Gerry McGovern: CS Forum podcast episode 1

Listen to the first podcast from a series featuring CS Forum speakers. First up, headliner Gerry McGovern talks to Randall about content strategy, top tasks, and becoming customer-centric.

In the first episode of the Content Strategy Forum podcast, we interview Gerry McGovern, one of our headline speakers.

“There is nothing more important on the web than content. But don’t talk about it. Talk about the success of the customer or the lack of success of the customer. Because most organizations realize today that if they’re not customer centric, they don’t have much of a future.”

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Hi. This is the first episode of the CS Forum podcast. I’m Randall Snare, and today I’m talking to Gerry McGovern, who’s one of our headline speakers at the Content Strategy Forum in London.

The Forum is from the 5th to the 7th of September 2011 in central London. That’s three days of presentations, workshops, and parties. You should come. Find out more at and register using code PODCAST01 for a £50 discount on the early-bird rate. The code is only valid until 10 March, so don’t delay.

Randall: I’m talking to Gerry McGovern who is one of our keynotes at the Convent Strategy Forum 2011. He has been a consultant in web content management since 1994 and he is the author of five books. The latest is “The Stranger’s Long Neck” published by A&C Black. So, welcome Gerry and thanks for talking to me.

Gerry McGovern: Hello Randall and thanks for the invite for the chat.

Randall: Great. You’re the first one, so this is very special.

Gerry: OK.

Randall: So my first question is, you’ve been doing this for a very long time and I wonder what you think about this relatively recent reemergence of this content web industry known as content strategy?

Gerry: Yeah. I think it’s interesting but a lot of what I do or most of what I do, really isn’t connected with content strategy and I think there’s a danger… I’m not quite sure what content strategy actually means.

I think there’s a danger of the content, the people who love content, me being one of them coming from a writing background and all that, talking to ourselves and making ourselves feel good that content is important. In the organizations I deal with, it’s not how you’re going to get management attention.

Still, I think it’s a component of what makes the website successful. But you have to really… I mean my core focus has been once you have a strategy as far as the task that the customer is trying to complete. To complete that task you will of course need content but you’ll often need some sort of application or you need all sort of things.

But the ultimate measure is did the person complete the task that they came to the website to complete? And that content in of itself is essential to that task, but it’s not the end game, so to speak. I don’t think it’s the strategy, the task completion is the strategy. That would be my opinion anyway.

Randall: So you think strategy is attached to the wrong word there, with content strategy?

Gerry: I think it is. I think content is a tactic or a component of making the person successful. That really, people come to websites to do things and most websites there’s very clear things that the majority of people come to that website to actually do. The question is was it successful?

I think if the person did what they came to the website to do, then everything else is OK. If they weren’t able to do what they came to do they’re not going to say, “Oh I really like the content but I didn’t find out if I qualified or not. But I thought the content was great.” If they didn’t find out they qualified, if they didn’t book the room, if they didn’t do what they needed to do and they’re not happy.

Randall: But you think content is the way to get people to complete their tasks?

Gerry: I think content is an essential component. I think it’s the most important component of making the person successful. I think getting the words right and I think again of a slightly different conception of content than what some other people would have.

I think the links and the menus are the most essential pieces of content that anyone can write. How you chose and how you position those words in your menus and particularly in the links that you create. To me that’s content and to me that’s the most essential piece of content. So, in a way it is a lot of the most important web content isn’t even a sentence, let alone a paragraph.

Randall: Well, that’s the hardest to write as well, because it’s so short.

Gerry: Exactly. And I think also because great links and action are oriented and most writers are not really trained to create content that is active. They create units of content, articles or chapters or paragraphs. We’ve never really been trained to link, to really create those bridges between those two places. I think that’s the biggest skill and it’s the most lacking.

In all the websites I look at the number one reason why they fail is confusing menus and links. That’s still the biggest issue in the last 10 or 15 years, is the quality of the links. They make a promise to the customer and they don’t deliver on it.

Randall: How do you train people to do that? To change the way they’ve been thinking their whole lives?

