Driving a Multichannel Experience from a Single Message – A 2012 IA Summit Podcast with Margot Bloomstein

Sean Carmichael

November 20th, 2012

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[ Transcript Available ]

Margot Bloomstein

(Originally posted at the IA Summit Library)

E pluribus unum? Better yet, out of one, create many—many channels within a multifaceted but unified experience. That’s the challenge of experience design among constrained budgets, tight timelines, and unlimited interaction expectations. Content strategy’s communication foundation, the message architecture, can help you answer that challenge.

First, we’ll discuss how to prioritize communication goals and develop a message architecture with a hands-on exercise—ideal whether you’re designing for the web, a mobile app, social media, or an offline experience. Then learn how to create consistency between long-form web copy, action-oriented forms, and pointed Tweets. Discover how to prioritize features and content types across platforms by looking at examples that do this well, and those that don’t. Finally, respond to responsive design with a strategy to adapt content across platforms but still stay true to the brand.

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Full Transcript.


Moderator: OK. We’re ready to get started. And I want to introduce you to Margot Bloomstein, who’s going to be talking about driving multichannel experiences through a single message.

[applause]

Margot Bloomstein: Thank you, guys. This is awesome. It’s so nice to have people clap when I haven’t even done anything. So I think maybe we can just leave it that, and let’s go get drinks, because it’s lovely out.

[applause]

Margot: Yay! Yay drinks! Yay! [laughs]

Thanks very much for coming to this session. My goals for this are to tell you guys about what a message architecture is, how it can drive your content strategy, and then, beyond all that, how it fits into information architecture and the decisions you’re making about what channels you choose when you’re trying to execute on a brand and then how you really convey that message through those different channels. So, does that sound good? Awesome.

Why are we even talking about content strategy at an information-architecture conference? In part because I’m a content strategist and I’m here, so yay, time to talk content strategy. But it’s really because we all want the same things, whether you’re a content strategist or a copywriter or a project manager or an IA, a designer, whatever.

And it’s usually content that screws those things up. It’s the content that really gets in the way when you’re trying to deliver on time and on budget, or if you’re just trying to make sure that you’re maintaining consistency across the experience, whether it’s a website, a more multichannel effort involving Twitter and Facebook, or even a more offline experience, like say a museum exhibit or print collateral, which also certainly involves thinking as an IA and thinking about the overall user experience.

So we want those same things. We want to make sure that we’re supporting that holistic user experience, even down into the details, even down into the weeds around micro-copy, instructional copy, et cetera, all those little things. And then, as you get into those other channels, you also want to have consistency there as well.

And it gets more and more complex, certainly, as we add on those different channels, as well as the different people that maybe own those different channels. You want to make sure that you’re being relevant across all those different experiences so that you really understand what you need to communicate.

So before we get into that, before we start discussing those different channels, I think we need to take a step back, first figure out, OK, what are our communication goals? And this seems like such a basic and obvious question, but think of all the initiatives that we begin.

And certainly, if you work in a consulting engagement, you may be facing this. Or if you’re more in-house, as part of a marketing team, you might get requests like, “Oh, we want to start redesigning the website,” or “The CEO wants to start blogging,” so of course that’s what you end up doing, maybe without even asking why along the way.

There’s just a lot of different paths that you can possibly go down, without really even understanding the purpose for them. And it’s content strategy that can help with that, because if you don’t know what you need to communicate, you don’t know why you’re going down those paths, you run into a lot of problems.

If you don’t know what you need to communicate, you’re not going to know if you’re doing it well. You won’t have any measurements for success if you don’t have clear goals in mind, whether it’s attracting more people to a brand, converting more customers, getting more people to sign up for a blog or to fan a Facebook page or whatever.

Obviously, you need those goals in order to create metrics of success, and in order to keep doing more of the things you’re doing well, to keep doing them again and again. And you’re also not going to know the right channels in which to execute on your brand.

So this is where message architecture comes in. This is kind of like the rainbows-and-puppies part of the talk. So, rainbows if you’re into that, puppies if you need that. If you need something beyond rainbows and puppies, I have something very special for you.

It’s Obama on a unicorn, and I think those are some of the little bunnies from “Cinderella,” and there’s glitter shooting out its butt there. That is happiness, and that is a message architecture, glitter shooting out a unicorn’s butt.

So, a more concrete definition of a message architecture, if you will. It’s simply a hierarchy of communication goals that reflect a common vocabulary. And we can unpack that a little bit and figure out how to get at it and why it matters.

