Recently, I was asked about the future of eBooks, and their relevance in the marketplace. I offered the following perspective and predictions for this emerging technology and associated genres.
- More attention will be paid to the technology that allows content producers to improve publishing efficiencies. Organizations tend not to invest in new technologies unless they are experiencing pain. After the first few times they feel enough pain – either missed deadlines, or production costs, or loss of revenue, and so on – they will start looking for ways to produce ebooks more effectively.
- There will be an expanded use of ebooks. There are still many companies that don’t use ebooks, and don’t see how ebooks apply to them. Soon, they will start connecting the dots, either because their competitors have taken the leap, and they feel the need to keep up, or someone in their organization has experimented with an ebook, and they’ve gotten good results. The demonstration of the benefits of the technology will start the search for more innovative uses.
- There will be more novel uses of ebooks. This isn’t the first go-round for ebooks – I remember the first ebook cycle – but this time, they quickly morphed from ebooks to emanuals and ecatalogues and so on. As more organizations think to involve creative people in the process, there will be more “experiences” created, way beyond the straight-up dissemination of information.
- Ebooks will change how learning is delivered. The education industry is reputedly starting to twig on catering to different learning styles, and the ebook platform seems to be a natural jumping off point for that. It allows instructional designers to provide a personalized experience to visual learners, audio learners, kinetic learners, sequential learners, abstract learners, and so on – all derived from the same body of content in a single ebook.
- Alternative distribution and delivery systems will develop. Not everyone wants to put their publication into Amazon or iTunes for delivery. But that seems to be the most common way of delivering content today. There will likely be developments to automate how people distribute their material to avoid proprietary systems.
- Formats will standardize to manage the pain of outputs to multiple channels. There are currently a number of formats that are intended to lock people into a platform: .AZW for Kindle, .EPUB for Nook, and so on. As quickly as these formats proliferate, so do readers pop up on competing platforms: Kindle reader on the iPad, for example. At some point, the industry will follow the lead of the music industry, which has a couple of basic formats that work everywhere. It will be the sanity check for authors, publishers, and readers alike.
The adoption of ebooks seems to be slower than for things like mobile, probably because organizations can only grapple with one content challenge at a time. However, as organizations figure out their multichannel publishing challenges, they will also be freeing up some critical bandwidth to allow for exploration of this potentially valuable channel.
If you haven’t been paying attention, the book that I wrote with Noz Urbina, Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, has hit the shelves. We’re delighted, naturally. There’s nothing better than getting one’s life back after two years of maniacal focus on creating coherent thoughts from the clutter of my mind and organizing it into some sort of publishable body of work.
The things I’ve learned about the publishing industry…
- When you want to create a book and are told by one publisher that “there’s already a book on that topic in the market and we can’t sell more,” find another publisher. There’s bound to be someone that believes in your topic.
- When you first send the information to bookstores, they list the book status as Unavailable, which flies in the face of reason, to me. Isn’t the point of listing a book that you want people to know they can buy it?
- When you change the book title with the ISBN people, some online bookstores can’t seem to cope with the change, no matter how many times you notify them.
- Three months in, I’ve learned to not let amazon.ca or chapters.indigo.ca or waterstones.com fool me – they have the book, despite their online claims that it’s back-ordered and other such nonsense.
- Without reviews on amazon.com, a book on content strategy doesn’t rank well. In fact, it will fall somewhere below a book on “content strategies for English language learners” for a while.
On the other hand, I learned that putting in the hard work pays off with good feedback from people in the industry who will tell you what they think on their own blogs. Here are a few reviews I found on the Web. Some are from people I know; others are from people who found the book and decided to contribute their opinions.
- Bailie and Urbina “knock it out of the park” with their new book - an excerpt from a review by Kevin Nichols, Content Strategy Practice Lead for SapientNitro: This work is what’s missing amongst all the content strategy material that’s out there. It completely answers the question “why content strategy” and expertly positions its business value for every single decision maker. If you have a vested interest in improving content, brand and product performance, this book is a must.
- Book Review: Content Strategy by Bailie and Urbina – an excerpt from a review by James Mathewson, Search Strategy and expertise lead for IBM: The best part of the book is its collection of case studies, which show how companies large and small have used content strategy to improve their businesses. and [The book] is unique in stressing the long view when it comes to building content strategies that result in ROI.
- Content strategy for decision makers – an excerpt from a review by Bas Evers, content designer at Informaat: Rahel Bailie and Noz Urbina are writing an important book. I recognize the struggle to convince organizations that investing in good content is worthwhile. The book does exactly that. It focuses on the strategic value of content. Indeed, it is more of a strategy outline than a how-to book. There are even concrete ROI calculations from example projects in there.
