Margot Bloomstein: CS Forum podcast episode 3

Listen to the latest podcast from our series featuring CS Forum speakers. This week, Margot Bloomstein talks to Jonathan about brand-appropriate content strategy, context, ethics, and motorbikes.

In the third episode of the Content Strategy Forum podcast, we interview Margot Bloomstein, one of our invited speakers.

“[the buzz around content strategy] helps our clients and employers to understand how they can harness it to fuel their own communication and establish a better rapport and better relationships with their target audience. ”

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This is episode 3 of the CS Forum podcast. I’m Jonathan Kahn, and today I’m talking to Margot Bloomstein, who’s one of our 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 PODCAST03 before 12 April for a £50 discount on the early-bird rate.

Jonathan Kahn: I’m talking to Margot Bloomstein, who’s in Boston, Massachusetts, right now. She’s principal of Appropriate, Incorporated, a brand and content-strategy consultancy. She works with retailers, universities, and nonprofits, helping them convey strong, compelling messages that are both on-brand and customer-centric. Margot participated in the inaugural Content Strategy Consortium in 2009, and she’s spoken at South by Southwest Interactive, Web 2.0 Expo, Gilbane, Web Content Chicago, and many regional events across the USA. And you’ll definitely know Margot from her article, “The Case for Content Strategy-Motown Style,” at A List Apart, and her South by Southwest Presentation featuring homemade cookies. So we’re thrilled that Margot’s going to be speaking at the Content Strategy Forum in London in September.

So, Margot welcome, and thanks for taking the time.

Margot Bloomstein: Oh, thank you so much, Jonathan. I’m stoked to be talking with you, and I’m really excited for Content Strategy Forum.

Jonathan: Fantastic. I wanted to start off by asking you, how did you get into content strategy? Where are you from, in terms of your work, and how did you get here?

Margot: I was born at a very young age and am out now. [laughs]

Jonathan: [laughs]

Margot: I made my path to content strategy, I think, from what I understand, through somewhat a less-conventional route. I think there are a lot of content strategists that come into the field either with a background in copywriting or library sciences, or maybe they’re moving over from information architecture because they realize, “Hey, if you want to have fun, we do.”

Jonathan: [laughs]

Margot: But my background in content strategy actually starts in graphic design. I have my BFA in communication design from Carnegie Mellon, so I came up through more of a visual-design tradition. And then I studied rhetoric a little bit in school. And then, really, as I was making my way out into the working world. I had a number of really good mentors at Sapient that recognized that my approach to solving communication problems, and really, that’s what most clients come in with: “We need to do something different. We need to say something different. Make us look bigger. Make us look more experienced. Make us look hipper than our competition.” Those are all, really, communication problems.

And my approach to solving them tended to be much more verbal than just visual. In other words, rather than just pulling levers of color and typography and the density of information on the page, I was also approaching them by looking at style and tone and the structure of the content that we were using. And people smarter than me recognized that and said, “Hey, what you are doing is really content strategy. We need to surround you with the right kind of support and mentorship for that.”

Jonathan: [laughs]

Margot: So yeah, I learned by watching others.

Jonathan: It’s like you were doing content strategy while officially doing some other thing.

Margot: Right, right. And, yeah, I think they recognized that early on, so I didn’t continue to pollute the design department with my words, words, words.

Jonathan: [laughs]

Margot: And yeah, it was good. Everyone benefited.

Jonathan: Fantastic. So I see your company strapline says, or your website says, “Greetings from the crossroads of content strategy, brand strategy, and brand-appropriate user experience.”

Margot: Yes.

Jonathan: So, can you tell me what that means?

Margot: So it’s both there for SEO purposes and positioning purposes.

Jonathan: [laughs]

Margot: Hi, search engines! Hi, real people! I love you both.

Jonathan: Sure.

Margot: I guess I approach it from brand-oriented user experience. I like to say that because, and I think we’ve discussed this, content strategy is a pretty broad umbrella. Under it you’ve got people that focus more on maybe metadata-driven content strategy and the Semantic Web and that sort of structural approach. And then there’s other people that focus more on maybe enterprise content strategy or, say, CMS-driven content strategy that are really good at identifying an organization’s cultural needs and existing work flow and then specking out and implementing a CMS that’s appropriate to that.

My focus on content strategy, some of this may be due to my background in design, but my focus tends to be on more brand-driven content strategy. And I think that’s also because, and I know I might get some hate mail for this, but I’m not a big proponent of exclusively user-centered design.

I think, for a long time, the pendulum went in the other direction, and corporations maybe forgot that they were talking to real people and they needed to take into account the needs of their target audience and what they were expecting to get from an experience, whether it’s in a website or some other form.

