Episode 39: Alexa Apallas, PayPal - Advancing into content leadership

August 17, 2021

Alexa Apallas was one of the first five content strategy leads at PayPal. Alexa talks to Kristina about her path into content and what it takes to advance to a content leadership role. Alexa also shares how content designers collaborate with product for a better customer experience, getting people to care about content and content success stories at PayPal.

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

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About this week's guest

Alexa Apallas

As a bookworm and self-proclaimed word nerd, Alexa K. Apallas embraces the power and the magic of the written word. She started her career in magazine journalism, made the switch to content marketing, and now works as a content strategist at PayPal, where she leads a team of content designers. She’s also a content champion who helps persuade product managers to involve content early in the product development lifecycle. Likes: Public speaking, Oxford commas, engaging novels, international travel, content challenges, witticisms, wine. Dislikes: Apostrophe abuse, visual clutter, boredom.

Episode transcript

Kristina Halvorson:

Hello and welcome to the Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson, and every episode of this podcast I chat to established leaders and exciting new voices exploring our ever-evolving field of content strategy. We cover all the topics that inform how we shape digital content. From user experience design to customer experience, accessibility to content design and everything in between.

Hello friends. Welcome back. Well, summer is slowly winding its way down. I had a friend who insisted summer didn't end until September 30th. And for many years, I kept trying to live that dream, but I live in Minnesota and so that rarely pans out. Nevertheless, I try to keep the sunny attitude year round. See what I did there? I have the... I know don't laugh yet Alexa, don't laugh.

I have the loveliest human being with me on our podcast today. And her name is Alexa. As a bookworm and self-proclaimed word nerd, Alexa K Apallas embraces the power and the magic of the written word. She started her career in magazine journalism, made the switch to content marketing, and now works as a content strategist at PayPal where she leads a team of content designers. She's also a content champion who helps persuade product managers to involve content early in the product development cycle. Champion, hero, you be the judge. Alexa likes public speaking, Oxford commas, engaging novels, international travel, content challenges, witticisms and wine. Dislikes, apostrophe abuse, visual clutter and boredom. Alexa, welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast.

Alexa Apallas:

Thanks so much. I'm really glad to be here.

Kristina Halvorson:

I'm really glad to have you here. Alexa, where are you today?

Alexa Apallas:

I am at my home office in downtown San Diego. Where it is summer all the time.

Kristina Halvorson:

It's summer all the time. San Diego is a magical place. My kids went to San Diego with their dad one time and they still talk about how lovely it is. Alexa, a question I ask all of my guests at the start of the podcast is about their journey in content strategy. Can you tell us a little bit about yours?

Alexa Apallas:

Absolutely. It was a long and winding road I would say.

Kristina Halvorson:

You would be shocked at how many people start their story with exactly that phrase. Content strategists are the best.

Alexa Apallas:

Let's see. I always loved working with words. I loved writing and I just didn't know what I would do with that as a career. I majored in English at UCLA and people were like as graduation approached, oh, what are you going to do? Are you going to become an English teacher? And that was not at all what I wanted to do but I didn't really know what it was that I did want to do. And then I got a reprieve because Northwestern university's Middle school of Journalism reached out to me. I'd been admitted for undergrad, but I'm a native Californian and could not deal with four Midwestern winters, but they reached out and they said, guess what? We have a master's program for journalism. And I said, how long is it? And they said, one year and I said, I could do one winter. I'm sure I can.

I applied and I was accepted and it was a really great experience. I specialized in magazine publishing and as our capstone project, we actually put together an entire sample magazine and we came up with a circulation plan. We sold subscriptions, we sold ad space. We wrote it, we designed it and we pitched it. It was called Men's Cooking and it was a little bit before its time. It was before men's cooking was sexy, but it was still a really great experience. I also didn't want to call it Men's Cooking. I wanted to call it Bust Out but I lost that vote.

