Rahel Bailie on the growing demands on content strategy—and the tech “ism” no one discusses

Rahel Bailie

Content never gets the attention it deserves. I see this often, in my work on web properties. Everyone wants a hand in the visuals. Most would like involvement in tech decisions. Some even want to shape strategy. However, nobody gives content the attention it needs—even though it’s typically the part that matters most.

This is why people like Rahel Bailie are so important. She, alongside a few other content strategy luminaries, elevate the discussion. Internationalization, content life-cycles, risk management, complex systems, user experience, ROI on content, the multiplicity of content, adaptive content, and semantics—these are just a sampling of the areas Rahel’s experience extends to.

So, go ahead, and get the intern to write your web copy. (Because that’s all content is, right? A bunch of words.) In six months, when your digital properties are a mess, call Rahel. You can then beg her to dig you out of the hole you put your organization in. For now, though, I invite you to read the interview she granted me—and urge you to book her for 10 minutes of free advice, on Officehours.

Above image courtesy of Patryk Olczak Fotografia Okolicznościowa.

How did you make your way into working on the web?

I don’t know if working on the web is the way I’d frame my work. Sure, a lot of it involves content that ends up on the web, but the web is only one output channel. I suppose that because each channel has its particular needs, working on the web has its own demands and flavour. But in reality, I deal with the source material, and make sure that it can work everywhere. So if I were to reframe the question, I think it would be to look at my checkered past and see which influences drew me to content strategy.

In that regard, my collective professional past has fed quite nicely into understanding the various factors that go into publishing content on the web. If we go way, way back to prehistoric times—by that, I mean before the internet, or at least before the web—I created content on an old-fashioned typewriter. Because I did my first decade or so of work in Montreal, I worked bilingually. It didn’t take long for me to calculate how to lay out a double-column newsletter, one column in French, one column in English. Using a 12-point font, with a line length of about 80 characters, I would leave a slightly wider width for the French column to compensate for the longer text, and that way, the content ended at the same place on the page, and hence could share the same graphic (with double captions, of course). I really hated having to do things over, because boredom would set in quite quickly, so I would do everything possible to make sure my content could get produced in the first round. I developed all sorts of little productivity tools in my primitive drive for content production efficiency.

Then, desktop publishing came along, and I could make this new technology do so many cool things. I got my hands on those tools through my work at a multinational, where we churned out computer manuals in nine languages. Though I wanted to be part of the cool writing team, I ended up supervising the desktop publishing team. One of the product managers explained a business problem: the long turn time for documentation meant a large lag in time to market. I made it my business to look at all of the ways we could massively reduce production time and cost, from translation processes to production and printing methods.

I mention this because this was a time when a lot of things were changing in the industry. We were going from typing pools to desktop publishing, from print to online content—first onto media such as disks and CDs, and soon after, the web—and from linear to chunked and hyperlinked text. All of these hit about the same time, and soon afterwards, I found myself creating content for multiple channels, such as online help, which would get published as a user guide, get published as part of a training guide, get embedded into the software, and get published on the web.

That was at least 20 years ago, and after that, it’s all been about refinement and keeping up with the demands of a growing, more complex list of deliverables and more sophisticated demands on channels. So in working “on the web,” I’ve worked with business content, marketing content, technical content, user assistance content, product content, logistics content—just about any kind of content you can think of. The cumulative journey has made me the content strategist I am today.

What do people most commonly misunderstand about content strategy?

Sometimes I think the list of misunderstandings about content strategy is longer than the list of things understood about the field! There are two misunderstood aspects of content strategy that I run into, and they’re both quite common.

Probably the biggest myth that I have to dispel is that content strategy is about the editorial side of content, the copy. Most people understand that content has an editorial side, and fewer people understand that it has a technical side. Even fewer people—clients and practitioners alike—really understand how big a factor the technical side plays in making digital content effective. This is an ongoing challenge because explaining how this works relies on an understanding of the multiple infrastructures behind the scenes. It’s a little like explaining to the average person all the systems that go into an online transaction. The person has to know that there isn’t a set of wires that goes from the card reader directly to the bank. Having a card compromised could happen at any number of stops along the way from the transaction to the bank or credit card company, and to understand this is to realize that all of these systems exist and how they interact. Similarly, content used in digital environments has semantic structures and metadata and architectural constraints that all fit together to make the magic happen, to leverage the content as a business asset. Unless you understand the various systems, constraints and enablers, and so on, you can’t appreciate how many things could go wrong along the way.

