Enterprise content strategy: Putting the pieces together (podcast)

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In episode 57, Sarah O’Keefe and Bill Swallow look at content strategy across different disciplines and how an enterprise-level content strategy can grow from departmental efforts.

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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 57, we look at content strategy across different disciplines and how an enterprise level content strategy can grow out of departmental efforts. Hi everyone. I’m Sarah O’Keefe. I’m here with Bill Swallow.

Bill Swallow: Hello.

Sarah O’Keefe: Bill is actually for once in the room here in North Carolina and has spent the last few days visiting with the so-called home office and complaining about the chewy and wearable air.

Bill Swallow: It’s gross. I don’t know how you do it.

Sarah O’Keefe: Well, we could return the favor in January and-

Bill Swallow: That’s true.

Sarah O’Keefe: … discuss how do you do that in the frozen North? But we’ve named his office the Arctic Scriptorium, although I guess now that we have an employee in Minneapolis, you’re only what, the sub-arctic Scriptorium?

Bill Swallow: Yeah. We’ll take apple country again.

Sarah O’Keefe: Apple country Scriptorium. So, today what we wanted to do was talk about enterprise content strategy and what that really means when you try to put the pieces together across a whole group of departments, and what their interpretations of content strategy are. When we talk about content strategy, every discipline seems to have a slightly different definition of what that is.

Sarah O’Keefe: If you talk to tech comm people about technical or tech comm content strategy, or product content strategy, of marketing content strategy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and each one of those departments or functions seems to have a slightly different idea of what their priorities are and what they need out of content strategy. So, starting with, for example, marketing, what’s a typical focus for content strategy in a marketing-focused area?

Bill Swallow: A lot of the marketing content strategy is focused on customer engagement and corporate brand. So, being able to put the best face for the company forward in making sure that your customers and your target audience are getting the experience that your company expects them to get. So, all of the content strategy pieces that make that happen will be very different from say looking at your technical communications group producing your documentation.

Sarah O’Keefe: So, on the marketing side you get things like voice and tone standards.

Bill Swallow: Voice and tone standards, delivery formats to some degree, and positioning.

Sarah O’Keefe: And editorial calendars and web content strategy and all the rest of it.

Bill Swallow: All that fun stuff.

Sarah O’Keefe: And then, what does tech comm focus on?

Bill Swallow: Well, you have tech comm, you have a lot of the, a lot of similar things. You still have your voice, you still have your tone but it usually takes a slightly different approach, at least traditionally.

Sarah O’Keefe: You typically hear style guide, right?

Bill Swallow: Well, you hear style guide but-

Sarah O’Keefe: Not so much voice and tone.

Bill Swallow: It’s a bit of both because the style guide really does have control over voice and tone as well. And your marketing content strategy is certainly going to have a style guide as well. But it may not be the same. What technical content does well is that whether or not you’re using any kind of structured environment or XML, tech comm is really good at structuring content at a conceptual level.

Bill Swallow: So, looking at things and breaking them down into topics, whether it’s long form or short form, having very specific compartmentalized approaches to producing content, and then wrapping it all up together to produce either in the classic sense a manual, or online help systems, or putting out just information that is well-organized and defined. And the real trick and the real difference is that there is a very strong focus on being technically accurate and correct in the tech comm side, which you don’t necessarily find in other departments.

Sarah O’Keefe: I think in addition to that, what you see is that the… it’s not quite as simple as marketing is pre-sales in tech comm or product content as post-sales. But if you look at it that way very broadly, then the marketing teams tend to be very much focused on how do we increase revenue, how do we increase cost share, how do we increase sales, right?

Sarah O’Keefe: They’re focused on, let’s invest and as a result have increased sales, have increased revenue, have increased customers, whatever. On the tech comm side, nearly always, tech comm is focused on efficiency and cost avoidance.

Bill Swallow: Yes.

