Author Archives: sophiefanning

About sophiefanning

I'm Sophie, consultant, communicator, digital diva and word wizard. I'm an import from 'across the ditch'. I cut my digital content teeth on NZ Post's intranet. From there, I’ve taken on the content management. In 2002, I washed up on Melbourne's shores. You just can't beat the shopping here. Since moving to Melbourne, my portfolio has included content strategies for BUPA, MYOB, ANZ, ASIC, Simply Energy, Origin Energy and Energy Australia. More recently I've helped Swinburne University and a large Australian insurance company tame their digital content. I am a skilled communicator and can help you: * Talk your customers' talk * Manage your content * Tailor your communications * Enjoy your working day with a little light humour

Pets can teach us a lot about communicating

Sophie’s campaign for clear communication

When I was a teenager, we had a Beagle called Amy. If you’ve ever lived with a Beagle, you’ll know that they are highly intelligent (well devious), enthusiastic, food obsessed dogs. And Amy was typical of her breed.

You always knew when Amy wanted to go in (or out) as she’d scratch the door. Overdue for a walk? Amy would find her leash and trot up and down the hallway until you took her out. Hungry? At dinner times Amy would perform the ‘dinner dance’ – she’d dance around the kitchen with her tongue out, until we fed her.

You could say she was a clear communicator.

Today I live under the paw of a fluffy tabby cat called Monty. Monty is also assertive in communicating his needs. I’m never in doubt about where he wants to be (on the other side of any closed door), what he wants (jelly meat, five or six times a day – NOW) and whether he wants to be stroked (he has very sharp claws and a tendency to bite).

We could learn a lot from our pets. Without a single word (although Monty has a range of meows) they tell us their wants, needs and opinions. Next time you write a comms piece, or even an email, remember Amy or Monty (or your own pet) and ask yourself – am I communicating as clearly as they do?



Want to communicate? Let’s talk strategy

roadWant your communications to be targeted, tailored and results focused? You need a strategy.

Communicating without a strategy is like going on a road trip with no map. You’ll end up somewhere, but you won’t have chosen the destination.

You can use a content strategy to shape a world of sins – anything from a one-off sales campaign to a complete communications re-brand.

Over the years, I’ve planned and driven my share of communication strategies for product launches, company-wide re-brands and overhauls of the corporate tone of voice.

The first thing I do to plan out my strategy (straight after making a strong cup of tea) is to consult Google to see what new thinking has come out.

Results have been varied. Sometimes I find good ideas, but a lot of the strategies I found were internally-focused and lacked useful detail.

So I decided to share my strategy with you (and Google). Come along for the ride – you never know what we both might learn.

location-pinPick your destination

Just like a great road trip, the success of a communications strategy is in the planning. You need to know where you want to go, what you want to do when you get there and what ‘must haves’ will make the trip a success.

My communications strategy has seven destinations:

  1. Objectives
  2. Audiences
  3. Messages
  4. Channels
  5. Measures
  6. Resources
  7. Sanity check

I hope you enjoy the journey.

map-with-location-pinSet your objectives

Most road trips I’ve been on were planned with a combination of beer, argument and late-night creativity. After a lot of discussion and laughter, the designated driver mapped out an itinerary – usually after everyone else had fallen asleep.

Planning your communications strategy is a similar process, usually minus the beer and, hopefully, the sleep. The first step is to decide where you want to go – set your objective.

You and your stakeholders – usually Product, Marketing and your Digital team – need to figure out:

  1. What you want to achieve.
  2. What benefits you want to get out of your communications.
  3. How you know you’ve ‘arrived’.

Typical objectives are:

  • More sales through your online channels.
  • A change or uplift in how your audiences perceive your brand.
  • Move calls out of the contact centre and into your online self-service portal.
  • Or the ever-popular improve NPS.

Usually, you’re either trying to increase revenue or decrease cost.

Heads up: to sell your strategy to the higher ups, make sure your objectives align with the overall business strategy.

To make your objectives easy to measure and share with your peers – keep them short, simple and tangible.

bookCase study – servicing energy customers

Imagine you work for an energy retailer. You sell electricity and natural gas to business and domestic customers. Your call centre gets over 40,000 calls a week from customers wanting to pay bills, set up a direct debit or find out how much power they’ve used.

Those calls cost $25 a pop. Money you could save by getting customers to use your self-service portal instead. So your objective is to:

  • Move 10% of bill and usage contact centre calls to the self-service portal.

Given each call costs around $25 and a self-service transaction costs $7. If you achieve your goal, you could save your company $72,000 per week.

I’m fairly sure savings like that will get your higher ups to pay attention.

Great – we have an objective. We need to figure out who to ‘convince’ to achieve it.

audienceChoose your audience(s)

There is little point in saying anything until you know who you’re talking to. Imagine the different conversations you’d have talking to your manager vs talking to your 12 year old daughter.

So, we need to decide who to talk to – our audience. Our audience is the group (or groups) of people a) whose behaviour we want to change and b) we think we can influence.

They can be:

  • Prospects – new, unknown customers.
  • Existing customers – people we have a relationship with – who we can approach directly.
  • Influencers – partners or social commentators who have the ‘ears’ of audiences we can’t reach.

Finding the right audience is a critical part of your strategy and one that is easy to get wrong. It’s tempting to pick easy-to-access audiences:

  • Existing customers – you already have their contact details and know a lot about them.
  • Market segments – an age group, geography or demographic you think will respond.
  • Identified prospects – they’ve shared their contact details with you and have shown an interest in your products or services.
  • Or just EVERYONE – that one’s easy, just broadcast your message.

But these easy audiences can have drawbacks:

  • Existing customers – they might be tired of hearing ‘buy me’ messages from your company.
  • Market segments – you have no history with these people, why would they listen to you?
  • Identified prospects – they may not be warm prospects, their interest in your company may have nothing to do with the product or service you are communicating about.
  • EVERYONE – a scatter-gun approach can be costly and usually has a very low success rate. The bulk of your communications will fall on deaf ears.

So how do you decide who to target?

Think about your objective. Is there an identifiable group of people whose behaviour needs to change to achieve it, e.g. buy more product, transact online or give you company a better NPS rating? Of that group of people, who is likely to change their behaviour to match your objective?

That is your audience.


Case study – servicing energy customers

In our case study, the audience is fairly easy to identify. You want to target customers calling the call centre to pay a bill, set up a direct debit or query their electricity usage. And you need to get to them before they call.

Not everyone is comfortable transacting online, particularly when they are paying power bills of $500 or more. So you want to focus on customers who are more comfortable online.

If you target customers who have used your website before, you have a better chance of being heard.

Your audience is those customers whose bills are coming due, who have either logged into your website or app, sent an online enquiry or have used the online chat tool in the last 6 months.

edit-openWrite your messages

Now we know who we’re talking to, let’s decide what we want to say.

