Content Management Tidbits

Cooking and serving content for you… since 1998

How to Make Friends and Influence Content Life-cycle

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If you like to imagine a typical Content Manager as a lonely geek, perpetually glued to his or her computer screen and furiously typing, I am afraid you are up for some disappointment. There are a lot of soft skills involved in content management: being good at building relationships is hardly the less desirable.

How so?

We already talked about conceiving a sustainable content life-cycle and setting up the most cost-effective processes. One of the most sensitive steps in this task is identifying key players. Don’t be fooled by the business jargon. Behind every “key player”, or content owner, there’s a person. More often than not, they already have their job, with deadlines and meetings and what else. Odds are, their new status of “key player” will be considered as the umpteenth nuisance.

In the best case scenario, managers are excited about their department being involved in the new process. And maybe the “key player” is happy to contribute as well. But, hey, I’m Italian, wishful thinking is not part of my DNA. So let’s consider a different scenario: happy manager, unhappy “key player”.
Make no mistake: an unhappy key player means your well-conceived plan will stall at some point. And that’s something you, Content Manager, will be held responsible for.

Here are some tips to avoid the stall:

  • Be proactive When identifying key players, be involved and name names. Which ones? People you worked with already, people on the same wave lenght, people who know something about communication. And make sure to contact them beforehand, to share your intentions, so they don’t feel trapped by another (unpaid) burden.
  • Promote the position You don’t have to lie: being part of the process is both time and energy consuming. Never, ever, try to sell it as something different. But try to highlight the pros: a nice break from the routine, an interesting task, the chance to see their job acknowledged on an individual basis and not as a team member.
  • Talk to their managers It is vital to gain support from the management. It is vital that managers acknowledge the role of their key players, and the responsibility that comes with it. So, promote the position with them too. They have to be willing to invest some man/hours to see the benefits of having their department achievements constantly and consistently communicated.
  • Ease their burden… You may have set up an amazing automated process, but sometimes daily issues get in the way. Be ready to be flexible, when you see that one of the key players is under a lot of pressure. If you don’t get your content on the CMS, you can always be briefed during a coffee-break, and write it yourself. A team is a team, even when it crosses departments.
  • … but don’t take it all on yourself On the other hand, if your flexibility is often required, we have a pattern, Houston. And not a good one. Set your boundaries first, and if they are not respected, look for another key player.
  • Make it entertaining I do have a secret to make this work: everybody has dreamt at some point to be a journalist. Well, create your magazine. Be the editor-in-chief. Have your correspondents. Tip them. Let them tip you. Research together. Listen to their scoops.
  • Give them training, give them tools Try to set up some in-house training in the early stages, gather your key players together, and explain them the process. All of it. Let them see how it works, and why their contribution is important. Try to educate them about the deliverables. Let them see how their content will be worked and reshaped. And then hand them templates that will ease their job as correspondents.
  • Don’t let them feel alone Nothing is more disheartening than being left alone with a new task, so give a lot of feedback. And don’t keep distinct lines of communications between you and the key players: let them talk to each other. Good ideas bounce in a network, and not in a straight line.

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Written by Paola

October 16, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Posted in managing content

The Long-lost Art of Conversation

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It sounds very old-fashioned, doesn’t it? And yet, there’s nothing more actual for a business than being able to converse in a highly noisy environment such as information today. It is quite possibly the biggest challenge to face.

We have it all: traditional media, new media, social networks. Everybody talks. But is anybody listening? My answer would be: yes, and no.

If we still think about companies as broadcasters, isolated in their ivory web-tower, waiting for users to eagerly land on their splash page (sorry, a bad bad memory from late 90s), the answer is obviously: no. Teh interwebs have drastically changed, and now information flows through RSS or API rather than through HTML. A change of mentality is essential, as well as aknowledging this new user-centered universe: the users have tools to create their own mash-up of information, picking from a large range of providers, and they are not forced to tune in to the source. It is still possible to be a lone broadcaster, mind you. But be prepared to have a product or service that speaks and sells for itself.

I shall tell more: not only companies must be able to bring their message out of their (comfort) corporate context, but they must learn to converse in that different context, using different registers, and adapting their style to the digital venue where the conversation is taking place. Can the Content Manager be of any help? Obviously. In the planning stages, they will define which venues are interesting enough to be attended, and the kind of conversation the company should be engaged in; in the day-to-day activities, these conversations should become one of the deliverables, always carefully scheduled, checked and updated; in digital venues like Facebook that let page administrators track some metrics, they will adapt or change the conversation, or even include new interlocutors, according to the results.

