Robert Mills

Content Strategist @gathercontent, published author, journalism graduate, collector of typewriters and keeper of cats.

Published Thoughts

Setting your own pace

It can be exhausting trying to keep up with everything. All the blog posts to read, the tools to try, the processes to adopt. It's the bitter sweet way of the web.

On one hand, it's a privilege to have access to so much insightful and helpful information from experts and peers. On the other hand, where's the time to digest all the content and then implement it? Similarly, as you get your head around one way of doing things, another post pops into your Twitter stream and you feel like you have to start again.

In 2016 I'm not going to try and keep up with everything. That's not to say I won't keep reading and learning from all the wonderful resources and people I have access to. It is to say however that I won't be putting any pressure on myself to know everything and to try all the things.

I'll be focused on what I'm doing as a content strategist at GatherContent. I can evaluate my own processes and methods, I can determine what is successful for us and what isn't. And in between all of this, I'll read and learn, but I won't feel the need to act on all the information that I consume.

I'm going to set my own pace.

Priming the Pump

In 2008 I sent a direct message to Stephen Fry. This was around the time he was very active on Twitter, following as many people back that followed him and replying to questions when he could. He replied to mine! I asked him how he combats writer’s block

He replied:

I combat writer's block by writing a diary, just a stream of words in which I talk to myself about how I can't write. Primes the pump x

Yes, he did include the kiss too. That reply has stayed with me and it's a method I have adopted on more than one occasion. It really does work. So next time you're staring at a blank piece of paper or screen, just write. Anything. Then the words you really need will follow, once the pump has been primed.

The fourth wall is a term that I became familiar with many years ago in a media studies class. It's one of my favourites. Traditionally, it refers to the imaginary fourth wall at the front of a theatre stage, where there is f course, also a physical back wall and two side walls. The first known use of this term is cited as being in 1807, so it’s hardly a new concept.

Actors aren't meant to cross this boundary and acknowledge that there are people beyond the wall, the audience. Yet breaking the fourth wall is fairly common. An actor might acknowledge the audience or speak directly down the camera, addressing people. This happens a lot in sitcoms, Scrubs for example. Pantomimes practically knock the fourth wall down with their audience participation. It happens in films too. Norman Bates looks directly at the camera right at the end of Psycho. The fourth wall is also broken in Fight Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Amelie and many more.

On the web we don’t have walls but let's pretend we do and let's smash that fourth wall to smithereens with user testing, surveys and research. We can and should make our audience aware that we know they're there and we're listening. We're listening so that we can give them what they need, when they need it, how they need it, where they need it. Needs! How can we understand the needs of our audience if we don't acknowledge them and speak to them directly? We can't. We can only guess and an uninformed decision is a bad decision.

No matter what we're designing, building, writing content for, testing, all those projects have one thing in common. The fourth wall, an audience. We need to put them front and centre of our work, not relegated to being passive observers.

Hitting the Content Ceiling

We've hit the ceiling.

There's too much content. Correction, there's too much out dated, irrelevant, 'legacy' content on the web. This is the result of publishing to the web becoming easier and more accessible, of content being produced without enough people asking why and because once content has been published, it gets forgotten about as people move onto the next project or post.

Of course there's not a ceiling in the literal sense. It's the web, we can publish forever. That doesn't mean we should.

Why is this an issue? Well it means the web is full of content that no longer serves a purpose. If we do group it as legacy content, is that really the sort of legacy we want to be known for? About and team pages full of people who left many moons ago, old addresses after the office move, pages and whole sections about services that are no longer offered, blog posts from 5 years ago that are just no longer useful or relevant. The list goes on.

We've become digital hoarders and whilst we may not have to live with it, as in we perhaps don't look at our own content once it's out there, our users do. You need to make it your problem.

Content governance is tricky. It can be such a relief to get to the stage where you actually have something meaningful to publish, that the mere thought of having to define further processes for governance is one that can be hard to stomach.

Consider this, you may have lived with your content for months, but your users won't have. It's the first time they have seen it. Publishing is day one.

If you've done it the right way then that content will have been informed by a strategy, it'll be meeting business needs and user goals, it'll be written in a consistent and authentic voice and tone. No wonder you're exhausted!

But that doesn't mean it will always meet those needs and goals, or always target your audience effectively. As your business grows and evolves and as you perhaps target new audiences, where does the content already published fit?