So this is really my process. Content strategy is a broad umbrella, and there are folks within it that focus maybe more on more metadata-driven content strategy, more enterprise content strategy. I focus more on brand-driven content strategy, or brand-and-user-balanced content strategy, where we’re really trying to execute on the communication goals of a brand.

So that usually means team of stakeholders who have different ideas about where maybe a product needs to go or where a company needs to go. And they use crazy words to describe it, some of which are like using leverage as a verb, and we’re cool with that. But I want to try to get them to a common language so that both they understand each other and I understand them.

So, we talk about using a really shared terminology, shared vocabulary. It’s to counter things like this. When I hear from clients stuff like, “Make us look innovative but not risky,” I’m like, “What do you really mean by that?” Or when they say, “It should look traditional but edgy.”

And I live in Massachusetts, so to me I always think that’s like a pilgrim with a crew cut. Warby Parker gets this across really well. You’ve got traditional but edgy, he’s a hipster. That matters to a lot of brands, really capturing what they mean when they say that. And I tell them, “OK, well, your words are valuable, but we really need to contextualize them and understand them in order of priority.”

It’s very similar to the conversation you might have where everybody wants to have their personal thing on a home page. Whether they’re representing the HR department or maybe different product divisions within a company, their thing is most important so it should have home-page real estate.

I hear that from a messaging perspective as well, when people say, “Well, we need to look innovative and experienced and traditional, but also different and emerging and maybe more entrepreneurial.” These things are all great, but they’re not all at the same order of priority.

You cannot communicate multiple things at once that are really in contrast to each other. So instead, we have to figure out a way to really play out that message over the course of an experience.

So here’s how we do that. I really favor an approach that is hands-on, because it’s very easy to talk about a brand in a very abstract way, where nobody really takes ownership, nobody really commits to it, because they’re just using words and they’re kind of throwaway words. So I want it to be more hands-on, more tangible, so that people are really invested in that process.

I also want to make sure that everybody involved in an engagement is really there and present, in sort of the Buddhist sense, that they are involved in the process from the get-to and committing to what we all need to communicate through this project. So to put that in more concrete terms, I want to prevent seagulling. Does everybody know what that is?

It’s basically the idea that the project kicks off. Maybe I’m working with a team of stakeholders, and we’re working along our merry way. We’re going through wire-frames, home-page comps. We’re maybe six weeks away from launch, and then some vice president comes in and says, “Why is it not purple? Why do we not have goats on the home page?”

And they basically come in and seagull, or swoop-and-poop, all over your wonderful work. I want them involved from the get-go and really buying into this. So far, I’ve already talked about glitter shooting out of a unicorn’s butt and mild poop jokes. This is awesome, and it’s only going to get better.

So, we want to prevent seagulling. We want to make sure that there’s that hands-on investment in their brand and in their communication goals and make sure that we can really prioritize what those communication goals are.

The way that I really like to do that is through card sorting. And I know many of you go through card-sorting exercises with your clients and with your companies in order to figure out how information should be organized in different sections of an experience or maybe giving labels to those sections. This is similar, but instead I’m dealing with a lot of adjectives. And it’s a three-step process.

So, to begin with, I’ll usually put out 100 to 150 index cards, each with a different adjective on them. And it’s a set that I’ve kind of evolved over time. These are most of them. But it’s a set that I’ve evolved over time to say, “OK, these are the terms that I’m hearing a lot from brands in different industries when they’re talking about their companies.”

I love that everybody thinks their company is unique. But certainly, if you work in consulting you know, no, they’re not all unique. Not every company is its own special little flower. But what is unique about them, what is unique about those brands, is how they tell their stories. And that’s where we can really dig in here.

So we go through a process where, first, I’ll give them all these adjectives, all these index cards, starts looking like this. And I’ll say, “OK, here are your words. I want you to lay them out for me in three different columns: who you are, maybe the qualities that best describe how your brand is seen now; who you’re not, maybe the qualities that better describe a competitor or just aren’t really appropriate for your industry; and then who you’d like to be, how you’d like to be seen in the hearts and minds of your target audience.”

Because, really, what we do, it isn’t science fiction, but in a lot of ways we deal in the art of time travel. We help take brands from how they’re currently seen to how they’d like to be seen, oftentimes through content marketing, through re-branding, repositioning. That takes a lot of skill. So we want to make sure that we have a good sense of where we’re going. We can only get them to the future if we know what that looks like.

So we go through that process of how they’d like to be seen, how they are now, and just how they’re not. And I’ll usually balance that with work that’s being done around user research, to take the fact of what users are saying and balance that against what the company is telling me as well.

