Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

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!

Beware the monster of change management: THE MAGNIFIER

April 15, 2014 by

For his 1959 horror movie The Tingler, director/producer William Castle had movie theater seats rigged with buzzers to scare moviegoers during a scene when the Tingler creature is loose in a theater. Patrons in those seats probably didn’t enjoy the jolt—or making a spectacle of themselves because of the Tingler’s “attack.”

If you’re managing the implementation of new processes and tools as part of your job, you’re in a hot seat of your very own—and you need to be on the lookout for another horrifying monster: THE MAGNIFIER.

Poster for The Tingler showing a chair and the words, Do you have the guts to sit in this chair?

Poster for The Tingler (Columbia Pictures)

When you’re determining how changes will support corporate goals and calculating the potential return on investment (ROI) for process improvements, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement generated by the positive things that new processes and tools will bring.

But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by all the goodness. Lurking in the darkness is the Magnifier, and it will pounce on you if you let your guard down.

So, what is the Magnifier? It’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed again and again on process implementations: the very act of process change can magnify existing personnel problems in an organization.

For example, if employees do not have a significant understanding of the company’s products and goals, they may create a lot of busy work to mask their lack of domain knowledge. When it comes time to update processes, “busy worker bees” want the details of their unimportant work codified as part of the new processes to make themselves relevant and indispensable (at least in their own minds) in the new workflow. These employees are less interested in the company’s goals than saving their own skins, and that trait becomes even more evident in times of change.

Employees with control issues are highly inflexible and want everything done their way. During process change, they will take a “my way or the highway” approach. For example, if they are dead set on a particular tool set, they will sandbag the tool selection process by exaggerating the feature set of their favored tool and by overemphasizing “problems” with other tool solutions.

Before you think I’m wallowing in unproductive negativity here, please understand I have witnessed the preceding poor behavior on multiple consulting projects (and I’m not even close to cataloging all the bad stuff I’ve seen). As the manager of a process change project, you must be prepared to fight the Magnifier. Effective weapons against it include:

  • Outlining clear business goals for process change. If a proposed tool or process does not support the company’s end goals, it should not be part of the solution.
  • Establishing clear communication among all parties. Start the communication channels up early as possible, and involve everyone, even those who are indirectly affected by the process changes. The company’s business goals should be front and center as part of all change-related conversations. As the project manager, you need to differentiate between legitimate concerns and outright recalcitrance during conversations. Pushback from others can help you identify weaknesses in the proposed workflow that you had not considered.
  • Hiring a consultant, even just part-time. A consultant has seen the Magnifier do its evil thing on other projects and can therefore help you locate and dispose of it early—before it does too much damage. Because consultants come from outside the company, many employees give what they say more credence, even if the consultants end up repeating the very things you’ve been saying all along. A consultant can also act as the “bad cop” in unpleasant situations, particularly ones involving personnel changes (detailed in the next bullet).
  • Realizing that successful change management may depend on personnel changes. Implementing new tools and processes is not going to magically transform poor employees into model workers. In fact, bad employees will have a negative impact on process change. If an employee’s recalcitrance is having significantly detrimental effects, consider reassigning them to another project (for example, maintaining the legacy system), placing them on a performance plan, or even terminating their employment. You must weigh the employee’s value to the company against the drag he or she is creating on the project.

Have you fought off the Magnifier in past projects? Please detail your battle scars in the comments below.

 

Making the most of your conversion to XML, part 2

April 2, 2014 by

You’ve made the transition to an XML workflow for publishing your technical content, converted all of your legacy content, and started authoring in the new system, as discussed in part 1 of this post. Although you now have a much better outlook on sustainability, you’re still facing a problem: your content creators are having trouble with the idea of separating content from formatting.

If you’ve spent years in a print-based workflow, this mindset can be understandably difficult to change. As your content creators work within the new system, new habits will gradually begin to take over the old ones. In the meantime, you can help jump-start their new perspective by showing them how the benefits of an XML workflow outweigh the ability to control every aspect of formatting and page design.

