Last week at Confab Minneapolis, the content strategy community’s annual get-together, there was a lot of talk about feelings. Seriously. A lot of feelings. Katie Del Angel summed it up pretty well in her Confab recap for The CMS Myth when she said “content strategy is emotional business, and delightful content requires empathy.” I hadn’t really thought about the concept of empathy, though I can say in retrospect that it’s always been a major part of my work as a content strategist. I’ve got to admit, the whole idea of empathy as a marketing strategy makes me more than just a little squeamish.
I suppose words like ‘empathy’ have never seemed congruent with my approach to content strategy, which plants its feet firmly in the data-driven practices of SEO and market research while resting its head in the clouded realm of old-school marketing and advertising — of which “because I can” is the dominant expression, and data comes second to risk-taking and gut instinct. Between those two extremes there has never been much room for me to discuss or ponder feelings. But I’ve got the energy now. Let’s do it.
My work in content strategy has never seemed to be a more emotional sort of work than that of my colleagues in market research, SEO, or creative development — or even nonprofit administration and community organization, when I did content strategy in that world. Really, I’ve always found most people are pretty emotional about the work they do. In nonprofit we talked a lot about money, because there never was any of it — but discussions about emotion were rare. I’d be curious to know if other nonprofit folk have had the same experience.
I think it’s safe to say that when work is challenging and good, people get emotional. That’s just the nature of doing business that people are invested in — they get emotional. But they don’t generally talk about it at industry conferences. That seems pretty unique to Confab and the content strategy community in general. Is it weird? Am I weird for thinking it’s weird?
I’ve worked as a content strategist and copywriter for a few years, and have not actually held a job outside of that realm since I graduated college. In the course of my (admittedly short) career, one of the major criticisms I’ve encountered from colleagues regarding my “type of person” (read unquantifiable, touchy-feely type) was that we are…well, unquantifiable, and sometimes too touchy-feely. That we are hard to work with because we don’t separate our personal emotion from business. That we can’t make the tough marketing decisions because we’re in love with our own content, which ultimately amounts to our being in love with our own ideas. Which, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, boils down to the quality of narcissism. The criticism from the outside community — let me know if I’m way off base here — is that we content strategists (and more specifically those of us on the creation side) are in love with ourselves.
This doesn’t seem fair. The case for content strategy is obvious to anyone who works in it. Yet a good part of the content strategy process remains unquantifiable. Some of our work does rely on a certain sort of artistry that falls into that nebulous realm dealing exclusively with the emotions of the user — and that, dear friends, is a largely unmeasurable entity. But shouldn’t we be trying to change that? Can we find a way to measure empathy in a way that allows our colleagues in the larger, more established, data-focused marketing world to buy into content strategy as a profitable and necessary discipline? Can we get more money into content strategy?
I was lucky enough to informally learn the concept of persona-driven writing in my first gig out of college for 826 Valencia, an education nonprofit based in San Francisco. All of the content we created for the site was aimed at one of three groups: teachers, students, and volunteers. Because I was working alongside community organizers, tutoring students in my off-hours, and often going into classrooms to support public school teachers, I absolutely knew my personas first hand. But this is rare. Our website had a very well-defined, local community.
Content strategists face more challenges as their audience grows from tens of thousands (a pretty reasonable figure) to hundreds of thousands, and then to millions of diverse and unique users. It gets harder. Sarah Cancilla had the lucky job of developing a cohesive content strategy for what was then roughly 350 million users — and what is now over a billion users — when she took her job at Facebook. It really just gets harder.
The most important thing I’ve learned as I’ve organized, audited, developed, and measured content for progressively larger websites is that determining user sentiment is seriously (by which I mean fatally) flawed without the careful consideration of hard user data. It is the only thing I’ve found that works besides meeting with and speaking to your actual users on a daily basis. Not generally an easy task once you start working on Fortune 500 brands. (Though, to that point, it never hurts to ask your friends and family questions about well-known brands you’re working on — chances are they use the products and haven’t yet thought themselves into a corner about its branding like you have.)
In my past work I’ve made the mistake of assuming knowledge about the type of user that visits a given site, and I’ve almost always been wrong in those beliefs — which, to be honest, were usually assumptions made by working backwards from a concept I’d already imagined and fallen in love with. Real example: “Yeah, we can totally pull this off because I’m sure there are tons of users on this site that love House Party 2.” Persona research shouldn’t be used for the justification of previously held notions, but rather the development of new ones. We have to actually be open to tabling our assumptions, which is really, really hard to do.
But market research, in the hands of an analyst who really understands how to pull and interpret segmentation data, can paint a detailed picture not of individual people but rather communities of individuals concentrated into unique personas to whom the copywriter can speak directly. Personas backed by data are in my experience more effective tools than ones imagined by creative teams — or even in some (or most) cases, those based on actual people. Those personas rely too much on the assumptions of the copywriter and the content strategist. Most people — especially ones who toil away in offices — are out of touch with the outside world.
Take me, for instance. Nearly all of my friends that I have ever had live in major coastal cities. Norris Rowley, our lead market researcher, constantly has to remind me, obvious as it may seem, that 80% of Americans live in the 48 states (and Puerto Rico) that aren’t New York or California. I’m reminded that roughly 45 percent of cell phone owners don’t have smartphones (Pew Research Center) — and that a large number of smart phone owners use that as their primary or only source of internet. I’m reminded that cable TV isn’t irrelevant to 95% of the country (Nielsen) — even to those people who are already using services like Netflix and Hulu.
In examining user data I’m forced to step outside the comfort of my own metropolitan assumptions, and confront the world as it exists for the various users of whatever site I’m working on. This process allows me to create content that is not limited to my own worldview, which makes me not only a better writer and strategist — but also makes me (I hope) a better person.
