Electricity, Connection, and Content in the Southland

Southern California is a hard place to create community. So when an organization starts to do it successfully, we should take notice.

Innovate Pasadena Connect Week 2015On Monday, Oct. 19, Innovate Pasadena launches Connect Week 2015, a series of events about design, technology, science, and business. Innovate Pasadena is a nonprofit organization that organizes weekly meetups about these topics, and this is the second year that they have expanded their efforts into a weeklong series. Through these and other events, Innovate Pasadena has been successful at nurturing a community of entrepreneurship and enterprise. And a key to the organization’s success is keeping it local.

In sprawling Los Angeles county, with its legendary traffic and strained public transportation system, geography is our biggest challenge to meeting and exchanging ideas. Sometimes it’s just too hard to journey across town from Pasadena to attend a meetup in Santa Monica. That’s why the Northeast Los Angeles UX Meetup group exists.

Content Strategy Southern California ambitiously aims to reach the content and design community from Santa Barbara to San Diego. But geography is not friendly. We know we have to plan events in Santa Barbara, Irvine, and San Diego, and we are looking at organizing meetups in these locations in the coming year. While many local tech and design hubs exist — Santa Monica, downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena — the content community in the southland is scattered throughout these areas. ESRI, a company that regularly employs content strategists, is located as far east as Redlands. Depending on traffic, getting to Redlands can be a three-hour drive from Venice Beach.

Despite the distances, we continue to try to unite the content and design professionals of southern California. On October 21, we will even hold our own event as part of Innovate Pasadena Connect Week 2015. In Transforming User Experience Design with Content Strategy, three content strategy experts will speak about how careful attention to content helps produce better customer experiences. And these three experts are traveling to Pasadena from mid-city Los Angeles, Glendale, and Eagle Rock.

In a recent piece in the New York Times (“Why Can’t We Stop Talking about New York in the Late 1970s,” Oct. 10, 2015), novelist and memoirist Edmund White writes about the community that cities help create. “Face-to-face encounters are essential to a city’s vitality,” White writes, “even among people who aren’t sure of each other’s names, for the exchange of ideas and to generate a sense of electricity.”

White continues by noting that, in New York in the 1970s, “creative people of all sorts could meet without plans, could give each other tips or discuss burgeoning theories or markets or movements.”

It sounds as if New York in the ’70s might have been similar to the meetup culture we’re trying to create today. We meet to discuss theories, markets, movements, strategies. We meet to get the benefits of connection. White calls it “a sense of electricity” — we can call it community.

What do you think we should call it? Let’s talk about it. When should we meet?

Five Steps for a Performance-Driven Approach to Content

To be honest, there are more than five steps needed for a performance-driven approach to content. A lot more.

Information Development World 2015 LogoAt the beginning of Information Development World in San Jose on Sept. 30, about 20 content professionals spent a day exploring performance-driven content in a workshop conducted by content strategists Paula L. Land and Kevin P. Nichols. During that day, the team touched on the numerous steps involved in developing a content approach that includes setting goals, measuring progress, and optimizing content based on how well it performs.

At the risk of slighting the complexity of the topic, I focus on five highlights. Even if you’re not implementing a complete performance-driven content plan (and almost no one has), these are steps that can probably boost your content efforts.

Start with good content.
Definition of performance-driven contentPerformance-driven content has its roots in data-driven marketing. In both, we measure how content performs to figure out what to do next. As Nichols explained, we focus on “measurements and evaluation of content in order to make decisions on future content priorities.” And of course starting with effective content sets us up for success.

Work with your content team on business requirements.
Business requirements are core inputs that go into developing a performance strategy. To gather these requirements, create or identify a content team – for example, the content strategist, copy writer, and product manager. They can act as a de facto governance team throughout the project. Get additional input from stakeholders, and distill the requirements into a project brief.

The Content Strategy Alliance published a project brief template you can use. This is one of the more than 40 tools included in The Content Strategy Alliance Tools and Templates: A Best Practices Handbook.

Pay attention to the user.
Nichols emphasized that a user journey map is the most important user input when developing a performance strategy. “The user journey defines the end-to-end steps the customer takes when interacting with your brand,” he stated.

Armed with a user journey, we can create a publishing model that focuses on user needs and content types, as opposed to business silos.

Nichols identified eight steps for developing a user journey map.

