A Content Strategy Conversation — Heinz Wittenbrink

This is part two of the content conversations series. Our guest today is Heinz Wittenbrink.

Heinz Wittenbrink is the director of the M.A. program in Content Strategy at the University of Applied Sciences in Graz, Austria. Before joining academia as a lecturer for online journalism in 2004, he worked as content consultant and editor. He has published books on XML, HTML and RSS and is blogging since 2002.

[Frontend Questions]

What delights you the most about the work that you have done so far?

[HW]: I had some opportunities to directly observe or to participate in major changes in the publishing and media sphere. They are all related to the rise of digital. I was involved in the first free encyclopedia on the web in Germany, had the chance of being one of the first lecturers for digital journalism in Austria, and was a co-organiser of one of the first MOOCs in German language.

For me my actual job — building up and directing a M.A. program in content strategy — is a consequence and also the highlight of these activities. What delights me the most? That this program in its somehow eccentric position in Graz is taken seriously by many experienced people in the profession and that our students find it useful.

What is your dream content strategy project that you want to get involved in? It can be for any group or organization, for any goals, anywhere in the world.

[HW]: A project which makes it easy for non specialists to support the open web and to use open web technologies.

What is the most important need or pain point that content strategists have not been able to address as effectively as they would have loved to? It can be for standards, or defining expectations from CS as a discipline, a tool, or for anything else.

[HW]: They did not yet sufficiently well define the place of content strategists in companies and organisations. Up to now content strategy has been mostly described from a consultants’ point of view and as a way to sell consulting services. We are lacking convincing answers of the question who in a company should be in charge of content ownership and which should be their role in the organisation.

On one hand, we have AI and automation for predictive intelligence and recommendation engines. At the same time, we talk about human centered design, and a personalized experience. How do you see a balance where you can use your awareness and experience to take certain decisions, while allowing technology to automate certain things?

[HW]: I do not see a contradiction between human centered design and the use of data to monitor and produce content. Content is a part of social practices, of language games. Content does not exist without its interpretation by (mostly) human actors and is always the result of an interpretation. This interpretation can be tracked down and also be forecast by machines but it cannot be replaced.

We talk about future friendly content that should make sense for all known devices and channels. Also, this content should be so planned that the architecture can support even unknown devices and unexpected contexts for the way audience may need it in future (as far as possible). How do you prepare yourself to address this massive challenge?

[HW]: I have a web centric view of digital content. To my mind the use of web technology and web standards is the best solution to make content future proof. Future proof content lives on the web, can be addressed on the web, is universally accessible and allows progressive enhancement for different presentation technologies. That means that I don’t understand the web just as one platform for the delivery of content.

The hypermedia nature of the web, its universal character, and its openness make it the canonical place for content today. I see other delivery platforms (print, native apps, maybe chatbots, whatever) as secondary with respect to the web. They are lacking essential features of the web. Only content on the web is really linkable. If content has to be stored in a source format which is different from its form on the web (e.g. as markdown or XML files), it should be accessible via the web. For example, Github shows a way to go for content in a source format.

Can you name any companies or brands that you admire for their content strategy? And why do you admire them?

[HW]: I admire gov.uk and the people behind it. Facebook and IBM are companies who show the potential of content strategy. Personally I am a big fan of A List Apart and the content strategy around that site.

For the way content strategy as a discipline is taking directions and for how the world understands our roles and contribution to technology and life, I get a feeling that it is a bit Americanized. I do not say that this is wrong but I am curious to know how experienced CS practitioners from non-US regions think about it. For instance, I follow a few non-US content strategy and UX conferences for their program, and for what their speakers talk and write and I see the difference. Do you agree with me on the *Americanized* aspect? And do you disagree with a few notions for how it is shaping up as a skill, a role, and as a discipline for a common and global understanding?

[HW]: I agree with you about the *Americanized* aspect of content strategy. Maybe content strategy can strive best in a culture characterised by a high esteem for openness, communication, technical innovation and service orientation. Pondering about your question I think that maybe content strategists should better take into account cultural differences and also different corporate cultures. But to arrive at a more global understanding, we must first develop content strategy in other regions of the world. As long as we are so far behind the US, it is not easy to see what our specific *non-Americanized* contribution might be.

[Backend Questions]

If you get a chance to have lunch with a content strategist in your favorite restaurant in the city of your choice, whom will you pick, and why?

[HW]: I would like to have lunch with James Mathewson. I am a big fan of his approach to web content which is philosophical, technical and business oriented at the same time.

Who are the 3 individuals in CS whom you follow for their talks, writings, or for their social presence? Why them?

[HW]: On my twitter list, I have 150 content strategists. The list is getting longer every week. I resist the temptation to name people who teach in our program in Graz — they are of course the ones from whom I learn a lot about content strategy. To name three other people with a deep understanding of the discipline (besides James Mathewson whom I have mentioned above): Ann Rockley, Hilary Marsh, Rahel Lovinger.

If you could weave a magic wand to seek one wish, what will you wish as a content strategist?

[HW]: I would wish to have a shared and easily understandable definition of content and content strategy.

Thank you Heinz Wittenbrink.

Vinish Garg | Products. Experience. Stories.

I am a EEES (External Eye Experience Specialist) for startups and their goals, for content, UX, and for customer experience. Connect with me via @vingar or at vinishgarg.com.