Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

Webcast: The many facets of content strategy

July 16, 2014 by

In this webcast recording, Sarah O’Keefe discusses the future of content strategy.

The purpose of content strategy is to support your organization’s business goals. Content strategists need to understand how content across the organization—marketing, technical, and more—contributes to the overall business success.

Keys to content strategy: consultants

July 8, 2014 by

Are you thinking about engaging a content strategy consultant? Here are some thoughts on successful content strategy consulting relationships.

Over at easyDITA, Stephen Morse wrote a great post about determining whether you need a DITA consultant:

A consultant can help you define where you want to go, then recommend the right people, process and technologies to ensure you reach your destination.

But that’s just the beginning. Once you decide that you need a content strategy consultant (or DITA consulting), then what? How do you make sure that your project is successful?

Rule #1. Understand your consultant’s scope of expertise.

The best consultant is the one who has deep expertise in your type of problem. Here at Scriptorium, we specialize in content strategy for technical content. If you need to deliver lots of content in many languages and diverse output formats, we can help you. Approximately 80 percent of our work revolves around XML and structured content; the rest is mostly unstructured FrameMaker. Need help with SEO? Look elsewhere.

Rule #2. Content strategy consultants have limited psychic abilities.

Zelda the fortune-telling dog with a crystal ball, just like a content strategy consultant

Content strategy consultants have limited psychic abilities // flickr: aussiegall

One of the most frustrating things that happens in our day-to-day work is that we carefully construct a recommendation, which is then shot down with a casual, “Oh, we can’t do that because of <REDACTED>.” <REDACTED> is nearly always important information that we should have had before we even started our work.

For example:

Client: Figure out the best solution for X.

Us: What are the constraints for X? Budget? Expense? Timing? What features are critical?

Client: A, B, and C.

Us (much later): We recommend solution S. It addresses A, B, and C in these ways.

Client: Oh, no, that won’t work. We can’t do that because (IT doesn’t allow SaaS | our CEO loves Word | our CEO hates purple | did I mention that we need to support WordStar?).

Rule #3. You are special. Your problem is not.

Over our (many) years of consulting, we have identified common problem patterns, like this one:

Our system worked fine, but now we have to scale up with lots of languages and/or lots of output formats. We cannot scale our current approach.

If your basic problem is scalability (or lack thereof), we know that we have a certain set of levers we can use, such as:

  • Automated formatting
  • Rigorous use of style guides
  • Consistent terminology

These items are the starting point for solving a scalability problem. We then add your unique content and organizational requirements to the mix to develop the right solution for you.

Rule #4: We need to trust each other.

When you bring in a consultant, you are taking a leap of faith. A great consultant will help you succeed, and all will be well. On the consulting side, we are also taking a leap of faith. Our business is built on our reputation, and a bad project will affect our reputation.

We understand the difficulty of establishing trust. Scriptorium does not resell CCMS or other software or receive referral fees from software vendors. This helps us to align our interests with our clients—our success depends on providing a good recommendation, not on referral income. Some of our projects last for years—we want to enjoy working with you and you with us. The alternative is a dreary implementation slog. So trust and a strong working relationship are critical to working with a content strategy consultant like Scriptorium.

 

Consultants: What are your rules for consulting success?
Clients: What do you need from your consultant?
Tell us in the comments.

Keys to content strategy: aligning expectations

June 24, 2014 by

An effective content strategy requires participation (preferably enthusiastic) from a diverse array of people. When you are communicating with executives, IT specialists, marketing writers, translation coordinators, and more, recognize that each participant (including you) begins with a certain set of expectations and biases.

For example, consider the proof of concept stage. What are the expectations for the proof of concept?

  • Engineers: show that something is technically feasible.
  • Marketing: show that we can produce something comparable to the highly designed content we produce now.

In one project, this mismatch of expectations caused huge problems. The question was something like, “Can we produce InDesign output from XML?” The answer, from the software side, was yes. But the proof-of-concept InDesign file was, let us say, aesthetically challenged. The marketing team looked at the very unattractive output and was ready to veto the entire workflow.

Hippopotamus: The HiPPO is the key to content strategy success

Don’t forget about the HiPPO!
flickr: frank_wouters

We have to have extreme clarity on the proof of concept. Are we showing the best-case scenario? “We created some initial output, and cleaned it up for the demo.” Are we showing the initial default output? “It’s ugly, but we can fix the formatting later; the technology works.” And most importantly, have we communicated those expectations or limitations to the people looking at the information?

