Episode 9: Jeff Eaton, Lullabot - Content Inventories and Large-Scale Governance

September 18, 2018

In this episode, Kristina speaks with Jeff Eaton, senior digital strategist at Lullabot and former Drupal programmer. Jeff shares his insight on conducting large-scale content inventories and his approach to working with stakeholders, each a crucial step in discovering one’s content reality.

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About this week’s guest

Jeff Eaton

In 1983, Jeff Eaton used a Fisher-Price Printing Press to publish a neighborhood newspaper. Today, he helps large and small companies build and deploy their own publishing platforms. As a digital strategist with Lullabot Inc., he’s worked with clients including Sony/BMG Music, Fast Company and Inc. Magazine, World Wrestling Entertainment, Verizon Wireless, MSNBC, and more. He’s a frequent writer and speaker at web and open source conferences; the host of the Insert Content Here content strategy podcast; co-author of the first edition of O’Reilly Media’s Using Drupal; and a shameless fan of well-curated ephemera collections. In a previous life, he worked as a freelance writer and a copy editor, jobs that he recalls fondly while building editorial tools for today’s content teams. Follow him on twitter at @eaton.



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 BrainTraffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at BrainTraffic.com.


Hello and welcome back, and this week I am thrilled to have on the show with me Mr. Jeff Eaton. Jeff is the senior digital strategist with Lullabot and a longtime friend, colleague, and co-conspirator. Jeff, thanks for being on the show.

Jeff: It’s a pleasure, Kristina. It’s great to be here.

Kristina: Great. And where am I speaking to you from?

Jeff: I imagine that you are somewhere in the Twin Cities. No, I’m just kidding.

Kristina: Oh, but I know. My grammar is the worst.

Jeff: I’m—

Kristina: Damn it, let’s start over.

Jeff: No, no. It’s all good. It’s all good. I’m from ... I live in the Chicago area. And so the company I work for, Lullabot, is completely distributed, so I have the wonderful pleasure of being able to work from a basement office that’s filled with cats and all sorts of nerdy stuff.

Kristina: Lovely. Hey, tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to have the auspicious role of senior digital strategist at Lullabot.

Jeff: Whew. Boy ... So, I’ll go back. I was born as a young child.

Kristina: Oh, brother.

Jeff: So really, when I was in high school, what I really decided I wanted to go into was journalism. You know, I wanted to write, I wanted to maybe someday run a magazine or something like that. As it turned out, I slowly but surely ended up doing more and more freelance writing over time. But probably real, like real, real early in the early days of the web, I ended up getting my first job at a small local marketing agency. And I was doing mostly freelance writing and desktop publishing for those who remember those days. And ... But I ended up becoming the web guy, because I sat next to our web server when we first started making quote “home pages” for clients.

Kristina: Ooh.

Jeff: Yeah. You know, the new value-add of being able to put up a home page on the Information Superhighway for your business. And that was just something that I ... You know, I got more and more interested in that way, way back in the days of like images being a really big deal. And as I got more interested in that and started digging more into software development and, you know, programming, that ended up being where I ended up really digging in specializing professionally for probably about, I don’t know, the first ... Probably the first decade or so of my career after that.

But then because of some other projects that I was working on, I ended up getting involved in an open source content management project which at the time was this little thing Drupal that no one had ever heard about, but seemed like it fit what I was working with. I’ve now been doing like Drupal or Drupal-adjacent work for probably, I don’t know, 13 maybe 14 years. That’s sobering. But along the way, I sort of made the transition back from working in just pure software development and web development that I had been for about a decade back into the world of content and publishing. And it really felt like coming home in a lot of ways.

So I was part of the Drupal core development team, you know, contributing work as an actual developer and programmer. But as I started working on larger and larger projects, I think when I first started working with Lullabot, a couple of our projects were like MTV.UK and, you know, Fast Company Magazine. As Drupal was starting to be used for more and more large-scale publishing projects we ended up getting involved in a lot of those things. And for me, you know, again, it really felt like coming home. Where all of the issues and concerns that our clients were really driven by, they were less about software and more about the business and the work of publishing and creating and managing content. And that felt like a really, really natural fit.

