Episode 20: Cruce Saunders, [A] - Enterprise Content Publishing

May 21, 2019

Cruce Saunders joins Kristina this week to talk about multi-channel content publishing at the enterprise level. He describes how enterprises are starting (or hopefully starting) to take a more holistic approach to their content and customer experiences, moving away from the “content center of excellence” approach present in so many large organizations. He also shares some thoughts on content marketing in general—what’s working and what isn’t.

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About this week’s guest

Cruce Saunders

Founder and principal at [A], the content intelligence service (simplea.com), and author of Content Engineering for a Multi-Channel World, Cruce has spent more than 20 years focused on content technology, directing hundreds of digital and content engineering engagements along with his team. Cruce and the [A] team work with the largest and most complex enterprise content publishers on Earth crafting the next generation of the content supply chains and publishing architecture that powers personalized customer experiences. Cruce regularly speaks on omni-channel customer experience, content intelligence, AI, chatbots, personalization, content structural and semantic standards, and intelligence transformation. He also hosts a podcast, Towards a Smarter World, where he connects with leaders impacting global intelligence. Follow him on twitter at @mrcruce.



Episode transcript

Kristina: Hello, again. Welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com, and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at BrainTraffic.com.


Kristina: Welcome back, everybody. Thank you so much for joining me this week. I have a very special guest today. His name is Mr. Cruce Saunders. And Cruce is the founder and principal at [A], the content intelligence service, and author of Content Engineering for a Multi-Channel World.

He has spent more than 20 years focused on content technology, directing hundreds of digital and content engineering engagements along with his team. Cruce also hosts a podcast, Towards a Smarter World, where he connects with leaders impacting global intelligence.

Kristina: Cruce, finally, welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast.

Cruce: Thank you so much, Kristina.

Kristina: I’ve been so excited to talk to you. This is the first time we’ve ever spoken, although we’ve traded many tweets and I’ve read a bunch of your stuff, and I have just been excited in general to hear all about what you are doing and what you’re excited about these days.

Cruce: Absolutely likewise. I feel like we’ve been having a conversation, even though this is the first time in voice.

Kristina:  I agree. And you just have a voice for, what did we call it? “Velvet radio.”

Cruce: Velvet radio.

Kristina: So glad to be listening to it. Cruce, tell me a little bit about what you do and the kind of work that you do with [A].

Cruce: Well, sure. So, I run a consulting company that is the content intelligence service. We work on content portability, in particular with a focus on accelerating how content moves from offering through management and into various forms of delivery. And so, that looks like all the stuff that happens sort of before it hits the CMS. And all of the things technologically that need to happen in order to get content moved from lots of different parts of an enterprise.

So, we’re really kind of interested in stitching together a lot of disconnected pieces and parts. And I’m really particularly keenly interested in the human side of that. So, what are the different roles and functions and relationships between the different practices that interact with content. And how do they all work together? Because that’s really, I think a big part of the alchemy that is needed in order to kind of step up from old school ways of publishing that continue to be “de rigueur” today.

Kristina: So, something that I think is so interesting is that I think early in many content strategists’ careers, even before we necessarily were calling ourselves content strategists, we really were looking for the tool, or the process, or the technology that was going to help us kind of get our content under control. It is really interesting and exciting to me to hear that you also, and because you really refer to your work as content engineering, right?

Cruce: Yeah. We try to differentiate that because we’re looking at all of the different pieces and parts of literally just the structure and the semantics of the content itself and the technical systems that contain the content. So, we look at that as very much an engineering discipline which is [inaudible] from the sort of strategic ownership of that content and who it’s targeted to and for and how it impacts an organization’s overall strategy and customer relationships. There’s so much to do on both sides, so we just focus on the nerdy stuff, really.

Kristina: Okay. So, we’re going to have to, so what you just described is like the entire universe of content. So, let’s unpack that just a little bit. I think, let’s talk about the people side of things quickly, or maybe not quickly. But again, I feel like we always point towards Ann Rockley in her early work around structured content and content re-use within technical documentation and distribution and so on.

But the conversation has progressed so much over the last 20 years towards really recognizing and focusing on the human element, especially organizationally across an enterprise and how that really shapes the end product of the content in approach and management and the strategic thinking around it.

Talk to me a little bit about what’s exciting to you in terms of how you see enterprise structures evolving to sort of empower and support the people that are making these decisions?

Cruce: Well, I think that a lot of motion is headed towards content being managed really independently and on a topic-oriented basis, apart from individual deliverables. That progress is slow. But it’s happening. It’s been happening in different parts of the enterprise for a while, like in technical communications. You mentioned Ann’s work—Ann Rockley and Joe Gollner—and a lot of the early structuralists were focused on content as a topic-oriented and really ultimately entirely separated from presentation set of structured either XML or any other format that’s really kind of independent of various systems of implementation, record, presentation.

