Planning content. Writing content. Editing content…
Tracking and updating content…
Making sure all your content and the messages your content communicates – across your website, in your emails and through your blog – work together…
…That’s just scratching the surface of what a content strategist does.
Keeping your content under control may seem simple enough. Until the blog posts start stacking up… And the videos… And the landing pages where you showed various prices… And the sales emails… And the 2 drip campaigns.
If content marketing is part of your growth strategy, you’ve probably got a lot of content floatin’ around…
But do you actually need a content strategy?
If we threw out email and focused just on a content strategy for the web, would the average startup need such a thing?
Isn’t that overkill?
Getting Our Heads Around the Need for a
Content Strategy for the Web
For me, the term “content strategy” has always been really intimidating. When I worked at Intuit, the SVP of Marketing asked me to “do a content strategy” for Global Small Business. Bless his little heart, I don’t think he knew what a content strategy was anymore than I did. We produced a behemoth document that no one ever used, and I ticked that To-Do off my list.
Then I started Copy Hackers.
My own business.
Focused largely on content marketing.
With content as perhaps my most valuable business asset.
And the need to demystify “content strategy” quickly became a priority.
I needed a content strategy for the web – to say nothing of email and mobile!
The strategy didn’t have to be a big ol’ doc. But it needed to be real. It needed to be understood among moi, Lance and the contractors coming through.
Since going out on my own, I’ve been an avid student of the great art of plotting, maintaining and measuring free content. I was always keen on measuring how my ecommerce or sales copy was performing, but adding a greater understanding of how all the content we produce ’round here works (or doesn’t work) together over time has been totally amazing.
Knowing that I am but a student of content strategy, I reached out to the extremely easy to get along with Melanie Seibert, Senior Content Strategist for Rackspace, and asked if she’d answer a few Qs for us.
I recorded the convo. (She knew! I wasn’t being sneaky.)
And I even managed to winkle out a few tips on writing for audiences that are stereotyped as emotionless or overly logical. After all, who better to ask than Melanie? Rackspace is producing some of the most readable copy targeted at developers that I’ve ever read, like this:
Here’s what you’ll find in this audio recording, which I encourage you to listen to while you work…:
2:50 – TOPIC: The Essentials of Content Strategy for the Web
4:00 – Defining the term “content strategy”
5:16 – Melanie gives the perfect How To advice for startups taking a stab at content strategy
5:57 – Where to start when you’re ready for a content strategy
7:23 – Why doing a content audit manually is better than using software
8:29 – The most common goal of a content strategy for the web
10:25 – Challenges UX folks and writers face when trying to sell an investment in content strategy
11:52 – How to prioritize where to create content (for better maintenance)
12:31 – How much focus startups with limited resources should put on social media content strategy
13:29 – The “wheat bread” vs “white bread” approach to blog content
15:55 – What a great content strategist thinks about every single day
16:17 – Can you attribute demonstrable losses to not being strategic about your content?
17:10 – TOPIC: Messaging for Uber-Logical Audiences
18:37 – The Rackspace approach to messaging for an audience of programmers
19:24 – A big mistake we make when writing for specific audiences
21:55 – Do you know what your content should “sound like”?
22:39 – The results of a recent ad targeted at developers
23:43 – The biggest pitfall when you’re writing for an audience you aren’t naturally part of
25:09 – How to be sure before you invest in creating new content
My Chat With Melanie –
For Startups & Content Marketers
TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW
J: Hi again, Joanna Wiebe here from copyhackers.com. I am joined today by the fabulous Melanie Seibert of Rackspace. Welcome, Melanie. Thanks for coming.
M: Hi. Thank you.
J: All right. Cool. We’re going to be talking today about two things that I think are pretty interesting, and I think anybody listening will probably agree. Those two things are content strategy as well as how to message for a distinct audience. In this case, it’s for programmers. I’m really looking forward to getting started. Melanie, can you start maybe just by telling us a bit about yourself, where you work, how long you’ve been there, what you do?
M: Sure. I am the senior content strategist here working on our corporate website, which is rackspace.com. I’ve been here for a year and two months now. Rackspace, just in case anyone doesn’t know what we do, we’re a hosting company. We provide web hosting to businesses.
We’re probably best known for our involvement in the OpenStack project. OpenStack is an open source cloud computing platform that we founded in partnership with NASA in 2010. We offer hosting on our public cloud and private cloud, both of which run on OpenStack. Then we also have dedicated servers, databases, hosted e-mail and that type of stuff.
