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Finding a Home for Content Strategy in Your Org

We work with both large and small organizations, but many of them are struggling with finding a “home” for content strategy and management.

Non-media organizations have not traditionally considered themselves to be publishers, and that’s part of the challenge here. Whoever started using content may feel some ownership of the project, but often, it doesn’t have an executive sponsor. When content comes from the ground up, it may be very effective, but we see a lot of skeptical c-level execs. They challenge content people to demonstrate ROI according to traditional measurements.

Here’s how we look at this challenge:
There are definitely some business metrics that some organizations can apply to content. But for many orgs, the challenge is akin to measuring the result of positive employee attitudes on the bottom line — it’s not simple. Neither is the answer to, Who’s responsible?

In most non-media organizations, you will find a natural home for content in marketing or product development/management. In many orgs, those are the same department, but in tech-oriented companies in particular, we see those being treated separately.

It’s natural to assume that the content technology plays a hand in determining the answer: Are we talking about printed content? That’s marketing! Or, all our content is digital — so that’s the IT folks! But then you can end up with non-product experts in charge of your content — less than ideal.

However, we’ll also argue that product experts aren’t always the best content experts, either. Depending on your industry, a product expert might be a lawyer, a physician, an engineer — none of whose core curricula included “communicating effectively with the public via print, digital and in-person methods.”

So here’s our bias at Creek Content.

  • First, your organization must acknowledge that content isn’t a commodity. Good content, used effectively, is always a business asset. If you don’t believe that, don’t bother with the rest of the question.
  • Once you believe that great content is your business asset, figuring out who should run the content program is easier. In our experience, the answer is usually “a business-minded communicator who works collaboratively with product, marketing and tech staff and vendors.” Your answer will vary depending on your organization and industry, but those are the broad skills that your content strategists and managers need.
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Know What You’re Doing

We see a lot of organizations that are struggling with the details right now. Modern technology is amazing, and it lets us control almost everything about the customer experience, if we invest the time and resources. And consequently, you can go down the rabbit trail for quite a long way — work on your visual design…work on the icons…work on the typography…work on the color scheme [and the same for content, programming, packaging, etc. etc. etc.] — without realizing you’re going in the wrong direction. Or worse, without realizing you never identified the direction in the first place.

Pretty isn’t enough. Highly functional and usable? Not enough.

Unless you’re in the business of making art, aesthetics alone won’t cut it. [Heck, I'd argue some of the best art also has a message in mind.]

I’m not saying you should quit sweating the details. Often, the details are make-or-break. What I’m telling you is, the details aren’t enough. Do you know what you’re doing?

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I’m Going to Stop You Before You FAQ Again

Just ran across a conversation about FAQs in the Google Group for content strategy. [If you're interested in CS, you need to join this group! Lots of great ideas.] This conversation popped up at a great time for me — I’ve been pondering FAQs for a few weeks now, and here’s what I know:

FAQs started — decades ago — as a vehicle to help discussion forums clean out the clutter. New forum users often showed up with the same questions that long-time users had asked before, and it got repetitive to answer the same questions over and over again, so many forums set up a list of questions that were frequently asked, along with the definitive answers.

I remember very clearly when I first used an FAQ page on a regular website. It was the mid-to-late 1990s, and we were so cutting edge. It was a real inside baseball joke — we had to explain to our client what an FAQ even was, and they still couldn’t figure out why we needed one.

It turns out, we were both right. We were right — FAQs slowly started popping up everywhere over the next few years, until you wouldn’t even think of building a website without one — and our client was right, because FAQs just don’t make sense on a text-based website with a content management system and programming scheme that have any level of sophistication.

