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[A] Podcast: Creating Content Ecosystems

Interview With Jack Molisani

LavaCon founder Jack Molisani talks content strategy and how to future-proof content assets.


Jack Molisani is the president of ProSpring Technical Staffing, author of Be the Captain of Your Career: A New Approach to Career Planning and Advancement, and produces the LavaCon Conference on Content Strategy and TechComm Management.


Cruce Saunders
Welcome to Towards a Smarter World. This is your host, Cruce Saunders, and I'm joined today by Jack Molisani, the President of ProSpring Technical Staffing - an employment agency specializing in technical writers and other content professionals. Very fortunate to have Jack here, he knows everybody in the industry and he's been in the space for a long time.

He's the author of Be the Captain of Your Career: A New Approach to Career Planning and Advancement, which was #5 on Amazon's Career and Resume Bestseller list.

Jack also produces the LavaCon conference on content strategy and techcomm management, which is held in New Orleans this year, October 21–24, 2018. If you're interested in attending LavaCon, use referral code ATeam for $100 off your conference tuition.

It is an amazing conference and, Jack, I'm really glad you could be here to tell us your story, and also maybe we can start out with the story of LavaCon, which is a truly unique forum where so many different roads converge across the content ecosystem at large, at large across the enterprise market. Many streams seem to converge at LavaCon and it's a wonderful community. I've enjoyed participating in it. Could you tell us a little bit about the story of LavaCon?

Jack Molisani 
Sure. Thank you for having me. I'd be happy to tell you a little bit about the background. LavaCon started in Hawaii, hence the name LavaCon. The Society for Technical Communication, which is a worldwide organization, one year, back in 1998, pointed out that it's a shame that none of the chapters in the Pacific Rim countries ever get to go to their own regional conference, because those conferences seem to be on the mainland US. And at leadership day one year, someone said, “You know what? We should have a combined region seven/region eight conference, hold it smack dab in the middle in Hawaii.” I raised my hand and went “Um, I'll run that one,” and we had it in the fall of 2000. Our break-even point was about 140 people; 560 showed up. It was amazing.

Everyone kept saying, “I can't wait til next year!” I’m going, “There is no next year.” “I can't wait til the next one!” And I went, “Hmm...maybe there's a marketing opportunity here.” So I started my own commercial conference. We had it in Hawaii, since that was part of the success of the last one, but I said, but what would my niche be because there's already the STC has their conference, there are other tech writing conferences. And I realized there weren't many conferences for managers, those of us who had a little gray and our temples, and doing strategy and budgeting. So that's how the conference started.

And we were in Hawaii until about 2008, when the economy kind of took a slide, and I brought the conference to the mainland US just to make it easier for attendees to get approval, but I wanted to bring that Aloha Spirit with us. Because we always had local food and local pub crawls. And so we started having the conference in fun walkable places: the New Orleans French Quarter, the Gaslamp district of San Diego, Austin, Texas. So that's what we do.

And we started a tradition, a couple years ago, where in New Orleans we did a second line jazz parade down to where we have our networking karaoke night. And last year we were in Portland and we went "What are we gonna do in Portland?" and found out that Portland had a Chinatown. So we did a Chinese dragon parade to our off-site karaoke venue and kind of started a tradition. So LavaCon is a really good place to network with your peers and have a little fun while you're at it.

It seems like there's a lot of different groups that come together at LavaCon. So I know it started out of a techcomm fabric, but it seems to have evolved over the years. Can you talk a little bit about the different kinds of practitioners that find their way into LavaCon?

You bet. One of the things we discovered early on is there's a convergence of content. It used to be everyone who was in their own little content silos. Techcomm had their content. Tech support had their content. Marketing had their content. Training had their content; and none of these silos were talking or sharing content.

Especially the big international companies that translate into multi-languages, 26/27 languages, and what we found is, as content professionals, a lot of the techcomm people are stepping up. And I have an analogy: in the Disney movie, Finding Nemo, you have the seagulls that whenever they see food they go "Mine, mine. Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine." And realize that content – there is really a need for like a Chief Content Officer or somebody coordinating the content strategy across these silos.

