Content Strategy Applied

  • Content Strategy Applied: 2-day conference
  • Theme: Benchmarking content
  • 9 and 10 Feb 2017
  • London

Scroll is delighted to sponsor this year’s Content Strategy Applied content conference.

The focus is on the practice of content strategy – problems, solutions and case studies that professional content strategists are dealing with now. The aim is that you can grow your content experience in just 2 days, and take away practical techniques you can apply straight away.

Keynote speakers

Keynote speakers Madi Weland Solomon and James Mathewson both bring a huge amount of experience and knowledge with them, and we are thrilled that they will be headlining.

Find out more about our speakers.

Bookings now open

Registration includes:

  • Two full days of sessions and workshops
  • Continental breakfast, lunches and refreshments
  • Networking and social events
  • Special meetup: Content Seriously

Book your tickets now.

Trust toolkit – how to build trust with subject matter experts

One of the most important skills for a content designer is the ability to manage relationships with subject matter experts (SMEs) and other stakeholders.

That’s because content designers are at the sharp end of digital transformation. It might be the CEO who sets the grand digital strategy but it’s up to us to implement it – to go and in change the way that people in an organisation communicate online.

We must be able to advocate for content, create consensus and build trust and credibility with stakeholders. If we build good relationships, we get better content, we publish faster and we do a better job for the user.

This ‘trust toolkit’ is a set of practical ways you can build trust with stakeholders. It’s drawn from Scroll’s experience and the experience of the wider community of content designers.

1. We’re not at war

You know the feeling when the product manager ignores all the evidence and keeps the content the same? Or the head of legal insists that your plain English draft can’t be published?

It’s an ugly truth but it’s easy for content designers to get stuck in an us-and-them attitude – where we’re so sick of having our work ignored or belittled that we can get a bit too defensive. And it’s not helpful.

Sure, you can go in all guns blazing and tell people that you’ve trashed all their rubbish changes to your content, but that kind of slash-and-burn attitude means next time you work with them it will be a nightmare. So, remember we’re all on the same side.

2. Explain the process

Don’t assume that people in an organisation know how publishing works. Explain your role (will develop and publish content) and their role (will check facts.) Make sure expectations are crystal clear. Then it won’t come as such a shock when you do your job.

“Explain what fact check is. Explain the first draft of the document they see will have factual errors in it, will look stylistically different to what they’re used to, and their role in the process will be to correct the facts. Empower them with this.” Ronan Fitzgerald, Defra

 

3. Explain digital, share the benefits

Digital content is your world, and you need to be able to confidently explain it. Demystify, myth-bust, share the benefits and your approach will look less scary.

“I’ve often found that fear of the unknown is a factor. So, I explain a little bit about why GOV.UK exists, how it works (including things like sub-topic pages, latest feeds, alerts, collection pages etc.). This helps them to see the positives of working with you to make their content more accessible to their users.” James Low, HMRC

 

3. Don’t be afraid of ignorance

When you first start working on something, you won’t understand the subject matter. That narrow window of ignorance is a gift – grab it with both hands! This is your one chance to see through the eyes of your users, who also won’t know they’re reading about. So – take the chance to learn from the experts. Question everything. Listen to the answers.

“I don’t understand this” is a powerful thing to say. Because if you can’t understand it, neither will users. (And maybe neither do the SMEs.)

4. Prove it works for users

If you can prove what you’re doing is what works best for users, it’s easier get people onside. (A shout-out to DVLA’s great use of guerrilla user research here.)

“Evidence is helpful. People like graphs and numbers, it takes the subjectivity out of the equation.” Alan Maddrell, Government Digital Services

5. Prove you know what you’re talking about

As well as showing evidence of how the content is used, you need to be able to show evidence for your decisions. Why do you use plain English? What is cognitive load? Why use the words your users use? Why use that piece of information here and not there? Why? ‘Because the style guide says so’ is not an answer. So, do your research. Be able to explain why. It’s much easier to trust someone who clearly knows why they are doing what they do.

6. Be credible

Acknowledge what you can and can’t do. Be straight with people. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

“Be honest about what you can and can’t do, ie you won’t be able to let subject matter experts make style changes, but you will let them make factual changes.” Ronan Fitzgerald, Defra

 

7. Workshop your content

This can work brilliantly. Use for complex pieces of content – for example, if several different organisations or departments are working on it. It’s also a good way to boost a relationship, or solve issues if you’re in deadlock.

