In Episode 18 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Karen McGrane about adapting to change, telling stories about our mistakes, and using compassion to get better outcomes.
In Episode 3 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Kate Kenyon, content strategist for the BBC, eBay, the UK Government, Orange, and Expedia, about her career so far, getting content strategy adopted, and how to build a business case for change. Don’t miss Kate’s London workshop on 21 September.
If web and user experience agencies want to embrace content strategy,
they need to change the way they sell their services, switching from
a contractor model to a consulting model. Which means throwing
away some unethical working practices. Let’s talk about scoping,
selling, and project management.
Back in October 2010, Stacey King Gordon posted Content strategy and the project pricing dilemma to the content strategy Google group. She posed an insightful question which started a great discussion. Here’s an extract:
…[an agency I collaborate with] work hard to price the end-to-end design project based on assumptions – the client’s, theirs, and mine as the content strategist. However, as I dig in and do my work – content analysis, stakeholder interviews, brand research – the scope of the project inevitably grows. It’s very difficult to be accurate in what the final site will entail until the content strategy work has been done.
This is a common problem when you try to scope development—both copywriting and technology—without a clear understanding of what will be required. There are really only three options:
- Only work with clients that will accept a 2-phased project (strategy/design + development)
- Only deliver work within the bounds of the initial contract
- Change order, change order, change order
Karen’s three-way choice about how to scope projects provides a neat way to explain the changes I’ve noticed in the way UX-like services—web and interaction design, software development, content development, etc.—are bought and sold.
Option 1 implies a consultancy relationship: the client thinks that they need expert help to work out where they are, and where they need to go, before they can start implementation. This is strategy.
Options 2 and 3 are more like a vendor, solution provider, or contractor relationship: the client knows what they want, and they’re shopping around for someone who has the right experience and can agree on terms. This type of relationship is familiar and comfortable for organizations: it’s similar to the relationship they might have with standardized professional services firms like accountants, or software vendors, or even cleaning contractors. This is tactics.
Until recently, most organizations have managed to buy these types of services using options 2 and 3. Need a website redesign? Write a request for proposal (RFP) and send it to some agencies to get quotes. Agencies like selling in this way too. Why is that?
Let’s start with the buyer. She works in an organizational silo: maybe it’s marketing, IT, product management, or corporate communications. Although she has organizational goals in mind when she decides to start a web initiative, she’s more focused on her silo’s goals. All of her budget comes from the silo, and her performance is measured based on that silo’s metrics, not on the higher-level goals of the business. From the client’s point of view, it’s much easier to buy a fixed-price, nailed-down contract.
Even if she has some doubts about what should be in the spec, it’s easier to get her manager to fund a clearly-articulated, conservative scope than an open-ended strategic exploration whose results are unknown, and which could easily open a can of worms. For example, it might suggest that the organization needs to change the way it operates in some way. My goodness, we might need to talk to the other departments! Our client wants a quiet life, and that’s scary stuff right there.
We could be forgiven for thinking, “those wretched clients! Why are they so short-sighted?” But that’s only half the story. Web professionals are scared of strategy, and we use the distraction sell to keep projects within our comfort zones. We’re comfortable using option 2, and option 3 is even better, because it allows us to blame those pesky clients for all the faulty assumptions in the original contract. There’s nothing the lizard brain likes better than setting ourselves up for failure.
So what’s wrong with fixed specs? Let’s start with economics. Do you ever see web designers complaining on twitter about crappy RFPs, and how difficult it is to compete on price with the 3000 other web design shops who claim to be able to do great work for peanuts? Have you ever come across a client who decided to outsource their work to a contractor thousands of miles away in a low-cost location? Or have you ever heard copywriters complaining that companies just don’t appreciate the true value of content?
