know the value of really believing that you can push yourself just that little bit further. Sport is a beautiful way of showing yourself that you can always improve, always make small tweaks or big step changes to something that you do in order to be better. I put a lot of pressure on my team now to dig deep and find that in themselves. They find it really unnerving sometimes – I push them to improve by getting myself out of their way, rather than holding their hand. I can’t win the race for them, but they have always found something in themselves and achieve so much in such a short space of time. Content strategy is an endurance relay, not an individual sprint. Goodness, that sounds corny, doesn't it?

I loved your content strategy maturity framework (for Gather Content). One of your questions was, Do people working in content strategy in your organization really actually know what they’re doing? Are they shining lights in the world of content strategy or do they barely know their CMS from their CRM?

What would you advise if the answers are no? 

The Content Strategy Maturity Framework is actually the structure for a whole study that I’ve developed to help organizations assess how they’re performing across multiple themes that add up to great content operations. I have a scoring system behind it too, and assess organizations to see where improvements can be  made. There are 10 parts to it, and for each of the 10 parts I have 10 measures of assessment.

If an organization is low-scoring and those answers are “no” to questions like the ones you identify, then firstly I’d suggest that they don’t beat themselves up for that. Content strategy is still hugely embryonic, and the term “content operations” isn’t really uttered as much as it should be just yet.

That said, with 10 parts to the study, and all of them quite different, there will always be some areas performing better than others and therefore something to celebrate and something to improve.

So, I like to sit with representatives from an organization and lay out the 10 pillars of high performing content operations on cards in front of them and do a card sort activity with them to work out how they all impact on each other, what ones they’re actually doing really well, and then select two or three for priority improvement.

They all have a knock-on effect to each other, so by starting with a few, you’ll probably quickly also have a positive impact on others.

When I’m commissioned to do it as a full study, I can also prioritize for them and give them clear steps.

What excites and/or fulfills you most about what you do? 

Nice question. My work excites me on two levels primarily:

-       The fact that I work in a sector that genuinely changes lives (the education sector) and my role is often to help organizations be able to create the kind of content that inspires curiosity and enthusiasm for learning and research environments.

-       The fact that I work in a field that blends the creative with the scientific. I’m quite a creative and visual person, but I’m also very analytical and favor evidence-based decisions. Content strategy brings those together for me. I get to work with both my head and my heart.  

 

Siouxzi Donnelly

 
Photo courtesy of SIOUXZI DONNELLY

Photo courtesy of SIOUXZI DONNELLY

 

Senior Content Strategist, Arity

"Content is UX -- we just have a different lens into the UX picture."

Chicago, IL

www.nohwear.net

 

 
 

 

How did you become a content strategist? 

I think it was just an organic alignment of my talents and interests. I’ve always been a tech person; my dad sold computers to my school and I had to teach the staff how to use them. I am also an entertainer/storyteller at heart. I love to lead people on an adventure. After pursuing writing and acting in college and grad school, the digital world became a natural place to move into. I started out managing websites for companies, creating all the content and doing the basic code to update them. My first big step though was when I became the content manager at paper-source.com. We didn't have a CMS so I had to learn the relationships between data. This set me up with a unique skillset within the greater "Content" discipline. After Paper Source I went to VSA Partners in Chicago. For me content strategy was a natural evolution as I learned content management. I learned to think strategically around how and why an experience works and how to align user-centered design with business goals.

You also have user experience chops. How did you learn about that, too?

I think great UX comes from really understanding your audience and making things easier and more logical for them, while bringing them as much joy and delight within the moment as possible. As a content manager, you can't do your job if you're not observing how and why users are engaging. If you don't pick up on the challenges facing users as you navigate your site every single day, you aren't doing your job. E-commerce is an amazing foundation for how to think about UX.

