Strategy on the Inside

Rachel Lovinger   November 15, 2012

This discipline runs on strategy (photo by ribarnica)

For the past couple days, I’ve been having fun casting “Content Strategy: The Movie,” but this morning I woke up and it’s starting to look like this indie film project is going to be a tense drama. So now it’s polemic time, people. We need to talk about this big “S” Strategy vs. small “s” strategy debate. I think many of you are missing part of the picture.

Maybe I shouldn’t look at Twitter in the morning before I get ready for work, but I do. And today a tweet from Destry Wion alerted me to a discussion about a Wikipedia page on Content Engineering. It describes an engineering specialty that includes “content production, content management, content modelling, content conversion, and content use and repurposing.” The woman who started the discussion is Kate Towsey, a self-described content strategy consultant in the UK. In a series of tweets, she speculated that maybe Content Engineering was a better description of what she does.

I understand Kate’s concerns – I’m interested in similar aspects of content, and sometimes it seems like these topics are in the margins of content strategy discussions. But I (and others) firmly believe these discussions do belong in this discipline, so we keep at it. I tweeted back:

Elsewhere in the Twitterverse, two leaders in UX and Content Strategy seemed to be about to throw down. I don’t know the back story, but the exchange led me to discover a blog post taking the opposing point of view, that content strategy has been too tactical, to the point where our use of the word “strategy” has become a meaningless buzzword. This view of “strategy” seems to be very marketing-oriented. That is to say, exclusively outward facing.

A few weeks ago Luke Wroblewski told me that he considers “structured content” to be a tactic, not a strategy. I shrugged it off, even though I strongly disagree, but I was left with lingering mixed feelings about it. Why would the very people who have turned up the volume on the rallying call for structured content – the Future Friendly Responsive Web Designers – be so nonchalant about how structured content happens? There are no magic content elves who come into your servers at night and leave you a shiny pile of structured content in the morning.

Structuring content requires synthesizing a swath of sources, designing usable systems, changing organizations, training personnel, soothing egos, adjusting priorities, allaying fears, reallocating resources… all while trying not to disrupt an existing content production process that cannot just stop while you sort out all this stuff. Does that sound easy? It shouldn’t. This is big “S” strategy, and it requires understanding, insight, diplomacy, negotiation, and persuasion.

So yes, it’s an implementation. It’s engineering. And it’s strategic. But it’s the kind of strategy that faces inwards, at the needs and pains of your (or your client’s) organization – the poor people whose day-to-day lives are about to be completely upended by the launch of your new widget. The small set of users whose buy-in you absolutely need in order to make sure your digital product has a longer shelf life than a few months. You need them to love this product and own it, not gripe and cry and phone it in. If they don’t love it, they will never be able to sustain the delightful, engaging experiences you’ve envisioned for your end users.

Between that conversation with Luke and the Tweets I saw this morning, I had a thought-provoking conversation with Paul Ford that renewed my sense of commitment to this point of view. Like me, he has a background of working with traditional publishers and he brings this experience to bear on his work in the digital realm. He seems to share my sentiment that it’s shortsighted, and perhaps a bit naïve, to ignore the impact of organizational change when introducing new “content tactics.” Failing to recognize that Strategy (big “S”!) is necessary in order to pave the way for new tactics is a great way to make sure your project, initiative, or shiny widget fails.

 

Don’t just take my word for it. Other people thinking about these issues:

13 Responses

  1. Great post! I think the “change management” piece is the foundation of greatness in content strategy.

    Regardless of your personal perspective, guiding and sustaining change is difficult.

    As David Maister points out it’s a balance between systems, attitude, knowledge and skills…

    • Systems: Does the company actually monitor, encourage and reward this (new) behaviour?
    • Attitude: Do people want to do this? Do they buy in to its importance?
    • Knowledge: Do they know how to do it?
    • Skills: Are they any good at implementing and executing what they know?

    All of these items can impact successful implementation. I’ve found that addressing these questions up front can set realistic expectations and align objectives.

  2. Angie Hattingh says:

    I’ve changed my title from Content Strategist to Digital Director. I also find “Content Strategist” too narrow for the vast number of hats I wear in the process, which include both implementation and management of the process itself. Maybe my situation is unique but perhaps there is value for others in considering a title like “Content Director”.

  3. Ian Waugh says:

    I try not to waste too much time worrying about what is strategy and what is tactics.

    Maybe implementing all the things required for structured content is ‘tactics’, but thinking about it at a high enough level and decided to act is definitely strategy to me. Or if it isn’t, I don’t care either way.

    The internet needs people who are going to push this stuff through, for everyone’s sake. Like you say, structured content isn’t going to happen by accident. Someone needs to plan, and decide how to make it happen. I would call that strategy.

    We’re not solving our clients’ real problems if we aren’t thinking about how to change organisations and processes for good.

  4. Destry Wion says:

    When a response is longer than the post, it belongs elsewhere. :)

    https://plus.google.com/u/0/112670651692744005384/posts/7JX3sXFsVW5

  5. Great comments, Destry. +1

    I wish you could have fit it here, because you say a lot of things that really contribute to the topic. So I hope everyone links off and reads it.

    A few specific comments on things you said:
    * Great points made (by you here, and others on Twitter) about this being partly an issue of what professional title people adopt. It makes sense that this is a serious concern for people who are independent consultants – it affects how you position yourself and attract clients. So, yeah, it’s not that important that people have “content strategist” in their title (it’s technically not even in my title right now!). I’m more concerned that people don’t feel alienated from the practice.

    * Failure is defintely happening! I did a talk a while ago with my old partner at Time Inc about the ups and downs of a major classification system we built and implemented (and guess what – a lot of the failures had to do with adoption problems). But it gets tricky to talk about those examples publicly, especially as a consultant, because it’s very hard to do without exposing your client’s nasty and vulnerable underbelly. I suppose these things could be abstracted, but it seems most people want to hear case studies of success stories.