The second myth is that you can develop and deliver a content strategy in a vacuum. This is particularly prevalent in agencies, where they have a substantial team designing everything from the UX to visuals to infographics to the code—but the stuff at the heart of the experience? They parachute a content strategist (or a couple of them, if they feel very desperate) in near the end of the process, and say “give us a strategy.” I generally say that at this point, I can do the best with what I’ve been given, but it’s not a strategy. It’s the implementation of a bunch of deliverables in reaction to a seemingly coherent set of strategies—and I say seemingly because sometimes once the content gets factored in, the coherence of those pre-existing strategies falls apart. And then everyone goes into denial, and they say it’s too late to go changing [the UX, the code, the design, etc] and so you can’t design the content effectively to do what it’s meant to do, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that content strategy doesn’t work.

Rahel at Soap! in Krakow. (Photo courtesy of Patryk Olczak Fotografia Okolicznościowa.)Rahel at Soap! in Krakow. (Photo courtesy of Patryk Olczak Fotografia Okolicznościowa.)

Tell me about the different types of content strategy—and how your work fits into this.

That’s an interesting question. To describe the profession of content strategy, I sometimes use medicine as a simile. When someone says they are a doctor, the first thing you wonder is: what kind of doctor? Big difference in practice techniques between internists and psychiatrists, between pediatricians and ophthalmologists. What they have in common, though, is a shared basic medical degree, and a set of principles that start with “do no harm.” Similarly, content strategists come in many flavours and specialties. Unlike doctors, though, we don’t have a common baseline of knowledge. There is no equivalent of “medical school”—we all come from vastly different backgrounds, with many different capabilities. This becomes problematic because you are never sure of the lens through which a content strategist comes at a problem. Content strategists have not gone the route of founding a professional association, like the content management association AIIM but for content. However, recently a polytechnic in Graz, Austria—the FH Joanneum—launched a Content Strategy Master’s Program, and they get it in a way that I haven’t seen before. This might be the beginning of a formalized understanding of what comprises a basic content strategy practice.

OK, back to the question of what types of content strategy are out there, and how my work fits in. A number of years ago, I defined content strategy as a “repeatable system that governs the management of content throughout the entire lifecycle.” Using that as a baseline, all content strategists must be able to understand and define a content lifecycle that delivers on whatever business problem an organization is trying to solve. That’s the minimum I’d expect. Then, within that lifecycle, you’ll have specialties: brand and marketing, editorial, taxonomy, information architecture, search and findability, single-sourcing, technologies and infrastructure, and so on.

If I were to draw this out as a pyramid, on the bottom layer, there are the strategists who know how to implement but aren’t yet at the stage where they can develop a content strategy. In other words, explain the challenge and tell them which deliverables to produce, and they can carry do that quite competently: an inventory, an audit, a matrix ... you get the idea.

On the next layer, there are many content strategists whose specialty is on the editorial side: brand, marketing, social media, and so on. These may be sub-strategies of the umbrella content strategy, but you definitely need people who understand how to do these things and connect them to the larger lifecycle.

The next layer up are the content strategists who look at the larger picture and can put together, or know when to assemble the specialists to put together, a content strategy that encompasses the sub-strategies. Often these practitioners come from a technical communication background, where they’ve cut their teeth on single-sourcing solutions and are now taking that into the wider content arena. They are accustomed to delivering complex content outputs to multiple audiences and device; they may have substantial experience managing translations as well. They know how to layer and connect content like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

At the peak of the pyramid are a rare breed of content strategists who take content strategy to a whole different level. (There’s a word play in there somewhere, I’m sure.) At a couple of practitioner summits, we’ve joked that there are a couple of dozen of us, and we’re all in the same room. But that is being facetious. There are a couple dozen of us who know each other from the conference circuits, but I’ve met others who are working in-house or at agencies, or are independent consultants who take on the big, thorny challenges that solve big business problems. For that group of consultants, companies that are having significant business challenges that involve content are more likely to call in one of these content strategists in to solve a business problem, rather than start with a digital team of some sort and add in a strategist later.

