Constructing the Conversation - CONTENT FLOATS - The Digital Crown: Winning at Content on the Web (2014)

The Digital Crown: Winning at Content on the Web (2014)



Consumers want to have a conversation with your organization. In traditional media, we used to start the conversation with our target audiences via billboards, ads, direct mail, and so on. In digital media, our target audiences start the conversation with us.

Technology Mediates the Conversation

Your digital properties, like websites, blogs, and social media channels, are “open” 24/7. Customers are interacting with your content around the globe at any hour of any day. Further complicating matters, the technology they use to access that content changes their experiences. Think about viewing a website on a laptop, or a blog on a mobile phone, or a Facebook page on a tablet. The conversation changes as the format and context shift.

Content Must Float

If the web is an endless source of waves of information, then our customers are surfers on these waves. Our content needs to float right along with them, no matter what the technology or display format.

Customers need to be able to converse with you using one device, save the content, and consume it on a different device later. It needs to float, unencumbered by the design surrounding it or the “page” it lives on. Your customers should find it when and where they want, how they want, and on the devices they own and prefer to use.

In Part 2, we’re going to discuss how to:

• Create great content so it aligns with your business objectives.

• Publish content so it can go everywhere and anywhere.

• Distribute content in a way that makes you part of a conversational marketplace.

Before we begin, let’s define three terms: channels, platforms, and formats, using definitions from Halvorson and Rach (2012):

Channel is the place or service through which you are communicating with your users. Examples: email, websites, SMS.

Platform is the technology upon which you build your content or service in order to deliver or exchange content. Examples: content management system, mobile technology.

Format is the way in which information is presented. Examples, text, audio, video, or images. (Halvorson & Rach, 2012).

While format is tied to channel and platform, we must learn to separate them—because we want to create content that can float everywhere. Of course, the content needs to be strong; if you start with poor content, it will not matter how well you present and distribute it.

Building Great Content Programs

In the next three chapters, we will talk about creating content; how content formats change the conversations you have with your customers. We are going to discuss how to structure your content so it can float along the World Wide Web and reach your intended audiences regardless of the channel. We’re going to learn to think in terms of content modeling and adaptive content. And, by discussing different publishing formats and social media channels, we’ll learn how to extend the life and reach of your content.

To keep your content fresh and your audience engaged, we’ll also learn about the next two rules:

Rule #3: Keep It Iterative

Rule #4: Create Multidisciplinary Content Teams

We are going to review some technical issues in these chapters, but as a content and digital marketing professional, you must understand them.

This is a new age, where technology is changing the way we talk to our customers. In these chapters, you will gain the vocabulary you need to talk to programmers, developers, and designers, making you a more effective digital communications professional.


1. Halvorson K, Rach M. Content strategy for the Web. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders; 2012.

Chapter 3. Constructing the Conversation


Our audience expects the content we create to perform like magic—to be where they want it, when they want it, and how they want it. For us to meet those expectations, we need to create a framework for our content that allows it to be flexible, move freely around the various formats in cyberspace, and jump to the front of the line when the audience wants it—to be successful in making sales and meeting achievement goals. That framework design will, to a large extent, depend on how we intend to create the content, and for that there are many options.


content framework; co-created content; aggregated content; original content; curated content; licensed content; user-generated content

The web is a magical place filled with interactions previously thought impossible. It has changed our daily lives: We can find almost anything we need online: products, services, movie times, the weather, and even human companionship.

Need to know what type of smoothie maker to buy? You can read 47 reviews from others who have bought that smoothie maker or one made by a different manufacturer. Want to find out if a furniture store is reputable? Read about the store on Yelp. Want to learn about almost every possible topic in a multitude of languages? Check out Wikipedia.

The Internet Is the Room of Requirement

In this wonderful place, the amount of information flowing around us can feel overwhelming. It feels like the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series: It can be a wonderful safe haven when you need to hide and practice Defense against the Dark Arts. Or it can feel like a room that is a garbage dump for every student who has ever needed a secret place to stash dangerous, magical objects.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry needed a place to hide his book of potions from his teacher, Professor Snape. He began to pace in the passageway and imagined a door magically opening so he could hide his book. A door appeared and Harry walked into the Room of Requirements. The room was huge and had “thousands and thousands of books, no doubt banned or graffitied or stolen. There were winged catapults and Fanged Frisbees, some still with enough life in them to hover halfheartedly over the mountains of other forbidden items; there were chipped bottles of congealed potions, hats, jewels, cloaks; there were what looked like dragon eggshells, corked bottles whose contents still shimmered evilly, several rusting swords, and a heavy, bloodstained axe” (Rowling & GrandPre, 2005).

What Harry found is what the Internet truly is: a room that has, essentially, whatever we need at any given moment. But let’s be honest; it is also a city-size garbage dump of outdated, old, expired, messy, unorganized piles of junk. Think about when we sift through all of that rubbish to find the piece of information we really need; it can feel like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. But, when we find it, the Internet transforms into an enchanted place for us because it fulfills a need—immediately. Magic.

Magic Content: Making Diamonds Out of Coal

From your perspective as a content professional, you know you need to develop content that performs just like magic for your audiences. It needs to satisfy a particular need and enchant—and no waiting, please.

At its basic unit of construction, content is a piece of information. Once you decide on the format for the content you choose to hold that information in (press release, advertisement, Tweet, blog post, website article, and so on), there are two more building blocks:

1. Substance: What formats will we use (text, audio, video)? What messages does the content need to communicate to our audience?

2. Structure: How is content prioritized, organized, formatted, and displayed? (Structure includes information architecture, metadata, data modeling, linking strategies, and so on.) (Halvorson & Rach, 2012)

Understanding Substance and Structure

You might compare information to the subject of a picture and substance to the medium the artist used: oil on canvas, digital photograph, or watercolor. Think of a photograph of a person versus an oil painting of that same person. We should see exactly the same picture no matter what the medium. But the medium changes details slightly so that the entire whole feels different. This happens when we change the format of content we use to embed information. Think of a press release versus a blog post. The information might be the same but because of the format the meaning shifts.

