Content Strategists Are Facilitators of Human Communication

I’ve been working on an article for a trade publication for information scientists that explores how they can use journey mapping to source information from the social interactions of internal stakeholders, turning those interactions into knowledge that can be shared with organizations at large. My general argument is that as information scientists/content strategists/user experience designers, we are facilitators of human communication. Whether we are trying to deliver content to customers to try to get them to buy ski boots, or designing better tools to allow communities of practice to share best practices, our role is to step back and analyze how people within a certain environment communicate, then design systems, processes, and content that brokers the transfer of information between people.

Knowledge sharing is the basis of human communication. When we have conversations with others, we are transferring knowledge from one person to another, that they internalize and may use at some other point in life. The format of the information being shared – verbal, written or visual – doesn’t matter. As content strategists, we make knowledge transfer more efficient and effective.

We too often focus on the minutia of content strategy – data models, user flows, editorial processes, content management systems, etc. But, the core of what we do is facilitate human communication. If we focus more on understanding how people communicate and receive information, we may see more innovation in the content strategy field.

Are Today’s Content Management Systems Holding Back Content Strategy?

I have been doing content strategy and working with content management systems of all kinds (WCMS, SMMS, MCMS) for the past seven years. I have worked on websites and applications that use almost every popular open source solution, and had the misfortune of working on some that use proprietary systems as well. When I look back at all of those CMS’s and see how they have evolved to meet the evolving needs of content creators/editors, most are not keeping up with the times.

We are in a period in this industry where content management is multi-channel and multi-platform (bet you have read that in a few dozen articles). It’s cliche to say, but true. Yet, most content management systems do not support the need for organizations to publish a blog post or report to their website, and repurpose some of that content for Tumblr and Twitter.

The needs of content creators have evolved beyond the need for systems that enable them to publish content to a website by filling out a long web form. Content management systems of the future will enable organizations to publish content to any channel they have a presence on; repurpose content for multiple channels; give content creators greater insight into how their content is performing and why; and help organizations curate content that will resonate with their audience.

Imagine if your CMS were smart enough to tell you that you can drive 10% greater engagement on Twitter if you continue to repurpose your long-form video into 10-second clips and tag them with specific hashtags. Or, your CMS automatically recommends articles and Youtube videos that you could share with your followers on social media that support a new article you published to your newsroom.

Content management systems of the future will not just help you more easily publish content to all of the digital platforms you are on. They will make you a smarter, more efficient content marketer.

Confession of a Digital Generalist

I am not shy about sharing that I am somewhat of a digital generalist. If there is one area of digital I have spent most of career working it is content strategy, but I have done a little bit of everything. Experience strategy, social media, email marketing, SEO and periodically paid advertising. I started out in this industry in 2006 working for startups, nonprofits, and political campaigns, all of which didn’t have large online teams and expected digital staffers to be jacks-of-all-trades. It was the Wild West of sorts, as we most of us were trying to figure out how to leverage the internet to really drive growth for business and organizations.

Aside from a training I did with the New Organizing Institute back in February 2006 and a few industry conferences I have attended over the years, I haven’t had any formal training in digital strategy. I am self-taught. I remember, while working as a community organizer in 2005, spending my free time trying to build websites and my own money placing small Google Adwords buys to learn the trade. It paid off, I feel like I have gotten to do a lot in my relatively short digital career, but my journey has been one that is atypical to say the least.

Being a generalist is not a bad thing. Some people are just good at a lot of different things. One person I use as an example of this is a former developer I worked with who taught himself to code, but was also a great writer, content strategist, and project manager. You can’t pigeonhole a guy like him, he was jus too good at whatever you gave him to do.

One thing that I find makes a generalist able to change hats to work in almost any area of digital and be effective at it is their adoption of a philosophy around using digital to connect brands with consumers. A former colleague of mine strongly believed that brands can build stronger relationships with customers by wholeheartedly addressing the needs of the individual before the business objectives of a corporation. That is a philosophy that can be applied to any area of digital. If you apply it to content strategy, focus your content on providing useful resources to customers to help them be better at X. Or, if you apply it to social media, structure your community management strategy to incorporate customer service.

