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The Content Strategy Podcast

Ep. 11: Collaborative Content Design and Content Audits with Lisa Maria Martin

In this episode, Kristina speaks with Lisa Maria Martin, an independent consultant in information architecture and content strategy, and the managing editor at A Book Apart. Lisa Maria shares her insights on how to work collaboratively in a content vacuum, and about imposing order on content chaos through structure and audits.

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About this week’s guest

Lisa Maria Martin is an independent consultant based in Boston. She practices content-driven information architecture, helping organizations to understand, organize, and structure their web content for better user experiences. She has worked with clients and agencies such as Carnegie Mellon University, Vectorworks, the Posse Foundation, Gettysburg University, Brain Traffic, and Happy Cog. Lisa Maria is a speaker, writer, and workshop facilitator, as well as managing editor at A Book Apart. Follow her on Twitter @redsesame, or learn more about her work at TheFutureIsLikePie.com.

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

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Today I have a lovely individual who has generously agreed to spend some time chatting with me and putting up with my hijinks. And her name is Lisa Maria Martin. And Lisa Maria is an independent consultant in information architecture and content strategy, and also just happens to be the managing editor for A Book Apart. Welcome, Lisa Maria.

Lisa Maria: Thank you so much, Kristina. Thank you for having me on the show.

Kristina: How’s it going?

Lisa Maria: Great. It’s great. It’s finally fall, at least in Boston where I am. It is finally, like the temperature has dropped below 60, finally. The leaves are turning, finally.

Kristina: Yes.

Lisa Maria: So I’m, and it’s gorgeous here. It’s sunny, blue skies, no clouds. Really fantastic.

Kristina: I wonder if by the time this goes up in a week or two if you’ll just be buried in snow.

Lisa Maria: Oh, absolutely. Ten feet. The snows are coming.

Kristina: I actually just read that there is a milder winter predicted for the midwest.

Lisa Maria: Didn’t you already have snow though?

Kristina: Okay. You know what? Now you’re just nitpicking. Now you’re just chipping away at my dreams, like you do.

Lisa Maria: I’m sorry. I know. It’s a bad habit.

Kristina: Okay. All right. Weather, check.

Lisa Maria: All right, done.

Kristina: Moving on to our next topic. I am wondering if you could share with me a little bit about your journey to content strategy and IA.

Lisa Maria: Oh, okay.

Kristina: Where did it all begin? What is the myth and the magic of Lisa Maria Martin?

Lisa Maria: It’s, I mean, like everyone’s story, it’s a little convoluted. Everyone’s got their weird twisting journey.

Kristina: Specifically to content strategy, it seems.

Lisa Maria: Specifically to content strategy, yeah.

Kristina: Yeah, it’s unique. It’s unique to our industry.

Lisa Maria: It is. Maybe in a few decades from now, it’ll be a major in college and people will go to school for it and then they’ll come out and get a job in it, and that’ll be that. But probably not, so.

Kristina: And those people will all be double majoring in Russian literature or the theater of the 1920s, or ...

Lisa Maria: Yeah. So, I went to school for design, actually. I was a designer for a short period of time. I wasn’t very good at it, so it was not maybe the best fit for me. But it was what I wanted to do. I mean, I grew up doing kind of two things: I was always drawing, and I was always writing, my whole childhood. And so, I got to high school and my parents are like, “Well, what are you going to major in?” And there was sort of this consensus that writing was not a real job—was not going to pay bills.

Kristina: I think you’ve got some people listening who can probably relate to that.

Lisa Maria: Sure. Totally.

Kristina: That messaging received from parents.

Lisa Maria: Yeah.

Kristina: Yeah.

Lisa Maria: What was weird though is my parents were like, “Art. Yeah. That’s a good direction.” I don’t know why, in my family that seems like somehow that could pay bills. And I think it was because they had become aware of this thing called graphic design.

Kristina: I see, I see.

Lisa Maria: This was like the mid- to late-90s, and they were like, “That is going to pay bills. That will make you a paycheck.” You have to divert this arts energy somewhere.

Kristina: Exactly.

Lisa Maria: And there was more of a guarantee of work with graphic design than there was with writing, which was vague and amorphous. And I loved that idea. I really did. I loved design. I was specifically interested in prints, because it was the 90s.

Kristina: Sure.

Lisa Maria: And I wanted to design book covers and CD album covers. That was my thing when I was 18. I was like, this is the future. So, I went to school for that and I majored in, my major was technically communication design. Which actually, I think ended up in retrospect, being very good training. But it was not a great fit at the time, and by the time I graduated, I was like, “No, I don’t want to do this anymore. And I’m definitely a writer. That’s what I should have done.” So, I immediately went and got a Masters degree in poetry.