- Making the business case for content strategy – exclusive excerpt from Rahel Anne Bailie and Noz Urbina’s new book – from the Firehead.net blog: Rahel Anne Bailie and Noz Urbina have put together the first content strategy book to focus on what project managers, department heads and other decision-makers need to know about content strategy. This fills a huge gap – making the case for the buy-in of content strategy.
Does this feedback fuel your excitement as much as ours? If you haven’t been able to find the book in your online bookstore of choice, you can always order it – print or various ebook versions – directly from XML Press.net.
And if you want more content strategy from our unique perspective, we are regularly updating the book site with information and downloadable slides that you can use in your presentations. Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits.
Just when I get to the point where I think I’ve published everything I have to say about content strategy, I read something like the post by Deane Barker (@gadgetopia on Twitter) entitled Content Reuse and The Problem of Narrative Flow and I’m keen to jump in and participate.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Deane. I respect Deane. In fact, I was tremendously pleased when he called me for an opinion – a developer wanting perspective from a content strategist? I was happy to chat. Overall, we have similar takes on content re-use, but I do have to take issue with a couple of points that Deane makes.( This is not trash-talk; it’s considered and respectful debate.)
Deane claims that content re-use gets taken to an extreme, where the investment that companies make far outweighs the benefits derived from the content, that very little content is suited for content re-use, and that content re-use basically dehumanizes content to the point of sounding like it was written by a robot.
My first response is that there is a lot of content of that can benefit from a good re-use strategy, and there is far too little investment in content that it makes sense to re-use. However, narrative isn’t one of the genres meant for any kinds of re-use. This we’ve known since John Carroll wrote The Nurnberg Funnel (a reference to the Nuremberg Funnel) in 1990. Some genres weren’t meant for content re-use. News releases, for example, are an example of single-use content. You’ll never announce the same news twice, so building in re-use would be a waste of time. Well, except for the boiler plate that describes the company. Oh yes, and the contact blurb at the end of each news release. So there is some logical re-use, but that is a rather simple case that can easily be done through a Web CMS. I wrote an article about this in 2010.
However, what we do know if which genres lend themselves to re-use. If we think of how object-oriented code benefits developers, we can similarly extrapolate how systemic re-use of content can benefit writers, as I discussed in an article in 2006.
A very real example of content re-use at its worst (and then at its best) is illustrated through the following example. A couple of years ago, my Blackberry was stolen when I left it behind at a grocery counter, and I found myself looking for a replacement. I still had two years left on my contract, so I looked at two different models available from my provider. Opening two different web pages gave me the following result:
All I knew was that I wanted an equivalent or better phone, and one that worked in Europe. A long phone call later to the support centre resulted in me making these notes:
Now, in the old computer papers, this was a common technique for vendors to mix up the descriptions to make it harder to make an apples-to-apples features comparison. But here, there was no reason to mix things up. I was a customer handcuffed to my provider for another two years. And a support call was sure to eat into their profit margin far more than a self-serve choice, so what was behind this confusing presentation? Picture two writers, sitting in their respective cubicles, probably in different work groups, making up their own feature lists when they could have drawn on a single feature set that allowed a user to make and process a choice without intervention.
A bit of a detour: I presented this as part of a keynote presentation at a marketing conference, and at the lunch afterwards, happened to sit next to a marketing manager (or possibly director – I wasn’t really paying attention to titles) where we discussed this in more depth. I was delighted to go back to the site a couple of months later to find that they had made a commitment to improving their user experience.
To create this experience, they had to seriously step up their content game. The product names, features, prices, and images had to be separated, standardized, structured, and tagged in order to be presented reliably as users checked various combinations of choices.
To do this, the content developer has to be serious about understanding how to author, structure, and tag content. Their job isn’t to create narrative text. (In fact, perky marketing copy can get very irritating very quickly, as I discovered when I was researching laptops. I couldn’t leave the page that described how an interface would make my experience more intuitive and exciting (WTF?) and takes my computing experience to the next level (yeah, right, whatever.) I jumped right to the specifications page and started comparing processor type and speed, hard drive capacity and speed, RAM size, screen size, and so on.)
One of the other points that I dispute is that relatively little content works in a re-use situation. The benefits of having consistent, structured content is demonstrated with great clarity by my co-author, Noz Urbina, in our book Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, which I’ve summarized here.
In this real-life situation, consider a single chunk of content that gets used in 4 product lines, with 4 products per product line. That makes 16 uses. Then, each product has 6 deliverables per product where that content chunk is used. That makes 96 uses. Then, the content is produced in 4 delivery formats. That makes 384 uses. Then, translate that content into 12 target languages. That makes 4,608 uses. And finally, re-use that content for 4 audience demographics. That’s a whopping 18,432 uses. Do you really want authors to create this content 18,432 times? Or even 384 times? Or should they create a single content object and then reference it multiple times? This is not an isolated instance, either, though if your world is “marketing content on websites,” the masses of content outside of the marketing realm may be shocking.
