Silos & Spaghetti: Why Your Users Need You To Care About Content

by Heather Rast |
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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 the Author

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.