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Making Content Strategy Tangible with Carrie Hane

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Interview With Carrie Hane

Carrie Hane, author, business owner, and content strategist, sits down with Cruce to discuss the human element of content strategy, and how to have effective discussions and tangible results across silos to build content intelligently.

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Bio

Carrie Hane is the Founder and Principal at Tanzen (2015-2020), and the Senior Digital Project Director at Palladian Partners, Inc,. She is a content expert that helps solve the problem of how to manage and coordinate large amounts of content across divisions by coordinating the people, processes, and systems to build efficient content operations.

Twenty years of experience leading cross-disciplinary teams as an employee and as a consultant has enabled Carrie to address the content and customer experience challenges faced by every company in the digital era. She literally co-wrote the book detailing a framework for making content ready for the next wave of platforms and devices. “Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow”, which was published in 2018.

Resources

Follow Carrie Hane on social media:

Get the Book: Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow

‘I've been working more lately with defining things in the near term, medium term and longer term. Get less specific the farther out you go so that you can tie those with specific business goals.’

Transcript

Cruce Saunders


Welcome to Towards a Smarter World, this is your host, Cruce Saunders, and I'm joined today by Carrie Hane, the founder and principal strategist at Tanzen. She's a content expert that helps solve the problem of how to manage and coordinate large amounts of content across divisions by coordinating the people, processes and systems to build efficient Content Operations. Carrie has worked for more than 20 years across cross-disciplinary teams as both an employee and co-owned, and worked on content and customer experience challenges.

Cruce Saunders
She literally co-wrote the book on a framework for making content ready for the next wave of platforms and devices; "Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow", published in 2018. Welcome, Carrie.

Carrie Hane
Hi Cruce. Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here and part of the team.

Cruce Saunders
 I know there's a lot of education and innovation we'll be working on together across strategy, engineering and operations for content. It's an area you've been working in for a long time and we're bringing together a number of the threads into a single dialogue, which is one of the things as an industry, I think we're definitely challenged to do is align all the different perspectives on digital, and how content is a part of creating these customer experiences that are diversifying and multiplying in all kinds of different forms today.


I've heard you say in the past that one of your biggest challenges is getting people past the notion that Content Strategy is just writing and messaging. How would you define Content Strategy for our listeners?

Carrie Hane
So the way I define Content Strategy is getting the right information to the right people at the right time in a way that meets the user needs, the audience needs and the business goals. It's that intersection that is the magic, and so often missing. 


So that definition seems pretty simple, but as with so many simple things, it's not easy. You have to start with people, and that is both with the people you're serving and the people you work with. And that always causes more difficulties than we expect.

Cruce Saunders
Well, it's challenging to bridge ideas. When folks listen to that definition about Content Strategy, what are some of the biggest things that are challenging or confusing about it, especially in a space where there's a lot of different definitions and ideas about Content Strategy?

Carrie Hane
Yeah, I think the first challenge is finding who are the right people, deciding who the audience is, who are the people you're serving? And oftentimes it's multiple groups or multiple types of people, and so you have to prioritize them. As soon as you're trying to be everything to everyone, you're going to set yourself up for failure because everything is diluted. So we have to talk about that and talk about "Who are the most important people?".


 And I use that the phrase who you serve, because when we come from that place of this organization is serving people in some way. That also changes the perspective. They're not just customers who give you money. They're not just donors who give you money or volunteer for things. They're people who need something, and you're an organization that provides something for them. 


And sometimes there's an exchange of goods, or services, or money, but ultimately getting that empathy down to understand that there are people on both sides of a transaction of a message and understanding how to make that connection between what you are offering and what someone needs. 


That can take quite a bit of time because most organizations have not thought about that. The ones who have are already a step ahead and need more help with their processes to get the content to match all that. Then the organizations who are just starting to think more about their audience and the experience they want to offer them.

Cruce Saunders
As you were saying that, it reminded me that one of the people we serve when we're in an enterprise publishing standpoint or operational mindset is the authors and the internal audiences. 


Because you've had this background in both the operations side of content as well as the strategy and message mapping and audience service from a publisher to public perspective, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the internal stakeholders involved in the content continuum and how, as strategists, then operation practitioners, we serve the authors and creators and other contributors to the development of content and customer experiences.

