Episode 44: Cruce Saunders, [A] - Content systems and customer journeys

November 23, 2021

Cruce Saunders and the [A] team work with the largest and most complex enterprise content publishers. They know how complex content can be and have experience untangling the mess. Cruce brings his wisdom to the Content Strategy Podcast to talk about content transformation, unifying customer journeys through content, and establishing a true organization-wide shared vision around content. Plus his thoughts on the topic of evolving content roles and disciplines.

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About this week's guest

Cruce Saunders

Founder and principal at [A], who you can find at simplea.com, Cruce Saunders and the [A] team work with the largest and most complex enterprise content publishers on Earth crafting the next generation of the content supply chains and publishing architecture that powers personalized customer experiences. 

He is the author of Content Engineering for a Multi-Channel World, and regularly speaks on omnichannel customer experience, content intelligence, AI, chatbots, personalization, content structural and semantic standards, and intelligence transformation. 

Cruce also hosts the Towards a Smarter World podcast, where he connects with leaders impacting global intelligence and a YouTube series to help content leaders spread the word called The Invisible World of Content.

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.

Hey, everybody. Thanks for joining us once again. It's good to see you, even if I can't see you. I'm glad that you're here. I am so excited about today's guest. I could literally have this person on the podcast every single time and we still would never run out of things to talk about. I think he's one of the brightest minds in the field of content strategy, and I'm going to tell you a little bit about him. His name is Cruce Saunders. Cruce is the founder and principal at [A], who you can find at Simplea.com. He and the [A] team work with the largest and most complex enterprise content publishers on earth crafting the next generation of the content supply chains and publishing architecture that powers personalized customer experiences.

We're going to get into all of that in just a second, but let me tell you more. He's the author of Content Engineering For Multichannel World, and he regularly speaks about omnichannel customer experience, content intelligence, AI, chatbots, personalization, content structural, and semantic standards and intelligence transformation. This is a guy you want to sit next to at dinner. He also hosts the Towards A Smarter World Podcast, where he connects with leaders impacting global intelligence, and he hosts a YouTube series in his spare time. The bio doesn't say that. I said that. To help content leaders spread the word. The series is called The Invisible World of Content. Cruce, thank you for taking just 35 minutes out of this schedule to speak with me. How are you doing?

Cruce Saunders:

I'm great, Kristina. Thank you so much for having me back. One of my favorite places to be. I'm really glad we're connecting again.

Kristina Halvorson:

Well, settle in my friend. There's a lot of words that I read off in that first little bit about your organization, [A] and I wonder if you can talk to me a little bit about what it is that you all do.

Cruce Saunders:

Content's broken in many places, mostly because it's disconnected. It's disconnected between departments, it's disconnected between applications within one department's publishing process. It's disconnected between the different functions and roles that work with the content and [A] has created a set of patterns, shared patterns that organizations can use to help to start bringing things together. So we help fix broken content systems with patterns, process, and a little bit of chiropractic adjustment to the way that content flows in its workflows and processes from authoring through management and through delivery.

Kristina Halvorson:

Who hires you to do that within an organization? Because part of what I find with disjointed content efforts, especially within an enterprise, is that there's a lot of confusion around who owns what.

Cruce Saunders:

Really, we're working with content change champions that tend to be directors or senior directors who are already really tasked with implementing the vision for some sort of personalized customer experience or some sort of transformation that is happening inside of the larger enterprise. They look at the mess and they realize, "We need to change the way things are done. We can't just get another piece of technology. We need to change the fundamental operating basis of how we do content." Those are the folks that contact us. It's those folks that are able to then build federated efforts among their colleagues and companions who are in other groups, but there's always a director that is involved. Sometimes, we do get contacted because there's been a C-level mandate to make change, but that is very, very rare. It's only happened twice. Every other time, it's a director-led effort.

Kristina Halvorson:

Where do these folks sit within an organization?

