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Invite Yourself to the Table

This past week I had the opportunity to be part of something new in my organization. During and after content planning workshops, web editor and author orientations, and a planning session for how to strategically recognize award recipients, I heard enthusiasm and excitement about doing things differently, doing things better. None of these things would have happened if I hadn’t invited myself to the table.

Over and over again, digital professionals hear that we have to have a seat at the table to affect business decisions. But too many of us wait to be invited to that table. We have to accept that the invitation probably is not coming. Each of us needs to invite ourselves to the table.

I was once one of the those people. When I was younger, I sat off to the side, listening to others discuss fascinating things. I didn’t dare ask questions or offer ideas. Who was I to suggest something? But back then I was not a digital worker – very few were. I was trying to break into a field that was as old as nations, even if the world was in a state of upheaval at the end of the Cold War. It was harder to get a seat at the table without a lot of experience.

I won’t bore you with the rest of my story, so let’s fast forward 15 years. I am a digital professional now. The web is ubiquitous and websites have gotten out of control. While everyone agrees that the web is important and no organization can exist without a website, very few organizations realize how much that ecosystem of digital communications can help or hurt their bottom line. It’s not the fault of the CEOs or other top leaders in the companies. It’s our fault. Too many of us sit back and complain about how nobody listens, nobody gets it. We go about our jobs doing what we can. Sometimes we sneak strategy in or use guerrilla tactics to do something a little better. I have even advised this.

A change in tactics

It is time to stop quietly doing our things and not being noticed. We have to be more visible, more vocal, more insistent that digital come first, not last. We must insist that digital professionals be part of the strategic considerations of all organizations. Paul Boag lays out the case for doing this in his book Digital Adaptation. My advice now is to be a vocal agent for change. We need to use strategic nagging* to get our seat at the table. We have to show our business value, as Andrea Goulet Ford implores us in Here’s Why You Can’t Sell Your Ideas: content strategists need “to stop explaining their process and start communicating our value.”

Take the risk

It will be difficult at first. It’s scary to say, “I want to be at the meeting to discuss the membership campaign.” But you have to do it. Maybe the first meeting you’ll just sit back and listen sheepishly. But it won’t be long before you realize you know more than many of others, recognize your value, and start speaking up. Guess what? People will listen. You’ll start doing things better. People will come to you at the – gasp – beginning of a project!

One word of caution: Be careful what you wish for! Once people recognize your value, you’ll get invited to so many meetings your head will spin! You’ll be the popular kid you always (or never) wanted to be. But such is the price of success.

* Patient but persistent repetition of a message

The Gender Gap, Leaning In, & Leadership

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This title might suggest that I’ve got a lot of ground to cover. But they are all pieces of the same puzzle. Lately, my Twitter feed and real life both have been full of commentary on the state of gender equality. This has become important to me. Because, as much as I hate to admit it, it has impacted my life – I see the inequality everywhere. Unfortunately, it is not a simple problem to solve.

Sheryl Sandberg tells us to lean in. Ann Marie Slaughter says women can’t have it all. Many others talk about breaking glass ceilings, a lack of women in leadership roles at large companies, and all the things women must do to keep themselves and others from holding them back. But much of this discussion has been by women, for women. So it was with relief that I read It’s Not the ‘Confidence Gapby Elizabeth Plank, which talked about how this is a societal problem, not just a problem for women. And I firmly agree. If we don’t start addressing these things as cultural issues rather than women’s issues, we’re not going to get very far. Still, here’s yet another woman talking about this. There are far too few men speaking out about how they have too few women peers.

Not Just Women’s Issues

Everyone needs to do better. It’s not just about telling women to have confidence, it’s about men AND women supporting that confidence and creating an environment that is safe for everyone to excel and lead. Women can do as much damage to the cause as men – there can be a bit of competition among female leaders. Instead of welcoming other women to the top of whatever ladder they have climbed, they sometimes push them away. This is partly because some women can be very catty, but partly because there can be a feeling that there is only room at the top for so many women. That attitude has to stop. Men can help create a safe and welcoming environment so that women can nurture each other instead of competing for a limited number of positions. A woman needs to feel safe to be a woman, and not a man in a dress and heels.

