4 March 2019
Mark Westbeek
Mark Westbeek

Omnichannel as a backstage content infrastructure

OmnichannelX: A trip report

While I was travelling home by car from the OmnichannelX conference, on February 1st in Amsterdam, musing a bit, the car radio sprang to life to announce some traffic info. There are lots of traffic jams in the Netherlands, so national radio only broadcasts the ‘highlights’ – still an impressive list, taking a full minute to announce. Didn’t hear ‘my’ road number, so my thoughts drifted back to the conference. Then my smartphone traffic app sprang to life to let me know that there was a traffic jam right on my route home. I activated the navigation system confirming the problem, suggesting an alternative route and calculating the time I would gain by taking it.

Well, I thought, that’s it in a nutshell.

Omnichannel is not about creating lots of content on the most popular channels. An omnichannel approach is – just like any CX activity fitting in such an approach – about putting the customer in the centre of things. Relating the customer’s needs to the organization’s goals, and presenting the relevant content at the appropriate time across the channels that the customer prefers.

In this trip report, I’d like to share some of my insights during the two days of the first ever OmnichannelX conference. As a content designer, I mainly focused on content-related topics. Attending the presentations, I learned a lot, was impressed by some examples of best and worst practices, and I got to know a number of people with the same UX drive. Plus, as an avid quote collector, I was able to harvest a number of oneliners to use – of course only when relevant, at the right time, using the appropriate medium.


‘Force collaboration between silos’

The conference started with keynote speaker Lisa Welchman, internationally-recognized author and management consultant. She already went ‘omnichannel’ in 1995, governing content that was published simultaneously in a manual, on a website and on a CD-ROM – call it ‘old school omnichannel’. “I learned early on that the problem was not the technology, but something else.” That something is easily recognizable: “If your experience is confusing and a mess; that tells you that the organization is confused as well.”

To be successful in governing content across multiple channels, first a few strategic questions need to be answered, according to Welchman. “Questions like What is the omnichannel scope? Just the website and social media, or also the underlying data stores? Who defines the strategy of the company? Who defines the policy and the standards?”

In large companies, to find the answers to these questions, different people are involved, or even different silos. “If you look at content only, all you’re doing is creating another silo in the organization. You have to force collaboration between these people and silos. And, let’s face it, we content people are horrible communicators. Most people in the company have no idea what you are talking about.”

Black turtleneck sweater

As an example of a well-orchestrated experience, Welchman took us along the customer journey she recently undertook while buying a new black turtleneck sweater online at her favorite outfitter, Talbots. She pointed out all the content involved in the product pages and the different parts of the company responsible for it. For instance, just the page overviewing her personal account is a combination of:

  • storefront
  • ecommerce engine
  • payment processing
  • datastores
  • information architecture
  • security and encryption
  • brand
  • content
  • social media
  • email marketing
  • rewards program

Imagine how many parts of the organization are involved in these. It is wishful thinking if you expect this can all come together by coincidence.

When her turtleneck sweater arrived, it appeared it was too small. After consulting the e-mail she received after purchasing the sweater, to check her return options, Lisa went to a Talbot’s store to change it for another size. And her omnichannel experience, combining clicks and bricks? “It was seamless. I was in the store for only five minutes, did not have to fill out any forms, they just gave me the right size and that was all.”

Welchman left the attendees with a hopeful conclusion: To govern an omnichannel experience, you need a known team, an informed strategy, a clear policy and a set of implemented standards. “That way you are going to have sound operations, and there’s the possibility of a good experience.”


Is content the core of the value proposition?

Ryan Skinner (Forrester Research) showed in his presentation ‘Omnichannel content in the wild of the enterprise’, that the investments in content – people, systems and tools – are increasing over the years. Based on research by Forrester, the forecast is that in the coming years these investments will keep increasing by almost 9%.

While that appears to be good news, a number of the researched companies did not see these investments in content directly helpful to achieve a better customer experience.

“These investments are mainly done to improve processes around content, to make them more efficient. They see content as something to slap together and they are trying to systematize the creation of content to be more value.”

According to Skinner, the epic decision of all content professionals of today is: Are we going to be the core of the value proposition or are we not?

He called the Dutch banking group ING a good example of a organization that does treat content as a core part of their proposition. “What makes them great is that they are a bank that has worked out their systems to treat people as a human. They know that plain words make us humans happy. So they present a product portfolio that anybody should be able to understand. They rewrote their call center scripts in simple language. This clarity is pretty revolutionary.”


We make value, not products

Jennifer Hooks (Cisco) told about the omnichannel transformation her company went through. “Why we need to focus on omnichannel? Because customers have changed.

Immediacy is expected, relevancy is rewarded, and experience really matters.” So Cisco started organizing the company around the customer. Hooks: “We do not make products, we make value for the customer.” When the company was still organized around products, it could happen that one customer had received 48 emails from Cisco within a month. And opened not one of them.

An omnichannel approach, Hooks told the attendees, is not just about syncing content across channels. “Social listening is really important. Your peer used to be the guy in the cubicle next to you. Now your peers are the millions of users on Reddit.” When someone posts a question on social media that is relevant to Cisco, for instance about firewalls, the company is able to pick up the conversation. Triggering an e-mail, based on behavior, is much more efficient than just sending everyone in your client base an e-mail (At Cisco, the conversion is up to 45% instead of 3%).