Whatever the case, it is crucial that those conversations are not left going unattended.

Written by Paola

September 29, 2008 at 9:01 am

« Chaud devant ! » (aka Glossary’s Served)

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That’s what you hear in a kitchen when a hot plate is coming through. And that reminds me too that I have to talk about that little space before the exclamation mark (yes, it’s not a typo, it’s French punctuation). OK, we’ll have a little rant about localizations later on.

For now I’m glad to give you a brand new page, where I’m noting down the most frequently used words and locutions. It’s a work in progress, so don’t expect to see it finished one day. But it will be constantly enriched, I can promise that.

Written by Paola

September 20, 2008 at 11:20 am

Swimming With the Flow

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I said it before, but I suppose I will have to repeat it over and over: working with content in the digital era challenges our traditional way of distinguishing one role from the other. The media industry can still count on a wide variety of professionals who take care of any single aspect of the publishing process, but now every company needs to be out there and communicate with the world, and they can only count on a small group of people (in-house or outsourced) to keep that publishing stream going. They need to learn to communicate with limited means even if it’s something very far from their core business.
How do they do that?

One of the most delicate phases of this whole process is setting up a sustainable workflow to get content from each knowledge center to the communication staff. Every passage counts, whether it’s processed by a CMS system or not, and every passage must be taylored to the organization’s strenghts and limits. Guess who pops out at this point. Yes, don’t roll your eyes: it’s a dirty job and someone has to take care of it. And who’s better equipped to design the content lifecycle than a content manager?

I personally believe that it is one of the most engaging and gratifying tasks a content manager can accomplish, both as an in-house resource and as an external consultant. It’s a breed between a business analyst and a functional consultant role: content becomes an abstract entity, a raw material that’s handed from one unity to the other. The goal is to design the smoothest and most cost-effective way to get it to those in charge of the end product. Identifying key players, assigning roles and responsabilities, estabishling the flow (sometimes automated by the CMS) are tasks that, if properly planned, can decide the success or failure of a content-related project. Establish a smooth flow, and your content won’t have to emulate a salmon behaviour.

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Written by Paola

August 14, 2008 at 11:17 am

The Devil Is in Templates

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Shopping for something on the web, subscribing to a service, requesting for help online. We are overwhelmed by a massive amount of automated replies everyday. As users, this constant exposure affects our level of tolerance, and usually we don’t even cringe anymore to horror greetings like “Mr/Ms x”. As content managers, however, we can’t afford to relax and exploit the advantage, because it’s only apparent. People can only take so much inconsistency, or rudeness, or illiteracy, in one day. And the last straw could be your reply template.

Of course no standard reply can be the perfect one, and avoiding every mistake and inconsistency is an impossible task: e-mails, even the automatic ones, are part of a conversation, and conversations are dynamic entities that cannot be pinned down to a template. Anyway there are some measures you can take to prevent the biggest gaffes.

First (and foremost): Don’t let the developers put in the system the first template they find. Or, worse, don’t let them write it by themselves. Nobody is expecting you to write part of the code, and nobody would be thrilled if you took the initiative to slip some code of yours in the project. That works both ways, even if the programmers feel really confident about their language skills. You have to double-check every word that’s in the system.

Then, about the templates:

  • avoid gender gaffes, such as the “Mr/Ms” above;
  • at the same time make sure you don’t use convoluted or awkward impersonal forms to avoid that gender trap;
  • a standard reply should be used to confirm that a task has been accomplished, or not: Don’t rely on them too heavily, or you will be set for some surprises;
  • it is not the proper place to explain procedures, passages or products: Just put a link to the main website (or update the main website if it’s lacking that kind of information);
  • most people are well aware that no real person typed the message they just received, but don’t take it for granted: Warn your reader that “this is an automated reply”;
  • if you are selling products or service, make sure the receiver knows that he or she can contact you for further questions, and how (in case you can’t promise that, warn the Customer Service Department that you have a problem).

As made evident by the last item in the list, you have to keep in mind that content is just another form of costumer service, and that no automation can exempt you from taking care of the users. On the contrary, automated processes require the greatest deal of consideration and attention.

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Written by Paola

July 26, 2008 at 10:21 am

Succint Wisdom: Read the Bible (or Write It)

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Proselytism? Yeah, in a sense. The bible, here, is a document called “editorial guidelines”. Anyone or any entity publishing any kind of information should have theirs.

