UIE Book Corner: Margot Bloomstein’s “Content Strategy at Work”

Sean Carmichael

May 10th, 2013

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Content Strategy at Work

Here at UIE we’ve amassed quite a library, and we’re adding to it all the time. One of the more recent additions is Margot Bloomstein’s book Content Strategy at Work. Margot is a fixture at conferences like Confab and the IA Summit. She’s also a veteran of our Virtual Seminar program having presented Combining Curation with Your Content Strategy and returning May 30 with Controlling the Pace of UX with Content Strategy.

The subtitle of Margot’s book is “Real-World Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project” and in keeping with that idea, it is chock full of case studies and practical examples. Adam Churchill catches up with Margot to discuss her book in this podcast.

Recorded: May, 2013
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Full Transcript.


Adam Churchill: Hello, everyone. At UIE, we’re lucky to work with lots of wonderful topic experts and often get a peek at their books as soon as they hit the bookshelves. One that was published over a year ago, a book that’s still getting a lot of buzz, is Margot Bloomstein’s “Content Strategy at Work.”

If you look it up on Amazon, the reviews are awesome. Just some tidbits I’ll share. “It shows the reader how to create a unique, clear, and distinctive online voice and visual language.” Another person shared that “it’s a resource that helps people build modern business in the modern times.”

The last one that I saw that I thought was interesting just summarized it nicely, which is, “The book is comprised of stories, not theories, and the stories illustrate the importance of content and highlights the need for strategy to govern the creation, management, delivery, and presentation of that content.”

Margot was kind enough, on super-short notice, to agree to speak with me about the book, and we’re recording it, so you can listen in to hear what she has to say. Hi, Margot.

Margot Bloomstein: Hi there. Thanks so much for reaching out to me.

Adam: We love the book. The subtitle of the book is, “Real-World Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project.” Talk about these case studies in the book. For folks that pick up a copy, are there how-tos associated with those case studies that they can put into play immediately?

Margot: Definitely. Thank you for calling out the subtitle. That it’s for every interactive project, because that’s definitely my meaning with content strategy. I think that it does apply to every sort of interactive engagement, whether you’re in an agency or in an in-house marketing department or if you’re a consulting or whatever.

Oftentimes, I’ve heard from folks, “Content strategy doesn’t really apply on our project because we only have a small budget and we’re not creating that much content,” or “I’m working on an application, so we don’t have a lot of marketing content in it,” or “This is really dry. It’s for the government. We don’t really have consumers as a retail brand might have, so it doesn’t really apply to us.”

Those are common complaints, and I think that they’re all bogus, [laughs] because content strategy does apply to all of those cases and a lot of others. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book, because I was sick of hearing people say, “We don’t have a lot of budget. We can’t afford strategy,” or “We don’t have a lot of copy in an application, so we don’t really need content strategy.”

It’s in those cases, when you’re dealing with a lot of constraints, where you don’t have the time or the luxury to make mistakes with your content. Every word or every image has to be spot-on. It has to work over time. I think that’s why you really need to nail the strategy behind it before you go out and start writing it or shooting it or commissioning it or curating it from other sources.

I guess I was kind of sick of hearing cases of, “Our project is too small,” or “Our brand really isn’t that sexy.” I wanted to say, no, here’s a lot of examples of brands that maybe aren’t consumer-facing or had really small budgets, or aren’t working with a lot of copy, but because every word mattered, every word in the error messaging and the instructional copy and then how they would evolve those concepts over time, because it all matters, they needed to understand the strategy behind it and their hierarchy of communication goals.

Those are the case studies that we collected here.

Adam: You’re obviously getting a lot of feedback on the book, and we know people are telling you that they love it. Are they telling you why? What are the reasons that they’re so excited about the book?

Margot: I think the high-quality paper on which it’s printed means a lot…

[laughter]

Margot: No. Thanks for calling that out. I’ve been hearing a lot of great feedback from people, and I always like to say that relevance is the best compliment. There have been several cases now where maybe I’m doing a book signing at a conference or something like that, and someone comes up to me with their copy of the book and they’ve jammed it full of Post-It notes.

