A Content Strategy Conversation — Margot Bloomstein

Vinish Garg
Content Conversations
8 min readJun 18, 2020

--

Margot Bloomstein (LinkedIn) is a brand and content strategist and she partners with companies in a range of industries to foster sustainable, brand-appropriate content that clarifies and manifests their communication goals through content models, editorial style guidelines, and governance.

[VG]: Margot, I am absolutely delighted to have you here in the series. First thing first, I am in love with how I can read your role as *Brand and Content Strategist*. I have a fair idea of your work and I am interested to know why or how you selected this title for your work?

[MB]: Early on in my career, I saw how many agencies and brands approached content strategy by thinking just from the perspective of their communication goals. By 2000, 2001, we started to bring more user-centered design thinking into the equation: it wasn’t enough to just speak on behalf of the brand; good communication centers the needs of users.

The problem with that approach is that if we focus only on our users’ functional needs, companies that offer the same product or service will all end up looking and sounding the same. Airlines that serve the same routes, at comparable price points, should offer the same online sales content, right? Wrong.

Companies can use branding to differentiate and help their respective audiences find them — that’s how JetBlue, Southwest, and United cultivate different communities. With my work in brand-driven content strategy, I focus on meeting the needs of users and brands and try to drag the pendulum back to the middle. Communication that balances the goals of brands and users helps ensure brands that comprise an industry can communicate distinctly and differentiate themselves. Differentiation helps everyone.

[VG]: You often quote that brand message architecture reflects the hierarchy of communication goals. Thinking of content strategy, do you think it is brand-driven or product-driven? Does it even matter in the context of your approach to your content strategy work?

[MB]: In most organizations, the product roadmap and product family reflects the parent brand. One message architecture guides the organizational voice, though they vary tone to accommodate different contexts, levels of expertise, and product applications. But we can see exceptions to that, such as when companies grow through acquisition but want to maintain the familiar sub-brands. Though they may benefit from the might of larger corporate parents, it makes sense to keep messaging familiar, approachable, and humble.

Consider small organic food companies like Annie’s and Small Planet. They’ve been acquired by General Mills but maintain a voice familiar to their loyal audiences (see a related post here).

[VG]: That makes so much sense. However, in high-growth product companies who have mature design processes for the user research, and content-driven design systems, I think content-strategy is more product-driven where it kind of flows from product to the other functions for marketing, sales, support. Is it not contrary to your brand-driven content strategy that sounds as if flowing from brand to the product?

[MB]: There are definitely examples of the communication flowing in either direction. I often champion organizations where content strategy and message architecture start in a single product and help drive change both horizontally and up to the parent company.

While that may not be an academic ideal, that’s the real world: we look for pockets of opportunity to introduce consistency and sustainability in communication and then spotlight it as a success and model for other products or branches of the company.

I’ve worked with several higher ed institutions where we applied this strategy: introduce the process and governance of content strategy in one department, demonstrate how it saves money and facilitates better work, and then let other departments see how it can benefit them too.

[VG]: You offered workshops around brand-driven content strategy since around 2012? Going forward from the year 2020 onwards, how do you see your approach changing? For example, for voice tech, or cognitive tech or AR/VR, do you think you will be doing it any differently?

[MB]: I’m thrilled that people still flood my message architecture workshop. With constraints in budget and collaboration, it is more important than ever that teams can establish a shared vision and hierarchy of communication goals to drive design, editorial style, content marketing, and so much more.

I’ve invested in transforming that workshop to a virtual format — so you don’t need to work alongside teammates in a hands-on exercise to gain the same skills and wisdom for your toolkit. The online format lets us discuss more alternatives for virtual collaboration as well.

Over the past few years, I’ve been writing and speaking about how brands can use content and design to foster trust and empower their audiences. It’s hard work for creative directors, designers, copywriters, and content strategists — and I’m rolling out a new workshop to support them. In a three-part framework, we explore how brands can build trust and how tactical choices in content make the difference.

Content for trust. Photo credits Unsplash

[VG]: That sounds so good. So, which of these is your strongest area? Content. Structure. Semantics. Voice. (I wish you do not pick ‘Voice’.)

[MB]: Listening and synthesis.

[VG]: Interesting! Where best do you put this strength into real practice — actual content, or brand sentiment, or meaning, or all of these, or something else?

[MB]: When I’m working with organizations, we’re constantly juggling constraints that are both explicit and implicit.