But it doesn’t start at the top, it starts at the bottom. We can’t solve this issue of having too few women represented in the C-suite, as speakers at conferences, and in other leadership roles by having explicit quotas for women in these positions. In some fields the percentage of men vs. women in careers leans heavily towards more men. In those cases, we cannot expect to have 50% of the people in top positions, speaking at conferences, or being role models for girls and young professionals. Ultimately,the problem is that there are too few women to choose from in the first place. We need to find ways to make these fields more evenly split between male and female so that we can get to the point where we have just as many women at the top of these fields as we have men.

Men’s Role

Women cannot solve the gender inequality problem themselves. Men have an important role to play too. Men can be mentors and sponsors to women. They can speak up when they see sexist behavior in others and seek out women who have leadership potential and encourage them. When men and women both recognize patterns that have allowed gender equality to persist, we can start to make changes. Neither men nor women can do it alone. There has been plenty of writing and discussion by women for women. It’s time for the discussion to include both men and women. One place this is happening is at  Bentley University’s Center for Women & Business, which recently published Engaging Men to Advance Women in Business, the first in a series of pieces “on how men in positions of organizational power and influence can help advance women to create a more balanced business model for future success.”

Take Action

What can you do? Whether you’re a man or a women, you can’t sit idly by and hope that someone else will solve the problem of gender inequality in the workplace. Be more cognizant of your behavior and take steps to rectify the things you do to perpetuate the problem. Go beyond complaining. DO SOMETHING. For example, instead of simply letting women or girls you know opt out or lean away from traditionally male professions or male behavior, ask “why.” And don’t accept “it’s too hard” or “there are no other girls/women” as an answer. Even if you are not someone who aspires to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the keynote speaker at a major conference, encourage and support your peers who do, and especially the women. In our current environment, women need all the support and encouragement they can get to become leaders. Let’s create the environment our sons and daughters and nieces and nephews need to move beyond this inequality. If we try hard enough, maybe we can even make it better for ourselves and our sisters and brothers, husbands and wives.

Empathy: I Don’t Think That Means What You Think it Means

Empathy: the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings

Over the last year or so, the user experience community has been talking a lot about “people skills.” We tell each other about how our work is more than the deliverables we create. And it’s true. But I think we are getting pretty close to jumping the shark on this topic. We’re approaching what I’d call the “kumbaya phase.” And I say this as a person who just gave a talk at the IA Summit in which vulnerability, patience, and empathy were used prolifically to talk about leading change. Indeed, all these qualities and more are needed to get our work done. No argument there. We absolutely need to step out from behind our screens and understand the people we work with and our audiences.

But if we start saying that empathy is going to get our work accepted and implemented, I’m going to have to call bullshit. I’ve got an unused content strategy in my drawer dated 2008 (5 years before I started the job) that, despite perhaps enormous amounts of empathy, could never have been implemented at the time. I know the people who created it. I don’t doubt there was plenty of listening and talking before and after the document was delivered. They knew what they were doing, they understood the audience, and recommended exactly what was needed. So why did this strategy – and so many others – get banished to a drawer? Because there was no one inside the organization to champion it. No single point of contact to shepherd the implementation. No internal change agent to lead the way.

Instead of a constant stream of empathy, maybe we need to throw in a few lessons of hard knocks. Empathy is not education. It won’t bring clarity to murky situations, or otherwise help clients fully understand what work really needs to be done. It doesn’t provide the leadership needed to make bold decisions that will change the course of organizations. Empathy builds trust and relationships, but it won’t get the work done.

Employee vs Consultant

I am in a position of having been on both sides of the fence. For 10 years I was a consultant. I’ve been the in-house web director at a mid-size organization for over a year now. I look back at sites I helped develop as a consultant and weep at what happened to them. So many have not followed advice on what makes good content, have messed with the carefully thought out architecture, or otherwise put their strategy in the drawer and just do what they want.

Now that I am in the client’s shoes, I think back to what I and my colleagues could have done differently to prevent that from happening. Rarely have I thought “we should have been more empathetic.” In fact, sometimes, we were empathetic to a fault. Mostly I think about better education. As in, “If only I had taken the time to sit down and explain what was going to need to happen throughout the organization to get this to become part of the business process” – and ask if they were prepared to do that. But I doubt most of them would have listened – or been prepared to become a change agent. They weren’t ready to hear it. Many people and organizations need to learn the hard way, by making mistakes themselves instead of learning from others.