And we’ve done a really good job of now bringing the pendulum back over toward the side of users and their needs. But I do still feel like if everything was exclusively user-centered, all of, say, the websites within a single industry that had the same target audience, there would be no reason for them, really, to look any different from each other. I guess I like to balance that with both user and brand-driven design and content strategy.

Jonathan: Right. I see quite a lot of confusion, in my opinion, about this term, “user-centered.” I was speaking to one business owner who said, “Everything we do has to be based around the user, because we’re user-centered.” And it seems to me that it’s impossible for a business to actually do everything for any specific user at any time, and what we do as businesses is join business objectives with specific user needs that we identify.

Margot: Right. If it’s all about the user, how can you possibly differentiate yourself? It needs to take the user into account, but there’s also an element of “Hey, brands know thyself” in there, too.

Jonathan: When you say “not exclusively user-centered,” you mean not only thinking about things like usability or that type of issues, but also thinking about the proposition and how you’re coming across. Because I see this word, “brand.” I’ll tell you something interesting about the word, “brand.” A lot of people have a negative association with brand, at least brand agencies, at least here in London, because they’re seen as not having any idea about user behavior.

Margot: Right.

Jonathan: The idea of, you go to a branding agency and they give you something entirely useless, say, about tone, that you really cannot translate into anything useful online. That’s an extreme example of it. How does brand, what does it mean to you, and how is it more useful than some of these perceptions I’ve come across?

Margot: Well, to speak maybe a little more esoterically about it, obviously you define your brand based on how you differentiate from, “the other,” by looking at, what are your competitors doing, and are you more or less one of those qualities? And then I think it’s also about saying, what is really core to maybe the business’s core values or reason for being, or product offering, maybe something about corporate social responsibility and always having that impact in the community is really fundamental to the nature of what you’re doing. If so, that’s really a core attribute of brand.

And then, of course, we can also look at how users are perceiving the company. And so much of your brand, there’s what you can put out there, but then it really lives in the hearts and minds of your target audience, as well as people that you don’t realize are your target audience and maybe have existing perceptions about you.

So we can certainly shape that. You can never really “own” your brand, because it is such a socialized, distributed, democratic ownership out there. But we can definitely shape it.

And I guess that’s what I see my role as a content strategist, working with my clients to figure out, what is the priority, what is the hierarchy of their messaging? What is most important for them to communicate through their website, through their call center, through their outgoing voicemail messages, through their email communications, their blog, Twitter, blah blah blah? All of that.

That’s all something that it’s our responsibility, as content strategists, to make sure they’re communicating consistently, clearly, and cohesively, throughout all those different channels and all those different touch points.

Jonathan: Great. So then, it sounds like brand-appropriate content strategy is not really optional. It’s not like something is nice to have, really, because if you’re not sounding coherent or coming across as being a single entity, then you’re going to have many other problems. Is that fair?

Margot: Right, right. We definitely see problems. It goes back to that idea that you cannot not communicate. In other words, everything that you’re putting out there is going to be helping to build that message. And certainly, you want to help control what that is that you’re communicating. And therefore, all of that needs to be intentional, because if something is haphazard, because either you’re a big corporation and you’re like, “Nah. It’s just our call center, or the way we’re training our people. We’ll just leave that up to maybe something far outside the marketing department, or leave it to chance, or assume that people know the right tone of voice in which to answer the phone.”

If it’s haphazard, if you’re not controlling it, you can’t have it as something that’s a quality adding to your brand.

Jonathan: Cool. We’re talking about brand-appropriate user experience. In terms of your actual work as a consultant, what type of process would be ideal for you, would be good for you, as a way to engage with a client or an organization, to help them with these type of issues we’ve been talking about?

Margot: Ooh, as far as what type of process or when to engage?

Jonathan: Yeah.

Margot: Let me first attack when to engage: early and often.

Jonathan: [laughs]

Margot: In most organizations, thank goodness, we’ve moved beyond the old days of saying, “Well, first, we’ll develop the architecture and then skin it in a design, and then we’ll, beep-beep-beep, have the content truck sort of back up and dump in the new content, or maybe just dump in the old stuff into the new hotness.” I’m very happy that it feels like we’ve moved beyond that in those smart organizations, and they realize that it has to be a much more collaborative process, probably a much more agile process than the old kind of waterfall thinking. Which can be tougher to manage, but it doesn’t have to be.

And certainly, by allowing teams to come together in small groups, communicate more openly about where the design is going, where the content needs to be going, maybe the overall volume and tone and quantity of content and the different content types, by giving insight to that early on.

It allows the designer to do a better job and to be working with real copy rather than something that’s simply going to break the shell after it gets dumped in there. And it allows the user-experience designers and information architects, also, to do a better job at creating the appropriate kind of interaction, the appropriate sort of calls to action as well, and the right structure around all of that content.

