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The Content Strategy Podcast

Ep. 7: Erika Templeton and Complex Content

In this episode, Kristina speaks with Erika Templeton, the associate director of content strategy at Code and Theory. Erika shares her thoughts on complex content challenges at the enterprise level and the future of content strategy (hint: it's voice).

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About this week's guest

Erika Templeton is the associate director of content strategy at Code and Theory, a digital-first creative agency located in New York City. Erika's experience with content strategy has grown from a long list of roles in related fields throughout her career, including that of reporter, editor, account manager, and editorial director. She is the founder of Roger Multimedia, a collective of young entrepreneurs in the marketing and creative services industries offering brand strategy and content consulting for start-ups and small businesses.

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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Greetings. Welcome back to The Content Strategy Podcast. Today, I have a very special guest. It's someone I haven't even really spoken with before, but I've heard such incredible things about her. I'm excited about her experience, which she's going to share with us. Her name is Erika Templeton. She's the associate director of content strategy at the super hipster firm Code and Theory in New York City, right?

Erika: Yup. Hi.

Kristina: Hi, Erika. How's it going?

Erika: It's good. It's going good.

Kristina: Good, good. Erika, tell me ... Oh, actually you said it's 90 degrees and humid, and hellish there?

Erika: Yes. Well, it was this weekend. We're kind of highs and lows in this weird spring.

Kristina: What are you doing to keep cool?

Erika: What am I doing to keep cool? Getting lots of frozen margaritas by the water [laughs]. So, we're really—

Kristina: That's a good idea any time.

Erika: Yes, but we're really close to the seaport now. So, that's actually really awesome. I take the boat home from work sometimes, which is a huge luxury. So, it's been all right.

Kristina: Living in Minnesota, I don't even know what that means. Seaport, boat home, what? We drive everywhere. Hey, so tell me a little bit about your background and what brought you to content strategy?

Erika: Yes. My career path has been seemingly random over the course of the past 10 years, but it all culminated in a collection of skills that actually makes a lot of sense in this field. I started out studying journalism up in Boston, and I graduated with a journalism degree in 2009, which was very unfortunate timing for that field and for a lot of fields. So, I moved to New York with a dream of doing music journalism but it was really hard to find a gig and I ended up in an agency working more in PR for architecture and design product makers, which is really interesting using the same kind of skills of writing and uncovering stories, but then really diving into a marketing world.

That agency ended up going from being in a traditional PR and communications house to suddenly hiring a lot of developers, a lot of UX designers, opened an office in San Francisco, and a lot of the work we were doing for our clients turned into a lot of app work. It was sort of the dawn of the iPad at the time, and I realized that I really loved the more structural side of the content. Then, I escaped from that for a second and started my own business thinking that it would be interesting to experiment with doing some things on my own. I met a lot of small artisans, small businesses at that time when I was doing what I call brand therapy with them, so helping them figure out who they were and put together marketing programs that was everything from events, to web development, to traditional PR.

In the process of doing that somehow, kind of by magic, I guess I got scouted by a publisher who was running a trade publication for architecture and design and asked me to come on board as editorial director which was a huge honor, going back to my roots loving journalism. I didn't know what I was doing, but I think I came at it from more of a marketing approach. We rebranded the publication, really focused a lot on events, but in that time I was coming to understand the operational aspect of the content: How do you manage a team? How do you produce things on a budget? How do you deal with the production cycles while everything else is going on? That was a crazy whirlwind.

The combination of that and all the UX experience that I had had in the previous agency combined in such a way, that I felt I could take on the work of this emerging practice. That content strategy means a lot of different things, but I ultimately came on board here at Code. The ask was to do a pretty complicated content migration from one of our clients. Just based on the conversations I had had with them here about the work, I feel like I understood the bones of the project enough to do it. So now, I've been here for two and a half years and used to sit on the UX team as a sub-discipline, which is really interesting and really fun.

But just as of a couple of weeks ago, we actually had done a little bit of a reorg here at Code and Theory, and now content strategy has its own department, so it's super exciting. Now, we're really going through a process of defining what that discipline means now that it left the UX nest and it's on its own, and so that's really exciting. We're breaking it up in two pillars. One side is editorial development, and the other is what we're calling content engineering. So, that's been really cool.

