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September 14, 2017

Full transcript of the content strategy ROI podcast

00:00 Bill: Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In episode 13, we discuss measuring the return on investment in a content strategy implementation. Hi, everybody. This is Bill Swallow, the Director of Operations here at Scriptorium. I am here with Sarah O’Keefe, the founder and CEO.

00:28 Sarah: Hello, everyone.

00:29 Bill: And Alan Pringle, who is the COO.

00:33 Alan: Hey there.

00:35 Bill: Given that the content strategy is tied to specific goals for your business or organization, it’s important to measure the progress of your content strategy along the way to make sure that it’s succeeding. Looking at any business strategy, it really needs to be measured over time to determine its overall effectiveness and to see whether or not it needs to change over time. I guess I’ll pose this question over to either Sarah or Alan. What types of things might you want to measure? Or, what types of goals might influence what you measure?

01:10 Sarah: Broadly, when you look at content strategy goals, what you’re going to find is that they fall into three categories: There’s cost avoidance, there’s revenue, and there’s quality improvement. So cost avoidance means doing the same thing, but more efficiently, or doing the same thing, but more quickly, not spending money that you otherwise would need to spend to accomplish whatever the thing is you’re trying to do. On the revenue side, you’re looking at, we can invest money in order to accomplish something. So the simple example of this is, invest some money in a market in order to increase market share. So you don’t avoid the cost, you lean into the cost and, as a result, you get more revenue. And then the third one is quality where you look at, if we make this product better or if we do a better job with our content, can we improve the results for our audience? We often see those paired. So a company will do some cost avoidance and become more efficient, which then allows them to put more resources on the quality side in order to improve the quality of whatever they’re delivering with the still original same amount of resources.

02:21 Bill: Okay. So, given these three main categories or reasons why you would implement a content strategy, what are the types of things you would measure? For example, let’s talk about cost avoidance. What types of things would you necessarily measure? Or, what are the types of drivers for implementing a content strategy for cost avoidance?

02:46 Alan: One thing that I can think of that I’ve seen happen fairly often is looking at people contacting support because they cannot find the answer to how to use a product or service. If you create content that answers their questions in the format that they want to consume it in, whether it’s on a phone, on their laptop, or on a website, whatever, they find what they need immediately because you have distributed content to all these different channels and it’s good content, it is useful content, that is one less phone call, one less ping to the chat channel for the company, and it doesn’t have to pay for that. So they are minimizing their support cost or reducing their support cost because they don’t have as many incoming inquiries to get basic questions answered. That’s a canonical example I can think of.

03:47 Sarah: Yeah. So, call deflection is a really popular one. The most common cost avoidance… There are two that are most common that we see. One is avoiding manual formatting, desktop publishing, and replacing it with some sort of an automated workflow, because essentially, every hour that somebody spends wrestling with misbehaving auto numbers is an hour that they are not spending actually writing useful content. And it’s quite common in an organization to see a breakdown for an author of up to 50% of their time being spent on formatting rather than writing content or doing useful content things.

04:30 Sarah: So, formatting is one that you look for, and then the other one that’s really, really common is localization cost. Now, we’re typically not trying to drive localization cost down by bringing the cost per word down by pennies or fractions of a penny, but rather by improving the quality of the content that’s being delivered into localization. So what we’re looking for is, can we standardize, can we reuse, can we reduce the amount of redundant content that’s going through translation? And then, again, can we automate the formatting and reduce the formatting cost on the localization side? So if I have a bunch of content in English, I translate it into German, the text expands by a 100% to 150%, that’s a huge hit if I have to reformat 200 pages of stuff. But if it just re-flows auto-magically, then I don’t pay that cost. So those are two cases or three cases where cost avoidance is important.

05:37 Bill: So given those use cases for reducing cost with a content strategy, what are some of the methods you would suggest or that you’ve seen people use to measure the return on implementing that type of a cost reduction?

05:55 Alan: Well, when you’re looking at support in general, those contacts are logged. There is a log of how often they come in, the kinds of questions, etc. So you have those metrics and you can look at those to see how well… What kind of reductions, you hope they’re reductions, that you have in those contacts. As far as localization goes, when you start getting into really automating that, for example, you have a database that contains what’s already been translated, if you have shared bits of content that have already been translated and they’re already in that database, you’re avoiding paying for that string to be translated again or that sentence again, because it’s already in your translation memory system. So that’s another way that you can avoid these costs because you’re letting the technology essentially do these matches and take care of things that have already been translated.