And there I think we’ve arrived at it: empathy. Empathy derived from data — the same destination with only a few extra steps.
Making the Case for Content Strategy
I predict that the next five years will see content-oriented people from all around the marketing community flooding into the industry with a host of data-driven approaches that will help to legitimize our discipline as a core digital marketing practice. It isn’t there yet. But we’re getting closer. This year’s Confab saw some awesome presentations espousing the ease of incorporating relevant data into content strategy. Johnathon Colman brought it home with his powerhouse deck Data Sets You Free. And I’m proud to have seen my boss Mike King presenting a concept we worked on together, The Poetry of SEO, making a case for content strategy in the SEO world, and vice-versa.
While we are all getting at the same thing, the people who control marketing budgets don’t respond as well to the strategy of empathy as we would like them to. They respond to data. But we’re lucky enough to be living in a digital world that is coming closer and closer to quantifying those sentiments. While they may not be perfect representations of a user’s actual feelings, they’re a starting point toward which the arts of interpretation content strategists are so renowned for can be applied. Data is a way to sell your services, get your foot in the door, and practice your discipline in a big way. Content strategists may be an emotional bunch, but sometimes we need to act a bit tougher to get our work taken seriously.
As brands become more advanced in their management of content, questions like “Do you know how much content you have?” and “How are you measuring the success of your content?” simply won’t cut it. Content strategy is becoming increasingly technical and technological. The next steps for our industry will come from the outside.
Quick Market Research Hacks
Having a full-time market research analyst with 7 years at Nielsen sitting right next to you is a convenient but rare luxury. There are tons of quick hacks that you can use to get formal and informal consumer information which you can apply to your content strategy campaigns. But since I do have a market research analyst with 7 years at Nielsen sitting right next to me, let’s get funky.
Test Your Ideas on Reddit and Quora
A great way to discover whether your idea is likely to spark conversation is to plant a question into a forum like Reddit, and see what people say. The course of the conversation can help you figure out what aspects of your topic are the most engaging. This is also a fantastic way to discover the humor in your topic by watching actual users engage with it in the wild. Just keep in mind Redditors are a somewhat niche subset, so take everything you learn with a grain of salt. Quora also works well. The responses are often much more thoughtful, but the rate of engagement is way slower.
Grab Ready-Made Data on Marketing Charts
I love MarketingCharts. It has a great search function that allows you to find useful data quickly. Plus, the information is laid out clearly so it’s easy to interpret and implement. And all of the sources are clearly listed, which makes conducting further research even easier. I use this service all of the time to back up claims that I make in my writing. It can also be a great source of ideas, if you comb through the charts looking for topics that interest you.
Run Surveys on SurveyMonkey Audience
SurveyMonkey Audience is amazing. It’s panel base is huge, which means that you have access to a hugely diverse selection of survey participants. You can target the specific demographics you’re interested in, and still have a large representative sample size. Plus, the analytics tools are incredibly useful and dynamic, allowing you to cross-index the information you’ve already collected to make your data that much more useful. You don’t have to be anywhere close to a market research expert to leverage SurveyMonkey. We generally use it to confirm suspicions we have about our audiences, but are more often than not surprised at the responses we get. SurveyMonkey data has effected huge changes in many of our campaigns and creative projects.
Experian Simmons & Nielsen Prizm
While the full-scale versions of Experian Simmons and Nielsen Prizm are our bread and butter for market research (especially Experian), the free versions of these data sources can be used to access historical panel data to inform your content decisions. While the data may be a bit outdated, it can point you in the right direction when testing your assumptions against reality. The mosaic types can help you build out basic (but again, let me stress outdated) personas to make a case for the ideas that you want to implement.
Learn About Your Audience Using Followerwonk
It’s not a secret that we love Followerwonk over here. We talk about it all the time. But it really is a fantastic tool. It allows you to search Twitter bios for particular keywords, and get a snapshot of the users that are interested in your particular topic. In the above example I was searching for people who were interested in snowboarding. You can then sort the users by key metrics like Social Authority to determine the top influencers surrounding that topic, and dig into their individual profiles to see what they’re talking about. You don’t have to be a social media specialist to do this. It’s easy, and incredibly useful. Everyone who creates content with their audience in mind should be using Followerwonk.
The Value of Content Strategy
As content strategists, we are in a unique position to define our role in the larger marketing community, which is beginning to learn exactly what it is that we do. But we haven’t yet as an industry begun to fully define our values. What do we care about? What do we want to achieve? How are we different than writers? How are we different than editors? The marketing community at large does not understand these distinctions yet. They want to know what we do, and how we plan to make them money. The conversations in our community are slowly shifting from themes of creativity to those of strategy — which will ultimately be more beneficial for the adoption of our techniques. Creativity is great, but it often feels like a word that precludes consideration of the substantial work that goes into the planning of content.
I’ll end with a quote from David Ogilvy — my third greatest personal hero — on the nature of creativity:
“I am supposed to be the No. 1 creative genius in the whole world, and I don’t even know what the hell the word ‘creativity’ means. But I’m not afraid to tell creative phonies that their commercials are utter nonsense. When I write an ad, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so persuasive that you buy the product — or buy it more often.”
The content strategy community has yet to decide what it’s principle values are. Do we care more about creativity or success? Are we interested in elevating the online conversation to more artistic heights, or are we primarily concerned with the success of the business we represent? We will not ever come to a decision on these matters because we are a complex community of individuals, but these are the conversations we need to continue to have if we are to be recognized as a truly indispensible discipline within the larger canon of marketing.
What do you think? Can content strategy afford to be talking about feelings when the rest of the marketing community is waiting for us to grow up and make money? Am I totally cynical, ignorant, or crazy? Let me know in the comments section below, or reach out on Twitter.