Kristina: Geez.

Lisa Maria: Yeah. I was 23, and I went into a Masters program for poetry. And I studied poetry for two years, and the path that that gives you is not particularly economically sustainable either. But I basically went into teaching after that. I was adjuncting at various universities and colleges. I moved around the country a lot kind of picking up work where I could. And I did that for five years. And which is, looking back, really weird because I was only a couple of years older than my students. I was 24 and teaching 20-year-olds.

Kristina: Right.

Lisa Maria: It was just weird.

Kristina: Right. And you were like, “Let me impart upon you the ways of the world.”

Lisa Maria: Oh, so wise I was. So wise. And when that just kind of didn’t go anywhere, I was like, there’s got to be an application for these skills in private industry. Which I hear has money. So yeah.

Kristina: Sometimes.

Lisa Maria: Sometimes.

Kristina: Unless it’s for content.

Lisa Maria: Unless it’s for content, but at the time—

Kristina: And then they have four dollars.

Lisa Maria: Right. So, I thought I’ve got this design degree. I’ve got this English degree. There’s got to be something where I can kind of combine those two skills. And the next few years was trying out different gigs that weren’t really good fits either. Because like everyone else in their 20s it was, “Sure, I’ll take this marketing job. Sure I’ll take this journalism job.”

Kristina: Right.

Lisa Maria: “Sure, I’ll take this thing where I basically am publishing a magazine to a website that no one visits.” It’s fine. But you can see how that kind of spiraled into this thing where I ended up as editing websites, essentially, is what I was doing. I was working in different agencies, and I was helping people figure out how to put things on the internet in a way that made sense to the people they were trying to reach. And then you showed up.

Kristina: Dun dun dun.

Lisa Maria: Twitter happened and I started, I do not remember for the life of me how I fell into this crowd. But it was this group of people on Twitter who were talking about things like content and user experience. And the word content strategy started getting bandied about, and I did a little reading. I got your book. I got Erin Kissane’s book. And I was like, “Holy shit.” Can I swear on this show?

Kristina: You just did.

Lisa Maria: Holy shit. This is what I do. This is the thing I’ve been doing is the thing.

Kristina: Yeah.

Lisa Maria: So, it was light bulb moment. And yeah, the rest is history. That’s how that happened.

Kristina: What’s crazy is I have heard some version of this story, like one million times. I feel that every single content strategist I know, at least operating who’s in their mid-30s and up, this is exactly how we came to content strategy.

Lisa Maria: It’s so crazy. It’s weirdly consistent.

Kristina: Yeah. It is. We all, and really content strategy on Twitter at this point is just therapy for all of us.

Lisa Maria: I mean yeah, it’s not, Twitter’s not the same as it was before.

Kristina: It sure isn’t.

Lisa Maria: Back in 2010 it was a great way to find a career and colleagues.

Kristina: Right.

Lisa Maria: It made sense.

Kristina: It was the only way! Yeah, it did.

Lisa Maria: It was just, it was a good time on Twitter, and I was lucky to have been in that group of, that cohort, I guess. I was lucky to have found my way into that circle of Twitter folks.

Kristina: Sure.

Lisa Maria: And lucky to have heard the term content strategy at the time that I did, and to have glommed onto it that much.

Kristina: Yeah, you and me both. So, I want to chat a little bit about your role also with A Book Apart. Can you describe kind of what the publishing house is and the work that you do with them.

Lisa Maria: Sure. Yeah. So, A Book Apart is a publisher. We publish brief books for people who work on the web. So, our goal is to kind of create these books that speak to the real practical hands-on work that people who are designers, who are developers, who are content folks, the work they’re really doing. We want to write books that guide them, that kind of set standards for the industry, that really kind of compile the wisdom of the practitioners who are out there and give you something that you can read in a weekend and take to work with you on Monday and put to use.

So, we have books about HTML. We have books about CSS. We have books about responsive design. We have books about content strategy. So, there’s kind of something for everyone in this group. And a lot of cross-disciplinary stuff. You can be a designer and read a book about JavaScript that will help you. You can be a content strategist and read a book about responsive images that will help you.

So, it’s a really great little publisher. I think we do good work. I’m biased obviously, but I do think we put out some really good books by some really good authors.

Kristina: You know what? A Book Apart did not even pay me to let you give that pitch. And I agree with you fully. It’s an amazing series. And you are actually writing a book for A Book Apart as well.