So as the years progressed, we took more and more of a proactive stance to bring these various content silos to the table, almost like a United Nations of Content. Where you had representatives from all the silos around a table on equal footing planning: how do we best strategize enterprise content projects?

So LavaCon tends to bring those various silos together. So we have people from marketing, we have people from techcomm, we have people from tech support, with people from training all going: How can we create a unified, reusable content strategy that reduces costs and helps companies make money?

I love the convergence, and of course that's a really big theme at [A] that we're working with quite a bit: is how do we, kind of, unify content across all of these different environments? And LavaCon is the only conference, that I know, that's really looking holistically at content sets from this orchestration standpoint, across the different silos.

I love your United Nations of Content visual, and also the theme of the content experience, ecosystems. Creating content experience ecosystems, that we have in New Orleans this year. That's very forward thinking, I think.

We're trying to get these customer experiences that we create from a standpoint in, say tech support or technical documentation, to marry up with the post-sales or the pre-sales customer experiences that are happening in marketing, and just kind of getting those two worlds together, pre and post sale parts of the customer experience. You know, as well as eventually even tying in the employee experience, and everything that training is doing. A lot of the content is just really related, right? I mean we were traditionally in techcomms used to building these help files and that seems to have changed, right? It's no longer just fixed documentation, it's documentation in response to queries that might be coming in from a lot of different places. And so we've got to get the content structured to meet these, sort of, customer intents.

And LavaCon is pretty interesting and its ability to attract folks from across the spectrum that normally even in their own enterprises don't have a chance to talk. So I think that's really an exciting place for the conference. And you know, I just wanted to thank you for providing this space for the industry to have that conversation, that cross-functional conversation.

I'll circle back to the employee experience in a second, but you're welcome on the thank you. There to industry changes, major changes, that are driving this convergence. One is that as consumers get more savvy, they're starting to look at user documentation before they buy a product. So suddenly, what used to be a dusty manual on a shelf, is now being considered as marketing collateral, because if the user manual shows the product is difficult to use, they're going to go with a competitor.

So marketing now has a, and sales, has a, not foothold that's not the right word, the need to make sure that techcomm documentation is findable, readable, consumable on various platforms. Because if someone is now looking up how to use XYZ product on a cell phone you need to be able to format your content to be displayed on a cell phone.

Second thing that I see that has changed, that is driving this convergence, is the move towards what do you call it, subscription services, especially for software, web-based software. Where you don't buy Photoshop anymore, you subscribe to Photoshop. Or you don't buy Quickbooks, you subscribe to web-based Quickbooks. And if a customer doesn't like the experience, they can just leave and go to another vendor. So companies realize that the customer experience directly drives your future sales. And it's so much harder to land a new customer than to keep one. So it behooves them, and how often do you get to use behoove in a everyday conversation, to spend money to make sure that content is an integral part of the user and content experience. Not some afterthought, like a commodity to be acquired for the lowest possible price given an acceptable level of quality. We've just got way past that, way past that.

Indeed, indeed. Let's use that as a bridge to the bigger picture across the enterprise and the state of of content in the enterprise. Can you kind of talk through some of what you're observing, about the underpinnings of this convergence that you've described already, and what's driving this, sort of, movement towards shared and federated efforts within an enterprise? And what else do you observe about the state of content and the enterprise today?

I think there are two polar opposite things happening. Either innovative companies are jumping on the structured content bandwagon, if they're translating their documentation into multiple languages, because that's where the real cost savings from reuse and and granular topics comes in. That or companies are just doing the documentation, like they always did, in Microsoft Word, and they don't want to spend the money. They don't see the return on investment or they're not big enough to move the structure offering. So you've got two completely different mindsets and then you have everybody else in the middle, who want to move to structure authoring but they don't know where to start. Where do you even start? Because it can be very overwhelming. It's a different authoring paradigm, it's a different way of thinking about content. Content is now a business asset, not a liability. You almost need to build the case for Chief Content Officer, or just like you have a Chief Information Officer, because it is really a business asset to be leveraged. And I see those kind of three camps in the industry.

And what are some of the biggest struggles that owners of these assets are confronting today?