I think my first real "UX" moment happened when I was doing a regular audit of a retail website and realized how long it took to scroll through a category page. How much time was a user browsing instead of adding to cart/buying? Were they even scrolling the whole way down? Why weren't they going into a detail page from this page?  I suggested bringing these products together and treating them as a suite to make them scroll less and still show users the full range of products. We explored how to photograph the products, how the users would purchase, what would happen if something was sold out. Then we tested it and discovered the new approach increased sales and in instances where we were out of one product, customers looked to buy another. It was the perfect combination of how designing for an improved user experience would fulfill our business goals of increasing sales within this area of product.

Tell us about the project you most enjoyed working on and why.

Easily the IBM Icons of Progress. It was a great combination of team, skills and opportunity. Not only did I get to explore the history of IBM (and nerd out about Benoit Mandelbrot's Fractals) but we got the chance to interview some amazing people. About 8 years later, I walked into the Museum of Science and Industry and discovered there was an exhibit that featured a significant amount of our work. It's pretty amazing to walk into a museum with your kid and be able to say, this is my work. Your mom helped make this happen.  It's also rewarding to know that the way we thought about this content -- what it should be, and how to create it -- was able to extend far beyond the initial channels we created it for.

How has the field changed since you've been in it and where do you see it going in the near future?

Well, considering not too long ago the term Content Strategist wasn't a job title, I think we've come a long way. I love that there's a greater understanding around the importance of content, but I think we still have a long way to go. Content is UX -- we just have a different lens into the UX picture. I think we are still working to be seen as equals, which is reflected in the ever-changing Content Discipline titles. We are trying to distance ourselves from "just writers" (which is completely offensive anyway - writing is hard and should be highly respected) to being seen as designers, strategists, problem solvers and user advocates. What I'd really like to see is more Product Designers come from the Content Discipline. PDs usually come from visual design or UX/IA. Content Designers need more access to the tools that design uses, and we should be included in doing conception and prototyping work. Partly because we have knowledge that should be leveraged, partly because Content Strategists should have broader career growth opportunities. Right now it's not good enough.

How do you deal with resistance from stakeholders (and possibly team members in other functions) who might not understand content strategy or your approach to it?

I've found the best way to get buy-in is to prove the value. Build something, make an impact. It's even better if you can get Research involved. Then you have results to back you up. Working in a data and tech org, nothing makes a better argument than data science.

Can you describe a recent challenge and how you solved it?

I was working on a project where UX and Visual Design created a user flow with wireframes and sample copy, and then they came to me to ask me to polish it. I had them walk me through it, I asked questions, I got answers. I then asked for some cave time. During that cave time I tried to just polish, but it was quickly obvious to me that the users' experience would not be easy, logical and definitely not delightful or full of joy. So I mocked up a new approach and invited them over and we walked through it. We talked about why this not that. They had knowledge I didn't, so together we were able to take the two approaches and find the most streamlined one. After that, the entire team embraced a stronger collaboration style and the content team was included in every meeting involving design, without fail.

Has volunteering with Kidical Mass (kids and bikes) taught you anything about project organization, i.e. maybe how to herd cats? 

Clarity is critical for getting the best outcome. Before I lead a ride, I go over our rules, how do we ride together, how do we communicate with each other, what we have to do at intersections which can be different at a stop sign and a stop light. We do these rides to have fun, but also to teach kids how to bike, the rules of the road and how to be safe around cars. We teach the community to see us, to respect us, that we are there, that we will obey traffic laws. We teach kids and adults to be respectful of each other.

In my work, this clarity and communication is important too. We need clear ways of working, communicating and leadership, even in an autonomous org. We need clear business goals, customer goals, and measures that will tell us if we were successful or not.  Clear content, UX and design enables a product to have a purpose in this world.

 

Kathy Wagner

 
Photo courtesy of Kathy Wagner

Photo courtesy of Kathy Wagner

 

Founder, Content Strategy Inc.

"I get really frustrated by a 'we can’t do that here' mentality. Every company can improve their content and content practices – let’s figure out how to do that!."