Your message needs to do two things:

  1. Capture your audience’s interest.
  2. Convince them to do something to achieve your objective.

To write your messages, think about your audience and what you want them to do.

First, your audience

Think about the kinds of people your audience is made up of:

  • Imagine the language they are most comfortable with – formal, casual, verbose, pithy…
  • Think about what they are likely to respond to – short text, long text, image, video, survey…
  • What actions are they likely to take – click links, call, use your website or app or walk into a bricks and mortar shop?

Think about the relationship your audience has with your company:

  • Prospect?
  • Repeat customer?
  • Disgruntled customer you want to win back?

This helps you understand what they want to hear from you and what they are likely to listen to.

What you want them to do

Now think about your objective – what you want them to do – and how you can convince them to do it. Write with their wants and needs in mind and the actions you want them to perform. You should end up with a range of messages.

You can A/B test messages to discover which ones are more successful. With a range of messages, you can target different channels and prompt different actions to meet your objective.

Don’t be afraid to use humour and more ‘human’ language to make your messages stand out. They need to relate to your message, whether you’re writing a 300 word email or a 250 character text.


Case study – servicing energy customers

Back at our energy company, you want to encourage customers who’d normally call the contact centre to log in and use your self-service portal.

You’re writing to existing customers, so you know a lot about them. Tailor your language and calls-to-action to your audience segments – shorter, mobile first actions to customers who’ve used your app or portal vs longer, instructional text to ones who called or filled out an enquiry form.

You can use the data you have on past behaviour to tailor your messages to:

  • Customers who pay on time – “no fuss, no hold music”.
  • Customers who regularly query their bill – “check your bill any time”.
  • Customers who are often late to pay their bills – “set up direct debit and never miss a payment”.
  • Customers who have logged into the portal before – “come back and see us”.
  • Customers who do not have a login – “quick and simple sign-up, pay your bill in minutes”.

Great, we have our messages. Now we need to send them to our audiences.

sms-speach-bubbleChoose your channels

We communicators have a lot of channels to choose from. From ‘tell anyone’ broadcast options, to personalised, one-on-one communications, we have a spectrum to choose from.

If your strategy requires large audience, broadcast communications, you can use:

  • TV or radio advertisements.
  • Billboards, decals or other outdoor collateral.
  • Web pages.
  • Social media.
  • Press releases.

For more tailored messages, you have:

  • Links to personalised web pages
  • In-app alerts
  • SMS
  • Email
  • Snail mail
  • We can even call them

We choose the channel to fit our objective, audience and our message.

Often the best strategy is to use a combination of channels, tailored to your audiences, for your approach, then offer a range of calls-to-action and let them decide how to progress:

  • Open personalised web page
  • Visit campaign page
  • Enter a code to unlock discounts.
  • Download an app.
  • Call a campaign specific phone number.


Case study – servicing energy customers

You know your target customers have used an online channel – your self-service portal, app, online enquiry form or the chat tool. So they are comfortable with some form of online transaction. As they are existing customers you have access to their contact details.

There are a few channels you can use for this campaign:

  • An SMS with a link to the mobile version of the self-service portal.
  • Emails with info-graphics showing how easy the portal is to use – then link to the sign up page.
  • Include details of the self-service portal in your IVR script and contact centre ‘hold music’.
  • Create a web page with details of how easy it is to use your self-service portal.
  • Publish ‘how to’ videos to show how quick and simple your online tasks are.

Note: Before you send out your messages, make sure your customers haven’t opted out of marketing messages. You don’t want to break any anti-span laws.

OK, we know our messages and how we’re going to get them to our audience. How will we know our strategy has worked?

measureMeasure your success

When we set our objectives, we put some numbers around success. Let’s look a bit closer at the types of measures you can use for your strategy.

Depending on your objective, your measures could be:

  • Number or percentage of increased sales.
  • Percentage change in brand recognition or positive brand perception.
  • Number or percentage of calls moved from the contact centre to online channels
  • NPS increase.

We can use these measures while we run our strategy to track customer behaviour and adjust our messaging and channels in response. This helps us focus on the messages/channels that work, and not on the ones that don’t.

At the completion of our strategy delivery, we can use these measures to quantify success.


Case study – servicing energy customers

Your objective our energy company was to move 10% of bill and usage contact centre calls to your self-service portal.

Your measures for this are relatively straight forward – fewer calls to the call centre and more logins and task completions through your online channel.

So how do you measure this accurately?

  1. Work with the team who manage your call centre technology to track the number of calls to do with paying bills and enquiring about energy usage.Remember to also ask for the number of calls for the same length of time over a similar period before your campaign.
  2. Ask your analytics team for reports on pay-bill and check-usage tasks completed through your online channels – for the same two time periods as your contact centre reports.

Those are your measures. You’re looking for a drop in your call centre calls – by 10% ideally – and a rise in your online channel tasks.

resourceResource your strategy

Now we know what we want to say, who we want to say it to and how we want to say it. The big question is how are we going to pay for it?

We have to resource our strategy. We may need funding.

Day to day communications are usually funded out of BAU budgets. Larger, more complex strategies may need extra copy writers, developers or funding for social media, Google ads, SMSs or mail outs.

If these expenses are outside your normal operating budget you need $$ from the higher ups.

Higher ups are usually interested in two things – revenue and cost. If you can increase one or decrease the other – you have their attention.

You need to demonstrate the return on investment of your strategy.

Look at the likely cost of your proposed communications and the forecast savings or revenue increase of achieving your objectives. If you can show that the former is less than the latter, you have a business case for your strategy.


Case study – servicing energy customers


Your communications plan included:

  • SMS customers – where you have mobile numbers and they’ve used their phones to log into your portal or use your app.
  • Email customers – where you don’t have mobile numbers, do have email addresses, and they’ve logged into your portal or sent an online enquiry.
  • Update your IVR and on-hold scripts.
  • Publish a new web page.

So your cost will look like this:

Costs table

And your savings like this:

Savings table

So your business case is:

A $32,000 investment is likely to result in a saving of $72,000 a week. An ROI of less than a week is not too shady.

owlSanity check

Right, we’re on the home straight! We know what we want to achieve, who we want to approach, what we want to say and how we’re going to fund and measure our activities. There’s only one thing left to do – apart from press Send.

Let’s sanity check our strategy before we set it loose. If you have time, a trial run with some colleagues – preferably ones who aren’t involved in the communications world – can teach you a lot.

Or try it out with friends and family – any controlled group of ‘friendlies’ will do. Simply send them your communications, using the channels you’ve chosen and, after, ask them a few questions:

  • What was the message? (What do they remember?)
  • What stood out to them? (Any highlights?)
  • How do they feel about the message? (Did you make them care?)
  • What would they do, if anything, having read the message? (Did you win them over?)

This feedback will help you test and fine tune your messages and your channels and manage your expectations about the likely outcome of your strategy.