These practitioners, and I count myself among them, are like the management consultants of the content world. We work hard to gain a thorough understanding of the business problem and how content contributes to it. We get an idea of what the organization wants to get out their content, and we identify ways of leveraging the content that they didn’t know was possible. Then, we look at the current state of the content lifecycle, and identify all the gaps that are getting in the way, from processes to technologies to the content itself. And then we develop a roadmap to get the organization to where they want to be. That might involve suggesting new technologies and systems, adopting new roles or processes, modelling content in more sophisticated ways—and often, all of the above.

As you can imagine, there is a lot of overlap with digital strategist and content engineer and management consultant. When I’m told that I’m not really a content strategist, I have to ground myself by stressing that my specialty is around content and all of the permutations and combinations that will make it work to meet the business needs of the organization.

Rahel at FH Joanneum, Studiengang Content-Strategie.Rahel at FH Joanneum, Studiengang Content-Strategie.

Can you share some examples of the types of clients—and projects—you’re currently involved with?

This question is a good segue from what I was talking about in the previous question. I can’t speak for the other consultants (though sometimes, when I am given a success story that a client wants to emulate, I will know how a bit about the solution because I happen to know which consultancy worked on the project), but when I’m contacted by a client, it’s with a big-picture business goal in mind that has encountered roadblocks because of content—either lack of content or too much of the wrong kind of content, lack of capacity to create or deliver content, or content findability that affects the bottom line. I’m under NDA for most clients, but I can talk generally about projects.

I’m often given a very broad business problem, such as: we want to go from £1.2b annual sales to £5b within four years, and as an e-commerce retailer, we need to have better ways of delivering compelling content. Or: we have close to 200 brands that deliver a fragmented experience, and we need to deliver content in a way that allows each brand to retain its identity while creating a single umbrella brand and a unified B2B buying experience. Or: we ran out of spreadsheet management capacity and either we need to clone our spreadsheet manager or produce content in a better way that can solve other pain points as well.

The last client was a financial services company that was creating a product/service that was to be delivered completely online. There was an understanding that to have an entirely digital experience meant a good user experience and exceptional instructions. I was brought in by an astute person outside of the project who had experience with similar projects in another organization, and realized that the path they were taking would soon become a maintenance nightmare. A short discovery phase revealed that this is a typical software project, but there were no technical communicators on the project team. (In North America, a techcomm person to create the user assistance content such as help, transactional content, error messages, and so on is a given.) My goal was to determine the types of content they were dealing with, figure out whether they could deliver and maintain content using their existing technical infrastructure, and then recommend best practices for creating and translating, managing and maintaining, delivering and sunsetting content. Instead of offering “good, better, best” solutions, I needed to give them “best, faster, fastest” implementations to keep abreast of a very aggressive project timeline.

A few years ago, I worked on the redevelopment of the City of Vancouver website, leading a team of eight content professionals. Our mandate was to bring the 25K+ HTML pages and 30K+ PDFs down to a manageable amount of high-quality, useful content (that’s where I developed my RAITES acronym for content that is relevant, accurate, informative, timely, engaging, and standards-compliant) that was organized in a way that matched the public’s mental model. The team was made up of content professionals with a range of backgrounds: search and SEO, taxonomies and indexing, accessibility, instructional design, editing, marketing, visual communication, and software development. Together we made an absolute miracle happen. It was a challenging task that took about a year-and-a-half, but in the end, we launched a site of under 5K pages, and better findability on the PDFs, where the usability tests showed that people thought we had more content than before, but clearer and more informative.