Sarah O’Keefe: How can we… We have to produce all this content, whether it because of regulation or just so that people can use the product successfully. How do we produce all this information as efficiently as possible? Historically, that has not been a focus on the marketing side. Right? The question of how long does it take, how expensive is it to produce this piece?

Sarah O’Keefe: Marketing might look at the question of, oh well three varnishes and eight metallic ink colors is going to make for a really expensive printed product, but you very rarely hear it costs too much to write this content or to manage this content. And that tech comm has been, I don’t know about exclusively, but largely focused on we have so, so much content we have to manage it efficiently.

Bill Swallow: Right. Because also a lot of the tech comm-based content is more evergreen than the marketing content will be. So therefore it’s going to stick around for a lot longer period of time. A lot of the marketing content is very short lived. I mean, you certainly would have marketing copy that could potentially be out there for a year or more. I’m not saying that there isn’t. But a lot of the marketing content, it’s very targeted and it’s very-

Sarah O’Keefe: Time [crosstalk 00:06:02].

Bill Swallow: Yes, very, very time-sensitive.

Sarah O’Keefe: Then of course there are other content creators that produce customer-facing information like tech support, which tends to for the most part align with the product content. And then something like training, which to me kind of goes across the two. If you look at it between marketing and tech comm, it kind of sits in a weird maybe third place, but kind of in-between.

Sarah O’Keefe: The question then I think, becomes how can we look at content strategy across an enterprise and do a better job of putting those pieces together, of working across the various functions and taking the things that they do well on the content strategy side, and putting that all together, how do we do that? I mean, how do we take that step into saying we’re not going to have marketing content strategy and product content strategy and training content strategy and I don’t even know what else content strategy. How do we put them together?

Bill Swallow: Well, I’m not sure we would say that you don’t have those things, but you would definitely have something, an umbrella strategy that pulls them all together. The first thing you need to look at, okay, what are the strengths, the weaknesses, the commonalities and the unique needs for each of these groups? So, what are they doing really well? What are they struggling with? What are very specific things that they need to worry about that other groups don’t need to worry about? What are the things that they worry about that everybody worries about? Trying to find all these pieces and see how they can fit together and complement each other from group to group.

Sarah O’Keefe: Then, what we found is that the, as you said, the umbrella or the overarching tool that can make it possible to really understand what you’re dealing with tends to be the customer journey.

Bill Swallow: Generally.

Sarah O’Keefe: Yeah, because you can look at a holistic customer journey and say, “Okay, well the customer goes from being a prospect to being a researcher, to being a buyer, to being a learner, to being a user and then back around through the… back to being a prospect because they might upgrade or they might buy other products or they might become an advocate or an evangelist for your product. So, you have that-

Bill Swallow: And hopefully never a detractor.

Sarah O’Keefe: Hopefully. So, you have that process that they go through and sometimes it’s shown as a loop, sometimes it’s kind of an infinity figure eight. But what’s important is that it is not a straight line from A to B to C to D to E. There’s definitely some loop back in there. The customer, and this I think is really the crux of it. From the customer’s point of view, you the enterprise, you the organization are a single thing, right?

Sarah O’Keefe: I bought this product from Microsoft. I bought this product from Apple. I bought this product from whoever. They don’t know or care that in fact, inside that great big organization, you have a product content team and a marketing content team. Oh, and you have both sales and marketing, and marketing communications, and technical marketing, and tech support, and you have VIP tech support, and training, and… It just goes on and on and on.

Sarah O’Keefe: Well, I don’t care. You know? I bought a piece of software and I want you to give me the information that I need to use that software or that hardware or that tool successfully. I am entirely disinterested in the fact that the content I need is sitting on xyz.company.com and not on abc.company.com. That should not be my problem.

Sarah O’Keefe: What happens is, when you have these departmental content strategies, it becomes my problem because I have to find it, right? I have to find the right website or the right–God help me–PDF, and then I have to dig through it and find the right thing. Oh, and then it probably is contradicted by the other website.