Content that is created and formatted separately will be:

Learn to embrace content creation for multiple outputs. flickr: adactio

Embrace your new publishing possibilities.
flickr: adactio

  • Easier to update. When your content creators don’t have to worry about how things fit on a printed page, they can focus all their attention on the content itself. Since no formatting or design expertise is required to create XML documents, SMEs and other contributors who may not have been qualified to edit the files in a print-based environment can now update the files directly.
  • More consistent. Special, one-off formatting choices that may have made the content less consistent are no longer an issue in XML. When tables, images, and paragraphs are structured the same way every time they’re used, the content will be much better organized, and ultimately easier for the user to consume.
  • More versatile. Content from a single XML source can be transformed into numerous output types—print, PDF, HTML, EPUB—giving the target audience more control over how they want to consume it. Documentation created for print gives the reader a much more limited set of options.
  • More accessible. Content stored in XML is more easily searchable than print documents or print-based outputs such as PDF. Digital outputs from XML (such as HTML) can also be made more accessible by giving the user the option to adjust fonts, sizes, and colors or pass it through a screen reader.
  • More sustainable. Since anyone with or without page design skills can update the content, your content creation team can grow and change over time as needed. It will also be easier for your business to adapt to the development of new products, the introduction of new requirements (such as adding languages to your localization workflow), or overall company growth if your content is in XML. A print-based system will not be as sustainable as XML in an increasingly digital world.

When page design has always been part of your content creators’ process, it won’t be easy for them to break away from that pattern, and it will take time. But with encouragement—and evidence showing how separating content from formatting improves both the user experience and your publishing workflow—they may be a little quicker to embrace the change.

Webcast: The Bottom Line: Globalization and the Dependence on Intelligent Content

March 26, 2014 by

In this webcast recording, Bill Swallow takes a look at intelligent content’s role in global markets, and how the entire content cycle directly affects a business’s bottom line (revenue).

Though we are often concerned with cost of translation when developing content for global markets, traditional cost reduction practices (translation memory, reduced rates) simply aren’t enough. The number one means of cost control when engaging global markets is being able to establish a profitable revenue stream by delivering quality product in those markets in a manner that is meaningful to them. By employing intelligent content with attention to globalization, we can ensure that the information we produce meets market and delivery demands in a timely manner.

Three cost-saving tips for localizing images

March 24, 2014 by

Translating your content can be an expensive and time-consuming process. While there are many cost-saving practices you can employ, perhaps the easiest and most cost-effective practice involves how you manage your images.

Simplify your image localization process

Avoid unnecessary twists, turns, and delays when localizing your images. (image source: Flickr, StockMonkeys.com)

Regardless of whether you are working with structured or unstructured content, following these three simple tips can save you time and money when localizing images.

Tip 1: Avoid callouts

This is where localization can get expensive. You want to avoid anything that will add time and cost to the process. That said, the best solution is to not use callouts at all, just the unadorned image.

If you must use callouts, only use numbers in the image. Below the image, use a table or list to describe each numbered item. This will keep the image clean, you won’t have to worry about text expansion issues crowding the image, and it will significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to produce a translated image.

If you absolutely must add text within the image, make sure you save the raw source image file (.psd from Photoshop, .ai from Illustrator, etc.) with editable layers intact. This way the translator can easily add the translated text into the source image file, modify its placement as needed, and then save it in a usable format for publishing.

Tip 2: Always link, never embed

When inserting images, insert them as links only. Do not embed them into the content. When you embed the image, you need to manually replace every instance of every graphic. This can be incredibly time consuming if you are publishing several language versions.

When you link the graphic, you are merely inserting a placeholder in the content, and the image resides outside. You are then able to replace the linked image outside of the content once, regardless of where it’s used.

Tip 3: Smart storage

Ideally, you should use a separate images folder for each language translation. This way the relative path from the reference to the images is simple. Place all of your images in that folder and link to them.

Note: If you’re already using a component content management system (CCMS), you can manage your localized images via system features and/or metadata.

When you localize your images, use the exact same filenames for the translated images as you have for the source images. You should have the same number of images using the same filenames in each language folder.

