Episode 35: Erica Jorgensen, Microsoft - How research and content strategy work together at Microsoft

July 6, 2021

Erica Jorgensen offers an insight into content practices at Microsoft. From more content not being better, ensuring content is an asset and the relationship between content and brand. Erica’s chat with Kristina covers using style guides to talk the same language across teams, the way that content works with research and testing and measuring content.

Want to hear more? Join Erica at Button: The Content Design Conference this fall.

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About this week's guest

Erica Jorgensen

Erica Jorgensen is a senior content designer and manager at Microsoft’s commercial content experience team, which means she helps people buy, set up, and use their software. Erica has worked at startups like Amazon and Rover, nonprofits including Premera Blue Cross, and e-commerce companies like Expedia and Nordstrom. Teaching content strategy is something Erica loves and she has taught for the University of Washington’s digital communications graduate program and Seattle’s School of Visual Concepts. Erica also loves kayaking, yoga, writing short stories, and photography.

Episode transcript

Kristina Halvorson:

Welcome back to The Content Strategy Podcast. I hope you've all had a fantastic week. Great to be back with you in podcast land over the airwaves. I am so excited about today's guest. I'm dizzy with excitement. I'm going to introduce her to you now with zero other preamble. This is Erica Jorgensen. Erica is a senior content designer and manager at Microsoft who focuses on UX content analytics and optimization. She is a former journalist who's written for global brands like Expedia, non-profits like Premera Blue Cross, and startups like Amazon, which we're going to hear about, and Rover. She's also taught at the University of Washington Graduate Program in Communication and Digital Media, and mentors content designers through Hexagon UX. Hi, Erica.

Erica Jorgensen:

Hello, hello.

Kristina Halvorson:

I'm so glad you're here.

Erica Jorgensen:

Thank you for having me. I'm happy to be here.

Kristina Halvorson:

Actually, you're here but you're also there. Where are you?

Erica Jorgensen:

I am in Seattle, specifically the Green Lake neighborhood.

Kristina Halvorson:

That sounds beautiful.

Erica Jorgensen:

Well, green doesn't sound like the best color for a lake but there's green all around it and I'm glad I live near a lake because it's going to be hot here, unseasonably hot for Seattle.

Kristina Halvorson:

Do you get into the lake, or on the lake, or is it just the breeze coming up off the lake?

Erica Jorgensen:

More paddle boarding.

Kristina Halvorson:

Great.

Erica Jorgensen:

Yeah, it's actually quite chilly. I don't swim in it all that often but I think it's nice to have a lake to jog around and to paddleboard around.

Kristina Halvorson:

I don't know if you know this but Minnesota is the state of 10,000 lakes, which is where I live, and a weird colloquialism here is that you can ask somebody, "What are you doing this weekend?" Then they'll say, "I'm going up to the lake." It's just the way that we say that we're going up north somewhere or down south somewhere to a lake, but when people come to live here, sometimes after a month or two, they'll just be like, "What's the lake? Which lake is that?" They think that everybody's going to that same lake.

Erica Jorgensen:

The same lake but it could be one of 10,000.

Kristina Halvorson:

It could be one of 10,000. Erica, I have asked you here today because I am interested to hear about content design and the research practices that you all partner with at Microsoft. You have a very interesting bio with a lot of different paths into content design. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how did you get here?

Erica Jorgensen:

I got here through journalism, I would say. I'd have to go back to the olden days when I worked as a journalist because those skills, I use them every day as a content strategist, content designer. So many journalists could not support myself or a family on a journalist salary, so tripped into a startup when I was in my 20s called Amazon, and started working there as a book reviewer and author interviewer. I don't know how much detail you want me to get into on that.

Kristina Halvorson:

We'll come back to that.

Erica Jorgensen:

We'll come back to that? Those are some trippy times, yeah. Long story short, I should own my own tropical island. I do not, but I worked at Amazon for about close to five years, and then went to Expedia, worked as a content strategist at Expedia. I think there's just so many parallels between journalism and content strategy, content design, interviewing people, finding out what the real facts are, not the urban myths, but the facts, making sure that you write concisely. There's so much goodness there. Yeah, I think Expedia was where I first worked with the title of content strategist.

