The full birdsong: inspired by ‘Strategy on the Inside’

by Kate on 11/19/2012

I‘ve been inspired to write this post by an online conversation that sparked up over a tweet I sent out last week. The tweet resulted in a multi-person twitter exchange and the writing of two very thoughtful blog posts (one by Rachel Lovinger, the other by Destry Wion) regarding the word ‘strategy’ and whether it is an appropriate title for the kind and variances of the work we as digital and content-focused people get up to – not a new discussion but one that seems to revive with fair regularity.

Tweets are funny things – they’re short enough to show a sentiment but really not long enough (and often too staggered) to share the context or full point of the view that gave rise to them. They’re like a single note in a song but not the full melody; a chirp but not the complete bird song, so to speak.

In this post, I use the conversation as inspiration to write down what I’ve been wanting to record for months regarding my content strategy projectory and experiences. As a more direct response to Rachel’s post, Destry has written ‘In response to “Strategy on the inside”‘, which I heartily agree with and would love to have written myself. He has, by pure coincidence, represented my thoughts very closely – no point in repeating what he has already said so nicely.

What follows is a longer and more in-depth story – a recording of the internal conversation that brought forth my investigations and in turn the tweeting that sparked the thoughts of others.

A little background

One frosty London morning whilst warming my brain over some Google-fodder, exploring alternate possibilities in terms of my job title, and mulling over the long story I’m about to share, I wondered whether there was already such a thing as a ‘Content Engineer’. I found a Wikipedia page and tweeted this:

Internal chirping

I have indeed been having a chirping session with myself about what I call myself professionally. I’ve been inspired both by conversations with other designers and business people and by my own professional evolution.

This exploration has little to do with the global content strategy profession and much more to do with my personal career path, skills, interests, activities, and the people I’ve found myself working with over the past year especially. As Rachel describes me, I am ‘a self-described content strategy consultant in the UK’, though ‘self-described’ did leave me wondering, who isn’t self-described in the world of content strategy? We’re all making it up as we go along aren’t we? Shit, I know I am.

A look at the kinds of things I’ve been thinking and experiencing since I named myself a Content Strategist…

How this Content Strategist was born

I’ve been working as a Content Strategist for almost three years now (though I’ve really been fulfilling very definite content strategy roles for the past nine). In 2009/10 I read Kristina Halvorson’s book, ‘Content Strategy for the Web‘ and it was a revelation. In loose terms, it described the work I’d be doing for years – helping companies to run more efficiently and profitably through better content and content-involving processes. Kristina’s book offered me three special additional things however – a title, a community, and a process. Wanting to extract every ounce of understanding from her book, I boiled it down to a two-page list which I felt I could methodically apply to a project, something like a recipe.

In the very briefest sense, this is what that document described and what, on several proceeding web development projects during 2010/11, I worked to:

  1. Research, analyse and document: audit content, family tree, project goals, business goals, requirements and restrictions, analytics, branding, workflows, competitors etc. In short, document it all.
  2. Question, think, strategise:
    • What content do we need and why?
    • How will the content be structured?
    • How will the users find your web content?
    • How will get from today to launch? (project plan – schedule, resources and budget)
    • What’s next once the content is out there? (governance/maintenance)
    • How do these recommendations impact the business/organisation?
  3. Documents: produce documents to ratify and communicate the strategy for example, page templates, a tone-of-voice and style guide, workflow diagram/s, editorial calendar etc.
  4. Manage: make sure those documents are used, understood and implemented.

A year or so later, a few good projects under my belt and the opportunity to experiment with and refine various mixes of the process, I felt I knew it well enough and that it worked – clients of both rebuild and existing websites saw improvements in their staff efficiency, social impact and perhaps sales (for various reasons, a more difficult achievement to isolate and prove) and the web design team loved the fact that I was there from start to end and that planned content was in on time. Sure, the process needed improvement in parts, but it was good.