J: Just small, nothing really big? Just working with NASA, just nothing really big? (Laughs)
M: Yeah. It’s nothing exciting around here. (Laughter)
J: That’s awesome. Cool. It sounds like a pretty cool job, especially if you’re interested in … well in my case, I mean I’m interested in content as I think a lot of people are, also in the types of work that you’re doing. What would you say is the best part of your job if you had to narrow it down?
M: Yeah. For me personally, I come from a copywriting and tech writing background. I really love writing copy. In fact just this morning I spent the morning working on ideas for homepage banners with our web team, and getting feedback from them. I also do enjoy the strategic parts of the job like planning things holistically across the website. For me, it all comes down to good copy because that is what changes the user’s experience. It can even improve someone’s day, which for me is incredibly exciting. An opportunity to change someone’s experience is what really gets me up every day.
J: That is very cool. I like that. I love hearing about things that people like about copy. It’s easy for me to imagine, and of course feel certain ways because of how I plainly feel about it, but that’s really cool.
M: Yeah, exactly. When you think about the number of visitors you might be making a small change, but if your website has 10,000 visitors that day that’s a huge impact that you have over a large group of people. That’s why it really excites me. I know it’s really nerdy to say that, but [crosstalk 00:03:09}.
J: No, you’re getting amens from me over here. I’m high-fiving you virtually. High-five! (laughter) Yeah, I mean copy, awesome. Then there is the strategy side of it, which is something that yeah, we don’t talk maybe quite enough about at Copy Hackers. I really want to pick your brain today about content strategy.
Of course I’ve read the books, Halvorson and all of that, I’ve followed content strategy. It seems to have changed since content marketing became such a big deal. Maybe people are getting a stronger sense for what content strategy means. I’m wondering, could you if you had to, and you have to right now… (laughs) No, I’m just kidding. Could you define the term content strategy really quickly for us?
M: Yeah. I actually have done this. When people ask me what I do they usually don’t understand what a content strategist means. What I usually say is that, if you understand what an editor does for a newspaper, that’s what I do, except on the web. That covers planning content, editing, writing in my case. Not all content strategists write. Also taking a holistic view of the site to make sure that all the content works together. That’s it in a nutshell.
It’s not just the publication part, the content marketing part, it’s also maintenance and the whole user-experience. I get to work with user-experience designers who help out a lot with making sense out of interactions on a website. I don’t have to do all that work myself, which is fantastic. We also have really great content marketers and technical writers and people creating content all over the company.
J: Is it even a task that a single person can do?
M: I’m going to give you my take on this. This tells you a little bit about my personality. I am very tolerant of a flawed and partial approach to content strategy, because I feel like some content strategy work is better than no content strategy work. I feel like if you’re a perfectionist and it’s all or nothing, you’re going to end up with nothing. Because content is very difficult to manage. It’s very unruly and it’s almost like a living thing. If you feel like you have to get it all perfect you’re probably not going to. Especially if you’re in a three-person company, just set your expectations upfront to say, “I am going to do what I can, and that’s better than not doing any content strategy.”
What I recommend is if you don’t have enough time to do a lot of content strategy work, the first thing that I recommend is starting with an audit of your existing content. That way you’ll understand what you have. You’ll also see things that are old that need to be updated. You may even find really good content that you can resurface to your audience, your users. That’s great because every bit of content that you find that you can reuse, you don’t have to spend that time creating new content.
J: I like it. Now when you say content audit, at Copy Hackers we do audits. We recommend people do audits when they’re looking for messages in particular. Audit especially the copy, the messages themselves on your competitor’s sites to see what other people are saying. It doesn’t mean you should say that, but just to see what’s being said out there, what messages are being shared. What does a content audit for my own site, what would I really be looking at practically? I’m ready to do a content audit. What would that involve?
M: For me, I’ll just answer you on a very literal level. I get a spreadsheet open and I go through the website, and I click links manually, and I write down the URLs and what I find. My impressions of is something outdated, do I not understand something, is there a link that doesn’t make sense, is there a broken link?
Yeah, there are automated tools that can help you with process, but I don’t know of any tools that will go through an automated process that gives you a qualitative analysis of your content. I have to do that manually. They may be out there, but I don’t know of them. That’s what it looks like for me.
Now, if you have a UI or if you’re working on e-mail campaigns, all that stuff has content too. It may look different for your company depending on what type of content that you’re looking at. I work on a website, so I like spreadsheets and I use them quite a bit.