When you start working for a company, the very first thing to do is to ask them for their guidelines, and learn them by heart. You, as a content manager, will be the high minister in charge of compliance and consistency. Your role is almost sacred, in that sense.

And, as the title suggests, if there are no editorial guidelines stop losing time reading this blog, and start writing them. It’s your big chance: you’ve been just upgraded from minister to prophet.

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Written by Paola

June 30, 2008 at 10:14 am

2.0 Killed Content Stars?

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Some years ago I’ve been asked by someone very hip and very into the whole “2.0 thang” [1] whether I felt threatened by the tidal wave of user-generated content. He went on noting that even journalism was dying and that Britannica’s home page would soon sport a brand new Wikipedia logo. His eyes were glistening as he predicted the end of information as we know it. He conceded that, still, companies could try to ride the tide with a massive SEO investment, but other than that my role was going to be useless. Well, he didn’t put it so bluntly, but it was implied. His question/statement bugged me a little bit, but, as most bugging stuff, gave me also food for thought. So, let me use it to reflect a bit on the Internet and the future of knowledge. Nothing big, really: just a couple of random thoughts.

Why do you need a content manager when you have hordes of users eager to create information? (psst: auctoritas and bias detection. Keep these two concepts in mind: we will need them in a few seconds.)

I do not predict the future, but I have a privileged point of view because I am a specimen of content managers’ dying breed, but also an eager content-creating user and a clueless “let’s-google-for-info” lamer[2]: let me try to share with you the sight from this little vantage point on my sinking Atlantis.

  1. As a lamer, I represent the average Internet user. I detest the condescending opinion that the majority of Internet users are stupid, but it’s true that we, as a vast percentage, are clueless to most areas of knowledge. I do have my little expertise as a user (see below), but when it comes to–let’s say–chemistry, or geopolitics, I am as square as your average Joe. That doesn’t make me stupid. It makes me clueless. And when I’m clueless I naturally seek for guidance. And that’s when the old good principle of auctoritas comes in handy.
    Let’s take geopolitics: everybody agrees that Noam Chomsky is a great academic. So, based on the weight of his auctoritas, I decide to read his writings to get me started in this fascinating world. I can see some of you are frowning. There’s no need to: remember the second word? Bias detection? I am sure you can already see where this is going.
  2. I am also a content-creating user, since I am fairly knowledgeable in some areas. Let’s take music for example. With my decent share of records and readings under my belt, I’m going to read the review of an upcoming album by a new band on Tumbling Rocks (a mainstream magazine that’s not going to hit your newsstands, don’t worry). The album is released under the label Acme Intl, and I know that Acme Intl has invested a lot of money on this band, like some double-spread ads on Tumbling Rocks. I can already detect the bias of a magazine that has to juggle between an honest reporting and a publisher that wants to keep those spreads going. It can be a thoughtful bias (“a young, talented band – a promising debut”) or it can be a shameless one (“Meet the new Beatles”). In any case I can detect it, if not predict it verbatim. Bias detection gets me to the core of the report, which I may still find useful and interesting, because the magazine has access to some information I could never get elsewhere (auctoritas). Bias is not a bad thing per se: if it’s open, it gives you a powerful cognitive context and lets you sift the information more accurately. So, you frowning reader, yes: Noam Chomsky is worth reading, but I agree that I wouldn’t want to resort to him as the auctoritas [3].

Everything gets even messier when the source is collective. You may be aware of the radical stances taken by the single author, but if the filter of the collective intelligence is not strong enough, how can I be sure that what I’m reading on a wiki is accurate and up-to-date?

Now: where does all this take me as the titanic Roy Batty of content managers? Let’s say that I do believe in collective intelligence. And as a user I can heavily contribute to it. But I (still) cannot rely on it.

So, the answer to the first question is: no, I do not feel threatened by user-generated content.

Because the collective intelligence still needs a middleman to convey its knowledge to the world. I am not a publisher: I am a filter.

[1] Sorry for the trivialization, I have the utmost respect for the amazing things that have been accomplished in the last years, a little less patience with people whose knowledge of the Internet seems entirely based on the concepts of “social networking”, “long tail” and “collective intelligence”.
[2] From the Merriam-Webster: “slang: a person who is not in the know”.
[3] Unless we’re talking about linguistics. The guy invented this, you know?

Written by Paola

June 16, 2008 at 10:26 am

Posted in the role

“Who the Heck Am I?”