Carrie Hane
I think there's a couple groups in there. One are what we could call authors, who probably use the content management system to enter content. Those may or may not be the people who create content, they could be admins who do the technology stuff for an executive or someone who has other responsibilities, that doesn't put them into the technology of the CMS every day. 


But oftentimes, because most of us don't operate in a world where we have such responsibilities that are that delineated, that author is also a content creator, who's also responsible for a lot of things, and they're experts in something else, not in content creation necessarily, or at least not for publishing on the web or social or email or whatever channel you're publishing the content to.


But they might be experts in organizing conferences, they might be experts in producing courses, even bringing in different subject matter experts to teach the course. They might be membership experts of "how do we serve our members?" if it's a membership association. So there's two sides of that. There's the technology side. How can we support them with the technology that we hold our content in - the CMS, typically - and building that author experience into our systems so that they're supported so that they can do it?


Because if it can't be managed, then nothing else matters because it won't be used the way it's supposed to be, and things, all your strategy and all your messaging and all your guidelines will go out the window as people find workarounds for something that doesn't work for them. 


That's one side of that internal group. But then there's the other side of "what content do we need in the first place?", and all of those other subject matter experts, whatever their expertise is, need help getting their message, their information, their data, whatever it is that they have to offer the audience to the audience.


So that's where the strategy comes in of connecting business goals to customer experience and even sometimes defining what to offer in the first place through that user research and that identification with the audience. So there's a level of content creation help that they might need, but all the time understanding that they are the expert and what they're the expert in your eye or whoever it is who's the strategist involved and whatever their title is, helps them make that accessible to people and get that information to people.


That might mean writing some web content that helps people find it like the SEO side, or the introduction or headlines, so that the person who's searching for information can find it and connect with it and realize that this is something I need and then be able to, for lack of a better word, consume it,  use it in a way that makes sense for them. So there's a bit of diplomacy there on that side because it can be tricky because it's relationship and people can be scared of technology even when it's just another way to represent the work that they've always done.


So we just have to approach that with empathy and figuring out what's going to work for that person. And you're going to have to do that over and over again because each person wants to deal with things a little bit differently.

Cruce Saunders
I think that's one of the reasons we keep steering towards shared representations of content structure, semantics, operating models, so that everybody can translate the content workflows into their own terms and pieces and parts and focus areas.


So you're talking about that enabling process, that strategist kind of plays with the operations partner to help take a standard; let's say it's a voice and tone standard or a structural standard or a tagging approach, and make sure that the content authoring processes and technology systems are supporting those standards. 


So there's this content services organization we've been working towards, helping clients kind of build up as a way to orchestrate content. And it sounds like that strategist role is really a pivotal map maker for that shared services function as that group helps to connect content sets across the organization.


I think that's one of the biggest challenges in the modern enterprise is, is that siloed content functions are creating kind of disconnected, disjointed, dissimilar content sets that are then hard to piece together for presentation, hard to put on websites or mobile apps when they're created in all kinds of different ways. And so what you're describing is a pathway for taking disconnected content, and making connected content out of it, which is emblematic of the approach.


I've heard you do content first approach. Can you speak some to what "content first" means and what it is and what are the benefits for somebody to adopt a mindset to either digital projects or customer experience management initiatives or transformation initiatives that incorporate content into the thinking from the very earliest stages?

Carrie Hane
Yeah, it's interesting because there's everything "first": we should do this first, we should do that first. I have stood by the content first idea as a way to approach our design process and our digital design, whether it's products or websites or other channels. And that's because the reason people come to that is for the content. They're not coming to see the pretty design, the pretty colors that we decided to use or the way we've rounded our buttons. 


They're coming for information. They have a need that they need to fulfill. And the content is what connects them with that. So starting with that and I guess you could go back to "user first", but that's all part of a user or human centric design process is "who is the person who needs this content, what type of person and what do they need?", and then creating that content. And that can be done in many different ways, but creating that content around that, the content first, and taking a first swipe at that without worrying about how it's going to be laid out on a screen, because these days it might never get laid out on a screen.


