I’m not a subject matter expert. But I play one on the internet.

Every day, we agency-side content strategists tell clients how to talk about their products and organize their information. We make decisions large and small about how they should use content to reach organizational goals. Yet, most of the time, we don’t know jack about their industries.

Corey Vilhauer recently tackled this topic, asking how much agencies ought to learn about their clients’ businesses:

As content strategists, we are expected to help our clients communicate the concepts, benefits and advantages of their company or industry. But we are not who our clients are. We do not possess the same amount of knowledge about their business.

There’s a knowledge gap that we need to bridge. Or do we?

Plenty of smart folks weighed in about what to know and how to learn it, but we all agree: you can’t know it all. And that’s OK. (If you haven’t yet, go read his post. No, now. I’ve got time.)

This year alone I’m neck-deep in projects for a university, an economic development agency, the corporate sustainability arm of a major retailer, a state tourism department, and a major auto brand. Yet I’m just a bachelor’s-degree-holding girl with passing interests in sustainability and economics, a love-hate relationship with the state I’m charged with promoting, and an old car I hardly drive.

If I saved my skills for the stuff I’m an expert in, I’d specialize exclusively in content strategy for funny cat websites and craft breweries.*

But truth is, domain knowledge isn’t the hard part. Organizational knowledge is.

Go where the mess is

Content strategy, like nothing else I’ve ever experienced, requires you to dig into the deep recesses of a client’s organization—to not just understand the core of what they do, but the core of who they are. Even the parts they’re embarrassed of.

Especially the parts they’re embarrassed of.

A few hours of light Googling with your bullshit filter firmly in place and you can learn enough about pretty much any industry to get started. But you can’t fake your way into understanding a how a business operates: where content comes from, who owns what, why breakdowns happen, where roadblocks are, what drives initiatives.

This is a challenge not merely because businesses are complex (though they are), nor even because they’re each messed up in their own special way (which they also are). It’s difficult because dates don’t invite you over to look at their dirty apartments. They simply stuff their crap in a closet and light some scented candles two minutes before you arrive.

Same’s true for clients. Agencies have historically acted like suitors whenever a new client comes around. It’s all fluffy clouds and sparkles and sweet nothings in their ear. That’s how you win business, right?

Problem is, when we gloss over the ugly, mucked-up business processes that are driving content during the sales process, we’re establishing ourselves as the knights in shining armor. We’re creating a relationship where our clients expect us to sweep them off their feet, not roll up our sleeves and help them with the dishes.

But if you can’t get access to clients’ deepest, darkest problems, you can’t hope to dismantle them. You’re just sticking a Glade plug-in in the outlet and hoping for the best.

Old habits die hard

It’s tempting to make everything sound easy at the onset—it is, after all, the agency way: sweep in, impress, and make the sale. Figure out the tricky parts later, away from the client, in late-night conference room sessions fueled by beer and the souls of young, eager designers.

Only this isn’t an ad campaign.

Content strategy doesn’t stand alone. It’s only as successful as your clients choose to make it, and you can’t expect them to make it so if they’re not prepared for the oft-ugly reality that it entails. Go in talking about puppies and rainbows and that’s what your client will expect. It doesn’t do anyone any favors: not you, not the client, and certainly not your users.

Rather than positioning yourself as the one who’ll save the day, you have to start finding ways to insert yourself in their organization at the root of the problem. As Halvorson OH’ed the other day from some IA-cum-CS:

One of my biggest shifts from IA to content strategy is that I’m now being forced to look at the business processes behind the content.

That’s why I think it’s critical that we content strategists—particularly those who, like me, got here by way of being career word nerds and editorial geeks—start looking to disciplines outside our own for guidance. And this time, I don’t mean other web professionals. I mean operations people.

Business analysts. Process improvement consultants. Even those crazy Lean Six Sigma folks who won’t stop talking about the color of their belts. These folks don’t tend to come in and sell a perfect solution. They sell the process of breaking down the organizational challenges that are preventing the company from being successful—and teaching teams the tools to keep their organizations improving over time.

There’s nothing sexy about this approach. But it’s a hell of a lot more honest, and a hell of a lot more likely to result in lasting change.

Sharing is caring

The best relationships I’ve ever had with clients—the ones who’ve been the most forthcoming, the most willing to dig in, and the most excited about implementing recommendations—are the ones who don’t demand that the thin veneer between agency and client stay in place. The ones who’ll curse right along with me when we encounter a content problem bigger than anyone had anticipated. But this partnership doesn’t happen when you just promise big, polished ideas.

Unveiling a grand plan to your client may seem like a great way to gain her enthusiasm and buy-in, but, in a world where minutia matters—and where our clients are going to have to actually work within a solution based on a set of countless small decisions every day—it may do more harm than good.

Instead, partnership relies on sharing information early and often—both ways. Talk through use cases. Show early-stage drafts of content models and workflows and talk through the particulars. Share high-level frameworks and fill in the details together.

In short: let them peek into your own messy apartment, and they’ll be a lot more comfortable showing you theirs.

*If you do happen to run a funny cat website or craft brewery, or a craft brewery run by funny cats, you should definitely contact me.


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