  1. Select the persona you’re charting the journey for.
  2. Document the user’s tasks.
  3. Chart the steps the user takes to complete a task (this can be done with varying levels of detail, depending on business and user needs.)
  4. Determine which users complete which tasks. This will provide valuable information about user states, and this data can help when developing personalized content.
  5. Identify triggers – the motivation that started the user on her journey.
  6. Map channel (web, mobile, app, packaging content, etc.) to each task.
  7. Define the content needed for each step and identify what is missing.
  8. Test the customer journey with user testing and other validation efforts.

Assess your content.
As Paula Land explained, in a performance-driven content approach, “constantly monitoring and optimizing content is the goal.” To do this, we need to figure out how much content we have (content inventory) and how good it is (content audit). The Content Strategy Alliance Handbook includes a content audit template with a list of factors to consider when evaluating content.

Land stressed that a content audit is not a job for the content strategist alone. The work of auditing should be spread around so that more people in an enterprise can learn the value of content and how improving it is everyone’s business.

Govern your content.
Once an audit is completed, the team can then plan content improvements and figure out how to make them. This is where governance comes in. Making change, especially with content, often requires organizational change.

Benefts of Governing Content
When talking about governance, Paula Land stated, emphasize benefits, not burdens.

If organizations didn’t include any people, that would be easy. “Numbers are easy,” Land said. “People are hard.”

Land outlined some processes and tools that can help an organization prepare for and make changes.

  • Develop a team model to support governance. The more team members, the better. Just make sure to define roles and responsibilities.
  • Train the team.
  • Provide enough documentation so that everyone knows what to do and why.
  • Communicate with the organization regularly.
  • Use governance tools such as editorial calendars, style guides, and dashboards to report tracking data.

Throughout the course of the workshop, Land and Nichols examined numerous other details that go into performance-driven content: hard and soft metrics, omnichannel content delivery, and personalization. They’re all great candidates for future blog posts. But for now, I imagine most content strategists have their hands full with these five issues. How are you putting these steps to work?

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.

What’s in Your Content Strategy Toolkit?

Book Review:
The Content Strategy Toolkit:
Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right

By Meghan Casey

New Riders; Peachpit Press, 235 pages

Content Strategy Toolkit Book CoverIt’s a good season for content strategy tools. A coalition of content strategists including Noreen Compton, Paula Land, and Kevin P. Nichols just published The Content Strategy Alliance Tools and Templates: A Best Practices Handbook. With a practical focus on guidelines and documentation, the handbook presents more than 40 tools for content strategy projects, and I’ll review it in a future post.

Earlier this summer, the content strategy tools season began with Meghan Casey’s Content Strategy Toolkit: Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right. Casey is a lead content strategist at Brain Traffic, Kristina Halvorson’s content strategy consulting firm. It comes as no surprise that Casey approaches content strategy from a consultant’s viewpoint, but content strategists embedded in enterprises will also find plenty of valuable insights and useful tools in this essential content strategy resource.

What might be surprising about this book is how long it takes to get to the nitty-gritty content strategy stuff. I passed the book to a colleague, and, glancing at the table of contents, she said, “She doesn’t even get to content strategy until chapter eight.” That’s when Casey presents information about the inventories and mapping that many people think of as content strategy. Of course those tasks are critical, but Casey is smart enough to know that a number of other steps need to happen before that work can be effective or even happen at all.

That’s why Casey begins her book with two chapters about getting the money and organizational agreement to begin the content strategy project in the first place. Even within a big company, the content project sometimes begins as just a notion about how to make some content improvements. Casey provides guidance into how we can guess at what can be improved, quickly test our hypothesis with an audit and/or user testing, and then document the areas for improvement, which we are advised to call opportunities, not problems.

But solving those problems, er, opportunities, takes resources. How do we talk to the money people to get budget and buy-in? Many content strategists may not have the business-budget background, so Casey spells out a straightforward way of turning a discussion of opportunities into budget. Yes, math; she goes there. But in just a few pages, she shows how even the most number-phobic content person can document business risks and compare them to rewards. These are the kind of numbers and discussions that can get content strategy efforts funded.

Even before the content strategist can dig in to deliver on the promise of rewards, additional organizational communication and negotiation needs to happen. Casey explains that we need to identify stakeholders, especially the ones who can derail a project. We then need to get them all involved and communicate with them throughout the project.

