Tag: Content Strategy

Searching for the needle in the Content Strategy haystack

Recently I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to recruit a Content Strategist to head up a new content function within our company*. Prompted by Lisa Moore of WriteByte I wanted to share my experiences – and some of the frustrations too.

Eager readers of my less-than-frequent blog will know that I have a pretty strong argument with content strategists on the whole. But that doesn’t mean I don’t value the thrust of what is being proposed; as Francois Jordaan put it: “it’s an unsolved problem”. Amen to that.

I thought by going out into the market with a prestigious and fairly well paid Head of Content role, I might lay to rest some of my prejudices. Specifically: that content strategy is just a repackaging of IA and writing skills designed to encourage a new generation of marketing clients to extend short arms into deep pockets.

Here’s what I found:

There are very few content strategists out there who have actually done content strategy client-side. This was a worry. I have an acute understanding of the difference between agency-land and life in the corporate world having spent a good 10 years earlier in my career pitching, bitching and switching. Would agency people – with their dynamic, magnetic personalities – have the stamina, resilience and most of all patience to see things through, even when things feel like pushing water uphill? Sadly amongst maybe half of the people I talked to, I didn’t get a sense of the leadership, resilience and influencing skills that would be required of the role.

There are lots of writers and PR people pretending they know content strategy. If you’re a professional writer or journalist of some sort, clearly the web is a big opportunity. Moreover perhaps as time goes on, if you’re a writer or journalist without online experience, your credentials are going to start to look a bit primeval. There was certainly an air amongst some of the people I met and spoke to of, er, well I ought not to call it desperation.  ‘Wide-eyed enthusiasm’ mixed with a confusion over ‘online strategy’, perhaps?

I heard lots about writing for SEO, writing for PR, writing because most people can’t write (true!), and writing for volume with short deadlines. I heard very little about writing to support a customer process, writing to differentiate a product or writing to clinch a sale. The journos I spoke to knew writing; you’d expect that. But many didn’t know how to uncover the user’s requirements for content, validate them with real people, and prioritise them with business stakeholders. To me, that’s quite a bit of the ‘strategy’ in content strategy.

In my ideal world, a Head of Content would also be dangerous enough to “do technology”. Not to get hands dirty with MySQL and PHP, but to understand the technology environment for implementing content strategy. Yes that means CMSes, but not one CMS in particular. It does mean flagging up the technical obstacles one might face when migrating to a new CMS, and identifying the business requirements one might easily overlook having not had that experience before. Fortunately I did speak to some what I would (disparagingly!) call “techies”, there were very few who could mix it with IT as well as business folks, though.

My final finding was about the content itself. I heard LOTS about social media. About ENGAGEMENT. That it takes professional writers to inspire and motivate an audience. I guess I accept quite a bit of that. Nevertheless my own experience managing a small (yet perfectly formed) Social Media team is that passion for the product and for its customers is probably more important than verbal dexterity and grammatical correctness. I’d bet those skills are most likely already available in your company. It really shouldn’t take the appointment of a senior manager to find them and encourage their development. Social media shouldn’t be the preserve of content people per se, it should be tightly woven into the everyday operations of all the customer-facing people in your organisation. And some of the ones that aren’t customer facing too.

So. A long way to go yet with Content Strategy. Perhaps I was asking for too much from one person? Technical, creative and management/leadership skills all mixed together was the requirement, and really only one or two people hit the sweet spot. Unfortunately other events in-house overtook me somewhat, and my search has been, at best, delayed.

We will get there, but we’re going to start small and develop internally first.

* Note: You’d be correct in thinking the role hasn’t been filled, but no it’s not open at the moment. Unfortunately due to some internal wrangling I’ve had to put it on hold. With any luck this should change in the new year. Keep an eye on my Twitter feed if you’re interested…

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Is Content Strategy the Emperor’s New Clothes?

About 12 months ago, I thought I’d get down with the hip kids and gen up on Content Strategy. I read Kristina Halvorson’s book on the topic and attended a few events in that there London. I thought by this stage of the year my wrath and bile for the topic would have calmed down. But oh no.

Let’s take the long route to my point.

I started doing interactive things during my A-Levels in about 1990/91. (Blimey, that’s 20 years ago… how time flies, etc…) At college I learned about “multimedia” and *gasp* “hypermedia”. Several years later I looked back at some of my college notes and found handouts about Mr Nielsen, Ted Nelson (check out his Xanadu project) and even Doug Engelbart (who he?!). Of course at the time I was completely unaware just how important all of this stuff was going to be during my career. Indeed at the time I wasn’t even sure whether you could make a career out of it.

As someone who had (and still has) no design qualification or training – just a healthy and rapacious enthusiasm – my first jobs working on “interactive multimedia” were all about content. I made video for a touchscreen kiosk about how Camille Silvy created his groundbreaking photograph River Scene, France. I wrote voiceover scripts telling the story of World War 2 for a CD-ROM product (mentioned here as a BIMA award winner). I worked on the design of content for a Henley Centre product called Media Futures. (The Henley Centre are now known as the Futures Company).

