About wellturned

Web and editorial consultant Rebecca Del Giudice has been writing, editing, and managing content professionally for more than 15 years. Previously she has worked in content-related roles at companies like Monster.com and Fidelity Investments. She is passionate about helping companies communicate well with their customers. In her free time, Rebecca writes about books, New England, history, dogs, and other things she is obsessed with at her blog, wellturned.

Content Strategy for Higher Ed: Tips from Confab

by Rebecca Del Giudice

On November 11-12, 2013, Confab: Higher Ed took place in Atlanta. This was the first time that Confab, a content strategy conference founded by well-known content strategy expert Kristina Halvorson, held a session focused on a particular industry.

While I did not attend Confab, I did sit in on a great recap session put together by the folks at Meet Content, a web firm that specializes in content strategy for higher education. At the recap session, some of the people who had presented at the conference shared summaries of their own talks and what they had heard from others. There were also several people who had attended the conference and gave their views on the most important takeaways.

As someone who provides content strategy and editorial support to higher education clients (among others), I found the session very helpful. Here are five themes that emerged:

Empathy: One of the big themes of the conference, and one that every editor can relate to, was empathy. As Lisa Maria Martin, User Experience & Information Architecture Specialist at The George Washington University, said in her talk, “People make content. And people have feelings.”

The theme of empathy resonated with many of the recappers. Empathy means understanding your audience’s needs, and it also means finding ways to work with your content owners (in the case of higher ed, this could be everyone from the dean’s office and alumni relations to faculty and students, etc.) Sometimes in our day-to-day struggles with making and maintaining great web experiences, we forget to look at our work from others’ point of view. That could mean remembering to value your business partners (who may not understand what you do, but who contribute institutional and academic knowledge). Or it might mean taking a step back and thinking about how your latest web page or social media post looks to students, and whether or not it is meeting their needs. Staying in our silos with our blinders on does not allow us to grow and to help our audience get the information they need in the best possible ways.

The mobile mandate: Many of the recappers, especially Jenny MacIntosh of Boston University,  talked about the impact of Karen McGrane’s talk. McGrane, the author of an influential book on mobile content strategy, mentioned some striking statistics from the Pew Internet survey:

  • 35% of Americans still have no internet access at home
  • 20% of Americans have no internet access at all
  • 91% of Americans have a cellphone, and
  • 63% of Americans are using a smartphone

What does this mean for editors? It means we must champion mobile. The fact that a significant percentage of Americans, including prospective students, can only access our content via their phones, provides a renewed sense of urgency to ensure that our websites are easy to view and engage with on mobile.

Reuse and transmedia storytelling: The concept of COPE (create once, publish everywhere) resonated with Confab attendees. It is more important than ever in this era of shrinking budgets and understaffed departments to leverage content in as many ways as possible. But with this idea comes the equally critical idea that you should be prepared to meet your audience where they are. This means determining what stories you want to tell and making sure those stories can be told across multiple channels, not just where your university is comfortable or has an existing presence. One example came from Ma’ayan Plaut from Oberlin College. In her Confab talk, she mentioned that in one case she had posted an event to Buzzfeed instead of to Oberlin’s social media accounts, because she knew that was where her target audience was. 

The idea of transmedia storytelling takes COPE a step farther. It asks you to leverage the same story on different platforms, but also to take into account that you may tell different parts of the same story and the platform determines what you highlight. For example, you might have created a series of alumni profiles that includes interactive video, still photos, and text with pull quotes. You may decide to pin the pull quotes on Pinterest, post the still photos to Instagram, and highlight the interactive videos on Vine, and you might put all of the content on your website. For each channel, take into account how your audience engages with you and what parts of the story will resonate the most.

Speak in a language your audience understands. This one is near and dear to most editors, and in higher ed it’s no different. We struggle with overly wordy, non-web friendly text that our colleagues want to post on the website. Remember the empathy theme and look for ways to help your colleagues understand why it’s important to use clear, easy-to-understand language and avoid jargon. Jargon will turn off prospective students, alumni, and others who visit your site. Jargon is another example of lack of empathy, because it is as if you don’t care that your audience doesn’t understand what you’re saying. One recapper recalled a great suggestion: look through your analytics and search logs to see what terms site visitors are using. Do those terms match up with the vocabulary you’re using on your website?