And then taking that initial idea of the content that supports the user need for that particular content type or page or screen or whatever it is, that single item. And then having that interface design, that UX design, the CMS or whatever database is going to hold the content; make that support the content, again, also thinking about the author experience as well as ongoing maintenance and governance. 


We might think that the best thing in the world is a blog because everybody is doing one and people like blogs and they're good for SEO, but you don't have the resources to maintain them. If you can't do that at regular intervals, you don't have people who can write blog posts, don't do it. 


So you have to think about how that future from the very beginning. I've been working with clients on this type of thing for a long time, and when I've been in house is "Okay, you say you want that, but that involves a lot of images. You have them now, but are you going to have them in two months? In six months?".


So things like that we have to consider first, because so much design things; how many times have we seen a page that has a bunch of thumbnails along with a news article or blog posts that all look the same because there wasn't one, because that was design first, that was interface design first, because someone thought that that looks good without thinking about the content behind that and how it can go on. 


So I continue to stand by content first, but only barely. You don't want to go too far down any one road without mixing all the disciplines together to make sure that everything works together. And for the user on both sides, the end user who needs that content and the user on the inside who's creating and maintaining and managing the content.

Cruce Saunders
Interesting, I am guilty of espousing a "something first" approach in the past myself with a "model first" as a frame for understanding the path to customer experience as needing to be built on modular content sets. But I think you're absolutely right. There is no first that doesn't have a sister practice that needs consideration. So the model needs to work with the semantics. So we need sort of you could almost be tagged for sure, is semantics first, or taxonomy first. And so that needs an approach. And all of that is ultimately just a little bit more microscopic. 


Dig into this bigger content first picture, which is all sort of a bigger frame for the stuff that powers customer experience. We could say customer first. So when we look at "how do we create an intelligent customer experience that's highlighting the value of our customer as the starring role in our the play we're putting on?", right? 


And that we need to pull all the pieces around that customer that support kind of interactive content experience, an immersive play that the customer is a part of, with characters that respond to their needs at every moment of their journey through the play. And as part of that, it's not just sets. It's not just props. It's not just scripts or, improv outlines, it's all of those things together that make the performance. Any thoughts on that? 

Carrie Hane
Yeah, I agree in in other places I talk about model first as well, but it depends on the context. If I'm on design Twitter, I'll talk about content first. If I'm in IA land, I'll talk about model first, or Content Strategy and I'll talk about model first, because again, I feel like I can never escape what I've chosen to do for a profession because everything depends, and there's always context, and there's always a different way to say something, and words have meaning, and all of this stuff.


So I think it comes down to,  what is something you said earlier is that translation is,  finding the right way to talk about something based on your audience. If that's talking to a new client, if it's talking to your CEO, or your CMO, or whoever it is you're trying to get to: I hate to say the word convinced because it's you can't convince people, but to talk to people about this idea of content first, or how to go about a digital transformation, or setting up Content Operations, or whatever it is that you're doing, the content needs to be part of. 


You have to find the right words. And the things that resonate with the other person are the words, the best words to use. So we need to be careful to get out of our own silos, get out of our own way with the language we use when we talk to each other, and not be married to that dogma and to be flexible and adaptable. Just as we want ultimately our work to be when we publish our content or create our experiences, we need to be all of those things ourselves.


And that can be really difficult to take our own advice. I know I have a problem with that sometimes, and I'm constantly reminded, or constantly reminding myself to use the words of the person I'm talking to and not my own.

Cruce Saunders
I see a lot of reaction to Content Strategy in the enterprise as one of skepticism, largely from executives who think of strategy as essentially a non artifact producing, non output producing, non result producing sort of navel gazing process. Anything with strategy in the name must be not practical. 


And that's interesting as a objection. It comes up, if not directly, at least indirectly, in the kinds of objections, especially to portfolio level treatment of content. And our conversation today so far has been fairly high level and thematic, which is another thing I think that directors responsible for shipping customer experiences kind of struggle with is by investing in Content Strategy, investing in something that is intangible to what I need to actually get out the door this quarter.


And that's challenging, right? Because I think we're struggling to demonstrate the balance sheet value of content assets that really need to be invested in along with the systems to create them, at a portfolio and global level for an enterprise, but the need to produce content on top of those systems as being P&L oriented or expensed projects within a quarter. And one thing gets judged with the other mind set most of the time. And I think that's a challenge for the content industry as a whole.


But I wonder if you can help to bridge the gap. I've seen you talk in your blog about the content puzzle and the importance of quick wins along the way. Can you help to describe some of those successful quick wins that you've seen and how you can bridge this gap for enterprise stakeholders that see strategy is something more abstract?

Carrie Hane
I think there's a bit of truth to that. Strategy can be very abstract and often it sits in a drawer somewhere and collects dust. So with any strategy, first of all, if we're doing a Content Strategy, it needs to be short, not a 50 page report. It just needs to sum up all that who this is for, what type of product, what type of content you're producing, what you want it to achieve, how you want to make people feel @carrieHD, that kind of stuff.


And I've done that using by now an old Madlib style sentence completion that fills in all those blanks, which is a succinct way of giving everybody your Content Strategy. And then you have to have some other things that support it. Who's doing what internally, signing that, those roles. 


But you also need a roadmap. And how are you going to integrate this content with all the other things that you're doing? How are you going to fulfill the work here? And you can't keep focusing on, well, in five years we're going to be blah, blah, blah. What about in three months? What should happen in the short term? 


So I've been working more and more lately with defining things in the near term, the medium term and the longer term, and getting less specific the farther out you go so that you can tie those things with specific business goals. Do you want more people to sign up for a webinar? Yes. OK, how can content support that? 


We know that in our strategy we've identified who our audience is. We want to make the professionals in our industry feel more capable of doing their work. How does this webinar fit into that? How are we going to describe it? How are we going to describe it on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and Instagram and whatever else we use for promotion? And then how are we going to make that happen on the website, which is where all of that stuff points and where people are going to register and making sure that whole experience works but not stopping there. 


Not saying, "OK, we did all that" , but measuring it. OK, when you posted on Twitter last week, how many registrations came in? How does that compare to the last webinar? Who was registering? And then who shows up, who does something afterwards? All of that stuff so you can tie all of those pieces of content to an actual goal, not just page views, but how many people signed up for the webinar, how many people showed up for the webinar, how many people responded to the survey afterwards?


How many people signed up for your newsletter after the webinar? Whatever things you want to happen because you've done the webinar, you need to measure that and you need to set those goals ahead of time. So then when your webinar registration for the quarter is up twenty five percent, you can tell everyone that! And you can tell everyone why that happened. 


Of course, there's lots of reasons that could happen. But if you have a Content Strategy, that is a big reason that you've increased your rate of registration and attendance because you've made it easy for people. @carrieHD You connected with people in ways that you didn't before. So that's a short win. 


Longer term, it's overall engaged. Maybe it's a number of engagement with your education content, whether that's courses, or webinars, or conferences; whatever it is you offer or an organization offers. That's just one of the many things that Content Strategy covers. And remember, that webinar itself is content. It's not just the marketing content that gets people to come to the webinar. 


That webinar is content. What can you do with that? Can you transcribe it? Can you put it up for recording? Can you sell it later? Can you take little snippets and put those on YouTube and incorporate them into a blog post that maybe the person who did the webinar writes? And what else is that connected to that goes back to the semantics. How do we tag this? What are the meaningful metadata behind this webinar? All of that is content. 


And then some of that makes it more efficient on the back end because you're not manually doing all of that work. Some of it's promotion, but all of it is connected and creates a better experience for those people you are serving.

Cruce Saunders
 Such an intense set of content assets under-utilized. And talking through that kind of tactical use of content assets in a repeated way, it reminds me that at enterprise scale we have assets across pretty much every organizational function in different levels of atrophy, many of which have more durable value for reuse across different parts of the customer experience. 


So, for example, marketing content like a white paper that has helped, it's there to promote a individual product set can be used in the front of a marketing funnel on the public website. But it could also be used to help to accelerate interest in additional products for an existing customer in a logged in portal.


So they log in and get to know about their current products and then they have access to marketing materials, white papers, other assets that they might not come across because they're used to just focusing on the post sales customer experience. But if we're not connecting pre-sales assets with sort of post sale nurturing, we're missing out on an opportunity to kind of educate and accelerate that customer value so that asset can perform so much more work when it can be read. 