Cruce Saunders:

Most of the time, we are working with either a pre-sales or a post-sales content leader. So on the pre-sale side, it's somebody within the marketing organization who's responsible for the digital customer experience. Then on the post sales side, it's usually somebody that's responsible for the knowledge management function, which usually ends up expressing itself in terms of customer service documentation and other forms of training and support of the business's main products or services. Those are the two areas we try to connect the most.

Kristina Halvorson:

You literally just described the right hand and the left hand who are almost never talking to each other. Do you find that a big part of your work is connecting those two mindsets because what content means to pre-sales and what content means to post-sales are often two radically different things, not just in concept and in essence, but also in asset form.

Cruce Saunders:

Oh, absolutely. In fact, there's been multiple times where we've literally introduced the right hand and the left hand to each other inside the same organization for the first time. Marketing meet your product documentation team. It is so incredible to me, even after seeing this for years, the stratification between organizations. They're totally operating on separate budgets with separate teams and separate tool sets with totally separate understandings of the customer journey and that customer journeys almost never interact or intersect. They're almost always being designed at the department level and there are more efforts, and this is the great news, towards creating unified journeys that have just started emerging over the last, I would say 36 months.

It's been really great to see unified teams coming together to start bringing the customer into the conversation as a whole, not just as the lead that marketing needs to generate or the support interaction that the knowledge management team needs to deflect from the call center. Right? It's really, what is this human being doing with our organization, from the moment they hear about us all the way through the moment that they are an ongoing customer eating with a coming appetite of across lots of our products and services and referring others? Yeah.

Kristina Halvorson:

Cruce, I feel like that is an entirely new function that has to emerge within 99% of organizations.

Cruce Saunders:

It is. Yeah. And we've seen it. It's starting. In some organizations, they call it omnichannel. Sometimes they call it something like customer life cycle, customer journey teams. We've seen various forms of this. We call that organization on the content side, the content services organization, and however it's funded and wherever it gets born, the goal of the content services organization is to create that integrated dialogue about the customer journey and how content comes together across departments to meet the needs of that journey across the various channels and touchpoint.

Kristina Halvorson:

Cruce, the thing that we wanted to talk about today, you and I together, not the Royal we, is how this pandemic has affected a customer's content needs across journey. What are you finding?

Cruce Saunders:

Well, it's been a very big year, year and a half with the pandemic. It's created a lot of very introspective discussions. A lot of folks are just individually looking at their own lives in a different way because of the pandemic and I think that's really true within the enterprise. I think there's a lot of organizations looking at how to do things in a totally different way because distributed teaming has in many ways, removed a lot of the artificial boundaries between people. So we're all able to connect in a distributed team and the boundary line between marketing and between support or the boundary line between any two departments really starts to fade when it's a Zoom meeting away, as opposed to walking to a different campus or going to a different floor.

So there's a real ability for people to start evaluating how knowledge moves and how workflows function and how departments work together and what the practices are and how they interrelate, and there's a lot more ability, for example, for there to be content design teams that have federated participants that are plugged into multiple product teams, for example. So you've got one content design practice, but now the individuals from that practice are embedded in different parts of the business and then they come back together to share best practices. There's no place to that and it's a nimble way for knowledge to move. I think within the content trades, this shift we've seen over the last year represents an amazing opportunity for us to start bringing the band together in new ways and the content lifecycles together in new ways.

Kristina Halvorson:

So this requires a cultural shift, I think, within any organization, unlike suddenly having everybody be remote. Suddenly having everyone coming together under what we would say, new routines, understanding what strategy means in a different way, having to either merge or standardized documentation in a new way, ensuring that the tools and processes that worked in the workplace are now working both in person and remotely, plus thinking about all of these shifts in what we're talking about, moving forward towards this future of content and as you like to call it, the content supply chain.