Make students the hero of your content. As an editor in higher ed, you should ensure that the content you review puts the spotlight on students, not the college, whenever possible. There is a natural tendency to make the university the hero in an effort to promote your school to outsiders. But showcasing your amazing students is the right way not only to support their achievements, but also to show how much students can thrive at your institution.

For more on the Confab Higher Ed event, check out Meet Content’s recaps and the Confab site.

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Disaster Planning for Editors Part II

In last month’s post, I reviewed some of the ways editors can prepare for natural (or national) disasters. This month, let’s take a look at disasters of a very different kind.

Public relations disasters
Public relations disasters are, of course, on a far smaller scale than acts of war or mother nature. PR disasters don’t cause loss of life, but they do cause loss of business, reputation, and possibly revenue. A PR disaster might be a precipitous drop in your company’s stock price, the resignation of a CEO, or a scathing customer review that goes viral. Here are some ways you can prepare ahead of time so when disaster strikes, you’ll be able to react quickly:

  • Think through scenarios. List some scenarios that are likely to happen to your company. Some examples might be: Your company stock sinks; your CEO, owner, or president resigns; stockholders complain about a company policy; a customer’s complaint goes viral on social media; one of your products is recalled; trolls hijack one of your social media campaigns and bombard the Internet with negative messages about you, etc. There will likely be some scenarios that are very specific to your company’s line of work that you will want to consider as well. What would you need to know in each scenario? How would you want or need to change your communication processes?
  • Identify legal and compliance approvers. Communications in response to PR disasters usually require additional approvals beyond that of your regular communications. Who needs to approve stock- or executive team-related special messages, for example? You might need special compliance approval for any stock-related statements, or you might need sign-off from members of your company’s board of directors if you are dealing with a CEO resignation or other high-profile change in management.  Know who the approvers are before you need them to approve anything.
  • Meet with your PR and legal colleagues now. Talk about the approaches to communication they would take in situations such as a steep drop in your stock price or an irate customer whose complaints have been picked up by the media. Ask them what you cannot say in these situations and what types of language you must avoid. Ask them what you can do (if anything) to try to help assuage the situation.
  • Determine the lines of communication. If a negative review comes through your social media accounts, who is responsible for sounding the alarm, and who needs to be informed?  If the board is about to fire the president or hire a new one, who will give your team a heads up so you can update communications as necessary? Make sure you have established relationships with the people who need to keep you informed and vice versa.
  • Start drafting communications in advance. If you take the initiative to draft some templated language now, you’ll have more luck influencing the messaging than you would during a crisis when everyone goes into paranoid mode. Offer to create drafts that could be tweaked to accommodate different events or situations. The drafts should have some of the basic elements you recommend, such as brevity, calls to action, links to more information, and limited legalese.
  • Keep an up-to-date content audit file. Every web team should perform a content audit on a regular basis. This audit should result in the creation of a master file that lists all of your content (websites, social media profiles, etc.). The file should include page URLs, titles, keywords, publication dates and author names, and any other data your team needs. If your content audit file is current, you can quickly figure out what needs to be updated following an emergency. For example, if your CEO resigns, you should be able to open your audit document and search on keywords like CEO. You will quickly see pages and sites (executive team bios, quarterly messages, CEO social media accounts, etc.) that mention your CEO’s name so you’ll immediately know how much content needs to be updated.
  • Figure out how you will leverage social media. If your company is on social media, how will you address a customer complaint or negative company publicity? Sometimes taking too long to respond to a situation via social media can make things worse for your company, so make sure your social media team has clear guidelines on when to engage or not engage with an angry customer or customer reactions to negative company news.
  • Document the plan and train your team. Once you have put together some basic guidelines with your legal and PR colleagues, include this information in your new hire training, content manuals, style guides, etc. — wherever you have documented processes for your communications.

Go through your PR disaster plan a couple of times a year with your team so everyone will have a refresher and know what their responsibilities are if something happens. Hopefully you’ll never need to implement your plan, but you’ll be glad to have it ready if disaster strikes.

Disaster Planning for Editors, Part I

When you think about disasters, you probably think of hurricanes, earthquakes, or acts of terrorism. You probably don’t think of editing! But those of us who edit websites, applications, and social media should have a strategy for when disaster strikes.

