Since I’ve been an independent strategist, I’ve talked to many digital agency executives about what I’m doing as part of a conversation about how we might work together. All but two have said some version of this: “I’ll keep you in mind when we have a content strategy project.”
If they honestly think that a content strategy project is going to magically appear or that they are going to sell content strategy to a client, I’ve got news for them: It’s not going to happen. I know this because the clients who know they need content strategy are going directly to the content strategy firms or independent content strategists. And if a client doesn’t know they need a content strategy to make their business more successful, they aren’t going to be sold by the agency they’ve hired to redesign their website. Similarly, Jared Spool says as much in his article Why I Can’t Convince Execs to Invest in UX: “I know from experience that I have no chance in hell to convince any executives of anything….Our success has always come from projects where the client team, including the senior management, already understood the value of great user experiences.”
I worked for a digital agency back when content strategy was new. We all saw the need for clients to invest in it and tried to convince them to include it in their projects. Despite my persistence, we never sold content strategy. It was the first thing cut from the line items of a contract. Eventually we stopped trying to sell content strategy. Instead, we started DOING content strategy.
We made content strategy part of our design and development process. It stopped being optional. It became part of the project plan, not the proposal.
And you know what? It added minimal dollars to the budget and did not cause projects to take longer. In fact, once we incorporated content strategy into our process, projects actually finished when they were supposed to finish. Because we were not waiting for the content to be done. (Sound familiar?)
Just before starting to write this post, I saw this tweet from the Now What? Conference
— Jonathon Colman (@jcolman) April 14, 2016
It was that exact attitude that allowed my agency team to create a content-first web development process, which all of us still follow today (or miss following, as the case may be) even when we’ve moved on from the agency. As the content director, there was only so much I could do to change the process.
Once the development director, creative director, lead project manager, and I put our heads together, magic happened!
You see, there is a difference between HAVING a content strategy and DOING content strategy. HAVING one is equivalent to what is often called “enterprise content strategy” — a framework for understanding and measuring content success across an entire content ecosystem. More and more organizations are realizing the benefits and value of having this. And more and more content strategy businesses are serving these customers. But it is not a core competency of any digital agency I know of.
On the other hand DOING content strategy is the tactical side of the practice. It’s the content audits, content modeling, content production, creating content structure, creating the right content for the right people at the right time, setting and measuring progress toward goals, and the like. Any team can — and should — do content strategy. Everyone wins when this happens. It will take some learning and practice, but eventually any team willing to try can get there.
This is where we content strategists can help digital agencies. We can be your partners to help your team and your clients understand the importance of content-first design and development until you get to the critical mass of needing to incorporate a content strategist as a full-time member of your team.
To all the digital agency owners and executives reading this: Give one of us content strategists a call when you’re ready to change how you think about content. Until then, don’t expect us to be waiting by the phone waiting for you to sell a content strategy project to someone who hasn’t asked for it.
Considering working with a digital agency but know you need strong content strategy support? Partner with a content strategist first, and then find a design and development partner who will support the vision you create.
Carrie Hane is a content strategy consultant with over 15 years’ experience in web and content strategy, usability, and digital transformation. She helps people and organizations think differently about how they create, manage, and connect their content so that they can get the right information to the right people at the right time efficiently, economically, and effectively. With a combination of consulting and in-house experience, she approaches content management and strategy with clarity, consistency, and common sense. Before returning to consulting in 2015, she served as Web Director at the American Society of Civil Engineers, where she oversaw a full strategic overhaul of their web and social media presence. She is an advocate for practicality, strategic nagging, and getting things done. You can find her online at www.tanzenconsulting.comor on Twitter @carriehd.