Like many practitioners, I never really planned on getting involved with content strategy.
It just kind of happened.
Now I’m doing content strategy for a half-dozen technology companies at a time, with an agency that works full-time on it. In hindsight, I had to go this route.
From the mid-90s to the mid-00s I was doing marketing communications in Norway, largely with the kind of big maritime and energy companies that could afford professional content (press releases, magazines, newsletters – the kind of thing we did in the 90s).
Jobs typically started with an interview; usually some manager or expert, and – after a year or so of just scribbling away what they told me – I began to steer the talks more and more based on what I found interesting or valuable. I had to.
The stories businessmen brought to the table were usually dead on arrival– rehashed sales pitches that appealed to a small coterie of colleagues and no one else. It’s what they were conditioned to say. If you pushed back even a little on this, you would often find them agreeing with you. The “story” was no good.
Fortunately, underneath the weak narrative lay a heap of tacit knowledge that was like gold to the market. My job became to simply tease out this valuable information and package it for consumption.
A trader in the information economy
This was my initial revelation:
The business world rests on mounds of information that it’s
been unable to find any reasonable use for.
Sometimes blindingly obvious information silos exist simply because no one’s had any reason to gather the information and publish it somewhere. Before the Internet, there was a very limited upside to this kind of work.
For example, talking to one customer I discovered that – though a major piece of equipment would soon be required across the industry – no one had simply gathered all of the 30-odd models into a comprehensive list, and published it.
This wasn’t the classic nut of “news is something someone wants to suppress”; it was advertising, but damn useful advertising. We could publish the list on their site, draw a little attention to it and they’d get tons of free publicity. So we did. And they did.
Thereafter, your job changes. You’re not a hack, putting lipstick on a pig; you’re a scout, hunting out hidden information talent. Planning with content in mind.
This means you need to cultivate a few new talents:
Identify quality information
This is a skill I found often to be suppressed during my first experiences in the workplace. We’re taught how to value information by stakeholders who have spent much of their career in a narrow, confined space. The web’s changed perspectives of information’s value.
We recognize value by learning to notice when something we’re hearing has made us lean forward. Many companies’ working documents (the kinds sitting in an intranet, or exchanged silently within a department) are begging to be repackaged for broader consumption.
The information shared casually (as background or an aside) to set up the story, is often the real story.
Develop your ability to qualify ideas
As you listen to information, you need to explore and differentiate between the banal, the obvious but valuable, the questionable (source critique) and the downright incorrect, by posing clear qualification questions, such as:
- If I was a colleague or competitor, would I find that statement believable?
- Are you saying that just because it’s in your interest to say that?
- Is that information available anywhere online right now?
- Can you back up that statement with any references?
Not just about grilling your clients and stakeholders. These questions also a provide a great opportunity to explain the underlying principles of quality content.
Get cozy with metrics, Moneyball-style
You don’t want to be the scout who relies on instinct wrongly. You want to combine your instinct with measurement to indicate whether you’re wrong about the value of information, or right.
I’ve learned to love Google Analytics; it’s the content strategist’s best friend. Bounce rate, exit rate, page depth, engagement with on-page calls-to-action and conversion metrics are all crucial indicators of value.
Investigate how the things you publish perform online. Challenge it. Justify it. But, in the end, you should allow it to steer your efforts, like you trim a sail to the wind. As hard as it can be try to encourage feedback to influence a long term plan for content. Looking beyond the instant gratification of the metrics of a single piece of content.
Focus on the value of content
The effort to do these things well took me from the steel industries of Norway to the tech industries of the UK, but the game’s little different.
Succeeding at bringing attention to what deserves attention is the gold standard. You bring attention by clarifying information, presenting it in a way that’s easy to digest and promoting it effectively.
Then, communicating what you’re doing, and getting everyone around the content to understand what you’re doing, will lead to a cultural shift. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.
We’re still learning how best to identify and optimise information online, given the unique dynamics of the Internet and social sharing. As a marketer, I’m probably guilty of letting short-term goals cloud the long-term vision.
But, with any luck, we’re getting more, and better information out into the world, pushing it where it’ll best do good and making business better for it.
That’s why I do this thing. And you?
This is a guest post by Ryan Skinner. Ryan is Account Director at a content marketing strategy agency. You can contact him on Twitter.