Now you’re ready to take on your public! Or at least try a few initiatives out and see what happens. Good luck and May the force of customer sentiment be with you.

Competing for the customer’s ear

One of the biggest challenges in our cluttered communication world is competing for customers – their attention and a share of their wallet.

Customers, or people as we plain-speakers like to call them, get bombarded by marketing and sales messages every time they watch TV, listen to the radio or pick up a device – Facebook, Insta, You Tube – even the games on their phones come with advertising.

So how do you cut through? Make sure your messages say what your customers want to hear. 

Get to know your customers

How? Ask them. Talk to them, survey them, send them an email or an SMS asking for feedback. 

Can’t ask them? You might have to revert the tried and tested Aussie approach of “suck it and see”.

I think my UX colleagues call it A/B testing.

Your customers will quickly show you what they like and what they don’t – usually with their mouse or finger – they’ll click on, tap or engage with the offers that speaks to them. They will ignore the ones that don’t.

Let me give you a real life example.

Meet Monty

Monty lives in my laundry (and on the couch) and makes my life very difficult when he doesn’t get what he wants, when he wants it. Sadly, he can’t just tell me what he does and doesn’t like. I have to go on what he will and won’t eat.

Simply put, if the bowl is empty my message got across, if not I have to change my offering.

Very much like designing offers and communications to customers – although some of them will tell you their likes and dislikes through chat and comments, most of them will just act / or not.

Competing for Monty’s loyalty

For most of 2019 Monty has been a cat biscuit kind of guy. Happy to chew his way through a bowl or more a day.

Midway through the year, I decided to try him out on cat milk – to see if I could get him sold on that value add and up his engagement with my brand.

The milk was a hit! For 6 months, he’d shout the house down twice a day until he got his fix.

A happy and loyal customer.

But, I dropped the ball. I went away for a few weeks and didn’t leave a supply of cat biscuits.

In stepped my competition (the husband). He had a product he wanted to get off the shelf quickly (sachets of wet cat food left over from before we got Monty). So, he went for the quick sell. No biscuits on offer, so no competition.

Two weeks later I get home to a cat that flatly refuses to consider biscuits. My product offering is over-shadowed by wet cat food. I can spruik my biscuit offering as much as I like – sprinkle gravy over the biscuits, mix them with tuna – but to no avail. My competition took advantage of my radio silence and sold my customer onto his product.

Serves the husband right really, because now he has to buy six cans of cat food a week, rather than one box of biscuits.

Customers aren’t cats, are they

OK so not all of our customers are cats, and I hope not many of them eat cat food. 

But, the same thing can happen to our customers if we don’t listen to them, anticipate their changing needs and communicate offers to meet those needs, in language and through a channel that appeals to them.

Monty never SAID he wanted cat milk, but I know a bit about cat likes and dislikes (life-long cat slave) so thought I’d give it a go. 

I thought Monty was happy with his cat bikkies, so it didn’t even occur to me to try something new. My lack of customer focus was the opening my husband needed to win Monty over to his product. 

Something similar happened to Kodak in the early days of digital cameras. Their customers had been happily creating Kodak moments for years. No need to change, the customer was happy. Until this new product comes along that is quicker and easier than film. No waiting for the chemist to print your photos – you can see them right away.

And you can carry them around in a small portable device, no need for big, heavy photo albums.

Just like Monty and the wet cat food, the customer is gone, never to return.

So what can you do?

Get to know your customers. Read their comments on your website and app, listen to them in the call centre, try to get out of the office and meet them. Find out what they like and don’t like about your offering (product, service, content – whatever you offer). 

Try new things – based on what you learned about their likes and dislikes. Track the success of each new thing you try. If it doesn’t work, stop offering it – no harm, no foul.

If it works, you’ve just created a successful new offering – or in the case of my disloyal cat won a new convert to wet cat food.

Obviously, you need to be sensible and not create expensive new product lines, based on a hunch. Start small (and inexpensive) and the next thing you know the cat bikkies will be pushed to the back of the shelf and your customer will be buying cans and cans of lamb flavoured cat mince!

Co-authoring documents – harder than herding cats?

Today I’m working with a large team of people to write a response to an RFP (request for proposal for those playing at home). My role on the response is the ‘English Teacher’. I get to rewrite all the response contributions into a coherent, reader-friendly narrative.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

We have around 20 contributors in three countries, each adding their content to the central document. We’re in four time zones and between us all, I think we speak five languages.

We’re trying to write a sales-focused, response document, targeted to an Australian English speaking audience.

What could possibly go wrong?

Harder than herding cats

During a particularly animated team catch-up, our bid lead turned to me and said, “This is harder than herding cats”. Which got me thinking.

How hard is it really to herd cats and would it be harder than co-authoring a proposal document with 20 other people?

I happen to have a cat. So, I decided to compare my cat to the consultants I’m working with to figure out what would be harder – getting this document written or herding cats.

Cats vs consultants

This is my cat. His name is Monty.

Cat asleep on a couch


  • Monty is lazy and spends his days lying on the couch.
  • If you annoy him, Monty bites you.
  • Monty will do anything for cat milk.
  • I can’t get Monty out of my bedroom when I want to (my husband uses a water pistol, but I’m too soft).
  • Monty likes to tease our neighbour’s cat by sitting outside the living room window to show he’s allowed to go outside (the neighbours have an ‘inside’ cat). This is as close as he’s ever come to being part of a herd.
  • To get Monty to go where I want him to go, i.e. herd him, I offer him food. If it’s the right food, he is there almost before I am.


  • The consultants spend their days sitting at computers, coding.
  • If you annoy the consultants, they argue with you (and each other) until the Webex meeting time runs out.
  • I’m not sure what motivates the consultants – possibly beer.
  • I can’t get the consultants to accept my document edits, so far, they’ve over-written my work 17 times.
  • The consultants seem to exist in herds, rather argumentative ones but definitely herds.
  • We haven’t actually figured out how to herd the consultants, i.e. agree on how we’re writing this document and what needs to go in it.
  • Herding consultants

You know what? I agree with my bid lead. Co-authoring a document with 20 people, in four time zones and from three very different cultures, is much harder than herding cats. Cats are single-minded. Dangle food in front of them and they are yours to ‘herd’ wherever you like.

Humans are opinionated and easily distracted. Writing RFP bids is neither a simple nor an easy task. Trying to distil complex, in-depth technical solutions into a structured, easy to follow narrative is no mean feat.

Combine that with different levels of English literacy and different cultural styles of communicating….

… give me cats any day!

Co-authoring the hard way

Yes, we are doing this the hard way. We started with a template, loosely assigned responsibility for each section and set the consultants loose.

Little co-ordination, different teams working on their sections in isolation – not the ideal scenario for cohesive document writing.

There is an easier way but it requires a bit of herding – consultants not cats.