We can compare structure to the size of the portrait and where we choose to display it. In a gallery, framed in a heavy gold frame, it looks quite different than it does when the picture is posted on Instagram and we see it on the small screen of our smartphone.

The above metaphor demonstrates how much information can flex once it becomes content.

1. Information: subject of the picture

2. Substance: medium of the picture

3. Structure: frame and display location of the picture

In the next chapter, Chapter 4, we will discuss content structure. But in this chapter, we talk about content substance, including:

• Creating a content framework

• Controlling the content experience

• Creating different content formats

Creating a Content Framework

From an internal business perspective, content needs to align with the organization’s achievement objectives. With all the junk that’s out there—the piles of unorganized, messy, complicated rubbish stacked in teetering piles—how do you create content that sparkles and catches the eyes, ears, and interest of your target audience?

You need a content framework—a way to think about building and creating your content—guided by these questions:

1. How and when does the content support the sales cycle or help you achieve your achievement threshold?

2. How do the different formats of content relate to each other? Do they help support the story you want to tell?

3. How will this content float along the web, facilitating conversations?

Content is all of the information and factual assets of your company or organization—connected to one another for the customer to access. This is called an “interconnected system of assets” (Wachter-Boettcher, 2012). Captured inside your content are all of the knowledge assets of your organization; they all relate to and depend on one another. Further, depending on the quality of the content, these assets support your audience and help facilitate interactions—both good and bad.

The Content Framework

We’re ready to build a content framework in order to build great content for your organization. This will help guide you in creating the right content formats to drive your sales process. We also need to support the audience in accomplishing their tasks. To do this, we need to have the right types of conversations with them, in the right way, at the right time.

1. How and when does the content support the sales cycle or help you achieve your achievement threshold?

2. How do the different content formats relate to each other? Do they help support the story you want to tell?

3. How will this content float along the web, facilitating conversations?

Content Is Where Information Lives and Thrives

We’re going to learn how to break down the three questions above within your content framework, but first let’s review what content truly is.

Content is a piece of information, a kernel embedded in a content format that your audience seeks to find. Content is a way for your information to come alive. Figure 3.1 shows that we begin with information. We then select the appropriate content format to set, or highlight, the piece of information; then we distribute the content. Deciding on the delivery method of content will make all the difference in funneling the information to the appropriate customers, at the right time, effectively.


FIGURE 3.1 Content: From Information to Distribution. Ahava Leibtag. All Rights Reserved.

The Three Parts of Content

It is critical to understand the difference between information, content format, and distribution because each one needs to stand on its own: all of them need to work together to satisfy your audience.

Information: What you want to communicate

Content format: The way you present, or showcase, the information

Distribution: The channels and platforms you choose to float the content out onto the web

Channel, Platform, Format

This is a good place to review the following concepts:

Channel is the place or service through which you are communicating with your users. Examples: email, websites, social media channels, print, and broadcast

Platform is the technology upon which you build your content or service to deliver or exchange content. Examples: content management system and social media websites

Format is the way in which information is presented. Examples: text, audio, video, print, or images

Content Formats That Flex

We choose content formats in our own lives, often without thinking about it. Let’s say you receive an email from a colleague. You read it, realize it’s a sensitive or complicated issue, and think, “I should really call this person back, not email him.” You realize that the information you need to communicate may not be appropriate for an email.

That is an automatic, gut response; you probably don’t realize how you are flexing from one mode of communication to another, even as you are doing it. We choose which platform of technology is best to communicate our message; in other words, which content format works best—in this case written versus verbal.

Do you text or call a friend to let him or her know what time you will be at the restaurant? Think about it—you could call, but you know that will take longer than texting. The “Hi, how are you?” turns into a longer, perhaps unnecessary, conversation when all you really want to do is convey the information that you will be there at 6:00 p.m.

Recognizable Formats Attract Attention

We also exercise this flexibility when we choose, for example, to write a press release rather than a blog post. You write a press release because you know journalists immediately recognize a press release as a content format designed just for them. The format of the content communicates whom it is for immediately.

Our audience has thousands of immediately recognizable content formats to look for/recognize/react to: Stop signs, customer reviews, prescription pads, report cards, medical forms, applications, and so on. Designed so we immediately recognize them and take certain actions, these content formats facilitate crisper interactions. Imagine the Internet without content formats? Overwhelming as it is now, it would be totally unnavigable.

THAT is our goal: We want our audience to immediately recognize the content, know it is for them, know what to do, and do it.

We don’t want our content and our conversations to feel like the Room of Requirement. We want the very opposite, in fact. We want them to feel like controlled experiences that help customers make decisions.

Content: Formats, Platforms, and Channels

There are probably hundreds of formats for content—there is no way we could list them all here. For the purposes of your content framework, however, I think we can look at the following divisions:

• Text

• Audio

• Visual

In the following table, we differentiate information from content format, platform, and channel:


When you talk to people about content, they think you mean their website, as in the entire thing. But, as we know, content is not the website, it is what is ON the website, or in the book, or the subject of the video. You need to disassociate this idea that content is the same as the way it’s delivered to you. Content is not a magazine, or a TV program, or the mail. Rather, those are the channels through which you receive the content.

Content is not the same as the way it’s delivered to you, in the same way that your print newspaper is not the same as the newspaper delivery person.

Your customers can encounter your content anywhere on the World Wide Web. You must divorce yourself from the idea that your content is tied to its point of origin—like your website—and instead think of your content as floating throughout the Internet, just waiting to fulfill a need for your target audience.

Supporting the Sales and Buying Process Cycle

In Chapter 2, we talked about the business of content creation and about the sales cycle. (We also talked about the achievement threshold, which is how not-for-profit, government agencies, and others measure their success.) Content—its creation and its distribution—must support that sales cycle or achievement threshold. In the next chapter, we will discuss production, publication, and distribution of content. But for now, let’s focus on creating content and supporting the sales cycle.

To be successful with our content, we must tie our content development to our business objectives. Before you begin to create content, you need to understand your sales cycle as well as the business objectives. If you recall, “leads” are prospects—people who could eventually convert to customers, donors, or advocates. The sales cycle is the amount of time from when your lead learns of your services to the time that person converts and becomes a buyer.