Kristina Halvorson:

Then you rolled over to Microsoft. How long have you been at Microsoft?

Erica Jorgensen:

There were some roles in between there. I've been at Microsoft a little over four years now.

Kristina Halvorson:

Where did you start off at Microsoft? When you accepted the job, what was your title?

Erica Jorgensen:

I was actually in content marketing. My title was product marketing manager, which at a company the size of Microsoft doesn't really describe my role very accurately, but I was in the global demand center doing content marketing for all Microsoft products, which was, it was... How do I describe it? It was super fast-paced, super stressful but a really interesting machine they had going there to do lead generation for Microsoft products with a ton of content of all sorts. Video, eBooks, infographics. We would do all sorts of content to drum up interest in Microsoft products.

Kristina Halvorson:

Four years ago was at the height of the content marketing place. A lot of companies still suffer from this malady, but it was really like the more content you can create, surely the better impact it's going to have on our sales.

Erica Jorgensen:

More is not better. No. We would do analytics to dig in, to find out which pieces of content were driving the most impact, and that was really shocking. I think that's a refrain that I am singing in my current role because I'm also working on search engine optimization but less is really more. The more you turn out, the more typos you'll get, the less you seem to engage your audience. More is not better. More content, more problems.

Kristina Halvorson:

Let's talk about that for just a minute because the ethos that I have seen held at so many companies, especially at enterprises, but even small organizations, is feeling pressure to create content. "We've got to have three social media channels. We should be doing a newsletter. We should really be writing blog posts. We should put out a white paper or a PDF." What is that value? What is that fervor or that panic that is driving organizations to think "We must create content." What's at the core of that?

Erica Jorgensen:

That's just people throwing spaghetti at the wall, I think, hoping that something will stick. I think a lot of that is rooted in the social media ethos of, "Oh, let's get something to go viral." I would much rather have a content asset, if you want to call it that, a piece of content that will drive engagement with customers over time, almost an evergreen piece of content, instead of something that will go viral for a weekend and then fizzle out like a firework.

Kristina Halvorson:

Is that the pattern that you have seen that those are the content assets that really will drive results?

Erica Jorgensen:

The ones that go viral? It's the ones that solve problems, and I think I saw that. I was working on content for Microsoft Dynamics 365 for gigantic companies that have super complicated operational problems. They needed software that would solve their many headaches, and if you can talk about that in the content detail exactly what's in it for them, and that's marketing. I'm talking marketing talk here. If you can emphasize that, that will get their attention, and then maybe get them to reach out to you. Then in that role, we would put them in touch with the sales team.

Kristina Halvorson:

That's so interesting because I'm constantly defending the boring content that largely serves as a utility piece of content, right? Somebody wants to do something, here's the content that is going to help them do it, the person is happy, they move along, they like your brand, they buy your things. You were sitting in marketing. There must have been ongoing tension between, "We want to tell the brand story. We want to talk about features and as well as benefits." How did you navigate that conversation?

Erica Jorgensen:

Well, we were fortunate that we were well-funded and could create the content we wanted to but I think we had a solid relationship with the brand team. I think the director we worked with, Douglas Montague, is a genius. Actually, his mantra ties in a lot with what we're talking about here. He would often say, "Simplify to amplify," and he was talking about brand but it has parallels to content too, and that the less you have, the more you can do with it. I think we did have a really good working relationship with the brand team, and we coordinated with them a lot on things like photo shoots.

When we rolled out the new rebrands, we've got logos and color palettes and things like that. We worked really well together and closely. I think our relationship was solid but I think we all kind of struggled with the... The senior leaders wanted to see impact, impact, impact, and it's not about viral. I think the team probably is still singing the song of let's get in this for the long haul, and the dream would be to create something like an eBook or a video series of five videos or seven videos where it can live for 18 months and you can keep promoting it. Then you don't have to worry about it. You can make sure that you're addressing the customer needs and you don't have to get in this frantic hamster wheel mindset of must create more.

Kristina Halvorson:

I'm curious about how you worked with the brand team because that is an ongoing pain point I see, specifically with content strategy and content design folks who live in UX, that the brand team wants to tell the story, and the content design team wants to help users complete a task. Sometimes, the story gets in the way of the task, and sometimes, pushing to complete the task distills the story. Talk a little bit about what the shared values were between those two teams.

