Tag Archives | Content strategy

You must become an accountable content organization

If you’re in health care, like most of our clients at Creekmore Consulting, you are already familiar with the term “accountable care organization.” ACOs have become a hot topic in health care — last year’s health care reform bill really promotes the idea that health care organizations should be reimbursed based on the effectiveness of treatment, not just on the fact that they provide services. Health care providers are now working to figure out the best ways to demonstrate the effectiveness of the care they provide, so that the government and insurance companies will pay them.

We see a related [though thankfully, very, very rarely life-or-death] issue in our content strategy work: The need for accountable content.

Accountable content starts with a business goal. [Just a quick note to say that your problem is not a good definition of your business goal. For instance, your problem is that your help content is hard to keep current and no one uses it. Your business goal is creating useful help content that reduces call volume by XX% this year.]

It’s too simple to say that everything else flows from the business goal, but it’s true. You have to make every decision about your content through the lens of your business goal. Should you write your own content? Should you license it? Should you hire a freelancer or seek a long-term relationship with a content development firm? Who will approve and manage the content? What kind of technology will you use? How will you measure the results? You’ll give better answers to every question with the business goal pasted on the wall.

We’ve worked with many organizations through the years that do not realize how much content they’re already managing, and the overhead they’re already putting into the process. Very few organizations don’t have content. Most don’t have the right kind, or don’t manage what they have well. The real opportunity sometimes comes in the ability to narrow down your content-under-management to only what truly serves your business need.

Is your content accountable? Is it working for you? Or are you working in service of your content?

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Discerning structure for content

One of the most important things your content strategy must do is to define the structure that holds the content. Effective content has to have strong structure — I don’t think it’s going too far to say that it’s designed content. Not in terms of what it looks like — the fonts, the page layout [though that's critically important, too] — but in terms of the internal structure of the content itself. The relationship between the content and meaning.

On a very simplistic level, we can break this down into the kinds of content structure that middle-aged Americans learned about in grammar class:

My 7th grader has never learned to diagram sentences, and I am not the first to complain that this is a flaw in modern education [though I have heard many more people shout praise to the heavens that this exercise has fallen by the wayside]. The value in diagramming is in evaluating the basic structure in our language. It gets you into the habit of seeing the structure behind the words.

When you think about the structure of your content on a web page, you can build a similar diagram. Most of us who’ve been around web design and development for any length of time have seen wireframes, the architectural drawings that reveal the structure of a web page.

But many wireframes simply separate the page into blocks or a grid; they are not content-specific. So as content strategists, we have to create our own structure for the content.

When we talk about the structure for content, we are getting to some of the core principles of information architecture. This structure might be quite simple, too. For instance, you might say that the structure of a blog post on this website is revealed here:

This starts to give us a very basic structure for the content itself. This level of structure is the basic information you need if you’re using a content management system or some kind of HTML or CSS. Different elements on the page are treated differently in the design and layout, because of their function. The headline gets a larger, colored font. The tags are links and are designed differently as a result. The date and the post each have their own look and feel.

But the implications of content structure go far beyond the design of the page. Done well, planning the structure of the content can also reveal or enhance the meaning, as well. This is where some real opportunity lies for content strategists to provide value in the web and software development process.

All words aren’t equal. My 3 paragraphs on banking aren’t the same as your 3 paragraphs. Neither will align with 1 paragraph and 2 bullet lists. When you start looking at the internal structure of your content itself, you will discover many ways to enhance your meaning. In some cases, you will discover opportunities to display your content differently, but almost every time, you will discover ways to structure your content differently to enhance the meaning. To discern the structure, evaluate the goal and your content’s message against the words on the page, and you’ll find the places where you need to improve the structure.

Some of this will again go back to grammar school for many of us, back to the fundamentals of good writing:

  • Do you have a topic sentence in your paragraph?
  • Are all the sentences in this paragraph on the same topic?
  • Do they flow?
  • When you need to introduce a secondary point, how will you separate it from the other text but still make it feel like part of the whole?
  • Are you delivering information in the most effective way?
  • Where do you need an image instead of a word?
  • Where a list instead of a paragraph?

These are structural elements that you’ll reveal on the page to the end user. For digital content, you also need a strong meta-structure to allow you to use your content effectively. More on that next time.

For now — how conscious of your content’s structure are you? Can more attention to structure strengthen your content?

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Making content strategy a habit

When we’re working with our clients, we find that many people see the value in content strategy after just a conversation or two about how it can improve business results.

What’s harder is making content strategy a daily practice.

Some of our engagements are just about the strategy, doing research, learning the organization, providing advice and a framework for future decision-making. And some are longer-term, where we become a content partner on many projects over time.

Either way, doing things the content strategy way often involves organizational change. Organizations [outside the media world] didn’t use to sit down and say, hmm, here’s a new idea, what does our content team think? Do we have the content we need for this? How will content be part of the solution?