07:00 Alan: Sarah mentioned this before: The formatting angle. One of the huge expenses of localization, especially when you’re talking about content that is flowed into desktop publishing tools, is the manual application of that formatting. If you were setting up workflows where the formatting is automatically applied, then you are completely eliminating that cost of re-applying it in ever how many languages, six, a dozen, two dozen or whatever. You are doing significant cost reductions because you are automating formatting, and that cost is virtually disappearing from what you have to pay for to get that stuff out to other markets.

07:47 Sarah: Now I think it’s important to recognize that cost avoidance, although it’s certainly one way of showing ROI, is not the only way and it only gets you so far. At some point, you’ve made the process really efficient and you don’t want to be put in a position where people are saying, “Okay, well let’s squeeze it down further, cut the costs another 10% next year,” because now you’re cutting into the content creation process and the really valuable authoring process. So, although it’s usually my position that there is efficiency to be gained and we should look for those opportunities, we’re not only about making things more efficient but also about looking at best practices for content creation, and are you producing the right content? Are you creating the right content for the people that you’re trying to reach? Are you in the right languages?

08:44 Sarah: It’s one thing to translate very efficiently, and it’s entirely another thing to figure out which languages are the best ones to be translating into. Where are your markets? Where should your focus be? Maybe you’re translating into French, but is it Canadian French or is it French for France? And not quite the same thing and not going to work one for the other. So there’s an investment question that’s a little bit separate from, “Let’s create a process that’s efficient.” We want to create a process that’s efficient, but then it becomes the question of, “How do you use that process?” So, like you said, if you focus on call deflection and support, if you produce really bad content efficiently, that’s not going to get you the improved results you’re hoping for on your call deflection statistics.

09:34 Alan: Right. There is a difference between being vigilant about being efficient with your content creation, and cutting to the point that you’re basically cutting off your nose despite your face. You can go too far. And Sarah’s right, you have to really strike that balance, because what you don’t want to do is to start cutting into the essential things, for example, writing the actual content. Yeah, it is great to get rid of all this manual formatting labor. That expense, you should take some of that time and pour it into maybe writing better content and not just start cutting. “Oh, we’ve cut back all this, so we need to cut all these content creators.” You’ve got to be very careful with that sort of thinking.

10:20 Bill: So that covered a lot of the cost avoidance, and we kinda touched upon some of the revenue generation, the reinvestment into the company and into the content development process to improve things, and ultimately to increase quality. So what are the types of things that you would measure on, let’s say, the quality side? Since we kind of jumped over to that side in talking about localization and being able to better target specific languages, specific markets, specific needs, and also being able to improve content quality overall. What are the types of tools that someone would use to measure that type of return on investment?

10:56 Sarah: There are some things you can do to measure the quality of the content itself. There are some tools that will do that. But when we talk about content quality in a content strategy scenario, I think what we’re usually talking about is the question of, “Is this the right content? Are you targeting your audience properly? And are you producing the content that they want?” So usually, I would look to web analytics. If you look at your web searches, what are people searching on when they come to your website? Are they finding that information? Do you rank highly on the web search phrases that you care about for your business? Are you getting the hits that you want in particular local markets? And that type of thing, because I’m not sure there’s an objective way to measure content quality other than to say, “Does it meet the needs of your end users?”

11:54 Alan: Right. And there is kind of an infrastructure that’s going to support some of the things that Sarah’s talking about. For example, if your website does not have a really good search engine on it, what’s the point? People are going to basically circumvent your website. They’re going to say, “I could not find anything with this search appliance.” So they’re going to go to Google or some other tool that’s outside your company and attempt to find content that way. So the quality angle, for me too, it’s not necessarily just about the content in itself. It is about how it is distributed, how easily it is found. Those are huge factors. And how useful, and what kind of quality a content is.

12:40 Sarah: And I guess there’s some other things here like, is your content usable on a mobile phone? Is that a requirement for your audience? Hint: It is. And are you delivering information that people can use on their phones? And I keep having this argument, but people say, “Well, people don’t use our stuff on a phone.” And the response to that is, well, that’s probably true because they can’t read your PDF ’cause it comes up on my phone in two-point type. But the reality is that people are using their phones for everything, and they are not particularly interested in your justification for why they should be only looking at your content on a desktop machine with some very limited and very specific exceptions having to do with restricted content, something like the middle of a nuclear power plant where there’s no internet and you’re not allowed to bring in your cellphone and you have to work on the terminals there. Setting aside that scenario, which is not most of the people listening, you have to make your content available on a phone and make it usable.