When I say that it’s best to involve a content strategist early and often, it’s simply because, I think, as Ian Alexander oftentimes says, content has to come first. Content, then design. Figure out what you’re going to say, and then figure out what’s the right way in which to say that. What’s the right look and feel to support that communication? Not the copy, but the communication. First, we need to figure out what are those overall communication goals.

Jonathan: Right. Which means that the problem with that statement is it’s so obviously true.

Margot: [laughs]

Jonathan: So much in content strategy is such a no-brainer and it’s like no science like rocket science. I’ve got a related question for you, which is, content strategy is getting a whole lot of information right now. Why is that, is that a good thing? And how does that related to very, very obvious statements that we’re still making because, as we look around ourselves, things that are happening just basically seem to be insane to us, as people who have some care, who care about content?

Margot: I mean, as far as the communication that you’re hearing around content strategy now, I think the buzz is really, really good. It’s great that more and more people are becoming aware of it and are saying, “Hey, this is something that maybe I’ve been dabbling in or that I’ve been reading about, or I have a coworker that’s been trying to push this on me for a while.” So they’re learning more and they’re reaching out, and also maybe sharing their own thoughts via blog posts or going to conferences and talking with other people. I think that’s all terrific.

I think the buzz is good. What I don’t want to see come out of it, though, are just a lot of buzz words, or when people say, “Well, content strategy’s just like the latest hot new thing, just another buzzword. It’ll go by way of the dinosaur soon.”

Obviously, we know that’s not the case. We know that it’s more than a buzzword, we know that it’s something that involves specific processes and expected deliverables, and there are different methodologies evolving out there.

And I think those are all really good things, and as our process and as our industry becomes more professionalized and we’re able to say, “When we mean content strategy, this is the definition to which we’re referring, and these are the processes to which we’re all alluding, and these are the expectations which we all share.”

I think that, obviously, it helps other people that are practicing content strategists. It also helps the broader user experience community. And it helps, at the end of the day, our clients and our employers to be able to really understand, well, how can they harness this to fuel their own communication and, ideally, establish a better rapport and better relationships with their target audience?

Jonathan: Sure, cool. So content strategists talk a lot about context. So I just want to ask you, what does context mean to you in relation to content?

Margot: Oh, what does context mean in relationship to content? That’s actually, I think, one of the more exciting and dynamic… Well, let me rephrase that. I think that’s one of the more exciting and rapidly evolving areas of content strategy in that sort of interface between content strategy and context. We talk a lot about dynamic context, and sometimes that can loop in location-based marketing, how that fits in. And really speaking to people in their current time and place so that we’re not offering them calls to action that are no longer relevant because they’ve either left the site or left the physical room, and so that we’re not pushing other types of content toward them, maybe related items that are no longer contextually appropriate for them.

So I feel in that way context is really one of the things that will help bring, obviously, place, but also a sense of time into what we’re doing. Obviously, when you launch a website, it isn’t static. We know that it’s not a big old launch it and forget it kind of effort, or a… You know, everybody was getting those rotator cuff injuries, so to speak, for awhile from those big lobbing-it-over-the-fence maneuvers with the website going live.

And I think that spoke to that idea that a website was a project. As Lisa Welchman says, “Your website is not a project, it’s an ongoing effort.” It’s something that you’re always going to be working on and maintaining and continuing to grow and nurture. For those reasons we have to be thinking, how does this thing exist in time? Therefore, we have to take context into account.

Jonathan: In terms of all the considerations that go into how content is produced and managed and published and archived, do you think that the increasing number of contexts in which people may be interacting with our web content specifically, it’s going to change the way we actually have to create content?

Margot: Definitely. I think like as Luke Wroblewski, and I hope I’m pronouncing his name right, there’s an awful lot of letters in there, as he talks about, we need to be taking mobile experiences into account first, designing for mobile first. And, certainly, if that teaches us to be that much more concise and succinct, that’s terrific. I think, certainly, I always go back to the kind of “nothing new under the sun” sort of thinking. Because for a long time, museum exhibit designers have had to take into account moving audiences and what that means when somebody is moving temporally and in other ways through a space.

And how that sort of spatial awareness plays into account when they’re interacting with content, whether it’s literally a text that’s screened at the wall at a certain eye level, or if they’re seeing things in sequence and maybe if they’ve just come from either another exhibit or another room. How do you really work in that sense of context, as well as contrast?

So in that way, I don’t know that we need to be thinking in an entirely new way, but we certainly need to be drawing on the thinking of those other professions that have been doing it right for a long time.

Jonathan: Right. So it’s not like no one’s ever done this before, but maybe many of us in our context, in our businesses, in our jobs, have never had to worry about this stuff before.