Vancouver, BC, Canada

 

Content Strategy Inc.
Twitter
LinkedIn 

 

 

 
 

Your blog on contentstrategyinc.com is such a great knowledge resource that I wonder how you yourself became educated in content strategy. Tell us about your path.

I began my career as a technical communicator working within a usability team. Later, I worked as a customer experience researcher with a special interest in content. In both of those earlier career paths it was the intersection of content and customer experience that really fascinated me. It was an area I was passionate about and was so confused as to why more organizations weren’t paying attention to it. I did a lot of educating and advocating in those days. There were no content strategy resources at that time, so I borrowed methodologies and approaches from the customer experience discipline and applied them to content. That’s still the foundation of how we approach content strategy today.

When I began my own content strategy business in 2010 I quickly realized that content strategy is not sustainable without a solid content governance foundation. I expanded my skillsets in those areas (learning as I go, borrowing what I could from other disciplines), and then hired and trained people who specialize in governance. Now that makes up about half of our business.

What type of clients do you enjoy working with the most and why?

From a demographic perspective, we work with clients large enough to have accumulated decades of messy content problems. Complicated internal politics just makes things more interesting. We do a lot of work with public sector clients and other companies who struggle with creating and managing content effectively and efficiently in this digital age.

From a personality perspective, I love working with clients who are excited about content strategy and who work with us to find creative ways to implement solutions, even in challenging environments. I get really frustrated by a “we can’t do that here” mentality. Every company can improve their content and content practices – let’s figure out how to do that!

Your consultancy developed the Content Assess and Progress methodology. I’m curious about how CAaP came about and whether it was a response to some chaotic projects (not that any of us have ever experienced those) or something similar.

One of the reasons why I love content strategy is that there’s always a time, early in the project, when a client’s content or content practices seem like an overwhelming mess and we have no idea how we’re going to wade through it all. But we always do, which I credit to our methodology and an ability to find patterns in the chaos.

Our CAaP program is our way of sharing that methodology and helping people see patterns in their own content chaos that they’d otherwise miss. It comes from our experience working on hundreds of content strategy projects, but what’s really exciting for us is that as more organizations participate in CAaP, we can incorporate that broader experience base into the program and provide industry-relevant content strategy benchmarks.

In your article “Productivity for the Uninclined,” you describe yourself as “lazy,” which I have a tough time believing. Do you have any content strategy productivity hacks you could share with us?

Well, I am lazy in that I’m really not good at doing things I’m not interested in. So, the best productivity hack I know is to focus on your areas of interest, and always keep expanding on them. Then you don’t have to make yourself do things, but are actually engaged in the process and can get into the flow where time goes quickly and you end up producing interesting stuff. Of course, there are still some things I need to do that I don’t enjoy (like audits!) but, in general, if I start getting bored with my work I’ll find a way to shift directions to make it more interesting. Content strategy is wonderful for that because there are so many different aspects that no one person could ever master them all!

In one of your case studies you say, “People are not always open to new ideas, to changing the way that they work and think,” and you add that you’ve observed that across industries. How have you helped your clients to change their ways and to be more open?

I realized early on how important content governance is to content strategy, and it only took a short while after that to understand the importance of change management. My senior content governance strategist, Blaine Kyllo, and I both have change management methodology certifications and we integrate change management principles into our content governance frameworks and training programs. One of the most important things we do now, with all our clients, is to make sure that the people who need to change the way they work are involved in the process of developing the new systems.

Finally, I love how your web site says you blend science and art. Can you give us an example of how you do that?

Well, the science part comes from our more analytical and methodology-based approach. We do research and try our best to make sure our content strategies and designs are evidence-based. But there’s an art to figuring out how to make that happen in different environments, and how to give each client what they need to help them move forward. No two projects, and no two clients, are the same. There’s no one-size-fits all content strategy solution. Tailoring content strategy to a particular context and client is definitely an art.

 

 

Kristina Mausser

 
Photo courtesy of Kristina Mausser

Photo courtesy of Kristina Mausser

 

President and senior content strategy consultant, Kina’ole Inc.

"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."