Lisa Maria: I am. Obviously, I had something of an in there.

Kristina: I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be publishing it if it weren’t awesome though. So, tell me a little bit about your book.

Lisa Maria: So, the working title is Organizing Content. And that title might not stick. But it’s a good kind of yardstick for what its focus is. It’s really about trying to help designers and developers or even content folks, I think, who maybe don’t have IA training, don’t really deal with information architecture in a granular way. And yet, at work, at their job, they have to come up with a sitemap, or they have to come up with a way to redo the navigation on their site. Or they need to build a taxonomy. And they’ve never done that before.

So, this book is meant as a practical guide to, it’s your quick and dirty build-a-better-sitemap book. It’s going to help people who maybe want to learn a little bit more about how to better organize and communicate information on the web, but don’t necessarily want to delve into a really thick tome about navigation. There’s so many good books out there about IA, so many good books about search on the web, about taxonomy. But there aren’t a lot of slim books about that topic. So, that’s my goal is to write something that kind of bridges that gap.

Kristina: And as you’re writing, do you really feel like your target audience is more designers and developers than content people?

Lisa Maria: I’ve been thinking of it that way, but that’s because I work with designers and developers. When I’m working on a website, I’m talking to designers who maybe haven’t thought about sitemaps differently before.

Kristina: Sure.

Lisa Maria: But I could see where this book would be really helpful for content folks who are coming at it from a more, like if you’re coming into building a sitemap or making a taxonomy, and you’ve been mostly a copywriter or you’ve been mostly focused on say, content marketing, right? And you’re like, “Okay, but I need to think more structured.” This is a good book for that.

Kristina: All right. So, let me ask you a question. I am seeing, or I have been seeing I guess over the last several years, the sort of message that’s pushed to designers and developers to just like, "Hey, if you’re not considering the content first, then you’re missing the boat, because people aren’t coming to the web for your design or for your code. They’re coming to the web for the content. And so, you really need to have a working knowledge of IA or content strategy or writing for websites, or whatever the case may be.” I have not seen a similar push, or maybe I have been ignoring myself because code scares the hell out of me. A similar push for content folks to understand basics of design and development. Do you, what’s your opinion on that? I mean, is that just happening below my radar? Do you think that that is a fair expectation for content folks? Just talk to me a little bit about your position on that.

Lisa Maria: I haven’t really thought about it before, but if I had to put a theory out there, I would guess that’s because the process for putting content online is still very much oriented around the design process. So, content people are sort of being asked to insert themselves and adapt to that process, rather than the other way around. So, there’s not, what I’m saying is content people are already learning on their own, “Oh, I need to figure out to kind of work with a designer, I need to figure out,” they have already expected to do that naturally. Whereas designers, I think the process is more built around them. So, if they have to stretch a little bit, if they have to learn how to work with a content person or learn how to code or whatever the issue is, I think there’s more of a pressure to find a resource that will guide them through that.

Does that make any sense? I feel that I’ve made the reverse case.

Kristina: It does.

Lisa Maria: But I’m trying to say it’s about expectations of the role, right?

Kristina: Yeah, I think that you’re right. Let me ask from a different standpoint. Because I think that with the editing work that you’re doing, with the communities that you sort of interact with more regularly, then I mean, like for me I’m working directly with kind of clients and students more than anyone else. And so, these are people who have come saying, “We want to do content first. We want to do content right. We want to tackle the content strategy before we even start talking about visual or code or whatever.” But and so, in that sense, I have not, as a content strategist, ever been tasked with “Okay, you need to understand a little bit of the design, you need to understand a little bit of the code.” And yet, I for example, people are like, “Oh, editing and markup is the best.” And I’m just like, that scares the hell out of me. Do you think that there is value in content strategists’ sort of learning the language of designers and developers beyond just sort of the high level artifacts that they need to craft the content?

Lisa Maria: That’s a great question. I’m speaking as someone with a design background, not a great professional design background, but with design thinking training and design theory and all of this stuff. So, maybe it’s more ingrained in my brain than I realize. But I have yet to work on a project, correct me if you have a different experience here Kristina, but I have yet to work on a project where those more in-depth designer developer skills were asked of me, as a content person, as an IA person.

And I’ve worked on projects where, my favorite is when I get to work on a project from start to finish with developers and designers, kind of everyone working together. But I have worked on projects where it’s content in a vacuum, right? Where it’s like someone says, “We want to bring you in to do the content first and do it right.” Every project I’ve worked on like that, I haven’t seen it come to fruition yet. Like, I’ve done the little content thing, and then they go off and they’re going to do a design project now on top of it. And I have yet to see those sites launch for the last five years.

Kristina: So, and this is an interesting thing, because this is something that we struggle with a little bit at Brain Traffic, where people come and they’re like, “Oh we’ve redesigned the website six times, and it never works. And this time we want to take a real step back. We want to do the user research. We want to do the user information seeking journeys. We want to do top tasks. All this stuff. And then we want to put a content strategy in place so that we understand requirements and voice and tone and maybe IA, and then we’re going to take that to a UX agency for implementation.” And this works when they’re willing to bring us along for the ride. But more often than not, they’re like, “Create all of this documentation, stack up the artifacts, and then we’re going to pass them along.” And where do you see the gaps coming in there? I mean, I’m with you. And every content strategist would say the same thing. Just, we all want to be there for the very first conversation, we want to collaborate with people through the entire process. But, is it possible for that, in your opinion, for that approach to work?

Lisa Maria: I mean, I’m sure it’s possible.

Kristina: Okay, moving on.

Lisa Maria: I’m sure someone’s done that, right? No, but it’s just so piecemeal. Because you’ve got the organization, the company as this central point, and then they’re kind of just, they’re the one responsible for taking the ball and moving it from group to group.

Kristina: Yes.

Lisa Maria: And I feel like at some point, something gets dropped. Or the process just ends up taking so long that that originating thing that said, “Oh, we want to do this, and then we want to do this.” It’s hard to keep that going through the whole process. And I have to assume that maybe folks who work on content in-house, maybe who are doing product content strategy, maybe it’s better there in terms of being able to sort of execute on that vision and get it the whole way through. But I think when we’re, we’re both consultants, we’re both kind of outside the process, I think we see more dropped balls that way. I think we see more piecemeal work happening from our perspective.

Kristina: So, this is another thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot, you threw out the term “product content strategist” which really originated with the folks at Facebook, I think, where they were talking about doing content strategy more at the product level versus the big, unwieldy website full of a bunch of content pieces level. Yeah?

Lisa Maria: Mm-hmm.

Kristina: And so, I’ve thought a lot about, because product content strategists are like, “Oh, you have to sit down, and there’s you, and there’s the designer, and there’s a developer in the room and you’re collaborating. You’re kicking things back and forth. And you’re working within live prototypes and that’s way more effective. And then you can push it live and see what works and then you can do iterative improvements.” And this all sounds like a dream come true for anyone who works on the web.

Lisa Maria: Sure.

Kristina: Right?

Lisa Maria: Yeah.

Kristina: And there are a few people who’ve said, okay, you can take that process and you can apply it or begin to insert it into the website development process. But when you’re looking at that kind of, I mean, I want to call it agile, but not agile in terms of the software development methodology.

Lisa Maria: Sure.

Kristina: But having that agility within the collaborative process versus this sort of, “Okay, we’re going to go away. We’re going to do all this research. We’re going to figure out these maps. We’re going to get at the content requirements. We’re going to pass those on. We’re going to design, we’re going to blah blah blah.” I mean, in your mind, how, if at all, how might those two things come together? Or can they come together? I mean, I think that on the one hand, we are coming at it from a client perspective where it’s very rare that they’re going to be like, “Okay agency, come sit with us in a room and do this ongoing development,” unless it’s as a contractor. But I mean, can those two processes inform each other, or should they?

Lisa Maria: Oh god, I wish I knew. I think, product content strategy is so fascinating to me because it’s so not what I do. Right? It’s a completely different world. I have worked in house at places, but it was, the one time that I worked in-house, let’s put it that way. The one time I worked in-house in the last six years was like, I was serving as, almost a consultant role within the organization. So, it was almost, like I wasn’t even doing product content strategy at that point. But I think the processes can probably learn from each other, but they are radically different. And I think when you have an organization ask an agency to do something, I think most of the time what they’re hoping for is that they will just be handed the answer, the solution, and then they can just kind of, then it’s fixed. Whatever the problem was, the problem is now fixed. And you’re not going to get the same kind of commitment from the organization because they did not create it themselves. Right? There’s a missing piece of ownership there.

And that’s what product content strategy or people working in-house have over that relationship, is they have the ability to get buy-in, they’ve got challenges too, but they can get that buy-in that I think creates more, a better ability to kind of see that product through the process.

Kristina: More of a momentum.

Lisa Maria: Yeah. Momentum.

Kristina: Yeah.

Lisa Maria: And a sense of, I don’t know, “agency” maybe is the wrong word in the context of working with agencies, but—

Kristina: No, I understand what you mean.