If you live in an area that’s prone to weather events or earthquakes, you probably already know what you’re supposed to do to protect yourself. You should have a first aid kit and potable water, food for your family and pets, etc. If disaster hits when you’re at work, you likely know where you are supposed to go if your building is evacuated. But what if the disaster takes down your servers or makes your website incredibly slow? Your IT department probably has a plan for data recovery and server backup, but do you have a plan for communicating with your customers?

Here are some ways you can help your team prepare for a disaster well before anything happens.

  • Know what your most business-critical channels are. Which website or application needs to be restored first? What social media channel has the most followers/fans so you can prioritize your messaging?
  • Make sure everyone has a backup, including you. If an unforeseen event impacts your team’s availability, you should have a designated team ready and waiting to step in.
  • Distribute an emergency contact list. Each staff member should have an emergency contact list (include cell or home phone numbers and home email addresses).
  • Secure remote access for critical team members. Make sure your fellow web editors, content managers, and developers have remote access to your content management system so they can update the website from home (or a designated work space, if your company has a back-up work location) if needed. Have your team test out their remote access to make sure it works, especially if they are using home computers.
  • Build helpful error pages. This is good usability practice, but it becomes critical when your website is inaccessible. Don’t use the dreaded  “404” error page. Work with your developers to find out what the experience will look like from a user perspective when all your servers go down. Is there a way they can ensure your audience sees a custom message from your company? Create an error page that includes helpful links to other applications that might still be accessible and phone numbers for customer service. Include links to your social media sites as well, because if the disaster has only affected certain areas and is not widespread, you will likely still have access to your social media accounts and can update your customers through those channels.
  • Determine who will need to approve emergency messaging. When something unforeseen happens, your company will likely want or need to issue a statement. This could mean that people who don’t normally approve your content will now be approvers. Make sure you know who needs to sign off on any emergency statements instead of trying to figure it out in the midst of chaos. (Find out who the back-up approvers are as well, in case the designated approvers are not available.)
  • Be supportive and helpful. If there is a national disaster that does not impact you directly but your company wants to comment on it, make sure your messaging is nothing but helpful and empathetic. Some companies have made the mistake of using a tragic event to promote their product (for example, American Apparel encouraged customers “stuck inside” during Hurricane Sandy to use the time to shop their website; Epicurious suggested that customers try their cranberry scone recipe in response to the Boston Marathon bombing). It’s far better to say nothing than to offend people or take advantage of a tragic situation.
  • Know which reputable charities your company supports. If customers might look to you for suggestions on what they can do to help, make sure you give them accurate information. Know your company’s stance on charities before a tragedy happens and do your research so you don’t direct your customers to an organization you don’t know anything about.
  • Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. What questions would your customer have for your company in the event of a disaster? If your company provides an essential product or service, what expectations might customers have about your availability during or immediately after a disaster? Any messaging you craft should address these expectations.
  • Review your content with the disaster in mind. Rethink your existing and planned content in light of the event that has occurred. Is there anything on your website now that you should remove or edit to reflect what has happened (either from a factual or empathetic standpoint)? Or is there content you have scheduled that you need to postpone or scrap altogether?  For example, say you were planning a series of travel articles about the Gulf Coast, but the Gulf was just struck by a deadly hurricane. You will likely want to postpone that series until the coast has recovered from the damage. (Don’t forget pre-scheduled email newsletters, partner content that you might not directly control, and quarterly or monthly communications will need to be reviewed too.)

In my August post, I’ll review how editors can help plan for a very different kind of event: the public relations disaster.

The Agile Editor

If you’re a web editor, you might already work in a company that practices agile software development. But even if your company or your clients haven’t made the transition to agile, they probably will. Agile has been increasing in popularity over the past few years, so it’s a good idea to have an understanding of how agile works and how you can champion content and editorial best practices within this new framework.

What is agile development?
Basically, agile is a faster and more flexible way of managing software and web development projects. Traditional software development involves a “waterfall” approach, with defined phases that move from one to another without overlap: from requirements gathering to design to development to testing to launch. In waterfall, project phases tend to happen in silos (development does not involve feedback from designers, etc.) and can take a considerably long time. And requirements usually can’t be changed until the project is complete.