Truthfully, I think the biggest problem is selling the idea of an enterprise content strategy, or a content ecosystem, to upper management. A lot of people, a lot of managers, see the value of content reuse, and see the value of structured authoring. But oftentimes the return on investment comes to a different department than the department spending the money to do it. So without a project being championed at the CXO level, from a top down, we are going to do this and we're going to spend money to do it right, that's where I think a lot of companies are struggling. Especially content professionals are not known for being fantastic public speakers, and operators, and sellers of initiatives. So you need to learn to do that.

One of the little pearls of wisdom that I share with people (is) that the best way for you to sell a content strategy initiative to upper management is to:
  1. Go to Toastmasters and learn to do public speaking
  2. Take an improv comedy class.

Because you learn to respond to questions. You learn to be in the moment. You learn to have self confidence and that is what upper level management expects in a project leader. Especially one asking for a lot of money to do an enterprise-wide project. So those two skills alone, may not be the answer you were expecting, but will help you build a business case almost far better than taking a business case writing class.

Indeed, I really concur with his general idea that where there's this huge opportunity for organizations to unlock the value of content within their organizations at the most senior levels by, not only treating it as an asset, but tracking it as an asset, right? That idea that every content is a P&L, a profit and loss statement. It's got its revenue side at the top line, the value it adds driving behavior. Each of those those items has has dollar amount that can be ascribed to the value of particular interactions with content sets. And there's a cost to produce each asset. And the more durable the asset, the longer it lasts, the more it's influencing behavior, the better it is performing over time. And that is something that when we look at cross functional assets and convergence, as you were illustrating for the audience earlier, you know. Those effects all do ultimately require cross functional collaboration. It's not just something that Techcomms does by itself. And I think that sometimes the prescient leadership that's happening around structure in techcomms gets really easily ignored by the revenue producing side of the business, in marketing and sales. But sometimes on the biggest lessons that marketing and sales need to learn about how to get those assets more valuable comes out of techcomms.

So, they won't ever really work together outside of committees unless there's an executive sponsor of some kind that's helping to create a unified framework for how the value of those two parts of the enterprise need to work together. And that's that C-level advocacy that you're evangelizing. And I really I think that's really well suited for for what we're seeing as well, where there's just no way for the... at the practitioner level to wag the dog, to up the entire enterprise. But, but we certainly can be better communicators. About the value of content and the need for it to be coherently organized with collaboration across silos. So what are you seeing and hearing about collaboration across silos? What's working for people?

Before we jump to that I want to go back two sentences ago, when you're talking about building a business case for the CXO level. Bonnie Graham and I taught a "How to Build a Business Case Workshop" at LavaCon one year. And we went around the room, just to find out what business problem are they trying to solve. And we went to the first person and said "Okay, what business problem are you trying to solve?" and she said, "We need this content management system."
I said, "Why?"
"Well, we're currently using Word."
"Word is hard to use."
"So?" And I kept pulling the string, and pulling the string, and pulling a string, and about 10 minutes later, we get to "But we're spending $50,000 more on translation every quarter than we should be."
And I went, "Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! That's the business problem you're trying to solve." You need to solve state to upper management. Why is it a problem for them? Not as why is that a problem for you, and say okay, the solution to this hemorrhage is a structure authoring content management system, but the business problem is either losing revenue or it's costing too much. So before we go on to collaboration. I just wanted to drive home that fact that when you're building a business case, you need to make it: Why is that a problem for the executives that they will care about?

I love that. I love that, and your process of digging in with the participant was, you know, asking why. You know they say asked why seven times, it's just kind of digging down into that: Where is the dollar and cents impact?

We had this really interesting conversation with a very large business to business marketing organization, one of the largest in the world. And they have this offer content type, and the offer is something that takes maybe $2,000 to $3,000 to generate across the different groups that touch it. So not a lot of money. And then, you know, they started to look at: Well, how many times do we now need to very that offer? And we looked at the different market segments it went into, and then we looked into the geographies, and then we looked into the language translations, and then we looked at the number of times the offer changed every year.

And that very simple asset which they saw is about $100 to change. $2,000 to $3,000 to create, $100 to change. When we added up the number of variations, permutations, translations, transformations, and changes that, that one asset had it was over a million dollars.