Lisa Maria: But yeah, more of a sense of ownership and sense of ability to sort of control it and see the future of it. Coming in as a consultant or even as a contractor, I think there’s always going to be this little wedge there. A little bit of separation. Sometimes that can be good. I mean, I get a lot of, I think there’s a lot of benefit to having a little bit of separation, but that originating company, that point of contact needs to be able to make that leap. Right? They need to be willing to commit to making it happen.

Kristina: Let me shift gears just a little bit, back over towards the kinds of problems that you specifically are called in to solve, whether it’s independently within an organization or as a part of a team. Talk to me a little bit about some of the projects that you’ve been working on lately that have been really exciting to you.

Lisa Maria: Whew. Gosh, let’s see. I like projects where I get to nerd out about structure. Right? Just get really geeky about how structuring things makes communication better. So, that could be structuring the site, right? Looking at how different pages are connected. Looking at how the navigation structures are kind of weaving throughout and connecting users to different narrative flows. Or it could be content on the page. Right? The layout of the page, the structure of how the headings are coming together and how different content elements are relating to each other. Or it could be the structure of the content element itself. So, we’re talking about content modeling, taxonomy, how the different elements within a single piece of content are kind of working together.

So, I’m just a big fan of imposing order on chaos, right? Like getting these kind of pieces in place where the structure creates maybe a framework for communication. Maybe it creates way that’s easier for the content managers to get their content moving. And it’s easier ultimately for the end user to be not just getting information, but really using the information. For good. Making better life choices as a result of the information they’re getting on the web.

I saw this really great tweet, I think it was yesterday, from Erika Hall who was talking about, we think so much about having empathy, as designers, having empathy for the end user. But how much are we thinking about how do we create empathy between users? And I thought that was so good. That’s the nub in content, right? And that’s what I try to do when I talk about structure, I’m really thinking how do we structure content so that people can, like I said, not just access it but really take it and do something unique with it. Make better choices. Do something offline. Do something on a different website. Get it to someone else who needs it. How can we really help improve things that way?

Kristina: So, it’s so funny because as you’re talking, the relationship between content strategy and information architecture is so, like the lines are so blurry in so many ways. And I’ll say information architecture in terms of the polar bear book, the traditional information architecture that we—

Lisa Maria: Yeah.

Kristina: We sort of, that discipline that was sort of first established 30, 35 years ago as part of software documentation, and came into websites and UX in the late 90s. How, I mean are you typically, when you’re on these projects, are you typically doing kind of IA and content strategy together? Are you pulled in by another content strategist? Does it vary? Where do you draw the line between, or does it even matter? I mean, I might be nitpicking, but I think that this is of interest to listeners who struggle with defining and kind of carving out roles on teams for themselves where the UX designer’s doing user research and top tasks, and the IA person is doing, know what I mean? How do those teams usually come together for you?

Lisa Maria: Yeah. No, great question. I love thinking about the labels we use and the definitions of these roles. But I also don’t put a whole lot of stock into them, actively speaking, right?

Kristina: I know.

Lisa Maria: I don’t really care, right, what I get called or what the client wants to call me. They can call me a content strategist. They can call me a UX designer. It does not matter. But, personally, I end up sort of filling a role that to me, blends a lot of those elements. Usually, I am not usually working with other content folks. I am not usually working with other IAs. I am usually the person within a team that is doing whatever is not design and development. Right? So, it’s sort of—

Kristina: Interesting, okay.

Lisa Maria: I see it as this triad, right, of there’s a designer, there’s a developer, and then there’s this third person who is—

Kristina: The content catch-all!

Lisa Maria: Right. Yeah. I mean, but I tend to work on these, I don’t want to say smaller projects necessarily. They can be fairly large websites. But projects where the team is that kind of nimble. Right?

Kristina: True.

Lisa Maria: It’s one designer. It’s one developer. Maybe it’s two designers, maybe it’s two developers. And then there’s me. So, I’m usually trying to dovetail whatever I would call content strategy with the design strategy. Because again, I’ve kind of inserting myself into that design process. So the designers are usually strategic thinkers. They’re coming up with a strategy for the site. And I’m like, okay, what’s the role content plays within that? And then how do I take that and express it through the navigation, the way the information is categorized, the way the content models are laid out, and the way the taxonomy is playing into that? That’s, I’m taking that because I’m strategy and sort of seeing how it fits into the IA. And then I’m calling that content.

So, you tell me, Kristina. What is that?

Kristina: It, I don’t know.

