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
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.