Stories in a content world

In my session with Scott Abel, we quickly went down the rabbit hole of the stories (or the lack thereof) that we have within the content industry, and Scott’s plans to remedy that in 2015… while creating another success story of his own. Of course, we circled back to author experience along the way.

Scott Abel


Scott Abel

President, The Content Wrangler

Twitter: @scottabel

Rick: Good morning, Scott.

Scott: Good morning. How are you?

Rick: I’m very well thanks. Things are looking up.

Scott: Okay, Rick. Give me some good news!

Rick: I’ve got an interesting new client for when I get back from my next conference. They want me to take apart their web site, re-architect it to use shallower navigation. It’s basically a case of treating it as my own: What would I do? What best practices would I apply to it?

Scott: Got it.

Rick: There are a few things in there I think will make good general stories. You know those things where you always wonder why everyone does it a certain way, even though everyone in our industry agreed it doesn’t make sense? I get to play with the analytics data, and provide the solid rationalisation for changing approaches.

Some of the big ones I can already see are generic – they apply to any organisation.

Scott: Interesting.

That aligns well with one of my projects for next year. There’s a shortage of stories in our industry. We need stories about companies that are struggling; companies that are doing well. We need stories from people who have learned how to do something particularly well, or where they learned to not do something particularly horribly.

Rick: Do you mean stories that are more relatable than most of the case studies we come across? I feel that most of those relate only to the people involved; there is little about them that is applicable to my world.

Scott: Something like that. Let me explain my situation.

I started my blog back in 2003. I created content for it: lots of content, regularly. It became a popular online destination. And, I was able to attract a large audience.

But the primary way I communicate today with my audience is via e-mail and social media. My social channels work fine – people consume content they find interesting. They unfollow or unfriend if it’s not relevant to them. But, e-mail isn’t working as well. Because I have a lot of content to share, I end up sending a lot of e-mail. The recipients receive numerous e-mails from me – sometimes four or five a week. As a result, I’m hitting people with notifications about everything I cover, even though they’re only interested in a small part of the content I produce.

The irony in this situation stems from the fact that I preach about the importance of personalising information. What that really means is that I want [insert BIG brand name here] to personalise their content, but I don’t have time to do it myself. My savvy readers point this out by saying things like, “Scott Abel, we know you know you’re supposed to do this a better way. We’re cutting you slack because you’re a one person company, with an assistant. If you were a big media company, we would expect more of you.” Luckily for me, big media companies don’t do it much better.

But I want to do better. I want to give my audience the content that’s relevant to them: what they want to know about, but also stretching to things they would be interested in if they knew the subjects existed. And I want to let them opt out of the material they aren’t interested in.

Rick: That last part is tricky. It requires taking a different approach to subject matter than most of the people we know do.

In my case, because my speciality is author experience, it’s easy for me to think of anything I produce as being about author experience or content management. But that is not my most important audience. Yes, I can write for people in the industry, speaking on a technical level. But to get the term – and the principles – appreciated and accepted by a wider audience, I need to write from the perspective of the business problem. I need to address it as effective communication, with author experience principles solving that business problem.

Scott: Yes. I’m thinking of gathering together content from many sources, and then creating collections based on relationships. There are two things here.

One part of this is that many people know me to be The Content Wrangler. The company name, and my name, are synonymous. But I want to make it something bigger than that. I want The Content Wrangler to be a platform for discussing content. I want the brand to mean more than just Scott Abel. A brand tied to an individual’s name – especially where that individual has a larger-than-life-personality – has little value beyond that individual. Who would want Martha Stewart Inc without Martha Stewart?

Rick: I’ve heard Ann Rockley tell of similar troubles. People who hire The Rockley Group want Ann Rockley. The brand is an extension of the individual; without the individual, the brand is… not much.

Scott: Exactly. In this case, I can bring the elements together, to make this work. I have a large audience. I know a lot of people who have important things to say, but don’t have that audience. And I have found the technology that I think will do the job.

I can bring these together: fresh new content that will benefit the audience, and the practitioners who want to reach new audiences. And in the process, I get to turn The Content Wrangler into a media platform that doesn’t depend on me.

Rick: You had me sold at “audience.”

How will it work?

Scott: There are two sides.

First, we have the publishing process. At the moment, I am solely responsible for all to content on The problem is that sponsors will give me material to publish, following a webinar or such, but I’m far too busy to publish it. I simply don’t have the time. Nor, of course, do I have the time to publish for subject matters experts, many of whom would love to reach my audience.

