The most exciting part of this SxSW day-one session was showing up at the Sheraton – easily a 15-minute schlep from the convention center – to find a room packed with people and a line of more than 100 people being turned away at the door. The panelists agreed to a repeat discussion after the first session was over. I have heard that content strategy sessions at SxSW were hot items in past years, but it was still gratifying to see so much interest in the topic.
What followed was a lively discussion among four of the discipline’s thought leaders — all of whom have a slightly different take on implementing content strategy. Kristina Halvorson led the discussion; panel members included Lisa Welchman of WelchmanPierpoint, known for their work in web governance; Evany Thomas, content strategist at Facebook (and fellow member of the SF Content Strategy Meetup group); Nathan Curtis, a UX designer from the consultancy Eight Shapes; and James Mathewson, director of search and content strategy at IBM (who co-authored the highly recommended book Audience, Relevance and Search).
Content is a business asset: discuss
The panelists had slightly different views on Kristina’s assertion that content is a business asset. To Lisa, the entire organizational web presence is the real asset, and content fits within that information structure. She looks at content strategy more as supply chain management, less as an art and more operational. Nathan Curtis posed the question: Will we really move content strategy forward by defining content as a business asset, when we can talk about office furniture as a business asset?
It’s about talking like our customers
James Mathewson talked about the real impact he and his team have had with content strategy: getting IBM to “turn the car around” and start using customers’ language, right down to the ontology used to architect content.
Does the iron fist work?
One of the panel’s biggest points of contention was around the governance of content strategy. Lisa Welchman advocates for a more top-down approach, though she bemoans the C-suite’s usual hands-off approach to their brand’s most important platform: “It’s derelict how disengaged people with C in front of their names are from their web presence.” Nathan Curtis argued that in his experience, authoritarian models don’t work. “We create extensive design guidelines, launch them on wikis, no one ever uses them,” he said. Whereas, he has seen others create tools that people can use to help them in their jobs, and finds that educating them about how to use those tools (such as copy decks) and the benefits of doing so start to make an impact over time. James Mathewson echoed that for him, it has been about starting with small wins, testing and proving the value, and slowly moving the needle that way.
The panelists wove a thread of “art vs. science”through the discussion. Kristina talked about how putting some quantifiable measures around something that is essentially subjective can have so much impact — she uses a scorecard to measure the quality of content. The group also talked about the ROI of investing in content: “We always talk about making money off content, but a lot of times content strategy is about making things more efficient and streamlined,” said Evany.
Along these lines, the idea of the Chief Content Officer (a role advocated by some content strategy leaders and just beginning to emerge in some companies) came up. If there were a CCO, what would that even look like? “I don’t think that person belongs in the C-suite,” said Lisa Welchman. C-level executives typically can’t get involved in the detail necessary for that role, she argued. “It’s like communicating in haiku.”