Kristina: That is really exciting.

Erika: Yeah.

Kristina: That is very similar to how we've started talking about content strategy. We're talking about content design, and then systems design, and content engineering sits on the systems design side and editorial sits on the content design side. So, it's really been fascinating to see how things are settling in to shared definitions without people necessarily feeling the need to come together and being like, "What is content strategy? Let us define it once and for all."

Erika: Yeah. I mean, that's an impossible task I think because even if you internally feel you really have it figured out and everyone on the team knows what their role is, that evolves drastically depending on the project and the client. So, we have to adapt with the language of our clients as well and be able to meet them where they are, and still have a good sense of who we are and what we're really trying to accomplish.

Kristina: So from a functional perspective, tell me about what your role involves kind of day-to-day these days?

Erika: These days, I'm actually going through a lot of research lately. Some of the client work that we have is actually really complicated on the financial side. It's the financial industry, and so it's diving through layers and layers of SEC law basically and really understanding—

Kristina: Delightful.

Erika: So fun.

Kristina: Yeah.

Erika: What happens when you work in that industry is you're dealing with such monolithic, old, giant, mainframe kinds of systems. Information systems that are so locked down, so secure, so heavily regulated that our job is not going to be to change all of that because that's just so massive and that's a 20-year view at the end of the day. What we're trying to do a lot is just understand where the boundaries of all those information systems are, and how we can build almost around them or connect with them while creating new things that are more adaptable. So, in order to do that, we have to know the rules of the playground first. It's not the most exciting reading, but I am a giant nerd about it. So, that's what I do well.

Kristina: What are some of the outputs that we'll see from your—not that we'll see—but that your client will see from your research?

Erika: A lot of stuff that we provide them is it's almost reorienting the way that they think about the classification of their informational value. I mean, that's a phrase that I think comes up a lot that we are trying to really drive home what we're doing, is really taking many, many steps back from the project of the day and the output that they actually want in a short term looking at a product launch, say six months from now, what are we going to get?

The conversations that we're really having is we could do something there. We can organize you around a new platform or a new touchpoint, but what we really want to be doing meanwhile is actually stepping all the way back, get into the bones of your ecosystem and seeing what structurally we have to work with. Then, coming up with almost a prototype. It's almost a prototype schedule saying, "Look, we're going to start here with this project. We'll update in this way. Then, let's see how it worked. Can we do it better the next time? Let's move on to the next."

When you talk about clients that are gigantic enterprises with thousands of touchpoints, and hundreds of thousands of employees, and decades of information that they've stored, it's not an approach that's going to suddenly solve all of that. So, it's very much actually working with our clients to say, "Here is the appropriate scope of a test that we will actually run. You will get a finished product in the end that uses the thinking behind that task, and if it works, we can do it again and slowly move ourselves through an ecosystem and in the process hopefully identifying places that we don't even have to bother looking. I think that, that's actually something that has become more and more important is it's not just knowing what to do with what you've got, it's knowing that what you got even matters first before you spend all your time with it.

Kristina: Tell me about how, if you are helping them create this roadmap to analyze and then continually evolve the maturity of their content ecosystem, is there anything that you do to create a vision for an endpoint in terms of what the organization will look like when it's kind of reached "content maturity?" Do they come to you with that? Tell me a little bit about that.

Erika: Yeah, totally. I mean, something that I think is really important here in the way that we operate at Code is that technically, I think that content strategy could sit almost in any of our other more mature departments like it was in UX, but depending on the phase of a project and the ask, we are really working within all of the departments that we have here. So, at that kind of a phase like the real vision and the road-mapping, that is working super tightly with our creative strategists. So, it's definitely a product roadmap in many cases. That's usually the initial ask that we get, and so it's locking down strategic pillars for that product but really in the process, it's about the business. It's about the company as a whole and how that product is going to support bigger agendas.