But, by opening up the platform, I can pass the responsibility for publishing content on to those who own the content, or have a direct interest in it. Sponsors will be able to publish for themselves. Their material will be clearly marked as sponsored. Subject matter experts and thought leaders will be the next group: these people will create content on a regular basis – at whatever rate they feel comfortable – within their areas of interest and speciality. But they will also curate other content, referencing other contributions that tell related stories.

For example, your collection might include articles on author experience, a webinar you have given, a downloadable chapter of your book… and also, a few other things you think are really cool, that relate to author experience.

Rick: That would be starting with Eileen Webb’s article on Training the CMS from a few weeks back.

Scott: Yes, like that.

As well as sponsors, authors and regular speakers, the idea is be to make the platform available to everyone to tell their content stories. We would obviously moderate – maintain a certain standard of writing, avoid the typos; maintain the sense of themes with the collections – but it would largely be self-publishing.

I want The Content Wrangler to be a call to action for everyone with a content story to tell.

The idea is similar to what some product brands are doing. I’m thinking here of Diesel. Diesel make watches. (They also make jeans, but that’s beside the point.) They don’t just make their own watches; they make them for many other brands. You might think you’re buying a Fossil or Emporia Armani watch, but you’re really buying a watch white labelled with the designer’s brand, but made by Diesel.

So, Diesel want to sell watches. They don’t particularly care if you buy a Diesel branded one, or an Emporia Armani branded one. Just buy one.

And they realise that the best way to encourage you to buy a watch isn’t to advertise a watch to you. After all, they can only advertise one brand at a time. They can encourage you to buy a watch by creating emotional resonance around watches. By creating a hub for people who like watches. For that, they need stories about watches. It doesn’t matter if those stories are about their watches.

Rick: Can you give an example?

Scott: Sure. This story has nothing to do with any watch Diesel want to sell you, but it is the sort of thing people who like watches would share. It goes something like this.

Two kids – a boy and a girl, ten or twelve years old – got into their grandfather’s drawer, and took his old pocket watch. It was a family heirloom. The grandfather got the watch from his father, who got it from his father. Anyway, the kids take the watch out to the yard, where they play. And somehow, the boy lost it.

Of course, they get the blame eventually. They get into serious trouble. That watch was personal.

Anyway, some thirty years later – just a few years ago from our perspective – someone was building on the grandfather’s old property, and found the old pocket watch in the yard. Being an old pocket watch, handed down, it had an inscription. The new owner of the property recognised that the watch belonged to the previous owners. He was able to track them down and return this family heirloom.

What a great watch story, right?

Rick: Yep.

You said earlier there were two sides. We’ve covered the content itself. What’s the other side?

Scott: I need to reach out to my audience and tell them what I am doing. I have to explain that, by telling me a little about what they are – and are not – interested in, I can give them more relevant information. I don’t want details. I want to make it simple: provide a list of what I’m offering, and they can tell me what they aren’t interested in.

I know this is supposed to be opt-in, but I need to explain it as opt-out.

Rick: It is opt-in, from the perspective of getting stuff at all. Then they can use opt-out to fine tune.

Scott: Exactly. They have already opted-in, now I want them to tell me what they don’t want to know about so I can customise content experiences for them. So that second part involves developing the taxonomy – grouping the content in ways that give the audience what they want, while allowing introduction to new subjects (content they might not yet know they want). And these new subjects may be covered in depth already in other collections, so we need to have layers to the taxonomy.

Rick: Almost like the “mood taxonomy” some suppliers are using to categorise movies now, instead of the old genre categorisation?

Scott: Maybe something like that concept. We need better ways of targeting our audiences. The old ways don’t work well.

For example, if a new Lightweight DITA for marketers comes along, we would want the introduction to that to be categorised based on the audience – marketing – rather than the technical communications aspect. Because to the technical communicators, DITA is old hat. They don’t need an introduction to a simplified version.

But the marketers can find cross-references to older material, so they can understand the background; that there is already the years’ worth of story on this topic.

Rick: There’s obviously the desire with this project to create a resource for the industry; to leverage your fame for others’ benefit. But is there more to it?

Scott: I want to show what can be done with little or no budget, but a willingness to put in effort.

Last year, with Rahel Anne Bailie, I put together a book called “The Language of Content Strategy”. We enlisted 50 contributors. We demonstrated that a little ingenuity allows content to be repurposed with available tools: one source delivered a book, an eBook, a deck of terminology cards, and blog posts for a year.

I want to show that the same thing can be done for a media platform. Then the big companies with budgets won’t have an excuse for not doing better.