We’ve sorted the technology side of things. Our documents are in the cloud, so we can all work on the same version.

The human side is where we need to lift our game.

Geographically challenged

Co-authoring a document across different locations has a number of challenges:

  1. Distance – your authors are physically isolated from each other. You can’t just walk down the corridor or gather in a meeting room to talk through issues.
  2. Time – your authors could be in different time zones. You can’t even get them on the phone or web chat to ask them a question – they are ASLEEP.
  3. Language – are all your authors native English speakers? No? This presents a double challenge.One – their content may not be 100% readable.

    Two – they might not be that easy to understand! To be fair, they might find our Aussie accents a bit of a challenge too.

  4. Culture – when you work with authors from other countries and cultures, they don’t work the same way you do. Simple things like answering ‘yes’ to a question can have different meanings from culture to culture.

Communicating with the herd

Overcoming these challenges takes planning and clear communication. Before you send everyone to their keyboards, you need to have a clear plan of who’s writing what and where they overlap.

You need to make sure everyone knows:

  1. What they are responsible to produce.
  2. Who is working on ‘adjacent’ topics – so they can collaborate and align their content.
  3. Timelines and deadlines.

And you need to keep making sure they know. We humans have rather dodgy short-term memories and we’re good at forgetting or reinterpreting what we thought we heard. So reminding your authors exactly who’s doing what will help keep things on track.

Talk often and talk openly

Where content is likely to overlap, make sure the authors talk to each other frequently. Otherwise, they can easily end up writing content that is inconsistent or even contradictory.

Getting the whole team to talk to each other frequently is the best way to identify and alleviate any issues. Try to meet daily at time that suits all locations, so you all have time to talk through your sections and compare / align the message.

Read each other’s work

A simple way to make sure your authors don’t contradict each other is to get them to read each other’s work and talk over any differences. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? You’d be amazed how many teams don’t read each other’s work.

The value of a good cat-herder

OK, your authors are done and the document has content in every section. Job done, or is it? It’s likely that each of those sections is in a different style and with a different voice.

Most of my co-authors aren’t native English speakers; the document I’m working on is already quite grammatically challenged.

That’s where you need a good cat-herder to round up all the bad grammar, spelling errors, odd punctuation and eccentric word choices and herd them into a cohesive, coherent whole. In other words, rewrite the document in plain, consistent English.

Don’t underestimated the power of clear English. One consistent voice is a lot easy to understand that 20 different ones. More likely to sell your message too.

We’re working on our document for another two weeks and this is the first time the team’s had an ‘English Teacher’ on the bid.

Wish me luck.

Client whispering – are we talking to our clients in words they want to hear?

I’m a consultant. But unlike many of my consultant colleagues, I don’t come from a substantial consulting background. I come from the other side of the fence…

The Client.

Clients are funny creatures. We look to consultancies for knowledge, advice and the latest industry best practice, but when they turn up to our offices with their laptops and tablets full of pre-prepared answers, we can be a bit wary.

Threatened even.

We tend to be on our guard, aware of our limited budgets and hoping they don’t get stretched too far.

After all, aren’t consultants always on the lookout for ways to part their clients from their hard earned revenue?

Often we find ourselves wondering what can they do that we can’t do ourselves? After all, we have Google.


How our clients see us

This is the challenge every consultant is up against, every time you meet with a client – whether it’s the first pitch or the 5th workshop you’ve run in a 6-month project.

Clients will always look at you through a filter – “am I getting value for money from this person?” “can I or one of my team do this work for less?” “can I trust this person to do the work I need and not charge me for work I don’t need?”

To be a truly successful consultant we have to win our clients’ trust and keep winning it every time we interact with them.

Think of our clients as an Australian voter and you’ll understand what I mean.


Do consultants really know our business?

Many years ago, I was the manager of an Australian software company’s global digital presence, my boss and I went out to the market, looking for some advice on how to improve uptake of a new product suite.

I’ll never forget the initial meeting we had with one of the consultancies we short-listed for the work.

Two suits walked in, suits that probably cost more than my car at the time. They shook us both by the hand, looked us in the eye and talked at us for 20 minutes straight. There were beautiful PowerPoint slides, with stylish graphics, there was talk of customer heuristics, competitor landscapes, marketing frameworks and a lot of “What you should do is….”.

Not once did they ask us a question.

After we’d thanked them for their time and walked them out to reception, my boss turned to me and asked “Do you think they even know what we sell?”


When our colleagues ‘consultant’ us

OK, enough about consultants.

Let’s talk colleagues.

Let’s imagine, I say imagine because I’m sure this never happens to any of you, that you’ve had a particularly difficult time on a project. The team is very dysfunctional, there is a lot of infighting and you’re copping the brunt of the fallout.

It’s not a complete crisis. You’re fairly sure you can manage it, but you could do with a bit of advice and support from someone who’s been in this situation.

Fortunately, it’s Friday night drinks at the office. A few glasses of red and a download is just what you need.

Back at the office, drinks are in full swing. You grab a glass of Merlot and plunge in. 

One sip into your drink, you get chatting with Nic. Nic’s been talking to another person on your project and has heard about your team issues. Nic’s been with the company for a few years now and has a lot of suggestions for you.

For the next 10 minutes you hear a lot of. What I’d do is…  You need to….  Oh that’s a real problem. That could really impact the project. You have to…  If you don’t fix this, it could  ….

All good advice. But now you need another glass of red!

At the drinks table, you bump into Toni. You’ve always looked up to Toni. It’s hard not to be impressed by a person who has delivered that many successful projects.

Two sips in, Toni asks you if anything’s up. You look a bit stressed. To start with you don’t say much – who wants to admit to such a successful person that things are going badly on your project? But as you talk, Toni draws you out. You find yourself talking through the situation and, with a few pertinent questions and subtle suggestions from Toni, you think you know what’s causing the issues and what might alleviate the situation.

Who are you going to turn to the next time you have issues on a project?

Nic or Toni


When language becomes the communication blocker

One of the things that always used to bug me as a client of consultants was the jargon. Half the time I felt like I needed a dictionary or Google to understand what they were telling me. This used to intimidate me a bit – sometimes I’d leave vendor meetings feeling like I was a bit stupid.

Then I realised the motivation behind it.

Imagine you’re in your car and it starts making a funny noise. You’re a sensible car owner, so you drop it off at the garage. Later that day they call you and say the bushes on your radius rods are worn and your thrust race is possibly on the way out. It’ll cost $800 for parts and labour, are you happy to proceed?

Yes? No? What’s a radius rod? 

And when the blocker follows you to around

After forking out that much money on the car, you need a drink! So you swing by your local, to partake of your favourite beverage. Everyone around you is talking about a hurling game that finished on Foxtel just before you walked in. Hurling is a sport you know nothing about. No one explains the rules to you or who the players are, they’re too busy discussing the finer points of the game.

How do you feel?

