Margot Bloomstein – Combining Curation with Your Content Strategy

Sean Carmichael

September 15th, 2011

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With the amount of content coming at you from all sides, it can be difficult to make sense of it all and present it in a logical fashion. Curation allows you to create order out of all the chaos. Borrowed from the world of museums, curating your content allows you to form a narrative, showing your users what they can and should do with your content.

Margot Bloomstein is the Principal at Appropriate, Inc. In her virtual seminar, Combining Curation with Your Content Strategy, Margot showcases lessons she has adopted from museum curators. She shows what content strategists take from these lessons and apply to their practice. Margot didn’t have enough time to answer all of the questions from the audience during the seminar. She and Adam Churchill address the remaining questions in this podcast.

Here’s an excerpt from the podcast.

“…I think if you’re going to start exploring a curation program, first establish a message architecture. Figure out, “What are we trying to communicate? What are our communication goals?”

And what’s the order of hierarchy, or order, or priority there? Is it most important for us to consistently communicate that we are very established? [To communicate] that this brand, or even this blogger, is very experienced and a thought leader? Or, is it more important to maybe communicate that we’re approachable and accessible, and people can engage with the brand in a variety of different ways? What’s most important to communicate?

And I think, by establishing that first, it allows you to have a yardstick by which to measure content…”

Tune in to the podcast to hear Margot answer these questions:

Do you have experience curating content? Share your thoughts with us in our comments section.

Recorded: August, 2011
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Full Transcript.


Adam Churchill: Welcome, everyone, to another edition of the SpoolCast. Earlier this month, content strategist Margot Bloomstein joined us for a virtual seminar titled “Combining Curation with Your Content Strategy.”

Margot’s seminar was for those folks tasked with tackling their organization’s web content. That content’s coming from all directions, designed in isolation from and with no consideration of all those other pieces. Margot shows us how curation effectively puts order to it all. Curation is an ongoing approach you can use for all the new content your organization generates and, of course, all that existing material, too.

Margot has offered to come back and tackle some of the questions we didn’t get to address in the seminar. If you didn’t listen to this particular seminar, you can get at it in UIE’s User Experience Training Library, which presently has over 70 recorded seminars from wonderful topic experts just like Margot.

Hello, Margot. Welcome back.

Margot Bloomstein: Hi, Adam. Thanks so much for having me back. I’m thrilled to be here.

Adam: Margot, for those listening who weren’t with us for your presentation, can you dive a little deeper on the overview I offered?

Margot: Sure, definitely. I’m thrilled to do so.

As you know, we discussed in the virtual seminar a lot of different sides of curation, but especially looked at, “Well, what can we, as kind of more or less, new media curators working on the web for corporate brands and on our own blogs… What can we learn from the more traditional definition of curation and from more traditional curators in the museum setting?” And I think we are able to take a lot of good, tactical kind of cues from them and bits of wisdom.

But just to kind of go over things at a very, very high level, some of the big questions that we asked, and that you’ll certainly hear if you go back to the virtual seminar, are around, “Well, why do we even engage in curation?” And really, the big reason is because there’s so much information on most any topic that you’d like to learn about, that really, we need curators to filter that flood of content so that their different target audiences can take meaning from it.

And that’s really important, I think, to consider, “Well, how do people want to use this information and why?” And then to acknowledge, “Well, it doesn’t really have to be neutral.” If you’re curating content for a particular brand or organization, you probably want to have in mind that brand’s particular spin or perspective on the topic, so that you can elevate the content and the content types that support that overall thesis.

So we talked a little bit about looking at, for your target audience, what’s most important about the topic, how it could possibly be relevant to them or to them in that particular day or time, and how they could really use that information. So we really talked about why you should bring your brand’s point of view into the content you curate, and why, without that, you might as well just link to the original material and leave it at that.

We looked at a few different examples, and I’d certainly encourage you to check them out more. One was with the National Association of Realtors. They’re the association that supports all of the people that are actually Realtors in this country. And certainly, I think we can all agree, in the current economy, it’s a bit of a challenging time to be in real estate.

[laughter]

But we looked at their field guides to short sales and other field guides that they had created. And these are examples of curated links and other content, video, audio files, definitions, et cetera. I think it’s about 130 different topics that they update on a regular and then on an event-driven basis. That’s a good example of how curators look to updating and maintaining topics over time, usually scheduling them on things like editorial calendars.

These field guides combine the NAR’s perspective with original content and curated content. And it really helps them tell a good story as well as get into, then, the ethical responsibilities.