Gerry: Well, I think the way you train them, Randall, is you train them to manage tasks, to manage journeys. I have people that say to me, “I manage, I put the link on the home page but I’m not responsible for the next page.” Well, you’re responsible for helping the person be successful or at least you should be. To get people more focused on managing a task rather than a set of pages.

Like we do a lot of work with Cisco now and there’s a focus download software is a key task, and they have all sorts of software that their customers need to download. Now they’re establishing a team that’s responsible for downloading, rather than just responsible for the support home page, or this page or that page. They’re looking at having teams that are responsible for helping people configure a product, install a product.

The various cell managing based on the various tasks that the customer needs to do rather than managing pages. Because when you manage pages, you end up in silos and you end up focused on the page itself rather than the page as a step in the task that the customer is seeking to complete.

I think the breakthrough is in getting people to think you’re helping people get some place and move to some sort of destination. So you have to be thinking about the journey that the customer is on rather than the unit of content that you are creating.

Randall: Do you find a lot of resistance to that idea? Because it’s thinking outside of peoples departments?

Gerry: Exactly. There’s a lot of resistance. The silo, the opposite, a lot of what I stress is customer-centric thinking, focus on the customer. And the opposite of the customer is the organization. So the opposite of customer-centric is organization centric. The atomic level of organization-centric is department centric.

So, you got people saying, “No. No. No. We’re the communications.” That’s an IT problem. I had a person once say to me, “Nobody is responding. You’ve got a contact page on your website and people fill it out but nobody gets back to them.”

And he looked at me and he says, “That’s not my problem. I created the form. That’s the customer service crowd. It’s not my problem that nobody’s getting back.” That’s sort of the part… He saw himself as a content professional and his job was to create a form and he had created a form and the fact that nobody replied when people filled out that form, wasn’t his problem.

Randall: So what do you do? What is the first thing you do when you go into an organization to try to get them to stop thinking the way they’ve always been thinking?

Gerry: Well, part is we do two things, in that first there are top tasks because there’s always a war in organizations of… I just got an email today from Liverpool City Council. They used our approach and they’ve just launched a new website. They were saying that, there’s top tasks and there’s tiny tasks so there’s task that are much less important and then there’s these super important tasks.

Like we did the National Health Service in the UK there a couple of years ago and checked symptoms was way, way above. So you go to a health website, there are hundreds of tasks but check symptoms, it’s to book a flight, it’s to book a room. You go to a council website and in Liverpool it’s like rubbish collection or the centers, the leisure centers.

There’s a few set of things that has massive demand from the population coming true. The first step is, what are they? What are these absolutely dominant top task? But equally what are the, what I call the tiny tasks? Liverpool was saying in the email was that without the identification of the smaller tasks and saying, “Listen. You’re not getting on the home page. It would have been far harder to get to the better website.”

Because much of a web manager or web teams’ life is spent trying to deal with the political minor tasks that no, they’re not that important. For that very reason spend a huge amount of energy trying to get on the website or to get high up the website. So, the first step that we do is to clearly create a league table of what’s really, really important and what’s not important.

Once you’ve identified your top tasks, we literally do a time and motion study off them and say, “Well here’s how well they’re performing.” And can people actually download software? Can they do these incredibly important things? And in many websites there’s this amazing failure of the top tasks.

By showing that to management and saying, “These critical things that your customers really, really, need to do when they come to your website, they’re not able to do them.” That can be a trans-formative moment for management, because what you’re able to show them is that the reason they’re not able to do them is for a whole variety of reasons. Its content could be one of them, the application, or the IT, or the slowness of the website, but you’re actually saying there’s…

Because what we do is we measure three things, the success rate, how many people completed this critical task? Then the disaster rate, where people who think they completed it but actually didn’t. So they think they got the right answer but it was the wrong answer.

Randall: And they call it a disaster right?

Gerry: They call that a disaster. Then the final thing is the completion time. How dong did it take them, of those who did complete? And we say fix the basics, you bring your success rate above 90 percent. You bring your disaster rate below five percent and then best practice is you really focus on the time and the task.

We would have target times for all the tasks or optimal time. So we’ve come to an agreement and we’d say, “Well how long should it take to do this task?” And we’d come up to a variety of amendments we’d say, “Well this task it takes a minute.” It should take a minute to complete it.”