We get those three columns, and I ask them to take a step back. Usually people at this point will say, “Hey, who threw down ‘innovative’ here? We’re not innovative.” So I’ll get to hear that little bit of debate and internal discourse, or people might all rally around a term like “savvy,” and I’ll be able to ask, “OK, what does that term really mean here?” Or there are terms that you don’t like to use, which can help me influence copywriting, nomenclature, et cetera, later on.

So we’ll go through that process. I’ll usually give them 15 minutes or so. And then we’ll move into step two. I usually shuffle all the “who we’re not” cards off the table, and we just focus on the current state, who we are, and how we’d like to be, that future state.

And I’ll ask them to physically move over the terms that they want to hold onto moving forward, that they really are invested in or are core to their brand and they want to make sure that they’re retaining in the future. They go through that process and then start making some tough decisions, because they’ll say, “OK. How we’d like to be,” we might have 50 or so different terms there.

That’s OK, because we can start to sort through them a little bit more and maybe those terms, maybe some of them, will all describe how they’d like to be seen by recruits and perspective hires. We’ll put those all in a column. Maybe other terms all describe how they’d like to be seen around their product marketing strategy or something.

Then finally, I’ll ask them to prioritize those little clumps. We usually get three to five buckets of terms that say, “Here’s what gets us in the door. Here’s how we need to be seen first, then this is what supports it.” Then finally, “This is what we use to bolster our efforts around messaging.” They’re really coming up with the terminology, the shared vocabulary, and the order of priority of those terms.

As I said, in that step three we’re really prioritizing those communication goals and I’ll have them then tell the story of how they all connect. What’s the story of those aspirations? Why do we even do this? Well, we talked about the how, the why is pretty simple. In a lot of ways, it helps them save money through the process.

Probably about ten-ish years ago or so, you probably remember it was common to usually start out, maybe after a client kickoff or whatever, oftentimes the first deliverables that they would be seeing back from a team, whether it was internal or a consulting team, were Photoshop comps of designers coming in and saying, “We’ve got three different ideas for how this could proceed, let’s say, through a website. If we hear you right is this what you meant?”

That’s expensive. That takes a lot of creativity and time and budget to sit down and start thinking visually from the get go. Now, of course, things have evolved and now usually we’ll come back and say, “Is this what you meant?” Maybe be figuring it out with a site map, starting something a little bit more low-fi like that.

By starting out with content strategy and letting the content and the communication goals lead the process, it saves money, even earlier on. If I’m putting together a message architecture it’s usually just a Word doc. The client is doing a lot of the thinking and the prioritization for me, so when I’m coming back in with that Word doc to say, “Is this what you meant?” the feedback is usually pretty easy.

We can easily move around those terms and say, “Well, it’s really most important, maybe, for us to look experienced first.” Or, “It’s most important for us to look established and traditional first,” and reorder the priority in that way.

As you see, words can really be cheaper than comps. It’s way cheaper to work in Microsoft Word or something than in Photoshop, at least from the get go. It really helps the designers then later on because we’re shoveling a lot of that budget more later in the project so that they can use it to invest in refining the details, not figuring out those initial concepts.

This process also gives us standards by which to conduct a content audit later on. Qualitative things like, “Is this content good? Can I use it in the new site architecture?” You can’t measure good unless you know how to define good. That message architecture gives you the vocabulary to say, “OK. Well, good content is content that in the future maybe upholds values of innovation, creativity and other things that the company wants to be known for.”

We’ll see how that plays out in a few different examples. That also helps, then, if you get more prescriptive in developing the site and in developing the wire frames to say, “Well, OK. These are the content types that we need to execute on this message architecture.”

We shouldn’t just be choosing content types like, maybe, video interviews because, again, somebody’s president is like, “Oh, our competitor has video interviews. We should, too,” but rather because they articulate the right communication goals and what that company is trying to tell.

I think one way to remember this is if you think of The Eagles, “Life in the Fast Lane.” It’s for rock stars. It doesn’t really work so well in our industry, that idea of everything all the time. This is totally what my project meetings look like, by the way, and I don’t play any of those instruments, but it’s still what they look like.

That idea of executing on lots of different channels, launching in Facebook, launching on Twitter, maybe maintaining a YouTube channel, that’s great, but it is not sustainable. Especially if a team isn’t big enough or doesn’t have the right skill sets or if you’re putting a lot of that stuff on a marketing intern that goes away at the end of the summer.

You can’t do all those things at once when you’re dealing with constraints. And almost every project team, whether internal or external, deals with constraints. So, how we do that is by being very judicious and choosing those channels well.

