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October 26, 2020

Taking a phased approach to your content strategy (podcast)

In episode 82 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Elizabeth Patterson and Bill Swallow talk about taking a phased approach to content strategy when you have limited resources and how you can prioritize that approach.

“It’s really easy to allow your scope to expand. Try to keep it finite. Try to keep the phases small.”

—Elizabeth Patterson

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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 this episode, we look at taking a phased approach to content strategy when you have limited resources and how you can prioritize that approach. Hi, I’m Elizabeth Patterson.

Bill Swallow:                   And I’m Bill Swallow.

EP:                   And today we’re going to talk about taking a phased approach to your content strategy. So the first thing that we’re going to hit on is why exactly companies take that phased approach, which is something that we are seeing more and more frequently with the companies that we’re working with. And the number one reason for that is going to be limited funding, and limited resources. So when you are moving forward with a content strategy or an enterprise level content strategy, oftentimes the price tag on that is going to be pretty steep, and when you try to pitch that to upper management, it can be really difficult to get that approved. So breaking your approach to your content strategy up into phases can make those smaller price tags more appealing to upper management, and therefore it’s easier to get it approved.

BS:                   Also, what we’re seeing a lot now are more enterprise level implementations of a content strategy, and it is almost impossible to completely scope out accurately that entire implementation from start to finish. So it’s much easier to break it up into chunks and that way you have a clearer idea of what needs to happen. And usually these implementations take months, if not years. So taking a phased approach kind of keeps you on task.

EP:                   Right, and when you’re sitting down thinking about an enterprise level content strategy, and you’re coming up with a list of all of the things that you need to accomplish, that gets to be a really long list and sometimes things change, and so having those phases helps you to better prepare for those changes so that you don’t have this huge plan mapped out and then all of a sudden it’s completely different by the end of it.

BS:                   Right. Some of these phases could be as small as evaluating a new tool set, or it could be doing a content analysis to see what needs to change in either how you’re writing or how you’re managing the authoring process. It could be larger like implementing a tool set and running a bit of content through it. But by having these phases, you have a very finite start and finish. You know what your starting point is, you know where your end goal is. You can roughly scope out the amount of time that it’s going to take to get the work done. You kind of know how many resources you’re going to need, or you’re able to adjust a timeline based on the number of resources you have. And you know the rough costs that you’re looking at, to say this quarter, we’re going to focus on buying and implementing the software. Great. So your primary cost aside from a little bit of resource time is going to be the cost of the tools that you purchase.

EP:                   Right, and this approach, taking the phased approach, is going to look different for different companies because you have different needs. So what we’re talking about now might not look exactly like it’s going to look for your company. This is just sort of a general outline.

BS:                   Exactly. Some companies focus more on localization improvements, other ones focus on more authoring improvements, or they focus on systems integrations. There’s a wide variety of reasons why people would adopt a content strategy, and the phases that are involved are going to vary from case to case.

EP:                   Something that you might want to consider, if you do have these limited resources, and not just with limited funding, it can be valuable without that as well, but is a proof of concept. So completing a small project that can then show your upper management, show your company, that this is going to be worthwhile.

BS:                   Right. Especially if you’re doing something completely new from what you’ve done in the past. You want to be able to have something to say, here, I’ve proven that this can work.

EP:                   So I want to talk a little bit about prioritizing a phased approach, because I think that this is sometimes a question that we get. Really the first thing that you’re going to need to do is to clarify the problems that you’re trying to solve. That can take the form of an assessment. So you could have a content strategy assessment done by a consultant that’s going to help you to identify your gaps and then make recommendations for those gaps. And you’ve got to be able to pinpoint those things before you can get any further. Trying to decide where you’re going to go, what tools you’re going to use, before you even know what problems you’re trying to solve is a big mistake.

BS:                   Right, and it’s not to say that you can’t do it internally either, but getting some kind of an outside view, even if it’s just to look over what you’ve put together, as far as the assessment work that you’ve done, getting a third-party to go in and say, yes, this makes sense. Or did you think about this? Or what about this over here? It kind of brings a bit of clarity to what it is you’re trying to do before you actually start spending a lot of money on new tools, on training, on migrating your content, or what have you.

EP:                   You also want to try to get everyone on the same page. So starting with this assessment and really identifying those problems and helping other people at your organization to understand what the goal is, can be very helpful because company politics can be pretty nasty, and pretty difficult to work with. So you want to have everyone get as close to an understanding as possible to where you’re going with this project, because if you all have different goals in mind, that can make it very difficult to prioritize as well. Because everybody’s going to have an agenda. You want to have that end goal in mind and have everybody understand that, so that you can work together to accomplish that.

BS:                   It’s not to say that the actual focus or the actual approach isn’t going to change either. So while some people might have some reservations, they may not be able to fully articulate it. But if they at least know what the end goal is, they’re more inclined to kind of go along with the early stages, and usually at that point, once you start getting a couple of phases in, you really start seeing how everything is going to start coming together, or not. And you’re able to make those fine adjustments or you’re able to stop and redirect before things get too far off the rails, and that usually helps people see where things are, see where the end goal is, and then start understanding where they fit in within the full scope of the strategy.

EP:                   That can be really helpful, too, with this phased approach is, okay, you stop and you think, this is something that we need to tackle from a different direction. And because you’re moving through that phased approach, you’re able to do that. There’s nothing worse than making a decision quickly because you have to, and then regretting that decision later, which we see very often.