That drink is looking like your only friend right now, isn’t it?

Two situations where people used language you didn’t understand. For two different reasons, but the effect was the same.

  • Our friend the mechanic was using technical language to justify a rather sizeable bill.
  • Our friends in the pub were speaking the language of a tribe – the tribe of hurling. 

Both situations will leave you feeling a bit isolated and out of the loop, not a pleasant feeling. Something to keep in mind when talking to our clients.

We may find that they are completely comfortable with our jargon – just as I am fairly confident my car-loving husband knows exactly what a radius rod is and why you’d be concerned about your thrust race – or they may not

They may even be Hurling fans.

There is only one way to find out.

Ask them. Listen. Adjust your language to match theirs.


Why consulting can be a lot like online dating

I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept that consulting is all about building relationships, but let’s unpack that for a moment. What does building a relationship really entail.

The first thing I think of when someone uses the phrase “building relationships”, is romantic relationships (you know dating and stuff). And when you think about it, there are a lot of parallels:

  • The song and dance we go through before a first date is not that different from preparing for a client proposal.
  • Waiting for a client to get back to us afterwards is very much like the “will he/she call” – and it can have the same life changing impact (as I’m sure Upen would attest).

The parallels continue:

  • The thrill of acceptance when they say yes.
  • Growing confidence as you spend more time together, finding areas of commonality, developing your own “in crowd” language.

But there is one major difference – well OK two – there are certain behaviours expected in a dating relationship that would probably get you kicked off a client site.

The other major difference is a fairly critical one. A romantic ‘dating’ relationship grows out of mutual attraction – it’s a two-way consensual relationship. A consulting relationship is decidedly one way – the client is in control.

So it’s up to us consultants to attract the client and keep them attracted.

Let’s imagine we’re the client, and several someones are trying to attract us:

Someone 1.

First we meet someone #1. Sharp dresser – subtle but classy suit and a scent that leaves you thinking of 6 star hotels. Not an unpleasant addition to the decor! And when they open their mouths, oh the charm!! They’ve swallowed the etiquette book!  Yes, they know their stuff.

Once you get talking, it’s hard to find anything they haven’t done. Banking, insurance, utilities, construction, logistics – they’ve worked across the board – and always at the c-suite level. Business strategy, digital transformation, innovation, change management – they’ve set the standard in every discipline. And in their spare time, it turns out they’ve swum with sharks and bungeed the Grand Canyon.

You leave the meeting feeling rather dazed and not quite up to their standard.

Someone 2.

Now we sit down with someone #2. Another snazzy dresser, also very easy on the eyes and the nose. And very interested in you. Over a couple of long blacks, you’re skilfully interviewed about your business strategy, past performance, areas of difficulty and the measures you’ve put in place to address them.

Comments they drop into the conversation show they’ve researched your company – they quote your CEO from last week’s ABR. They know how well your share price has performed over the last year. After an hour, you realise you’ve gone over time and you didn’t even notice. You spent most of the time talking about your business area, what you’ve achieved and where you’d like to take it in the future – to an audience who seemed informed and really interested.

Who’s getting the second interview?


Moving to a longer term (consulting) relationship

But relationships aren’t all about initial attraction. Ask any married person, the spark only lasts so long. After that you need a few more tools in your kit.

Whether you’re working on your marriage or your client relationship, there are key things you need to build and maintain:

  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Understanding

And again, it’s up to you, the consultant, to make sure these things are built and maintained.

Let’s use the marriage metaphor to explore this a bit – let’s see how those of you who are married answer, vs those who aren’t….

After 3 years in your current role, you realise you’re not happy in your job. It’s very stressful and you’re working long hours which doesn’t leave much time for the family. But the role pays well, very well. You’re way ahead on the mortgage and you’ve managed two overseas holidays in the last year.

So you sit down with the other half to discuss your options. Let’s look at two ways this could do down:

Conversation 1.

You talk about how stressed you are and how you’re finding it harder and harder to get up in the morning and go to work. Your other half listens, comments that they had noticed you were not your usual self and starts to talk through options.

You say that, really, you’d like to leave the role and find something less stressful. Your spouse is concerned about the loss of income but starts to suggest ways you both can economise. They ask you if you can last in the role long enough to adjust your budgeting to adapt to a lower income. They also suggest that maybe you could talk to your manager about making your current role less demanding or finding ways to reduce the stress.

Conversation 2.

Starts the same way, with you expressing your dissatisfaction with your job. Your spouse listens but seems to be distracted. When you finish explaining the situation and how you feel, your other half sits for a moment and then tells you that right now you can’t afford to give up your job.

They assure you that there are ways to deal with stress and the family is OK with your long hours. After all you’ve had those lovely overseas holidays. After that, the conversation loses momentum and you turn to other subjects.

Later that week you find out that your spouse has told your family that you’re really busy at work right not so they shouldn’t tell you that they miss you being at home.

Which conversation is would you prefer to have?


Whispering the right words

Each one of these examples is a parallel for a situation we consultants can put our clients into.

  • Focusing more on demonstrating our knowledge than their needs.
  • Presenting solutions, rather than listening to problems – the ones they DON’T know about as well as the ones they do.
  • Using the latest lingo, or jargon we’re comfortable with, and not checking if the client understands.
  • Making decisions for our clients because we KNOW its right for them or the project.

So what does all this say about a client / consultant relationship?

  1. Consulting is not all about us, what we know or the latest theory we’ve read about – it’s about our clients, what they need and the problem they are trying to solve.
  2. Good consultants take the time to listen to their clients, empathise with their situation and work WITH them to find solutions. Understand that the project we’re delivering is just a part of a bigger picture – their business.
  3. Language is vitally important. It is, after all, our primary means of communication. We need to make sure the language we use is our client’s language, not just ours.
  4. Just like we do with our better halves. We need to put the client at the centre of what we do – it is our job to make them feel like they most important person in the room, the hottest ticket in town and the most interesting project in our lives.

So, when we find ourselves short-cutting a client conversation to save time and get to an outcome or drive a project goal or when we feel we have all the answers and want to jump straight to presenting a solution to our client – we need to remember – they can swipe left any time they like.

Do we really want to be ‘equal’ at work?

Workplace equality. The holy grail of every forward-thinking company.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a workplace where women are paid equally, treated equally and represented equally at all levels (particularly the higher ones)?

We’ve all asked for it, campaigned for it, protested for it (well I have, but then I was quite feisty at Uni) and hoped that “one day” it might be a reality.

But sometimes I wonder.

I’m a big fan of the ‘paid equally’ bit and a huge fan of the ‘represented equally’ part – I’ve read no end of studies that show how companies and employees thrive when managed by women – but I wonder if the treated equally bit is all it’s cracked up to be.

Not one of the boys

I’ve worked in the IT/Digital industry for the best part of 20 years. So it goes without saying I’ve worked with a lot of men. And I’ve watched how they treat each other.