For a number of years, I did content strategy work for one of the world’s largest digital agencies, so I have been privileged to work on projects from tourism and travel, to government and higher education, to both B2B and B2C e-commerce companies, to high-volume user assistance content for companies such as medical device companies and enterprise software, which are a completely different beast from web-focused projects. These are basically initiatives that feed into omni-channel marketing strategies, and can be quite complex.

In what capacity do you think you afford the most value to your clients?

I think I provide the most value in the discovery phase as a diagnostician. I have worked for so many years (I won’t tell you how many, but longer than some of the newer members have been alive) in so many industries (manufacturing, wholesale, retail, distributors, software, hardware, legal, tech, extremely technical high-tech) that I have a holistic view of processes and content that only comes with experience. So I’m at my most effective when I’m probing the business goals and objectives a business wants to accomplish and then diagnosing the problem and prescribing solutions. I’ve sometimes been called in to take over from content strategists who I admire, because they’ll admit that they don’t have the technical and infrastructure insights to take the clients as far as they need to go. I can do the implementation of the strategy, but I’d rather go down the knowledge transfer route—while implementing, teach people in the organization how to do this for themselves, so they understand how to manage in future.

Rahel leads an interactive session for the Washington, DC chapter of the Society for Technical Communication.Rahel leads an interactive session for the Washington, DC chapter of the Society for Technical Communication.

You ran your own consultancy (Intentional Design) for nearly 14 years. Now you’re with Scroll. Why the change?

There are two levels of answer to this. The surface-level answer is that I had been getting contracts in the UK, and realized after a couple of years that I’d built a professional network and personal life in London, stretching eastward across Europe. Going back to Vancouver and rebuilding my network there would have taken a lot of work, and truth be told, I would have likely gone back to agency work that involved flying to the US a lot, and crossing the border had become such an unpleasant experience that I avoid going to the States whenever I have an alternative. But that’s the superficial reason.

I’d been an independent consultant, a “lone wolf,” for a long time, and I realized that I was missing opportunities to be part of something bigger. The discipline of content strategy is, in some ways, behind North America, so there is lots of opportunity, and I feel I have a lot of expertise to share on this side of the Atlantic. I’d made an inquiry of someone who had, it turned out, just moved to Scroll, and he told me they were looking to expand their complement of services, to build a content strategy practice inside Scroll. Doing that puts them in a unique and enviable position. To my knowledge (and I’ve done a fair bit of research), once Scroll started offering content strategy services, they became UK’s only full-service content company. In other words, they now offer everything from writing and rewriting, and editing and proofreading, to content strategy and engineering, and training and development. So now I am part of a team that has more capacity and flexibility, and aggressive plans for growth. It’s exciting to have come on board as their Chief Knowledge Officer. I get to develop the capabilities of Scrollies (the affectionate term for those content people who make the cut), taking the best content designers and turning them into content strategists. I get to run training courses that moves the content strategy community in the UK ahead, and set the bar for the next generation of content strategists. And I still get to do a certain amount of content strategy projects with clients who come to us with thorny problems. I don’t know if Scroll will ever become a full digital agency, but for now, I’m delighted to be part of a content agency that provides a full range of content services.

You work in London—after some time in Vancouver. Does this change in location affect the way you work? Are the business practices/expectations different?

It does and it doesn’t—or the typical consultant’s answer: it depends. I see different maturity levels inside of organizations here but it’s very uneven. Take gov.uk, for example. Scroll content designers did a lot of the writing on that site over the past few years, and that is a shining example of transforming government services by providing clean, clear content so that people can get things done. There are pockets of enlightenment, but they are in pools of darkness. I’ve heard some stories from various industry segments that make my hair curl. The wasted resources and pain points that are allowed to continue (and even thrive and flourish) make me want to ride in and save them, like the calvary of old westerns. But being Canadian, I’m much less likely to go in “guns blazing” to rescue organizations that don’t want to be rescued. Yet. I’m still learning a lot about cultural differences and what is considered good form, so I tread carefully at the moment.

