Sarah O’Keefe: Welcome to the Content Strategy Expert Podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997 Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way. In episode 24 we interview Alyssa Fox. Alyssa is a content strategist based in Houston, Texas with a strong background in techcomm management who is now moving into marketing roles. This puts her in a unique position to observe the change and the convergence in those two industries.
SO: Also, Alyssa is STC President this year, so she is the current President of the Society for Technical Communication. Hi everyone, I’m Sarah O’Keefe of Scriptorium and I’m here today with my guest, Alyssa Fox. Alyssa, welcome.
Alyssa Fox: Hey, thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
SO: Oh, this should be very entertaining if our pre-discussion is any indication whatsoever. I mentioned that you’re currently President of the Society for Technical Communication, of STC, what does that actually mean? I know it’s just a yearlong role, but what’s the difference between the President and the Executive Director?
AF: Great question. The purpose of the board of directors for STC is to really set the strategy for the society and set the direction for where we want the society to go to better serve our members. The Executive Director or CEO is then responsible for executing on that strategy and making sure that he or she guides the staff to do the things that the board and the CEO have worked on together.
SO: Okay, so what is the strategy or what are some of the changes that you’ve introduced this year?
AF: So one of my main focuses this year as President that I’ve talked about with the board is to really help our members and prospective members understand what kind of value they can bring to their organizations from a business problem solving perspective. I think in the past we’ve been a little more inward focused on what we’re doing every day and how we can do that better, which is always a good thing, but with the way that businesses are transforming and moving faster, I really feel like it’s important that people understand how they can solve business problems versus just solving content problems.
AF: What it really boils down to is solving content problems does solve business problems. I’m trying to put things in place for the society that help people understand how to make that connection and communicate it to their executives.
SO: Down at the tech writer level what does that look like? What’s an example of an inward focused versus an outward or more business focused?
AF: So I have this phrase that I use when I talk about this and I call it documenting things in the corner. I feel like that’s kind of representative of what an inward focus would be. I can go and learn a product or I can go and learn about a medical device or I can go and learn about something that I’m doing in my industry and then write a procedure for it, but if I don’t understand the larger context of what that procedure is doing to help someone do their jobs every day and then I communicate to my organization’s leadership that this content is valuable in helping to bring back repeat business, that’s the difference.
AF: So really understanding how what I do every day fits into the larger organization’s goals of either obtaining customers or obtaining repeat customers is the focus there.
SO: How did you land here? You did not come out of nowhere and become President of STC, but what did your career look like to this point?
AF: That’s a really good question. I actually was a technical communicator for about six or seven years before I got involved with STC. It was due to my manager at the time that I started volunteering at a local level with our Houston chapter and getting involved that way and really his encouragement let me see that there was something beyond my documenting stuff in the corner, not just for my own career, but also to then learn from other people in the tech-com industry.
AF: So I started working in the STC Houston chapter and found that I really liked talking to other people about what I did every day. I’ve been involved with STC ever since. As I proceeded through my career and got into tech-com management and learning more about the discipline and what was happening next, or the future of tech-com if you will, I discovered that really understanding what other people were doing in the field was important and the best way for me to understand that was to get involved with STC and talk to other people in STC and see what they were doing.
AF: As I progressed through my career, I also kind of progressed through STC in the sense that I started taking on larger projects at the local level and then I started getting involved at the international level doing some things, working with different technical communicators across the country and across the world.
AF: Then I ended up running for the board because I really wanted to be a part of the leadership of the board of directors of the society so that I could help people understand how to provide that business value that we talked about a minute ago. Then I was in the secretary tole for four years and then I decided that I would run for Vice President, which of course automatically succeeds to president and here I am.
SO: And here you are. I imagine you’re looking forward to next year when you have the best job ever of immediate past President?
AF: Very much so.
SO: That seems to be everybody’s goal is to become a past President.
AF: Well you know, I knew that being President would be a lot of work, but especially when you are President and you are also trying to make some changes and initiate some new things, it’s a little bit more work because you’re trying to convince people that this is the way to go. You’re trying to explain to the membership why we’re doing a certain thing and you’re also trying to provide more benefit than has been provided before, so that takes some extra effort.
SO: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You’re now with a background in tech-com and a background in tech-com management, you’re now describing yourself as a content strategist, so what’s the difference there and where is the overlap between those two disciplines?
AF: Great question. This is something that I would consider myself sort of stumbling across over the last couple years. Not that the convergence between technical content and marketing content has only been around for a couple of years, it’s just that I started seeing some opportunity to help my organization really bring those two together.
AF: When I was managing a technical communication team my goal with the content that they produced, the technical content that they produced was really not to just throw a bunch of procedures at our customers, but to provide context around when they would do something, why they would do something, some scenarios. I preached to my team constantly that we are not here to document software. We are here to talk about how our products and solutions help these people do their jobs.
