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October 21, 2019

Content strategy pitfalls: best practices (podcast, part 2)

In episode 62 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Gretyl Kinsey and Bill Swallow continue their discussion from episode 61 and talk about best practices for planning.

“You need to be mindful about how what you’re doing is going to impact other groups. You can’t just assume they’re going to play ball when you start rolling out a new strategy. Make sure they’re not only on board in theory, but that they are pretty much committed to the success of the project because they should have a stake in it in some form as well.”

— Bill Swallow


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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 62 we continue our discussion from Episode 61 around planning.

GK:     Hello and welcome, I’m Gretyl Kinsey here with Bill Swallow again and we are picking back up where we left off in the previous episode with content strategy planning. So now that we’ve talked about all of the pitfalls that you can encounter when it comes to not planning, how do you do it correctly, what really should go into the planning when it comes to putting together a content strategy and then also figuring out how you’re going to execute that.

Bill Swallow:     I think the first and foremost one is being able to tie everything back to your business goals and that one means that you need to chase down what the goals really are. I know that a lot of companies have charters, mission statements, vision statements and so forth, but you really need to dig into, okay, so given these statements that are out there, what are the goals from the business side as far as how we’re going to make that mission a reality, make that vision come true. Being able to grab those and keep those in sight and make sure that everything that you’re doing ultimately aligns to meeting that business goal that you’re trying to achieve.

GK:     Absolutely. I think everything has to hinge on those business goals or else, like we talked about earlier, things can easily get sidetracked and things can end up not following the strategy that you’ve set forward to achieve. I think it’s really important when you’re coming up with your strategy and planning out the implementation side of it to think about how your strategy is going to get you both short term and longterm wins and address business goals that are more immediate versus ones that are more out there in the future, but something that’s still really important. So an example of that might be maybe you have some really pressing delivery need that’s a short term goal. So that might look like coming up with a certain output transformation scenario or what have you to meet that immediate need.

GK:     But then maybe you’ve got a longterm plan to deliver content into other markets to a larger customer base and so that might involve something like localization. So it’s important to think about what are the short term business goals that we have maybe within the next six months to a year, versus ones that are for like five years down the road. There can even be some sort of mid goals like two to three years down the road, but it’s important to think about not just what’s going to happen immediately when you put this plan in place, but what’s going to happen down the road too, so that your strategy can encompass all of that.

BS:     Right. And it helps to have this stuff, to make it all public knowledge, to make sure it, I’m not saying mass public, but within your company make sure that it’s common knowledge that these are some of the wins you’re looking for in the short term and long term. Address them and treat them as milestones within your project plan. So this way you know that within six weeks, let’s say you’re supposed to have a new localization management system chosen and have a test environment set up so that you could start playing with it and seeing how your content needs to feed into it or how it needs to be modified to handle some of the content decisions that you’ve made.

GK:     Absolutely. One other piece that I want to bring up and talk about a little bit is budgeting and figuring out what your return on investment is when you’re coming up with your strategy. This is something that I think a lot of times whenever I’ve initially talked to companies, that’s something that we’ve had to come in as outsiders and bring that perspective. Because I think a lot of times whoever’s driving the change, unless they are an executive, that’s not their number one goal. Their number one goal is usually something like how do we make our working lives easier by changing this process or fixing this one thing, but I think that looking at the larger picture of the budget is really important. So I wanted to get your take on that as well.

BS:     Oh yeah. You have three different areas of budgeting to really wrap your head around. One is of course is the money to make sure that you have the money that you’re going to need to get this thing done. And a lot of people make a mistake where they look only at the raw costs of tools and technologies and they don’t consider all the soft costs. So it could be oh, here’s X amount of dollars for a new system. Here’s a Y amount of dollars for a new offering tools and Z for these new publishing tools that we need to use to get the published content out to our customers or to our readers. That’s great. But then you have all of the costs associated with any external vendors that you need to solicit for support.