Lisa Maria: I don’t know. I mean, sometimes—

Kristina: I mean, it’s kind of in strategy, right?

Lisa Maria: It is.

Kristina: I mean, it is those of us who are just like, “I’m thinking a little bit about content structure. Or a lot. I’m thinking about how content substance relates to that structure. I’m thinking about how it’s going to get into the content management system—”

Lisa Maria: Absolutely. I’m doing a little bit—

Kristina: Or what requirements need to be for for accessibility, and yeah.

Lisa Maria: A little bit of all that stuff. I am not the person to call if you are like, “I want to know what kind of blog posts I should write.”

Kristina: Right.

Lisa Maria: I’m not a fan personally in my work of focusing in on well, what does my audience want to hear in terms of editorial strategy?  I will touch on that. But my focus is going to be on how are we structuring what you’ve got already? Let’s get the basics in place first. Let’s just make sure that what you already have on the site is doing the job you want it to be doing. And then we can talk about how can we kind of branch off from there and what new content do you want to create? I mean, there’s different flavors of content strategy, right? This is why I like thinking about product strategy because it’s so, so different. But there’s people who are focused more in brand expression in content strategy. That’s not what I’m going to do. There’s people who are more focused on the editorial side of things. There’s people who are more focused on governance and how that work is happening. And I’m focused on the IA side.

Kristina: What kind of inputs do you need to make the kinds of decisions that you’re talking about?

Lisa Maria: Oh my God. So audits are my bread and butter. I mean, I just, I get so much information from understanding the current content landscape on a website. I cannot do my job without at least two separate, super-thorough audits. I’m not even kidding. I will audit a website until the cows come home. To me that’s the most important thing is really, truly understanding what is currently out there, because from that you can figure out what their priorities are. You can figure out what they think their audience is, which is often different from what they say their audience is. You can figure out, you can see the publishing challenges they’re having. You can see how the CMS is interfering or maybe making certain things easier. You can see what the reading level might be or sort of how they’re writing. You can look at the quality of the content. It’s everything. It touches on everything. So, to me, the most important first step in any project I do is lots and lots of really cool audits. I’m a big nerd. That’s the most important.

Following that, user and stakeholder interviews obviously. That’s a huge part of it too, because you need to have, I can look at the data from an audit, but I’ve got to have anecdotal information to back that up. Right? I need to see how that’s also playing out in how people are using the site, how people are accessing information. And a lot of times that goes into the content publishing teams. How people are getting orders of what to put on the site, or how people are making decisions about what gets published or what kind of interdepartmental communication challenges they’re having. So, being able to understand sort of that end user perspective, the stakeholder perspective, and then combining that with the audit information, that’s it right there. That’s everything I need.

Kristina: So, that’s so interesting, because when the first edition of my book Content Strategy for the Web came out in 2009, that was sort of a given. That like, okay, you want to start, content strategists everywhere, audits are at the very base something you need to learn how to do because rarely people actually look at the, they look at the labels and they look at the structure of the site when they’re doing an audit, but they don’t look at the actual substance. And so you have to get in there and you have to dig around and you have to understand what their current content is. And then, it kind of went, the pendulum kind of swung way over to the other side which was, if we are coming at a wholesale website redesign, the first thing we need to understand is what content people actually need and want. And then it’s important for us to go in and audit to see what we have, what can map to the new site structure. And then go from there.

But that an early audit, if you’re not really sure what people want, is not going to be the best place for us to spend our time. So are you, your projects, are they largely like, we just need to get our content into some sort of coherent structure so that people can actually find it and use it? Are these wholesale website redesigns? I’m just curious about, because literally, like the, I’m sure if I were sitting with you, the hand waving and the facial animation would have been ratcheted up to 11 the second you started talking about audits.

Lisa Maria: God, I love them.

Kristina: I know. But tell me about, I mean what do you think about that perspective? For somebody to say what good does it do to really spend a ton of time with content on your site if you’re not real clear what people actually want?

Lisa Maria: Yeah. No, that’s a great question. So, first of all, I’ll say that I usually am working in the context of a full website redesign.

Kristina: Okay.

Lisa Maria: And I think usually people are interested in, I mean, at least my clients tend to be interested in leveraging as much of their current content as they possibly can. I have not often run into people who are like, “Scrap everything, we’re starting over.” Which in that case is not a redesign, really. That’s a brand new website, and you’re creating content from scratch.

Kristina: Right.