So we had a great experience. I knew that yes, journalism was what I wanted to do. I also knew that no cold winters would not be in my future. So I took the first magazine job I could find and it was back in California. It was actually in Malibu, which was lovely. And it was about call centers, which was possibly the most boring subject imaginable. So that lasted a little while and then I did some other stuff because I thought I was going to become an actress. Didn't really go so well, that's what I really truly always wanted to do but it seemed even way less practical than journalism. So anyway, long story short, my best known role to date is, girl in front of sprinkler in an IndyMac bank commercial, the same bank that was then raided by the feds as part of the mortgage meltdown.

Kristina Halvorson:

This may already be the very best interview of this season. All right, continue.

Alexa Apallas:

So after I got that out of my system, I went back to magazine journalism for a little while. And then I realized that if I ever wanted to make more money, I was going to have to shift focus. That's when I got into marketing communications and marketing copywriting. And I actually worked in the marketing department for the same IndyMac bank and I knew something was wrong when we started sending out letters offering to refinance people's loans at a rate higher than what they were currently paying. So finally I wound up at a marketing department in medical malpractice insurance. That was kind of it for me. It's not a place best suited to my talents and after a few years there, I made the decision to go into business for myself.

I had a few clients. I was self-employed for three years. I managed to coordinate with someone who ran a virtual agency and sort of became his go-to writer. I started writing for a lot more tech companies and he got a contract to revamp the entire website for a woman named Val Swisher, who does a lot in the content planning and content translation space and about reusing your content, making sure that it's global friendly. He brought me on board to do the rewriting and it turned out to be a great experience. She was lovely. He kept telling me she was really harsh on writers because she was a writer herself, but she and I had a great working relationship.

She was really pleased with how the project turned out and she said, oh, I know of an opening at PayPal for a content designer. And I said, I don't know what that is and she said, that's what you're doing. So it was great because she encouraged PayPal to take a chance on me. I was living in San Diego at that time. Obviously PayPal's headquarters are in San Jose. She brokered a deal whereby I would fly up every week and be there in office Tuesday and Wednesday. And this was going to be a three-month contract and it got extended and it got extended. And finally PayPal and I, we worked together and we came up with an agreement and they hired me and it's been such a great experience. It's like I finally know what I'm supposed to be doing now. And when PayPal created this content strategy lead role, which combined high-level content strategy with some people management, I decided to apply and I was selected as one of the first five content strategy leads for PayPal. That's what I do now. I work with my team. I coach them. I work on major content strategies for new launches and I feel so incredibly lucky.

Kristina Halvorson:

What a lovely journey that is. Val Swisher is actually much admired in my heart. I think that as a fellow business owner and as a writer, she is just a superstar. That's so exciting to me to hear that she sort of was the first person to say, you are a content designer, you already are a content strategist. We are lucky as a community that she recognized what you're doing and how talented you were. PayPal is also super lucky. How long have you been in your position now as a content strategy lead?

Alexa Apallas:

Coming up on three years, it'll be three years in November.

Kristina Halvorson:

And you said that you were one of the first five at PayPal, is that right?

Alexa Apallas:

Yes. Previously the content design organization was pretty flat. Everybody was a content designer and we had people who had been there longer, who had more seniority but we didn't have, and everybody was expected to do some level of content strategy, but we'd never fully spelled it out and said here are people who truly specialize in content strategy. And then that was also a way to provide more coaching to the other content designers because previously there was sort of a director of what we call merchant content and a director of consumer content. And then there was sort of everyone else. So those directors had too many direct reports and this was a way to break the big content design team up into smaller pods.

Kristina Halvorson:

What does the content designer do at PayPal?

Alexa Apallas:

Well, the content designers really partner very closely with not only the UX designers, but really what we call the N in a box team. It used to be three in a box and then all sorts of people started getting in the box. And now it's just N in a box. It can be product UX, design, UX research, our marketing counterparts, our go to market specialists, our program managers. So there are a lot of people in that box. Ideally the content designer is in the box with everyone at the very start of the project, gets all the information about what business problem it is that we're trying to solve, what consumer pain point that we're up against. Then from there they'll work most closely with their UX design counterpart and the product manager to think through potential solutions. And then write the words.

