Kate Kenyon podcast interview: get your content strategy adopted

Kate Kenyon

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.

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Jonathan Kahn: I’m talking to Kate Kenyon, who’s a content strategist in London. So Kate, thanks for joining me today.

Kate Kenyon: Thank you.

Jonathan: You’ve worked in content for lots of different organizations, the BBC, the UK government, eBay, Orange, Expedia. I want to ask you, first of all, what got you started on the web, and then how did you get into content strategy?

Kate: [laughs] Like a lot of people, I got into it by accident. A happy accident, but an accident, nonetheless. I was, mid ’90s, working for an organization. I was their head of media and PR, and they said, “We’ve got this thing called a website, and could you run it for us, please?” and gave me an “HTML for Dummies” book and said, “Off you go.” That was it, really. That was the start of it. I learned to code, and I was previously working anyway doing writing, both as a journalist and latterly in PR. It was a natural thing, really. Then the content piece, the strategy piece came later on. Once the first flush of love was over and I was through the first phase of enjoying writing for the web, I then started to think about what I was writing and how it was being received. I’d worked on a lot of websites where they looked wonderful on paper and then just went downhill the moment they were launched. The more I looked at them, the less satisfied I was with them. Hence, my move into content strategy, I suppose.

Jonathan: We first met in 2009, and I remember that I was looking for content strategists and I searched LinkedIn, and there was something like five people in London who came up when you wrote “content strategy” into LinkedIn, at that time. When did you start identifying with this label, “content strategist”? How do you feel about the growth that we’ve seen in the community around it and the number of people talking about it?

Kate: There’s been a gradual process of people self-identifying, if you like, as content strategists. I was fairly early on, I suppose, simply because I didn’t actually know there weren’t that many of us. When you and I first met, I had been unknowingly doing content-strategy work for a few years already. I had done some reading on the web. I’d found this term and read some definitions of a content strategist and thought, “Oh yeah, there I am. That’s me.” So I started using the term, because I genuinely didn’t realize that it wasn’t that big in the UK and that there weren’t that many people doing it. I’m absolutely delighted that there are many more people doing it. I am really pleased to see people in their 20s who are identifying as content strategists that are starting to work in this arena and starting to come up the ranks and actually, get some attention from senior management.

Jonathan: Over that period, are you talking about being a content strategist more than you were then? Are you being called in to do different types of things?

Kate: I still call myself a content strategist. The pleasing thing is that more people know what I’m talking about now and I spend less time explaining my job title.

Jonathan: At the Content Strategy Forum 2011, last year in London, you spoke about the relationship between content strategy and content-management tools, because you’re a content-management expert. What are the problems that come up again and again between content strategy and content management, and how do you think that these two disciplines can actually work together?

Kate: The main problem that I was always called in to solve, in one guise or another, was the impression that you could solve an organizational problem with a technology solution. Essentially, I became a CMS expert, if you will, simply because I’d worked with so many bad ones. By bad, I mean they weren’t fit for purpose. Companies were using these very expensive pieces of technology and yet, still weren’t able to manage their website content effectively. I started looking at why that was, and, more often than not, it was because you had companies that hadn’t thought about their content in any great detail and hadn’t considered what tools they needed to support that content. They really did think that the content-management system was going to do it all for them. It’s a tool. It still needs somebody to decide how it’s built, how it’s run, how it’s developed.

Jonathan: Right and that person has traditionally, been in the technology department.

Kate: Yeah. I don’t think they had really viewed it from either a user’s perspective or from a business perspective. At the time that I wrote that talk, I’d met very few people whose job remit included specifying the business needs or the business requirements for a CMS.

Jonathan: What is your approach to dealing with that? If you come in and someone says, “We need someone who’s got content-management expertise and gets content strategy,” where do you start with people?