Another way to look at this and content strategy itself. John Eckman last year, at WordCamp Boston, in the course of his presentation, I thought this was really great. He said, “Strategy is just using limited resources to accomplish a goal.”

So if we know now that our communication goals are documented in the message architecture, we can now use content strategy to figure out how to pick and choose what are the right channels and how do we maintain consistency through those channels to execute on that goal.

So the message architecture, it’s a very little thing with big impact. Something else that is a little thing with big impact is a small car that launched over here almost 10 years ago now. It was well-known in Europe. It was around since the 1950s, much-loved in Europe. It was the first consumer-grade front-wheel-drive car.

But it didn’t have a big following over here. It was a premium car, but Americans didn’t really know it. And as their creative director said, “We need to give people content to give them the history of this product.” That little thing with big impact was the Mini Cooper. And despite what the quote said, it doesn’t really have a Porsche 911 ride, but it is fun.

This is what their message architecture looked like. So you can see, it’s a pretty simple outline. There’s not a lot of bullets up there, but this is the story of how they communicate their brand. There’s three basic buckets to it. They want to communicate the sense of premium technology; also, the classic design; and also, because they’re a British brand–and this is getting at their vocabulary–this sense of cheekiness, that it’s smart and punny and gleeful.

Also, they have this element of spontaneity in here. This message architecture helped them figure out, “OK, we don’t have an enormous budget.” Even though they were an automotive brand when they first came to the US, their advertising, marketing, web presence, et cetera, it wasn’t backed by an enormous budget, so they had to make some tough decisions.

These are some of the channels that they chose to go into. They had their basic web presence, where you could construct a car and whatnot. Then, when they launched the Cooper Convertible, there in the background…it’s kind of tough to see in this light, they launched this little micro-site called “Open 24 Hours,” kind of playing on the pun that it’s a convertible, so “open,” da-da-da-da.

And the copy here also pulls on that message architecture. It says, “Open 24 hours.” It’s a big, open world out there, and experiencing it all might require motoring deep into the night. Hopefully this guide will help.

And you could find a place, like here, Primanti Brothers. It’s open 24 hours, serves the fries in the sandwich, which is quite the culinary tour de force. And it supports that kind of driver, it supports the brand and their target audience.

Another channel that they went into, again, they weren’t going after the conventional social media channels. They felt, OK, that’s already crowded. Also, maintaining a Twitter presence, maintaining a Facebook presence means that we need somebody that can be monitoring comments all the time, engaging in those comments, constantly producing new content. We can’t fund that yet.

But what we could do that was right for their target audience, right for their brand and message architecture, was something like this, the Mini custom paint shop. It allowed you, the user, to kind of play with different ideas for hood graphics, graphics on the car. None of them were real, because when it launched, you couldn’t actually get a car up done however you wanted to.

But over time, this kind of went viral within their community, within their target audience. Because you could save your design, you would save it to a garage, not just to your saved files or to your folder, but to your garage. You could post it across other social media platforms, so other people could see it.

And as other people were seeing it and commenting on it, a lot of different independent garages started approaching Mini to say, “Actually, we can make custom vinyl graphics that make good on what your audience is already producing online. Let us get involved with that so that these things can be real.” So, it kind of got legs of its own that way.

Another, I guess you could call it a channel, that we often times overlook that is a wealth of opportunity for error messaging and microcopy is basic email marketing. For many, this fell within their budget, so it fit their strategy when they were trying to pick channels. And they’re great emails, including the opt out messaging at the bottom. It’s just the basic stuff. It does what it needs to do in terms of communication goals with the content and the functional needs.

But then, they add on to it in a way that’s appropriate for their brand, appropriate for their target audience. If you don’t mind missing out on all the lip smacking stuff we’ll be sending in the future, here’s how you unsubscribe. Include unsubscribe and your favorite fruit in the subject line. So, something a little bit different, little bit quirky, little bit cheeky.

So, you can see that how message architecture really helps to drive the user experience. From the content side and the actual copy writing that they were choosing, it influenced their diction or word choice, the calls to action, things like instructional copy, error messaging, nomenclature, across those different channels to help really unify it as well as the main web presence itself.

Also, in the design, in terms of their typography, the styled imagery that they choose. Usually Minis are shown on a black background from a low angle that makes them seem a little bit larger than life.

The typography that they associate with it is always sans serif bold, a little bit aggressive, that really fits the styling of the car, as well. And goes back to that message architecture of communicating this performance kind of thing that isn’t just mired in little details or anything like that. Never fussy. And also, obviously, it plays out, then, in their choice of channels and content types that they were using.