One of my own clients had an extensive line of products, and the re-use factor was over 80% – in other words, once you chose one content object of type A, one of type B, one of type C, one of type D, most of the content was assembled for a product. There was only a small bit of custom text that needed to be written for each product. The website was, in effect, a veneer of marketing content compared to the masses of product content tucked away in the extranet for customer use.
It’s not a simple task, by any means, to get content managed at in just the right way. One of the big names in managing content at the component level that Deane didn’t mention is Joe Gollner. He recently wrote an article explaining why.
The final point that Deane makes is that readers expect narrative flow within content boundaries, and that the likely net result of content re-use is choppy, stilted text. Do I agree? Well, yes and no. The reason isn’t even because of technology. It’s the responsibility of the content developers to understand the implications of the content they’re writing, and to develop the skill and discipline to ensure that content can be re-used in multiple contexts. It may be hard to believe that in 2013, there are still writers who blithely confess they don’t know what a Word stylesheet is and don’t see why they should care. The majority of writers don’t know about content structure; in conversations about structure and discipline in authoring, I’ve watched them roll their eyes with disdain and declare that all of that three-letter acronym stuff (XML) is boring, and they have no desire to know about that stuff.
That leaves structured content to the content developers who have, by choice or by circumstance, embraced structured content and developed the skill and discipline needed to make content work. When these writers create re-usable content, the reader likely doesn’t even realize it – because the narrative disruption is noticed only when it doesn’t work.
So Deane, to answer your closing question – how much of a gain in efficiency is worth the effort – when done right: it can be worth a lot, a very, very lot.
Were any of us surprised that the world didn’t end? I’m not, but waited to do my year-end backwards look until the last minute. Just in case.
2012 was a year of collaboration. This isn’t to say that collaborative efforts weren’t underway in previous years, but the cumulative efforts resulted in some significant outcomes this year.
Usability in Government Systems
Usability in Government Systems: User Experience Design for Citizens and Public Servants, is a book I’m honoured to have contributed a chapter. Edited by Elizabeth Buie and Dianne Murray, this book is a highly collaborative effort, with contributions from over twenty seasoned professionals in the broader UX field. The project ran like clockwork, thanks in large part to Elizabeth’s project management.
City of Vancouver website
The launch of a radically new website for the City of Vancouver took so much collaboration that it could take me an entire article to do it justice. I may attempt that in 2013, but for now, I’ll limit myself to briefly outlining some of the collaborative efforts:
- The crew at Open Road, who provided the excellent user analysis that contributed to the next layers of work on the website.
- The excellent project team at the City of Vancouver – this team pulled together a minor miracle in getting the content from the previous sprawling website to coalesce into a lean, cohesive corpus that is welcoming and useful.
- The folks at Analytic Design Group, whose usability testing allowed us to go back and make improvements.
Content Strategy Meetup
A couple of years ago, I launched the content strategy meetup group in Vancouver, but really didn’t have the time or energy to put in the effort to grow it. When the IA meet-up organizers asked to take over the programming, how could I not turn it over to them to nurture? IDI’s current contribution may only be monetary at the moment, but it still qualifies as a collaboration of sorts.
Content Strategy Workshops
This year was a milestone for content strategy training events. IDI and The Content Wrangler formed a logical collaborative team to hold the first content strategy workshop intensive event. As a further collaborative effort, we worked with Lavacon to co-locate the events, making it easier for participants to get their fill of content strategy in a single trip.
The Content Strategy Practice Deck
Taking a page from the UX field, where decks of cards are used by practitioners to externalize practices and make deliverables feel more tangible, IDI collaborated with The Content Wrangler and CS Applied to produce a set of cards for the content strategy practitioner. The starter deck has 12 cards, each with an activity or deliverable, an explanation of what it is and its context of use. The cards will be available from the Content Strategy Workshops site, starting 2013.
Content Strategy Applied
When, after the first CS Forum in 2010, there seemed to be a lot of churn about the who, what, when, where, and how of putting on the next conference, eBay’s Lucie Hyde simply got an event underway that involved practical applications of content strategy. Each year since, IDI has been a part of this excellent conference, and The Content Wrangler has also come aboard. This year, the collaboration between Content Strategy Applied and Content Strategy Workshops moved to a new level, with the creation of co-branded collateral, the Content Strategy Practice Deck, for attendees of the 2013 event.
