Sharing the “high fives” and “oh shits” of running a content strategy agency

I’m on the plane home from Confab Central thinking about how much the conversation has evolved since the inaugural Confab back in 2011. My takeaway from the first Confab was that it was a super well-run event but largely preaching to the choir.

As the very first ever content strategy conference, it was necessary groundwork. But for those of us who were actively practicing content strategy (whether or not we called it that), were hungry to dig into details with other practitioners. We were ready to get our hands on real life results to help us convince clients to stop moving the dollars from our “content strategy” line items on proposals and redistributing the money into copy & design. (See: Taking Content Strategy out of the Proposal.) And most of all, we were ready to start seeing clients at these events—and seeing them as people who could contribute to the conversation vs. people who needed to be convinced or sold.

I’m happy to say that since the first Confab:

  • There are now people all over the country, from cities big and small, who hold the title Content Strategist.
  • (Most of them have super cute haircuts and big smiles.)
  • We now have clients parading success metrics on stage.
  • It’s clear that we are getting collectively smarter about content—at lighting speed.

So what do I hope for the coming years?

Something I think about all the time but don’t hear people talking about is the plight of the small agency owner.

I connected deeply with Kristina Halvorson’s article Good Intentions: How Not To Run a Business about the ups and downs her company has weathered over the past few years. She offered a level of transparency so many of us agency owners are terrified to reveal.

In his #ConfabMN closing keynote, Austin Kleon said, “Figure out a way to learn in public.”

An aha moment for me.

I don’t think we need another content strategist blogging about how to do a content audit. But the subject of running a content strategy company is a topic I get all fired up about. 

In the coming months, I’ll be writing more about our “high fives” and “oh shits” as one of the first content strategy agencies. In the interest of opening up the conversation with other small agency founders, freelancers, and future agency starters, I’ll share different paths we have taken, where we’ve failed, and where I’m taking the company now that my co-founder/partner Ian is working with the smart folks at Razorfish. (In case you missed that…)

I might even show you how I survived an IRS audit of our independent contractors.

Is there something you’d like to contribute? Is there something you’d like to know? Drop me a line: britta at eatagency.com

Till then,

Britta

 

  • Filed under Content Strategy   /  

Cut first, then color

I was talking to a startup today about which part of their website project to tackle first.

The client was emphasizing starting with the company’s product pages and ecommerce flow.

I was emphasizing starting with a quick content inventory and site map.

Fearing I was sounding too much like a process princess, I said, “It’s same reason you get your hair cut before you get it colored.”

A great analogy, especially if my client had been UniKitty (“half unicorn, half anime kitten, and nonstop dance party”).

Fortunately this particular male cut me some slack, laughed a little, and agreed.

  • Filed under Content Strategy, IA   /  

We never use that word

Your organization probably has one.

You may even have notebooks full of them.

They are “the words we never use when we talk about our __________.”

(Product, service, company, employees, tool.)

I get it. I do.

You have good reason for never wanting to use those words.

But what if, just maybe, one of those words you never use is actually the perfect word?

Fresh. Concise. Immediate. Visual.

Maybe times have changed enough that the word doesn’t mean what it used to back when it landed in the Book of Forbidden.

Semantics do evolve.

Maybe that word needs to be released.

Take a look at it. Write it down. Put it in a comp. Look at it with fresh eyes.

Let it breathe. Try it out. See how if feels. Test it.

You never know.

  • Filed under Change Managment, Content Strategy, Customer Experience   /  

Ian’s Last Post @ EAT

Here’s the short version:

Next week, I will be joining Razorfish.

Britta will be taking over EAT and bringing it back to its roots: Content strategy, content development and strategic consultation.

Here’s the longer version:

Nine years ago, Britta and I launched EAT as a content agency.

At the time, we were New York expats living in South Florida, a little beat up by the dot com bust but driven to carve out our own path. And we did. We bought a pink 1920s fixer-upper a block from the water. We spent the days tearing down ceilings, walls and floors, and the evenings building a business on our laptops.