And it spread out among many, many different groups. So nobody sees it. Nobody sees the million dollars cost because it's in, it's just in operation somewhere in Asia Pacific, or in ENIA, or it's in a product group marketing budget shared with global. But it spread out and all of these places, but when you actually do the math, it's unbelievable, the cost to manually transform content.


So structure starts to look really attractive when we start encountering all of these different channels that we're trying to get our content out to, in all the different places, permutations, and variations.

Just to add to what you just said, our keynote speaker at LavaCon this year is Karen McGrane, author of Content Strategy For Mobile, and she's talking about Content in a Zombie Apocalypse. And whenever there's a new publishing paradigm, whether it's a tablet, or a cell phone, or a watch, or Google Glass, you know, middle management tends to run around going, the sky is falling! The sky is falling! No. No. It's not the zombie apocalypse.

If you put your content in a structured format, it doesn't matter what the next big thing to come along is, because you’re future-proofing your content strategy. You’re future-proofing your content. So again, if you need to transform it, great! What are we transforming to this year? And that is another way to justify moving content into a structural authoring environment. Then you don't have to be reactive. You can be proactive, and just take the next thing that comes long, go home, and sleep well at night.

Love it. I love it. So what do you see about collaboration that's, in real life, happening across silos and over the last year? It's an ever evolving target, how much people are really working together, but it seems to be growing. What do you see?

It's definitely getting better. I've heard some people beat the drum for tearing down content silos. I'm sorry, those silos are never coming down. Marketing has never giving up control of their content. Tech support is never giving up control of your content. So circling back to my United Nations of Content analogy, where our job is to bring various players from those content silos together at the beginning of the project, and strategize a smooth cooperation, even if it is competition amongst some groups, that we are not going to steal your content. We're not going to force you. And you and I talked about this, and I think it was the last time we were in New Orleans about creating almost like a content API. Where you go: ‘Alright, I need the product description for this product, and that's in your department. I don't care how you store it, where your store, what it stored in, I just want it back.’ So you're now creating this interface between multiple content, not just silos, but content management systems and content repositories. Where if you don't want to throw away all your legacy software, then you just learn to bridge it and bring that content together so it's accessible across silos.

Love it. Yeah. And it's really challenging to get to that API when structural schemas within the systems of record are so different. And so what, you know, we found is the one of the practical ways there is to to start getting folks to agree on a master, we call it the Master Content Model, which is a structural schema that the enterprise owns independent of the systems of records. So independent of the CMS, or the CCMS, or the DAM, or the marketing's latest SAS application from the Martech Stack.
And they're all very beautiful. I mean, they really are. But there's thousands of them. You know, Scott Brinker, I think, recently released one that's got, I don't know, 8,000 now? Different applications that marketing people are trying to use to to present content. I mean, many of them are content experience driven,and so the sad thing is, if those each become silos then we're just creating a new copy/paste nightmare everywhere. So it's You know it the silos are still going to be together, but to your point, we've got to find a way to wire them up and get those pieces working and agree upon standards, structural standards.

And, to jump in here, it's not only agree upon them, to stay with them. Because I can't tell you how many organizations you go into where departments start overriding the model with their own changes and suddenly it's not a unified model anymore. So, yeah.

Yeah, to your point, that's kind of like, it really needs a CCO or at least to see some chartered organization that has a a persistent presence. It's not something that goes away as a project and ... The biggest problem we see with modeling is it's a project tied to a website, or it's a project tied to a, to a thing, you know, a deliverable. We build the content model for the user manual, or something, or the support website. And that's not enough. It's gotta be. It's gotta be able to be those elements. The title from from support has to be able to play well when somebody puts it on the sales website and says "Related articles from support, you might be interested in." And we've got to be able to pull it in and then semantically tie it together with tags that are consistent across the groups. And if they're not consistent, we can't get the content really talking.

Which just reinforces your point about having communication and coordination across silos.

Yeah. This idea of the United Nations of Content under the auspices of the CCO, it's an interesting one.

I think that's going to be the theme for next year's LavaCon. Let's just run with that.