Most companies illustrate their lead “funnels” in a framework based on the shape of a funnel (Figure 3.2).


FIGURE 3.2 Sales leads funnel.

I prefer the term “customer loop,” which we illustrated in Chapter 2. Think loop because it accurately represents how companies would like to continue relationships with customers (Figure 3.3).


FIGURE 3.3 Customer loop: Continue relationships with your customers. Ahava Leibtag. All Rights Reserved.

By examining where your lead currently is in his buying process, that is, the person’s location in the loop, you can determine the right formats of content, or “content mix” to create for that potential customer. Some like to call this supporting the decision journey. You want to build a content framework that supports the consumer’s decision journey. So, how do you create content that supports the sales cycle?

Here’s another way to think about it: Let’s say you want to grow a vegetable garden. You choose to plant watermelon, zucchini, and tomatoes. Each of those vegetables needs to be planted at a different time, have a different amount of water and sunlight, and be picked from the plant at varying points of ripeness.

Customers are the same way—they need to be nurtured at different points in their own decision making process. Knowing where they are in that buying process will help you create content that nurtures your sales in a supportive, strategic manner. But, before we talk about where your leads are in their buying processes, let’s talk about the process for using content to support the sales and buying process cycle. Content needs to:

• Inform

• Persuade

• Convert

The reason you produce content is to convert prospects to customers or to support the customers you already have. Developing content is the primary tactic we use to inform, persuade, and convert. The primary goal of content is to keep people moving through your loop—therefore; you must control their content experience to keep up that forward momentum. Controlling the experience comes from truly understanding the value content can provide for customers, as well as understanding the customer’s journey.

Understanding the Buying Process

Let’s go back now to where your leads are in the buying process. “Every decision to purchase a product or service is an attempt to satisfy a need or relieve a dissatisfaction of some kind” (Tracy, 2000). People tend to follow this process when they are in a buying decision mindset (Sandler):

Appear interested: They identify a need

Act motivated: They decide they are going to pursue a solution to that need

Get information: Begin to learn more about a service or product that fills that need

Avoid commitment: May take a long time to decide whether they want to commit

Disappear: May decide they are not going to buy or that they will wait for a sale or a better deal

Brian Tracy, a well-known sales expert, explains, “Every buying decision is an attempt to solve a problem or achieve a goal. One of the most important things you do in successful selling is put yourself in the shoes of your prospects and see the offering through his or her eyes. You must determine what this product or service means to your prospect in terms of his or her goals or problems before you can offer it or sell it effectively” (Tracy, 2000).

What Tracy is describing is the process of understanding your audience and where they are now in the buying process—just like Rule #1. He’s also describing understanding everything you can about your product so you can provide information that will answer your audience’s questions.

In an article about how to build a blog following, Karlee Weinmann quotes the well-known sales guru Marcus Sheridan, and explains his method, “Be an active listener, and encourage your team to do the same. Go over commonly asked questions, review customer inquiries and brainstorm topics that people might not fully grasp right away. Each of these is a totally useful, readable blog post” (Weinmann, 2012).

In the several times Sheridan has worked through that process with companies, he says the team usually comes up with about 100 questions in 15 minutes. Yet even beyond answering people’s questions about the product, you also need to understand the product fully before you create content that explains its benefit to the buyer. That’s why you need to follow Rule #2.

This is true for any organization, institution, business, and not-for-profit or government organization. A university needs to convince students that it is the right place for them. Government agencies need to answer people’s questions about how to interact with them (file forms, apply for assistance, and download information). Hospitals need to provide important, detailed information about the advanced technologies or treatments they offer. Charities may need to convince donors why their donations do more good with them than with a different charity.

As Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach point out, “No matter how they find you, your users almost always have very specific goals and expectations. And if your content doesn’t meet their expectations—and quickly—they will leave. Period” (Halvorson & Rach, 2012).

Know who your customer is by knowing what segment of the customer loop she is going through right now.

The Law of Trust

Even if you know everything you can about your audience, you can’t win a sale or convert a prospect to a buyer if they don’t trust you. More than anything, content needs to forge a connection between you and your prospects.

How can you do this? With transparency and trust.

The trust bond between the salesperson and the customer is the foundation of the successful sale. Trust is everything, especially in a large or complex sale. The higher the level of trust between you and your customer, the lower his or her fear of failure and perception of risk. When the level of trust is high enough, the sale will take place (Tracy, 2000).

When we think of content as a conversation, we understand the following two points as well:

• Successful salespeople listen twice as much as they talk.

• No one ever listened themselves out of a sale (Tracy, 2000).

So how do you listen and create trust when you create content? Well, first you use all the feedback channels you have: Social media channels, comments, emails, customer service information, and so on. More importantly, when you encounter places where your content was confusing, you go back to clarify it.

Even more, “Customers look upon top salespeople as friends who are trying to help them solve their problems or achieve their goals. They look upon those salespeople as partners and advisors. The customers do not perceive them as salespeople and they do not see themselves as being ‘sold’ to. They see them more as teachers and helpers” (Tracy, 2000).

Content should be there to answer anticipated questions and provide clarity for your customers. That is always your goal. You are a teacher and a helper when you create content.

Business Is about Relationships

Fundamentally, people crave relationships and connections. They buy from and commit to people they trust and like because they believe they have a relationship with that person.

“All selling is ultimately relationship selling. People don’t buy products or services. They ‘buy’ the people who are selling the products or services.” Therefore, “Develop a process for relationship management. Maintain regular contact with your customers and your good prospects. Show them that you appreciate them by developing various ways to say, ‘Thank you’ ” (Tracy, 2000). Thinking about nurturing customers in a loop, rather than a funnel, is so vital to finding success when using content to build relationships.

Content Supports the Loop

Content can move your audience through the customer loop. When executed properly, content can persuade, inform, validate, instruct, and entertain your prospects (Halvorson & Rach, 2012). Good content can:

• Create a relationship

• Provide answers to questions

• Eliminate doubt

• Establish trust

• Educate and help

• Nurture the relationship

• Support the sales and buying process

As we discussed earlier, content is an interconnected set of assets. You need to understand how all of these assets relate to each other, how they support the buying process, and how they move customers through your pipeline.