Start by sending out a draft. Then book your workshop – in person is best, but phone is better than nothing. Try and get all the SMEs you can into the room, including legal teams. Ideally you need 2 content designers – one to make changes and one to do the talking. Gather all the proposed amends into one document, and then work through them and agree the changes you will make. Top tip: If anyone suggests a change that is purely editorial (or anything else that is your job, not their job, to do) say, “That’s a style change – we’ll consider it” and move on.

Cons: it takes a lot of time and you’ll need to say no if SMEs start wanting to workshop everything you publish.

8. Do pair writing

This works well for building trust and developing content that you and the SME both understand and support. But – use with care. If you’re working with someone who has not been exposed to user-focused design, or is a bit antagonistic, go carefully. Pick something small and easy to work on. Prepare to explain everything you’re doing and trying to achieve as you go along. Read how to do pair writing.

9. If there’s still a problem, find out why

Understand their reasons for resisting or changing what you’re doing. Ask more questions. Get them to describe their thought processes. Understand their requirements – what they want the content to do.

“Understand what the team’s measures of success are… it can help you understand why they might be pushing a particular message or agenda.” Roz Strachan, Government Digital Services.

You have to get to the bottom of what they think and why their perspective is different to yours.

“It’s all a matter of where you’re standing…” Helen Challinor, Department for Education

 

10. Make one small change

If things are getting difficult, start with the quick wins. There is always something that is so self-evidently in need of fixing that everyone agrees you can do it. Make a few quick wins. Then come back again the next day…

 

Want more?

How to collaborate with subject matter experts – some good ideas for starting with bullets and getting SMEs to chunk; also mind-mapping.

Resolving differences of opinion about content – some useful questions to help you work out what someone else’s perspective is based on.

Working with SMEs to improve content – a great success story from the Disclosure and Barring Service.

How to cope with the increased demands on content

The complexity of producing and delivering content has grown exponentially over the past couple of decades, as the demands for content have grown. In simpler times, content was produced as a single-channel deliverable. We would write an article for a magazine, or a user guide, or a maintenance manual. There was one piece of content and one deliverable.

Writing content in simpler times

When the web came along, things changed considerably. We made the transition from writing in the book model for print and chunking the copy up for the web, to writing in topics for the web and then stitching the contents together for the print version that got delivered to customers.

For the most part, we still worked alone on a content deliverable. Each person on a team would be assigned an area to cover. For example, a company that produced a product would have:

  • marketing collateral in print done by a marketing team
  • marketing collateral on the website done by a digital marketing team
  • a user guide done by a technical communicator/technical author
  • a maintenance manual done by a different technical communicator
  • PDFs of the product material, uploaded (and forgotten) by a webmaster

Content got more complicated

As time went on, content got more complicated. The inconsistencies between digital and traditional channels became more apparent, and less tolerated, by customers. There were more demands on content, and more channels demanding content to fill them. There was not only the marketing funnel waiting to be filled, which makes up about 20% of any large website, but also product support material, the other 80%. Traditional product content was needed, such as quick start guides, user guides, training manuals, and service-center material. New channels also needed content: forums, knowledge bases, social, and so on. This didn’t account for the additional channels for that content, such as tablets, smartphones, wearables, and newer channels such as chat bots.

Multiplicity and the demands on content

Organisations are now in a situation where the volume of content and number of delivery variables means that the complexity of producing and delivering content has reached a tipping point. The demands on the business, the content developers, the technologies, and the content itself have grown exponentially, and it’s harder and harder to keep up.

For a moment, let’s picture 4 unique pieces of content that come together to describe a feature of a product. Now let’s say that that particular feature is used in 4 different product lines; that content is now being used 16 times. Now, imagine that each product line has four products within each line that uses that feature. Those 4 pieces of content get repeated 64 times. Now, multiply by 4 delivery channels, and that means those original 4 pieces of content are used a whopping 256 times. That’s a lot of copy-and-pasting.

4 pieces of content can be used 256 times.

How 4 pieces of content can balloon to 256 different uses.

This example of multiplicity is not understated. In fact, the phenomenon is all too common. As organisations develop more products and services, they create more content deliverables to support them, and deliver that content through multiple channels. At its best, content re-use is a laborious, time-consuming way to track where content is used and re-used. At worst, the process of tracking content use becomes a maintenance nightmare.

Finding a way to cope

How are organisations coping with this explosion of content? In my experience, not well. Too many clients have finally broken down and sought help because they’ve run out of spreadsheet management capacity – even in environments with a web CMS. Yet the demands on content continue to grow, and a greater level of sophistication is needed to deliver on the value propositions anticipated by the business.