So probably maybe about five years or so ago, I sort of made an official shift and started focusing on more on digital and content strategy. Still inside of the context of the large-scale CMS build outs that Lullabot does a lot of, but it’s meant that most of my energy and most of my focus is really on the, you know, early phase of content planning, architecture, figuring out what the important decisions about the content and the organization’s engagement with it will be before it turns into, “Here’s some specs for the developers.”

Kristina: And tell me about how you’re able to shift the conversation early on. Because I’m assuming that what people come to you with is, “Our content is a mess. We need a new platform.”

Jeff: Well, you know, it’s funny. Some people do that. We find that a lot of large-scale web projects that we encounter are driven by like cyclical business needs for, you know, new features or a sense that people are just getting frustrated with the platform and we need to get a new web platform or something like that. And what we found was that the earlier we’re able to get into that conversation the more productive it is. Because if it goes for, you know, six months of them spec’ing out different CMSs or something like that before they really start thinking about the content and what’s underneath their technical solutions, a lot of important decisions have already been made. And they may not be optimal.

But when we can come in earlier and start talking about things like, “Okay, well, you know, when you say it’s painful for people to use, what do you mean? Is that, you know, the underlying structure of the content means that people are always fighting with your CMS to actually produce the things that they’re being asked to by the organization? Does it mean that you don’t have any governance tools? Does it mean that there’s no scheduled publishing features, so people have to sit up until two in the morning to, you know, when the store needs to go live at a particular time?”

You know, it can be everything from those very specific tactical things to really sort of deep conceptual issues with how their, you know, business domain maps to their content model. But the earlier we’re able to get into those things we’ve found that the more productive the conversations can be and the better the actual implementation project is. So as I started getting interested into digging into that stuff ... In large part because the work that you and other people in content strategy world were doing at the time, sort of giving a name to this set of issues and concerns ... We found that, you know, not only was it something that I was really passionate about, but it ended up really, really benefiting our development projects. Because we were able to understand things a lot better before we start building. Rather than just sort of discovering all of those things along the way.

Kristina: So tell me, when you are able to enter early in the conversation, how do you approach getting your arms around current state of the content? Because especially when you ... We were ... Brain Traffic works with a lot of really large organizations, too, and we don’t get approached with the, “We need a new CMS to fix our content.” But a lot of times, we’ll get approached with either, “Okay, we need a new website. We want to do it right, so how do we start?” Or, you know, with the content. Or else, “We’re in the middle of a website redesign. And it’s, as Karen McGrane calls it, ‘The Eleventh Hour Shit Storm,’ and the content’s due and we have no idea what we’re doing. Please come rescue us.”

Jeff: Never seen that before.

Kristina: Yeah, no, ever. It is ... You know, I used to worry ... I actually, as a side note, I used to really worry that like, “Okay, it’s 2018. It’s going to be 2019, 2020. Everybody’s going to have this figured out. And what are we going to do at Brain Traffic?” And I’m realizing more and more that that’s just not the case. We’re going to be busy for the rest of eternity.

So ... But tell me when you are able to enter into the conversation early, how do you go about getting your arms around current state of the content and the content ecosystem, the people using it and so on?

Jeff: I am so glad you asked. I ...

Kristina: I didn’t even plan that question. It just came up.

Jeff: No, no. So I think you have to come at it from multiple directions. I mean, I think ... Once again, I think you were one of the folks that used the, you know, “blind men feeling an elephant and trying to describe what it is” as an analogy for, you know, content strategy as a domain. You know, “Hey, it’s a rope.” “Nope, that’s his tail.” You know, “it’s a tree trunk.” “No, that’s his leg.” And I think that scenario is very applicable to the early process of figuring out what the reality on the ground of an organization’s content is currently.

You know, we’re ... My colleague Greg Dunlap, who’s Lullabot’s other senior digital strategist, we’re both working right now on a fairly large-scale project of reworking I think 80 different websites for state government. And it’s ... That’s a lot of stuff. And, you know, both from just a purely technical standpoint and from a governance standpoint, there’s a lot of questions that are out there. And getting a really clear accurate picture of what they have right now is important.

And the first thing that we did was just throw a lot of basic inventory and a lot of tools at it. And automating as much of that as possible was a good starting point. I think we used ... You know, we used a tool called like Screaming Frog SEO or something like that that we’ve had good results with. It just lets you give it, you know, here’s a giant list of URLs. Gather all of the information you can. Pull the Google Analytics data, and then give me a 60-megabyte spreadsheet that we’re going to go through and crunch and—

Kristina: “Give me the spreadsheet.”