They flip through it and they’ve underlined stuff and there’s a ton of highlighting in it. I love that, because it means they’re really using it. They’re treating it sort of like a consumable textbook.

There are certainly books that I do that with. I actually just tweeted the other day that Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s book, “Content Everywhere,” that’s become such a resource for me. I can tell that it is, because I’m not just reading it — I’m using it — and I’ve got a million and one notes in it because it has been so useful.

I’ve been hearing from folks that “Content Strategy at Work” has that same sort of utility for them. There are a lot of examples in it. A lot of the exercises that I’ve developed over the past decade that I do with my clients. I share them in the book.

I also wanted people to hear, not just from me, because there are a lot of different ways to practice content strategy. I interviewed probably upwards of 20 or so different organizations about how they practice content strategy, both with their clients or as brands themselves and collected a lot of those methods that they shared in here as well.

Frequently, I do hear feedback on the brand attributes exercise that’s in there. It’s a card-sorting exercise that I do with many organizations. A lot of people have adopted it, making their own. I spell out in there the process behind it and some other techniques to get at the same information.

I share a lot about how I conduct the content audit in there that is driven by a message architecture that’s both qualitative and quantitative. There are some examples of it in there and some example templates and all the help guided.

I hear from folks a lot about those two techniques, especially.

Adam: What chapter people tell you that they’re opening up to most often?

Margot: I would say, again, going back to how to conduct that brand attribute exercise, how to conduct a card-sorting exercise to get at a message architecture. I think that that’s in…That’s in chapter two there.

Adam: Yeah, that’s early on. What caught me, lots of great pictures of people doing the exercise. Always helpful.

Margot: I feel like it’s one of those techniques that you can appreciate it or learn how to do it at a few different levels. The more times you do it with your own organization or your own clients, of course, you learn other skills. You have those little epiphanies of like, “Oh, maybe I should phrase a particular question this way or do this with my body language.”

I try to capture that in the book as well because I’ve learned, by doing it over many years, there are some times when you’re working with a client where you should be standing because it presents an idea in a certain way. Other times, like I’m doing this exercise where I try to remain sitting and I don’t touch the cards that they’re sorting because I want them to feel, both literally and figuratively, a very hands-on relationship with their brand attributes.

I try to include some of those techniques and starter questions and type of thing in that chapter.

Adam: Margot, chapter seven is called “Grounding Social Media and Content Strategy.” What kind of things were you seeing that led to the need for that chapter? How are the solutions that you provided…How are they helping people in their project work?

Margot: I’ve heard from clients, here and there over the past several years, that more and more, organizations get content strategy. They’ve heard the term for awhile now. They understand it, hopefully, as more than just a buzz word.

They realize that they need some sort of guidance to help all of their communication, be more cohesive and consistent so that their target audience, whether it’s hopes that are going to governmental website or people looking to buy a product or get information about what time a flight is landing. Whatever that is, whatever channel those users are interacting with, they expect to be consistent with other channels that the brand also produces.

They expect to use similar language, whether they’re interacting with them through their main core website or a mobile app or maybe their Twitter account or Facebook profile or on Pinterest. They expect a certain level of consistency.

But, what I was starting to hear from organizations were questions like, “We get our editorial style guidelines. We understand our goals in there, some of our different communication goals, but do they really apply in Twitter, like when we’re working with 140 characters or less?” I’d always be a little bit surprised when I would hear that. I’d have to push back and say, “Yes, those same guidelines do apply.”

Then it kind of goes back to that core principle of content strategy. That when you’re working with less content, in the case of Twitter when you’re working with very constrained copy, every word and the choices you make around grammar and how you abbreviate those words, and if you structure things with short sentences, maybe leading with a short question or a parenthetical aside, all of those things matter that much more when you’re only dealing with 140 characters or maybe only 120 characters, if you want to be re-tweeted.