Montague, Ontario, Canada

Kina'ole Inc.
Twitter
LinkedIn

 

 
 

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.

 

 

Jess Vice

 
Photo courtesy of JESS VICE

Photo courtesy of JESS VICE

 

User Experience Lead, Clearlink

"I'm still seeing a widespread trend of 'We need [UX or Content Strategy]!' without understanding what the two disciplines are, what they offer, and how to empower them to success in individual organizations."

Salt Lake City, UT

Medium
Twitter

 

 
 

I was struck by the keen sense of humor in content you've written. Would you agree that’s essential for anyone in this field?

I think a sense of humor is an essential trait in general right now. But in content strategy and UX, yes, absolutely! Humor helps us keep our humanity in mind and connect more authentically with the people we're building for. It helps us think less of ourselves and listen to others. And when all else fails, humor is the first to reach for the Nutella and a spoon.

How did you initially get into content strategy and why have you moved into UX and user testing? Does content strategy inform any of what you’re doing now, or vice versa?

I shifted from copywriting to content strategy in 2010 after Kristina Halvorson's book came out, and she started talking about a big, clear direction for CS. It felt like a natural next move for me: like taking a few steps back from writing the content into planning how the content campaigns and website should be pieced together. With a degree in English and writing, it made sense to look at the broader story lines and start considering the experience a user might have from end to end rather than the day-to-day craft of putting words together.

As I spent more and more time up to my eyeballs in CS, I kept talking about users and advocating for users and then wondering, "Who are our users and what do they actually think about our site? And how can we go beyond content to improve this experience?" I started reading everything I could on UX and talking about it to anyone who would listen. In content strategy, a lot of the research we do starts to bleed into user research - if you really want to know what people think about your brand, your site, your content, you have to talk to them directly. That's user research. And I had so many ideas for how to present information or smooth the experience for users that it made logical sense to step from high-level site strategy into experience mapping, user research, prototyping and user testing.

I think the progression from copy to content strategy to user experience has been very beneficial in building a systems thinking mindset. In the copy phase, I learned all the pieces and people that make a site or brand work, and I learned to talk to them in their languages. In content strategy, I learned to plan how those pieces and people interacted and to coordinate their efforts into work that was beneficial to users. Now, in UX, I find myself remembering all the things I wished I'd known about users as a content strategist, and trying to deliver insights and data that help content strategists, SEOs, and more as they plan sites and campaigns.

In your article, “Where do we go from mobile first,” you say user-first thinking requires a shift in thinking about user context and how to meet their immediate needs regardless of platform. Can you give an example of how you’ve done that?

Of course! In content strategy, when we're planning site structure and looking at existing user flows, we talk a lot about continuity and pathing. Sometimes we talk about tasks, sometimes not. I've been working from the UX side to help shift our priorities toward task-based planning: what does a person want to DO when they come to our site? Are we facilitating that task or obscuring that task? How complicated is that task currently, and how could we make it simpler? That way I'm working with content strategists who are building for action-oriented sites, and the tests that I run can help determine priority, ease, and user needs around those actions. Tasks can be active in signing up, purchasing, or customizing, or active in education, research, and comparison. Gerry McGovern has been doing a ton of work and research in task-based user testing. I got to see him speak at An Event Apart last year, and I was jumping out of my skin to get back to work and focus my tests more clearly.

What do you see a lot of clients getting wrong or not understanding about UX or content strategy?  

I'm still seeing a widespread trend of "We need [UX or Content Strategy]!" without understanding what the two disciplines are, what they offer, and how to empower them to success in individual organizations. In a lot of places, CS is still essentially blog management and content calendaring when it has the space and potential to offer so much insight into what works for an audience, why it works, and how to build on that success. UX is in a similar boat. It's often still an afterthought - "Oh, hey, we finished building our landing page. Would you look it over for UX?" (One of my favorite articles right now is "Hey can you 'do the UX' for us?" by Fabricio Teixeira.) I absolutely love that C-levels are aware of CS and UX and asking or advocating for them in their organizations. That's a huge first step! But I think there's still a lot of education left to do - at least once a week I have a conversation with a peer that ends with, "You can do that or find that out? That's amazing! How come I didn't know?"

