Kristina Halvorson, author of Content Strategy for the Web and founder of Brain Traffic, a content strategy firm, had this to say during her keynote at the inaugural Confab conference in Minneapolis on May 9 (paraphrase).

“…the audiences who need our content want access right now, wherever they are, on the device they’re using, as quickly as possible, in formats to suit their purpose. But our content isn’t ready for that. Our organizations have been preparing content in silos for decades. [Content is] inconsistent between channels and lacks governance.”

Prospects, customers, and stakeholders have expectations of our brands and by extension, the assets we put out for them to find. Their expectations (and varying needs) may be channel dependent, further evidence that “rubber stamp” or poorly conceived content dilutes the very value a brand may attempt to create. These audiences want their needs resolved and they expect closure, be it a simple question answered in 30 seconds, or a successful submission of a form with decision tree logic. User satisfaction isn’t relative to complexity of task. Good content planning and methodical execution can create experiences that satisfy users who, in turn, satisfy business needs (sales).

The Right Thing Trumps “Something”

Are we, as senior marketers or business owners, mindful of user expectations for content? I say no, either that or we’re simply not content silosconcerned, so long as it makes sense internally (some spaghetti will stick on the wall, right?). With single-minded focus, we pursue our own business agendas. We present audiences with pretty websites and send them drip email campaigns to keep our brand top of mind.

But it’s a mistake to think these individual tactics (note: shared design elements, or even key phrases, does not equal integration) act in our stead as a type of virtual sales force, flipping conversions left and right or even circumventing issues dotted-lined to customer service. Further broadening the “gotta try this” landscape, the proliferation of social media has given us more storefronts in which to plant our cardboard men, pamphlets in hand, ready to press into the palms of our awaiting flock.

But hold the mouse. The flock’s not congregating on our website or Facebook page, they’re fleeing. There’s a problem within this roles-based process we’ve become so comfortable with, the one where communications is departmentalized (to match organizational structure) and not strategically centered in a hub. It means we’re spending a lot of resources creating a lot of stuff to surround the customer, without first harmonizing our voices. The web team makes the sites, the email marketing manager manages the ESP and database, interns cover Twitter, and the corporate communications person handles PR, publicity, and advertising.

Everybody touches, creates, or distributes content. And nobody plans for, shepherds, and stewards it end-to-end. Purpose to prose to path.

Whose Monkey Is It?

Where is the central content strategy that “…charges all content creators and owners, regardless of functional role, to align their communications under the same business objectives and user goals”?

For all of the “we’re all publishers now” talk and mind-bending, glossy websites those free pass-waving, award-winning designers are so proud of, content – the living flesh of any site or other digital medium – remains messy and problematic. And many companies (large and small) seem complacent with the status quo process (yielding status quo results and satisfaction levels), despite the enormous impact solid content strategy delivers to users who need information or want to get stuff done.

We’re still primarily concerned with “cool” and saying our spiel with words that end in “-ize”. We’ve hardly noticed no one’s listening.

Fixing it won’t just require a content person, but an organizational and operational shift. Oh, barnacles.

The Problems With Content

We routinely compromise content quality by failing to plan cross-channel, big-picture objectives. We relegate content as lorem ipsum copy until well after the flashy new design has been finalized or the guys in suits have moved on to squelch another fire (progress 3 yards, proceed back to hamster wheel). Our behaviors support processes which perpetuate the flawed “content doesn’t matter” mindset.

  1. We don’t sufficiently invest in brand equity reviews, so we’re blind to external perceptions and problems (ergo, our content can’t resolve them)
  2. User testing, if conducted, is run on the cheap by the unknowledgeable (“What did we learn?”)
  3. We assume message architecture is commonly held and practiced by internal teams (false)
  4. We can’t agree on information priorities or appreciate user-centeredness. We spew instead of hone.
  5. There’s no content workflow structure or enforcement, therefore efforts stagnate and we resort back to “what we did before.”
  6. We don’t select content owners and give them authority
  7. There’s no plan for ongoing evaluation, management, or content governance
  8. We fail to establish metrics and measure (that’s a lot of work for something like content, right?)

It’s time to stop planning and operating in separate silos. We have to stop throwing wet noodles against a wall to see what sticks. It’s time to start listening to customers and asking ourselves “Why are we saying this to them?” and “What information do they need?” and “How do we best say what needs to be said across these different channels?”

It may not be practical to storm the doors of your company and wage a full-on battle for content. But you can quietly try a less direct route and make good things happen before the others even take notice. #Littlewinsaddup

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About Heather Rast

Heather Rast

Heather is Principal of a boutique Cedar Rapids digital marketing company. She develops brand positioning strategy and marketing communications plans to distinguish small businesses from the competition and attract their ideal customers. Her content planning, writing, and online community-building work helps larger businesses better serve their audiences with useful information that solves problems as it builds affinity for the brand.

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Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.central-e-commerce.com Gabriella – The Stepford Wife

    Well, honestly… some content in my opinion is unoriginal as it comes. Some topics/themes are so similar to the previous blogger’s conent that it makes you think ‘are they behind that one, too?” – it’s the truth. I really feel that this post is to the point!