Content Strategy – the book
Although this collaboration has been mentioned last, it is certainly the longest and most intense collaboration of my year. Noz Urbina and I had been working on Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits for over two years. Richard Hamilton of XML Press believed in us when the other presses told me things like “well, we’ve published a content strategy book, and there’s likely not room for another book in this niche market.” The book has finally gone to market, and we have a raft of collaborators to thank, including practitioners who contributed case studies to advance readers to those who came forward to offer their help with contributions of graphics, indexing, and editing. We even have our first review. We couldn’t have done it without you.
Collaborating in the year ahead
2013 may prove to be an equally exciting and collaborative year. The year starts with collaborations around book launches and conference presentations, a highly-collaborative work project, and more content strategy training events. Several organizations to sit on advisory committees, contributing to digital communication, digital strategy, and related initiatives. It’s also the year to contribute to additions to the Practice Deck, and to create a series of articles elaborating on each card – an opportunity for collaboration if I ever saw one.
Looking forward to a great year ahead, and to connecting with many of you along the way.
Over the course of the last few years, “conference season” in the communication field has expanded from a spring frenzy of events to a fall season, as well. October seems to have been a particularly intense month, finding me attending four events within two weeks.
Even the most seasoned veterans attend not just to present, but to learn. New developments bring new insights; new acquaintances bring new perspectives; old friends bring the comfort of the familiar.
Here are my insights from the whirlwind of activity that was two weeks in October.
Presented: Making ePublications Relevant
Insights from Lavacon
To an industry outside, the program at Lavacon might have seemed a bit puzzling because of the range of topics. But as an industry professional, I could see the theme quite clearly, which Jack Molisani, the conference organizer, stated on the home page of the conference site: [Attracting and engaging the next generation of tech-savvy consumers]…takes an effective content strategy – and really, really smart use of available resources.
Combine that statement with my oft-repeated statement n that content is a business asset, and you see theme of how to use the content you’ve got to do a lot. That means making sure you have quality ingredients (and that’s through metrics) and optimizing their potential (through content management) to create many products (multichannel publishing) for publication in ways that people want to consume them (new media, mobile devices, ebooks). And how better to do that than a mix of theory and case studies? So my foremost insight is that the industry is maturing to a point where the issues related to content strategy and digital media are starting to be considered in an integrated way; my second insight is that it’s finally the right time for an event to create a forum where an integrated strategy is a marketable message.
Presented: Content Typing and Modeling
Insights from Content Strategy Workshops
When I approached Scott Abel about starting an event series that wasn’t a conference but actual training workshops, he was already on that page. So putting together our inaugural event was quite exciting for us. We had a few goals in mind:
- Provide workshops where attendees could take work back to their workplaces
- Give attendees exposure to tools and techniques they may not have used before
- Expose marketing-side and technical-side professionals to each other, to appreciate and learn from one another
The response was overwhelming positive. Those who attended appreciated the relative intimacy of the event, the chance to interact with others and build community, and learn from each others’ disciplines.
This is one event when I wished I’d been able to attend more of the sessions, but as an event organizer, ended up missing most of them. Spontaneous hallway comments such as “Now I understand why the developers at work are always annoyed with me – I’ve been doing it all wrong! Your workshop has just given me the tools to fix that.” were in great evidence throughout the two days, and made it So my first insight is that our instincts were right: this type of event fills a professional development gap for content strategy professionals. My second insight was that there will always be writing professionals out there who are finding it hard to make the leap to an integrated content strategy. It may be uncharitable, but my perception is that the person whose response to a complex topic is “there’s a typo on line 5″ is probably not the type of person who would benefit from a content strategy workshop event.
Presented: What is Content Strategy?
Insights from Localization World
This wasn’t my first time at Localization World, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with the conference. This is the first time, however, that I saw content strategy as an explicit theme at the conference. Localization World is professional development for translators, and being there feels a bit like entering a parallel universe. Many of the topics sound familiar, but they’re presented from a different perspective. It’s like that game where you add “in bed” after you read out the fortune from a fortune cookie, but “from a translation perspective” instead.So ” International Strategies in the Gaming Industr”y becomes “International Strategies in the Gaming Industry from a Translation Perspective.”
My first insight was that when I introduced the basic concepts of content strategy, I became very aware of my audience’s perspective and recognized that the message needed to be adapted for a profession that traditionally gets involved too far down the publishing line. Talking about content strategy from an editorial or technical viewpoint will fall flat unless the message is adjusted to put localization closer to the centre of the picture.
The other insight for me there was that this is an audience that hasn’t been included in the content strategy discussion until now, and we really should be engaging with them, as the sheer volume of content for global audiences dwarfs what we produce in our source language(s). And that act of engagement will be a game-changer for content strategy, too.
