Colleen Jones: CS Forum podcast episode 5

Listen to the latest podcast from our series featuring CS Forum speakers. This week, Colleen Jones talks to Destry about how people are using the web, what disciplines can teach each other about content, and her exclusive CS Forum workshop.

In the fifth episode of the Content Strategy Forum podcast, we interview Colleen Jones, one of our workshop speakers.

“Technical communication and marketing and user experience have a lot of opportunity in working together and collaborating with each other.”

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Welcome again to the Content Strategy Forum 2011 podcast series. I’m Destry Wion and you are listening to episode #5. Today I talk with Colleen Jones, who will be joining us at the Forum and leading one of the four workshops.

In case you’re tuning in for the first time, CS Forum 11 is taking place in central London from the 5–7 September. That’s two days of presentations and a third full day of workshops. Plenty of soirees and socializing are planned for as well, including the kick-off BBQ on the evening of September 4th. Note: only 100 tickets will be sold for the BBQ, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

Of course, a big BBQ kick-off party overlooking the Thames in central London isn’t the only reason to register early. Use this discount code—PODCAST05—by the 26 April, and receive an extra £50 off the early bird rate. That’s a total of £150 less than the normal conference pass rate if you register by 26 April.

And there’s more. All early bird registrants will be automatically entered into a prize drawing where nearly 50 publisher prizes will be randomly given away—like recently published titles from Colleen Jones and Erin Kissane to complete Rosenfeld Media and A Book Apart libraries (packages that include print and ebook versions).

Destry Wion: Now, my guest today, Colleen Jones, is Founder and Principal of Content Science, and, of course, author of the fantastic book, Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content. She’s also a frequent author in respected publications like UXMatters, and speaks internationally about content and UX at conferences large and small. In fact, I was thrilled to have Colleen present last year at the Content Strategy Forum in Paris. We are very lucky to have Colleen again this year in a different capacity, giving a unique workshop especially for CS Forum 11.

So, without further ado, hi, Colleen.

Colleen Jones: Hi, Destry.

Destry: It’s very, very nice to talk to you again.

Colleen: It’s nice to talk to you. Thanks, so much, for having me.

Destry: I can’t believe it’s been a year and one volcano already.

Colleen: [laughter] Well, I hope you’re keeping a lid on the volcano this year.

Destry: [laughter] Yeah. In your book you explain that the way people use the web is changing. And, our approach, a content professional’s approach to that, needs to change in response. Can you elaborate a little bit on that? How are people using the web these days and in turn, what should be the content professional’s response to that change?

Colleen: Well, one way that the web is changing is that simply people are using it more. One indication of that is some research that Forester did. They report that Americans say that they’re spending as much time on the web as they do watching TV. And, as you know, Americans love their TV. So, that means Americans are spending a lot of time on the web. And, that’s just one indicator. That suggests to me that Americans aren’t just using the web to get some information and then leave to find a document and then leave or do a task and then leave. That suggests to me that people are hanging out on the web more.

And, I think one of the big things they’re hanging out for is content. And so, how that affects our approach to content is we need to think about what people are visiting the web for other than tasks and how our content supports that, fits into that, influences that.

And, it’s a little different for each organization or company or brand that’s trying to accomplish something online, but that’s the basic principle. And, I think it’s partly why this notion of companies as publishers has really caught on. I think that, to some extent, helps sort of capture what this change in how people use the web means to companies and organizations.

Destry: Right. Interesting. Well, it sounds a little bit different from what Gerry McGovern discussed in our first podcast interview. He talks about tasks and content as a way of helping users complete those tasks. I mean, is it different or is it similar? Would you agree with some of the things he said? Did you happen to catch that podcast interview, by change?

Colleen: I did. Yeah, I did. And, I thought it was very consistent with the work, especially the books that he’s written. And, as far as my perspective being different, I would say yes and no. Yes and no I agree with Gerry McGovern. You know, to me, he really has a command of content that supports tasks. He really knows that, owns that, gets that very well. And, however, now we know that people are hanging out on the web and they’re looking for guidance for, entertainment for, inspiration for social connection and more than tasks. A lot of that kind of content doesn’t support a direct action, a task. Instead, it influences more of a person’s attitude or what a person thinks. And, that attitude, of course, often influences action later.

So, as a simple example, last year I worked with the retailer, Foot Smart, on developing a strategy for niche editorial content. Foot Smart was already successful. They were ranked 175 on the Internet Retailer 500. But, the CEO saw opportunity in using content as a way to advise their customers.

And so, we looked at topics and themes that connected comfort footwear with lower body health. And, to ensure that the content was useful, we based the ideas partly on questions that they would get from customers on FaceBook and in emails and so on.

So, people were already kind of looking to them for guidance and advice on these issues. And, the CEO at Foot Smart decided to take that to another level with niche editorial content.

But, you don’t have to take my word necessarily for this approach. It seems to be real enough that it’s affecting business models. So, the Wall Street Journal had an article not too long ago about retail and media, or what we would call content, combining business models.