“The content is not written first and then just published on any channel. It is made to fit the experience of the customer. We used to market either to people we knew, or to everyone. We could only identify 5% of our customers; the rest was anonymous. Then we started to look at their behavioral data, to see if we could identify different audiences. We have 3500 audiences now.”


The five elements of trust

“Let’s face it, we have a trust problem”, Marli Mesibov (MadPow) started her presentation ‘Increase trust and engagement with content strategies’. The trust that people have in NGO’s, businesses, government and media has fallen in 2017, and the 2018 Edelman trust barometer shows that trust is further decreasing. Mesibov sees a number of reasons why public trust is dropping. “There is too much noise. There are a few bad apples. And truth and fiction look alike. Fiction and truth on the same device is confusing.”

How, then, to build trust with a content strategy? Looking for the answer, Mesibov came across literature about relationship therapy. “How can you and your partner trust each other? Maybe there’s a lesson to learn for us.”

In relationships, there are five elements of trust. Mesibov ‘translated’ them into content strategy terms.

  1. Know yourself and your intentions. (Identify your business goals)
  2. Make your actions match your words. (Create a strategy)
  3. Be sincere about your reactions. (Build a strategy based on realistic actions)
  4. Be open to feedback. (Conduct research)
  5. Accept your partner as a separate person. (You are not your audience)

To Mesibov, an omnichannel approach done well is the only way to build trust and to be consistent for your customers. An omnichannel strategy revolves around the user or customer. You need to build a good understanding of audience segments and personas, their behaviors and actions, their motivators and barriers, and the channels and devices they are using. “Focus your strategy on their channels. Is your audience there? Try out your assumptions, measure, and reassess. Focus on what the audience needs. Check metrics on a regular basis and make incremental improvements.”


Component thinking at ING

Erwin Veth (product owner digital content, ING) shared insights into the way this bank underwent an agile business transformation, leading to omnichannel content delivery and decentralized content management. Their goal is to create a great and consistent customer experience across channels. “We did that by component thinking. In 2016, every channel still had their own content management system (CMS), their own content sources. A product manager had to contact four people to change the content.”

Since its agile transformation, ING is organized in tribes, squads, and chapters. Every squad manages its own content, overlooked by a central ‘content as a service squad’. In the new situation, there is one target CMS that just holds the content, without any presentation. The presentation comes from the front-end, and in between is a content API. The content is structured into building blocks that reflect different content types, and it is disclosed by taxonomy and tagging. That way, it is possible to show one content type in multiple front-ends, across channels and across markets.


Nobody wants your content

Mike Atherton (content strategist, Facebook) showed us that the omnichannel approach does not demand more content, but chunks of ‘connected content’ about the things that matter to an audience.

“We used to say things like ‘content is king’, but that has become an excuse for filing heaps of pdf’s on the internet” Atherton observed. “There is way too much content now. We have to structure it in a way that makes it easy to find, to share and to make sense of.”

The customer is not interested in content, Atherton told. “The customer has a goal, he is interested in … things. Nobody wants your content. They want the things your content is about. Every website visitor has these questions in the back of his mind: Am I in the right place, is this the right info, how does this fit into the big picture? They are parachuted right into your content and you only have five seconds to win their confidence.”

According to Atherton, to design connected content you can take these four steps:

  1. Find the things
  2. Map the world
  3. Connect the content
  4. Open the windows

Connected content is specifically about things that matter to an audience. It is structured according to how these things connect in the real world. It is stored outside of any interface, ready for use in every interface. Nowadays, we don’t write entire web pages anymore. We make chunks of content that are used to fill page templates. “To make compelling content, you have to find what things the audience is interested in. For instance, let’s take music. What does an audience talk about? Artists recordings, labels, releases, tours. So you make content about these topics. These are the building blocks of the content. You then map out the topics, to figure out how to relate these topics to each other.” The result is a domain model that you can teach to the computer.

Modern content management systems (like Drupal, Kentico of Contentful) help you manage these individual content chunks. “You can configure the CMS how these chunks relate to one another. That way structured content becomes design material.”

In a classic design approach, wireframes are made to see the relation of the content chunks. “The point with wireframes is that they mix many concerns together. Making wireframes first is like writing a novel by starting bookbinding.”

Atherton showed some examples, like the BBC food site. Completely developed according to the structured content approach. The HTML webpages are just one outcome; this structured content is ready to be used in any other interface, and also on third party platforms – like Google or Facebook. “You can be in more places than one, and still stay in control of your content.”


As if by chance

To me, overlooking the conference, one of the main takeaways is that it is possible to start small, even with something that sounds as big and thorough as an omnichannel content strategy.

Every talk during this conference confirmed what we already stated in this 2015 blogpost: Designing for omni-channel ecosystems not only deals with the interactive and visual elements of experiences, but also has a significant content dimension. Some might even say that content is your main design material when creating an omnichannel experience.

Omnichannel content is not lots of similar content on all available channels. While the Latin word ‘omni’ means ‘all’, what are ‘all channels’ anyway? During the conference, terms like ‘multichannel’ and ‘cross-channel’ were used interchangeable with ‘omnichannel’.

To me, omnichannel content design is about creating these miraculous experiences where someone, as if by chance, gets that little piece of content that is exactly what was needed then and there.

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.

Events (26), Omnichannel (5)