As you’ll hear, we also discussed, where does curation fit with what you’re already doing? Maybe if you’re, say, a web manager, an editor, anything like that, somebody just in the marketing department, you’re probably juggling a lot of other priorities. And curation can certainly fit into that to help you use that time more effectively.

We dug in a little bit around the broader topic of content strategy and how that applies to curation and web maintenance, especially where it comes to things like aggregation and governance, and then how, after you establish a message architecture, and how exactly you go about doing that, how you can start curating content to really support that kind of thinking.

Moving forward, then, through the hour and a half, we also discussed why you’d even want to engage in curation, how it can save you time, some other examples, such as looking kind of across the pond, as it were, to MOO.com and how they curate content, along with user-generated content from their target audience.

And then we really dug into some recent examples from the world of exhibit design and museum curation, specifically into some things that have been going on in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as more locally, to you and I at least, here in Boston at our Museum of Fine Arts and some of the exhibits that have been coming out of there.

We looked at the role of perspective, automated curation solutions, because certainly they’re relevant, to a degree, in the museum space as well. What the human element is in there, around filtering and prioritization and hunting. And then we looked a little bit at some of those automated solutions, such as Storify, I think, is a good example worth checking out.

Then we looked at the role of, as you’re developing that story, how organization, juxtaposition, and emphasis fit in, so that you can really tell a good story that pulls your target audience through the material, whether that’s in a physical space like an exhibit, or in more of a virtual space like a website or a broader web presence that includes social media as well.

After looking through some more examples, we discussed how scale, emphasis, hierarchy, et cetera, can fit into your toolkit, and then looked at some more kind of visual examples in there as well.

Throughout all of that, I think the common thread, really, was that curation really requires a curator. You need that human element to develop the perspective, articulate it through what you choose to gather and what you choose to exclude, and as you develop a plan to maintain the story over time. And certainly, that narrative can change and shift as necessary.

And then, finally, we concluded by asking, “What are the ethical responsibilities of curators?” Especially if you’re digging into things that require you maybe change the original source material. There are certainly times when that’s OK, and you certainly can’t say, “Well, it was the fault of the algorithm that we brought together these things in this way.”

There’s always that human element in there, and you need to kind of take responsibility for those decisions, especially when they can help you tell a better story.

Adam: OK, great. Let’s get to some of the excellent questions we have left over.

You spent some time talking about content versus aggregation. Can you dive a little bit deeper there? What’s the difference? And does it matter?

Margot: Sure, yeah. I think that this is a pretty compelling area to dig into in more detail, because I think many automated curation solutions, end up for better or worse — I’d say for worse — they end up confusing curation and aggregation. Aggregation is simply gathering, based on keywords, based on search phrases, et cetera, that you’ve previously set up.

I think it’s a good way to start approaching curation, but if you end it at just that, you’re doing no more than just simply assembling a collection. And that’s fine, I think, if you’re scrapbooking or something. It isn’t good, though, if you’re trying to tell a story.

And that’s really where that human element comes in, to say, “OK, we’ve gathered all these different resources. Now let’s determine more… Well, what’s the right order in which to present them? Are there some that maybe can, more or less, subsume a greater number of topics, and maybe one element can represent a broad variety of concepts? Can we say that some are more relevant or more current examples?” Certainly, I think, if we’re discussing links…

I’d actually point out to Clinton Forry, a content strategist based in Minnesota. He’s on Twitter as WD45. He has a great blog post. And it’s actually from a couple of years ago, but it’s still incredibly relevant on the differences between curation and aggregation.

So Clinton looks at the example of a velvet Mr. T painting and how that could be included in a museum collection or not depending on the perspective of the curator. And certainly, a velvet Mr. T in the grand tradition of velvet Elvis paintings. And he says, you know, you could include that in a museum collection, in a totally un-ironic or un-postmodern kind of way if you were only using techniques of aggregation, because that’s entirely automated.

If you said, “All right, by the meta data or search terms that we’ve developed, we say this is a painting. It’s an original. It’s from the 20th century. Therefore, it could easily belong in a gallery next to a Van Gogh or a Mondrian, because, by aggregation standards, it fits.” Because, again, aggregation is fully automated. It collects content, just collecting it, based on the criteria that you’ve set. So the algorithm would be working correctly there, by putting Mr. T next to the Van Gogh or the Mondrian.

