Module 1 – Content Strategy with Professor Phillip Simon
Nothing happens without people.
We are content. The things we record, write about ourselves, others and our experiences is how we communicate with the world. It is what we leave behind for future generations. Human knowledge is built upon the scraps of information we generate each moment and share. It sounds dramatic, but it is true. With that understanding, you must persuade others to take it as seriously. To treat content as a precious resource and develop a strategy for that currency.
Beyond effective messaging and profit margins, a content strategist must understand the people he or she is providing guidance to. What content is important to them, how invested they are in it and for what purpose. Nothing happens without the will of people, and once you have unlocked their motivations, it becomes easier to offer guidance. From this understanding, we can then develop solutions, prepare a budget and get support for our recommendations.
In her book “The Content Strategy” toolkit, Meghan Casey goes to great length to explain how to take those early steps and develop a successful content strategy:
“Your case for content strategy absolutely must be presented in terms of ROI, risk and reward.”
Identifying risk and reward is a vital first step in gaining insight. In business circles, this often means framing content and its relationship to operation costs and profitability. Writing for Analytics Magazine, Douglas W. Hubbard and Douglas A. Samuelson describe this process as “measuring the intangibles”. How will a good content strategy increase efficiency, eliminate costs, or boost sales?
In the beginning, you will ask more questions than give answers. We can all imagine how incomplete website content would lead to increased support calls or lost sales, but how do we calculate the real impact ineffective content has on our organization’s effectiveness? Well, let’s do the math.
Figure 1. Estimates Not Exacts.
Recently, I worked on a campaign for an advertising agency that specializes in pharmaceutical clients. On drug campaigns, there was a piece of content, the “Important Safety Information”, that was required by law on every email, interactive banner and web asset. It was part of the labeling for the medicine. I noticed that the team spent a significant amount of time correcting mistakes and matching the ISI of each asset with the latest release from the client. On average, each project manager, quality assurance reviewer and editorial team member reported spending an average of 3 hours going back and forth on each asset ensuring that the ISI was correct with designers and developers. That means that on a 6-month campaign cycle, 3 hrs x $40 (average hourly rate of the employee) x 5 (average employee involved in an asset) x 20 promotional emails = $12,000. Now let’s add all the banners and web pages that are also part of the campaign. Twenty interactive banners (5 distributions with 4 different sizes each) $12,000, Five web pages containing this information across the main site and several microsites $3,000, Six direct mail pieces (cards and brochure) $3,600. So, for one label update, approximately $30,600 is lost just checking what should be copied and pasted boilerplate information. This is a hidden cost of production that is draining profits or being passed on to the client. It is the result of repetitive manual work and a lack of business process addressing this very important piece of content.
Now imagine, if the cost of setting up a central repository on the agency intranet with a master ISI, that all team members could refer to for their assets and simply pull the most recent and correct information for their campaign assets. These would be posted in various formats for convenience (pain text, html, sketch, InDesign etc.) 1 pm or editor x 8hrs x $40 (average hourly rate) (320) + 1 developer x 8hrs x $40 (320) = $640.
Casey explains that a content strategy for an entire organization and across all channels is super complex and very steeped in business management and operations. It will involve changes to how people perform their jobs and will inevitably involve more than just content. Problems with content may stem from problems involving people and the processes they use to do their work. Keep in mind two important principles about people and processes. First, everyone—or almost everyone—has good intentions and is trying to do good work. The people involved in making content decisions and doing content work are doing the best they can with the skills they have and the guidance they get.
In my example, it appears that with an internal investment of time and a simple modification to current practices with existing tools, the agency can save about 30K per cycle. The change would also have non-monetary benefits such as improved employee efficiency, greater transparency, accountability, and less stress. See Figure 1. from a presentation by Melissa Rach, Partner & Co-Founder at Dialog Studios for another example of how to quantify the value of content, a content strategy and proper content management. She encourages content strategists to make logical assumptions when calculating the intangibles.
In addition, see this video by Ben Fitzpatrick of web profits expanding on the more public-facing risks of publishing bad content including the hard to measure consequences of brand damage and poor user experience. Ben includes some helpful tips on how to frame the issues with businesses and address them. Think about your current environment and explore how exploring and improving your relationship with content might have some positive financial impact.
