Gretyl Kinsey: 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 43, we talk about how to make sure you’re selecting the right tools for developing and managing content. Hello, and welcome. I am Gretyl Kinsey.
Alan Pringle: And I’m Alan Pringle.
G. Kinsey: We’re here today to talk to you about tools, and Alan, I kind of want to get your take first on things to keep in mind when it comes to the idea of choosing tools for content creation.
A. Pringle: Well, you just mentioned the word “first”, and that is something very important when it comes to tools. It is very easy to succumb to the temptation of picking your tools first. Actually, they should be the last thing that you do. You need to look at your requirements and the kinds of issues you’re trying to solve. Take a look at the bigger picture, what your problems are; not just your department’s, but enterprise-wide. Kind of look at all those puzzle pieces, and then, that’s when you buy your tools.
G. Kinsey: Exactly. That should be the very last piece of putting a new content strategy in place. And we’ve seen people make that mistake of picking their tools first, and then what happens is you get locked in, and if you don’t kind of do the analysis upfront and decide what are your needs, what are your goals, then you’re not going to have a tool that fits those needs. What you’re going to end up with is, if you go tools first, you’re going to be kind of trying to shoehorn a strategy to fit the tool, rather than the other way around, as it should be done.
A. Pringle: And you really end up wasting a lot of money and time, worst of all.
G. Kinsey: Absolutely. Another thing to consider is the idea that no one tool is perfect, so if you’re looking for a one-size-fits-all, or one single solution that can solve all of your problems, there’s a good chance that does not actually exist. So, instead of looking for something that’s going to be that perfect match, what you’ve got to do is just look for whatever’s going to be the best fit based on your requirements, your timeline, your budget, any other factors that you have to consider. And know upfront that it’s not going to check every single box that you need, but as long as it’s the closest fit, that’s what’s most important.
A. Pringle: If there is an aspect that a particular tool or product does not address and that is absolutely imperative, you may need to build in time in your budget and in your timeline to handle the expense and time required to make the customization to support that particular requirement.
G. Kinsey: Right. It may be a customization, it may be something like another tool that you could add on to the main one you’re considering. There are ways around those gaps, but it’s really important to keep in mind that there’s no one solution in a single tool, most likely, that can solve everything that you need to solve.
A. Pringle: Despite the marketing claims you may hear.
G. Kinsey: The last point that I want to bring up about just sort of these first-line considerations, and I think, Alan, you touched on this a little bit, is the idea that your tools don’t affect just your department. They affect the entire organization and any other departments that you collaborate with.
A. Pringle: I don’t know if trickle down is the right word. There’s always these fingers of things kind of touching and interconnecting, and you really need to pay attention to it. A good example of this, a lot of people don’t consider, for example, talking to their IT departments when they’re buying tools. The IT department, they’re the people who are wrangling all the tools in the organization generally, and if you don’t get their input, you are doing stuff in a vacuum that’s going to cause a lot of problems. So, you’ve got to think about everybody in your organization, not just the people who are going to actually use the tools.
G. Kinsey: Right, and you also want to think about things like departments that may not be directly involved in creating content, but they may still need to access your content and use it. So, the first thing that comes to my mind is something like training. They may create their own content, but if you’re creating documentation, they may need to borrow heavily from that. Same thing with marketing. So, even if you’ve got different departments with their own tools, what you get will affect what those other departments can do with your content and what you can do with theirs. So, it makes a lot of sense before you put a lot of budget and time and effort into installing a new tool to check with any departments who may be affected and make sure that that’s not going to mess them up somehow.
A. Pringle: Yeah, talking to other people, first of all, common courtesy. Second of all, if you don’t, you’re going to alienate people and really cause change management problems, so really getting that communication going from the get-go, not just within your team, but across teams. When it comes time to switching any kind of tool, it is vital.
G. Kinsey: Absolutely, and it kind of goes all ways, so if you are maybe coming up with a new content strategy and you know that some of the other departments in your organization are looking to restructure their content processes or just their general processes too, then it can be really helpful to maybe have this tool selection process going on concurrently. So, let’s say if you are in techcomm, tech pubs and you’re looking to upgrade, and maybe you interact a lot with training, then if they are looking into getting a new LMS and you’re looking into getting a new CCMS, it might be good to think about which ones would play nicely together or can connect.
A. Pringle: Right, the interconnectivity is very important, and that … The smarter that content gets, the more these kinds of bells and whistles … You have to think about that interconnectivity being one of the most vital things to consider when you’re having these conversations with other groups.