So, we'll come in on early phase where we're really defining what that vision is, call it the “north star” of all the work that we do going forward. Then from that, be able to actually go very tactically. We'll break off pieces of that project and then be working very closely with the client for them to actually tell us what physical ... for lack of better terms, it is obviously digital but what spaces, what repositories of information and content we should really focus on with them to extract value out of those areas and place them into this new roadmap, and give something tangible that we can test with as we build.

Kristina: One of the things that you mentioned is that as you're building out that roadmap, that something that's really important is making decisions about what you're not going to do. What are some constraints that raised if you want to call them red flags, or that operate to help focus your activities? What do these constraints look like?

Erika: It's a great question. It's very, very business dependent. So again, we'll work very closely with our clients to say like, "What do you want to accomplish here and where really is the value?" A lot of times, it's just a question of ... I always think it's an analytical process but it's actually very emotional for the people involved. It's going through episodes of Hoarders a lot of time.

Kristina: Totally.

Erika: I am a digital hoarder myself, so I totally understand it. You have all this stuff and it feels very easy to just let it sit because it's not taking up space that you can see every day, but it's just really clogging the arteries of your system. If we can get people to identify for example date, it's super important. If you have content that's been sitting around since 1998 and you can see that only 10 people have accessed that information since 2005 say, maybe we could let it sit there but we're not going to use that as the basis of a new classification system, or any kind of a new model that would tell us what's really of value, kind of figuring out ways where you can hang on to the past, but we really want to drill down to what is going to be the most purposeful content in your system.

Things that we can see, user behavior around that we can see that people want to access that, that people are repeatedly going to it. That's super important on the back end to say like, "Are you and your teams actually retrieving this stuff? Do you actually use it yourselves?" Then saying like, "Where do you want to make the most impact first?" A lot of times, we will be brought in when there's a brand redesign or some kind of a shift in how the message needs to be communicated. Then, it's very easy to say, "Let's get a representative, inventory of content that you have, that you expect to be displayed across this channel or in this touchpoint and let's really analyze is this, or is this not on brand for you?"

That moves more into what I will call the editorial development side that we have here, which is really looking more on the front end and doing like a supply and demand analysis. What do users want and what are we showing them when they think that they've got it? That's really important. On the backend, it's where does your clean and organized data live? What can we actually see? We don't want to spin our wheels trying to get to the bottom of some kind of a neglected database. We want to be able to actually extract value within, know that what we're seeing is true and reflective of what you got. That's very much we need to rely on our clients to provide us with that.

I think that part of the big challenge in this work is that we really need to identify very quickly the right stakeholders who understand where we're coming from in this and are willing to help us get access to things. I think that, that's probably one of the biggest hurdles that we face is even being able to see what's there.

Kristina: In other words, being able to connect with stakeholders and have them provide content whether it's the assets themselves or access to the platforms where they reside?

Erika: Exactly. Literally just very simply, what have you got and what can we learn about it? Sometimes, you can see things only in the front end, but if you actually try to just do an export of data from those systems, it takes a long time even just to clean that up. So, it can be hard to judge if you're on a fixed timeline on a project to be able to say, "We know that we can accomplish all of this in six months, but first we have to know what you got and how much is there." Surprisingly, that could be a difficult question to answer.

Kristina: I don't how surprising. I mean, we run into that at Brain Traffic all the time, and really what we point to is that we're asking people on top of their regular jobs to go in and dig around for a bunch of content, much of which they are no longer familiar with, or that they may have inherited, or they're not sure where it lives or who owns it, and really what the value is. I think it does become kind of a pain in the butt for stakeholders to do that, and I can see where that email request continues to slide to the bottom of the inbox.

Erika: Yeah, I know. It's a pain in the butt for everybody for sure.

Kristina: Yeah, exactly.

Erika: I think a lot of it is we really have to set up the value of that painful effort and what we're going to get out of it. I think very quickly that the concepts become abstract.

Kristina: For sure.

Erika: Why are we going to go about it this way? Again, just finding the right stakeholders who have at least a little bit of hands-on knowledge of what's out there, who can steer us in the right direction is really critical to the success of the project.

