GatherContent interview: Hilary Marsh

GatherContent interview: Hilary Marsh

6 minute read

GatherContent interview: Hilary Marsh

6 minute read

Hilary Marsh

President and Chief Strategist, Content Company

GatherContent interview: Hilary Marsh

Robert Mills

Head of Content, GatherContent
Hilary Marsh is a content strategy consultant for associations, nonprofits, corps, and intranets. Hilary has been forging the way in the content industry since 1996 and has established herself as a thought-leader, expert and community ambassador. We asked Hilary about her recent projects, new content strategy group, thoughts on content operations, and much more.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I’ve been involved with digital content since 1996 and have been doing, teaching, leading, and consulting on content strategy since 1999. For me, content strategy is an absolutely critical element of any organisation’s digital success.

What’s the big thing you're working on at the moment?

I’m working with an insurance company that produces incredibly smart risk management content, but that has been delivered as PDF reports to date. They want to deliver it to their customers in a way that is easier to consume, even on mobile devices. This need is leading them to revisit all of their content.

I’m also working with a very large public school system to refocus their website on parents and student needs, which is an incredibly ambitious goal. The work is challenging, but it will be truly transformative once we’re done!

I’ve been ramping up my speaking, writing, and teaching, which is a true joy -- I love sharing what I know and waking people up to the value of content strategy. 

What is the most common content-related challenge you're faced with?

Actually, it’s the change management aspects of content strategy that are hardest for my clients to adopt: the new roles, processes, new levels of collaboration. It’s hard for people to have the right amount of control over their content.

I find that there are five tools that help most with this challenge:

  1. Empathy-based personas, which help internal content creators understand better how to present their content in the right format and language so it resonates better with the organisation’s top-priority audiences’ needs and context.
  2. A single, organisation-wide taxonomy so content can be searched and cross-linked more effectively
  3. An organisation-wide content calendar, which lets people see what content is being created and identify opportunities to collaborate or reuse content rather than creating redundant or conflicting information
  4. Internal communications: sharing success stories, best practices, and learnings, so that everyone is working together to improve the organisation’s content
  5. Content responsibilities reflected in people’s job descriptions and their yearly work goals

You recently completed a large research study about content strategy with Carrie Hane and Dina Lewis. What was the big take-out from that and where can we find out more?

We were so very excited to be given the green light to do this study, the largest of its kind to date. The research focused on content strategy adoption and maturity in associations, but what we found is really applicable to almost any content-rich organisation.

Through surveys and interviews, we reached more than 600 association professionals. The report provides guidance on critical content strategy tactics and steps organisations can take to advance their efforts. 

We broke down content strategy into 17 different activities, or tactics. 

The report covered the following topics:

  • The most valuable content strategy tactics for organisations of various sizes and types
  • Descriptions of different levels of content strategy maturity  
  • Common pain points—and how to overcome them
  • Advice from professionals who have tackled content strategy in their organisations

Whatever your role in content creation, management, or strategic decision making, you’ll come away with useful insights and ideas you can implement immediately.

One of the biggest things that we created in the report is a content strategy maturity model. Our model captures the culture, operating mode, and focus of organisations at each level. 

  • In organisations at the beginning level (35 percent of associations), the content strategy is organic and the organisation is in planning mode, focusing on individual tactics or work.
  • At the intermediate level (55 percent), you see organisations having a cooperative culture, they’re focusing on getting meaningful results from the tactics they use, and they’re looking at new models of working and identifying how best to build bridges between departments
  • And at the advanced level (10 percent), staff collaborate on content, the organisation feels free to iterate, and they are focusing on ensuring that they have an environment that is conducive to effective content, and looking at the outcomes that content enables

We’ve been thinking and writing about content operations lately at GatherContent. I also know some think it’s an unnecessary title and isn’t really a thing. Sharing perspectives is important. What’s your take on ContentOps?

After the content strategist goes away, content strategy needs to become part of the way people work. So content operations assumes that there is an organisation-wide style guide, content calendar, taxonomy, governance plans, content model, etc. and that the content strategist facilitated governance work to identify ways that the tasks can be executed in a smart, consistent way.

Content operations makes sure that all those foundational elements actually happen on an ongoing basis, that the people involved with content in any way are smart and capable, that they have the tools and buy-in they need, and that they’re held accountable for doing the work.

You started a new content strategy community. Can you tell us a little about this and how our readers can join?

