DU012 – Content Strategy – Emma Hoddinot Interview

We’ve talked about content first, now it’s time to talk about content strategy. Carla talks to Emma Hoddinot, Content Strategy Director at SapientRazorfish about her role and how UX and content should engage with each other.

Season 0 - Getting Untangled
Season 0 - Getting Untangled
DU012 - Content Strategy - Emma Hoddinot Interview

We’ve talked about content first, now it’s time to talk about content strategy.

Carla once again channels her inner Jeremy Paxman to talk to Emma Hoddinot who is Associate Content Strategy Director at SapientRazorfish.

In real life she is more than twice the size of Carla’s mic.


Episode: DU012 – Content Strategy
Host: Carla Lindarte
Guest: Emma Hoddinot, Associate Content Strategy Director, SapientRazorfish.

(00:17) Chris: Hello and welcome to Design Untangled with me Chris Mears and Carla Lindarte. And once again I have sent her out on the streets to get some more lovely interviews for you guys. So on this podcast we do not only want to kind of untangle the weird design terms you might hear in your day to day job, but we want to help you understand who the different stakeholders and key players you are going to be working with are, what they do, how you can engage with them, and to help you get a better picture of how everyone works together. Carla has been speaking to Emma Hoddinott who is a content strategist and hopefully this interview should give you a bit of an idea about what that type of person does. Enjoy.

(01:02) Carla: We are here with Emma Hoddinott. She is, Content Strategy Director at SapientRazorfish, a digital agency here in the UK. So welcome Emma. Welcome to Design Untangled.

(01:14) Emma: Hi, good to be here.

(01:15) Carla: Oh good. So very excited to have Emma today. She’s going to bring a lot of knowledge around what content strategy is. What’s the different between a content strategy and UX designer and design project. Give us some tips about what, why content is important and how we can make them more important for our design process. But let us start by just learn a little bit about you, Emma. So, you have a background in media and creative writing. Tell us how you got to be creative, a content strategy director at SapientRazorfish?

(01:48) Emma: Yes, so my background, I studied English, then I studied multimedia journalism. I did a master’s in that, around 2000. I literally, straight from finishing my masters, I went to work for what was then, EMA, which was a big publishing house in the UK. They were just starting to launch magazine websites. And because it was such a new thing, we were the, I think only the second year on my course that did digital journalism. It was an area where there were very few people, A interested or B who had any skills. So I got straight into digital and I became editor of a magazine website within, two or three years. So in terms of career progression, it was great. Honestly, I didn’t have a clue back then. We really learned as we went along, we made tons of mistakes.

(02:38) Emma: We miss loads of opportunities. I worked on, I was the editor of both Sugar and Bliss magazines, websites, these were teen girl publications. When social media started to kick off, we had MySpace, we were there when Facebook opened up from beyond being an academic thing that you had to have a university email for. The big mess for me at that point was Fan Fiction, completely missed it. I actually think,, things like that could have been a great opportunity for us. So it was a really fun time. We were doing lots of things, different things. We were starting to do things like web chats, and trying to be a little bit interactive. It was a lot fun, learned a lot. That was very much, my background, it is always, always digital, always about content.

(03:31) Emma: I moved out of publishing deliberately because there was no money in it. We did everything on the cheap with no budget, which makes you super creative. So in that way it was really, really good. You challenge yourself to do what you can with what you’ve got, which is not much. It got to a point where I was like, you know what, the opportunity here is great. We just need some investment. So I made a deliberate move over into more content marketing type role. So working for retailers, doing fashion content, building that sort of story telling around their brands, which were just starting out in ecommerce, looking at sort of, the stories that you could tell to bring to life, the proposition or the styles. It is something, that today, is really common place, but back then, not so much websites were super functional.

(04:28) Emma: There was no storytelling. So I have made that deliberate move. From that point, I had various stints going freelance, and I never ever set out to call myself a content strategist. I do not think I still do, apart from my professional

title. Exactly, because it is such a misunderstood field. I have been to various different interviews where they have asked for a content strategist. So my roles were sort of content managers, like head of content, that sort of thing in the past. Recruitment people would call you into various different interviews. If they needed a content strategist, sometimes you turn up and they would basically want a planner, to come up with like really creative advertising ideas, content marketing type campaigns. And then you’d go to some interviews and it would be really super technical and all about supporting a big build project. From my point of view, I never set out to call myself that, because it was just too broad to confusing. But that is where I have landed at Sapient, because I did a couple of freelance roles here. I really liked the opportunity for the sort of work that I do. They exist here and the kind of clients and the kind of projects that we do. And thought it was somewhere where I could really learn a lot. Working with the UX and the design teams that we are sort of known for here.