As a content strategist who gets to speak to many different content teams from across varied sectors and industries, some agencies, some in-house, from lots of different countries, I'm hearing the same conversations over and over regardless of those locations and scenarios. We know governance is important, we expect it requires a lot of time and effort, we don't know where to begin.

Well the very fact those people have acknowledged that governance is important and necessary means they have begun. They have taken the first step. But where next?

Audits, inventories, documentation, workflow, there's a lot to consider. Once you have a handle on what content you have then you can start to plan for its governance. This is assuming you already have a website/published content. If you're starting from scratch then you can consider sustainable content from the beginning. Lucky you.

Here are some of my recommended content governance focused resources to give you a head start:

Sustainable Content Strategy Guide

Principles of Content Governance

Managing Chaos

The role of content inventory and audit in governance

It isn't easy to manage content when the to do list is filling up with other priorities, but it is a priority too. Stay relevant, make sure your content is useful, embed processes to make this easier for you and your team and let's stop shelf stacking content so it becomes an uncontrollable, unreachable pile of noise that will eventually come crashing down on us.

That was a tad dramatic but the point is, don't just plan for launch day, think beyond that and let's not be digital hoarders.

What even is engaging content?

‘We need to create engaging content.’ I hear that a lot. I have said it myself on more than one occasion and I have written an article titled Copywriting for Engagement. But no more. I want to create useful content and if that encourages engagement with our brand/product/service, then bonus. But ‘engagement’ won’t be the catalyst for my content production because what even is engaging content?

The definition of ‘engaging’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is:

  • obliging
  • absorbing, interesting
  • winning attractive

Ah! I suppose it’s fair if you want your content to be absorbing and interesting, but that doesn’t mean it is useful too, which it really needs to be. It has to serve a core purpose based on user needs, goals and expectations.

Another definition of ‘engaging’, from Google search results, takes us deeper into the rabbit hole of linguistic fogginess:

  • charming and attractive

When have you ever heard a client say they want their content to be charming and attractive. When have you ever wanted YOUR content to be those things? Please say never.

To pull us back to the surface, somewhat, this definition from dictionary.com is the nearest reason as to why you may describe content as engaging:

  • to occupy the attention or efforts of a person or persons

Ok, but like the first definition, this doesn’t mean this content is serving any purpose beyond someone reading it. Now what?

Measure all the engagement

Well that brings us onto the next tenuous issue with the adjective that has placed me firmly on my soapbox. Measurement. How can you measure if something is engaging? Social media shares, likes, follows, retweets, favourites and mentions all seem to be a common answer for how people measure engagement. It doesn’t add up though when you think about it.

Great, 75 people retweeted the link to your blog post. That’s the most you’ve ever had. Your content must be really engaging. Engagement with your content is successful. Now, how many of the people who retweeted that link are customers, or potential customers, or started a trial of your product/service, or joined a mailing list, or bought something?

Quality or quantity?

If your goal is to encourage and increase all of that social media interaction then you’ve achieved it. I would rather 100 followers who care about what content I’m sharing, find it useful and come back, rather than 1000 followers who won’t have any further interaction with my content beyond one retweet.

Usefulness trumps engagement

Having useful content that elicits engagement is fine, but that’s not where the spotlight should be pointing. To say you create engaging content sounds nice. It sounds like you are producing content that people like, and that may well be the case, but I struggle to see how engaging content can nurture real business benefits whilst helping your users achieve their goal. In most cases where engagement/engaging is used it can be swapped with a more relevant and accurate word:

Let’s write in an engaging tone

Let’s write in an authentic tone

Let’s use engagement as a measure of success

Let’s use increased trial sign-ups as a measure of success

Let’s create engaging content

Let’s create useful content that serves a purpose

The lost meaning

Through repeated and neglectful use, engaging has lost its true meaning. What’s worrying is if conversations about content are happening where engaging and engagement are used to inform and measure content, well it sets teams up for failure because if you were tasked with writing something engaging, where would you start? If you were tasked with reporting on the engagement of the company’s monthly content, where would you start? We’ve already acknowledged that social media stats seem to be the first stop, but then what?

Let’s focus instead on creating useful content. Our users will thank us for it.

We’ve all heard children asking why over and over. I used to be that child and you probably were too. Weren’t we all? Here’s an example:

Child: Why can’t we go outside?