There's also an upper limit we haven't hit yet in content strategy and user experience - we're still testing small, worrying over details. There are so many times I get a test request and just ask, "Do you think this is a better experience than what you have on your site right now?" If the answer is yes, we don't bother testing - implement the better ideas and test into the new functionalities, the new flows, the "crazy" ideas that keep you awake at night. The internet has been kind of the same for the last eight-ish years (from a user's perspective). What's next? How do we get there? How do we keep leveling the playing field until we get a fast, intuitive, user-centric, device-agnostic internet?

The amount of available content about content strategy and UX is overwhelming—how do you manage to sift through it?

My boss jokes that I've already read all the articles on the internet, but my bookmarks folders and Medium account and Twitter lists are still overflowing with things I haven't read yet. It's tough! Especially now that I'm in implementation and not as much research, there's very little time for reading. I've started subscribing to a few newsletters that aggregate good articles and news bullets in the industry. And I've been really careful with curating Twitter lists of highly relevant folks who specialize in UX, SEO, content strategy, interaction design, information architecture, testing and data, etc. I still feel like, even on a good week with a couple hours of reading, I'm about two years behind!

Where do you see experience design and research going in the next few years?

I think the trends we're seeing in experience design will continue: voice activated, touch or gesture controlled, faster, more mobile-centric. Those are all in the works and still being refined. But I think we're also going to see a huge emphasis on accessibility in the next year or two. Google's already monitoring mobile experiences and pushing for building things "users first." The next logical frontier is "all users" - no matter where in the world they are, what devices they have access to, or what abilities they do or do not have. And I think that's going to suddenly bring the internet into a new age - there will be legal changes and requirements around accessibility, net neutrality is going to continue being more and more talked over, and the digital is going to run smack up against the tangible. I know this sounds kind of ominous and grand, but I think it won't be so much a revolution as a continuous honing of the internet as a tool to build a global community.

What gives you the most satisfaction from what you’re doing and why?

I love finding answers for people - in test results, in case studies, in articles and research. I love a good challenge and being left a bit to my own devices to solve that challenge. User testing is just that, all bundled up together. I'm offered a problem from a marketing team, given the space to develop multiple solutions and do research around what others have already tried, and given the tools to test each experience thoroughly. Then I get to sit with the team and go over the results, talk through their ideas and insights, and set a plan to move forward. It's so many parts people, strategy, users, and research - I love coming to work every day. It doesn't hurt that the CRO team I sit on is some of the smartest, funniest people I've ever had the privilege to work with.

 

 

Sally Bagshaw

 
Photo courtesy of Sally Bagshaw

Photo courtesy of Sally Bagshaw

 

Content Strategist, independent consultant

"At the heart of it, everything that we do is about people. The best thing I've learned from UX colleagues is to understand how to find out more about people's goals, motivations and decision making."

Based in Brisbane, Australia, but working globally

Web Content Strategy | Australian content strategist - Thoughts and musings on content strategy by Sally Bagshaw
 

 
 

Your article Beyond Words: using content strategy for better UX is an excellent explanation of content strategy! How did you get into the field? 

I have a degree in business communication and have worked in the digital space since about 2000. Right from the beginning I was all about content. At first I managed a government department's intranet, then I moved to website projects and at one point I even managed a CMS implementation. The mix of communication, project and people management plus a few years as a copywriter built a really solid foundation to become a content strategist. It also helped that I'm a bit of a geek and can translate more technical ideas and requirements into conversations that non-technical folk understand. 

You seem to possess a fantastic command of not just content strategy but UX too! What advice would you give budding content strategists who want to solidify their UX knowledge?