And so, that topic-oriented, decoupled content, where it’s just separated from the CMS, is something that has DNA already running around it inside of the enterprise. And so those technical content folks, technical communicators, have had part of the answer for a long time. But they’ve isolated and not really connected up to the [inaudible] around the folks running the public websites in an enterprise is usually that those folks are reporting up to marketing or customer experience or sometimes product. And so, the ways of handling content have been different within those groups.

But the thing that enterprises are really doing now is starting to take a little bit of a more holistic look. And I wish I could say that was happening at a faster rate, and that C-level stakeholders are investing in transformational initiatives about the treatment of content assets. But we’ve only seen really glimmers of that. The reality is that most initiatives between organizations are in fact some kind of committee or group or steering organization.

Kristina: “The content center of excellence.”

Cruce: And I didn’t [inaudible] that, because it is such a mess. I don’t like that framing because a center of excellence has zero teeth. It doesn’t do anything. And I don’t even necessarily believe a center of excellence has a business function necessarily in most day-to-day publishing operations. It’s sort of a side along somebody can hang on the wall. And unfortunately it’s not very useful.

We’re really interested in trying to help build more towards what used to be called “governance organizations.” But it’s, I really actually think there needs to be something like a “services organization” that is, that’s focused on content, that builds in the various roles. Content strategy, content engineering, and content operations.

And I distinguish between all three of those because I think it’s important for us to run content in as faceted and focused a way as we run an enterprise, right? Because content is the expression of the enterprise. And we wouldn’t think to run an enterprise without a CEO, CMO, COO and a CIO. Like, those sort of, there are stakeholders that are responsible for different parts of that function.

And so, I really do believe there is a place for a chartered and budgeted initiative that’s cross-functional. Really something that lives in a much more powerful and connected way than a center of excellence or than a steering committee. But that’s what we have today, right? We have the beginnings of cross-functional conversations where there’s dialogue between that mar tech group and that tech cons group, between pre-sales content owners and post-sales content owners. And they’re beginning to talk about stitching together customer experiences that live in the same websites and live in the same mobile apps and talk via the same conversational interfaces. And hopefully even relate to each other in some way maybe connected by shared taxonomies.

And so, that beginning conversation is happening today. And I think it’s bubbling up and hopefully it will start to develop power and budget and develop ability to influence more orchestration.

Kristina:  Oh, you just described the dream of every content strategist I’ve ever spoken to. Who do you find is sponsoring these conversations internally? Like who’s heading them up? Who’s saying, “Okay, we got to start making these connections?”

Cruce: So, organizations usually don’t have any form of head of omni-channel. So, what happens is we sort of default to [inaudible], head of marketing. And so in the absence of an omni-channel customer experience advocate, we end up distributing out a lot of the day-to-day management of customer experiences to the level of, sort of directors that report into a marketing organization or a customer support organization.

But the organizations moving the ball the most have somebody accountable for customer experience, broadly. And so, we have done work with organizations reporting to a head of customer experience. We’ve done work reporting to kead of product inside of large software companies. We’ve done work involved in organizations that are responsible for the commercialization of content, where they see content as an asset and they are [inaudible] that asset to sell the content, and in order to do that, they need to look at it with a broader bush.

We’ve also ended up involved with marketing groups. There’s a very, very strong C-level mandate to create personalized experiences. And personalization is just such a mess today. And trying to make personalization happen in anything other than a small campaign-focused petri dish is just not an organizational discipline yet. It’s not a muscle we’ve built. And so those folks [inaudible] look at well, how do we do this whole thing? How do we shake out content as an entire ecosystem, not just as a website project? And so, it’s those kind of cross-disciplinary, cross-functional leaders that are answering the call.

Kristina: So, interestingly when I teach my … I have a workshop that I teach, content strategy 101, or content strategy fundamentals … when I always email my workshop participants ahead of time saying, “Tell me what two or three things are that you hope that you’ll get out of this workshop.”

And then number one request that comes across over and over and over again is how do I get this conversation started? How do I help people understand not only the value of content strategy, but its function, not just at like the website design level, but how it needs to play into and begin to build towards the kind of content strategy nirvana that you’re describing in terms of just being able to get our arms around a customer experience end-to-end and begin to plug in content structure, content operations, content design, editorial management across different platforms and channels.

Where does a content strategist or a small group of content strategists start that conversation?