If the spec really is nailed down, if the strategy work’s been done—that is, if the client truly knows what they need—the actual implementation work is less valuable, more price-sensitive, and will eventually become commoditized. Someone else will do it for less, and probably to a good-enough standard. (Jared Spool calls this distinction hands vs. brains.) That’s great if you’re creating a factory-style contracting business in a low cost economy, but if you live in London or San Francisco, eventually you’ll have problems funding your latte and iPad habit.
Many web projects are sold in a murky bait-and-switch fashion, where the agency agrees to an unrealistic fixed spec written by the client, and then hopes that once the problems become obvious, the client will prefer to pay their way out of the mess rather than starting over with a new agency. You’ll recognize this practice from the technology industry, who call it lock-in. (They used to say that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. That isn’t true any more.)
I see the move towards content strategy as part of a slow recognition that this type of sales and project management has mostly been disastrous. Objectives aren’t met, nobody plans for content governance, and projects focus on short-term pizazz instead of achieving business objectives in a sustainable way.
Let’s return to Stacey’s question. We’re competing for a client project, and we want to include a content strategy piece, because we know it’s the right thing to do for the success of the project—and it will also differentiate our proposal. But we’re worried that the client won’t buy a two-phase project, because they want to compare our proposal with all the others. And the RFP has a set budget and timeline.
The tempting option (which Stacey explains in the thread) is to add a line item for “content strategy”, make some assumptions about the outcome of that process, and then bake those assumptions into a single-phase proposal that includes implementation (and presumably a commitment to a fixed delivery date.)
Here’s the problem: if these assumptions are correct, the client isn’t ready for content strategy. They’re not ready to acknowledge a problem that’s bigger than a silo or a delivery channel, or to ask consultants to help them with strategy. It’s much easier to say, “we need technical help with development, design, and web writing” than to say “we need strategic advice, web therapy, and inter-department facilitation.” Crucially, the person buying probably isn’t ready to become an agent of change in their organization. Change hurts, and actively advocating for it scares the hell out of people.
When a client asks an agency to build a website, and admits to not having a content strategy, that’s a show-stopper. You can’t just graft strategy onto the project and cross your fingers.
Just because a client says they want content strategy, it doesn’t mean that they understand what that actually entails, or that they’re ready to start changing the organization. The best we can do is to explain the problem as clearly as we can, talk about the pain and suffering that will continue to occur if it isn’t addressed, and politely decline work when clients don’t appreciate the value of a strategic approach. They’ll be back, in time.
This is great news for those of us who are tying to raise our game, to leave our comfort zones, and to get our practice to a place where it sustainably serves both business objectives and user needs. (Note: if you’re already there, congrats! Many of us aren’t.)
The sales methods and working practices of many existing agencies (and internal teams too) are threatened by the growing realization among clients that their web initiatives aren’t effective. And the two-stage scoping model is key to understanding this shift. Can traditional agencies hack it?
The skills that a web professional needs are changing: it’s less about design chops, technical prowess, web writing skills–all essential of course, but also widely and cheaply available. The skills that set true web professionals apart are interpersonal skills like facilitation, counseling, advocacy, diplomacy, pragmatism, and patience. And the courage to be an agent of change.
In practice it will take a long time for client-side advocates to lead their organizations into the change management programs they actually need to start to get a hold of their content and web problems. But it’s starting to happen. And those of us who work as consultants should take an active role in the process, by refusing to participate in unethical selling practices.
It’s two weeks since the end of Confab: the Content Strategy Conference, hosted in Minneapolis by the delightful Brain Traffic, but I’m still reeling. It was that good. If you haven’t read some of the 5 billion live-blog posts, recaps, and session notes, you’ll want to do that now. And if you didn’t hear that we toured Fire Station 11 during a tornado warning on Tuesday evening, well, I have evidence.
So what’s the big deal, you ask? Surely the cake-related sugar high has worn off?