I’ve also spent time around adolescent boys – I have two nephews and a step-son – and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the blokes in the boardroom and the boys in the schoolyard. (Sorry chaps, I don’t mean this as a put-down, merely a comparison).

The way our menfolk compete for dominance is remarkably similar to their adolescent selves. Very different from the way us girls interact.

Yes, we have our ways of competing but power and dominance are not our goals.

Some of the tricks my husband and his best mates play on each other, I wouldn’t try on my worst enemy.

Hierarchy and the pecking order are important to men. Whether you’re the smartest, tallest, strongest or simply the wittiest in the group, men need an “est” to define themselves.

They need to feel they stand out from the crowd.

Boys to men – they all need to prove themselves

If you look back over time, in almost every culture on earth, becoming a ‘man’ (transitioning from boy to man) meant a chap had to pass a series of ‘manly’ tests. You could be born male, but you had to earn the right to call yourself a man. These tests usually included proving strength, independence and the ability to survive ‘in the wild’.

Women just had to reach the age where we could conceive and bear a child (yeah, we just had to get our periods). Our ‘status’ didn’t really change. Same chores, same respect (or lack of) just more work – that would be the conceiving, bearing and raising children bit.

This hasn’t changed much down the years. Just look at 20th/21st pop culture and you’ll see two types of messaging:

Men should be: tall, strong, commanding, good at sport, the provider.

Women should be: pretty, caring, seductive, domestic, the nurturer.

It’s no wonder we’ve learned two different sets of behaviours. And certainly not surprising that this has led to different behaviours in the workplace.

And this is how it plays out at work

This brings me back to my ‘adolescent’ workmates. I’m sure you’ve met them. They’re the ones who always talk over each other in meetings and spend their free time arguing over who has the fastest car, loudest stereo or best gadgets, or who can eat the hottest Indian food.

Compare this with the women in the office – we listen more in meetings and our arguments are usually over who’s going to win “MKR” and where to get the best deals on the latest fashions. We may indulge in bitchy gossip now and then, but when we’re not picking holes in the fashion sense of the latest “Bachelorette” we’re swapping ideas on how to best navigate the ins and outs of the corporate jungle.

Sure we compete – we’re human after all – but we also support each other and swap strategies on how to succeed in the patriarchy.

Are we losing out by not competing?

Women and men play by different rules. Hell we play completely different games! Men take great pleasure in setting each other up to fail – look at the popularity of shows like “Punked”. They seem immune to insults, practical jokes and other humiliations their ‘friends’ inflict on them. They don’t get upset, they get even.

Women don’t tend to play such tricks on each other. (Yes, I know I’m generalising outrageously, bear with me.) Whether it’s because we find this behaviour childish and beneath us or whether we’re merely avoiding retaliation, we don’t feel the need to sabotage and undermine each other.

I wonder sometimes if this very lack of competitive behaviour in women is what is holding us back. Maybe if we competed more and spent less time looking after our sisters (and the bros) in the workplace, we might find workplace equality just happens naturally. We’d end up on top by playing the game man-style.

Certainly that is a strategy more of us could benefit from trying outside of work.

We’re certainly behind the 8-ball at home

Did you know that, according to the 2016 Australian Census figures, women do up to 14 hours’ unpaid domestic housework each week? Men reportedly do under five hours a week.

But wait, it gets worse. When men and women live together (ie shack up) women end up doing more domestic work and men end up doing less.

It is no wonder workplace equality is such a hot topic, we don’t even have workplace equality at home!

So what’s the answer?

Gosh I wish I knew! For an issue this big, I don’t think there is one answer. I do have some suggestions though.

  1. We women need to stand up and value our soft skills (and not see soft as a bad word). We’ve been the unsung heroes of the workplace for decades:
  • The secretaries without whom the boss could barely tie his shoelaces, let alone run the company.
  • The nurses who made doctors look good (and made sure patients didn’t die from neglect).
  • The teachers who taught all those little boys to read and write so they could become men.
  • The wives, mothers, housekeepers, hostesses, cooks, cleaners and waitresses who ran the household and made sure their husbands never wanted for a thing.
  • And the many other jobs we’ve taken on because no man would ‘lower’ himself to do women’s work.

It is time we recognised the work we put in – at home and work – and stopped belittling our own talents.

Stop letting men talk over us, talk down to us or talk for us – we’re capable of speaking up and making ourselves heard – in stand-ups, meetings, workshops and contract negotiations. If we don’t speak up, someone else (a man) will speak for us and our voices will never be heard. We’ll remain the (quiet) women behind the (louder) men.

  1. Let’s take them on at their own game and show them how to play. We’re in the workplace now, we’ve been watching the boys play their power games for decades. There is no reason why we can’t play those games and make the rules suit us.We don’t need to drive a faster car, have a bigger desk or drink more alcohol to ‘win’ in the boyish games. We have skills and tools they’ll never have. We might as well use them 😉

    Let me tell you about a workmate of mine. She’s beautiful, very feminine and she dresses to take advantage of her every curve. She prides herself on being ‘high maintenance’ to the point where I’ve nicknamed her ‘Princess’.

    You’d think that this paragon of womanhood could be belittled or sidelined by our XY colleagues. “She’s too pretty to take seriously.” “She wouldn’t want to break a nail by working hard.”

    On the contrary my friends. Princess holds her own with senior management on a daily basis. She owns her beauty and her high maintenance exterior and wields it as a weapon in her arsenal of workplace tools. No man can withstand her combination of pin-point perfect presentation, needle sharp wit and sheer hard work.

    If she can do it, ladies so can we.

  1. But it’s not all up to us. Our friends in the testosterone camp have work to do too (and if they want their dinner on time and not in the rubbish, they’ll get that work done).I don’t think I need to tell you that workplace inequality is not of our making. The boys created this situation so they need to put some work in to change it.

    They may need a bit of education from us, but that’s nothing new. We teach them everything else – from tying their shoelaces to how to dress for a first date – we might as well give them some tips here too.

    For us women to be truly equal in the workplace, our natural skill-sets need to have equal value and status in that workplace. The male tools of aggression, posturing, one-up-man-ship and ‘length’ comparison need to make room for more female tools like communication, compassion and understanding.

    We put in as effort into work as they do (sometimes more, when you think of all we have to do just to just GET into work) we need to credit ourselves for that and work with our menfolk so they credit it too.

Thanks to the Institute of Entrepreneurship Development for the awesome image.

Why you new CMS won’t “fix it”

Ever heard the phrase “the new CMS will solve all these problems”? It’s popular with Digital Managers, IT project people and the sales guys from the latest on-trend software company.

If you have heard that phrase, did that new-beaut content management system actually solve the problems your digital team was suffering?

Not all of them, am I right?