Yes, I’d love to! The community is at content-strategy.com. I started it because I saw shortcomings in the existing communities. The Facebook group is wonderful, but so many people are leaving that platform! There’s a good group on Slack also, but not everyone finds the interface easy to use, especially for ongoing discussions. And there is a large content strategists group on LinkedIn also, but it’s not very active and not useful.

We currently have more than 750 members in our community! I’m pleased to say that with this platform, there aren’t any ads, and we get to make choices about how the community works. I really like that. I managed the LinkedIn community for a long time, and that platform got less and less engagement over the years.

What advice would you give anyone looking to get started in a career in content strategy?

I’d say they should do several things:

Connect with people in the content strategy community

  • Get to know some local content strategy folks. Set up coffee meetings and ask them about what they do, what they enjoy about it, and how they got started

Start learning about what content strategy is and what interests you

  • Volunteer at content strategy conferences so you can attend for free, and go to as many sessions as you can, to learn more about what you are and aren’t interested in. If they aren’t in your city, though, the travel alone will cost you! Some suggestions: Confab (held in Minneapolis each May), Content Strategy Applied, Lavacon. Here’s a list -- check this website for future years’ conferences.

From all of these lists, you’ll start to see that “content strategy” is actually an umbrella for lots of different skills, focus areas, and applications. Some content strategists focus on content for help centres, others for startups, others for higher education or nonprofit organisations or government agencies. Some work on marketing content, some on technical documentation. Some content strategists focus on the technical aspects of content, some on the people aspects, and some on the brand. You’ll need to find your path within all of that.

What organisation do you admire in terms of content, and why?

That is actually a very hard question to answer. Usually, when content strategy is done well, the content just works -- I can solve a problem or accomplish a task, and the content itself is relatively invisible. We only tend to notice content or UX when it DOESN’T work. 

That said, content strategy also feeds good web design. Here are two examples of projects I worked on that I’m proud of:

In both cases, they deliver information that helps the audience achieve their goals, structured in a way that enables easy consumption on any device. It’s good that these also look good, at least in my opinion.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I’ve been involved with digital content since 1996 and have been doing, teaching, leading, and consulting on content strategy since 1999. For me, content strategy is an absolutely critical element of any organisation’s digital success.

What’s the big thing you're working on at the moment?

I’m working with an insurance company that produces incredibly smart risk management content, but that has been delivered as PDF reports to date. They want to deliver it to their customers in a way that is easier to consume, even on mobile devices. This need is leading them to revisit all of their content.

I’m also working with a very large public school system to refocus their website on parents and student needs, which is an incredibly ambitious goal. The work is challenging, but it will be truly transformative once we’re done!

I’ve been ramping up my speaking, writing, and teaching, which is a true joy -- I love sharing what I know and waking people up to the value of content strategy. 

What is the most common content-related challenge you're faced with?

Actually, it’s the change management aspects of content strategy that are hardest for my clients to adopt: the new roles, processes, new levels of collaboration. It’s hard for people to have the right amount of control over their content.

I find that there are five tools that help most with this challenge:

  1. Empathy-based personas, which help internal content creators understand better how to present their content in the right format and language so it resonates better with the organisation’s top-priority audiences’ needs and context.
  2. A single, organisation-wide taxonomy so content can be searched and cross-linked more effectively
  3. An organisation-wide content calendar, which lets people see what content is being created and identify opportunities to collaborate or reuse content rather than creating redundant or conflicting information
  4. Internal communications: sharing success stories, best practices, and learnings, so that everyone is working together to improve the organisation’s content
  5. Content responsibilities reflected in people’s job descriptions and their yearly work goals

You recently completed a large research study about content strategy with Carrie Hane and Dina Lewis. What was the big take-out from that and where can we find out more?

We were so very excited to be given the green light to do this study, the largest of its kind to date. The research focused on content strategy adoption and maturity in associations, but what we found is really applicable to almost any content-rich organisation.

Through surveys and interviews, we reached more than 600 association professionals. The report provides guidance on critical content strategy tactics and steps organisations can take to advance their efforts. 

We broke down content strategy into 17 different activities, or tactics. 

The report covered the following topics:

  • The most valuable content strategy tactics for organisations of various sizes and types
  • Descriptions of different levels of content strategy maturity  
  • Common pain points—and how to overcome them
  • Advice from professionals who have tackled content strategy in their organisations

Whatever your role in content creation, management, or strategic decision making, you’ll come away with useful insights and ideas you can implement immediately.

