A Content Strategy Conversation — Michael Andrews
This is part two of the content conversations series. Our guest today is Michael Andrews.
Michael Andrews is an American content strategist currently based in the global technology hub of Hyderabad, India. He is author of a new book, Metadata Basics for Web Content, available on Amazon. He blogs at Storyneedle.
What delights you the most about the work that you have done so far?
[MA]: I seek out transformational projects, where the client wants to use content in some way to deliver a qualitatively different value proposition for their customers. For some projects I’ve applied design thinking to explore how content can address business goals. I’ve most enjoyed projects where I’ve helped senior executives think about new possibilities for how they can use content. I love to identity use cases where their customers use content in novel ways. Even though many ideas won’t be implemented immediately, it is important to get senior executives to think about content expansively, rather than as narrow procedural task to be solved.
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.
[MA]: I would enjoy a chance to work as a content strategist for digital content relating to one or more UNESCO World Heritage sites. I value cultural heritage, such as the preservation of historic towns and monuments, and want others to value these places as well. There are many opportunities to connect explanatory materials that reveal the historic significance of these places, with the mission of enhancing these sites for future generations.
Unfortunately, these kinds of projects rarely get much funding, since preserving the physical environment will always take priority over creating digital content.
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.
[MA]: My personal crusade is to build more interest in using metadata to support web content. I’ve just published a book on the topic entitled Metadata Basics for Web Content, which is available on Amazon.
I’m concerned that too few content strategists understand metadata. They may create systems to structure and organize content (for example, custom taxonomies or content models), but these efforts can’t inter-operate with content created by other organizations. When this happens, we have content strategists creating silos, rather than bridging them. Structuring content is just the first step. The chunks of content need to be based on standards that explain to outside parties what they are, and how they can be used.
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?
[MA]: I studied human centered computing in graduate school, and am a big believer in making sure the user is ultimately in control. I also believe that users don’t want to do unnecessary work. A balance must be struck between making informed assumptions about what an individual would like to view, while not presuming that is the only possibility and limiting their opportunity to view something else.
Automation can be helpful to users, and can be informed by analytics (for average or niche behaviors) and machine learning (for individual preferences). But we must remain aware of the limitations of these indicators, and not rely on them so much that users can’t pursue their true interests.
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?
[MA]: Future friendly content will rely on metadata extensively. Content in the future will depend on metadata far more than content does today. Right now most content folks are concerned with how to push their content out to many different places.
In the future, they will need to think more about how fragments of content they create can be used by other publishers and platforms. We need to move past the document-centric way of thinking, and think about content as raw material that can be remixed by others in flexible ways.
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 (US plus Canada combined). 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 based 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 CS is shaping up as a skill, as a role, and as a discipline for a common and global understanding?
[MA]: Well, I’m an American myself, though I’ve been working outside the US, in Italy and now India, for the past few years. No question, the content strategy field has been dominated by Americans, but we need to be mindful of the significant contributions of numerous Canadians, Brits, and even Norwegians, to name some other important centers of expertise. But it can feel like American practitioners are setting the pace for how content is published, a pace that’s ahead of where many other markets are currently. I agree that content strategy is still a difficult proposition to sell in many countries.
I don’t believe the field of content strategy is ‘Americanized’, but rather, we are seeing a reflection of where different markets are. The US has historically been ahead of the rest of the world in terms of the introduction and volume of online publishing. The US market experienced the problems of content saturation earlier than other markets, and accordingly sought solutions to address the challenges of managing and delivering content effectively. Many places in Europe and Asia are still trying to blast content for marketing purposes and hope it will all work out. They haven’t yet experienced the crisis point, where they realize business as usual doesn’t work. Genuine content strategy is finally getting traction in the US, but it still has far to go. Those in other countries shouldn’t assume that American content strategists have, or have had, an easy job.
Can you name any companies or brands that you admire for their content strategy? And why do you admire them?
[MA]: I like Bloomberg (the main site, rather than BusinessWeek). They do a good job using metadata to highlight relationships, even for their video content. They provide an integrated content experience, pulling information from their archives to support specific stories.
Unlike other sites that provide links that push you away to other content, Bloomberg tries to pull the relevant content into the context being viewed. Bloomberg also publish a style guide that has some pithy advice worth reading.
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?
[MA]: I’d ask Joe Pairman to take me to a good vegetarian restaurant in Taipei. Joe is a leading authority on structuring content, and also knows about Chinese food from his time working in Taiwan. As I enjoy both these topics, it makes sense to combine them.
Who are the 3 individuals in CS whom you follow for their talks, writings, or for their social presence? Why them?
[MA]: There are many great content strategists I follow. Probably the one who has most influenced me is Karen McGrane. I always await with anticipation her latest thinking, as she always pushes the discussion in a new direction about what the field needs to be thinking about. I want to mention a couple of people who aren’t content strategists, but who are doing important work I believe will influence the future of content.
First, there’s Dan Brickley at Google. He’s an engineer who has been responsible for much of the significant work relating to web metadata over the past decade or more.
Second, there’s David Caswell, who runs a project called Structured Stories. It’s an ambitious project aimed at rethinking how narrative stories are developed and delivered online. I’m impressed how he has reimagined how content can be constructed.
If you could weave a magic wand to seek one wish, what will you wish as a content strategist?
[MA]: That the value of online content could break free from the legacy thinking associated with advertising. We don’t tolerate incessant selling in our face-to-face interactions, so why is it considered okay to do so online?