27 July 2020
Mark Westbeek
Mark Westbeek

Consistent omnichannel content: no coincidence

A trip report on OmniChannelX 2020

Creation and governance of content that is consistent on all channels and touchpoints – omnichannel content – is better not left to coincidence. The recent OmnichannelX conference made this very clear again. Content structure, design and management, and the skillset of content professionals, all help build the user’s trust in your content.

OmnichannelX would be held in Amsterdam, just as in 2019. Because of the pandemic, the organisation quickly adapted to a video chat conference via Zoom. I was a bit skeptical whether this would allow the spontaneous coffee table conversations you’d normally have at a conference. But that worked out fine. In a special LinkedIn-group the contestants could introduce themselves and react on each other’s comments. But still, it’s… different.

Connected content

Having just read the book ‘Designing connected content‘ by Carrie Hane and Mike Atherton, I was looking forward to Carries presentation: ‘The secret is in the connection’. Carrie showed how important content modelling is if you want to reuse and connect content on different channels, in different representations (a Google Knowledge Graph for instance). “A connected experience is almost impossible without content model or content strategy. Often, we leave these connections to chance. Connections need to be made explicit, so that people can feel them, computers can make them, and organizations can support them.”

An important step is to make a model of the domain that you’re working with. Carrie: “Before we even create content, we need to consider the context. People have an interest in something that doesn’t start or end with your content. Content is about something, a subject, a domain, that already exists and has structure, outside of your content. You can better serve the people’s needs when you design your content around the things that people care about.”

Two top quotes

“We always used to start by deciding what the website would look like. This has to stop. When the container is designed before the content, you’ll run into all kinds of problems.”

“Content + experience = connection. Connection means trust. Trust is hard to come by these days.”

Design systems and content

Michael Haggerty Villa, working at Intuit, has lots of experience with design systems and content systems. I think it’s a compelling topic as well, if only because I wrote a whitepaper on the subject. Design systems are getting into their own as the ‘single source of truth’ for design and development. But in creative occupations, systems thinking is not universally popular. Michael: “Who wants systems? Nobody. Who needs systems? Everybody.”

Why it is important to have a good connection between content and the design system? “To get better content quality, for instance in error messages. To get more uniform and predictably delightful experiences. The use of standards and systems also sets us up for innovation”, according to Michael.

His research shows that only 4% of the design systems contains the 5 content elements deemed important. He scrutinized 60 design systems looking for these elements:

  • The word ‘content’ (23)
  • Editorial guidelines (19)
  • Voice and tone (16)
  • Real content in components and patterns (31)
  • Content patterns or – types (4)

“So 96% of the design systems need our help.”

Omnichannel en Mount Everest

Ryan Skinner, principal analyst at Forrester, talked about the maturity stages you can recognize on the path to an excellent omnichannel experience. He compared the journey with climbing Mount Everest. There are 3 base camps, each can be reached in 5 steps:

  1. Standardizing, efficiency, reuse
  2. Customer driven personalisation
  3. Omnichannel customer experience

The very first step to reach base camp 1, according to Ryan: “Being consistent in the whole organization while thinking and talking about content. Have a centralized content team that makes sure content is treated as a business asset for all teams, canals and functions.” Steps like using an agile cms, and modelling and structuring content, are part of the trek to base camp 1.

To reach camp 2 there are 5 more steps, like having content that can be reused an multiple channels without the need to manually upload it into multiple systems, to cut/paste or move them.” It’s only from base camp 3 that you can try and reach the top. What is required? Ryan: “We have applied structure to our digital content so that the content or assets can be delivered algoritmically, based on a customer profile.’

The last step to take: “Have a governance structure that ensures our customer experiences are captured and addressed.” 15 steps to reach ‘the top of the content world’.

Content and trust

Margot Bloomsteins presentation reminded me strongly of what we at Informaat are calling TrueX. In a world where people lose trust in brands and mass media, and grow ever more cynical about communication, the importance of building trust is paramount. Bloomstein talked about the 3 V’s that help building trust: Voice, Volume and Vulnerability.

Voice: Illustrated with examples (like ‘Freddie the Mailchimp monkey’) Bloomstein showed that trust in the contents of messages stands or falls with consistency of the voice, even over a long period of time. Inconsistencies and irrelevance lead to erosion of the messenger’s authority and to less trust.

Volume: Trust also has something to do with the quantity and detail of the content involved in communication. Margot: “How do you determine how much content is enough? Do user research. You know you offered enough detail when your audience is able to make good decisions and feel good about the decisions they make.”

Vulnerability: Dare to be vulnerable. This contributes to the trust in your organization. Show what you are doing, for instance by ‘public prototyping’, and be open to criticism. Show the people that make the organization. Margot: “We buy from brands, but we trust people.”

Content design

A popular speaker was Sarah Richards, who invented the job title ‘content designer’ during her work for gov.uk. “We were called ‘editors’”, Sarah told. “The publishing model was that somebody would write content; then the legal people would sign it off, which meant that they could rewrite the lot; and we would end up with a compromise that nobody liked.”

This old way of working made the gov.uk website grow in size to (estimated) 75.000 pages, most of which were rarely or never visited. Essential in content design is to only create content that fills a user need. Research, channel mapping and the determination of terminology and tone-of-voice all proceed the actual writing. Sarah: “Content designers use data and evidence instead of stakeholders’ opinions.” Strictly applying this method gov.uk was reduced to 3.000 pages. Sarah: “There were 0 audience complaints, and an 86% increase in positive comments.”

A good method to make sure that content fulfills a user need, is working from a backlog of user stories. They use the standard wording: ‘When … I want to…. So I can…’. Sarah: “Having these user stories makes for really tight messaging. You can run a whole organization off one bank of user stories. The social media team, the press team, the digital team; the whole thing becomes coherent.”

While creating content, looking for the right words to use is really important. “You’ve got 3 seconds to attract the user’s attention, and 5 seconds to keep it. It already starts in the Google search results. That’s where the right language should be.”

Content Skillset Model

Using the right terminology also appears to be important when composing the ideal content team. This was conveyed in the presentation by Tjeerd Schopman and Tim Hanse (Crossphase). They developed a Content Skillset Model. “The content work has continually changed in the past 15 years, and the job titles for content professionals have changed with it. To determine which content roles are needed in a team, you should set a common terminology about the skills that are needed, instead of having a conversation around buzzwords.”

The Content Skillset Model is divided in 3 domains (Creation, Governance and Strategy), each containing the skills that belong to the domain. While picking a team you can exactly map and visualize whether all required skills are present.

Want to know more about the OmnichannelX presentations?

Carrie Hane (Tanzen): The Secret is in the Connections

Michael Haggerty-Villa (intuit): Design systems, content systems, and the people who need them

Ryan Skinner (Forrester): The state of omnichannel maturity: Milestones on the expedition

Tim Hanse & Tjeerd Schopman (Crossphase): The Content Specialists Skillset

Margot Bloomstein (Appropriate, Inc.): Transforming your brand into a trusted source

About the author

Mark Westbeek (@markwestbeek) is a content designer with extensive experience in the design, creation and management of content with which users achieve their goals sooner. Mark also coaches and teaches customers to create this type of content themselves. He prefers to work in Agile contexts and likes to use tools such as customer journeys or user interviews and to identify content challenges early on and to solve them.

Content strategy (20), Events (26), Omnichannel (5)