Parent: Because it’s dark

Child: Why?

Parent: Because it’s night time

Child: Why?

Parent: Because we need the night so we can sleep

Child: Why?

Parent: Because we need to rest so we have energy for tomorrow

Child: Why?

Parent: Right, bed time.

This line of questioning is good, however annoying it may seem. The child is showing a thirst for knowledge. They’re developing the cognitive ability to make logical connections as they gain a deeper understanding of the world around them.

Perhaps as adults we’re scared of being caught out if we can’t answer the question. The more we’re asked why, the further down the rabbit hole we might fall. We feel uncomfortable, we question our own knowledge and then we too begin to wonder why.

As we grow up, why gets replaced with more pressing and frequent questions like how much?, what time? and what’s for dinner? But it’s time to start asking why more often. Our web content will be better for it.

I was browsing BuzzFeed recently and as I scrolled through the listicles and quizzes one in particular caught my eye. The titles was:

Which Disney grandparent should be your next f**k buddy?

Huh! A quiz about sex, Disney and fictional, animated older folk. What a time to be alive. In all seriousness, it does beg the question, why?

Why has this been published? I’m genuinely interested in the reason. Link baiting? To provoke? A bit of mindless fun? I tweeted about it and someone replied ‘because it’s BuzzFeed.’ A fair response given the sort of content they are known for, and seemingly flourishing with.

I don’t know what the content strategy, production process, editorial values, guidelines and sign off procedures are at BuzzFeed. I wish I did. But what I do know is that publishing to the web is easier and more accessible than ever and as a result content is being shelf stacked higher and higher. That is, more and more is being published but not as much audited and governed. But it’s the web, there is no ceiling, we’ll just keep stacking and stacking. The noise is becoming deafening and irrelevant, inaccurate, outdated and poorly written content is finding its way into all crevices of the web. It seems we’re powerless to stop it.

Asking why can be the beginning of the noise reduction.

We want to start a company Twitter account

Why?

We think we need a blog.

Why?

I want to publish this article about how much fun our office is.

Why?

Let’s start publishing three posts a week instead of one.

Why?

There are so many other questions that need to be asked too of course. Who, how, when, where, then what and many more. But asking why when these request are made is a good start before any strategy is developed and implemented.

The person on the receiving end of your questioning may feel uncomfortable, they may feel challenged, they may tell you it’s bed time but there’s value in scrutinising everything until there are no uncertainties remaining in terms of whether the content/requirement leads you toward a business goal, helps a user and serves a real purpose and benefit.

Aiming for the content bullseye

I had an archery lesson recently. On the first round of shots, more arrows than I care to admit landed in the grass before the target. On the next few rounds I was hitting the board the target was on, but not the target itself. Soon I started hitting the outer circles of the target and very occasionally, the bullseye. I was making progress.

It took a while before I got any clusters. When I did they were in the middle at the top. I started lowering my aim and as the instructor predicted, I was soon landing the arrows in a cluster closer to the middle of the target. 

What relevance does this have other than me sharing my weekend pursuits? Well since joining GatherContent as their content strategist in March, I’ve been learning a lot. Content Strategy involves many things. Research, planning, data, writing, managing, maintaining, numbers, words, and just as importantly, trying new things.

We’ve done the groundwork. I understand our audiences, we have data informed personas, the use cases and customer journeys are mapped out, we know our personality and tone well enough to be authentic and consistent, we talk to customers and we keep reviewing, refining and learning.

So when it comes to the actual content production, I’m confident in many of the decisions I make. I know the audience that will value our new guide about content strategy for UX designers, for example. I can put an effective distribution plan together for our guide on managing digital projects. But there are some areas where I’m firing arrows without much experience or practice.

The blog content is always interesting for example. I commission guest posts based on several criteria, the topic and how it fits with our strategy, the appeal to our audience, the advice and learnings it offers and how it fits with other content on the blog. But there’s never any guarantee that any posts will hit the bullseye in terms of social shares, views, feedback, lead generation, marketing site visits and any other metrics linked to traffic from our blog.

I always assumed that our interviews would be some of the most popular content we publish. The bullseye or at the very least, the red circle around the sought after yellow dot. A content audit of the blog taught me otherwise. My assumptions were squashed and immediately replaced with insights. 

