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.