Eric Reiss: CS Forum podcast episode 2

Listen to the second podcast from a series featuring CS Forum speakers. This week, Eric Reiss talks to Destry about content strategy, information architecture, and why it’s time to stop marking our territory.

In the second episode of the Content Strategy Forum podcast, we interview Eric Reiss, one of our invited speakers.

“We’re spending too much time marking our territory and not enough time trying to reach out to the business people, to the people who are actually going to pay us to do this work.”

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Destry: Welcome to episode 2 of the CS Forum podcast series. I’m Destry Wion, and today I’m talking to Eric Reiss, one of our speakers at Content Strategy Forum 2011.

As a reminder…the Forum is from the 5th to the 7th of September in central London. That’s three days of inspiring presentations, engaging workshops, and fun parties. You should definitely be there with us. Find out more at and register using the code — PODCAST02 — by the 31st March for a £50 GBP discount on the early-bird rate.

Destry: Eric Reiss is CEO of FatDUX, committee chair for the EuroIA conference, an accomplished speaker, and the author of the book Practical Information Architecture, just to name a few things. He also has his own Wikipedia page, where you can learn much more about Eric than we have time to cover today.

And with that, let’s bring the man in…

Eric thanks so much for finding the time.

Eric Reiss: Well Destry thank you so much coming. And by the way let me say to the listening audience that if they’re going to check that Wikipedia page do it now, because after like five years somebody on the editorial committee of the Wikipedia got smart enough to say, “Who is this guy? Why is he worthy of the Wikipedia?” So I think they’re actually going to take it down, which will undoubtedly make the Wikipedia a much better place.

Destry:Well, they have some rather aggressive editors there, you know.

Eric Reiss: They do. And of course that’s what makes things good. If people are not willing to take a standpoint and have an opinion then… Well, I don’t know. The world is a better place for people who have a point of view, and have an opinion.

Destry: Yes, absolutely.

Eric Reiss: And the Wikipedia has been criticized for years and years, because it’s, well, my goodness, are we going to let fourth graders edit comments that are written by a Nobel Laureate on aerospace? And Jimmy Wales has addressed many of these issues. And I think that what’s happening now is that we’ve certainly seen that a lot of people have tried to get profiles of themselves up on Wikipedia as kind of an alternative to LinkedIn. It’s like a little better than just being on LinkedIn. Anybody can be on LinkedIn, but the Wikipedia.

And in my case, somebody had come along and said, “Oh my goodness, this is a guy who wrote a book on information architecture.” And so my page turned up about the same time as Peter Morville’s and Lou Rosenfeld’s and Kristina Wodtke’s and other people who had written about information architecture.

But over the years what was curious was that people actually contributed to it. And it was like my college roommate, my freshmen year. You can sort of see out the names, who is contributing to this, but it doesn’t necessarily make it worthwhile.

And so in content strategy terms I think the Wikipedia has made a very wise choice to try and weed out kind of this stuff that really isn’t important. And we don’t want anyone to ever see the Wikipedia become a popular or a more exclusive version of LinkedIn. And I think that’s what the content editors are trying to do right now.

And I applaud them for it. I’m actually kind of looking forward to the day when people take down my profile because I don’t think I particularly deserve to be there.

Destry: [laughs] Well, it’s nice that you have your own page. I mean not many people can say that. But there you have it, people, if you want to see that page you’d better get to it quick. So Eric…

Eric Reiss: But it’s all about content strategy, isn’t it?

Destry: Yeah.

Eric Reiss: And yeah, that’s what we’re supposed to be talking about. It’s how do we arrive at our goals for any particular project? And I think this is one of the areas that I have problems with, because when I talk about content strategy and talk to others who consider themselves content strategists. Because the truth is strategy is a military term. And it’s a question of setting goals. This is what we’re going to do. And it’s very distinct from tactics, which are plans. They’re much more operational.

