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The Inside Job: Getting Started

by Christine Benson on July 5th, 2011

There’s been some great success lately with raising the visibility of content strategy in organizations. Recently, I’ve spoken at several conferences and events, and I'm seeing a stronger representation of people who work “on the inside” – within organizations large and small. After each session, several of these insiders come up to me (with a look somewhere between excitement and terror in their eyes) and ask: “How do I get started?”

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(photo by Twid. cc licensed)

Having spent a lot of my career “in-house,” I can sympathize with the challenges. I know how hard it can be to get things done. If you’re an insider, here are a few tips to get the ball rolling.

Get focused

Looking at the entire landscape of an organization's content can be daunting. In truth, enterprise content strategy projects can take months, if not years, to complete. And that's with a team of people focused on nothing else. You probably have a variety of responsibilities that make "fixing our content" an almost impossible starting point.

With an internal role, the work is usually more fluid and ongoing. To make things manageable, you'll need to set some priorities. When you're looking across the organization at everything you could do, here are a couple of tips to help you get focused:

  • Find low visibility content with high potential. People often have strong opinions about the home page and main section pages. These content hot spots can be difficult starting points until you have some success stories to back you up. Look for things that have high potential for customer engagement, but usually get ignored. Support content like help sections, customer service pages, or error messages are good candidates.
  • Pick sympathetic business partners. You likely work with a wide variety of groups within your organization. Each group probably has its own culture—some you may work well with, others, not so much. It’s always easier to get things done with people who are supportive. Use their requests for some early test projects to build a case for larger initiatives.
  • Use workflow as a foundation for quality. Establishing a common definition of content quality can be hard without some serious organizational support. But most groups are allowed some autonomy to define the best way to get their work done. Use this to your advantage. Create tools that will help you gather the information you need to keep your content in shape. Focusing on the behavior (i.e., process), instead of values (i.e., quality), will make it easier for others to adapt to. Plus, gathering information up front will make it easier to create and maintain high-quality content.

Get to work

Now that you know what you’re focused on, it’s time to get stuff done. There are numerous processes and approaches out there, but I would recommend the following as a bare minimum:

  • Know the business goal. You have to know the business goals to know what you need to produce. The best approach is to ask questions. It can be as simple as “what are we trying to achieve?” Then be brave and ask it again (and again) if you didn’t feel like you got a real answer. If you keep asking, you’ll open the door to several possibilities:
    • Business goals could be defined
    • Identifying a lack of business goals moves the request to the bottom (or off) of your list of priorities
    • People figure it out before they come to you
  • Analysis + documentation = gold. This is the single biggest thing I would change if I went back to a corporate team. When you’re really familiar with the organization and its content, it always seems like a waste of time to write down what feels obvious. But finding 250 web pages with errors or 15 people using different definitions of the same term provides concrete examples that others can identify with. The time it takes to complete an analysis and develop documentation is worth the clarity it creates. It’s the best defense against scope creep, changes in direction, and inconsistent assumptions.
  • Get some help. If you need support but can’t afford to hire an external consultant, look to your peers for best practices. The content strategy community is an extremely friendly, generous, and talkative group. Look at #contentstrategy on Twitter and the content strategy Google group to connect to a universe of smart, respected people; many are also top professionals in the discipline.
  • Make it work for you. Think of all the possible content strategy deliverables and resources like a buffet (the big fancy buffet at the Bellagio, not Old Country Buffet). Don’t be afraid to take only the parts that you need and combine them with others. There are no rules. Remember, the best practice is not to create a page table or an audit, but to gather and communicate the information necessary to achieve your goals. A page table or any other “standard” deliverable is just a version of that communication.

On your mark, get set…

It’s encouraging that so many organizations are getting interested in content strategy. The ongoing nature of the organizational content strategist is crucial to improving content long term. It can be challenging to hear a conceptual approach and figure out how to apply them to specific circumstances. Remember you don’t need to know the solution to get started. Get focused and get to work and the rest can be figured out along the way.

  • Brown

    Great article. I am in a large university. Your buffet analogy makes great sense. Optimistic to the point of stupid to believe I can make every aspect go my way. Permission to “make it my own”, especially in the early stages before I have proof points and data is the gift that keeps giving.
    Part of this buffet is knowing that I can never realistically document my entire site at one time – it’s just too many pages and assets. So a “rolling” assessment/inventory done section by section is working for me.
    Thanks for the great article.

  • http://clark.cx Pete Clark

    This is some useful advice Christine. I will be passing it along. :)

  • http://twitter.com/kelslundberg kelslundberg

    Thanks Christine! I work at a local university here in the Twin Cities and it’s so helpful to see folks address the insider perspective. I appreciate the concise, clear advice–and I will definitely use it. 

  • http://twitter.com/kelslundberg kelslundberg

    Thanks Christine! I work at a local university here in the Twin Cities and it’s so helpful to see folks address the insider perspective. I appreciate the concise, clear advice–and I will definitely use it. 

  • http://twitter.com/content2000 Sandra

    Excellent points! I’ve been driving an informal content strategy initiative on one product-line (support-based technical documentation) and can say Christine’s points are right on the money for how to get this done in a small way first, and then use that success to push for wider adoption. 

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