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.

 

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.

 

 

Leticia Mooney

 
PHOTO COURTESY OF LETICIA MOONEY

PHOTO COURTESY OF LETICIA MOONEY

 

Queen Pixie, Brutal Pixie Pty Ltd

"NOBODY understands content strategy; trying to sell it based on what it's called is a total waste of time...decision-makers don't care what you call it, they just want their problems solved."

Adelaide, South Australia

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I love your tagline “making business human.” Give us an idea of how you accomplish that.

Thank you! Ok, before I answer your question, let's all get on the same page with what it means first.

We are (and, more particularly, I am) obsessed by the notion of humanity. What is it? How do we express it? What characterises it? How do people understand it? We aren't alone either; there is now human-centric design, human-centric UX, (etc). But the curious thing about that is that - for me - everything with people at the other end ought to be human-centric. Otherwise, who are you designing things for? Algorithms? Animals? Cars? 

This notion of what constitutes a human state isn't an easy one to answer, either. It's why I dedicate so many podcasts to the question (and have a wall filled with sticky notes to go exploring in thought experiments). In general, those that I've spoken to, from business owners to authors, suggest that there are some key components. They are: 1) listening; 2) empathy. The third component is one that I am by no means the first person to talk about (in fact, the first may have been Claude Hopkins, one of modern copywriting's parents), which is to write in terms that the audience understands.

So, for us, a human business is one that listens to its audiences (internal and external); one that exhibits and uses empathy; one that prioritises relationships; one that communicates effectively. It is also one that weaves these things into what it does, so it can still have really tight corporate strategy, it's just that it is a coherent one. (And by coherent, you understand me to mean corporate coherence, a state in which all aspects of a business are moving in the same direction for the same reasons. There are some great articles about that in Strategy+Business by PwC if you're interested.)

We achieve this through a methodology that incorporates corporate strategy, market and task research, understandability and usability testing, and what I've come to call 'audience advocacy', which is a fancy way of saying great communication at the right time for the right purpose for the right people, in the right way.


How did you get your content strategy education?

The million dollar question!

The 30-second answer is: I didn't. Formal content strategy education is a very, very new concept.

The detailed answer is more interesting.

I was trained as a professional & technical writer and editor, and I have a very old-school approach to business and publishing. That is: It's all about relationships and people. Editing, for example, has always been about audience advocacy. I took arguably the most specialised degree out of my university that was possible. This meant that for all of the components of my degree (major, submajor, cognate, electives), I took subjects from the same stream. So I learned how to write literally everything (fiction, non-fiction, creative nonfiction, business writing, technical writing, job applications, criticism, etc); how to edit everything; and everything about the publishing process. My career has not been all in one line like most people, because I don't function that way. 

In parallel with my uni studies, I worked as a music critic from about the age of 19: Starting with the uni paper. My first business was a bespoke publishing house; my second business was an online magazine titled Metal as Fuck, which was a branding and marketing sensation before I sold it (2007-2011). I scoped the entire platform based on my experience working for other online magazines (and my acquired knowledge of websites and basics of websites), designed the UX at the front- and back-ends; designed the approvals flow; briefed all the designers and developers involved; collaborated with industry (music industry) as to what it ought to include and how and why (etc), and so on. It was a drop-shipping eCommerce platform and a magazine, and was extremely unique because of (a) its focus (extreme metal only), and (b) the way we surfaced the industry, and (c) the way we were briefly able to sell incredible product really cheaply.

Our intention was to connect the fans to the back-end of the industry that they never see, so we did rad things like round-tables with the world's greatest music engineers and producers and publicists, and we were pioneers of community chats on Twitter. As a result of my efforts, we had 1000 fans on Twitter before we even had a product; paired with focused PR rather than advertising, we gained ground really fast once we launched. I was the publisher, but in time also the editor (our first one we had to let go), as well as the person running everything else. And yes, I worked about 120 hours a week for no pay for about four years doing it. :) By the time I sold it to Radar Media, we had writers and photographers in every city of Australia, and also in Mexico, Brazil, the USA, Canada, Taiwan, South Africa, England, Scotland, Norway, Finland, Germany, Sweden, and at various times had people from Japan and Russia and NZ and wherever else they appeared. The massive metal festival in Germany, Wacken, put in rules about 'no new media' which we got through because of our strategic approach; and were the first Australian press to cover Bloodstock (UK), Summer Breeze (GER), Wacken (GER), and Party.San (GER). 