BS:                   Measure twice, cut once.

EP:                   Absolutely. So I do want to talk a little bit about some of the things that you really need to watch out for when you are taking a phased approach, and that kind of goes into what we were just talking about. You have to be patient sometimes. So you’re moving through this in phases, funding at your organization may be coming through slowly and in chunks, but you want to do it right. By doing it in phases, you’re giving yourself that opportunity to catch things as they happen. But sometimes you’re going to have people on your team that just want to get it done. They just want to go full throttle. With a phased approach, you have to be a little bit more patient with that.

BS:                   Right, and I will put this out there right now. Your first phase, or even probably your first two or three phases really should be more analytical in nature. Being able to get your arms around things. It depends on, obviously, the size and scope of what you’re trying to get done. But if you are approaching a new content strategy and you jump in phase one with let’s pick some tools, you’re doing it wrong. You’re doing it wrong. The goal is not to use new shiny tools, although it’s always fun to get new stuff and play with it and be able to do new and interesting things. But you want to make sure that those new and interesting things kind of fit where you need to go, and not losing track of all the other contingencies on your content that’s still need to be met. So you might be able to hit the highest priority on your end goal, but all of the subsequent needs are left hanging. That’s somewhere that you definitely don’t want to be, especially after you spend a significant sum of money on new software and new tools.

EP:                   I think we’ve said this until we are blue in the face. It’s in so many different blog posts and podcasts, is that tools should definitely not be the first thing that you choose. You’ve got to identify the problems you’re trying to solve first.

BS:                   And it still needs to be said because it’s still a knee jerk reaction that… You can’t help it because it’s a very tangible thing that you can implement and say, look, new, shiny. It’s going to work. But it’s really one of the last things that you want to do. You want to get all your planning done upfront, then focus on the tool sets that best match what you discovered during the planning phases that help you achieve your goals. Then toward the final end of the phases, you then have the implementation work, which is usually extremely substantial, and then your training and maintenance going on forward.

EP:                   Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s really easy to allow your scope to expand. So try to keep it finite, try to keep these phases small so that…. Don’t use those knee-jerk reactions and pick a tool set before you’re ready. Just know that the phased approaches do give you more flexibility when it comes to scope.

BS:                   If you have a pilot project, you also want to keep that scope small. Use a very small content set. Make sure that you have something defined from start to finish. So your pilot should involve a bit of authoring, should involve a bit of review, should involve a bit of publishing, and then seeing what that looks like, so that you have something tangible to poke at. The greater you increase that scope, so if you’re going from, let’s say 10 documents, to a thousand or even a hundred, you’re increasing the level of effort and the complexity of getting that proof of concept done. The point is not to get your stuff through in that proof of concept. It’s just to say, see, this is possible. Now we can expand the scope and we could take a look at it in a bit wider stance.

BS:                   It’s not to say that, also, you want to jump from one phase where you have a very finite, very controlled proof of concept to “let’s do everything now.” You want to break it off into pieces, so if you have multiple product lines, if you have multiple companies under your corporate umbrella, you don’t want to throw them all in at once. You want to take one through and see how it works, see if anything else needs to be adapted. So going back to some of the analysis work that you did and make sure that nothing has changed there and also check your horizon and make sure nothing is changing out there, and then you can proceed with the next phase.

EP:                   And let the phases do their job. Avoid those quick fixes, even if you feel like it’s something that you have to do. We did a podcast a couple months back on quick fixes, which I will link in the show notes, but that can end up costing you a lot more money in the long run, and if you already have limited funding, this can be disastrous.

BS:                   Exactly.

EP:                   Also, the phase that makes the most sense to start might not be the phase that’s going to seal the deal with your stakeholders. You need to set those crystal clear expectations upfront, and, again, have everyone on your team sit down and understand the project. Talk about it, get people on the same page, because without having those expectations in place, you’re going to have problems along the way.

BS:                   Not everyone is going to be able to play in every single sandbox along the way. You’re going to have to bring a few people in at a time, when it’s relevant for them to be involved, and make sure that that phase addresses the concerns that they have around the goals that you’re trying to meet in that phase as best possible. Then bring another crew in later for a subsequent phase. If you try bringing everyone in at once, and you try to tackle everyone’s needs at the exact same time, the scope is just going to expand exponentially because now you’re starting to really bring in all of the dependencies and discrepancies with how people work, and rather than trying to focus on making sure that they’re all being addressed, you’re spending the time mitigating a lot of conflict between the groups saying, well, mine should take priority because X, Y, and Z. You have two, three, four people saying that and suddenly nothing gets done because everyone’s bickering.

EP:                   So I know we were just kind of talking about some things that can be really intimidating, but overall taking a phased approach to your content strategy has a lot of benefits to it, and a major benefit is that you are biting off small chunks. So you’re going to address problems as they come up, rather than having really big surprises later on when you’ve already made it so far in the project, and then you have these unexpected expenses. Now, sometimes those things can still happen, but you’re really reducing the risk for that, which is important, especially if you have limited funding.

BS:                   You’re basically taking a lessons learned approach as you go. So you can scope things out. You can hit your target, even if you’re a hundred percent successful, you’re probably going to have some takeaways that are going to adjust how you move going forward. So taking that phased approach really does allow you to really stop and pivot along the way until you get to exactly where you need to be.

EP:                   So I think that that is a good place to wrap up. Thank you so much, Bill.

BS:                   And 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.