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Consulting, empowering, and being right

This post continues a series of topical ruminations: neither comprehensive, nor closed; neither final nor finite. I’m trying to free myself from only publishing exposition. In the sage advice of Corey Vilhauer, “write blog posts to think through things and lead to more conversations beyond those posts.”

This is thinking; I welcome conversation.

“If the consultant says it, then it must be right!” teased Hilary Marsh at this week’s Content Strategy New England meetup. A veteran content strategist, Hilary has worked on both the consultant and client sides over nearly fifteen years in the industry. She joined the meetup to present her experience on the politics of content strategy and shared this all-too-common truth.

While no one goes into consulting just for the ego boost, who wouldn’t want the endorsement of being right? It’s the shiny side of a double-edged sword that’s all too common in consulting. Several months ago, a colleague sought me out to work with her nonprofit organization. She’s a seasoned marketer with roots in content strategy and copywriting. Her team was challenged to follow her lead in pruning their intranet. “I’ve tried showing them how more content isn’t necessarily better content, and it’s certainly not better for the user experience,” she explained. “It just gets in the way of our important content.” Over the previous year, she showed her team of content owners how the clutter of a crowded intranet only undermined their efforts to serve internal audiences. She demonstrated to them how search results lost their value when they returned so many options. She shared the frustrated feedback of internal users—but there was no response. Her recommendations fell on deaf ears. “They won’t listen to me. They need to hear it from an outside source,” she said in exasperation.

My colleague wasn’t asking me to conduct new research to share with her content team. She simply wanted me to present best practices and personal experience to echo what she’d been saying for more than a year. She wanted me to be a consultant–and be right.

You can imagine how the story plays out. I conducted an onsite workshop on the value of less content. Easy to find, easy to maintain. Shortly after our workshop, she started advocating again for an intranet cleanup. Content owners saw the value and prioritized the effort. They dug into a content audit and search logs to identify the most relevant pages. They pruned the dead branches and the rest of the content flourished with new attention and new growth. They were happy and relieved to maintain fewer topics. Internal user satisfaction increased—and help requests dropped.

But there’s a downside to being the consultant who is, of course, right. We take the respect with us. When internal teams respect and value the perspective of an outside resource, they don’t always transfer that same respect to the manager or leader who had the insight to bring in the consultant in the first place. If our work matters beyond the duration of our involvement, it’s critical we build that respect and investment.

This challenge isn’t exclusive to content strategy consulting, but content strategy often shoulders the vision of sustaining longterm success.

  • What’s the workflow to maintain ongoing content production?
  • Who will be responsible for developing an editorial calendar?
  • How will you socialize editorial style guidelines so new content creators can continue to develop the brand?
  • How will the site flex to accommodate new content types from existing content elements?

These are all content strategy issues that must live and mature within the organization, long after a consultant finishes their work. ISITE Design frequently writes about the technical perspective of “day 2″ on their blog. But it’s also a challenge for organizational communication, culture, and adoption.

So how can we build respect and empower content owners, rather than take that respect away?

In my work, I try to develop internal champions who will maintain institutional knowledge after I complete my assignment. Those champions don’t always need to be the CMO and senior marketing managers who commissioned the initial project, but they do need to be able to command respect through the knowledge they can share.

Last year, I partnered with a giant multinational manufacturing corporation to help overhaul their public-facing website. Internal product managers were responsible for much of the content–and as a content audit quickly revealed, some of that content represented products they no longer offered. Product lines change, product managers move to other roles or condense responsibilities, and not every product is available in every region. Rather than learning that all myself, and then taking that knowledge with me, I partnered with a junior marketing person to conduct the audit. I developed a rubric and templates for the process and we reviewed findings together—but she gained the first-hand experience. She developed relationships with content owners and could offer insight to the relevance of their content, long after I rolled off the project.

I also explore how we can train content owners on new guidelines and often spend as much or more time on “train the trainer” activities. A couple of years ago, I partnered with a university to upgrade their content creation efforts. They embraced the promise of content management with distributed content creation: in other words, each department was in charge of their own portion of the school’s website. After a lengthy initiative to help them prioritize their communication goals and conduct a message architecture-driven content audit, we moved into a more prescriptive phase. I documented editorial style and voice guidelines for their distributed crew of content creators. My audience included administrative assistants, department heads, members of the faculty, and admissions counselors. But my audience for the training? They were much smaller: I primarily focused on the core marketing team who would socialize these guidelines. We worked to see how they could best present to their colleagues and maintain processes moving forward. The knowledge and expertise stayed with them; it didn’t just live and leave with me.

