Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

Fall 2014 Scriptorium conference round-up

August 25, 2014 by

We have a full schedule of stellar conferences coming up this fall. We hope to see you at one or more of these events.

Let’s start with the big news. You should be able to recognize us at these events, as we have finally updated our web site photos and profiles. Yes, after only six years, we took some new portraits.

Lavacon: Bring on the zombies

That’s probably not the official conference theme (and we hope it’s unrelated to the photo news), but Bill Swallow is presenting Content Strategy vs. The Undead, and Alan Pringle will be at the Scriptorium booth talking about content strategy—and handing out chocolate (of course). Come very early and there might be a few donuts.

October 12-15, Portland, Oregon

Lavacon conference web site

Information Development World

At IDWorld, Sarah O’Keefe is presenting Risky Business: The Challenge of Conference Silos. Gretyl Kinsey will be at the booth with chocolate. No word on whether there will be any reenactments of famous movie scenes.

October 22-24, San Jose, California

IDWorld conference web site

tekom/tcworld

Sarah and Alan will team up for a workshop on Adapting Content for the US Market.

November 11-13, Stuttgart, Germany

tekom/tcworld conference web site

Gilbane Conference

Sarah will be participating on a content strategy panel.

December 2-4, Boston, Massachusetts

Gilbane Conference web site

 

As always, we are delighted to meet with you at any time. Contact us to set up a meeting, or just find us during an event and introduce yourself.

Content strategy failure in ten easy steps (premium)

August 11, 2014 by

Here’s how to ensure content strategy failure in ten easy steps. Follow these steps to guarantee that your project disintegrates in spectacular fashion. The top three are:

  1. Pick your tools first.
  2. Don’t talk to stakeholders.
  3. Make bad assumptions.

1. Pick your tools first.

Do you know what your strategy is? Do you understand your business? Have you thought about the implications of AwesomeSoftware™ over the next five years? No? Great, let’s use AwesomeSoftware. After all, their salespeople bought us a nice dinner, and they’re fun to drink with. What could possibly go wrong?

When content strategy = pick a tool, the results will be craptacular.

Content strategy failure occurs when you aren't prepared. // flickr: zachd1_618

Content strategy failure occurs when you aren’t prepared. // flickr: zachd1_618

2. Don’t talk to your stakeholders; they make projects more complex.

Stakeholders can offer project support and critical information. They may also have biases. You need to garner their support, understand their biases, and make sure that you extract every last drop of intel from them.

If you don’t talk to stakeholders, your project will be much simpler—and unlikely to work in the real world.

The more stakeholders you talk to, the more requirements you have to balance. If the requirements are in direct conflict, get your stakeholders together to discuss their priorities.

3. Make bad assumptions, especially based on stereotypes.

Some engineers are good writers.

Some marketing people like technology.

Some technical writers like to socialize.

Some CEOs are more interested in high quality products than cost savings.

The list could go on forever. We all carry biases and stereotypes around. Sometimes, we call them “work experience.” I’ve met a few 60-somethings who are just trying to glide into retirement, but they are the exception not the rule. I’ve also met unmotivated 20-somethings. You need to assess skills, motivation, and learning aptitude of the team members, but don’t assume based on demographics.

In addition to stereotyping people, there is a temptation to stereotype organizations by industry. For example:

  • Government agency = slow and out of date
  • Software company = quality doesn’t matter; only speed matters
  • Heavy machinery = not interested in new technology

Some organizations resemble these stereotypes, but we have also worked with organizations that blow these assumptions out of the water. Nimble government agencies doing awesome things. Software companies that are focused on quality rather than cost and velocity. Heavy machinery companies that are producing innovative content using cutting-edge technology.

People and projects will surprise you. Be ready for it.

4. Ignore people who challenge your assumptions.

You know that naysayer? The one who insists that [whatever] is a terrible idea and will never work? Ignore her at your peril. Your naysayer may be an enormous annoyance, but she is probably expressing concerns that are held by more politically savvy members of the organization. There’s also a significant chance that her objections are valid.

Pay attention when you get resistance to your plans. Do your research and make sure that you address valid objections. Don’t allow your enthusiasm to blind you to the possibility that you have not chosen the right approach. Content strategy failure is likely when the general approach is “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” (Although, admittedly, that worked for Admiral Farragut.)

At some point, we go from “challenging assumptions” to “sheer obstinance.” It’s important to recognize the difference.

5. Take vendor demos as gospel truth.

Panda cub stuck halfway up tree

Can your tool do what you need? // flickr: bootbearwdc

The purpose of a vendor demo is to tell a compelling story that sells the product. You can learn a lot from vendor demos by paying attention to points of emphasis and the overall structure of the demo:

  • Are there lots of “corporate overview” slides before you get to an actual hands-on demo? This is a well-established company that wants you to perceive them as a safe choice. They probably have a small upstart competitor, perhaps with better technology.
  • Is the demo incredibly detailed and technical? This is probably a smaller company that has great technology. Make sure you ask about technical support and corporate structure.
  • Did the vendor avoid a particular topic area? Their solution is probably not as good in this area. Either put them on the spot by asking about that feature, or follow up later.
  • Does the presenter tell you that a particular approach is a bad idea? This means that a) the vendor’s solution doesn’t work well with that approach, b) that approach is a universally bad idea, or c) both. Figuring out when the answer is (a) is a critical skill for the buyer.
  • How interesting and informative is the person leading the demo? He is probably the person in the vendor organization who is the best at communicating with customers (because, after all, he is involved in sales). You can assume that the technical support person will be no better than what you are seeing in the demo. (In other words, if the demo is terrible, expect lousy technical support in the future.)