I felt that I had a practical and applied idea of what content strategy was and, along with many years of content production, strategy and implementation experience, plus a developing and fond association with the London content strategy community, felt it appropriate to call myself a Content Strategist. A tenuous moment, was I being a fraud? Hell, let’s do it. The business cards were printed.

Making it up

Along with the small team I was working with, I did however realise that whilst the core of the process was strategic, it was different from other strategic processes (as far as I had experienced) in that you couldn’t simply come up with an isolated strategy, pop out a few documents, and wander off into the distance. You needed to be involved at all stages of development – the research, design, implementation and post-launch process. Or maybe that’s just me being a control freak? It wouldn’t be unusual.

Aside from ‘Content Strategy for the Web’, which did a very good job of outlining a process but didn’t give the nitty-gritty of how you actually undertake each part of the process (not a criticism, it was not the books intention) I couldn’t find much guidance other than more process-outlining and advocacy, at least in 2010/11.

So, when needs must, you take what outline you can get and fill in the gaps using ingenuity and the knowledge and tools you already have. The result is that I’ve made up my own content strategy world, I really don’t know how closely my world matches up to the world of more established and well-known Content Strategists. I stopped looking eventually: my variation of the ‘Holvorsen process’ resulted in perceivable and positive results, clients were happy, the content strategy folk are lovely and friendly – what’s not to like?

As projects have come and gone and my processes have changed and developed, I’ve stopped looking for case studies and guidance as much. I guess I’ve beaten my own path. We folk don’t seem to share actual documents and case studies that much. Mind you, I’ve not shared my work either. (Note to self.)

From pop to jazz

Early this year (2012) I was asked to work with a start-up in helping them get their website and content in order for launch. There are a bizillion things to share about my experience on the job (posts which I have written but naughtily not yet published). For the sake of this post, I’ll keep it relatively short.

In start-up land, at least in my experience of it, there is no website and no content to audit, no (obvious) audience to profile, no brand, no customer services to speak to, no survey to review, no analytics, and no mistakes to fix. This final point is crucial. No mistakes to fix? I’d unknowingly based most of my work on developing strategies for fixing things and not necessarily for innovation. Granted – sometimes fixing is all that is required and innovation unnecessary but it’s great to now know that the two are really quite different and that content strategy can encapsulate both.

Anyway, the point: in this environment, my tried-and-tested content strategy process came up mute. What use is content auditing when there is no content? Where do you begin to research when nothing yet exists?

Some deep soul-searching ensued and I stood up to the challenge by producing both new processes and re-purposing already familiar ones. By the end of my time on the project I felt that I now really knew my tools and not just a recipe – like a musician who can play without a song sheet. From pop to jazz.

The project wasn’t perfect. Despite explanations and presentations regarding what it is I do, and even though the work I was doing (for once) was purely strategic, I was regularly referred to as a Content Marketer. I finally did convince the team that, particularly as it was a new build, my work was much more to do with IA, workflow, content modelling and branding than campaigning and marketing.

I researched, strategised, produced cool-looking (and very useful, if I say so myself) documents, which were much less documents and more IA and strategy-communicating tools. I handed these tools over to the content production team and service designers and, as I’d not been seen as an implementation person, my time was over and I left. It was unsatisfying and I don’t think it was all that successful. I posted soon after: a strategy is only as good as its implementation.

I know well that being a Content Strategist does not exclude one from implementation and governance tasks, quite the contrary, we know how vital it is to consider those aspects right from the start but the word ‘strategy’ (and it’s association with advertising and branding) seemed to get stuck in everyone’s head and wouldn’t budge.

(Recent work this year has made me wiser and I’d now approach a startup quite differently I think.)

A suit and a few wise words

I got chatting one evening to a very successful business man who is not in the design or branding industry but is in the technology industry: he owns two software companies, one a start-up, and a successful insurance firm. In short, from a business perspective, he knows his stuff and is a mentor of sorts to me.

I was telling him about what it is I do. Without prompting, he mentioned that as a business owner, and particularly in these financial times, if he is going to bring a consultant in to offer him a service, he wants the process to result in something which has tangible ROI.