Kate: [laughs] It depends from company to company. Often, it starts with actually understanding the connection between their content and their business goals. What do they want to achieve, what do their customers want to achieve, and how does that link in with their content? Once you understand the relationship, or, indeed, the lack of relationship, between these three things, you start to get a feel for how you’re going to help this company. The tool, the actual CMS selection, is the very, very last piece of the chain once you’ve figured out what state a company’s content is in, and then looked at how it’s structured, what they want to do with it in the future. Then you can start specifying, what’s the tool need to enable to them do? I don’t do technical specification. I do the human specification if you like.

Jonathan: The processes and the workflow. Still, people still decide to buy the tool and then worry about what to do with it.

Kate: Yeah. It is a bit like buying a very, very expensive car and then figuring out how to drive. There are easier ways to do it.

Jonathan: Presumably, you must have an answer to the company who says, “Yeah, we know about that, but it’s too late. We’ve already spent X million on this tool. What shall we do?”

Kate: I’d be prepared to spend another million, usually. The grim answer, be prepared to spend more money.

Jonathan: Yeah, don’t start from here.

Kate: Lots of adages about these things, but the one about measuring twice and cutting once is the one that springs to mind. If you plan, then you only have to do it the once.

Jonathan: You’re saying there is no easy answer.

Kate: No, no. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to these things. It depends on the company, their products, their approach to content, what they want to achieve with it. It’s actually, understanding these particular elements that go into defining what the right CMS is for a company.

Jonathan: Have you come across more recently, content management technical professionals who are starting to pay more attention to the discipline of content strategy as something they could actually be involved in, and end this endless cycle of technology buying and poor implementation?

Kate: Yeah, I have, actually. It’s been good. I’ve spoken to a lot of CMS creators, technologists, people involved in the process of delivering content, if you like, and they’re like, “We’re just crying out for people to tell us what to build, or at least what it should do.” Technology frequently works in a way where a business gives them a set of requirement, doesn’t tell them how to build it, just tells them what it needs to be able to do, and they fulfill those requirements. This hasn’t traditionally, happened with content. Nobody’s said, “OK, we want this to happen.” So, having someone who is willing and able to tell them exactly what a CMS should do, has been welcomed with open arms, which is nice.

Jonathan: Excellent. That’s good news. I want to read something from your blog’s “About” page. You have a blog and the “About” page is delightful. It says, this is an extract, “The immediate answer to the content problem is usually, a combination of editorial and brand change, process change, business alignment, and maybe a bit of new hardware. However, it doesn’t end there. Most fixes I see deliver the bare minimum to get things going again, not a strategy for continuous, customer-satisfying, money-making content that enhances a business’ brand and market position.” Can you talk to me about that?”

Kate: This is what happens when you get really deep into content strategy is the answer here. I started out in content strategy about fixing content problems, or solving content problems. I’m now at a point in my work where I’m more interested, really, in solving the causes of the content problems. That’s what I was really getting at when I wrote that, was that I will always be able to fix a CMS that doesn’t work, or a voice and tone guide, but to really make a business change the way it views content, you need to get underneath that. You need to get to business change and to change management, and into looking at why these problems occurred in the first place. To look at the cause rather than the symptom, I suppose.

Jonathan: How do you do that?

Kate: [laughs] You have to be prepared to ask some really awkward questions to some fairly senior people. It involves a lot of being brave. It involves a lot of saying to people, “Look, these are not just words on a page. This isn’t just brochure ware we’re producing anymore. This is an actual business asset.” Content has come a long way in terms of measurability, which has helped us hugely in terms of proving the case that content is a business asset. But the next piece of work that content strategy has to do is to actually say, “OK. Well this is a business asset. Then let’s be business people here. Let’s talk to senior management about, how do you actually maximize your return on investment for this, and what changes do you have to make within a company for that to happen?”

Often that is then going to involve process changes, people changes, even the way organizations are structured can change in order for that to happen. Yeah, these are not easy conversations to have sometimes.

Jonathan: One of the core challenges is, if for example, you’re a web expert or a consultant looking in, it might be relatively straightforward to see what’s going on, at least in terms of this company and its market and its environment. Whereas inside the organization, they have their own way of looking at what’s going on, and it tends to be very, very different to what an external person might see as reality.