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Don’t worry, I’m not on the brink of an identity crisis. Though, job-wise, I had to face a couple.

Job hunting is a difficult task, no matter how good your CV looks and how self-confident you sound. But this is not going to be the umpteenth “land the job you always dreamt of” how-tos (if that ultimate how-to exists I’d like to read it, by the way!). I just want to reassure people working with content (CMs, editors, etc.) who are browsing job ads. I am positive they bumped into some calls for application that made them question their experience and profile — been there, done that.

Let’s make an example, taken from a popular job directory: somebody is looking for a Web Content Manager, who will manage online seasonal updates (OK), with a proven experience in working under pressure (OK), and who’s able to communicate with external suppliers (OK) on technical integration (errr… mk), has a solid knowledge of Javascript and CSS (s-s-s-olid?) and can develop widgets (!).

You can substitute Javascript and CSS with Photoshop and Flash, and “can develop widgets” with “is a Dreamweaver guru”: what they’re looking for is people working on the interface — the front end. Other times, a Content Manager is requested, but the specifications depict a Content Management System Consultant (Interwoven, WebSphere, you name it): that is, someone who works on the software that manages the content, and not on the content that’s managed by the software.

Confusing, isn’t it? Even more so, when you realize that the Dreamweaver guru will have to write the content too, and be an eagle-eye proofreader. “It must be me: I’m not skilled enough”, that’s what you’re thinking while you read the specs.

I have good news for you: there’s nothing wrong with your experience. Well, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a designer or a developer who can write and proofread, either: I am sure they have their good reasons for looking for such a profile — and if that’s you… then yay! But that doesn’t mean you have to invest your last paycheck in the animal books series or that you have to learn Ruby on Rails overnight to find a job. You must know what Ruby on Rails, or Javascript, or CSS, or CMS template mean, though. Because you are more than likely to be involved in the design process, helping the developers defining the structure of the content so that they can turn it into templates or giving your opinion on which elements the CSS should highlight in the output.

You have to be well aware of how the format you want your content to have will impact the back end (that is, the software managing it) and the front end (that is, the final output). And vice versa. You can’t let someone else decide which part of the content is important, what is the relationship between the single documents, or which elements will be used in an interface. That is the content manager’s job: you are not (only) a writer.

And if what I just wrote doesn’t make sense at all to you… you’d probably want to spend a night or two studying before you hit that “Apply for a content manager position” button.

Update: on the other hand, sometimes recruiters are not very demanding when it comes to skill sets. I just came across a listing looking for “content managers” to entry data in a CMS. We come in all sizes and shapes, don’t we?

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Written by Paola

June 5, 2008 at 8:16 am

Posted in the role

Tagged with ,

Analyzing the Bathwater

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There is a saying that goes: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is quite common knowledge, as there’s a very similar warning in the Italian language too (buttare il bambino con l’acqua sporca, in case you’re italophiles): if we’re not careful, we could get rid of a good thing just because we don’t want to deal with the rest of the mess.

So let’s try to apply this warning to our job. When I start working for a new organization, for the first weeks you will find me buried under piles and piles of paper: brochures, flyers, yearbooks, house organs, magazines, catalogues — everything I can put my hands on, even if it was published twenty years earlier. I am not only getting familiar with my new employer, I am also mentally scanning their riches. Looking for babies. Sometimes I am really lucky, and there’s plentiful toddlers, alive and kicking, ready to be brought to the next step. Other times I can tell that nobody has ever really taken care of the content, and I’m left with communication devices stating unconsistent facts. Or even wrong facts. OK, let’s not be too harsh, sometimes they’re totally consistent. Well, their visual is.

In these cases my gut reaction would be to throw the mass of paper in the nearest bin, and call it a day. But then I think about the babies who may be gasping in the bathwater; so, armed with a cup of green tea (if my name were Sam Spade at this point I would positively need scotch), a pen and some grids, I start going through the materials once again. That’s when the content audit starts.

First of all, I map all the content in the different grids, according to the type of publications: periodicals (newsletter, press releases, house organs etc), corporate, single product deliverables. At this point I only need to know if any of these publications is still useful, or if it’s only “bathwater”. It’s trickier than it seems, because maybe a product sheet describes something that’s not produced anymore (bathwater) but there could be a very interesting boilerplate that could be reused (baby). Keep. At the same time, content is like clutter: you have to get rid of the things you don’t really need, before they start piling up. When in doubt, I open a “let’s review this in 6 months” file: if I’ve never felt the need to consult that content in the meanwhile, it is ready to become bathwater.
Keep in mind that it’s worth writing down the content you are dismissing, and the reasons why: in a year you forget a lot of things, especially the less important ones, and you don’t want to go through the same painful check everytime someone emerges from the archives with a piece of content archaeology.