And so when people say, “Oh, well, content strategy is a plan for how you’re going to set…” Uh, well then you shouldn’t be calling it strategy, because it’s not a plan.

In the military what people say is look the definition, the easy definition of tactics is, all right, the strategy is the general says, “Men we’re going to take that hill.” That’s the goal. Enough said. That’s the extent of the strategy, OK? “We’re going to take the hill. We’re going to invade Europe and Normandy. We are going to whatever.”

The tactics is what the poor second lieutenant, platoon leader, or the sergeant who is leading a squad is responsible for doing to affect this goal. So it’s like skinny guys behind trees, fat guys behind rocks. That’s tactics.

Destry:Destry: Well, that’s a good way to delineate it, yeah.

Eric Reiss: And I hear the word strategy bandied about in ways that I don’t particularly like it. And I think that ultimately it’s going to screw our industry, because suddenly everything becomes strategy. There was an interesting article on “A List Apart” and I’m wondering if it wasn’t Kristina Halvorson. I mean it was a good article. But there were, I don’t know, six-seven things that had to do with these are all the bits and pieces of content strategy. There’s metadata strategy. And I said, “Wait a minute. What do you mean metadata strategy?” There’s content information development dissemination strategy.

I think it’s making things a little too difficult. I mean metadata is data about data. Either it works or it doesn’t work. Either it reflects your data, your page or it doesn’t reflect your page.

What is a metadata strategy? At one point you’ve got to stop thinking about “We’re going to take the hill,” and start figuring out how you’re actually going to do it.

Destry: OK. Well, let’s go back a second, Eric, because in one of your articles that you wrote at FatDUX you mentioned that you’ve had content strategist on your business card now for about seven years, which is probably a lot longer than a lot of people calling themselves content strategists today certainly have been themselves.

Eric Reiss: Yes, well, but see this is like my Wikipedia page. These are going to be collector’s items, and people will go to the way back machine and they will be buying print outs on eBay instead.

Destry: [laughs] So you’ve given a little bit idea I mean about where you see some troubles, but just in your own words then, what do you see content strategy as being, rather a job title, a discipline, or a methodology, a process? I mean do you see it as a process in user experience? Do you see it as equivalent to something that’s more feasible in the field, or has been given more focus for the last 10 years?

Eric Reiss: Well, that’s a really good question Destry, and I’m not sure that I have a very good answer for it. Because the truth is I’ve tried for an awful long time to try to define at least in my own head what content strategy is. And there are several definitions out there. For me it means giving visitors wherever whatever they need, content, so they can make a decision, or carry out a task, do whatever they want to do.

The strategy part lies in how we present this content to influence whatever decisions or tasks are necessary. In other words are we putting this on a mobile, are we putting it on a website, are we going to put a better signage in our department store. What are we going to do? This is the strategic part of it.

And you know, if we’re going to do a site-map for a website we call it information architecture. And if we put somebody in a department store to wait on people, then we call it the service design. And yeah, it’s all content strategy, and this is all well and good, but I’m not sure that we’re doing our community a service by inventing a new term called content strategy.

And I don’t think that it is particularly well defined. As a matter of fact Kristina Halvorson’s book, which by the way is excellent, yeah, she gets to like chapter three before she even defines what content strategy is.

And even there she is a little vague as to what it might be. Before the interview I looked it up, it’s on page 32, 32 of an 180 page book. That is… What is that? 17 percent of a book that you have to read before you actually know what the title means?

Destry: Maybe she was building up the suspense you know.

Eric Reiss: Well that could be. Look, it’s a great book. And I have the utmost respect for Kristina Halvorson. And I didn’t mean that to be snarky, but I think that it does illustrate part of the problem that our industry is feeling right now in that we’ve got a lot of contending terms out there. And what does this actually mean to the end-user client. And what worries me is that I saw this happened back in 1999-2000 where the large organizations, you know, everybody had some sexy business card with some scrubbed title that nobody understood like goddess of information architecture.