13:49 Bill: Right I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone to a website or conducted a web search only to either get to an unresponsive website or get to a PDF of some sorts where… And I’ve heard the argument that, “Oh, well, PDF is perfectly readable on a phone. You just have to pinch and zoom and pan and all that stuff.” But honestly, I don’t feel like getting whiplash while I’m [chuckle] looking at a document on my phone. I’d like to be able to just glance down, read what I need to, and move on. It shouldn’t be a task.

14:22 Alan: Right. Don’t make me download your 600-page PDF and then try to manipulate it with my fingers so I can read it. That is not quality. It’s not.

14:34 Sarah: If your argument includes the words “pinch, zoom and pan,” you’ve already lost.

14:38 Alan: Pretty much.


14:41 Bill: So I’d like to turn this around and look at the, I guess, the second item that we initially talked about with regard to looking at goals for content strategy, and that’s… It being able to increase revenue or being able to improve on existing infrastructure and be able to reinvest into further improvements. A lot of times, I see content strategy as being treated as a one-and-done type of approach. And then, “Oh, when that strategy is done, we’ll look at it again and we’ll come up with something new or implement something and say, ‘Well, this is good enough.'” There’s an iterative process that really needs to follow with the business goals, because your business goals are going to be shifting as well. A company doesn’t build a set of business goals and say, “Well, these are our goals, this is what we’re going to do, and when we achieve all of them we’re done. We’re not going to do anything else.” They’re constantly shifting, constantly changing and growing. And since the content strategy really should be doing that as well, what are the types of re-investment opportunities do you see with a content strategy? And how would you go about, I guess, measuring and planning for those?

15:58 Alan: One thing that comes to my mind is the content strategy does not have to be just about one particular kind of content. It can be an umbrella thing and really, probably, often should be an umbrella thing. However, fiscal year’s budgets often cannot handle the amount of time and money it will take, so you have to spread things out, and one way to do that is say, “We’re going to use this particular content as a proof of concept to see how well this works.” Then you implement, and then you fix the problems that may have come up that you didn’t anticipate, and get something that’s up and running and does what you need it to do. You can then turn around and start adopting and adapting that new process, whatever it is, to other kinds of content, to content in other departments, etcetera. So you can take that kernel and then build upon it. So that way, basically, you can also use that as buy-in, as a way to say, “Look, this works. This worked for us.” And then other people who are creating other types of content can turn around and adapt that, so then you start getting all of the same efficiencies and cost savings and whatever else because you started with something, got it worked out, and then you let it grow organically and you spread those costs out over multiple quarters.

17:36 Sarah: When we look at the question of increased revenue, what you’re typically going to have is a business goal that’s relatively broad: Increase market share in China, go to market in a new market, or protect our position as the leading provider of XYZ product in ABC market, that type of thing. So from a content point of view, what do you have to do to support going to market in China? What do you have to do with content to support the assertion that we are the leading provider of whatever and we’re a high quality whatever? So you’re… On the revenue side, what you’re looking for is providing the content, not just the content that people need. That’s a basic thing, you need to provide minimum viable content. So providing the content they need, providing it in the languages that you need to support your organization and wherever it is that it’s… Whatever markets it’s in.

18:38 Sarah: And then the other thing that you have to do when you start talking about sustaining a market position as a leader or something like that, then you have to produce content that supports that assertion. If you’re going to charge a premium price for a product, you can’t produce crappy content because people… And by crappy, I mean, poor quality content, poorly formatted, doesn’t work on a phone, ugly, all those things that people use to assess the quality of a thing, because if you’re claiming to produce a premium product, then your content in every facet has to support that. You need to have a content production system that supports all the different kinds of outputs that you need to produce. So very commonly, it’s, “Well, we used to just do print and PDF, and now we’re doing HTML.” But what about e-books? What about Kindle? And what about allowing a customer to mix and match information? What about personalization? What about excluding certain kinds of information from being displayed to a customer?