I said in this book I wrote 12 years ago, I lead with, content is emotional, it's political, it's complicated, it's expensive, and everybody's got an opinion about either the content itself or how we're dealing with it. As we're thinking about bringing people along on this journey, talk to me about where do you start? I usually find that I have to tell people right up front, "We can't fix everything right now. There is a maturity journey and process that we'll need to be taken towards your vision, but I can't just flip a switch and give you a new org chart and tell you that everything's going to be fine." How do you manage through the people process?

Cruce Saunders:

It's all people process. Our content is the reflection of ourselves. And the more coherent we become, the more coherent our content becomes. The more coherent our content becomes, the more coherent we become. It's a beautiful and noble field to work in because we're adjusting the very essence of the experience of being on the planet. Knowledge, we express and live and move in relationship to the way we perceive and understand the world through our knowledge and our content artifacts. It's how we see and receive our understanding about who we are. And it's really a very pivotal time because we're moving from tribalism into the ability to gain a shared fabric, a shared coherence. We're just at the beginning of that. It's hard to imagine when we're coming out of an era that's as fractionated as it has been and in so many ways, but it really just starts with, in the content trades especially, what is the essence of our shared objective, right?

The essence of our shared objective with most content has to be about that customer experience, right? That intelligent customer experience. We want our customers to be able to have more time for their families and for being human. And when they're sorting through information and they're trying to sort through noise and they're trying to connect the dots, it's a very disorienting experience for them, but if we can start looking at how that customer lives and breathes their whole journey with us in the most fluid and friction free or effortless way, we can then start looking at how to create content systems that allow that. And really what, for most organizations, that means is moving to modular content that is able to be met with the customer's intent. So we can do a response between the customer's intent, what they're trying to accomplish or what we'd like to accomplish, and then what the response is, what the next best content is for that to move that customer journey along.

If we don't have a shared vision in our organization of what the customer journey is and where the friction points are, we'll always just be throwing content into the breeze, hoping that customers are going to grab onto it. It's about creating coherence and we are never going to create coherence for customers unless we are able to, at the very least, create coherence within our department. And then when we expand that, that includes other parts of the customer journey and other content sets. So for us, the coherence comes out of the patterns, the shared patterns, and that can be seen in design systems today. Design systems used to be a total mess and somebody said, "You know what? This is a total mess. We need a way to get modular designs into active use across all of the content producers in the organization."

They created basically design patterns that are shared in tools. There's tools out there that help share design patterns and enable the frictionless coherence of similar design experiences from silo to silo and place to place. That exists. We did that work. Now, we need to do that work with content. We need our content to be modular, and we need to build content systems that allow for our content patterns to work no matter what department is using them, and that can start with any department, but I really believe and I know this is near and dear to your heart too, is that the really... Content needs to be an a prize asset. It needs to be elevated.

It's far more important than being an expense in a P&L in one department's single quarter, right? And then it goes away. It's like we spend X dollars in this P&L in this quarter this one time, and we're done with our content. But of course, it's not true, right? Our content lives a long life, quarter to quarter, and it does work over time. It's part of our product. It's part of our customer journey. It's part of how we generate value for shareholders. It's part of how we attract and retain our team members, our employees. Content really is at the denominator of every aspect of the customer experience. So we should invest in patterns for it and invest in teamwork and invest in systems that sustain it.

Kristina Halvorson:

So what I find is that all of those principles that you listed, because you're talking about guiding principles within an organization. "Here is how we consider and value content. Here is how we consider and value our customer's experience." That understanding what that experience is and what it means, and frankly, whether or not those guiding principles exist, come from leadership. 

I want to circle back around to who calls you to solve these problems. Because my experience is that if people at the director level, the VP, even the SVP level, call us at Brain Traffic, we're a content strategy services organization, so we are also called in to solve some of these problems a little bit further upstream, probably, but that we can carry that conversation all the way through to the very end where we are whatever, negotiating our final contract, and it'll go in front of the CMO or the CIO, and all of a sudden, because the CIO, the left hand and the CMO, the right hand, don't share the same principles, don't share the same values around content as a shared asset or customer experience, they don't have a shared understanding of what that looks like, the whole thing just blows up.