I was hearing questions like that. Then also hearing from brands that were saying, “We know that we need to make this investment in Facebook and in Twitter and whatever other platforms are coming up. Should we be developing more of a presence through Foursquare or even a few year ago through Gowalla? Should we be developing trips and that type of thing? What about now, Pinterest?

It raises that issue that so many social media strategists’ and consultants are familiar with, that social media isn’t free, but it is so tempting. It’s just a different kind of expensive in that it demands your investment of time and attention and creativity that many organizations are taxed to apply to other efforts as well.

If you’re going to make that investment of say launching a Facebook campaign or something like that, that you’re also going to have to monitor the comments, engage with the comments and the feedback, continue to feed the beast with new and interesting content that people want to share and help you go viral with it now.

Because of those reasons, social media and those different channels are tempting, but brands have to be able to make good choices around where they make the investment. Maybe they shouldn’t go after everything all at once. Maybe they shouldn’t go after the channels that are most trendy, but how do they choose the channels that will align best with their communication goals and maybe the specific talents they already have in house and their overall editorial style and tone?

In that chapter, I try to help them answer those questions so that again, if you’re a social media strategist reading it, you can bring that sort of sensibility and that content strategy mindset into your work as well.

Adam: The final chapter in the book talks about content getting a seat at the table. How do you think the book helps people accomplish that?

Margot: I’ve heard from a number of people that have read it that have been kind enough to share their feedback. One, that it makes them more confident about the processes that they’ve been developing in their own work.

I think, for many people that come to content strategy, we have that sort of aha moment that maybe, several years ago, or for some people, just several months ago. It was that feeling of, like, wait a second, there are other people that do what I do.

Maybe we don’t all call it content strategy. Maybe we used different terms for our process of auditing content and assessing it, all those types of things. But we’re applying a similar process, and we’re coming to the problems of online and in cases, offline communication. We’re coming to those problems with similar questions and challenges that we bring to our clients and all.

I think for a lot of people, reading this gives them, A, both the confidence that, “Hey, you’re asking the right questions,” and B, the confidence to ask other questions, and bigger questions, and maybe align those questions in a process.

In that chapter, when we talk about content getting a seat at the table, I think it’s because for a long time, for many years, we were hearing about the challenges of content and how, in many projects, we didn’t scope them correctly. We forgot to say, “Content is really the reason why people will be coming to this website.”

Are we allocating enough budget and the right sort of resources and talents to creating it or curating it or aggregating it from other sources? Are we thinking about it early and often enough in the process?

By and large, what I was seeing is that content needs a seat at the table from the get go. In other words, when we’re putting together project plans and proposals, we need to be thinking about, how does content strategy fit into this? Then, it’s more tactical execution of copy writing or content marketing, or maybe we need to commission photography.

Are we always allocating the right time and space in the process to think about those things?

I’m hearing from folks that by going through the different processes in the book with whatever they’re already doing, whether they are content strategists or copywriters looking to up their game or project managers looking to make sure they’re bringing content strategy into the process at the right time and assuring the right touch points.

Or if they’re SEO folks or designers or user experience architects, whoever they are. I’ve been hearing from them that this is giving them kind of the confidence and the bigger sense of the process to really adapt what they are doing and help it continue to grow and mature.

Adam: Very cool. The book is wonderful, nice job. It’s from the fine folks at Morgan Kaufmann and again, it’s called “Content Strategy at Work: Real-World Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project,” and it’s written by one of our favorite people, Margot Bloomstein.

Margot: Thank you so much, Adam.

Adam: Thanks everyone for listening in. Goodbye for now.

One Response to “UIE Book Corner: Margot Bloomstein’s “Content Strategy at Work””

  1. Kath Dawson Says:

    Jonathan Coleman shared this on Google+ and I know how he loves to promote great resources on content strategy. It was great timing as I’d spent the weekend researching books covering the topic of telling stories in business narrative. There is a lot of theory on this topic but I wanted to find something that was very practical and involved online creativity so I have to say I am delighted to have come across this book.

    It gets amazing reviews on Amazon too but I was already sold by this interview. I just downloaded it to my iPad and can’t wait to get stuck in.

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