Cruce: So, I believe this is a two-fold process. One is sort of an upward-facing triangle, and the other one is sort of a downward-facing triangle. And I think they kind of ultimately have to come together. The upward-facing triangle is the interaction at a department or function, manager even, level where there is a … something broken that needs to be fixed. And that could be, everybody’s emailing around Word documents. And we’ve got to get a hold of that because there’s so many versions of these things running around in Sharepoint files and shared drives and, “Is that on the H drive? Who’s got that in email? What version is that?” And it’s—

Kristina:  Cruce, nobody works like that anymore. Oh no, wait. Everybody does.

Cruce: I know. I know. And so, we’re really dealing with just, let’s just tackle some really practical focused problem head on, and quantify the cost. Where does that cost us in manual transformations and lost productivity by just having to handle content in this very manual way. And if we can quantify that, whether that’s percentage of salaried authors’ time or some other basis, we can, in many organizations, we can start to find literally millions of dollars worth of cost that is sitting around unaccounted for because it’s spread out in all of these manual processes.

And in manager level participants, content followers can themselves within their worlds, within their content domains, identify friction points, start to quantify the cost and make a business case for improving it, and then run a little tactical initiative of some kind to just make that incrementally better. And then talk about the bigger picture, like if we could do this within more groups, and we can stitch this stuff together, we can make big impact, but let’s just prove it at this, within the department.

And so, that’s the sort of bottom up approach that is really just very practical and tactical thing to do. The other side of it is the bigger picture of the value proposition around content itself. I don’t think anybody yet does a good job, including us, we haven’t figured this out at a, and we’re working hard. I think a lot of, and a lot of folks are, to come up with truly quantifiable ways to state the value of content’s impact in an organization. Because it’s not just cost savings on authoring, right? It’s content, that’s a tactical way to look at it and that’s something that can provide some traction.

But if we’re going to move the C-level conversation towards transformative approaches to publishing at an enterprise scale, so really air cover. We need to provide air cover for our marketing managers and our, all of the owners that are trying to get things done with department level budgets. And if we’re going to say, “Look, let’s handle content in a new way. Let’s address that new way of looking at content. We have to build a vision and a value model for the C suite that really shows content assets performance against market moving business objectives and against intellectual property performance measures similar to other intangible assets like, there are many, but if I run a record company, I capitalize my record. If I run a movie company, I capitalize my films. If I run a book publisher, every book is an asset.

So, as an enterprise I capitalize my R&D. I capitalize my good will. I capitalize my, all of my spend that is going out towards anything producing a durable intellectual property asset. And content, especially when it’s driving behavior over time, has that shape. It is able to bring in measurably impactful new value to the business across quarters. But I’m budgeting for it on a quarter by quarter spend through siloed functional budgeting. So, it’s coming out of my marketing budget for a particular quarter, and so, and sometimes I’ll get a bigger spend on something like a website. But ultimately, I’m not looking at the content assets independently as an investment. It’s sort of like I got to pay writers to go write stuff to fill up this thing, this campaign or this website or this chat bot.

And so, it’s not that, it’s sort of like pouring the content into the container and maybe the tech gets capitalized. But the content itself doesn’t. It’s seen as either disposable or ephemeral or something. It’s confusing to me because why would we treat something that is driving the value of the entire customer experience for every product and every service that’s out there and call it this ephemeral disposable expense? It’s just weird. But I think we need to move that conversation at the C-level.

Kristina:  You can’t see me, but I’m crying right now. There are tears streaming down my face. Okay, that’s not true. But that everything you just said is what I started stomping my feet and yelling about a decade ago. Many people were, like everybody was just like what is the deal? Why are we treating content like it is something you can just go into a warehouse and like take off the shelves and go and make it a thing that people will care about? And one of the things that I can’t help but think about as you’re talking was the rise of content marketing as a practice literally alongside of the rise of conversations around content strategies specifically as it lives within the user experience.

Talk to me a little bit about how you see content marketing as sort of having helped and harmed this conversation? Because in some ways it does raise the visibility and the profile of content as an asset, a business asset that needs investment, and on the other hand I feel like it’s also just turned it into “get me more of the thing that’s magically sitting in the warehouse somewhere.”

Cruce: Indeed. So, what Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi did with the Content Marketing Institute is move the conversation from paid to really owned asset orientation. And that’s good. That is a very good thing. The idea that paid branding is the way to drive marketing results is, certainly been in decline while content marketing’s star has risen. And the results are visible. Everybody that has invested heavily in content marketing as a core marketing strategy, by and large has been rewarded for that effort up to a point. And then it sort of like, at some point you reach peak content inside of a marketing organization or, and we’re pursuing the same tactics and just starting, and it’s the quality diminishes and then it starts to become about volume, and nobody’s tracking what the actual customer conversation is about. And then it’s just kind of noise. And then it starts to kind of get in the way of the original objective, which is providing a quality-oriented conversation with a customer through valuable content assets.

