Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Content Strategy: Sitting at the Customer Experience Table

Content Strategy is in its infancy as a recognized discipline and, like infants everywhere, is often overlooked. We’re still in the process of figuring out how we communicate our value and skills to ourselves let alone our clients. But people are starting to take notice, so we really need to ask ourselves: “Who do we want to be when we grow up?”

We all know the importance of first impressions. We’re in the unique position of being able to significantly impact how the business community views content strategy as a discipline. Because they’re only just starting to notice we exist. Think about that for a minute—it’s really, really cool!

As a new discipline, we have a responsibility to take our own advice and think strategically. We only have one chance to create our first impression in the business world.

Looking beyond the details

Too often we fall into the trap of carrying out our work in a tactical way. We educate clients about the need for improved processes, content testing, and editorial calendars. We focus on content audits, content design, and content management systems. We talk about web content, mobile content, structured content, and social media. These are great things—they’re the tools, technologies, and methodologies that we rely on to do our job. But, if these things are only tools, who are we as content strategists?

We need to step back and really articulate why we do what we do. Not how, but why. Why do we care about plain language so much? People don’t go to websites to find plain language any more than they go to them to experience the navigation. Why do people consume social media content like they’re starving? It certainly isn’t because they love the quality of the prose they find there. Why do so many people still pick up the phone hoping to talk to a knowledgeable and friendly support person?

At the most basic level, these things are successful because they make customers feel good.

Content strategy is customer experience

Every successful piece of content creates a positive experience for the person who interacts with it. You may have a brilliant piece of writing, efficiently developed through streamlined processes and targeted to a specific audience—but if it doesn’t contribute to the customer having a good experience with your client’s company, then it’s not successful.

The “strategy” in content strategy needs to reflect our focus on contributing to, and even driving, the overall customer experience. Even when we only implement a single element of the content strategy, such as web content or content process improvement, we need to know how it fits into the bigger picture and who the other players are. And we want to help shape that bigger picture whenever possible. It’s not just about unifying and improving content to create an effective website, or mobile application, or whatever. That’s content strategy for a project. We can aim even higher.

We can also contribute to the overall communication strategy and articulate content needs not just for online channels, but for print materials, face-to-face contact, phone support, corporate communications—basically, for every customer touch point. Because it’s the combined effect of every touch point that creates the customer experience. And that’s content strategy for a business.

The business community is realizing that the quality of customer experience is quickly becoming the leading differentiator that provides competitive advantage. And content is at the very core of customer experience.

Integrate, collaborate, and contribute

Currently, user-centred design (UCD) teams are beginning to fill the screaming demand for improved customer experiences. And they’re making tremendous headway. But the vast majority of these UCD teams do not have the necessary content-related skills or experience to even identify the current issues with content, let alone provide strategic advice on how to include content in the overall experience strategy. So content continues to be ignored.

Just when content strategy is becoming grown up enough to sit at the web design table, the UCD teams are moving to the customer experience table! This time, we need to invite ourselves to dinner before the meal is served. We’ll be welcome, because we’re bringing something that’s new and needed. By combining our content skills with traditional UCD skills, we can finally impact all communication channels, organizational silos, and customer touch points to create a truly holistic, consistent, and effective customer experience.

So, while most of our actual content-strategy work may relate to one particular channel, or audience segment, or project stage, we need to retain a very clear focus on what it’s all about. And that’s creating great experiences for our clients’ customers, and making sure that our clients know that that’s what we bring to the table – not just audits, and metrics, and copy, but experiences.

If we position ourselves as an integral part of the customer-experience team, rather than focusing on isolated content elements or communication channels, then businesses will view us in that way. We can grow up knowing that we are an accepted contributor to a core business strategy. Which is exactly where we need to be.

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