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The Content Strategy Podcast

Ep. 3: Scott Kubie and Content Ecosystems

Kristina talks with Scott Kubie, Lead Content Strategist at Brain Traffic, about his journey toward a career in content strategy, as well as how he's currently using content ecosystem mapping to help his clients create connections in their content universe.

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About this week's guest

Scott Kubie is the Lead Content Strategist at Brain Traffic, a content strategy agency in Minneapolis, Minnesota. People turn to Scott when they need to make sense of complexity and decide what to do next. As a regular speaker at web and UX conferences, Scott delivers engaging and practical sessions on clarity, creativity, collaboration, and content strategy. Follow him on Twitter at @scottkubie

Episode transcript

Kristina: Hello, and welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I am your host, Kristina Halverson. Today's podcast is brought to you by Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy, and can be found online at ContentStrategy.com

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Hello, and thanks for joining me again today. I am delighted to have with us on the podcast this week a certain Mr. Scott Kubie, who is the Lead Content Strategist at Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy that I am in charge of. Scott?

Scott: Hi, Kristina. Thanks for having me today. 

Kristina: Whoa, hey thanks for being here because I made you. That's not true. I'm not actually in charge of anyone. Let's be real. 

Scott: My first anxiety is this ... It feels a little like re-interviewing for my job. Can we have a moratorium or some sort of truce with regard to podcast appearances? 

Kristina: Yes, this will not be included in your annual review. However, I will judge you accordingly. 

Scott: Oh, yeah. 

Kristina: Okay. Fantastic, as long as we're clear. Hey Scott? I really want to hear about your background as a content strategist, and what led you to content strategy.

Scott: Sure. So I studied broadcast journalism at Drake University and was very involved in campus activities. I was just a person who was doing all the things, and got involved in a lot of projects. I think that a combination of being a project person, and also studying communications, definitely set me on the path to becoming a content strategist. 

Kristina: Now, I have to interrupt. What kind of activities were you involved in? I mean, let's get real here. 

Scott: Okay, so I did a lot of stuff with the Student Activities Board, so booking comedians and bands to bring to campus, student activity stuff related to Homecoming, and ostensibly, I was supposed to kind of be the student representation for athletic boosting, and—

Kristina: Like booster clubs? 

Scott: Yeah, like cheering on the sports teams and stuff. That's ... I feel like it's been long enough that I can admit publicly now that that part of it, I did not do a great job with, because I did not care about sports. I'm sorry. 

Yeah, but so a lot of those kinds of projects and then being in the journalism school, there was a lot of activities that were available to us as students. I was involved in the campus radio station, a lot of folks on the Drake Broadcasting system got involved with Drake Relays, which is a big annual track and field competition. There's always stuff going on, and one of the projects that I ended up doing, that probably most directly contributed to me starting to learn content strategy things as I went is that my friend, Carrie, and I started a TV show that was kind of in the style of really now what you would see on Tiny Desks, or KEXP live studio sessions where we just had bands come and play in our aging, decrepit broadcast studio below the Philosophy classrooms—

Kristina: That's so romantic!

Scott: Yeah, and it was really fun. Romantic's a great word for it. It was just very like DIY spirit kind of thing. I did all the graphic design myself, which is just awful. A lot of blown out black and white photos, and edgy fonts. That project turned into a blog, an independent publication that I ran with some friends, and we recruited photographers, writers, bands, journalists, literally anyone who would give us any moment of their time for a blog that we called Rock Iowa. 

And I had to make all kinds of stuff to keep it powered, because people would keep asking me questions about how things should be formatted. I kept finding myself, as the person who held the vision, feeling frustrated at times with things just not coming in, and maybe the style, or ... I didn't have the vocabulary for it yet, what I would now call, "The voice of the publication." So one of the early activities we did as a team, and everyone kind of rolled their eyes at me, I don't know if it helped them but it helped me, is we sat down and wrote basically a manifesto that has echoes of what I would now call a content strategy statement or just a strategy statement for a website. 

That was a really nice project because I learned all kinds of different editorial things. I learned the hard way—sorry to everyone who had to work with me about how to be less of a jerk when collaborating with people, the nature of deadlines, and being able to give people style guides, all that kinds of stuff. I was also doing some of my own writing for that project and some other arts-related projects. What I found was that by doing stuff that I put out into the world, whether it was an art fair, or a pop-up show, or just some sort of tech event, I was constantly having to write about those things for other people, put them out in public. 

That kind of put me on the career path, because other people in the community where I was doing all this stuff, saw what I was organizing, liked how I wrote, and started invited me to write things about their projects and their businesses. That got me started freelance. 

Kristina: Basically, you were a content marketer is what you're telling me. 

Scott: A little bit, yeah. Maybe a little bit. 