Kristina: Say, we've talked a lot about working with internal stakeholders and getting to understand how content’s going to be providing business value over the longer term. Let's talk about the audiences or the users of the content for just a minute. Another gap I often see when we go to work with clients is known audience needs and preferences. They're oftentimes working with a lot of assumptions or with really loosely created user personas that are a lot about like, "This soccer mom likes to buy Gatorade for her son's team and really cares about health or whatever." Tell me a little bit about how you all go about getting to know users and understanding user value or value of the content to the users within a project framework.

Erika: Yeah. So, I should say first and foremost that many of us here, I am glad to say, have been on a kind of death-to-the-persona crusade which has been really great, like the two specific personas where it's like, "Amy is 31, and she's busy with her two kids and has to drive them to soccer practice and then goes home."

Kristina: It always comes back to the soccer mom persona every time, I know.

Erika: So, we're trying really hard to get away from relying on that so heavily, understanding that, that's a tool only up on to a point. Sometimes, it's really nice when you're visualizing a customer journey and you want it to feel real. You actually create this singular human and walk them through an experience, but being very careful not to confuse that for how we actually understand users.

The perspective that we kind of come out at with is one of user mindset as opposed to user type. So, what are the frames of mind that people are coming to let's say a website with. They want to do something or they're seeking something specifically, and at a certain point, it doesn't necessarily matter who they are demographically. It matters that they came with an expectation, and they want that expectation met.

Those lines can span across any user segmentation. It's helpful to come at it from that perspective and in that way it can sort of be a little bit like a jobs-to-be-done perspective as well. I don't personally have a huge amount of familiarity with that methodology, but I know that there are plenty of people here who do and like to come out from that approach. I like to roll up to very, very broad and simple mindsets, much the same way that you might roll up to very broad and simple primary content types where it's, again, taking a really big step back and not getting to hang up on all of the details, all of the nuance and the specifics of different kinds of people, knowing that that will come later, but starting off really with a clean skeleton that can be simple that everyone can latch on to.

For example, one model that has been really relevant lately on some projects I'm on is that user mindsets. Everyone wants to stay in the know, get a problem solved, or get help understanding something. That's so basic and so universal, and if we can start that broad and then from there, work our way in and undercover the complexity later, I find that's really helpful to have projects start off smooth with a clear focus. Then, as we get more specific, what are users actually trying to do? What can we see them do in the analytics?

Also, let's have some focus groups. Let's actually sit some people down and walk through experiences with them and have them tell us. So, it kind of a balance of qualitative in the context of a new design and quantitative in the context of what the legacy behaviors were with the content as it stands today kind of a thing, and balancing those out. I guess the mantra is like, "Do least harm." We might be really changing things in a design process and suddenly requiring users to change their patterns of behavior to access the same kind of information that they used to find valuable.

So, we want to be careful that if something was working in the past, and because of a design request, we want to make it different now, we don't want to present any new hurdles for people. We want to still get them to access the information that they need is ultimately that's the whole point.

Kristina: That is so straight forward and so simple, and yet so quickly lost when you start talking about content substance I think. Understanding the information that people need from that. I really liked that framework of the three things you said at the top of your answer. What do people want to do? What do they need help understanding, and what was the other one?

Erika: Yeah, and keeping in the know.

Kristina: Yeah, exactly.

Erika: They've actually worked really well. I think I might have made up a formula on that one and just on the past year and a half as we go into new projects, it feels that actually is a really good starting point for a lot of them. Obviously, if the content mix was really different, it might not be the same if there was for instance like no news, if there was only like long form evergreen the keep me in the know might disappear, and it might be replaced with something else. Actually, I think that it's a pretty universal truth for a lot of the work that we're doing.

Kristina: I expect a blog post from you by the end of the week. [laughs]

Say, because you are working within such an advanced practice, at least what I believe is an advanced practice at Code and Theory just based on what you've said about content strategy activities and mindset within the organization, you are also working on deeper and more complex challenges with your clients. When you think about what's coming in the future for content strategy, tell me a little bit about where you see real opportunities for the advancement of the discipline and also within people's careers.

