This interview with Hilary Marsh, conducted by Kris Mausser, was initially published in August 2013 on the Discontented Company site, now discontinued. Find out more about Kris’s new firm, Kinaole.
Content strategy is an integral part of business strategy for companies today. From customer satisfaction to maximizing capacity, businesses are slowly realizing content strategy’s critical role in impacting the bottom line. I recently caught up with veteran content strategist Hilary Marsh (@hilarymarsh) to talk about the necessary business-side of content and how to sell it to the C-Suite.
Kris Mausser: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Hilary. I really enjoyed your presentation on Selling Content Strategy to Management. Do you think it’s getting easier to get buy-in for content strategy approaches, or do you feel there’s still a lot of resistance at the enterprise level?
Hilary Marsh: I think more organizations are starting to see the value of content strategy – certainly more than understood it back in 1999, when I first started doing this work!
KM: So true! But why do you think that is?
HM: For most organizations, the Internet has become the primary channel for conducting business – interact with consumers, sell products and services, and provide customer service. Even those that don’t transact online do everything else digitally. The Internet is cost-effective and always available for customers. As one of my clients said just the other day, “Digital isn’t just another channel anymore – everything we do, we do online.”
The quality of the content – audience-focused language, benefits-centered focus, up-to-date information – is arguably the most important element for helping people find, value, and use an organization’s digital efforts.
Also, it’s very expensive to create content, so the smartest thing to do is to make sure that the content your organization creates is found, valued, and used as much as possible.
KM: Then with content being such a back-bone in how we conduct business today, what is the best way to promote the value of content strategy to business leaders in your experience?
HM: Executives think a lot about ROI, so I’d start by showing the investment of time and people that the company is making in creating content. The next step is to show what’s not working now as a result of NOT having a content strategy. Some examples of that:
- Customers are calling you because they can’t find the information they’re looking for on your website.
- You can’t add comments to content because you wouldn’t know how to handle them.
- Some of your best material is presented as PDFs, with titles like “4002.pdf,” so even if someone does see them in search results, their value isn’t apparent at all.
- Your website is organized based on your org structure rather than on how your audience thinks about you or your content.
These problems have measurable business consequences, including
- Higher customer service costs
- Missed cross-selling opportunities
- Not enough awareness among your customers of the breadth and depth of what you offer – and that they need!
KM: You have a way of defining content strategy that I really love because it delivers a plain-language perspective of what we really do. Maybe you can share it with our readers and explain how it has helped you in your own elevator pitch to clients.
HM: First, let’s take a step back and define what content is. Content is an organization’s products, services, programs, events, research, and other offerings. Content is customer service call scripts, orientation programs, sales materials, ads, social media campaigns, product literature – the list goes on. So content strategy is really a strategy for coordinating each of these things so they paint a common picture of the organization and are findable, usable, and useful for the audience. The more effectively you do that, the more likely you are to meet your business goals.
There are three parts to my definition of content strategy:
- The who, what, when, where, why, and how of all the content a site or experience will offer –thinking through all the specifics about content creation, publishing, management, and promotion
- A strategic statement tying communication (and content) to business – stating how the organization will use content to meet its business goals and serve the needs of its key audiences
- The people, processes, and power to execute that statement
When I talk to prospective clients, I make sure they understand that adopting a content strategy means taking a new approach to their digital efforts, and that it is something that will serve them well over the long term.
KM: And to that argument, then, would you say that content strategy is a great approach to breaking down silos? Or is it more a matter of working more effectively within them?
HM: Content strategy alone can’t break down silos – that’s something that needs to happen at the very top of the organization. Silos are usually bad for customers, though – if divisions operate completely independently, they may produce redundant or conflicting information. Customers don’t know how your organization is structured, and they shouldn’t have to know that in order to find what they’re looking for.
By adopting content strategy, an organization is deciding that its silos need to be connected, that the organization’s work needs to come together, be found together, and speak a common language. That’s in the customer’s best interests, which is extremely good for business.
This doesn’t mean downplaying the subject-matter expertise that exists in those silos. Quite the contrary – it means channeling that expertise in a more effective way. I will say that it’s crucial to get each silo to work in consistent ways and to be focused on both specific audience segment sand the overall audience as well.
So I guess my real answer to your question is “Both.”
KM: So, in your experience then, what approach have you found to be the most successful when working with disparate content teams across the organizational hierarchy? Is there something you’ve done to bring these groups of people together towards a common content strategy goal?
