A Content Strategy Conversation — Marcia Riefer Johnston

This is part of the series of conversations that I originally published in ContentHug, in 2015.

Thank you Marcia Riefer Johnston.


[CH]: A few content strategists got into this role because ‘nobody else was doing it, and so there was a need for content strategists in the team’. Now, since it has kicked off relatively well, what next to address something else. For example if we talk about titles, what can be the next title of a senior content strategist. If not for title, what next in terms of ownership or value to a business?

[MRJ]: Whatever titles people use, what’s next in terms of value to a business may be an increasing collaboration between traditional tech-comm groups and marketing. As Scott Abel and others have been saying for years, technical communicators need to realize that their work IS marketing (anyone on the web now can investigate product documentation as part of making a buying decision). At the same time, marketers — especially content marketers — are seeing more and more need to think strategically about their content and manage it as a business asset (something that they can learn from the folks who’ve been exploring content management over in tech comm).

I find this convergence exciting and promising — as well as frustratingly undefined and underserved by today’s tools. Let’s just say that opportunity abounds.

Now that I’m working as managing editor for the Content Marketing Institute’s intelligent content and content strategy topics, I’m eager to hear and share stories from fellow content professionals who are exploring this opportunity to bring value to their businesses.

[CH]: Assume that you get your dream job or contract, as a content strategist, lead or otherwise. What is the most important thing that you have learnt so far that you will put into practice there?

[MRJ]: I’ve learned that a strategist must ask why, and then ask why again, and continue asking the why-behind-the-why. For example, Why are we creating this content? And on from there.

Some people say that we should ask why five times. It might not always be five. The point is to go until you get to the true why, at which point going further is silly (“because avoiding waste is … good”).

This is nothing new. Lots of people have said it. What’s astonishing to me is that so much content gets created without a true answer to why. “My boss requires a blog post every day” is no answer. That’s not a business reason for creating content. Why does your boss require a blog post every day? Answer that — and keep going.

Your company may not love the whys, but if they’re willing to wrangle with them, they’ll have a chance of getting value from all that content and possibly put less pressure on people to create so much.

[CH]: Content strategists often need to push things around, such as to get a buy in. Can you share some experience when you had to take a really tough call, such as for style guide for voice, for user education, or governance structure?

[MRJ]: The most recent example of something I pressed for is a series of six posts that I had planned for the Content Marketing Institute blog, each post exploring a distinct aspect of Ann Rockley’s well-known six-part definition of intelligent content (content that’s structurally rich and semantically categorized and therefore automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable).

Our readers — content marketers — were not resonating with the first few posts in this series as the editorial team and I had hoped; we got fewer comments and shares than usual. Halfway through the series, I got a sense that my team would not mind if I abandoned my plan and left the last few posts unwritten.

I convinced them that the set was worth completing. It was clear to me that the pieces all worked together, and the last piece — #6 (adaptive content) — was a culmination. To their credit, my team backed me up, and they worked with me through several drafts of each post. They kept asking me WHY this and WHY that!

The resulting set of posts (I call them a six-pack) now serves as a foundation that we can point to any time these concepts come up in other posts. And we got better and better feedback from readers as we went. Whew!

To view that definition article, which links to my six pack of articles, see “What Is Intelligent Content?”.

[CH]: How do organizations address the content ownership concerns when we have content strategists, content marketers and even data scientists? What is your role in defining the content ownership process?

[MRJ]: I defer to experts on governance, people like Lisa Welchman and Cleve Gibbon, who have a lot to say on ownership issues. Cleve, for example, often refers to the need to connect (not destroy) silos. Lisa talks at length in her new book, “Managing Chaos,” about the need for companies to define content ownership (who’s responsible for what decisions and processes).

[CH]: What role content strategists can have in disruption–technology or otherwise?

[MRJ]: I’m not sure how to answer this question because I don’t see disruption as a goal. Of course we may disrupt things when we ask questions or introduce new technologies. But disruption isn’t the point.

People often talk of content strategists as change agents. And yes, we are. But I prefer to think of us as common-sense agents.

[CH]: Can you name any companies or brands whom you admire for their content strategy?

[MRJ]: Lots of companies are doing inspiring things with content strategy. To name one, I admire what IBM is doing to treat content as a business asset across the enterprise. I’ve never worked for a company that large, so I can’t imagine the magnitude of the challenge! But, with a little help from Scott Abel, I have interviewed two IBMers who have given me a peek into Big Blue: Andrea Ames and James Mathewson. You can read those interviews here:

[CH]: If you could weave a magic wand only once, what you wish as a content strategist?

[MRJ]: I would wish for the content strategy and content marketing communities to become partners in the enormous task of creating worthwhile content. By “worthwhile,” I mean both effective for businesses and wanted by readers.

Bippedy Boppedy Boo! Did it work?

[CH]: Any additional comments or thoughts that are relevant to this conversation?

[MRJ]: I’ve been having a blast with a weekly concise-writing game on my website. I call the game “Tighten This!” Since we all have to write tighter and tighter these days (did someone say Twitter?), we might as well have a little fun while building this skill. If you’re serious about words (or playful about them for that matter), please pick up my books, “Word Up!” and “You Can Say That Again.”. Read them, even. And let me know what you think.


Vinish Garg | Products. Experience. Stories. I am a EEES (External Eye Experience Specialist) for startups and their goals, for content, UX, and customer experience.