Okay! As a customer I'm curious about the different, your take, on different forms of content consumption that are emerging. You know, steeped in the space, it's pretty easy to look at it as a stakeholder within the content ecosystem, the content community. But just as a customer, I'm curious about your take on on chatbots and other interactive experiences that are starting to bubble up.

Oh, don't get me started on chatbots! Yes, get me started, this is the perfect venue for this! I love chatbots, as long as they are being presented as a digital assistant. The minute you try to convince me this is a real human behind this chatbot, and it's not, it is irritating as all heck. And I will give you a real life example of both.
Fedex: When we ship things to the conference, we usually ship like 30-40 boxes and I wanted to go to make sure they all arrived. And for the life of me I could not find my shipping history option anywhere on the Fedex website. Because what they did is they added a new skin on top of the old system so it's responsive to mobile and they didn't list ‘History’ as one of the options. So they had a digital assistant and it said, "How may I help you?" I said, "Where can I find my shipping history?"

And check this out. You had to create a new shipment, then click on shipping history, which I would never would have thought to do. But I said thank you, gave me the answer I was looking for and off I went.

I was a DirecTV customer until AT&T bought them, and kind of did what they did with them. But there was a chatbot. And I had two boxes in my home, one in the bedroom that I really wasn't using anymore so I just wanted to return that box. And there was a chatbot, and he said, "Hi, I'm Alicia. How may I help you?" And I asked her my question; then, there was a pause, like, "dot, dot, dot", thinking, like I'm thinking and typing, and back would come the answer. And, you know, "How can I help you?" And I said, "Well, I want to return my box." And they said, "You want to cancel your service. Thinking, dot, dot, dot, dot." And I wrote back, "No! Stop!" And I got an instant answer are going "Okay".

So it was clear that they didn't understand what I was trying to do, and it was some AI behind this thinking it was answering. But that whole thing about the adding the delay, and the type, type, typing, dot, dot, like there was a real person, when there clearly wasn't, was so irritating and I got so tired of the customer service that I actually cancelled my DirecTV subscription and went with another vendor. It was just easier. But it was just so infuriating, I guess, as a consumer to be, to feel like someone is trying to pull a fast one on me and going, and I can't be the only person that had that reaction with that stupid chatbot. So if it's a digital assistant, tell me it's a digital assistant and I won't think it's a real human. But yeah.

We have a chatbot on LavaCon's websites. His name is Alfred and if you want to find something just ask the chatbot. But he says, "I'm your Digital Butler, how may I help?" That's my two cents.

Nice. Yeah, it's, it's amazing when we're trying to reduce friction in customer experiences, by introducing friendly helpful bots, sometimes you're actually increasing friction, and customer frustration, and completely failing. I think it's still early days with a lot of that stuff being able to make a difference for broader experiences. And so we've seen interest in chatbots, but there's a sort of stepping back as we've realized that they're not magic.


They're not actually magic. It takes a lot of work to even get a very tight domain, tightly scoped bot to be functional.

Karen McGrane did a podcast on Content in a Zombie Apocalypse that you can hear on the LavaCon homepage. And in that podcast she says, "Many of the companies who are doing chatbots are doing them now to harvest the questions that people are asking, so they can then better address those questions in their normal collateral." I thought that was interesting.

Yep, it's becoming, kind of, the alternative to onscreen search, you know, onsite search. Where we used to be able to get most of our insight about customer intent from their searches in a search box on a website, but it's kind of the next step of that. Now we can pull the data from chatbot sessions and use that to kind of understand customer intents and then model our content, or direct our content editorial functions, kind of around the answers to those questions. So it just makes it so much easier to become closer to our customer by hearing them ask questions and in human language.

And you have to realize that Google on a mobile device is one big chatbot. I mean, I'd say "the downtown YMCA hours today" and will read me back downtown YMCA's hours today. The downside of that is when you ask a question, the top response on a Google search, or any other search for that matter, is the only one the customer hears. And the question then becomes, how did they get to number one? Is it just search engine optimization? Are they buying ads on Google and therefore getting placed higher?

