Laura Creekmore speaking at Nashville Chamber 8/5/2011

Update, 8/6/2011: If you wanted to see the slides from my talk on content strategy and marketing yesterday, they’re now available on SlideShare.

I’m really excited about an upcoming event — I’m speaking to the Nashville Chamber’s interactive shared interest group on Friday, Aug. 5.

Here’s the description:

Content Strategy: A Framework for Marketing Success

Content strategy is a framework to help you make better decisions about managing content as a business asset.

Great writing is an art, but business realities demand that we standardize and structure our content for maximum effectiveness. Content strategy gives you the tools to spend your marketing time and money well, whether you’re working on your website, a software product or designing a social media campaign. This session will explain how content strategy can improve your marketing results, and your speaking issues with the help of a speech coach nyc and it will walk you step by step through the content strategy framework, giving you ideas to improve your work today.

The event is open to all Nashville Chamber members. Hope you can join us.

You must become an accountable content organization

If you’re in health care, like most of our clients at Creekmore Consulting, you are already familiar with the term “accountable care organization.” ACOs have become a hot topic in health care — last year’s health care reform bill really promotes the idea that health care organizations should be reimbursed based on the effectiveness of treatment, not just on the fact that they provide services. Health care providers are now working to figure out the best ways to demonstrate the effectiveness of the care they provide, so that the government and insurance companies will pay them.

We see a related [though thankfully, very, very rarely life-or-death] issue in our content strategy work: The need for accountable content.

Accountable content starts with a business goal. [Just a quick note to say that your problem is not a good definition of your business goal. For instance, your problem is that your help content is hard to keep current and no one uses it. Your business goal is creating useful help content that reduces call volume by XX% this year.]

It’s too simple to say that everything else flows from the business goal, but it’s true. You have to make every decision about your content through the lens of your business goal. Should you write your own content? Should you license it? Should you hire a freelancer or seek a long-term relationship with a content development firm? Who will approve and manage the content? What kind of technology will you use? How will you measure the results? You’ll give better answers to every question with the business goal pasted on the wall.

We’ve worked with many organizations through the years that do not realize how much content they’re already managing, and the overhead they’re already putting into the process. Very few organizations don’t have content. Most don’t have the right kind, or don’t manage what they have well. The real opportunity sometimes comes in the ability to narrow down your content-under-management to only what truly serves your business need.

Is your content accountable? Is it working for you? Or are you working in service of your content?

Just a small UX complaint

I’m working hard to get to Inbox 0 here on this holiday weekend. I’m down to a few random emails that require me to DO something. One is from E-Verify, the government program that lets you verify an employee’s legal ability to work in the United States. This is a simple matter for most U.S. citizens and for many others, but when you get more than a few employees, keeping up with the paperwork I suppose could be a pain. At Creekmore Consulting, there are just 3 of us at the moment, so our employee paperwork file is pretty thin. But just on principle, because I’d rather do stuff online, I signed up for E-Verify a while back, thinking it would make things easier.


Bless my heart. [If you’re not Southern, you may not know that “Bless your heart” is frequently a veiled insult. It’s hard to distinguish between a genuine and a facetious usage of that phrase, if you’re not schooled in the shades of meaning there.]

So once I enrolled online, I was nonplussed to learn that I couldn’t actually USE the system until they mailed me a whole bunch of stuff, in the mail, and until I took some sort of test to show I understood the system. I promptly gave up and continued with my paper recordkeeping. [Most larger businesses HAVE to use the online system now, I believe. I don’t know what the threshold is, but it’s higher than 3.]

At any rate, I got an email from them the other day, since I was in their system, telling me that it was time to confirm my contact information or some such. And so when I was cleaning out my email tonight, I ran across it again, and I figured, well maybe they’ve made it easier. I’ll just log in and do that real quickly.


The email includes no link to the E-Verify site.

It tells me to log in and update my info. But I guess I am supposed to just have that URL memorized.