When it comes time to publish your localized content, you can then either overwrite the working images folder contents with the translated images (have a second storage folder for your source images!), or modify the relative paths in the references to the localized images folder. Those translated images will be used without objection, since they are the exact same filenames in the exact same location as when you linked to them. From the content’s point of view, nothing has changed.

Summary

While there are certainly many robust technological ways of managing image translation, it’s always a best practice to start with the basics. These three simple tips will help in your translation efforts regardless of the amount of content you have.

Tools, the content strategy killers

March 17, 2014 by

Quick! What’s the first thing you think about when you want to change your content strategy (the way you produce and distribute content)? If your answer is “tools,” you’re in good company.

First considering the technical aspects of a project is a common and understandable reaction. However, focusing too much on the tools can be the very thing that kills your content strategy.

Image of Jack killing the giant

Jack killing the giant (from The Chronicle of the Valiant Feats of Jack the Giant Killer, 1845)

Soft—or non-technical skills—are essential to evaluate when you’re hiring new staff. By extension, the non-technical aspects of new processes require your attention, too.

You can implement a rigorous tool selection process and spend a lot of time vetting tools, but those investments are useless if you don’t communicate the value of process change. Getting buy-in from all affected parties means you need to offer tailored messages to the different groups. For example:

  • Executives: increased revenue because of shorter times to market.
  • Middle management: cost reduction through more efficient workflows.
  • Content creators: eliminating tiresome manual chores and learning new skills for career longevity.

Your well-selected tool will make it easier to justify process changes to all parties, but it is not going to introduce itself to the different stakeholders, explain its value to them, or train users.

That’s why your content strategy team’s soft skills—particularly in communication—are as important as the tool itself.

 

Making the most of your conversion to XML, part 1

March 11, 2014 by

Your publishing workflow has been the same for years, but new technology, different customer requirements, and company growth are making you realize you might need a change. Your print-based processes won’t always be sustainable, and XML is looking like a possibility for the future. There’s just one problem: you have thousands of pages of legacy content that you’ll need to convert, and it’s not exactly XML-friendly.

flickr_addendentry

Your print workflow won’t sustain you forever.
flickr: addendentry

Here are some simple changes you can start making to your content now to help a future conversion go more smoothly:

  • Create a style guide. The more consistent your content is, the easier it will be to convert to XML. So if you’re not already using a style guide for your documentation, develop one. Decide on the ways your tables, images, lists, headings, and other kinds of text will be structured and define the conventions for how they will be used. Start applying your style guide to all your active documents, and, if possible, update your older documents to adhere to its standards.
  • Tag your content correctly. The paragraph formats you apply will be the basis for how your content gets tagged as it is converted. Therefore, it is important to use these formats as intended—for example, your level-4 heading tag may be the same font and size as your figure caption tag, but using them interchangeably just because they look alike will lead to structural problems in the converted XML.
  • Stick to the rules. Using formatting overrides—such as setting one instance of a level-1 heading to start at the top of a page but not all of them—may be allowed within your template, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. These small touch-ups to the text are a quick and easy way to make your documents more visually appealing for print, but they introduce inconsistencies that will cause problems during conversion. Having a style guide won’t help unless you stick to it.
  • Avoid special formatting. Need to create a new table style for that unusual table that doesn’t fit the rules in your template? Want to control where your long titles break across lines? Wish you could align two images and add space around them to make them more visually appealing on the page? These one-off formatting adjustments may be tempting to make, but they will only cause problems during conversion. Every manual tweak that is added to the source will have to be manually removed from the converted documents, since XML is designed to separate content from formatting.

Don’t have the funds or resources to clean up your content before conversion, or can’t spare the time within your deadline-driven schedule? You can still use the conversion process to improve the quality of your content going forward.

Look for opportunities to make your content more consistent as you convert it. For example, each of your legacy documents begins with a list of parts found in that book, along with photos and descriptions. This list is structured differently from one document to the next—sometimes it’s presented in a table, other times in a bulleted or numbered list, and other times in regular paragraphs. Choose one of these options and set up the parts list the same way in every converted XML document. Set similar precedents every time you see patterns in your legacy content to ensure that the converted content is as clean and consistent as possible.

