It’s amazing what you can learn by hanging out in airports. If you pay close attention, you’ll find airports are loaded with valuable business lessons waiting to be discovered. For content strategists seeking to prevent themselves being trapped working in a web silo, airports illustrate why it’s not enough to focus our content strategy efforts on the web.

When I visit a new airport, I notice the architecture, the lighting, the sound, the colors, the signage, the availability of services, and increasingly, the way technology is used to improve efficiency. During a recent visit to London Heathrow, I marveled at the way computer technology is used to move passengers through check-in, baggage drop-off, and security. Equally amazing is the interchange of information between people and machines.

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 12.20.36 PM

When you first arrive at British Airways terminal 5, you encounter self-check-in kiosks — touch screen devices akin to automated bank tellers — that allow passengers to check-in, select seats, upgrade, print boarding passes and receipts. The kiosks read information from credit and debit cards, passports, and sometimes, data entered by the passenger using a touch-screen keyboard similar to the one on the iPad I’m using to author this article. They also display content on the screen, and deliver printed receipts, boarding passes, and itineraries.

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 12.26.54 PM

Once you finish at the self-service kiosk, you proceed to baggage drop, where your luggage is checked-in by an agent, and moved through an ‘automagical’ system of conveyor belts and screening machines until it is eventually loaded by humans onto the airplane. Paper plays a critical role in the process. You complete a hand-written identification tag and attach it to your luggage. A printed ‘claim check’ is provided to you by the agent that corresponds to bar-coded identification tag affixed to your bag. Not only is this information used to route your bags to the appropriate airplane, it’s also used to reunite you with your bag when you reach your destination.

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 12.29.54 PM

After you drop your luggage, it’s time to enter the security line, where technology again takes center stage. To enter the queue, you scan your boarding pass. Boarding passes may be digital (displayed on your mobile device) or printed on paper. If your pass is valid, you are allowed to move through the security queue. This automated admission process speeds things up considerably. It relieves the airport staff from having to check your documents. And, it creates a searchable digital data repository that improves the airport’s ability to track your movements; useful in a variety of situations.

Automated technologies are in use throughout the airport to help minimize (even eliminate) bottlenecks, improve process flow, reduce waste, cost, and errors. When created with usability in mind, technology-assisted solutions (even those involving paper) can deliver awesome customer experiences — in airports and beyond.

But, humans always seem to find ways to screw things up.

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 12.38.28 PM

Conflicting rules of the road: The need for standards

You need only look past the airport security lines to find the problems technology has yet to be able to solve. For instance, traffic flow. London Heathrow is an international airport that serves just under 70 million passengers a year, from nearly every country in the world. While passengers may indeed share some common traits and characteristics, they don’t share a common understanding of how to avoid colliding into one another as they walk through the airport.

Why is this?

My guess is it has something to do with the lack of a universal traffic flow pattern.

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 12.44.27 PM

According to Wikipedia, “66.1% of the world’s people live in right-hand traffic countries and 33.9% in left-hand traffic countries.” In the United States (and 163 other countries and territories) automobiles drive on the right-hand side of the road. In the UK (and 75 other countries, territories, and dependencies) automobiles drive on the left-hand side. If you watch closely, most people in the airport tend to walk on the same side of the road as they drive. In an international airport, the lack of a standardized walking traffic flow creates significant navigational challenges. Passengers accustomed to walking on the right side of the road are fighting for the right of way with approaching passengers accustomed to walking on the left. In addition to the inefficiencies introduced by the lack of a universal understanding, passengers also experience confusion and frustration. The passenger experience suffers as a result.

The need for content standards

This situation is an excellent illustration of the need for standards amongst those of us responsible for creating content strategies. Without standards, the World Wide Web wouldn’t be as universally accessible. Web browsers in one country might work differently than web browsers in another. Email apps might handle messages differently. Machine translation systems would be unable to understand other alphabets and encoding systems. And video and audio files might work on my computing device, but not on yours. Luckily, the founding fathers of the web created an architecture based on standards. And, subsequent efforts to enhance and improve the web — make it mobile, social, and location-aware — are also made possible because of universally agreed upon standards.

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 3.52.10 PM

Some content strategists have yet to grasp the importance of content standards. And even those who have, tend to limit their knowledge of standards to those they deem relevant to their content strategy ghetto. Anything outside of their area of speciality is seen as “irrelevant” or something “others” do.

