Now available: Design for Impact by Erin Weigel

A Guide to Success for Content Designers and Strategists

06/20/2022

The following article is based on a recent interview conducted by Lou Rosenfeld, Publisher of Rosenfeld Media from his podcast, the Rosenfeld Review.  In this episode, Lou speaks with Natalie Marie Dunbar, author of From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice, just published by Rosenfeld Media.  The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

[Lou] Welcome to the Rosenfeld Review. I’m your host, Lou Rosenfeld. I’m very happy to have today’s guest, Natalie Dunbar, author of the newest Rosenfeld Media book, From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice. Now, Natalie, first of all, welcome.

[Natalie] Thank you, Lou. Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.

[Lou] So we’ve talked about this topic before. I know it sounds to people listening like it might be somewhat technical. And actually speaking of engineering, well, really maybe architecture, you’ve got a lot of construction metaphors throughout the book visually as well as textually. And yet when we talk about this subject, a lot of it kind of boils down to how someone is feeling about the prospect of building a content strategy practice and building one that’s sustainable over time.

Why is this more of an emotional topic than I had expected?

That’s a great question. I think in my experience, and experience of people that I’ve spoken with while writing the book, the process can be lonely. If you are a solo content strategist attempting to build a practice, you’re by yourself as the lone content person in the room and you’re trying to figure out who the people are that you can talk with that will help in understanding what it is that you’re trying to build and then come alongside you when you’re building it.

If you’re leading a team in a larger organization, you may be interacting with levels of leadership that you may not have had to interface with on a regular basis. And all of a sudden you’re like, “This is how we’re going to do it. This is the process. These are the things that I need. This is the resource that we need.” So I think having a companion and a guide surfaced as I kept hearing, I wish I had a narrator or a guide telling me, “Okay, take this step. Take this step.” And then to step back and take a breath before you move on and keep pushing. I think that’s where the emotion comes in. 

Have you found any inspiration or lessons from the growth of design practices that’ve been useful for you as you’ve tried to work your way through building content strategy practices.

I don’t want to simplify the ways that design has come to this place of being at that product development table with the developers and everybody else. But I’ll say that I think as content strategists and designers, we’ve got the seat at the table and we’ve also started building our own tables. It depends on how your organization or agency is set up. You may be seated at the table with people, or you may have your own table and people are coming like I said to sample whatever you’ve got there. What I’ve learned over the years is how to speak the language of all the various cross-functional teammates. There’s a whole chapter in the book about how important it is to build alliances. And that’s a theme that runs throughout the book. This is not something that you do in a vacuum. 

I made the rookie mistake early on of going into an agency like I’m here to save the day. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that I was the first content strategist at that agency. So everyone was asking me, what exactly is it that you do? I was talking about things that the team had already done and after a couple of weeks of back and forth and not really having any forward motion, I thought, okay, so let’s start again. Let’s sit down and figure out where does the product development cycle begin? How does it kick off and how much lead time do we need? So, from that, I remember sitting in a conference room that had whiteboards all the way around. Lots of markers, lots of post-it notes. And we created a process framework and figured out where are those crucial handoffs. And at every moment that we identified another cross-functional teammate, it was like… How can I speak to that teammate? How can I speak to a designer? I can use design thinking language. I can use service blueprint language. I can use different language that helps everyone understand what it is that I’m trying to do as a content strategy.

Are you having to be the one who learns that language everywhere you go?

Yes. There’s something that I call the “Persistent Principles” that I wrote about in a book and one of the very first ones is “Always Be Educating.” So even when your practice is established, someone new is going to come along, a new developer, a new IA, a new designer, and they’ve maybe never worked with a content strategist or content designer before.

Maybe they’re used to tossing designs over the proverbial fence and asking for the words to be plugged in instead of the other way around, which is particularly difficult in highly regulated spaces. Insurance and healthcare, in particular, you’ll have this lovely design and then the content breaks that design because it’s required. And then there’s this big kerfuffle and we’ve got to start over again. 

How does “Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice” get started? How do you build? How do you scale?