Margot: Exactly.

Jonathan: So we’re having to learn from other disciplines. Fantastic.

Margot: Right. And I’m excited about that, because there’s a lot of other disciplines that… And we know, those of us that work as consultants, one of the most thrilling parts of this is that you’re constantly learning from the other industries in which you work, just by virtue of having to get up to speed on them quickly. So I’m excited about the opportunity, also, to learn from people that are practicing content creation and other aspects of content strategy far outside of the web.

Jonathan: Fantastic. You’re just back from South By. I saw that in your presentation you talked about ethics. My question is for you is, how does ethics relate to what content strategists do?

Margot: Yeah. That’s an exciting opportunity. I love that you referenced that I just came back from South By, because as I told you earlier, I’m doing my best not to project the fact that I’ve got the South By Sars here.

Jonathan: You’re sounding great.

Margot: I don’t normally sound like this. I don’t mean to be sounding like Lauren Bacall after just gargling glass or smoking a pack of cigarettes. So yes, at South By we talked a bit about ethics and content strategy. I think, again, for me this oftentimes comes down to intention, because there’s that weird dance between what is unethical versus what is just irresponsible. When you see different content types juxtaposed in a way that you’re like, “Wow, this was entirely automated. No human would have made this silly mistake of maybe having an Aflac ad with a duck in it next to an article about maybe like bacterial contamination in duck meat, in the food supply.”

Those types of things are awful and can be hilarious, but I think they’re evidence of the fact that there was no human intervention, that someone abdicated the responsibility of content strategy and said instead that, “Well, we can automate that. We’ll just pull it in by RSS.” We don’t need to really be thinking about that.

We have to ask, is that irresponsible? Or is it unethical? To me, the ethics of content strategy deal more with when we’re looking at intentional miscommunication, or intentional misdirection.

In my presentation I cited some work by Felice Frankel. She’s a scientist and photographer. She creates these wonderful images, where then she is very explicit and clear about the fact that she edits them. She takes out some elements. She may play up others to draw the viewers attention then to what she thinks is most important there.

We have to ask, is that fair? Is it right to be trimming things out? When we’re dealing with text, we edit quotes all the time. And sometimes when we’re editing quotes, we change the meaning of them. If it’s intentional, that seems unethical.

I think we have to also take into account, then on a bigger scale, outside of just the copy within a quote, when we’re juxtaposing different content types, emphasizing certain elements, or failing to emphasize them, and drawing the viewers attention in certain ways, what does that do, and how does it change the meaning? And is that right?

Jonathan: Fantastic. Excellent. So we have actually met in Chicago, last June I think it was, I’m pretty sure when I met you were wearing biking leathers.

Margot: Yes.

Jonathan: Is it true that you drove a motorcycle all the way from Boston to Chicago just to come to this conference?

Margot: Actually, no that is not true. We rode from Monterrey, California, kind of winded our way through Arizona and Utah, a little bit of Route 66 in there, through the Rockies, which was really scary because it was raining and incredibly windy and a little bit slippery, and then got into Chicago, at which point, yes took off all the biking gear. All of you listening to this, always wear your helmet. It’s just silly not to, especially for the number of bugs you’d otherwise get in your teeth. Took off the helmet, took off all the riding gear and whatnot. Also always wear armored leather, because the road hurts. Then changed into businessy, conference appropriate clothing and spoke. Yes.

Jonathan: So you crossed the whole continental USA in this trip, didn’t you?

Margot: Yeah, it was a month long trip from Monterrey back out to Boston. It was incredible.

Jonathan: Fantastic. Would you recommend that as a trip for petrol heads?

Margot: Definitely. Yeah. I say get a sport bike, something that you can really, really maneuver and carve up the road. But also get a really good helmet, get full armored gear, and be smart about it. And love it.

Jonathan: Fantastic. Love it. We are really excited you are going to be coming to join us in London. Have you been here before? Have you visited London before?

Margot: Yes, I have. It’s been several years. I was there, not for a conference, but really just as a tourist and to visit family. I’m definitely looking forward to it.

Jonathan: Fantastic. So what are you most looking forward to about coming to CS Forum?

Margot: Oh God. There’s so many things to pick from. I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with our community. And, I’ll be honest, by being in London I’ll be that much closer to the Cadbury factory, which is sort of the mothership for me. So yes, I am looking forward to all of that. And of course, the parties and the drinking. Yay, content strategy.

Jonathan: Fantastic. Margot. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been fantastic to talk to you, and I’ve learned a lot. I hope everyone listening has too.

Margot: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

That was episode 3 of the CS Forum podcast, featuring Margot. You can subscribe to future episodes at Don’t forget to register for the conference by 12 April, using code PODCAST03 to save £50 on the early bird rate.