Erica Jorgensen:

I think where we met in the middle was with the voice and tone guidelines, the style guide, the writing style guide that Microsoft has which is available publicly, by the way. I think we were all focused on the customer because Microsoft's mission is to help everyone in the world achieve more, which is quite lofty, but we all wanted that. So, I think when we use the right words in our content pieces, whether they were eBooks or video or whatever, that we would be lending a helping hand, we will be crisp and clean, warm and welcoming. Crisp and clear rather.

I think we were all on the same page that the voice and tone guidelines were awesome and easy to follow and easy to embody with what we were working on. Whether the brand team was working on a photo shoot, or new icons, or a new color palette, or we were working on another content marketing campaign, I think that's something where we could talk the same language if you will, and really, I don't know. I think we could relate to each other really well through that commonality.

Kristina Halvorson:

That is amazing and awesome. I like hearing that. A lot of the work that we do at Brain Traffic, I will waltz through the front door, and executive leadership will just be like, "We all need to learn to work together," but everybody's got their own metrics that they say are precious to them and that they're chasing. What we will say is "You all need a north star that you are all traveling towards, or in this instance, principles and guidelines you can feel unified around." I will also say everything you just used to describe Microsoft voice and tone, shouldn't that just be everybody's guidelines?

Erica Jorgensen:

They should be crisp and clear. Yes, but I think willing to lend a helping hand, I think that goes along with our software. It's software is not simple in many cases, and so we need to meet our customers with open arms and let them know we're here to help them.

Kristina Halvorson:

Let's go back to the way that content works with research. The reason that I want to dig into this topic is because we've had the rise of design ops over the last several years as organizations are embracing design. It's like a core business function and that it needs to be operationalized. Research ops has been right behind it. Research needs to be a thing that is a core business function, and not just a nice to have, or a thing that we do and revisit every two to three years. There's buzz around content ops, which is coming from all the different corners of content strategy world. I'm like, "Design, and research, and content, and code." Those are the four things that make things go, so talk to me about how content and research are working together.

Erica Jorgensen:

We are very collaboratively meeting constantly with each other to make good stuff happen. I think the one thing when I think about user research is it's time consuming and not everyone can do it well, and in that way, it's also very similar to content design, and that people think, "Oh, I can do this. I can do this. Let me do this." I think that as a practice user research and content design have a lot in common that takes time to do it well, and just because you might be able to do it on your own, you maybe shouldn't do it on your own. That said, we've done some really interesting things on our content design team in particular about looking at content research to split out content from the visual design, and do testing on the words. The words only. I think that's where we're getting a lot of interesting insights, and that's something that we've done in partnership with our user research team.

We have been very mindful to not step on their toes but we've been using user testing to dig in and say, "Okay, is this the right word for this spot here? Is this the right word over here?" We're finding all sorts of really magical. Magical things are happening the more our team jumps into doing this user research on content specifically, I think, the more impact we're diving and the more energy we're building. I get excited thinking about the things that we're going to uncover. We're going to turn over stones or find...

I think it's cheesy but I think of it as the gold at the end of the rainbow when we do user testing on content specifically. We're finding some amazing things, and it ties back to the style guide and that how the hell did those words get there in the style guide? Were they ever validated or did they just get chosen by a team one day? Who said these are the words that we use for our brand, for our company, for validating words that are in the style guide, so we're confident they will engage customers and that they will drive business impact.

Kristina Halvorson:

The brand is listening?

Erica Jorgensen:

They are. I think, yeah. I think that there are so many style guides at Microsoft. There's so many people working on content which is great. It's great to have a lot of cooks in the kitchen but I think it's really powerful to have the ability to confidently say, "This is the right word for this use case," and then we're sharing those results. We have a SharePoint repository that called HITS. It's a searchable database of all the research that we're doing, not just content research, but the usability research, the visual design, all that is in one spot for people across the company to dive into whenever they're able to, and they can search on content research specifically, which was my request for the metadata. So, that was a really wonderful thing that we were able to do because the awesome user research team had that SharePoint already. We piggybacked and did a little begging gently and said, "Please, please, can we join you?" They said, "Yes, welcome."