The agile movement started with the agile manifesto. A group of IT professionals created the manifesto in response to the issues they had with the negative aspects of the waterfall process:

  • Project roles are isolated and communication between the business owner (and the customer) and the team is non-existent.
  • The products take too long to get to the end customer.
  • There is no method for adapting to changing business or customer priorities.
  • A focus on lengthy, technical project and spec documentation is time-consuming and produces documentation that is difficult to utilize.
  • QA and bug-testing are often rushed, so products are frequently released with many bugs.

Agile aims to address these negatives by:

  • Giving the team a voice in making decisions
  • Releasing the product frequently (usually every two weeks or once a month)
  • Focusing on product features that are the most important instead of just features that have been approved, allowing for priorities – and requirements – to change
  • Using short, easy-to-understand documentation (or no documentation at all)
  • Performing frequent QA testing.

Agile encompasses many different methodologies (for example, extreme programming or DSDM), and all of them follow these basic concepts. But the version of agile that seems to be the most popular is Scrum. Scrum (the term comes from rugby) focuses on “sprints”, which are short work periods used to plan software releases. The length of a sprint may vary; I’ve usually worked on projects with 2-week sprints.

Scrum teams usually consist of the Scrummaster, who records the decisions the team makes and brokers issues between team members; the customer (often the business sponsor), developers, product and project managers, UX and visual designers, copywriters, and the QA team. At the beginning of each sprint, the team holds a meeting to prioritize the product features to be developed. The priorities are broken down into tasks (groups of related tasks are called “stories”), and these tasks must be completed within the sprint. Any product features that are not part of the sprint are relegated to the ‘backlog’, essentially a master list of all of the features that need to be developed and tested. The backlog may grow as new requirements and issues are added or discovered.

Each day the teams holds a “stand up”, a 15-minute check-in meeting. On some agile teams, members will actually stand up to ensure the meeting does not go over the time allotted. Members are asked to describe what they completed the day before, what they will be focused on today, and if there is anything blocking their work that the Scrummaster needs to address.

So how does a Scrum project affect a web editor?
In my experience, working on a Scrum project means an editor needs to work harder to ensure that editorial priorities are being met. One of the challenges of agile is that the focus on individual tasks and stories can cause the team to lose sight of the big picture of the overall user experience. Additionally, UX and content deliverables like wireframes and copy and are often rushed at the beginning of a sprint so that developers can start coding, QA can test, and the team can launch the updated product by the end of the sprint. So a careful review of user interactions, copy, and design elements often does not take place; the team is focused on functionality, not content or UX.

On the plus side, the fact that there are frequent releases means that when you do surface an issue, it can get resolved far more quickly than it would if you were working on a waterfall project and had to put your request into a long queue.

Here are some tips on how web editors can work within an agile environment:

  • Focus on relationships. Agile development is built around communication. Team members are encouraged to work together directly instead of through documents, group meetings, or project managers. Get to know the developers and the QA team. You want them to come to you when they have questions about content rather than make guesses or ignore issues (which some people will do if they’re not encouraged to ask questions).
  • Go to the standups. Sometimes project managers will go as proxies for their team, or certain team members will sit out sprints if they don’t have a specific task assigned to them. But make sure you attend the sprint planning meeting and as many standups as you can so you can advocate for the product features from an editorial point of view. Inevitably, questions will arise as developers work on new features, and if you’re involved, you can help ensure that the end user and your editorial vision are represented. You can also help steer the team away from solutions that stray from your content strategy, necessitate an inordinate amount of explanatory or directional copy, or don’t align with your brand.
  • Train the QA team on content and style. You can’t expect your QA team to be proofreading; their focus is on testing functionality across platforms and browsers. But take the time to give your QA team some background on style guides, design standards, and content requirements. This will increase the possibility that they will help you catch inconsistencies. And, if you’re building relationships as noted in #1, the QA team will be comfortable coming to you with questions.
  • Scour the backlog before the end of every sprint. Revisit end-to-end functionality – for example, a sign-on process or a site search.  Perform every step to make sure that the interactions are intuitive and consistent. Review your product with a focus on the user experience and on your business objectives, annual goals, editorial calendar, etc. This will help you determine what the team should focus on in the upcoming sprint, and you want to go to the next sprint planning meeting with these priorities already in hand, because work will begin immediately. Also remember that when reviewing the backlog, changing priorities might mean tasks should be removed from the backlog and replaced with new ones.
  • Volunteer to test whenever possible, including on launch night. Unexpected things can happen during testing, and you want to be there to help advocate for the best solution.
  • Master the bug tracking system. Many content and marketing people will avoid bug-tracking; it’s not the most exciting activity, and some see it as the QA team’s job. But as an editor, you’re already trained to look out for inconsistencies and imperfections. Ask for access to your QA team’s bug tracker if you don’t already have it, and record any bugs you find. That way you can ensure that any editorial problems are tracked and assigned to the right team members for resolution.