Depressing I know, but there’s a good reason why simply rolling out the latest “cloud-based”, “AI-driven personalised customer experience” platform with “industry-leading digital asset management tools” won’t fix all your digital experience and management problems. 

Your problems aren’t caused by the software. The cause is something much closer to home. And it’s a pretty common one, that’s been around a lot longer than the world wide web or Google.


Why am I picking on people?

There’s a pre-digital saying that I quite like. “A bad workman blames his tools.” That’s as true today, in our real-time, AI driven, CX personalised world as it was back when Thatcher was something other tan an ex-UK prime minister.

I’m not trying to talk down the hard work digital teams put into building and maintaining quality digital collateral. I’ve run digital teams, so I know how hard they work to get it right.

The tools they need to do so aren’t all built on 1s and 0s.

Now don’t think I’m against the new tools and functionality the Adobes, Drupals, Oracles and Joomlas of this world keep dreaming up. I love ‘em. The things we can do around personalisation, device-specific content and digital asset reuse are amazing. They blow my little HTML-coding mind.

But they’re not going to fix the core problems that plague many digital teams, they may mask some of your issues and alleviate the pain, but they won’t fix them.

What’s my problem?

So what are these problems I’m banging on about? Well might you ask.

Let me answer that question with some of my own:

  1. When was the last time you looked for an image in your DAM and found the perfect one, first time, no problems? I’m not talking about an image you loaded five minutes ago, I’m talking about raw, optimistic search.
  2. How confident are you that every page on your website is up to date, relevant to your users and compliant with current industry regulations? Every page, not just the top tiers of your nav.
  3. Do you know who has access to your CMS and what each of them can do in it? Really? Everyone? How many ex-team members still have logins to your system? If that number is zero, I’m really impressed.

Even the best, most advanced content management systems are simply big databases full of templates, content, assets and code. They succeed or fail, based on how we set them up and what we do with them.

Governance is king

What I’m getting at here is this. It doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles your new CMS has, if you don’t have a robust governance plan embedded at every level.

Sounds a bit ‘content police’ doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. Mostly, you just need a set of ‘how we use this thing’ rules that everyone knows, agrees to and follows. This is easily done if the content team are the ones who write the rules in the first place. 

Personal ownership is a beautiful thing.

So what does a governance plan look like and how is it going to solve all those problems?

Let’s break it into its component pieces, shall we.

A governance plan is simply a list of rules around the who, what and when of your content.


The who is all about roles and responsibilities. For each type of content in your CMS, including the code that runs the CMS, you need to decide who can do what to it.

For example: 

  1. You want your manager to be able to review the articles you write, but not edit them. She’d have Readaccess to content articles.
  2. Now, your manager has OKed your article, you need the content producer to finalise it. He needs to format the article and publish it to the site. He’d have Read / Write / Publish access.

Each person who uses the CMS needs their own login, role and responsibilities. Once you look at all the people who need to Read, Write, Publish and Administer your site, this can get quite complicated. 

Also, people come and go from companies, and move from role to role while they’re there. When someone starts, they need access to the CMS. Each time they move, someone needs to check if they still have the right access. When they leave, their login needs to be deleted.

See? Complicated.

Get it wrong and you could stop people being able to do their jobs, or worse you could accidentally allow the wrong person to edit and publish content onto your site.

Get it right and everyone can do their jobs and no-one’s going to publish the CEO’s personal phone number on the home page.


The what of your plan covers a multitude of sins. It can include:

  • Types of content you need to manage.
  • Naming standards so all your content is consistently labelled – a must if you want to find anything later.
  • The metadata you need to tag and classify your content, so you can find it, group it and assign it to the right workflows and review cycles.
  • Places you want to put your content – websites, eDMs, print and billboard advertising – and the devices it needs to appear on.
  • Steps your content needs to go through to be published – workflows.

Each of these needs to be mapped out and agreed to by the whole team. Everyone who uses the CMS needs to know what they can upload, what to call it, where it’s going to appear and how to get it through a workflow.

In an ideal world, these ‘whats’ are meticulously mapped out during the rollout of a new CMS and shared with the whole team. In a not-so-ideal world, some ‘whats’ are left out and “sharing” is more of a concept and less a reality.

In almost all situations, after the rollout is complete, the ‘whats’ are neither revisited nor actively communicated again, until the next CMS revamp.

When you think about the profound impact those ‘whats’ have on the usability and flexibility of your CMS, it’s a bit mind-blowing how little attention is paid to them.


When is all about currency. When was a piece of content created? Is it still current or relevant? When should it be reviewed and when retired? 

As Gerry McGovern is fond of pointing out, we are far better at creating content than we are at deleting it. Yet, out-of-date content can harm us far more than content that hasn’t been published – clogging our SEO, giving our customers incorrect information and eroding our brand.

Each piece of content, be it an article, an image or contact form, needs a ‘when’ – a review date.

If you team applies a Review, Rewrite, Retire strategy to all the content you have published across your digital landscape, you may just end up being the only crowd with 100% accurate, relevant, legally compliant content on the world wide web.

You think I’m kidding? There are very few sites out there that don’t have at least a little bit of out-of- date content. Try finding some on your favourite site – 5 points for each page more than 12 months between edits.

One plan to govern them all

So that’s what makes up a governance plan: 

  • Who can create and edit content.
  • What they can create.
  • When they should edit it.

It sounds simple when you put it in three bullets, but those three words can spell the success or failure of your content management lifecycle.

The way we do things around here

Agreeing on your Who, What and When is half the battle. To win the war against content chaos, your Who, What and When need to become the ‘way we do things’ for your CMS. Each person who uses the CMS needs to know:

  • Their role in the CMS – what they can and can’t do in the system.
  • What they are creating – and how to name it, tag it, where it’s going to be used and how to get it approved.
  • The content’s shelf-life – when they will need to review it.

Sounds like a big task? It is. But believe me, it pays off. Invest some time creating your Who, What and When and spreading the word and you’ll reap the benefits. Up-to-date content, fewer ‘help’ calls from your CMS users, easily findable content, no more griping about the ‘crap CMS’. 

Sounds a bit more doable now, doesn’t it?

Can I still have a new CMS?

I’d be the last one to stop you getting a shiny new CMS with integrated digital asset management, personalisation, A/B testing and all the other bells and whistles. Hey, buy two – I’d love to have one myself.

Just make sure your bosses don’t think that getting a new CMS means you can skimp on your governance.

(Thank you to for the image)

Content vs Code the fight for the right to run the site

It seems to me that, over time, we’re actually making website management harder, not easier. Sure, we can distribute content authoring to people with no technical skills, but in our efforts to ‘simplify content management’ we’re simultaneously setting code and content against each other for control of the site.

To see what I mean, let’s go back in time to when websites were new and exciting and built in CODE.

First there was code

Back in the day, if you were working on a website, you were working in code. Content, images, font styles, layout and functionality all sat, cheek by jowl, in the HTML.

