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.

 

 

Ania Mastalerz

 
PHOTO COURTESY OF ANIA MASTALERZ

PHOTO COURTESY OF ANIA MASTALERZ

 

User Researcher, Optimal Workshop

"...the role of design and information architecture is to be invisible – to emphasize content without obstructing it.."

Wellington, New Zealand

LinkedIn, where you can connect with me and chat about all things research
Mixed Methods, where you’ll find me writing and editing content on all things UX research

 

 
 

How did you get into user research? 

I’ve always wanted to work at the intersection of human behavior and technology. Straight out of University (where I studied Psychology), I started my career as a Questionnaire Designer at Statistics New Zealand where I worked on designing surveys for collecting national statistics.

At the time, we were going through a shift from paper to digital data collection, which gave me the opportunity to do a range of usability testing of online forms. The process of feeding basic human needs into complex systems really fascinated me, and I decided to seek out an opportunity to make research an integral part of my role, which is when Optimal Workshop came along.

What do you like most about it?

User research is revelatory on many levels. I enjoy continuously testing my own assumptions, often being wrong and learning from the process.

It teaches you to be humble and empathetic – two qualities I think we could all benefit from cultivating further.

I enjoy the challenge of finding common threads in people’s needs and looking at the different ways the technology we build can empower them.

How do you think content strategists could make better use of user research?

Once at a conference, I heard the phrase “Content first, because everything else is window dressing.” It didn’t sit well with me at first, but after some time I realized that the role of design and information architecture is to be invisible – to emphasize content without obstructing it.

For me, testing content is just as important as testing the visual design or information architecture of our website. A beautiful and seamless design doesn’t make for a great user experience. A great user experience is when someone can find the information they are looking for and walk away confidently knowing they understood it.

I love the idea of spending as much time designing the words we use as we do the visual and structural side. This article by Angela Colter does a great job of explaining the importance of content testing – and if there is one thing I think content strategy could learn from research, this is it.

You recently spoke on card sorting at the IA Summit here in Chicago. What are some new applications for card sorting that content strategists might use?

My talk focused on how something as familiar as an online card sort can have many different applications, outside of just information architecture. Some ideas that I think are particularly relevant for content strategists include:

1.   Understand brand voice and tone

Source a variety of adjectives that may describe your brand (Brand Deck is a great set). Ask your users to sort these into categories such as “[Your brand] is”, “[Your brand] is not” and “Does not apply”).

This will give you an understanding of how your users view your brand, and whether it aligns with how you want to be perceived.

2.   Crowdsourcing content ideas

This is an example we used when planning the UX New Zealand conference in 2016, but it can apply to any place that involves the creation of content, whether it’s an event or blog.

We sent out a closed card sort to our community asking them to group potential topics into groups that either interested them or didn’t. This helped us narrow down the focus of our event and select relevant speakers.

It was highly effective and helped us get a better understanding of our audience and their preferences, making sure we’re delivering content that is not only of a high quality, but also as relevant as possible.

3.   As an internal consultation tool

Closed card sorting is a great tool for quickly involving others in the decision making process, capturing the voice of a wider group without the need for face-to-face meetings.  You can use it with external or internal users or stakeholders to help answer questions like:

  • Where should we start?

  • What is the most important thing we should work on?

  • Where should this content live?

  • What are our desired project outcomes?

  • Where do we focus our efforts?

  • What needs the most work?


For more ideas on creative ways to use card sorting, you can check out my slides from IA Summit 2018 here.

Your IA Summit bio said you are inspired by the intersections between technology, design and human behavior. Can you give some examples of interesting findings you’ve seen? Or something that might surprise us about how people behave?

I’ve always been interested in information processing and how imperfect we are all when it comes to making sense of the world around us.

We all use shortcuts (aka heuristics) to help us make efficient judgements and decisions, and we’re all riddled with biases that we cannot control. To get an idea of just how many factors may be influencing our judgement at any time, I recommend checking out the Cognitive Bias Codex from Buster Benson.

I think it’s important to have an appreciation for how imperfect, irrational and unpredictable humans can be in navigating the world around them, and acknowledge that while design can help guide behavior, you can’t never truly design someone’s experience for them.

It’s an interesting challenge designing with cognitive limitations in mind, and it’s something worth paying attention in our own work too. Becoming more aware of our own intrinsic biases can help us a lot in reframing how we view problems and solutions in our work and daily life.