Insights from tekom/tcworld
The tekom/tcworld conference in Wiesbaden is the largest technical communication conference in the world, with thousands of attendees. Worth noting is how content creation, content management, and translation comes together under a single roof at this conference, acknowledging aspects of the entire content lifecycle. It’s a natural, then, to introduce the concept of content strategy as the umbrella concept for all the stages and processes.
My insight from the Content Strategy day was that there is definitely an appetite for understanding content in a larger framework. The day was well-attended, and participants seemed engaged. Moving content strategy into the international arena – not just the same message to English-speaking audience in another country – was a good lesson in bringing a presentation that accounts for profound cultural differences.
My second insight was from the technical communicators who took my workshop. They were, for the most part, creating technical documentation and producing PDF outputs. However, they were there because they wanted to step up their game and produce more relevant content, delivered in more relevant ways. The workshop was a little like throwing them into the deep end of the pool, but they seemed to be keen to learn how.
Conference season is just about over – the last event of the season is a presentation at the Gilbane conference in the form of a three-act play, along with Jeff Cram and Seth Gottlieb – and next year will start a new round of events, and a new set of insights.
An interesting discussion recently arose in a content strategy forum about content benchmarking, and this seemed an opportune time to discuss the topic. (Thanks to Destry Wion for suggesting I turn this into a blog post.)
According to Wikipedia, the definition of benchmarking is “the process of comparing one’s business processes and performance metrics to industry bests or best practices from other industries. Dimensions typically measured are quality, time and cost.” Senior business executive F. John Reh defines benchmarking slightly differently, that “benchmarking is the process of determining who is the very best, who sets the standard, and what that standard is.” Both of these definitions assume that benchmarking be a sort of competitive exercise. And perhaps, technically, they are right.
The idea of benchmarking in technology involves assessing the performance of an object relative to a set standard of performance, where acceptable levels are determined through heuristics or some agreed-
upon sort of industry standard.
Which type of benchmarking would apply to content? Are we measuring content against the content of competitors, or against known standards? I’d wager that the answer is both. Content is part of a larger complex system, a system that extends outside of our departmental silos and corporate systems.
Content strategists are used to discussing benchmarking content in terms of inventories and audits, whereas I’ve thrown the term content benchmarking into the mix. All three activities could be rolled into benchmarking (or gap analysis or any other framework that includes assessment), and considered the initial phase of content strategy. However, I think it’s important to demonstrate why all three activities should be identified as separate and distinct activities and not rolled into a single line of a deliverable.
I’m just wrapping up on a project (City of Vancouver website) where we started with over 26,000+ HTML pages down to under 5,000 pages of content that RAITES. It was definitely a rewrite project – no content went through a technical migration where a technologist does some sophisticated mapping scripts and then moves the content over in an “as is” state. (For several reasons, this was not possible: because the content wasn’t written to what today we’d call “writing for the web” best practices, because the vast majority of it wasn’t technically structured so that migration scripts could be run against it, because of the 30,000-plus PDFs and other attachments, we needed to choose the most used and hand-optimize the metadata for search, and so on.) We needed a team of trained writers and content strategists who rewrote every page on the new CMS so that content could be integrated, converged, aggregated, and syndicated in ways to make the site perform the way we wanted it to, to meet the standards set out in the guidelines for improving the site to increase content findability, transparency, and ease of use.
So how did we figure this out? Through the separate activities that make up a content benchmark:
- Content inventory - This is a “sizing” activity, an exercise in measurement. Not doing an inventory is like starting to bake when you don’t know what ingredients you have in the house. An inventory isn’t done against any industry standards; it is simply a measure of what you have on hand to work with. Unless you know what your starting point is, you can’t know what your best strategy will be to deal with the content. So an inventory – particularly when dealing with over 60,000 pages and files – is important.
- Content audit – This is a largely quantitative measurement. Once you have your inventory ready, you can start to slice and dice the data about the content to figure out how to tackle it. One of the most common complaints about government websites is that it becomes a very large landfill, where all the documents from the beginning of time – at least, the beginning of the web – gets dumped. Every department thinks their content is critically important, and “everyone” looks for those committee meeting minutes from 2002. Doing an audit lets us see, at the very minimum, which pages and documents get the most visits. No one clicked on those 2002 minutes for five years? Then those pages go to the bottom of the pile to be dealt with. The pages that get 100,000 visits a year? Top of the heap to deal with.
- Content analysis – This is the qualitative side of measuring content against known standards. We know how people navigate through sites (search and browse patterns), how people consume web content (sometimes called skip, skim, and scan), how people read web pages (F-shape pattern), how content has to be structured to meet accessibility standards and to work on mobile devices, how images should be optimized to avoid big data downloads (keeping in mind that Canadians pay some of the highest rates in the world for mobile data access), and so on. We developed a 35-point checklist against which to analyze the high-value content, so that we could determine which content could be copied over as is, which needed a light edit, and which content needed to be completely rewritten.
