Monday, 15 September 2014

All Aboard the Content Ship: an Interview with Content Strategist John Ryan

As universities move into the digital age, web content strategy assumes greater importance. Digital communication is all-pervasive and universities are increasingly being held accountable for the clarity of the messages they deliver across multiple channels. Newer, digital savvy audiences demand this, and if the message is unclear, diffuse or simply not adapted to this new environment, then the chance to build connections and meet business goals will be lost.

Universities are increasingly under pressure from the forces of ‘digital disruption’. This is a process whereby newer, cheaper digital competitors threaten to erode, and maybe overtake, the market share of traditional players within a breathtakingly short time. August institutions such as banks are already deep within the maelstrom of digital disruption. For universities, MOOCs and other forms of other online learning are the major threats.

What is content strategy? Strategist Kristina Halvorson has a handy definition: "Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content."

Content strategy can help meet the challenge of digital disruption by aligning a university’s web content and digital assets with the institution’s key drivers.

Think of a university’s home page and key social media channels. Often, these serve as a first port of call for prospective students, but if the messages they contain are inconsistent, poorly targeted or too complex to navigate, then ‘prospective’ has the potential to turn to ‘disillusioned’.

For the past year, RMIT University is fortunate to have worked with John Ryan, head of content strategy consultancy Sitegeist. In association with RMIT’s Web Services and Information Policy group, Ryan has been developing an approach to content strategy that can serve RMIT’s core needs. This approach mitigates the pressures of digital disruption by developing a cohesive approach to writing for the web; to content curation (distributing material across unique devices and platforms); and to workflow, that is, a process for content creation, management and review that can help to facilitate these goals.

Along the way, he has held workshops and delivered training for RMIT’s web managers that have been extremely well received. He has also delivered popular talks on content strategy at RMIT’s web conferences (which you can download: John's 2013 presentation; PDF 1,988 KB and 2014 presentation; PDF 940 KB).

Simon Sellars spoke to Ryan about the importance of content strategy for universities in an environment riddled with disruption.

Photo of John Ryan courtesy of John Ryan.

This interview is brought to you by Creative Communities, RMIT's Web Policy Awareness Campaign. This week, the spotlight is on the University's Web Content Policy, including the Writing for the Web instruction. 

John, why should universities care about content strategy?

Universities have many audiences and stakeholders, and masses of content across many delivery platforms: web, handbooks, brochures, print ads and so on. A strategic approach to the creation, publication and governance in this environment is not just desirable – it’s essential to avoid a complete content catastrophe!

Part of that strategic approach, for you, is keeping it simple. You even had a content strategy blog called 'Simple and Great'. But how do you convince people that ‘simple’ content doesn't mean dumbing it down?

As communicators, our obligation is to be understood. Simple does not mean simplistic – I use it as shorthand for content that’s not unnecessarily complicated. I subscribe to the quote, usually attributed to Einstein, that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. So complex ideas are necessarily complex to explain. That’s OK. The important thing is to know who your audience is and create content appropriate for them.

I’m also a fan of keeping it brief. Again, this doesn’t mean that an idea needing three sentences to explain should be cut to two sentences. It means we should create only the content required to communicate effectively. No more, but certainly no less.

Anyone working in digital strategy will be familiar with the phenomenon of the Content Guru. These are highly visible online theorists and strategists such as Karen McGrane, Kristina Halvorsen, Gerry McGovern and Jakob Nielsen, who seem to shape the agenda of most conferences and debate on content strategy. Why have Content Gurus become so popular?

Content gurus have always been around, but the people you list are a new wave. They’re not editorial pedants or poets. They bring a user experience perspective to content, and we are all the better for it.

With digital device proliferation, content is now often created in isolation, separated from the delivery mechanism for the first time in human history! This is a revolution. We need help working out the implications. With people like McGrane, Rachel Lovinger and others leading the way, we’re in good hands.

The most well-known gurus are from North America, but what about Australia? Do we have a lot to learn about content strategy?
The US market is huge, so it’s no surprise it gave birth to content strategy as a profession. The scene in Australia is small but there’s a chicken-and-egg relationship at play. Organisations need to want content strategists and content strategists need to promote their services.
I don’t think we have much to learn as practitioners. It's as easy to keep up with global trends in Melbourne as it is anywhere else. Organisations may not be exposed to the value of content strategy as much here, but as bigger digital agencies add content to their offer, this is changing too.