AF: So it was almost a natural progression for me to start looking at what kind of story marketing was telling for how we tell people we help you do your jobs. So I started looking at new goals for my team and new goals for myself and my career and I realized that we didn’t talk to marketing very often. The tech-com team and marketing did not talk very often. I wanted to ensure that at the very least we were not negating the story or the content that marketing was putting out in our technical content, but even more so I wanted to build on that.
AF: I kind of envisioned a hierarchy in the messaging that we were putting out for my company, which was we had company messaging, kind of here’s who we are and what we do, then that goes down into product or portfolio messaging. I’m talking in a software sense because I do have a software background. Product or portfolio messaging that talks specifically about a set of solutions or a set of products in that portfolio. Then that kind of drills down then into the technical messaging.
AF: So the company messaging is like I said, here’s who we are and what we do. The product or portfolio messaging is more around here’s how these particular products help you solve your problems or do your jobs and then the technical messaging was and here are the very specific aspects of these steps you go through in our products or solutions to help you do these things that you need to do.
AF: So that’s kind of how I got into the marketing thing and then once I started talking to marketing leadership at the time about where we are with our content and how they organize their content and how they thought about this messaging hierarchy so to speak, I realized pretty quickly that there were a lot of problems to be solved with our content and marketing. So I started proposing a global content strategy for the organization.
SO: Yeah, so what does that look like and what were some of the obstacles that you ran into?
AF: Let’s start with the obstacles because the biggest obstacle I ran into first of all was getting people to understand what content strategy meant. Quite frankly, I totally understand that because I remember when content strategy started showing up at tech-com conferences and in tech-com discussions probably five or six years ago and I was like, “I don’t get this. We’ve always done this. I don’t understand how this is different from tech-com and what we’ve done.”
AF: As I dug into it a little bit more I realized there are some nuances to content strategy that tech-com is a part of and maybe the other way around, but they’re not the same thing. All right, so the biggest obstacle as I mentioned was actually getting people to understand what I was trying to do. Because marketing and tech-com didn’t talk very often it was kind of a foreign concept to them to really understand where I was trying to go with unifying this content so to speak.
AF: So I talked a lot about customer experience and people understanding and end-to-end experience or an end-to-end content workflow to go with that customer or prospect experience. Really I probably spent six to seven months just trying to evangelize and educate people on what content strategy was.
AF: Now marketing, the marketing group that I worked with understood that they had problems around content. They knew that they were throwing a lot of content out there, had nothing to point back to as far as why they were creating that content, what they were trying to say with that content and there was no measurement or analytics around the effectiveness of that content.
AF: So when I started talking to them about content strategy and what that meant for those barriers that they were facing, their ears started to perk up a little bit and said, “Okay, how do we do this? How do we make sure that the content we’re providing across the experience, whether it’s marketing at the beginning of a purchase perhaps, all the way to they’ve already made a purchase or either trying to get repeat business, or we’re just trying to keep the customer?”
AF: That’s where the technical content came in. So we had a lot of really interesting discussions around what content strategy was and then how to get there.
SO: So I think it’s one thing to align the messaging that you’re talking about and get everybody kind of looking at okay, we have a consistent message at all levels and at all points in the customer journey. What does that look like from a technology point of view? Is it still different technology? Are there ways to collaborate? What’s going to happen there do you think?
AF: That’s a great question because I had something in my head about what I wanted to do and what I thought the best approach was and then when I started trying to do some research in the industry about how else was doing this I wasn’t finding very many people. So what I was proposing to our Chief Marketing Office and the rest of the team at the time was that we bring in a component content management system for marketing and technical communication to both views to put their content in there and facilitate reuse of content.
AF: I really felt like, and I still feel like this is the right path to go down to start to think about this in that having a way for everyone in the company who creates content to access content that’s already created so that they can start with that is really important. So we already had a couple of things in place in the marketing organization like a digital asset management system and a web CMS and there was a lot of confusion around what each tool did and what the differences were.
AF: So I actually had to create a chart that talked about what different kinds of CMSs were because most of the marketing people were not familiar with any kind of CMS except a web CMS. That’s when I started, you mentioned obstacles before, that was another obstacle I ran into, trying to create an end-to-end content workflow that included the technology stack that would support that. So I envisioned it as kind of starting in the CCMS and then going down towards either publishing from that CCMS and storing the complete asset in there or because we had that digital asset management system possibly feeding into that and then the web CMS pulling from that.
AF: We had kind of siloed approach in marketing whereas we had a team that maintained the digital asset management system, we had a team that maintained the web CMS, most likely my content strategy team was going to end up sort of maintaining the CCMS and working with the tech-com team on that, but there was a lot of confusion around first of all, what the technology stack was and then how it all worked together to really build that content workflow that I felt was necessary.