That’s not a metaphor. I mean that literally.

EAT beginnings

As advertising/publishing/tech people, there wasn’t a ton of work for us down in swampland. But we’re a resourceful team and before we knew it, had two big named clients with big content and strategy needs. We hadn’t ever heard of a content agency, but that’s what we were starting. It wasn’t long before a baby came, and then our first office, and then our first employees. Our little agency was cranking out tens of thousands of words of high quality branded content each month and the strategic “how” requests about content kept rolling in. Those were the golden days of content, before Demand Media became a thing.

Soon clients started to ask us to run their web projects from start to finish. And there we were happily in the UX/CX business delivering the entire experience: strategy, IA, design, code and content. That’s when we brought out the big guns, the tomahawks and the jeweler’s screwdrivers in a quest to deliver content-first experiences — from content audits to wireframes to designing and building the full-blown kit and kaboodle. The Sunshine State was smiling on us but one fateful day, while on a bizarro vacation (leaving Florida to vacation in Cape Cod) we realized the Northeast was really home. Ten days later we packed up whatever would fit in a Uhaul and moved back to New York — just before our second child was born. Then last year we had two more children (at the same time). Suffice to say we like change. We trust that knowing and intuiting are fine paths to follow separately or together, in life and in work.

So, while I’ve led the charge speaking and blogging about CS/UX and other topics (hip hop, ahem) over the past few years, Britta is the content strategy superstar and she’s back from the land of spit up and strollers. Clients love her advertising background, strategic mind, and love of bringing law and order to content. She’s going to carry on the torch that went from NY > FL > NY and now resides in Dobbs Ferry, aka the town that built Zuckerberg.

I’ve had the great fortune to work with universities, Fortune 500 companies, non-profits and startups. I’ve hit some projects out of the park, struggled and learned lessons from other ones. Some clients have become great friends and others trusted advisors. My peers in the CS/UX/Design/Code/agency community have been unbelievably influential and generous.

Along the way, I’ve seen content strategy go from something clients asked us to remove from the proposal (“just dump the dollars into design”) to something clients seek out. I’ve watched UX go from a nice to have to a must have. And I’m currently enjoying the championing of change management as it relates to digital.

I will miss our team, our sweet office overlooking the Hudson and the challenges of a running a small biz.  But I’m excited to see Britta’s passion and talent take the driver seat — hire EAT here. Excited to work with peers @ Razorfish whose work I’ve admired for years.  Excited to immerse myself in service design, product strategy and UX over at Razorfish. Excited for the challenge of change itself and the opportunity to exceed expectations.

I’ve been more than lucky to work with great people over the last 10 years including:  @brittaalexander, @ninamaxdaly, @dougrushkoff, @heatherfield, @jonathanmaziarz, @wendybiddlecombe, @johnmiller, @kristinejubek, @briandurkin. With an especially huge thanks to @brianhughes. And a best partner in the world huge thanks to @johnfakorede.

Stay tuned. Stay relevant and be good.

Thanks for everything,

Ian

P.S. I’ll be continuing to blog @ UXtopian.com and opining on Twitter @IanAlexanderNY

  • Filed under Content Strategy, Design + UX, News   /  

CANTEEN – A Content Strategy Project Framework

The contract is signed. The check has cashed. Now what?

There are many ways to kick off your content strategy project. Here’s where we start.

How to start a content strategy project with CANTEEN

CA  - Content Assessment
Rarely do you start with a blank slate. More often than not there’s a legacy site, one-sheets, old campaigns, white papers and newsletters to review. Discard what’s irrelevant, shelve what needs help and indicate what’s core to the brand and the business goals. (Don’t forget to review analytics.)

N – Navigation
Establish your navigation and information architecture after you have vetted your content, pinpointed your target audience and prioritized your CTA.

T – Test
Test your assumptions and initial flows with users first, stakeholders second.