Agile can be daunting when you’re accustomed to traditional software development. But be open to its positive attributes, and you’ll find opportunities to educate your team on why editorial review and high-quality content is important for the products you all care about.

Process is not a dirty word

By Rebecca Del Giudice

Several years ago, I was doing contract editing work for a client and we were talking about an overhaul for his content-heavy website.

“Is your content calendar up-to-date?” I asked. I remember the look on my client’s face: suddenly he was like a child who did not want to eat the spinach on his plate.

“I don’t like to waste the team’s time with a lot of process,” he said.

Ever since that exchange, I’ve taken note of the tendency of some teams — across industries — to have a negative view of, and therefore a strong aversion to, any kind of process. Many people have had negative experiences with consultants coming into their companies and imposing bureaucratic, unrealistic processes on their work. Or they’ve worked with archaic project management or software development teams that seem to use processes as roadblocks.

But as most editors would attest that process — whether they’re talking about editorial, QA, or development — can provide a framework that tends to reduce firedrills and make a team more efficient.

But how do you convince a team of that?

Here are five ways to approach process creation with your team:

1. Meet the team where it is.
If your team has utilized process successfully in other places, e.g., they are deploying scrum methodology with great results, or their sales team is a well-oiled machine, use these as models. Find out from people in those departments what has worked and what hasn’t, and how they got to where they are now.

If your team, on the other hand, doesn’t even like to answer emails or document anything, understand that you need to start slow. Don’t overwhelm them with an outline of a lengthy, complicated start-to-end process. Start with one step — e.g., having a brainstorming meeting to lay out some ideas that could form an editorial calendar, or institute the practice of having someone own the final proofreading of every marketing piece that goes out the door.

2. Don’t use the word ‘process.’
Nobody wants a bureaucracy — including you. Don’t get hung up on terms and technicalities. Instead of focusing on the how, emphasize the why — the ways in which this new method of executing work will benefit everyone. For example, say you are establishing a faster, clearer process regarding the ownership of and response to feedback forms on your website. Emphasize how your customers will benefit, and by extension your company. Or if you plan on doing an annual content review of your web properties, don’t dwell too much on the effort involved; emphasize the fact that updating and correcting old posts will help improve search results and how your brand is perceived.

3. Make it a team effort.
Make it clear not only that you are willing to shoulder your fair share of the work, but that your suggestions are not perfect. Even if you are in a position to call the shots on every strategy, engage the team and encourage everyone to share their ideas. Give people ownership, and they will often exceed your expectations.

4. Look for tiny improvements.
So your coworkers just spent one week brainstorming and building a social media calendar. Don’t wait until the end of the year to see if the calendar helped the group’s bottom line and output. When the first article is posted, talk about how well it was received. Noticing small steps along the way helps reinforce the value of the process you’ve put in place.

5. Be humble, and admit when things aren’t working.
When I was working in a large corporation, I often saw executives who would swoop in, change everything that the person before them had worked to put in place, and then look away when the changes wiped out processes that were working. Leave your ego out of it. If a new process isn’t effective, regroup with the team and talk about how you’re going to address it. Maybe your new system just needs a few tweaks, or maybe people need more training. Or maybe it just wasn’t the right idea for your organization.

Be open to change — you, your colleagues, your customers, and your company will all benefit.

The Errant Tweet: Editing Social Media

by Rebecca L. Wells

Whether you’re in a one-person consultancy, a newsroom, or a large corporation, your marketing and communications strategies likely include social media assets that must be edited and curated. But not every social media site is the same. How do you craft an editorial policy that covers all the bases?

While there is no solid consensus on editing techniques for each type of social media site, there are some general guidelines to consider.