So, I would say this whole area of content that supports attitude based on how people are using the web now is where I would be a little bit different in my perspective from Gerry.

Destry: I can’t help but think of like FaceBook use and different kinds of use that could be described as pleasure or spontaneous and these mediums that are suited to that connectedness, not necessarily a task in a business sense either, but, you know, just entertainment almost.

Colleen: Yeah. Yeah. And, that’s where strategy is really important because you could easily get yourself in a situation where you’re trying to take on way too much content and can’t sustain it, can’t keep it at a good quality, and so, really thinking about, OK, what is really the best way to use all the methods, all the channels, and the opportunity in this kind of content. It takes a lot of discipline almost.

Destry: Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s a lot of energy behind discussions of CS, and there are people with different content backgrounds, if you will, in these discussions. What do you think for those professionals who focus on different types of content, what can they learn from each other? For example, what can marketers learn from technical communicators and user experience designers? And likewise, what can TC’ers and UX’ers learn from marketers?

Colleen: I think there’s a lot that we can all learn from each other. And, I feel over the years I’ve learned a lot from these different perspectives. And, I tend to combine them in my content work and strategy work and so on. I see a lot of value in it. In my opinion, good marketers can teach UX designers and tech com folks about customer attitude and branding or especially what customers think about a brand or the type of customers that a company is trying to attract through a brand. Good marketers really, in my experience, understand branding and value proposition.

So, that can be really valuable for thinking about content that influences people’s attitudes.

UX designers and technical communicators, of course, can teach marketers a lot about how content fits into an overall customer experience or user experience. They can offer good guidance about when a customer should see certain content.

In my experience, sometimes marketers get a little bit overly zealous with promotion. They want to get out there and campaign. They want to get out there and where in a customer user experience that occurs. And, UX designers and technical communicators can help with figuring out an appropriate place to put those sorts of marketing pieces.

And, of course, UX designers and technical communicators can teach marketers a whole lot about supporting tasks with content. So, having the right topics covered, having the right format for a content, – scanable, chunked and all these good things, marketers can learn a lot from.

Destry: So, they really need to get together more and collaborate more if there’s still these divisions in their departments and what not.

Colleen: Absolutely. Absolutely. I would love to see that happen more.

Destry: Yeah, we need that to happen more. [laughter]

Colleen: [laughter] Yeah, we do. Yes, I like that. It must happen more.

Destry: It must happen, yeah. In your book you talk about how influence isn’t necessarily the same for every country or culture, which I think is an interesting, interesting topic. What advice would you give content strategists dealing with international audiences and multi lingual content?

Colleen: I think that many professionals in our space understand some of the basics of international communication and content – some of the basics of avoiding controversial topics and avoiding slang. But, in this global economy, there’s a lot at stake with international content. McKinsey recently reported that by 2025, the year 2025, most of the world’s middle class households will be in emerging markets. And, that just kind of blows my mind. I work with a lot of international companies, a lot of Fortune 500 headquarters in Atlanta, and I think now is a great time to make the case for a more sophisticated approach to international content. There’s just a lot of potential value there.

And, if you’re a content strategist, I’d look closely at when to take kind of the globalized approach, which is having essentially the same content translated pretty much as it is. And, you can single source that and potentially save a lot of money taking that approach.

And, it’s also worth looking at when to take a more localized approach which will potentially cost more money up front because you’re developing really customized localized content that taps into the local culture.

And, that might cost more money, but it might earn you more money because it better resonates and reaches your audiences or your customers.

And so, there are a lot of strategic decisions that need to be made there. And then, once you make those decisions, there’s a lot to think about for either approach.

And, for a localized approach, in my book I talk a little bit about just how forceful you are with sales type or promotional type content might need to be different for different countries. Americans were pretty used to marketing and we tend to have a pretty high tolerance for very forceful statements. But, other countries an cultures really see that as a turn off.

And so, if you’re not conscious of that, you could really make some bad content choices and suffer as a result.

Destry: Right, definitely. I mean, Gerry McGovern recently wrote an article about technical communication is the new sales. And, the reason I bring this up is, as we’re talking here, it’s looping back through all these great ideas about collaborating with different content professionals and the localization and what not. And, the thing about this particular paper that I thought was really cool was that, for one thing, technical writing, technical documents being the thing that makes the sale and saving money and really addressing kind of a business objective.

And, when you put that into a localization sense, too, one of the things he said was well, you have an appliance, for example, that ships with it’s user documentation, it’s a multi fold out thing inside the box, and, it’s in like 15 different languages. And, somewhere along the line you should know that the guy was ordering it in Berlin and he probably only needs it in German or maybe English at the most.

So, you know, here’s thing in 15 languages and probably not very well written and translated in a way that is kind of normalized across all these languages and probably not particularly suited well for the one, you know?

And so, interesting discussion. Interesting ideas all the way around.

