Content creation for digital & print – a collaborative approach

Shifting where the content buck stops

The really interesting thing about content projects is that when they go well, the world and his wife will claim responsibility for their success – from the giddy echelons of the csuite down to the guy in the car park in the hi vis jacket.

But when a content project fails to meet targets, or overruns (time and/or budget), or simply doesn’t seem to change the universe very much, the buck stops with the content creator or team.

One reason for this is that content and its creation is still regarded as a linear process. It wends its way from idea to specification, to creation, to approval, to publish, with the ownership and control shifting along the way.

For example, the content team may feel they have complete control at the initial creation stage. But as soon as it goes into any form of approval process Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) will be all over it like a rash. But by the time it’s published they’ve lost interest and the content team (or person) will be running around like a demented banshee trying to keep the content fresh.

Collaborative content creation techniques, such as the Core Model and Pair Writing, are useful. I recently covered these off in a blog for emarketeers. But it’s also worth looking at raising overall content capability and understanding within an organisation.

“No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.” H.E. Luccock

Content capability workshops

Content capability workshops can be particularly useful in organisations where content creators (or the content creator) are less well resourced. I’ve used this approach effectively in the third sector.

The purpose is to enhance the content creation and publishing capabilities of entire organisations.

Everybody is giving a basic understanding of key areas (along with very visual and succinct handouts designed to aid topic recall). Topics covered typically include:

  • internal writing, editing, layout and publishing skills
  • developing and managing print and digital projects inhouse
  • social media
  • the importance of search
  • the role of measurement
  • collaborative creation and delivery.

Collaborative content creation and delivery

This overhauls the traditional content creation and publishing model. Rather than the skills and the means to publish being focussed on a few specific individuals, they are shared across whole departments and organisations.

It can seem a bit scary and you have to assume their will be the odd whoopsy. But if the reality is that you can’t do everything – YOU JUST HAVE TO FIND A WAY TO SHARE IT OUT!

“Collaboration has no hierarchy.” Amit Ray

As well as workshops for each topic, participants are encouraged to buddy up with people outside of their normal work groups to share learning. So somebody who is really good at making website updates pairs with someone who has an eye for visual print design. Again, this is about people who show a flair for these things even if their “day job” is adding up columns of figures.

The workshops are designed to nurture a collaborative and self-motivated approach to projects (their initiation, development, management and implementation) – both web and print.

They are delivered in bite-sized sessions that can be worked in around the other activities of the day. Anything which involves lunch or breakfast seem to go down well. Who knew?

“Those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Charles Darwin

The workshops should also cover off -and collectively agree – what a workablechain of information custody looks like and who needs to be informed about what’s being done and by whom, including agreeing budgets and getting them signed off. It’s surprising how many organisations say that content responsibilities belong in one specific part of the organisation, while huge numbers of people all over the shop seem to be running cheeky little budgets for this social media campaign or that poster.

Uber critical is that the final way of working is collectively agreed and owned, even down to where master copies of templates and spreadsheets are kept. Please save me from SharePoint folders but better that than people recreating the wheel all the time, or assuming that content is someone else’s business.

If you are interested in content collaboration workshops – let me know

Mobile & trust – content strategy revisited

A while ago now, I wrote about the fact that “content strategy” isn’t a document but that sometimes we are asked to produce one. My response was to bring together the range of documentation, research and other elements that might inform your content strategy and satisfy the frequent organisational desire for quires of printed paper.
More about content strategy documentation

More recently the need to define and codify what content strategy looks like has been described as content strategy modelling. So it made sense to look at this in more detail and how the model might relate to the documents without getting in the way of the strategy itself. You can find a new blog post from me about this on the emarketeers website

But the more I looked at this area the more it became apparent that the content strategy model is increasingly a trust model. I first started looking at trust models for digital content back in 2007! Then my model looked like this.


I should stress that this is trust between the two human sides of the equation rather than trust in the underlying technology. The tech – whether it’s a desk top behemoth or a state of the art wearable, is merely an interface which brokers the relationship.

