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Game of Tones: Surviving the Politics of Content

The pen might be mightier than the sword, but they can both draw blood. If you’ve ever stood between stakeholders jousting for prime real estate on a homepage, you know what I mean. Either someone’s blog post gets shoved out the window, or you try to make peace by cramming everything into a carousel.

In business, as in politics, power stems from control of the narrative. That’s why digital assets tend to reflect internal priorities rather than what customers need. But when users don’t find what they’re looking for on your site, they leave — often with a diminished opinion of your brand.

Whether you’re on a product team or working with clients, your job is to sort through the clutter to deliver content that both engages users and drives towards your business’s goals. But try challenging a broken system without a plan, and you could wind up with your head lopped off at the end of season sprint one. Instead, follow these proven strategies for mollifying mad monarchs and protecting the realms of your user’s experience.

TRANSFORM EXECUTIVE STAKEHOLDERS INTO ALLIES BY CO-CREATING A CONTENT MISSION STATEMENT

For weeks, you’ve been writing pages of net-new content for a marketing website. You’ve led dozens of in-the-trenches review sessions with your client partners, and the site is ready to launch. In the middle of final QA, your primary stakeholder gets an email from an executive who “wants to give it one more look” and “needs the weekend.”

Monday morning, you kiss your loved ones and prepare for battle. Before you can even sit at your desk, your inbox chimes. The dragon is upon you.

Can we add a search function?
Why did the navigation change?
Put the carousel back on the homepage so we can feature more content!

Stakeholders dive off the battlements and into the moat. The castle walls crumble.

In other words, you delay launch. You’ve burned through your budget, and now other priorities will get pushed back. Worst of all, morale takes a direct blow. The user experience enhancements you’ve established over weeks get torched in moments.

This phenomenon — the executive swoop and poop — is as common as it is costly. It’s the result of a communication breakdown, often fueled by the limited bandwidth (and spotty context) of company leaders.

To protect yourself from incoming dragon fire, it helps to develop a shared understanding of the project objectives from the outset. Then leaders will have more context for ongoing updates.

Hold an in-person kick-off workshop and invite any leaders that will approve your final deliverables. Work through activities to identify your users and understand why they come to the website. Then ladder those user needs back to the business’s objectives.

Having defined those concepts, work as a group to craft a content mission statement like this one:

Content mission statement template
In order to [meet our business goals], we create [these content types], so that [our primary users] can achieve [their goals].

(Credit to Sara Wachter-Boettcher, author and content strategy consultant, for introducing us to this useful tool.)

As you refine your statement, be specific. Ask questions and challenge assumptions. Get your primary stakeholders and their leaders invested in the process. Then, your mission statement can be a true North Star whenever priorities seem misaligned. Like when a rogue executive insists on a new detail page in the eleventh hour unrelated to any user needs. Egos take a back seat to defined project objectives when everyone agrees on the criteria in advance.

COLLABORATE WITH SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTS TO REDUCE ROUNDS OF REVISION AND DESIGN CHURN

If you don’t talk to the right people, you may accidentally omit the main character from the history of your kingdom.

As an agency, we talk to client subject matter experts (SMEs) to understand the intricacies of their business. We also need internal stakeholders to review our work for accuracy and relevance. Depending on how we manage the relationship, a SME can either be our greatest ally or our most vocal critic.

Building a strategic SME alliance is all about timing and framing. Writing teams waste valuable creative time when they have to forage for enough detail to complete the first draft. Sometimes they even get the ‘Shame’ bell wagged in their faces when they fly blind and don’t get it right. To avoid this, interview SMEs before you start outlining or designing. Talk to experts from sales, product, and editorial teams. Be sure to include your design team and key client stakeholders.

Start by telling the SME that your goal is to write about their product in simple, human language that everyone can understand. Emphasize that they’re an expert in their business and you need help understanding what resonates with their customers. Ask them to explain their product as they would to a layperson. Then, probe for differentiators and ask why they matter to the end user.

Once you’ve gathered what you need, organize and outline the page. Gut-check your outline with your SMEs and primary stakeholders before you begin writing. It’s more efficient to change course at the outline stage than when you’re reviewing a fully-baked draft.

PLAN EDITORIAL CHECKPOINTS TO ENSURE FINAL CONTENT MEETS YOUR USERS’ NEEDS AND THE BUSINESS’S GOALS

Strategic organizations establish governance practices that include editorial planning and oversight. Unfortunately, they are the exception rather than the rule. More frequently, marketing teams delegate content writing to product owners, or at least rely on them for fact-checking and approving final content.

Because they are so close to the work, product teams tend to oversaturate their content with details. As visitors jump from page to page on a site like that, they encounter inconsistencies in messaging, voice, and structure — which can quickly erode trust in your brand.

Content authors without editorial oversight think of themselves as the Free People. They neither have nor want a leader. But if you’re someone charged with wrangling them, you probably understand why the Night’s Watch called them all Wildlings.

When product teams or other SMEs have final copy approval, you hear things like:

Our audience is more technical. They don’t need it dumbed down like this.
We can go deeper there. Let’s work in more details.
That isn’t true for all our customers. Just most of them. Add a caveat.

It’s all valid feedback. Working with a writer who understands UX, you can make changes like that with the user in mind. But when those changes come in the eleventh hour (and let’s face it — that’s when we tend to receive feedback from those final approvers), SME edits tend to stick.

That’s how a headline that began as:

Exceptional guidance for your clients.
Exceptional support for your advisors.

…ends up like this on the final site:

Exceptional guidance for your clients.
Unparalleled advisor access to a seamlessly integrated service offering.

To avoid this, plan an editorial workflow with your stakeholders at the kick-off workshop. Specify who gets to look at what, and when. Plan a final checkpoint that ensures any edits made by SMEs align with the UX objectives of the project.

Set up your task-management program to mirror the flow of your content review plan. Track every content item as a separate task so that you can see the status of each page and who is on deck to move it forward.

Here is one example of a content review process:

Every organization is different, and translation and globalization considerations might require additional checkpoints. Above all, you must empower someone with enough editorial authority to shape a consistent voice across the experience in an ongoing way.

TAKE YOUR TIME, OR NO ONE WILL BE HAPPY WITH THE ENDING.

Understanding what your users want takes time. To get it right, you need to recruit the cleverest people in the realm for your Small Council. Work with qualitative researchers to hear from your users in their own words. Bring on an SEO expert to identify what consumers are searching for in your category. Ask a data strategist to implement a measurement plan that ladders back to your business’s KPIs. Most importantly, have the humility to pivot if the data are telling you that your content isn’t working.

In the end, surviving the Game of Tones is not about having the sharpest sword, or even the mightiest pen. It’s about building strategic alliances and keeping priorities aligned. And of course, steering clear of the dragons.

 

Author: Kendal Sparks, Lead Experience Writer
Kendal Sparks is the Lead Experience Writer for Ogilvy’s Experience Design group, where his team helps brands plan and develop strategic content assets that meet their users’ needs. Kendal comes to UX by way of a career in arts education, and advocates for disrupting how we recruit talent. He is a co-leader of Ogilvy XD’s Diversity and Inclusion initiative. The group seeks out underrepresented perspectives to create better experiences for all users.