And when the dot-com bomb came the clients wised up and said I don’t necessarily need 15 people to do the job of two.

Destry: Yeah.

Eric Reiss: And so I’m looking at people who were technical writers, and information architects, and content strategists, and a bunch of others and wondering so what are all these people bringing to the table. And I realized that there are just different skill-sets involved, but I’m not entirely sure that there are different people always involved.

Destry: So do you think content strategy is happening too fast? It’s been a couple years now, I wrote an article where I just kind of made a humorous play of content strategy against the Oklahoma Land Rush of the 1800s. And at the time, I was really referring that to it being an alternative career choice for people like journalist or technical writers, who might be, you know, maybe for whatever pressures, are considering alternative options. But since then, I mean there’s really been a lot of companies that have popped up, a lot people changing their titles, even conferences that are changing their names to kind of capitalize on the CS movement, as it were. Do you think some of these things that are happening are at such a rate that people aren’t really prepared to deliver on the promise?

Eric Reiss: Well, I think that the people who should be buying our services, whatever name is on your business card, are still pretty uninformed, and they’re also scared. They’ve got burned 10 years ago during the dot bomb by the goddess of information architecture and whoever else was out there. And today, they feel… they still feel uncomfortable, because they have, first and foremost, social media to contend with. They don’t really know what that is about, and we’ve got a lot of people running around who claim to be social media gurus who are going into companies and giving them extremely bad advice.

Destry: Yeah.

Eric Reiss: And social media and putting together a social media strategy is not exactly rocket science either. You’re creating a conversation with your brand. And there is no such thing as social media in marketing. Marketing is broadcast and social media is dialogue. It’s really a paradigm change that the marketers don’t understand and the business owners feel uncomfortable with. And it certainly doesn’t help that we send people in, and just because they have a couple of thousand followers on Twitter, that suddenly, “Well, I know how this works.” Because the truth is, they may not necessarily be particularly good communicators. It’s confusing the issue.

So to bring it back to your original question, Destry, “Where are we at, are we moving too fast? No”… Well, yeah, I think we are moving too fast, because I don’t think that people understand the basic issues. And suddenly, I hear from some of our more informed clients, they say, “Well, Eric, so tell us, what is the difference between content strategy and information architecture?”

And I’m delighted to have the question, on the one hand; and on the other hand, I’m sorry that there should even be confusion in the marketplace, because the market just isn’t that big. The truth is, people should be worrying more about actually writing some decent content and writing some decent metadata than spending time working out reports on what their strategy should be for writing decent content.

Destry: So you do get inquiries then, FatDUX, I mean, about content strategy and what that’s all about?

Eric Reiss: Yeah, but some of that has to do with the fact that I do have content strategist on my business card – and have had for many years. But I’m going to take it off now. I put it on there for the simple reason that nobody knew what an information architect was. And I think today, people have a greater understanding for what information architecture is and what it brings to the table, in terms of identifying content, organizing it into useful categories, giving it names that people understand and putting it some place where people can actually use it. To a great extent, these are also the goals of content strategy.

Destry: Well…

Eric Reiss: So I think that information architecture could possibly win out. But this, then again… I mean, even that I consider the term ‘win out,’ I find problematical. Because this is a very little industry; this is a very new industry. We have a business community that feels very, very uncertain and are unwilling to devote the resources to our work that they do to… For example, offline, they know what a brochure costs. They know what it costs to put together their annual report.

For us, oh well, it’s just recycled electrons and the neighbor kid used to be able to program. So, why should this cost so much money? And we’re shooting all kinds of phrases at them. And I can’t quite figure out: do they feel that we are trying to con them by inventing fancy names for what we do, or do these names exist because there’s actually value behind them?