I want to walk you through one other example, a little bit faster. Also a British brand that uses the word cheeky. This is one that a lot of us probably know well. They sell print collateral online. A lot of us probably have business cards from there. Again, three basic buckets to their message architecture. They’re very helpful and accessible, customer oriented and responsive, and again, cheeky.

That brand is Moo. They sell print collateral online. Everything from business cards and postcards and stickers and all. And as they’re maintaining their brand across those different channels, they’re a really great example of how that message architecture plays out even in 140 characters or fewer.

So, on Twitter, they could’ve easily said, “We now have sticker books.” But instead it’s, “Psst, sticker books are stateside.” So “stateside” kind of underscores the fact that “We’re British and proud of it.” And that “psst,” it’s kind of cute. It’s an adorable brand, which certainly helps humanize a printer for their target audience.

A little bit of copy from the website, as well: “We love the web, but you can’t put it in your pocket. The Internet. Yay, Internet! You can’t touch it, write on it, or stick it on the fridge. You can’t pop it in the post–again, the post, not the mail–with a gift or hand it to a client. The web is great, but it’s still just ones and zeros.”

So it’s a nice way that they’re starting to establish rapport with their target audience to position their brand, but not in a very basic way at all but in a way that really sticks true to their message architecture. And then you can start to see how that plays out, even across their category nomenclature. They don’t have an “About Us.” It’s “Hello, we’re MOO,” within the “About MOO” section.

And then here’s a little snippet. If you have ordered products from them, you get the confirmation email. Now, a confirmation email basically only has to say, “Yes, we got your order. Here’s about when you should receive it. Don’t reply to this because it’s automated, you moron.” Here’s what they do.

So it comes from Little MOO, the print robot. So they’ve even paid attention to what that address is that’s sending it out. It says, “Hello, I’m Little MOO, the bit of software that will be managing your order with MOO.com. It will shortly be sent to Big MOO, our print machine, who will print it for you in the next few days. I’ll let you know when it’s done and on its way to you. Remember, I’m just a bit of software, so if you have any questions regarding your order, please first read our frequently asked questions or contact Customer Services, who are real people. Thanks, Little MOO, the print robot.”

Again, it’s adorable. It does exactly what it needs to do. It’s functionally correct and brand-appropriate. So again, their message architecture, it really just has to achieve those three things in order of priority. And they’re able to do it in their central web presence. If you’ve ever received an order from them, in the little bits of copy that are in there on paper and whatnot as well, in supplemental cards and all, on Twitter, in email, every touch point with their target audience is consistent.

So, where do you go from here with all of this? After you start out with that message architecture, as I mentioned earlier, that then becomes the standards that you can use for a content audit. As you’re starting to figure out, “OK, where do we go from here?”

Say, if it’s a site redesign, maybe you’re bringing that content into a new platform, you need to know what you have to work with in order to know, “Is it any good? What do we need more of? Where do we need to translate it maybe for the new message architecture?” before you can go forward with an accurate sense of scope and just how much work you need to do and how long it’s going to take. So you need to really measure it against the message architecture.

That’s also where you can start figuring out, “OK, what are the new content types that we need, that we’re not going to decide just by some arbitrary fiat or what’s hot and trendy right now, but rather by what really fits our communication goals?” In other words, if you need to communicate maybe the experience of a small agency, you can’t really do that without showing it in a portfolio.

If you need to communicate that a brand is very trusted and responsive and engaged with its target audience, testimonials from that audience, from representative members there, are a great way to do that. But if those aren’t the communication goals, and again, you’re probably dealing with a limited budget, a constrained time line, and other priorities that you’ve got to take care of, then probably take some of those things off the table and don’t need to waste your time at.

As a content strategist, I will typically go through this process and then move into something like editorial style guidelines and say, “OK. We know the big picture, what we need to communicate, then we know in greater detail exactly what we need to communicate through our content audit and our prescriptive content matrix or content model. Now, how are we going to communicate that?”

Again, I’ll go back to the message architecture and say, “OK. These are our communication goals. That’s going to, for me, dictate certain things in the editorial style guidelines as far as how I should be punctuating things, what the sentence structure should be like. Do we want to have really long sentences with Latinate forms of the verbs because we want to be communicating, maybe, that a brand is more conservative or more academic?”

“Or do we want to communicate that a brand is very punchy and aggressive and, maybe, fun and young, in which case we’ll be choosing more dramatic forms of verbs?” It’s that level of detail in the editorial style guidelines that I’m going all the way back to the message architecture to really get that kind of insight.

For all of that stuff, though, all of those deliverables and whatnot along the way and that whole process, the message architecture is really what comes first and what guides it. That’s what I wanted to share with you guys today. Thank you very much.