Bill Swallow: Well yeah, it doesn’t help that how you navigate when researching a product varies differently from how you navigate when trying to research how to troubleshoot something in the product. Finding content across, like you mentioned, multiple different portals and having to use these portals in a different way and the fact that they organize their information potentially in a very different way. It gets back to the detractor thing. I mean, are you fostering detractors of your company, your brand, or do you want them to be a net promoter?

Sarah O’Keefe: So, working our way around to our point, which is enterprise content strategy is your friend, right? It’s not your friend because it’s cool and awesome and… It is your friend, because if you don’t use the same words for the same product across different departments, your customers are screwed. They can’t find what they’re looking for because they are using the wrong word.

Sarah O’Keefe: So, when I say you need to use the same words to describe things or the same words to allow people to search, well, you need an enterprise taxonomy. You need enterprise level metadata that is consistent across the enterprise, not just department by department. Because again, your customers are not interacting with your content department by department. They’re just not.

Bill Swallow: Right.

Sarah O’Keefe: Once they learn over in the land of marketing that you refer to a product as ABC123, if you then go over to the product content and all of a sudden it’s 123ABC, they are not going to be very happy with you.

Bill Swallow: Right, or XYZ-

Sarah O’Keefe: Or XYZ, or AlphaBetaGamma. Just because, oh well we do it differently over here and those people are morons, right? I mean, how many times have we heard that? We go into a company and we say, “Wait, you do it this way. And they do it that way.” And the canonical answer is, “Well, we’re right and they’re wrong.”

Bill Swallow: Yup.

Sarah O’Keefe: Well, that may be true, although I will tell you, we then go talk to the second group and they say, “Well, we’re right and they’re wrong.” But it’s actually irrelevant because what matters is that you’re producing content that doesn’t align, that makes it the customers’ problem and therefore you’re both wrong.

Bill Swallow: I had bought a chainsaw a while back and-

Sarah O’Keefe: Okay.

Bill Swallow: … I was actually going through and just going through the maintenance procedure of it just a couple of weeks ago because I need to clear some small trees from my property. I was looking up in the print manual, which was stored with the chainsaw, which was half-destroyed, you know what type of oil I needed and such, and it’s an electric chainsaw so I had to figure out exactly what I needed to do to fix all the moving pieces. And I could only get to half the information.

Bill Swallow: So, then I went online and I was finding that the information that was online for my very specific model of chainsaw was very different from the print manual that came with the chain saw itself. So I had to call the support number just to ask them which one should I be following because my print manual’s destroyed and the online information is different from what I can read in the print manual.

Sarah O’Keefe: But it’s a chainsaw.

Bill Swallow: And they didn’t know. They didn’t know.

Sarah O’Keefe: It’s okay. What are the odds that you’ll get hurt if you use-

Bill Swallow: Oh, yeah.

Sarah O’Keefe: Yeah. So-

Bill Swallow: I still have all fingers, toes, and other limbs, so I’m good.

Sarah O’Keefe: But I mean, so this is actually… A, they used the wrong format, right? I mean, if you’re going to use paper, make it something laminated-

Bill Swallow: Yes.

Sarah O’Keefe: … or put it in a little Ziploc baggy or something.

Bill Swallow: Well, that was probably my fault-

Sarah O’Keefe: It’s a chainsaw, it’s going to be outside, or it’s going to be in your garage getting eaten by the mice. Do you have mice? Anyway. So then, that’s problem A. Problem B is they contradict each other, but is that because the one online got updated?

Bill Swallow: We don’t know because the person I called looked it up and they couldn’t tell me which one was right or wrong.

Sarah O’Keefe: Okay, fantastic.

Bill Swallow: Because, and this goes back to the reason why having this global content strategy is important, is because when you have very important information like this, it’s kind of important to centralize it so that all groups are using the same information, always. What I assume happened here is that a particular spec sheet went down from their R&D group or their production group and was used at one point in time to create one deliverable, and a copy of it was somehow modified and used to create some different copy for maybe the online stuff.