Sounds like project management, doesn’t it? If you’re in a larger organization with a department of skilled project managers, then some of these steps might be their job. If not, Casey explains, then you need to play an active role in running the project and communicating about it.

Other steps Casey describes are sometimes product management or research tasks. This emphasizes how collaborative content strategy needs to be.

Regardless of who does the work, Casey offers guidelines for how it can be done. The tools you can download with the book are a sound start for accomplishing necessary content tasks and moving the project along.

One of the highlights of the book for me was the chapter on content design, which Casey defines in a section entitled “What I Mean by Content Design”:

The names, deliverables, and artifacts for this phase in digital projects vary. I’m sure you’ve heard terms such as information architecture (IA), sitemap, wireframe, template, content type, content model, structured content, page outline, component library, and so on. I like to wrap all these items and more into the umbrella term content design.

This is a term that is gaining prominence in the user experience design community, and some content strategy professionals have even renamed themselves content designers. The terms Casey lists in that paragraph are certainly becoming expected of more content strategists.

Casey breaks content design into four areas:

  • Prioritization: Determining what content is most important for users (and for the business too)
  • Organization: Developing a sitemap and taxonomy so users can find the content they want
  • Presentation: Using a core model and content modeling to detail how content will be presented
  • Specifications: Detailing what content appears on each page or screen
Sample Content Strategy Toolkit Template
A content prioritization template from The Content Strategy Toolkit.

Many of the content strategists I know are deeply involved in these steps. I know I am. It was helpful to hear some of our thoughts reflected and refined in this chapter, and I’m looking forward to putting the tools Casey presents here to work.

Other content folks will probably have other favorite chapters and tools, depending on their interests and the needs of the projects they’re working on. I’m sure that’s why many content strategists will be keeping this book near their desk, for guidance about how to get content done at almost any stage of a content strategy project – from initial budget to product launch and into the governance that happens after.

This book might not be a definitive toolkit. There will always be some projects that have unique problems (opportunities?) that require a unique approach or deliverable. Casey herself admits that the spreadsheets and presentations and Word docs she offers will often have to be tailored to your clients and companies. But Casey does present thoughtful, business-tested methods, tips, and templates that are a great foundation for any content strategist – knowledge we all should have in our toolkit.

Using Strategy to Create Successful Digital Products

Book Review:
UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want

By Jaime Levy

O’Reilly Media, 312 pages

UX-Strategy-How-To-Devise-Products-People-WantIn the preface to UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want, Jaime Levy suggests who should read her book: entrepreneurs, product managers, and designers. But other members of creative product teams, such as marketers, content strategists, and copywriters, will get valuable insights from this book. When an urgent “copy-to-the-rescue” project comes across a writer’s desk (or “visual-design-to-the-rescue” for designers), such a project is often a frantic attempt to fix major flaws in the product and the UX strategy work that may or may not have been done. This book helps outline what that strategy work should be.

Levy has been practicing UX strategy since 2007, about a year before the term first appeared in print. Today she runs her own agency in Los Angeles and teaches at University of Southern California, and she has funneled much of her teaching skills into this book. She presents a step-by-step approach to coming up with, testing, and designing a successful digital product – that is, a product that consumers want. And, as she describes with examples such as Airbnb, Waze, and Uber, if consumers want the product, then some worthwhile disruption is probably occurring and some money is being made.

Well before that happy day occurs, however, UX strategy needs to happen.

Interestingly, the term UX strategy arose at about the same time as content strategy. Discussion continues about whether the terms are precise or appropriate for either practice. Levy herself engages the debate by asking UX strategists such as Holly North and Peter Merholz, “What does UX strategy mean to you? Is it a bogus job title?”

It’s evident that UX strategy is not bogus for Levy. “UX strategy is the process that should be started first,” Levy writes, “before the design or development of a digital product begins. It’s the vision of a solution that needs to be validated with real potential customers to prove that it’s desired in the marketplace. Although UX design encompasses numerous details such as visual design, content messaging, and how easy it is for a user to accomplish a task, UX strategy is the ‘Big Picture.’”

To arrive at that Big-Picture vision, Levy explains, entrepreneurial product teams can focus on four tenets of UX strategy.