G. Kinsey: Right. So, next I want to talk about sort of the typical steps that an organization would go through in the process of selecting tools, and sort of how you can really get the most out of them and how you can do those steps correctly to maximize their value. The first one, of course this goes along with our picked tools last, but the first one is research. You really want to spend a lot of time focused on research because that’s going to narrow down your options before you kind of get deeper into the selection process.
A. Pringle: Another aspect of research, sometimes it is a good idea to get third party input. And yes, I’m a consultant and I’m going to advocate you hiring a consultant. It is a really good idea if you have the budget, or if you’re putting together a budget, to get some time from someone who is sort of removed from your organization who can look at this with kind of a different viewpoint, and also help you kind of filter through the features and the product claims, the marketing claims, to get a good handle on what really is the best fit for you. One thing about a consultant is that they likely have done this many, many times. That’s their job, to help people pick the right tools to get the job done.
A. Pringle: If you are on the other side of this and you’re in a marcom department, in a techcomm department, in a support department, the likelihood of you changing tools every 18 months is very low. That just doesn’t happen. There’s a good chance you have no experience in doing this. So, getting that outside perspective can be very valuable and helpful to you.
G. Kinsey: Absolutely. If you go for outside help, they’re going to have insider knowledge in the industry and connections that you won’t have just as a potential consumer of that tool, so they can really … What they can do is, at the research phase, they can help you narrow things down to a few really suitable options for you by looking at your needs as opposed to you having to kind of do that on your own. If you’re doing that on your own, then what you’re going to want to do, basically, is look at every different tool that exists out there that could possibly do what you need, and then start narrowing it down based on things like what are our requirements, what is our budget, what is our timeline for installing this tool, what’s the learning curve involved. All the different factors that are important, you would have to do all of that yourself if you’re not in a position to use a consultant. That’s why having an outside third party consultant can be so helpful.
A. Pringle: If you don’t have the budget to hire a consultant, maybe see if you’ve got some development budget where you could go to a conference. At a conference, some kind of industry event where they’re going to be the vendors, preferably the ones that you’re planning on talking to, where you can talk to the vendors, you can see demos at the conference. A lot of times at the different booths in the exhibit hall, you can schedule demos. You can also talk to your peers about what tools have worked well for them in a situation that’s maybe similar to yours. That’s another way to get sort of some outside input without necessarily full tilt hiring a consultant.
G. Kinsey: Right, and conferences are very helpful because if you’re researching these different tool vendors, these different options, there’s only so much that you’re going to find out on their website before you kind of hit a wall and say, “I need more information to know whether this is going to be a good fit,” and a conference can be a really good starting point to gather some of that information. As Alan said, a lot of them will have booths there. Sometimes they’ll also give presentations, and so you could go to some of their presentations, and they may be demoing their tool there, they may just be talking about how it could help solve a certain problem, and you can see if that fits with what you’re dealing with. But that’s a really valuable way to kind of get more information than you typically would from just going online and reading about these tools.
A. Pringle: Absolutely, and do talk to other people who have used the tool, maybe even ones that the vendor doesn’t necessarily … A lot of times the vendors will tell you, “Go talk to this person.” If you can find some other people who are beyond that, that would be to your benefit.
G. Kinsey: Yes. So, once you’ve done all of your research, the kind of next step is to narrow it down, make a list of a few possibilities that might suit your needs, and those are going to be ones that you look into more in depth. Of course, again, if you go with a third party, a consultant, they will probably give you that list, but if you’re researching it on your own, then that’s where you would make the list and say, “Okay, I’m going to pursue these a little bit more.” So, then the typical next steps there, if you’re looking at something like an authoring tool, a content creation tool, one of the first things I would recommend is if there’s a free trial offered, then do it.
G. Kinsey: It might be typically 30-day free trial, and that can give you just a chance to test it out, see what it’s like to use that tool, how much of a learning curve there might be for the content creators who are going to be working with it on a daily basis. That gives you a better idea than if you were to go watch a five-minute video on their website, or even see a demo at a conference, getting hands-on with that tool is a really effective and helpful way to see if it’s actually going to be a good fit for you or not.
A. Pringle: And if you are in a situation where you are having to combine multiple tools into a workflow, it would be wise not to be looking at these tools individually in a vacuum. If at all possible, set things up in a way that will mirror reality so you can see where things collide and don’t work well, or do indeed work well together.