[applause]

Margot: I would be remiss and my butt gets kicked by my publisher if I don’t mention, too, if you’re interested in learning more, “Content Strategy at Work” – yay – just came out the beginning of this month. You can find it there at Amazon, and also I have some cards up here with a discount code for Morgan Kaufmann who right now, I think, has it for 30 percent off, and they’re also selling it in the bookstore out front. What questions can I answer?

Audience Member: That was great. Thank you. I think it’s really good for IAs and content strategists to be doing this kind of work, but very often you’ll find that companies might have established, maybe just calling it messaging from a marketing agency or working with someone who developed their original brand. Have you had experience integrating something that someone else did who maybe wasn’t thinking in an interactive or web sense and bringing that to the table, and how would you handle that?

Margot: Yeah. I actually hear that a lot from companies that will talk through a process and I’ll say, “Well, I want to start by digging into your message architecture.” They’ll say, “Oh. We have these brand values,” or, “We have our company credo.” Those things are great. For MOO, I think, their company vision is something like, “Accessible print for everyone.” It’s great. It’s heartwarming.

It’s the stuff of Lifetime Television’s specials involving Meredith Baxter Birney at a printer or something, but it’s not actionable. I can’t make anything from that, that is concrete and speaks to what channels we should go into then, and how should we be communicating in those channels.

Really, if they want a practical project that will be producing something for them, it needs to be actionable. I’ll take what they already have, whether it’s a vision statement or maybe research they’ve already done on their brand or on their competitors. That’s always great stuff as a starting point. Just the fact that they’ve been thinking about it is huge.

A lot of companies haven’t always been thinking about it because they’ve been doing their thing, not thinking about how do we talk about our thing. I’ll use that as a starting point, but then still show them the value of, “OK. Here’s what we need to get at the end of the day and we can’t always get that from the only things that you have.”

We’ll also talk about how going through a message architecture, it isn’t just about producing this one thing, but it’s producing something fairly cheaply that will affect a lot of other, subsequent, more tactical work. And it’s also the process of producing it that’s going to be getting stakeholders into the room that maybe don’t normally take the time to talk and think about this stuff. It’s a “Kumbaya” moment, and they love that.

Audience Member: I find a lot of clients, they will very easily confuse the “what they are” with “what they want to be.” In particular, they put stuff in the “what they are” that they in no way are. How do you get them over that? Or does it matter? You just don’t sweat that one?

Margot: So, honesty and reality come, usually, from two places. One, their target audience. And like I said, I’m not a user researcher, but some of my best friends are user researchers. So I’ll usually partner with a usability specialist or somebody that can be doing even just basic audience research to find out, “OK, what are the current brand perceptions, and what do people want from this brand?” So that’s one point of honesty that comes more externally.

And then there’s usually, they kind of police themselves. So usually, when I’m going through this exercise, it’ll be in the context of a project kick-off. And I like to do it with no more than, say, five to seven people, because otherwise it’s just too many people crowding around a table and trying to move index cards around.

And it seems to be a very democratizing effort because, A, everybody’s getting up out of their chairs to crowd around index cards. It’s probably not something that they normally do. So there’s usually some laughs of like, “Oh, this is fun,” and they don’t realize that they’re actually thinking a lot through that fun.

And then I think, because it is sort of democratizing, that somebody might be reaching across what their boss has just put down, or a marketing specialist might be interjecting and saying, “Hey, that’s not really what happened in the last newsletter we sent out. It was really more about this.” You’re getting more give-and-take than I think normally happens, because people are kind of outside their norm.

And it’s very self-policing, because oftentimes people will be empowered in that situation to stand up and say, “Hey, I know we said we’re innovative, but do you guys really think that? What was the last thing we did that was innovative?” And you’ll usually see some smirks and all, and then people are like, “Yeah, maybe not. Let’s move that.” Or somebody might say, “We’re cool,” and you hear everybody else at the table groan. That tells you a lot.

And then, also, it’s my job, as the more neutral party in that, to sit back, let them have their discussions and then see where people hesitate. Or if somebody puts a card down and I see somebody else raise an eyebrow, I’ll go back and say, “It looked like there was some hesitation when you guys threw down that you’re currently cutting-edge. What does that mean here? What do people feel about that?” So it’s kind of the psychology part of it as well, I guess.

Audience Member: I have a question. Once you’ve created your message architecture and you’ve executed your strategy, how do you validate that that strategy actually used your message architecture? How do you know that the strategy was the correct one?

Margot: So how do I validate that the content types and the channels that they chose are correct?