The Hallmarks of a Controlled Content Experience

We need to control the content experience in order to ensure that our audience moves through the customer loop and becomes a buyer. When this happens, we can be almost certain that our audience has found content that has done the following:

1. Corresponded to real-life needs: “I want to find a charity I connect with so I can donate. Reading about all the wonderful work this charity does with developmentally disabled adults inspired me to give.”

2. Educated: “My father is elderly and has started to forget things. Is this a normal sign of aging or do I need to consider the possibility that he may be developing dementia or Alzheimer’s? Is there a geriatric practice at my community’s hospital? Do they have someone I can talk to about this? Looking at their website and their checklist of normal signs of aging made me realize we need an appointment.”

3. Entertained and told a story: “I’ve been looking at several universities and I know I want to study accounting and business. Watching the video the accounting principles class made with their professor about understanding the difference between cash basis accounting vs. accrual basis accounting made me want to attend that program.”

When you produce content with the goal of moving customers through your customer loop, you ease the challenges inherent in creating valuable content. Connect with your customers’ needs so you produce content that informs and educates. Don’t forget to entertain prospects with great stories—it’s almost always the emotional connection they need to move them across the line to customers that, yes, drive revenue.

We’re going to focus next on the different formats of content and how they relate to each other in order to create a strong content framework. This is how we control the content—and the conversation—as we listen to customer needs.

Controlling the Content Experience

Most of the time, it takes repeated exposure to your content before someone will decide to buy. Google calls this the Zero Moment of Truth (Google), the moment when your prospect makes that online decision to buy. According to Google’s research, the average user needs to digest ten pieces of content before making a purchasing decision.

In other words, you need ten conversations or interactions with your prospects before they buy. This suggests we must develop different formats of content, or a content mix, in order to engage our prospects and keep them moving through our loop toward conversion into customers.

Understanding and Creating a Content Mix

We need to understand how all of our chunks of content—our organization’s assets—relate to one another, so we can create the right mix of content formats, channels, and platforms to move our prospects through our customer loop.

You want to have many different formats of content on your website that represent your brand and the information you want to communicate. Remember, the goal of the loop is to drive demand for your product or service—if consumers need ten pieces of content to drive a decision, then you need to have ten pieces of content for them.

The table explains the loop stage, the activity, and which content formats you may want to use to keep them moving through the loop.



Create the Content Mix

Here is a good matrix to hold up against your customer loop to decide which content formats to use at each stage of the sales process.

Kathy Hanbury, a content strategist, suggests, “Define the purpose of your content: Refer to your brand focus and your audience’s goals to identify the right mix of content purposes. Each piece of content should have one clearly defined purpose—no more, no less[emphasis mine]. Sure, you may argue that you want to both entertain AND inform, but unless you clarify which purpose trumps the other in this particular piece of content, you’re likely to fail. Some common purposes include to:

• Inform (conceptual knowledge)

• Teach (how to)

• Inspire

• Entertain

• Persuade

• Start a conversation

• Spark a controversy

• Express an opinion

• Share industry knowledge or resources” (Hanbury, 2011).

Let’s take a simple example: Your client has a dog walking service and you want to communicate that he is on time, responsible, good with dogs, and affordable. He also needs to communicate in which neighborhoods he walks dogs. You want to create one piece of content that supports each of those facts or pieces of information.

For example, he may want to make a video of himself interacting with some dogs to demonstrate that he’s a careful and loving caretaker. You would use customer testimonials to communicate that he’s responsible and on-time. He may write some articles to talk about how he got started in dog walking to demonstrate he’s passionate about taking care of dogs. If you publish his fees on the site or blog, you’ll be able to show that his fees are affordable.

Planning the Content Mix


Each content format communicates a certain piece of information. Choosing the right content mix means truly thinking about your audience—some people are visual learners, some auditory learners, some are readers. You can’t know—unless you do extensive content testing—which ones your audiences are. Because most of us do not have the budget to do extensive content testing, it’s best to have a mix to make sure that you engage every kind of learner.

Your goal is to have the most successful conversation possible with your intended audience. The most successful conversation means they get enough answers to their questions so that they move along the customer loop until they convert. Demonstrate to them, through an effective mix of written, visual, and auditory content formats, why you are the right entity for them to engage and do business with.

Because relationships are typically built over time, you will need many conversations before your prospects convert to customers. If people have more conversations and interactions with your brand via the various forms of content you offer them, they may need to have fewer conversations with your sales team. Or, they will come to your sales team with a very direct set of questions, helping to facilitate the sale in a more efficient manner. Either way, you have increased efficiency by providing excellent content—a nice business goal to reach. And, one you should absolutely share with your C-suite. As the now defunct Syms clothing retailer used to say, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” That is true for all businesses that want to make efficient sales.

As Joe Pulizzi, the author of Get Content, Get Customers says, “There are a number of content products to choose from; and this list is growing longer every day. By mixing your knowledge of the customer, your organizational objectives, and frankly, your budget, you should able to determine an appropriate content mix of products … Make sure all touch points speak to each other” (Pulizzi & Barrett, 2009).

Types of Content

You are now ready to create content—the framework is developed, you have decided on your content formats and your content mix, and it’s time to put it all into practice.

From creating fresh content to using what’s already out there on the Internet, content creation can take several forms, and for each there are pros and cons. In later chapters, we’ll discuss issues like voice and tone, but for now let’s concentrate on the content formats you can create.

Here is a list of types of content you may want to consider using, particularly if you don’t have the budget to always create your own custom content, followed by a table comparing them:

• Original content

• Co-created content

• Aggregated content

• Curated content

• Licensed content

• User-generated content

Pros and Cons of Content Formats (Halvorson & Rach, 2012)



Your audience is somewhere in the buying process. It is up to you to provide them with the content mix that will lead them through the customer loop, all the way to the sale. The mix needs to meet all of their needs, make them feel as if they can easily have a conversation with your brand, and engage them in conversation long enough that they remain interested and want to become a paying customer.

