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Jun 05, 2009: Dear Content Strategists

Dear Content Strategists:

Well done. You guys are fantastic. You've got some great leaders among you, and more importantly, you seem to be generating a lot of meaningful grass roots activity. The world really needs you, and you're poised to achieve some big things over the next couple years.

Just don't screw it up, OK?

And how might you screw it up? By falling back on old models that make it hard to do new things. By doing it yourself, except when you ought to do it yourself. And most of all, by not using your imagination.

Here are some suggestions, annoyingly unsolicited, based on a skewed interpretation of past community building experiences, and, most likely, completely worthless. But you've been on mind of late and it's my damned blog, so here goes:

  1. Watch your language: framing is critical early on. That's my way of saying that you'd be making a huge mistake in trying to build (yet another) professional organization. It's not that you shouldn't get organized, or go out and incorporate your favorite flavor of 501(c) entity. It's just that locking in to the professional association metaphor means 1) creating expectations that you'll do all those things that professional organizations have been doing, and 2) you'll therefore miss out on building something that your community truly needs. Before you begin framing your thinking, figure out whatever the hell it is that content strategists need. I'll bet dollars to donuts that it's not a professional association. I'll guess that it's going to use a lot more technology than most professional associations will with their 1980s thinking. And most importantly, a dialogue unfettered by established organizational models will mean that the dialog will continue indefinitely.

    I mean, wouldn't you rather continually tune a communal dialog rather than "perfect" a professional association? Engage, folks, engage. Again and again and again. Associations are not so good at doing that. They see their targets as recruiting and retaining "members". You don't want members. Members bitch about not getting enough value for their $40/year fee. No, you want participants. Think about all the ways that you can engage with people interested in content strategy who work in different kinds of roles, or are at different points in their career lifecycles. How can each type have a stake in the content strategy dialogue? That's the question you need to answer, not whether you'll be a 501(c)3 or 501(c)6. What you do next is answer that question and solve problems. And do it again and again, because, believe it or not, the content strategy community won't be the same--so shiny and new and wet behind the ears--in five or even three years. It changes, so you change.
  2. Piggy-back as much as you can... As you figure out those answers, you'll soon be itching to go out and build stuff. Some of that stuff is already there, like job boards. Is there a tool that you can use to do it? Probably so, and it's probably free or close to it. If not, is there a sibling community that let you play in their sandbox? If so, there's probably a win-win opportunity to explore there. Victor Lombardi once gave me a sage piece of advice: "Just launch the fucker". You should do the same; get it to market and keep your momentum going.

    Worried about the long-term consequences of such decisions? Five points of extra credit. But the costs of migration, steep and painful as they will be, will be far cheaper than dithering and ultimately doing nothing today. Go cheap, go fast, and let a more mature version of your community deal with the headaches in five years. They'll be a somewhat different set of content strategists, and trust me: they'll be as good at fixing messes as you pioneers are at creating them.
  3. ...but fill the gaps that others haven't identified or tackled. Does your community want to do something new? Something that there isn't a model for? Fantastic; go for it. What do you have to lose? Creating new, useful things for communities is one of the most creative, energizing, awesome things you can do, if you pull it off. And just about everything that's new and interesting these days is the product of synthesizing existing tools, rather than building them from scratch.

    What if you fail? So what? You'll have the satisfaction of having tried. You'll have learned more than any school can teach you about the industry and how communities work. And most of all, you'll have squashed the feelings of regret that make us crabby and sour when we're old.
  4. Exploit the kids. You're a young community right now. Not in ten years. Not in two years. Now. You have energy, purpose, and perhaps something that's the most of useful of them all, naivete. When those three planets line up, things that couldn't have been done get done. So. Do. It. Now.

Speaking of the young, I need to go pick up my daughter from kindergarten, so I'll have to cut this short. Please don't mention #4 to her, ok?

Over and out

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Comment: Avi Rappoport (Jun 5, 2009)

Dear Content Strategy people: Lou is exactly right! And he's learned the hard way: you are lucky that you can avoid it

It's a short-sighted strategy to concentrate on doing things the old way. You can always affiliate with a professional organization, the way SIGCHI is part of ACM, and they have a ton of apparatus and office staff.

*Do* take all your great energy and figure out what you want and can do first. Maybe it's a manifesto or a way to measure ROI or a set of design patterns or Best Practices. Or provide a venue for case studies and stories. Good stories have a huge effect on people, and you folks are supposed to be the experts.

And me, I'll be around when you want to make your content really findable. Because search is only as good as the content!

(sorry to be so didactic)


Comment: Elena Melendy (Jun 5, 2009)

Hi there Lou,

You know I'm among your biggest fans. And also, despite the continuing absence of an updated online presence (it's coming, Kristina, I swear!), among those aforementioned leaders, if I may be so immodest as proclaim it myself in a public forum. In that context, I have to say I have a rather conflicted response to this post.

On the one hand, I agree. With all of it. Every last bit.

On the other hand, I'm thinking you're a little late to the party. Because I don't know anybody within the CS community who'd be interested in establishing the kind of model you warn against. Of course, someone somewhere might form a conventional trade association for content strategists. People do all kinds of crazy things. But the thought-leaders you mention in this post, at least, have no such plans.

What we do have is a few highly motivated and deeply committed individuals in various locations around this country and in other nations who are thrilled by the energy around our discipline and who are in the process of building community, in-person and online, using as many innovative tools and strategies as they can think of. Coordinating that effort at the local level is a gratifying task--but not an easy one.

