A Content Strategy Conversation—Scott Abel

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

Thank you Scott Abel.

[CH]: Some content strategists got into the role of content strategist because nobody else was doing it, and there was a need for content strategists on the team. It seems like this has kicked-off relatively well, so what is the content community trying to address next? For example, if we talk about job titles, what might be the newest title of a senior content strategist? And what is next in terms of ownership or value to businesses?

[SA]: I think first they need to do it the way it should actually be done, and not many content strategists are doing it correctly. Most of the so-called “content strategists” are simply glorified copywriters. I don’t think that content strategy has kicked off relatively well — rather the marketing of the term ‘content strategy’ has kicked-off well.

The strategy is missing almost everywhere. The dilution of content strategy is multi-fold. When people hire content strategists, they get an incorrect view of the required skills of a content strategist. This is in part because everybody is doing it differently because they all come from different backgrounds. This is why we approached 52 subject matter experts to create our book “The Language of Content Strategy,” to help form common definitions and understandings of what content strategy is all about.

Now I don’t really mean that everyone is doing it wrong. The point I want to make is that there is no definitive way of doing it right. I think we first need to define what content strategists should really be doing.

[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 learned so far that you would put into practice there?

[SA]: I always try to understand what the business is supposed to be doing and then try to map our efforts to their goals and then work to help them accomplish those goals. This is important for me — to make sure that the customer knows what their goals are.

Unfortunately, I see that the mission is often confused with the goal. The company’s mission can be to rid the world of diabetes, but that is not the business goal for the year. The business goal can be making their products number 1 or number 2 in the market, or to expand to other countries. My focus is to understand the business goals and what success means so I can map my content strategy efforts to help them achieve those goals. It also means that I need to know that the goals are achievable.

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

[SA]: I do not work on projects where they do not understand what needs to be done. It indicates that the organization is immature, and that it does not have a clear vision. It is a waste of my time to be the person trying to convince management of the need for buy-in.

Sometimes when you have buy-in, you have confusion. I also believe that it is the job of a content strategist to bring everyone on to the same page, so that all decision makers and stakeholders have a clear understanding of what their roles are.

All team members must have a common understanding of their role and how they fit into the team. I would say that in some organizations when there is an argument for what needs to happen, it is premature for a content strategist to be involved, especially when a company does not have a clear understanding of its content problems.

Now it can be argued that a content strategist can help analyze those problems, like a doctor who looks for symptoms in order to make a diagnosis. It is a difficult question because I don’t think a content strategist can be the one to get buy-in. This is related to my earlier answer where I said that I am disappointed to see that many people in content strategy don’t speak the same language. Because part of the problem is that getting buy-in for ‘operational efficiency’ is different from getting buy-in for a ‘new website’ or ‘new tone and voice.’ If an organization thinks that the problem is in their tone and voice, it is the job of the content strategist to find out if there is a need to make a buy-in case for the content production process as well.

[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?

[SA]: I don’t subscribe to this content ownership nonsense. I think a brand or a company owns all of its assets. A data scientist can be a steward of the data they help to manage; and the same is true for a content marketer who seeks stories for current or potential customers. They are the stewards of the company’s money, technology, processes, and people in order to make that content marketing project a reality.

It is also true that a content marketer can seek some information from data scientists. When we talk about ownership, we are talking about turf. We often hear the phrase ‘turf-wars,’ where people are very protective of their content domains. The company should step in and say, ‘You work for us. This is an asset that you create, manage or protect for us, and your job is to do this and you need to be a good steward of your time, our money and the company’s resources.”

I would say that different people in different roles who work for an organization are stewards of their content, and ownership lies with the organization.

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

[SA]: I admire Apple for what they do even though what they actually do is not commonly known. I would add that people who work at Apple get to know and see things that are perhaps not as fabulous or efficient as they might initially believe they are.

From a customer viewpoint, what you appreciate in a brand is when they press the right buttons for you. For Apple, they tend to make my entire experience easy when I want to buy something from them. I admire Apple for their ability to use information to attract perspective customers to buy into the company’s experience. And I really admire their thinking — that content alone cannot make a poor product look good.

It is also worth noting that a company needs to provide great content to its employees so that employees are capable of providing great content and an amazing experience to their customers. Apple is usually very good at this. The way their genius employees communicate the information — whether for products, service, or otherwise, is excellent, and it differentiates them from the competition.

Although I have yet to see their content strategy work the way I would actually like to see it working, Apple is quite close to it.

[CH]: What role do content strategists have in disruption technology?

[SA]: Content strategists have a huge role to play in disruption if they understand that content strategy is much more than content. By definition, disruption is about ‘interrupting the status quo’ and you cannot come with status quo skills and say you are a disruptor.

Content strategists can play a role in learning by using our creativity and natural talents, along with the education and experience that we gain, to apply our minds to think how content can be created, remixed, recreated, produced, or delivered in amazing and exciting ways. Content strategists can play a role if they step outside of their comfort zone and learn new things. For example, I am often fascinated by how signals are transmitted when we use Wi-Fi, how the text on kiosks is displayed, and what happens when there is no electricity — how will all the information will be communicated? Can all this content travel in the same way without electricity? How can we make that possible?

Content strategists do have a role in disruption and personally, I like thinking about the possibilities of how content can truly disrupt.

[CH]: If you could wave a magic wand, what would you wish as a content strategist?

[SA]: To empower humans to find answers they need from content — not by searching — but by surfacing answers to problems when they are needed.

For example, I believe that the solutions for many of the world’s problems are hidden within the data. Data is not content by itself since it lacks context, but with the help of data scientists and people who understand the value and meaning of that data, we can use the data to prevent disasters, and to educate us to make the world a better place. An example of how content strategists can help is Translators Without Borders, a non-profit that helps organizations communicate their message across borders with timely and accurate information in order to prevent or manage a crisis, and to help people as well. When numerous Ebola crises happened in Western Africa, there was a lack of information, and so many people died unnecessarily from a disease that is highly preventable.

Simplified 2014 ebola virus epidemic situation map, simplified. Based on: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2014_ebola_virus_epidemic_in_West_Africa.svg
Lack of information is one of the main reasons for much of the suffering on Earth, and if we can think strategically about how to get rid of some of the horrible things that happen hereby producing information and education when needed, the world will be a better place.

I would also like to see an option where people can borrow knowledge from each other. For example, I understand that we can use Google, but many people don’t use it effectively, or they don’t have the time to use it when they are in a crisis. They may not have the skill to use Google, or they may not have access to it. But if we can have a shared repository of the entire world’s knowledge where people can borrow that knowledge when required, it would help all of us to make the world a better place to live.

Vinish Garg | Products. Experience. Stories.