We all should have at least some understanding of UX methods and processes in our content strategy toolkit as there's so much cross-over with our disciplines.  At the heart of it, everything that we do is about people. The best thing I've learned from UX colleagues is to understand how to find out more about people's goals, motivations and decision making.

I've also learned good techniques to validate ideas - from basic paper prototyping to more involved user testing.

So, my advice is if you work with UX folk, invite yourself along to their user research and testing sessions. See firsthand actual face-to-face interaction with the people using your product or service rather than looking at rows in a spreadsheet (not that there's anything wrong with that!).

You’ve illuminated content strategy so well you’ve made me wonder why I sometimes struggle to explain what I do! What is the hardest thing for people to grasp about content strategy?

Because most of my work is at the intersection of content, UX and technology, I find the biggest challenge is that people still focus mostly on the editorial side of content. Don't get me wrong - it's perfectly OK to create an editorial content strategy but it's still only one part of a bigger puzzle.

We often neglect the people side of things. Who's doing what, what resources do we actually need for great content, how do we empower people to make good decisions about content, how can teams effectively communicate with each other, how do we share and celebrate success. 

All the style guides in the world won't fix an internal culture that's broken.

The other thing is that good content strategy happens every day. It's not just for one campaign, one website launch or one project. We should be constantly improving, measuring and refining what we do.

I loved your blog post/conference presentation about taming fiefdoms and the reluctance to give up control. How do you get past that with clients?

As I touched on before, people are the hardest part of content. You have to appreciate that content is personal. Nobody woke up one day and thought - hey, I'm going to produce some really terrible content. So if it's your job to help create a better content experience, then you mustn't forget to support the people who will be planning for, creating and managing that experience in the long term. Some of this is through being empathetic, some of it is about being confident (people look to someone to help guide them through difficult times) but most of it is about listening. Listen to what they are saying and not saying. Invite the quiet ones to the table. Don't discard their ideas. Give them the tools they need to do a great job.

The other thing that helps is to have good user research. Remove personal opinion from decision making and base it on evidence. If you can tie actions to outcomes it makes it hard to argue for anything else.

Tell us about one of the projects you’re most proud of and why.

I recently worked as part of a team on a large project for a university. We were tasked with transforming the university's web presence from an old, outdated and unfriendly experience to something that was completely user centric. We also had to set up new ways of working internally, adopting Agile processes and building a strong content community across the different business areas and faculties (colleges).

The reason that I'm proud of this project is because throughout all the challenges we had (including navigating a complex, political environment, mountains of existing content, working out what to do with legacy systems), the team never lost sight of our end goal: helping the user. We tried new things, adapted and refined what wasn't working, and developed a fantastic team culture. We also created a really strong story about what we were trying to achieve that we shared with stakeholders. People felt that they were part of something that was going to have a massive, positive impact across the university. And it did.

 

 

Carrie Hane

 
Photo courtesy of Carrie Hane

Photo courtesy of Carrie Hane

 

Founder & Principal Strategist, Tanzen LLC

"The biggest challenge I face as a consultant is getting past the notion that content strategy is writing and messaging."

Washington, DC

Tanzen Consulting
Medium

 

 
 

Congratulations on your new book! What gave you the idea? 

A few years ago, after working together on the 2015 IA Summit, Mike Atherton (my co-author) and I were talking about the different ways people used the term "content modeling.” We realized there our work intersected – he’d been doing domain and content modeling outside an interface while I’d been using a content model for CMS implementations. When that end-to-end process was put together, it was different from what others were sharing. So we started by creating a workshop for UX, IA, and content strategy conferences. When the idea of a book on domain modeling was presented, we decided to do it. But we’d cover the entire process, not just domain modeling. And so, Designing Connected Content came to life. 

Content strategy is still a new field but you’re running a consultancy to train people to see content differently. What challenges do you face?

The biggest challenge I face as a consultant is getting past the notion that content strategy is writing and messaging. I focus on the people, processes, and systems involved in creating, connecting, and managing content. You could call it back-end content strategy. Just like there is front-end and back-end development, we have that with content strategy too. My company focuses on what happens behind the scenes to make it all work.

