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Keeping content strategy alive: Managing people & processes


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You're online, now what? You can run an effective website, e-newsletter and social media channels with a strong content strategy foundation. Your content strategy needs to be based on knowledge of …

You're online, now what? You can run an effective website, e-newsletter and social media channels with a strong content strategy foundation. Your content strategy needs to be based on knowledge of your audience & business goals. Formula for success: create it, test and learn, sell it up, launch internally, then practice & evolve.

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  • Most stories start out like this – once upon a time.

    The situation is set up, characters emerge, things happen, crises arise, and then get resolved. And the stories usually end like this:
  • That’s the end of the story, we’re led to believe. It’s all smooth sailing from there.
  • For content strategy, there are stories too.
  • They follow the same pattern as any other story, for the most part
  • The characters in the content strategy story are us. This is from Confab Central in Minneapolis last month
  • Here are some typical content strategy situations. How many of these have you faced in your organization?

    The characters in the story are usually us, and here are the events that typically happen
  • We analyze, as I just finished doing with a 135,000-line content audit for a large education client
  • We plan. This is an example editorial calendar from a graduate content strategy course I finished teaching last month.
  • We set guidelines. Here’s an example voice and tone document from another student in my course.
  • After our matrices and documents are done, do we just live happily ever after?

    So many of the books and articles we read, and just about all the materials I’ve ever seen from Web design firms seem to indicate that we do. But actually, the real stories, and the real work, of content strategy just start at this point.
  • Rather than a fairy tale with a simple, happy ending, the really interesting, amazing, and challenging work of content strategy is more like having a baby.

    You’ve planned and prepared, and now the big moment is finally here.
  • The brand-new, shiny bundle of joy is handed over to you. It’s amazing and beautiful, and you fall completely in love with what you’ve created.

    And basically, as soon as it’s turned over to you….
  • You’ve entered an entirely new world.

    Welcome to “content strategy parenthood.” You’ll face new challenges along the way, you’ll have amazing triumphs and some bumps too. And after a time, you will be living happily ever after – until it’s time to start all over again.
  • These layers have led to a common, although usually unspoken, motto at our organizations. This is the title of a great little book about associations.
  • In 2005, I started working at NAR. I worked for, the member website – our audience was real estate agents and brokers. The site had many of the challenges I listed before, and more. Our primary challenge was that the publishing model was completely decentralized, and each of the organization’s 23 departments considered themselves practically independent entities.

    I spent my first several months creating our content strategy. We answered big questions:
    What should we do about PDFs?
    Who should be able to add a blog to our website, and why or why not?
    Should we have online polls?
    What does it mean to be 508 compliant with our content?

    If you’ve ever created a content strategy, you know that its primary job is to answer the questions that are in the air now, and to try and anticipate the next set of questions that will be coming down the pike, and answer those too.

    Anyway, once the content strategy was done, we realized we needed to create other strategies too. We spent a ton of time thinking about our overall strategy, design and technology too.
  • At the end of this effort, we printed them up and put them in large binders. We set up appointments with each departments, where we walked through the strategy documents and pointed out the important things they needed to know.

    What happened next? I’m sure that everyone we talked to listened carefully at the meetings, but then put the binder on a shelf, where it stayed from then on.

    And who do you think the real audience for the document was? Yes, the audience was us.

    Over the next year or so, my team and I continued to update the document as we had time. Things happened, including social media. And we hired new people with new ideas, so that changed things too.

    One of the new people, who now has the job that I had, recommended that we transform the strategy guidelines from printed documents to a wiki that anyone in the organization could get to, and that has helped a lot. The wiki is a living, breathing document – easier to keep up to date. That makes it easier to enforce the rules and policies that are covered in the content strategy.
  • At, we went through a process to create empathy personas. We enlisted the help of staff members to brainstorm about their challenges, fears, and motivations. These staff members had worked for NAR for many years and represented many programs and services. They’d been exposed to lots of different members, both the volunteer leaders who serve on the committees, and the general membership at large – which, as we all know, are completely different populations.

