Video games, content strategy, and failure – oh my.

Last night was the CS London group’s event Content Strategy, Manhattan Style. Yes, it’s a terrible title, feeling like a self-conscious grasp for chic, something sadly commensurate with the venue. Fortunately, this was not commensurate with the event itself, which was lively, relevant, and engaging.

Although mostly if you’re a consultant.

This is a strong strain in current content strategy discourse, and I think we’re going to see it remedied quite soon. Not least in Paris on Friday. A lot of the bloggers, speakers, and commentators in the sphere are consultants, or part of agencies and other consulting organisations. A lot of the talk is about how you sell content strategy to your clients.

This is completely acceptable. Of course it is. And it’s actually useful if that’s something you regularly have to do. To an extent, it’s even portable to those of us who have to sell content strategy within an organisation. We’re still competing for credibility and resource. What we’re doing less is living in the beginning of a project.

This was touched on by Jeffrey MacIntyre (albeit in a your-clients kind of a way) who described “the day two problem”. Companies, he suggested, build websites for launch day, and forget about the need for them to be ongoing entities. Consultants, agencies, or even internal folks on short projects will live through Day Two quite often: the trainwreck moment where somebody realises that even if the content is right (which it often isn’t), and on time (which it often isn’t), it’ll be redundant, outdated, or inaccurate by the end of the week/month/fickle social media attention cycle.

The thing about living through a lot of Day Two is that you see a lot of failure.

Nothing succeeds like failure?

Failure is good. When it’s structured right, it’s an awesome tool for learning – that’s kind of how video games work. I’m chewing over a whole blog post about this, but basically in game-like learning, you try, fail, go round the loop again. Success eventually yields joy. It’s a relatively well-known phenomenon. It works best when that failing step is acutely felt, but extremely inexpensive. Dying in Portal is highly frustrating and surprisingly characterful, but the save-points are well designed and the reload unintrusive. The barrier to re-entry into the loop is very low, as is the cost of your failure out in meatspace. So it’s easy (and fun) to learn.

Yeah, spot the difference with business failure.

As an external content strategist, you get to rock up with a big old folder full of other companies’ Day Two (and ongoing day two hundred) failures. You can’t send the client round the learning loop – although you may well be there because they’ve been round it once – but you can show other people’s round trip. It’s not as compelling, but it’s not bad.

What about internal content strategists? We can still point to things that are wrong, and there are some very compelling tools at our disposal – content inventories, user testing, and analytics, for instance. But if we’re picking up big organically sprawling legacy content, Day Two may well be a distant memory, and the felt experience of web content failure is unlikely to be immediate to many people in the organisation.

What to do?

My hunch here is that the first task is to create something immediate and felt, but that it probably needs to be a success. Something quickly doable and visible – a content problem solved with a measurable business result. Now, that’s a tall order; but scrape off the “quickly” and it’s the whole reason we’re here.

At Red Gate, I’ve started with the text book fear and passion introduction to content strategy. In fact, I just typo’d that as “contempt strategy”, and it isn’t a bad description. Yelling “look at this, our website is rubbish!” gets you the initial attention, but it doesn’t make you many friends. And if you don’t produce something pretty sharp-ish, it’s easy to lose the momentum you built up for change.

The first thing I’ve done – after the visual content inventory – is to delete a bunch of stuff. About 70% of the SQL Compare web content has gone, in fact. This is a really, really cheap operation. It’s visible, and it’s powerful. It’s cheap because you don’t have to create any new content. It’s not free, however, because you do have to validate your deletions. This means analytics, actually reading that content, and talking to people whose business purposes that content has to serve. If nobody outside the company uses it, and nobody inside the company thinks they ought to, that’s a no-brainer for the delete list.

The payoff here is twofold. There’s the nebulous hard-to-illustrate “bad content does user experience and brand damage” argument; and there’s the “nobody has to spend time (money) maintaining this now” argument. One or both are easily felt, and the second at least should be measurable.

But that’s just one approach, and I’d be interested to hear from any other internal content strategy folks about how they get buy-in, maintain momentum, and generally get things done.