What works in your organization? How do you partner with consultants and ensure they invest you with both expertise and empowerment? And if you’re a consultant, I’m eager to hear what you do. How do you create value within your clients and your organizational stakeholders that doesn’t just leave with you?


  1. Eileen says:

    At some of the smaller orgs we’ve worked with (down to *really* small, like a staff of 3 total), sometimes there is no one there who is interested (or has the time/energy) to carry on any of the strategic work. They’re happy to follow guidelines that we’ve developed together, but they’re not going to move beyond that.

    I suppose, though, that those are different kinds of projects – those clients were looking for a diagnosis and a simple plan, and they didn’t have lots of existing hierarchies of content creators to wrangle, or deep-seated staff politics to massage. It’s a fun benefit to working with small groups – cultural change can be enacted over lunch!

    • Margot says:

      That’s fascinating–but I wonder what you do to ensure your work is sustainable? I’m sure that matters especially for small organizations with smaller budgets. How do you make sure they don’t waste the money? Do they sign on with you as a retainer client, do you counsel them on bringing on additional staff, or do you have to tee up deliverables in an entirely different way?

      • Eileen says:

        Additional staff! HAHA MARGOT YOU ARE FUNNY.

        We almost take an agile (gasp!) approach to deliverables, getting feedback as we present each one to figure out what the next most useful thing would be. It’s pretty rare for us to deliver more than one artifact at a time; the discussions around each one shift our trajectory to the next most useful thing.

  2. Meg says:

    My primary role in the content overhauls I take part in (as part of the team at my FT gig, or as a freelancer) is to help the client write “better” content (always up for debate, certainly): to edit content down without losing the plot; to refine the organizational voice (or develop one, period); to write with audiences in mind (instead of simply a list of things they want to put out there); and to foster the thinking that content should be goal-driven (say, to generate a particular response or action.)

    I’ve been called everything from “brand editor” to “the midwife” in the process, and I’m always delighted when they just don’t need me anymore; when all of the things we’ve talked about become “how we do it around here”, and not just an editorial checklist. The bigger the group, however, the tougher that is — and if one part of the organization is absolutely stoked about evolving, I find other parts tend to get utterly resistant in response.

    I work at being sympathetic (because it can be hard to change!), clear, firm, and affirming of their efforts — and I want them to feel like they’ve had a victory (even if they were clearly their own worst enemy, and fighting themselves the entire time.) If I come in with the mindset that I’m going to be “right”, the response isn’t fantastic. If I come in with the mindset that we can create something exceptional together, everything goes much more smoothly.

    • Margot says:

      Love that, Meg! And you’re so correct: it’s collaboration, not simply consultation, that offers more opportunity for growth and sustainable success.

  3. When working with clients, I share my work on an ongoing basis and they provide feedback along the way. When we get to the end of personas or a site map, it’s not a document I’m handing over, it’s something they completely understand and participated in the decision making process. If I had to summarize it, I’d say that I supplement a project team and provide a skill set that’s lacking on the team. (Yes, I am an “expert” but I try to help people and solve problems.) I also recognize that the real value in my work isn’t in the documentation I produce, but in the education clients get from hiring me.

    As a consultant, it’s not always that we are seen as “right,” but that we push the client to do things they’ve been putting off!

    • Margot says:

      That makes so much sense, Theresa. I try to work in the same way: the conversations and collaborative work offer the real value in the engagement, and the deliverables merely serve as milestones. I like how you describe the way we push our clients, too–as the personal trainer, dietician, therapist, and consultant!

  4. I got a really good piece of advice from a seasoned consultant when I was just starting out on my career. I was sensitive to the fact that I was coming in as an outsider and making recommendations that the internal team might wish to own. My more experienced colleague told me “As an outsider, you are bulletproof. You can take an arrow to the back and walk away.”