Making that mindset shift is often the hardest part of content strategy. You have to form the habit of content strategy for your organization. And, like forming a habit personally, this is hard work for an organization — perhaps even harder, since organizations are made up of many people.

When I’m trying to create a new habit myself, I find that it’s important to create an environment that allows me to succeed. I’m trying to eat better and be healthier right now, so I have written down some instructions for myself. You’ll laugh, but one is:

* Do not eat at Sonic until reaching your goal.

Sonic is my weakness! I’ve identified that point. And you won’t believe how much it matters that I’ve made my intentions so concrete. It used to be easy to say, I’ve eaten so well this week that one corn dog won’t hurt. But now, I’m reminding myself that the goal is what’s important, and this instruction will help me achieve my goal faster.

In your organization, if you’re working to create a content-strategic culture, you may want to create some specific instructions for yourself, too. How about:

* All project kick-offs include a discussion about the content strategy for the project.

Or maybe you have that down, but the trouble is on follow-through? So maybe your instruction is:

* Each project has someone assigned to content strategy.

Then it’s someone’s responsibility to cover this topic throughout the life of the project.

If your organization is ready and willing to include content strategy on its projects, you may just need to adjust your framework and process to give it space to succeed.

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Nashville content strategy meetup: Don’t miss this in June

We had another great gathering last night at the Nashville Content Strategy Meetup. We talked about Confab, user experience, business strategy, the paleo diet and the Roman Empire.

Mark your calendar now for Thursday, June 9, 5:30p.

Announcement on the place will happen in the next few days on the Nashville Content Strategy Meetup group and Nashville Content Strategy Facebook group.

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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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Deserving your audience

Great post this week from well known author Mitch Joel, president of Twist Image in Toronto. He starts from the question of whether it’s better to have a great book or a great existing audience when you publish. But he morphs quickly into asking the same question about marketers using social media or other content marketing channels.

The content needs to stand up on its own.

This is an important lesson for Marketers who are quickly realizing that their jobs in a Social Media world force them to act a lot more like publishers and content creators than the traditional advertising roles they are more accustomed to. In order to generate significant levels of success, their content can’t be thinly veiled marketing pieces, but must live and breathe with authenticity and value within the ecosystem.

–Get the rest from Mitch Joel at 6 Pixels of Separation

It’s a question that many marketers haven’t stopped to ask. If you’re not offering value to the market, you are wasting our time  at best. And it’s a very rare situation where your standard marketing materials are what people want from you.

What people do want [for starters]:

  • Instructions
  • Tech support
  • Information they can’t get elsewhere
  • Ideas about making their own jobs easier
  • Entertainment

Every company can’t fill all those needs, but you don’t have to. If your product is serious, you don’t have to be funny. But no matter your market, it almost always helps to be human. This is another area that doesn’t come naturally to companies. It comes naturally to most people, but you put a corporate face on and throw some technology between yourself and your customers, and many of us freeze up.

What’s your best tip for treating your audience well with content?

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SXSW: Margot Bloomstein on Creation, Curation and the Ethics of Content Strategy

I’m starting this morning with a session from Margot Bloomstein on content strategy, curation and ethics. I’ve heard her speak before [on a different topic] and she was interesting, so we’ll see how this goes.

OK, right off the bat, this is a hard talk to blog. It’s a very good talk, but hard to synthesize quickly. Bloomstein has talked about creating new content through mashups, and about understanding the point of view of content creators and editors. She seems to argue it’s important for the audience to understand, but hasn’t yet made a judgment on whose job it is to find the info — is it the creator’s to share their perspective and history, or the audience’s to seek it out and then use it to inform their understanding?

Now we’re moving on to curation. Here, Bloomstein argues that point of view is also critical, which I’d agree. She’s talking about museum exhibit curation as a clear example of this.

Interesting point on the difference between curation of a museum exhibition and curating web content. In a museum exhibition, there are usually a very limited number of potential objects available. You make a list of everything you want, and you see what you can get. In web content, there’s often far more available than you could ever use. We often use automated filters with a few parameters and boom! There’s the current top news on X topic.

Pulls up a great example of Skittles pulling everything about Skittles from Twitter onto their site a couple of years ago. They had no human filter, and some of the tweets were NOT brand-appropriate. Human curation is critical to maintain your brand identity and speak appropriately to your audience.

Now talking about how to create, shape the user experience. Apparently there’s a debate in the UX community about how possible this is, since each user brings own baggage, and you can’t control that. Bloomstein says the museum perspective says, there are common human elements that a curator can play on and use to shape our experience.

Bloomstein says it’s important to get clients [your company, whoever you're working with on content strategy] to focus on their objectives before you start content strategy work.

Current trend in museum curation has museums highlighting the curator and their perspective … very transparent. We don’t always do this in media, web content or other fields. Should we?

Quotes Mandy Brown [editor of A Book Apart, A List Apart] from yesterday: “We need more tools for human curation. We’re trying to replace humans with algorithms.”

