Note: This blog entry originally appeared as a guest post for Boye & Co. – a group for industry experts to exchange opinions and experiences. It was a lot of fun to collaborate with Janus on getting the topic nailed down and nicely defined.

Reading one of the last columns by Janus Boye on reflections of the last 20 years also had me thinking deeply about where we have been in the last 20 years and what the future holds. 

One of the advantages of turning 42 earlier this year is that it gets me thinking about Douglas Adams. He was, of course, known best as the writer of the wonderfully quirky “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, but he was also an astute philosopher and avid technologist. That said, he had a number of cynical views on technology, and in particular what that meant to content creators and productivity.

He balanced optimism of the endless potential of technology…

“A computer terminal is not some clunky old television with a typewriter in front of it. It is an interface where the mind and body can connect with the universe and move bits of it about.”

…with the realism of someone well-versed in the current state of things:

“Most of the time spent wrestling with technologies that don’t quite work yet is just not worth it for end users, however much fun it is for nerds.”

The reason this pair of quotes comes to mind is that it seems content management has been dealing with the paradox of opportunity and frustration since the inception of the World Wide Web. Adams is right – it is fun for nerds like us. To our credit, we spend a lot of time discussing these problems at length, and actually trying to build products and practices to address them – and in many ways, the underlying technologies and frameworks are vastly more effective to what passed for state of the art only a few years ago.

However, despite these advancements in technologies and methodologies which have made scaling these operations cheaper, faster, and far more capable, it’s clear from the research in the market; over time a similar percentage of organizations still have sub-par customer experience and despite falling prices for tools and services, overall costs for customer experience delivery still remain high. 

I’ll try to break these problems down from a wider, strategic view, to a more tactical level.

Management often doesn’t understand the intrinsic strategic (and monetary) value of their content, or how it relates to customer experience

Ultimately, this comes down to an issue of education. And by this, I don’t mean at the individual level – I’ll address that in a moment, but even more consequential than that, I actually mean at the executive level. Modern accounting can take into account all sorts of intangible concepts like capitalizing development costs, goodwill, and depreciation. But unless you are a company like Disney and actually in the intellectual property business, there is probably not a place on the balance sheet for the intellectual assets and the corporate knowledge that you produce and store within systems.

Similarly, despite becoming one of the key differentiators in the overall financial performance of a company, customer experience is not given a course-level treatment by the majority of business programs*. In fact, despite being closely correlated with overall performance, if you were to look at the efforts to improve content strategy and findability as it relates to funnel activities or sales; the majority of executives would consider these efforts cost centers and not strategic investments fundamental to the overall success of CX efforts. It seems management remains stuck in trends driven by accounting or operational principles, despite being outperformed by organizations that prioritize customer experience.

(* Nor are there courses around sales or machine learning basics – which leads to a lot of “faith-based” buying of martech snake oil – but that’s a whole different rant).

Training around content management tends to focus on technology and not processes

As you move into the execution aspects of a content strategy and into the actual practice of content management, you will note that education here as well often fails a practitioner.

Despite being an area of practice that is often tied to larger business drivers and metrics, the vast majority of training and resources around content management are still extremely technology-focused. This is unlike other management training, where the fundamentals are often taught separately from the tools you will be using. If you take a PMP course, they do not focus on the particulars of Agile or specific software tools to use. Conversely, in content management, most training almost entirely focuses on the technology and not the underlying aspects. They teach you how to “do”, but not the “why”. Even if you look at it from the marketing side, the training is all about clicks, attribution, cost, ad spend, etc.

As an example of this technology-centric focus, the term “technical debt” is now almost universally understood as a concept, but there is no equivalent for concepts such as “process debt” (i.e. what is lost from poor findability or re-use) or “institutional knowledge debt”.

The scale of the problem keeps growing exponentially

In the early days of content management, the scale of the content you needed to manage was generally much smaller than today. If you look at most companies, they need to address far more audiences in far more channels. In addition to the number of new channels you control directly (web, mobile, marketing emails, etc.) you also now have additional external channels. B2C organizations need to update 3rd party owned channels such as the Google result page or voice assistants. B2B organizations need to think about personas and funnel activity, or content being delivered to partners or distributors. Almost all organizations need to think about customer journeys and ensuring content exists to provide the right information to the right customer at the right time.

This management problem means additional layers of complexity for not just the additional content, but the additional relationships and metadata required for meeting the various needs and tasks.

Scott Brinker of the Chief Marketing Technologist Blog outlines the problem visually.

marketing_improvement_paradox_600px.jpg

One example of this trend as it pertains to vendors is the fact that while Content Management Systems have undergone a fair bit of innovation of late, many of those positive changes are around operational or architectural efficiency (though I will argue that moving away from “pages” and further abstracting content from presentation has immensely helped this focus on underlying content strategy). However, as customer experience demands have shifted towards greater use of narrative and storytelling, or addressing specific user persona needs, it’s clear that most systems don’t think this way in a native capacity. Practitioners are often left trying to manually map these requirements to underlying content – usually with spreadsheets(!) – which feels a bit like banging rocks together in 2020, especially given the maturity and evolution in other areas.