The Permanent: Wikipedia, Message Boards, and Blogs
Some social media properties have more staying power. They may show up in search results for years, or have trackable editing that makes any change to the content transparent. Examples of this type of social media include Wikipedia, Linked In, message boards, and blogs.

Wikipedia is somewhat self-policing in that an editing history is visible for every entry. But blogs are trickier: do you edit old posts? Delete them? What merits an update – a typo, or breaking news that contradicts your original post?

The Washington Post handles it this way:

Blog posts should be updated quickly and transparently to correct erroneous information.The placement of the correction should reflect the gravity of the error. Major corrections (e.g., when the headline or driving premise of the blog post is wrong) should be noted in the headline and at the top of the post as well as within the blog item.

Many media outlets and personal bloggers follow this rule. For example, if you have published a post complaining that cable service is down in your neighborhood, and those services are reinstated shortly thereafter, you should edit your post to reflect that. Your statement was valid given the situation, but you don’t want to misinform your readers.

A less obvious issue is what to do when you discover a typo. If you are merely changing a “thier” to “their,” it would be more distracting than it’s worth to call that to your readers’ attention. You have not changed anything of substance; you’ve merely corrected a spelling error and made your post easier to read in the process.

Corporate blogs
Corporate blogging can be a different, and less transparent, example. As an editor, you should make sure your writers are familiar with libel and defamation laws; you also must ensure that your legal department reviews content before you post it. This could prevent you from being asked to remove information that was already published.

Message boards
Some website message boards can show up in search results for years. Yet it is a method of communicating that often focuses on short-term (and therefore quickly outdated) content.

The best practices for message boards are similar to blogs; you should provide transparency and clarity for your readers. For example, if you posted a link to a site that is now broken, and the page is still prominent on your site or through searches, add a note to your original post that says “ETA: this link has now been changed to (provide new link).” (ETA is an abbreviation commonly used by online community posters; it means “edited to add.”) You can also add disclaimer language warning readers of outdated information that will appear with old posts. You should not, however, worry about correcting old news or outdated information as a rule; it’s an archive and readers should understand that.

If some of your message board threads are very out-of-date, lock them so users cannot post new messages that may keep old pages high up in search results.

The Ephemeral: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest
Some social media sites, unlike Wikipedia and blogs, produce more ephemeral, or short-term, content.  On Twitter, frequent users may post several tweets a day, but if followers are not checking often, they may miss several of those tweets and only see a few that were most recently posted.

News feeds on Facebook are similar. If your rogue post, rife with misspellings or a link that doesn’t work, shows in others’ timelines before you can delete it, it won’t last for long unless somebody captures your error with a screenshot.  But if it has been out there for a while and collected “likes” and comments, leave it and issue an updated or corrected post.

To delete or not to delete?
Regardless of the nature of the site, there are times when you need to update content you have published. If breaking news impacts a story you posted, for example, you should update your Twitter or Facebook feed with that breaking news. As with blogs, if you have to fix a minor typo that bears no weight on the matter at hand, deleting a post to replace it with the correctly spelled version is fine.

MT, RT, QT
On these dynamic social media sites, you should be careful to credit any other people who have provided content you are referencing. On Facebook, if you are sharing something one of your friends shared first, it’s appropriate to say “via.” For example, if your friend Debbie Brown posted a review of Jimmy’s Deli that you noticed and now you want to post it too, you should post it as “Jimmy’s Deli Review via Debbie Brown” (with Debbie Brown’s name linked to her profile).

On Pinterest, if you are re-pinning somebody’s pin, they are automatically credited; and if you want to change the description of an item, it’s understood that users add their own labels. So you don’t need to call out the fact that you have changed the wording of the original description. But if you are using the original description, you should make sure that it is appropriately written for your audience and your brand.

Twitter has a more complicated etiquette. If you are quoting another person’s tweet, you should use the QT (quote tweet) abbreviation so the original tweet appears in quotes. If you are shortening a tweet so you can fit it and your comment within Twitter’s 140-character limit, you should use the abbreviation “MT” (modified tweet). Otherwise, you are editing someone else’s words without acknowledging it.

Because the social media landscape is ever-changing, you should review your policies on a regular basis. One good resource is the Social Media Governance site, which provides a list of links to social media policies for dozens of organizations, from the US Navy to the New York Times.