This taught me a bunch of things, including:

  • How to build a fabulous platform
  • How to market a fabulous platform
  • How to promote it (I learned from the PRs and publicists I dealt with on a daily basis)
  • How to create engaged audiences
  • How to get buy-in from people in significant places a long way away
  • How to manage 100% remote teams
  • The reality of running a global business from South Australia (hint: very, very, very little sleep and no down-time)
  • The fact that it's music business not music friendship
  • How to mentor writers effectively even when you never see them
  • How to (and not to) monetise an online publication
  •  .... and much more besides.

It's also the vehicle by which I wrote and released my first book, Music Journalism 101, which was the first course of its kind in the world. I published it as a series of blogs, and produced the book after years of people begging me to do so. One of my writers from then is now producing her own publication in South Africa, and recently told me that it's her guiding light for setting up process. Which is amazing!

After I sold MaF, I ended up working in bunch of interesting jobs before  in a call centre taking complaints about newspaper delivery. It was THE PITS! But it also taught me how people view product. It's never the product, it's the place it has in people's lives. It's the ritual in which the product takes place. It's what you might call the bread and butter territory for strategists like Gerry McGovern. 

It also taught me how business failure (meaning, failure to deliver product according to promises made) causes mass exits of loyal customers. About two years into this job, enduring endless teams of "consultants" who were "studying the reasons for the failure to convert and retain", and watching marketing teams fail to connect with customers, and dealing with software that had reporting descoped by people who didn't understand it, and building internal sharepoint sites that other teams begged me to build for them, I realised something.

That something was that I had the strategic knowledge that could have prevented so many of the problems that plagued us on a daily basis! And when this dawned on me, I realised that everyone is just making it up in business. It's not that News Advantage had any more knowledge than anyone else. They were just bigger! They'd just been selling newspapers since 1858 in one form or another. They just had more money! They were still just making it up, based on what they'd done before. Every founder hits this realisation at some point, and it is a seismic shift in how you view the world, let me tell ya.

Anyway, what NewsAdvantage lacked was the strategic oomph to really do anything to pull it all together. After I had that realisation, I understood that I could add a lot of value to other companies, even large, established companies. 

And then after an interesting turn of events I found myself out on my own again.

At that point (2013) I discovered this newfangled phrase content strategy that seemed to describe much of what was my skillset, so I grabbed it and ran as I started validating my new startup.

Like most entrepreneurs, my education wasn't in an institution. It was by learning from every single person around me, every single day, while reading whatever books I gravitate towards to solve this week's problem. And that's still how I learn.

How do you help your clients understand what content strategy is?

I wrote an article about that. But now (2018) I don't bother. I talk to them about their problems in their terms, and sell on that basis. NOBODY understands content strategy; trying to sell it based on what it's called is a total waste of time. This is a very blunt way of saying that the only people it matters to now are those people looking for jobs, or trying to recruit the skill-set - but even then, I suggest you'd end up with an extremely mixed bag of applicants and roles, because marketing has done more for the distribution of the term than the true content strategy fraternity has ever done. (Sorry guys, just what I see.) 

In business terms and sales terms, decision-makers don't care what you call it, they just want their problems solved.

What are the biggest challenges in doing content strategy for law?

There are so many! They are still having conversations like, Why do I need a website, if that gives you an idea. :)

The critical challenge is that the legal market is small, and entirely relationships-driven, and most lawyers know each other. So, as a non-lawyer, that's an interesting challenge. The next biggest challenge is the fact that law firms are run by lawyers, and that many lawyers don't understand business, but they do think all this stuff is fluffy and BS. It's a very reactive industry. I've had lawyers stand in front of me after I've given a presentation and say, 'You know, all this business stuff? I couldn't give a sh*t'.

For all of the challenges, though, there are absolute gems, shining lights. And as the industry undergoes significant shifts, we're going to see more of the adventurous, communication-minded lawyers running boutique firms and really caring about their audiences. They're already emerging (a great example is Hive Legal in Australia, which began with human-centric design principles), and it's such an exciting place to be.

What’s the content strategy community like in Australia?

Man, it's tiny. Unless you ask a marketer, then it's pretty big! (They'd be talking about something else though.)  I think all the key content strategists I could count on 10 fingers. And at least two of them are Kiwis. Ha! I'm in Adelaide, which is 3.5 hours flight from Brisbane and Perth, 2 hours to Sydney, an hour to Melbourne. We're a long way from anywhere, and our town is extremely small (1 million). There are loads of developers here who don't know what accessibility is, let alone content strategy. So, while our community (such as it is) is super friendly and supportive and brilliant, there really aren't many of us. We get about 20 people to a meetup, and that's because we're content strategists, plus the UX community, plus the Write the Docs community.

What’s your favorite part about what you do?

The point at which I hear clients say things like, I love you guys so much I am never letting you go, because it says we've delivered them a whole lot of value. That's a pretty special moment.