Finally, use the conversion to get your tech pubs team into the mindset of separating content from formatting, and start to break them from the print-oriented habit of adjusting pages for aesthetic purposes. Whether or not you have time to clean up your legacy documents before XML conversion, separating your content from formatting is one of the greatest benefits you will gain when you move to XML—and changing your perspective to embrace formatting-free content is one of the most important lessons you will learn.

There will be more on making the adjustment to creating content separately from formatting in part 2 of this post next month.

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.

What I learned at tcworld India

February 25, 2014 by

Some thoughts after a trip to Bangalore for the tcworld India event.

Having experienced roughly eight blocks of downtown Bangalore, I will refrain from making broad generalizations about India.

The TWIN and tcworld teams who were responsible for organizing the event did not disappoint. They had a great roster of speakers and topics. Many thanks to them and to all their volunteers. I know that making an event appear to run smoothly requires extensive (and usually frantic) work behind the scenes.

Indian audiences ask great questions. In the US and Europe, it’s common to get a statement in the form of a question, a question designed to show off the questioner’s own expertise, or an extremely specific question that is only relevant to the person asking. (A graphic that shows the problem.) The questions I had after my presentations in Bangalore were pertinent to the topic and quite insightful. Several people did have detailed, specific questions–but they all approached me later in the event when we had time for a lengthy discussion.

Technical communicators at this event were very enthusiastic. It was a welcome contrast from the often jaded perspective we get in the US. I do hope that India’s tech comm community will not learn from their US counterparts in this area. I ran out of handouts due to an overflow audience in my content strategy workshop…but it wasn’t until I walked around the room and noticed that people were sharing handouts that I realized this. Nobody complained or inquired about the availability of additional handouts. In any other venue, at least one person would have asked, “hey, are there any more handouts??”

Some notes on culture….It appears that the etiquette rules for cell phones are different. There was no request to turn off or silence cell phones, and several people took calls during the sessions (while sitting in the session). That said, the protocol appears to be that you take a call very quietly, hunched over, with your hand covering the phone. It wasn’t noticeable unless you were very close by. Somehow, given the prevalence of Loud Talkers, I don’t really see this approach working in the US.

India is a really long way from the US East Coast. Yes, I know, DUH, but until you actually get on a plane and experience the travel for yourself, it is quite indescribable. 10:30-hour time difference, 20-30 hours of actual travel door to door. It is NOT pleasant. After arrival, I had a couple of days to get adjusted, and spent my time in useful pursuit of scarves and a lovely carpet. I’ll note that India already has chip-and-PIN credit card terminals, unlike the “advanced” United States.

Service standards in India are much higher than elsewhere. I could get used to the tea server, or the guy whose job it is to bring me my omelet from the breakfast station. (And who first told me there would be a slight wait and then apologized profusely when he delivered the food a very few minutes later.) All this wonderful service is made possible by the large number of staff. At breakfast, I eventually counted and realized that we had about 10 servers working. In an equivalent U.S. venue, I would have expected to see 2-3 harried people. In the case of the five-star “Western” hotels in Bangalore, the hotel rates are perhaps half what you would pay for the same hotel in the U.S. or Europe–high by Indian standards, but low by US/European standards.

Speaking of service, I also noticed that I kept seeing the same staffers…the guy who checked me in with a smile at 4 a.m. was still at the front desk at 11 a.m. The hostess at dinner was working again at breakfast. The lunch guy also brought up an evening room service tray. I’m not sure exactly what the shifts are, but they are definitely more than eight hours long.

Back to the conference…we’re always talking about global content, global audiences, and the like. Numerous people approached me during the event to tell me that they follow our web site. Hearing “oh, I love your web site” after a trip halfway around the world? THAT gets my attention. It also made me think…we have web site analytics, so we are aware that India is our fourth-largest readership (after US, Canada, and Germany). But charts are not at all the same thing as real live people telling me that they read our stuff.

This is why we travel for conferences; to meet people and make personal connections; to understand how a particular location shapes people’s thinking; to expand our horizons past our own community and culture.

Many thanks to the all the participants at tcworld India. I enjoyed getting a glimpse of your world, and I hope to return.