Just as others who have gone from being a consultant to an internal team member, I discovered that it is only by being a cog in the wheelhouse that you uncover the biggest obstacles – and learn how to overcome them. As a consultant, I witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly in clients. There is no small amount of empathy needed to get people to trust you and listen. But it takes a lot of guts to speak up and challenge the status quo, to lead the way to making user experience (or IA or content strategy) an integral part of the business.

Can consultants challenge the status quo from the outside? Sometimes, but only if they have the right partner on the inside. In my case, not only did the consultant fully understand the path ahead, they documented it, and outlined exactly what was needed to make it happen. But it has taken 5 years and someone new in-house to say the same things before anyone would listen. I know I am not alone in this experience.

Should consultants listen to their clients and help them understand what kind of effort will be needed to implement recommendations? Absolutely! Should they commiserate and empathize with their clients when they are bumping up against obstacles? Of course! But to go into every project thinking that empathy is the main ingredient in making change happen is going to make for a lot of disappointed and frustrated consultants. Instead, as a consultant, you need to go in with a sense of realism, a willingness to listen and make hard decisions to walk away from projects that are doomed to fail, and to make recommendations that could put yourself out of a job. This attitude is going to get us all further down the road. Only when clients hear more of this will they learn and accept the truth: That change is hard and takes a lot of guts to make it happen.

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My Hymn to the IA Summit

Another IA Summit is over, everyone packed up and gone back to wherever they go. The 2014 Summit was my third. I was nervous at my first Summit, in 2011. Not only did I know exactly one person, but I was speaking to more than a table-full of people for the first time. No sooner had I finished the first-timer orientation where Dan Willis told us to just walk up to people and talk to them (yeah, right, dude!) and met the person I knew for dinner – which ended up being a group of people – than I was comfortable with myself and felt like this was going to work out OK. I met a lot of people at that conference, and I did actually walk up to people I didn’t know and talked to them!

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Good morning, San Diego!

You see, I’m a shy extrovert – I like being around people I know, but am deathly afraid to talk to people I don’t know. As I look back to 2011, the reason I was able to talk to so many people was because just by virtue of being at the IA Summit, I was among friends. I made connections with people I would later work with, present with, and otherwise look forward to seeing at events far and wide. I had found my tribe, as people say.

I wasn’t able to go back until 2013, and very much looked forward to the event. It did not disappoint. Old friends, news friends, more connections, more knowledge, more inspiration. When the time came to decide about whether I’d attend the 2014 Summit even if I didn’t get picked to speak (thankfully I was; more on that in another post), I didn’t have to think very hard – I would go. This would be my conference of choice in 2014. Why? Sure I’d learn about all aspects of IA, content, design, team, process – things that aren’t covered at any other conference in such depth. But, most of all, I’d get to see my people and be a part of the community that 3 years ago was so welcoming. And so a couple days before I left, I found myself writing this:

I am excited to get away to the magical place where I am not shy, where I can talk about anything and there is someone who gets it, where sharing your passion about your work is the norm, where people come to talk about ideas.

And so it was. At no other conference are the people who literally wrote the book on the subject walking around like anyone else, leading morning runs, taking their clothes off on stage, and inviting other attendees to join them in the hot tub after the closing plenary. Everyone is accessible, everyone has something to offer, no one feels silly for asking a question or offering an idea.

The uniting force is that we are all excited about new ideas in information architecture or the related disciplines. I am not an IA, but I do IA. I also do strategy of all stripes, content, management, design critique, change management, and lots of other things as part of my job as web director. Some would seek to narrow the scope of the conference – it is the INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE Summit, after all. But as Karen McGrane illustrated last year, IA is the discipline that connects so many others. I’d guess that there are more people who do IA as part of a multi-disciplinary role than who are pure IAs. But IA is the scoffolding that holds everything together. And everyone who attends the Summit gets that. Just as generalists need to better understand aspects of information architecture, so information architects need to understand the things they are holding together. As Peter Morville said in his closing plenary: “Generalists and specialists need each other.” It’s the sharing and caring that make the Summit special.