Erika: Where I am definitely focused, maybe out of selfish excitement, but also because some of our clients are starting to enter the space more is really looking at nonvisual interfaces. So then, that dives into the magical mysterious world of AI right now. We work a lot with natural language processing, trying to figure out ways that we can bring information to people without really having a traditional front end, because we usually would be working alongside of UX and visual designers.

What becomes really interesting in that process is the work on the front end is beautiful and the work on the back end is an ugly disaster by the very nature of the work. It's huge databases of really messy stuff that we're sifting through and trying to bring order to, and reorganize, and recalibrate. There can be a disconnect particularly when you're trying to communicate those efforts and it's suddenly you're going from these wonderful visual elements to an endless scroll of a CSV and it's really hard to get people interested in that stuff because it's the ugly stepchild of the process.

I try to reinforce, "Ugly is cool." It can be messy. It is a messy process and that's okay because this doesn't necessarily have to translate into something visual. This just needs to be able to communicate with people or for people to be able to access the information they need from it, so that's really interesting defining invisible truths. So, if we can cull through a huge repository of information and find patterns that tell us that there's something interesting here, even though it's the ugliest duck you've ever seen, how can we actually extract that information and simplify it down and give people access to it, where they don't even ever have to look at the tangle, but it can still exist, if that makes sense?

I think sometimes when you work on visual interfaces, you can oversimplify it for aesthetic reasons and in the process lose some of the necessary information. So, I think nonvisual interfaces give us an opportunity to really let the whole mess stay where it is because no one's ever going to see it, and only through their voice or other form of action would they access what they need, and that's really cool. It means that, that system is really, really intelligent. It's really hard work, but it's really exciting to be able to do that here and to have the people at this company that are on the same page and willing to put in the sweat and tears to make that kind of stuff happen.

Kristina: As somebody who's been doing this work for 20-some years, it is incredible to me how we cannot sit still. We are constantly just making stuff up to try to keep up with the technology that's evolving. It's nuts.

Erika: Yeah. It's interesting.

Kristina: With that in mind, because the other thing I wanted to say is that at the top when you were talking about the kind of your meandering route to content strategy where you're picking up these perfect skills along the way, I think that a lot of people are still finding their way into content strategy exactly like that, where they majored in communications, then they went over and did some PR, and then they went did some sales, and then they got dragged into a migration project or whatever.

What advice would you have for people who are interested in either transitioning into or growing up into the field of content strategy right now?

Erika: That's a great question. I'm going to mull that for two seconds.

Kristina: You do it.

Erika: This is so nerdy but I really mean this. My advice would be to know the vocabulary of your practice and believe in it and be willing to fight for it, because depending on who you're working with, it's going to be … people tend to want to take this practice and relate it back to their own and use the language that they are used to. It's an exciting struggle but it is a real struggle I think to get people to realize that the language of this discipline is really important and it means something different when you're actually doing this work, even though the same terminology can appear elsewhere. To really fight to be understood and to take the time to explain again and again, what you're doing as opposed to getting absorbed back into other disciplines. I think that, that's actually ... You have to be like a crusader for this practice and really prove that it is its own thing and has its own value.

I think it's very easy to get sucked in to data and analytics if you're not careful because a content model begets a data model and where do you live and reside, and what are your outputs on the project versus those for example, but that I think is really taking the time to know yourself and what you're doing, and why it's different than the other roles on the project and making the space for this practice.

Kristina: Erika, you are a delight.

Erika: Thanks.

Kristina: I feel that we should continue this conversation over drinks in New York on a boat.

Erika: On a boat, yes. Let's do it.

Kristina: Hey, thank you so much for chatting with me today. I really appreciate it, and who are you on social media if people want to start following your very smart thoughts?

Erika: Oh my gosh, I'm such a shy nobody on social media. I only have an Instagram account. I always joke that I'm 75 years old on the inside, but that is @elt609 on Instagram, which is really funny [laughs].

Kristina: For the good of the practice, I encourage you to start doing more writing, and sharing your thoughts and your expertise because I'm just really excited about the thoughts that you shared, and where you're helping the practice to go. Thanks so much for your time Erika.

Erika: Thanks so much.

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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.