“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:
- 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!