    This was my secret way of overcoming the objections to the fact that the web team was in charge of the website and of getting buy-in from my peers there. Rather than handing them a binder full of rules, we were all doing the work together.
  • The consultant we worked with, Esteban Gonzalez, has a company called Brand Therapy that specializes in creating these kinds of personas. Esteban led us through the whole process. He had everyone check their individual experience at the door, which was so important We had to agree on the four most important audiences that the organization needed to serve online. The very last step of all the brainstorming sessions was to give each of our personas a name and a face.

    This was such an effective way to create a shared understanding of our audiences.
  • When we were ready to reveal them to the larger community of staff members who published information on the site, we created life-size cutouts of them and actually had people introduce them. I kept those cutouts right outside my office, where they were always in view for me and my team, as well as anyone who came to talk with us.
  • You need to balance your qualitative understanding of your audience with qualitative data too. Many of us content strategy folks are wary of the numbers side of things, but it’s so important to learn how to get valuable information out of your analytics. As Jonathon Colman has reminded us before, analytics make your case.

    For example, on the university system project I’m working on now, we found that 94% of their content had 0 views in the past year. There’s no refuting that, when subject matter experts inside the organization want to keep their content because they think it’s important. And removing that unused content lets us really rethink how to present their information so it’s more compelling to users.

    Data also includes surveys, which I do in almost every project.
  • As content strategists, we always need to be aware of multiple things at the same time. Not only do we need to keep the audience needs in mind, we need to make sure that the business can accomplish its goals successfully. I think we’re all aware that nonprofits have business goals too – raise money through donations or grants in order to do their important work, get volunteers to help provide services, or for foundations, make sure that grant recipients have the resources they need to do the work we funded. These are just a few examples -- there are so many more potential goals, of course.

    If your organization doesn’t have a handy chart like this outlining its goals, look to the strategic plan and try and create something that puts the goals in a simple format.

    So why have I been spending time on these in a talk about content strategy that’s about how to start today? Because I think sometimes we skip these steps and go right to the part that seems more specific to us, actually answering all of those content questions and deciding how the content will work. However, these two things – your audiences and your business goals – are the universal foundation for your content strategy. The more solid your foundation, the easier it will be to sell and defend the specifics that your content strategy covers.
  • Now it’s time to test out the waters with your content strategy. You’ll probably want to do this in a less-than-official way, as a pilot project, possibly under everyone’s radar if you have the kind of culture that may be reluctant to change. And you may want to do more than one pilot. The object here is to have a good story to tell when you finally present the whole package to management.
  • Find out who your content strategy champions are, and approach them with your ideas. They’re the ones who’ve been asking to try new things, who have wanted to be the organization’s early adopters.

    Together, you can try out your answers to the key questions:
    What happens if we….?

    It may not always work, and that’s okay.
  • This is a great time to test things out.
    Save your evidence, both so you know what works and what doesn’t, and also so you can share those specifics later on as part of your education effort.
  • You’ll need to be patient. This is a Tibetan monk creating a sand mandala. He’s taking great care to get every detail right.

    You’ll see that your efforts will start to work too, and you’ll be building success stories.

    Now you’re ready for the next step.
  • lack of consistency,
    Not really strategic at all
  • In its own silo
    Slow to change
    Too much process
    Too much work to do, preventing the ability to be a strategic leader
  • Random, uneven quality
    Perpertuates fiefdoms
    Encourages competition rather than collaboration
    Can end up duplicating resources
    Leads to a confusing user experience
  • Central vision
    Shared and distributed skills
    Requires buy-in from the top
    Strategic and responsive
    May not be able to succeed in an organization that is highly silo-ized, politicized, and competitive
  • Depending on the size and complexity of your organization, you may have to take this on in layers. At NAR, this would have meant meeting with my boss, who was VP of communications, and then she might have had to run it by her boss, who was the senior VP. But ultimately, you will want and need to meet with the chief honcho in your organization. You need to be in that meeting and not just create the talking points that others share.

