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Content + Technology: 4 Things to Learn as You Move Into 2021

Change is happening all around us whether we want it or not – and plenty of us are waiting for a return to something like normal.

But there’s a better way to reflect on the changes content marketers experienced during the “dumpster fire that is 2020,” as Robert Rose said in his opening keynote at ContentTECH Summit last week:

How do we create something new, something evolved, something to get us to where we want to be?

How can we create something new to get us where we want our #content strategy to be, asks @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. #ContentTECH Share on X

How can we use what we’ve been forced to learn to relate to customers differently, to work better despite distance and other obstacles, and to use new technologies and existing systems in new ways? Which should we keep doing after the crisis passes?

The 2020 ContentTECH Summit speakers offered plenty of ideas. Here are a few takeaways.

Just say no

This advice may sound strange after Robert’s counsel to hang on to the good that comes from change. But saying no was a precursor to dramatic (mostly positive) changes for Meg Walsh’s content services team at Hilton, the multinational hospitality company.

“We could not grow and change the team and build new skills if we were still doing the same work because we’d always done it,” said Meg, senior director of content services at Hilton.

You can’t grow and build new skills if you continue to do the same work as you’ve always done it, says @megwalsh05 via @CMIContent. #ContentTECH Share on X

In late 2018, her role expanded from managing the digital asset management and adaptive content platforms to include managing content operations, including all hotel imagery and website content.

The newly combined team of more than 70 people really got things done. In 2019, they published content to 26 websites in 23 languages. And though they had to use different content management systems (CMS) to do it, her team members were generally happy.

Why change? Meg said she realized two things:

  • The team processed more than 107,000 content tickets throughout the year. She thought that volume could mean they may be doing work that might be better handled by other teams, an automated solution, or not done at all.
  • The team was considered by others in the company “solely as doers, the people who processed tickets, but whose opinion was rarely requested by either tech or marketing.”

She began to make intentional choices “for us to become the team we believe we can be.”

They dug into the data and created a list of every task they handled. Twice a year, they reviewed it to decide to (1) keep doing, (2) hand to another team, or (3) stop doing altogether. By ending just two categories of tasks in 2019, she freed up more than 2,000 hours of time for her team.

That’s the equivalent of a full-time position – time that could now be spent on more strategic and impactful content tasks like insisting on being involved in the content modeling for a new CMS. (And the effect multiplied. Her team’s involvement on the CMS content modeling saved hours the company would have spent on tasks like updating content across the websites for multiple Hilton brands.)

By saying no to the old, Meg expanded the team’s profile from doers to “doers, thinkers, and dreamers.” She gave her team the space to (and the belief they could) do more than “just push buttons.”

In 2020, the pandemic brought travel to a grinding halt and Meg lost half her team to layoffs. But the foundation laid for doing the most strategic work and raising the team’s profile meant the remaining staff was positioned well to figure out how to move forward.

“We are constantly questioning and coming up with new ways of doing our jobs better and helping the rest of marketing do their jobs better,” Meg said.

Treat empathy as more than a buzzword

Listen. Hear. Understand. Mastercard’s Wendy Richardson came back to those terms again and again in her keynote, Never Miss a Beat: Creating World-Class Customer Experiences.

How many of us would start a conversation about the customer experience with the voice of the employee? Wendy, senior vice president, customer experience and engagement, did and explained why:

If our content strategy is making sure that we deliver the right content to the right customer at the right time through the right channel, we have to make sure that our employees not only fully understand our strategy, but they’re behind it 110%, and they are doing all that it takes in order for us to deliver on that.”

Empathy with employees comes into play too. Ask if they feel they have the right tools, the right processes, and the right information to be successful. Talk through the pain points and challenges.

The same approach applies to customers. Though we marketers have heard the advice many times to know your audience/customer, too often we operate on assumptions and guesses.

After a product rollout (and yes, content is a product) isn’t the time to find out your customers don’t like it. That happened to a team at Mastercard, and Wendy took this lesson from it:

Pull the customer in much earlier. Make sure that before we have some of the designs locked down, that we’re listening to what they’re saying.”

Focus groups, user advisory groups, and surveys can help in this process.

And don’t stop asking for people’s thoughts, even after your content rolls out. Give visitors easy ways to tell you whether the content met their needs. Even something as simple as adding a question (e.g., “Was this content helpful?”) with a thumbs-up and thumbs-down button can help.

If the term empathy sounds touchy-feely or overused, that’s fine. In her keynote, Wendy used the term only once. Yet she wove the concept of asking, listening, hearing, and understanding through every one of her tips.

Think of it as research or simply call it leadership.

Content tools are people too

OK, that’s a stretch. But tools and tech are built by people, and people choose them, and people use them. Each of these points came up in ContentTECH Summit presentations (often in more than one).

Let’s first talk about flaws and impact. As expected at a tech conference, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and data-driven algorithms threaded through several talks.

Wendy Richardson mentioned training AI and algorithms to analyze content for words and phrases that could reflect inherent biases or weak spots in addressing customer needs.

But what happens when the data fed into algorithms reflects the inherent biases of the organization that generated it? The algorithm’s output is skewed or contains blind spots and gaps.

Trust Insights’ Chris Penn offered an easy way for content teams to explore this potential flaw in his ContentTECH talk. Feed several pages of content from a competitor’s site (or your own) into a simple word-cloud tool (you’ll find many free ones with a quick web search).

If you’re in tune with your audiences, you can look at the word cloud and see which terms don’t match the way they talk about the topic. Those words are weaknesses in the existing content that you can correct if it’s your content or exploit if it’s a competitor’s.

Adjusting the content will increase the likelihood your content will rank well and increase the chance it will resonate with the audience you want to reach. As Chris explained, Google prioritizes content that’s “pleasing to humans.”

.@Google prioritizes #content that’s “pleasing to humans,” says @cspenn via @CMIContent. #ContentTECH Share on X

You know what else is pleasing to humans? Having input into decisions that affect them, like purchasing software. That’s why before the idea of a tech solution is raised, you should ask each team member what they need help with the most, said The Content Technologist’s Deb Carver.

Ask about processes. Ask about opportunities they see for improvement. Given people often “love to hate on their tools,” Deb said, so asking their opinions pre-purchase will help them get on board.

Before purchasing #technology, you should ask your team what they need help with the most, says @fightwithknives via @CMIContent. #ContentTECH Share on X

After all, Deb said, you’re not really buying tools. “You’re investing in your team … to help your team and your business grow.”

Tech success? It’s a people thing

For a conference about content technology, our speakers had a lot to say about people. Maybe the social distancing has made us all lonely. I know I missed seeing our speakers and audience in person.

But I think the real answer is something else. When it comes to content – and to content tech – “there’s no there there” without people. Content and tech are simply a delicious combination that – at their best – move people to action.

#Content and tech are simply a delicious combination that – at their best – move people to action, says @EditorStahl via @CMIContent. #ContentTECH Share on X

Content is never the goal. Tech is never the goal. The change that both bring to make things better for our audiences, our customers, and our internal teams (in other words, for people) is always the goal.

Missed ContentTECH Summit 2020? You still can access all the keynotes and breakouts. Register now! 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute