Episode 31: Robert Mills, GatherContent - Content Operations

December 4, 2019

Kristina welcomes Rob Mills of GatherContent to talk about his experience as head of content for GatherContent. He talks about what content ops is, not just in the context of his team’s product but also as part of a larger conversation about the field of content strategy. Rob also shares how he handles content operations internally at GatherContent (how very meta).

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About this week’s guest

Rob Mills

Robert Mills is Head of Content at GatherContent, the Content Operations Platform. He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for design agencies, and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC.

At GatherContent, Rob works on product content and user experience and leads on producing resources to help content strategy professionals. Rob is a published author and regular contributor to industry publications including Smashing Magazine, WebTuts+, UX Booth, UX Matters, and Content Marketing Institute. Rob speaks about content strategy and content operations at leading industry events.



Episode transcript

Kristina: Hello. I’m Kristina Halvorson and this is The Content Strategy Podcast. This week, I am speaking with Mr. Rob Mills of GatherContent. But before we get to our conversation, I have a few reminders for you. This is your very last chance to call in and leave a question for my first listener Q&A episode coming in December. Please give me a call at 510-858-6927 and leave your message. I’d love to hear from you (and I know what you really want is to hear the sound of your own voice on this very podcast).

Second, and last, Confab: The Content Strategy Conference happens in Minneapolis every May and, for 2020, we are going to have a ticket price jump happening next week—oh no! You can save $200 on your ticket if you register by December 13. Just go to ConfabEvents.com.

Okay. On with the show.


Kristina: Hello, friends. Welcome back. Today, I have the distinct pleasure of speaking with a gentleman I have long admired. His name is Rob Mills, and Rob is with GatherContent. He’s the head of content there. GatherContent is a content operations platform. Brain Traffic actually uses it. We’ll talk about that later. We love it.

At GatherContent, he works on product content and user experience, and leads on producing resources to help content strategy professionals. He is a published author and regular contributor to industry publications. And he speaks about content strategy and content operations at industry events. Rob, welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast.

Rob: Hello. Thank you for having me. What a fantastic intro that was. Thank you so much.

Kristina: I’m pretty sure that you typed that into an email and now it’s in front of me on a piece of paper.

Rob: It just sounds so much better when someone else says it to you, I think, than when it comes out of your head.

Kristina: I have to say that the opposite of that would be really painful if you’re like, “I sound so important when I’m typing,” and then you hear someone else say it, you’re just like, “Oh, I’m a nobody.”

Rob: I’m glad it was the right way around.

Kristina: Frankly, when I read that—and I feel this way oftentimes with my guests—I read that and I’m like, “When do you sleep? What is the deal?”

Rob: Yeah, things are busy.

Kristina: They are busy. You’ve been at GatherContent for a very long time it seems.

Rob: Yes. I joined in early 2015, so almost five years. It was founded in 2012, so I’ve been there for a lot of the growth. I’ve been there for some big milestones. I always say, “Oh, I think I was employee eight or nine.” (I think that’s right.) And we are about 30 people now. So I’ve seen a lot of change there. It’s been a very busy, fulfilling four point-something years.

Kristina: That’s great. And where are you guys based again?

Rob: All in the U.K., but we’re a completely remote team so we’re spread far and wide across the U.K. I personally am in Cardiff, Wales. We are in North Wales. There’s a little group around London and Brighton and North England. We’re all over—all over the U.K.

Kristina: And tell me a little bit about what GatherContent does.

Rob: GatherContent is a content operations platform, as you mentioned in the bio, which I think might be a bit ambiguous to people. And I think we’ll probably talk a bit more about content operations in this chat. But really it’s a platform that helps teams produce effective content at scale.

From our experience, planning, organizing, and managing content across multiple systems and hundreds of stakeholders is chaotic. It’s stressful. GatherContent is there to tame that chaos with a single platform to manage your people, your process—all around producing effective content.

It’s there to replace producing content in Google Docs and Word docs and PowerPoints. All that content is locked down in emails and stuck in somebody’s folder. [GatherContent] brings everything into one place with a bespoke workflow and structured content templates. You can embed your style guide at the point of content creation. It’s a wonderful tool for bringing all of that together to produce your content.

Kristina: You used to call it a “content workflow tool” or “content production workflow tool.” That was how we were first introduced to it. It is in a nice, clean CMS where we can actually say, “Okay, now reviewing is done. Now it’s ready to go to proof. Now it’s ready for publishing.” And you walk through those steps.

That was easy for us to understand. Tell me about the decision that your team has made to start referring to it as a “content operations platform.” I will say, content ops is getting a little bit of buzz in the content strategy community. I know that there are a few individuals and a few content marketing platforms really making the play for “we are content ops” or “we own content ops.” Talk to me about your understanding of what that is and how GatherContent plays into that.

Rob: Yeah. As a company, we’re very transparent with the challenges that we face and the solutions we adopt and the outcomes and the learnings that we have. We’ve really had several identity crises in the time that I’ve been there. And I think that has reflected in how we describe ourselves.

Even to the point where, internally, we asked everybody within the company to describe GatherContent. Yes, there was a lot of similarity and overlap, but there wasn’t a shared vocabulary around what we are, who we are for, and what we do. That was concerning because, if you can’t nail that yourselves, how can you expect people outside of the organization to understand what you do and who you’re for and how you can help them? So we have struggled.

The product itself is born from a design agency background. The founders owned a design agency and worked with a lot of oil and gas companies on website redesign projects. They were fed up with content delay on those projects, so they built GatherContent as an internal tool to get content from their clients. They sold the agency and GatherContent became the business.

Historically, it was a product for agencies working with clients on website projects. And I think that was quite clear. That was a very clear use case. People could either identify with that or not. The whole industry and people—the whole content as an asset for businesses—just got more complicated. It’s so much more now, as we know, than websites.

When I started in 2015, we removed “agency” from all of our things. We did try, literally, to be all things to all people. Whether you were working on marketing content, website content, printed content, social … whether you were a small company, big company ... Naturally, it just diluted the entire messaging. So that didn’t work. Thankfully, we learned quite quickly that that messaging wasn’t resonating.

We are a content operations as a platform now. And I think you make a really valid point that, if we’d said we are a “content workflow tool,” lots of people might think, “Well, I need a tool for my workflow, so I’ll go and check this out.” Whereas, I don’t think many people are saying, “I need a content operations platform.”

It’s quite hard for us. Do we push forward with content ops as our thing (with the expectation that it is catching on and is making sense to people)? I agree with you: I’m seeing that more and more, as well. Or do we just revert?

We are staying with “content operations platform” because I think that makes sense for us as an organization. We can more confidently convey that message. But not necessarily “content operations,” where we can convey it in different aspects depending on which audience we’re speaking to. That’s quite a long response there, sorry.

Kristina: That’s okay. You’re the guest. You’re supposed to do all the talking—unless I have an unsolicited opinion, which I will gladly offer in any given moment. When we talk about content operations, tell me, in your brain, what does that encapsulate at the organization or enterprise level?

Rob: We’re trying to define, again, our own vocabulary around that so we can be consistent in how we’re describing content operations and then link it back to the product. You mentioned workflow and review. It still is all those things. For us, there are three pillars of content operations: people, process, and technology.

We think that if you’re an organization publishing content, then you’ve got some form of content ops. You’ve got a person (or people), you’ve got some kind of process, and you’re probably using some kind of technology, whether that’s Google Docs or CMS or GatherContent. The issue is they may not be the best fitting tools, the right people, and the most efficient processes. So it’s very much about having deliberate content operations. It’s really investing in those three pillars—people, process, technology—in order to turn your content strategy into the effective content that we strive for.

We’re not saying content operations replaces content strategy. You still need that plan. You still need to know what you’re saying, who you’re saying it to, where you’re saying it, and how you’re saying it. It’s very much all that stuff between the strategy and the delivery. It is getting the workflows in place. It is the production. It is the measurement. It is getting the right people in place. It is having a style guide in place, having governance plans—all those things.

It’s very interesting when we talk about content ops because, as we describe it, some people will say, “Oh, so it’s workflow.” Others will say “Oh, so it’s governance” And it’s like, “Yes, and … ”

“Yes, it’s workflow and … ”

“Yes, it’s governance and … ”

That’s where we’re at with it. It’s been really interesting going to events and just hearing other people’s perspectives on content ops and what it means for them. We’re saying people, process, and technology, and it definitely includes workflow and style guides and structured content.

Which is why, for us, content ops is an umbrella message that makes sense for our product and our audience. Within that, we can segment and, for certain audiences, will focus on this element of content ops, which might be workflow. Or that element of content ops, which might be style guides or clearly defined roles, for example.

Kristina: What are some of the other perspectives that you are hearing about at industry events?

Rob: A lot of them agree quite a lot with where we’re coming from. There are definitions from Carrie Hane, Rahel Bailie, Colleen Jones, and Deane Barker. We all seem to be in agreement about the people, process, and technology. At GatherContent, we say the three pillars, but to other people, they might be components, elements ... but those three things are needed. I’m seeing a lot of agreement around it being between strategy and delivery, as well. Colleen focuses, in her definition, on everything behind the scenes, which I think is a fair reflection.

I’m not really seeing too much that would disagree with our definition or perspective. It’s more, I think, “What does this mean for me?” It’s quite high level, I think. It’s easy for me to show up to an event and be like, “Well, you need a clearly defined workflow and do you have a—”

Kristina: I hope you say it in that accent.

Rob: It’s so much more complicated than that. I think it’s like, “Okay, we understand content operations on this high level and what it means. But what does this mean for me? When I go back to my desk, how does it affect my job? What do I need to do?”

Kristina: That was my next question. I’ve spoken to so many folks on the podcast who have experience wrangling enterprise content strategy. And to marketers who are struggling to connect with other folks throughout the organization where their content depends on connections with that team. We’ll get to all of the conversations that you’re able to have and facilitate with folks in the content strategy community (or in the world, really), but my question for you is: When you are working with or seeing GatherContent in the enterprise or at the organization level, where are you seeing that content ops—whether it is pulling it together or being run or overseen or the strategy and the design of it— live in most organizations?

Rob: I really didn’t want to answer any questions with the typical, “It depends.”

Kristina: Oh, see, I set you up. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that in the last interview and I just know they’re all like, “Oh, where is my silver bullet?”

Rob: Yeah. But I’m afraid, Kristina, it does depend. I think the important thing is that it’s not held within one discipline or team. It’s not a marketing function. The whole point, for me, of content ops is that it’s cross-disciplinary. It’s there to connect those teams and silos.

I think somebody needs to run it within reason. Obviously if it’s a huge organization, that in itself gets challenging. But I think somebody needs to run it and I think that person is, perhaps, in more of a leadership role. When you’re trying to connect so many different disciplines and teams and individuals, you need some clout. You need some say-so behind you.

We’re seeing it in different places. We’re seeing it with higher ed in a lot of marketing and communication teams. The person within that team is driving it, but they’re working with subject matter experts across different academic departments and across the organization.

I would say that I’m leading the content ops at GatherContent. I do sit on the marketing team, but I work very much with our product director around our thinking of content ops. So yeah, it really does depend. It really does. Sorry to say.

Kristina: Well, this is where our conversation gets a little meta, right? Because you run content ops for an organization where the primary content that you deliver is about content ops. So let’s switch gears for just a second and talk about content ops at GatherContent.

For our listeners: just a little background on how I first encountered [Rob] and GatherContent and the work that he’s doing. When Rob came to work for GatherContent, he basically didn’t sleep for the next four and a half years because he’s been busy building out this extraordinary library of knowledge that he has commissioned … basically just asking people to contribute their thoughts and insights and tools and methodologies around content and within that big tent of content strategy. This has taken the form of blog posts, webinars, interviews …

You, for the last couple of years, have done the GatherContent holiday calendar. You get folks from all over the world to do little—I’m sorry, what do you call it? My old person’s brain is blanking.

Rob: The Content Strategy Advent calendar?

Kristina: The advent calendar!

Rob: A video a day, yep.

Kristina: My kids—they’re 15 and 12—but they’re still like, “Break out the advent calendar,” where they open up the little boxes and there are ornaments or whatever in there. And it’s like that except it’s content strategists sharing a quick idea or a thought.

Anyway, it has been built out into this knowledge base that is overwhelming in scope and of such high quality. Were you brought on to do this specifically or did you come on and say, “I’m going to make this the biggest, most amazing thing in the world”?

Rob: Firstly, thank you so much for saying that about the quality of the content. I was brought on as a content strategist and it was very much, “Let’s just figure this out as we go.” They were blogging when I started and there was someone external managing the blog. So I think it was doing well, but it wasn’t anybody’s sole focus.

I came on and there were plans to get involved on the product side. Initially, it was, “Just take over the blog.” I was just picking up articles that were already in draft from various things. I don’t really know at what point it became this conscious thing. It’s just grown over time ... When you get such good feedback, clearly, you want to do more of the same.

We could see the brand growing through our content and our brand awareness. And so it’s very much, “This is working on that very basic level. Let’s do more.” I’m still the only 100% content person at GatherContent, which is why so much of our content is from external contributors. There’s no way I could write as many blog posts and present as many webinars as we have. Nor am I an expert in all those areas either. It just wouldn’t make sense.

So it really did just start with asking people. That was completely out of my comfort zone. “Oh my goodness me, I can’t ask Kristina Halvorson if she’ll do a webinar for us.” “Oh my goodness me, I can’t …” whoever it was.