Jeff: Exactly. And knowing the questions that we want to get answered early helps a lot. Because it can be daunting just to look at, you know, the output of a giant automated inventory and say, “What do I know based on this?” And, you know, I have ... Well, we have a lot of content. That’s what I know right now.

Kristina: Yeah. Moving on.

Jeff: But yeah. Like ... Things like, you know, things that we learned to look for were like, what’s the percentage of pages that have lots of what we would call “exotic markup”? Like iframes, YouTube embeds, you know, like the crazy stuff that’s often problematic or like handwritten tables. You know, that was one of the things that we were able to look for. And figuring out the mix of things that were fairly straightforward content-wise from a technical markup perspective versus the stuff that was going to need to be very carefully analyzed.

Then we started coming up with, you know, what the qualitative measures were for the actual content on the pages. Because we’re not the subject matter experts in those particular areas that each of these government agencies deals with. What we did was we put together sort of checklists of questions to answer for actual subject matter, you know, and domain experts inside of the agencies. So you’re like, “Okay, here’s a sheet with all of the pieces of content that are on your site. Is it readable?” And, you know, we were able to integrate things like reading level assessments into the initial audit.

So we could like, you know, just flag for them immediately. Like, “Hey, you’re writing for 17th ... You know, grade 17 reading level on this page. Maybe consider that.” So what we found is anything that we can automate is good when it’s specifically like, you know, qualitative or it answers a specific question you want. Like, how hard is the markup going to be to work with? Or, what’s the reading level? And then identifying questions that are going to need human intervention. And then basically finding somebody who can answer those questions. Give them all the stuff that we have been able to figure out on an automated basis. And sort of say, “Here’s what we know. And here’s a question we need you to be able to answer because you’re the expert.” That’s an approach that we’ve been using that looks, knock on wood, like it’s been successful so far.

But then there’s also like the high-concept questions that you can’t necessarily start just with an inventory to answer. Things like, what are the messages that you want to communicate as an organization? What does it mean to say things your way? And I think, you know, that’s like branding messaging identity kinds of questions. Things like, is it important for you to tell people about meaningful and important dates and deadlines? Is that something that’s conceptually critical for what your organization does?

For example, the Department of Revenue. Turns out there are very important dates and times and stuff like that, that on another site, you know, to say, “Oh, we’ll write a blog post or a news update about that” could be fine, but needing to track that as like a first-class type of content—a deadline or a date—that’s something that emerged out of our work with this government agency that for them, that was meaningful. Like, so there’s the high-concept “what kind of stuff do you need to communicate?” What is, you know, the sort of meat of how your organization works and how if communicates with the public? That feels sort of like ... the stuff you get up in front of a white board and you talk through with people and you slap Post-its up and you draw lines between them. I love that part of it.

But that sort of feels like, you know, the start in the clouds and you work your way down. And then the inventory process feels the opposite. You’re starting sort of like down in the dirt with all the messy, you know, actual content and you’re working your way up and finding structure out of that and finding what the patterns are. And approaching both of those things at the same time and treating those as like two sides of the same coin has helped us a lot. Because it’s easy to be blinded to the reality on the ground if you start with the, you know, pure white board-y kind of stuff and just continue in that vein for too long. But it’s also really easy to miss those big picture things of what you want to end up ... You know, what your end goal is, not just what the current inventory looks like if all you do is the inventory and audit work.

Kristina: So I have ... One of the things that strikes me about you in particular and the way that you do your work, you’re one of the most personable people I’ve ever met in my life, just in terms of I feel like you can talk to anyone and make them feel interesting and special and witty …

Jeff: Actually, it’s a Midwest thing.

Kristina: Do you? Yeah. No, because I’m from the Midwest and I definitely am ... I’m [laughs] … I put people ill at ease. No, that’s not true. But what are some of your sort of tactics or secrets or tips when it comes to engaging stakeholders? Because one of the things that we hear a lot are, you know, for example, “Okay, stakeholder, we have gathered all of this information. We have exactly spelled out what it is that we need from you. Please get back to us.” And then it’s just like, you know, radio silence for however long. Or we start talking to them about, “Okay, we’re going to consolidate these websites. And tell us what your needs are and how you feel about that.” And people just go crazy because they want their territory, they want their URL, they’re confident that—

Jeff: Oh boy.