I was taught and continually reminded by all of my peers and bosses in each of those jobs that interactive media was nothing without content. I went to a b-squillion client meetings and told all who would listen that “this project’s not going to happen unless you’re either providing or paying us to write the content”. Plus I made it clear that if the client was providing the content, they’ve got another thing coming if they think we’re just going to Apple-C, Apple-V what they gave us into the product. We’d edit it and get it right for the medium too.

When the first web agency boom started kicking off towards the end of the Nineties, it struck me that something happened that changed a lot of people’s attitudes towards making interactive products. I blame it on marketing. Suddenly what I would call “wizzy gadgets” started taking over from content as “the hero”.

I remember sitting in the same office as the AntiRom team (now part of trendy art and design collective Tomato) and thinking “this is cool, but where’s the substance?” The AntiRom product was all about the interface. I was all about the content. They sold a version of their product to Levi’s and possibly made a fortune. I didn’t.

As time moved on I worked for a small WPP agency, Grey Interactive, and then part of Euro RSCG. By 2002 I had done an six year stint in London web agencies. Admittedly not necessarily the best ones or the most famous or biggest. Nevertheless, apart from one particularly excellent and well-funded project I did with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which won a Learning On Screen award, I can’t really think of one client project that had a specific focus on content from the client’s point of view. (And the PwC project was run on the client side by a very good guy who had a history of programme making at the BBC – much like my bosses when I worked on the World War 2 project in 1995.)

The main conclusion I drew from these experiences was that most companies don’t tend to employ people who have the capabilities to create content. They bring that expertise in as freelancers or they employ agencies to do it for them. Indeed since moving to the client side in 2004, I have found that as a general rule, around 90% of people can barely craft a well-worded, customer-facing sentence, let alone think about words, pictures and video strategically.

Nevertheless, throughout that time my approach to web projects hasn’t really changed. It’s definitely evolved. Stuff like Balsamiq Mockups and Silverback and agile may have made my thinking a little more incremental and customer-focused than it once was. But every time I start on a new project, I’m always aware that we’re going to require substance, whether it’s price and availability data for a booking engine, “About us”-type copy for a corporate site or great photos for a Twitter feed.

More than that, I also factor in to my thinking that acquiring this substance is going to take resource and expertise (money and people, or alternatively, money for people), it’s going to take process to build in quality, it’s going to take systems to hold it and manage it. Ideally it’s going to take a well-structured approach to things like metadata and taxonomy. (That doesn’t always happen though, I admit).

Now. Here we are in 2010, and there’s a whole raft of people telling me that I need to be concerned about content. Content has been relegated to the bottom of the pile, particularly by UX types like me. I should lead with the content (seemingly no matter what – whatever happened to customer insight?!?). I should have a Content Strategist within my team – or even better I should be paying an agency to get one on board.

In her book, Kristina Halvorson memorably picks up on Jesse James Garrett’s infamous diagram The Elements of User Experience (PDF version) and notes, rather cuttingly, that there is “no place for content” within his now almost seminal positioning and explanation of user experience. This was cited as evidence for content “not being invited” to the UX party. I thought this was particularly mean. So in January I emailed Kristina. To be fair her response was very reasonable. But she stuck to her point that (and I quote)

Today’s UX practitioners design visuals, user interfaces, usability tests, and information systems (almost always without planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of the information for which they are designing their systems)

Not in my projects they don’t! And anyway, why is it that “most” UX practitioners don’t plan for content? Well that’s pretty clear to me. It’s because clients, especially ones sitting in marketing departments, don’t get content. They don’t see a need for it, they don’t buy it, they don’t provide it. Indeed it’s one of the most well-known problems that web designers cite when talking about frustrations with delivering websites.

And where were the Content Strategists in the first decade of the 21st century when marketing clients were refusing to pay for creating content at web agencies? Well, I would guess that most of them were working for the very same web agencies. A bit like me, in all honesty. But I called myself an Information Architect or a User Experience Architect. And on my projects I did manage to get content the position it deserved. In many cases, by hook or by crook; providing what was required myself, crafting the words from thin air as I have done throughout my career.

When a member of my team attended an econsultancy event earlier this year on Innovation in Content Strategy, she came back buzzing about how it could help what we were doing. She was brimming with personas and scenarios, with goals and tasks, with usability testing and split testing. You what? That’s certainly not Content Strategy. It may well be Web Strategy, or just simply “strategy”. And so this is where we get to my point…

Content Strategy is the Emperor’s New Clothes because it simply repackages thinking and activities that have always been a part of creating compelling interactive products.

The repackaging – alongside the rise of social media – may be encouraging marketing people to think again about content. This is welcome, but don’t believe the hype. From where I’m sitting, Content Strategy is designed to pay agencies for something they should have already been doing for clients.

Moreover, and ironically, the people pushing Content Strategy now are the same people who failed to persuade marketers of content’s importance during the Nineties and Noughties, leading to the relegation of content from prominence during the “rise of user experience” over the past 10 years.

Ta da! Well that was a cathartic start to my blog… I hope you enjoyed it.