Then when we do the testing we’d say, “Well, right now it’s taking six minutes.” Then it would be the objective to bring that six minutes down to one minute. So that would be the model.

Randall: Then that’s really how you would get by because it seems like they would be shocked into submission?

Gerry: Well to an extent, yes. The core thing that I try and get organizations to think about is the customers’ time, to treat the customers’ time as the most valuable resource. Everybody understands that when they’re on other websites. They want to do things.

Even if you’re on Facebook or Twitter a social website, imagine if it took you two and a half minutes to make a Twitter post. I mean, Twitter wouldn’t be successful. Even though these are social places and you spend a lot of time, if you were to spend a huge amount of time doing the administrative elements of these social — making a post, making a comment, putting up your pictures — if it took huge amount of time, you wouldn’t use those environment.

People’s time is incredibly important to them. We can see like in Bing and in Google, Bing found that if they delayed a typical search results age by two seconds, it resulted in a four percent decline in sales.

Randall: Really?

Gerry: A two second delay in a search results page, there was a four percent reduction in basically clicks on the ads, which resulted in a four percent reduction in sales.

Time is extraordinarily important. If you really focus on your customer’s time, not your time, focus on your customer’s time and you save them time and helped them do what they need to do, good things happen.

Randall: That’s a very scary number. You can just say you lose two percent of your business per second that you keep people waiting.

Gerry: Exactly, yeah. There’s another great organization called Marketing Experiments, and they’ve done tons and tons of work over the years. They’re around a long, long time on based analysis and aid testing and really rigorous testing of marketing behavior and websites.

They said that there’s two things that they’ve learned in all the thousands of experiments they’ve done. The first thing is that clarity trumps persuasion, which is actually quite a radical concept from a marketing point of view because most of traditional marketing is based on the concept of persuasion. They said in the web its clarity, clarity first and foremost rather than persuasion.

The second thing they said is the seven seconds rule that, particularly for a new customer, you’ve got seven seconds to convince them that your website is worth staying on and worth investing more time. If you don’t communicate something very clear and very precise in that seven seconds, you will lose an enormous quantity of people.

Randall: That’s a good way to get people to cut down on their content and not waffle a bit.

Gerry: Yes. I think that can… The sin of overwriting still goes on.

Randall: You’ve spoken a lot around Europe. In fact are you on the road right now or are you in Dublin?

Gerry: I’m not but I was just back. I was away for two weeks. I spent a week with Microsoft there in Seattle. Then I was a number of days in Ottawa in Canada. But most of the time actually that I spend is in North America.

Randall: Oh, is it?

Gerry: I spend a fair bit in Scandinavia party. But actually most of my work is in North America.

Randall: Do you find a cultural difference between North America and say Ireland and England and Scandinavia, when you go into these corporations and try to change the way they think?

Gerry: Yeah. There are differences. I think there’s much less differences in actual customer behavior, certainly in Europe and America. I think you would see somewhat more differences in Asia, of the type of web page that a typical Asian might like would be a bit different from a European or an American.

I think behavior of the customer is very similar. I think that in Scandinavia they’re very meticulous. They’re quite customer centric in Scandinavia. I think UK and America very similar as well. I think as you move south in Europe you become a bit more organization centric. A bit more hierarchical and bureaucratic and deferential to authority.

I sense that more in southern Europe. It’s more bureaucratic and deferential and less customer centric. But as you go into Northern Europe it’s more open to those arguments.

I think there’s a movement as well. The broad movement is very much an evidence based movement and away from the guru or the expert or the boss or the head person. I think there’s a relentless march of evidence, and I think there’s also a relentless march of team based decision making.

A lot of people say, “Oh, you need these creative people who are sit like a Buddhist and come up with the new web page after four hours of meditation.”

Randall: [laughs]

Gerry: I think a lot of that is BS. I think that’s how advertising agency have got away with such extraordinarily bad websites for so long.

Randall: That’s heartening. You don’t have to be like an evangelical preacher. You can just gather facts and make your case.