Destry: Interesting. So do you think there’s a little bit of a splintering effect in communities, then, because of this…

Eric Reiss: A little splintering effect? There’s an enormous splintering effect. Listen, I mean, we’ve got at least six different organizations vying for membership right now from the same rather limited pool of experts. And when I say experts, I mean people who actually have some modicum of experience in the production of websites and apps and so on, things involved with content. So we got six organizations; we’ve got lord knows how many conferences. Even in the United States, we can see that interaction, which is done by the IxDA, which is a superb conference, there are an awful lot of the same people who will… I mean, earlier this month, it was in Boulder, Colorado. Well, next month, everybody is going to go back to Denver for the IA Summit. This doesn’t make sense to me.

Destry: Yeah. Well, yesterday, just on that thought of division as it were, or not, Rachel Lovinger wrote an article in “Scatter/Gather,” where she summarized some takeaways from the recent Intelligent Content Conference in Palm Springs. And one of the things she says there, which I thought was interesting and favorable to the support of communities… In fact, I’ll just read it quickly, because she says it much more eloquently than I do. “Too many disciplines are having similar conversations in isolation. People practicing technical communications, web content strategy, instructional design, marketing, user experience, et cetera, have a lot to learn from each other. Conferences like this and other content focused conferences coming this year should help create the bridges that are needed.”

Now, CS Forum is one of those implied conferences. And I can tell you that one of our objectives is to exactly do what she’s suggesting, that is, bringing people together from different trains of thought into the same discussions to learn from one another and move this whole thing forwards together.

I’ve heard IA say that, “Yes, CS is a valid thing. It’s slightly different than what we do. There’s overlap. And I recognized how, under ideal conditions, that helps me and I help them and we’re all needed.”

But I thought that was a very astute thing for Rachel to say and recognize. And apparently, it was talked quite a bit of it at that conference, which is a very, I’m expecting was a lot of technical topics about structured content and that sort of thing.

So this is why we’re having you, Eric. [laughs] No, not solely. But we know that you have some perspective about other things that content strategists need to hear.

Eric Reiss: Well, all right. First of all, let me say that I think that Rachel Lovinger….ah, Lovingar… How do you pronounce it by the way? Lovinger?

Destry: If I’m not mistaken, Lovinger, yes.

Eric Reiss: Well, Rachel Lovinger is one of the smartest people on the planet.

Destry: Lovingar. Excuse me, Lovingar.

Eric Reiss: Well, she’s still smart. Rachel. From Razorfish for goodness sakes.

Destry:> Yes.

Eric Reiss: And she’s had a lot to say, for example, on the role of metadata and content strategy. And it’s just been brilliant stuff, because metadata is one of these areas that is so completely overlooked. It’s so easy to ignore metadata until it’s too late, and then you get somebody in who starts to do search engine optimization. He says, “Well, you know, we’re going to charge you like hundreds of thousands of dollars to do metadata.” Anyway, Rachel is like really, really smart. And I agree with that article. I think she’s making extremely important points here.

Destry: Yeah.

Eric Reiss: The only thing I can add to that is that, I’m tired of everybody trying to mark their own territory.

Destry: Yeah, yeah.

Eric Reiss: We had a cat; we had an aggressive… he was a feisty little cat. His name was Gus, and he had a fairly large territory behind our house. And over the years, as Gus got older and was not as willing to fight, his territory got smaller and smaller, and so we actually had other cats that went into to the backyard while Gus would sit on the back porch and sort of glare at them. I think we got a lot of cats fighting for territory right now. And rather than using our efforts to combat each other and to convince, well, whomever, that information architecture is better than content strategy, which is better than information design, which is better than interaction design, which is not exactly the same as user experience design, which certainly is not the same as experience design, user experience design and experience design are two completely different things. It goes on.

Destry: Yeah, yeah.

Eric Reiss: I do not think that this is good for us. Because the truth is, we’re a small community, we have a lot to offer, and the people that should be listening to us are not getting smarter because we’re not educating them. We’re spending too much time marking our territory and not enough time trying to reach out to the business people, to the people who are actually going to pay us to do this work.