Institutions of all sizes are constrained by budget, history, “how it’s always been,” and other components of culture. Some, they don’t even see, so they’re not in a position to describe them. Consultants often have a privileged position to listen for those less explicit challenges and then give voice and words to them.

As a content strategy and branding consultant, I view this kind of synthesis as one of my most important responsibilities.

James Baldwin wrote, “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate.”

While he was writing about evolving language across American culture, I try to bring that belief into all areas of my work with clients and corporate cultures.

[VG]: Thanks, Margot. I am enjoying it, and I am curious to know what kind of teams do you enjoy more to work with for the challenge involved? The bigger teams because they might be stuck somewhere in the analysis-paralysis but might have the budget? Or the smaller teams who are more prepared to experiment and welcome the change but in a limited budget?

[MB]: I love working with teams that need to be creative within constraints. Sometimes those constraints are political — everyone wants to contribute to the blog, regardless of their writing expertise!

Sometimes those constraints are budgetary — we need to overhaul the brand while determining guidelines for thoughtful reuse! Those issues occur regardless of organizational size or industry and I’m honored when my clients turn to me for ideas, inspiration, and guidance.

[VG]: Looking at the complex customer journey across devices, privacy borders, and contexts, the content in the future might be assembled in real-time. The metadata-driven, API-empowered content will adapt to the in-context experience for the users. How can brand-driven content be so fluid or adaptive and yet holistic?

[MB]: “Smart” content is most effective when it’s transparent and humble. Chatbots that don’t breach the uncanny valley but speak in a voice that’s upfront about their limitations and edges of expertise can offer users the most support, while they adapt for continued learning.

When marketers and their content reveal that kind of vulnerability, when they clarify what they don’t yet know but are working to learn, they can engender community, loyalty, and trust — far more than if they try to overpromise and underdeliver.

[VG]: How do you measure the effectiveness of the brand voice? For instance, do you think NPS and brand advocacy are the right ways to get a measure of brand voice? Because brand voice facilitates something else, for instance, trust as you say. How do you measure the intangible?

[MB]: NPS is a red herring. Most metrics of satisfaction are; they’re reductive to the point of being glib and irrelevant. Instead, follow the metrics of action: how much time do users spend on site, meeting their own needs?

Does the clickthrough rate indicate decisive and confident purchasing, or does it reveal people are frustrated and hunting for better answers? Those numbers only have value with context.

[VG]: Well, a fair point on content metrics. I hear that you are working on a book at present. Can you talk about that a little bit?

I’m delighted to share it! Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap is coming in March 2021 from Page Two Books.

Across every industry, we see how trust is eroding and affecting the way people shop, learn, vote, benefit from government services, engage with healthcare — you name it. So I sought out organizations that are addressing this problem head-on.

I sat down with the CMOs, brand managers, copywriters, creative directors, and content strategists at dozens of brands that are evolving to do it right and asked: how does your organization build trust?

Their answers revealed some compelling guidance for anyone who works in content, design, or marketing. Based on our conversations, I developed a three-part framework that explains how we can foster trust in the brands and organizations we support — and why we so desperately need to right now.

[VG]: I am excited to see the book on my table. Now, something on the lighter side. If you get a chance to have lunch with a content strategist (or any professional in an adjacent role) in your favorite restaurant in the city of your choice, whom will you pick, and why, and for which destination? (Assume that I asked you this question in pre-Covid-19).

[MB]: Oooh… that’s a tough one! My lunch date would be Josh Silverman (Twitter), and not just because he’s always attuned to new culinary hotspots. Josh is the chair of the California College of the Arts Master of Design program, a consultant, and the founder of the design operations program at Twitter.

Over the past twenty years, Josh has been my collaborator, boss, creative director, critic, incredibly generous connector, and ever-enthusiastic cheerleader. He designed the cover of Content Strategy at Work back in 2012 and introduced me to my developmental editor for Trustworthy. Whenever we speak, I learn so much and feel like together we bring good ideas into the world.

If this is a fantasy, we’d meet up at El Bulli in Catalonia. If I’m limited to reality, we’d meet at Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco so we could walk to the dog-friendly areas of Dolores Park and make new four-pawed friends. There’s some fantasy in my reality too, I suppose — but isn’t that how we find joy and inspiration?

(Know more about Margot Bloomstein.)

See all the conversations, and watch out for the next guest with me, in another post in a few days.

--

--

Vinish Garg
Content Conversations

A guardian of an intent. Products. UX, Content Design. Product Marketing. Founder UX conference. https://www.vinishgarg.com/