Bill Swallow: That is absolutely what you do not want to have happen. Fortunately, a chainsaw only works a certain way, so if there’s something that goes wrong, generally if you’re used to using power tools, you can kind of avoid injury. But you know, having other things, especially automated pieces of machinery-

Sarah O’Keefe: I think I know what I’m doing, so I’ll avoid injury here. Now, I personally would say something along the lines of, “Well, this information contradicts, so you know what, I don’t need to clear that brush that badly.”

Bill Swallow: Yeah, I used that excuse long enough. Unfortunately, it has to be cleared.

Sarah O’Keefe: Okay, so now that we’ve established that enterprise content strategy is a good thing for your various limbs, how do you do this? I mean, you’re sitting inside a group, you know, maybe you’re in a product group, maybe you’re in a marketing group, maybe you’re in a training group, you know that you have these contradictions. You know that you have 18 websites out there that all have different information on a different technology stack produced by different people with different taxonomy in different terms and different everything. What do you do? What’s your first step? I mean other than call us.

Bill Swallow: Yeah, other than call us or-

Sarah O’Keefe: What’s your first step?

Bill Swallow: … other than sit at your desk crying.

Sarah O’Keefe: Crying.

Bill Swallow: Yeah, about it. The first thing is to start talking with people in your company across these different departments. Try to find your peers. So, if you are in charge of the technical communications team, you want to make sure that you have inroads with someone who’s in charge of the marketing team-

Sarah O’Keefe: And tech support.

Bill Swallow: And tech support.

Sarah O’Keefe: And training, and-

Bill Swallow: And training, and all these other people who feed into the content pipeline. You need to make those connections if you don’t have them. You need to kind of understand who’s who, so have that org chart handy and go knock on some office stores or call people up, or what have you.

Bill Swallow: Then, once you do have all of their ears, make sure that you don’t dive into the deep end. You want to kind of wade in slowly and start small. The first part really is to try to define, okay, you know, what is your strategy? Find out who’s doing what and why. What are you doing well? What are you not doing well? What are some processes that you’re following? And how might we be able to start sharing some of this stuff across? Find out where those common areas are. Make note of the things that absolutely have to be treated a certain way for a particular group and go from there.

Sarah O’Keefe: Yeah. If the problem’s big enough, and I would argue that your chainsaw potential massacre there is a big enough problem, you might try the Go Big strategy, which is basically to write it up and say, “Hey, over here it says this, and over here it says this, and this is really bad.” And take it up your management chain and try and get some immediate action. That can be highly effective and/or it could be not so effective and result in you being literally walked out the door for being a general pain in somebody’s tuchus.

Sarah O’Keefe: So, think about that. Think about how much risk you really want to take. But I do think that it’s always a good idea to network within the company, and finding your peers in the other organizations is always a good idea, and making those connections will help you even if this goes nowhere because having those connections, having friends in other parts of the organization that you talk to and work with and network with and understand what they’re doing means that your career at that company will be a lot easier.

Sarah O’Keefe: Something happens, they call you or they email you and say, “Hey, did you hear about such and such? Maybe you should be in this meeting.” You know, those connections, you need to make those connections no matter what. But in this particular case, I think it’s a very good idea.

Bill Swallow: It’s very easy to start butting heads too, when you start making these connections. I mean some people have a very specific strategy for a very specific reason and they’re going to be loath to change the way they’re working. But again, you got to… Hopefully everyone involved can use the overall customer experience or the customer journey as a guideline to say, okay, we’re all in this together. We’re at different points in the journey. How can we make sure that it’s as seamless as possible when they go from group A to group B to group C to group D’s content and contribution to the customer?

Sarah O’Keefe: Yeah, and I think that’s a good summary. So, with that, I think I’ll wrap it up.

Bill Swallow: Sounds good.

Sarah O’Keefe: 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.

About the Author

Bill Swallow

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Bill Swallow, Director of Operations, partners with enterprise content owners to design and build content systems that solve complex information management and localization problems.

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