Team members who are very visually oriented (most marketing and design staffers) need to see attractive demos. Team members who are very process-oriented (often IT and tech comm) need to see demos that promise efficiency. It’s also important to address not the elephant in the room, but the HiPPO—the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.

Is it acceptable to spend six months on a proof of concept that simply moves your current PDF look and feel onto another production system? Do you need quick wins to keep momentum (and funding) going? How soon will legacy content move to the new system, or will it be updated in the old system?

If these assumptions and expectations are not aligned across the team, you are going to have some big project problems.

Other posts in the keys to content strategy series

Keys to content strategy: ROI

June 4, 2014 by

Content strategy requires you to connect information with business results. The key to getting a content strategy approved? Return on investment (ROI). Once you show that your content strategy is beneficial to the business, you are on your way.

Here are some common approaches to content strategy ROI.

Web analytics

Your web site offers a wealth of data about site visitors. But what does the data mean? You could base your content strategy on increasing visitors to your site, but a better measurement would be quality visits or lead conversions (perhaps people who fill out a contact form). If you run an ecommerce site, you can look at revenue, shopping cart abandonment percentage (less is better), and more to get an idea of whether and how your content is improving matters.

For most technical content, however, you need to look deeper.

Support metrics

cowbells. MORE cowbells

You can never have too much ROI // flickr: mecklenburg

Providing one-on-one support, via telephone, email, or chat, is expensive. Technical information provides one-to-many support–a single document can be read by many people, which spreads out the cost of developing and delivering that information.

Therefore, content strategy ROI may involve measuring technical support costs along with content development costs, and trying to shift customers over to using more of the self-service content instead of the technical support.

Sales impact

The basic premise of content marketing is that providing useful content leads to customers—better, more relevant content results in more sales. But how do you calculate the ROI? How do you identify the share of sales produced by better content (as opposed to a marketing effort or a sales initiative)?

You need a way of measuring why people buy your product. Talk to the sales organization and find out what sort of metrics they track. For example, do they ask people why they bought a particular product? Or do they want to emphasize a feature? Can you provide content that talks about that feature?

Another possibility would be to look at product return rates. Can better installation instructions reduce return rates? Can more upfront information ensure that customers select the right product the first time? (For some interesting statistics on product returns, check out this article by Sharon Burton.)

Time to market

Can you create content better and faster? If so, you may be able to accelerate time to market for your product, which in turn means you get revenue sooner. Time to market calculations are most common for localized content. Cutting a shipping delay from six months to three months means that the organization gets revenue three months earlier. For many of our bigger customers, this type of improvement is enough to justify a substantial investment to create a better content process.

 

Do you have other ROI justifications for content strategy?

Other posts in the keys to content strategy series

Webcast: You want it when?!? Content strategy for an impatient world

May 21, 2014 by

In this webcast recording, Sarah O’Keefe discusses how content initiatives are putting new demands on technical communication—improving customer experience, building interactive documents, including advanced visualizations, integrated translations, and more.

To meet these requirements, we must increase the velocity of technical communication. That means stripping out inefficiency and creating content development workflows that eliminate wasted time. Most publishing systems are ill-equipped for flexible, fast, and changeable production. Instead, they are intended to support a manufacturing process, in which the result is static (like print or PDF).

For today’s workflows, this approach is not good enough. We must increase our velocity so that we can support the requirements that are coming.

Keys to content strategy: Discovery

May 20, 2014 by

In the legal world, discovery refers to the compulsory disclosure of relevant documents. In the consulting world, disclosure also important, but it is usually spotty and not in writing. Instead of disclosure, we have discovery.

A good discovery process looks a little like the Discovery Channel line-up.

Mythbusters

First up, we have to bust some myths.

Who is the actual decision-maker? Is it the senior executive sponsoring this project? Most often, it is the person that the senior executive listens to. Sometimes, that’s the consultant; often, it’s an employee whose job title in no way indicates any potential influence.

The decision process rarely resembles the official org chart.

Deadliest Catch

Our road to a successful project is fraught with peril—and the perils, like the Bering Sea, are constantly changing.

Every project is different. Superficially, they have a lot in common—same industry, same legacy content problems, same budget limitations. But an approach of “just do what you did for customer X” doesn’t work. Instead, we need to understand all of the subtleties of a specific customer—especially their corporate culture and their risk tolerance—before making any recommendations.

The technical solutions are often similar, but change management issues and in-house skill sets affect recommendations, budgets, and sometimes even results.

Even when we put in the same technology, the projects don’t look the same.

Hoarders

All of us like to hoard things. Some of us hoard knowledge.

New content strategy often means new tools and new ways of doing things, and this can be as painful as decluttering a house.

Most people hate change and will resist it.