Destry: I think this is a problem, and I agree with you. But I also think that there’s a lot of people who recognize it as a problem and are saying exactly what you’re saying and want to stop doing that. And again, this is kind of what I see these forums of being contributing to, as to kind of: let’s get together and do it together. Well, Eric, we’re…

Eric Reiss: Right. And I’m delighted to part of the forum. And please make… I don’t want anyone to miss interpret my comments, I mean, even regarding Kristina Halvorson’s book, which I think is a great book. OK. I think that we have a problem. We’re so confused within the CS community as to, well, what exactly is the definition of CS, that we’re not moving the industry forward.

Destry: Yeah.

Eric Reiss: I can go out and it doesn’t take more… If I search for definition of content strategy on Google, I’ll get five or six articles up in the top ten that all have contending definitions. Now, that’s not particularly good.

Destry: No. And we don’t see you hanging around in the like the Google group content strategy and the LinkedIn group content strategy. You seem to be just kind of putting your head down and doing work. And I think, if you were in those communication channels, you see a lot of questions: how do you define content strategy? Anyway. And a lot of the same questions kind of come up again and again. To an extent, I can understand if this is going to happen. But you’re right, there’s a point where enough is enough and let’s move forward and get the work done.

Eric Reiss: Let me defend my ignorance for a moment, because it hasn’t even dawned on me. Of course, there are lots of discussion fora… that I haven’t been participating in. For the first 10 years of its life, the Special Interest Group for Information Architecture was something that I was part of. I was part of it when it was formed back in April of 2000. I read, I think, 12,000 posts, before I decided that I was just tired of it. It was going not anywhere. I think that the IxDA mailing list was superb until they got a new system, and now, I can’t get a decent digest. So I haven’t been on it for the last year. The truth is – and it’s a completely legitimate criticism, I have no bloody clue what is going on in our industry, so why should anybody ask my opinion?

That said, I think that I probably spend more time online than most of my clients. And since I actually have an interest in this, if I haven’t been able to find the answer, where on earth would they have found their answer?

Destry: Well, that’s a good question. Maybe it’s experience; just insights based on the experiences they have with their own clients in their work environments.

Eric Reiss: That’s exactly right. But they’re not encountering terms like information architecture or content strategy. If anything, they’re hearing a little bit about IA; they’re hearing a little bit about UX. Interaction design, the tweakiness that’s going on between the people who have years of experience design is not the same as experience design, and where does service fit into of all this? These discussions are just not on their radar at all. So dumb as I am on the periphery of this, since I’m not active in the online discussions, or at least haven’t been in the last couple of years…

Destry: Oh, I didn’t say that to imply that you are ignorant on the matter. I was just, you know, that you’re a very occupied person, with the many things that you’re involved with.

Eric Reiss: But, Destry, that’s the point. If I’m not on these lists, and I’m not reading all the tweaky discussions about what is the difference between content strategy and information architecture, or something third that I haven’t yet heard of, how on earth are the people who are going to pay our salaries hire us? How are they to understand what we’re trying to do? They are not party to these discussions. They don’t care about these discussions. They come in, they say, “All right. Look, you, can you make a better website for me? Can you create conversions? Can you earn some money? Will you be able to put together some kind of a meaningful ROI calculation in six months or a year’s time? Tell me that you can do that?”

Destry: Right, right. I see your point. Listen, Eric, we’re getting short on time, and I really wanted to bring up your… I just love it, your web dogma, 10 rules that will enhance the user experience of any website or online application. And I just wanted to tell people that you should check those out, if you haven’t. I mean, to me that kind of has written at a time where it’s slanted towards user experience and design. But I can see how it just maps to content, too, and content strategy, and the kinds of things that… Well, you know, content strategy, some could argue, is a part of the whole user experience development…

Eric Reiss: Content is 90% of the user experience.

Destry: Yeah, absolutely.