J: I do too. I do everything manually as well. I’m sure there are lots of automated ways to do things, but when you’re talking about messages in a lot of cases, unless you’re getting down there and experiencing them especially in contact…
M: I agree. That’s a really good starting point. Then you can go see what your competitors have. I think of that as the gap analysis, that’s what I call it in my head. Yeah, I think everything starts with the audit. If you don’t know what you have, then you are not in a good place to do strategic work.
J: Totally. I can see why a content audit would be important, but what’s the overarching goal? What’s the goal of a content strategy itself? Why would I do a content strategy? Why would have one? Why is content strategy important?
M: Our goal should be to serve our user. One of the reasons I like working at Rackspace is because we have this thing we call fanatical support, where if your company goes and publicly talks about providing fanatical support you really can’t justify having a crappy web presence or anything. You have to be fanatical in everything and provide the best experience you can. I feel like that is the value of content strategy or that’s the goal of content strategy, is to serve your users. Our job should be to provide them the best experience that we can.
J: It’s serving the user, and in your case it’s also supporting part of your value proposition being around … right, you guys do fanatical support. If that’s true then you must always be making sure that that’s coming through in everything that you produce or that people will experience, so your content strategy would ensure … Am I getting this right? (laughs) Would ensure that you are always being fanatical in the ways that you help your users?
M: Yeah, exactly. When I saw fanatical support, I knew that I wanted to work here because that was going to ensure that I would have the buy-in that I need to do my job well. Because everybody in the company has bought in to the idea of fanatical support, so I don’t have to struggle with convincing someone that we need to invest in providing a good user experience for our website. I think any company that values its customers would benefit from content strategy for the same reason.
J: Yeah, so when we’re thinking about the business case for a content strategy, if it’s supporting something that the business is already buying into then the business case is already made essentially.
M: It helps me out a lot, because it makes my job easier. I just know that there are a lot of people out there working in UX and content who need to convince folks that it’s worthwhile to invest in those things. I know that’s a struggle that people deal with. I remember Rahel Anne Bailie one time said that, “Businesses are not willing to squander any of their assets, but they’ll squander their content.” They don’t think about their content as a business asset.
If you think about all the work that goes into creating content, it’s like an investment. Then if you’re not willing to maintain it … you wouldn’t buy a house and then not fix the leaking pipe because you didn’t have the money, because then your investment is down the tubes. You want to invest in maintaining that asset. That argument may be helpful for people who need to convince business stakeholders that there is a business case for content strategy.
J: For those other businesses that have really limited resources where they’re like, “Okay, great. I’d love to (laughs). I’d love to keep tabs on my content and make sure that I’m not unnecessarily recreating content.”
M: I think it’s really important to be realistic about what content publication channels you’re going to be able to maintain. You don’t want to bite off more than you can chew and start getting on LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and Vine. If you’re not going to be able to maintain those channels, it’s not going to be productive for you.
I would prioritize the channels. Your first priority would obviously be your product, right? Let’s say it’s a software product. You have your UI, your error messages, your documentation, all that stuff is content and all that stuff is your company’s voice to your customer. You have to start there.
Then a company site, a blog if you have one, then I would put … I may get in trouble for saying this, but then I would put social after those things. Because social media is really important but people, I think get overwhelmed thinking they have to do all of these different channels. I think it’s better to just do a few things really well than try to do everything and just drown yourself.
J: Absolutely. I think a lot of people would agree with you. Sure, there are some people who wouldn’t want to hear put social closer to the bottom of your shortlist, but I think most people would be nodding along, right? (Laughs) Agreeing.
M: Yeah. I love social. We have a social media team here, and they do awesome work. I think it’s great, but not everybody can keep that up.
J: Well, no. Not people who are running their own small businesses especially, right? You have to prioritize certain things and what’s really important in a content strategy and then in the content marketing side of it too. You talked about a blog, which I think is interesting. I think that most startups when they’re thinking of creating content outside of the content that goes into their website or their mobile app or web app or whatever it might be, they’re thinking about their blog and how that blog then fits in with the content strategy.
Now, I understand that there is like … HubSpot recommends when you’re thinking of content for your blog or getting strategic about how you’re going to create content for your blog and what you’re going to cover, they recommend that you take this what I understand to be a wheat bread versus white bread approach. Where wheat bread is you write blog posts that get into more detailed industry stuff. White bread is more about this bite sized sharable content that’s like 50 ways to blank and things that are a bit lighter. Do you have any thoughts on that or any ideas on whether that’s a good approach or do you think of doing it a little differently?
