An Interview with Content Strategist Carrie Hane
Are you trying to sell your product, service, or find better ways to market your content? You might need to reframe how you think about all of this through a content-first strategy. We’ve interviewed Carrie Hane from Tanzen Consulting to lead us through adapting content strategy best practices for your digital content on our latest episode.
Carrie: 00:00 I started out doing content whenever in the project and if it fit into the project and often that started, that looked like, you know, “oh, we’ll write 10 pages”. Whatever that means, you know, figuring that out. But so the agency I was with at the time, we were all tired of projects being late, over budget and stalled because we were waiting for the client to give us the content. So we got together and reworked our process and just included. And that then shifted to a content first process so that it wasn’t, it wasn’t a line item. Content strategy no longer became a line item. It was part of our process. And, since doing that, both at that agency and on previous, on subsequent teams that I’ve been on, I personally have never worked on a project that has been late because it’s waiting for content.
Lisette: 01:02 This is WDG’s the Feedback. I’m your host, Lisette Alvarez. If you’re having trouble creating marketing, understanding and getting your team to care about content, you’ll be interested in what this week’s guest has to say.
Carrie: 01:18 So I’m Carrie Hane and I am a content strategist. Sometimes I feel like that’s like admitting something. Um, um, but I, I help people in organizations create more effective content more consistently. So working with them to make sure that they understand their audience and create the right information in the right formats that, that, that audience needs, um, so that they can serve them. And then in the meantime, that’s never a onetime deal. So setting up processes that stick, helping people gain skills, doing training and facilitation so that people and teams can come together and create that more consistently and whatever, whatever that means for that organization. It’s never the same thing twice.
Lisette: 02:09 When you say that, saying you’re a content strategist is admitting something, what do you mean?
Carrie: 02:16 Well, I think often, yeah, I am going, I go to events that are for designers or developers or marketers and when they say, Oh, you know, what, what, what do you all do? And who is a designer and who is a developer and who does this and who does that? And I don’t raise my hand because I’m not, I don’t consider myself any of those. And they’re like, well, what else do you have? I’m like, I’m a content strategist. And then they’re like, oh, Ooh, like I’m a spy from somewhere else. But, but I wish or people who called themselves content stratgiests. Right. I just would go to more of those cross disciplinary things because that’s where I understand to work with with those other disciplines to create a whole project.
Lisette: 03:06 Yeah. And I mean it feels like that, um, that the sense of what content strategy is, is ultimately tied to those other disciplines anyway. So how, how have you seen your relationships or your understanding and the changing nature of what is seen as content strategy start to kind of how it’s been done?
Carrie: 03:30 Folding it is a broad, a really broad range of things of disciplines and skills and activities and concepts. But so often it manifests itself as tactics, writing, messaging, branding, content marketing, just different things. And so usually someone will grab hold of one or two of those things and call it content strategy when strategy itself is a plan to do things. And those are the tactics. So there’s, there’s still a lot of confusion between the strategy and tactics.
Lisette: 04:09 Are you a content strategist or do you have a completely different title? Because most people can’t even tell you what a content strategy is or what they do.
Speaker 3: 04:20 Yeah, I think a lot, a lot of content strategists do feel that way. Um, especially people who have been around for a while and grew with the discipline. It’s been 10 years now since the, this article from Christina Halvorson came out when everyone went, oh, including me went on. That’s what I do. That’s not when that term started. Rachel Levin Juror I think started it years before that. But uh, so, so those of us who have grown up with it, learned it as it grew as a discipline. Um, can see all that because we, we have that background. I think newer content strategists don’t necessarily, they didn’t go through the growing pains. Um, so they don’t necessarily see that and they’re, it looks like whatever it looks like at their company and you know, product content strategy at, you know, different technology companies or social media companies looks different than it does at an association or a nonprofit or uh, any other of the other types of organization. Everyone needs content strategy. Not everyone does it.
Lisette: 05:33 Yeah. What, why do you think people don’t necessarily think about doing content strategy, especially organizations that are not necessarily keyed into digital in a lot of ways?