Eric Reiss: We’ve all spend hours fighting through horrible websites to get to something that we actually were looking for and enjoyed. If we’re reading a book, do we actually look at the binding, and we’re:“Well, it’s a little torn. No, this book is a little dog eared.”

Destry: Yeah.

Eric Reiss: Who cares. Can we read; can we not read it?

Destry: Right. Yeah.

Eric Reiss: And that was kind of where the dogma was coming from. And you’re absolutely right. I mean, I came from the content provision side of things. I worked as a copywriter in an advertising agency for years, business-to-business. I never did sell toothpaste. But I sold cyclotrons and I introduced insulin pins to the world and did a couple of other things that I’m moderately proud of. I’m glad that you liked the dogma, and I hope that people will read it. We were very flattered that my business partner, our creative director here at FatDUX, Soren Muus and I were invited to the Bauhaus School of Design, at the University of Weimar, to actually hold master classes with their design students. And I was invited to talk about the web dogma in their big auditorium. I thought, “My god!” The Bauhaus, it’s got to be like the great design brand of the 20th century.

It was a very humbling experience to stand in this auditorium with, what could the auditorium could hold – 300, 400 people. And it’s like, “What the hell! How did I ever get here? And whom am I to talk to the Bauhaus about design?” But it went over quite well, and its turned out to be a good set of rules.

There are some… I think there’s a video online now that Mozilla put on, because they were kind of… they’re sponsoring this mentorship program, where they’ve got several of us who are talking to students and trying to help them formulate the projects and so on.

And Mozilla taped or nobody tapes anymore. They recorded the session. So it’s out there some place, if anyone’s interested. And the slides are on slideshare.

Destry: Cool. Well, let me just… One more quick thing, Eric, and this mainly for our listeners benefit. I know you’ve done some theater directing or stage directing, involved with theater to some extent. And Kristina Halvorson’s, who, of course, will be at the forum, has some experience in her past, if I’ve not mistaken, with theater as well. So I know that people can expect some wonderful performance at the CS Forum. And this…

Eric Reiss: Yes. And I’m going to be singing “Ol’ Man River”.

Destry: [laughs] Is there anything… I know it’s early out, several months away, and we’ll be working on things as we get closer. But, are there any ideas that you think attendees at a conference like CS forum need to hear, some messages that you think you’ll be bringing to London in September this year?

Eric Reiss: Tough question, Destry. I think that we’ve covered…

Destry: Tough one to close out on, yeah. We’ll let’s…

Eric Reiss: I think that we’ve covered a lot of subjects in a rather oddly disorganized way. But that’s not your fault. That’s mine. I think that I’d ask people to come to this forum with the idea: “Right, what can I take away that I can actually go home and use? How can I help to make the world a better place? How can I create better conversions for my clients, help them sell their products or their services or their ideas? What can I do to help mature our industry?”

Destry: I think that’s…

Eric Reiss: You know, “Let’s create world peace.” And I honestly, I think that we can do that through content, because… Yeah, the more people know about other cultures, the less likely they are to go and kill each other.

Destry: Well, I’m looking forward to seeing you in London, Eric, and I thank you very much for your time this afternoon. And we’ll see you soon.

Eric Reiss: OK. Well, thank you very, very much, Destry. I’m looking forward to seeing you and Kristina and everyone else at the CS Forum in London. It’s a fantastic lineup. I’m honored to be part of it. I hope you’ll still keep me as part of that lineup after certain things I said here…

Destry: No. We’re happy to have you, and we’re looking forward to it.

Eric Reiss: It’s just going to a fabulous conference. I’m so looking forward to it. Thanks very much.

Destry: Yeah. Thank you, Eric.

Destry:That was episode 2 of the CS Forum podcast, featuring Eric Reiss. You can subscribe to future episodes at Don’t forget to register for the conference by 31 March, using code PODCAST02 to save £50 on the early bird rate.