Give a man to fish, and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
The lesson of the above well-worn idiom: it is more worthwhile, in the long run, to teach someone to do something for themselves than to do it for them.
The fishing metaphor is also perfect observation of a universal tendency of human beings: our inability to see the long-term big picture, in the face of chronic short-term needs.
We’ve all been there. That feeling of being so consumed and drowned by a problem, whether in our professional or personal life, that we become blind to its underlying conditions and causes. We simply accept it (often without conscious thought) at face value, and exhaustingly firefight immediate symptoms.
That is until we receive the objective perspective of an outsider—a discerning colleague or friend, say. And then, something magical seems to happen. They spot patterns we hadn’t previously noticed; they make connections we hadn’t made; and lo and behold, they end up offering seemingly ingenious solutions to the problem in hand; problems that we would never have come up with ourselves.
Of course, nothing truly magical has occurred. The other person isn’t necessarily any more intelligent or capable than you. They did, however, possess something that you didn’t: objective observation and judgement. In other words, the “fresh pair of eyes effect”.
This is precisely the value that content strategy offers to an organisation’s approach to digital. An objective “outsider’s” perspective, able to distinguish between wants and needs.
Content strategy has a huge role to play in helping organisations to properly adapt and evolve to the needs of digital transformation—through consultative conversation and exploration of the people, skills, and structures currently contributing to the existing state of its digital content output.
Because what many clients now need above all else, is not temporary injections of external expertise and relentless delivery of one-off products (being given fish), but ongoing education, guidance and training to help cultivate, on their own terms, a sustainable content publishing culture (being taught how to fish).
Teaching a client to fish is… being brave enough to distinguish needs from wants
Teaching a client to fish is provide them with a roadmap for change—a plan for how the organisation needs to adapt its mindset, skills, and resources to meet the demands of being a digital publisher.
The problem, more often than not, is that what clients need is not the same as what they’ve already told an agency they want. At the point of first contact, clients have often already decided upon pre-packaged solutions to their digital headaches:
We need a new website because the existing website is (insert 2 or 3 generic negative generic descriptions such as “messy” or “difficult to navigate”.
The new website needs to be (insert 2 or 3 generic adjectives such as “dynamic” or “engaging” and it needs to have (insert 2 or 3 generic features or functions such as “a mobile-friendly design” or “user-friendly layout”).
Accepting client requests such as this at face value might satisfy an immediate problem—but could prove to actually be adding to an even disastrous situation in the long-term. Like giving a hungry person a fish, rather than teaching them to fish, without proper interrogation of exactly why their existing website has ended up in such a messy, unusable state, there’s every chance that what they’ve asked for, is not, actually, what they need.
Web projects need to begin not with “requirements gathering” as dictated by the client, but collaborative “requirements exploration”. In other words: conversation. We must insist to clients the true value comes from them not providing us with their solutions, but giving us their problems to collaboratively explore and solve.
It’s only when you take the time to step back and listen, that you’re able to provide truly intelligence-led insights that uncover genuine, user-first, objectives-focussed needs. Strategy requires investigating, not just a client’s content, but its people.
Teaching a client to fish is… auditing people (not just content)
Auditing content unveils the symptoms of an organisation’s problems and challenges as a publisher.
Auditing people, structures and processes provides us with insights into the causes—and therefore eventual resolution—of those problems.
The people components of content strategy are arguably what contributes the highest possible value to an organisation: cultivating lasting changes to how its people think about, approach and treat its content. It’s the side of content strategy that moves the conversation away from merely “doing content”, towards:
- analysing, evaluating, and uncovering insights on not just the content itself, but the people who are expected to plan, create, and manage it
- contextualising those insights within the bigger picture of the organisation’s culture, areas of expertise, processes and resources (sometimes affectionately called the “content ecosystem”)
- using those findings as a platform to educate the organisation at large on the business value of content, and to build a sustainable content-first approach that makes the client fit for purpose in the digital age.
It’s messy, complicated consultative work. And for that reason, it’s the most commonly skipped over aspect of content strategy. When a client is desperate for someone to come in and get the job done, who’s got time for the “touchy feely” consultative stuff? People want action, delivery and results. Right now.
But we need to be brave enough to challenge that mindset. To create the right conditions for this kind of consultative work to take place, we need to get everyone talking the same language right from the beginning of web projects.
That requires coming up with a set of tools and a vocabulary that aligns expectations with reality, aspirations with capabilities, and brings the bigger picture into focus. Here’s how we might go about that…
Teaching a client to fish is… demonstrating that content is a greater than the sum of its parts discipline (not a commodity)
When a world-class tennis player strikes the ball right in the centre of their racquet’s sweet-spot, releasing the ball at an unstoppable velocity, it’s not down to any one particular factor—it’s a greater than the sum of its part phenomenon.
It’s the result of countless hours of tireless training, mental preparation, and talent applied at their absolute optimum, in total harmony with the tools at their disposal. World class equipment alone, does not make a great tennis player. But having a racquet and a pair of tennis shoes handy, sure will help your cause on the competition court.
