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The Content Strategy Podcast

Ep. 2: Gerry McGovern and Customer-Centric Experiences

Customer experience expert Gerry McGovern speaks with Kristina about how organizations need to shift focus away from production-based, internally-focused thinking and toward putting their customers' needs and top tasks first.

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About this week's guest

Gerry McGovern is the leading authority on Top Tasks Management, a research and management model that helps large organizations improve the customer experience online. He is the founder of Customer Carewords and is the author of several books on web content. Follow him on Twitter at @gerrymcgovern.

Episode transcript

Kristina: Hi, welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast, I'm your host Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by Brain Traffic. Brain Traffic is a content strategy consultancy headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota and serving clients worldwide. Visit us online at BrainTraffic.com.

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Hello, and thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. I am absolutely thrilled and delighted and lots of other strongly positive adjectives to welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast Mr. Gerry McGovern, who is a long-time hero of mine and sometimes mentor, and I'm just super honored to have you, Gerry. Thanks for being here.

Gerry: Oh, it's a real pleasure to be here Kristina, every time.

Kristina: Gerry, I wonder if you could spend just a few minutes here at the top of the episode telling us a little bit about yourself.

Gerry: Yeah, well I started off in the web about 1993, 94 and before that I had done all sorts of journalism and writing sort of gigs to make a living and I came across the web actually doing an article for a science magazine and I thought wow, this is going to change the world. So one way or another, I just stuck with it and wrote I think about six or seven books at this stage, many of them on content and the importance of web content. I've been lucky to travel the world and work with a lot of great companies over the last 20 years or so.

Kristina: And where are you now?

Gerry: Well, physically I am in a place called Gormanston, Meath, in Ireland, so I'm at home just right now.

Kristina: That sounds beautiful.

Gerry: Yeah, it's right beside the sea. So it's a very nice place.

Kristina: Ah, that's nice. I'll be right over.

Gerry: Right.

Kristina: Gerry, what part of your reputation in the content strategy community is that you are just so incredibly passionate about your topic du jour that every time you get on stage, you have... it seems like you have as much energy as every other speaker all combined together. Tell me a little bit about your philosophy speaking about content strategy and customer experience.

Gerry: Well, I think Kristina, it's a general kind of philosophy of when you're on stage you have to perform. That's the way I see it. You've got 300 or 500 or 30 or 10 people out there and all of them have invested their time to be there to learn something, so you owe it to the audience. That's the way I see it anyway.

I think you've ... there's a similar type of energy when you get on stage and that sort of enthusiasm. But obviously, I think all speakers want to perform. I don't know why, if I could … I don't really know the answer myself. I just like to feel that you got one life, you might as well give it everything that you have at that moment.

But I'm sure everybody who gets on stage wants to really bring as much energy as they can, maybe it's a different challenge for other people. I don't know why it's easier for me than it is for other people, but I just go for it.

Kristina: Yeah. Well, what's striking to me is that you've been speaking about similar topics for 20 years and it just seems like you never lose the energy or the enthusiasm about them. Tell me what it is that is sort of making you super excited right now? What is it in the industry that is taking up a lot of your brain space and kind of getting you out of bed in the morning these days?

Gerry: Well, I think it is the same broad stuff. I think the overall ... Back in the early 90s, I remember seeing when the Intel chip came out and how the online community started talking about it. And all of a sudden, Intel went from this is what you're getting and this is the way it is to oh, we're going to change and we'll draw that chip even though it's not a big problem because they, so to speak, the community or the customers got talking or got collaborating. That sort of power, I think ... and you see also negatives of that. But that movement away from organizational power towards a broader shift in the power base of where people get their knowledge.

I think that still is exciting today as it was when we saw it emerge in the mid 90s on the list serves, et cetera. So that sense of designing with the customer, the sense of the collective intelligence or the wisdom of crowds or I see lots of examples of where designing with people, really understanding, trying to understand their behaviors, trying to do co-design and continuous improvement.