(06:04) Carla: Yes. I guess going back to your point of the confusion around content strategy and how different organizations including the agencies as well as, in-house, have these different perspectives of what content strategy is. What is the definition of content strategy? An ideal definition of content strategy, if you could actually define it?

(06:28) Emma: I am not even going to attempt to define it. I am going to defer to people who are much more expert than I am. At Sapient, we have an official definition, which I will read out. It is a little bit of a long sentence, but I will read it out for you. So content strategy is the systematic, thoughtful approach to defining and surfacing the most relevant and effective content at the most opportune time. Take a breath. To the appropriate audience segment for the purpose of helping clients achieve measurable brand and business objectives as well as consumer goals. Did you get it? [inaudible 07:09] What I am going to pull out from that is, that essentially, it is about defining the substance of content, the kind of themes and topics that will offer the most opportunity to the client. The kind of conversations in the entire ecosystem, digital ecosystem that they can really own and that are most appropriate to what they want to achieve with their digital platforms or their marketing, broadly across different channels. It is not just the content itself, it is the design of the content. So within a page, the structure of the content, because websites are built by machines and they are or they are, you see it on a machine. It is the content management systems, like digital platforms. It is all kind of, is not a tangible physical process as such, it is all about making sure that the machines understand the content. That the content management system that you use is designed to (a) be good for the author, but also that it is structured in an effective way that is scalable. So there is that kind of much more technical side to it. And I think it is all trying to sum up all of those things in one sentence, which is what that definition is covering.

(08:33) Carla: It kind of makes sense. I always argue, in the UX space, we worry, we are supposed to be worried about an experience. If you think about a website for example, which is a lot of the word, that we still do, website redesign and website design. You do not design websites to fill in with content. You should be designing websites that respond to content needs. So it is kind of, what I would call content pharaoh’s design. However, in the reality when you actually own the project. Content is always like an after thought in my experience. I would just, let’s just put lots of placeholders.

(09:16) Emma: Just words. Just words.

(09:16) Carla: Yes, there is a lot of ipsum and it is just words. I guess the role of a content strategy is, content strategist is to come and build the foundations of fact content and why is that important? And obviously then the design to be translated into that. But sometimes I see there is a lot of, not friction, but there is a lot of confusion sometimes between what the content strategy and the UX designer does, in terms of, because the UX designer will argue. We also look into the content, we also look into the hierarchy of the page. So how do you see those two roles either being different or working together?

(09:58) Emma: I think they are one of the closest relationships on these sorts of projects for sure. And yes, there are lots of overlaps between somebody that might call themselves a content strategist and somebody that calls themselves UX. And I think that’s okay. I think on a project by project basis, you should assess the individual skill sets of the different people that make up the team, and make sure that you are covering everything you need. From my point of view for certain things, it does not really matter if it is the content strategist or the UX person that does it, so long as it is being done. Actually when you are working really collaboratively and the project is set up that you have the time to do the correct activities, that I would view as really important, in the kind of the projects that we do here.

(10:51) Emma: I would not say there is friction, when you are working collaboratively. I think they’re often incredibly supportive of each other. It is more a perception, I think, perhaps, that there is a bit of crossover, but in reality I have never known it to be an issue. If we take information architecture as an example here, from my point of view, you go to a website to access the information on that website. And a content strategist would be looking very much at what that information should be and how you might display it. But then on the other side of that, you’ve got to look at the actual architecture of that, the information itself, the content. You have got to look at your taxonomy, you have got to look at how it is structured in terms of the navigation and the experience around, the sort of the browsing experience. For me, that is where the UX person comes in. And those two skillsets really do meet in the middle to provide the best experience. On every project, I think there is a little bit of difference between who does what, but it is okay., but realizing that you do sort of need someone that comes from each side of that equation to sort of produce the best work, is essential.

(12:18) Carla: I mean, I love our audience in the Design and Untangled, are junior designers understanding or trying to understand the world of design. That is what it is called Untangled, tried to demystify all these different terms and roles that are out there in the design space. How do you think of people who are junior and perhaps have not really interacted with the content strategist before? How does that, realizing the value of content and how they can start to collate in that to their obviously project teams?. And by understanding what exactly the content strategy person or content strategy as a whole means for project?