Kristina Halvorson:

Oh, so the content designers are also writing the words.

Alexa Apallas:

Yes.

Kristina Halvorson:

There's such a big conversation right now between content strategy and content design and UX writing. It's such a focus in the larger community I think to always be clear, UX writer can be a job title, but it's not always a job title. It's more of an activity. So that's great. The title content designer has also sort of cropped up just over the last, I mean, in the public consciousness really over the last 18 months or so, has that always been the title of folks that are doing that work?

Alexa Apallas:

Yes. When I was hired full-time at PayPal, when I transitioned from contractor to full-time, that was just about four years ago. And that was my title then, was content designer.

Kristina Halvorson:

We are lucky at Brain Traffic that you have agreed to speak at Button, the Content Design Conference, which is happening virtually this October. The title of your talk is, What it takes to advance to a content leadership role. So the first thing I would like to ask you is, what does it take to advance to a content leadership role?

Alexa Apallas:

A few things, first of all self knowledge. That's a big one, because if you are not clear in your own mind about why you want to become a leader and what value you would bring to the company as well as the value that it would have for your own career path, then it's going to be very difficult to explain other people why this is in their best interest as well. And then another big piece of it is really letting people know. I have found that if people don't know that you are ambitious and that you want to move ahead, then they could just pigeon hole you and say, 'Hey, this person is great at her job. She always does whatever we ask. She consistently turns out high quality work. So we're so lucky to have her.' They won't necessarily think that, oh, well maybe we should promote her because they're happy.

You're doing great work. So it's in their interest to keep things as a status quo. But if you speak up and say, 'Hey, I'm really interested in advancing. And here's why and here's what I think I can bring to the table'. Then I found from my own personal experience that people were really willing to engage with me and give me some pointers on how to move to that next level. And I think the biggest challenge in moving from an individual contributor to more of a leadership role is changing your mindset because as an individual contributor, we're often really focused on a specific project or a specific flow or a certain outcome.

Moving into that leadership mindset really means looking at a broader picture and getting to know more about the business and the business outcomes and why certain experiences are the way they are, even though maybe they could be improved from a customer perspective. The way they are now is beneficial to the business. So I think being able to look at an experience, not just from the perspective of, are all the words on the page great, does this flow work well, but think about, okay, well, what are the business implications? That's really where you start getting into more of a leadership mindset in my view.

Kristina Halvorson:

So self knowledge, self-advocacy and being willing to embrace this change mindset of it, it's not just this thing that I'm working on, it's really the larger business purview and where do we fit in and how do we help contribute. Let me unpack that last piece for just a minute because that was my original question before I was like, let's talk about how you got there. Talk to me about specifically that new skillset or that growing skillset that you had to develop and I assume are probably still developing and always developing, which is going out and getting that information and sort of analyzing and assessing what's relevant, where your team can contribute. What's changing in the business, that's changing the nature of the work that you do. How do you do that?

Alexa Apallas:

It is a journey certainly and I really turned to other people that I consider experts and that's helped me build my own knowledge. We are very lucky to have a great team of researchers at PayPal and they have started an internal site for us, where they share all of the user research that they've done and they do some analysis and it's a great searchable tool. And so when I'm starting on a new project and I'm thinking through content strategy, I'll turn to that resource first. I also work really closely with the product partners to understand what their KPIs and objectives are. And then from there, and then thinking through what experiences already exist, looking at some of our competitors and how they do things. That's when I can really start to flesh out what experience we could create that would serve our customers and serve the business goals. But it's really, it's a process that needs to be repeated for every high level content strategy or every major project that we undertake.

Kristina Halvorson:

When is it that content strategy is driving the project because oftentimes we'll hear well, the product manager comes in and they lay out exactly what needs to happen, requirements, et cetera. Then the experience begins to kind of be designed around that. Are there projects that are really led and driven by content strategy, or are there other specific requirements that you are kind of serving and fulfilling along the way as well?