M: Definitely, I think there is a lot of validity to that. Here at Rackspace, like I mentioned, we have a lot of content creators. We actually have multiple blogs. We have our main corporate blog, we have a dev ops blog, which is for IT folks and programmers, we have a Racker talent blog which is for people who want to apply or are thinking about applying to Rackspace. We have tons of channels. Some of those are, like you mentioned the wheat bread, the detailed industry stuff, and the white bread, which is the fun bite sized stuff.
Yeah, I think that there is a lot of validity of looking at it that way. If you don’t have time to do it all, I think you just have to really understand your user and understand what’s going to be most relevant to them.
J: Yeah, which is almost always the case if not always the case. (Laughing)
M: Yeah, I think it is common sense.
J: No, but it’s good, right? I mean a lot of things are common sense to them. You actually say them, and say them like a million times over. It feels like it’s hard for that to sink in. We let ourselves get away with saying, “Oh, but that doesn’t matter right now,” but no, it always does matter, right?
M: Yeah, I feel my job really revolves around thinking about our users and thinking about our products from their perspective, not our perspective. I do that every single day, and every single day I have to remind myself. It’s almost like a discipline. It never gets ingrained to where I don’t have to think about it. I’m always reminding myself of that.
J: I agree, I agree. I think it’s because it’s so easy to follow into a me-centric space because we live in ourselves (laughs). We’re always coming at things from our own point of view rather than saying, “Hold on, what about the user’s perspective?” I agree, it’s a discipline, but worthwhile, worth doing.
Final question about content strategy: If I’m going to take the time to put this down on a piece of paper or several pieces of paper to fill in what this content strategy is, I go and I do my audit and I plot out my messages on different pages, of my site and in social and everything, it’s all contained, it’s my content strategy. Why did I bother doing that?
M: There are some demonstrable losses that you could attribute to something like if you have a piece of content that misstates something and you get sued, and that costs $80,000, then you can say that. Otherwise, I don’t know how to assign a number to those things. I only know that I’ve done it both ways, and having a plan is better. Even if it’s not the perfect plan and even if you don’t execute it perfectly, you can iterate on it and you can make it better. Not having a plan is incredibly painful and expensive. (laughs) That’s not a number, so I don’t have a great number for that.
J: No, no number needed, right? It’s a really good lesson. I think it’s a good sound bite. I think you said, “I’ve done it both ways, and planning is better.” (laughing) That goes on a t-shirt.
Now I’m really excited to get into this. I often hear people say that, “You can’t sell to programmers because they’re too logical or they don’t respond really well to tone.” I’ve heard this said not only about programmers, but about lots of different things. I think in a lot of cases, as soon as you have to write for an audience that you don’t or you don’t live in that audience, you’re not necessarily part of that market, like if you’re having to write … I go back to my background at Intuit.
I wasn’t an accountant, and I was writing for accountants in a lot of cases, bookkeepers and accountants, and a lot of the marketers weren’t accountants either. You’d hear a lot of, “Oh, oh, oh, we can’t talk to accountants like that. Accountants need to have everything listed out. They’re very logical, and they don’t respond well to things that are overly friendly,” that kind of stuff.
Between programmers, accountants, whatever other groups there are, it can be tough to message at these people or toward these people, or communicate with them in your copy without … it can be tough to insert any sort of tone in there.
There’s this big sense that you have to be really formal or jargony with them. You guys, congratulations, managed in my humble opinion to stay really approachable with your messaging. I’d like to know…
M: Thank you.
J: (Laughs) Right? What is your approach to messaging for programmers?
M: Yeah. I tend to shy away from those types of statements about personalities like, “Programmers are logical, they don’t like to have fun.” Or, “They don’t like jokes.” Maybe they just don’t like my jokes. I know programmers, many of them are very logical and some of them are also very creative.
In terms of messaging to programmers, we as writers and subject matter experts too who try to communicate something technical, they tend to overestimate the technical abilities of their audience. Because they understand it they feel like, “Well, my audience is going to understand it. Because if they don’t, why would they be reading this or why would they be watching this video or consuming this content?”
I feel that is a big mistake, because what about the kid that is just starting to learn to code PHP? He could be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Do you want to leave him out? I feel if we use more plain language we’re more inclusive. Very rarely are people offended by plain language. Most of the time people are more offended if you assume they know what some type of jargony term is, and then don’t, and then they leave. I think that happens a lot more frequently than the person who sees plain writing and says, “Well, this is too clear. I don’t want to read this.” (Laughter)
I hate jargon, but I think that even developers don’t like some types of jargon. Sometimes you have to use it, and in those cases I feel you can use it in a way that’s accessible. You can explain what it is on the first occurrence of the term or whatever. Yeah, I definitely push for not using jargon.