Carrie: 05:44 I think because content looks easy
Lisette: 05:48 (laughter) for the, for the listeners, Andrew, our content strategist did finger guns at that because, absolutely. That is, uh, a big thing is, you know, and, and it’s, it content is often kind of be equated to writing. Um, and a lot of people kind of under value or under estimate the effort that it takes to write well. Um, that’s something that is, it is a skill, uh, that needs to be developed
Carrie: 06:17 And it’s not even to write well because there’s a lot of people who do write well, but they’re not in content strategy. Content strategy is not writing. Writing is an output of content strategy. Um, you, a content strategist can write and a writer can be, can do content strategy, but they are inherently not the same role. So, um, but everyone can put words on a screen. A lot of people in a lot of organizations can put words on a website and call it done. Uh, it’s there, it functions. People can get to that page if they can find it, but it doesn’t mean it’s good. Um, it doesn’t mean it has a purpose. It doesn’t mean people will ever find it. It doesn’t mean people want to find it. So I think it’s, it’s more out of, um, lack of understanding and knowledge than any sort of animosity. Like I’m just not going to hire someone to do that. I think most people just just don’t get the value of thinking about content and how to meet user needs with the content. And to be fair, a lot of organizations don’t think about user needs. Um, but you, but more are starting to and you know, with the focus on the customer and that shifting in reality, more organizations are adopting to that and I think that will lead to more people hiring content strategists, um, either as contractors or consultants or in house to manage, um, all of that work if these were done.
Lisette: 07:58 Yeah. Are you constantly planning your website project campaign and you keep hitting roadblocks to get it off the ground? Often the problem is in not planning for content first .
Carrie: 08:10 When I give talks about the designing connected content process, which you know, we’ve talked about here today, it, I ask, I start with asking the audience, um, where they fall on projects. Um, you know, how many people have rarely or never are late because of content and maybe one or two people raised your hand, sometimes none. Um, and then I’m really sad but um, and sometimes there’s five or six and then I’ll ask how many people have less than half the time they’re late. And another few people will raise their hands. And then I say, how many people are almost always late because of content and the rest of the audience raises their hand. So it’s usually 80 to percent are always late because of content. So how do you deal with that? This is where content first comes into play and can save the scope and timeline of your projects. Um, usually the content is done before everything else. Um, because we started first and we’re, we’re working on that in fact, at one project, um, that I have more of a, uh, just an oversight role on, and I’m helping the content strategist and content manager, um, work on it. And they’re, they’re working on gathering the content, but they have to get, they have to work with the client to create the actual content. And this is a brand new site. So it’s not a redesign. We can’t even say, just put what we already have in because that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. So they have to have this new content or there’s no website. Um, and that’s been difficult. But if we had waited until after the design was done and the CMS was developed, that project would be loud. But now, yeah, they still are having the trouble of getting the content but it’s not at the last minute. So yeah. And that sort of thing. And the other thing, the same project, um, because we did content first. There’s real content in the, the design and the prototype. And so when they’ve been doing usability testing, guess what the biggest comments are? It’s about the content. Um, they don’t like, someone doesn’t understand why this is this, this isn’t what I want. I’m like, I like this. Exactly. This is what you should be finding out. Not does this look good. Um, cause who cares? Um, really, yeah. People do care. But it can, you’ve, we’ve all been to pretty sites that don’t help us complete our tasks. Exactly. Um, so it, yeah, it needs to look good because the design does help you. Design greatly increases usability if it’s done right. Um, but the content is what people are there for content first. Really it to me is more of a design process. So when you are talking about designing something, a digital product, a website, you’re starting with thinking about the content, um, before the interface. So, okay, what content do we need? How do we want to organize it? How do we want to structure it? And then building the interface to, uh, to support that, um, both on the front end and the backend. Um, so otherwise, you know, you could call what most people do content first because they’re writing something, um, or they’re writing something, um, and, and, and sending it out. So, um, yeah, I, I, I’ve come to distinguish that as a, as a design process rather than a mentality
Lisette: 11:44 That’s fair. Like would you say to that, uh, or how would you kind of connect content first with content strategy then?
