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July 15, 2019

The Scriptorium approach to content strategy (podcast)

In episode 55 of the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Elizabeth Patterson and Sarah O’Keefe discuss Scriptorium’s approach to content strategy.

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Elizabeth Patterson:     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 55, we discuss Scriptorium’s approach to content strategy. Hi, I’m Elizabeth Patterson and I’m joined by Sarah O’Keefe.

Sarah O’Keefe:     Hello.

EP:     Sarah just recently finished writing a white paper and in this white paper, you mentioned that when you invest in content strategy you’re really committing to a major digital transformation effort. And with that, there are significant challenges, but that also brings great opportunity and I think that that’s something that’s important to note before we start going into some of these specific aspects of Scriptorium’s approach to content strategy.

SO:     Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean you’re making a big commitment, and you’re committing to what I’m afraid is going to be a lot of pain. So just be aware of that before you get started.

EP:     So in this white paper, the first piece that you really focus on is the current state analysis. Could you talk a little bit about what that looks like and some of the current states of content that you have seen along the way?

SO:     So current state analysis means that we go in and we figure out what exactly is going on right now in that organization with their content. How is it being created, how is it being delivered, what are some of the problems? And, of course, there are a lot of problems, right? Because if there weren’t a lot of problems we wouldn’t be there. So current state analysis is a matter of saying, “All right, what’s going on here? What is the problem that rose to a level where you are willing to bring us in? Where you were willing to acknowledge, we have a problem, we need help and we’re going to have scriptorium come in and help us fix the problem?” I try hard not to make 12-step analogies, but the whole thing kind of heads that way.

SO:     So first we say “All right, our content has a problem,” and then we have to figure out how to fix it. So the kinds of things that we run into are content that’s being created that doesn’t have a purpose. It’s just, “We’ve always done that” “But it looks terrible. Why do you do it that way? Why is it so ugly?” I have seen terrible, terrible things perpetrated in InDesign, which is known for allowing you to produce really attractive looking print. But I’ve seen some terrible, terrible print coming out of InDesign and being done in a way that takes enormous amounts of time and is completely unmaintainable. So if you’re going to use InDesign, at least make it look good if you’re going to spend all this time. And yet what we have is it’s an inefficient tool and it’s not being used well, so that’s always kind of a little disturbing.

SO:     Huge amounts of content that is just wrong. Either technically inaccurate or out of date or it’s in the wrong language. It’s being written in English and the primary audience needs Chinese and it’s not being delivered in Chinese, or you’re writing for a particular kind of audience, but the content isn’t appropriate for that audience. So if you’re writing for medical professionals, you can assume a certain level of knowledge, but if you’re writing for an orderly in a nursing home, then you have to kind of make some different assumptions about their background knowledge. So you see content that’s just, it’s not necessarily technically inaccurate, but it’s wrong for the audience.

SO:     And then we see systemic problems. So the content hasn’t been updated because it’s too hard. Nobody knows what the most current version is because they can’t figure out where it lives. They’re not translating because it’s “too expensive,” or they do translate but it takes a year to get the translations out the door, which in this global environment typically is not actually acceptable. Every time I say, “We’ve seen it all,” we see more things. But we’ve seen a lot of stuff, a lot of really just bad stuff.

EP:     So once you have gone through that current state analysis, you’re then able to start completing a gap analysis, which really spells out the problems with the current state. Could you touch a little on this and talk about some of the common problems that you find during this analysis in this stage?

SO:     Yeah. So the gap analysis basically says, “Gee, you really need this in 15 languages and you’re delivering in two,” so the gap appears to be 13 languages, that type of thing. So it’s kind of like, “Here’s your current state, here’s what you would like your state to be and here’s the gap or abyss,” or chasm, or ocean between the two. The most common things we run into, I’ve talked a lot about languages. Localization issues are really common. People say things like, “We need more languages, but we can’t afford it in our current workflow because it’s too expensive,” or “It takes too long,” or, “We don’t have the talent to do it. We don’t know where to find the talent,” that type of thing. “We need to rebrand all our documents, but it’s too expensive to open them up and touch them up and make all of those changes.”

SO:     We see a lot of issues around search, especially when you have a huge puddle of monster PDFs. “We have our content library is 8,000 PDF files and people can’t find what they’re looking for,” and each of those 8,000 files is 300 pages, so first you have to find the right file and then you have to search within the file. So search is a really, really big problem. On a more, again, systemic level, we see a lot of content duplication. So information that’s been copied and pasted from place to place to place, to place to place and has, along the way, kind of like a game of telephone. It’s gotten changed or not changed or the first copy got updated but the downstream copies didn’t get updated, that type of thing. So it’s out of sync. And in many cases, you’ll see content where document A contradicts document B.

SO:     You’ll see inconsistency with styles because writer A and writer B don’t write the same way. They don’t have the same common voice, so that can be a big problem. Other gaps with searchability, in addition to the PDF problem, which is a big one, we also see a lot of problems around websites where a company has not a website but numerous dozens of websites and the information might be repeated on those websites. It might have been written by two different people in two different formats and put on two different websites and contradicts each other. So now what’s the authoritative version? Right? Which one’s right? If I’m the end user and I’m trying to figure out how to use this content, well, who do I trust?

EP:     Right, I’ve run across that on several websites where I read something different.

SO:     Yeah, do you trust or do you trust, and I mean who knows? And one of them was PDF and one of them was HTML and a third one was something else. So you just see just everything, all sorts of problems. And they are causing issues with delivery, right? With the company doing what they want to do.