In his experience the word ‘consultant’ means expensive. You really need to believe in the consultant and/or their process to bring them in.

The word ‘strategy’ indicates wooly’ness: a delivery of documents, ideas, untested theory and a snazzy presentation but no tasks actually completed and therefore no immediate ROI. He did not associate it with military strategy but more with the we-have-loads-of-money-to-throw-around-advertising-campaign-world of the ’80s. Times that are sadly, but for the legwarmers and crimped hair, over.

‘Content’ – how many business people truly believe that their content is valuable? Granted, they’re a growing breed but they’re not taking over the world.

In short and in his opinion, calling myself a ‘Content Strategy consultant’ was not exactly a recession-proof mix of words.

Particularly considering the fact that I can actually make things happen, he suggested that I find a job title that indicates that I am more than just ideas and presentations. A business person, or any big-organisation person for that matter, shouldn’t need the 10-minute personally-delivered speech about ‘well, my kind of strategy includes implementation too’.

I think he has an excellent point.

(Fast forward past one pure research and analysis job.)

Get excited, make stuff

Most recently I’ve been called into a project for a leading UK university. I’m working with a crack team – a UX designer, a front-end developer, a back-end developer. The project is as agile as you get – a show-don’t-tell approach to the max – no documents, diagrams or theories, just access to the prototype code, a Github account and the freedom to make content environments to see how they float.

My title has been, for this project, Content Prototyper. A new term and a very valid one. A new process for me too. (I am told that this role is fulfilled by individuals in agencies, they’re not strategists – I forget what they called.)

This project has not followed a research > documentation > strategic decision-making > implementation pattern; though, to be fair, some research had been done before I arrived on the scene.

Making makes strategy

The prototype has been a wonderful tool for learning about the audience and what will and won’t work. To gain content for the prototype, I’ve needed to engage with people and, in the process, I’ve completed spontaneous and very rewarding stakeholder and user interviews.

By using the prototype to show people real-looking examples of what we’re thinking, we’ve been able to gain precise feedback from stakeholders, purely because they don’t need to imagine what we’re describing, they can actually see it. Ever had a stakeholder go, ‘yeah, I love the idea’ and then, when it’s made, ‘oh, I’d imagined it would be a little… I don’t know… different’?

We’ve also been able to test our content ideas – very quickly. In one day it can be idea > make it > test it > iterate it. We note where our assumptions were right and where we were wrong. We’ve used apps such as Google’s Content Experiments and Verify to get real user feedback on page focus, structure, and tone. It’s been an absolutely intriguing way to work. It’s harkening Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology in a university environment and, though it’s a little preemptive to pop open the champagne, it seems to be working a charm.

This client is sitting on incredible content – it’s just badly toned, presented and coordinated. I’ve therefore focused not on producing new content but rather on ‘up-cycling’ their existing content to show them how they can craft their glut of rough diamonds into things of beauty and value.

With content ideas tested and refined, I HAVE now fired up the spreadsheets. I’m now content modelling to see how we can make this content manageable, maleable and mobile; I’m developing an implementation plan for the content team; I’m working on an initial and mini tone of voice and style guide; and I’ll soon be working on extending the already existing content audit. I will also be heading the content team in implementation.

All those old content strategy tools are being dusted off and, on finishing, I would have run at least the content aspect of the project though a complete design cycle.

It’s an approach to developing strategy that focuses on content design and creation first and, purely by the nature of designing or engineering, involves and evolves strategy. Anyone designing something needs to think about what, where, how, and who. It’s built into the process.

Name game

So, if I’ve still got you with me – I realise it’s been a very long story – this is how I came to be trying on different professional titles and how I came to explore the idea of a ‘Content Engineer’.

I love how Wikipedia defines an engineer:

“An engineer is a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical, social and economic problems. Engineers design materials, structures and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, safety and cost.The word engineer is derived from the Latin roots ingeniare (“to contrive, devise”) and ingenium (“cleverness“).”