Audience Member: Exactly.

Margot: So that gets more into the measurement and analytics side of it. And as I was saying, you don’t know if you’re successful unless you have concrete communication goals.

The approach that I always take is that articulating some communication goals, even if they end up being way off, are better than not having any set communication goals. Because when you don’t have any sort of clear vision, people in different silos and probably with different budget lines and whatnot, they all just kind of keep producing their own thing up to whatever standards they feel are right and kind of internal to them.

There’s no way to say, “OK, we did this well,” or “We didn’t do it well,” because there’s no concrete product that has been produced in a consistent manner with everybody walking in lockstep.

So, if, say, the message architecture that we come to is that it’s most important to communicate, maybe, like the overall wisdom of the company. And because of that, we take, maybe, a more academic tone, start positioning different people in the company as thought leaders. Maybe start doing a video blog that includes comments from them every week, get a lot more people in the company blogging, that type of thing.

That was our goal, that was kind of the strategy and the tactics on which we executed. If, after a predetermined amount of time, maybe like a month after launch or two months after launch, we go back and say, “Well, are we being perceived as more wise in the marketplace?”

I’ll usually work with different folks in the company to say, “OK, well, what caused you to have that deep seated need? Why are you not seen as being wise or really having wisdom associated with your company?” Usually they’ll say things like, “Well, we don’t get called by the press for interviews on this particular topic.” Or, “Our CEO has never been asked to keynote a conference,” or “We’re just not seen as a thought leader in that space.”

So, those first two things of like, “We’ve never been asked to do this,” or “We’re not getting to do this enough.” Those are issues that have quantitative data points. And I can say, “OK, how many times has this happened? How frequently do you get called by the media to talk about, like, your product or our industry?”

And then, that’s something that, two months after launch, or six months after launch, we have those pre-launch data points. We have post-launch data points. And we compare them. So, that’s how I would measure if it’s working or not, by going back to the same factors.

Kind of like the other part of your question there was around what do you do if it isn’t successful, if it’s not working.

Audience Member: Yeah.

Margot: You think that’s when you say, “OK, we had clear communication goals, how we executed on them did not work.” We first look at, well, how are we executing on them? Did we say we’re going to be blogging, but then, people aren’t blogging at the frequency at which they said they would.

OK, can we choose different channels? How can we make this more effective? So, I would fine tune the tactics and the execution before revisiting the original communication goal.

Audience Member: Thank you.

Audience Member: Hi, Margot. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the relationship between the artifacts that you generate in those card sort of events and the actual sort of social experience and the buy in generating experience out of, like, the people that are actually participating in it.

Margot: The relationship between those two?

Audience Member: Yeah.

Margot: I think, where it gets interesting is often times around, like, the pronoun. And that’s always like those little things that are a huge tell.

I find, when, if there have been cases where somebody says, “OK, we have a message architecture, our last agency produced it.” I’m like, OK, I can’t make this from scratch for you guys because of the budget or whatever. And I work from that. So, there’s been no process of them kind of creating it together.

The pronouns then, are the giveaway, because they’ll talk about, “Well, the message architecture that our old agency gave us,” rather than, “Well, our message architecture says this.”

And when they’ve been invested in the process from the get go, they use a lot more personal pronouns to say, “Here’s what we’re doing wrong,” or “Maybe we should be looking at how we communicate this.” And “These are our communication goals.” Because they’re never my communication goals, it’s what they want for themselves, and I’m just helping them align their actions more with their vision.

Audience Member: Have you found, say for example, somebody wants to say, “Oh, we want a message architecture so that we can check it off on a checklist,” versus what actually is on the message architecture [laughs] , what it contains, and its actual content?

Margot: Mm-hmm.

Audience Member: How do you reconcile?

Margot: Usually it’s by just going through that process. Like, I do try to do a good job of making sure that nobody’s kind of recusing themselves from the exercise. That’s why I want no more than five to seven people. Everybody that’s in the room should be involved in it as well. So, it’s the involvement that brings them closer to their own brand.

Audience Member: Yes, cool, thank you.

Audience Member: So, I love the phrase seagulling that you used, I think that’s brilliant.

Margot: Swoop and poop.

Audience Member: What strategies do you use to kind of avoid that? Like, when you work with executives who are like, no, no, no, I don’t need to be a part of this, and then they swoop at the end?

Margot: Yes, so a lot of it is, everything that happens before this exercise. So as a consultant, maybe when I first land a project or something, I’ll try to get buddy-buddy with whatever stakeholder’s bringing me in to find out, OK, well, what makes their job tough, and what are the politics with which they have to contend to make sure that we are bringing the right people into the process? Whether it’s somebody that has to be actively involved, or maybe somebody that just always wants to make sure that they were consulted.