Lisa Maria: So, generally people are trying to leverage what they have, and if you’re talking about a large enough website, I mean, let’s say over 300 pages which is not very large as a starting point, but unless you’re talking about a 50-page website, you’re generally going to want to use pretty much everything you have.

Kristina: Sure.

Lisa Maria: People don’t like doing work, it turns out.

Kristina: Yeah. Go on.

Lisa Maria: So, no one wants to revise the content.

Kristina: Right.

Lisa Maria: So, for me, I’m trying to think, okay let me also say this. I think a lot of people get audits wrong. I think it is very easy to think of an audit as just an inventory, and it’s just about, well I want to know what the pages are. And that’s as deep as the audit investigates. So, of course, at the end you’re left with, okay, here’s a list of my pages, so what? And I think that’s caused a lot of people to kind of move away from audits as an entering point. I think to your point about what are we even auditing for? Such a good question. But even with asking it, a lot of people still aren’t even answering it. They’re like, “Well, because we have to have it. We have to have the inventory. We have to know what the pages are.”

But I think there’s so much more digging, and in-depth questions you can really get into, especially if you’re doing one automated audit and one manual audit, and combining the insights from both.

Kristina: And what do you mean by an automated audit?

Lisa Maria: So, an automated audit being something where you get a robot to crawl your site and return that inventory to you, so you have a list of literally every page that’s been published. Versus a manual audit, where you are personally as an individual going in and kind of following the path that the user would see. And so maybe you’re not going to see every single page. You’re not going to see every page that’s been published and accidentally disconnected from the navigation and you’re just going to sort of see the bulk of the pages that a user would see. So, I do one of each. And I, because I get different insights from both.

Kristina: Because you are also working at the component level and not just at the page or the HTML level, how do you go about auditing for content components? And when you’re digging into content models as well, I mean, that’s key. Right? I mean, we’re labeling content types, we’re identifying how where they’re going to be assembled and reassembled at the page level throughout the site experience. How do you dig into auditing for that in particular?

Lisa Maria: Oh, that’s a good question. I think, and this goes back, if I can take a step back actually, the question of what are we auditing for is the absolute crux of everything. You cannot move forward in audit if you do not have the answer to that. And if you are auditing for trying to determine which pages or which pieces of content are on brand or fit the tone of voice that you’re trying to go for, I think that’s the kind where what you were saying earlier you want to kind of do your research first and then do the audit. That makes sense to me.

If you are like, “Well, I want to audit for structure. I want to audit for content types. I want to audit for those content elements.” To me, I learned that by doing those audits up front. I learned that by learning the content. To me, that’s the point of my audit. Right? Any audit I’m going to do, I’m trying to learn the content at me personally. The insights I pull out of that might answer some different questions, depending on what the client wants, depending on what the project calls for. But I am personally just trying to understand what this site even has. So, by the time I’ve done two separate audits, I know it. I know that content. I know it like the back of my hand. And I have been able to observe, oh these are the most common content types, or I’m seeing a lot of this pattern. This pattern could become this other pattern instead, or we could combine these two things into this one other content element.

So, to me it’s very much about how do you know what’s on there? How do you know? Like, personally as a practitioner going in there as the content person making recommendations, or as the IA, if you don’t know the content better than the clients, and I guarantee, after two audits you will know it better than the client because I’ve never met a client who knew every page on their site. Like that, it’s always piecemealed, right? It’s different departments own different sections. But if you can be that one person who knows all the sections, who knows all the pages. I’m not saying you need to memorize every page. I’m not saying read every single page down to the last sentence.

Kristina: Sure.

Lisa Maria: But you learn it. You just learn it by going through it. So to me, that’s why I start there. I start with that discovery process, because I can’t know what questions to ask unless I know where we’re starting from.

Kristina: I keep thinking knowledge is power.

Lisa Maria: It is.

Kristina: Power over the client. Power of the project. Mmwaa!

Lisa Maria: Knowledge is power. I mean, God. It’s true.

Kristina: So, I have another question which is that several years ago we started talking about content strategy for mobile and Rachel Lovinger started talking about structured content, and content is meant to be free. And we usually structure content for reuse and for it to be repurposed across sites and channel. And Karen McGrane really dug into that in Content Strategy for Mobile and talking about the “create once/publish everywhere” model. Do you think that’s necessary for every website?

Lisa Maria: God, I haven’t heard anyone talk about COPE in years. I missed it.

Kristina: I know, but it is. I know but that is, everybody is still on the, our site needs to be responsibly designed, and we need to structure our content so that we can reuse it across channels, and we’re not duplicating efforts. And that is such a lovely holy grail, I mean, responsible in design.