I've long believed that the discipline of User Experience (UX) should be integrated into content strategy, and vice versa. Your approach also explores the role of user research in content strategy. 
When I started out, I described myself as part of the editorial process. But over the years I’ve changed my mind. Content strategy is UX for content. Good UXers are thinking about content strategy, and content strategists must understand UX principles. I’m a UXer.

Content strategy talks about ‘curation’ as much as it does ‘creation’. Why should anyone working online care about content curation?

The separation of content from delivery platform makes curation vital. I don’t mean curation in the Pinterest way of just choosing stuff you like. Curation in this sense actually creates context.

In this new paradigm, content can be deployed across platforms and devices – each with its own design requirements, display rules and audience requirements and expectations. These deployments can actually change the way a reader consumes the content.

With clear communication our primary responsibility, an understanding of context is vital. That’s what curation means: bringing together content elements to create context, meaning and experiences.

I’m really interested in the future of web content, and how our online experiences might be radically transformed. For example, a man named Sverker Johansson was in the news with an algorithm he created, which has written 8.5% of Wikipedia's total output. This automated process supposedly makes Johansson the ‘world's most published author’. 

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times deploys a ‘Quakebot’, an algorithm that automatically writes and publishes a story online whenever California has an earthquake. Perhaps ‘bot journalism’ is the future of online content. If so, what's the point of content strategy?

If you feed in the stats of a sporting contest, a bot can write up a game summary, but it won’t be able to sum up the spirit or emotion of the contest. Not yet, anyhow. If automation can do a good job, we’ll use it. Fact-based reportage – sports, earthquakes, election results – are inevitably going to be automated. But I can’t see analysis and reflection being automated any time soon.

The bot needs an algorithm. The algorithm needs to be programmed. The programmer needs to know the audience and the desired outcome. There is strategy at the heart of this.

What other top trends in content strategy are cresting the horizon?

We’ll get used to a ‘content first’ approach. We’ll get used to creating content for audiences rather than for books, apps, sites and brochures. The media-centric approach is old fashioned.

That reminds me of your comment at the recent RMIT Web Conference, where you paraphrased Marshall McLuhan. You said, "the medium is immaterial", a neat inversion of McLuhan's famous maxim: "The medium is the message."

McLuhan wasn't a fan of content. His thesis was essentially that content was less important than the delivery platform. For McLuhan, at the risk of over-simplifying his multi-layered concept, the fact that something was on TV was more important that the content of the program itself. It only mattered that you were watching.
But that was when TV was the dominant cultural medium. Now, platforms are proliferating. The idea of a dominant medium has evaporated.

Will this provide opportunities for universities – or threats?

The only threat this poses to universities – or any content-rich sector – is if it doesn’t embrace it. The ship is sailing. All aboard!

John Ryan wraps up at the 2014 RMIT Web Conference. Photo: Simon Sellars.

Interview by Simon Sellars, Senior Digital Analyst, Web Services and Information Policy, RMIT University.

This post was brought to you by Creative Communities, RMIT's Web Policy Awareness Campaign. This week, the spotlight is on the University's Web Content Policy, which contains the Writing for the Web instruction. Check this instruction out for more tips on writing simple, direct and user-friendly online content.

More from John Ryan:

John Ryan is the founder of Melbourne content strategy consultancy Sitegeist. Sitegeist’s clients in the past 2 years include Coles, Medibank, TRUenergy, Save the Children, City of Melbourne, Cricket Victoria, Qantas, Sustainability Victoria and more. 

Working in online and traditional publishing since 1986, John is an industry leader in strategic content services in Australia. Before starting Sitegeist in 2007, John worked for Lonely Planet Publications in a variety of roles including Business to Business Products Manager and Managing
Editor of the multi-award winning website


Paul White said...

The talk about content was ok, but the McLuhan comment threw me a little. Platforms may be proliferating, but they all existing within the same medium of the the digital screen. The device may be immaterial (desktop/tablet/phone), but the digital interactive medium is becoming universal. Broadcast television will be subsumed into the dominant medium of digital screens, as tv swallowed radio, meaning McLuhan is as relevant as ever.

Anonymous said...

'Simple and Great' content strategy: post once every 3 months and then stop altogether.

George Dunford said...

Interesting thoughts, Anonymous. Perhaps the strategy is say what you need to say and not bomb people with posts just for the sake of frequency.

I'm a big Sitegeist fan and enjoyed this chat with local content superhero (we only have 3-4).

Think channels proliferate and amplify but are irrelevant if the content is rubbish.

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