Now that we’ve learned about how to construct your conversation, we’re going to learn Rule #3 about keeping your process iterative. There’s always new information, which means content is always going to need updating. That doesn’t mean you will have to redo all your work; on the contrary, by following the lessons in this chapter, you begin on firm ground.


1. Chernov, J. (2011). The fourth type of content marketing – Co-creation. Retrieved from

2. Google. Zero moment of truth. Retrieved from

3. Halvorson K, Rach M. Content strategy for the Web. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders; 2012.

4. Hanbury, K. (2011). 5 Steps to creating an effective content mix. Retrieved from

5. Pulizzi J, Barrett N. Get content, get customers: Turn prospects into buyers with content marketing. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2009; p. 47.

6. Rowling JK, GrandPre M. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books; 2005; p. 526.

7. Sandler Sales Training.

8. Tracy B. The 100 absolutely unbreakable laws of business success. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler; 2000; pp. 199–200.

9. Wachter-Boettcher S. Content everywhere. New York: Rosenfeld Media; 2012.

10. Weinmann, K. (2012). How to build a blog following. Retrieved from


Keep It Iterative


Rule #3 describes the iterative process necessary for creating and managing content. Instead of a flat process that moves along at a predetermined pace, the process of creating digital content requires fluidity and flexibility to enable it to keep changing as technologies and needs change. In addition, it needs strong leadership that understands the vital nature of the iterative process and a system of constant reevaluation to ensure that the team is on the same page.


iterative process; iteration; content creation; content modeling; key performance indicators; evaluation; review

So far, we have learned about the vital connection between content and branding, as well as how to make a business case for content.

We’re now at Rule #3 of the seven rules you need to master to ensure the success of your content. The first rule was about getting to know your audience, including how to talk and listen to them. The second rule was about identifying the appropriate stakeholders in your organization and involving them in content creation and management.

We’ve also learned about building strong content frameworks in Chapter 3. In Chapter 4, we’re going to learn how to structure and code your content so it can float on the World Wide Web and be picked up by your target audiences no matter where they are, or what device they are using.

Now let’s discuss a way to think about the state of your content and how you structure your content programs for effective management.

Getting to Wear the Digital Crown—Iterate for Greatness

“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great.” These are the famous first starting lines of Good to Great, a business book by Jim Collins (2001) that changed the way millions of people thought about organizations.

Why is good the enemy of great? Because most companies see themselves as good enough. They never make the leap to great because they don’t have the ambition to do so. Collins and his research team did a thorough analysis of how companies get from good to great; one of the main ways they do this is through an iterative process. They figure out what they can be great at, and then they put systems in place to become great at the thing that separates them from the pack.

As an organization, you need to become great at lots of types of conversations internally and externally. Remember, there are two parts to managing content in an organization:

1. Bubbling the information you need to create content to the right content creators (external)

2. Creating an solid process to manage and publish content (internal)

The Art of Practice

Justin Timberlake is an American recording artist who began his career as a member of The New Mickey Mouse Club, which also launched the careers of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. In 1995, Timberlake joined ’N Sync, a boy band that sold more than 50 million albums worldwide, becoming the third-best-selling boy band in history (Wikipedia) (Justin, 2013).

In an interview with the writer David Hochman, Timberlake talks about refining his dance and practicing instead of partying with his bandmates:

Hochman: What was it like being 17, 18 and having 400 girls chasing you?

Timberlake: I hate to disappoint you, but I was the youngest one in the group, so the other guys were getting more of that action, and they were protective of me. I think I was the one who cared about what we were doing onstage. My role was, we’d come offstage every night and get a DVD of the show, just like an athlete watching tape from a game. We’d get on the bus, and I’d go, ‘Okay, here’s what we did right; here’s what we did wrong,’ and we’d fix it for the next day (Hochman, 2012).

Timberlake has the most successful solo career of all of the members of “N Sync,” selling more than 14 million albums worldwide and winning six Grammy awards to date.

Timberlake understood that the art of getting better means work. It means critically viewing what you did, where you need to be, and how to get there. Every night, he would direct his bandmates on how to iterate their performance so they would get better each time. In the same way, you need to demonstrate to your team how your content performs so you can continue to iterate and improve your content. Become content rockstars through iteration.

Iteration is important in getting at the information you need, as well as to the content process itself. Iteration does not come naturally; in fact, many professionals would rather just have a flat plan to follow from point A to point B. That approach does not make for something great—great comes from practice, from iteration. That means trying and trying and trying again.

Content Iteration: The Key to Great

Why is iteration so critical to producing a great content program?

Approaching your content process as an iterative process requires an understanding that many things keep shifting, whether they are:

• Outside your organization

• Within your organization

• Within your digital team

The following three criteria are always true in every organization:

1. Digital is always a moving target as technologies change

2. Business objectives shift

3. Processes change as staff changes

Routine Creates Success

Greg Starrick, a basketball player for Southern Illinois University in the 1970s, was the best free-throw shooter in the country during the 1970–1971 season, when he made 92% of all his free throws. Starrick explains that his father, the late Wendell Starrick, was a basketball coach who would challenge his son to make as many free throws in a row as he could, before leaving the gym after practice.

“We just spent a heck of lot of time shooting free-throws. This was back when I was in the fourth and fifth grade and I would have to make 10 in a row before we could leave and then we got it up to 15 and then 20 in row,” said Starrick. “We knew what time dinner was going to be ready and there were a lot of times when dinner had to wait because I didn’t leave the gym until I made 20 free-throws in a row.”

Starrick said he took a lot of “pride” in becoming a great free-throw shooter.

“I don’t see that same pride today from young people who want to spend the time to become a good free-throw shooter,” Starrick said. “Good shooting fundamentals aren’t stressed enough. Repetition is the key and I don’t think players get enough shots to become good at free-throws.”

Starrick said his dad helped him at an early age to develop a routine and that routine didn’t change from grade school until he led the nation in free-throw shooting (Muir, 2012).

Let’s break each of these down to understand how to move toward an iterative approach with our content.

Digital Is Always a Moving Target as Technologies Change

When I first started in the web business, we were right at the beginning of Web 2.0 and people were just starting to create their own blogs. There was no Twitter and no Facebook. Content distribution happened through RSS (Real Simple Syndication) and emails.