Same thing with that webinar. Can it be cut down into pieces and parts and reused in an atomic or modular form? Or can those pieces and parts be used in different parts of the journey? So there's just so much more orchestration and holistic thinking needed around content than currently organizations have. And it's kind of walking up this maturity curve that I think we really need as an industry commit to advancing together. 


What kind of call to action would you have for folks interested in this transformation from content as a single purpose, single use, single function, disposable asset into something more shared and multifunctional within a service based environment where content can be applied across different parts of the journey?


How would you ask practitioners to be ready for that change and to participate in that movement towards a more intelligent customer experience built on more Intelligent Content? 

Carrie Hane
Talk to people. Honestly, the number of people who sit in their silos of content or design or marketing is amazing. So in that example, maybe the opposite happens. Maybe you don't have hardly anyone signed up for the webinar. Well, guess what? Maybe you shouldn't have done that webinar. 


So it's not just about the promotion. That's where we focus so much: that webinar is content. It is a strategic asset for your organization. What webinars should you create? If you have a really popular one,  think about why it's popular, not just from the marketing perspective, but from the education perspective, the sales, whoever put it on, what made it successful, how can we repeat that? Or if it wasn't successful, why not? Maybe we shouldn't produce things on that topic anymore or in that format.


So we have to talk all the time. So the other thing that came out in research study, I did it over 2017 and 2018, about Content Strategy and associations was the organizations that were most mature in their Content Strategy practice had broken out of their silos. They had regular cross departmental meetings to decide what content to create based on what their strategic goals were, what their audience need was, what they have the resources to produce. 


And then they would measure that. They would have part of those monthly meetings, or biweekly meetings, or even weekly meetings in that cross departmental group would be to also look at the analytics, the data, so they could see what was happening. 


Of course, that's only quantitative, you also to do some qualitative work. But there's all of this. But it's getting together regularly with people that you are not aligned with hierarchically in the organization so that you can share your knowledge, your data, your ideas, and create that holistic experience for your audience. Because none of the audience cares what department you're in. They just want to get done whatever they want to get done. 


So that call to action is talk to people. If that's difficult, find your allies, find the champions at the higher levels who will support you and help spread the word. There are other people in any size organization who want to do things better for the good of their job, for the good of the people that they're serving, for the good of the organization, for the good of the world.


Whatever it is, there are other people; find them, work with them, make them your pilot project and then talk about what happened with that. So just that you don't need to do fancy schmancy design thinking and Content Strategy stuff to make this work. You can literally go to the person in office next to you or send a message to a colleague who you haven't talked to for a while and find out how you can help them without using the words "I'm going to give you a Content Strategy". 

Cruce Saunders
 Love it. We have to talk about content modeling before we wrap up, because one, you wrote a book about it, and two it's something we I know talk to quite a bit about over the months and years. And I think we will talk quite a bit more about with the industry as a whole over the coming months and years. We have a lot of different ways to look at content models. 


And you've built an approach and methodology in designing connected content where you and Mike Atherton have outlined a step by step approach for content modeling, for websites. And I'd love for our audience who's not familiar with content modeling, if you could just give a brief insight into what is a content model, why does it matter for websites and where should somebody start when thinking about modeling?


So for me, a content model is a representation of the types of content they're attributes and relationships across an organization. So it's not just for the website, it's across all the organization you have. You have a database of customers or members or donors. That's a content type. That person, record, is a content type. You've got all kinds of stuff on the web. There's just stuff across the whole organization you have. So it's defining those types of content.


So that's what a content model is for me at the most basic level. And what it does is it helps you start seeing your content outside of an interface so that it can be used in any interface. So you can take OK, so now you have your model and maybe you have twenty content types in it for your whole organization. Which of those needs to be represented on the web. So now you can take that and say, OK, we're going to take these twelve content types and put them on our website and then you can see how to organize.


You can say, OK, well these things go together, how can you organize and arrange them in a way that makes sense, again, to your audience. And then the connections are already there, so you can see that a webinar is connected to a blog post is connected to a white paper because they're all tagged with your topic taxonomy. So you could have a topic page that appears and shows all the content you have on a topic instead of by format.