One of the biggest differences is the proximity to other countries and the cross-border trade that goes on within the EU. I’m just starting to work with a group of companies in the UK with a head office in another EU country, and other divisions across Europe. I’m teaching in a Master’s Program in Austria, where I go once a semester—and the commute is similar to the Vancouver to Portland run that I used to do, but with much more interesting cultural discoveries. Speaking at conferences means going to Ireland or Poland or Germany or, a little further afield, Africa. In Eastern European countries, there are thriving content communities doing exciting things with user assistance and beyond. In Germany, automotive still rules, and there are companies that can customize content down to a single VIN—very impressive. So the big difference here is that I can learn from many cultures and markets, and each one brings a different lens to content strategy. It’s all very exciting and makes for a richer content strategy practice.

On the notion of maturing, you and I talked (at some length) last year, about age bias in the digital space. Can you share some of your thoughts/experiences on this matter?

That’s a tough question. It’s a tough one because it’s so baked into our culture. I really noticed the difference when I went to the UK, where the dynamic is quite different, and then the difference really became apparent.

If you think of ageism as a recipe with a bunch of ingredients that react together to get to a certain outcome. Think of the chemical reaction when you put baking powder and buttermilk into a recipe: your pancakes rise—then you see it’s not a simple problem so there isn’t a simple fix or even an easy way to describe it. Were you ever told about an experiment where, when looking for the best pianists, there was a bias toward the male candidates, even when they couldn’t see the candidates? The judging panel had to go to the lengths of having pianists remove their shoes when going out on stage behind the curtain, so not hearing the click of women’s high heels removed the potential for bias—and suddenly in the levelled playing field, the female candidates’ performance was considered equally good as the male candidates.

Well, those age biases run equally deep, and often people aren’t conscious of them. And to add to the contributing factors, it’s young people who have the bias, and because they’re young, they’re less likely to have had the experiences yet that make them sensitive to their biases. Often we have our biases challenged somewhere along the line, maybe in our 40s, but by then, we’ve had a couple of decades of being oblivious to our biases. And we see ageism in pop culture all the time, by how people are represented in movies, on television, in games, and in humour. Those messages get absorbed and as we internalize the messages, our reactions become tainted.

So what do these biases look like? Well, it’s the guy who asked me (after an extensive discussion with me and a younger male friend of mine about XML and content management) whether I know what HTML stands for. Here, it’s guilt by association, because I probably remind him of his oh-so-not-techie mom or aunt. Or the setup of companies. The free pizza and beer and Friday afternoon foosball is definitely a young-guy bias when it’s not balanced off by acknowledging that these things aren’t perks for older people. Or the company activities, where coworkers are supposed to bond, that are geared to young, agile bodies. So the young people are climbing around doing the paintball or Ultimate or whatever, and they’re not bonding with the more experienced among us who likely have a bad knee or bad hip or those other things that come with the age territory. And that us-versus-them thing can be very subtle and insidious. You don’t realize it’s creeping in until you notice that there is a team forming that seems to conveniently shut out people who are older.

I’m not saying that this is a given, but it’s definitely something I keep watch for when I enter a new environment. I think I have a bit of an advantage because not only do I look younger than I am, but I also tend to gravitate toward pop culture that’s decade or two later than what you’d expect. Last year, a young man at a conference thought it was hysterically funny that I listened to dubstep (because of my age), and throughout the evening he’d look over at me, say dubstep, and chuckle. He wasn’t trying to be malicious, just having a spontaneous reaction to his internalized cultural expectations. And at a recent conference, a panel of teens who were coding and building drones and such talked about how surprising it was that “old people” (meaning a generation younger than me) had significant memories that predated the internet, yet were so plucky and “interested in what’s going on out there.” It’s inadvertent ageism, because they’re still wet behind the ears, but it’s ageism, nevertheless, once they hit the workplace in, oh, five to ten years from now.

Back to content strategy: How do large companies with content problems start to get a handle on their challenges? What questions should leaders in these organizations be asking?

I could give you a facetious answer and say that it’s like a 12-step program: first you have to admit that you have a problem. But the answer isn’t all that facetious. The first step is acknowledging that something about the way that an organization’s content is being created and managed isn’t working, and is now getting in the way of success.