“Engineers apply techniques of engineering analysis in testing, production, or maintenance. Analytical engineers may supervise production in factories and elsewhere, determine the causes of a process failure, and test output to maintain quality. They also estimate the time and cost required to complete projects. Supervisory engineers are responsible for major components or entire projects. Engineering analysis involves the application of scientific analytic principles and processes to reveal the properties and state of the system, device or mechanism under study. Engineering analysis proceeds by separating the engineering design into the mechanisms of operation or failure, analyzing or estimating each component of the operation or failure mechanism in isolation, and re-combining the components.”

That covers the full gamut of what I do – the designing, making, strategy, project management, analysis… everything.

A record on repeat

I know this is by no means a new discussion, the ‘what should I call myself’ question. But, as a freelance consultant who’s fulfilling different roles as different projects require and even at different stages in a project, I do want to explore possible titles which will better describe the full scope of what I do and which, most importantly, will be instantly recognisable as a producing and not just thinking and planning role by content strategy unaware clients.

It might not be Content Engineer, it might be something else. Perhaps I’ll gather a list of titles akin to Imelda Marcos’ legendary shoe collection. No, never that bad! I am sure at some point I’ll find a selection of just a few that offer a perfect fit and match a dozen different and evolving professional roles. Or perhaps one day I’ll be able to join that echelon of people known purely by reputation and in need of no title at all.

There are 4 comments in this article:

  1. 11/20/2012Rachel Lovinger says:

    I love this. You’re reminding me that I am, after all, primarily a consultant at this point in my career, and that’s going to bias some of my views. But the one thing I miss most about not being “in house” anymore is not getting to see the content plans all the way through to implementation. I still get to do a lot of the content architecture work, and training and evangelizing. And I try to put myself in the shoes of the person who will have to implement the strategies we develop so I can advocate for them throughout the project. But yes, at some point it’s in someone else’s hands and it can be difficult to let go. I guess I’ve come to accept that cruel reality as part of my role as a consultant.

    And of course, I think it’s everyone’s right (and responsibility) to come up with a title that accurately reflects what they do and is easily understood. But I also I think that more people who do “content strategy” would benefit from thinking about this whole range of activity you describe, because I don’t want to see the field narrow too much when it’s still developing. I hope you speak about some of your experiences and expertise at upcoming content strategy events.

  2. 11/23/2012katetowsey says:

    So nice to hear that the things I’m experiencing are not unique to me – it is hard to hand over concepts and plans to someone else and hope they turn out right.

    I love your point: “I also I think that more people who do “content strategy” would benefit from thinking about this whole range of activity you describe, because I don’t want to see the field narrow too much when it’s still developing.”

    I’d love to speak at an event about this stuff and more. Who knows what the future holds.

    Great to have been able to share this conversation with you.

  3. 01/27/2013Joel_Hughes says:

    Hi Kate,
    what a thought provoking post!

    I’m in a different (yet related) field; one which I’ve uncomfortably called “web strategy” as I’m trying to get across it’s bigger/deeper than just pooping out a website; however, I’ve always been a bit nervy about “strategy” and this article gives me more food for thought.

    One question, what does your mentor think of this new title?

    Joel

  4. 01/31/2013katetowsey says:

    Hi Joel,

    Thanks!

    I haven’t taken on a new title quite yet. Since writing ‘The full birdsong’, and having worked on a very large project in which I focused on content prototyping/style/tone/testing/medium/curation etc., I’ve gained far greater clarity as to the parts of the digital content process I am best at and which I enjoy most. This is helping me to more accurately define what it is I can (and want to) offer to a digital production process and, in turn, the name-game is gaining some clarity too.

    Title wise, I’ve yet to stabilise anything in my mind and I’ve not spoken to my mentor as yet. I’m heading somewhere in the direction of creative/content director, looking for something like creative producer but focusing on digital content. It needs much more research and thought.

    (And perhaps in the meantime I’ll develop a reputation for what it is I’m best at and require no title at all. Ah, the dream.)

    Would love to hear your thoughts regarding the word ‘strategy’. Please drop me a line or a tweet if you write something.

    Kate

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