By Jonathon Colman published September 28, 2014

Why Content Strategists Shouldn’t Lose Sight of Actual People

smiling guy in hat, glasses-cco logoEditor’s Note: At the Content Marketing Institute, we’ve been spending a lot of time lately talking about content strategy — and what we’ve learned is that marketers on the whole have a hard time understanding the discipline, never mind integrating a content strategy approach into their current activities. For that reason, in the February 2015 issue of CCO magazine we’ll be cracking open content strategy and asking experts in the field to describe how it works on the ground.

In the meantime… One of our favorite experts on the subject is Jonathon Colman. Jonathon is not only a content strategist at Facebook, he’s also a blogger and author of the now-infamous Epic List of Content Strategy Resources — for those who want to take a deep dive into the subject.

Rather than ask questions of Jonathon from a pure marketing perspective, we wanted his fellow content strategists to get his thoughts on current issues. Our crack team of content strategists includes Laura Creekmore, Natalya Minkovsky, and Carrie Hane Dennison.

@LauraCreekmore asks: What do content strategists need to understand to be successful today? In the next three years?

Plastics!” Just kidding.

Systems, systems, and systems. It’s not enough to make a video go viral, to design a funny infographic, to write that killer blog post. We need to plan for and develop the content systems that help our brands go the distance and endure for the next hundred years. And not just technological systems, but also the infinitely more complex people systems.

Organizations sometimes make the mistake of building or selecting their content systems based on a gigantic list of technical features, a wish list of buzzwords dropped into an RFP template. And they end up with a behemoth “frankensystem” that might technically suit their needs on paper, but is completely unusable by actual people… and it can’t adapt to how the organization itself truly functions.

To be successful, content strategists need to be able to map out people, processes, and politics (contrary to popular belief, they exist!) and the roles they all play in creating and maintaining content in your organization. Understanding people is the first step toward building a great system that they can use.

Three years from now — as content delivery, promotion, analysis, and iteration continue to fracture across multitudes of platforms and devices — content strategists must further delve into enterprise information management and architecture.

As Source editor Erin Kissane once said, “We don’t make things. We make systems that make things.” I think we need to get out of the business of creating individual things like videos, infographics, blog posts, and other artifacts. Instead, we need to get into the business of creating and planning for the systems that make, manage, and distribute those things. Design and systems thinking will help our brands endure over the next century.

@hejhejnatalya asks: What’s the biggest content strategy opportunity that companies can take advantage of in the near future?

Organizations need to understand that metadata is far more than just <meta> data.

There are companies that are still optimizing for meta-keywords, even though it does them no good — and wastes a non-trivial amount of their time and other resources. Wiser marketers are employing page-level metadata standards like Facebook Open Graph, Twitter Cards, and Schema.org to drive more visibility and engagement with their content. But even that’s still just dipping your toes in the water.

Metadata can do far more than aid in SEO or increase clicks in social media. It can power your navigation across millions of products. It can help you carry out multivariate tests against your site structure all the way down to the look and feel of individual pages and their modular elements. It can help you reuse your content across your website, or even deliver your content to other platforms. It can help you transform your content from the web to print and back again, all from a single source. At scale, metadata can help power content services in the form of APIs that developers can use to build content-driven applications on top of your platform.

All these opportunities are possible when you conceive your content not as an artifact of text, but as a product in and of itself.

@carriehd asks: What will the next generation of content strategists need to know to be successful?

Part of what makes the content strategy industry great is that we all come to it from so many different paths: technical communication, user-experience design, library science, marketing, information architecture… no matter their skill set and experiences, everyone gets a say. Everyone has a seat at our table. We want to hear your voice. And what keeps us creative and nimble is what helps us evolve: our diversity and humility.

What I fear about our future, however, is that we get so caught up with the technologies, tools, and tactics of our trade that we reassign our thinking from the long term to the short. We start thinking and strategizing in ever-shorter cycles: months instead of years, campaigns instead of life cycles, individual infographics instead of the brands they represent.

What brings us back from the brink is what the next generation must focus on far more than we have: empathy. The ability to build connections with people — to truly understand who they are and what their experience is like — and shape product experiences to best fit their needs is what will set the most successful practitioners of content strategy apart from others.

As people continue to create and consume more and more information at a faster pace than ever before, our ability to help them make sense and create meaning is our single most important contribution to the world.

Start with empathy. Engage with utility. Improve with analysis. Optimize with love.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.

Author: Jonathon Colman

Jonathon Colman has helped people and organizations build, find, and use the best stuff on the Web for over 15 years. As a content strategist at Facebook, Jonathon focuses on developing empathy and building trust to improve content products and services. Previously, Jonathon was the principal experience architect at REI and also served as their first SEO, creating their content marketing program. He also helped lead The Nature Conservancy to their first Webby Awards. Jonathon also served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, performed improv comedy, and has had a long-standing love affair with the Oxford Comma. Follow Jonathon on Twitter @jcolman.

Other posts by Jonathon Colman

  • ronellsmith

    Jon,

    Great to see/read your words here on CMI. Refreshing to a have a voice challenging us to put people (not “users”), not tools or platforms, first. I’ve always loved how Kristina Halvorson talked about where to start and how Karen McGrane and Erin Kissane implored us to think more in-depthly about how and where people consume content. What I have been late to get is how empathy plays a role in all of these areas.

    If we begin with people in mind, it’s much harder to leave them behind.

    RS

  • http://the-content-strategist.com Ed Youngblood

    Well said Jonathon. Audience centricity and empathy is the foundation of success. The tools are just tools – there to support a larger purpose. Unfortunately we become distracted by the tactics of the tools themselves, not because that deep down we don’t recognize we’re trying to communicate with people, because implementation consumes resources and they become a distraction to the higher mission.

    I also agree with you 100% in your point about metadata, It’s so much more than SEO. Optimal delivery of the right content, to the right people at the right time depends on: 1) understanding your audience needs at every stage, and 2) having a structure and system to deliver it at the right time.

  • Aaron Crowther

    “Start with empathy.” No better place! Thanks for the post Jonathon.

  • Victoria Grieshammer

    My favorite aspect of content marketing is the empathy and drive for human connection. I think you’re right to say that sometimes that can get lost behind the many other details of content marketing and marketing in general.

  • Kristen Hicks

    I’m with Victoria. I think a lot of what drives my enjoyment of content marketing and relief that I’ve found this industry is that emphasis on empathy. It’s so important in all things and working in an industry that treats it as one of the most important central concepts makes the work that much more important to me.

  • http://www.whitepoint.mobi/ Matthew White

    Fortunately, technology does now enable us to empathize (and empathize more “effectively”) like never before. The hard part is balancing automation and the tactical aspects of our technologies. It’s easy to get caught up in that bit.