People were saying “yes.” The more that people said “yes” and the more content we produced and the stronger the reputation became, the easier it was for people to say “yes” because everybody likes to be associated with a good thing. It really has just grown and that’s been amazing.

I’m really proud of our content. We literally get people saying, “Thanks to your content … “ and all these things, and that’s fantastic. But with that, I’ve created so much work for myself. For me, it comes back to the whole behind-the-scenes stuff. We’ve just launched our new blog. It went live on Friday and I spent days and days and days and days and days manually doing work because 2015 Rob didn’t really think about meta descriptions and stuff like that.

It’s caught up with me, in some ways, but it just grew quite organically and it’s a lot more considered now. Now, I do have a plan in place. I know it’s a word that lots of people hate, but I very much am scaling. For me, when I think about our content operations now, this is where I’m trying to think about how can we gain efficiencies in our processes and the technology that we use.

I’m starting to learn a lot about our own content operations, which I really want to start sharing, because it is a case—a very meta case study—in itself. I’m learning that there’s lots of stuff in my head and that’s far more dangerous than silos and emails, I think. Having stuff locked down in people’s heads—that’s a big issue.

We’ve got a nice, clear plan now where we’ve changed systems so I’m able to report on the content with confidence in terms of the data. And it’s very much being treated as an asset for the business with clear goals and, hopefully, will always be useful to the audience. I call it our “community strategy.” It really is just educational resources to help people improve their processes, get the organizations thinking about content as an asset, and helping them level up as individuals, as well.

Kristina: That’s so interesting that you call it a “community strategy,” because I think that is what so many content marketers really dream of. I was just at Content Marketing World, which I wrote about it. It’s always a mixed bag for me because, on the one hand, I see organizations like GatherContent and, frankly, like Brain Traffic, too—we are creating content not only to demonstrate, “Yes, we know what we’re talking about,” and “yes, we’re helping to lead this conversation worldwide,” but also because we are very, very committed to growing and sustaining and supporting the content strategy community as it continues to evolve and folks start to specialize and gain more visibility within their organizations. But so often, I think that content marketing programs get relegated to get us attention, get us eyeballs, get us shares, get us visibility. It’s just interesting to me that looking at it through that lens of community strategy has really paid off for you all, as far as I can tell.

Rob: Yeah. The content marketing thing has caused me personal conflicts during the last few years. I’ve been at conferences and people have said to me, “But you’re a content marketer and you’re doing content marketing.” It actually used to worry me that that was the perception because of the stigma around content marketing. I understand where the stigmas come from: too many companies chucking content over the wall. We all can think of examples of that. Whereas for me, I take quite a lot of pride in the content that we produce. So I was like, “Oh, no. I’m not that. It’s more than that.”

It genuinely used to worry me. Now, it doesn’t really matter to me how people perceive me in terms of what my job role is or my title. I just don’t want to add to the noise that’s out there. I just want to be producing and sharing useful content. I’m not going to get bogged down in semantics of what people call that. I say “no” to so many blog posts that come through. It’s not just, “Yes, yes, yes.” That’s just okay. I mentioned I’m trying to scale, but I’m not going to scale at the speed that compromises on the quality.

For example, we’d like to do one master class a month. I’m not just going to do any old master class to hit that number. I’m going to wait and I’m going to find the right people to talk about the right things based on what we understand our audience wants to learn more about. There is very much a lot of thinking and strategy behind our content and marketing.

I think that’s where I’m at with it. The challenges I’m facing—things like distribution and measurement—that’s the hard part for me. Because of the last four years of working hard to build relationships and contribute and share, I think I’ve had that insecurity of, “Am I just a vessel for other people’s expertise? Am I just a generalist?”

I tweeted just last week about having a crisis of confidence. It was born from that kind of statement or that thinking of, people know me for our content, but they don’t necessarily know me for the work that I’m doing as an individual—as an individual content strategist—if that makes sense. And that’s caused me a bit of concern.

Kristina: That blows my mind. First of all, I can relate firsthand. So much of the work that we do at Brain Traffic is about lifting up other people’s work—specifically through Confab, which we spend so much time and so much money and so much blood, sweat, and tears to make sure that we are identifying and raising up new voices within the content strategy community. And also shining the spotlight on topics that we think are important for helping the industry continue to evolve.

I work on content strategy projects and I don’t often talk about my work, specifically, as a content strategist. I mean look at this podcast, right? I’m not on here talking about my amazing, awesome, brilliant work, which is what the next episode is going to be all about. (No, that’s not true.)