Organisations, too, need to develop a much more holistic understanding of their digital content publishing activity. Possessing the tools to publish is a start—but the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the multifarious skills, expertise, and resources required to become a fit for purpose digital publisher that consistently adds value to its users and business objectives.
I believe that an organisation’s ability to act autonomously as a valuable digital publisher comes down to three areas of competency:
- Web wise: the foundational skills and resources upon which content is built and made findable, accessible, usable, manageable, and scalable.
- Editorially expert: the editorial publishing skills and resources that make sure content is accurate, concise, compelling, memorable, and actionable.
- Strategically aware: the bigger picture thinking and processes that make sure content is targeted, relevant, expert, influential and value-adding.
At the intersection of those three elements working in collaboration, is an organisation’s content sweet spot:
Next, I want to demonstrate how to apply this framework in practice during the discovery stage of every content project to:
- measure and educate on a client’s existing content strengths, weaknesses, gaps and opportunities. I.e. What are we good at vs what do we need to be better at?
- weigh up project expectations vs. capabilities. I.e. What do we think would be cool to produce vs. what is possible/realistic?
- build a consensus on how they should be looking to evolve and adapt long-term, to be more content ready. I.e. Long-term, we need to build capacity and expertise in x, y , and z areas in order to deliver x, y, and z projects.
Measuring an organisation’s content-readiness: a step by step guide
Step one: Introduce the content sweet spot diagram to help the client understand, in simple terms, how difficult it is to act as a quality digital publisher
Ok, so you have sat down with a client, ready to kick-off your discovery session and collect their content needs. They’re desperate to offload all of the ideas they have, all the “need to haves” that must be delivered. Well… hold up for a moment.
First thing’s first, let’s try bringing the focus to their existing reality. Let’s introduce them to the concept of “content-readiness”; their strengths vs weaknesses and expectations vs. capabilities. We want to introduce the client to the content sweet spot diagram, which might go something along the lines of:
Before we dive straight into collecting requirements and the ideas stuff, we want to first talk to you about how messy and complicated is to successfully create, publish and manage content. Its success is determined by many pieces of work, resources, and expertise that can be categorised into these three areas of competency…
Step two: unpackage each element and map them to quality outcomes
At this stage, you might get a few raised eyebrows (the “here we go again, another blue-sky, agency-waffle diagram of needs” raised eyebrow; I know it, I may have even raised it once or twice).
To make it clear where we’re coming from, we need to add full context to each of these elements to drive home the value that each area brings to the table. So we might introduce that as:
Ok, so each of these competencies contributes specific value-adding outcomes to your users. Here’s what we mean by that…
Step three: map each element to the specific types of work
Next up, we want to get everyone in the room to see the link between specific pieces of work, and the above outcomes. So we might present that as:
So we know that content is a greater than the sum of its parts process. Everything make sense so far? Right, well each of these outcomes is the result of specific pieces of work…
Step four: map each element to the required roles and expertise that make them a reality
Finally, we need to assign those pieces of work to specific roles and areas of expertise. It’s about clicking all the pieces into place and making sure that all stakeholders understand the full extent of the capacity required to deliver valuable content experiences.
And all of the above pieces of work require specific roles and areas of expertise…
Using the framework to carry out a “content-readiness” evaluation
So, you’ve introduced the client to the the perfect “content-ready” organisation model. Now it’s time for self-reflection—using this framework for evaluating their own content strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for development. Here’s how to put that into practice.
Present the following questions on a worksheet, flipchart paper or on a screen. You can either carry this exercise out collaboratively as a group discussion/vote, or ask people to complete the evaluation individually (there are pros and cons to both, but individual responses might make for a far more frank and honest assessment, unimpeded by “me too” influence of group-think).
- Our biggest content strength is…
- Our biggest content challenges are…
- The top 5 user outcomes that we need the most from our content are…
- The top 5 pieces of work we need to carry out to achieve those outcomes are…
- The skills and capacity we currently have are….
Collect those answers. Discuss them, asking for people’s thinking and reasoning.
Then it’s time to take everything away, analyse those findings in further detail, and communicating a summary back to the client.
Communicating results; acting on insights
To affirm everything that’s been discussed and agreed, you’ll want to provide the client with a report that formalises everything, and serves as a constant reminder to everyone involved in the content project on existing priorities, expectations and capabilities.
Here’s a report template for packaging up and presenting everything.
Here’s an imagined example of a completed template.
That’s just one example of how you could report insights from a “content-ready” evaluation exercise. You might prefer to come up with a scoring system, and a set of recommendations that align with a client’s capabilities. Whatever the format of your findings, carrying out this type of evaluation can change everything.
You’ll move content projects away from jumping straight into an impulsive list of requirements—which might be wildly unrealistic and unaligned with objectives and needs—and instead help everyone to first take a step back, carefully weigh everything up, and treat their content publishing activity as an evolving aspect of the organisation’s communications offering.
You’ll help them build a picture of what the client’s greatest content strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities are. The woods will begin to be seen from the trees. Priorities will form.
Content projects with vague and ambitious aspirations will be tempered by realistic objectives. And in the long-term, the organisation will start seeing content planning, publishing and management as a constantly evolving set of people, systems and resources.
And that’s when you’ll know—you’ve taught them to fish.