Without all of those measurements, we couldn’t have demonstrated that the approach taken was the most effective and cost-efficient way of going about things. When you have only eight content strategists on staff (the original recommendation was to have three times that number), and you have just over a year to go through the entire content lifecycle of planning, structuring, writing, fact-checking, editing, approvals, publishing, curating, and so on when you have to sift through 26,000 pages of content, you don’t want any false starts. You have to come out of the gate with a strong start and keep up the momentum.
Transparency makes for happy clients
Another reason to keep the three activities separate is transparency. Transparency has a particular focus in government (increasing transparency of City operations) that I have adapted and adopted for my own practice. If I can digress with an illustration, I heard a story about a woman upset that the house across the street was being torn down and a small apartment building going up in its place. The city staff actually went to her house to talk with her about the process and, upon looking out of her front window, saw the huge billboard-size sign entitled “Rezoning Application” that had been there for months. For city staff, it was part of a well-established process of a developer making an application, community consultations, input from the community, application approval, and implementation. But for the woman, the sign had no context so she didn’t connect the sign with the demolition. For her, the process wasn’t transparent – she didn’t understand the steps involved. There was a sign, and then there was demolition. Similarly, without understanding the overall process, it’s easy for clients to misunderstand the amount of work that goes into a content strategy and how that ties in to the greater project plan.
Transparency is an important aspect of City operations, and in industry, it’s an important aspect of client satisfaction. Transparency for clients can look very similar to transparency in government. Many specialized business processes can be misunderstood. You say “we’re going to do some benchmarking” or “we’re doing a content “[activity name]” and it looks to be a single exercise, perhaps something you go away and do in isolation. Making it transparent is to name the steps in between, and to name them in a way that explains what happens. By naming the parts, your client understands them better:
- Inventory – Business people get that because parts inventories are done all the time.
- Audit – Business people know what an audit is because accountants do that to financial records.
- Analysis – Executive staff know what that is because they are expected to do analyses as part of creating strategies.
Put these activities all together and you get the same result as calling it by a single name with four steps to it. But probably a happier client because you’ve been more transparent about the components of what you’re about to do, and what the outcomes of each step is. And because people – even experienced business people – always, always vastly underestimate the time, effort, cost, and diligence it takes to create content (let alone create good content), it’s worth the small effort to add transparency to your content strategy processes.
Many of you may not have known that I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half with the City of Vancouver, working on redeveloping their website.
When I agreed to work on this project for the city, I didn’t put my consulting practice on hold because I was going to be making tons more money. I took a big cut in income because I had the chance to work on a project that I could tell was going to be exciting, and produce something really useful for the public. I think it’s amazing that we managed to accomplish everything we did on such a bare bones budget.
One of the best governance consultancies around – Welchman-Pierpoint – recommended that the project have 24 writers to rewrite the content for the new site. We got 8. But it was a hand-picked eight. And those 8 writers managed to work a miracle. We got all of the business-critical content rewritten for the new content models in a little over a year. Wow.
Along the way, I learned some important lessons:
I learned that if you beg and borrow expertise from all over an organization to supplement your team, in the process, you’ll break down organizational silos. (We did in a big way).
I learned that you can bring best practices, and you’ll also develop more along the way. (We brought some to the site – and to the organization.)
I learned that it’s way easier to develop and implement a content strategy when you get to build on the user and UX research done by a firm (in this case, Open Road) that takes the time to think through concepts at a deeper level.
I learned a great appreciation for the other skill sets on a project: strong leadership from the director (my boss), one of the best project managers I’ve ever worked with (I’ve worked with a lot), a creative UX guy, a couple of wonderful business analysts who could slice and dice data like nobody’s business, and a newfound respect for what good quality assurance testing brings to the table.
At the beginning of the project, I was asked to enumerate all of the activities and deliverables I would create. Today was the first time I had the time to slow down and look at that list. I’d tackled double the amount of issues I’d expected to – and it all went toward improving content delivery and making the site a better user experience.
Altogether, that’s way more than I ever hoped to accomplish on this project, and I can leave knowing that I, along with an amazing team of dedicated content strategists and technologists gave it our all and have some solid results to show for it.
If you haven’t gone to the site yet, Vancouver online is waiting for you.
There’s a lot of discussion within the content strategy community about the particular content strategy space that we occupy. What kind of content strategy: primarily editorial? analytics? marketing? web? multi-modal? digital? government? Because it’s summer, finally, in Vancouver, I’m taking the opportunity to look at the content strategy space from a slightly different, lighter angle. Here is the content strategy space I currently occupy:
I’ve consulted for some ten years now, and have gone through the stages of having an office, sharing an office, renting space in a shared workspace, having a home office, and working virtually – anywhere I happened to be, as long as I have my laptop. That’s the beauty of content strategy: a portable profession that relies on brain power more than equipment, though I must admit I like my big screen for those endless Excel spreadsheets.
