Content First and Always: More Highlights from the Content Strategy Innovation Summit

When Content Strategy Innovation Summit attendees returned to downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 11 for the meeting’s second day, they were treated to a spirited defense of designing with content first. The content strategy and marketing sessions throughout the rest of the day focused on progress in academia, healthcare, and content marketing.

Stephanie Hay speaks about content-first design.
Heck yeah! Stephanie Hay advocates for the content-first approach to design.

Content-First Design
By Stephanie Hay
Director, Content at Capital One

Hay has been making inroads at financial services company Capital One and in the content strategy community as a whole by making the case for designing digital experiences with content first. Hay calls this approach “content iterative design,” and she explains that it’s the lowest risk way to create new digital products and features. Many of the iterations can be done collaboratively and inexpensively in tools such as Google docs or Microsoft Word.

Hay draws inspiration for content-first approaches from the world of gaming, where experiences such as registration and onboarding are often done in a conversational, fun way. With a few reasonable adjustments, why shouldn’t the same approach work for financial services?

Like game designers, content creators need to “nail the story first” – understand “what the hero really needs to win,” or, in user-experience speak, what the customer needs to accomplish. Getting the hero/customer there depends on clear, conversational copy first, before sophisticated visual designs or interactions.

“Design [write] for discovery” is Hay’s next piece of advice. As we lead customers to the next step of success, allow them to discover what they need to do as part of the process. Don’t overwhelm them with instructions. The design and content should guide them along almost effortlessly.

Hay and her team of content strategists use this content-first approach with product owners and technology partners, and the effort helps them create minimum viable products quickly. Hay cites other benefits: faster approvals, rapid testing, smooth product launches, and a higher level of engagement in content and design across the organization. In other words, Hay has almost everyone doing content-first design.

Many Speakers, One Voice: Using Strategic Governance to Unify Digital Content in a Multi-Contributor Enterprise
By Stacia Jesner
Director of Digital Content Strategy, Johns Hopkins Medicine
and Aaron Watkins
Senior Director of Internet Strategy and Digital Content Marketing, Johns Hopkins Medicine

Hundreds of content creators contribute to the hundreds of web sites of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Jesner and Watkins shared their story of gently bringing these diverse contributors into alignment on a unified digital platform.

Like Keith McCluskey of Harvard Law School, Jesner and Watkins face the problems of content governance in academia, where everyone is an expert and the publish/perish mindset has a heavy influence on content creation. As Jesner and Watkins explained, they were able to tap into their organization’s unique culture of kindness and care to open the door for successful content governance.

Jesner and Watkins outlined the four steps of their multi-year approach:

  1. Adapt to the culture:
    Early on, Jesner and Watkins realized that talking about core governance tools such as standards and guidelines would be met with resistance. They reframed the conversation as educators.
  2. Embrace the role of educator:
    They spoke to educator-leaders as peers, tapping into the learning culture to start conversations about consistency and innovation.
  3. Be the voice of the customer:
    After establishing trust in their audience, Jesner and Watkins began talking about customer goals and brought data from interviews, focus groups, and Foresee surveys to the table.
  4. Turn leaders into followers:
    Jesner and Watkins established a pattern of success and shared postive metrics such as improved search rankings and better patient/customer experiences. Now they count some of those experts as their advocates.

Content Strategy in the Center of Marketing and UX

Contently slide about content strategy
In content marketing, a content strategy is at the intersection of what a brand wants, what customers are interested in, and market opportunities.

Throughout the summit, a number of speakers focused on content strategy in content marketing, the art and science of getting branded content onto consumers’ screens. Representatives from companies such as Twitter, Tenet Partners, the Economist, and Contently spoke about the unique content and data challenges in this field.

Because my focus is UX content strategy, many of these sessions are not immediately applicable to my work. But this Contently slide rang a bell. It places content strategy at the center of business goals, audience interests, and market opportunities. For UX content strategy, we can draw a similar Venn diagram that places content strategy at the center of business goals, user needs, and product development.