I think that's a very interesting societal shift, so to speak. It's as exciting today, even more so than maybe 10 or 20 years ago.

Kristina: Off the top of your head, do you have an example or two of companies you think are really getting this right?

Gerry: I think the big companies by default get it right. I think I remember seeing, well you know the big digital companies like the Facebooks. Why do we like a lot of what Facebook does or doesn't? Their philosophy, I've seen speeches by some of their product managers. They don't talk about the sense of a management role, they talk more about a coordination or an observation-based role. They said they don't have any management authority in Facebook as a product manager, they can only influence. They don't try and design journeys. They try and discover journeys and then to scale them or to enhance them or somehow, deepen them.

So I think that the whole philosophy of how Google thinks as well, that very much evidence-based processes. And Amazon and the small teams and see, the really successful companies. Whether they are Slack or Amazon or Google or Facebook, tend to have that sort of ingrained type of culture, which is much more evidence-based, much more let's get out and test this, you know? I don't want to see a business plan from you, I want to see a working prototype. And then if it keeps working, we'll scale it a bit more. So it's hard actually, to truly succeed today without somehow really working with customers and designing with customers.

Kristina: So one of the challenges that we see at Brain Traffic at our consultancy, is a lot of times we'll go in to tackle these very large-scale content strategy projects, and they'll have very limited information that's either recent or relevant about their core users. And you know, you've talked a lot about, sort of, the behemoth corporation that moves slowly, that has trouble sort of turning the ship so that they actually are customer-centric. What do you think these organizations can learn from the companies you mentioned and how they're really sort of co-creating with their users and audiences?

Gerry: Yeah, I think you make a really good point. Like there's organizations we deal with that could take six months to find six customers.

Kristina: Right. Why? Why is that?

Gerry: It's extraordinary. Yeah, but there's a kind of years of institutionalized separation or that a lot of the people that are looking for customers have never looked for them before.

Like somebody brought up this point recently, I don't know whether it was Jared Spool or somebody like that, about how in a lot of ex-researchers they actually, their interaction with customers even is negligible. They are finding out about tools and processes and techniques and creating personas. But often, the actual interaction with customers is often minimal. I think that's a real ... I think that would be a ... you know to me it's one of the first things I look for in an engagement with the organization. What's the capacity to actually reach customers?

We have big organizations that we work for that they have to hire third-party companies to find their customers. Like they have to go out to other entities, so I think these are core, underlying challenges. If you ... how can you be customer-centric if you've got all these walls that you have built up over the years between yourself as an organization and your customers?

So, how do we help them to tear down the walls? Because we cannot create, if you can't find, if it's taking you six months to find six people, how can you be lean, how can you be agile, how can you iterate? You can only iterate in nine-month cycles or something like that. So you need ways that you can get stuff out to customers, see how they are reacting, but move quickly.

So working with organizations to say, how do we deal with this problem, that you're not in touch with your customers and you can't find them and actually what we find in some organizations, customers don't mind. They'll get back, they want to help. Other organizations, they just don't want to help the organization any. Is that because of the history? Is that because they don't like the product? Why is it that your customers don't respond, won't respond in the process?

These are deeper problems in the way, unfortunately, that we get asked to solve. But these are real underlying problems that organizations really need to look at themselves. You haven't much of a future if you've got a big distance between yourselves and your customers. So one of the 101 processes is how do we actually get more interaction with our customers?

Is it building a panel? Panels are imperfect, because they tend to be a little bit fan girls and fan boys type of environments. So oftentimes what you get out of panels are not a true picture to word. But a panel is better than nothing. I think fixing that problem, you began ... but how we get more customers in an interactive conversation on an ongoing basis is foundational to everything else that follows.

Kristina: If I'm a content strategist sitting in one of these organizations, and I find that this is even a problem in very small organizations that outside of the folks in sales or customer support, many times whose feedback is not solicited or taken seriously, that there still is a huge divide between what the customers want and are telling us and the kind of content that we're delivering. So if I'm a ... whether I'm a user experience designer or a writer or a marketing person or actually a content strategist sitting in an organization wanting to connect with customers, what would be a couple of first steps that I could take?