If someone at the, let's say at the director level is really needing your assistance with bringing folks together, creating consistency with content, beginning to introduce and establish content models, coming in with the fantasy of personalization and then talking to you and then being ready to invest in the messy reality of it, do they already have sponsorship from leadership, or is this something that they typically need to go and win?

Cruce Saunders:

In most cases, the content, the fabric that will be run inside the larger enterprise starts with one organization, with one part, and then it spreads. In most cases, for example, the knowledge manage organization at a large financial technology company we've been working with has a broad mandate for mostly post sales customer experiences. But as they've acquired new companies, they now have a strategic need to get more and more of that aligned to one common set of patterns. So we worked with them to build a content services organization, to staff up content strategy, engineering, and operations functions to build a core content model and a core semantic model. And then they're able to use these things along with a content orchestration model to build out the pitching and catching between the different content domains. "Here's our content standard. What do you need? That's different, let's receive that, and now let's append our standard and then let's push that standard back out to everybody." 

That becomes like a beating heart for content. And if that heart can beat in a coherent way within one function like a knowledge management function, then it starts to gain interest from the CIO, CMO folks. We have had a CIO, CMO co-sponsored organization-wide content assessment, where we spoke with dozens and dozens of stakeholders across all different parts of the organization. They're spending so many tens of millions of dollars a year. They have 400 plus people in India just copying and pasting content into AEM all day. They saw the system-wide issue and were willing to invest in it from a senior level, but those folks, they run into the same issue in reverse if their directors don't want to change.

So I think it's a blessing to work with directors because they're the ones, if they see it, they can make the most tactical changes the fastest, and then they can enroll leadership and enrolling leadership really is an effort. And I can't say that we've cracked the code on how to do that because it's a movie in motion at every one of our clients. Enrolling real true organization-wide shared vision around content, it is absolutely an ongoing effort. There is no easy button, but there's three themes that really seem to help. Number one is defining the intelligent customer experience, which is at the highest shared level. What are we trying to do to drive our top line revenue and our capabilities, right? Top line revenue and capabilities, that's... The C-suite really, really cares about that. And when we have modular content and we've got semantic systems that are able to pull stuff together, we have the ability to deliver a whole different class of customer experiences than we could before that make us ultimately more competitive in the market.

There is an ability to draw the direct parallel between this in the trenches work we're doing and the top line and the capabilities, the strategic options of the business. So number one is integrated intelligent customer experience. Number two is scaling content across platforms and channels and languages. There's too much to do for every department across the entire enterprise. Everybody is throwing tools and systems and people at trying to scale how many different platforms and channels and languages they're addressing, and it's getting harder and harder to do that. So the C-level, at least has some instinct for if we're going to be able to scale, reduce cost and deal with this complex environment, we're going to have to invest in infrastructure, right? It's a capital investment in infrastructure for scale.

The last thing is really empowering creators and customers. The C level understands at some level that employee retention is a big deal. Finding and being able to maintain really highly talented teams that are motivated means we have to equip those teams with the ability to do their jobs. And if we're just having these folks copy and paste all day and in a completely disconnected way from everybody else in the business, it's a very, very easy way to lead to burnout. The same thing is true with empowering customers. We know we need to be able to reduce the mental overhead on our customers by giving them more and more relevant experiences. Really that ties back to that integrated, intelligent customer experience, but in order to succeed with our customers, we have to make life easier for our creators.

Kristina Halvorson:

I want to talk briefly about something that is really key in the helping to make things easier for our folks internally, which is creating shared language around what we're doing when it comes to our responsibilities, our job titles, our function within the organization, and a huge pain point that we see talked about and have seen talked about for 20 is what we call the things that we do. And I know that you have some ideas around what we call the things we do in content and content strategy and I wonder if you could take a few moments to share those.