Understanding the level of change resistance is a key part of discovery.

Shark Week

Not all of the people we work with have our best interests in mind. Some of them think we look like a tasty snack.

Don’t be shark food. // flickr: travelbagltd

Where are the bodies buried? Is someone determined to sandbag the project and if so, why? Some projects run smoothly; others are filled with political land mines. It’s critical quite early on to figure out who is who. And bring a shark cage.

Don’t be shark food. 

Gold Rush

Gold. Gold nuggets. Gold fever.

If you want your project approved, show ROI.

Naked and Afraid

Every content strategy project starts with huge unknowns. The key to success is to fill in our gaps in knowledge as fast as possible.

At least we get to start with clothing.

Other posts in the keys to content strategy series

XML publishing: It is right for you?

May 12, 2014 by

Wondering about a transition from desktop publishing to XML publishing for your content? Check out our new business case calculator.

In five minutes, you can estimate your savings from reuse, automated formatting, and localization. If the results aren’t compelling, you have your answer—XML is not right for you. For many of you, though, the results will tell you that you need to do some additional work.

The implementation side is more complex, so we haven’t provided that calculator. (Yet.) Keep in mind that your content strategy is more than just XML publishing, and more than just cost savings, but this is a starting point.

Like it? Hate it? Let us know in the comments here.

XML business case calculator

Ten mistakes for content strategists to avoid

April 28, 2014 by

As content strategy spreads far and wide, we are making old mistakes in new ways. Here are ten mistakes that content strategists need to avoid.

1. Overly technical

Some content strategists are more comfortable with technology than with strategy. (I’m looking at you, technical communication people.) So instead of discussing how better content can help the business, they focus on how the awesomeness of DITA specialization will enable better semantics.

Which brings me to the Scriptorium’s first law of content strategy:

Every time you use a word the funding executive doesn’t understand, your project budget is reduced.

2. Bad pitches

When you ask for resources, funding, approval to proceed, or anything else, your pitch needs to be tailored to the person you are talking to. A technology-heavy pitch won’t work for the CFO. A budget-focused pitch won’t work for your technical experts. A pitch focused on efficiency and ROI will not appeal to writers. And so on.

Know your audience and deliver the message at an appropriate level.

(Yes, you’ll need more than one presentation.)

3. Ignoring office politics

Office politics are a reality everywhere. Ignore them at your peril. Content strategy is a cross-organizational function, which means you need allies. It’s unlikely that everyone you need reports to you. Let your charisma and your brilliant ideas dazzle them. Or, you know, get executive support and therefore grudging cooperation from their direct reports. Whatever works for you.

Master leadership without authority.

4. Ignoring the big picture

Some content strategists prefer to focus on copywriting, voice and tone, and other writing facets. But what is more important? Fixing typos or delivering relevant content? Criticizing someone else’s word choice or identifying effective communication channels? Style guides are important, but they are not content strategy. If you are mostly focused on word choice, you are a copy editor.

Forest, not trees.

5. Involving the wrong people

Content strategy projects are often high-profile. As a result, some people may want to participate to get face time with executives. (Others will avoid the project for the same reason.) Motivated self-interest is acceptable, but make sure that your team members also have the right skills. Beware of people who join the team because they want to sandbag the project.

Build the project team based on people’s skills and project needs. Include key stakeholders.

Don't kick Darth Vader

flickr: pasukaru76

6. Acting on bad assumptions

Bad assumptions can kill your projects, and they come in lots of flavors:

  • Long-held biases
  • Learned behavior
  • Holdover from previous job/project
  • Extrapolating from not enough evidence

Before you assume that an executive has certain strategic priorities, have a conversation with her. Often, you get different information at every level—content creators, managers, directors, and executives see their world differently. For example, I asked about localization requirements in one company and was told by content creators, managers, and directors that there were none. But the CEO said differently—he knew about a pending (large) sale that would result in a need for localization.

Validate your assumptions.

7. Not enough planning

Your strategy needs to amalgamate industry best practices with your organization’s unique aspects. Is your organization agile? Do you make products that are regulated? How quickly does your organization move and how are large projects normally handled? The answers will help you create a plan that makes sense for you.

Plan or Fail.

8. Too much planning

“No plan survives contact with reality.” (paraphrasing von Moltke)

As you build your plan, recognize that it will change. You’ll need to be flexible. The initial plan needs to be just good enough to get approval to get started. You cannot build the perfect plan, so don’t try.

Analysis paralysis kills projects.