Factoring trust into content strategy

A its simplest, your content strategy should be comprised of a collectively understood system and process designed to take content from conception to delivery point. It is defined by both business objectives and user needs and evidenced through a range of elements in marketing/communications, product and service delivery.

Content means business

To create a robust content strategy model you need access to, and an understanding of, 3 areas:

  1. Business objectives – as defined in the business plan (or similar) and often refined in light of annual targets, launches, seasons pushes etc.
  2. User needs – not only what they want from you but how these needs reflect broader social expectations and emotional states.
  3. Content process – from idea to publication and including all the boring stuff such as back end functionality and sign off processes.

Some of you will be nodding smugly at this point but it doesn’t do to get too comfy. Walk with me…

Evolving content environments

One reason we all need to stay on our toes is the frightening speed with which users and their content environments evolve. An environment can be anything from a website, to a social media platform, to point of sale messaging, both online and instore.

We all responded to the demands of mobile – in some shape or form – and “responsive design” has transformed the look and feel of content on the web. But that was just Phase 1.

Phase 1 was very much about about size/length and shape and the media queries that define what goes where dependent on the device being used. More about media queries

That was the start, my friends. Just the start…

Enabling trust as part of Phase 1

The fact that we now absorb the bulk of our content via mobile devices has influenced everything – from the way we entertain ourselves, to the way we shop, or even absorb news.

The recent brouhaha around fake news is, in my view, an example of how profound the mobile influence has been. Would it have been such an issue if we’d all had to sit at our desk top computers or unzip our lap tops to get at and then to share it?

And mobile wifi is now more important to people than sex, alcohol or chocolate, revealed a recent survey by iPass.

A study by the Mobile Marketing Association in 2010 indicated that, back then, just 6% of consumers purchased products or services via mobile, and 6.5% of retailers offered mCommerce sites. By September 2016, retailers were seeing up to 50% of sales coming through mobile, according to a research paper from Bijou Commerce.

Bijou also talked about trust being a key factor in the dynamic. This is hardly surprising if you accept that interacting via mobile is a much more intimate experience. The more intimate the experience the more important trust is.

Plus mobile, while bringing many benefits, is also stress-testing trust. Cyber bullying, sexting and online fraud have all been better enabled by mobile. A new report – the UK Millennial Study: Privacy vs. Customer Experience in Retail – indicates that UK’s millennials have growing security concerns around sharing personal information with retailers, even though they continue to shop online. Read more about this report on the Internet Retailing website

Data breaches suffered by brands as diverse as Yahoo, Talk Talk and JD Wetherspoons – to name but three – all put the trust dynamic under tension. Mobile access via banking apps, tap and pay etc, exponentially increase the number of occasions when things can go tits up.

So what does that mean for content strategists?

Most critical is the need to establish an emotional context for the user journey so we can establish and address the trust pinch points. So when we map user journeys we need to think about 3 things:

  1. The timeline.
  2. Steps/stages and actions along that timeline.
  3. The emotions the user is experiencing while undertaking (or considering) those steps and actions.

A classic example of such a pinch point is a website that suddenly whisks you off to an e-commerce platform, with a different look and feel, right at the point of purchase. It may have to be done but how it’s done can make the customers more or less apprehensive.

Other trust pinch point examples include users confronting unclear, or hard to find or use, size guidelines; or poor colour rendering in fashion and furnishings content prompting returns or dissatisfaction (you might want to read this blog post on the colour issue).

You can also add to the list jargony or overly wordy Terms & Conditions, inconsistency (anywhere), overly florid language or sales hyperbole, offers and discounts dependent on a lot of (hard to meet) small print – even 404 pages (not just how many but how they are worded).

And while broken links and missing pages may be easy to fix, when viewed as content issues, the impact on trust and therefore on brand are far harder to remedy.

TalkTalk allegedly lost 100,000 customers after data that included credit cards, bank account numbers, names and phone numbers was revealed to have been stolen. Chief amongst the criticism was its slowness to inform customers and the relevant consumer watchdog. How a digital content strategy might communicate such a breach response might be an interesting addition to more traditional disaster and content modelling.