Cruce Saunders:

Well, sure. I think that we're all working towards the same outcomes, but what we call the different parts of what we do is totally different from department to department and really from different parts of the industry to different parts of the industry. These names and labels have changed over time and I think it's reasonable that happened. I think we both agree that at some level, we need to have a shared conversation about what the practices are that we're working with, and it doesn't have to be necessarily a canonical list that never changes. It's just almost like beginning to build a mind map of what are the practices, disciplines, and the skills and the combined roles that make up our industry?

There's so many relationships in this larger ecosystem. It's a family forest, right? The content family forest is not a single tree, right? There's many different ways of doing content in different departments and in different parts of the industry. So the thing that I would challenge us to do as an industry is maybe start to build, in the semantics world, we'd call it an ontology, or it could be a mind map, just a beginning basis of a set of shared understandings along with the related terms that we all call things. So we've distilled it down to strategy engineering and operations, but there's a lot of pieces within UX and the whole UX world that overlap with content. The same thing is true with the programmers and the way that programmers look at content. They all have roles, names for what they're doing, and if there's a place they could all meet and say, "Okay, well, this, what we're trying to accomplish here is get modular content into our design system. Okay, well, what is that...? What are the disciplines involved in making that happen?"

Everybody can come up with their own roles or titles for what they call that, but what at least are the disciplines involved in that process? If we're going to create shared journey maps that involve orchestrating content, who are the players that participate in that journey from the creator side? I think it's just a conversation we should have, eventually ending up with something shared that the industry can build towards. And I don't know if that's a formal anything, as much as I think extending or echoing the invitation that you've extended to the industry to really have this dialogue so that we can begin to share terms within the companies we work with and within the schools and universities that educate the professionals coming up into these fields. So we can begin to develop some common language. It happens very accidentally now and we all put our semantic ideas out there and that's great. It might be nice to have a common conversation about those terms.

Kristina Halvorson:

Who's going to do that? Can you do that? Can you throw a dinner party with some people who can make the choice? I don't know.

Cruce Saunders:

I don't know that we need to make a choice for everybody. It's just like, at least we can... I think we absolutely should have a dinner party.

Kristina Halvorson:

We don't have to talk about content. We just talk about whatever.

Cruce Saunders:

Yeah. And somewhere, we just need to come up with something shared that's published. To me, it looks like a graph and we've started putting one of these together. It's as a starting point, just for our own trying to noodle on it, and I know a lot of others have done the same thing. So it's like, well, let's just take our maps of how this all works, and let's compare notes and do it over a few sessions and see if we're able to come up with something that we can then invite others to see and add their thoughts to. So, yes, the dinner party.

Kristina Halvorson:

Yeah. I think about the Web Standards Project. I mean, they published all that online. It still lives out there today. Why can't we?

Cruce Saunders:

Exactly.

Kristina Halvorson:

Why can't we? We can. I think we can.

Cruce Saunders:

We can. The content industry should. Yes.

Kristina Halvorson:

Exactly. All right. Somebody get on that. Do you know anybody? Do you know anybody with, I don't know, a book or a podcast that could maybe host that dinner party? I don't know. I'm not sure. Yeah.

Cruce Saunders:

I know. Let's think about that.

Kristina Halvorson:

Yeah. Cruce, our time has come to an end. Thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with me today and any time. Again, if folks want to find you, they can find [A] at Simplea.com. Where else are you hanging out online these days?

Cruce Saunders:

Yeah, that's great. Simplea.com is good. I'm on Twitter @mrcruce. I haven't been very active there, but it is one venue and also @simpleateam. I think that the action that comes out of these kinds of discussions is what moves the needle and what's amazing to me is that we are moving the needle and I'm very, very optimistic because there's more investment in shared services, there's more investment in content. There's more interest in the content trades among young folks. So I really believe we are at the beginning of what will be a golden era for content as we move towards coherence, and it's the actions we take every day that get us there a step at a time.

Kristina Halvorson:

Cruce, thank you so much. I cannot wait to see you again in person someday in the very near future.

Cruce Saunders:

Thanks, Kristina.

Kristina Halvorson:

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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