Gerry: Well I think one of the most overlooked and neglected great sources in an awful lot of organizations is the service people, the support people. You'd be amazed, well, you probably wouldn't, how undervalued the vast majority of support people are. How they'll do reports on problems that never get read. It seems support is held in a great deal of contempt by typical organizations out there.

Kristina: Well, it's not sexy, right?

Gerry: No. And they have a great source. And they are usually only too willing to work with ... because nobody asked them anything, nobody asked their advice. So they are usually tremendously enthusiastic. Obviously, the customer is more perfect, but if you can't get to them, at least get to the support people. But then if you start working with the support people and saying, aren't there some mechanisms when you're dealing with a support call that you might ask a final question, hey, hopefully I've solved your problem, et cetera, would you be interested in the future in maybe helping us make the environment better. You can gradually build up a list of people who said yeah, okay. You've got my email address already or whoever.

Sales people are very protective and very jealous, so it is often very difficult to get to customers through sales people because their customer list is their pension list, so to speak. That's their job security. They don't want to allow other parts of the organization access to their contact list. But support people want to solve people's problem. They don't have as a protective mode so to speak.

So I think working with the service and support department in so many other ways, maybe in a smaller organization you don't have one, but somebody is responding to complaints. And at least ... and it's surprising, depending how you deal with complaints how you can turn a customer around. And how those sorts of people are sometimes the most active or potentially active at being able to contribute feedback on an ongoing basis.

Kristina: Kind of bridge topic to that is top tasks. And I invoke the phrase top tasks approximately 200 times a day. Whether it's within our own organization or talking to one of our clients, and you are really kind of the origin of that concept, and in fact have built a business and methodology called Customer Carewords around it. Can you describe what top tasks are and why they are important when we are thinking about our content?

Gerry: Yeah. I think it's really old thinking in a way. It's refashioning focus and being a good editor. If you were a publisher 30 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, for every 300 manuscripts you'd get, you'd only publish one of them. But the web, every manuscript gets published because it's digital and that's kind of the floodgates that digital has opened up.

Kristina: There's just so much room on the internet.

Gerry: Yeah. It's endless. And sometimes we forget the basics. So it's really, there's nothing new in top tasks. It's a return to basic thinking about, let's prioritize. If you've got three people, you can't manage a 10,000-page website.

The basics. If you want quality, you've got to be able to manage that quality. And the key element, often what's missing, is what top tasks tries to address, is not just the top task, but what I call the tiny task so that there's a high rarity because most organizations are going oh, that's important, but oh this other thing is important as well.

So developing that kind of league table of importance that says, well this is what is super critical, this is what we really must focus on. Because if you're going to focus on those things, well what do we stop focusing on? Or what is disrupting the actual journey? So we're doing a project at the moment for a big technology company, and we're testing key tasks around installation and configuration and getting started and those sorts of, types of tasks.

And what we're finding that in the search results et cetera, there are hundreds and hundreds of pages for questions in the communities that are tangentially related to getting started and installation. But you can't find the installation guide because there's hundreds of these tiny little tasks using the word installation. And the actual core place where the really important stuff for installation is very difficult to find, even though it is the essential top task in the challenge because it has been smothered by hundreds and thousands of references to installation.

So it's kind of getting at what really matters, and what doesn't matter. What matters and what is disrupting the journey of what matters? So that sort of focus, and I know as you say at the same challenges, most organizations don't do it. They go through what I call the redesign the rehab cycle. They say every three years, oh we've got to stop this behavior. It's like, you know, giving a website to writers or communicators is like giving a pub to an alcoholic. And every three years you're going to re habit and redesign, oh we've got to stop doing this, but we really don't address the core, underlying behaviors that drive the production of the content. We just get an agency in and we do some nice graphics but then we go back to the same behaviors in the process.