Guess who said the following? “Every day, there is more and more to manage and get right and learn.”

I bet you think it is a digital professional, or someone involved in information technology, right? Nope.

Atul Gawande, MD, a surgeon who wrote a supremely useful and convincing book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (Gawande, 2010) said the above, which holds true for any complex and evolving industry. We’ll talk about checklists later in the book, but for now it’s important to talk about how consistently iterating on our process is an imperative because of how consistently our digital content process will insist on iterating on its own.

Technologies seem to change almost every day. Companies introduce new devices and applications to the market on a constant basis. As soon as a new app comes out, our audience downloads it and starts using it. They want the content we offer to move with them. And get this—Google, the world’s most popular search engine, re-analyzes its search algorithm on a daily basis and makes at least one change per day—500–600 changes to their algorithm each year (iGoogle). Everyone is iterating, trying to find the jump from good to great. It is time to join the party!

Business Objectives Shift

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about aligning content creation and management to business objectives. Whether we like it or not, businesses sometimes have to shift—for good reasons and bad. Think of a business that’s growing quickly because its product is taking off in the marketplace, or organizations that need to change course because they are not hitting their achievement thresholds.

Whatever the reasons, sometimes businesses need to change their strategies. Hopefully, it’s not their core strategies, but there may be ancillary products or services they want to offer. That means that you need to create new content to support those conversations.

Again, take Google. To the dismay of many, Google decided that as of November 2013, it would discontinue the iGoogle service, which allows you to shape your own home page with your favorite links, weather, news, etc. They made this decision based on how technology has changed. In their opinion, their audience no longer wants or needs a “home page”: “We originally launched iGoogle in 2005 before anyone could fully imagine the ways that today’s web and mobile apps would put personalized, real-time information at your fingertips. With modern apps that run on platforms like Chrome and Android, the need for something like iGoogle has eroded over time …” (iGoogle).

So when change happens, we need to create conversations around that change. That’s where iterating on content comes into play.

Process Changes as Staff Changes

Here’s one thing you know for sure: a year from now your team will not look the way it looks now. It’s the nature of business that people leave companies and move on to other opportunities; or, they stay within the organization, but the nature of their role changes.

If your talent is moving, then your process is going to need to move with it. For example, let’s say you have an amazingly talented editor who is in charge of all written content and follows all content governance standards. When he leaves, you need to find someone else to fill that role. You will need to iterate on your process—even if you don’t really want to.

There’s one more reason you’ll always have to iterate in terms of your content process, and that has to do with conversations. If you are building relationships with your target audiences, those audiences are going to change as your business grows and changes. You will need to iterate on your content, as well as your content process.

And with content it’s all about practice, iteration, and getting great, as we’ll learn in this rule.

Understanding the Growth Mindset

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the book Switch: How to Change when Change Is Hard (Heath & Heath, 2010) explain the growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). They write, “People who have a growth mindset believe that abilities are like muscles—they can be built up with practice. That is, with concerted effort you can make yourself better at writing or managing or listening to your spouse” (Heath & Heath, 2010).

The Heath brothers explain: “In the business world, we implicitly reject the growth mindset. Businesspeople think in terms of two stages: You plan, and then you execute. There’s no ‘learning stage’ or ‘practice stage’ in the middle. From the business perspective, practice looks like poor execution. Results are the thing: We don’t care how ya do it, just get it done!”

To create and sustain change, you must act more like a coach and less like a scorekeeper. You need to embrace a growth mindset and instill it in your team. Why is that so critical? Because, as Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter observes in studying large organizations, “Everything can look like failure in the middle” (Heath & Heath, 2010). Let’s see why with content, failure is absolutely necessary.

Failure Is a Necessary Step to Success

It’s exactly that failure in the middle where the richness and depth of practice pays off in the digital world. The leaders at IDEO, the world’s preeminent product design firm, understand that the way we look at failure is critical to how we eventually see success.

As they’ve learned, “the project often feels like a failure in the middle. But, if the team persists through this valley of angst and doubt, it eventually emerges with a growing sense of momentum. Team members begin to test out their new designs, they realize the improvements they have made, and they keep tweaking the design to make it better. And they come to realize, we’ve cracked this problem. That’s when the team reaches the peak of confidence” (Heath & Heath, 2010).

This is something I truly believe from my work with implementing systems: You must embrace failure as a necessary step to success. “I’ve had the privilege of hearing two content strategists at Facebook describe the hacker mindset as central to the social media giant’s corporate culture. Many of the programmers are former hackers who used to break into computer systems in order to control them. Hackers are often thwarted time and again until they find the way in through a secure system. So they embrace failure as a natural step to success” (Leibtag, 2012).

Joe Flacco, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback who led his team to victory in Super Bowl XLVII, once tried to characterize what made him great and answered, “I’m not afraid to fail” (Svrluga, 2013). That fear of failure often freezes content creators and digital marketers. But, that is exactly the mindset that’s stopping you from developing amazing content experiences. Creating content is like anything—you have to keep trying until you get it right. Embrace an iterative mindset and you will always be improving. If you think you can just publish content and leave it alone, you are wrong. Would you end a conversation with a customer right before he was going to buy? So why are we so afraid to keep changing and improving our content?

What Is an Iterative Approach?

Iteration means that we need to try many different paths, until we find the way that works for our target audience. We must embrace the fact that as content professionals we always approach our craft with constant change and improvement in mind. We only get better at doing something by practicing—something we saw with Justin Timberlake and Greg Starrick. In order to improve, you also need to analyze how to improve, which we’ll talk about at the end of this rule.

An iterative approach means keeping your organization and your content teams open to change. Instead of moving along a flat, predetermined path to an end goal, be flexible and sensitive to changes so you can move from one point to the next. You also need clear timelines and metrics for measurement to guide your movement forward.

Everyone iterates, probably without realizing it most of the time. Think of people you know who like to cook. They are always “tinkering” with a recipe. Or people who are training for a marathon; they consistently change their workout routine to challenge their bodies so they are ready on marathon day.