Dear E-Verify,

If you need some help on that whole user experience thing, please contact me. [That “Contact Laura” link at the top of this page will let you do that now. Or just call me: 615.500.4131.] I know lots of people who’d be glad to help.


A small-business owner who’d really like to like you

Discerning structure for content

One of the most important things your content strategy must do is to define the structure that holds the content. Effective content has to have strong structure — I don’t think it’s going too far to say that it’s designed content. Not in terms of what it looks like — the fonts, the page layout [though that’s critically important, too] — but in terms of the internal structure of the content itself. The relationship between the content and meaning.

On a very simplistic level, we can break this down into the kinds of content structure that middle-aged Americans learned about in grammar class:

My 7th grader has never learned to diagram sentences, and I am not the first to complain that this is a flaw in modern education [though I have heard many more people shout praise to the heavens that this exercise has fallen by the wayside]. The value in diagramming is in evaluating the basic structure in our language. It gets you into the habit of seeing the structure behind the words.

When you think about the structure of your content on a web page, you can build a similar diagram. Most of us who’ve been around web design and development for any length of time have seen wireframes, the architectural drawings that reveal the structure of a web page.

But many wireframes simply separate the page into blocks or a grid; they are not content-specific. So as content strategists, we have to create our own structure for the content.

When we talk about the structure for content, we are getting to some of the core principles of information architecture. This structure might be quite simple, too. For instance, you might say that the structure of a blog post on this website is revealed here:

This starts to give us a very basic structure for the content itself. This level of structure is the basic information you need if you’re using a content management system or some kind of HTML or CSS. Different elements on the page are treated differently in the design and layout, because of their function. The headline gets a larger, colored font. The tags are links and are designed differently as a result. The date and the post each have their own look and feel.

But the implications of content structure go far beyond the design of the page. Done well, planning the structure of the content can also reveal or enhance the meaning, as well. This is where some real opportunity lies for content strategists to provide value in the web and software development process.

All words aren’t equal. My 3 paragraphs on banking aren’t the same as your 3 paragraphs. Neither will align with 1 paragraph and 2 bullet lists. When you start looking at the internal structure of your content itself, you will discover many ways to enhance your meaning. In some cases, you will discover opportunities to display your content differently, but almost every time, you will discover ways to structure your content differently to enhance the meaning. To discern the structure, evaluate the goal and your content’s message against the words on the page, and you’ll find the places where you need to improve the structure.

Some of this will again go back to grammar school for many of us, back to the fundamentals of good writing:

  • Do you have a topic sentence in your paragraph?
  • Are all the sentences in this paragraph on the same topic?
  • Do they flow?
  • When you need to introduce a secondary point, how will you separate it from the other text but still make it feel like part of the whole?
  • Are you delivering information in the most effective way?
  • Where do you need an image instead of a word?
  • Where a list instead of a paragraph?

These are structural elements that you’ll reveal on the page to the end user. For digital content, you also need a strong meta-structure to allow you to use your content effectively. More on that next time.

For now — how conscious of your content’s structure are you? Can more attention to structure strengthen your content?

Content strategy, content marketing and the name game

I had to laugh this morning when I saw this tweet from UX champion Jared Spool:

Ah, the Content Strategy community has now caught the Define The Damn Thing virus. #DTDT #ContentStrategy

The situation has been circling for months, and it’s finally caught us. Guilty. We are engaged in a fight about what we are talking about. [“Fight” is really too inflammatory a word, as long as we’re trying to be specific. I think the fight is between us and our overly semantic selves, truly.] Let me be clear up front that I find the discussion useful and unimportant: Useful to help our discipline better define itself and better educate prospective clients [customers, our boss, the CFO, whoever] about the need for content strategy, not altogether important in that much of this dialogue is about our internal terminology, and we’ll never fully convince the people who sign our checks to use the terms we like. If you’d like to grow your business in today’s age, software to help with from content to marketing strategies, you may want to check out sites like and research how they could help you grow to new heights in an over saturated market. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read a couple of thought-provoking posts from Lise Janody and Ian Alexander, and I’ve been following the great conversation on the content strategy Google Group. The Nashville Content Strategy Meetup also had a great discussion related to this topic at our event last Thursday. So all this has been swirling in my head recently. I’ll throw my thoughts out there, and I’d love your feedback. Here’s how I approach content strategy:

  • I love Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, and Erin Kissane’s The Elements of Content Strategy. I think both are helpful definitions and provide great examples, particularly of some deliverables that are useful in content strategy.
  • I think content strategy is NOT about deliverables. Though this may seem to be a contradiction, keep reading. I’ll elaborate.
  • Content strategy is a mindset. That’s the real value we bring to our clients at Creekmore Consulting. We help them think about content in a new way. We often use deliverables like audits, inventories, taxonomies, style guides and more as part of our work, but those aren’t the real value. They help us reveal and demonstrate the value that true strategy brings to the table.

Now, about content marketing. Ian Alexander’s reference to content marketing kicked off some of the fuss in the Google Group, and I do think it’s a useful question he’s asked. How do we [internal to the discipline] differentiate content strategy and marketing? How does the marketplace [our clients and stakeholders] do so? I think he’s right in asking — I’ve seen lots of places where I felt the terms were used interchangeably, and incorrectly, I felt. My background includes a whole lot of content marketing, so I’ve got some definite opinions here. I think the word “content” is part of what confuses us in both content strategy and content marketing, but I don’t have a great substitute for it at this time. Content strategy: The mindset that puts content second*, whether you’re talking about enterprise content management, product development, web applications, mobile, print, marketing, whatever. This emerging discipline is particularly known for several of its web-content-based [but often more broadly useful] deliverables, like content audits, taxonomies, style guides, workflows and governance models. We put content second, because the business goal comes first. All else follows. Content marketing: As we know, content marketing is a particular marketing strategy, where marketers use content to build a trusting, reciprocal relationship with customers and prospects. The fuzzy: The confusion happens in the middle. To me, effective content marketing must have content strategy as a component. You have to have planned for the [to use Halvorson’s well-known definition] creation, delivery and governance of any content if you want it to meet your business goal. In my previous, custom media life, this distinction was clear. The custom magazines and websites we created for customers were content marketing, and we used principles of content strategy to ensure we met business goals and effectively managed operations. But I don’t think the distinction is always so clear. It’s sometimes hard to define whether a web property is a product, media or marketing….often, a single website can be all 3 at once. So it’s no wonder we’re confused about the terms. What’s the takeaway? I’m not sure. I think the conversation is good. I think we can draw some distinctions. And I think we have more work still to do.

Making content strategy a habit

When we’re working with our clients, we find that many people see the value in content strategy after just a conversation or two about how it can improve business results.

What’s harder is making content strategy a daily practice.

Some of our engagements are just about the strategy, doing research, learning the organization, providing advice and a framework for future decision-making. And some are longer-term, where we become a content partner on many projects over time.

Either way, doing things the content strategy way often involves organizational change. Organizations [outside the media world] didn’t use to sit down and say, hmm, here’s a new idea, what does our content team think? Do we have the content we need for this? How will content be part of the solution?

Making that mindset shift is often the hardest part of content strategy. You have to form the habit of content strategy for your organization. And, like forming a habit personally, this is hard work for an organization — perhaps even harder, since organizations are made up of many people.

When I’m trying to create a new habit myself, I find that it’s important to create an environment that allows me to succeed. I’m trying to eat better and be healthier right now, so I have written down some instructions for myself. You’ll laugh, but one is:

* Do not eat at Sonic until reaching your goal.

Sonic is my weakness! I’ve identified that point. And you won’t believe how much it matters that I’ve made my intentions so concrete. It used to be easy to say, I’ve eaten so well this week that one corn dog won’t hurt. But now, I’m reminding myself that the goal is what’s important, and this instruction will help me achieve my goal faster.