I don’t know if I’ve ever talked to anybody else that shares that crisis of confidence. So, let’s hug it out. But my question is: there’s nothing wrong with that, right? There’s nothing wrong with being known as the person who is curating some of the most useful content in the industry. I just want to say that.

Rob: Thank you. Again, when someone else says something to you, it seems to click a bit more, resonate a bit more. You’re absolutely right. It’s very much a personal hangup. I get so much incredible feedback on the content, so it’s never really from anybody else other than myself. It’s just a challenge I think I need to work on. The obvious answer is just share more, Rob. Write more about what you’re doing—

Kristina: Yeah, in your spare time, like me. Why don’t we wake up at four in the morning and write three hours every morning?

Rob: I know. As you scale, again, you create more work for yourself. So you’re kind of making it worse for yourself in a way.

Kristina: It almost depends on how you want to spend your day-to-day, right? Your job right now is to spend your day curating and editing and shaping and distributing and measuring (and so on) all of this amazing content.

I think, to your point, you are the master behind the scenes who is making all of this happen as a content strategist and as a content operations director. It sounds like you just relaunched your blog. Tell me some of the things that you’re excited about ... that you’re feeling really proud of.

Rob: The new blog, definitely. That went live on Friday afternoon. I know that’s the ultimate sin to do that, but we did. I am really proud of that because, as I mentioned earlier, years ago, I just wasn’t doing the behind-the-scenes stuff. I know it’s a poor excuse, but when you’re busy and you say, “Oh, I’ll get back to that,” you never get back to it. Then you’re just working on the next thing and the next thing.

Kristina: Exactly zero people can relate to what you’re talking about. You’re all alone.

Rob: As painful as it was spending all those days doing that manual catching up work, every article on the blog has three related posts that are hand picked, as opposed to just being the most recent three posts. Every blog has categories and tags so the content is more findable and it’s easier to surface related to content to the readers. Everything’s got a meta description. All the images, all types …

I think this is it. There’s so many parts to content and if there’s one person, it’s just impossible to do it all. Make it accessible, make it inclusive, make it findable, make it usable, keep the quality, appease the search engines … all those things. It’s hard. But the blog is in a place now where if we bring someone new onto the team, I would confidently be able to hand it over to them, knowing that my content house is in order. And that feels good.

Beyond the blog, I’m very excited. I don’t want to be the person who says, “I’ve got a secret, but I’m not going to tell you,” but there are some really exciting masterclasses coming up. Carrie Hane’s doing one on content operations at the end of October. I hope we’re going to have one on governance in November. There’s a new content creation one happening in January. Again, more masterclasses, more webinars, more books … all of that.

It’s just the work I love. I just love working with all these people. Even though it gives me a personal anxiety that we’ve already discussed. Aside from that, I just love working with so many incredible people on all these different things. I’m just very grateful that they are happy for GatherContent to be a platform for their advice, really.

On the product side, there are big, big strides being made with the product and I’m not as involved in that these days. I do spend the occasional hour discussing button call-to-action copy and things like that with our product director, but the product is really taking big leaps forward and I’m excited for what’s happening on that side of the business, too.

Kristina: Rob, I just think you’re the coolest.

Rob: Thank you. I think you’re the coolest.

Kristina: Oh, go on.

Rob: Only one of us can be the coolest. So maybe—

Kristina: Let’s arm wrestle for it.

Rob: Okay. Remote arm wrestling.

Kristina: That’s not going to go well at all.

Rob: You’d win. Believe me, you’d win.

Kristina: I don’t know about that. All right, Rob, our time is up. I really, really appreciate your taking the time to chat with me. Again, I just think you’re doing extraordinary work for the community and we will be sure to list all of these fantastic links and resources in our show notes. Where can folks find you online?

Rob: Me, personally, on Twitter: @RobertMills. Also, GatherContent.com for the platform side. GatherContent.com/blog for the blog, obviously. GatherContent.com/resources for our webinars, master classes, templates, downloads, and all the other stuff that you’ve been kind enough to mention throughout the chapter.

Kristina: Perfect. Well, I look forward to recording my annual advent calendar silliness this year if you’ll have me back.

Rob: Absolutely. I’m looking forward to it, too. Thank you so much for having me as a guest today. I really appreciate it.

Kristina: Absolutely. Thanks for coming.


Kristina: Thank you so much for joining us today. This podcast is produced by Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy, and makers of fine conferences and workshops. Please visit BrainTraffic.com for more details and sign up for our mailing list to hear about new workshops, dates, and locations, as well as content strategy insights and little personal notes from me with hilarious jokes.

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You can find even more episodes including transcripts and links to resources mentioned in the episodes at ContentStrategy.com. Thanks, 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.

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