HM: Often in large organizations, people in different divisions don’t even know each other. I’ve found that the best place to start is to bring them together. When I managed the member website for the National Association of Realtors, we had quarterly meetings of everyone who contributed to the website – which was more than 50 people. Since that organization had offices both in Chicago and DC, we would hold the meetings via videoconference so people could see one another. And we started our meetings with people sharing key updates, so everyone could identify opportunities for collaboration.
In projects, I often start by bringing people together – it’s much easier to communicate and collaborate with people you know. I also establish online tools such as an organization-wide editorial calendar – housed on Sharepoint or Google Drive – where everyone records their major initiatives.
It goes way beyond quarterly meetings, of course. The organization needs content strategists to work with each division or business unit to stay up-to-date with what they’re doing and identify even more opportunities for cross-pollinating content, as well as ensure that the content is created well. Ideally, these content strategists will work on a central web team so they are working in a common way.
One effort we did at the National Association of Realtors that was particularly effective was to create something called “empathy personas.” We set up a working group made of staff members from every division in the association, who had lots of experience interacting with our members. As a group, we identified the four most important audiences to serve online, and then for each one we fleshed out their demographics, their business needs, daily lives, challenges, and opportunities – and we gave them names and faces. We followed that up by writing down what they wanted most from our organization, and brainstorming how we might give that to them. At the end of that effort, we had four “people” who represented our audiences. To validate our ideas about them, we held focus groups with real members who matched the demographics of each of our personas, and we discovered that we were right on the mark! This went a long way toward building joint ownership of our audiences, as well as credibility for our approaches.
KM: That’s interesting! I use personas in a similar way with my clients as a means of facilitating change. Which is actually a nice segue into my next question…
I think a lot of organizations are going through culture change right now, and in some cases they’re even changing their business models to support the channel demands of an every-increasing amount of digital content. How much of content strategy should be about facilitating change management?
HM: Creating and using content strategically across the entire organization is easy for some organizations, and really difficult for others. In highly siloed organizations, content strategy certainly will require lots of change. That change has to be both formal and informal.
Formal change means that collaboration needs to be built into people’s jobs, and they need to be measured on their collaboration efforts. It also may mean creating cross-department work groups like those I mentioned, both for short-term projects as well as longer-term initiatives.
Informal change is motivating people to work in new ways by giving them more casual motivations and recognitions, like sharing success stories in your web meetings, reporting on successful efforts to management, and even giving fun, inexpensive prizes to people who work in new ways and get successful results for it.
KM: And you work with both associations and corporations, right?
KM: I recently wrote an article on how associations are leading in the way in terms of content strategy adoption here in Canada. In your experience, are the content challenges of associations and business the same, or are there distinct differences that would make content strategy more relevant to one over the other?
HM: Associations have layers of complexity that corporations don’t have. In associations, committees, task forces, or work groups often determine what the association offers and may create the content for that – so they need to be involved in major decisions about changes to how content is created, managed or promoted. Also, since associations have volunteer member leadership that changes as often as every year, it’s especially challenging for them to retire content. Retiring or archiving content or programs that are no longer active is an important component of content strategy, since outdated content can get in the way of more relevant information when someone searches for it online.
KM: Because of this, do you think a content strategist’s role should be staffed as an internal or external position?
HM: Ideally, the organization will hire an outside content strategy consultant to gain that executive buy-in, establish the strategy, create the guidelines, and develop a roadmap for implementing and socializing it. An external consultant can help the organization see its content with new eyes, can bring in established best practices, and will have more time to devote to understanding the content and identifying opportunities for improvement that a staff person could, since that staff person already has a full-time job.
Then they’ll hire permanent content strategy staff to keep it going. This could be content strategists, managers, editors, taxonomists, SEO specialists, etc. – the numbers and specific roles will depend on the organization’s needs and budget.
KM: What if a company hasn’t yet hired a content strategist in any capacity? In your experience what’s the one thing they should be doing now to improve their content if they haven’t already?
HM: That’s a great question, Kris! It’s a little hard to answer universally, because each company should start with the thing that’s causing them the most pain or missing their business marks the most.
But in many cases, the place to start is to make sure that every piece of content they publish from now on:
- has a clear business goal and meets a known audience need
- has a clear call-to-action for meeting that goal
- doesn’t conflict with something else that the organization has published
- is accurate, free of typos and grammatical errors, and in the right brand voice
- will be measured on how it meets its goal
- is unique, relevant, topical, and timely
- will be reviewed at a predetermined time and either renewed, refreshed, or archived/expired
This list actually goes on and on, but that’s probably enough to start with.
KM: Hilary, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today on one of the weightier topics in content strategy. I think you really illustrate how critical content strategy is to business strategy and how we can all benefit from thinking about managing that relationship more effectively.