(13:05) Emma: I think the simplest way of looking at that is, people do not visit a website for the experience. They visit a website because they are looking for information, about something. Therefore, surely the experience that you design or hosting that information, you are going to be able to design a better experience, knowing as much as you can about what that information is, what it needs to do, what the more detailed requirements around it are. So for example, in an ideal situation, and I am simplifying this quite a bit here. You would upfront have a content strategist produce, they would do their research, and then they would produce requirements, working potentially with a business analyst or a business consultant. You would define things even as simple as character counts. This is something that is massively, massively underappreciated. The upfront, you know, what, it is actually kind of good to know minimum, maximum character counts when you are designing components and pages that are going to have to display, quite important information that needs to be displayed in the right way. So we would capture all of that information and give you a really good steer, in terms of defining what does this page need to achieve? What are the business objectives here? What should you be taking away from this page? What are the content needs of the page? And we are not trying to prescribe saying, it is exactly these content types and you need to design the components in exactly this way. That’s the job of the UX team, to pickup these requirements, but it is
just giving you that initial structure and that initial direction, so that hopefully the experience that it is designed off the back of that, is as good as it can be. That is very much the way I would set out that explanation on why it is so important. Otherwise, you are not designing blind, because I know UX does gather a lot of insight and do their own research. But it is just that additional piece that gives you the really detailed information around the information on those pages. The content of those pages.

(15:26) Carla: Exactly. Also, the way it evolves as well, especially on website design. Because it is not something that you designed once and stays stale, especially websites, obviously need to be updated, and to be..

(15:40) Emma: They are to be, should be. I guess a content strategist, when I worked with content strategists before, you have that view, what the content plan could look like, will the content evolution of this would be, all these different types of content that would potentially come up in the future, that we haven’t thought about, because we are focusing on these number of templates. So it is really valuable to have a content strategist working on that. I wonder if it is any different from, so, just to clarify, sometimes I have seen people getting copywriters and content strategists as kind of the same thing or very similar roles. Then when you talk to content strategists, you ask them to do copy. They get bit funny about it, because I am not copywriter, [inaudible 16:26]. So can you help us understand the definition, the differences between those two?

(16:34) Emma: I understand why people confuse them and they’re very complimentary roles. I would argue, I mean my background was editorial. I have worked on newspapers in the past. I have written news and I have written pieces of journalism, so I can write, but I am not a copywriter, by any stretch of the imagination. Some content strategists for example, even at Sapient here, come from a computer science background. Not saying they cannot write, but they would definitely sort of not traditionally be the sorts of skillset that would be a copywriter. So to make that assumption, a content strategist is able to write copy, is not always the case. Yes, in some parts, but it is not always. From my point of view, the role of the content strategist. And actually we were calling it content strategy. Increasingly people are calling it content design. Certainly here at Sapient, that is very much the direction that we are taking. It is about, defining what is, rather than the actual creation of it.

(17:47) Emma: So I am definitely be looking at content types and I would definitely be looking at content themes and topics even. So a content type is obviously a piece of content that is uniquely different to another. So, a video could be a content type or a list could be a content type or a general article or something like that. Then content themes, and topics, and more when you are talking about the actual content itself. So what is this about? What are the key themes and the topics within those themes? That is where you are talking about the substance and that is when you start to get the crossover with copywriting. Obviously, it is the copywriter that then understands those themes and topics and then creates the actual copy itself around it. It is all part of a process.

(18:40) Emma: And often the content strategists will provide briefings and guidance to the copywriter, but copywriting itself is a very specific art form. It is really valuable because the words that you read, are part of the experience and you should take as much care and attention as you do with all of the UX work that you do around the experience as you do with the words, in the experience. That is a frustration that I think we all have. That is an undervalued skillset, and often people think, oh, well, they can, it is all content, is it not it? People can do the different things, but it is very different. It is about one of them. It is about sort of setting, I guess the vision for what the key themes and topics for the copy are. And then the other one is writing that copy and crafting that copy.

(19:39) Carla: Do you think that things like the tone of voice or the interpretation of a tone of voice brand into digital is also a responsibility of the content strategist?

(19:52) Emma: This is a tough one. It could be, I would say less so. A lot of content strategists will be able to do that sort of thing. From my point of view, actually, that is something that would sit more on the copywriting side of things because that speaks directly to what they are doing and that sort of often, especially in agency world, that is a part of the skillset that someone who is a copywriter, would have. Setting the direction for it and knowing what the opportunities are. So you do some sort of competitor analysis. What are other people doing? Where is the gap there. What is ownable? That sort of piece of the research and the strategy definitely would be fed in by a content strategist. But the crafting, the actual, what the tone of voice is, knowing that, I would say would be the job of the copywriter.

