“Nodes, ROI and cake” - Content Strategy Lightning Talks part one

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 13 November 2012

I spent Monday night at the latest Content Strategy Lightning Talks night in London. Organised by Together London and Jonathan Kahn and hosted by Richard Ingram, the meet-up group now has 900 members, and this event was sold out to 100 attendees. On the night there were eight talks, on topics as diverse as SEO, technical writing, video production and mapping site structures. Here are my notes from the first half of the evening.

“How to convince people that content strategy is worth the effort” - Sarah Richards

Sarah Richard is Lead Content Designer for the Government Digital Service, described by Richard Ingram in his introduction as perhaps the “single most impressive case study of large-scale content strategy to date.”

Sarah’s talk was packed full of tips on how to deal with people in a business or organisation who might be blocking your attempts at content strategy. One of her first tactics was silence. To scare people by saying nothing. To listen to them until they’ve run out of the arguments they are having with themselves about why content strategy is a bad idea or not needed.

She also suggested people not sell the concept “too hard”. She argued that most people have a filter that causes them to switch off if they feel they are being aggressively sold to. Rather than selling, you should be teaching. “Get some cake to a learning lunch and teach them” she urged.

Another idea was to hunt around the business to find a champion for content. It might not be your immediate manager, she said, but someone further up the tree or in a slightly different department. Ring round and try and get meetings with as many senior people as possible. If you pitch it right they’ll often be flattered that you want to listen to their ideas, and the worst that can happen Sarah said is that a PA says they are too busy to see you.

Sarah was realistic about the challenges facing people to get content strategy on the agenda at a lot of organisations — “I’ve also tried thousands of things that haven’t worked and they all failed” she admitted.

Her final tip was an essential one. She said that if you’ve been trying to make yourself valued and heard at an organisation for a year, and you aren’t getting anywhere, then leave and go and find somewhere that will appreciate you. Content strategy is important, but it isn’t worth making yourself ill over. A valuable life lesson.

“ROI! Measuring epic content” - Adrian Kingwell

Adrian Kingwell is a digital content strategist, and his talk was about the metrics around highly successful content. He said that in the process he had learnt that “it is as hard to measure epic content as it is to write it.”

First a little definition of “epic content”. By this he meant super-viral content or content that clinched conversions. It is difficult to define precisely, but you know it when you see it. Adrian likened the effect of epic content to that of black holes, you might not be able to see the thing itself, but you can see the impact it is having. “Sometimes”, he said, “you have to write a lot of these articles in order to find one epic one”

Adrian took a delightfully precise mathematical route to his measurement. Essentially you have to calculate how much a business would pay in order to have a customer reach a specific goal. Once you have that figure you can calculate how much the business can afford to spend on optimising the page so that it works. The key, of course, is that you have to have specific objectives and goals in mind.

“What content strategy can learn from technical communication” - Colum McAndrew

Colum McAndrew is a Senior Technical Writer working for IDBS. He was speaking about the difficult task of talking about “content strategy” in the “tech comms” world, not least of which because, in his experience, people see tech writers as glorified secretaries.

He argued, though, that the world where tech writers wrote huge manuals that gathered dust on the shelves was long gone. Often their content was interactive, or it could be the scripts for videos.

Colum thought that content strategists and designers should make more use of the tech writers at their disposal. Improving error messaging was one of his suggestions. He also thought tech writers could be involved more in the assessment of product usability. If I see an interface that is going to be hard to document, he said, you can be pretty sure it will be hard to use too.

I certainly agreed with that sentiment. I used to work with a great technical writer at Sony in Salzburg, and I always knew that if his eye were narrowing as I tried to explain one of my wireframes, I had done a bad job.

“Making site maps user-ful” - Emily Heath

Emily Heath is an information architect and content strategy advocate, and she was demonstrating an IA diagramming technique she had used on a website redesign project. Emily explained that she’d been happily doing “the usual stuff” on the project, but then two competitors to the client put their new websites live. The key stakeholders instantly got what Emily called “Hippo panic”.

She wanted to show a comparison of what their rivals had done compared to their work, and point out how much better their website was going to be, but regular site maps and clickable prototypes weren’t having the desired effect. So she came up with the “node site map”.

Instead of a traditional site map, which only shows the primary hierarchy and the organising principles of a site, Emily’s node map illustrated all of the inter-connections between content at a deep level. It allowed her to show that whilst the rival sites were nice and new and shiny on the outside, at their IA heart the content was still isolated in silos. The IA she was working on for the client was much richer, with deeper connections and exploration paths for the user. She said the project ended up delivering not only to “happy” clients, but to “better informed” clients.

Emily suggested it was also a technique you could use for competitor audits or to spot weaknesses in your information architecture, although she did caution us that “just because you’ve put the links in place, doesn’t mean people are going to find them.”

Emily’s slides are available online: “Making site maps user-ful

Next...

My next set of notes from the Content Strategy Lightning Talks will cover three other talks from the evening, by James Perrin, Steve Keenan and Kate Towsey — “Pandas, penguins, video and goddesses”.

1 Comment

Hi Martin - I wasn't able to make it to last night's content strategy meetup so I too am very grateful for your write-up. But you seem to make a habit of doing excellent write-ups of events - thank you for all your efforts.

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