First, there’s something magical about seeing so many twitter avatars transformed into real live human beings, all at once. Sure, CS Forum 10 in Paris had some of that, but this was more than twice the size. Second, Confab was the best organized conference I’ve ever attended, thanks to the amazing work of Erik Westra, Clinton Forry, Lauren Cramer, Sean Tubridy, and Kristina Halvorson—who forced the others to take the stage for applause during her keynote. The millions of humorous, practical, cake-and-bourbon-related, or just plain thoughtful touches made us feel welcome and cared for in way I’ve never experienced before. But wait, there’s more.
What actually blew me away was the attendees. Hundreds of people from a huge range of backgrounds—writing, editing, web development, design, technology, marketing, sales—all there either to find out what the content strategy conversation is about, or to learn from others about how to start making change in their organizations. If you’ve read the write-ups, you’ll see a “this isn’t rocket-science” theme: the speakers weren’t revealing new and revolutionary techniques, magic technologies, or simple 7-step programs to content nirvana. As James Callan put it:
Here’s something that surprised me: I was inspired by all of the presenters, but I was not awed by them. (Not all of them all the time, anyway.) I came away from several sessions realizing that I know stuff like that, and I could probably work on doing a better job of sharing that knowledge. (Could? Should.)
This is the first content strategy conference I’ve attended where the attendees didn’t push back against the speakers—they didn’t need to be convinced that our organizations’ content problems are strategic, or that the only way to fix them is to become agents of change. Instead of saying, “no, this couldn’t work for me”, or “I need a rock-solid case study to guarantee my business case”, people were digging into the messy reality of ways they could advocate for content strategy, collaborate with their colleagues, and start to turn the oil tanker around.
My other favorite write-up was Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s “On Confab, Conflict, and Collaboration”:
…But elbows are a short-term game plan. Once you’ve established a bit of voice, it’s time for ears to take over – time to start listening to and collaborating with those people we fought so hard to let us in in the first place.
Once we’ve convinced our stakeholders that a lack of content strategy is a problem, that content is a critical business asset, that we can’t go on like this without taking crazy risks—they’ll ask us what to do about it. And suddenly we’re in the change management business. In their presentations, both Ian Alexander and Karen McGrane called out change management as the real meat of content strategy.
It’s difficult, messy work, and it goes against both our society’s cultural norms and our personal habits as nerds—but ain’t nobody going to make those changes if we don’t. Confab showed me that we have a community of people who are spending their time sharing and learning from each other about how to change their organizations so that they can start to get hold of the overwhelming problems associated with content strategy, web strategy, and web governance.
That’s amazing. What I learned at Confab is that all of us can and should do more to broaden the conversation, involve more people, start to get this change train moving. Brain Traffic and others have led the way: now it’s your turn. Start a meetup, host a work lunch, write a blog post, submit a talk to a conference.
If you can get to London on Tuesday 7 June, a few of us are putting on a special event to do just that, and I’d love it if you could join us. It’s called “Wrapping up Confab, unwrapping CS Forum”:
In a series of lightning-style talks of 5 minutes each (with plenty of pauses for drinks), eight speakers (including two international guests) will fill you in on what they learned at Confab, the groundbreaking U.S. content strategy conference, earlier this month—followed by a sneak peek of what’s to come this September at CS Forum 11 in London.
Hosted in the stunning Mermaid Centre, join us to learn, talk, socialise, discuss, network, pow-wow, postulate and surmise. And did we mention it’s free?
Tickets are free but limited, so get yours while they’re still available.
And consider coming to Content Strategy Forum London, 5–7 September. We’re featuring 39 speakers from 11 countries including Norway,
Australia, Finland, South Africa, Ireland and the UK, and our headliners are the incomparable Gerry McGovern and Karen McGrane. Attendees have registered from across Europe, and as far away as the USA, Canada, South Africa, and Australia.
Early bird pricing ends on 3 June, which is just over a week away, so register now to get the best rates. See you there!
I was invited to speak about content strategy at the Association of Publishing Agencies “Digital Breakfast” event, held at Channel 4 television in London on 5 April. The APA is a professional association for the customer publishing industry. Here’s a video of my talk, “What Web Content Strategy Means for Publishers”.