And it couldn’t be done without us! Each year the co-chairs – volunteers all – keep making a better experience. Listening to comments during the conference, reading blog posts and tweets after the conference, and generally doing their best to make the IA Summit the best damn conference of the year. The conference where people are positively giddy about going, sad about leaving, and enriched for having attended. And so I send huge thanks to Abby Covert, Aaron Irizarry, and Johanna Kollmann for this year. Veronica Erb, Mike Atherton, and Jessica DuVerneay are embarking on a journey of their own to create an experience in 2015 that we will all enjoy just as much. I’m looking forward to next April to see what they cook up!

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Channel Your Inner Toddler

If you’ve spent any time around toddlers, you know that their favorite words are “no” and “why.” It can be maddening. But they are really just trying to assert themselves and make sense of the world. And user experience professionals need to learn how to channel their inner toddlers in order to make their work most effective.

What does your inner toddler look like?You see, we spend a lot of our time at work finding ways to say “no” and ask “why” time and time again until we get the right information. We get the urge to say “NO!” when someone asks us to “put this welcome letter from the CEO on the home page.” But, as adults, it is not appropriate to outright say “no” to your boss or colleagues – or even to those who work for you. So we turn to asking “why” as a means to get to “no.”

Ways to Say No

I cannot begin to count the number of times I say “no” every day without actually saying “no.” And most of the time, “no” is not the full answer. Often it’s “no, but….” To be fair, your clients or the people in your organization probably don’t really understand what makes good web content or the ramifications for adding a new feature to your website . So you’ve got to ask questions and educate them.

Ask a Question

Turning the tables and asking a version of “why?” is one way to avoid saying “no” directly. Ask for the reason behind the request. Ask for data to support why your customers want this information. Keep asking questions until you get to the real issue at hand. Sometimes you can get to “no” without ever having to say the word. Other times you can find a better way to fulfill the request (if it is truly a need).

Educate

You are the expert on web content or usability. Don’t be an order taker. The person requesting additional content or features is an expert on something else (you can hope!). Use the request as an opportunity to explain what makes good content or what makes something usable. Not in a condescending way, but in a way that provides enlightenment. Help others get their a-ha moment when the light turns on. This will make things easier for both of you in the long term.

Offer an Alternative

If you ask questions and can see some value to what the real request is – or you just can’t talk them out of it completely – offer a less obtrusive way to fulfill the request. The welcome letter? Maybe there is a new CEO and it is important that your customers know his plans for your organization. A welcome letter was just the default method of doing this because he and his assistant didn’t know any other way. Brainstorm ideas for getting this message to the customers in a way that is meaningful and useful.

Put it on the Wish List

Sometimes you just have to defer things (and hope they go away). There are times when the idea is a good one but you can’t fit it on your to-do list right now. Other times, you can use prioritization as justification for putting a request off. But really put it on a list – the list must be real. Revisit it periodically – quarterly is probably a good interval. Some items will stay low on the list and never see the light of day, but you’ll have justification because other things are higher priority.

Refer to the Strategy

Which leads to the best way to say no: “That does not align with our strategy.” Pull out the strategy statement (you have one, right?) and explain how this letter does not support what you are trying to achieve with the website. If you don’t have a strategy, you’ll have a much harder time saying “no.”

These are just some of the ways you can stop the madness of too much stuff on your website. As you move toward publishing things that your customers need, you’ll find yourself saying “no” less often.

Learning to say “no” was one of the most important things I’ve learned in the last few years. It isn’t always easy, but it makes life easier in the end.

Crafting Inspiration

This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by Carrie Hane Dennison, on Santa’s list of 2013 gift posts.

As many blog posts as I’ve written, I can’t say that content ideation always comes naturally to me. I spend days, even weeks, thinking about what I may want to write about. Then I rethink based on my audience and how many links and social shares it may or may not generate and decide if it’s even worth my effort. This is all fine and well when I’m thinking of posts I want to author myself, because I want to be proud of my work and I don’t mind putting in the extra time if I need to, but this can be a serious problem when trying to populate an entire calendar with various authors writing on all different topics.

Is editorial calendar maintenance even the job of a content strategist? Sometimes as I’m assigning dates and coming up with ideas I feel much more like a project manager than anything else. It makes me realize that when I approach content this way, I’m doing it wrong. Coming up with a great idea for one post instead of thinking of it as part of a whole unified strategy is just not having optimal impact on the company, the blog, and the target readership.