Carrie: 11:54 Um, so I think that’s more of having a content strategy. So you can have, um, I often have, most of my projects have a content strategy statement. So we are going to create this and usually for a website, cause that’s often, again where it manifests itself. Um, this is what this website is going to create. We’re going to create this kind of content to achieve these goals for and help these people feel a certain way so that they take certain actions. And so when you have that strategy for your organization or even just your website, you can then think about how the content you’re creating fits those needs. And you can constantly question that or develop a message architecture from there. So you know what you know, what are you saying to people and what are you saying to different people and how do you want to position yourself? Um, and then again, still developing content first and the structure. And I focus on the structure of that content rather than the words of that. Um, so that you can create the right boxes and arrows to support that instead of creating the boxes first and having them filled up with what might not fit the right content.
Lisette: 13:15 Yep. And we talk a lot about internally. Yeah. Like that siloing of content that it actually, it reflects the internal structure of the organization rather than externalizing it to connect with the users and how they users kind of, usually they don’t care if you actually have multiple different departments. They want maybe multiple things from multiple departments that connect with their primary goal.
Carrie: 13:40 And that’s why I started with a model first. So, uh, my process really more is model first. So figuring out, um, ideally a domain model. So what, what area are you, what’s the subject area you live in, you operate in? And usually that several for any given organization. And then that’s just the truth. That’s the foundation and what people, what, what is in that world. Um, so if you’re the organization for civil engineers, civil engineering is your overall domain. So what is in that there’s, it’s the same no matter who you are, if you’re an engineering firm or the society, um, in any given country of whatever you are, I’m always going to be talking about those concepts that are part of civil engineering. Then each organization can decide what it’s going to do with that. And then you can map out the content types that support that, what content types do we need to support the things in our domain. And then that’s very organizationally based. And then that cuts across all of the websites, all of the channels where you might publish content and then you can start classifying and organizing from there multiple different ways because the main website will have one thing and the publications website, we’ll have another and an app. We’ll have another set perhaps because there’s different use cases in different audiences for things, you know, very few mid or larger size organizations have only one website these days, although some have way too many. Um, and that’s where our domain model can help too because they’ve split things up across so many that they’re so fragmented that people couldn’t possibly find all of the things that they’re interested in because different departments or divisions have published their own, uh, micro sites.
Lisette: 15:32 Right. Considering all the benefits, why is content strategy and content first so hard to adapt no matter what organization you’re in?
Carrie: 15:42 I think that the reason the adoption hasn’t come, is content strategy hasn’t been seen as really a C suite level thing. But to coordinate all of the content over any organization that has more than a few people you need, you need that top level, uh, support. Not, not just buy in and saying, “okay, sure, go ahead. Do that content strategy stuff.” You have to have the authority to enforce the strategy, to create it, to get, bring people together to create it in the first place and then enforce it because people will not agree once, especially once it comes to their content. So it’s, you know, everyone’s on board until you say, okay, we need to get rid of this, these pages. They’re like, no, but I created those. And it becomes, then it becomes very personal and emotional. That content is related to what their job is. And so it’s kind of like telling them their job isn’t important, so you have to approach that carefully, but also have that support at the top. So they don’t go to their boss and say, you know, So-and-so is making me get rid of my content. And then their boss goes to the boss and says, you know, So-and-so can’t make us get rid of our content. And then it, then you don’t have a strategy anymore. So you have to do, you have to that multilevel buy-in, um, and support. And that’s why I think the person in charge of content strategy has to be at the senior or executive level to make sure it cuts across all of it. And then it’s coming down. So people, so that, and then you, then you start talking about our cultural organizational change, um, to get that to happen. And that’s really the only way it can happen for real is, is through that change. Sometimes it’s a catalyst, sometimes it’s an outcome of it, but, uh, you can’t really, you can’t have a real dynamic content strategy without having the collaborative organizational culture to support it. So, so yeah. So that’s, to me, it’s starting with the structure because the structure will remain stable. Um, but the stuff that you put in the different content types is always gonna change cause you’re going to keep publishing new content that’s fresh and, and meets whatever the latest user need is. Um, but you can do that within the structure and that structure can be predictable enough to design for. Whereas, you know, otherwise you end up with just a page, lots of web pages that look completely different because different people have created things and they want flexibility to put things wherever they want to put them and then they get in the design business. And that’s not really their level of their area of expertise.