Alexa Apallas:

It really depends on the project. And one thing that I've been advocating for, and we've started to see some success, is for product to come in, not with necessarily a list of requirements, but with a list of desired outcomes or even a potential problem statement. Then we'll use that information to craft a content strategy. For instance, we're working right now on a reboot to the onboarding experience for merchants who sign up for a PayPal account, specifically small and medium sized businesses. Product came to us and said look, we know right now that there's a big drop off in when merchants start the sign up process and how many actually complete it. We have looked at some data and we have a hypothesis that the drop-off is happening because of these reasons and we see the drop-off happening at these specific points in the flow.

We said, great, that's really good information to have. We looked at the existing flow when we mapped where the drop-offs were and we analyze the content and we came up with some hypothesis of our own and we determined that the content wasn't really clear, the process to sign up was fairly convoluted and we asked merchants for a lot of personal information about themselves and about their business all at once. It felt like a burden. So working very closely with product, we decided to try a whole new approach. Now, what we'll be launching very soon is a way for merchants to sign up for a PayPal account with just their first name, last name, and password and email address. From there, they'll be able to get into the experience and look around more and get a sense of how PayPal works.

Previously if you didn't have an account, you couldn't see the logged in homepage, you couldn't explore our products. You were completely reliant on marketing content, which was great but this is a way to bring people into the experience without forcing them to give up a lot of information at once. They won't actually be able to do much except explore, but we've also brought in a much friendlier tone to when we ask them for their personal information. And we really, our content strategy was to be their guide and to really give context around every ask that we were making. So one thing that we knew from data and from voices of customer learnings was that customers were really kind of hesitant about providing the last four digits of their social security number, because they thought that maybe we were going to check their credit or something like that.

So now, in part of the signup process, we explicitly call out that we're not running a credit check. This is to help make sure that the information you give us matches up with what we see in a database. And we haven't launched the full experience yet, but we have launched some of what we're calling friendly content improvements, and it's really reduced drop off quite a bit. So it's already been successful. And I think that's a great example of where we worked really closely with product. They brought us some pain points and desired outcomes, and then we created a content strategy to get them to where the experience should be.

Kristina Halvorson:

What you are describing really, I think is a process that in most other companies would belong to a UX design team, is content strategy sort of equated with user experience design at PayPal.

Alexa Apallas:

We are supposed to be hand-in-hand partners. Yes. So I wanted to say that's one of the reasons why we are called content designers at PayPal, because we are also responsible for doing some of that design thinking. We don't necessarily create the Figma files and get everything pixel perfect, but we do work really closely with our UX design counterparts to think through, okay, how should this actually work?

Kristina Halvorson:

So interestingly, I think that that's exactly what I was getting at, is that I think there is a misconception in the field that sometimes content strategists or content designers are brought in with the idea of here's how it's going to work. Let's talk about how language is going to shape the experience and not necessarily so much, how can we shape the experience and then let's talk about how language will fuel it. So it's just really exciting to me to hear it. That's a pretty advanced mature practice at PayPal.

Alexa Apallas:

We're working on it every day.

Kristina Halvorson:

No, you're perfect. You've arrived. Tell me too, a big question that I regularly am asked, and maybe you are too is how do I get people to care about content? How do I get people to understand the complexity of getting things right? A lot of what I talk about is that self advocacy piece, here's the work that I am doing. I want to share it with you. I want to surface it. I want to make sure that you see it, that you understand the impact. Can you talk a little bit about how in your role at PayPal, not necessarily only as you were looking to advance to a content leadership role, but also just generally speaking as you're out there fighting the good fight for content. Can you talk about some ways in which you advocate for yourself and the work that you're doing?

Alexa Apallas:

Yes, absolutely. I think a big piece of it is being willing to go out there and as you said, share, share what you've created, share what a difference it's made. And sometimes in the content world, we have trouble getting the numbers or the business outcomes but eventually you can sort of figure out who has that information, who has the metrics and the more that you can include those business outcomes in your discussion of the content and what a difference changes made, the more people outside of the content world will care.