Kristina: Yeah, but I'm so fascinated to hear about sort of how content strategy introduced itself into your life without you knowing what it was, or how to talk about it, or that that's even what you were doing. I think that there are so many content strategists who, today, can talk about projects similar to what you just described, and say, "This is really where I first discovered this drive, and this skill set, that led me down the path to content strategy." 

Scott: Absolutely. Yeah, and it was interesting to me, and I guess I'm very grateful to have found content strategy and related disciplines like information architecture and user experience design, because even though I was studying broadcast journalism, I knew that I didn't want to be a journalist.It was the classes, and the stuff, and the techniques that we were learning were more interesting to me than anything else that the school had to offer, but I didn't, as a career, I did not want to go run a print magazine or work at a newspaper. 

Kristina: I think a lot of people would sort of say that, too. I know so many content strategists whose degrees were in history, or psychology, or theater, or music or whatever, that they really say that the skills that they learned in school, while they weren't necessarily planning to pursue that career had really, really translated beautifully over to the field.

Scott: Absolutely. 

Kristina: Right. Hey, one question that I wanted to ask you. I have to tell you that just hearing you talk about what you did in college makes me absolutely exhausted, because I think in college, the sum total of what I did was work in the snack bar and moon over guys that weren't interested in me. That was my college experience. 

You have continued to have just incredible output in terms of your writing and your activities, and ways in which you're involved in the community, on top of your full-time job. Can you talk a little bit about why that's something that you're committed to, and how you were able to manage your time so effectively? 

Scott: Oh gosh. I don't know if I do manage my time effectively. I think if I was, I would maybe be a little less committed to some of these projects. I've always enjoyed bringing things into the world. I think if I could re-role my character sheet ... That's not a reference for you, Kristina, that's for the nerds that are listening. If I could re-role my character sheet, I would maybe want to ... There's a part of my heart that I think wants to be maybe more of an artist, or a maker, or someone ... If I can make grand sculptures, or something like that. 

I really like just having an idea, shaping it, turning it into a thing, and putting it out into the world.I have found given the skills and aptitude that I have, that things like event organizing, writing, putting guides, tools, that kind of stuff together is something that I can make. It's that very rewarding feeling, right? Some people like to bake bread, and some people like to knit, and some people like to assemble models. I like to kind of make ... I like to bake little idea cakes, and send them off into the universe and see what happens with them.That's, I think, a lot of what keeps me driven, is that it's just very rewarding to me, personally. 

Maybe to dig a little deeper, given my personality, I tend to really enjoy structured social interactions. I can be very introverted and shy personally, one on one, but I'm always very comfortable at say a conference or a meet-up or something like that, or a board game night because the ground rules are very clear. I know why I'm supposed to be here. I know that I've been invited. These people are not going to be weirded out if I go up and talk to them, even though out in the world people probably wouldn't be weirded out, either, but my anxiety gets in the way of that. So, creating that structure is a way for me to kind of build relationships and a network as well. 

Kristina: Talk to me a little bit about how that feeds into your practice as a content strategist.

Scott: I think one way that those experiences and those inclinations feed into being a content strategist is observing the personalities and kind of the interactions that folks we're consulting for have in their own organizations, and trying to get a read on, "Is this strong-willed stakeholder, are they really your enemy on this project, or is there just a disconnect? Could we create some sort of structure, plan a meeting, have some sort of workshop, a tool, frame your deliverables differently …" Find something that will remove that friction. 

That's kind of a mental lens that I use a lot, is looking for points of friction whether it's in ... yes, about productivity earlier, that's a big one for me. It can be a bit of a rabbit hole, but I'm always looking for ways to just take tedium out of the work that I do. There's that obvious quote ... I don't know if its Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein, or whoever probably made it up, but "If you have six hours to chop down a tree, spend five sharpening your ax." That's always my instinct of okay, we're going to have a 30-minute conversation, but it's a very important 30-minute conversation. So let's really plan the heck out of this, and make sure that everyone understands what the goals of the conversation are, and what we're trying to get out of it, and that kind of thing.

Kristina: Interesting. I want to take a little bit of a turn to talk to you about a topic that I know is near and dear to your heart. You've been doing a lot of writing about it for the Brain Traffic blog, and that is content ecosystem mapping. Do you want to describe what that even is? 

Scott: A content ecosystem map is a picture, usually a diagram, of all of the stuff that comprises your organization or company's content world. There are a lot of practitioners that make them in different ways. It can be kind of more list-style. Some people do really illustrated sorts of things. Mine are more in the style of what you might call a concept diagram, where you take all the stuff: a role, a team, a person, a particular channel, a content type, a rule book, all these things that are floating around in our content universe, and you draw connections between them to show how they're related. 