Regaining trust starts with admitting scope and culpability in the problem, but how much better if the breach of trust does not happen in the first place? You may not be able to fend off every single cyber attacker but you sure as heck can do something about those Ts & Cs and the dreadful colour rendering on that pashmina in your online catalogue.

Maybe I should do some more work on that pyramid…

Branded content – clients, power, talent & focaccia

cat with breadBack when I was a girl bread came as white, brown, sliced or in a loaf. Now… gluten free spelt focaccia anyone?

So it is with content. Back in the day there was print. Then there was digital. It was words, some pictures… then a little podcast, some video. Now, let me talk to you about… content focaccia.

The Drum’s Content Marketing Breakfast

I attended a content marketing breakfast organised by The Drum last week. It was the panel that drew me; Kaylee King-Balentine, director at The New York Times, ITN Production’s Head of Branded Content – Simon Baker, Justin Pearse managing director of The Drum Works, digital social director of MOI Joe Edwards and Clare O’Brien senior industry programmes manager of IAB UK. Let’s call them “the bakers”.

But I was also drawn by the focaccias, the ciabattas, the bagels and the brioche. The sourdough and the spelt. Or, to bring this metaphor back into the room: the branded content, the marketed content, the native content, the sponsored editorial, the branded entertainment and the promotional content.

Understanding the ingredients

If, in 1975, say, you’d asked me to distinguish between focaccia and ciabatta, I would have politely explained that I wasn’t that type of girl. Now I both understand the ingredients and have very strong views about which is the most appropriate to serve with Genoa salami. I’m confident when it comes to bread. And I’m confident when it comes to content.

As was the Drum panel.

Orange is the New Black

Lets take Kaylee King-Balentine, who worked on the branded content created to promote Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. To all intents and purposes this is journalism at its best. But its reason for being is to promote, that is to say commercially spotlight (aka sell), Netflix programming.

The branding is subtle. Netflix were, apparently, keen to explore just how branded the content could be made to be – for example, by, possibly, adding interviews with cast members. In the end, apart from the relevant idents and credits, the on-screen tie-in is  restricted to a relevant interview with the author of the book upon which the series is based.

But, would the outcome have been the same if the two forces squaring up had not been Netflix and T Brand Studio, The New York Times’ branded content unit – emerging behemoths both – but a small agency and a big client? Or an inhouse marketing team faced with board members screaming about dwindling sales and the need for cut backs?

As content becomes more complex and more nuanced across the inform/sell – editorial/advert divide, where do you draw the line? And even if you know where to draw the line, will your client or boss let you?

Church & state

Justin Pearse of The Drum Works confidently describes a church and state divide between The Drum editorial team and The Drum Works team. But it’s not simply a question of real-time teams and decision making. Take The Economist, among others, which is coming up with interesting ways of re-presenting its back catalogue.

Articles written under the editorial banner and retaining this integrity, are repackaged for second use and sponsored by a corporate or other third-party with its own, post-partum agenda for use. What, potentially, is the impact there?

cat with mouseIt’s a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat (ah, suddenly the image at the start of this blog becomes clear). If you box up content with one or two other elements that could have a deleterious effect on that content, how do you asses what that impact might be? I’m not suggesting there’s automatically something noxious about co-branding content this way; just how do we know – before we do it?

The consequences of getting it wrong can be fatal. And even major brands can mess things up. Microsoft and NME being two, but you’d be hard pressed to find the original content that caused the problem now (if the link the the article I just signposted you to is anything to go by).

Increasingly those who are required to oversee content need to deploy what is, in effect, editorial judgement, but without necessarily having had any editorial experience or training. It’s like asking an engineer to bake bread, to a baker to perform heart surgery, or a surgeon to fix an engine. It’s interesting how many of the serious players in branded content production now recruit from journalism.

Okay. Where am I going with this?

  1. Content can’t go backward. As new forms of content and branded content are redolent with good content, you wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Or the bread out with the tin.
  2. Rules can be written but are seldom read. Given the speed at which digital content, its audiences and delivery platforms are evolving, rules – even if read – best describe the past. Not the future.
  3. Which brings me to the third thing…

The third thing

We pay content creators and marketers for their skills, yes, but do we reward what is, in effect, their ability to exert editorial judgement?