So that just opens up the possibility of taking those content types and attributes, designing the content for the web, going back to that content first and then applying interface design, applying interaction design to that so that it can be engaging, so it can be dynamic, so it can be delightful, which is a word we all like to use, but first of all, be useful. And so that's the shortest answer I can give on our approach to content modeling.


My approach is do as much as you can. You don't need to, again, go big. You can start with just part of that. That part of the model that you can control if you're the web person, or if you're the marketing person, or if you were the education person who just is designing courses and webinars but doesn't affect everything else, you can model the content that you work on and then try to spread it from there by talking to other people. 

Cruce Saunders
Terrific. And modeling is such an incredible opportunity for people to meet together and look at content more holistically in conversation. I think in some of our conversations with the content modeling roundtable we've had, there is thread that I think we all agreed on, which is the content modeling is not just an artifact, it's more about the conversation that comes out of it that is such a productive value for the content producing enterprise. 


Can you talk a little bit more about why that is? What is it about the conversation around the content model that makes it so useful and valuable for everybody participating?

Carrie Hane
It's just that it's a conversation. It's a conversation in a way that most people aren't having conversations:  like, why do we need that content? What is important about it? How do we actually define that? And is that different from this other thing? It creates a shared understanding. But first, you have to get people together to do it.


And I think that is what's the hardest part is facilitating the creation of it, because it is a conversation has to be facilitated. It's not something that you really want to sit down in your office and do on your own and then superimpose it somewhere else. It really is something that should be created collaboratively. 


So you cross those silos so people understand how they're, the content that's important to them, fits in with other people's content. Again, that opens up opportunities.


It gets people talking, that generates new ideas. When you're not thinking about what goes on the homepage or what my content is, it starts thinking about our content. And I've just seen over and over again like light bulbs come on with people when I'm facilitating models, is just like, "oh!". It takes them a while because this is different. But once they get it, and I've never had a session where I'm creating a model where every single person in the room doesn't eventually get it. Some people catch on more quickly than others just because people's minds work in different ways, but they always get it.


And they're always excited when they leave because they see so many opportunities to do what they do better. And I love what Jeff Eaton, he tweeted at some point and I keep repeating it, I think other people do, too, is "it turns out that content modelling was the friends we made along the way". And that really is so important. It's not just an artifact, it's the artifact of something we've discussed, not just a thing that lives in a spreadsheet somewhere.

Cruce Saunders
The deliverable is the shared understanding. I totally see the light bulb analogy as pivotal because we need to turn on the awareness of each other in a shared way. The awareness of what design is creating and representing with modular content, the awareness of what developers need to interact with when dealing with different parts of the content set. 


And then what the CMS engineers that are both configuring the structured data templates and all of the transit points for content within a platform, how they work with content, all of that is connected around structure and having this ability to even have a conversation about content and it the way it interacts outside of sort of handoffs between the specification and the implementation, but having kind of a shared stakeholder collaboration around the shape of content and how it interacts with different parts of the lifecycle is, I think, one of the biggest values for models and why it's such an important part of of this evolving future. 


Well, I'm so appreciative of the work you've been doing in the industry, creating conversation around structure and how all of digital comes together in a collaborative environment. I really share that vision with you, and I'm really glad for our conversation today.


Thank you, Carrie Hane, for all you do and looking forward to our collaboration in the months and years ahead. Carrie, for anybody new to your work, tell us a little bit about your blog, where to find a little bit more about your writing, and let's make sure folks are aware of your Twitter stream as well.

Carrie Hane
So I blog regularly. So far, that's always a work in progress at Tanzenconsulting.com/blog. That's T-A-N-Z-E-N consulting dot com,  and also on Twitter at CarrieHD and those are probably the best places to find me. And I look forward to having more conversations with you and the rest of the industry on how we can make content more collaborative.

Cruce Saunders
Thanks Carrie, and thanks to our listeners for joining us on Towards a Smarter World. Until next time, let's take one step at a time to get to that smarter world with the individual actions we each take daily. Thanks a lot. Bye-bye,


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