That's what the picture of the diagram is. There's also the process of making one. Content ecosystem mapping, which is one of many tools in a content strategist's tool belt, for building understanding with everyone on the team. If you go out into a forest with a piece of paper and a marker, on a hike with some friends, and you draw a map together of that experience, and what you see and what the landmarks are, and where the animals were, you'll have the same understanding of what's on that map. 

The map is not reality. It's a depiction of the forest or the journey, or the thing that you went on. But at least everyone who contributed to it will have the same understanding about it.That's what's really powerful about content ecosystem mapping, is that in a lot of organizations folks don't have the same picture of reality.The content strategist's view of what the content world looks like is one way, a business stakeholder’s view is another way, the CEOs is another way, and so on. So by diagramming, getting it all onto a canvas, making a picture that is a reasonable representation of all of that stuff, gives teams a really great starting point for all kinds of other content strategy activities. 

Kristina: What's interesting to me is that I think 10 years ago I could have this conversation with someone, talking about a content audit, where they're saying in order to get a good understanding of your world of content you really need to be digging into your website specifically, and kind of listing out all the content that's there and who owns it, where it came from, and whether or not it's accurate and up to date and outdated. Not suggesting that that isn't still a valid exercise in certain instances, but what sorts of things does a content ecosystem map solve that maybe just a content audit wouldn't? 

Scott: A content audit is a fantastic tool for understanding pages. I think there's ... in my mind, there's a strong correlation between an audit and a particular website. At a single domain name, AwesomeCo.com, is going to have 1,000 or 10,000 pages. If you want to set inventory and assess the quality of those pages, I think a content audit is the fantastic tool to do it. 

What we find often is that organizations don't just have AwesomeCo.com, they have that and maybe an unknown number of micro sites that various sales and marketing teams have propped up over the years. Maybe there is a member portal at some time that's set up at a sub-domain, maybe there are a bunch of channels that are kind of branded, and they're on hosted platforms so you've got Medium, social media, all that kind of stuff. Often, lots of things that folks that have just simply forgotten about, like the technology that makes the website work. 

A lot of folks have ... the mental picture that readily comes to mind for them is, okay we have the main website and we have the CMS that powers the website. That's the kind of quick mental picture they have of how their web ecosystem is powered, but more often than not, a single website, especially for a large site or a large company, is powered by all kinds of technologies. There might be something that's feeding in customer data, analytics is coming from another place, product information is coming from one or multiple databases. There might be technologies that glue all of those things together. 

Being able to have a picture of all of that solves for underestimating the actual scope of your content reality. That's where a lot of projects go wrong, is that where the problem is, or where the opportunity is with a given ecosystem or property, often is not at the website level.There may very well be things that you could audit for and evaluate the content against. Okay, we want to get it up to date with the new principles, or the new direction, or the new branding. 

But some of the bigger picture things, when we're talking about content models, content structure, the search and browse experience, multiple stuff where users are coming across different devices. If you want to have an omni-channel strategy where the customer starts a journey on one platform and moves to another, those things are rather difficult to depict with an audit, which primarily lists webpages and criteria about those webpages. 

Kristina: When you are creating a content ecosystem map, what are some of the big challenges that you run into?

Scott: There are a lot of challenges. One of the, I think, most personally frustrating, for me, is just the scope of many organizations and their actual content reality. It is just practically challenging to actually map it all. It's like okay, if we're going to include all of these systems, and all of this, and all of that, and all of the customer insight tools, this thing is just unwieldy. A lot of times you have to be ... there's no one size fits all approach as to what exactly goes into the map, and the exact boundaries of it. That's often a conversation you kind of have to have of what are we trying to learn from this, what do we most need insight into? That can be a challenge. 

I think another challenge is that a lot of the relationships have never been defined previously. They were always sort of implied. For instance, we know that the UX team … what? They do something to the website. Do they own the website? Well, no. The executive team owns the website. Okay, well do they support the website? Well, no. The customer service team supports the website. Okay, so let's dig in and figure out and try and articulate what that relationship is. You'll find that over and over again, which maybe is not so much a frustration with the process, but at times, it's kind of the point of the process, is to find those holes and gaps, give you a starting point for say building a governance framework, or articulating roles and responsibilities.

Kristina: That is actually a really interesting point, is that oftentimes we talk about that the document or the output of the activities is not necessarily the endgame, that it is in fact just the process that the team needs to go through in order to get the alignment that allows for the document to be signed off on. 