J: That comes through on your site, right? If someone were to go to rackspace.com and look at the homepage, like you were just talking earlier about writing banners for the homepage, the messages are very clear and it’s in really plain language, and I think they’re nicely supported by a really clear friendly font, and big images that don’t feel so … they’re real, they’re life images.
Then that also I think supports the messages, because it all feels just like a much nicer experience. “You’ve got code to write, let us manage the rest,” is really nice language. Like you say, it’s nice plain language. Of course the way you guys actually present that, the context that it’s in on the page, makes it all feel like something quite different from what I’m used to seeing for programmers.
M: That is so cool. I’m so excited that you said that. That was written by our copywriter Nell-Marie Colman, she is the other content person who works on the web team with me, and then our designers who are amazing. They do all the font work and everything. We put so much effort into that, so it’s really cool that you said that.
I mean we want people to think of us as approachable, because you really can call us anytime of the day or night. We really do have support people here. With very few exceptions, the people that show on our website do work here. If you call us at 2:00 AM you might talk to that person. That’s what we really want our content to sound like. We want it to sound like you’re talking to a Racker, which is what we call people who work here. I’m really excited that you feel it works.
J: I do, do. I wonder, have you seen how it works? Have you seen any messages that programmers respond particularly well too by chance?
M: Yeah. It’s funny because … like you mentioned you’re not an accountant, I’m not a programmer. I feel that is where I have to start. If I’m going to write for programmers, I can’t assume that they’re going to like stuff that I like. Because when we make that assumption, we just get into trouble.
Now, we did … it’s funny because our online marketing team, they do our ads and everything. T they ran an ad for developers that said something like, “I find your lack of availability disturbing.” It was basically saying that you get good uptime with our cloud servers. Apparently, it’s a Star Wars joke and I did not get it. (Laughs)
They tested it. They would talk to developers and they would tell the joke and people would laugh. I was like, “You’re kidding. Nobody is going to get that.” They did, they thought it was hilarious. I don’t know of any other way to do it other than just to test. If you have a face-to-face access to your target audience that’s awesome, nothing beats that. You can obviously test things online, testing ads and that type of thing.
M: Yeah. We definitely went through a lot of ideas, and things that we thought were really great and funny did not test well. It’s tough to extrapolate rules about what they’re going to like. Definitely the biggest pitfall is thinking, “Oh, well this is funny to me so they’ll think it’s funny.” Or, “Accountants are logical, so they’ll appreciate this or that.” Yeah, I think you’re right. I think that seeing the things that work and what other people have done that works for them is a great way to start.
J: Would you say that’s the number-one thing that you’ve learned about creating content for programmers? Or what one thing smacked you on the head or really sits with you as like, “Oh, I didn’t even know that, and that’s going to change the way I communicate to them.” Is there any one thing that a person can take way about how to create meaningful content for programmers?
M: The number-one thing that I’ve learned about creating content for programmers is that I’m not a programmer. I cannot assume that what appeals to me will appeal to Troy, who is our frontend developer, or David who works on our infrastructure. I can’t assume that.
J: I think that’s great. I think it probably applies to everybody.
M: Any audience.
J: Right. Yeah, as soon as you start making assumptions for your audience, especially based on what you think when you’re not actually the person who is going to be taking out their credit card at the end of the day, that’s when things start to get really bad in your copy and probably for your conversion rate.
M: I’m a big fan of just asking people. We have a really good product marketing team here. We have a guy named Cole who works on our Windows products. He had these great ideas for all this content that would appeal to .NET developers. He was going to have case studies written and white papers and things. He took it to our sales and support guys who work with those developers and he said, “Hey, our audience is really going to love this, right?” They were like, “Uh, no. Nobody cares about that.” He had to go back and completely throw out all his plans and redo it, but he was so excited because he learned so much about what this audience actually wants. Then he was able to build the content that was actually going to interest them.
J: I love it. See, validate because it’s the right thing to do. Then if not, try again.
M: Yeah. Yeah, with someone who knows that area or knows the user really, really well or is the user.
J: Yes, definitely, exactly. Well, that’s a great note to end on. I’ve already got all these little sound bites running through my head after this conversation. Because you really tied some things up nicely, I think, and helped me get a better grip on content strategy, which is and has been an intimidating thing. I think it feels more like something I can handle now. When you make it something that’s more, as you’ve broken it down and made it sound quite, not quite so intimidating. I think that’s a major benefit for me, a major outcome on having spoken to you today. Thank you so much.
M: Yeah, I appreciate it. Thank you. It was really fun talking to you.