Lisette: 20:43 Yeah, no, that’s definitely something that we’ve, we’ve dealt with, with clients a lot actually is, is that crossing between assumption of what is designed and designing outside of the strategy or are asking for things outside of the, of the initial, you know, modeling. Um, so I, I’d be interested in how you kind of get your clients to, to, to see content first as attainable and as actionable.
Carrie: 21:13 Um, so the people I’ve worked with know that they already want that, so I haven’t had to change their mind. Um, although they liked the idea, they’re not sure what that means and what it looks like. So it’s really just helping them through the process and explaining how it’s going to work and then going step by step and trying to help them see, keep their eye on the vision and um, hold their hand through each of the activities and working, um, with their stakeholders within their organization to break bad habits and try something new, which is, has different levels of success. Uh, because some people don’t mind change and other people are set in their ways. Um, so what, what I have heard a few times, mostly from, from stakeholders, like during the kickoff meeting as, Oh yeah, we’ve been through, I’ve, I’ve done this many times. Um, but I’ve never done it this way. So some people are glad, they’re like, oh good. Cause I’ve learned that when you do content last in your design process, there’s all kinds of problems. Um, and it’s late and it gets over budget and the content isn’t good and now you end up with the same website that’s just reorganized and re skinned as people say, um, but not better. Um, so it’s fresh for a little while and, but then there’s no plan to how to maintain it. And that’s another thing is, you know, asking, that’s other way I, I guess I help my clients is asking the questions. Like you say you want to blog, who’s going to blog? How often are you going to blog? Is that really something you can do? And, and there have been times by just asking those kinds of questions. A client decides not to do that kind of content. Um, whether it’s blogging, it has been blogging in some cases, um, other times it’s just other whatever was unique to them. But, um, yeah, so just as it’s asking a lot of questions, helping them, because I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve seen, I’ve, I’ve not seen everything. Every time I think I’ve seen almost everything, something, something else pops up. Um, there’s always something new.
Lisette: 23:30 That’s what has happened recently for you that, uh, was kind of surprising or you had to work on that was challenging for you to, to handle something.
Carrie: 23:40 Now on a, a current project, I’m just helping them with one type of content and that affects a bunch of other types of content and other websites that we don’t, we aren’t, aren’t within scope. Um, so try going, oh, so that’s how you do that. Hmm. That makes our job easier and harder and we’re not going to be able to account for all the different ways. So like when you change one thing, you can focus on that, but it’s always gonna change something else. So I was like, Oh, you have iframes. I thought those disappeared. Um, yet I, they have not. Yeah. And sometimes it’s, it’s the best answer. Other times it’s because a third party product hasn’t provided an API or something that is really what they should be doing. Um, and it’s just an outdated surface. But other times it’s a, it’s a way to make two websites talk, work together, um, that you haven’t, you have to go back and rethink how they should work together, um, and, and build that or build one website instead of three. Um, but that again, that changes things. Um, and that’s definitely not one of the worst things I’ve seen. It was just something I was like, oh, this gets much deeper once we start talking about how everything works.
Lisette: 25:06 We, when you talk about, um, things like bad habits and this, you know, sometimes you, you, you again, you don’t see necessarily where the gaps are until you encounter them because sometimes the client doesn’t know what their gaps are, what, um, what is going to kind of be a roadblock in this creation of content and redesigns. Um, so what are the kind of, the ways that you’ve seen, uh, clients argue against content first?