BS:     You may have other costs that come in the form of any kind of licensing that you weren’t aware of at the time, or any other just hard costs. Maybe everything looked good on paper, but IT came back and said, well we need to buy a new server for this and since it’s for your initiative, you need to cover the cost of this new purchase. These are all like little hidden costs that can pop up. In addition to that, you also have to budget for your time. That’s not only the project timeline, but it’s the time of every single person devoting effort to the project. That third piece of budgeting of course is the effort or the actual resource allocation to be able to say, we need essentially to use up 80 person weeks to get this piece done or to get this implementation done. Now how are we going to find 80 person weeks when we’re all busy?

GK:     Yes.

BS:     There’s budgeting like that. So you’d have your time, you have your availability of resources, and then of course you have your money.

GK:     Yes. And I think that that’s something that like you said the time and the resources pieces of that budget often get overlooked or they don’t get really accounted for. It can be difficult if you haven’t been tracking the way you’ve been using your time and resources. It can be difficult to even estimate how much might be involved in that project. But it’s really important to consider that and put that into your plan as much as possible and as accurately as possible so that you don’t run into nasty surprises when it comes to actually putting that new strategy in place.

BS:     Mm-hmm. No one likes those nasty surprises.

GK:     Oh, not at all. That kind of leads me into the next point, which is that your content strategy alone isn’t the full scope of a plan because you also, once you’ve got that strategy in place, you also need a plan for as you implement each part of it, how that process is going to go. The logistics of that strategy and making sure that everything goes as smoothly as it possibly can. So what kinds of things do you need to think about there?

BS:     Oh, there’s plenty. That’s really the move from moving from a strategic point of view to a tactical point of view. Because strategy is all well and good, but it’s not going to get anything done. It might be able to identify and even reserve the funds that you need, the people that you need and what have you. But now that you have all that, that’s where your strategy pretty much ends. I mean it serves as a roadmap during all of this other tactical work that needs to get done. But your strategy is there to get everything rolling, to get approval and to say, yes, we’re going to do this. This is how we’re going to do it. This is all the things that we need. And now that we have it, now we have to actually do the stuff.

BS:     Those things can be a myriad of activities, large and small. Could be content conversion that you’re looking at. It could be looking into all of the new systems that you need to assess and you have to pick a new CCMS maybe, maybe you have to pick a new asset management system, what have you. You have to be able to look at them and evaluate them and then go through the entire purchasing arrangement for it and then set up a test environment to poke at it. There are lots of moving pieces for each and every one of these little bits of these little tiny fragments of the strategy that need to be implemented in order for you to then move onto the next few pieces.

GK:     Absolutely. I think that having a plan in place for keeping all of those different pieces moving in a way that makes sense and where one piece is not going to be holding something else up or getting in the way of something is really, really important. I think that’s a challenging thing to coordinate, but it’s really essential to try to control that on the front end as much as possible instead of just taking off and approaching these pieces willy nilly without really thinking what makes sense to do first? What’s the best sequence? How does this fit into a schedule? All of that sort of thing. Because otherwise, like we talked about up front, if you don’t plan out how all these different moving pieces and parts are going to come together, then they can easily just stall out.

BS:     Right. Yeah, you need to look at prioritization at that point and say, okay, what are the three big things that need to happen to keep this moving forward? It might be identify and purchase new systems. That would be one of them. Another one could be training or document conversion. Yet a third one could be offering tools, being able to find the right tools that integrate with the systems that you’re looking to implement and being able to look at all of these little pieces and say, okay, which ones are going to get us the biggest bang for the buck and make sure that we have what we need to focus on the next few pieces and it’s going to be different for every single implementation.

BS:     There’s no right or wrong as to which one you do first. The only wrong is that it’s the wrong choice for you. So you need to look at… you need to start looking at that and saying okay, in order for us to move forward, we may have X and Y but we don’t have Z and Z is a deal breaker. So we have to focus on Z first.

GK:     So all this prioritization I think speaks back to what we talked about just a few minutes ago when it comes to that short-term versus long-term business goals. Because that is really a way that you can say, here’s what’s most important and most essential to get those short-term goals that have to happen off the ground and get them up and moving and then think about what’s more long-term. You don’t want to start with something that’s really more essential for a long-term goal while ignoring the things that are more relevant for your short-term goals.