In your organization, if you’re working to create a content-strategic culture, you may want to create some specific instructions for yourself, too. How about:

* All project kick-offs include a discussion about the content strategy for the project.

Or maybe you have that down, but the trouble is on follow-through? So maybe your instruction is:

* Each project has someone assigned to content strategy.

Then it’s someone’s responsibility to cover this topic throughout the life of the project.

If your organization is ready and willing to include content strategy on its projects, you may just need to adjust your framework and process to give it space to succeed.

Required reading: You’re using research wrong

Let me start by saying, My mama raised me right. It just didn’t fully take.

And so I have disrupted more than one meeting with some — shall we say — unpopular assertions about the role of research in marketing and product development. I’m almost always polite*, yet I can’t let pass the opportunity to share my view that research results do not constitute a message from Your Favorite Higher Being Here.

After New Coke, I’m not sure why anyone has to explain this again. There are emotional and group-think elements to human response, and these are difficult to measure with standard business research techniques.

I won’t go on: I’ll just direct you to Ben McAllister‘s great piece in The Atlantic on the dangers of using research to make creative decisions. He agrees there’s an appropriate role for research, but argues that it’s dangerous to assign scientific weight to information that should be viewed as an indicator only.

Thanks to Randall Snare and Jonathan Kahn for linking to this piece and thereby bringing it to my attention.

*About this topic, anyway. No comment about my embarrassing reactions to poor retail customer service.

Nashville content strategy meetup: Don’t miss this in June

We had another great gathering last night at the Nashville Content Strategy Meetup. We talked about Confab, user experience, business strategy, the paleo diet and the Roman Empire.

Mark your calendar now for Thursday, June 9, 5:30p.

Announcement on the place will happen in the next few days on the Nashville Content Strategy Meetup group and Nashville Content Strategy Facebook group.

Confab 2011 Wrapup: I Find My People

There are some great workshops going on tomorrow at Confab, but I can’t stay for them. So I thought I’d wrap up here with a few final thoughts on this great first-time conference on content strategy.

  • Agreed with Kristina Halvorson and others that the conversation ongoing about content strategy is really useful. It’s not navel-gazing; there’s a lot of definition still to be done in our discipline. So I’m patient with some of the long-form talk and the Twitter chatter; it’s making us who we are.
  • Really liking Melissa Rach‘s perspective on content strategy. I think there’s still a lot of nuance to be hashed out here, as well. Part of this is about defining the discipline; we are related to user experience, analytics, information architecture, marketing, product development and more. The perspective you work from is going to inform your own definition of content strategy.
  • Really hating Twitter today. It’s been performing poorly for at least 8 hours now, and while the conference backchannel isn’t a national security issue, it makes it hard to talk when this is the channel I’ve grown to depend on for much of my professional communication.
  • The people at Brain Traffic and the UIE staff involved in Confab know what the hell they’re doing. I have been to a whole lotta conferences, and this one rises way above the rest on sheer logistics alone.
  • And then there’s the content. Let’s just agree on the front end that I’m square in the middle of the target audience for this conference. But the content was great, with few uneven sessions. If you care about content, if you have to deal with content, if you don’t know what the heck to do with your content, sign up to attend Confab 2012.
  • Perhaps the best part for me was the people. I got to meet many, many people who’ve just been avatars to me for so long, and it was wonderful to shake their hands and even hug them in person. There’s a lot of smart thinking about content happening around the world, and I’m delighted to get to know so many people working on it.

Here are my notes from the sessions I attended:

Steve Rosenbaum: Curation: Beyond the Buzzword
Elizabeth McGuane and Randall Snare: How to Create a Data-Driven Content Strategy
Angela Colter: Testing Content
Ahava Leibtag and Aaron Watkins: Johns Hopkins Testing Content
Ann Handley: Keynote
Jeff Cram: Learning to Love Your CMS
Christine Perfetti: Essential Techniques for Measuring Your Content’s Success
Rachel Lovinger: Make Your Content Nimble

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