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      I’ve heard it said that there are no original ideas…I don’t necessarily agree with that because ideas are the result of ones’ own unique experiences through life – stuff we’ve read, stuff we’ve felt, things we’ve learned, scenes we’ve seen and processed. Walking in someone else’s shoes in precise terms just isn’t possible. You may have a point, though, about sometimes finding a piece of work (a post, an article) that is similar to something else you’ve discovered. It could be the result of the author poorly constructing their point, laziness, or something else entirely. The point I’d like to make above is that companies must step outside of their internal echo chamber, must supplement their institutional knowledge of their market, their customer’s needs, their take on their brand, and undergo the due diligence to discover what the users think and what they truly need. There can be huge gaps between the two that if resolved, could make significant impact on user satisfaction and business sales.

  • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh

    Hi Heather,

    I think most fail due to lack of planning and an understanding of what they should be looking to achieve with content.

    For example, I suggest to clients to develop a Content Plan first and go from there.

    Most don’t listen and blissfully charge ahead… but they usually end up in a cul-de-sac.

    There are no shortcuts to success… which is great for those who do things right :)

    Ivan

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      Without a well-informed (read: researched, authenticated) plan that bridges web content to primary user personas, well it’s kind of like throwing spaghetti on the wall and hoping something sticks, right? 

      • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh

        and it will stick, that’s the irony.

        I think those who ‘get it’ understand that you need to have a plan and make the effort.

        Would you build a house without a plan? No.

        but some folks like shortcuts. so be it :)

  • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh

    Hi Heather,

    I think most fail due to lack of planning and an understanding of what they should be looking to achieve with content.

    For example, I suggest to clients to develop a Content Plan first and go from there.

    Most don’t listen and blissfully charge ahead… but they usually end up in a cul-de-sac.

    There are no shortcuts to success… which is great for those who do things right :)

    Ivan

  • http://dukeo.com Dukeo

    The main issue I see with content is that some people are writing content for their visitors while some other are writing to increase their results in the SERPs. This is when the content can become redundant…

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      There are a big handful of reasons why may content miss the mark with users, and a plan that places top priority on bots and SERPs is definitely one of them. I think I’ve found that occur most often on eCommerce sites; maybe those users are more forgiving because some measures of self-evaluation comes into play when comparing model A to model B (we’ve come to expect some “flowery” content along with hard info like dimensions, weight, and other properties).

  • http://mymediainfo.com/ Renee

    Silos are a great metaphor to use here. When company’s different
    departments are each doing their own thing, with their own goals in mind, and
    not communicating or collaborating it’s no wonder they aren’t sending out
    uniform content. Is there even an easy way to fix this though, besides
    individuals just trying to coordinate more with colleagues in other
    departments? But then again maybe ease isn’t the way to look at it, especially
    when it can have such a positive impact improving content.

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      Renee, I think we’re 100% in the same camp. The silo metaphor has certainly been used to describe how insular internal departments (and their respective agendas) can work be at cross-purposes with overarching business objectives. And it’s so very easy to hold fast to the silo walls, isn’t it? We have our own work to do, we may compete for budget or people resources, etc. 

      But as for a possible solution that may bring about positive change for content, I think user research followed by brand architecture exercises can really help. When a company commits to learning from independent, 3rd party findings – the good, the bad, and the super bad – the agenda shifts from what *we* want to what *they* (the users) need. Then it’s about connecting those needs with the internal folks who can deliver against those needs. Lots of resources will get tapped and in that way they’re working together for a shared, common output. Analytics and continual testing will (should) keep everyone moving down that path to refinement and improvement.

      Margot Bloomstein mentioned in her talk about message architecture how important it was to have folks from multiple departments and functional roles working through critical branding elements like personality, tone, and voice. The process shines a light on how very differently people can interpret information – and when they interpret it differently, with no commonly held standards, there’s little wonder that content is all over the place and not serving the user.

  • http://www.online-business-virtual-assistant.com/ Virtual Business Assistant

    Hi Heather, Great post and yes “Content is the king” but some think that they can write whatever they want to and people will start following them. Thanks for the great insight.

  • http://twitter.com/juliov27612 Julio Vazquez

    Couldn’t agree more. The issue is still one of educating organizations of the value of their content. There are many companies that still don’t understand how important an asset their information is and think of content as something that exists just to appease the masses. The problem is one of selling the entire organization, from top to bottom, on the fact that their information is the first relationship they may have with potential customers and it’s important to build trust through consistent, compelling, and accurate information.

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      It’s ironic, isn’t it, how much time and resources can be put into creating most of the functional and visual elements of a web project (wireframing, visual design, even IA although that’s often skipped) and such little energy and time is put into planning content? Defining purpose, tying together likely message pathways, evaluating whether it solves primary user needs…much of this gets skipped, if it even gets recognized as critical steps. Are organizations ignorant? Budget foolish? Or do they simply not stand back at arm’s length, look at this thing they’re building, and ask, “What do we want this to do?” and observe users to discover if it does that very thing? It’s as though websites were a business commodity, and they needed to put a check mark by it (done!) without giving thought to performance and value. I contend that without strong personal endorsement, I can’t begin to build trust with an organization (which usually involves cementing a sale first) if the website leaves me with unresolved questions and mired in marketing speak.

  • Emily

    Great post, and very well written! Your points are so true. I find that a lot of companies spend their time on social media and other internet venues, to only wind up talking themselves up and shove their product in the customers’ faces. True content marketing is valuable because providing information that the consumer needs will gain trust and retention when the person needs to choose a vendor. At Grass Roots Marketing, we really try to focus on providing valuable content that the consumer will look for on their own. This inbound marketing strategy really applies to the social media customers who are constantly looking for information. More information on inbound marketing can be found on our site, at http://www.grmwebsite.com/inbound-marketing/