Journalists constantly refine their “nose for news”, as getting the big stories brings both recognition and remuneration.  To both sniff out and develop a story requires an ability to work independently. Keeping a lid on your scoop until you’re ready publish and not being faced down by the politician/business/celebrity who would rather you didn’t, helps cultivate this independence and an essential editorial integrity.

Marketers and agencies acquire the ability judge and deliver on behalf of brands, as that is where their recognition and reward comes from. But these skillsets don’t regularly require the exclusion of the brand from the content, which really good branded content often does.

I’ve been involved in various initiatives designed to nurture digital talent and am currently a great fan of Amanda Davie’s Digital Talent @Work. The reality is that the digital pace is so fast that those who work in it are not necessarily given the learning and development support they need to hone core skills, never mind the list of new ones that branded content may demand of them.

I suspect that what it really boils down to is taking a far, far wider look at what skills you want your digital talent to exhibit; and accepting that those in charge of content need to enjoy a status and power base that would allow them to stand firm in a branded content face off.

So… if you’re a business or an organisation out there and you’re feeling a bit chuffed because you’ve just got a content strategist/web editor/marketer/copywriter to back down over something. It could be you, rather than they, that got it wrong.

Now that would be half baked.

Mobile content – the eyes have it

At the risk of stating the obvious, the proliferation of hand held devices and the emergence of responsive design has changed the way users engage with content. This poses new challenges for content strategists, not only in terms of what-goes-where but how the content engages the eye of the viewer.


For some time I’ve been working with clients and delivering training that holds the content implications of responsive design (and mobile first) at its core.

Content ordering for mobile

Responsive design repositions chunks of content that might populate a standard web page horizontally (as viewed on a big screen), to enable vertical viewing on smaller screens. The visual below illustrates a simplified view of what typically happens.
standard content layout web and mobile
As a result, users are increasing scanning less distance left to right, while being prepared to drop further from the top of a screen to the bottom, in search of what they need.

Of course, the content does not have to follow the A, B, C, D ranking when it is repositioned.

So we all need  to think carefully about how we want our content to be served up on smaller devices.

What makes sense, top right on a desk top, may be less relevant on a mobile. For example, on a mobile you may be better opting for A, C, D, B, reflecting things such as the preferred vertical position for data capture forms, call to action/buy buttons, key offer text, links etc (when viewed on a narrow screen).

Some content may be dispensed with altogether. Depending on your content management system you may be able to make huge numbers of changes dependent on the type of device is being used to view with.

But there are a number of other factors to take into account. Not least how mobile devices require visually appealing, as well as useful content and how even small amounts of content need to operate independent of other elements on the page. These are what I tend to term “eye-modules”.

We all know that users do not consume page content in its entirety. Most of us keep in mind that critical “golden triangle”, which reflects the F-pattern work done by Jakob Nielsen and later underpinned by the way people consume (or consumed) Google search results.

The two images below underpin this traditional view.

traditional web page layouttraditional web page layout with heat map overlay
But… this is changing.

My own analysis and review of the latest research indicates that while mobile searching is stretching how far downward we are willing to scan when looking for useful information – whether that’s a website viewed on mobile or Google search results – we still seem to deploy a mini F-pattern when we find something that engages us.

eye module mini F patternSo… where am I going with all this?

I think content needs to be constructed with the eye-module in mind.

This means each content module or chunk needs to contain more component parts, allowing for more self-contained/independent delivery.

Button love

Content strategy

In practice it means integrating more calls to action and links and more integrated use of buttons.

For example, I’ll be looking to embed buttons into images (where it makes sense) and have learned a lot from Facebook ad construction.

And I’ve been particularly struck by the layout below from the Sumo Me website. It strikes me there are some interesting, and very visually appealing, lessons to be learned.
sumo me website

More reading

readThere’s a whole load of research out there to do with the way our eyes and brains work together to consume content but Wikipedia on eye movement is not a bad place to start, if you’re interested.