19:48 Sarah: There’s a whole pile of ways of customizing content or ways of delivering content that you need to support, and the big problem we run into is that there will be a new one next year and we don’t know what that is. So you have to stand up a content delivery system, development delivery and deployment system, that is flexible enough to support those things so that you don’t end up in a situation where, all of a sudden, in 2018, your Chief Marketing Officer shows up on your doorstep and says, “Hey, I need you to support producing content in this way,” and you can’t do it because the system you have is purpose-built for only these specific formats A, B and C and your CMO wants D and you can’t do it. So you have to look at that question of, what are my future requirements? How can I know that I’ll be able to deliver to those? And there’s a… The revenue component in there is knowing that you have that flexibility to deliver when asked.

20:56 Alan: Yeah. Flexibility and extensibility.

21:00 Sarah: And maintainability.

21:01 Alan: That, too.

21:03 Bill: Yep. And in addition to that, you specifically mentioned being able to maintain or to build market leadership wherever your content and wherever your company is engaging in business. A lot of that also speaks to being able to re-invest in soft skills on the writer’s side, on the content author side as well.

21:27 Sarah: Absolutely. And the flip side of this is that if your market position is, “We are the cheapest thing on the market, we’re going to lead on price,” well, then clearly on the content side you’re going to focus ruthlessly on efficiency and doing what you have to and no more. And that’s fair. That’s a reasonable thing. But if you’re that device that people pay a premium for so that they can have your shiny logo on the device that they buy, then you have to support that accordingly and have a content strategy that matches.

22:06 Alan: And I would add to that, as far as when you’re dealing with the content creators, if people have been spending inordinate amount of time doing a lot of just awful manual labor like applying formatting, for example, and it’s that drudgery, when you eliminate that with your content strategy, they’re going to appreciate that because you were taking away something that was possibly keeping them from taking care of other more important things like writing good content. So, that’s a huge plus. It’s a little harder to measure. It’s kind of in a soft-skill happiness spectrum or whatever you want to call it, but I think it’s worth noting when you get rid of manual drudgery with a more efficient process, a lot of people are going to appreciate it and may be prone stick around a little longer as an employee. You don’t want to lose that domain knowledge, and by improving their work space, their work life, you’re going to make things better for them and make your company more attractive. There is a flip side to this, you are going to be giving people new skills that are going to make them more marketable. So it does cut both ways. So you do have to think about that, but that is no reason to withhold a new process or a tool set or whatever, “Oh, I don’t want to teach these people new skills.” To advance your company’s goals, you need to have a content strategy, and a lot of times that requires new tools, new processes, new technologies.

23:39 Sarah: There’s also a flip flip side, which I’m going to throw in as the bitter cynical person, which is that, sometimes, you have an organization of content creators who are accustomed to just doing the formatting drudgery and don’t want that removed because they’re pretty good at it and it takes up all their time and maybe they’re not good writers. Because that was never a thing, right? They just had to format.

24:04 Alan: There are absolutely people who use technology in the way that you just described to mask the fact that they are not themselves efficient workers or good workers. It does happen.

24:15 Sarah: Yeah, or they were hired for their formatting skills, because that was what was needed, and writing or non-formatting is not their thing. So there’s definitely some stuff to look at there when you start introducing these changes and saying, “We’re going from an approach where you personally are responsible for this document from soup to nuts, and that includes all the formatting and all the… Whatever.” And now we’re going to say, “No, you’re part of this more… You’re going to create a few modules and then we’re going to mix and match them, and we’re going to do some cool stuff with them.” Depending on who you’ve got on your team, that may or may not go over very well.

24:58 Alan: Right, because you would no longer have ownership of everything, the formatting, the final look and feel, because there could be a half dozen look and feels at this point.

25:11 Bill: So that really does come back to having those business drivers in place that you can then build upon with your content strategy. And I know we’re running a little bit long on time, but I do want to mention that we’ll be discussing a return on investments on content strategy later this month on The Content Strategy Network. We’ll be having a web meeting on September 26th at 1:00 PM Eastern Time. And I will go ahead and put that meeting information in the show notes for this podcast. So Sarah, Alan, it’s been fun as always. And we will look forward to talking with, hopefully, many people from our audience about content strategy and return on investments later this month. Thanks, everyone.

26:00 Alan: Bye.

26:00 Sarah: Sounds good. Thanks.

26:02 Bill: Bye.