Kristina: … having a centralized property is not going to be able ... Won’t allow them to operate rogue enough. But tell me about your approach to working with stakeholders in terms of, you know, engaging in early conversation, gathering information, reassuring them along the way. Just talk to me about that a little bit.

Jeff: Oh boy. I think it’s you and Karen McGrane and a couple other people that use the phrase that all consulting is ultimately therapy I think really applies a lot to content strategy. Because so much of what makes or breaks large-scale content projects is the human side of things. You know, technology can either help or put barriers up in front of the work that’s being done. But like, at the end of the day, if you’ve got a department that is dead set against what’s being done and they’re responsible for producing the content, well, you’re up a creek. And, you know, no new CMS rollout is going to fundamentally change that fact.

And I think probably the starting point for me is understanding like how the organization runs. That feels like a little like business consult-y, a little hand wavy. But like, what’s the actual day-in, day-out of how stuff happens inside of the organization that we’re talking to? Now, obviously, most big companies, I’m not going to learn that for the entire organization. It’s going to be focused on like the actual content production processes. But even stretching out a little beyond that and figuring out, well, what starts the content production process? Is it a new project? Is it the CEO waking up on a Monday morning and just deciding, “We need to do X.” You know, I mean, you know, we—

Kristina: So agile.

Jeff: Yeah, it’s so agile! And like, it’s easy to say that none of those things are ideal and none of those things are like white board perfect, but in most organizations they’re the reality. And understanding those things is sort of like cultural constraints just as much as we think about technology constraints or budget constraints can help when I’m trying to figure those things out. The other thing that I’ve figured out over the years is ... Well, there’s two somewhat nerdy techniques I have. One is what I call the Kierkegaard Bubble Sort ...

Kristina: Of course you do.

Jeff: Because I’m a huge nerd.

Kristina: And my hero.

Jeff: And this may come as a shock, but I was even more insufferable than I am now in my 20s. And I really loved the book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing by Kierkegaard. And it really struck me that this, you know, we all talk about principles and goals and, you know, this is the most important thing that we’re reaching for. But where you actually know what that most important thing that you’re reaching for is, is the choices that you make. And, you know, the things that you actually do. What they really end up prioritizing.

And I found that that sort of way of sorting through the priorities that a client tells me is very useful. Instead of saying, “Well, is X more important or is why more important?” I’ll say things like, “Well, okay. So if we could accomplish multi-channel reuse of all of your content but you no longer had design control over individual things, would you still want it?” Or, “If we could ensure that embarrassing content was never published again but it meant that there would always be a two-day delay on things, would you still want that?”

It’s less forcing them to accept compromises than making them think through the pros and cons of it. Like, what am I willing to give up in order for this to be true when the project is complete? And, you know, I think there’s a degree of trust that you have to have in order to have a conversation like that. You know, they have to understand that you’re not just trying to push back on, you know, doing hard work or something like that. They need to at least have the confidence that you’re trying to work towards a solution to the problems that they have.

But that I think has helped frame certain conversations, when they understand that given other constraints like budget or time and, you know, organizational resources, often times the big high-concept goals mean other things have to be sacrificed. And, you know, how much willingness is there to do that needs to be a conversation that happens up front rather than sort of in the eleventh hour when it becomes clear that, well, hey, people can’t actually do this in a timely manner with the system that’s been set up.

So what are you going to do when you need to push products out to the website in a day? That can’t happen and, you know, having worked through those things beforehand so that they understand what the compromises are ... And as someone who’s working with them, I understand the “why” behind how they’re making those decisions means I can sort of put myself in their shoes when I’m thinking through the pros and cons of different approaches, too. Because that sort of line of questioning helps me understand the reasoning behind the things that they’re saying they prioritize. Understanding sort of where the boundaries are between that’s just too much to give up in favor of X and Y.

Kristina: That’s so fascinating to me because I think that most vendors in particular are going to go in exactly the opposite direction, which is promise the moon. And then, you know, at the end of it sort of run away with their head in their hands going, “Sorry, I can’t get it all done.” Or, you know, pointing fingers and blame it on the client or throw their own developers under the bus or whatever. So that’s really, really interesting.