Why FAQs are a bad idea for your website:

  • FAQs are rarely well written. It takes a lot of talent and time to write well from the contorted perspective of an FAQ. Are you asking the questions in your customer’s voice? Are you answering them in yours? Or both in your voice? At what point do you give up and just start throwing pronouns around willy-nilly? If you’re like most FAQ writers we’ve seen, that happens pretty early in the process and the results show it.
  • FAQs don’t actually help customers. The construct of an FAQ — couch your help copy in the kinds of questions a customer might ask, if you let them call you — actually makes it more difficult for your customer to get an answer. When people are seeking information online, they’re skimming for keywords that describe their issue. You’ve surrounded their keywords [change password] with a bunch of extraneous copy [How do I change my password?]. Stack that simple question up with 2-3 dozen more “helpful” questions, and people can’t find a thing.
  • FAQs don’t live at the point of sale. Your customer needs help figuring out how to add a photo over on the profile page, not from an FAQ page that’s a link in the footer. FAQs aren’t in context, and your customers are more likely to give up and leave your site than they are to search around…and around…and around to find the answer.
  • FAQs don’t fix your sucky website. When you use FAQs on a website, they become an ineffective panacea for every problem with the interface and the content. People abandoning their shopping carts? Slap a couple more FAQs up there. Landing page not working well? Must need more FAQs.

What to do instead of using FAQs:

  • Fix your website. This is the hardest answer, but the best one. If something’s not working on your website, make it work.
  • Use in-context help. This often will require development, but putting help in-context makes a big difference. Add a little question mark or the word “Help” linking to a pop-up window with the tip right on the page where the problem happens. [Bonus: A good use of a pop-up window!]
  • If all else fails, create a topical help directory. If you can’t do the development or don’t have a system that supports in-context help, at the very least, throw out your FAQ and rewrite the information as a topical help directory that customers can easily scan and navigate. You eliminate perspective issues and your information is much clearer to your customer. Similarly, if your customers come to you with a wide variety of expertise, you may have to hit the largest group in terms of usability — and some people will need more help. Make it easy for them to get it.

Finally, if you’re running a discussion forum — by all means, use an FAQ. Everyone hates seeing that same question asked by new users every week.

 

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Content strategy, content marketing and the name game

I had to laugh this morning when I saw this tweet from UX champion Jared Spool:

Ah, the Content Strategy community has now caught the Define The Damn Thing virus. #DTDT #ContentStrategy

The situation has been circling for months, and it’s finally caught us. Guilty. We are engaged in a fight about what we are talking about. ["Fight" is really too inflammatory a word, as long as we're trying to be specific. I think the fight is between us and our overly semantic selves, truly.]

Let me be clear up front that I find the discussion useful and unimportant: Useful to help our discipline better define itself and better educate prospective clients [customers, our boss, the CFO, whoever] about the need for content strategy, not altogether important in that much of this dialogue is about our internal terminology, and we’ll never fully convince the people who sign our checks to use the terms we like.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read a couple of thought-provoking posts from Lise Janody and Ian Alexander, and I’ve been following the great conversation on the content strategy Google Group. The Nashville Content Strategy Meetup also had a great discussion related to this topic at our event last Thursday. So all this has been swirling in my head recently. I’ll throw my thoughts out there, and I’d love your feedback.

Here’s how I approach content strategy:

  • I love Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, and Erin Kissane’s The Elements of Content Strategy. I think both are helpful definitions and provide great examples, particularly of some deliverables that are useful in content strategy.
  • I think content strategy is NOT about deliverables. Though this may seem to be a contradiction, keep reading. I’ll elaborate.
  • Content strategy is a mindset. That’s the real value we bring to our clients at Creekmore Consulting. We help them think about content in a new way. We often use deliverables like audits, inventories, taxonomies, style guides and more as part of our work, but those aren’t the real value. They help us reveal and demonstrate the value that true strategy brings to the table.

Now, about content marketing.

Ian Alexander’s reference to content marketing kicked off some of the fuss in the Google Group, and I do think it’s a useful question he’s asked. How do we [internal to the discipline] differentiate content strategy and marketing? How does the marketplace [our clients and stakeholders] do so? I think he’s right in asking — I’ve seen lots of places where I felt the terms were used interchangeably, and incorrectly, I felt.

My background includes a whole lot of content marketing, so I’ve got some definite opinions here. I think the word “content” is part of what confuses us in both content strategy and content marketing, but I don’t have a great substitute for it at this time.