Kristina Halvorson:

How do you get people to use that, look at that database of research because we can put our heart and soul into this research or into the voice and tone guidelines and then just say, "Here, rest of the organization, here are the fruits of my labor, and if you will look at this and apply this, we are all going to be so much better off and our customer will be happy and we'll make more money." So many people don't even know it exists. How do you promote it? How do you help people partake? What are your tricks?

Erica Jorgensen:

I think for new hires, it's one of the first things we point them to and say, "By the way, you'll never be bored because here are several thousand research reports you can read." It's something that we mention to the interns, to new hires. We say, "This is the HITS database. You want to go check this out?" It's something that we point people to in a monthly newsletter where we summarize some of the golden nuggets of research findings and insights that we found. I think we also share it out really broadly, not just on our team, but other teams, other partner organizations, or people who I don't even know what team they work on because Microsoft is so big. People can access that.

I think the research team at Microsoft is so broad. They meet with each other and share their findings, and so it's this wonderful thing that pretty much everyone's aware of, or they're eager to see what the new insights are, and get this handy summary and email. I've had a lot of co-workers who say, "Oh, we shouldn't send an email newsletter. No one reads this." They sure do. They sure do, and I think this is one newsletter that I know I eagerly look forward to reading because it's got all sorts of customer-centric goodies in it for me to use in my daily work.

Kristina Halvorson:

Do you have to navigate senior leadership who have pet metrics around usability and user testing, or analytics and performance?

Erica Jorgensen:

Not pet metrics but that's an interesting topic that you bring up. Analytics is a soapbox I'm happy to get on in a constructive way. Let me just explain that Microsoft has OKRs or Objectives and Key Results, and then KPIs or Key Performance Indicators that map up to those. We have been using net promoter score in our department as a gauge of overall customer engagement, and that is not the most UX-centric, most effective way to measure UX success or content design success.

I actually was very, very concerned to hear that when I joined the team. I was like, "Net promoter score. Ooh," but I flipped that. I reframed that. I said, "Okay, well, how can we be measuring content design or UX success in a way that senior leadership will understand?", because net promoter score was across our org not just for our practice. I think we've got software development. We've got all sorts of other folks on our feature team, product owners. They speak the language of net promoter score, so I actually worked with my manager, Sheila O'Hara, who is amazing by the way, and who's hiring by the way. So, we worked together to make our own dashboard of UX success measurement, and that's showing where people are getting... Of course, we had to get a lot of help from the data analytics team.

The data analytics team had to add telemetry or tagging to all of our UX experiences that are on that dashboard but we can see at which step in, say that you have a five-step customer flow, if someone gets tripped up on step three, we can see it in our funnels. So, we whipped together a dashboard that shows us which steps are trickiest for our customers, where they're succeeding, where they might need content and/or design updates to be more successful. So, we don't have everything tagged up in that dashboard yet because it is very labor intensive to get that happening but that was one of those ways. I was like, "Don't measure me on it. I don't want my work measured with net promoter score. I want something more precise," And that is the UX success dashboard specifically TCR or Task Completion Rate. I sound like I work at a big company, don't I?

Task completion rate is how we can say very precisely, "This is working or this is not. This is awesome. This needs some work." It's very empowering. I think that was another thing that our team was integral in achieving. As we said, no net promoter score. In addition to that dashboard, we're also looking at SUS, System Usability Score, and SES, System Ease Score as more granular or more accurate. I don't know. I don't know how to say it without sounding judgey, but I want my UX measured in a way that I can impact the net promoter score. I think Nielsen Norman Group, and Jeff Sauro, potentially others have said or shown that you can make UX improvements yet net promoter score declines. I don't want that to be in my annual review or anything like that. I want a measurement of my work to be accurate and actionable. I want to know that my hard work is paying off.

Kristina Halvorson:

I guarantee there are a lot of people listening right now, and their heads are spinning not only from the acronyms, but also just from all these data points of, is this content working, are people happy with this content, are they getting done what they wanted to do, and maybe all they have hooked into their websites are Google analytics. Are there any tools that people could start out with?