We would love to have your input on *specific* tools and goals. Because we're already very much aware of the cautions you outline. And very much in line with the approach you recommend.

And we can use all the help we can get.



Comment: Rahel Bailie (Jun 5, 2009)

Such good advice. There's a small but vibrant organization in Vancouver that runs in a similar way. No membership fees, no formal structure, just an organizing group and meetings.

Tap into existing job boards? We can aggregate from many job boards using a mash-up. Need a publishing venue? Hey, eserver.org already exists as KB. And having organized before, I'm all for low-admin communities.

Thanks, Lou, for putting this out there.

Comment: Destry Wion (Jun 6, 2009)

I don't know if the CS community was looking to form a silo organization, and apparently not by Elena's standing, but I think Lou's letter is welcome attention regardless, and full of great advice.

These fine "leaders" are what I see as just the tip of the iceberg. I represent the bulk of the ice lying under the surface; someone who has worked with content in a variety of ways, roles and conditions for a number of years but not exactly under the model of Content Strategy. Nevertheless, there's a tremendous amount of overlap between CS and my experience and interests, and there's a massive army of others in the same shoes.

Nothing I'm saying here is new to you CS folks, I know you know we minions exist. As someone who's still on the submerged side of the berg, I'm watching the CS community closely and sponging insights everywhere I can. Even rolling it back into what I do now, and perhaps reshaping what I do going forward. I try and interact here and there in the community, and I might even have the pleasure of meeting you leaders (and many others that should fairly be mentioned) next year in Paris, which leads to the real point I would like to try and make here.

I hope the CS community does everything it can to spread into professional organizations that already exist. It's needed in a big way. Get in there and shake these people up! I'm not talking about memberships! I couldn't agree more with the sentiment professional organizations align themselves poorly, which is why members "bitch" to begin with, but you have key to do something wonderful, you can win on two sides; grow and cultivate the CS community as you are doing, but also interact with those existing organizations and lead workshops, present at their conferences, and generally spread the good CS word. Please don't just pollinate the big flowers like SXSW, or never leave the confines of the US.

I belong to two pro organizations. In one I've taken initiative to volunteer and it's led to significant opportunities for myself and benefits to the organization (largely to the thanks of some wonderful people in the organization who gave me the opps and tolerated by frank position on things). I now dare say to the CS community too. I'm the Web Manager for STC France, and the de facto conference organizer/chair for their 2010 annual conference, which I've enthusiastically spearheaded to be on the theme of Content Strategy and all it wants to serve up.

It's not really my intention to promote the conference here, but basically this is an opportunity to do exactly what I'm hoping content strategists will do -- spread, interact and enlighten us below the waterline. Everyone stands to gain from it.

Peace and love!


Comment: Destry Wion (Jun 6, 2009)

I'm sorry for the typo-orthographical errors and spelling Louis' name wrong. Too long-winded in such a little comment box.

Especially want to clarify it should be "*my* frank position on things." :)

Comment: Lou (Jun 8, 2009)

Thanks for all the comments, people. Elena, I'm especially thrilled that my advice might be late and unnecessary. But please keep it in mind. Once you CS leaders have gotten things going and have public support, your urge will be to consolidate and formalize your efforts. That's where things will get especially treacherous, and where you might try grasping for comfortable, familiar, but ultimately pointless models...

Comment: Rachel Lovinger (Jun 8, 2009)

Thanks for the words of encouragement and advice Lou. As Elena mentions, most of our activities so far have been towards loose-knit community. We want to create ways to talk and share and encourage the conversation to grow, but I don't think anyone is pushing the agenda of creating a tight structure around the community.

I think pretty much every person I've met who identifies themselves as a Content Strategist has said some variation of "I was doing Content Strategy for X years before I ever heard the term." I don't know if that's changing now, with more people self-consciously rebranding themselves, but we're all highly aware that there are a lot of people out there that are practicing content strategy and don't even realize it yet. So, it definitely benefits us to meet these people in the places where they're already meeting and get them to join the conversation!

Plus, anyone who's ever been involved in a content migration can tell you it's a bad idea to have things locked away in self-obsoleting silos.

Comment: R. Stephen Gracey (Jun 8, 2009)

I love what Destry says. Perhaps it's just my personal style, but I find that things go better when I'm helpful, hospitable, and genuine, regardless of what I call myself.

My hope for "content strategy" is that we can very soon give up the need to "define" and "distinguish" it from everything else. I take the position that "if it has to do with the content, then it's content strategy." So my approach is just to look about and offer to help with the content stuff, and people gasp in relief and say, "Oh, would you?! That would be WONDERFUL!"

Let's be the community of folks that people turn to because they just feel better when we're there, doing whatever we can, because everything turns out better when we do, and because they just find us so easy to work with.

I don't care what I'm called, as long as I get to contribute to stuff I care about. For me, that happens to be the content.


Comment: Lou (Jun 8, 2009)

Stephen, I agree: avoid, as best you can, the DTDT (Defining The Damned Thing) trap. Though it's ultimately unavoidable; more thoughts on that here: http://bit.ly/aynS1

Comment: Elena Melendy (Jun 8, 2009)

Thanks for the backup, guys. And Lou, I hear you. But as Kristina Halvorson recently said to me on approximately this very topic, when you throw a party, you can't really control what people are going to bring to it. Even if you tell them to bring an appetizer, they still might show up with wine. So the best you can do is keep circulating and insist they not smoke in the house.

Rahel: What organization? We need good models.

Destry: Don't be so modest. You're one of the leaders in other nations I was referring to.

Rachel: We don't like silos. Silos are bad. Except when there's crop storage involved.


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