These days, most of my work comes from people who, upon finding me, tell me about a business problem. Often, the problem they think they have is only a symptom of a deeper problem, like the three different organizations whose problems involved content production outstripping their manual spreadsheet-wrangling capacity. Or the company who thought their problem was an editorial one when it was more about the technical architecture of their content. But I digress. How did these organizations get started? Well, someone recognized that content was a blocker to success, however they defined it. And then they decided to actually invest in doing something about it.

If you’re asking the mechanics of the process, the start is quite similar to any other management consulting process. You need to define the requirements and what success looks like, and then do a gap analysis to determine what is getting in the way of success. Get to understand (really understand) the current state, determine what the ideal state would look like, and then the blockers that are preventing the transition to the future state. Of course, you would do this with content-specific processes and deliverables. But in the end, it’s a very similar process because it’s solving very similar problems: how do we sell more products; how do we make my processes better to maintain compliance; how can we grow our company when we cannot deliver the product-related content at pace with code development or manufacturing; how can we manage our content so we can support omni-channel marketing efforts with personalized content, without breaking the bank?

Rahel takes a little time out to visit an exhibit at the Tate Modern.Rahel takes a little time out to visit an exhibit at the Tate Modern.

How about small companies that might not have the funds to hire people like you? Do you have any recommendations for how they should start thinking about content strategy?

Content strategies can scale—I’ve done pro bono projects with tiny not-for-profits in a day. You do have to be very focused to do that, though. But generally speaking, organizations that have concluded that they need a content strategy are over half-way to their goal. It means that they are willing to admit they have a business problem that needs solving, and that business problem involves improving their content. Once they’ve figured out that part, the implementation can be started, and the process for that is relatively prescribed. There are resources like books—Kevin Nichols, Enterprise Content Strategy: A Project Guide, Erin Kissane, The Elements of Content Strategy, or the book by me and Noz Urbina, Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and other classics—that explain how to organize and implement a content strategy. If you know that but just need some good examples of deliverables, there is the Content Strategy Alliance, whose members have assembled a range of resources from best practices to templates.

Then, there are the prospective content strategists—I mean those either early in their careers, or considering entering this field. Any tips on what they should be doing and thinking about?

This is a point for the crusty old lady in me. If you’re early in your career, you’re not going to make a good content strategist. Why? Because you don’t have the depth of experience that lets you spot a potential trouble spot before it happens. You don’t have the breadth of experience that tells you that there are multiple ways of doing something, and being able to ascertain which particular thing is the right way in any given situation to resolve an issue. I come across so many situations where a set of requirements is written out in a way that clearly reflects the limited experience of the strategist, and it needs a total rethink.

However, now that I’ve acknowledged the elephant in the room, so to speak, content people from many different backgrounds end up making great content strategists. When I run my workshops—for example, I do a one-day boot camp for experienced content people—I often see that people have many of the skills already, and simply need a framework that lets them employ their skills in a new light. So what they often do is what I call an implicit strategy—they start with the implementation of a strategy that has been brewing in their minds but they haven’t really thought it through, written it out, or shared it with anyone. Turning that into an explicit strategy, and from there, radiating out to implement makes so much more sense, and will ultimately make everyone’s lives easier.

Last question: I gather a number of folks are going to reach out to you on Officehours with their questions. What kinds of matters are you most interested in helping with (knowing that sessions are only 10 minutes long)?

You don’t want to try to pack too much into ten minutes, so I’d say pick an area, like articulating a business problem or finessing the process for a particular conundrum, and get help with that. For example, you might think there’s a certain business problem that is very obvious, but your management isn’t getting it. Or you’re running a content analysis and want to know more about setting content quality benchmarks and get stuck. I think those are good examples of problems to bring to Officehours to discuss. And I do try to maximize the time we have together—I don’t have the need for chit-chat.

Not bad, eh? I could ask Rahel questions forever, but I realize that it’s your turn. Want to get a better handle on your content strategy? I can’t think of a better way to start, than with a brief conversation with Rahel.