Leading with Content: Talking Strategy with Margot Bloomstein
Content is king.
Despite the oft-repeated, cliched, meme-like nature of this statement; it’s an absolute truism. Content is king. Not sure? Well, here’s a simple test. Get rid of it and what have you got? Not much, other than some pretty (or not so pretty) pictures.
Yes, content on a basic level is important, but it goes much, much deeper than that. Well planned and executed content reinforces brands, solidifies consistent messaging, engages users, and creates context–internally, externally, and historically. Yet given its obvious place of importance in the hierarchy of a brand’s needs; content, many times, is still the last thing to be collected from clients. And that is a mistake.
We recently talked with Margot Bloomstein, Principal of Appropriate, Inc., about the value of content and its role in building strong brands. She gave us the straight story on the role of the content strategist, the importance of developing a brand-driven message architecture, and why well-planned content does not add to the budget.
As the principal of Appropriate, Inc. you’ve established content strategies for a wide variety of clients. Based on your experience, what do you see as the role of content strategist?
My role as a content strategist varies to reflect my client’s publishing maturity. When I work with organizations that come to the table with questions about how to get started and need help consolidating blogs, websites, and offline brochures, I play the role of teacher and guide: I help them to learn and ask the right questions of their communication goals and audience engagement goals. When I partner with teams who already publish a lot but need help determining the most appropriate investments and content types for the needs, I play the role of therapist: I help them to align their actions with their goals. Content strategy entails making tough choices among what we like, what we need, and how it’s always been done. Content strategy sifts wants, needs, and habits; my role is to implement sustainable workflow and guidelines to balance those interests.
Respect the spirit of the law so the letter of the law doesn’t mire your content in foolish consistency.
Good content requires time to plan and execute properly, which ultimately adds to a budget. How do you talk to a new client about the importance of content and its value?
Smart organizations realize that content isn’t what adds to the budget, but rather where the budget begins. If an organization is investing in a new website, application, tradeshow exhibit, or piece of print collateral, it’s because they need to communicate something new. Content is at the center of that communication. Concrete information delivered in a differentiating, brand-specific visual style and verbal tone is what audiences expect and organizations need. Otherwise, their investment is a waste.
Content has always been important, but it seems like over the past few years there has been a growing emphasis on content and the strategy surrounding it. Why do you think that is?
Content without strategy is action without direction; we can blog, podcast, Tweet, and draft self-help FAQs until our fingers grow numb, but it’s activity—not progress. Progress requires clear goals and communication priorities. Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen two recessions; in a recession, many organizations lay off marketers and pull back on filling roles that traditionally produce and maintain content. After the dotcom boom and bust, we saw many marketing departments streamline or disappear. In the more recent recession, we saw many marketing departments, technical writing teams, and other professional communication groups become more efficient. That efficiency isn’t a bad thing. Follow the money: content creation and maintenance in the context of sustainable content strategy just makes more sense.
Content production can waste money, but we can’t stop demand. Instead, we can implement content strategy to save both money and effort.
How does a well planned and executed content strategy aid and enhance a user-centered design process?
In user-centered design, we let our users’ needs and expectations influence the priority of features, affordances, and information. I practice brand-driven content strategy by taking the needs of users into account and balancing them equally with the communication goals of my clients. If we only listened to our users, all the companies in a specific industry would offer the same experience design—but they don’t. Consider some of the most well-loved companies in the oft-maligned airline industry. jetBlue, Virgin America, and Southwest offer their customers very different experiences because they balance the needs and expectations of their users (who may very well be the same, especially for long haul flights they all serve) with their own unique communication goals. jetBlue’s message architecture emphasizes simplicity and comfort, while Virgin America’s message architecture prioritizes whimsy and polished delight. Southwest, on the other hand, prioritizes ease of interaction and low prices. For each brand, their respective communication goals come through in the choice and priority of features, calls to action, typography, and instructional copy—in everything from commercials to the inflight safety instructions.
One of the techniques that you use is content audits as a way to evaluate an organization’s content against their message architecture — is this used to reduce off-brand features on a website or as a ‘content bible’ for website writers and contributors?
Audit your content against a message architecture to learn what an organization has and if it’s any good—or simply just there. Many clients engage me by saying they have a lot of content and it’s all horrible and outdated. I’ve been there; I’ve looked at my closet, seen a pile of clothes, and groaned that I had nothing to wear. Sometimes, we’re too close to tell the difference between having a lot of stuff versus having the right stuff that’s still current, relevant, and good—and a message architecture can help with that. The message architecture serves as a yardstick or metric against which to measure the current content. If it’s good, it’s because it upholds the message architecture. No more or less.
Brand-driven content strategy takes the needs of users into account and balances them equally with the communication goals of the organization.
Over time, many websites experience ‘content entropy’. What are some of the ‘traps’ that writers and content creators run into when trying to maintain brand-driven messaging?
Governance dictates consistency next to cleanliness next to godliness—but brands and users ever evolve, and content should too! That means the teams that maintain and create new content need to understand the guardrails and guidelines of governance, but also have a sense of how the brand and its users grow, learn, and change over time. Often, writers may stick to the literal letter of the law in editorial style guidelines. But language evolves; words change and concatenate over time. Our “electronic mail” became “E-mail” and then dropped its hyphen, kicked off the capital E training wheels, and grew up to be “email.” In brands that respect the intent of their guidelines, such as to convey technical savvy and relevance, that evolution was seamless. Respect the spirit of the law so the letter of the law doesn’t mire your content in foolish consistency.
– – –
Margot Bloomstein is the principal of Appropriate, Inc., an independent brand and content strategy consultancy based in Boston. She will be speaking at WebVisions New York in April 2016 on “Establishing a Brand-Driven Message Architecture”.