Changing how content is produced and making it more effective takes education. The web has become everyone’s job but very few people were trained in how to make it good. Many people who manage websites, write web content, publish email newsletters, post to social media channels, and make videos fell into for one reason or another. It’s too important now to be publishing digital content without some knowledge about what makes content effective.  

What do you think most clients and stakeholders get wrong about content and how should we, as content strategists, best help them?

Too many organizations think that they are user-centric, but really, they are only rewrapping their websites and content in new packages that still reflect the organization’s desires instead of meeting the audiences’ needs. They start by thinking, “How do I write this web page” instead of asking the questions, “Who is the target audience? What do they want? How can I make content useful that is useful to them?”

In my training and consulting (which is sometimes more like coaching), I focus on defining the audience and their needs along with planning a structure that allows content to be reused across all channels and interfaces. Every content strategist and user experience professional should be relentlessly asking “why” and reminding stakeholders about the users and their needs. They should be practicing what I call “strategic nagging.” We need to patiently and persistently repeat a message for it to get absorbed by the people we work with. Content strategy is change leadership. Practitioners needs to step into the leadership role.

Carrie, when you work with clients on content modeling, what’s the most difficult part for them to understand and why?

The most difficult part is getting people to get their heads out of the website. The content modeling I do is for an organization, not a particular website or product. When we do this, they can use it for all their products, websites, and communications channels.

There is also a lot of ambiguity because it’s a new way of thinking about content for most people. Because they’re used to thinking first about what it’s going to look like, it can be difficult to get them to focus on the attributes of a resource as it exists outside of a digital interface display. But as they go through the process, we can see the light come on and they start getting excited about the possibilities that lie ahead.

What kind of challenges do you see coming up in this field? What kind of opportunities?

One of the challenges I see in the content strategy field is having alignment within the community about what content strategists do. It’s not really a “define the damn thing” problem, but one of being a very broad field. Content strategy encompasses so many different aspects that just calling oneself a content strategist – or hiring one – can mean so many different things. I’ve seen some threads in various communities where people are telling others that they aren’t real content strategists. That’s not helpful. If we can’t reach agreement among ourselves, how are we going to get taken seriously by the business people who need us to be successful?

Another challenge I’ve only recently seen mentioned publicly, but I’ve thought about for several years, is that the field is made up largely of women. And that comes with the same baggage as other “women’s” fields like nursing and teaching: lower pay and less respect. It’s something that’s part of the bigger equality discussion and won’t be solved apart from that.

The opportunities are huge, though. As “content strategy” gains traction, businesses embrace design as a differentiator, and screens fade to the background (think voice interfaces) as content rises to the surface as the most important thing an organization has, people who practice content strategy will become more important and in demand. We who do the care and feeding of the content and its management and delivery systems will have more influence on businesses and products. Content isn’t going away, it’s going to keep increasing in quantity. By applying a strategic approach to the ever-multiplying content, we can improve the quality too.

 

 

Corey Vilhauer

 
Photo courtesy of COREY VILHAUER

Photo courtesy of COREY VILHAUER

 

User Experience Strategist, Blend Interactive

"I can say that the line between information architecture and content strategy is pretty thin and usually heavily blurred."

Sioux Falls, SD

Eating Elephant
Black Marks on Wood Pulp

 

 
 

What are 3 resources that help you keep up with current thinking on content strategy? 

Other than some obvious ones (@halvorson, A List Apart, etc.) I think the following three things are cool.

Rian van der Merwe's Elezea is pretty great, and includes a nice little periodic newsletter.

The Content Insight twitter is a good twitter for collecting and reposting interesting content-related things.

I am part of a cozy little Slack channel of close friends who are also content strategists, which I say not because it's open for anyone to join, but because the best resources out there are going to be your friends and people you meet. I've strengthened everything in my daily work by listening and asking questions of people I've met in the industry. We're all each other's resources, so it's important we ask - and freely share.