E – Exit page
Design the exit page. This could be the receipt post-purchase/signup or even the entire check-out flow. Crafting the end of the experience first ensures the customer’s experience is in sync with your business goals.

E – Entrance page
Design the homepage, or a key landing page. Build off of the previous decisions to craft an engaging experience with a clear path, a strong CTA and a healthy balance of trust, perception and information.

N – Say “No”
Whether you are a stakeholder, project manager, developer or designer – find a way to politely say “no” to communicating too much. More satisfies in meetings but performs poorly in practice.

Drink up friends.

—Ian

  • Filed under Content Strategy   /  

8-Bit Inspiration – A Free eBook From EATagency

8-Bit Inspiration is an ebook about the lessons we learned from the Golden Age of arcade gaming, and how to use them to make your product/service better than ever. We touch on the classics: PacMan, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, as well as UX, change management and lean methodology.

Enjoy!

8-Bit Inspiration: The Golden Age of Arcade Games Can Make You a Better Designer and Strategist

EATagency8BitStrategyCover

 

-Ian

  • Filed under Content Strategy   /  

Small Batch Branding – Realer Than You Think

My in-laws are in the process of sifting through a late relative’s estate. He wasn’t rich by any means, but he did have an eye for good craftsmanship, and left behind a modest collection of antiques. There’s nothing to get rich off, but the items are still too nice to simply cart off to Goodwill. Clearly, this is a classic job for eBay, and, eventually, the dreaded post office.

But this Thanksgiving, as I showed my in-laws around the eBay mobile app, I was shocked to hear my wife rattle off, verbatim, the commercial for Stamps.com, which runs at least once per episode on our favorite podcast. She knew everything, from the promo code to the sign-off. It was like a heartwarming, homespun version of The Exorcist.

Almost as shocking: the fact that I recognized she was repeating it word for word.

We are, clearly, big podcast listeners. And we tend to be very loyal to our favorite shows.

Podcasting is an especially intimate medium, with the familiarity of radio, and the peer-to-peer rapport of the internet. What it might lack in numbers, it more than makes up for in loyalty and engagement (though some of those numbers are nothing to dismiss). We’ve heard that commercial thirty or forty times, and could recognize it by heart—happily. When was the last time you could say that about an overlay ad?

I bring this up to illustrate a point, which organizations still seem reluctant to put into practice: The future belongs to the hard core. The market is too fractious and flat to market broadly anymore. But small, fiercely devoted audiences will make your nut and spread the word more effectively than the widest marketing blast, or the most mimicked “influencer.”

That means that the stories you tell have to be richer in detail, more pointed in their specificity, more sincere in their desire to truly connect. It means that building a relationship with your user isn’t a metaphor for sales acquisitions. It’s for realsies.

That means that the product has to be, too. It has to be worth saving, worth passing on to a good home. If you want a relationship with users, you first have to craft your half of the equation: not just a quality product, but the personality that outsiders will want to spend time with. You have to find sincere partners and vehicles for your message, who will share your goal of authentic, intimate connection to a devoted following—who value quality engagement over quantity engagement.

Call it brand if you must, but it can’t be synthesized. It can be only discovered and refined. Brand can’t be constructed, only realized. And that’s not just hard—it’s scary. It means exposing yourself for a judgment as honest and true as you are. For some people, smoke and mirrors are more appealing. But if you can connect authentically and intimately, your message will spread everywhere your users go.

And I’ll see you never at the post office.

Kids Play With Rocks All the Time

Kids play with rocks all the time but we never let them play with matches. That’s because anyone can strike a match.

One match head against a striking surface can set just about anything flammable ablaze. Once it ignites, there’s no turning back. But slamming two rocks together in search of a spark requires a more discretionary process of arrangement: tinder, then kindling, and finally timber. There is an investment in process, a study in vantage points and respect for the craft of getting it right. Spark + oxygen + tinder is a ceremony of creativity—an investment in the potential of change.

