Editor’s Note: The Content Wrangler is presenting a weekly series of twelve articles that provide useful insights and practical guidance for those who produce customer support websites. Columnist Robert Norris shares how to overcome operational challenges related to harvesting, publishing and maintaining online help knowledge bases. His eleventh installment examines why and how we should leverage the content expertise concentrated in the marketing team to help us develop a unified content strategy.
A Unified Content Strategy
In boardrooms across the globe, dashboard metrics and C-level briefs critically examine the performance of every marketing initiative, because marketing drives growth. Yet, even though our MBA’s will attest that knowledge drives profits, the return on investment of our efforts to capture and publish useful knowledge on behalf of staff, customers and partners is not (yet) on the executive agenda.
Today’s business leaders have inherited a lop-sided content strategy that focuses the talents of authors, editors, artists and technicians on collaboratively developing exceptional marketing materials, while the other business units—support, operations, human resources, information technology, etc.—are seldom considered or included. This situation leads to disparities in consistency. It also impacts timely delivery. It’s important to understand that differences between what we promise to our prospects and customers—and what we actually deliver to them— can damage our credibility, result in avoidable (and often expensive) problems, and undermine our commitment to knowledge sharing.
In practice, many website contributors find publishing knowledge for future use to be a mysterious, tedious, and under-appreciated burden. Our prospects and customers, on the other hand, are frustrated by the lack of useful content. They also tire of searching endlessly for content treasures buried beneath clunky navigation. As a result, they often abandon our sites to find unvetted answers elsewhere. Though our websites may serve unique target audiences, the premise upon which this series of articles is based is that developing and managing all business content via a consolidated publishing process is the most cost-effective way to optimize results.
The Business Case for Enterprise Content Strategy
For many who come to accept the argument for an enterprise content strategy, there is a compelling business case to support making a strategic change:
Since our multiple websites feed demand from marketing, sales, intranet, customer support, training and other audiences, by streamlining daily operations—as we do with goods and services—we can boost profits through increasing productivity, reducing costs, and optimizing technology.
During this author’s twenty years of helping businesses, governments, and universities successfully harvest and publish useful knowledge, a common shortcoming has arisen time and again:
Most organizations have the desire and capability—but lack the operational commitment —to effectively publish via all of their digital channels.
The contention that most multi-website organizations have not yet invoked a unified content strategy to produce high-quality content for all audiences is admittedly a broad-brush characterization of a complex topic. While acknowledging that each organization faces unique challenges, a common trait among these organizations is a lop-sided content strategy where digital publishing expertise—authors, editors, artists, technicians—is concentrated in the marketing department to an extent that dramatically surpasses that of colleagues in other areas. This disparity in expertise establishes differing quality trajectories that spawn disparities between the digital channels. Most of the time, these disparities go unnoticed because content operations are siloed. Over time, marketing content rapidly becomes more sophisticated, content produced by other departments falls further behind, eventually reaching a point where the disparities appear unbridgeable. The following example is illustrative.
Suggested reading: Unified Content Strategy: Fact or Fiction
Et tu, IKEA?
Masters of social media and cheeky banter with potential customers, their broad spectrum of offerings includes a traditional print catalog with annual demand that doubles that of the Bible to a self-produced web series with bankable Hollywood stars. Given that IKEA is marketing to potential customers already enamored with their products and prices, the major sales obstacle the organization faces is a lack of confidence many potential customers have in their own ability to assemble a purchased item. To counter that problem, the global juggernaut has invested tremendous energy and resources to develop assembly instructions localized and geared for target audiences. Yet, despite that investment, the assembly of a piece of IKEA furniture has long been and remains a pervasive comedic staple because so many people have found the IKEA assembly experience to be incomparably frustrating:
With 2015 revenue exceeding $37B from selling customer-assembled furniture—and armed with extensive in-house digital content expertise—IKEA is both incented and equipped to produce knowledge base resources that make the process as easy as possible for its customers. In 2012, IKEA launched a much heralded YouTube-based channel focused upon providing video assembly tutorials to accompany written instructions. As of this writing, that channel is chock full of…marketing videos. Not surprisingly, the marketing mavens at IKEA were quick to spot another opportunity to reach potential customers and they jumped on it. Along with their Facebook-based marketing content, IKEA has produced hundreds of compelling videos to inspire potential customers to buy more products.
In contrast, the entire library of assembly tutorials—created to support over 10,000 products and last updated 15 months ago—contains but nine (9) videos. Worse yet, the IKEA US website presents users with non-functional links to orphaned assembly videos. It’s easy to imagine the reaction of a customer—already frustrated by the written instructions for installing a kitchen sink cabinet—who miraculously discovers a rare how-to video on IKEA’s website, only to find that it’s a dead link…The linguistic skill to cuss like a Swedish sailor would certainly come in handy!
So, here we have a global retail behemoth with the desire and capability to produce knowledge base resources that are in demand by their millions of customers, but those given the responsibility failed to execute even as the content wranglers in marketing made it look easy. Sadly, this outcome is not unusual in organizations with a silo-based approach to content operations.