Describe a typical workday (if there isn’t a “typical” day, just choose an example):

As most people will say, there is no typical workday. But here are some of the things I'll do, depending on the project.

Discovery: Traveling to a client and meeting with stakeholders in order to map out a future site. Interviewing potential site users on the phone and synthesizing their comments. Reading documents. Helping client stakeholders negotiate a sea of potential pitfalls.

Creating: Wireframes, personas, journey maps. Presentations. Jokes about professional wrestling.

Managing: Organizing resources for complex migrations. Site maps and content models. Playlists for each decade of modern music, because I apparently know how to have a super cool time.

For Blend: Writing occasional blog posts. Finding speakers for our Now What? Conference. Speaking at conferences.

How did you become a content strategist?

I was an advertising copywriter working at an agency that wasn't as web-forward as I'd like. So on one hand, I tried to affect change within my organization, while on the other I searched for a new industry that would allow me to pair the web with my background in writing. I talked to Deane Barker about it, and he hired me to build a content strategy practice at Blend.

We did a lot of learning together - the biggest thing being that I found I was no longer excited about the writing part of the web anymore. I found that I really loved content modeling and organizing and creating usable systems that words could live in.

Some people call it information architecture. Working at a smaller organization, I can say that the line between information architecture and content strategy is pretty thin and usually heavily blurred. 

Corey, what led you to specialize in content strategy for small businesses? What unique content strategy challenges does that present?

Simply, we are a smaller organization, and we don't always work with companies that have gigantic budgets or organizational needs. The unique challenges we're presented often land in the sticky DMZ of intent and budget.

Everyone wants all of the things. I'm often put into the position where I have to explain that high-level testing and hundreds of interviews and all of the things that come as second nature in all of those corporate case studies aren't possible when you have a team of two in the marketing department. Our eyes are bigger than our plate, and we don't have the team to back it up (or get it rolling in the first place).

What do you wish most clients understood about content strategy?

That content strategy isn't a thing. It's a process.

Content strategy - especially discovery and planning - feels like a project deliverable (one that can often be overlooked in favor of more time spent on flashy gadget integration). But it's not a deliverable. It's a thing we need to bake into our existing organizations. It's organizational change, not documentation.

Describe a recent project and how you solved a problem or met a challenge.

 We're currently tackling a somewhat complicated migration project that involves a CMS forklift (essentially, lifting a major site and replacing the CMS without actually changing the design or content). The difficulty, we've found, is not in the actual project, but in organizing resources for the actual migration.
 
We often find the expectation of a content migration project is far from the reality of it - migration is not an easy process, and only small portions of it can be automated. This means a combination of scripts and tools to bring most of the content in, and a team of people who can tackle the automated content and bring it up to the speed.

Our challenge - and this is the challenge for any new site, really - is to balance the tasks of the job with the people working on it. Those most familiar with the CMS are tasked with some of the slower, more complicated content. Those who aren't familiar can use a tool we created to compare old and new content for consistency. It's content triage, really.

How do you see content strategy evolving or changing in the next few years?

I think we still struggle with how to implement content strategy principles long after the initial recommendations have been made. There are some great people talking about content operations - how to organize your team, how to allocate resources, how to strategically prioritize web needs in the face of an already busy marketing and web staff - but it isn't given the same attention as more visible topics like content marketing or user testing.

I see this becoming an area that becomes much more vocal as we further flesh out how CMS and content strategy fit together.

What is the best content strategy advice you’ve ever gotten?

Not so much "advice" as a demand ... when Deane Barker said to me, "I want you to speak at a conference by next year." It forced me to focus on a topic and get acquainted with some of the best minds in the industry.

What would you advise someone who wants to get into this field? 

Take a few weeks, if possible, and help someone perform quality assurance or user assurance testing on a CMS implementation. You will learn more about how content works within a system than you'll get from studying anyone's wireframes or content model, and you will be more disciplined in making realistic strategic decisions. No more blue-sky craziness. Instead: editor-centric content.