SO: Yeah. It seems like from what we’re seeing, there’s sort of two schools of thought on this. One is exactly what you’re describing, which is one CMS to rule them all. Put everybody in the same place and then work from there, sort of work from one central repository. The other option though that people are looking at is essentially everybody gets their own playground.
SO: Everybody gets their own environment and you just find a way of doing collaboration without forcing the marketing people into tech-com tools or the tech-com people into marketing tools because neither of those seems to be all that popular. There seems to be this huge divide in terms of what people are willing to use or tolerate, who likes which one and what those preferences are. That’s the thing that really gives me pause is can we get these departments aligned or are they just so different that they won’t talk to each other?
AF: That’s a really good question because I saw firsthand when I was trying to do this and talk about it. The resistance on both sides, right? The tech-com kind of their … The tech-com group had their systems, they had their process, they had their tools. They were chugging along. They were much further along than the marketing group was in how they used a tool to help them facilitate better content creation and publishing.
AF: The marketing group was all over the place and frankly, I think they’d kind of gotten used to just doing whatever, wild, wild west and whatever they felt like doing so it was a much harder sell for me on the marketing side. However, I specifically, when we were starting our evaluation of various CCMSs, I specifically looked for Whizzywig editors that marketing could use that looked pretty much like Word, which is what a lot of them were using to create the content.
AF: My concern around the separate set of tools and everybody having their own playground is getting the taxonomy right and tagging everything in those multiple tools is going to be a lot harder, tagging everything consistently I should say, when you have those multiple tools and then having to bring it together versus everybody being in one system, having a common taxonomy and being able to learn that and then pull their different content assets, I shouldn’t even say content assets, content tidbits, content components into an asset in a way that’s consistent within an organization.
SO: Yeah, it’s a really, really interesting problem because it seems as though, and now we’re going to broadly over-generalize, but it seems as though marketing groups in general are outcome-focused. Nobody really cares how you produce that asset as long as it looks great and it does what you need it to and the writing is on point and all that kind of stuff.
SO: The tech-com groups to a certain extent tend to be process-focused. Like I followed the process, I did it right, I got it reviewed properly, but nobody’s … Not nobody. The focus is not so much on is the experience right. So you have one group that’s very experience-focused and not so much interested in efficiency or anything like that and another group that’s really, really focused on efficiency and following the rules. Trying to get the two of them into some sort of a collaboration is tough and the worst part is that they’re both right. You know?
AF: No. I think you’re dead on, but I think this is where the business problem comes in, right? Both of those groups need to look at what is our business problem? What are we trying to do here? So from the tech-com side, the one’s who are more process-focused and probably coming from their detail oriented background that’s why they are that way, they do need to focus a little bit more on the customer or prospect experience, buyer experience because that’s a business problem. If we’re not presenting a unified solid consistent customer experience, people walk away if they feel like all this content is coming from multiple organizations versus one unified organization.
AF: Then on the marketing side, they’re not as worried about the efficiency and the process and everything, but when you get down into the nitty gritty and you start looking at things like how much money am I spending for seven people to create a very similar piece of content seven times, and then how much money am I spending to translate that seven versions of that piece of content, that is a business problem because it’s like you’re not getting the ROI from your content that you should be getting because you’re not putting some things in place that yes, it’s a bit of a cost upfront to set up, but longterm you’re saving money like you wouldn’t believe.
SO: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What do you think, if you go back and look at your beginner tech writer self just a couple of years ago.
SO: Just a few. What is that thing that you wish that you had known that you’ve kind of learned the hard way?
AF: I think it would be to learn more about the business. Get out of my corner, get out of my engineering focus, get out of my R&D group designation and really ensure that I understand what we’re trying to do as a business and how I fit into that. It’s so easy when you’re inside an R&D group or an engineering group, which is considered a non-customer facing role, to really lose perspective of how what you’re doing every day makes an impact on your business and your customers.
AF: I think if I had learned that early on I would have been further along in understanding why content strategy was important and why business strategy is important and how content fits into that and gotten a headstart on really making sure that some of these silos in the organization talk to each other sooner.
SO: Okay, and so I have one last question for you before we wrap up, which we’ve talked about content strategy. There are, I don’t know, a couple hundred definitions of content strategy out there. How do you define content strategy when you’re using it?
AF: I think my definition of content strategy would be to have a plan for your content that includes all the various aspects of what you’re doing with your content. It’s not just about writing content. It’s about setting up your infrastructure so that you can plan, write and realize value from your content.
AF: The main part of my definition of content strategy that I think we sometimes forget is tying that back to your business goals. What are you trying to achieve with your content and how do you achieve it to meet your business goals?
SO: Oh, well that’s a good one. I think we’ll leave it there. So thank you for that. Hopefully you’ll help the other less experienced writers that are out there today that are listening to this.
AF: Well, thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
SO: Thank you for joining us on the Content Strategy Experts Podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information about this podcast and others in the series, please visit Sciprorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.