EP:     Right. So once you’ve identified those gaps, then, obviously, it’s time to identify the changes that are going to be needed in order to reach the desired state that the company has. So how do you go about conducting the needs analysis and then making recommendations that are appropriate for the customer because customer’s needs are different?

SO:     So it can be a little difficult to separate the gap from the needs. But for example, going back to my language problem, if the gap is, “We need to deliver in 26 languages and currently we’re delivering in two,” is that a needs analysis? The gap is the languages aren’t being delivered. The need is something like, “We need to deliver these languages and probably that means we need a better localization strategy. We might need some localization software. Maybe we need a professional external localization vendor.” So there are different kinds of needs that you might run into there. But broadly, we’re going to be looking at overall strategy. So what is your content strategy? What are you going to create and how are you going to deliver it? When, where, why, and what languages and what format and all of that.

SO:     Some sort of reuse strategy for that canonical information so that you’re not copying it around. Localization strategy, systems, workflows, processes to make sure that localization is happening in a professional kind of way. We have to think about the content model and information architecture. So not just how are you going to organize your website if that’s your delivery model, but also how are you going to organize the content itself? So to take an example of that, if you’re doing hardware documentation, like how to repair something very typically you have prerequisites, which is something like, “Unplug the machine, make sure you have these tools and then set up everything and get ready.” So there’s kind of this preliminary step, or process before it says, “Okay, step one, open the casing and step two, do some stuff.”

SO:     So you want to think about the content model of, “Are all of my repair tasks always going to have some sort of prerequisite or some sort of list of tools that you need, or some sort of you need these skills or you need these certifications to do this task.” Because sometimes you don’t want somebody unqualified trying to repair a thing that-

EP:     That wouldn’t go well.

SO:     … could hurt them, or even kill them. So some things to think about there. So you have sort of your systems and your tools and your software and your content model inside of all of that. And then you have to think about the content life cycle, but then, in addition to all of that, you really have to think about the company itself and what level of investment is appropriate for that company. Are they a global multinational company that needs to deliver in every country and in 50 or 60 or a hundred languages? Do they have enough market share in all those different countries to justify that kind of an investment? Or is it a smaller company where we don’t have that same volume of information? Are they updating or republishing content nightly or is it more monthly or every six months? What’s that cadence look like? What’s the velocity? So you can broadly say, “Well, in an ideal world, everybody would do it this very sophisticated way.” But that might not be appropriate for a company that has less content or fewer tentacles out into these different languages or fewer formats.

SO:     Some companies have very straightforward content delivery requirements or is very straight forward content strategy model because the content they’re doing is easy. So from a business point of view, we’re looking at what kind of investment can we justify based on the value that they’re going to get out of it?

EP:     Right, because you have to be able to make that case for the executives.

SO:     Right. And we can’t tell them, “Spend a $1 million in order to save $50,000 on localization,” I mean that’s just not right, and rarely will they sign off on that.

EP:     So we’ve really covered the basics. And what would working with Scriptorium look like? What would that experience be like?

SO:     Well, we hope it’s a positive experience, but generally, if we’re doing this type of analysis, content strategy, assessment work and, for the record, even though nobody asks, we also do the technical implementation work. So I’ll just put that out there because that’s my job putting it out there. We would generally come in and meet with all the key stakeholders that are involved in this. Now, you would think content people and that’s definitely a key stakeholder, but in addition to the content people we’re talking about all the people that touch on content; subject matter experts who review it, people who approve it, product managers very often. Somewhere there’s an executive champion, IT because they’re responsible for the infrastructure or maybe the security around, especially if it’s a cloud-based solution, around the external sort of connectors that might be needed.

SO:     So we need to talk to all of those people and kind of understand what the parameters are of what we’re dealing with. Put all of that together. Do as we said, the needs analysis, the gap analysis and what comes out of that in pretty close collaboration with the key stakeholders in the client company is a plan that says, “Okay, this is what you need. Here’s your current state, here’s where you want to be. This is what it’s going to take to get there” Whether it’s software or process changes or training for your people or a new content model, or all of the above, very often, “And this is what the roadmap looks like and this is how we can do this.”

SO:     We usually include a risk mitigation section. So we talk about risk, “What are the risks of doing this? What are the risks of not doing this?” Because at the end of the day, if I’m an executive looking at this kind of a project, I have to be convinced that the risk of undertaking a project like this, of changing our operations, changing how we create content, changing what kind of content we create and all the rest of it is worth it.

SO:     And not just the financial return, although that’s important, but that it’s worth the change. That it’s worth the risk of making the change and moving forward versus just staying in the status quo. Status quo is not as scary as making changes. And so very often we’re coming in and saying, “Look, you need to make these very significant and profound changes.” People hate change, right? Everybody hates change.

EP:     And adapting takes a while.

SO:     And we’re people coming in and demanding or recommending change and we’re no different from anybody else. You change anything in our office here and you should see the screaming that goes on. And yet at the same time, we’re going in and telling people, “You have to change your day-to-day, how you approach your job.” So there’s a huge change management component and from a leadership point of view, you have to decide that the transformation of your content or the digital transformation, to use the horrific buzzword, that we are recommending is appropriate and necessary for your organization.

EP:     Well, with that I think we are going to go ahead and wrap up. Thank you, Sarah.

SO:     Thank you.

EP:     And thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.