Think of your own work that you do every day. You create something for your company, but after getting to the first step and receiving input; your next step may be completely different from you thought at first. In a sense, you are practicing, and anything you practice to get better at is a form of iteration. Content within your organization is no different.

The Iterative Process (Figure R3.1)


FIGURE R3.1 The iterative process. Ahava Leibtag. All Rights Reserved.

In web design culture, iteration is a well-established approach. That is why you will see many versions of different design deliverables with version numbers after the name of the file (or the iterative process, as you see in Figure R3.1). That is because designers sketch a design, show it to the working group, make changes, move things around, and begin to iterate from that next version.

We see this with writing as well, but there is a big difference. If you’ve ever edited any document, you know that you will track changes, or make editorial marks, in the hope of improving the written text. At some point, the written version reaches a point where the team agrees it can be published. It’s done. With our web content, can we get to a point where we can say we’re done?

No, and all of us working in web content understand this. It has to do with thinking about digital content as part of a lifecycle and framework for publishing that never really ends. With each change, no matter how slight, we feed information into the next phase. Defining “done” is vital.

But it’s even more than that. It’s about thinking of your content as an asset, like a product, in and of itself.

Content as a Product

As we have discussed, content drives the sales cycle and is a shared asset in an organization. If it does not help your business communicate with your target audiences and have great conversations, then it fails, just like any of your company’s assets. (Again, assuming the aim of your site is to sell—if not, we call that the achievement threshold, which we discussed in Chapter 2.)

As Erin Scime, a content strategist, says, “Dealing with content is actually no different than any other product. It needs a business strategy followed by a lot of coordinating and socializing to people so they execute on one strategy rather than resisting change and producing a poorly performing product” (Scime, 2012).

Imagine if Apple had stopped with the iPod, or the iPhone 1, or never introduced the iPad. What if Apple had said: “You know what? This is good enough. We’re not going to strive for greatness?” Imagine how different the world would have been. Maybe it wouldn’t have been different at all, because if Apple hadn’t

Apple: How Do They Do It?

How does Apple keep innovating? Vince Crew, in a 2010 piece, analyzes how Apple “does it.” Much of his answer to this question is based on what we are talking about—they use an iterative process. He explains, “[Apple developers] think strategically, think simply, and as Apple said in its infamous advertising campaign, ‘think differently.’” He lists these as the “considerations” in thinking differently:

1. Connect the dots—solve the problems of the audience.

2. Ask “What if”?

3. Go smaller or bigger

4. Risk failure

5. Go younger or older

6. Elegance is in simplicity (Crew, 2010)

In each of these, there is an element of an iterative process, a “let’s keep working on this until we get it right, until we solve the problem, until we have something amazing.”

done it, the talent at Google and Amazon were already considering changing modes of content consumption. They knew there needed to be more than just smartphones, laptops, and desktops to access content.

Apple didn’t stop with good enough. They are still going. As of April 2013, the iPhone 5 is one of the three best-selling smartphones in the world (Faas, 2012). What will be next in their iterative process? Companies who fail to make an investment in learning to fail, ironically, do just that. Mistakes need to be built into the timeline on the way to great.

Managing Content within the Organization: Setting Up the Roadmap

As we discussed in Rule #2, when we set up a roadmap for our stakeholders, we first need to show them where we are before we show them how we’re going to get to where we need to be. Before we begin to talk about getting to an iterative process, let’s describe how content is typically managed (or not managed) within an organization.

What typically happens at a company when they decide they want to redesign or repurpose one of their digital properties—typically, for most organizations, their website? The list below is oversimplified but describes what happens in the majority of cases:

Make a business case: Someone decides there is a business reason to create or redesign a site. Typically it’s because the site “looks old.”

Perform a content audit: If you have an existing site, this step is critical but often skipped. You must capture the content that is viable, as well as what is out of date. If your site contains thousands of pages, you may need to figure out a technical, automated solution to this problem, but there’s nothing like actually “touching” each and every page.

Develop an information architecture (IA): IA is not visual design—it is the guts of the website, the spine. Information flow as well as how users will interact with the website are diagrammed in information architectures.

Create a visual design: Visual designers decorate and cue the user with visuals.

Create or migrate content: This comes in many forms—text, video, audio, slideshows, PDFs, etc.

Production time! This is where templates are built, content is slid into place, and quality assurance is performed.

Don’t Focus on Design Right Away (It Eats Up Too Much Time)

Unfortunately, during this process most clients are imagining a gorgeous site with all kinds of bells and whistles, beautiful colors, and sliding home page pictures. This moves them to spend a tremendous amount of time on design and neglect content creation and migration.

While design is incredibly important to a site, people can’t and won’t have a conversation with a design. They can and will have a conversation with content.

Design supports the conversation. We will talk more about design in Chapter 11. Until then, think of design as one part of a website project.

As Scime says, “Not accounting for content unfortunately results in surprise due to a naiveté of the accountability needed and organizational change that will inevitably occur due to post-launch ongoing content production and strategy. After designs are set, it is time to create—which means roles, responsibilities, and ownership of content will change. New titles will be introduced and new ways of distributing content across platforms and integrating into a larger partner/advertising ecosystem will be established. Someone will need to captain this effort” (Scime, 2010).

Karen McGrane, a web and usability expert, has a great term for what happens when organizations realize they should have been paying more attention to their content. She calls it “the 11th hour shitstorm” (McGrane & Eaton, 2010). That’s the moment when everyone suddenly says, “Oh, whoops, maybe we should have some content to fill in these pretty templates.” You do not want to be there. Like ever.

The way to avoid that storm is to be constantly improving your content. That means you must focus on it—like you do on any asset in your organization. If you are going to focus on an asset, you need someone to lead that charge.

Captain Content (Ahoy!)

So who will captain this huge ship? Such a tremendous effort that cuts across so many different parts of an organization requires someone who can direct the entire process. Who should that person be? If you are reading this book, chances are YOU might be that person. Or maybe you are trying to decide how to manage content within your organization in an efficient, streamlined manner, even without the lofty title (or cool cap).