    Here’s that presentation – The Rise and Fall and Rise of TOPICS: http://www.slideshare.net/rlovinger/the-rise-and-fall-of-topics
    Incidentally, it was those experiences with the TOPICS project described in that deck that helped me understand how truly strategic this work is and needs to be. So, point taken about the learning power of failure stories! Or, at least the learning power of failure experiences.

  6. Rahel Bailie says:

    This comment will be far shorter than the rest. Excellent article, as usual, Rachel. Each discipline has its strategic aspects as well as its tactical, and recognizing that you can’t implement without laying out the framework lies at the center of it. You’ve made that case very clearly.

    As an aside, Professor Robert Glushko, from University of California at Berkeley, has been teaching document engineering for ages – his book of the same name was published by MIT Press in 2005 – and it’s all about structuring content. As you’ve pointed out, it’s heavy on implementation, but implementation against requirements. And planning for delivery against requirements sounds like an aspect of strategy to me.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Document_engineering

  7. Joe Gollner says:

    A very interesting piece. And helpful, as this is a topic that I find myself returning to with unsettling frequency although, admittedly, in a somewhat different paddock.

    I will admit that it was the phrase “Content Engineering” that drew my attention. For many years, I delivered a workshop entitled “Content Engineering” although, in my usage, it focused unwaveringly on the technology side of the equation (for example, on some of the tools and techniques that we use to structure large sets of content).

    And I will admit that I have thrown down the gauntlet on a few occasions and asked the question of audiences and organizations “How Strategic is your strategy?” This basically gets at the Big “S” versus little “s” question. And it does so with the implication that most content strategies do not really go after the bigger game of becoming a real player in an organization’s business strategy. The question also insinuates that many strategies remain words and pictures in a deliverable and do not cross the line into becoming action.

    I think that in all this there is a fair amount of agreement between what I have offered on past occasions and the points that you are putting forward.

    I continue however to struggle with how to mix some of the more technical elements of the content calling (which I used to myself group under “content engineering” or “content solution architecture”) with those that are closer to the real heartbeat of content itself (which is where, rightly or wrongly, I tend to put “content strategy”).

    When I was participating in a “Content Talk” with Kristina Halvorson (See http://5by5.tv/contenttalks/13) I declined the title of a Content Strategist saying that there were lots of people who I look up to who I consider “Content Strategists” and that I consider myself more of a “content technologist”. As the concept of “Content Strategy” has continued to evolve, and perhaps as I have as well, I am becoming less and less inclined to step away from the title.

    I have ventured a few thoughts in the past on this topic so I thought I would register them just in case they strike a chord with a reader or provoke a robust rebuttal. Specifically, see my post “About Content Strategy” which is now a couple of years old (http://www.gollner.ca/2010/12/about-content-strategy.html). More recently I posted something called “The Accidental Content Strategist” (http://www.gollner.ca/2012/08/accidental-content-strategist.html). I have not posted too much about “Content Engineering” but there is one post on “Architecting Information and Engineering Content” (http://www.gollner.ca/2010/02/architecting-information-and-engineering-content.html). As a bit of context on my somewhat idiosyncratic starting point for some of these ruminations, a post called “The Truth about Content” is, unfortunately, inescapable (http://www.gollner.ca/2009/08/the-truth-about-content.html).

    As it happens, this is all top of mind because I am supposed to be completing a book that is provisionally entitled “Engineering Content”. Tellingly, almost all of the effort over the last six months has been directed to questions revolving around “Content Strategy”. I suppose that this alone is an endorsement of your premise.

  8. [...] in a multi-person twitter exchange and the writing of two very thoughtful blog posts (one by Rachel Lovinger, the other by Destry Wion) regarding the word ‘strategy’ and whether it is an [...]

  9. Kate Towsey says:

    It was intriguing to watch and engage in the conversation that sprung up over my Content Engineering tweet the other day – Rachel’s post, Destry’s response, more tweeting and several in-person conversations with Content Strategy friends.

    The conversation inspired me to give my exploration of job titles context; in other words, I allowed myself the luxury of recording my “road to CS”, as Destry nicely described my post, and how well ‘strategy’ has described some parts of it less well than others. It’s a long post, much more than just a direct response.

    ‘The full bird song: inspired by ‘Strategy on the inside”: http://www.katetowsey.co.uk/inspired-by-strategy-on-the-inside/

    Thanks Rachel and Destry for taking the conversation from a few twitter mumblings to something much more significant – listening to and reading the thoughts of others on the topic has been very interesting indeed – and it inspired me to do some CS journaling again.

  10. [...] L’article «Stratégie vers l’intérieur» de Rachel Lovinger (@rlovinger) publié sur le blog Scatter/Gather de Razorfish offre un avis sur la place du mot «stratégie» dans «stratégie de contenu». Selon l’auteur, il se réfère surtout aux efforts en matière politique à fournir au sein des organisations pour mettre en place des processus de publication censés et pérennes. [...]

  11. [...] Adapting to a world where the web may be embedded nearly anywhere, and where content can be viewed and used in a range of different contexts, isn’t a one-person job. It takes understanding users, developing databases, updating content management systems, writing clearly, designing modularly, thinking in systems, and a million other skills. [...]

  12. [...] week, Rachel Lovinger brought to light another misconception about content strategy. She recently talked with folks who viewed the more technical planning, [...]

  13. [...] Adapting to a world where the web may be embedded nearly anywhere, and where content can be viewed and used in a range of different contexts, isn’t a one-person job. It takes understanding users, developing databases, updating content management systems, writing clearly, designing modularly, thinking in systems, and a million other skills. [...]

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