    The dynamics behind bringing in outsiders for recommendations are complex, and not just about being “right.” Political relationships internally are delicate and must be carefully maintained. The balance of power shifts when one person’s (or group’s) recommendations are implemented by the company. Fragile alliances can be broken when one person doesn’t support another’s proposed direction.

    As an outsider, you can come in and say things that insiders cannot. You can outline a proposed direction and leave the political balance of power intact. You can ask questions like “why does it work this way?” that would be insulting if they came from an insider. In many cases, it’s not that they don’t know what to do, it’s that they need to change direction while keeping relationships strong.

    • Margot says:

      All good points, Karen. I’m curious about how this applies to long-term consulting relationships, where a consultant or agency may be embedded with the client for a year or more. Do you think they can maintain the same “above the politics” privilege, or does it diminish with time?

      • Seven Harkey says:

        Having been a consultant with different agencies for spans of several years, I’ve found that the “consultant force field” can indeed be maintained over time. Even after working on-site long enough to get an agency business card, I still often need to be the voice for the politically hushed, the lone WHY in the room, or the sage consultant/bad cop in a client meeting. It’s all a matter of chutzpah.

        And as the end grows near in my current consultancy, I’m happy that this forward-thinking agency has me in charge of training a staffer to carry the CS/IA torch. Not to condition them to champion the methods, processes, and artifacts I’ve put in place, but moreover to foster them to uphold what is right as the sea of content and UX continues to change. You can be sure that I’ll shoehorn my way into the interview process to make sure my progeny can do this with great vigor. Only then will I feel I’ve delivered a comprehensive ROI to my client (and their clients).

  5. David Hobbs says:

    Back when I lived in a mud hut in Chad, I advised the committee that managed the town’s water system. In the middle of the hot season, the water pump failed. Everyone assumed I would just pay for it to get fixed. Instead, I found out that the committee hadn’t been paying the maintenance fees, and helped them pull the money together to get it fixed. After I left, I heard the water pump failed again. What happened? They just got in touch with the maintenance company and it was fixed at once since they kept paying the maintenance fees. Note that I was criticized by my management for not building more “monument” projects, but I would far rather help figure out how things can run over the long haul.

    I think we often fall in the trap of trying to build monuments for clients. Impressive documents, etc. But mostly I think as an entire industry we focus too much on the static state of things (“look at how great this mockup looks! that’ll be fantastic when it’s implemented!”) rather than the very dynamic websites that we manage. So when we deliver strategies it should always include how that strategy will accommodate change over time. Of course, this is all easier said than done.

  6. Kate Kenyon says:

    As a consultant, I think one of my most important roles isn’t to be right, but to be a kind, non-judgemental outsider.

    People often strike up personal and sometimes painful conversations with others they meet on trains, planes and in airport queues , and I find the same thing happens in consulting. Clients often need to talk to an outsider, an unknown, to able to speak freely about what exactly is bugging them. Before I ever get anywhere near the content work, I do a lot of web therapy to understand how exactly the content got to be so bad in the first place.

    It’ sounds all terribly touchy-feely (particularly if you’re English) but it happens a lot. I end up telling a lot of people that they’re not unusual, they’re not failing through lack of will, but that content is HARD.

    That said, once the catharsis is over, I do look to change structures within organisations so that everyone doesn’t just feel better to have got that all off their collective chests and forget about the content. For sustained change , I look to shift:

    1. How content success is measured
    2. How the people who produce content are measured (lots of pages churned out shouldn’t equal a raise)
    3. How content is assessed and maintained, by whom, and what powers they have.

    Champions are one thing, but even the most ardent champion needs support from the organisation’s structure, else they risk being alienated from the org itself.

  7. “They won’t listen to me. They need to hear it from an outside source.”

    I’ve heard this a lot in my career (which has spanned working both in-house and as a consultant.) Sometimes I’ve even said it. But to be honest, I don’t believe it any more.

    The reason an organization fails to take advice probably isn’t because the advice-giver is in-house. More likely it’s because the consultant has done a better job convincing the organization that they have a problem. And that the problem is costing them money. And not solving the problem is going to continue costing them even more money.

    I believe that we often focus on telling people HOW to solve their problem before we’ve even convinced them they HAVE a problem or quantified HOW MUCH of a problem it is. If we did the opposite, I think we’d all find that organizations are way more interested in following our advice.

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