Carrie: 25:40 Really it’s more in, “well, the way it is now, it’s like we can’t change that. Like, this is why we’re here. We’re, we’re, we’re not worried about what it is now. We’re worried about what it needs to be in the future.” I think that’s the biggest pushback is it’s just that fear of change, um, that is inherent to humans. Um, you know, some of us deal with it better than others and some of us deal with it and some parts of our life and not others. Um, so you know, it was having that empathy and understanding and, and pulling from the experience of okay, how, you know, what message worked in with other people. Cause at some point you end up playing therapist and just letting them talk it out but and providing, providing the right questions and framework to um, to, to help them get to the right answer. Cause ultimately as a consultant, I’m just there to guide them and help them through something they’re not, I am not going to stay with them and be the person who oversees it all in the end. So I have to set something up that can be, can live on beyond our engagement. Um, and that is also difficult because that’s something clients don’t usually realize how much of a change this is going to be at the beginning. And so that’s that governance and that ongoing support isn’t necessarily scoped, um, as part of the work. Although, you know, in some cases we do keep going and have a smaller engagement for ongoing consulting cause questions come up and new things happen and new presidents come in and all of that stuff. So, um, yeah, it’s, it’s really just, it’s guiding them and, um, understanding that they’re human and also understanding what, which vitals to fight in which to, to give up on. Um, because some things are worth arguing for and some things aren’t. And so you have to spend your political capital where, where it’s gonna may have the most effect.
Lisette: 27:50 So it, you know, I’m, I’m curious on a, you know, considering all this, how would you say content looks exciting in certain industries? Like what are you excited about? Um, when you work with certain types of industries, a certain types of clients, like what clients are, are you interested in continuously work for?
Carrie: 28:17 Um, I have clients that cross almost every industry that I think the only one I haven’t type of industry I haven’t worked in is higher Ed. Um, and I, I think part of that is that’s a specialty area. So there’s a lot of agencies that work exclusively with higher ed. Also. They’re bringing a lot more of the expertise in house. So when I go to conferences and I do training, I always have people who are in higher ed who want to learn this. So that’s, um, a different one. So, um, you know, I think it’s, it’s just an interesting time that we live in and I think that I’m not, other than the technology companies, which don’t really excite me because I’m not sure they’re solving any problems that need to be solved. Um, they make our life convenient. Um, and certainly there’s, there’s good that has come out of, of things as well as, as some not so good things. But, um, I’m, I would love to see more, um, more of the nonprofit space, NGO, international development, humanitarian organizations adopt content strategy and, and stop being so focused on campaigns. And, um, so that they can keep their base. They’re not annoying people. I’ve, I’ve had several conversations publicly and privately with especially other strategists cause we see this, we get these emails like at the end of the year, I had seven emails from one organization that I had already donated to and I’m like, unsubscribed me, I’m not going to give you money again. Um, that happens over and over. So it’s because there’s no strategy and there’s lots of reasons people donate or don’t donate. But you have to understand that and then you have to understand how, um, how that happens. And there are some organizations that are doing that and we can learn from them. Um, but I would like to see real content strategy adopted in those organizations and not just digital marketing where it’s how much can we produce and how many emails can we send out. Um, and hope that the money comes in more organizations and more people are realizing the benefit of content strategy when they really understand it, um, and are willing to take the risk to do it. And that’s the future to me. Um, and pretty soon they won’t have a choice. I think it’s at this, at this stage, it’s, it’s more risky not to change if you keep doing the things the way you’ve done them for a hundred years. Well, you know, how long did it take blockbuster to go out of business? Hello? Kodak went out of business. You can’t, you know, IBM has completely changed how it does business. It’s focused on services now, not hardware. We’ve seen companies that refuse to change and they’re not in existence any longer. And we’ve seen other companies that we thought were going to go extinct and have been revived. So, um, yes, I’ve been doing this work for years.
Lisette: 31:33 You have a book that you’ve, you’ve co-written, um, and, and I’m just going to pitch for you. Um, it’s called designing connected content plan and model digital products for today and tomorrow with Mike Atherton and Carrie Hane. Considering your, your investment in content strategy, um, as a field, you know, what actually, what motivates you to keep doing this work?