  • Business Strategy – what the company is; “why the company exists”
  • Value Innovation – when the company aligns something new at the right price point and with the right utility
  • Validated User Research – making sure that the customers you’re targeting see the value and can use your product
  • Killer UX Design – innovative design that reaches beyond established patterns

The list above admittedly oversimplifies these terms. To get a more complete understanding of how these tenets inform each other and the shape of digital products, read Levy’s book. Her description of these tenets is one of the book’s highlights. Her insights and examples throughout these pages are engaging, sometimes surprising, and stimulating for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Levy’s own intelligence and spirit come through when she’s explaining her UX strategy framework, and part of that spirit is her sense of humor. To help clarify what UX strategy should be, she publishes her own top 10 list of things that are not UX strategies. My two favorite things that are not UX strategies:

  1. A creative permutation of trending buzzwords that were just used by another startup that raised financing (for instance, peer to-peer sharing economies).
  1. A laundry list of features!

Levy also puts her humor to incisive use when encouraging teams to replace the customer journey map with an ecommerce funnel matrix. The funnel matrix she proposes is faster to create and tracks more closely to the product’s performance once it’s been released. Journey maps have a tendency of being ignored after they’re created, or worse: “The posters are then hung or stored somewhere in the office to hopefully influence employees on their way to the bathroom.”

Levy’s humor is based on insight and behavior that she and many others in the design community have witnessed. Who hasn’t been in a situation where certain design tools and approaches are overused, despite their ineffectiveness? Brainstorming sessions, anyone? North Star? Oh yes, Levy mentions that in her top 10 list.

Levy has a considerable store of UX strategy experience, and she freely shares many of her own work examples. Even when the outcomes are not exactly positive, such as her confirming for a Hollywood executive that his ecommerce idea will not work, we get to see the process of considering new ideas, testing them, and possibly turning them into worthwhile products. Levy has refined her process into a UX Strategy Toolkit, which she makes available with the book. Entrepreneurial teams can use Levy’s templates to research, test, build, and refine their own products.

Perhaps giving out the UX Strategy Toolkit is not, after all, a great favor. To really use this resource and take full advantage of the framework, a product team will have to undertake an exceptional amount of work, collaborate intensely, and be prepared to iterate and pivot quickly.

UX strategy is difficult, unpredictable work. Levy’s framework tries to provide the path to happy innovation and disruption, but there are still hundreds of steps to take along the way. “As a UX strategist,” Levy writes, “I am paid to help my clients face dilemmas and chase dreams.” With this book, Levy shares her experience and her process for how the chase can end in success.

UX Strategy Launch Party
On July 17 at 6 p.m. at Cross Campus in Santa Monica, Jaime Levy will be on hand for a launch party for UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want. Levy will be answering questions and signing copies of her book. More information is available on Eventbrite.

The Avengers of Content

Featured image
Heroic content: Disney is one of a number of southland entertainment companies that base their success on quality content.

This morning, when Disney Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger announced another quarter of growth for his company, he gave a whole lot of credit to some things we care about  – Star Wars, Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron (didn’t you love the robots’ debate about chaos, order, and the fate of humanity?), and content.

“Our results once again reflect the strength of our brands,” Iger said, “and the quality of our content.”

Since the film industry started, Los Angeles has been a content town. Content is big. And big business. In trailers and studios and soundstages, people ask certain kinds of content strategy questions all the time. Should our megastudio produce this sequel? Should we bring back this sitcom for another season? How do we promote it on the web?

That last question is often where we come in, with our focus on web and mobile content experiences.

Our questions are generally different from our film and media partners, but our focus on content is no less intense. When we talk about content strategy with the southland’s media companies, we may need to remind ourselves that “content strategy” for them might have a more entertainment-industry focus. We might have to reposition some discussions to veer toward technology and database structure and user experience.

It’s not a new direction for these media companies. Tech companies from up north (Yahoo!, Google, Netflix, etc.) have been playing with L.A. media companies for years. And, in addition to expensive outbound advertising, studios devote considerable resources to websites, social media, content marketing. Disney itself completed its acquisition of Maker Studios about a year ago. And the studios are keeping an eye on other southland content creators, such as Snapchat, Whisper, Scopely, and more  – as competitors and potential partners.

Entertainment content will continue to expand to more screens and devices, so the need for strategists to manage that content and the communications about it will increase. Hollywood: It’s a great place to promote the practice of content strategy.