We live in the age of content. Every minute, users upload 30 hours of video to YouTube, send 204 million emails and view 20 million photos (according to this Intel study from May 2013). We are all content producers now and the ease of publishing and consuming content has changed our lives. It also presents organizations of all sizes with a challenge: for the first time, every piece of content is assembled in one place–on their website. To manage, maintain and monetize all this content, companies increasingly turn to a relatively new discipline: content strategy.
Over the next three months, Flip the Media will take a closer look at the growing field of content strategy. We will interview industry practitioners, give some tips and ideas how to analyse and improve web content, and try to highlight future trends.
In the first installment of our content strategy series, we talk to Jeff Greer, Content Strategist and Digital Experience Manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Jeff has 15 years of experience, working for a range of companies, from Disney to e-commerce start-ups. At Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, he and his team took on the challenge of implementing content strategy principles in a healthcare organization faced with a new regulatory environment and a sprawling website that had to be re-oriented towards consumers.
For many people “content strategy” is still a relatively new and undefined term with a pretty broad scope. What does “content strategy” mean to you?
For me, content strategy is a practice that helps you deliver content on time, on strategy and on budget. It helps digital teams manage content in a way that’s similar to how they manage design and development. It helps content creators manage their work more effectively, because when done correctly, it provides a disciplined process. And hopefully, with that solid process in place, it leads to engaging content that customers love.
When did you and your organization realize that you needed something like a content strategy and for what reason?
I arrived at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan in 2011. The company was in the early stages of a major redesign. There were thousands of pages of content that needed to be reworked to get the public site ready for health care reform. At the time, no one in the company was accountable for the quality and consistency of the web content. It’s been an interesting, challenging, fun ride.
In general, what are some telltale signs that content is “mishandled”?
On a high level, it’s pretty obvious to all of us when content isn’t working. There might be an unclear sense of purpose on content that’s on the homepage. Or there might be a lack of audience definition throughout the site. But to understand why it’s not working well, I always go back to the discovery and analysis work. Content can be mishandled in so many ways. And for me, I always try to withhold judgement about why until I understand more.
For instance, if content appears to be well-written but placed on the site in an unintuitive way, that usually suggests the lack of a well-trained IA or senior editor. On the other hand, if you’re kicking off a project and you find hundreds, or thousands, of out-of-date pages, that usually means the staff in charge of maintenance isn’t doing their job.
And then there is the job of unpacking the business processes that led to the problem. Sometimes, it’s because the wrong people are running the site. Other times, it might be the wrong governance of the site’s vision. And in those rare but calamitous cases, there might be a total lack of vision about why and how a company should manage their site.
How did you convince executives that more resources for content strategy are needed?
Once I completed the initial audit, I presented an aggressive plan for staffing a web content team. We’ve slowly hired people to fill those positions since then. As we go along, we continue to show the value of creating good content on the company website. One of the data points I often share includes comparing page views of the site to paid search or social advertising. When you calculate the value of your traffic that way, you can show your executive exactly what it would cost to get similar results without having a great content team in place.
What were some “quick wins” that showed immediate value and enhanced your reputation within the organization?
I think the real eye-opener was the audit and analysis work. I hand-crawled more than 3,000 pages and talked to people across the company. When our leadership saw the results, they were genuinely surprised at the depth of some of the issues with the site content.
In web-oriented companies, content strategy reaches into almost all areas. How did you deal with established departments like Marketing or PR which now had to follow your guidance? Any tips or lessons learned on how to avoid friction?
A big part of my job is educating and aligning people across the company, from executives to associates, about what content strategy is and what the benefits are. It’s a big company and we continue to find people who don’t get what we’re doing. But when I explain our strategy to them, they have a better understanding and become terrific partners. One way we educate people is through content workshops. We give a “where we were” and “where we are now” overview to remind people of the company’s goals, our customer experience goals and how the digital and content strategies support those goals.
I think my focus on educating and aligning people has helped avoid a significant amount of friction. When it doesn’t, I remind my team that friction is often healthy. It helps you find differences in understanding and creates opportunities to align people.
How did you get in-house content creators to follow the new strategic guidelines without smothering their enthusiasm?
Training and patience. Patience and training.
The data point or organizational change resulting from your efforts that you are most proud of?
I apologize if this comes off as simplistic, but I firmly believe that bad content is the results of poor governance. At Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, I’m most proud of being able to create a sound governance model for the site. That way, we can be more confident that the site won’t revert to the state it was in a few years ago.
Any other important lessons learned along the way?
I always ask for organizational charts when I work with departments I’m not familiar with. It helps me understand if I’m talking to the right people. One of the biggest frustrations of any content creator is to discover that your subject matter “expert” is in fact no expert at all.
I also require that our subject matter experts can serve as single points of contact. When I’m helping departments assign this work, I ask for people who are smart enough to make simple decisions and politically connected enough to get feedback from their teams in an efficient way.