Full transcript of Battling content strategy inertia podcast

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Sarah O’Keefe: 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 34 of this podcast, we talk about inertia. It’s August, so here we are in the dog days of summer in North Carolina. It’s hot and humid, and doing absolutely nothing seems like pretty much the best and only strategy right now. That got us thinking about inertia in content strategy. It takes a big push to get a content strategy project moving, and a lot of times, do nothing seems like a much safer strategy than actually taking action and doing something. But of course, the choice to do nothing is, itself, a decision, and may lead to sunburn if you just stay out there too long.

Sarah O’Keefe: Hi, everyone. I’m Sarah O’Keefe, and I’m here with Alan Pringle on this sunny and humid day in North Carolina.

Alan Pringle:      Hey, there, and I’m in air conditioning, as is Sarah.

SO:                         That’s true, and the windows are nowhere near us, so we’re actually operating on old data as far as what’s actually going on out there. It could be thunderstorming and we’d never know. So, inertia. In this lazy summer, what are some of the things that cause inaction in a professional content strategy kind of setting?

AP:                         Money, or lack thereof. If you have no budget, that can kill things very quickly. Very, very quickly.

SO:                         So, we get that a lot. People come to us and say, “Well, I want to do a thing, and I want to improve the situation. I want to improve my content. I want to make things better, but I have no budget,” or, “I have no resources.” Is it really that there’s no budget, or what’s kind of the root cause that we’re dealing with?

AP:                         Well, there’s two responses I have to that. First of all, you can always look at incremental changes. Look at your existing tool set, look at your existing processes, or anything you can do just to fine tune things here and there to make things more efficient, using what you’ve got. That may be your only option. Number two, the second thing that I can think of is no budget may be a reflex you’re hearing from management or from procurement, because you were not clearly explaining why these changes would basically help the bottom line.

SO:                         So, to a certain extent, no budget really means this isn’t considered a high priority, it’s not important. Resources are the same way, right? I mean, when somebody says, “No, I’m not giving you the resources,” what they mean is you haven’t convinced me that what you’re asking for is important enough to dedicate people or funding to it.

AP:                         It’s return on investment. That’s what it boils down to. If people do not perceive that that investment is going to be worthy of the company’s time and effort, why bother?

SO:                         Right, and I think that ultimately, a lot of the pushback really comes down to fear, because a lot of times, it feels safer to do nothing than to sort of literally stick your neck out and advocate for a big project or a big change or a big, new thing. It feels a lot safer to just hide and keep doing things the way they’ve been always been done, which presumably would not get you in big trouble, whereas if you take a big initiative or do something new and creative, there’s a fear of failure there.

AP:                         Yeah, so it’s basically I’m going to stick my head in the sand and keep going, or I’m going to get it chopped off. Here are my options, neither of which are great, really.

SO:                         Right, but all other things being equal, you’d like to keep your head.

AP:                         Exactly.

SO:                         Okay, so what kinds of things overcome that inertia? What is a big enough push to make action, to make something happen?

AP:                         If something substantial breaks, where the process you’re doing now absolutely does not support a changing or new requirement, a language, you need to translate content from your source into a language for another market, that right there is a huge change, and if your systems don’t handle localization well, you’re going to have to do something about it.

SO:                         Or, even less dramatic than that, it’s, “We no longer support that operating system that this thing is running on. We can’t get licenses for this tool. The tool’s been discontinued.” So there’s the sort of positive action, like we want to expand and do new things, and then there’s the negative action of this thing is so old that nobody supports it anymore.

AP:                         That does happen too.

SO:                         Yeah, I mean, I’ve literally been in meetings where they said things like, “Well, we have this one last Windows 95 machine that’s running some special thing, and when that machine dies, we’re done, and we cannot continue with whatever that approach was, whatever those tool sets were.” So, a change that sort of breaks the system, whether it’s an update from an operating system, or a lack of update from the software, discontinued software, new languages. One that we see, I think a reasonable amount, is more of the recognition of hey, you know what? We have a problem with our content. So, it’s coming down from the top, from the executives somewhere who are saying, “We are selling this product as a leading edge, cutting edge, user-friendly, this that and the other thing, and that’s not what our content is. It doesn’t match that message, so go fix it.”

AP:                         Yeah, there’s a disconnect, and it makes the company look bad, and also, it probably hurts revenue as well.

SO:                         Right, so in that case, when you have the attention of the CEO, who’s looking at this and saying, “This is unacceptable, fix it,” it’s likely that you’re going to take action there.

AP:                         Yeah, and speaking of CEOs and executives, a lot of times, we have seen new leadership come into a company, and they kind of hone in on “You know what? I saw it done this way at my previous place,” or, “if you look at this and compare it to the marketplace, it’s not as good.” So, when someone comes in with a fresh eye, it’s almost like a consultant coming in, because they’re new, they haven’t been, basically, cocooned in the corporate culture. They may be a little more free willing with saying, “You know what? This is not as good as it could or should be,” and that can shake things up, too, and get things moving.

SO:                         Yeah, and I think one of the most common issues, which kind of ties into that, but goes a little bit beyond it, it’s not just a new CEO or a new leadership, but some sort of a merger that leads to new leadership, because you put two or three or five companies together, and all of a sudden, the thing that worked for one company or the other–well, maybe those processes are okay, but you have to get them in alignment, because typically, what you don’t want is five departments that used to be individual companies using five different processes, five different tool sets, five different everythings.

SO:                         You can even have a situation where they’re all using the same tools, but even so, with five groups, the tool set that worked for one, it doesn’t scale for that many people. So, you have to worry about well, this was a good fit for us when we were one group of three people, but now we’re one group of 30 people in five different divisions, and now we need something much more powerful.