Gauging Operational Commitment
Not yet sure if your organization has instituted an enterprise content strategy that drives content operations? The warning signs of a lopsided approach include:
- Disproportionate investment of time, effort and expertise into one target audience to the detriment of others, e.g. significantly more energy invested into one-off leadership briefings about the new product than was spent preparing the customer support team for launch.
- Large variances in quality across websites due to inconsistent production, e.g. copy for troubleshooting resources lacks much-needed graphic enhancement and/or contains errors a professional editor would spot and correct.
- Uncoordinated publishing and gaps in coverage, e.g. announcements promising online resources are released before the content is available.
Should we find signs of a significant disparity in the quality and timeliness of the content publishing operations across our digital channels, we can dig a bit deeper by comparing the efficacy of channel-specific content operations via the mechanisms used during a resource’s lifecycle. Article six, Devising a Content Strategy for Every Audience, offers a task list from which specific operational elements can be examined:
After a resource is authored or acquired, the lifecycle includes:
- Production: edit, enhance, format
- Approval: review, vet, release
- Publish: configure for discoverability and reuse by adding metadata, setting prominence and adding structure
- Curate: couple with useful ancillary resources
- Improve: identify and address deficiencies via feedback and telemetry
- Re-certify: scheduled periodic review
- Update: accommodate changes from minor updates to revision
- Retire: archive
As discussed in article 10, Building a Robust Content Quality System, absent a professional approach to content operations, a single knowledge base will eventually become unwieldy. An organization that does not strategically address these operational requirements to invoke responsibility and capacity for multi-website content quality control will produce knowledge bases that disappoint and frustrate users, which adversely impacts productivity, brand credibility and return on investment.
Deficient Content is Both a Risk and a Burden
Organizations with multiple websites to manage do not typically apply the same rigorous oversight to intranet, extranet and customer support sites that they do to their marketing efforts on the web. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), product instructions, topical web pages are typically created quickly in response to an emerging need. The “publishing process” often consists of a quick re-read after hitting the enter key sans editing, formatting, testing and tweaking. Never mind that the same management team overseeing this work would have a collective conniption over a typo in a PowerPoint brief delivered to a vice president. One might ask, “What’s the big deal, it’s just a FAQ?” But, when that poorly framed FAQ steers an important partner solving a time-critical problem into making a painful mistake, it’s apt to become a big deal in no time.
Inadequately prepared content lurks like a landmine in our knowledge bases waiting to be triggered by an unsuspecting user. When surfaced, it reflects poorly upon our brand and requires unscheduled corrective action that draws scarce resources from priority tasks. When we consider the burden of avoidable risks and costs, yet another compelling argument for streamlining publishing operations surfaces.
It’s understandable that a less experienced content wrangler evaluating the task of creating modest content resources would intuitively conclude that they can be readily produced by one knowledgeable person in a brief period with no muss nor fuss. Given the demands on scarce resources like professional authors and editors, why would an organization invoke a formal publishing process for a straightforward set of instructions or a few paragraphs of text? These perceptions are common, but dangerously uninformed. Managers involved in content operations need our help to recognize that an effective knowledge base resource must:
- Balance brevity and usefulness: Uncommon artful expertise is required to craft useful and intuitive knowledge resources that serve the needs of a spectrum of users. It’s problematic that casual observers routinely misconstrue the sophistication of simple-looking content. As discussed in the third article, The Curse of Elegance, the better the team does their work, the easier it looks to their users, colleagues and supervisors.
- Complement—not conflict with—existing resources: Publishing a useful FAQ is not a trivial accomplishment. The question must be phrased in the vernacular of the user, not the expert. The answer must also be appropriate and consistent with other published information and should alert the user to other useful resources. The metadata must make it readily discoverable and the navigation must make it prominent in proper context.
- Be maintained: Every published resource burdens the organization with lifecycle maintenance. Informally created resources are far more likely to become buried in a knowledge base—only to surface later as problems—than are those that are produced via a formal publishing process.
- Serve the needs of future users: An informally created resource published in rapid response to an emerging need is unlikely to serve future users as well as a resource that is reviewed and tweaked by experts, including audience advocates.
It would be a remarkable person who has the subject matter expertise; familiarity with existing resources; writing, editing, formatting and technical acumen; and in-depth knowledge of the needs of users to craft a knowledge resource that meets the above criteria. Even so, it would be even more remarkable if that unusually talented person were available to produce it.
Practically speaking, once we accept the assertion that every published item warrants attention to quality, then it makes sense to invoke a team-based process as the draft is composed, edited, tested and tweaked.
One can summarize the above by stating that many skills are needed—along with significant expertise—to produce a high-quality, professional resource.
This begets a question:
“Is it reasonable to expect that useful, timely, high-quality website content will be crafted without a professional publishing process?”
The answer is found via the same logic we apply to evaluating our goods and services: the measure of value for what we produce is signaled by the nature of demand. Put plainly, until users are pounding the desk for more resources, our knowledge bases have ample room for improvement.
Framed affirmatively, the return on investment for content operations increases when all of the various audiences for information related to the new product or service have access to timely, high quality information tailored to their needs. Factor in increased efficiency and productivity—along with enhanced risk mitigation—and we have a compelling business case for an enterprise content strategy that streamlines how the organization develops, publishes and maintains content for all audiences.
