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Archive for the ‘the role’ Category

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

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

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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

Designing and Writing (and Managing, Yes)

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People involved in the content publishing process often talk about the content lifecycle, a concept that comes in handy especially when you have to adopt a Content Management System. But I don’t want to talk about technologies. Yet. Let’s stick for a moment to the sheer (human) tasks and skills of somebody who’s in charge of being the voice of a company. Be it on or offline (did I stress that enough?).

The job of a Content Manager consists of three main tasks: designing, writing and managing. And, depending on the organization, it can easily cover all the three. Let’s take a closer look at the first two tasks (I will save the last one for another tidbit: indigestion could be lethal!)

Design? Yes, content is a very vague entity, a raw material that needs to be cut and shaped to fit the needs of a company. It has nothing (let me state it once again: nothing) to do with graphics, and it has a lot to do with having a vision. Let’s make an example: your organization needs a website. Not a corporate website, but a simpler product website. Maybe they need something eye-catching, or they’re thinking about a mixed strategy (an online competition? A support for a direct mailing? You name it, web is the limit). The staff in the Communication department came up with ideas, and they’re smart enough to ask for the Content Manager’s advice. After a thorough analysis of the documentation, a lot of questions should arise. What do we have to say in this website? What’s the more effective way to say it? Will it be periodically updated? Where do we gather data from? Can this be done internally or do we have to rely on external contributors? Who will be our internal point of reference? How can we bind them so that data don’t stop flowing abruptly after the first month online?
It looks pretty overwhelming, doesn’t it? But, in fact, this is not. A check of the strenghts and the limits of a project, content-wise, pretty much shapes the content design by itself. Remember: content design is not about drawing the perfect website, but about serving the users’ needs within a budget (and within the limits of an organization).

Writing. Whether you manage content or you manage people producing content, it can’t be simpler than that: a Content Manager must be a good writer. Not as in “My prose has been published on the New Yorker”, of course, but a CM must be able to tame the power of words. When I started working in the content arena, there was no way of being trained as a Content Manager, and in Italy, for instance, you could count the number of CMs by the tens. They were copywriters, journalists, freelancers, embarking on a new endeavor. Personally, I started working at a monthly magazine that was just projecting its website — a great opportunity to learn how the traditional publishing process works. But it was also the right environment to learn how to take care of content, how to shape it, how to tell a good piece of work from a bad one. And in the meanwhile I was popping out article after article for on and offline newspapers: it was the greatest informal CM training I could get. Just the last personal memory: a couple of years after, I was working as a Content Manager for a web agency, and I needed to find a junior. A girl walks in for the interview, and she starts telling me what a great CM she would do, even if she’s fresh out of college, and how she dreams about managing writers, and so on. Great. I ask her: “Can I see some of your writings?”. She looks at me as if I asked her to produce her criminal record, and replied “I don’t write. I am a Content Manager”. Needless to say, she didn’t get the job.

Written by Paola

February 5, 2008 at 9:47 am

Web Content Manager or Content Manager?

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Browsing through job listings you can see that companies look either for a Content Manager or a Web Content Manager. Is there any difference between the two?

No. I mean, yes.

No, because Content Managers were born more or less with the first big wave of corporate websites.
Yes, because, in time, companies with a vision realized that managing web content can’t be really detached from the task of managing the whole content produced within a company.

Those companies understand the pivotal importance of centralizing their content: communication-wise, of course, but also money-wise. I will deal with the economic aspect of this process later: now I just want to stress the importance of having a strong unified strategy when the means of communicating with people tend to multiply. Websites, intranets, corporate blogs, newsletters, forums, but also brochures, houseorgans, direct mailing, press releases. Can you imagine so many heads delivering so many different forms of content without a unified strategy? In the best case scenario (where there are no redundancies, or, worse, inconsistencies) the overall time spent by all heads involved will be anti-economic for the company. The worst case scenario (well depicted by the analogy of silos in Managing Enterprise Content by Ann Rockley) is so scary I will have to devote multiple posts to give a faint idea of the horror.

So, back to the differences:

  • do we always need a Web Content Manager? Yes, if you are a company and you want your Internet presence to be at least not damaging;
  • do we always need a Content Manager? Yes, if you are a company and you want your content to be effective and consistent, and you don’t want to invest (and lose) loads of money on producing it;
  • do they have to be different persons? No, not necessarily. It depends on the size and on the type of the organization the company has.

Written by Paola

February 1, 2008 at 1:40 pm