Jeff: And, you know, obviously, this is the ideals, you know? I think everybody working in any organization is still dealing with, you know, constraints of projects and contracts and stuff like that. But like, that’s really what I try to move. Try to, you know, keep front and center. And sometimes there are clients who are like, “That’s a conversation that has to be ongoing through the entire project.” Because they just don’t want to let go of the idea that this big re-platforming or this big redesign or this big re-architecture of how we ... you know, how and why we publish content, they want it to solve all of their problems.

And I’m sympathetic to that, because often it’s a big spend. It’s a big push internally inside an organization. There’s political capital that they’re using to make it happen. And they want their problems to be solved. But figuring out what those priorities are isn’t as ... You know, making it clear that that’s less about accepting less and more about ensuring that you actually get as much as possible on the other side of the project rather than getting 80% of everything, but a hundred percent of nothing.

Kristina: Right. You know, I often times will use … Rahel Bailie put together a content maturity model a long time ago, like 12, 15 years ago that sort of on a very simplistic level steps through, you know, rudimentary content practices. Tactical content practices all the way up to strategic content practices. And I often times will bring that up for clients and will say, “Look, you want me to get you from phase two to phase five with this one website redesign, or with this one governance project.” And it’s a ladder, right? You have to go one rung at a time. You can’t just ... Big re-platforming is not going to make you into this strategic mature content company that you’ve always dreamed of being.

Jeff: It’s like the idea of that buying a car is, you know, the journey to adulthood.

Kristina: Yeah. That is exactly ... I thought ... My 13-year-old is like, “Okay, how much money can I have to buy a car?” You know, as though like that budget, getting his head around that budget is next step to adulthood.

Jeff: Adult, yeah, exactly.

Kristina: And full independence, that’s right.

Jeff: It’s like, well, it’s a process.

Kristina: Yeah, exactly. A. B, get a job.

Jeff: But I do think that like understanding the context of where they ultimately want to be is critical, because, you know, the decisions we make in that phase three, phase four can be shaped by knowing where they want to be in that phase five. But it’s still a process.

Kristina: Yes, exactly. Say, I want to shift gears a little bit. There’s been some really interesting conversation on Twitter over the last week or two. And I’m sensing some sort of resurfacing ... I’ll say this is a real change of subject ... But I’m sensing some sort of resurfacing tension within the larger content strategy community about like, what is content strategy? And—

Jeff: Oh, that means we’re growing up.

Kristina: ... Is product content strategy a thing?And, you know, is it content engineering? Or is it ... I mean, it is just like ... The conversations that we were having 10, 12 years ago are resurfacing in a new way. And I’ve been especially thinking about it recently because I’ve sort of settled into the idea ... and this is kind of what we’ve been talking about ... that Brain Traffic as an agency specializes in content strategy for websites and that’s a real thing and a real need and not an antiquated need that’s going to get run over by AI or content engineering. Can you talk to me a little bit about what you’re seeing within the content strategy community and what’s exciting to you? And ... Or if you can’t, that’s okay, too.

Jeff: No. I ... That’s a big question.

Kristina: It is a big question. But I always have appreciated your take on kind of how you’re able to listen to and appreciate, you know, different perspectives and people ... I mean, you’re a journalist turned software programmer turned digital strategist. Come on, you know? I mean, that you have to integrate all of these different points of view into the work that you’re doing. So just tell me where you think we are in terms of, you know, community and how we’re evolving.

Jeff: You know, going back a little bit in time, I think that as content strategy really rose to prominence in the web community in particular, there was a realization that like the cycle of fire hosing stuff onto the web and then wailing and gnashing of teeth when it came time to do a redesign was ultimately not going to be cool to continue indefinitely. And then I think mobile ... The rise of the mobile web and the launch of the iPhone I think are just ... That’s such an important, you know, point in time. It’s an inflection point in the content strategy community being at the right place and right time of having answers to some fundamental questions that the entire like digital publishing industry was suddenly obsessed with.

And I think that that idea of desktop and mobile not being parallel projects that you launch but rather being different manifestations of the same underlying content and messaging, that I think ... It’s impossible to overstate how important that was for the content strategy community’s place in the broader digital world. Like the idea of multi-channel publishing and even omni-channel has been around for a long time. Like if you look at the technical communication community and like the world of like DITA and deep in the weeds technical content modeling and content strategy, they’ve been talking about some of these things for a long, long time. But—

Kristina: Since the 80s.