Gerry: Yeah. I think you need to be able to analyze those facts and that will come through experience. But I think it’s much more fact based. I continuously give pages to the audience where I say, “Well, here’s two pages that were tested and one was 40 percent more successful than the others. Which one was 40 percent more successful?”

Now, practically every time that I do it the audience will say B. Eighty percent of the audience will say page B was 40 percent more successful. But A was 40 percent more successful. I say, “what we learn from this is the worse way to design a website is to have five smart people in the room drinking lattes.”

Randall: [laughs] How did you get started in web content? Did you come from traditional publishing?

Gerry: I did. I was a freelance journalist. I did all sorts of journalism and I came across the web background ’93, ’94 and I thought, “Oh this going to change the world.” I thought this is your chance to actually be part of something that’s big and happening. I went from there.

One of the things that I avoided as I progressed is I avoided talking about content and I avoided telling people that I’d ever been a writer. Because you get paid much more if you don’t.

Basically, there is a lack of respect for content in most organizations. I think part of it is down to that content has never been measurable. Until the web came along, content was never measurable. The web is the first environment where you can actually measure and you can sift the good content from the bad content.

I think that is a huge potential for somebody who works with words for their career. But I think they need not to talk about content. You may love content but don’t talk… Talk about stats. Talk about numbers. Talk about successes of customers. Talk about the customer satisfaction figures increasing. That will get far more attention in the vast majority of organizations. That is what they understand as strategic; customer satisfaction, task completion.

Because task completion means basically conversion rates. It means all sorts of things. But it means the logic of people being able to do things is a very basic management logic that is foundational in most management thinking. When you’re talking about something like task completion, you’re talking to very core management concepts.

Then you say, “Here’s how we increase task completion.” But you don’t say, “We love content and content is great,” because nobody listens. Nobody who really holds the budgetary and the power within larger organizations cares.

Randall: Yeah. I think that’s great advice. I hear a lot of time people struggling to sell content and content strategy or to talk about its value. Those two issues don’t talk about it. Talk about stuff that people actually care about.

Gerry: There is nothing more important in the web than content. But don’t talk about it. Talk about the success of the customer or the lack of success of the customer. Focus on the customer. Because most organizations realize today that if they’re not customer centric, they don’t have much of a future.

There is a big wave of the realization that this is the customer’s time, that the customer is dominant. That you can’t just make a car and expect the customer buy it. You have to shape yourself around needs and around customers.

I think there’s a broad recognition. I certainly see it in Microsoft’s or Cisco’s or IBM’s, that if you want to be successful you have to put the customer at the center of your strategy.

Randall: Right. I have one more question.

Gerry: OK.

Randall: It’s cheating a bit because I wonder if you can give people a little glimpse of what you’re going to talk about in September at the forum.

Gerry: Yeah. Sure. I think it will be about a lot of what we’ve talked about here. That basically the web has never been more important and it’s going to grow in importance. We’re in an industry which is vibrant and thriving despite all the recessions.

The web is an area that any sensible company will continue to invest in. Because it is one of the most cost effective environments to allow people to complete tasks, more cost effective than the phone. More cost effective than face to face.

If you want to save cost you go to the web. But you have to do the web properly. We’re in a great industry. But I still don’t see the business case of the web truly being articulated, like the importance that the website actually does play or should play within an organization. I think most senior management still don’t recognize that, how to raise the importance of the web, get it recognized for its true value.

I think there’s a gap. There’s a value gap in the web at the moment. It will be part around that. I think, as I said earlier, content drives behavior on the web. Those who can work with words in the right way have a tremendous future. But we have to work with words in the right way. That is to me very much an evidence based approach, testing, testing, testing, continuous improvement.

Based on the model focusing on, was the person successful doing what they needed to do.

Randall: Well great Gerry. Thanks very much. I certainly learned a lot.

Gerry: OK.

Randall: I’m looking forward, as I’m sure everyone else is, to seeing you speak in September.

Gerry: I’m looking forward to it as well. It should be a great event Randall.

Randall: I think so. Thanks.

That was episode 1 of the CS Forum podcast, featuring Gerry McGovern. You can subscribe to future episodes at Don’t forget to register for the conference by 10 March, using code PODCAST01 to save £50 on the early bird rate.