Content strategy: The mindset that puts content second*, whether you’re talking about enterprise content management, product development, web applications, mobile, print, marketing, whatever. This emerging discipline is particularly known for several of its web-content-based [but often more broadly useful] deliverables, like content audits, taxonomies, style guides, workflows and governance models. We put content second, because the business goal comes first. All else follows.

Content marketing: A particular marketing strategy, where marketers use content to build a trusting, reciprocal relationship with customers and prospects.

The fuzzy: The confusion happens in the middle. To me, effective content marketing must have content strategy as a component. You have to have planned for the [to use Halvorson's well-known definition] creation, delivery and governance of any content if you want it to meet your business goal. In my previous, custom media life, this distinction was clear. The custom magazines and websites we created for customers were content marketing, and we used principles of content strategy to ensure we met business goals and effectively managed operations.

But I don’t think the distinction is always so clear. It’s sometimes hard to define whether a web property is a product, media or marketing….often, a single website can be all 3 at once. So it’s no wonder we’re confused about the terms.

What’s the takeaway? I’m not sure. I think the conversation is good. I think we can draw some distinctions. And I think we have more work still to do.

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Launching another salvo in the content strategy-UX war

Update, 8p: I’ve just heard from Melissa Rach about the context that Twitter can’t provide. It’s some great info and I’ll share it here.

From Melissa:

I really appreciate you letting me know about this blog. I wasn’t able to get on Twitter all day (computer meltdown), but I was told that the quote was taken out of context. What I actually said, is pretty much what you say in the second-to-last paragraph of the blog (I agree wholeheartedly). I also agree [with] you that [it] is part of our job to make sure the organization knows what the user wants (that was in a different part of the presentation.)

My definition of content strategy is something along the lines of “helping organizations use content to achieve their business goals.”  And, it’s true, I intentionally leave “users” out of that statement. But, I do that for several reasons:

1. (most importantly) — serving the user should be one of the business goals we are trying to achieve. If the organization isn’t committed to an overall relationship with the user, the content will not be supported and have a difficult time being successful. (It’s a battle we can’t win).

2. A really great content strategy is the combination of three things: user perspectives, business perspectives, and content “best practices.” However, during strategy work, if you say the business perspective and the user perspective have exactly the same weight — in my experience, you get businesses creating types and quantities of content they can not maintain, which is not good for the user or the business. So, we need to say “here’s what the user wants” and temper that with “this is what we can handle right now.”

3. Some organizations get really limited by the user research — they can’t innovate beyond what the users specifically asked for. As, the old saying goes, if you asked people in 1900 about transportation needs, they would have said “faster horses” not “automobiles” — because they didn’t know those things were possible. So, as a strategist, we need to help companies have room to innovate in order to improve the overall user experience even more than users could imagine.

So, actually, I think we’re pretty aligned — and I would appreciate it if you would amend the post to say so.

P.s. There are actually examples of enormously successful (but of somewhat unethical) content strategies that actually do exactly the opposite of the what is in the users’ best interest. Not something I would advocate, but interesting to read about. The IBM FUD example is an interesting one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear,_uncertainty_and_doubt

I’m going to leave the original since Melissa refers to it, and because I DO see people using the business-only perspective.


Original: It’s been a long time since my mouth fell open at something I heard at a conference, but it happened to me today. I want to say that the unfortunate part is, it happened at a session I wasn’t in. So from the outset, perhaps I’ll get corrected or someone can clarify that the tweet I read was completely out of content….but I asked about that and got more context, and my mouth was still open.

Earlier this year, Erin Kissane wrote a broad post on the Brain Traffic blog talking about where content strategy fits in the web strategy landscape. I largely agree with her post. [Following is the part that no longer applies:], but I can’t agree with a comment from her colleague Melissa Rach that was tweeted today. [But this part still does!] I’ll say first, I momentarily met Rach Sunday night and she seems lovely, and by all accounts, her presentation on strategy today was one of the highlights of Confab. I’m sorry I missed it.