Kate: Yes, I have seen these both as working in house and as a consultant. I think it’s often easier for consultants, but I don’t think that means that anyone who’s working in house shouldn’t try this because, if you’re in house, you have the insider knowledge of understanding how a company works. You do have to be brave enough to decide that maybe your company needs to change, but you will know who to talk to and how to approach them. You’re making a clear factual business case for content. It removes some of the emotional intensity that can come with some of these conversations.

If you have cool, hard facts and numbers and measurements in front of you, this is the language of business. This is what senior management understands. If you’re preventing something which is clearly dear to your heart but you’re presenting it in a way which is objective and cool and rational. It takes some of the heat out of it and it means that that it is something that is achievable, whether you’re in house or a consultant.

Jonathan: I’m interested to know what level of maturity or awareness or understandings are people in organizations at, in your experience, in the moment. Where do they see that there is a problem? Where do they see that they may need to change? What is that way of describing why they need some help with, say, their content management system?

Kate: There’s a good level of understanding around the need to solve content problems. There’s still a fairly low level of understanding that this may involve organizational change. I think that management is often quite surprised to discover this. This usually a fairly tough slog, I’ll be honest. It’s a fairly tough slog.

Jonathan: They might realize that some of our content isn’t working for some reason. Can you just get a content expert to come in and fix it? That’s the level, is it?

Kate: Yes, and when you come in and give them…You can say, “Well, here’s the short term easy fix, if you like, or here’s…” I usually end up saying to clients, “Here’s the tactical thing. Here’s what we’re going to do to stop the immediate pain. However, if you really want this to go away forever, to get a whole bunch better, then you need to this instead. You need to look at the way this team is structured and move these people into a different building or place or whatever it is that they need.” Usually there is a tactical and a strategic change required.

Jonathan: You’ve been blogging recently about how to get content strategy projects funded, how to get this stuff adopted. It seems like you’re moving to, as you were saying, to this slightly higher level consideration of what the real problem is. What have you been trying out? What have you been starting to think about in terms of ways to do that?

Kate: Well, you know what it’s like. If you’re doing something, you’re always going to learn by getting it wrong the first time. It took me a while to understand the numbers piece. It took me a while to understand what numbers are significant to companies and what to look for when making a business case. The thing is, you can find the number for pretty much anything, but it’s…Whatever it is actually meaningful to your audience. It’s the same thing you do when you’re writing content. What’s relevant, useful, and timely and understanding what that is within senior management was something I’d underestimated. But once I figured that out, then putting numbers together that actually made things happen, that actually made things change, was a very valuable lesson.

I learned the lessons of getting people on your side within your organization and how to make that happen and how to break down fairly complicated subjects into more palatable, small pieces and then feeding them into an organization. I learned a lot about actually, what it takes to make business change.

Jonathan: What are the things that make business change?

Kate: [laughs] First and foremost, it takes willingness from leadership of senior management to accept and embrace the change and accept that they may have to change their own behaviors before they change that of their staff because it comes from the top. If it’s not right at the top, it won’t be right anywhere else, either. It takes a lot, twice as long as you think it’s going to. It is worth doing, though. It is big. You can either go small in content strategy projects and to fix some of the smaller things and prove value that way. But eventually you have to add up all those numbers and go big. You have to look at really, changing how companies view to make it into a business asset to really, change a company.

Jonathan: One of the things I hear a lot is this concept of cost savings or efficiencies. From our community, we were saying, “You know, you could save time if you’re not repetitively doing stuff over multiple channels or whatever.”

Kate: This is the kiss of death. This is one of these… like I said, meaningful numbers. This number means nothing to management. The awful truth of it is that managers unfortunately don’t care about their employees’ time. They just assume you’re going to work more time, so the cost saving argument doesn’t actually make as much difference as you would hope it would do. I learned to abandon that one fairly early on. Most of the businesses that I’ve worked with are very much more excited about the idea of making more money than they are saving their employees time.