Erica Jorgensen:

Well, I'd say not yet. I'm very aware that we have an abundance of resources and riches at Microsoft for us to do that kind of telemetry and that kind of dash boarding. If you have five dollars, you can do your own usability content, usability research with a Starbucks gift cards or things like that. When I worked at Rover, we did not have any budget. We were bootstrapping and we did not have much of anything to go on, but we did have different survey tools that we could use online or just in person that's not feasible yet because of COVID, but we would grab clipboards, the marketing team and me, the content team of one at the time.

We would go downtown in front of Whole Foods, honestly, where we knew there would be a lot of foot traffic and we'd ask people, "Do you have a dog? If so, can you talk to me for five minutes and I'll give you a gift card," and we could get data from that exercise of, okay, we gave them quantitative questions and qualitative questions of, "On a scale of one to 10, how likely are you to use an online dog sitting service, or tell me about how you feel about that?", and we would get the quantitative and qualitative results just from asking questions. It just took a little time. That was the investment, but we didn't have usertesting.com, UserZoom, anything of that sort. Qualtrics, we didn't have any of that, but we still were able to dig up lots of insights and lots of really valuable information that got incorporated into the web content and the app and the email campaigns, and Rover bought their competition. So, I don't want to say that content was responsible for their success, but itdefinitely had a part in it, I think. Yeah, that was many years ago, but it was really helpful to get the voice of the customer into the content development.

Kristina Halvorson:

Now let's come back around to Amazon. How do you have a story about Amazon as a startup? I hear your dog.

Erica Jorgensen:

There's my barky dog. He must've come back from his walk. I apologize for him. He is spirited. How do they describe him? Spirited. Yeah, CBD isn't working so well for him. We're trying lots of things. He's in therapy.

Kristina Halvorson:

Well, after the pandemic, we should all be in therapy, right?

Erica Jorgensen:

I think so.

Kristina Halvorson:

Especially and after the pandemic. Who among us has not had a dog barking and a cat walking across the keyboard as well.

Erica Jorgensen:

Right. I shouldn't make excuses for him. Since I live near the lake, we get lots of people walking by walking to the lake, so there's that.

Kristina Halvorson:

I'm sorry. Let me just say as well, what kind of a dog do you have?

Erica Jorgensen:

His name is Rufus and he is, we believe, a Chihuahua Corgi mix.

Kristina Halvorson:

That's all I have to say about that.

Erica Jorgensen:

So, white front, white paws, white tip of his tail, a little stripe, and he has an exclamation point on his back in white, his white coloring. He's Rufus-colored. He's reddish brown but there's a white splotch on his back that's in the shape of an exclamation point.

So, your question about Amazon?

Kristina Halvorson:

Yeah. Tell me about how did you get to Amazon when they were that startup?

Erica Jorgensen:

I was working at a creative agency called Landor, which is a division of Young & Rubicam, after having been at The Seattle Times, and I was actually disabled at The Seattle times. I typed so fast and I did so many interviews with my head crooked. Well, had the phone on my shoulder with my head crooked, fried a nerve in my arm, and actually got disabled while reporting at The Seattle Times, and took some time off, and then worked as an editor at this creative agency. So basically, couldn't type as much and went into editing. Funny enough, we're working on Office at this creative agency. We're working on Microsoft content. So, that's actually my first start into Microsoft land. I will just tell you, I'm 51, and this was in 1997. This is a long time ago.

I read an article in the newspaper that said, "Hey, there's a bookstore opening up but it's online," and I thought, "Hmm," because when I was in college, I worked part-time at Barnes & Noble, and I also worked at Little Brown, the publishing company in Boston. I helped Arthur, the aardvark. I was the manager of the Arthur, the aardvark fan club. Anyway, I could go on and on, but I had background in book publishing and a background in book selling, and I said, "Hot damn. I'm going to go get myself a job at this online bookstore. I hope I don't have to type that much," and I was wrong about the typing, but I managed to get the job perfectly. They asked for my SAT scores, which I say horrifically, because it's just such not an inclusive practice but that they asked for SAT scores. It was lucky, I think, that I had the right background that they were looking for at the time, and I started as a copy editor. I was the second copy editor hired, and then saw this influx of people being hired that summer after I was hired in March of '97, including Andy Jassy, the current CEO was hired after me for the record, as was Jason Kilar, who is now a semi-famous or pretty famous in the entertainment world. I think they were hired that summer as Harvard Business School students, so yeah.