Here are the two tweets that rearranged my face [See context above!]:

@CSApplied2012 As a strategist I’m here to help the business achieve their goals – user isn’t in my definition @melissarach #confab

@CSApplied2012 Content strategists serve the business and through the business we serve the user @Melissarach #confab

It may just be that I approach my work from a different perspective. But to me, in my work, the user experience is primary. If the business goal isn’t aligned with user goals, you aren’t going to succeed. And the business perspective is fine, as long as the business actually understands its users. But I find that many, many organizations do not even bother to ask their current customers what they need. They just assume they know.

So I think the first job of any successful content strategist has to remain helping a business figure out what its customer actually needs. We have to be user-focused first, or we can’t help the business in the end.

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You can’t speak in your own voice if you don’t know what you want to say

Authenticity matters a lot these days. I think it matters a lot more online than it did even 10 years ago. In a world where celebrities can get their Twitter accounts verified, people are willing to pay more for the real thing. It’s so easy to spoof — to pretend to be someone you’re not.

I’ve run a neighborhood email list for more than a decade now. Back when it started, we were in a different world, technologically. But from the perspective of my email list, not a lot has changed. People who are interested in what’s going on in East Nashville subscribe to my list. They decide if they want to read the list online, or if they want a digest email or to receive each email individually. I help people with problems with their passwords, and I try to keep the shouting to a dull roar.

It may surprise you, but the volume of crazy on my list of 5000+ neighbors isn’t that different from the days when I had 300 subscribers. There are some network effects there, things that react in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated. One situation that drives most regular list members nuts is when an anonymous [a not-my-real-name member] posts something rude. And they always want me to “do something” about it.

From the cost-benefit perspective, it’s an easy answer. I’m volunteering my time to manage the list, and this doesn’t happen all that often, and plenty of polite members of the list are anonymous as well. So I’m not going to require some name verification process to join or post to the list.

But I do see the positive results of authenticity there, on a daily basis. People who are willing to put their names to their words benefit, especially when they share valuable information.

There are a number of parallels between this free neighborhood email list and the online communities I’ve helped clients manage over the years. And the authenticity rule is a clear parallel.

People who speak with a real voice — and even better, who put employee faces and names to the company brand — are rewarded with trust and loyalty. Too many companies are still hiding behind an anonymous brand identity, with an anonymous voice. I think there’s a variety of reasons you see companies doing this, among them:

  • They’re scared of losing control of the message.
  • They’re scared of their employees developing a following — thinking it will be detrimental to their brand equity.
  • They haven’t figured out how to represent their organization’s personality online in one-on-one customer communications.
  • They don’t actually have a plan about engaging their customers anyway.

Those are fixable problems, if you’ve got the will to fix them. Be for real online. It matters, and you’ll be rewarded for it.

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Don’t Let Your Experience Be Your Guide

If you’re in the web industry, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that everyone — and I mean everyone — is an expert on what the web should be doing. It’s similar to education in this way: We all went to school, so we all think we know how a school ought to work. The same mindset applies when we use the web.

You hear web project managers, designers, programmers and others complain about this — the marketing director who likes the color green, so the site must be green, or the CFO who doesn’t use Google, so he won’t approve an expenditure for any site search technology….the list goes on.

Unfortunately, I’ve also run across this attitude in other web professionals. It’s an easy bias to have: We know how we search/browse/like images/don’t like images/expect to find content/like our forms to look, so it’s all too easy to say, “The way you want to do it is [list your personal favorite way].”

So when you’re hiring web professionals to work on a project, you don’t want to know their favorite way. We’ve all got our own biases. Just because I can use your site search engine for 10 minutes and find any document on command doesn’t mean your customers can or will. Hire the person who can tell you how most people like to do it, or even better, who can figure out how your site users like to do it.

And whatever you do, make sure you’ve got a better reason for your site design….or your navigation philosophy….or your content categorization, than, “makes sense to me.”

P.S.: This is the first post I’ve written in an editing swap with Matthew Grocki. Thanks for the cleanup, Matthew!

