Archive | 2010

BarCamp Nashville: Sign Up Today

Tomorrow’s the first day to pitch speaking proposals for BarCamp Nashville 2010. Last year, I was able to attend just a couple of sessions, but they were great, and topics were really varied….but there wasn’t a ton on content strategy. So I’ll be pitching a session tomorrow. Watch for more details on that.

In the meantime, sign up now to attend BarCamp Nashville. It’s free, and it’s better than a lot of conferences you’d pay good money and travel to attend. [Note: the BarCamp movement calls for a particular style of “unconference” — and except for the first year, Nashville’s BarCamp has not really adhered to that loose, unplanned style. While BCN still bills itself as an unconference, you’re going to find well-planned, well-delivered presentations on a variety of topics, and logistics planning around food and events that put many expensive conferences to shame. It’s an outstanding day.]

Nashville’s digital community is not as well-hidden as we used to be, but I think it’s still fair to say that we’re emerging. I think the great news is, I’ve worked in digital media here for 15 years, and I used to know everyone in town in my industry. I haven’t been able to say that for several years, and I’m networking more than ever.

So, sign up for BarCamp today. You’ll get great ideas and you’ll meet some great folks in digital media.

A persona-hating content strategist

I’m about to open my can of crazy talk, so forewarned and all that.

Content strategy is still evolving as a discipline, and the toolkit that strategists use isn’t set in stone, though I think we’re starting to come to some agreement about what’s useful. Building personas is a standard marketing practice, though, that long predates the web. And personas are a tool that many marketers, content strategists, information architects and other web professionals use today to validate their web strategy.

And though I’ve been annoyed by marketers who cling to their personas for years, I’ve just recently gotten to the point where I have to get this off my chest.

I’m not opposed to a persona that’s based on real research and demographic information about your customer base. But I so rarely see that in practice. What I see a lot of are the rose-colored personas of the demographic you wish you had, or that you think you have, but actually don’t.

The problem is, even in today’s world of overwhelming data, we’re still basing a lot of our marketing decisions on our guts. And while that often feels right, research will tell us that it doesn’t always lead to the right decisions.

What’s the solution?

You absolutely have to know your audience. Period.

You need to spend time with your customers. You need to walk in their shoes, both as they use your product or service and as they live their lives. There’s just no substitute for real knowledge of your market.

And sure, if it helps you to put real data and real observations together into a persona named Shelly or Bob, go for it. Just don’t make up an imaginary person and think it’s going to clarify your strategy. It takes real information to make a persona useful.

Your marketing is killing your customer service

Yeah, you. Corporate America. [Maybe corporate everywhere…but my recent experiences are homegrown, so no blame-passing today.]

Your amazingly successful efforts in data collection, standardization, segmentation and automation have removed the human element from your interactions with your customers — remember them? The people who make an emotional, human decision to spend their cash with you and not your competitor.

We’ve all complained about automated phone systems — everything from “press 1 for sales” to advanced voice-recognition — but everyone still uses them. Somewhere along the line, they became cheaper [and therefore “better”] than human operators. They easily hold all the options in their automated brains, and “always” direct calls to the “right department.” I got one yesterday that gave me a dizzying amount of options. I wanted sales. I wanted to make a purchase. And I couldn’t figure out what number to press. I had called the 800-number promoted on the company’s website that said, Call here to make a faster purchase.

People, I’m a marketer. If your marketer customers can’t figure this out, you’re making it too hard.

On each of my four [4!!!] phone calls with the same company, trying to make the same simple purchase, I had to give out my account number and my PIN number. This was not a financial or health care institution. I had no secret data with them, and my purchase certainly wasn’t private in any way. But they refused to make the sale until I’d given them all this identifying information, so that their records would reflect all my purchases together.

Let me stop here to point out a company that does this right. I’ve bought from Lands’ End for more than 20 years. When I call them, which I still do occasionally despite using their website primarily for more than 10 years, they do ask for my catalog number, but if I don’t have my customer number, no one freaks out. They will still sell me stuff.

But what made me angriest about the whole thing yesterday was that the phone rep never, ever went off script. Everything she [I talked to 2 women and 1 man on the 4 calls, and this was one of the women] said started with something like, “In order to serve you better….”

No. It does NOT serve me better to have to tell you all the information I just told the LAST representative I spoke with. It does NOT serve me better to have to wade through more than 20 minutes of data confirmation and gathering on your part in order to buy one product. I understand that as marketers, we want all the data. We want to make sure the customer orders the right product, because they’ll blame us if they order the wrong product. But placing the burden of information-gathering on your customers does not serve them better. At the very least, let’s all write better, more honest scripts, shall we?

The whole scenario made me angrier than I care to admit, but the part that really ticked me off was that the customer service rep kept telling me it was my fault. I was the party in the wrong for being upset at having to repeat all of my data. At having to give them ANY data beyond the truly essential: product, shipping address and credit card number. I was wrong to think that was all I needed for a purchase, and I shouldn’t be so mad about it.