    You’ll want to do whatever it takes to make your superiors comfortable about having you there, such as rehearsing the meeting in advance.
  • Share your vision
    Talk about what’s already happening
    Hand out the timeframe for new ways of working
    Let them know that the ED is on board
  • Present the big picture in person
    If you created personas, “introduce" them
    Hand out cheat sheets
    Talk about what this means — timelines, processes
  • Have follow-up conversations
    Answer questions
    Understand habits and objections
    Help them educate others – committees, volunteers, etc.
  • Newsletters
    Quarterly in-person meetings
    Open Q&A
    User groups

    Success stories
    Lessons learned
    Goals set and adjusted
    Test results
  • Invite yourself to meetings
    Ask questions
    Talk to people you’ve never talked to before
    Think about where they are coming from
  • Can your systems support you?
    Expiration dates in the CMS
    Standards validation in governance software

    Set up office hours
    Offer to review
    Test and measure on demand
  • Point to the policy
    Present alternatives
    Escalate if absolutely necessary
    Get involved earlier
    Ask the right people the right questions – legal example
  • Point to the policy
    Present alternatives
    Escalate if absolutely necessary
    Get involved earlier
  • One of your key objectives is to help people create sustainable commitments

    Develop and share patterns/templates
    Plans, calendars

    Help people prioritize
    Should we be on Instagram?
    What can we stop doing?

  • Not you alone, but the people who you helped succeed
  • Transcript

    • 1. Keeping content strategy alive: Managing people and processes Hilary Marsh Content Company, Inc Confab for Nonprofits 2014 1
    • 2. 2
    • 3. …and they lived happily ever after
    • 4. The plots of content strategy stories
    • 5. Situation Characters Things Happen Crises Arise Crises Get Resolved
    • 6. We are the characters
    • 7. Situation • Findability • Voice • Ownership • Policies • Practices
    • 8. We analyze
    • 9. We plan
    • 10. We set guidelines
    • 11. …and they lived happily ever after?
    • 12. The web drives organizational change • Communication • Collaboration • Awareness of the audience • Common brand 15
    • 13. Nonprofits are complicated
    • 14. 17
    • 15. Content strategist as orchestra conductor 18
    • 16. Roots first, then plants
    • 17. This is the order • Create a strong foundation • Test and learn • Sell it up • Launch • Practice and evolve
    • 18. Create the Foundation • Answer the important questions • Living, breathing document 21
    • 19. Gain an understanding • Understand your audience • Empathy • Data • Understand your business goals 23
    • 20. 24
    • 21. Empathy-Based Personas 25 Anthony Susan Allen Maggie
    • 22. Data is your friend
    • 23. Know your business goals 28
    • 24. Policies and guidelines + Audience understanding + Business knowledge =
    • 25. 30 Your vision
    • 26. You are here
    • 27. 32 Start and Learn
    • 28. Try, try, try, try 33
    • 29. Save your evidence 34
    • 30. Be patient 35
    • 31. Get your governance in order 36 Photo credit:
    • 32. Roles & governance models 37
    • 33. Where most orgs start 38
    • 34. What often seems most logical 39
    • 35. What some orgs are trying 40
    • 36. Where most orgs land 41
    • 37. Processes • What kinds of content needs to be reviewed? • How much review: Typos, headlines, calls to action? 42
    • 38. If you’re not sure • Start with processes similar to those your organization already uses • Publication editorial process • IT workflow for new projects 43
    • 39. Get and Keep Support 44
    • 40. You are here
    • 41. Meet with the ED Your agenda: • Show what’s broken and why • Show solutions and potential, and what it will take to get there • Talk about the pilot efforts and the lessons learned • Anticipate roadblocks – raise “what if” scenarios, talk them through in advance • Determine follow-up frequency 46
    • 42. Not a linear process 47 Content strategy Support and buy-in Enablement Execution Evolution
    • 43. Time to launch it officially 48
    • 44. You are here
    • 45. 50
    • 46. Be there for your colleagues 52
    • 47. Educate and remind 53
    • 48. Educate and remind • Employ “Strategic Nagging”: Patient but persistent repetition of a message –Carrie Hane Dennison, @carriehd 54
    • 49. Operationalize and socialize 55
    • 50. Eventually, you’ll have to say “no” 56
    • 51. Solid rationales and alternatives 57
    • 52. Help people prioritize 58
    • 53. Report on progress 59
    • 54. Remember the order • Create a strong foundation • Test and learn • Sell it up • Launch • Practice and evolve
    • 55. …and they lived happily ever after
    • 56. Thank you Hilary Marsh @hilarymarsh