BS:     Exactly. Yeah. That really speaks to the scheduling aspect of being able to put together that timeline and identify not only what the big pieces are that need to happen, but also, okay, so in order for these big pieces to happen, what’s the order in which they need to happen? Then you can start looking at each one and say, start scoping each one individually. This one might take 12 weeks to do. This other one can happen concurrently and it might take only eight weeks to do, another one must be done after these other stages, so we know that’s going to take about another 16 weeks to do this piece. But it can’t get done until this 12 week piece is done. Being able to put together that schedule and that roadmap.

GK:     Absolutely. I think that’s where it really becomes important to have deadlines and a schedule set and to try to stick to that as best as possible. Then if things slip off schedule to, like we said earlier, really have that open communication so that you can let other people who may be affected know, hey this didn’t quite go how we thought it would instead of taking 12 weeks, maybe now it’s going to take 15 or maybe we finish this one piece early so then that can get something else moving. But I think it’s really important if you don’t set deadlines for yourself and have those goals in place, then a lot of times things will just drag on forever. I think that speaks back to what we had talked about previously with the resource allocation aspect as well.

GK:     You really need to not only have those deadlines in place but know who’s going to work on each piece, when they’re going to be available. How that factors in to other projects that they may be working on. It’s a lot of moving pieces and parts for the content strategy itself, but also for all the people who are going to be working on it with their other work. So that’s where that planning really, really becomes essential.

GK:     One other piece I want to just briefly mention, because I think this tends to get ignored a lot, is building in time for quality assurance. So things like taking the time for a content inventory or audit before you build a content model or convert your content if you’re going into structure. Things like setting up test environments, allowing time for user feedback. That’s where I’ve seen a lot of projects get hung up just because when they were doing their resource allocation or their planning, people just oftentimes don’t think about how much time really is involved in quality assurance and making sure that it’s done in a way that doesn’t leave anything out or that’s not rushed. So I think that’s one thing that I really wanted to bring up as an important part to include in your planning.

BS:     Oh, absolutely. You have to make sure that everyone who is responsible for doing that level of testing or quality assurance that they are aware that something is coming and not just wait until whatever the thing is you’re working on is done to throw it at them and say, okay, we did a thing, now go test it. That is definitely the wrong approach. Making sure that your testers are involved or at least knowledgeable of what you’re doing along the way so they know what to expect when it comes time for them to start kicking the tires.

GK:     Absolutely. So are there any other considerations or things that people need to think about when they’re planning out their content strategy and how they’re going to execute it?

BS:     I think the only other thing to really mention is that you need to be mindful about how what you’re doing is going to impact other groups. You can’t just assume that they’re going to play ball when you start rolling out a new strategy. Making sure that they’re not only on board in theory, but that they are pretty much committed to the success of the project because they should have a stake in it in some form as well.

BS:     If it’s a a training group that the tech comm… Let’s say the technical communication group is implementing a strategy, they should be reaching out to their trainers, their tech support people, their salespeople, their marketing people to say, “Hey, we have this thing that we’re doing. It’s going to impact you all in some way and you can benefit from it. So let’s come together and make sure that this is going to be a solution that works for everybody.”

GK:     Absolutely. I think that’s especially important if you’re already dealing with a less than ideal situation between groups. If you, for example, I’ve seen one case where there was a large amount of reuse between a tech pubs department and a training department, but it was all copy paste. So when the tech pubs department decided to pursue a content strategy to just help them publish more efficiently, one of the things that they had to consider as well was that reuse factor with the training group and really get them on board and get them thinking about okay a year or two down the road when everything is in a new system and everything is structured and is much more shareable than it was before, how is that going to affect not just our group in our publishing abilities but our reuse among these different groups in the company?

GK:     Then it ended up where the largest amount of reuse was between tech pubs and training. But then there were also groups like marketing who were just copying and pasting content from the technical manuals without telling anyone. So that’s really, like you said, it’s important to think about how all of these groups work together. If they’re working together in a way that’s efficient and ideal right now versus how things need to be several years down the road.

GK:     I think all of that is an absolutely essential consideration and that really needs to be baked heavily into the planning phase of your content strategy and into all of the information you come up with about here’s how we’re going to execute and implement all of that.

BS:     Couldn’t agree more.

GK:     All right, well with that, I think we are going to wrap things up, so thank you Bill.

BS:     Thank you.

GK:     Thank you all 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.