Well, what I’m really mad about is that apparently, someone in corporate America decided it was a good idea to evaluate customer service reps on how well they read scripts, instead of on how well they serve customers.

This woman couldn’t fix that. Bless her heart.

But maybe you can.

Yahoo! Style Guide: Hoping the first impression holds

Yahoo! Style Guide
The Yahoo! Style Guide [print version, also available as the online Yahoo! Style Guide here] arrived at my house while we were on a 7-state Western odyssey last week. So I have just begun to dive into this new entry into the “how to write” contest, but I had to pause here to say I’m already on their side.

Chapter 1, Ideas in Practice on p. 14-15. The Yahoo editors strip out a frighteningly prototypical section of “web” copy and rewrite it the right way. They slash away adjectives, dubious claims and the flotsam that ruins most web writing. The overfluff that people add because they can.

They add bullet points, bold copy and links.

The end result is remarkably shorter than the starting point, and it’s useful, easy to comprehend and directive.

That’s honestly as far as I’ve gotten, but good heavens. If all you read is chapter 1, you’re well on your way to better writing.

Creative Commons licensing makes sharing simple

Creative Commons has been around for several years, but my conversation about copyright law with Summer Huggins last week made me think it’s time for a reminder about this great service.

I grew up on The Cluetrain Manifesto. I can even still make a great argument for why your information wants to be free, but for most folks, that’s not a real business possibility. But many individuals and businesses just automatically mark all their content — words, images, audio, video — with “All Rights Reserved,” the most restrictive copyright notice out there.

For some content, that makes sense. But often, we use the Internet as a distribution channel because we want people to share our content. Often, we’re not even as interested in whether we make money off the sharing; it’s spreading the word that matters.

When that’s the case, you need to use one of the licensing options offered by Creative Commons.

You’ll notice the Creative Commons logo at the bottom of this blog — a “By-Share Alike” license. I allow my work to be re-used on other sites as long as people give me credit with a link back to this site, and as long as they also allow it to be re-used from their site in the same way.

But Creative Commons offers a wide variety of licenses, even if you don’t want to be as liberal with your content as I do. Other options allow you to limit commercial uses or derivative works of your content.

Creative Commons doesn’t manage the distribution of your content — it simply provides a licensing framework that’s becoming well-accepted online. When you’re managing content online, you can certainly choose to do so with the same restrictions that many people expect for printed or recorded content. But take the time to think through your business goals — and when it makes more sense to allow greater usage of your content, try a Creative Commons licensing option to make your life a little easier.

The intensely personal customer experience

I’ve been light around here this week, primarily because my dad had to have his prostate removed yesterday. The surgery went well, and the surgeon expects my dad to get a cancer-free report from the lab results next week — here’s hoping!

At Creekmore Consulting, we do quite a bit of work in the health care field, and some of our clients spend a lot of their time thinking about the patient experience. Statistically, it’s something people my age — late 30s — are less likely to have to think about, but it’s been on my mind a lot in the last year for personal reasons as well as professional, since I gave birth to my 1yo daughter last April, to my 11yo’s recent visit to the ER for stitches and now with my dad’s very recent diagnosis and hospitalization.

Any business can give you a great customer experience, from the hardware store to your cell phone provider to the dry cleaner. But we put up with a lot of shoddy service from many of our daily interactions, don’t we? Exceptional customer service is the rarity. I used to work in businesses where it was just as simple as comparing software like HubSpot vs Salesforce and weighing up the pros and cons when it came to finding ways of improving customer services and building stronger relationships with customers. As times change, businesses need to adapt to that too.

I’m wondering, though, about industries like health care. When every interaction with your customer is potentially intensely personal, how much more important does the customer experience become? What are the downsides of screwing up — not with a medical decision, but with some service aspect of the relationship? Is it worse for the long-term customer relationship if a hospital doesn’t treat its patients and their families with service and caring, than if a restaurant staff is rude to you? These are important questions for any business (regardless of the industry) should ask themselves. No wonder why some companies have found it easier/ beneficial to include personalized marketing within their strategy to build stronger customer relationships,.

It’s an interesting question to me. It’s awfully easy to stop patronizing a restaurant, isn’t it? But I stuck with the same pediatric practice for 10 years, despite many more incorrect bills than right ones, and a rude staff to boot, because I liked the doctor so much and I really trusted her. When you’re dealing with life and death issues, it just feels like the responsibility to provide exceptional service is higher, but I’m not sure how we measure the results of poor service coupled with excellent medical care.

While I have seen those two incongruent things go hand-in-hand before, I’m glad to report that my dad and our family were delighted with both the caring attention and the medical care he received at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I do have to wonder if high-quality medical care also tends to reflect in the level of overall patient-centered attitude at a hospital. What do you think?

