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?