When I assign blog posts with general categories like today is “social media” and tomorrow is “SEO,” I’m doing a major disservice to the practice of content strategy. It also explains why it’s nearly impossible to come up with awesome ideas on a consistent basis. Sure I’m creative and I’m a writer but how can I inspire others to write something magnificent when I’m giving them nothing to work with? I need to drill down into this higher-level concept of balancing themes and authors by really getting cohesive and discovering how all these ideas work in conjunction with one another.

Thinking about how posts fit together in a sequence and how the contrast between different lengths, styles, and topics balances out… that works infinitely better. And while it puts the right amount of control in my hands as a strategist because I can dictate guidelines and offer up suggestions, it gives my team enough room to get creative and put their own spin on what I’ve thought up. The key to achieving this type of team work approach only happens during real life content meetings when we all sit down and shout out ideas and nitpick through the details later. It doesn’t happen over email or on Trello cards or in G-chat conversations. Face to face interaction, back and forth feedback in real time, that’s where the magic happens.

Then come the guest posters. How do you inspire people whom you’ve never met? And at that, inspire them in a direction that fits with your brand?

When a complete stranger wants to guest post and asks me for a topic it just doesn’t seem right. Yes, I will stalk you on Twitter and read all the posts you’ve written elsewhere for the next hour or so. I will try incredibly hard to get a solid read on what you’re good at and what you enjoy writing about. Then I’ll take those concepts and match them up with topics that haven’t been on my blog lately, along with hot topics that everyone is talking about, plus let’s not forget seasonal themes, and then try to fit all of this into five nice ideas that I can pitch back at you. You hopefully pick one and then I pray that when I get it back as a draft it somewhat resembles what I’ve imagined in my head for this post to be. Could this be right?

It seems completely backwards to me to tell someone else what he or she should write about without having had a single conversation with him or her. I bet you could read through my Twitter right now (if only you knew who I was) and you could comb through my blog posts across various blogs, and you still would not know what I do on a daily basis. You wouldn’t know what I like best, or what I find most challenging, or have the slightest idea of what inspires me.

So why do the people who manage content calendars put up with this workflow? They paste some guidelines and maybe a submission form or email address on their contact page and ask for guest posts. And then they’re upset when what they receive isn’t high quality or on topic. Unfortunately, no matter how clear to you the overall message, voice, tone, concept, goal and purpose of your blog is, not every person looking to guest post is getting all that and figuring out how they can fit into the equation correctly.

Let’s try something new. We all tweet each other and email and, yes, our jobs exist because of the Internet but why is that now the be-all and end-all of our communication? Let’s pick up the phone. Let’s have Google hangouts. Let’s actually get to know each person who wants to write for our site and let’s have those people get to know us right back.

“But this will take extra time! So much extra time! I’ve got none of that,” you say. Nope. No way it will. Because all of the time that you spent at your desk and on the train and in the shower agonizing over what ideas to pitch to each and every person for every day your blog needs a new post will significantly get cut down. You’ll spend less time wondering and imagining and more time productively making a plan of action that works for both the writer and you, the strategist.

Experts in our field have stressed that content strategy involves a team effort from multiple disciplines and that communication is key in countless books and blog posts. One person should have the final say but they should not also have the first and only word as far as what content will be created. In 2014, let’s not look to one person for inspiration; let’s inspire each other.

Don’t Tell Me What to Do

A couple weeks ago, I inherited a project and found myself lamenting that the solution was already proscribed. In some cases I probably would have come to the same or similar solution had I been part of it from the beginning, but others I probably wouldn’t have. Either way, it made me realize the importance of having web professionals be part of problems, solutions, and products that involve the Internet.

At the 2013 IA Summit, Stephen Anderson gave a talk called “Stop Doing What You’re Told.” I’ll admit that I was drawn to the title because I pretty much hate doing what I’m told to do. It was one of my favorite talks of the conference. To keep the conversation going, he set up a Google Doc of “Bad Problems” that anyone can contribute to. I’ve shared this with my team and several other people I work with. The document gives names to many problems we are presented with day in and day out. Things like bandwagoning (framing the problem as something important to do because everyone else it doing that thing), solutioneering (framing the problem in terms of a technology purchase), and anchoring (framing the problem in the context of a specific solution) are things I deal with frequently. The solution to dealing with these types of problems is asking “why” over and over until you get to the crux of the problem or need. Only then can you find the right solution.