G. Kinsey: Right, and of course, if they don’t offer something like a free trial, that’s when you can maybe ask about a more sort of extended demo to give you that same sort of idea, but I do know a lot of them offer some kind of a free trial just so that you can play around with it. So, that’s for kind of the more authoring side of things, but if you’re looking at content management, something like a CCMS that would require a contract license and that’s going to be an annual or monthly fee, that process tends to be a little bit more in depth, and that sort of tends to involve the phases of an RFP demos, and then final selections. So, we want to talk through how that typically goes and how you can make sure that those steps are done in the best way to make sure you get the best information that you can.
A. Pringle: And RFP means?
G. Kinsey: Request for proposal.
A. Pringle: Right, that’s when you send out a document to the various vendors, specifying we had this issue, we want to solve it, how does your product … How can it help solve these problems, and what is it going to cost for your product to help us solve these issues?
G. Kinsey: Yes. A lot of times, that information, specifically about cost, is not always available on their website. So that’s where the RFP can really help you, especially if you’ve got a vendor that has to price it based on your particular needs. That’s where this RFP will kind of help you determine whether that’s within your budget or not. So, another thing that we recommended our clients do and that most of them do is include a really detailed questionnaire with that RFP that asks all of the different requirements, all the specific points and problems that you need solved. How does this tool accomplish that? What is it that this tool does to solve this particular thing? The more specific that you can make that, the better answers that you will get and the better idea you’ll get of how good of a fit that tool’s going to be for you.
A. Pringle: Yeah, you really need to make that list of requirements reflect your reality and what your expectations are, so you’re going to get answers that closely address what your concerns and requirements are, and not something so vanilla. Oh yes, we support X. You want something a little more in depth than that, that really hones in on your particular situation.
G. Kinsey: Right, you want to know one, does the tool support X, and two, how? This is another place where having a third party consultant can help you, because they can sort of look at your list of questions that you come up with and see what’s missing, if anything. And if there’s anything that you need to be asking that you’re maybe not thinking about that can help convey your strategy to those vendors and help them answer those questions. The other thing I think is really important is making sure that all the different stakeholders in the selection process and in your content are involved in coming up with those questions.
G. Kinsey: So, you’re going to want the content departments like tech pubs, marketing, training, support, to have input on those questions, but you also want IT to have input. You want your CEO or whoever’s going to be paying to have input. So, you want to make sure that all the stakeholders get their questions in there, and that’s why I’ve said that list of questions can be very thorough and very long, and we’ve had clients send out RFPs with hundreds of questions in them, literally, because that’s what it took to get the information that they needed.
A. Pringle: If that’s what it takes to get your requirements across, then do it. It may sound onerous, but you’re much better off going into this level of detail upfront and getting all the answers than making some unfortunate discoveries later in the process.
G. Kinsey: Exactly. Another thing that I’ve seen a few clients do that I think is really helpful is when you’re coming up with that list of questions, have a priority order, or give them a point value of this is required versus a nice to have versus a it’s okay if it’s not available. That can really help you weigh your decision, because if you have a question, for example, where you have a requirement that you’ve said this is a maximum out of a one through three, a level three, it has to be there, and the tool can’t deliver it, then that might be sort of more of a deal breaker then if they answer oh, we don’t have this for a feature that’s not required, but would be more of a nice to have. So, putting that kind of priority on your questions can really help you when it comes time to make your decision later.
A. Pringle: Yeah, Excel can be your friend here. You can create a spreadsheet that weights the values of the questions and the answers accordingly.
G. Kinsey: Yes, and so once you have sent out those questions and you’ve gotten answers back, that kind of leads you to the next step, which is look through the answers, eliminate any tool options that have major deal breakers, or that you know are not a good fit, just based on those answers, and then that kind of leads you to your short list for the demo phase.
A. Pringle: Right, and the demo phase really is where you’re starting to get to brass tacks.
G. Kinsey: Yes.
A. Pringle: That is where you’re seeing things in action, you are hopefully going to see cases where the vendors will show you very specifically how particular outcomes and requirements you have. They show how their tool will do those things very specifically, or you hope.
G. Kinsey: Yes. That’s why I think it’s really important to have a list of specific use cases that you would like to see demonstrated, because if you don’t, then all they’re going to be able to do is kind of their generic demo that they would do at a conference or something. And you’re not going to get anywhere near the value out of it that you would if you provide them a specific list of here are the things we want to see that you can do. We’ve even had some cases where a company might provide some of their content to that vendor and say, “Put this in your system. Show us how it would work with our content so that we can actually get a very clear idea of what that’s going to be like if we go with your tool.” So, the more that you can provide the vendors upfront before those demos, the better those demos will be.
A. Pringle: I think the vendors, actually, can be very appreciative of that level of detail because it tells them what they need to hone in on, what they need to address, instead of basically throwing everything up on the wall and seeing what sticks. The more information you give them, the more specific and helpful the demo is going to be for you, and by extension, for them, because it tells them what they need to address.