And top tasks is kind of a mediator to try and address the behaviors that create these monstrously huge, unmanageable websites to begin with and to change the behavior, because if you change the behavior, I think then all the other things will begin to fit into place.

Kristina: And we're talking about changing the behavior of the folks who are actually creating the content and creating the requirements internally.

Gerry: Exactly. So I was with a big health entity there yesterday and we were showing the results bum, bum, bum and so people want to know about screening and vaccinations and diagnoses and prognoses and these sorts of things. These are the top tasks emerging in this environment and people said to me in the room, there was about 40 people in the room, they said yeah, that's great but I'm measured by do I have a website. I'm measured by how much content have I produced? I'm measured by do I have a Twitter account, do I have an app? You know, we measure the behaviors are around measuring things and what we produce in the process. And the philosophy of the top tasks or the ultimate end is that you measure the consumption rather than the production.

So you focus on those top tasks and you say, how able are people to get a diagnoses or to check a symptom or to find out how much this knee replacement will cost. Or how long they will have to wait for this knee replacement if they go to the public hospital or they go private. These core questions that keep coming up, oh we don't have time to answer those. Oh, we have the big database of the answers but we don't have time to actually properly put an interface on that database. Why don't you have time? Well, we're publishing hundreds of other pieces of content that nobody wants to read, but our manager says that we have to publish them because that's how our manager is judged, by the media campaign. I did some advertising, I created a subsite. So we've got to shift the culture and the behaviors which reward production and which make you feel as if you are important the more things you have.

We're dealing with a big organization today and I'm sure you're finding a lot of times is that their search is absolutely terrible, right? It's absolutely terrible. 99 times out of 100, it's better to go to Google public search, and not even put the organization name in and then the search term. Put in the exact same search term in the Google public search engine, and put in the same search term on their own search engine and 99 times out of 100 you get a 10 times better result on the Google public search engine.

But you know, they won't shake the idea that they would get rid of their search engine and actually just integrate public search from Google into their site because it's a 100 times better. They could never even imagine doing that because as far as they're concerned, what really matters is to have a search engine. It's not to help people find stuff.

Kristina: It's the feature.

Gerry: It's the feature. We could never get rid of our search engine. But it totally sucks. Doesn't matter. It's our search engine that sucks. And we can say to our bosses, we have a search engine. Because that's what they're judged on.

Kristina: This is one of my primary, crazy-making points with content marketing. Is that however much lip service pundits will pay to quality over quantity, it is in fact the quantity I see editorial and content teams being judged on. And that is just insane to me because to your point, the more content you have, the more you have to manage. The more it's going to muck up your search engine results. And you think that it's leadership's job to drive that kind of paradigm change?

Gerry: Well, I think, Kristina, if we don't change the metrics cause it comes down from leadership, unfortunately, too many in leadership are way, way out of sync when it comes to digital. They just don't understand it. They don't get it and they judge it in the wrong ways and they want campaigns and pretty pictures. Like we had a big storm in Ireland there, a couple of weeks ago. It actually snowed.

Kristina: I'm in Minnesota, why is that funny?

Gerry: I know, I know. It snowed in Ireland for the first time in 25 years or something like that and our electricity went out. So we go to the local electricity website, because we have got Wi-Fi, the mobile is still working. And we get to the site and you know what the first thing we see on that site? It's a picture of stormy clouds.

Kristina: Because that's helpful.

Gerry: Yeah. But that's communications. Oh, it's a storm. Let's put a picture of a storm. Like people won't know it's a storm. And then they say, click here for more information. Oh, so you click here for more information, what's the next thing we see? The next thing we see is a big heading that says ESB networks, you know, because we didn't know it was ESB they are called the ESB in Ireland. I just typed in ESB but they still need to reinforce the idea that I'm on their website. So their heading blares at me “ESB Networks Have Restored Power to 50,000 Homes.”

I couldn't give a crap. Like, it's my home that has no power. But they have to tell me that all that 50,000 homes that they've fixed as if that will make me feel better in the dark. What I want to know is when are you going to restore power to my home? That just makes me feel jealous for those 50,000 homes that got power back before I did. It doesn't make me feel good.