AP:                         Scalability is one of those things that can break that we were talking about earlier, that can become very noticeable. So, when you find yourself struggling to bring more people into a process, or it can’t handle a new language, or whatever else, when you’re looking at exponential increases in something, that’s why you really have to look at your current content processes from a scalability point of view. That’s a huge part of this inertia angle as well.

SO:                         Yeah, and the messaging may be different. I mean, I infamously was in a project where I made some comment to the effect of well, in the glossary, there’s really only one way of defining–I think it was standard deviation. They just looked at me and they laughed and laughed and laughed, because it turned out that the organization I was dealing with used to be two organizations, and in fact, the two organizations actually defined standard deviation differently. So, no, they couldn’t just put a single entry in the glossary, they had to sort of say, “Well, if you’re in products A, B, and C, it’s like this, and if you’re in products D, E, and F, it’s like this,” which is kind of a nightmare.

SO:                         But the gist of it was that if you’re going to integrate the products, you can’t go around using terminology differently, based on product history, where it came from. Oh, this was originally built by company A, so we talk about things this way, but this was built by company B, so–No. The customer doesn’t care. They bought both products, and they expect consistency and they should get it. So, you can have some real issues around terminology and style guides and content development that can get you in big trouble after a merger.

AP:                         Well, and I think this goes to show mergers are not just about money. They’re as much about culture and about process, and those things can get very sticky when they collide.

SO:                         Yeah. Another interesting one that we’ve run into that has caused a lot of change, it’s actually the reverse of the merger. Maybe 15 years or so ago, there were a lot of big products. You’d buy the product and it was this huge, enormous thing, but then they started componentizing products. So, instead of having a big, huge product, what you have is 15 pieces, and you, the customer, can buy one or two or three or four or seven or 15, and that led to all sorts of interesting content problems around how do we organize the information, how do we filter it, how do we deliver it, how do we split it apart and recombine it that the content structure, and I don’t mean the tagging, but how the content was organized from a content library point of view was incompatible with componentizing it. So, people had to really sit down and revisit how their information was organized in order to figure out how to deliver component-based content.

AP:                         Yeah, and again, this points to the whole scalability thing and thinking about how your processes can adapt and change. That’s a very good example, moving from let’s say a more classic, chapter-based book manual kind of workflow versus a more modular, more nimble approach with your content.

SO:                         So, when we talk about inertia, there’s that sort of big hump that you have to get over right at the beginning to actually get things moving, to actually get progress, to get people talking about these issues and sort of get some sort of consensus that things have to change in some way. I guess the problem is that these projects, as you said, you can start small and do some small things, but at some point, you need kind of an investment from management. You need them to say, “Yes, this is a priority, and yes, we need to do it.” So, how do you do that? I mean, what are some of the techniques for getting past that inertia that, “This is not a high priority, we can do this next year, we have other projects.” How do you get past that sort of initial obstacle?

AP:                         Well, content creators are always talking about knowing their audience when it comes to the actual content itself. Unfortunately, they don’t always apply it to their communication with their coworkers and leadership of their company. When you want to talk about why a content process is not working to an executive, they have likely zero interest in talking about tool specifics, why I need this system or that. Give them some metrics, give them some information on return on investment. If we implement this, this is how much more quickly we’re going to get this product into this particular international market. If we make this change here, we are going to lop off 20 to 25% off of the time it takes to get out the content for this particular product, or this service.

AP:                         So, you have to talk to people in the language they understand and respond to. With executives, they’re going to want to hear about money. I mean, that’s the bottom line. Money, money, money. If you’re talking to, for example, information technology people, your IT department, they want to hear about scalability, about how they can consolidate the number of tools, things like that. So, know who you’re talking to and aim your pitch to them in the way the they will understand.

SO:                         Yeah, and I agree with all of that. I think, in addition to all of those factors, the one that we’re seeing now that we didn’t used to see (again, 10, 15 years ago) is a focus on customer experience or user experience, where we have executives saying to us, “Our product content, our technical content needs to contribute to the customer experience. It needs to make the users feel good about what they’re buying from us, or what they’re using, and we want them to have a positive experience and say nice things about us and keep buying our stuff. Right now, our content doesn’t do that, so fix it.”

SO:                         Then, you get into the questions around ROI and tools and all the rest of it, but at a certain point, there’s a surveyed baseline recognition that the content has to be better: better written, better organized, better delivered. It has to look better, it also has to be accurate and all these other things. Those are kind of assumed, even though, maybe, that’s not a valid assumption of something new.

AP:                         Not always, yeah.

SO:                         So, it has to be accurate, it has to do all these things, and I’ll put it in the show notes, but somewhere we have a hierarchy of content needs, which starts at the very, very bottom with it actually has to be available, as in if your customers can’t find your content, then it doesn’t exist, as far as they’re concerned. All the investment you’ve made in that content if your customer doesn’t get to it is pointless. So, there are also those kinds of issues, but as you said, it’s really important to talk to the people that are funding this, using language that they understand, which very often is ROI, and sometimes it’s other things, but what are their priorities and how can the content match up to those priorities and support those priorities?

SO:                         The inertia question nearly always, to me, means that the person who owns the content or the content strategy hasn’t connected content and content strategy to the business priorities, whatever those may be. So, to your point, the audience, I mean, who’s your audience and what are you trying to sell them on? So, I think with that, we’ll wrap it up. Thanks, Alan.

AP:                         Thank you, Sarah.

SO:                         Thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, please visit scriptorium.com, or check the show notes for relevant links.

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe

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Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

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