It’s easy to see the process around content -the creating, organizing and publishing- as strictly practical, especially from inside an agency. To us, the thinking goes like this: we’re designing a website and/or a marketing plan, it’ll need content, so we need the most efficient way to produce, organize and publish that content.What’s harder to see, but much more important, is the relationship-building aspect of the process. How walking a client through content gives us an opportunity to build an open line of communication and provide an experience that moves beyond organization into the areas of trust and collaboration, which leads to a more creative and most often, better outcome.
It doesn’t really matter what type of content is being produced, at the end of the day, a person with thoughts, opinions, feelings and fears is sitting down to create something.If we’re talking about writing, this person is stringing words into sentences that he or she feels communicates what they want to say. The subject matter is largely irrelevant. The act of creating something is personal.Professional writers learn how to distance themselves from their writing and take feedback and criticism, but not everyone is able to do it so effortlessly. Walking a person through the writing and then review and editing process and arriving at something that’s quality, takes a certain level of trust, or at the very least, charisma.
Content creators rarely have the final say with regards to publishing. A much more common occurrence is that we, as content strategists and creators, work with a few writers on the client’s end to produce and get content approved by higher-ups. It’s the approval stage that can easily derail a project, depending on the relationship between the creators, stakeholders and ourselves.
It takes a certain amount of diplomacy to bring everyone together, listen to each stakeholder’s needs and concerns, help the creators develop a first or fourth draft and walk it through the approval process until it’s published.
Whether or not we’re producing all of the content for a project, client participation is a vital part in keeping everything on track. After all, they have the final say. This presents a large opportunity for them to step into a project and, without knowing it or intending to, disrupt rather than enhance the output. It happens. How? Usually when someone on their end doesn’t recognize what content creation entails.
This is particularly true if the clients are the ones responsible for the content. In the book Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson & Melissa Rach talk about content this way:
When people think about the content development process, they often think about it sort of like baking a cake. Get the ingredients (gather source content); stir them up (compile, write, edit); cook it (finalize and approve); then frost it (add it to the design) …in reality, ‘doing the content’ is a whole lot more like running a bakery. There are countless details to consider. You have to manage people. Equipment is expensive, and it breaks. And what if the recipes are wrong or the donuts burn or you’re losing money…
Properly educating and guiding a client through “running a bakery” is a hands-on, intensive process (some more than others) that requires patience. They’re often learning a new skill and we’re often the ones teaching them. Bring them out the other side with a new set of skills they can use to create more quality content and a relationship has begun.
Each of the points mentioned above present an enormous opportunity to build or harm a relationship with a client. Putting the right people and processes in place can go a long way in creating the right environment for the client to thrive.
There are a lot of great resources about client services and interaction, so here I want to present just three high-level, content-related thoughts that go a long way in building a relationship that will satisfy content needs, while giving the client a great experience.
Building strong relationships begins with understanding the people we’re working with. Not so much the company and their business objectives (which is a different thing), but the stakeholders who will be on the calls as well as the people who will be writing the approving content before it goes live. Each person approaches the project with their own past experiences, understandings of the project, and ideas. The best approach is to look at the project from these people’s perspectives.
A great place to start is by identifying their fears. What worries them about this project? What’s a pain point they may not be telling you? In an article published by Communication Arts Magazine, Bob Hambly talks about the role of a designer that also applies equally to content strategists and creators, he says:
Creativity, at its core, means change. With change come two things: fear and uncertainty. Change intimidates us because it stirs up several other fears—of the unknown, of failure, of being different and of losing control...Part of a designer’s job, then, becomes the ability to mitigate any fear or uncertainty that clients may have about initiating change.
Writing new, unique (read: quality) content for a site or content project takes a lot of strategy and planning, but at the end of the day, it takes the confidence to say something that isn’t just marketing speak. That’s usually a big change, because it requires saying something concrete. It’s also where a lot of the mental energy is spent, because the difference between powerful and weak content has more to do with substance than style, and writing substance is frightening. Part of our job is to identify the fear and work with a client to mitigate it.
Content is a lot like an iceberg: most only see the 10% that gets published. But you know the 90% of effort it took to publish the 10. You know what it will take to finish a content project and how it should run. You’re the pro. In most cases, you’ll have to show the client the full iceberg and then lay out the plan for how you’re going to attack it.One of the best ways to do this early on is through a Content Production Plan Meeting, or something we simply call a Content Workshop. This in-person meeting towards the beginning of a project brings all of the content creators together to explore content requirements, set expectations for the amount of work involved and divide the responsibilities.
Of course, there’s more than one way to do this (especially from a practical standpoint), but when it comes to using process to establish a relationship, it’s a great place to start. It provides a reference point to look back on when going through each new step.
We all agree that user experience is a key aspect of the web, right? We’d probably also agree that quality content provides a better experience than a site with subpar content. I’m simplifying, but large part of creating great UX is understanding user intent and anticipating their questions and concerns.In an agency, stepping into the role of content strategist, manager, editor or creator means we’re essentially the UX designer for a client’s content experience. We’re walking them through how to run the bakery and bake the cakes too. By anticipating their questions and concerns and staying one or two steps ahead, we display our ability to see the big picture.It doesn’t fail. The more we’re able to anticipate a client’s concerns (which shows we understand their fears), the more we’re able to do our best to direct the final output.
In his book, The Art of Client Services, Robert Solomon says:
I used to think that great work would lead to a great relationship. Now I think the opposite: a great relationship leads to great work. The reason is pretty simple. Great work entails risk.
Agencies are all about doing great work. The more creative the better. But creativity means change and change means risk. One of the best ways to encourage clients to accept more creative solutions is through a relationship where trust and collaboration are felt and utilized. There are few better places to start than with one of the most personal of processes, content.