(20:51) Carla: That’s interesting. I kind of felt a content strategist will come and create some set of principles and as you said, guidance and direction that included a tone of voice. It is interesting to know that it could be done by both, I guess.

(21:06) Emma: It could be. Yes. This is why you have to look at each individual, every content strategist is going to have a slightly different background and skillset. Which is where this gets really, I think this is why it creates so much confusion and people ask the question, well I do not really know what content strategy is, because then you get the whole content marketing side of it. If you are a content marketeer, you are very much more on the brand side of things, and therefore tone of voice and creating much more of that brand identity piece would definitely set that side of things.

(21:40) Emma: If we are talking about the strict definition of content strategy…

(21:43) Carla: It really blurry the lines. It is just really hard, I think is more around like skillsets that you said, and how you kind of, where work, within the project team to design something, that has lots of different inputs coming from content, from experience, from the show, from brand, from everyone else. I also think that even in the copywriting space, in my experience, even though you have a very good copywriter, sometimes their skill sets are not necessarily aligned to digital. And what I mean with that is, that when you are designing, because it is different when you design an app for example, versus a website. The app would have more of a functional copy, which I think nowadays they call it UX writing. So being able to still interpret a tone of voice into, call to actions and more functional copy, but still trying to do that. And traditional copywriters sometimes do not do that.

(22:43) Carla: So there is a lot of different views of what content is, and how that fits into the design process and [inaudible 22:55].

(22:55) Emma: Absolutely. And I think people try and simplify it and try that they think one size fits all, and it really does not. You really have to look at what each individual job or role needs to do, and choose someone that meets that skill set, rather than just going, we need a copywriter to write any copywriter will do, not always the case. I have had teams where I have worked for a huge retailer and within the team that we had, I identified one particular person, and we actually, he became essentially the U.S. copywriter, and actually moved to sit with the UX team because they were very separate and I was definitely trying to bring it much more together. And he was also a bridge between the two because he understood exactly what you are talking about. That within an app for example, it has to be functional. So about understanding the most effective call to action and the ways to get people to sort of, through that experience, as efficiently as possible. It is not about writing articles.

(24:02) Carla: No it is not.
(24:02) Emma: Much more, the kind of the longer, the longer form pieces of copy.

(24:09) Carla: Exactly. I mean you have to really find the right word to be able to communicate the right call to action. Sometimes as you UXs, we kind of say, or let us say, download is the right word, but when you work with a copywriter or UX writer, they can come up with more interesting ways at saying the same thing. And it just as achieved the same outcome, but it is still like play into the brand voice, which is quite a skill to do. Yes, it is there, even within copywriting, there Is different variations as well. I can imagine how confused everyone is when you talk about content strategist, Oh, what does actually mean?

(24:46) Emma: Just think of it as simply as, it is about the information, and understanding as much as you can, about the information that a person goes to a website for. In essence for me it is the person that is responsible for that.

(25:00) Carla: So it also like in project teams, have also had this question, who owns the content audit? Especially if you are doing a redesign and you have to audit the site. So who owns the content audit? Is it the content strategist, is it the UX designer? I guess it is just everyone.

(25:14) Emma: If you have a content strategist on the project, I would say it would be the content strategist. For example, they are usually the people, if you run a content inventory, they usually the people that have the license, for the tool that you are going to use that for, it can be as simple as that. That this is why they sort of do it. Then once you have got that, and you are doing the analysis of it, because we would tend to run an audit or run an inventory rather, do some kind of audit. When you audit something, you have to audit against certain objectives and that is where you collaborate and you look and you sort of thing, okay we have got this list of things, that we want to audit this and understand about this data. Some of those would naturally be something that a content strategists would do. Some much more naturally would be something that the UX person would do.

(25:59) Carla: It is about the collaboration is it not? It is all about collaboration and I think the more, I mean something has happened in into the industry, especially in agencies, where before, when you started, and I started working, we used to do a lot, just one person trying to do lots of things… My background is also in coms and I also started in a publishing house doing web content. I used to do lots of stuff at the same time, and then when started specializing in digital becoming more of a thing, then everyone started creating these specialisms. Then now it feels like by creating that, there is a little still silos. So visual design is seen separately to UX design and separate to content. But is, we are getting to a point that everything has to kind of go back together because at the end of the day, you think about website design, the pattern has been created, the components out there. How many three-column components you can actually design, right? It is more about the content and is it more about the brand? So is all this different skillsets kind of have to get together again to be able to design something that really makes sense for users rather than trying to separate and silo everyone.

