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?

Discerning structure for content

One of the most important things your content strategy must do is to define the structure that holds the 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

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

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.

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

Launching another salvo in the content strategy-UX war

Update, 8p: I’ve just heard from Melissa Rach about the context that Twitter can’t provide. It’s some great info and I’ll share it here.

From Melissa:

I really appreciate you letting me know about this blog. I wasn’t able to get on Twitter all day (computer meltdown), but I was told that the quote was taken out of context. What I actually said, is pretty much what you say in the second-to-last paragraph of the blog (I agree wholeheartedly). I also agree [with] you that [it] is part of our job to make sure the organization knows what the user wants (that was in a different part of the presentation.)

My definition of content strategy is something along the lines of “helping organizations use content to achieve their business goals.”  And, it’s true, I intentionally leave “users” out of that statement. But, I do that for several reasons:

1. (most importantly) — serving the user should be one of the business goals we are trying to achieve. If the organization isn’t committed to an overall relationship with the user, the content will not be supported and have a difficult time being successful. (It’s a battle we can’t win).

2. A really great content strategy is the combination of three things: user perspectives, business perspectives, and content “best practices.” However, during strategy work, if you say the business perspective and the user perspective have exactly the same weight — in my experience, you get businesses creating types and quantities of content they can not maintain, which is not good for the user or the business. So, we need to say “here’s what the user wants” and temper that with “this is what we can handle right now.”

3. Some organizations get really limited by the user research — they can’t innovate beyond what the users specifically asked for. As, the old saying goes, if you asked people in 1900 about transportation needs, they would have said “faster horses” not “automobiles” — because they didn’t know those things were possible. So, as a strategist, we need to help companies have room to innovate in order to improve the overall user experience even more than users could imagine.

So, actually, I think we’re pretty aligned — and I would appreciate it if you would amend the post to say so.

P.s. There are actually examples of enormously successful (but of somewhat unethical) content strategies that actually do exactly the opposite of the what is in the users’ best interest. Not something I would advocate, but interesting to read about. The IBM FUD example is an interesting one:,_uncertainty_and_doubt

I’m going to leave the original since Melissa refers to it, and because I DO see people using the business-only perspective.

Original: It’s been a long time since my mouth fell open at something I heard at a conference, but it happened to me today. I want to say that the unfortunate part is, it happened at a session I wasn’t in. So from the outset, perhaps I’ll get corrected or someone can clarify that the tweet I read was completely out of content….but I asked about that and got more context, and my mouth was still open.

Earlier this year, Erin Kissane wrote a broad post on the Brain Traffic blog talking about where content strategy fits in the web strategy landscape. I largely agree with her post. [Following is the part that no longer applies:], but I can’t agree with a comment from her colleague Melissa Rach that was tweeted today. [But this part still does!] I’ll say first, I momentarily met Rach Sunday night and she seems lovely, and by all accounts, her presentation on strategy today was one of the highlights of Confab. I’m sorry I missed it.

Here are the two tweets that rearranged my face [See context above!]:

@CSApplied2012 As a strategist I’m here to help the business achieve their goals – user isn’t in my definition @melissarach #confab

@CSApplied2012 Content strategists serve the business and through the business we serve the user @Melissarach #confab

It may just be that I approach my work from a different perspective. But to me, in my work, the user experience is primary. If the business goal isn’t aligned with user goals, you aren’t going to succeed. And the business perspective is fine, as long as the business actually understands its users. But I find that many, many organizations do not even bother to ask their current customers what they need. They just assume they know.

So I think the first job of any successful content strategist has to remain helping a business figure out what its customer actually needs. We have to be user-focused first, or we can’t help the business in the end.

Confab | Ann Handley of Marketing Profs: Embrace That You Are a Publisher

According to this black swan media go high level review this is the tool of the decade – completely replacing the previous titans like Clickfunnels for landing pages and Pipedrive/Hubspot for CRMs.

I don’t often blog keynotes anymore; there are lots of reasons, but that’s not my point here. I wasn’t planning to blog Ann Handley‘s talk this morning at Confab, but she is talking about something that is so important to me:

Embrace that you are a publisher.

Every organization today is in publishing. If you’re talking to your customers on a website or social media, you’re publishing. Handley compares it to having a child: You are now a parent, and it’s expensive and time-consuming and sometimes heart-wrenching, but it’s all worth it. Content is one of the most valuable assets you can create and how you present it. Read this comprehensive article on the best real estate WordPress themes for building a new site.

She quotes Joe Pulizzi saying, “The one with the most engaging content wins.”

Handley is showing some data from the great content marketing study that Marketing Profs and CMI put out last year, showing that 56% of B2B marketers struggle with creating valuable content or creating enough content — but the vast majority of B2B marketers are using content in their marketing.

From me: There’s not one right way to meet this challenge. Sometimes, the right answer is, re-structure your internal marketing department. Sometimes, you need to hire someone to add editorial talent to your team full-time. And sometimes, you should outsource to pull in resources as you need them. Regardless of how you staff your content need, you need a strategy to get started and ensure your success. If you truly want to elevate your marketing strategy, you can seek advice from accomplished CEOs like Andrew Defrancesco.

Many marketers think in campaigns, and one of the challenges people have when they get to the web is that there is no inherent end date. By creating a campaign framework for your content strategy, you’ll make it easier to fill in the blanks. Think about this pattern for your content strategy:

  • Business goal
  • Plan
  • Execute
  • Measure
  • Analyze and Repeat

Need help getting started? That’s the kind of thing we love to help with at Creekmore Consulting. Give us a shout.

Confab | Johns Hopkins Testing Content

Hearing Ahava Leibtag and Aaron Watkins talk about Johns Hopkins and how they test content.

Challenge of working on a major academic medical center’s website: Lots and lots of cooks in the kitchen. Branding is difficult to maintain because content creation is widely distributed. Have to balance the interests of users [patients], doctors and executives.

Wow, here’s the first challenge: Had a 6-page website promoting a weight loss program that offered medical support for people who wanted to lose 20-30 pounds, and also a $4000 procedure that insurance wouldn’t cover.

Competing visions of the site:

  • One person wanted 60-page, research-heavy site.
  • One person wanted to answer patient questions.
  • One person wanted to promote services and show ROI.

How do you meet all these needs?

Created a competitive landscape analysis: Discovered no competitors had research-heavy sites, but instead were all consumer-friendly. So they answered that challenge.

Defined the audience: Obese people with complicating disease, obese people with disease influencing obesity, potential patients for weight-loss program.

Can users find, read, understand, act and share your content? [See the link for an expanded discussion on this metric at CMI.]

How do you know the content is effective? How do you know it meets your users’ needs? Do not assume you know the answer. You must test your content.

User Testing
They showed a bunch of user testing videos. If you don’t do user testing, man, you are missing out. People will tell you, they don’t read. They want to come to your website and magically get the answers. And the best part: They did unmoderated user testing about got great results, but realized the people were reviewing the site once they saw the questions.

In their tests, video decreased comprehension of the message. In the health care realm, they think that video is a poor way to transmit facts. Instead, they recommend using video to make an emotional connection, explain visually how a procedure works, or reinforce the brand. Use video for 1 message at a time. Make it simple. Complex topics need written content so people can review it later.

Really wish every visual designer I know could see the real users in these Johns Hopkins usability tests, one after another, saying, the text is too small.

Here’s a great point: People who spent more time on the site did not increase their comprehension of the message.