Jeff: Oh, yeah. I mean, like, the amount of deep knowledge on really, really complicated edge case problems that that community has is amazing. However, historically like a lot of that didn’t make its way out into the broader web publishing world. And we’re getting some cross-pollination today as there’s greater interest in, you know, sharing perspective and in understanding of like the overlapping interest. But I think there was really this period of time where the web was sort of its own Wild West, and the web world kind of reinvented a lot of the same kinds of expertise. And I think you were there during that period of time as like the web was waking up to the fact that this was something that needed to be figured out.

And I think we’ve got ... We’re now at an interesting place where, you know, the ... We’ve had years of people talking about omni-channel and multi-channel. And years of actual work on developing solutions to some of these problems. Still a long ways to go, but I think that what it means is that there’s things like content marketing and digital governance and the overlap between, you know, print and institutional content assets that have nothing to do with digital versus the web. There’s a realization of just how big it can be inside of a lot of organizations. And I think that the classic definition of content strategy, which is, you know, the who, what, when, where, why of your content, who you’re producing it for, who’s making it, why it’s out there, you know, what the process is, that is big enough to cover the whole gamut.

But in a lot of organizations, the web is still the driver of the pain around content strategy. Because print for the vast majority of organizations moves a lot slower. There’s a long-term historical understanding of things like this physical document that I have in my hand may be outdated and I should check with somebody or something like that. Those aren’t unfamiliar concepts. So I think there’s a greater willingness to engage with the weaknesses of non-web, non-digital content strategy just as the way the world works.

But, the ongoing pressure in the web ... Because for better or worse, that’s still the primary digital point of contact for the vast majority of organizations. And it’s still as a result the driver of the vast majority of their pain and frustration and where a lot of their attention goes. I think that it’s always going to be a really big part of the vast majority of our conversations at this point. That doesn’t mean that it is automatically the most important or the most critical, you know, medium, but it’s like looking at an organization’s sales and saying, “We need to understand all of these different places that people are coming at us from. But we also understand that 80% of our foot traffic comes from here.”

And I think that’s what the web’s role in content strategy is probably going to look like for a long time. Just because of how rapidly that world evolves. How quickly the technology changes. How quickly trends and usage patterns can shift and change. It’s going to be the place that we just have to stay on our toes the most with. And I think that’s ... I don’t think acknowledging that means saying that it is the primary or the most important, but it’s like the craziest in a lot of ways.

Kristina: Right. It’s the ... It can be the messiest for sure.

Jeff: Yeah. But I mean, you know, there’s people out there that are like writing chatbots and figuring out how to break content down into like, you know, phoneum level structures and stuff like that, so that AIs can make sense of it. And I would probably say that’s even more complicated technically and structurally, but it’s also not to the point that the web is and has been for a long time in terms of the dominance of how people will interact with an organization. That’s sort of like, you know, people who were sweating bullets about putting up an organizational website in 1995 or ‘96, you know? It’s like they were definitely ahead of the curve. I feel like that’s where a lot of that stuff is right now.

Kristina: Tell me ... So speaking of being ahead of the curve ... Tell me what is getting you out of bed in the morning right now when it comes to the work that you’re doing, the work you see other people doing.

Jeff: Oh boy.

Kristina: What are you psyched about?

Jeff: So I’ll say two people whose work that I’ve been following lately that I’ve really, really enjoyed ... Lisa Marie, I think @redsesame on Twitter. She—

Kristina: Lisa Maria Martin?

Jeff: Yes, Lisa Maria Martin. Her work on like auditing and inventory and like the early assessment process of working with an organization and how you can pull insights and start bringing like structure and, you know, meaning to the big tangly mess of content, it’s been really fantastic. I think I saw her talk at Confab earlier this year and it was just ... Muah. Fantastic.

Kristina: She is going to be an upcoming guest on the podcast, so you’ll have to listen to that episode.

Jeff: Well, I’m looking forward to it. And I think Carrie Hane’s and Mike Atherton’s book on like domain design content ... I mean, domain design concepts for digital content publishing is also fantastic. You know, I’ve been following their work on domain modeling and content modeling for quite a while. And seeing their book come out was just absolutely fantastic. I know, like I think for probably since about the time that the Earth’s crust was hardening, you know, I’ve been talking about working on a book myself on content modeling.