G. Kinsey: Yes. One other point that I think is really important that sometimes gets overlooked is asking the vendor if you can record the demo. Because you really want to make sure every stakeholder in your organization can see the demo, and, of course, with scheduling, it can be hard to make sure everyone can be there to see it live. I’ve never had an issue with a vendor saying, “Oh no, you can’t have my permission to record.” Most of them record it anyway, so that’s one thing to make sure that you ask for is to have that recorded and get access to that recording so that everyone in your organization can see it, and even so that you could go back if you are there live and review certain things and discuss them as you are making your final selection.
A. Pringle: Today, with teams that are very distributed, it is often very difficult to schedule a meeting that everyone can attend. It’s not convenient for their time zone, so recording that can be very helpful, because you want to keep everybody in on what’s going on. And if someone can’t attend the meeting because it’s kind of a conflict with another meeting, or they’re three time zones away, having that recording lets them still be part of the process, even though they were not there when the meeting was live.
G. Kinsey: Right. So, once the demo phase is done and you have seen those tools in action, then what it comes down to is the final selection out of those, that short list of tool options that you had. One thing that I think is really important is to think about all the information that you’ve learned, not just from the demos, but from the RFP. Put all that together, look at it, compare what you got from each different vendor, look at your options very carefully, weigh them against your content strategy requirements, and use that to help you make that final choice.
A. Pringle: You likely have a procurement organization in your company, and you’re going to be working very closely with them, because they likely have very particular rules to follow, etc. When it comes time to make these selections. So, work closely with them to be sure you’re following your company’s guidelines, and they’re going to be the ones battling for the best price. Let them do their job in that regard, because that is what they’re there for.
G. Kinsey: Absolutely. One other thing, and this applies not just at this phase, but kind of at any phase throughout the selection process, is follow-up questions. A lot of times we’ve seen cases where you may get down to maybe two or three tools that are all pretty close fits, and it’s really coming down to small factors that would make or break that decision, so don’t be afraid to go back to the vendors with any follow-up questions you have, no matter how ridiculous you think it is. Be very specific, and if there are those little make or break factors that you need to go back and ask them about if it’s something that didn’t get asked in the RFP or brought up in the demo, then do it, because that’s really important to help you make that choice.
A. Pringle: It is, and when you are getting down to those final bits and you do decide that someone is not a good fit, be courteous and let that tool vendor know you’re no longer under consideration. I have seen too many times where vendors were left hanging far too long. It’s just not courteous, and I’m asking that for their sake, really, basically. If you decide you’re not going to use a vendor, be sure and tell them, and if you have the ability to tell them why, please share that information with them as well.
G. Kinsey: Yes, and it may be … Oftentimes it’s not that there’s something wrong with their tool, necessarily, it’s just that it was not a good fit for you. Like I was saying upfront, no one tool is perfect, and it’s just a matter of what’s going to be the best fit. So, if there’s some reason why they were not the best fit, then it would be helpful for them to know that just in case their future clients that they might have later who have a similar situation, it may help them make some changes to their tool down the road. So, the more you can share that information, the better.
A. Pringle: I agree.
G. Kinsey: So, do you have any other final thoughts on choosing tools?
A. Pringle: Some of the early things we talked about are really the most important. Don’t pick your tools out of the gate. Do some research. Figure out what your requirements are, and as part of that process, be sure that you do not let your incumbent tools and what they can and cannot do color what you were doing. In a lot of cases, you may be needing tools that are completely different from what you’ve got now. So, you have to really be careful not to let how things are now completely influence what you’re looking for with your new tool set.
A. Pringle: So, yes, you have to think about the user experience of how you’re doing things now, and maybe how it will map to your new situation. But the requirements for your team, the requirements for your company should be driving your tool selection, not necessarily having a one-for-one corresponding user experience in the new tool set. Make training part of your budget to help people get over that learning curve. That’s how you can handle those differences, which are inevitable when you’re going to switch tools.
G. Kinsey: Absolutely, and that just brings it right back to the point of why it is so important to make tool selection the last phase and not the first phase of putting in a new content strategy and new processes, because if you put in tools upfront, then you are almost guaranteed to have a solution that’s bending to fit the tool rather than a tool that’s there to support your solution.
A. Pringle: And you’re going to have to do it all over again and properly, probably, in another two years or some short interval because you made the wrong investment.
G. Kinsey: Yes. On that note, I think we are going to wrap things up, so thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com, or check the show notes for relevant links.