But, as we can see from our real-world airport example, boarding an airplane involves interactions with all sorts of content. It involves a complex web of technology, people, processes, and standards. At the airport, printed collateral, signage, forms, passes, receipts, and other printed documents must work in tandem with their digital content counterparts (websites, kiosks, scanners, and displays). Braille signage, audio announcements, and person-to-person communication are also in the experience mix. Content strategists whose focus is primarily the web (and by extension, mobile), may lack the broad understanding of the technologies, methods, and best practices involved in orchestrating a solution that involves omni-channel content choreography.

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 2.31.30 PM

The need for content engineers

The field of content strategy is relatively young. It’s full of professionals that come to content strategy from a variety of disciplines. As such, our experiences and skill sets are different. This variety of experiences enriches our profession, especially when we share our lessons learned, best practices, and use cases with our peers.

While differences are often good, our inability to communicate an agreed common definition of what content strategists do is damaging our brand. Our differing views on content strategy (what it is, what it isn’t, what’s relevant, what’s not, who is right, who is wrong) make it challenging for businesses to know what to expect when they hire a “content strategist.” Is a content strategist someone who is a master of the English language, someone who can spin snappy marketing content into a flexible web design that responds to the screen real estate and capabilities of a mobile device? Or, is a content strategist someone who examines your current content lifecycle in an attempt to optimize it (automating manual tasks, eliminating unnecessary and expensive processes, designing workflow)? Or, is it someone who helps an organization deliver the right content, to the right people, at the right time, in the right format and language; someone who understands a little about a lot of things (technology, standards, methods, tools, processes, etc.) Or…

I believe it’s time we started thinking about these issues and how to grow the discipline of content strategy so that it is a valuable profession in which to foster a rewarding career; one that doesn’t end up going the way of the dinosaurs or the webmasters.

Brachiosaurus dinosaurs in water - 3D render

Laurence Dansokho, Tools and Process Manager, Digital Content Management, eBay Europe, says content strategists need to be prepared to do the heavy lifting; the engineering work she says is required to connect content to customers in a global, mobile, connected world. Dansokho believes as I do: Big, expensive business problems worthy of being solved will be solved by content strategists that understand that content strategy is about connecting content with those who need it in order to solve business problems or achieve business goals. These problems are just as much engineering problems as they are anything else.

And, Dansokho adds, “strategy” is an ambiguous term, whereas “engineering” is not. Engineering is the application of science and mathematics applied to design and manufacture of complex products. It’s well-understood and respected. It’s not a word that makes you wonder. As a title it commands respect. What we need, Dansokho says, “is more talk about engineering content to solve business problems and less talk about strategy.”

One thing is clear; it’s not enough for content strategists to craft brilliant copy, free of errors, in compliance with a style guide. That’s copywriting.

Typewriter Copywriting

It’s also not enough to structure content or make it responsive to the device on which it is being viewed. That’s information architecture and information design. Content strategy is more than that.

It’s also clear that while specialists exist in every field, you wouldn’t expect a general practitioner (a medical doctor who is trained to provide primary health care to patients of either sex and any age) to say she doesn’t know anything about how to treat the infection on your foot because she’s not a podiatrist (doctor who specializes in foot care) or a dermatologist (doctor who specializes in skin care). Sure, she may need to refer you to one of these specialists should your problem be difficult to cure, or extremely unusual. But, because all physicians have a common understanding of how the body works, a general practitioner could be expected to have sufficient knowledge to talk to you intelligently about the infection, and offer immediate treatment (if warranted). Of course, if she found that her education and experience did not prepare her to help you overcome your medical challenge, as a professional, she would seek guidance from a specialist.

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 4.04.26 PM

I believe that all content strategists should be knowledgeable about the entire content ecosystem, the content lifecycle, content tools, technologies, standards, and methodologies — even those that fall outside of their area of specialization, or are tangentially-related to the project on which they are working. Content strategy problems are seldom problems with content alone.

What do you think? Is it time for content strategists to think more like content engineers? Is it acceptable for someone to specialize in content strategy for the web, but be ignorant of all the other places content exists, all of the technologies, processes, standards, methods and tools involved? And, what about paper? Braille? Audio? Video? Shouldn’t content strategists be less like copywriters and more like business consultants who solve complex content challenges?

I’d love to know your thoughts.