Chief Strategist and President, Content Company, Inc.
"Content is the way an organization’s work is manifested in the world."
What led you to become a content strategist?
I started my professional career in magazine publishing and then was a copywriter. When I first discovered the Internet in about 1995, I thought my combination of editorial and marketing writing would be a good fit, but it was challenging to find anyone who was paying for content. I moved from NYC to Chicago in 1997 and got a corporate job where I led their website redesign effort and helped create their first intranet. In 1999, I went to a conference in San Francisco – Web99 – where I first heard the term “content strategy” at a fabulous panel discussion with Molly Wright Steenson and other cool women. When I learned that it meant applying a publishing mentality to websites, I knew I’d found the name for what I’d been trying to invent.
Shortly after that conference, I started to see job postings for content strategists, and I got a job at Sapient, where there was already a thriving content strategy practice. It was challenging to build a team of content strategists, because there wasn’t anyone who already had experience.
What made you decide to specialize in content strategy for nonprofits and what do you get out of it personally?
As a business owner, I get to choose what kinds of projects to work on. I work with associations and nonprofit organizations for several reasons:
1. They do work that makes a positive difference in people’s lives and in the world
2. They create a lot of content, but don’t always do it in a way that is effective
Describe a typical workday (if there isn’t a “typical” day, just choose an example):
On a typical day, I might be talking to a client about a project we are working on together. Typically, in the early stages of a project, we’re identifying what they want to get out of specific tasks, then in the middle, my team and I will be doing those tasks (content audit, comparative audit, stakeholder interviews, etc.), and then during the later stages of a project, we’re working together closely to figure out their future structure and processes – governance, taxonomy, team structure and roles, etc.
In addition to client work, I might be doing a variety of other things – contributing to an online discussion about a relevant topic, submitting a proposal to speak at a conference, responding to a project proposal, setting up a meetup, or connecting with a prospective team member. I always need to keep an eye on community-building and planning for the future, while at the same time keeping my attention on the work I have now.
What do you wish most clients understood about content strategy?
That it really is about working in new and better ways. Content is the way an organization’s work is manifested in the world, through some medium. Making more effective content means putting several foundational things in place:
1. Creating a common understanding of who the organization is, what its top priorities are, and what its voice is
2. Creating a common understanding of its top-priority audiences and who those people actually are
3. Defining what effectiveness means for different kinds of content, establishing ways to measure that effectiveness, and using those metrics to improve the content
4. Creating new ways of working together to ensure that the only content out there is smart, consistent, current, accurate, and relevant.
That’s no small order, it’s not something that can happen overnight, and it’s not something that a content strategist can implement alone. Some of this requires management direction, and some requires changes in people’s job descriptions and the way their performance is measured.
Describe a recent project. What challenge(s) did you face and how did you solve it?
Clients typically hire me because their content pain points have reached a critical point. They may hear that no one can find anything on their website, or they know they have too much content, or they don’t have a clear way to prioritize what content to promote in various channels. Those are just a few examples. Ideally, clients hire me to get their content strategy in place and identify what content to keep, what to revise, what to remove, and what to create – before they embark on a website redesign.
For a recent project, I talked to stakeholders in multiple departments and found that they had very different conceptions of who the organization was, who the audience was and what they wanted. When I did a comprehensive content audit, I discovered that they had really different practices too – some created a huge amount of content as PDFs, which couldn’t be tracked or measured, some kept content online for many years, and their content was written in very different voices. I helped them understand the negative implications of all of those practices, as well as teach them how to create better content, developed a governance structure for managing the content, and make a plan for fixing some of the existing content before the redesign process started.
They are starting on that process now, and they’re very excited about it. They’re no longer doing work that is not valuable to the audience, and they have the skills they need to create better content.
What is the best content strategy advice you’ve ever gotten?
Not advice per se, but I have several sayings that I use regularly in presentations and with clients:
1. “The web drives organizational change” (source unknown) which I have adapted to “content strategy is really change management in disguise”
2. “Pageviews are not the goal; the goal is the goal,” from Mike Powers (@mjpowers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania
You're involved in so many different things--consulting for clients, teaching a graduate-level course, speaking at conferences, organizing several content strategy groups, online and off, just to name a few of them. How do you do it all?
I make lots and lots of lists. I’m actually not a very good multitasker, but I try and break down my work into very specific pieces so I can start and finish them. There are many more things that I want to do, such as write a book. Maybe this year!
What are 3 resources you keep up with information about content strategy? (Specific blogs, Twitter accounts, etc)
I find great information and links on Twitter every day! Wow, it’s hard to choose just three, but here are some of my top choices:
I do have a Twitter list of content strategy folks:
There are content strategy groups on Google, Facebook, Google Plus – join them. Here’s a list: http://www.contentcompany.biz/2015/01/23/content-strategy-online-groups/
And there are content strategy meetups in many places around the world – find one near you:
You got into content strategy right at the beginning...before it even had a name. What changes have you seen in the field over these few years?
I’ve seen some things that absolutely don’t make me happy: namely, content marketers calling themselves content strategists and conflating content promotion with the larger content strategy. I also see copywriters regularly calling themselves content strategists, which is unfortunate.
But I’ve also seen some changes that are good. Now that many organizations have had a website for a decade or more, they are seeing that they need to create processes and guidelines for their content – i.e., that they need a content strategy. Content is part of so many people’s jobs, so it needs to be brought forward as such.
What would you advise someone who wants to get into this field?
There are great content strategy books and conferences – read and attend. Here are my favorites (this is NOT a comprehensive list)
Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach
Content Everywhere by Sara Wachter-Boettcher
Content Strategy at Work by Margot Bloomstein
The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane
Content Critical by Gerry McGovern
At this point, there are countless definitions and variations on what content strategy means. Different types of content strategy exist to solve different business problems and address different kinds of content. If you read and learn, you’ll see what you gravitate toward. Do research about those content strategy variations and find the experts in them, and follow them on Twitter, Slideshare, blogs, and online, and connect with them. These folks are approachable!