And ... Well, the funny thing is is recently like my big issue was, “Man, I feel like I don’t want to go this deep into the weeds, but it just ... I need to explain domain modeling as a concept, or this is going to feel like there’s really something missing.” I just wish there were some other work that I could, you know, point to and say, “Here’s the defining work on domain modeling and how it fits with content strategy.” So then I can go on to some of the in the weeds stuff that I wanted to talk about. It was like, “Yes! This is fantastic!”

Kristina: I love it when other people write the book.

Jeff: Yes. And they’re like ... So if you’re dealing especially with large organizational content and trying to figure out those tangles of like how the business and its processes intersect with the materials that are being produced, I mean, their book is top notch.

Kristina: Excellent.

Jeff: But I think the issue ... This isn’t necessarily any particular person’s work right now, although a number of different people are talking about it, I think probably one of the biggest issues that I’m grappling with now on I think almost every project over the past, you know, two years or so is how to deal with like clusters of websites that are owned by an organization. You know, different departments, different agencies, different schools inside of a university, stuff like that. Where because of the organization’s budgetary and infrastructure needs, they need to standardize this stuff, you know? They need to get everybody on the same page.

And that’s both a, you know, a budgetary and an IT and a content governance driver. Everybody wants to have a system that people are on. But there are also really legitimate differing needs from, you know, inside of each one of those little small pieces of the cluster. Could be one of the departments actually hosts lots of events and they basically need a conference organizing website while somebody else basically needs a blog. And somebody else needs, let’s say, just a deep staff bio but without any other information.

The idea that there needs to be both a system of content that works well with those divergent needs, a system of governance that allows some freedom but not, you know, complete chaos, and there also needs to be a design system that keeps all of them onboard and at least recognizably a part of the same organization with navigational like modes and practices that people can recognize as they move from one site to another.

Those are ... It’s a really big interlocking tangle of stuff that more and more organizations need. And I think because Lullabot does a lot of large-scale re-platforming work, we often find organizations think that changing CMSs will solve that for them. And it’s not. That is not a development problem. That is not a product problem. It’s not a platform problem.

That’s just a big governance ... And it’s a philosophy question that you have to tackle as an organization. And there isn’t an easy way around it. And it can be very difficult because from a development perspective, it’s very easy to build things that what each one of those groups crank out a website. Where they let a single central organization pop out identical websites.

And from a design perspective, it’s easier to make design systems and pattern libraries that all work for a website. But then when you have different branding and different sub-brands and stuff like that, it gets incredibly complicated. And then from a content perspective, things like, what is the content model look like? How do we avoid all of these disparate needs just turning into throwing up your hands and saying, “Okay, whatever. Make pages. Just make yourself all the pages you need and just put them in a tree and we’ll try to make a menu out of it.” You know, how do you avoid it just sliding back into that?

And I think that is important. I think Dan Brown just mentioned that problem in passing in his talk at the IA Summit on IA lenses this year. And like there was a light bulb that went off in my head. I was like, “A-ha! That is the problem that we’re seeing, too.” And I think more and more people are seeing it and I don’t think there are any shared best practices around that yet. Just answers that we’re finding for individual clients and individual projects that work well. And I think that over the next probably year or two that’s going to become more and more of a pressing issue as organizations that have invested in building out larger platforms start having like the, “Okay, well, let’s redo this.” Or let’s revisit this conversation. And I think these questions are going to be coming up more and more.

I feel like that was an incredibly complicated answer, but like—

Kristina: It was, and you know, it would help simplify it if you would write a book.

Jeff: Touche.

Kristina: I’m just saying. Jeff, we’re out of time, but thank you so much for spending time with me today. Where can people find out more about you?

Jeff: Oh boy. Probably one of the easiest places is to follow me on Twitter. I’m @eaton, E-A-T-O-N. Where I will rant about intersexual feminism, content strategy, and tabletop gaming.

Kristina: And cats.

Jeff: And cats, yes. Pictures of my cats. Also critical. I have a website at AngryLittleTree.com. And you can also find more official stuff like my writing and, you know, some of the work I do at Lullabot.com.

Kristina: Excellent. Thank you so much for your time. Look forward to talking to you again soon.

Jeff: Always a pleasure.


Kristina: 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 BrainTraffic, 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.