And you can adjust the criteria, but you’re not really filtering based on it. And it doesn’t take into account context. Whereas, curation and a curator would say, “Wait a second, this doesn’t belong in this gallery at all because, even though maybe it fits our standards, it fits the metadata that we’ve imposed. We’re not really engaging in any sort of cultural commentary by putting it there. It probably doesn’t belong in our collection at all because it’s not really appropriate to our overall communication goals.”

And that’s that message architecture that I talked about. It doesn’t fit with the needs of our target audience and maybe understanding the subject of modern art more fully. And it doesn’t uphold our standards for, overall, the kind of story that we want to tell.

So I think that’s a good example. I’d encourage you to check out more of his work as well, to kind of learn more about those differences.

Adam: Let’s talk about copywriting a bit, certainly something we talk a lot about here at UIE. How does curation change how we approach or think about copywriting?

Margot: That is a good question. I’m glad you asked it.

I think one of the challenges, certainly, as copywriting has evolved in the context of content strategy, if we take it back even a step further, has been to meet some of the other goals of content strategy beyond just creation. So if content strategy entails creation, aggregation, but then, also governance and maintenance and expiration, it gets into things like, “All right, at what schedule are we publishing?” So copywriting needs to sort of take into account those issues of how are we evolving a story over time.

I think, when you layer curation into that as well, you get into some of the issues around making content more modular and acknowledging that these different content chunks may not always appear in context with each other. In other words, links may not always appear in the same order, certainly if you’re sourcing them from a variety of different areas, and then they may be pulled to a variety of different areas.

And I think, also, along the lines of making content more modular, we get into issues around making sure that concepts can stand on their own in a very discrete and concise way. That wasn’t always an issue, I think, with copywriting of yore because, in longer-form copy, we can evolve a concept over multiple paragraphs.

Once we start curating content from multiple sources, and maybe changing the order of those paragraphs or whatever other kind of elemental unit you’re using, those rules really change. They change for copywriters, and they change for, really, the editors or, in this case, the curators that are assembling that content into new orders.

Adam: What sort of deliverables aid curation?

Margot: Yeah. Everybody always wants to get down to, “What’s the list of deliverables I need to create?”

[laughter]

And I can certainly empathize with that. Erin Kissane actually just had a really wonderful post on the Brain Traffic blog, saying, “Let’s not confuse the deliverables, the things that we create, with what we do.” Because they are really just kind of shorthand for all of the activities and the thinking that goes into them, and they don’t capture all of the background discussion and whatnot and other thought processes that we may have had to contribute to them.

But, that said, so the list of deliverables. I think if you’re going to start exploring a curation program, first, think in terms of… And we talk about this in the Virtual Seminar, establish a message architecture. Figure out, “What are we trying to communicate? What are our communication goals?”

And what’s the order of hierarchy or the order or priority there? Is it most important for us to consistently communicate that we are very established, that this brand, or even this blogger, is very experienced and a thought leader? Or, is it more important to maybe communicate that we’re very approachable and accessible and people can engage with the brand in a variety of different ways, and this is kind of a playground for everyone to explore the thinking? What’s most important there to communicate?

And I think, by establishing that first, it allows you, then, to have a yardstick by which to measure content. Kind of going back to that idea of “What’s the difference between aggregation and curation?” As you’re aggregating content from multiple sources, you need to have that yardstick. You need to have a standard by which to say, “OK, yes, this fits our keywords, but it doesn’t uphold our value proposition, or it doesn’t uphold our communication goals,” because maybe it communicates something very different through its tone or the way in which the video was shot, something along those lines.

So I would say, first, establish a message architecture. Probably the next deliverable to create would either be a content audit or an editorial calendar. And I think that order is probably up for debate. I tend to start with a content audit, to say, “What content do we already have that upholds these goals?”

Do we already have a lot of content, maybe, in our library or in our press releases, or offline in other kinds of print communication, or in our magazine or something, that can already uphold these communication goals? And then, how do we need to supplement this with content from outside sources?

And that’s when you can really start beginning to aggregate content from those sources to bulk out what you’re offering, to say, “Here’s how we support these communication goals. Look at all the evidence that we’ve gathered to do so.”

I would say, by conducting that audit, saying, “Well, what do we have? What do we have that’s still good and useful and accurate and current?” Or, by conducting, say, a ROT analysis, looking at what’s redundant, outdated, and trivial in your current content, you can really explore the deltas then, see where the gaps are in the content you have and what you need to get more of.