My perspective [Pardon how obvious this is]: There are some things that humans do better and some things that algorithms do. We should let each do their best work. [Of course, this doesn't always happen. I guess that's Brown's point.]

Bloomstein says that curation without perspective is aggregation. Where I would argue with this is that she seems to say it isn’t possible to present perspective through an algorithm. I think it absolutely is, if the human designs the algorithm appropriately.

Now talking about the Sarbanes-Oxley requirements on document management — relating to how public companies manage their digital assets, including all online communication. Serious consequences to a lack of a curation/archival strategy.

Really good questions on ethics now. Photo of a yeast bloom that was on the cover of Scientific American — original photo included the petri dish that held the yeast. They wanted to focus on the yeast, so they removed the petri dish from the photo. OK?

Quote from Martin Scorcese on the importance of directing, not just selecting, the right shots to make your movie. What are you setting out to say? Make that happen.

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Get some spaghetti on the wall

When people are developing a content strategy, sometimes they run into problems. That’s to be expected with any complex business process, of course. There are many places you could have trouble, but I’m thinking today about two big categories:

  • Trouble with content
  • Trouble with strategy

I’m focusing on this particular dichotomy because it leads to opposite problems: Too much content [strategy issue] and too little [content]. I’ll get you something in the next couple of days on the strategy side of this equation, but you can probably already guess where I’m headed there with spam, content farms and other unwanted content.

I don’t know if the content side is the harder problem or not, but it’s definitely a mental issue. How many times have you thought about your content situation and said, I just don’t know what to say…I’m not sure how to proceed…I don’t see how my information can make a difference…or the worst: Our customers already know everything they need to know?

I’ve yet to meet a business that didn’t need more valuable content. Sometimes we fall short on marketing, sometimes on customer support, sometimes on operations. But no matter what area of the business you touch, you need great content.

When you start a blog, and then stop, you’ve proved nothing. When you open a Twitter account, and don’t tweet, you’ve learned nothing. When you join a community, and don’t post, no one gains. When you add a help section on your site, but don’t actually give good instructions, you aren’t actually helping anyone.

How many times has your organization made a half-assed effort on content and then proclaimed it a failure?

I don’t ask that to judge — I’ve done the same myself. But we can’t expect great results from minimal effort. Great content takes expertise and hard work. Everyone’s got the capacity for both requirements, but it’s often a matter of getting them in the same place at the same time.

So it’s Friday afternoon where I am. It’s a great time to think about what you’re going to make happen next week. Plan now to throw some spaghetti on the wall next week, content-wise. I don’t mean that you should be haphazard about it — find a small project that you’ve been meaning to tackle, or a part of your product or marketing plan that needs a little love, and act on it. Get ready now so you can attack it Monday morning. Figure out now what it will take for you to judge the success of the project — and follow through step by step until you can say for sure whether it worked.

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The Misplaced SEO-Content Strategy Fight

I’ve been working on content strategy and management for a good long time, so I’ve had my rounds with disreputable SEO practitioners. In the early 2000s, there were a LOT of snake oil salesmen out there. I could tell you some crazy stories, but we all love to sit around and grouse about the other guy.

To be clear: I think reputable SEO practitioners today contribute significantly to the web.

For some reason, the past few days have been the content strategy vs. SEO throwdown of the century. There are posts popping up all over. I’ve got my favorites, but there are some for all sides….whether you fall on the SEO or content strategy side of the fence.

But I’d argue we all ought to spend more time worrying about the problems created by spam content by Demand Media and similar companies. That’s a much bigger problem for legitimate SEO and content strategy practitioners. When the internet is overflowing with junk, that makes it far more difficult to share real knowledge, no matter which side of the fence you’re sitting on.

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More is practically* always better

I was talking with some friends today about their nonprofit website. We were talking about a bunch of other stuff about creating community, building a network, etc., and they said, by the way, how often should we be updating the site?

Love this question. Partly because I have a better answer than I ever have before. It’s one of those questions that editorial folks like me love to bat around, as if there were a “right” answer.

So before I give you the “right” answer, just remember, the real answer is “it depends.”

So the answer I gave is, today, information is flashing past all of us much faster than any human could hope to absorb it. If you want to have any hope of competing — with your competitors, with Facebook, with TV, with Netflix, with text messages and iPhones and Angry Birds — you have to throw as much out there as is humanly possible while staying true to your mission.

The more nuanced answer is, you also have to mind how you’re delivering your content. Because in practically no situation is 100 posts a week on Facebook the right answer. Are you hitting people at the right time, in the right medium, with the right info?

But too much is so rarely the issue. Look around here….I’m terribly stingy with my own blog posts….resolving to improve that situation posthaste. The point is, so few people are putting out too much stuff. The danger of that is rare. So get out there and start sharing!

*Practically: The only situation is which more is NOT better is alas, a situation I do see from time to time, and that social media sadly enables. People who are out there spamming their poor audiences with irrelevant content should be drawn and quartered. There’s enough real information we can’t sort through — don’t muddy the water with spam, no matter the medium.

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