So the steps of building the practice are going to be the same, whether you’re solo or building with a small team. I’ve provided a blueprint called the “Content Strategy Practice Blueprint.” There are five components to that blueprint and they include making the business case, building strong relationships with cross-functional teams and departmental partners, creating frameworks and curating tools to build with right-sizing the practice. So now we’re talking about starting to scale the number of people or practitioners. If you’re at an agency like I was when I built my first practice, that might mean bringing on contractors for a specific client relationship that you have.

And then the final component in the blueprint is establishing meaningful success measures. We’re talking about what are the practice OKRs? What are the goals of the practice? Not at the project level, but at the practice level. And once you have gone through those steps, that’s when you step back and you look at those success measures and you say, “Have I been able to meet these goals that I told leadership that I was going to?” And, “Do I need to go back through any of these steps and shore things up?”

Then you can decide if the structure is healthy enough for us to start scaling. That’s where the growth happens. That’s where, if you’re at an agency, maybe you’ve established yourself as a solo practitioner and you don’t need more bodies, but you have people coming in as contractors as you are bringing on clients who are establishing this demand for the content strategy work to happen.

Within an enterprise, that might look like all of a sudden, more and more teams are asking for content strategy expertise. And all of a sudden, your project list is growing, and you need to bring in more people and more practitioners. There’s never anything that’s really basic about a content strategy project, but there are some where we’re going to launch this new feature. We need content. We need copy. But we also need to figure out, where does it live on the site? What’s the nomenclature that we’re using? Is it consistent with other topics that might be similar on whatever digital experience that we’re building in?

I think this is a good point, as you’re looking at bringing in and scaling your practice, to look around your product table. Look around the practice that you’ve established and consider the importance of bringing in a diverse team. When you start to diversify your practice team, you’re going to start to hear different perspectives. And then that will broaden your reach as your audience starts to grow.

Let’s say you have a 15-person practice. Is there like any type of ideal ratio of UX writers to information architects to something else?

Ideally, we would have all the above embedded into product teams. That’s a tricky question because there are so many names that we go by. I’m a purist. I stayed with content strategy because that’s how I learned it and that’s what I know. But I also have worked in roles where I’ve been a content designer. I’ve done IA work. I’ve also been on teams where I was the strategist. I figured out the strategy and handed it off to a UX writer.

So now we’re talking about diversification of skills within a content strategy practice. Your practice may include only people who produce content, but you may find that in order to scale, you need to consider what Ann Rockley refers to as your “frontend and your backend content strategist.” So, your people who identify more as a frontend – I like being in the research. I like the closest I can get to the user, or the audience that we’re creating experience for. That’s my happy place. And then someone who is more than happy to sit down with developers and engineers who is perhaps more comfortable working on the backend. So, as you scale, you might find that in order to continue to sustain a healthy practice, you need to diversify in those specialties within content strategy.

I think it’s good that you’re also framing them, not as roles, but more specialties or skills. Would it be safe to say that if you’re building that practice, you have to hire people that are ultimately willing to wear different hats? They may have their comfort zones, their happy places, but ultimately, it’s a new enough area that sometimes in a given day, one of your people might have to be doing Ann Rockley’s frontend work, another day backend work?

That’s right.

Is that still the case even in a mature content strategy practice?

Yeah. I did a fireside chat recently about the fact that there’s so many specializations within the content world. And it really boils down to understanding what it is that I think that you are passionate about. And also being very honest about what areas I am passionate about. For example, content modeling is still a world of wonder for me. If I don’t have anyone else on the team, then I have to do it. And if I get a little stuck, maybe there’s an architect that I can confer with on a previous job that I was on. 

I sat down with the project manager, who had passion for the backend piece of content strategy. He walked me through a couple of examples and all of a sudden, I’m doing content monologue documentation. So just be open and get out of your own way. Certainly, if you are more comfortable with certain aspects of content strategy, don’t try to shoehorn yourself into something that you’re ultimately going to get stuck. But instead of immediately fleeing from a different job, see it as an opportunity instead of a weakness. 

There’s so much to developing a content strategy practice and I know we just really scratch the surface here, but I’m really glad that those who are overwhelmed by it, including myself now have a handy guide, From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice. It’s been delightful to spend time talking with you about it.

From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice is now available from Rosenfeld Media.

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