Interview: 7 Questions about Content Strategy

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Clay Delk is Sr. Content Strategist at Volusion, Inc., a leading ecommerce SaaS provider, where he oversees the planning and creation of web, marketing and interface content. He also hosts Austin Content, a meetup group for content strategists, managers, creators and marketers. You can find him online at claydelk.com and @claydelk.

Clay has been a friend of Osmek for a long time and we're excited about the opportunity to pick his brain about Content Strategy. On a cool day in December, we shared some delicious local brews at one of our favorite Austin watering holes, Gibson Bar and asked Clay our 7 questions. 

1. What is your background in the Content Strategy field?

I started as a copywriter. I moved to Austin with an English degree and no idea what I was going to do next. So I started working as a freelance writer, and eventually got hired as a copywriter at a small agency doing mostly brochures, brochureware and email marketing.

The more websites I worked on, the more I realized there was something missing from the process. You can’t write good web content based on a creative brief. So I started asking more questions, doing extra research, talking with clients, changing strategies–generally pissing off my account managers. After a couple of years of that, I felt qualified enough to add “content strategist” to my business card.

Around the same time, I co-founded the Austin Content Strategy meetup, mostly so we could host a big happy hour after Kristina Halvorson’s SXSW talk. I started meeting more content people around town, promoting the group and pretty soon people started asking me about being a content strategist. Then, I was lucky enough to land at Volusion, where I get to do all the fun things that the “real” content strategists were writing about and talking about for all these years.

2. We get to talk with content strategy people all the time, but for most people, it’s still a fairly new discipline. How do you communicate its value to a potential client?

Oh man, if I could figure that out, I could start my own business! The best way I’ve found to communicate the value of content strategy is for clients to get their hands dirty. Ask them how much content they have, how up-to-date it is, where it comes from, etc. Then, show them the reality.

The vast majority of web content is created and then forgotten. Sometimes that’s okay. Other times, that can be really, really bad.

I was working with a client last year that did investments for super wealthy individuals–maybe not the 1%, but definitely in the single digits. They just wanted a new design for their site, “the content was great.” So I went through on my standard audit, and there was all this stuff about how strong the economy was and how to focus on long-term investment despite all the quick gains.

Needless to say, it wasn’t too hard to communicate the value of content planning and governance on that one.

3. Ha! No kidding. So, once you’ve convinced a client to throw some money at Content Strategy, how do you get started?

Like I mentioned in that last story, one of the best places to start is with an audit of the existing content. Most people have no idea how much content they have or what state it’s in. This can be really illuminating for the clients, but also for yourself.

In fact, if you’re going into a new web project, I’d recommend doing at least a high level audit before you even submit a proposal. It’s a great way to show your knowledge of the work, but also a way to cover your assets from really a costly surprise down the line.

As much as I love the final product, the audit process sucks while you’re in the middle of it. If you’ve got a big site, it’s mind numbing work. I may lose my CS card for saying this, but I’m not an Excel person, so they’re even worse for me.

4. In your experience, how have you seen good CS transform or change a business?

Honestly, I don’t have any stories about how content strategy saved the world for a business. There are all these great content strategy books, and they’re filled these incredible stories about how somebody changed the face of a business with content strategy. I don’t have any of those stories, but I’m okay with that.

Those stories are awesome to read and to learn from, but most businesses I’ve worked with aren’t candidates for the best best practices. They don’t have the time, the manpower or the motivation to make monumental changes in how things are done. But even little changes can make a big difference in the kind of work we do.

Getting a process in place for creating, managing and (eventually) killing content. Getting content and design on board together, so they can create things that make sense together. Getting a stakeholder to think about the user and what those people want (vs. the their own personal taste). Those are all huge wins for me.

Ideally, websites start to work better, customers find what they’re looking for, and the bottom line starts to justify what you’re doing. Then maybe you get to try some of the things in those books.

5. What are the tools you enjoy using to help assist you in your planning?

I’m still pretty old school when it comes to planning. I start out with loose notes in a text document with no discernable order. From there, I start looking for patterns, identifying problems, coming up with grand plans. My favorite tool for that is Notational Velocity–or the newer version, known as nvALT. It’s amazingly unstructured, but also inherently organized… You’ll have to check it out before that makes any sense.

What I really love about nvALT, though, is that’s how I discovered Markdown. If you haven’t looked into it, Markdown is basically a stripped-down semantic markup language for writers. I’ve been playing around with it for a couple of years now, but with the increasing interest in adaptive content and content API’s, I think it has a lot of potential.

6. You more than likely have had experience with various CMS products. Do you have any overarching observations about how CMS serve / under-serve your process?

If we can just find the right CMS, all of our content problems will be solved, right? I’ve used the most popular consumer ones—Drupal, Joomla, Wordpress—along with some crazy custom systems. Drupal seems to be taking the lead these days for big content strategy projects. People are calling it a “content API”–which is a term I first heard from the team at Osmek. I don’t know if Drupal truly lives up to the API title like Osmek does, but it’s a great start.

I do feel like the CMS is a step in a right direction. It lets us start separating content from design, as long as people actually manage their content that way. It’s hard for people to let go of the little toys Microsoft Word gives us. People love their fonts and colors and clipart. But we have to let that stuff go again. Those things never belonged in the hands of writers or our clients.

But I see the “content API” approach as a big correction in the industry. It puts the design back in the hands of the designers, development back in the hands of the developers, and content back in the hands of the content creators. If you’re good at all of those things, by all means, go ahead and do them all. But most of us should stick to what we know.

7. What are the things exciting you about the future of CS?

Just in the last few weeks, two books from content strategists I really respect have come out on the subject of Adaptive Content. Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile and Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s Content Everywhere really plant the flag for adaptive content.

As everything moves from desktop, to tablet, to mobile, to who knows what next, we’ve got to be prepared for our content to move with it.

It’s really exciting, but it also scares the hell out of me!

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