No matter how lean your thinking, there is always the hope that this solution, the one you’re sketching out right now is the one. Perhaps with just a few minor tweaks, this could be it. Business objectives addressed—check. Users needs solved—check. Market and pricing established – check and check. If we can just present this to the client correctly, we’re golden. (High fives around the room.)

Queue up Powerpoint and Omnigraffle. Volley the pitch language back and forth on Google Docs. Set that meeting to present your solution to the client and then: wait. Perhaps you tweak, polish some pixels, sharpen the copy but mostly, you wait.

Patience vs Waiting
Patience makes the choice to select small rewards in the short term—or to hold out for a more valuable reward further down the road. Waiting consists of sitting on your hands, in suspension until the next move or counting on being selected. (More often the latter.)

Waiting is a common trait of the failed solution. It often highlights failures in client/agency or intradepartmental communication, lack of clarity in scope, or a broken/unearned circle of trust. It’s an indicator that those grand ideas will likely remain ideas, or else be sublimated by committee. The reason? The environment required to nurture the solution is not in place. The change management required for the concept to flourish is too much for your organization to tackle.

Friction is a necessity of good creativity
Differences of opinion get a bad rap. Exchanging information about a project—data points, best practices, past project histories, team members, business goals, user needs etc.—is an exercise that thrives on the collision of assumptions. It’s the consistency of that friction which creates energy and change, not the big presentation or the one-off strike. In fact the danger is the one off strike, the big simplified presentation.

We want both to cut our meetings down to 15 minutes and ensure that we are leaving no stone unturned in our discovery and research as we march towards an innovative solution. But you can’t have both until you are operating in a culture that values true solutions. Finding the next great idea or innovation is not that hard if you are patient. There are smart, talented people in your organization (or at the agency you work with) with creative concepts that, with a little friction, could start a fire that radically improves your business. But friction requires two stones, not a stone and wall. Untangling the resistance to change is often an exercise in artfully reassessing power structures. That’s sometimes really hard work. The answer is not a new creative director or an agency shift or a revolving door of CMOs, but a commitment to a culture where friction is honored as a means for propulsion.

 

-Ian

  • Filed under Change Managment   /  

Looking For Water, Digging Up Treasure

Imagine you’re a farmer in central China. The year is 1974. You and a couple guys you’ve known since childhood are out in the countryside, digging a new well. You’ve got shovels, picks, buckets, rope and pipe. It’s not exactly easy work, but not much of a challenge either—just another day on the job.

What you don’t realize is that you’re about to unearth the first of thousands of terracotta warriors marking the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. It’s one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of all time, and all you’ve got is a dirt bucket.

terracotta_clay_warriors

To their continuing credit, those farmers didn’t just keep going with their picks and shovels. They stopped what they were doing and found some archaeologists who could grasp the enormity of their discovery, and take steps to preserve the awesome discovery

That’s the situation where we find ourselves when the line between scope and discovery blurs. We have the potential to discover unthought-of opportunities—and to come up woefully ill-equipped.

Do you know whether you’re digging a well or unearthing the 8th Wonder of the World? Are you giving yourself enough time to make the distinction? Are you going to keep digging for water, or see what’s really beneath your feet?

Always ask yourself: What problem are we trying to solve?

Always ask yourself: What problem are we trying to solve?

ALWAYS. ASK. YOURSELF. WHAT PROBLEM ARE WE TRYING TO SOLVE?

 

Then ask: Is it the same one we started with?

 

 

  • Filed under Content Strategy   /  

Getting Beat Up is Good

Lessons from a 17-year-old MMA fighter with limited English to whom I gave a ride home last week.

“If you don’t get beat up when you are sparring. This is no good. You not learn anything.”

Great fighters have amazing footwork. They know when to circle away from a punch, when to pivot and when to push off and into an opponent. Great product managers (developers) apply similar techniques. They know when to avoid feature rabbit holes, when to take things in another direction and when to race ahead.

Climbing into the ring is hard part #1. But putting yourself in a position to get knocked around a little bit is the only way to become #1.

-Ian

  • Filed under Content Strategy   /