Anyway, they grew very quickly. It was a customer-centric, content-centric place to work for quite a long time. I got to say the style guide was very snobby at the start. We wanted people with PhDs who were in academia. We had a certain audience that we were shooting for which got shut to hell as the company expanded very quickly. We became less snobby with our style guide and got to be a little bit more warmer and less sesquipedalian. There were lots of big words on the homepage back in the 90s, but it was a fun ride while it lasted. I think I never slept under my desk, but I did have a part to play in the development of their style guide which I'm proud of because I think that did help them get the customer base that they did.

Once again, is a company's success based on content? Maybe. That went kablooey when they tried to outsource a lot of the content development in... When was that? '98 or '99. I forget. There's a layoff of most of the editorial team in a couple of years after I joined, which was not the right way to go, but yeah. So, I think they still have lots of pride in how they address their customers with their content, not like it used to be, but I'd say Susan Vinson was my manager there. She was an amazing editor. Really talented word nerd who I was happy to work with there.

Kristina Halvorson:

That is really something else.

Erica Jorgensen:

There's a book in there somewhere, isn't there?

Kristina Halvorson:

At the very least, you're going to be holding court at happy hours for the rest of your life.

The variety of your background and the scope of what you have experienced and accomplished is something else. The through line to all of that has been your belief in and commitment to the importance of clear, concise, transparent, useful words, language, information, and content being served up to the right people at the right time and the right place.

Erica Jorgensen:

Thank you. It's hard to work in content. I give props to everyone working in content because it is tough.

Kristina Halvorson:

It is tough. It is great that you are in a place where you are getting the kind of sponsorship and collaboration that every content person deserves. How can one work towards this state of collaboration and being valued that you find yourself in at Microsoft? What are some things that our listeners can do to sort of help establish and promote and solidify their value within an organization?

Erica Jorgensen:

I think probably two things come to mind, and I was thinking about this too after we were talking about working with brand that we're all working for a company that has goals that you want to make the company succeed. You want job security. You want to make sure that you're serving the customer. So, I think there's that business centricity of it that you're all working toward making your customer happy, and so that's a commonality that you could have with your product owners, your visual designers, your user research team, senior leadership. Everyone's concerned about the customer or should be. Then another is the soft skills. The working well with others is very challenging especially in tech where everything is fast, but I think taking the time to get to know your coworkers and appreciate what they do is really important.

I think that's why our content research has done well is that we've always been collaborative with our user research team and let them know, "I'm concerned for your feelings. I don't want to step on your toes. I want to be collaborative here. How do you think we could make this work?" They've just been wonderful partners. I think because we've been very, I don't want to say vulnerable is a little dramatic, but we've been very open with them in asking for help and saying, "We want to do this on our own. How can we do this research well collaborating with you and making sure that we're all in it together?"

Soft skills and content can not be underestimated. I think that goes too with internally on your team when providing feedback to be gentle and to think, be constructive and not harsh. I can still remember some of the feedback I got at some of my writing at Amazon in 1987. I still remember it because it's sticking in my head that if it's not framed in a constructive way, it can be heartbreaking, and content is hard enough anyway. Support each other, support your team, and support your business.

Kristina Halvorson:

Erica, you're going to be joining us at Button: The Content Design Conference in October. I'm really looking forward to your talk. It's called, Are Your Words Working, Creating, and Sustaining a Content-Focused Research Practice. When this talk came across my desk, I was really excited, so congratulations for being selected and thank you in advance for participating. If people are interested in coming to hear Erica, you can go to buttonconf.com, and learn all about our exciting virtual conference. Erica, thank you one million times for joining me today.

Erica Jorgensen:

Thank you so much.

Kristina Halvorson:

You were fantastic. Where can people find you online?

Erica Jorgensen:

I am on LinkedIn. I am on Twitter, @JorgensenErica, because someone took Erika Jorgensen. She lives in Canada. I'm not bitter.

Kristina Halvorson:

How rude.

Erica Jorgensen:

Yes, I know. So @JorgensenErica on Twitter, and I'm on LinkedIn and erjo@microsoft.com is my email, if you want to reach out to me.

Kristina Halvorson:

Awesome. Thanks a lot, Erica.

Erica Jorgensen:

Thank you.

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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