So, we’ll work to figure out, OK, do we have to add additional meetings into this so that the president of the university that maybe doesn’t own marketing but certainly has a voice in its success, do we have to make sure that they feel like they’ve been heard? Do we need to bring them in, schedule additional meetings to review things with them on whatever timeline works for them? So we’ll make sure that we have the right people in the room.

If I hear about folks pushing back and saying, like, I don’t have to care about that, or let me just see it when it’s done, then it’s usually on me to do a little bit more digging to find out, OK, does that really work in this culture? Maybe that person is as good as their word and they’re not going to come in and swoop all over our work.

But if they have a history of doing that, I’ll just kind of work to figure out, well, maybe a card-sorting exercise doesn’t work for them. Maybe they think index cards are silly. They are not, obviously, us. But maybe we can come up with a different exercise that will work for them.

Maybe it’s a facilitated phone call or something like that. Maybe this is somebody that just needs to talk about their brand over drinks, and then afterward I’ll document them and shoot them an email and say, I just want to make sure I got our conversation right.

So, I put a lot of value in the message architecture. Most of my clients do, too, but when they have maybe other stakeholders that don’t quite get it, I don’t scrap the process, I don’t scrap that step. Instead, I figure out other ways to kind of make it palatable for them. I bring them to my table.

Audience Member: Hello, I’m deaf and my interpreter’s speaking for me. This presentation has made me think of a lot of things. I’m a web designer, and I’m doing some IA, and before when I was doing some web design. But I’ve noticed that the clients and the companies that I’ve worked for, they really don’t care about the information architecture.

They just want the final design, they want a picture, they want something for marketing, they want the image. So I’m wondering if I’m working for maybe the wrong company, the wrong client? Because I could try to convince them to do something better, to really focus on using the experience first and then getting that into the design.

Because I agree that using the research, the architecture, doing this first could save them money in the end. It could save them more money before going ahead and going with the design and wasting the money for that.

Another thing, it’s about the content strategy. I’ve noticed, with the website, there’s a lot of content and it’s hard to read. So, I’d make a suggestion on maybe a shorting it and cutting some of that. But most them, they say, oh no, they’ll read it fast and just get through it.

Margot: Oh.

Audience Member: So, I’m kind of, just a click here. And click here. And download, and click here, and click over here. And it’s like, no, no, no, no. Not just click and get another one, because you have to click here and click here and add to a link. And so, I’m just wondering what your recommendation on something like that would be.

Margot: Oh. My first recommendation is pour yourself a good drink. Yeah, that’s a lot of pain that I think is all too common in our industry. The first one about clients that are like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, enough with the wire frames, show me the pretty pictures.”

Of course, like, we live in a culture of instant gratification and we want to get to the pretty end product. We don’t really care about the process along the way. I mean, we all talk about the journey. But, I mean, I drove down to Disney World when I was little, with my parents, two and a half days in the car. I liked getting to Disney World. The journey, you know, it was OK.

And I think, when we take our clients through that kind of process, the thing that I’ve found helpful is by creating lots of end points, lots of shiny end points along the way, so that they see, “OK, we just did this step, here is this big awesome thing that came out of it, and we did that well.” And then, “OK, we’re going to move into this phase now. And here’s what we did well from that.”

So, by creating those sort of, I guess, mini-highlight moments for them, I find that kind of helps maintain their intention, maintain their focus, as well. To your other point around just getting through lots of content and knowing kind of how to sift that and all, that’s a tough one, because I think, for a long time, the thinking was, people don’t read on the web, which is not a thing that we should be applauding.

That, people thought that we don’t read on the web. But that’s not true. People do read content that is clear and consistent and cohesive. And we don’t pay enough attention to making sure that content is cohesive. And by that I mean, that really pulls the audience through what they’re reading.

And maybe you have content that is, I don’t know, say, 500 characters, but it’s all really short, choppy sentences that are hopping around in different places through a discussion. And they don’t really hang together.

They’re not going to be as effective as, say, 5,000 characters that pull somebody from existing information they already know that introduces them to new or surprising information, builds paragraphs in meaningful and cohesive ways that hold people through that information, teaching them along the way. Maybe celebrating new products or here’s new information we can give you that really empowers the user.

When you create content that is cohesive in that manner, it can be longer, and people will take the time to invest more of their time into it. But it has to be good content if it’s going to be long content.

Does that answer your question? No?

Anybody else? Then I think we’re good. Thank you guys very much.

[applause]

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