My general philosophy is that strategy – whether that be content, experience, brand, creative, etc. – should be informed by data, not the other way around. I have been an analytics nerd (not an analyst) since I started in digital. I learned from a number of political campaign veterans how to use CRM and digital analytics to test and optimize campaigns based on performance of past efforts. My general approach with any type of strategy is to leverage the swath of data available to me to profile audiences based on demographics, interest, and campaign performance, then develop campaigns based on what will most likely drive increased engagement with an audience segment. This data-driven approach can be applied to any facet of digital strategy, the only thing that changes is the tactics used to implement a campaign.

I strongly believe that it’s not just your skills that make you good at what you do, it’s the philosophy that drives your approach to your work. Good strategist – adaptable strategist – are not tied to any particular medium or marketing channel. They are able to apply their core beliefs to any area of digital and succeed.

My advice is to find that approach to digital that works for you. Whether you are great at developing big ideas that peak the interests of thousands, or are better at leveraging data to take an incremental approach to developing campaigns, find your sweet spot and make it work for you.

Not every company will appreciate your philosophy, but that is fine. It is more important that you apply it in a place that embraces it and will allow you to be successful than trying to be a change agent in an organization not ripe and ready for it.

How Brands Should Approach Audience Development

Google Analytics traffic chart

The concept of audience development started within the arts. Theater and other performing arts companies developed tactics they used to attract new ticket buyers, typically from demographics that did not attend these types of performances. This concept has been adopted by media companies as they sought to increase readership, and now by brands from all verticals who are seeking to adopt the editorial processes and traffic growth strategies of major online publications.

The Art Council of England developed a very good definition of audience development:

“The term Audience Development describes activity which is undertaken specifically to meet the needs of existing and potential audiences and to help arts [and cultural] organisations to develop on-going relationships with audiences. It can include aspects of marketing, commissioning, programming, education, customer care and distribution.”

When I first read this definition, the words “develop on-going relationships with audiences” struck me, because audience development in the context of the marketing field typically focuses on website traffic, not relationship building.

Audience development within the context of a media company traditionally focuses on traffic growth. Through a combination of tactics – paid media, content syndication, SEO, etc. – publications seek to drive as many visits as possible to their content. The more visits they get, the more ad revenue they generate. It makes sense for their business model.

While this makes sense for media companies given their business model, this does not make sense for most brands. Increased visits to a website can be good for brand recognition, but consumers typically don’t buy products or services after one read of a product page. The sales cycle is longer if you are trying to get someone to purchase a TV or life insurance than if you want someone to read about the latest developments in the budget debates in Congress.

Tactically, brands should adopt what media companies are doing to build their audience, but the their strategic goals need to focus on audience engagement and retention. A bounced visit to a media brand is still an ad impression. A bounced visit to a product company means the loss of a potential customer.

Don’t go for the short win with your audience development strategy, and don’t focus on just the amount of traffic you drive. Take a bigger picture approach and look at what level of engagement you are driving from each audience group you are targeting content to, and the success you are having in converting those individuals into customers, members, supporters, etc.

The Role of Human Identity in Customer Experience Design

Homer Simpson looking in the mirror

I don’t talk about this much, but about this time three years ago I was homeless for a few months. For various reasons – mainly that I was trying to go at it on my own as a consultant with not enough business to live off of – I found myself nearly broke and sleeping on a friend’s couch when I was actually able to get into his place.

My bank at the time decided they didn’t want to do business with me anymore because my account was overdrawn a few times. I remember pleading with the assistant manager not to close my account because I had a wire transfer coming in, but he had made up his mind. During that conversation, he said something to me that stuck to this day:

“…why are you fighting to do business with a company that doesn’t want to do business with you? There are plenty of other banks that would be happy to give you an account.”

When I look back on that event in my life, I realize that I found a piece of myself in that bank. It wasn’t just an account to me. I had been with that bank for a few years. I opened my first business account with them. The manager at the branch I opened my account at in DC would always chat with me about the DC Latin culture when I went in for transactions. I associated that bank with an important part of my identity – my finances.

But, he was right. I walked down the street and opened another account with a bank and it was great. I had a better experience with them than with my previous bank and recommend them to friends to this day.

In that experience I learned a lesson about human identity. We seek validation of who we are in other people and other things. Our friends, family, and coworkers provide social validation that makes us feel secure in our gender, skills, knowledge, etc. It’s not a bad thing, it’s human nature. We need social validation in the same way we need air and water.

[Read more...]