The second day of CS Forum focused more on hands-on, day-to-day practical implementation. This is our Thoreauvian transition: yesterday we built castles in the air, but that is where they should be. Today, we put foundations under them.
Balancing the tactical focus, we also discussed content strategy as a big issue with enormous impact, at least when we do it right. Our old discussions often wrestled the issue of content as nobody’s problem. Today, we have to confront that it’s also a problem with impact throughout the business, far beyond just marketing communication.
Putting voice to feelings
“We’re dealing with feelings, we’re dealing with egos, we’re dealing with fears of becoming irrelevant,” said Corey Vilhauer in an insightful talk on the role of empathy in consulting. “Our job as content strategists is to be people strategists.” We navigate politics, confront issues of talent mismatch, and oftentimes need to suggest organizational change.
“Comfort zones breed easy answers, and we don’t want easy answers. We need the hard answers,” Corey continued. That is consulting 101: stepping away from “how we’ve always done it” because that history has proven itself no longer useful. And perhaps more than any other discipline, content strategy forces the client to confront tough, political, subversive questions. Can we cut content that users don’t visit? Do the right people have input to the editorial process? Do you need to hire better writers to complement your subject matter experts?
This isn’t easy, nor is it a process marked only by success, and that is why it’s successful. Forget the ubiquitous brush off to fail fast. “We will stumble, but we must stumble intelligently,” Corey suggested. And that’s both smart content strategy and mature consulting: we provide the learning opportunities to encourage adoption, facilitate more pleasing organizational change, and offer guiderails on a path to success.
“Our content makes people do a lot of things,” she began. It drives them to websites, gets them to spend time there, gets them to take action. “But content doesn’t just make people do things,” she cautioned. “It makes them feel things.” And that demands empathy, sensitivity, and attention to the user’s expectations, context, and frame of mind. Those things differ greatly across content types (e.g., login, FAQs, error messages, a blog) and topics (e.g., medical information, vacation destination descriptions, credit card form fields). “When someone feels helpless or confused, it’s not the time to joke around. Get in and get out without pissing people off.”
She went onto describe the need for voice and tone guidelines. MailChimp draws on other resources for style guidelines, which can be generalized and common to many organizations. “No one has your same voice, though, because no one else has your personality,” she noted. Those editorial guidelines become the tool everyone can use to manifest the voice and make real the lofty ideals of branding.
Jonathan Kahn picked up the thread of how we manifest content strategy by focusing on the content strategist’s role as an agent of change. (Again, we use planning for the future to drown out the drumbeat of how it’s always been.)
“Companies were designed to limit information and prevent embarrassing information from moving up,” he explained, drawing on the history of early industrial companies like railroads. This presents an enormous problem to organizations who pay lip service to the ideal of continuous improvement. “They’re just not designed to get feedback and learn,” he concluded.
But that’s all changing, and content strategy is a linchpin in that change. As Jonathan described, we’ve moved from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy. Employees are not easily interchangeable and institutional knowledge resides in the heads of individuals, not in patents, storehouses, or locked safes. This is evident in the growth of freelancers in contrast to the large agencies of the last century. We see expertise growing in other areas as well, as western powers lose control of industries to successful BRICs competitors.
Acting on new understanding
Championing data visualization, Richard Ingram shared tools to “interrogate and present data for people to see and, more importantly, act upon.” He described how humans offer the unique perspective to sift data both to better understand our world and better represent it to others. We learn and teach.
“The thing to do when you have a ton of data is to ask it specific questions,” he noted. Content strategy processes are successful when they do just that: we don’t audit to check a box in the project plan, or for the masochistic glory, but rather to gain relevant and actionable insight to that data. What copy blocks most align with the new message architecture? How many staff biographies haven’t been updated in the past year? What are the most well-tread click paths to the contact form?
Structuring content means restructuring organizations
“When we talk about mobile, when we talk about responsive, we have to talk about content; designers have to talk content,” began Sara Wachter-Boettcher. “You can’t hide from it anymore.”
This isn’t difficult because of technical constraints of new platforms. We’re quickly conquering those challenges. Rather, it’s because of legacy problems with our content. In many organizations, WYSIWYG CMS editors let people stick content anywhere. And that’s the problem: it’s “stuck” there. Content is snared in form and format for the desktop website. It cannot easily move to mobile presentation, or anywhere else. We have infrastructure, workflow, and easy-way-out process to blame.
What’s the solution? First, we need custom CMS implementations that support the granular chunks and parts of our content. (One-size-fits-all content blocks for unstructured content is the CMS muumuu: no one looks good as a blob.) Also, the content auditing process needs to reveal patterns, content types, and the repeating parts.
“Systems give us choice,” Sara noted. Moving forward, if we want to grow our content in volume, we need to realize we cannot address it all manually. Instead, by identifying and imposing systems, patterns, and structure, we can apply rules to automate and ease content creation. In the long run, that’s not just to prepare for mobile; that’s to prepare for the future and whatever else comes next.
(More after punch ‘n pie and CHEETAHS in the lobby!)