Is any of the those 50,000 people going to be at the ESB website saying, yeah, thanks ESB. Of course they are not. Because they've got their power back. They're not going to be at the ESB website. It's the people who don't have their power back who are going to be at your bloody website. But communicators can't get that. Instead, they are shoveling all this useless, not just useless, but it's antagonizing.

And what you said earlier about content marketing. Ah. It's all this short-term-ism, pump out and you might get a little bit of a return in Google for a day or two, but you're destroying your website. You're destroying your brand. You're creating horrible customer experiences. But that's organizational behavior throughout history. The Roman empire destroyed itself. All the empires, the Egyptian empires, they all destroyed themselves. Organizations destroyed themselves first, then competitors walk in and take the customers away.

So, behavior that is actually destructive of the organization is extremely common throughout history. And I think that most content marketing is essentially destructive behavior of the organization's future.

Kristina: So we need rehab for content marketing?

Gerry: For sure. It would actually be useful instead of producing crap all the time. Actually help people solve problems, which most of it doesn't. It's just high-polite, sweet smelling stuff that has practically zero function other than maybe to spam Google for a week, until Google gets clever.

Kristina: You know I've never heard the phrase short-term-ism before. I think I'm going to start invoking that.

Gerry: I don't know if that is a real word, but you know.

Kristina: Oh, it is now.

Gerry: Yeah.

Kristina: It is to me. Say, we're coming up on the end of our time, and there is one question I wanted to ask you. We were at An Event Apart together recently and we had a really wonderful and inspiring conversation over the breakfast table. I was complaining to you about the challenges of raising two tweens in today's political environment and how complicated and difficult it has been to navigate conversations about so much negative news, and you turned to me and said "You go home and tell them that there has never been a better time to be alive in the world." And I was just speechless. Can you tell me kind of what your thinking was behind that?

Gerry: Well, for most of us, there hasn't. We live longer. We have more options. Me or you, Kristina, we can do Pilates. We can do yoga. We can read a book. We can travel. We can think. Even though there are challenges in Ireland and the United States at the moment, we can think. We can talk. We can voice our opinions.

Look at the kids in the U.S. It's the 16-year-olds and the 17-year-olds who are leading policy changes, who are beginning to become a momentum. What would happen to 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds 50 years ago? Or to women 50 years ago? Or to other minorities 50 years ago?

In some ways, the best of times is always the worst of times as well because you're always getting counter reactions to movements and shifts. If you've got a positive movement or a shift, you're always going to get a backlash. It's a physics kind of equation that comes true in the process. And I think ... and I get as depressed and as a newshound as well, and junky and it can be ... but then you gotta stand back and say hey, generally speaking, if we look at the levels of violence in societies, the amount of wars. Okay, there's terrible things, absolutely terrible things happening in the Middle East and Syria. But I think this is one of the few times there isn't a single war in the South American continent.

War has been limited to a relatively narrow band on this planet of countries and regions. Now, it's still a terrible thing that it is happening, but broadly speaking there is a broader awareness of our global consciousness I think that has emerged. And I think young people have a capacity today to make change because they can connect with other young people.

Wherever you can connect, you have the possibility for change. Wherever one and one and one and one and one becomes 10,000 that's powerful and if anything that the web gives us, it's that potential power and we should use it. I know it can be used negatively. It's a neutral capacity, but wherever you can create networks you can create change. It's a real honor to be on it and speaking with you Kristina.

Kristina: Gerry, you are a delight. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your wisdom and your knowledge, and your experience as I said upfront it is just a complete honor to have you on the podcast and you are welcome back anytime.

That does it for this week's episode of The Content Strategy Podcast. I'm your host Kristina Halvorson. The Content Strategy Podcast is brought to you by Brain Traffic. Brain Traffic is a Content Strategy consultancy, helping clients worldwide move from content chaos to sustainable business success. Visit us online at BrainTraffic.com. Thanks a lot! 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.