Asking questions is not easy for many people. It can mean challenging authority and doing more work. But it is essential if we are to develop good solutions that actually solve a problem. I have warned people in my organization that they should be prepared for lots of questions from my team and me. Directors and managers should expect to get questions from their newly minted and empowered web editors. They should also be prepared to hear “no.”

Too many times I’ve had to take a project a few steps back (or talk people off a cliff before jumping into a boiling ocean) to make sure the project had defined goals that could be measured – and achieved  We are too often given orders to “make a website for this group” or “build a community for our members” or “create an app for this conference.” When I ask “who is going to use it?” or “how will it be used?” I usually get responses like “my committee said I had to” or “Mr. von Important said he thought it would be a good idea.” None of these people suggesting solutions are web professionals who have done research about whether a new website, an online community, or an app is really what is needed – or how they might create it. In fact, they haven’t even defined the problem or need, just a solution.

You can imagine that I was thrilled when I mentioned to our conferences director that I thought maybe we just need a mobile site for our annual conference rather than an app and she replied, “I don’t care what we have, as long as it does what we need it to do.” We still haven’t figured out the solution, but if we start with identifying the need, I am confident that we’ll end up a solution that will take less work and money while better serving the needs of attendees.

As I was contemplating this blog post, I read Colin Meney’s Why you shouldn’t dictate to your web team on his Content Strategy Scotland blog. He covers many of the same points. It all comes down to web professionals taking responsibility for helping others understand what we bring to the table. To do this, we have to ask questions, develop solutions collaboratively, and show results. It won’t be easy at first, but once we have seats at all the tables, everyone’s life will get better.

What is a Content Strategist?

I recently attended an event in which the panel discussed the best ways to build good digital teams. Panelists included the heads of digital practice at large, traditional companies as well as the co-founder of a digital agency. They said a lot of things that I thought were spot on. But when someone asked whether she would be better off becoming a generalist or specialist, namely something to do with content strategy, I was surprised  and a bit dismayed, at one of the responses. I agreed with the executive from the agency who said that content strategists are hard to come by and are in great demand. Having recently had this discussion at the IA Summit in April, I couldn’t agree more with that statement.

The answer from the head of one of the digital teams was way off. He equated content strategy to copywriting – which is also in demand, I’ll give him that. But it really surprised me that he didn’t have enough context to realize that content strategy is so much more than copywriting. “Content strategy is more about the spreadsheet of doom” said a friend when we talked afterwards. While I think that is closer to the truth, content strategy is so much more.

A content strategist is really a web generalist specializing in keeping teams and projects focused on what matters most – the content. Skills needed to do the job effectively are wide ranging: everything from a wee bit of HTML & CSS, to copywriting, to editing, to recognizing good design, to knowing how to talk to developers, to marketing, to business strategy, to quality control and assurance, to project management, to content modeling, to keeping track of details, to change management, to SEO, to information architecture, to social media engagement. In other words, a working knowledge of just about every aspect of all the specialties that make up digital teams or projects.

Before last week, I was more of a mind to say that we should not have content strategists per se, but that content strategy should be a part of each team member’s job. But now I realize that we do need people who are specifically content strategists, even if all the other team members get it. We do need more people who speak all the languages of the web specialties as well as the non-webbies, who have a tolerance for creating and managing the spreadsheets of doom, and who have the communication skills to bring everything and everyone together.

Those of us who are practicing content strategists need to do more to spread the word about what it is we do and what value we provide. We need to correct people who say that content strategy = copywriting. And we most definitely need to make sure that companies aren’t just hiring junior-level people and calling them “content strategists” so they can check the buzz word bingo box.

Where do we find more content strategists? Many of us come from the jack-of-all-trades webmaster pool, having done a little of everything because we had to as a one-person web team. I see more people turning towards content strategy from other parts of the user experience field as well as from the SEO or content marketing world. These are the leaders who need to keep advancing the profession.

We also need to attract more people to the field as they start their careers. As Sara Wachter-Boettcher said in a webinar earlier this year, content strategy is perfect for a detail-oriented liberal-arts major who likes to get lost in spreadsheets (or something like that). Likely, most college students aren’t even considering content strategy as a career because they don’t know about it. So we need to spread the word to our local colleges and high schools to let people who have the right aptitude know about this growing career field. Goodness knows there are plenty of recent college graduates looking for a job! (See my own path to content strategy in last week’s blog post.)