And so, I think content marketing has done wonderful things in moving the attention towards owned content or internally-developed content as a core business strategy and demonstrating the value of that. But I think it’s also created the basis for that to just go crazy and get out of whack and be abused. And I really think the overall market is starting to realize that the promise of content marketing is real. That there is a value in aggregating an audience and building a conversation with that audience, and then ultimately creating an inbound funnel around those conversations.

However, it doesn’t stop there. That’s the top of the funnel. Or it’s the beginning of the journey. It’s the beginning of the conversation. It is not the goal. It’s just the beginning of an omni-channel long-term full customer lifecycle conversation. And if we leave it at the content marketing level, it’s just like we’re just investing in the introductions, and we’re not actually creating a relationship.

Kristina: Well, and I had, I guess a not so hidden agenda in asking you that question because my experience is that not only are we kind of front loading the conversation that you’re describing with a ton of content that they’re mapping to, that marketers are being asked to map to the buying funnel, but that’s also creating this huge overload of content throughout a variety of systems and channels that is creating real content chaos, which I think that, how’s it, Mark Schaefer wrote about content shock, which I just loved, like several years ago. And then he just got piled on by content marketers everywhere. But he wrote about that, that just what you were saying, there’s only so much attention to be held on the, for the audience’s standpoint.

But then internally, suddenly organizations are going, “What? We have so much content. We don’t know where it is or what is says or if it’s useful or if people care about it.” And it’s pointing attention, in my mind back to what we started talking about right at the outset, which is the need for a cross-functional service, content service that helps everybody across the organization see, “Oh, my content doesn’t just live in isolation from all these other touch points across the customer lifecycle, that this is, everything we do is an expression of our organization and it can’t be seen in isolation from these different parts and pieces.

Cruce: Beautiful. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s like when we work with software companies in particular, it’s amazing how much content is the product and, but that’s true in a lot of organizations. I mean, even healthcare and other industries you would think are not so much dependent on words and pictures and videos and text to kind of create the experience itself. But in fact, it’s as though content is the lens by which every product is actually understood. And so it’s not just a phone, it’s a content experience and it has some phone-like functions. But it’s part of an overall customer experience.

And so, when we look at how to manage the content around that information, or I’ve heard it called, and I like that idea even though it’s a little, I don’t know, a friend might call it “astro foo foo.” But it’s, I like that, because it’s like there’s this sense that each product is a content experience inside of it and before it and after it, and therefore we need to manage that as a full experience and the content sets associated with it.

So, if I’m writing a topic-based content article, or topic-based content item about a product feature, that topic-based record might have facets for marketing, for the post-sales support for the product documentation and for the chat bot responses associated with it. And so, we might be looking at sort of, at a feature level or a function level creating a content strategy that involves building out a much bigger holistic content structure than we normally have. It might have multiple contributors, might not be a single author. But it’s a single structure. And then we take those parts, right, the different pieces that are related to, because they’re tagged by which part is related to pre-sales and post-sales, and which kind of intents and what kinds of responses?

Because ultimately the future for content is an assembled future. We are going to be creating experiences in real time in response to what the customer has just told us they’re interested in or what they’re doing. And so, we need to be able to assemble that experience rather than just chisel it in stone hope they happen upon it. We’re assembling it for them. And that takes holistic thinking. It’s a long journey. I don’t think we’re going to get there overnight, we haven’t already. Like you said, we’ve been working on it for a decade or two, and so, but I think now the technology and the market is primed to need to make the shift and to need to recognize content’s value because of this explosion, this content shock, this content strategy burger of—

Kristina: [laughs] That we’ll be sure to include the link to that tweet. Oh, boy. Yeah. I’m so inspired listening to you describe this future and the shifts and the changes that not only need to take place, but that you seem to have real hope that they will, which is what is going to get me out of bed in the morning for the next several months. So, that’s great.

We are unfortunately out of time. I wonder if you could share with our listening audience where they can get to know you little bit better and maybe read some of the things that you’re putting out into the world.

Cruce: Sure. We have a website with a bunch of different publishing on it that is at simplea.com. Simple-A-dot-com, and the company’s name is [A]. And I’m @mrcruce on Twitter. And I’m really interested in building a broader conversation together for the community long-term and really appreciate how much you’ve catalyzed that broader conversation. I think that’s an important one for all of us to explore together.

Kristina:  Well, I’m lucky to have you here to teach me and to share with our audience all of the great things that you envision for the future of content. So, thank you so much for being on the show.

Cruce:  Thanks Kristina, one step at a time.

Kristina: We’ll get there. Okay. Thanks, Cruce.


You’ve been listening to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at, of course, BrainTraffic.com. Thanks and we’ll see you next time.

About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

Follow @BrainTraffic and @halvorson on Twitter for new episode releases.