So how can organisations cope? With a CODA (Create Once, Deliver Anywhere) strategy based on the COPE (Create One, Publish Everywhere) strategy used by the US’s NPR (National Public Radio). The basic idea is that a piece of content can be created once, and then re-used through automation, instead of using a copy-and-paste approach.

By pulling content into the many places it gets used, content developers experience a marked decrease in maintenance effort. After all, CODA also means Fix Once, Fix Everywhere. This is because when content is re-used by ‘transclusion’, the original piece of content is the only actual instance of the content. All of the other ‘copies’ are actually only a reference of the original. Fix a typo in the original piece of content, and all of the derivative content is automatically fixed as well.

Multichannel content

How 4 pieces of content can exist in multiple channels, in multiple contexts.

 

What goes into CODA

Creating CODA content is based on the principles of intelligent content. This means that content is structurally rich and semantically categorised. The definition, created by Ann Rockley, goes on to say that this makes content automatically discoverable, re-usable, reconfigurable, and adaptable. Those may sounds like technical benefits, so perhaps they are best rephrased in business terms.

  • Business efficiency. With less maintenance overhead, content developers can focus less on low-level tasks like searching for duplicate content and filling in spreadsheets, and spend more time on value-add activities. On one recent project, a particular task that took several staff several months to complete could have been completed in a matter of minutes, had the content been highly structured and semantically categorised.
  • Accountability. When a CODA framework is implemented well, there is a granular audit trail that would make any auditor swoon with delight.
  • Accuracy. Brand, marketing, legal, and compliance are all concerned with content accuracy. Having a single source of truth to draw from means less mistakes, fewer review cycles, and less legal checks before content goes live.
  • Personalisation. Whatever personalisation means to your organisation, it is more easily done within a CODA framework. The semantics added to content means the content is adaptive – in other words, it’s easier to change a sentence or two within a message to reach a different audience, to vary an offering, to output specific parts of a block of content to different devices, and so on. This can be done without losing the context, and makes maintenance so much easier.
  • Extension of reach. The idea that content can be produced in a tighter way also means that the company can leverage the content in new ways. Going into new markets, adding new product lines, taking new languages on board – all of these are possibilities that can be supported with content. No more lag between the intent and action.
  • Dynamic publishing. In companies with large quantities of content, the ability to publish content on the fly, collect existing content into new contexts, and create new assets for customers, whether paid or promotional, becomes competitive advantage.

Adopting CODA

A logical question is, “If CODA is so good, why isn’t everyone doing it?” The content developers who have been doing CODA for decades ask that question a lot. It’s a technique that has been used extensively for large bodies of content (in all fairness, the technique has traditionally been applied to post-sales content such as technical documentation, customer support content, and training material) to cope with demanding production schedules and a high likelihood of post-publication maintenance.

However, as the complexity of content delivery grows and the demand on content grows with it, the imperative for well-structured, highly semantic content will need to become the norm. It has implications for all areas of business, from how we create content to how we deliver it, and all the steps in between.

Resources

Must-read only: what’s new in content

Too much internet to wade through before you find the worthwhile stuff? Never fear – we read it for you, cut the dross and keep the best. Then we put it all together in this round-up of the latest thinking, advice, tools and events in content strategy and content design. (Hint: you can get this straight to your inbox if you sign up for the Digital Content Academy newsletter. Never miss out again…)

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

How hashtags work
Hashtags have different effects on different social media. This explains how they work and how to get the best out of them.

Run a user journey mapping workshop
Brilliant post on how (and why) to run a user journey mapping workshop. Sample takeaway: you really don’t need a fancy template to create a user journey map. Digital agencies make these to justify their fees…

Make your content live longer
Publishing brilliant content is one thing. Sustaining its life is another. Here’s some good advice.

Tools, tools, glorious tools

Clever tools for UI writers
Some useful ways to mock up designs to help you test your UI copy, or explain it to developers or designers.

Trello for Slack
We’re one step closer to achieving mind-meld.

News, thinking, advice

It doesn’t matter what you call it
Struggling to explain what content strategists do? Put the work before the words. Client panics at the sound of a ‘content audit’? Call it a ‘content check’.

Cognitive pyschology and content design
Content designers need to be able to explain their decisions – it’s not enough to say ‘because it’s in the style guide’. What we do is based on sound evidence, and you can learn about some of that here.

A content designer is not just a web editor
Here’s how our friend Beck moved from writing words for websites to designing content based on user needs. (Take our content design bootcamp to get these skills.)

Forgotten your password?
So have 82% of other people. Here’s the latest thinking on design patterns for log in pages.

And finally…

“We’re going digital!”
Sigh.