Scime explains: “You likely have someone who owns the digital product from a brand or functional standpoint, but not in terms of content operations and strategy. Not having a content czar means that teams run the high risk of reactive and ad hoc operations, with little focus on where to prioritize efforts.”

When you are in reactive mode, with no focus and priority, I call this a content spaghetti strategy: “Let’s just throw content up on the wall and see what sticks.” That’s definitely one way to do it—but it’s a bad way—and it won’t work—trust me, I’ve been called in after the spaghetti has hardened onto the wall, and it isn’t pretty.

The point of having an iterative approach is to avoid reactive and ad hoc operations. Instead, you need to establish a strategy in which you prioritize your efforts so that you are supporting customers and the business objectives of your organization. Being reactive versus proactive is the difference between anticipating customers’ needs and being too late to the game.

Back to Captain Content. To avoid an ad hoc atmosphere, the person who leads the content effort should ideally have the following qualifications:

• Understands how to manage an iterative process

• A great communicator

• Savvy about web technology (or curious enough to learn)

• Able to talk to staff members at all levels

• A solid familiarity with the company’s digital personas

If you are a small business owner, you may end up being Captain Content—I know, I know—you already have a long to-do list. Later, in Chapter 10, we’re going to talk about the different people you need in order to create great content; you can outsource a lot of that work.

But, at the end of the day, someone in the company needs to be in charge of the content. Your content is floating out there, and you need a cruise director—particularly when you learn to set up your social media channels and content distribution activities, as we will learn to do in Chapter 5.

What Does a Great Iterative Process Look Like?

Now that we know that iteration is the key to survival in the digital and content age, how does a great team iterate?

We know that people usually fail without a system that works, and systems fail without the right people in place to manage them. Therefore, if we want great iterative processes in place we need to place people at the center of the process. Process on its own is nothing. People make process happen.

The one potential danger of an iterative mindset is that you can always be iterating and therefore never go to market. As Andrew Chen, an information technology journalist, points out, “Anyone working on getting their first product out to market will often have the feeling that their product isn’t quite ready. Or even once it’s out and being used, nothing will seem as perfect as they could be, and if you only did X, Y, and Z, then it would be a little better. In a functional case, this leads to a great roadmap of potential improvements, and in a dysfunctional case, it leads to unlaunched products that are endlessly iterated upon without a conclusion” (Chen, 2012).

So you need to set up a workflow where iteration is part of the process but not the end game. At some point, someone has to yell “No Whammy, No Whammy, Stop!” (That’s a joke from the 1980s. Yup, I just dated myself.)

The Iteration Roadmap

Setting up a good roadmap for improving your process starts with three things:

1. Process evaluation

2. Review of past projects (This means you are actually publishing content and using data to improve your process.)

3. Incorporation of what you’ve learned

Process Evaluation: “Is This Working?”

Your iterative process should revolve around a clear system of evaluating your process. The very nature of iteration means constant review and rethinking. On the practical side, that means scheduling review meetings often to see how things are going.

Don’t underestimate the value of the conversations you have in these meetings—even though everyone groans at the thought of another meeting, nothing can substitute for a good old brainstorm/discussion. Let the conversation flow and let people churn, compliment, or just plain talk. If you are a good listener, you will gather important information from your teams.

On the theoretical side, that means that review and evaluation is as much a part of the process as writing and designing. Everyone needs to keep asking, “Is this working?”

Review Past Projects on a Regular Basis

Doctors hold morbidity and mortality conferences once a month to review what happened in various patient cases. The goal is that other doctors can learn lessons and not repeat any of the same mistakes.

Aside from regular evaluation meetings, have your team review one specific project a month—oh, and remember to pay for lunch to make sure everyone comes. Quarterly, you should go off-site and spend some of that time reviewing several key content projects. The main lead on the project should present the story behind the project. Then let the other members of the team pick it apart. This exercise will teach your team to anticipate project needs and avoid costly content mistakes (Leibtag, 2011).

Evaluation Questions You Should Ask

1. Goals

• Was everyone on the team aware of the goals for the project?

• Were the goals clearly defined in a written project brief?

• Did everyone understand the goals the same way?

• Was the project brief followed?

2. Content Formats

• Did we pick the right content format?

• Did we choose the right content creators to create this content?

• How did the approval and revision process go?

• Did we check in with stakeholders at the appropriate times?

• Could we improve on that process in the future?

3. Channels and Distribution

• Did we pick the right channel(s) to distribute the content?

• Was the content shared by our target audiences and prospective customers?

• Were we able to engage in conversations around this piece of content?

4. Measurement

• Were timelines clearly communicated to both the client and the content creators?

• Did we set the right Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) at the beginning?

• Are our analytics telling us the full story?

5. Return on Investment

• Where was this content intended to live, within the decision journey of the audience?

• Did this content drive sales or the achievement threshold?

Incorporate Lessons Learned

Now that you know what you did right, as well as where you could have improved, make sure the entire team understands how to avoid those pitfalls in the future. Also point out where projects have gone well and reward those good decisions. Teams, in general, will develop good habits when:

• Their work is consistently reviewed

• Mistakes are pointed out and discussed

• Decisions about how to manage things in a positive manner moving forward are collective


Iteration is a critical part of running anything successful, but sometimes it is a difficult concept to operationalize. Knowing you consistently have to shift and grow can feel overwhelming.

As the Heath brothers remind us, “That’s the paradox of the growth mindset. Although it seems to draw attention to failure, and in fact encourages us to seek out failure, it is unflaggingly optimistic. We will struggle, we will fail, we will be knocked down—but throughout, we’ll get better, and we’ll succeed in the end” (Heath & Heath, 2010).

Learning to create and manage great content within any organization requires assessing what worked and what did not in any given project. Using that information gives you valuable data you need to iterate and create a better product the next time.

Train your team to do a regular review of content creation projects to improve managing them in the future.

You can never feel that you’ve actually finished and created a final content product, but that’s a state of being you MUST accept to ascend the throne and wear the digital crown. Content is never finished—your teams and your content are always growing, changing, and iterating, and that makes your work fun and consistently interesting and challenging.

Ready to learn how to prepare your content for multichannel publishing? In Chapter 4, we will learn how to do exactly that.


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