New Speaker: 31:59 Um, you know, it’s training the next generation, um, helping people who have just found this and helping them understand the whole thing and finding what, what’s the magic for them. Um, I’m coaching, um, several new content strategists. They’re not necessarily just out of college. They’ve been had other jobs. Um, so they’re not super young, but they’re, they’ve somehow come across the content strategy world and got a job and, and they’re like, oh, I didn’t know all of this existed. So it’s really interesting to, because it’s so broad. There’s room for so many people, um, and everybody brings because you can’t go to school for it. Um, everybody brings different things to it and different, um, expertise in ways of looking at it that there’s a place for them. Um, so helping people find that place and, um, expand their, their expertise in it. That’s, that’s what excites me these days is, is helping people help themselves rather than doing all, all the work that I’ve been doing all these years.
Lisette: 33:10 Yeah. The not doing it all alone anymore. Yeah. Um, yeah. Do you have any, any good stories of, of, of the people that you’ve been mentoring and what they had been working on that you’ve, you find exciting or interesting?
Carrie: 33:25 Yeah. I have one, one person who came from graphic design and she’s discovered that she likes organizing things and she sees patterns. And I was like, oh, oh, we need you. [laughter] If that’s how you think. Not everyone. And it’s that case of not everyone thinks like that. I think like that. That’s why I focus on the structure and the backend and organizing of the content rather than the creation of it. Like here create this kind of stuff. Um, but someone else is much better at creating it. Um, and that’s how she is. She’s like, oh, I see patterns. She’s, I, she is working on a chat bot project and she just took all the stuff that they had, all the, all the pieces of content they had and organized it and tagged it. I was like, oh my gosh, you’re amazing. But we need that. And I think not everyone recognizes that. So for, for her, her direct manager and me to both say, yes, that is a scale that is something innate to you and you, we will help you develop that cause we need that. And giving her a project, um, just a small internal project that she could kind of practice some of those skills, um, and learn some of the information. It’s more information architecture at that point. Um, but you know, learning, learning about that, um, is, is just as exciting because she was Kinda like, ah, I, you know, I guess this will work for now. And you know, it sounds, it seems like just even in like the six weeks that we’ve been working as you know, more of a coaching situation, she’s more excited and finding new ways to, to apply that. That’s very cool.
Lisette: 35:08 No, I, I that’s something that, um, yeah, I’ve always been interested in is, is, you know, I, I know I have my own skills and so I’m hearing a lot of myself in what you’re talking about as, as someone I came from actually an international affairs and security studies background, um, with, with some specialization in, in communication, um, and research. So coming into here and getting into digital strategy and learning digital strategy and content strategy. Um, that’s almost exactly I’ve kind of fallen into it is, oh, there’s, there’s, there’s some stuff that I know and from my research background, um, that kind of contributes to better understanding where users are coming from. Um, uh, and where industries are kind of positioning and doing comparative analysis is my strengths. Uh, largely because a lot of the research that I used to do, especially in politics, there’s a lot of comparisons going on, um, about policies and all that. Uh, so yeah, that’s a, that’s, that’s something that I know, at least personally for me, I’m also seeing kind of develop, not just for me, but for a lot of my peers.
Lisette: 36:16 If you listened to our last month’s worth of podcasts on writing content planning and types of content, you’ve gotten an ear full of how much is involved in getting content together. Of course, we could spend much longer than a months worth of podcast to flush out the details of making a winning content strategy. But instead will that Carrie Hane tell you where you can find her big ideas and helpful plans for spearheading your own content strategy. So,
Carrie: 36:42 You can find me at tanzenconsulting.com t a n z e n consulting. I’m starting to offer some public courses. So I’ve got four new courses that will be announced by the time this podcast comes out, um, and um, to, to help pursue that, to help them people increase their skills, improve their skills, add them, um, so they become more valuable and can help more organizations do better and serve more people as we need. We need more of that than the world today.
Lisette: 37:25 Yeah. True. Very true. Thank you so much. I appreciate your time here. Thank you. Thank you. This is Lisa at Alvarez signing off for now. Thank you for listening.