I did talk to the questioner after the panel and shared all these thoughts with her, told her about the local Content Strategy:DC meetup group, and encouraged her to keep in touch so I could help her better understand how she could move into a content strategist position. She was very encouraged by all of this. I hope to have more of these conversations in the near future.

What are some of the things you’re doing to help find more content strategists and grow this exciting new career field?

Hello World!

“Hello world”! The first words I made appear on a computer screen circa 1984. As a seventh grader more interested in history and books than science or math, I never thought I’d find myself with a career in making things appear on computer screens. But by happy accident at the end of the 20th century, I discovered that my aptitude for communicating with written words collided nicely with the dawn of the World Wide Web. So it was that I became a web editor in 2001, my first full-time web position. Twelve years later and I find myself wanting more than ever to make the Internet a useful tool for all who seek information – one website at a time.

I learned everything about making a static website back in the day. Coding HTML and CSS in Notepad, eventually loving Homesite to make that a bit easier, then Dreamweaver to really help polish things up and take advantage of short cuts. To this day, I find those ancient, rusty skills helpful as the director of a web team. I don’t remember the last time I did any real mark-up, but I can find my way around source code to figure out why there is an extra line space or why that heading looks funny. With that knowledge, I can do quick fixes myself, or know exactly what to ask of the developer who can make magic happen. With the belief that every person who brings content to the web should know these basics, I gave last year’s summer intern (an English major) the task of doing HTML and CSS tutorials before he did anything.

Throughout all my time working on the web, I have focused on the content and organization. (Probably because I couldn’t design my way out of a box.) Eventually I found myself taking an information architecture class. At about that time I had just read Kristina Halvorson’s article on A List Apart, giving what I had been doing for years a name: content strategy. It sure was nice to know that I was onto something new for once in my career.

But being at the forefront of a new way of thinking also means that you can’t necessarily do it overtly – especially when you are a consultant on a strict billable-hour budget. So I snuck it in, convinced our CEO that we always needed to do content planning, and eventually we stopped hiding it in our proposals and budgets. At first, that was the first thing cut from the budget. But once we were able to show that adding that simple line item would actually save money and time, we could sell it. When I left that web development agency at the end of last year, content was the heart and soul of every project we did. For a small company, that was a major accomplishment.

I have turned away from the dark side of consulting and am now the web director at the American Society of Civil Engineers. It is here that I find myself in a new role, one of change agent, disruptor in chief. I was hired to manage the website. They had made mistakes in the past and wanted to do it right this time. (Yes, that was the opening line in my panel interview. Nice start!) But once I started, I found layer after layer of issues. There was clearly more work to do than just reorganize the navigation and edit the content. So I set about making changes one thing at a time.

First it was putting some governance in place. Working with marketing and communications departments, I put together a basic editorial style guide and policies for posting content. But I didn’t just email the documents to the (90+) CMS users. I held 4 training sessions for all users of the CMS and email marketing tool. Lights went on in people’s heads. It wasn’t that they were purposefully doing things poorly or wrong, they just had never thought about things in this way. Nary a “click here” has come through the approval queue since then! (Success!!)

When I discovered that no one in the organization was trained to use or set up up Google Analytics, I worked with HR to get a handful of people trained so that we could start measuring thing that matter, not just the three Vs: visits, views, and visitors. There remains a lot to be done in the area, but everyone knows the importance of it now.

I recently finished and and am in the process of presenting the strategy for the new website. Taking cues from the GOV.UK project, I proposed and got acceptance for a “revolution.” Instead of migrating the tens of thousands of pages on our current site, we will start from square one just like we didn’t have a site at all. This will not be easy or painless, but I’m not shoving it down people’s throats either. Group by group, starting with senior management, I am presenting the concepts we need to embrace to become a digitally centric organization and have a web presence that we can all be proud of.

So far so good. I attribute the successes I have had over the past four months to skills every content strategist and user experience professional needs to have:

  • empathy
  • patience (though this is the hardest most of the time)
  • communication skills

And so I start this blog with the notion to share the ups and downs of the change process, how content strategy forms the basis of everything we do on the web, and various other things that come up along the way. I do not promise a regular interval of posts, but now that I’ve done the hard part and got started, I imagine I’ll take a bit of time every week or so to write something. Come along, dear reader, and join the parade!