Kicking off the NAMA board year

I joined the board of the local chapter of the American Marketing Association last year, and I’m about to start my term as the chair of the Shared Interest Group [SIG] program for NAMA.

We’re working on nonprofit, health care and digital media SIGs for the 10-11 year, and we’re focusing on providing real value for our members through the SIGs year-round.

For years, I knew about NAMA but didn’t see the value in the organization. You know there’s no one more enthusiastic than the reformed skeptic, and that’s me. The minute I got involved in a NAMA committee, I began to make contacts that have proved incredibly valuable to me, both personally and professionally.

So the retreat today was a lot of fun, and serving on the board gives me a chance to give back to the marketing community that has meant so much to me.

On an exciting note: This spring I’ve also chaired a task force for NAMA to evaluate and recommend updates to our web presence. We’ll unveil our work toward the end of the summer.

You’ve got information. Do you have content?

It’s a common refrain, professed by organizations large and small to their content strategists [or perhaps explaining how everything is under control]:

Oh, we’ve got lots of content. We just don’t have it on the website. We just need to put it up there.

Sometimes, it’s even true.

But what happens far more often is that the organization has a lot of information, little to none of it web-ready.

This is not always a popular statement, but information isn’t the same as content. For your web content to be effective, it must be designed and edited specifically for your business purposes, and optimized for web reading to meet your audience’s needs.

Information does not magically become effective web content by the circumstance of appearing on your website.

Another related, unpopular point: People with access to information and Microsoft Word do not automatically become writers.

I think I sound more negative or critical than I intend to do. If it seems like I’m talking straight to you, let me just encourage you by saying that you are not alone. Many, many organizations are dealing with these issues.

Often, we get into a situation like that because we’ve left the content until the end.

Save yourself from the content/information dilemma:

  • Craft a strategy for your content with your business goals in mind.
  • Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that your information is web-ready.
  • Get experienced web writers to work with your topical experts to shape your information into web-ready content.

How to hire a content strategist: It’s about trust

If you’re considering hiring a content strategy vendor, or a content strategist for your staff, I’d recommend you start by reading Rahel Anne Bailie’s recent posts:

Bailie gives a really nice picture of what you should expect from a content strategist.

I’ve just got another thought to throw out there. There’s no certification for content strategy. No “professional content strategist” exam to take. No college courses. Basically, you say you’re working in content strategy, and voila, you are!

And I think that makes a lot of people nervous. I get it.

But here’s the thing. I’m thinking about all the people that I hire who are certified. Licensed. Bonded. Insured. People who have official, professional credentials.

In no case, ever in my life, have I asked to see those credentials. Now, maybe I’m just a naive consumer. But I think you’ve got to hire a content strategist for the same reasons I’m hiring those other people:

  • They make you believe they understand your problem.
  • They inspire your trust in their abilities to address the problem.
  • They sell you on the value of their services.

That’s it. It comes down to trust for hiring a plumber, an accountant and a content strategist.

College for content strategists

I had to laugh when reading DJ Francispost listing blog ideas for content strategists. Right about halfway through was the question I get more and more often:

How did your college degree prepare you for your content strategy job, especially since it’s highly likely you did not major in content strategy? What path would you recommend to future strategists?

Now, I’ve worked in web content and digital media for the vast majority of my career, but it seems that only recently I’ve begun to get this question. And it really mystifies me.

People, when I went to college, we didn’t even use email.

So no, I didn’t major in content strategy.

But I did spend a lot of my time in and outside the classroom preparing for this career, albeit inadvertently.

Hands-on experience
I was the editor of the student newspaper at Vanderbilt in 1992. It was some of the best professional training I’ve had, right up to the present day. I had to motivate and manage about 100 volunteers total [we had no paid staffers], make a whole lot of quick decisions with imperfect, incomplete information, and I basically spent an entire year making mistake after mistake. You are looking for training hosted by 4 Specialist Engineers? read more here.

It’s still one of the best things I’ve ever done.

It’s just downright embarrassing to compare the papers we put out in January with the ones we did in the second half of the year. Learn by doing.

So that definitely prepared me for a lot of the editorial experiences I’ve built on ever since. By the mid-1990s, I was knee-deep in web content, and from the beginning, the transition from print felt like drinking from a firehose. [There’s a subject for another post for you….]

Your perspective matters
I do think something else from college really did prepare me for this career, though. Vanderbilt gives students a broad, liberal arts education, even if you have a specialized major like engineering. I was a European History major, but it could have been anything, I think. I learned how to think. I continue to use the critical thinking skills I learned in college every single day.

Getting into this field
If I were giving advice to someone today hoping to get into this field, I guess the best thing I could say would be: Start managing content. As much as you can. And read as much as you can about how the field of content strategy is developing. There’s a lot of great work going on, trying to quantify the strategies that make for compelling websites. But it’s still early days, and we need more people to dive in and help to carry the banner for content strategy.

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