The past year-and-a-half have been spent working with the City of Vancouver on a website redevelopment project. I’ve been managing a team of eight to ten people (depending on who is reporting to whom at any given time), and we’ve been ploughing through a thorny, tangled, challenging, and extremely interesting project. That means getting out of the house and going to an office every day – in this case, the second floor of Vancouver City Hall – where I go down a corridor of a heritage building with granite floors with marble trim, all polished to a shine, past what we cheekily call our “secret boardroom”, all wood panelling and granite and plush carpets, until I reach the room where it all changes.
A swoosh of my swipe card and I’m into an open-plan room with sit/stand desks, double-monitor workstations, and the clatter of keyboards – and the occasional cussing out of the CMS. I admit that I’m privileged. Every day, I get to work with a dream team. The collective skill set in that room is way greater than the sum of its parts. We have eight writers, each with a specialization area: instructional design, plain language, SEO and analytics, taxonomy, journalism, web development, editing, marketing, and infographics. Five of them have some sort of technical communication background – structured content, anyone? – all of whom contribute to content production. (If any of my co-workers are reading this, I’m not forgetting the project director, project manager, quality assurance testers, business analysts, user experience professionals, technical professionals, and folks borrowed from other departments for their knowledge and skills. I just don’t want to inflate the content strategy sphere.)
What is the content strategy space formed by this team? If I were filling out a form, I’d chose: All of the above. We may be working on a “Web” project, but it has encompassed everything from persuasive material to instructional material, wrangling a CMS implementation to wrangling SMEs, e-publication strategies to asset management strategies, modelling content to modelling leadership, from … well, you get the picture. Oh, and don’t forget the terrible twins of change management and governance. Right from the beginning, this project has been a non-stop opportunity to contribute and learn and shine. I’ll be delighted to showcase our collective accomplishment – well, as soon as we launch. And that is a great content strategy space to occupy.
Come the end of August, the project will have eased into its next phase, and I move on to a new project for a new client. It will be exciting to enter a new content strategy space, yes. But I will sure miss the unique space at City Hall.
It took me a while to figure out how to frame this topic. I’ve had it kicking around in my mind for a month or so. As the Big Design conference approaches, it occurred to me that the idea fits nicely with the notion of Big Design. This is about Big Content.
Just as Big Design is consideration of design beyond the site (or the product), Big Content is consideration of content beyond the copy, and even beyond the content. It’s a consideration of the infrastructure and related elements that support the production and management of content. Consider the following scenario.
The organization is a consumer business that has come to realize that its reputation relies heavily on social media. The organizations has woken up to the value of capturing our warm-and-fuzzy feelings. The organization started a Facebook page, and encourages patrons to engage through the application of their choice:
“Like us on Facebook.”
“Check in to FourSquare for special offers.”
“How was your meetup? Rate it now.”
“How was your experience? Write a review on Yelp.”
Funny thing about user-generated content, though. A content strategist may be tasked with curating the content that comes in, and possibly with increasing positive feedback while amicably dealing with negative feedback. But what happens if the supporting infrastructure isn’t set up to help with those efforts?
Let’s look at human behaviour when it comes to user feedback. Positive feedback is very temporaneous: when users feel good about an experience now, they will give feedback now. Conversely, when users have a bad experience, they are more likely to hold onto that feeling of indignation until they feel heard. This often takes the form of negative feedback, and may get reported a day or two later, or more, particularly if the poor customer experience was unacknowledged or unresolved.
For organizations that increasingly depend on user-generated content as part of their marketing strategy, it’s important for them to (a) get users to generate content and (b) get users to generate content that reflects well on their customer experience. In other words, building an environment that encourages users to give immediate feedback should increase the number of instances of positive feedback.
So how can organizations make sure they’re not unwittingly weighting their content toward the negative, and instead, encouraging the positive comments? Compare these two recent situations:
- While in Hawaii, I had my data plan turned off to avoid the exorbitant roaming charges for which Canada is known. Every time I would find myself wanting to share my location or my delight with a find, I would ask, “Do you have wifi”? If the answer was yes, I would log in and share. If the answer was no, I would make a mental note to do it later – but as you might imagine, by the time I got back to the hotel, I had abandoned my resolve. In fact, an entire day at an attraction went without note, though it was a thoroughly engaging experience, because of lack of easy access to the internet. Another, less interesting event got lots of coverage, including a video upload to YouTube, because the coffee shop where we happened to be hanging out had wifi.
