Hazel Jennings: Content Strategy is Now
The old adage, “cash is king” has been modernized for a new age of interaction. Yes, in true internet form, the term was co-opted, taken from its more-is-more perspective with roots firmly bound in the soil of materialism, and remixed. What has emerged is a more editorially-centric, less-is-more phrase for the next generation. Simply put, “content has become king”.
Over the last several years, content strategy has become a serious concern for everyone. As we move into the next phase of internet-based computing, we have been forced to learn the importance of a solid editorial strategy. What we’ve come to understand over time is that people want substance. They want context. They need meaningful interactions. Solid content, and the strategy driving it, is a major component in addressing those wants and needs.
We took a few minutes to speak with Hazel Jennings, a content strategist at Instagram, about the role content and strategy can play in an organization, her approach to that at Instagram, and how, when done well, good content can act as a force for change (for the better).
All of the ways we tell our story to the people using our product hold equal weight and should work together.
You cut your editorial teeth at Hotwire.com and startups – when did you transition to content strategy and how did your filmmaking background impact your work?
I was doing content strategy at both Hotwire and the few startups I worked at in Pittsburgh, PA. I came into content strategy the way most people do— I was hired to do a lot of writing and that writing took a lot of planning and in the midst of planning all of this writing and writing all of this writing… I stumbled upon a book that let me know what I was actually doing was called content strategy. In my case, it was Erin Kissane’s, Elements of Content Strategy.
I started pursuing filmmaking as an interest just recently. My work as a content strategist definitely impacts my work in film. I care deeply about incredibly tight screenwriting. I also use a lot of my skills in creative collaboration, soliciting and incorporating feedback and understanding your audience when both screenwriting and editing work.
Instagram is such a visually-driven platform. Why did they hire a content strategist?
No matter the platform, having a unified voice and compelling, consistent messaging is going to improve the experience. Instagram definitely always understood the impact and importance of intuitive, beautiful design—putting that same thought into the writing was a natural next step.
What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome establishing Instagram’s content strategy?
Being a team of one was really tough in the beginning, especially when many of my colleagues had never worked with a content strategist before. Out of all the places I’ve worked, Instagram was also the biggest and most recognizable brand. I wasn’t building a voice from scratch; I was trying to find that voice within the company, within the community and within the existing experience. It took time, but was completely worth it.
Where do you see expanded opportunities for storytelling on Instagram?
We’re focused on empowering the Instagram community to share their stories through photos and videos in a seamless, inspirational environment. I think less about opportunities to tell Instagram’s story, and more about opportunities to make it easier and more fun for our community to share theirs. That could be through new editing tools or standalone apps like Layout and Hyperlapse that allow people to push the outer limits of their creativity.
What is the role content should play in an organization (like Instagram or others)?
Content plays a different role at different kinds of organizations. Content would play a very different role at an online publication vs. e-commerce vs. a social network. We communicate our values and our brand whenever someone interacts with our product, app or website. We communicate it through the speed and reliability of the platform itself. We communicate it through the visual branding and design. We communicate it through UX interactions and patterns. And, of course, we communicate it through the words we use. All of the ways we tell our story to the people using our product hold equal weight and should work together.
You’ve embraced the tiny house, minimalist lifestyle, living in a 200 sq. ft. flat. Does your interest in minimalism connect back to your work as a content strategist? How so?
In general, I’m very ruthless with how I spend my time, my money and my energy: that’s true both in my work and in my life. As a content strategist, I never write 5 words when 2 words will do the job. I work to create experiences that are clean, consistent and obvious.
In my life, I try not to spend time with people who don’t make my life better. I avoid activities that weigh me down or take time away from the things that I love. I discard belongings that don’t bring me joy. Owning less and living in a smaller space means that I have more time and money to focus on my work, my creative pursuits and my relationships. I can completely clean my entire apartment in 2 hours or less. Getting dressed takes minutes, because I only own clothes that I can’t wait to wear. I spend a much smaller percentage of my income on rent, which gives me more opportunities to fund travel.
I approach UX with a similar attitude: we only need the best, most important things. If there are extraneous words or screens or experiences, we should cut them to let people focus on what matters most for our product.
When establishing a content strategy how do you avoid becoming a copy guidelines cop vs. a creative force within the company?
I’ve found the best way to get other people to see you as a creative force is to see everyone else as a creative force. I take feedback and solicit opinions from nearly every role in the organization. Collaborating openly across engineering, design, research, marketing and community teams makes all of our work better. A Copy Guidelines Cop is just editing work in a vacuum and spouting rules; a creative force is building amazing experiences with a team of other creators.
If you could snap your fingers and change Instagram, how would the interaction / experience change?
I don’t think I would just change an entire interaction or experience, even if I could snap my fingers and make it happen. I’m much more interested in iterating on and developing features at Instagram that let it continue to be a hub for creativity, sharing and connection.
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Hazel Jennings will be speaking at WebVisions Barcelona, which takes place on July 2-4, 2015. Her session, Articulating Instagram’s Voice, or, How I Got a Bunch of Visual Storytellers Excited About Language, will look at the role she’s played as the first content strategist at popular photo app, Instagram.