I’ve also written about this topic on the Emarketeers’ blog

Content strategy isn’t a document but…

sledgehammer nutWhen Genghis Khan wanted to invade somewhere he went looking for his Mongol horde. He didn’t brush off the folder labelled “Invasion Strategy” and make sure his spreadsheets were in order.

But there is need for content strategists to produce supporting and defining documentation, even it it does take them away from the battlefield. Hence this blog.

When it comes to consultants and freelances, these document deliverables are often in support of project pricing, defining delivery scope and isolating the success measures by which they will be judged.

In the case of inhouse teams, the requirement to produce documentation may additionally be driven by the need to attract csuite attention and curry budget favour, as well as help raise the importance of content and its strategy internally.

The neeed for content strategy documentation

Content, particularly digital content, can seem amorphous to those not directly engaged in its oversight and creation; happening somewhere out there in the wild and woolly internet, while other business departments, such as sales or HR, operate more evidently and with a more direct link to business profitability and KPIs. Paperwork, like it or not, helps make content strategy more real.

Underneath it all there may be some fairly hefty spreadsheets and Word docs, but keep in mind your document readers, their interests and attention spans when it comes to who gets to see what (and why). A 10 page document may have more impact if its top level recommendations are actually delivered using a few punchy slides.

A lynchpin content strategy document can then pull together the top, top level overview, key recommendations, major resource impacts and the BIG risks from the underpinning documents, research and analyses. In terms of what the structure for this might look like, I’ve created the graphic below, along with a glossary of content strategy deliverables to help you Carol Vorderman your approach.

Content strategy documentation – graphic

CS documents

 Content strategy documentation – a glossary of document types

  • Business plan/objectives Content strategists should be familiar with the business plan and objectives for their organisation and have a version of this document, which maps the objectives to content initiatives and ambitions.
  • Calendars An ongoing content or editorial calendar should list key dates and events and what content is required and when, as well as where and how the content should be used. A good calendar rolls over 13 months so that learning from the current month can be captured and adjusted for a year hence (many events are annual, such publication of annual reports and accounts).
  • Card sorting A usability specialism but can be carried out more simply using Post-it notes and a blank wall. Often content projects founder because organisations have not reached real consensus about what content is required, where it should go and user friendly naming structures for navigation and headings.
  • Content audit/inventory A good way of assessing existing content before embarking on a new content project or existing content refresh. There are crawling tools that will allow you to catalogue web pages etc but you also need qualitative (human) evaluation.
  • Content gap analysis Can form part of a content audit or card sorting exercise. Based on your understanding of your users and their needs, what are you not facilitating for them with your content? A really good tool for developing this is the Core Model from Are Halland.
  • Content management system guide This is a CS produced document designed to give a top level guide, under which sits more detailed CMS documentation. It acts as a bridge between machine and human content creation processes.
  • Content ownership/ responsibilities Who does what and why? Chain of command and where the buck stops.
  • Content style guide Easy to use and to the point; covering style, tone of voice, key messages… Should work for all delivery platforms – web, email, social media; be very aware of ‘mobile first’ and content management systems, as well as internal processes, such as compliance.
  • KPIs/success measures What we measure and why we measure it. Should cover more than Google Analytics and should join the dots between content, profits and resources.
  • Personas & Scenarios These use pictures and pen portraits to look beyond the data, bringing to life audiences/audience segments and understanding what they want from your content.
  • Stakeholder surveys/ interviews As with user surveys/interviews listed below but applied to internal stakeholders such as sales teams and external stakeholders such as partner organisations and referrers.
  • Timelines Well developed timelines for projects should include duration, start and complete dates and time required for specific activities such as writing (one activity) and sign off (another activity). Should be constantly reviewed.
  • User surveys/interviews These can be anything from a quick down and dirty online survey composed of a few questions, to a major incentivised questionnaire and focus groups.

I’ve also created a guide to my Top 5 Content Strategy Deliverables –  with links to some good examples and templates. You can find this guide on the Emarketeers website