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Data Sets You Free

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No one cares about best practices.

Allow me to repeat myself: no one cares about best practices. And they’re often right not to care.

Structured content, cross-platform APIs, multi-dimensional content audits, role-based publishing workflows, brand-appropriate guidelines for voice and tone, metadata schema based on international standards, enterprise editorial calendars, adaptive design for device-independent display…

Sure, we all know the industry buzzwords. And of course they represent important concepts. But ever try selling them to clients or (if you’re in-house, like me) to your leadership? You’ll find what I’ve found—that no one cares.

So what do these people care about? Results.

Let me explain. I’m new to the field of content strategy, sneaking into this discipline under cover of darkness, which is to say that I’m entering through the side door of SEO and inbound marketing. And I made this switch the way that most of you did, by following my intuition that strong content matters.

We probably share the belief that high-quality content makes for high-quality brands that endure far longer than just a day, a campaign, or a season. Truly great content—and the core values that drive it—is the foundation of brands that last for a century or longer. And what you’ll find at the foundation of that great content is great people, great processes, and great planning.

Sometimes our hands are tied

I’m a lot like you: I love the idea of developing multi-layered personas, of mapping out the cross-channel customer journey, of testing and optimizing the content experience with actual users. I’ve never met a card sort I didn’t like (or learn from!), nor have I lost any fascination with content inventories and audits because they’re so good at uncovering the hidden mysteries lingering underneath the surface of a brand’s public-facing content.

I sigh with adoration at an elegant colophon and gasp in horror at the sight of a red fountain pen…sometimes even when I’m the one holding it.

But only we content strategy nerds understand the value and emotion behind these sorts of things. Our clients, the businesses and organizations that we support, often fail to see what moves us and why. They lack this sentimental baggage when it comes to content—so what’s blindingly obvious to us passes by them like a leaf on the wind.

And so they tie our hands. They hire us and proclaim our presence only to constrain our activities. They admire the idea of content strategy while being risk-averse about its actual tactics. They fail to represent us, our skills, or our potential impact to the broader organization. They don’t help us win new advocates so that we can optimize processes and systems.

And sooner or later, when they’re finally challenged about why we’re even there in the first place—and why we’ve accomplished so little for them—they let us go.

Sound like a familiar scenario? Perhaps this is something you’re living through right now as you’re reading this blog post. And that’s because all of this has happened before…but it doesn’t have to happen again.

Time to break free

When the mere mention of best practices gets you all locked up in your organization, data sets you free.

Data helps you break the cycle of just talking about content strategy instead of actually doing content strategy. That’s because the more that you feel comfortable with data, charts, and graphs—and the more that you can use them with fluency, grace, and even panache—the more resources and influence you’ll wield within your organization.

Why? Because your colleagues and leaders will come to trust you not as someone who’s full of ideals about content, but as someone who drives results with content. And once you’ve earned their trust, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.

The real trick here is to figure out what your colleagues actually value—what are they trying to accomplish? Whether or not it directly involves content, they probably have a series of numerical targets that they’re trying to reach. And once you have a clear understanding of their goals, then your job becomes all about providing them with content-driven data to help them reach their objectives. When you can express the role you can play in helping them achieve their goals using credible data, then they’ll become your most dogged supporters.

See, when we start including numbers in our conversations, something magical and amazingly productive happens: We argue about opinions a lot less—and we start arguing about real things, like our users or customers and how they’re interacting with our brand. And those are good arguments to have, believe it or not, because they help us make measureable changes that matter.

Better still, we stop those arguments from hurting people by arguing about their ideas and beliefs. Instead, data gives us a means for focusing on our customers and how they’re actually using our content. Sure, we’ll almost certainly disagree on how to interpret the data, but at least we’re arguing from the same frame of reference, which helps minimize personal conflict and maximize the positive impact on our users.

So let’s throw best practices out the door as the fundamental justification for our work. Instead, we’ll use data alongside heuristics to drive support and collaboration within our enterprises. That way, we can build content-driven organizations that last.

Untie your hands with data

What data can you use to help you perform content strategy work? Here are six quick examples along with tools that can help you succeed at finding and using data to earn your colleagues’ support:

  1. Working on a content audit? You can easily add data from Google Analytics into your spreadsheet by using the Excellent Analytics tool. Not using Google Analytics but instead an enterprise analytics system like Omniture? No worries, they offer ReportBuilder, which you can use to pull SiteCatalyst data into your audit spreadsheet. You can also add in external link metrics using the SEOGadget Links API Extension. Using data plugins like these help you to construct a far better keep/kill/change list than just looking at <title>s and <meta> content.
  2. You can quickly determine how many (and which!) pages on your site are duplicates of others using Google Webmaster Tools. Bonus tip: you can use Copyscape to see who’s copying your content and republishing it elsewhere on the web.
  3. Ever get into an argument about SEO best practices and what Google likes to see versus what humans actually use? Find out by examining your server logs to see what pages Google actually crawls and how often it crawls them. You can do this manually or use a server log analysis tool like Splunk to make finding and analyzing the data a bit easier (here’s a great tutorial).
  4. What content of yours is popular enough to be shared socially? SharedCount is a simple web-based tool that displays these social metrics. Content Harmony has built the ShareMetric Chrome browser extension that gives you this data as you move about the Web. With a paid account, SEOmoz’s Open Site Explorer will show this information as well, but still displays tons of other useful information for free.
  5. Concerned that your priority content loads too slowly to be a good experience for your audience? Tools like Pingdom and Google PageSpeed help you determine where your user experience is harmed by slow-loading content and provide tips on what you can do to solve these problems.
  6. Once you have all your data assembled and analyzed, you’ll want to share the results with your stakeholders and leadership. But rather than produce a long report that no one reads, you can add a visual punch to your analysis by transforming your data into infographics. When you don’t have a professional designer to lend a hand, tools like easel.ly, infogr.am, and Piktochart all help you make your findings more captivating and your conclusions more powerful by communicating your data with visual emphasis.

Once you're equipped with data in addition to best practices, nothing can hold you back. As you become more comfortable finding, manipulating, analyzing, interpreting, and—yes!—even arguing about data, you’ll find that you can do a better job of supporting your colleagues and clients. And you’ll see how focusing on results makes the difference when it comes to how they support you and your work.

Let’s stop talking about content strategy. And let’s get busy doing it.

What data do you use to drive your content decisions? Likewise, what keeps you from working with data as part of your content strategy? Have any favorite data-centric tools to share?

Let us know in the comments below!

Jonathon Colman is this week's guest blogger. He'll be presenting at Confab Minneapolis in June 2013.

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