We don't know the exact algorithm. Hard to say. So just realize that if you're in an industry where a majority of your customers are on mobile devices, asking questions to find you on the web, that your content has to be formatted for mobile or else it won't arrive as high on the search engine optimization hierarchy. But I say if, because I know for my conference a majority, I think it's like 87% of the traffic we get, is from on laptops in the office. So we didn't spend a huge amount of time optimizing our site for mobile. It is responsive, don't get me wrong, but because we did our homework, we know our customer demographics, we play to those demographics. So just a word to the wise. Know your audience. The first rule of tech writing: Know thy audience, or any kind of writing. Enough said.

Two more questions. I think we could probably keep talking for hours here, but I want to make sure to keep this session as tight as we can. I'm gonna tighten it up with a couple of questions here. One on DITA and the other one on advice for folks in a content career. So let's start with the DITA question. Coming from a techcomms background. I'm curious about your insight on DITA versus non-DITA authoring regimes within enterprises. Are you seeing the standard growing, shrinking, or staying the same in terms of the adoption of the standard, and the value? And for those who don't know, did as an XML standard allows for content portability between systems that use the standard as an XML, normalized XML set, we can work with it to transform it for different uses through machines. And so it's very, very interesting as a structural basis for content sets, but we found it's not the whole answer. So curious about your take on DITA.

Well, for those who don't know, DITA stands for Darwin Information Typing Architecture, the standard was developed by IBM and it is definitely growing. It is growing faster in the United States than in Europe, but I am not an expert on the European market so I'm not gonna talk too much about that. As you said, it is an XML standard. It is not the only standard and many companies created their own standard. One advantage of DITA is that when an employee leaves, or you hire an employee, and they've worked in DITA and you're a DITA shop, there is a smoother transition to onboarding that employee. Or from when you leave to go to another company, for you to be onboarded there. So there's an advantage of having a standard that everybody uses.

Now, is DITA the best and for all? No. Does it have its problems? Yes. Is it a standard that's being adopted? Yes. Is it right for you? Hard to cover in a podcast, or at least this podcast.

Yeah, it's big, it's a big topic. What about your final words that you might have for people in a content career, or considering one.

Alright, so a couple points on this. I'm going to circle back to something I said earlier about taking that public speaking lessons, like at Toastmasters, which is free and a very supportive environment, and there's chapters almost everywhere. And taking an improv comedy class. Those skills will serve you well.
The third thing I recommend is take a negotiation workshop. As you are constantly negotiating for project scope, for resources, for time off, your next salary when you transition jobs, for our pay raise. Nobody teaches us in a traditional school environment. I certainly did not have a negotiating class in my degree program. These are all things that you can take no matter where you are in your development, your career development. But realize that, this is changing. It used to be every job was a percentage raise over your last job. So if you start early enough that those raises compound over time. So if you want to be better compensated down the road, learn to do better negotiating now.

As far as getting into the careers, I jumped online and did an analysis of how many people are hiring technical writers, versus content strategists. And I realize there are fewer content strategist because you need a strategy, and then all the writers write to that strategy. But I just thought it'd be interesting if we could see some numbers. So I did a search for how many jobs were posted over the past 30 days on Dice, Monster, and So Dice had 43 tech writing jobs and three content strategist jobs and that was only 6% of the open jobs. Monster had 158 technical writing jobs and 24 content strategy jobs about 16%. And then had a surprisingly 216 tech writing jobs in 64 content strategy jobs, a 30% difference. And of those 60% were mid range, 20% were entry, and 20% senior. So clearly there's a bell curve on what companies are looking for i n content experience these days. They're looking for, not the top-top people, or they are, but only 20% of them are, and not bottom-bottom entry level, but that kind of middle the road mid career openings.

So there are definitely plenty of jobs out there. And the more specialized you could get the easier it is for you to sell yourself. I hate using that term, position yourself in the industry, whether you're a DITA expert, or an expert in marketing collateral, or content project management, like bringing those various silos together, or an enterprise content strategist where you're coming in and helping multinational companies not only come up with a strategy, but implement that strategy. Because now it's an education. It's change management. So many things we do, even though they're part of our technical communication job, so few of what we do, little of what we do is writing. It's scheduling, and interviewing skills, and critical thinking skills, and all those things you need to be successful in a content career.

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