VSA’s Content Strategy Discipline Lead shares how her team thinks (hint: it’s Agile)

by Karen Semone

Content strategists are, by definition, planners. Thoughtful. Methodical. We leave no stone unturned in our analyses and audits; no detail unrefined in our plans; no holes in our editorial calendars.

All of this takes time, and as the content space gets more and more saturated, time-to-market is a top of the list of a brand’s concerns. Even global enterprise brands!

Enter Agile Content Strategy. It’s been talked about in UX and content circles lately, but like many emerging ideas, has no single canonical definition.

At VSA, we’re defining it as “creating effective digital content experiences through a more iterative, highly collaborative process.” And that means adopting the proven methodology and processes from Agile (learn about Agile software development) to bring to life digital content that works for the right people, quickly and more efficiently.

 

Creating and testing a workable content plan in just one sprint

In working with one of our clients, a Fortune 10 company, we work in multidisciplinary Agile teams. Each team is focused on a specific digital product, and whenever possible, staffed with a full-time content strategist.

To demonstrate how these content strategies come together, consider this hypothetical project: a seller enablement app. We begin, as all Agile projects do, with a simple user story from which we break down discrete specific tasks:
Agile6.016

It’s a straightforward concept: give sellers a personalized dashboard with their own account details, ideas, and relevant content. And one could imagine spending 6+ months on the strategy for getting this just right.

The first step is to let go of that timeframe altogether. The Sprint is only two weeks long, so we know it won’t be perfect. But within the vast content environment, and with content strategy experience and moxie, we also know we can cobble something that will be, if not good, certainly good enough for now.

We can test and release the code and refine it in the next Sprint. We know, accept and heck, celebrate going in that it’s going to look better, read better and have an overall better UX with each iterative Sprint.

The second step for our team is to break down the story into discrete tasks. This way, the content strategist has a digestible, actionable to-do list that is not only not overwhelming, it was downright doable. It might look something like this:

Agile2.013
While the list is formidable, each specific action item can be completed by one person in less than a day, with a couple of sizable exceptions. True to the Agile spirit, those 0’s and 1’s help track our “velocity” or “burn” — basically how many items we still have to do, and how many are complete.

Post-Its are every Agile Content Strategists’ best friend. As the first week progresses, the “Content Planning Wall” in our team workspace fills up with good, so-so, and impossible ideas – as we’re in the early stages of brainstorming and content aggregation. The wall might look something like this:

Agile3.014

Then we get to work going through each idea and vetting it. There’s no free lunch here, it’s the same stuff we’ve always done, just compressed. We check out the quality and viability of content sources. We confirm the level of effort of stuff with our developer. We rule out things that are too hefty to take on, prioritize stuff we like, cross-referencing value with time to complete, and generally put them in order of importance. So a couple of days later, that same board might look something like this:

Agile4.015

Voila! We now have an Agile Content Plan. Now, one by one, we tackle pulling together the content to test. This critical point in our plan — moving from ideation to execution — often happens in the middle of the Sprint. In this case, we work closely with our scrummaster to “groom the backlog” — revise it and refine our task list within each story, based on what we’ve learned, what we’ve ruled out, and what we know is possible to achieve in the remaining timeframe of the Sprint.

In short, we change our plan, because that’s what Agile is all about.

The rest of the story is nothing groundbreaking, but it does take talent, experience and resourcefulness. It’s classic “butt-in-seat” time for the strategist to cobble together and rough in the content through a combination of any of the following:

1. Writing original content him/herself, or directing a writer if they’re lucky enough to have one

2. Tracking down and refining source content from existing experiences

3. Understanding  and extrapolating “edge case” content to rough in for testing purposes, and being a stickler for quality

4. Inferring and hypothesizing messaging from down-and-dirty stakeholder interviews

5. Recognizing and reaching out to those not-obvious secret luminaries within a giant organization who for whatever reason, just seem to be in-the-know. You know the type. We have to be good at finding them, and have the personality to get them to pick up the phone or reply to our IMs.

 

This is why Agile Content Strategists must have some experience under the belt, and be editorial/digital Swiss Army knives. It’s rare that a strategist and a writer are both staffed to these dedicated teams, so while many in the field don’t advocate for actual copywriting to be a part of the Content Strategy job description, I strongly disagree, especially on Agile work. We love hybrids!

With the right talent case, at the end of two weeks, this plan is not only defined, it’s visualized through test content that a developer can code, the strategist can QA, the Product Owner can approve and—for the final and in our experiences highly satisfying payoff —the client/stakeholders can react to.

And react they do. Often, seeing something rough will inspire them to think of another idea or resource to tap. They might simply hate an interaction style, and often, they really love some aspect of the experience too. It’s not sign-off we’re looking for. It’s feedback. Keep this, change that, push ourselves harder here, give up the dream there. We’ll spend our next sprint making our content better, and now we know just how to do it.

Practicing Agile Content Strategy is the only way I could imagine getting “from zero to code” in two weeks. And the content we create isn’t perfect. It’s not supposed to be. But if we do our jobs right, it’s pretty darn good.

 

As the Discipline Lead for Content Strategy at VSA, Karen Semone leads a team in delivering new content strategies that stay in front of industry trends. As our clients’ challenges move toward product innovation, responsive Web migrations and enablement apps, we’re learning to adapt our content approach into more nimble and accurate ways of working. Feel free to drop her a line at ksemone@vsapartners.com. She loves talking content.