The audit allowed me to see the clusters, in this case, topics, and learn about what worked and what didn’t. I could then make informed decisions for future blog content, commissioning articles that are more likely to be well received, to hit or be near to the bullseye.

That learning results in informed decisions and that results in fewer misses and more bullseyes. So what do your clusters tell you? I definitely encourage you to find out at the nearest opportunity.

Any Fool Can Know

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying ‘any fool can know, the point is to understand’. He was right, of course. There is certainly a difference between knowing and understanding. Here are some examples:

  • I know how to drive a car but I don’t understand how a car works
  • I know what the holographic principle is but I certainly don’t understand it
  • I know you’re upset but I don’t understand why

    Knowing is to have knowledge of something. Understanding that 'thing' allows you to act on that knowledge and use it practically. As a content strategist I'm continually striving to move from knowing to understanding. It’s one thing to know that you have 28,000 unique visitors to your site a month but it’s another to understand their behaviours, lifestyles, media consumption, expenditure, needs, goals and motivations.

    It's good to know you have over 11,000 followers on Twitter, but what posts does that audience share most, what do they respond to, what do they engage with? Yes, we have over 20,000 people on our mailing list, but when did they sign up, what pages, what campaigns, have they started a free trial, did they convert, were they referred? I know the numbers, I need to understand everything else to make our marketing and communication effective.

    When I worked at BBC Wales in the audiences team I was amazed at how many people involved in programme making, storytelling and editorial didn’t actually understand their audience. They knew them (although they were sometimes wrong about that too) but they never got beneath the top level data. They may have had 360,000 viewers but knew nothing more about the individuals that made up that number.

    Sometimes knowing is enough but often you need to have an understanding. I need the latter in order to make informed decisions about what content to produce, who to write it for, where to publish it, and how to distribute it effectively as part of our content strategy. I don't want to be a fool, I want to understand.

  • Every word counts

    The difference between ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m in love with you’ is only a few words but they can mean very different things. Just a couple of words, a very different situation or conversation. Words have clout, they can make you smile, cry, panic, agree, disagree, sign up, unsubscribe, follow or buy and those are just a few of the ways they affect us.

    Words also have the ability to influence how you sound. Will your tone be informal, sympathetic, corporate, simple or complicated. Will you call people customers, users, clients, partners? Do you deal with patients, sufferers, victims or those in need? Do you want people to register, join or sign up? Each has its own tone and connotations.

    But only when I started using a 1920's Underwood typewriter to send letters did I start to focus on each individual word I wrote and with that came the reaffirmation that every word counts.

    As I typed, I was so distracted by the hypnotic click click click of the vintage keys, soon followed by the delightful high pitched ping of the bell as the carriage reached the end of the line, that I hadn't quite noticed the number of mistakes in what I had written.

    We're so used to being able to hit the delete key and wipe our mistakes from existence without anyone knowing. We can remove that word here or swap those words over there. Heck, we can make the whole thing disappear and come back with the click of a button.

    On a typewriter the mistakes aren't so temporary. Correction tape helps but then it doesn't look perfect, the way we like things to be so the facade of our abilities doesn't seem cracked.

    I had written 600 words of an article on my typewriter earlier this year and then it happened. The clicking held me in its hypnotic audible joy and I pressed the wrong key.

    I tore the paper out of the typewriter and started again. 300 words later I made a different mistake. I went back a space and typed over the wrong letter with the right one but now I had an illegible character that stood out like a sore thumb.

    Tear; load, align, start again. It was the fifth attempt that got me from the first to the last word of the article without a mistake. On the third the carriage shifted so one word was higher than the others. On the fourth the H key stuck and when I put it back in place I knocked the ink ribbon and the perfectly formed words were blemished with a smudge. Thankfully the click click ping as the words unfolded kept me calm and optimistic.

    I'm fairly efficient at using a typewriter now. The clicks are quicker, like a piano player climbing through the ranks of different grades and ability. The mistakes are less frequent too but the feeling of frustration when you notice one never wanes or becomes less frustrating.

    It takes every ounce of my concentration when I use my typewriter. I have to focus on every letter and therefore every word as I press one letter at a time with complete care. That process has made me a better writer. I now know where I can be more succinct with my writing and how I can be more stringent with my self editing process. I've realised that whether writing for the web, a brochure, a tweet, a call to action or a thank you note, every word counts and we need to take care in choosing them wisely.