- Conversely, when a bad experience in a restaurant fell on deaf ears, I offloaded my frustration on a social media site. Of the four people at the table, the other three got their lunches delivered; mine had not arrived by the time the others had almost finished their meals. I cancelled my order and left before my dining mates. Later, I pulled up a site known for its restaurant reviews, found the listing, and started my review with: Worst service ever.
So beyond the call for content is the call for an infrastructure that supports the creation and submission, shaping and management, and publication and curation of that content. The content remains the center of attention – it’s what users will react to and consume, for sure. For this reason, content should not be constrained or limited by factors such as hardware limitations, software shortcomings, or bad data inputs (and therefore bad data outputs).
Some may say that goes beyond content strategy and call it digital strategy. I simply call it smart business.
The problem with building a glossary is that the definitions need to exist within a context. In my last post, I alluded to the ubiquitous term “template”, which has different meanings within different contexts, and Noz pointed out the word “format”, which has the same problem. The content strategy field is developing its own context, and this framework is offered as a starting point from which we can build a common vocabulary. Consider this a starter kit toward the glossary that Noz and I will post, likely in a neutral spot where we can accommodate multiple contributors.
The framework used here can be depicted as:
The cumulative effect of activities that form strategic approach to content, to achieve a business or social goal. This includes the decisions from both the content architecture and content development sides. (A Wikipedia definition for design is “…a roadmap or a strategic approach for someone to achieve a unique expectation. It defines the specifications, plans, parameters, costs, activities, processes and how and what to do within legal, political, social, environmental, safety and economic constraints in achieving that objective.”
The construction of content to allow content to function within a technological framework. Content architcture is the cumulative effect of activities and decisions in specifying the implementation of content types, content flows, and content models.
A set of building blocks that create semantic context for a specific unit of content, describing a technical structure and associated behaviours of those elements that allows reliable processing by computers.
The representation of the elements of a content type into the various outputs within a presentation, plus the technical specifications that allow the implementation of business rules. Assumes the technical specifications are described from the perspective of the content type within some sort of content management system.
A representation of the aggregation of all the content types used in a specific project, plus the technical specifications that allow the implementation of business rules. Assumes the technical specifications are described from the perspective of the presentation within some sort of content management system.
The construction of content to allow content to function within an editorial framework. Content development is the cumulative effect of activities and decisions in specifying the implementation of editorial quality, editorial structures, and content genres.
A set of building blocks that create social context for a specific unit of content, describing an editorial structure.
Content genres signify predictable reading flow. Examples of content genres are procedures, white papers, case studies, agendas, minutes, business cards. Readers predice that a business card has a name, position, company name, company address, and one or more telephone numbers.
A socially-enforced structuring of elements with a unit of content.
The structure is social because there are no technology constraints to enforce the structure; there is a social agreement to use elements in a particular way. For example, writers may agree that business card elements should always appear in a particular order: name, position, company name, company address, the direct number for a landline, followed by a mobile telephone number.
Editorial standards refers to the quality standards of the content.
Editorial standards can include mechanisms such as style guides, branding guidelines, or writing conventions, such as writing for accessibility or search engine optimization. Editorial standards are generally enforced by policy, though can be enforced through technology such as spell-checkers and content quality software.
- The increasing relevance of ebooks and other epublications
- All I learned about book publishing comes from The Book
- Content Re-use and Narrative Flow
- 2012 in Review – a Content Strategy Retrospective
- Two weeks, four events, eight observations: insights from the conference circuit
- Content Inventories, Audits, and Analyses: All part of benchmarking
- Working on the City of Vancouver website
- Occupying a unique content strategy space
- Move over, Big Data. It’s time for Big Content.
- Setting a context for a content strategy vocabulary
- Content classification and findability
- Content development
- Content management
- Content strategy
- Information design and usability
- Professional development
- Social media
- User experience
Tagsaccessibility ann rockley books career development CMS content as asset Content convergence content lifecycle Content management content strategy convergence deliverables DITA Duo Consulting experience design Flash integration intelligent content interaction design Management marketing mentors open standards plain language politics processes Professional development ROI search section 508 single-sourcing Social media STC structured content syndication taxonomy TechCraft translation Twitter usability user-centered design user-generated content User experience value XML
- rahelab: @richardhamilton @tomjohnson Workflow is nothing to do with DITA, really. There is an independent workflow module that gets put into CMS.
- rahelab: @richardhamilton @tomjohnson Why the middle step? To give structure to wiki content?
- rahelab: @kristastevens @kissane Between the US and Canadian guards, I'd take Cdn any day - way less smugly belligerent.
- rahelab: Being in bed when the maid comes to do do turn-down service means extra chocolate.
- rahelab: @metacommunicate Too many icons on task bar, plus random pop-ups of who is online. Wanted ppt, ppt slides how, and CMS icons only.