Scott: Absolutely. The alignment is critical, and that is when I've taught ecosystem mapping as a technique before, that's frequently one of the questions I will get is how do I sell this to people? How do I get permission to do this? The snarky answer, that's not helpful, that I want to give, is you need to become the kind of practitioner that would not ask that question.Which is to say that if there's mass misalignment in everyone's understanding of what's true about your content world ... For instance, your content strategy team feels way under-resourced, or over-burdened, because stakeholders are just constantly underestimating the scope of how much work you have to do. That's not really something that you need to necessarily sell into a project plan. I think that's something you just need to do. A visual is a tool that can help you tell a story, and if making a content ecosystem map gets you better aligned with the people you're working with, it's something to just dive in and do.That alignment piece is absolutely critical, and I think can be a big benefit of ecosystem mapping. 

Kristina: We've talked a lot about the challenges of large organizations and trying to kind of wrangle all of those different pieces of the content world into some sort of meaning or order. Where might a small organization find content ecosystem mapping a useful exercise? 

Scott: Sure. I've actually done quite a few ecosystem maps for smaller organizations. Before Brain Traffic, I was doing freelance UX and content strategy work, and I would often make them for newer companies or startup-style companies. What's really advantageous there is that they have not yet gotten a huge unwieldy content footprint, so we can be a little more clever and deliberate with the map, and use it more as a story telling tool. 

One of the things that I like to do is, if possible, articulate the relationship between say an organization and its audiences, between the audiences and the products, between the products and the website, and so on. One of the common errors in thinking that I find, especially with mission-driven organizations, is that the brand kind of collapses in on itself, and it's hard for people to talk about the website separately from the company that publishes the website and they don't have the vocabulary to talk about the brand separately from the organization that the brand represents. 

So, for a smaller team, or something new that your kind of designing ecosystem mapping, and related concept diagramming techniques, I think can help you draw really useful distinctions, and be able to articulate your story in a more compelling way. Because if you branch everything out, any sort of mission vision statement, any brand values that you have, you could actually put those right onto a canvas, and map them to your activities. 

If you're very customer centric, and that's something that's important to your organization, as a brand value what is that connected to? What represents that, or shows that? Is it a particular channel? Is it some activity that you engage in? Is it some publication that you put out periodically that might support that value? 

Kristina: You're so enthusiastic about this topic. It's just a joy—

Scott: I know. I love it.

Kristina: It's a joy to listen to you talk about it. I want to ask you sort of a bigger question, which is in the field of content strategy right now, what's really exciting to you? 

Scott: Something that's really exciting to me in the world of content strategy is how it's increasingly converging with disciplines like user interface writing, and obviously technical writing, I think, has kind of been a core competency or something closely related with content strategy for a while. Probably the thing I'm maybe second most passionate about after diagramming and map-making-type things is just the nitty gritty of user interface writing. I think it's a really kind of fun art form, if you will. It's a fun craft, or skill. The fact that so many organizations are becoming product companies, digital product companies, whether they planned to or not, means that that's a skill that is becoming a lot more fundamental. 

I was consulting with one client who had a very work-a-day communications job for a non-profit organization, and she mentioned offhandedly that she was working on some Alexa skills. This is someone who had previously been writing a lot of traditional press releases that went out to newspapers, and is now working on chat bots and user interface conversations, which to me is very thrilling. 

Kristina: I was actually just in San Francisco this week at a meet-up that was hosted by Airbnb, and there was so much conversation around the role of the product content strategist. I think that the fact that ... Some people would say, "Oh, it's just UI writing," but I think that the fact that that title has been elevated in so many organizations really does point to organizations placing a heavier value on that skill set. Which, you're right, it's really exciting to see. 

Scott: Absolutely. The thing that I am excited about in a super nerdy content strategy way is that my hope is that this will all come back around to making what we would think of as traditional website content and the interactions on non-chatty, non-AI websites much better because a part of the conversation that I think has been missing for a while in some circles is that website have always been conversational. It tells you things, or it asks you questions, and you respond by manipulating components within the interface, or typing things in. 

That's something that I think has been apparent with the brands that have done well over time with their web presence is just the whole website experience feels like a pleasant interaction with a smart, competent customer service person. It doesn't feel like you're interacting with a robot. You don't have to have quirky personalities or chat bots, or little things that are popping and asking you questions in the style of an iMessage bubble to do that, you can do that with any website that exists right now. 

Kristina: All you need is content strategy. 

Scott: There you go. Put a bow on that. 

Kristina: Friends and neighbors, content strategy is important. Scott, it is always a delight to speak with you. I feel so lucky I get to do it every day. 

Scott: Thanks for employing me, Kristina, and for having me on your podcast. 

Kristina: All right. Thanks a lot for your time. 

Scott: All right, thanks. 

Kristina: That does it for this week's episode of The Content Strategy Podcast. I'm your host, Kristina Halverson. This podcast is brought to you by Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. You can listen to more episodes of The Content Strategy Podcast online at ContentStrategy.com. Thanks a lot for joining us. We'll see you again 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.

Follow @BrainTraffic and @halvorson on Twitter for new episode releases.