When I’m past this stage, I can finally devote myself to babies. I will write down what’s good and what’s not in the single publication: I am looking to reuse as much as I can, because that single content is an investment my employer decided to make at some point. Man hours, or money given to an agency, I don’t care: I’m sure there’s a chunk of text, or even just a winning metaphor. I maniacally note everything down.

A blog post isn’t exactly the most fitting place to go into the details of designing the grid, or specifying which qualities you look for to discern the babies from the bathwater. It really depends on your role and on the type of project you’re working on (clearly an Enterprise Content Manager [1] has a wider scope than an E-commerce Content Manager, and someone working in an online media environment has a pivotal skimming factor, that CMs working in retail/sales don’t have: date of publication). The only advice I can give in such a brief post is to broaden your field of investigation as much as possible. Don’t focus on the short-term goal, but make an inventory that you can reuse over and over for projects you don’t even have in mind yet.

That’s time consuming, I know, and if I have to fill a timesheet I always warn my manager: I need a field who reads “baby saving”.

[If you’re an Enterprise Content Manager, you can’t miss Ann Rockley’s Managing Enterprise Content for some great tips on content audit — well, the rest of the book is really helpful too!]

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Written by Paola

May 29, 2008 at 9:33 am

The Evocative Power of Limitations

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A lot of people think that they would come up with the best ideas pretty easily, were they only given carte blanche on a project. And I’m sure this finds most of you in agreement.

Well. It happens, sure, but only with a certain type of mindsets. That is those really lucky minds who are able to conceptualize every scenario in their heads, who can draw deductively the details of a plan and who can inductively go back and forth from the single detail to the whole scenario. I don’t know about you, but I am positive that my mind (and that of my friends’ and colleagues’) is not so efficient (sigh!).

Call it “desert paradox”, call it “tabula rasa syndrome”, were we given the chance to use any solution we want, most of us would freeze. It’s our personal version of the writer’s block.

So, how do you overcome this block?

Let me answer to this with a quote. The author is Age (aka Agenore Incrocci), of the prolific duo Age & Scarpelli, two of the best and most creative screenwriters of the Italian cinema. In his book Scriviamo un film (Let’s Write a Movie — sorry, apparently no English translation around), Age gives a lot of solid, sensible advice to would-be screenwriters, struggling to find a story, or to depict a character, or to put an end to a plot. We are not writing for a movie: maybe we are in the design process; or maybe we’re just struggling with a copy. The analogy works the same.

The chapter’s title is “The file in the cake” and here are some excerpts (very very poorly translated by yours truly, I’m sorry):

The convicted, the prisoner in the cell — the topic of so many tales, movies or comics — he knows he has only one way out of jail: the little wired window. And, in order to violate it, to open a way out, he must hope for a “nail file in the cake” (the knotted sheets will come later, they are an optional).
How can he get that file? From whom? Screenwriters often find themselves in a position not very different from the prisoner’s. Or rather, I think they have to try hard to put themselves in that position. The delusion that, with free hands, we could let out our creativity freely doesn’t grant predictable outcomes; on the contrary, it makes us wander aimlessly, and dispels our ideas, rather than support and assist them. There’s nothing more stimulating for creativity than the necessity to come up with the solution to an issue (be it small or big) within strict limits, than being bound to browse through what already exists, that we know already and that is, in a certain way, at our disposal to solve the issue. By “what already exists” I mean:
a) the setting we are in and which contains:
b) the things (the “tools”): rummage your characters’ pockets: they can hide everything you want, we want, and that — with “professional honesty” — has been put in them;
c) the situations that have been already set up, the “work in progress”;
d) the characters, with their relationships, nature, habits, jobs, tics (which are rarely accidental in a movie).
It is somehow a bet. And, above all, a game. Like a word play where you have to obtain words from the letters that form another word: things, facts. The nail file in the cake.

So, next time you are given budget limits or very strict project limitations, don’t complain: stop for a second, and think of them as your saving grace, as your file in the cake. Without them, you most probably would get lost.

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Written by Paola

April 3, 2008 at 10:18 am