The Pros at Multi-Channel Publishing Operations
Those striving to become skilled content wranglers have much to learn from the digital content pros in marketing. Though each organization will configure its enterprise publishing operations uniquely, it’s likely that many of those who have been carrying the load for individual knowledge bases in the past will assume formal roles that require advancing their content-related skills. When producing important content, our marketing colleagues pay keen attention to writing, editing, enhancing, formatting, branding, reviewing and distribution.
This is because they recognize that:
- Subject matter expertise is needed to provide key information
- Editing is a vital contribution to ensure proper tone, depth of coverage, terminology, etc.
- Enhancing boosts understanding
- Formatting ensures readability and consistency with similar resources
- Reviewing confirms that the content is appropriate and vetted
- Structuring ensures that the content being produced can be readily repurposed
- Distribution (publication) alerts the audience and ensures that out-of-date materials are retired
Learning from the Masters
In this series of articles, we’ve laid the foundation for consolidated content operations by making the business case for a unified content strategy to leadership, engaging knowledge workers to determine feasibility and draft the plan, fostering stakeholder support from middle- and upper-management, establishing a content quality system based on explicit ownership and teaming with our colleagues in support to refine the content we produce. Via this comprehensive approach, we have substantial organizational support to engage the content wranglers in marketing and tap their expertise to streamline content operations across the enterprise.
Role of the Publishing Operations Committee
As part of the strategy we advocated, we built a framework for implementation in that the operations committee is charged with fact-finding, planning, process creation and documenting while the sponsors’ committee provides oversight, resourcing, problem-solving and support. The following principles should inform the nature of the operations committee’s engagement with those in marketing from whom we seek expertise and guidance:
- Acknowledge the Risks & Burden Upfront: Our colleagues in marketing are busy working on priority tasks while under intense scrutiny by the C-level. As successful as their last campaigns may have been, their present value is largely determined by how quickly, creatively and effectively they deliver on the next. In the midst of this pressure-packed environment, they are being asked to help other departments—who lack their digital publishing talent, experience and resources—to join them in consolidating content operations. In short, they are being told to assume much risk while the reward seems fuzzy, at best.
Tactic: Plan assiduously to mitigate likely concerns by recruiting marketing experts to contribute to early discussions. This approach will surface specific issues that can be addressed from the outset, e.g. timing, scope, responsibilities. Moreover, when the topic is eventually broached with the marketing team—not only will the message be pre-framed to address their concerns—they will have heard of (and likely appreciate) the effort.
- Make it Official: Per the new content strategy, participants in the effort will have their job descriptions updated to reflect the tasks. This action elevates the importance of the project, sanctions the upcoming work and relieves some of the natural angst that accompanies unfamiliar tasking.
Tactic: Though this key step is in the domain of Human Resources, the keyboarding of amended job descriptions is likely to fall upon very busy middle-managers. Before placing this on their plates, the operations committee has the opportunity to foster good will by developing suggested task descriptions for each role.
- Align Expectations: Before energy is spent dealing with specific elements of workflow and process, it’s important to ensure that expectations regarding outcomes are aligned. For example, prior to examining various options to expand the capacity of scarce editorial resources, it’s vital that there be collective agreement that all published content benefits from copy editing. From that shared starting point, the brainstorming will be more productive.
Tactic: In article 7, Your Content Strategy: Is it Feasible?, we introduced an exercise that advocates for the new content strategy used to frame the operational requirements needed to enact it. That deliverable was briefed to leadership to get the ball rolling and now serves the operations committee as a key resource from which to configure operational roles, responsibilities and processes.
- Make it Fun: The hard work to build consensus support for the new enterprise content strategy has resulted in a sanctioned and resourced initiative. The operations committee—made up of professional and aspiring content wranglers—are on the precipice of enacting a strategic change with the potential to dramatically improve the organization’s ability to capture and share knowledge. Though the responsibility to get it right may be daunting to committee members, the foundation upon which this initiative is built was purposefully engineered to assure success. In particular, leadership and management stakeholders are oriented via compelling logic to maintain realistic expectations, e.g. the new strategy values discovery of what does—and what doesn’t—work. For experienced content wranglers, this may be the first time in memory that their efforts on a major initiative are so well supported, impactful and appreciated.
Tactic: This is a time for creative solutions to thorny problems and that is best fostered by building enthusiasm such that all contributors are inspired to be bold. And, who better to help the operations committee generate a spirit of confidence than the marketing team? In addition to their mastery of content, they are experts at building excitement: Bring on the swag and schedule an offsite! The happier the contributors, the better the results.
Last Week: Robert’s previous article, Building a Robust Content Quality System, covered how to overcome operational challenges related to harvesting, publishing and maintaining online knowledge bases. His tenth installment examines the framework for a consolidated quality control program based on explicit content ownership.
Next Week: Robert wraps up this series with a glimpse into the future. Holding a Tiger by the Tail, examines the likely impact—and repercussions—of achieving our goal to radically improve our organization’s ability to share useful knowledge via exceptional content.