Colleen: Yeah, I think content really supports and guides a customer through the entire process. So, from the time that that customer learned about this appliance from that company, through the point of buying it, through the point of getting it and getting that documentation, all of that is content and there needs to be connection and cohesiveness there. And, a lot of companies don’t think about it that way. And, I completely agree that there’s a lot of opportunity and that’s part of the reason why technical communication and marketing and user experience really, I think, have a lot of opportunity in working together and collaborating with each other.

Destry: Definitely. Well, Colleen, now that you’ve written Clout, I mean, you’ve put a lot of effort into it and all those case studies researched and interviews done and time alone focusing and thinking about it. In your opinion, what is another content book that could be written, that should be written, or might be relevant to write in another year or so? Where do you think, what’s your prediction? I mean, what do you think is missing that needs to be kind of focused on more or could be?

Colleen: I would, I mean, if you gave me a lot of time to think about that, I’d come up with like 20 answers. But, I think a book about editorial strategy would be wonderful.

Destry: Well, I was just reading this article of Jeff’s, right, his second one in the series since joining Arc90, and the content strategy of product, product strategy as he’s talking about and business models are the business of content people. And, whenever I read Jeff’s stuff, I’m always like oh, wow, that’s pretty deep, you know? I mean, to me it’s always pretty deep the way he puts it, and very intriguing. And, it seems to me that something like that could be viable.

We think that mobile is still going to go very strong, right? I don’t know, do you think a book on mobile specifically, mobile content, do you think there’s enough there for that?

Colleen: I’m a little bit torn on that. I think that there is. You know, the big concept that people talk about with mobile is context, and you really need to be thinking about context in whatever you’re doing when it comes to content and design. So, I’m a little bit torn. A lot of it, to me, is just taking these principles that we already know and really factoring in geography and the device people are using.

But, I do think there would be merit in a book about that. I think especially a really practically focused, maybe even tactically focused book about that could be huge because in a larger strategy, to me, mobile is one component of a larger strategy.

Destry: Well, I’m not planning to write a book myself. That’s not why I’m asking these questions. [laughter] But, I just think it’s interesting because looking ahead and CS is really enjoying a lot of momentum, and I think there’s some interesting things that still could be talked about. And, technology and the web, I mean, the rate at which it just evolves now is so quick that it’s really hard to say what is going to be relevant just now, but five years from now. It’s exciting. It’s real exciting and strange at the same time.

Colleen: Yeah, it is. We will never ever be bored. [laughter]

Destry: [laughter]

Colleen: There’s so much going on in, really in all the spaces that you’ve covered. And, there are a lot of possibilities. So, I think it’s going to be really fun to see what people do now that there’s more awareness of content strategy and principles and techniques and ways of thinking about it. It’s going to be really fun to see what people come up with, the products, the services, the innovations that people come up with. And, like you said, with the technology also evolving, you know, we’ll have new possibilities to factor in.

And, it’s just going to be, I think, a really positive cycle.

Destry: I agree. I agree. Positive and exciting.

Colleen: Yes, yes.

Destry: Well, one more question, Colleen. And, I’d like to turn this one to your workshop, actually, that you’re going to be giving in September because it’s going to be a fun one and unique one. What can you share about it to people who might be thinking about coming?

Colleen: Well, I’m really excited about it because it’s the only public workshop I’m giving this year. So, I’m investing a lot of time and effort in planning it. So, it’s going to be special.

Destry: Cool.

Colleen: Yeah. And, people who attend it can expect an intermediate level workshop. I think, you know, the basics of concept strategy have been, and continue to be really well covered. And so, this workshop is going to be a bit more intermediate. And, we’re going to have a good combination of presentation, realistic hands on activities and productive discussion. And so, my goal is to give someone who attends everything that they need to make their content more compelling and start to access whether it’s working.

Destry: Nice.

Colleen: So, the three hours are going to fly by. [laughter]

Destry: Well, there’s a rumor that you might be, in fact, taking some ideas, projects that people are actually working on, and using those as examples in the workshop.

Colleen: Yes. I’ll be inviting people who sign up for the workshop to share examples of what they’re working on and their questions about them or just their questions. And, I’ll be, of course with permission, incorporating those examples into the workshop and also incorporating some time to essentially give some consulting about the questions that I get. So, it will be some good quality time with lean.

Destry: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, thank you, very much, Colleen. I can’t wait to see you again in September. And, I’m sure the people who have been listening to this are going to be very excited to take part in the workshop.

Colleen: Well, thank you for having me, a pleasure to chat with you, as always. And, I am really looking forward to seeing you in September, it’s going to come up fast here, and really being a part of content strategy forum again.

Destry: My podcasting interview skills are a little rusty, as you may have picked up on, but I appreciate your time and we will talk to you again soon. Thank you, so much, Colleen.

Colleen: Thank you, Destry.

You’ve been listening to episode 5 of the CS Forum podcast series, featuring Colleen Jones. You can subscribe to future episodes at, and also find our series under Podcasts in iTunes. Don’t forget to register for the conference using the discount code—PODCAST05—by the 26 April to save £50 on top of the early-bird rate. Thanks for listening.