Lisa Maria: Sure.

Kristina: Yes. But the reuse of content across every channel is such holy grail in so many ways. But I’ve seen it break over and over because unfortunately, content components don’t always consider context very well, and can’t really track along the user journey very well. But I’m just wondering, is this something that you still, that clients are still like, “we have to structure our content for future reuse, is that, when you’re going in you’re doing content models, is that sort of an assumption? Is that something that people are still talking about? What’s your experience with that?

Lisa Maria: I feel like you don’t trust the algorithms, Kristina. That’s what I’m hearing is some mistrust of the robots.

Kristina: And that’s, I don’t know where that comes from.

Lisa Maria: So, I actually don’t hear this that much from clients. So, I don’t know if that’s just the clients I work with. I do a lot of work in higher ed, and I guarantee that they want content reuse, and they definitely want to be putting things out in different channels. But it just doesn’t seem to be top of mind in terms of the conversations I’m having. And I think it’s because if someone were to come to me with that specific request, I would be like, “Cool.”

Kristina: “And.”

Lisa Maria: “But are we even getting it right in one channel?” Right? I mean, that’s where I’m starting.

Lisa Maria: I just—

Kristina: I know.

Lisa Maria: I feel so much like the industry, and I don’t just mean the tech industry. I mean content. I mean UX. I mean all of it. There’s so much interest in running before we’ve learned to walk. And I’m constantly in my work trying to get us back into that walking stage. That’s where I try to redirect conversations. So it’s like, okay cool, yeah. Let’s definitely, let’s structure the content, let’s chunk it up. I’m all for that. But let’s do it because it’s going to make the content better here in this website. And then, then, you get that right, then we can talk about content reuse. I’m also, like I said before, I’m not the branding person, I’m not the editorial person. I’m not the one who’s going to come up with your omni channel strategy. That’s not me. I think that’s marketing. Right? We’re talking about how are we reusing our content in different spaces? How are we seeing it show up in various social media platforms? And I think that’s a really important conversation to have.

But I’m just going to structure for your website, because that’s our starting point. So, we get that right, then if we get it right, it will be able to be reused elsewhere if you’re putting the right thinking into the context and you’re thinking about your users and et cetera.

Kristina: How often do you get to stick around to see if you did get it right?

Lisa Maria: Oh, so rarely. I’m so sad. Very rarely. Because usually there comes a point where if I’m lucky and I’m in a project where I am working with designers and developers through as much of the process as I can, there still comes a point where okay, we’ve gotten through our wireframes and I have weighed in on the wireframes. We’ve gotten through our comps and I’ve made some adjustments in the comps from a content and IA perspective. And then we’re getting into the development, and suddenly no one’s calling me for meetings anymore. And it’s never like a purposeful like, “Oh, your work here is done.” It’s always like, “You should stick around for questions, and we’ll consult with you.” And then it fades away. And I don’t know.

And then maybe six months later, someone will be like, “Hey, the website launched.” And I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s awesome.” And I’ll look and I’ll be like, “Okay, some things that I said came through, and some things didn’t.” And things changed over time, and of course over, after launch things will continue to change. But yeah, it’s rare that I actually get to be there actively throughout the whole process.

Kristina: That comes all the way back around to what we were talking about earlier, which is that handoff. And how difficult, and people who are proponents of the agile methodology will say that’s the problem with waterfall is there’s a handoff and there’s no continuity, and things get lost in translation. And I don’t know, people only have so much money and they only have so much time, and I just don’t know how to, unless you have just like this super extraordinary project manager or project director or site strategist who is really the through line, and kind of protecting recommendations—

Lisa Maria: That’s what we’re missing is a through line.

Kristina: A through line. That’s the next big thing. Not content strategy. Through line strategy!

Oh lady, so I am sorry to say that our time here is nearly to an end. I wonder, can you please tell our listeners were they can find you online?

Lisa Maria: I am on Twitter @redsesame and I do have a website, it’s in the process of being updated but it is—they all are! It’s pretty outdated now but you can get it at TheFutureIsLikePie.com. And I also have a newsletter that is more updated than the website and that is, you can get it through my website, also, Tiny Letter: The Future Is Like Pie. So.

Kristina: Excellent, well thank you so much for joining me today, Lisa Maria. It is, as always, an extreme pleasure to speak with you.

Lisa Maria: Thank you. This has been awesome. I love talking to you and I love your podcast.

Kristina: Aw, thanks. To be clear, I did not pay you to say that.

Lisa Maria: Thank you so much, Kristina.

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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 Brain Traffic, 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.