The dangers of publishing bad content | Growth Manifesto. (2018, March 07).
Developing the pitch
Now that you have thoughtfully examined the business and its content, it is time to reveal your findings and propose some solutions. The pitch involves 4 basic steps:
- Explore, define and quantify how poor content affects the business
- Calculate how much is lost due to inefficiency (think of staff time, effort, sales lost, customer complaints etc.)
- Explain how a content strategy will benefit the business, include non-monetary improvements
- Ask for support (funding, resources)
Expect resistance, in order to make an airtight argument for resources, the Toulmin argument model provides a tried and true structure for making a persuasive proposal.
Finally, The Project Plan…
As we know, people are your most important resource. In your “discovery” stage, you may perform interviews and workshops which would be strategic (mission and big picture thinking, why), content analysis (what) and tactical (who will perform the work and how). Listen to everyone but come to your own conclusions on determining how accurate some of the information you receive is. Collecting data, looking for evidence and doing some investigative deduction, you might yield better insights. Casey stresses the importance of “buy-in” and communication:
Once approved, it is important to identify stakeholder roles and types, understand their motivations and set up a communication structure. Be inclusive and transparent. Stakeholder engagement isn’t a one-time activity. If you want continued interest in and support of your project, communicate with your stakeholders regularly.
Here are some core questions that should guide every conversation as you go through this process:
- What are the challenges and pain points that relate to the content?
- Who the content is for?
- What you want the audience to know and believe?
- What the audience wants to know about or expects from you?
- How things will be better or different if the project is successful?
You will find that businesses will want to prescribe themselves medicine, such as technological solutions before doing the hard work of analyzing the quality and effectiveness of their content. Try to stay clear of quick fixes. Graham McDonnell, International Creative Director at The New York Times, shares the techniques its in-house brand studio uses to create immersive interactive digital stories for a wide variety of brands, and how they deliver significant, measurable results:
“A lot of clients come to us saying we want VR, a podcast, or augmented reality, we always go back to them with the same answer, because it’s really important to figure out the story first and then how to tell it afterward, even in the word itself “story” comes before the “telling” so it’s really important before you start thinking about the execution, what is the message?”
Always make it clear that their ideas are not being dismissed. The purpose is to arrive at a group consensus before taking any actions.
“You want people coming to your alignment session feeling smart, valued, and ready to participate. To help them get into this mindset, introduce the project with an in-person discussion (whenever possible) and follow up with an email.”
Before you know it, you will be assigning tasks, setting milestones, and be knee-deep in deliverables and architecture. That’s it, you are off to the races with a well-developed project plan in hand, founded in a deep understanding of the people you are working with and for. Their motivations expressed in quantities and facts with a path to success. Content, a precious resource that is both our aspirations and a tool helping us reach our goals. Thanks for reading this content and in my next post, I will report how content strategy as a practice has evolved over the past decade and why.
Resources & References
Casey, M. (2015). The Content Strategy Toolkit: Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right (Voices That Matter). New Riders. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Content-Strategy-Toolkit-Guidelines-Templates/dp/0134105109
The Discipline of Content Strategy. (2008, December 17). Retrieved from https://alistapart.com/article/thedisciplineofcontentstrategy
Halverson, Kristina “| UX Magazine.” 18 Jan. 2020, Content Strategy and UX: A Modern Love Story, Retrieved from http://www.uxmag.com/articles/content-strategy-and-ux-a-modern-love-story.
Content Strategists: What Do They Do? (2020, January 18). Retrieved from http://contentini.com/content-strategists-what-do-they-do
A Checklist for Content Work. (2011, March 08). Retrieved from https://alistapart.com/article/a-checklist-for-content-work
The New York Times Storytelling Techniques for Brands | Graham McDonnell. (2019, December 10). Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=yAWFjiaK1Ek&feature=emb_logo
Explaining ‘How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of ‘Intangibles’ in Business’ – Analytics Magazine. (2014, May 01). Retrieved from http://analytics-magazine.org/explaining-how-to-measure-anything-finding-the-value-of-intangibles-in-business
Content & Cash: The Value of Content (Cape Town Edition). (2020, January 18). Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/melissarach/content-cash-the-value-of-content-capetown-edition/3-Business_expectationsTo_make_an_investment
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