A couple of years back, I spoke at Confab and talked about how micro content could have macro results. I ended up using that same presentation internally to some of our product counterparts and a lot of them told me afterward, but it really opened their eyes because we had one example. It's actually something that my colleague worked on, where legal had come in and decided to change some language around our currency conversion fees. They didn't run it by the content department at all. A content designer didn't look at it, a content strategist didn't look at it, legal, this went off and made this change. Basically the currency conversion, the disclaimer said PayPal makes a fee on currency conversion. All of a sudden we thought that people no longer were running currency conversion through PayPal. They were choosing to do it through their bank or their credit card instead. We do make a fee on currency conversion, but so do banks and so do credit cards. So the issue was, how do we explain this clearly, but still give people enough information to make them feel comfortable choosing PayPal if they want to.

Mike Polly came up with a brilliant solution, well within all of the legal constraints about what we had to showcase, and essentially the value of converting with PayPal is that you will know at that moment, how much you will pay. If you choose to go through your credit card or your debit card, you won't know the final amount until it processes and you look at your statement online, or you get your statement in the mail. That changed the experience for customers completely and they had a lot more comfort in choosing PayPal for their currency conversion needs again, and revenue went back up and it was a big success story. When we tell that story now to our product and business counterparts, they're like, oh, oh, okay. I get it. The same with our friendly content experiences for onboarding, when we show that there's less drop off and people are starting to engage more and process sales with PayPal because they're signed up and they feel confident and they're ready to make their first sale, they say, oh, okay, I see how this affects the bottom line now.

Kristina Halvorson:

Wow. Getting those light bulbs to go off is just, it can be what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Alexa Apallas:

It’s exciting.

Kristina Halvorson:

Well, I have to tell you, as you're speaking, the excitement and the pride in the work that was done and that you're doing just really shines through in your voice. I just think that that's really cool. That must be a real inspiration for the folks that you were managing as well. What else is getting you out of bed in the morning? What else is exciting to you right now?

Alexa Apallas:

I think what's been really exciting is, work-wise, that I have a really great team that I have been able to nurture. I have been able to coach two people, two promotions, and I have somebody on my team right now, who is requiring a second promotion and an application to become a people manager. And that makes me feel really good because I enjoy what I do so much. And I want my team to also enjoy it and feel that pride and feel like they're making a difference at PayPal. So that's been really important to me.

And then non-work-related my husband and I moved about three months ago. We bought a condo and we moved from Carlsbad in North County in San Diego which is very cool, but like more suburban and everything. And we bought a condo right downtown. We're a few blocks from the convention center, a few blocks from the bay and we're just nesting. And it's been really fun. This is the first place that we've owned. And it's been exciting getting to know our new neighborhood and walking to the baseball games and walking to concerts and going out to dinner. And that's been a lot of fun.

Kristina Halvorson:

I have a big grin on my face. Congratulations, home ownership is a big deal. And getting out after a pandemic is a big deal, or at least after the vaccination, we won't say after the pandemic. Alexa, we're just about to run out of time but as you were talking about your work and what was getting you excited, it reminded me of a quote that I learned the other day by Brené Brown that I want to share with you. Maybe you've heard this before, but it says "a leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential".  I  think you really embodied that quote. So I wanted to thank you for sharing and demonstrating those principles with our audience today. It has just been a joy to speak with you.

Alexa Apallas:

Oh, well, thank you so much, Kristina. This has been a lot of fun and I'm so excited to share more about the content leader mindset at Button in October.

Kristina Halvorson:

And if you want to learn more about Button, dear listening audience, you can go to buttonconf C O N F.com and get your ticket to join Alexa and all of our other super fun speakers and attendees coming up in October. Alexa, thank you so much.

Alexa Apallas:

Thank you.

Kristina

Thanks so much for joining me for this week’s episode of the Content Strategy Podcast. Our podcast is brought to you by Brain Traffic, a content strategy services and events company. It’s produced by Robert Mills with editing from Bare Value. Our transcripts are from REV.com. You can find all kinds of episodes at contentstrategy.com and you can learn more about Brain Traffic at braintraffic.com. See you soon.

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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