I’ve also seen a Venn diagram that places content strategy in the center of visual design, interaction design, and technology. In all versions, content strategy remains in the center. In both marketing and UX content, the content strategist looks in all directions, bridges teams and gaps, and makes sure the entire effort keeps moving forward.

Beautiful Content

The Last Waltz Screenshot
The Last Waltz as Presented in Netflix

I learned something in a recent experience with Netflix. In content, we don’t want just brevity, clarity, efficiency, or effectiveness. What we really want is beauty.

We seldom really know what customers want. I was reminded of this when rereading Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile. She chides the digital community for creating substandard mobile experiences because we think we know enough about the customer’s context. The customer is on a mobile phone, we reason; she can’t possibly need to research her family’s vacation or buy a car or get information about a critical medical condition. So we don’t do the design and content work of creating those experiences.

Sadly, we reason wrong. We choose not to deliver content the customer needs.

Delivering content on mobile [is] … a necessity. It isn’t a luxury. It’s a requirement. Do people want to look it up? They’ll want to look it up on mobile. Do people need to search for it? They’ll want to search for it on mobile. Do people want to read it, deeply and fully? They’ll expect to read it on mobile. Do they need to fill it out, document it, and enter it into the system? They’ll need to do it on mobile. Think of any piece of information people may want to access on the internet. They will need to access it on a device that isn’t a desktop website.

Karen McGrane, Content Strategy for Mobile

It’s easier for us, the digital designers and content managers, to assume that customers don’t need certain content because they’re viewing a smaller screen. It makes our jobs easier – responsive or adaptive content is hard work. But this is important work we need to be taking on now to lay the foundation for the satisfying, even delightful experiences we want to deliver in the future.

Before we get there, we need more analytics, research, and insight. We need to know a lot more about our customers before we commit them to any experience.

In a recent Contently post about digital media, Dillon Baker writes that “with mobile’s rapid rise to dominance, it turns out people are spending a ton more time with every screen – or at least every screen besides TV” (“The Digital Media Boom, in One Chart,” The Content Strategist, Aug. 20, 2015).

My recent Netflix experience confirms this statement. At the end of a day, I found myself lying in bed with a cat on one side of me, the kids finally asleep upstairs, and my iPad on my lap. After a day of tending to and worrying over screens, I was ready to be entertained by another one.

I selected Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz from My List and tapped the play icon.

In interviews and performances, the film chronicles the last concert of the Band, the influential rock group from the 60s and 70s. I’m not old enough to have been a fan of their music then, but I can’t deny its popularity and power now.

Yes, I could have transferred the film to the larger screen TV in that room, but I didn’t dare. I couldn’t risk disturbing the peaceful cat next to me or the sleeping children upstairs.

Despite the small screen, I can’t imagine being more moved by this film. It’s probably a heretical thing to say to film purists (and even to Scorcese himself), but nothing could match my experience of first watching the Band sing “The Weight” with the Staples Singers. At the end of the performance, Mavis Staples just can’t help herself; she has to say what it was, and is: “Beautiful.”

Of course our digital products are a long way from knowing the context that went into my experience. The long day, the cat, the kids, the comfy pillow – my context. Having my devices know all that about me would probably be creepy. But it’s that kind of customer insight and empathy that will help us build the right experiences for any device.

I’m writing this in Seattle, where I’m going to deliver a presentation about content strategy for mobile. As I’ll explain in my slides, we are making progress, slowly, toward creating digital products that reflect an informed understanding of our customers. When we get there, we’ll be delighting users in pleasantly surprising ways. We’ll deliver just enough of the right words and media, and that content will be current, accurate, meaningful, useful – in a word, beautiful.

Content Strategy Southern California presents Debbie Fellman’s “Content Strategy for Mobile: A Case Study” on August 27 at Epic Spaces Coworking in Pasadena. For more information, visit Content Strategy Southern California on

Want to experience “The Weight” for yourself? Here’s the link on YouTube. Play it loud.