(27:09) Emma: Yes. The most successful projects I have worked on, and actually, the better teams I have worked in, is where you have someone from each discipline. It is very siloed at the moment, but you have a content strategist, you have your UX person, you have your designer, but you also have that supported perhaps by a BA. You have got the business requirements in there, and you are capturing and documenting everything properly, which that is quite an interesting side point. I often call the content strategist, the sensible person in the room. And what I mean by that is, we are often the person, they re going, we need glossary of terms, so that everyone on this project, within our business, with the client, is talking the same language. People underestimate how important that is. Sometimes you will not get stuff signed off because somebody understands that the thing you are talking about, is different to what you are actually talking about.

(28:07) Emma: It is super, super confusing. And you need these sorts of quite dry documentation to make a project run efficiently. You know, all of the requirements should be captured properly and in one place and you do not want to have things living in multiple places. And it is often in my experience, the content strategist, who is pulling all of that together. I do not know why that is. I do know that a sort of personality trait that tends to be a nice person. Yeah. Maybe, maybe the bossy person, somebody might say. But yeah, that is often sort of how it works that you are helping pull all of that together as well.

(28:48) Carla: I think, just to wrap up, given the complexity and the different types of sub-disciplines within the content strategy, is there any other, any resources of things that you could recommend to our audience? They read so they learn more about content strategy and why is that important and how they can actually make content being a core part of the design process?

(29:11) Emma: Okay. If we are talking about the more technical side of content strategy, this is where you are really understanding the content management system and you are helping build that, structure that, do all the content modeling. A lot of this is quite Excel-based stuff. There is a Bible for this. Pretty much the, you know is um, a content strategist, called Ann Rockley and there is a book called, ‘Managing Enterprise Content’. That is pretty much the original bible for content strategy. Moving on from that, now that content marketing is becoming its own discipline. If people are more interested in the storytelling side of things, there is a new book, I have not read this, but I am quite excited by it. There is a content marketing agency, I think they are U.S. based, called Contently. One of their, some of the works for them has created a book called, ‘The Storytelling Edge: How to Transform Your Business, Stop Screaming into the Void and Make People Love You’. There is another new book that was published at the end of 2017. One of the writers is a content strategist at Facebook, and it is called, ‘Designing Connected Content Plan and Model – Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow’. And that one for me seems to be something that fits between those two. So it is understanding both the more technical sides, the designing content, also the content marketing piece. Those are, there is two new books there, and on one that is a bible. That is pretty much the accepted standard for content strategy. Those two new books are on my wish list to be buying and reading.

(31:09) Carla: Thank you. Well, thank you very much. Anything else you want to add or anything? Any invitation for people to get into content strategy?

(31:19) Emma: I would be really interested, as part of your podcast, do you invite comments? Do people respond to it? I would be super interested to know what people think of content strategy. If you do not know, but have a bit of an idea, what your thoughts are? If you do know, and you have had some really good or bad experiences with them, I’d love to hear all of that. It is an ongoing mission for us, that we really see this discipline, and its place within the sort of the overall creative world that we exist in. It is really ready for a bit of a shakeup. It is clear that, it is not always particularly well-understood or valued, at as part of different projects. We have got to do something about that. How do we do something about that? Well, let us revert to the way that we do things, on our projects. Let us understand what the problem is. So it would be great, if any insight that we can get from your listeners.

(32:22) Carla: Yes. We invite everyone to send us any comments, or any feedback, or any questions, even for Emma, as well, we can actually send them to her.

(32:33) Emma: Yes, absolutely.
(32:33) Carla: Thank you very much for being here again. No worries. It was fun. (32:36) Emma: Thank you.

(32:40) Chris: So hope you enjoyed that interview. Hopefully next time me and Carla will actually talk to each other rather than different people, but no promises. Maybe it is better this way that we do not actually speak to each other. So I will do the plugs, and you can follow at Design Untangled, with that very username on Twitter. The same on Facebook as well. You can look at our website on designuntangled.co.uk. Individually, we are on Twitter. I am @Chris_Mears_UX. Carla is @CarlaLindarte. She loves getting Linkedin messages, I do not. We will see you next time.

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