Ownership of content and governance is rarely defined

I have a confession to make – I absolutely hate the word “governance”. The word conjures up images of bureaucracy and bottlenecks. The reality is this – good content governance is akin to an F1 back office and pit crew. Aficionados of the sport know that, while driver skill is important,  these “governance” functions are really where races are won and lost. The same principles of experimentation, metrics, foundational effort in systems, and having each person know their role apply equally to the teams responsible for customer experience and content delivery. In large organizations, often these teams have particular incentives or metrics concerned with their own cadence or budget and don’t take into account the larger organizational goals. 

Similarly, it is often the case where responsibility for the overall customer experience is a contested battleground within an organization. Usually, each organization has its own metrics and incentives which will often be at odds with a customer-centric approach. In the same way that a good F1 team principal can balance the needs of all these (often very opinionated) moving parts, an organization needs to have a properly empowered executive to lead these transformational efforts and establish clear ownership of content creation and processes. It’s a tough balance; often you have sales or IT executives pushing against CX goals or budget, so getting this balance right and providing executive leadership is key.

Like a good F1 team director continually evaluating the working parts of a team over the entire season (and beyond), content teams also need to continually invest in ensuring their output is properly cataloged and maintained. In other words, the publishing of an asset shouldn’t be considered the finish line, but as part of an ongoing process of evaluation and experimentation.

Continually failing to learn from mistakes

It’s been my experience in working with the most successful individuals at digital agencies that they share the experience of having to live firsthand with the consequences of poorly planned projects, and learn from these experiences. In contrast, there are organizations that continue to make the same mistakes, either in new projects or “reboots”. Individuals tend to learn from a painful experience, but institutional knowledge is hard; you need to actively think about goals at the start of a project and have post-mortems to discover what worked and what didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, there are countless resources out there on how to run content projects (Deane Barker even has a good one that is free! – The Web Project Book), but given the ubiquity and familiarity of the internet, I think many decision-makers new to content management (or any design-related field) often charge right in, thinking “how hard could it be?” without a clear understanding of the true complexity of content management or experience delivery tasks.

The “digital hero” problem (or, how to turn a project into a program)

One of the patterns I have seen on a regular basis is this concept of the “digital hero” – namely, someone who can come into an organization and help chart a new path. These folks often have a great combination of emotional intelligence and technical acumen in order to understand the path forward and do the much harder job of convincing an organization to change. I think these types of rare individuals are hardened in the crucible of overcoming these problems I listed – as a result, they often have a view of the problem from the top-down, have learned some lessons, and possess the skills to motivate a company into change.

However, often these key people don’t stick around, and usually, the reason is clear. It’s not from a lack of loyalty, but for these leaders the fun of trailblazing a new digital charter is often far different than maintaining good project “hygiene”. In other words, you should be prepared to assume that the individuals responsible for the initial innovation and “building” may not be the same employees responsible for maintaining the processes. What an organization needs to do in order to sustain innovation is ensure that the “transformation project” is replaced with a continual program, with clear governance and metrics consistently measured and assumptions about the overall customer experience validated.

What can companies do to solve these issues?

Treat the problem of content seriously. The same budget that is going to the spiffy redesign or sales reaction of discounting your wares to address your competitor that is outperforming on customer experience needs to be allocated on solving the underlying problem.

Invest heavily in your community of practitioners and stakeholders. Certainly, those among Boye members can understand the value of having a group of peers to share best practices and feedback, but this type of community can exist in many different contexts. Customer boards, partner boards, user communities, Slack channels, developer relations, etc. all are key resources in order to ensure you are responsive to customer needs rather than internal-only efforts.

Lastly, an agile mindset for marketing delivery is key. I don’t necessarily mean that all the functional, tactical, elements of current agile software delivery need to be used (kanban, story points, etc.), but many of the key underlying principles also apply equally to larger content initiatives. If you look at the original manifesto, you can see that many principals apply equally to the problem of solving content delivery:

  • Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

In most other cases, you can simply substitute developers for creators, and software for content:

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software content.
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers creators, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

Lastly, I’ll close with a quote from Adams:

“We are stuck with technology when all we really want is just stuff that works. How do you recognize something that is still technology? A good clue is if it comes with a manual.”

In other words, we are still stuck in the era where you need a manual to make these things work together; agile, content modeling, journey mapping, documented governance processes – are all forms of manuals. Some of this will improve over time with technology (as we see in Scott Brinker’s linear graph), but many of these are larger, more complex issues and we should start to accept that the hard work of writing, teaching, and understanding those manuals is still required for success.


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