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We’re too meta

Perhaps digital media isn’t the only industry that suffers from the intense naval-gazing we see around us. And I really didn’t mean to sound so disparaging right here on the front end.

But sometimes it just drives me crazy to read all the inside baseball blog posts.

I had to explain the word meta to my 10yo daughter last week. She’s not allowed to watch Glee, but she’s quite culturally aware, and so we’ve shown her selective clips of one song or another when they feed into the public understanding.

So we showed her the Glee version of Don’t Stop Believin’, the Ohio State response, and Glee’s Safety Dance. [Grr. Having trouble finding quick links to working versions. Will update later as I'm able.] And so the word meta came up.

And how I love that word.

You see, I’m a semantics girl at heart. I could argue what is is for a week. I’m in content strategy for a reason, and it’s about feeding my analytical soul as much as it’s about helping my clients make stuff happen.

But at the end of the day, we need to make stuff happen. And the self-referential, meta culture in digital media can confuse the process.

Don’t make it so hard to talk about things that you can’t make them happen. Name a goal, pave the path and make it happen.

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Creating real value: The art of content strategy

I’ve mentioned the cult of action here before. I don’t know if it’s a uniquely modern challenge, but I do know that today’s technology makes it easy to fall into: Your phone syncs with your calendar with your email with your note program with your SharePoint with your brain. You put a task into the system at any point, and it will bedevil you until you complete it. Once you’ve made the decision to “task” something, you’re almost guaranteed to complete it. And in the current business mindset, this is all for the good.

So it is with trepidation that I bring up the particular way that my own profession is damaged by the cult of action. Over the past 2-3 years, digital media has really begun to recognize content strategy and management as a discipline as significant as programming and design. It’s not universally recognized yet, but it’s getting more than lip service in many quarters today.

I think the positive side to this is huge. The mental shift we’re making in thinking about “content strategy and management” instead of about “copy” means that we’re focusing on the business goals of the web property. We’re naming the metrics by which we’ll measure our efforts. We’re making success more likely.

But I think we have not yet escaped the mindset that content is a box to check off of our to-do list. If one piece of content is just as good as another, we aren’t yet employing a strategic mindset.

To make truly strategic decisions — and to take truly strategic actions — about content, we have to view content as a cornerstone in building relationships with our customers. There’s a lot about it that we can measure, and even complete and check off the list. But we can’t transform a human relationship into a series of checkboxes. There’s still an art to content, and as we continue to develop the discipline of content strategy, we must value the art as well as the action.

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The Right Way to Wireframe, Part 1

Now getting ready for a workshop session on wireframing, from a couple of guys I follow on Twitter: @zakiwarfel and @russu.

Love this. Starting off with the point that in UX design, we never actually see the work.

What’s better, wireframing or prototyping? This is a funny session but so far hard to take notes. We’ll see how it goes.

So the premise is that 4 designers wireframed a new site for lend4health.com, microlending platform for children’s health needs.

Russ Unger chose Balsamiq for his tool. But first he’s showing us his index-card-and-post-it-note work that was the first step. Then found he couldn’t make the site map in Balsamiq.

But he did build out the wireframes there. And he shows those and the final design crafted from them by @simplybrad.

OK so this is cool. They took photos of their sketching, but they also screencasted their computer work. That is is pretty cool.

Now we’re on to Todd Zaki Warfel. He starts off with about a zillion post-it notes and sorts them on the wall into themes. He uses personas, the number based on what the data tells them is necessary. Then they start sketching, to explore concepts.

[Me: Personas are so rarely done well. Often they lead you down a dead-end path, because they aren't informed by real-world data, but instead by someone in the C-suite's opinions. I'm just going to assume that with all the data Zaki Warfel collects, that he's doing them right.]

Zaki Warfel does some internal pitch/critiquing, and then goes straight to gray-scale prototyping, then brings in a designer.

He claims not to wireframe, but instead to prototype. His handdrawn sketches sure look like wireframes to me, however. Generally uses HTML/CSS but for this presentation he used Fireworks.

Really interesting session….Part 2 happens at 12:30.

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