9. Leading with technology

Choosing a particular content management system is not “content strategy.” Opening discussions about an organization’s content strategy with “And we’ve already decided to use XYZ CMS” is not very helpful. What if your strategy dictates an approach for which XYZ is not a good choice?

Unfortunately, this is a common problem. Sometimes, the technology constraints are imposed from the outside, such as the IT department that insists that SharePoint is Awesome for Everything. Content strategists should be technology agnostic.

Don’t lead with technology.

10. Ignoring internal talent

Most of the companies that hire us have plenty of talent on their staff. In those cases, our job is to amplify what the insiders are saying and ensure that it is communicated and understood within the organization.  Don’t ignore the smart people that are already on your team.

Even people who don’t commute on airplanes are smart.

What other mistakes are content strategists making? What’s your “favorite” mistake?

Alan Pringle and Bill Swallow contributed to this post.

Content strategy—cold as ice

April 21, 2014 by

Technical writing and marketing writing attracts people who love words and books. (This definitely includes me.) In the emerging discipline of content strategy, content is an asset. Its value is determined by what it can do for the business, not by artistic or literary merit.

If you are an executive who is responsible for content, this shift is welcome and long overdue. After all, content creation (and localization) is expensive, and it’s about time that somebody found a way to make it useful. But many content creators see their content not as a (potential) business asset, but as a carefully crafted, much-loved objet d’art.

In response, I give you Tina Turner.

And while I’m in the process of dating myself, here is something that explains how some content creators feel about executives who demand business results from content.

Managing the conflict between the artistic and the business perspective of content is a big part of our consulting work.

Have you experienced this conflict?

Side note: I will be moderating a panel on digital marketing at NCTA’s State of Technology event (May 16, Durham, North Carolina). Hope to see you there!

A hierarchy of content needs

March 4, 2014 by

Some thoughts on how to evaluate a hierarchy of content needs as a foundation for content strategy.


In working through the idea of minimum viable content, I decided to build out a hierarchy of content needs based on Maslow’s hierarchy. In Maslow’s pyramid, the basic needs (like food and water) are on the bottom. If you don’t have the basics, you’re unlikely to be interested in the top layer (self-actualization).

What happens if you look at content needs?

Based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the layers are from bottom to top: available, accurate, appropriate, connected, and intelligent

Scriptorium hierarchy of content needs

The bottom three layers are what’s required for minimum viable content.

This hierarchy helps us with content strategy work. When your content is not even available in a useful format, focusing on social engagement (the connected layer) is probably premature.

Available

Available content means that information exists, and the person who needs it has access to it. If the content hasn’t been written, but the reader can’t find it, or if it’s behind a firewall/login that the reader doesn’t know about, then content fails the available test.

The first step in meeting content needs is to make the information available to people who need it. You can push information via email, publish to the web or a private site, or send out printed catalogs. But “available” is the first critical need.

In the available category, we also look at whether content is findable, searchable, and discoverable—if readers can’t successfully locate the content they need, it exists, but it’s not really available to the readers.

Accurate

Content should be accurate. Available but inaccurate isn’t so good. Under this category, we can also evaluate information for grammar, formatting, consistency, and other decorations that improve the content quality.

 

Appropriate

Appropriate content is delivered in the right language, in the right format, at the right level of complexity. This is where we put together the user’s needs with the delivery possibilities.

Content is “available” when you put it in a crappy PDF and email it on request.

To pass the “appropriate” test, you must deliver that information in a way that is best for the user. Depending on your user, that could mean a mobile-friendly HTML web site or an EPUB file. There’s delivering content, and then there’s delivering content WELL.

Connected

The connected layer is where you add user engagement and social layers. This is hard to discuss without using terrible buzzwords, but what I’m looking for here is the ability for readers to comment on your content, vote it up and down, and perhaps edit content or create their own content.

You want to support users in engaging with your content.

Intelligent

The pinnacle is content that isn’t just a static piece of text, but information that can be manipulated for different purposes.

Intelligent content might include content that is personalized, interactive service manuals, the ability to filter information based on my needs, and more.

Often, delivering intelligent content requires you to integrate database content (for example, product specifications) with authored content. Troubleshooting instructions, for example, might be integrated with information from the organization’s parts database.

Here’s a slightly more detailed version of the pyramid.

details

What do you think? Can you use the hierarchy of content needs to assess your content requirements? Do you agree with the hierarchy?

UPDATE: Hilary Marsh also built a content needs hierarchy, but hers was published in July 2013 (much earlier than this one). I don’t recall seeing her article, but it’s possible that it’s been kicking around in my subconscious mind for several months. That said, we do have some significant differences, although happily we both have “accurate” as an important base layer in the pyramid.