Ask the vendor to demonstrate using samples that you provide. This helps you to see whether the solution would work for your information or is mainly functional when working with a highly restricted set of sample information.

A demo is a best-case scenario.

6. Ignore corporate culture.

Corporate culture constrains possibilities. A cautious organization with many layers of approvals will not succeed with a strategy that requires quick action. A startup culture that prizes creative thinking and cheap solutions will reject a months-long implementation effort.

If you ignore the corporate culture, you have the freedom to choose a solution that, on paper, looks like a good option, but that will fail because it’s incompatible with the organization. Think of it like an organ transplant. You have to match the solution (the donor organ) to the recipient, or Bad Things will happen.

Take the time to understand the corporate culture, especially if you are new to the organization. Who really makes decisions? Very often, it’s not the person at the top of the organizational chart—it’s the trusted lieutenant. How do different departments in the organization interact? How do employees in different locations work together? Is there a hierarchy of locations (for instance, people at corporate HQ always win), or is there a department that has the ability to get things done? Was there a merger, and how are the people from the two sides of the merger treated? Is one side more influential than the other? Is there ongoing resentment about how the merger was handled? (Hint: Yes.)

7. Pick a solution and then look for a problem.

Perhaps you used a certain tool in a previous job? Perhaps that software was awesome? By all means, let’s use that option. Or maybe you’ve decided that XML is really cool. Why not push your organization to use XML?

No. No. Ten thousand times no.

Define the business problem first, then pick the solution. “I hate working with (or without) AwesomeSoftware” is not a business problem.

8. Allow IT to choose the solution while ignoring content creators.

traditional rock climbing rope and caribiner

Choose your tools carefully; your project success depends on them // flickr: iwona_kelly

Especially in larger companies, the IT organization is waterboarded when they fail to strongly encouraged to limit the number of software systems. As a result, your request for a specialized system will be met with suspicion. Why can’t you just use the default option?

In extreme cases, you will be told that you must use the default option. This is very often an enterprise document management system, which may or may not fit your needs. (Probably not.)

IT’s focus on limiting software is supposed to control overall IT costs. If the IT-recommended software doesn’t meet your content strategy requirements, then you must show a cost-benefit analysis. What are the benefits of the proposed (non-IT-approved) solution? Do these benefits outweigh the cost of configuring, supporting, and maintaining the solution?

9. Allow content creators to choose the solution while ignoring IT.

An IT-imposed solution is one extreme. At the other extreme, we find content creators making decisions based on their personal biases.

A former manager was an enormous typesetting geek, so now the content creators have a workflow that includes fine manual kerning. Does kerning add value? Will customer notice if kerning stops? Is support for sophisticated manual kerning a critical requirement?

What if “sophisticated kerning” rules out solutions that are otherwise a good fit?

Beware of content creators who advocate for a solution solely because it is the least disruptive option—for them. Again you must ask, does the solution meet the overall requirements?

10. Refuse to change.

“We’ve always done it that way.”

Content strategy failure is assured when new initiatives are met with the requirement that any new approach to content must preserve all of the weirdest features of the current approach.

Learn to identify change resistance masquerading as project constraints.

 

The best way to avoid content strategy failure is to bring Scriptorium as a consulting partner. Contact us today.

DITA content strategy

July 28, 2014 by

How can you implement DITA content strategy? Is DITA itself a content strategy?

Map with dotted line indicating travel from source to destination.

Identifying your business goals is the key to content strategy

The answer is a resounding no. DITA is an architecture. DITA and content strategy are related, but “we use DITA” is not a content strategy. The content strategy process goes something like this:

  1. Identify your business goals. (Examples: “efficiently create information required by our regulators to sell our product” or “increase market share in Europe”)
  2. Based on your business goals, establish a content strategy. (Example: “deliver content in local language for European markets at the same time English is ready”)
  3. Based on the content strategy, establish requirements for your content lifecycle.
  4. Identify the constraints.
  5. Based on the requirements and constraints, identify a solution for developing, deploying, and delivering your content. (DITA is a possible solution.)

Although I strongly encourage you to start with strategy, I do know that DITA is a strong contender if you have the following requirements:

  • Topic-based authoring
  • Localization
  • Reuse
  • Lots of output formats

DITA has advantages and disadvantages. Here are a few:

DITA advantages

DITA is a good fit for typical technical communication requirements. It is an open standard and has significant vendor support.

DITA disadvantages

For many organizations, DITA is a huge change, so we have change management concerns. There are also writing challenges (modular content is harder than you might think) and technical challenges. The technology stack required to get output from DITA is not for the faint of heart.

Is DITA right for you?

Scuba divers

Once you have requirements and constraints, you can assess whether DITA makes sense for you. Image: NOAA

It might be. It might not be. Before asking about DITA content strategy, make sure that you have built your content strategy requirements. Need help? Contact us.

 

I did a DITA Content Strategy webcast as part of the 2013 easyDITA RockStar Summer Camp series.

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