One of the biggest things that we created in the report is a content strategy maturity model. Our model captures the culture, operating mode, and focus of organisations at each level. 

  • In organisations at the beginning level (35 percent of associations), the content strategy is organic and the organisation is in planning mode, focusing on individual tactics or work.
  • At the intermediate level (55 percent), you see organisations having a cooperative culture, they’re focusing on getting meaningful results from the tactics they use, and they’re looking at new models of working and identifying how best to build bridges between departments
  • And at the advanced level (10 percent), staff collaborate on content, the organisation feels free to iterate, and they are focusing on ensuring that they have an environment that is conducive to effective content, and looking at the outcomes that content enables

We’ve been thinking and writing about content operations lately at GatherContent. I also know some think it’s an unnecessary title and isn’t really a thing. Sharing perspectives is important. What’s your take on ContentOps?

After the content strategist goes away, content strategy needs to become part of the way people work. So content operations assumes that there is an organisation-wide style guide, content calendar, taxonomy, governance plans, content model, etc. and that the content strategist facilitated governance work to identify ways that the tasks can be executed in a smart, consistent way.

Content operations makes sure that all those foundational elements actually happen on an ongoing basis, that the people involved with content in any way are smart and capable, that they have the tools and buy-in they need, and that they’re held accountable for doing the work.

You started a new content strategy community. Can you tell us a little about this and how our readers can join?

Yes, I’d love to! The community is at content-strategy.com. I started it because I saw shortcomings in the existing communities. The Facebook group is wonderful, but so many people are leaving that platform! There’s a good group on Slack also, but not everyone finds the interface easy to use, especially for ongoing discussions. And there is a large content strategists group on LinkedIn also, but it’s not very active and not useful.

We currently have more than 750 members in our community! I’m pleased to say that with this platform, there aren’t any ads, and we get to make choices about how the community works. I really like that. I managed the LinkedIn community for a long time, and that platform got less and less engagement over the years.

What advice would you give anyone looking to get started in a career in content strategy?

I’d say they should do several things:

Connect with people in the content strategy community

  • Get to know some local content strategy folks. Set up coffee meetings and ask them about what they do, what they enjoy about it, and how they got started

Start learning about what content strategy is and what interests you

  • Volunteer at content strategy conferences so you can attend for free, and go to as many sessions as you can, to learn more about what you are and aren’t interested in. If they aren’t in your city, though, the travel alone will cost you! Some suggestions: Confab (held in Minneapolis each May), Content Strategy Applied, Lavacon. Here’s a list -- check this website for future years’ conferences.

From all of these lists, you’ll start to see that “content strategy” is actually an umbrella for lots of different skills, focus areas, and applications. Some content strategists focus on content for help centres, others for startups, others for higher education or nonprofit organisations or government agencies. Some work on marketing content, some on technical documentation. Some content strategists focus on the technical aspects of content, some on the people aspects, and some on the brand. You’ll need to find your path within all of that.

What organisation do you admire in terms of content, and why?

That is actually a very hard question to answer. Usually, when content strategy is done well, the content just works -- I can solve a problem or accomplish a task, and the content itself is relatively invisible. We only tend to notice content or UX when it DOESN’T work. 

That said, content strategy also feeds good web design. Here are two examples of projects I worked on that I’m proud of:

In both cases, they deliver information that helps the audience achieve their goals, structured in a way that enables easy consumption on any device. It’s good that these also look good, at least in my opinion.

Hilary Marsh

President and Chief Strategist, Content Company

Hilary Marsh is president and chief strategist of Content Company, a content and digital strategy consultancy. She helps associations, nonprofit organizations, and corporations get better results from their content by improving their practices for content creation, governance, management, and promotions. Content Company’s clients include the American Bar Association, Endocrine Society, Institute of Food Technologists, Allstate, Intuit, and California State University. A leading content strategist since 1999, Hilary oversees the international, 28,000-member Content Strategy group on LinkedIn. As managing director of REALTOR.org, she oversaw the National Association of Realtors’ website and created the association’s social media strategy. She developed and teaches the first graduate-level content strategy courses for the User Experience Design Masters program at Kent State University. She is also a frequent speaker at national and international conferences. You can find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Slideshare.

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About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Head of Content at GatherContent. He is responsible for managing all of the organisation's content output and for their content operations. Rob also works on audience research projects and strategic initiatives to ensure their content meets both business goals and user needs.

He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and has written for industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, UX Matters, UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy and content operations at leading industry events or on podcasts.

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