In the realm of marketers, writers, editors, IAs and more who began striking out within a still hazy content world, Ahava Leibtag is a seasoned vet. She’s published a book, The Digital Crown, started her own company, and spoken countless times on the content circuit, including three of the last four Confabs, which is where we met her. A firestorm of charisma and content knack, Leibtag agreed to sit down with us and talk about the world she’s put her stamp on, “The Great Schism,” and being comfortable with making it up as you go along.
Was this your first time speaking at Confab?
It was my third time speaking. It was funny, because last night someone said to me, ‘You’re like one of the grandfathers in this field.’ And I’m like, Hold up. A, I would not be a grandmother, because I’m not even 40 yet, and B, I would be a mother, not a grandfather. [Laughs] But how did it feel? It felt really exciting. I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to the community to do a good job and to contribute in as valuable a way as I can.
How long have you been in content?
I guess it depends on how you define that. I read Kristina’s book right as it came out (“Content Strategy for the Web” by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach). I remember her tweeting, ‘Look guys I got the first book to my house!’ She had just gotten the first copies. So I read it right away. I didn’t know it was called content strategy. I kind of thought, I’m the only person alive who does this. And then I read her book. Oh my God! There are other people. So then I got into the field very quickly. I’ve probably really been doing it for four years, but I’ve been doing content writing and development since I started my company, which has been eight years.
Why do you think there’s been such calm in the storm between content strategy and content marketing? So many of Confab’s speakers were professed marketers.
First off, I think a lot of people are confused. They hear content strategy and content marketing and they think, what’s the difference? I think the other thing is that the purists wanted content strategy to be about the technical communications side of content so workflow and structured data and content and all that. What Kristina plugged into with her book and others who’ve written about the subject was that there was a real need for those lessons to flow into the marketing components of an organization.
If you remember, I call it “The Great Schism.” When IT gave the websites over to marketing and communications, a lot of systems and processes were lost. So marketing and communications had to take their own editorial processes and adapt them to the web. The problem was the web is an instantaneous medium and most of marketing and communications processes were print. So a lot of those IT systems for more agile environments were lost. So when “Content Strategy for the Web” came out, Kristina doesn’t write about this, but I think that’s what really happened. I think when that book came out, people were really hungry for a way to adapt our systems that we used in the technical communication world for editorial processes. People see a need for content strategy within marketing and communications.
In the past, you’ve worked mostly with healthcare companies. How has that changed in recent years?
I do work with healthcare companies, but that’s changing pretty rapidly. We just did a content strategy engagement and wrote all the copy for Time Inc. I’m working right now with a big financial services firm, and I just finished content strategy with a large private school in California.
It’s funny that a company like Time Inc., which has so many editorial arms, needs its own training.
Of course, it’s like any company. They’re a holder of a publisher, so they need help figuring out how to publish content that surrounds their new brand that’s a spin-off from Time Warner. Obviously if I had been in meetings with the editors of Time, they would have been like, ‘We got this,’ and I would have been like, I think you’re right. I would have said to them, I think you know more about this than I do, in a certain respect.
Kristina said this to me a few months ago, ‘Everyone’s making this up as they go along.’ And let me tell you something, truer words were never spoken. It’s hurdling by us so fast, I think everyone is just trying to keep their head above water. We’re making it up because we’re trying to figure out what’s going to work. We’re just scientists poking our sticks. Everyone’s poking at things with sticks and doing the best that they can.
When you’re talking to clients, the only thing you have to be very forward about is that you’re going to try it and see if it works, and if it doesn’t, then we’re going to try the next thing. Because you can tell them all the best practices you’ve read about and you can tell them about all the case studies, but you have to find a solution that works for them and their corporate culture.
How much easier is it to sell content now, than before?
It’s easier than it used to be because more and more companies are recognizing that they need the same systems and processes that publishers use.
Do you have any dream clients you still want to work with?
Totally. I’m dying to work with any catalog company, like Williams & Sonoma or Pottery Barn. I just want to figure out how they work their content processes. I’d love to figure out how they put it all together, and how it’s produced. That’s very interesting to me. I’d love to work with a toy company, because I think they have a myriad of challenges. Like how do you produce content for people who don’t read. It’s for the parents, so how do you figure out the whole user journey? How does that work?
Tell me about starting your company.
Well I started my company because I was working for the government part-time. I hated it. A friend of mine called me up, and I remember where I was. I was standing in the parking lot of CVS. I had just had a baby; she was four months old. And my friend said, I just had a writer walk out on a job. I could hear the panic in her voice. She asked, Could you please come in and help with this project? So I’m like sure. I went in and I started working on the project and realized I was very good at it. Talk about making it up. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I figured it out. Then I developed a methodology for how to do it, which I trained other writers to use.
How do you keep your company a well-oiled machine?
We grew tremendously last year. And last summer we were all strung out. I had someone threatening to quit, so I hired an outside consultant, because I believe my own advice. He was a process person trying to figure out what we did wrong. He did discovery, we talked, and he said your SOW process is a nightmare, you need to fix that. You need new systems and processes. So we got to work doing that, and just today we had a staff meeting that’s usually an hour and 15 minutes, today we cut it to 26 minutes. If that’s not progress baby, I don’t know what is.
So it’s important to have a fresh set of eyes take a look at what’s going on.
I’m a very big believer in that. If it’s you, you’ve got a blind spot and you can’t see it.
What do you see on the horizon for CS? How do you see things developing over the next few years?
You’re going to see a lot more structured content and content modeling, because as content starts to be on watches, and toasters and refrigerators, it’s just going to get more and more complicated. I think we’re going to need technical communications people who really understand the ins and outs of this stuff.
The second thing I see is a consolidation of platforms. I don’t know that Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn will ever merge, but I think a lot more of these small social media channels are going to die out or lose their ability to maintain themselves. Or, we’re going to have to see some integration, because I think people are just exhausted. I have a thing I call “pruning your pumpkins.” Figure out the social media channels that are bringing you ROI, and then get rid of the rest.