Making Content Strategy Work: Author Interview with Margot Bloomstein

by on March 22, 2012

Content Strategy at Work book coverHere at the CMS Myth we love to remind people that interactive success has less to do with your CMS technology and far more to do with the people, processes and content that support your digital presence and drive engagement. (Raise your hand if anyone ever said they’d buy your stuff because you use CMS ‘X’. Put your hands down, CMS vendors.)

In a hyper-competitive world, a sharp focus on developing and using appropriate, on-brand content may be the last, best frontier to carve out your organization’s unique identity, highlight your differentiation, and deliver experiences that stand out for target audiences online.

Enter the realm of content strategists like Margot Bloomstein, the principal of Appropriate, Inc., and a vocal advocate in the space, whose new book Content Strategy at Work just hit the streets. The CMS Myth and ISITE Design will host a Book Launch Bash for Margot on March 29 in Boston; RSVP here.

We caught up with her this week to talk about the book and why content strategy needs to be a major part of your digital planning and execution.

Congratulations on the new book. OK, easy question first: Define content strategy. I think I see a slightly different definition every week.

Those different definitions reflect that content strategy is a diverse practice with several areas of specialty. I subscribe to the basics: content strategy is planning for the creation, aggregation, governance, and expiration of useful, usable, and appropriate content in an experience. I believe that it’s key for content—and the culture or workflow that produces it—to be appropriate to the brand that offers it. Genericism makes for a weak user experience and boring web.

Content strategy has really moved to the forefront of digital strategies in the past 3-4 years. What’s driving it, and who’s resisting it?

That evolution reflects both a shift in our economy and a natural maturing of the industry. 1999 was awesome, right? With its money and ping pong tables? Yeah, that wasn’t going to last—and we should be glad it didn’t. The web industry took its knocks and grew up, tougher and leaner. We learned to do more with less and cut activities with low ROI. Then the economy expanded again—until we again realized we had to pare back. That’s a good thing.

Over the past few years, marketing departments have tightened their belts and budgets. They don’t like waste: microsites that fall flat without maintenance, website overhauls that favor shiny redesign over sustainable content, and templates that break at the first sign of user-generated content. Organizations large and small employ content strategy practices because they can no longer afford to waste time, budget, and creativity on efforts that don’t reflect real use, real cultures of content creation, and long-term planning.

“How can we afford content strategy?” was a common question five years ago. Now, it’s “how can we afford not to include content strategy?” I hear that from clients large and small, in a range of industries. The one thing they have in common is that they’re smart, entrepreneurial, and nimble. So who drives content strategy? Smart companies that demand it.

Is there one industry that gets it better than another?

Smart companies are thriving as publishers in every industry, though I’ve been seeing a lot of energy around content strategy in higher ed. Rick Allen and Georgy Cohen are certainly fueling the conversation with Meet Content, their resource for content strategy in academia. But in many ways it’s an ideal environment for content strategy: politics, limited budgets, and constrained resources must serve both internal users—current students and faculty—as well as prospective users and the broader community. And internal users need a sustainable workflow for producing content; we can’t forget them, though too many content management systems seem to do that.

Enter content strategy. In Content Strategy at Work, I had the opportunity to sit down with organizations like Oregon Health and Science University and Tufts University to hear how they negotiate issues common to all organizations. As I learned, politics play out in both the academic calendar and committee-driven decision processes. Issues like reviewing user-generated content before posting are especially contentious in higher ed—but they also affect highly regulated industries or any company with a legal department. Universities are at the forefront of these issues and can offer nuanced, sustainable models for many industries.

Content strategy and content marketing – are they two sides of the same coin? Is there confusion you can help clear up?

At the risk of applying military policy to mere communication, let me cite The Art of War. “Strategy without tactics is the long road to victory; tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat,” proclaims Sun Tzu. Action without a plan—blogging without communication goals, if you will—is that noise, and there’s already enough of that on the web.

Content marketing makes good on content strategy, manifesting the strategy through sustainable content creation, aggregation, and curation. Content strategy can give purpose, consistency, and cohesion to content marketing efforts—vital stuff, especially if you’ll do it over time or share the work between multiple stakeholders. Components of content strategy can help define the style in which you write, the frequency at which you publish, and the quality of content in the reuse pile. Before you attempt to republish a press release or feature from the annual report, a qualitative content audit can help you determine if it’s good and appropriate for other channels — or if you need to “translate” it for currency, accuracy, or relevance. Content strategy brings all of this together. Driving that strategy is the message architecture.

Real-world examples of content strategy take center stage in your book. What led you down that path?

The community of content strategists is largely past the 101 stage. Today, we rally around working definitions and refine how we make the case in our respective organizations. But by continuing to discuss and debate the processes of content strategy—the inflection points in which we move from theory to practice—we empower others. Case studies tee off that discussion and showcase compelling examples and lessons from a wide range of people and organizations.

What’s a great example of the power of content strategy?

In Content Strategy at Work, I had the opportunity to share the story of content strategy at AdoptUSKids. AdoptUSKids is a non-profit that works to raise awareness about the need for foster and adoptive families while helping to connect families with children. They’re not marketing a technology product or pitching a hot new location-based service… they’re assembling families. In short, their work matters—and content strategy is a vital, make-it-or-break-it part of their work.

As with many non-profits, the AdoptUSKids budget is tight and their resources are constrained. They cannot fake the ROI of content strategy and social media, because every dollar, Tweet, and post matters—to both the organization and the children they serve. As I spoke with Vanessa Casavant, the Electronic Media team content strategist, I gained new insight to how content strategy processes play out on the front lines of our profession. She’s pioneering innovative new ways to keep the organization nimble and consistent with cross-channel messaging, and as a result they’ve seen an increase in the number of children placed with permanent families. Content strategy is a core component in those success stories.

What does it take for an organization to establish and maintain a content strategy for the web? Is it time, money, resources, a forward thinking CXO?

It’s funny, but dull things like consistent production, sustainable workflow, and cohesive channel messaging demand daring. Organizations that embrace content strategy are daring. They set bold goals and cut through the politics of entrenched fiefdoms to ensure content can be cohesive, regardless of the department that produces it or budget line that funds it. They commit to the long haul, deploying editorial calendars that can grow and mature over time. They train team members on maintaining editorial voice, content, and the CMS in which it lives, and ensure they have both the skills and the time to prioritize this work.

None of those things are easy. It’s far easier to shoulder the yoke of the status quo and shortchange projects and people. Those things are easy, but they’re never right for either our companies or our users.

Join the CMS Myth and ISITE Design as we toast Margot and her new book at next week’s Book Launch Bash on March 29 in Boston! RSVP here.

You can order Content Strategy at Work or download it to your reader at Amazon.com

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