From there, I would go on and put together an editorial calendar, to say, “OK. Well, what are we going to be talking about, and at what frequency? What are the big topics that we can address, maybe over the course of the next six months, over the course of the year?” I know some bloggers will put together an editorial calendar just for a month at a time. It really depends on the frequency at which you plan to communicate with your target audience, and the frequency at which you’re seeing them come back to your site or into your overall web presence.

An editorial calendar allows you, then, to say, “What are the topics that we’re going to address over this longer time period? How can we prepare for them? Where can we start hunting for links, hunting for content to support these different themes? And then, most importantly, how can we address these in multiple channels so that we create a very consistent, cohesive, multichannel experience for our target audience?”

And that can be something as simple as saying, “Alrighty. We know that, in August, our target audience is going to be starting to think about back-to-school shopping. Therefore, on our website, we’re going to be starting to aggregate articles that say how you can best prepare your child for going back to school this season, or how you yourself can best prepare for it.”

Maybe if you’re, let’s say, a website that talks a lot about food and nutrition, we can say, “All right, August is about back to school, probably August into mid-September. So let’s talk about how to put together healthy meals for your child, how to look at the school’s lunch menu and determine what’s going to be healthiest, what days of the week, that type of thing, and have articles on that appearing on the home page.”

At the same time, our Twitter feed can be pointing to them, but maybe we also want to tweet out links to products that can kind of support this, maybe food that’s going to be on sale that week or particularly seasonal, that type of thing.

And then, maybe, if you’re a brand that also has a presence on Facebook, you can be expanding on those stories there and inviting more participation from your target audience. So, again, keeping with that same theme over those weeks, maybe at that point you’re saying, “Share with us a recipe that you like to prepare the night before or over the weekend and then dole out to your kid throughout the week,” that type of thing.

So, again, it all ties back to the same theme. That editorial calendar allows you to prepare for those themes in advance and start aggregating content that you can then continue to filter, maybe commission content, look at what you already have, and prepare for it in a useful way.

Adam: In the seminar, Margot, you talked a lot about cautions of using automated curation tools and how important that human touch is. What about folks that are using one, whether they’re happy about it or not or maybe have on on the way? What are your recommendations? What can they expect from an automated curation tool, and how do you get the most out of it?

Margot: Yeah, I like how you phrased that. If they’ve got one coming on the way and there’s nothing they can do about it now…

It isn’t as negative as it sounds, certainly not as negative as I made it sound, because automated curation tools do have a good place in your overall curation program, especially if you know how to look to them as good sources for aggregation. They’ll save you time. Saving you time saves you money, obviously, so that you can spend more time on higher-value work, the act of human curation.

The things that you need to be engaging in as a curator are more around filtering and weeding out and going out and kind of hunting down the things that an automated solution hasn’t been able to gather for you, by such things as having those high-value conversations with other thought leaders in your industry, to find out what sort of topics they’re digging into and writing about and thinking about writing about on their blogs.

I think, in that respect, one example that I always love to look at… Alexandra Samuel. She’s a blogger for Harvard Business Review, Oprah.com. She’s also the Social and Interactive Media Centre director at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, a very, I think, well-respected thought leader in this space. She’s on Twitter as AWSamuel. She wrote earlier this year about how to sustain a social-media presence in just three hours a week.

And I think a lot of people looked at that like, “Whoa, OK. This is the Holy Grail we’ve all been looking for because we need to stop spending so much time on social media and get back to our primary job responsibilities.”

And she talks a lot in that about, first, starting out by using an aggregator. Use that aggregator to get you started. And the automated solution that she points to is as simple as Google Reader. She starts out, she says, “Open up Google Reader. Look at the latest blog posts and news stories that are coming in through the custom searches you’ve already set up and subscribed to.”

And she puts them in a separate folder and then will periodically go through all of the search results there and open up the ones that look particularly interesting in their own tabs and then goes through them in sort of a sudden-death approach to figure out, “What are the topics?” What are the stories here about which she would most like to blog that will have the most value for her target audience, that she can maybe either tweet out or expand into blog posts later in the week, that type of thing.

But I think that’s a really good example, and a very low-end and, obviously, free example, of using an automated solution to act on the keywords that you have given it, the search terms that you’ve already populated, and the feeds to which you’ve already subscribed. Use it in that way to start aggregating stuff for you so that you don’t have to spend the time doing that. Instead, spend your time in other ways.

Adam: Well, Margot, this was great. Thank you for circling back with us and tackling some of those questions.

Margot: Oh, my pleasure. This was a lot of fun.

Adam: To our audience, thanks for listening in and for your support of the UIE Virtual Seminar program.

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