Jonathan: Yeah, right. Exactly. It doesn’t feel like a cop out, but it is a cop out because the reality is, there’s nothing we can actually do to make the hugeness of the problem go away. Whatever we suggest is probably going to end up with more work, and more expenditure, and more pain to try and get to a slightly better position. Because, if you talk about cost savings, you are not talking about changing working practices. That is not going to be a cost saving in the short term.

Kate: No, I don’t talk about cost savings, because I’ve never found it to be a particular persuasive argument with companies. I don’t use it because it doesn’t work, basically. Rightly or wrongly, I haven’t found it to work.

Jonathan: The reality is we’re really talking about risk in the slightly longer term question. If you don’t deal with the fact that your business environment changed, you’re facing these really quite large risks, not least competitive type risks.

Kate: Yes. This sounds really quite sneaky, but there is an element to this, anything were you’ve got to talk to senior management, you’ve got to learn to hustle a bit. One of the things I learned to hustle about was on the subject of fear. Actually, a fear of losing out often motivates people into action in a way that the enticement of gaining something doesn’t do it. I could say an awful lot of this has been adventures in senior management psychology. But, it’s vital if we’re going to actually move content strategy up to another level and see content placed at the heart of businesses.

Jonathan: Which is partly, about working out what they actually, are supposed to, what their actual job is. Saving 10 quid here and there probably, isn’t actually their job, whereas managing the long-term future of the business is. It’s actually very difficult to start with. This is a rubbish editorial structure for your website, to here’s how this problem relates to the long-term fortunes of the business. Don’t you think?

Kate: Yeah.

Jonathan: I want to talk to you about this workshop that you, and I, and Sarah Wachter-Boettcher about doing in London on the 21st of September called “Using Content Strategy to Change Your Organisation”. We’re each doing a section, and your section is about making it happen. I’m going to read a little section from your blurb, which says, “Few people disagree with the principles of content strategy, but how do you move from general agreement to actively placing content at the heart of a business? How do you get others to adopt this mindset?”

Then you’re going to talk about hands-on techniques, practical tools, et cetera. Talk to me about that.

Kate: This is my “Art of War” if you like, for content strategists. My part of the workshop that I’m doing with you is not really about content strategy, per se. It’s about getting content strategy adopted. That is such a vital part of what content strategists need to know. We need to know about more than just content. It’s a workshop to look at, how do you prioritize messaging? What are those significant numbers that will move a business to action? How do you present it?

How do you form a narrative around it? How do you market it? How do you do PR for it? How do you communicate it and do internal buy-in? How do you actually run these change management workshops? What do you need to look out for? What are the pitfalls? Basically, every hole that I fell in as I discovered all of these things, plus some case studies from other businesses.

Jonathan: Who do you think should come to the workshop?

Kate: Anyone who’s planning to try and change the world through content strategy for starters. [laughter]

Kate: Certainly my element at the workshop is very tactical. This is content tactics, if you like. This is about, what is my plan? Help me make a plan to make this happen. It’s for anybody who finds themselves in a position of wanting to make things change, but not really knowing where to start that active, active process. Somebody who’s got some ideas about content and content strategy and some things that they want to change within their organization, or for their client, because it applies equally, if you’re in an agency, as well. Yet, you know you need to change people’s minds within the company, and you’re not quite sure how to make that happen.

Jonathan: What do you think people are going to walk away from this workshop being able to do they couldn’t do before?

Kate: I hope they’re going to come away with certainly a huge amount of confidence that it’s something that is very readily achievable. I hope they’re going to come away from my sessions with a plan. With an action plan for the things they’ve got to think about. If they’ve missed stuff, what do they need to fill in, gaps? An actual plan of action and a delivery schedule that means that whatever they’re planning will be taken seriously by the company.

Jonathan: Fantastic. Well, it’s going to be a great workshop, so thanks for being involved in that, and thank you very much for giving me your time today for this podcast.

Kate: No worries. I’m really looking forward to the workshop.