We content people all worked in Dreamweaver, Front Page or some other WYSIWYG editors (that’s What You See Is What You Get for you young ones) that helped you see what the code was doing.

Developers worked in notepad, Vi, emacs or some other hard core application with mysterious shortcut keys that only propeller heads understood.

As a ‘content chick’ you had to know a bit of HTML, but not that much. A little css code didn’t go amiss either.

This was a really flexible way to manage a website, if a bit laborious. You could make any page do whatever you wanted. Ctrl H (yeah, yeah spot the PC user) would find and replace anything you asked it to and you could guarantee you got every instance.

Our friends the propeller heads got to use /spider to do their universal replaces.

Sure you had to create every page from scratch, so consistency was a bit of an unreachable dream, but copying and pasting existing pages was almost like having templates.

Sites were managed by server administrators or website managers – mysterious creatures with arcane skills.

Code and content lived in harmony, each contributing their bit to the site structure. Neither fighting the other for dominance.

Then came the CMS

In the late 90s we saw the birth of the content management system.

“Separation of code and content” had arrived and it brought with it templates and workflows with user IDs and RWD rights the “content manager” could bestow on worthy souls, according to their status.

Content people could do their content thing, developers could do their codey thing and neither had to talk to the other if they didn’t feel like it. Well, OK we had to talk to the developers to get our templates just right, but other than that… not much interaction.

Back then forms, calculators and dynamic data could be sucked into a page with variables or a placeholder.

Developers coded, testers tested and code moved through a variety of environments until it appeared, as if by magic, on the live site.

We content types published our pages as and when they were signed off and ready.

The CMS controlled the site structure, content and navigation and the developers managed the code.

The internet gods looked down on creation and saw that all was right with the web.

And now…

Now we seem to have taken a step too far.

Every year there’s a bigger and better CMS with more and more bells and whistles.

And every CMS brings us less separation of code and content, not more.

No more developers doing their thing in their environments and we content peeps doing ours, in ours.

Now we’re lumped into the same set of environments, content interwoven with code, and all of us having to release to the same timeline.

Now when you pick your site management tool you have a choice – good content management with handicapped development or a great development framework with really poor content capabilities.

CMS systems are not designed to be development platforms. They are designed to managed content.

Stating the obvious much?

Now days CMSs seem to just get in the developers’ way, making coding harder and releases clunky.

And developers are rebelling – coming up with code frameworks that can serve up the site themselves. Leaving the CMS to host content snippets that get pulled into the code as and when needed.


See why I think content and code are fighting for dominance?!

How can we stop this madness?

Well, I really like the 90s solution. Content systems managing content, navigation, page structures and nice contenty stuff.

And developers managing code in the framework of their choice, moving it up through peer review, testing, PVT and stuff and then injecting it into the live site when it’s ready for the light of day.

I’d even be happy hosting snippets of content in the CMS to manage error messages and other ‘content’ needed by the code.

Can’t just go back to the days when content was content and developers weren’t nervous?

For a very long time, I’ve struggled with how to deliver digital content in an Agile environment. Content strategies are time-consuming creatures. By the time you’ve crunched the numbers (or site analytics as those data people like to call them), assimilated the business goals and done a little HCD to create a half-way decent strategy – weeks have passed. And that’s just planning, think how long it takes you to deliver all that.Agile is ALL about speed. Rapid delivery to market. Short sprints from story time to release.Content is about researching topics, complying with standards and making sure everything you write is consistent with all your other online content, not to mention all your other channels. Plus it has to fit your brand guidelines and ‘tone of voice’ standards. And did I mention it has to be user-centric?Not the work of a single afternoon.Agile is all about speed to market. Delivering a specific feature or improvement. Sure, there are standards to meet but a lot of Agile work is done in rather compact bubbles (and with very short timelines).How do you make these two ways of working, well… work?

My Agile world

This is the challenge I’ve been up against for the last year. I work in a scrum team of 14 people. We work to 2 week sprints and do our best to deliver something of value every week.

Some weeks go better than others – no surprises there I’m sure.

My role in the team is Content and Optimisation Lead. I am responsible for creating all the content that goes into the self-service part of our site and into our app (and some other stuff, but that’s not relevant here). When I say all the content, I really mean ALL.

I make sure that the developers have completed, signed-off content at their fingertips, when they’re ready to build – that’s all the field labels, help text, error messages, confirmation pages, instructions and general site content. All the content I produce has to fit our content strategy, be consistent with any other content dealing with a similar topic, be optimised for usability and accessibility and be approved by our legal and compliance teams.

See why I’m saying it takes more than two weeks?

So what do I do?

How I stay one step ahead of my scrum

I work at least two, if not three, sprints ahead of my team.

Fortunately, I work in a very organised team, so I always know what’s coming up. So 4-6 weeks before each feature is due for delivery, I work with our UX team to map out the customer journey and identify the messages customers need to understand that feature.

From that mapping, I can tease out all the content needed – those labels, help messages and error messages – and map them into a ‘content skeleton’ – a table detailing every bit of the new feature – with the content needed for each bit. Not just the raw words, but formatting, links and even the names of the fields in the authoring view of the CMS to contain that content.

I can create this little beauty in my own time, use it for stakeholder sign-off and legal approval and have it ready for the developers when the sprint starts.

The joys of a good skeleton

This wee skeleton of mine, comes with a lot of benefits:

  • The developers have all the content they need to build the feature.
  • The testers have a checklist to use to quality check the new feature.
  • I have a source of truth to refer to for UAT. Because let’s face it, who can remember what they wrote 2 weeks ago??

It’s also incredibly useful down the track as a central content reference for consistency and trouble-shooting.

I’m not tied to the 2-week sprints but I can make sure the right content goes in the right place.

And thanks to a good CMS that neatly separates content and development, I can get on with managing my ‘ pure-content’ pages in my own time – no sprints, just publish when ready.

How do you know if your web site is ‘succeeding’?

I recently worked on a website that was all about conversion. Every week, the marketing and sales people would get together and look at ‘the figures’.

They’d look at total views and unique visits and views to our latest content marketing article. Then they’d look at the total number of sales that were either made through our online form or through the phone number that we only published on our website.

In other words, all the sales that could be attributed to the digital team.

Then they’d try to guess why the sales had gone up or down.

There would be talk about what incentives the call centre had to make a ‘digital’ sale. A digital sale was either one made by answering the unique digital phone number or by calling a person who’d filled out our “I want to be contacted by a consultant” form.

We’d then move to any improvements that had been made to the sales form since last week. Mention would also be made of any changes our competitors had made to their offering in the market.

At no time would the discussion touch on any other aspect of the website. The focus was 100% on our sales channel.

This always puzzled me. What was the point of the rest of the site? Was it just window dressing? Something to pad out the site and give the sales form a place to sit?

Was success purely down to whether the Submit button was green or orange?

I felt there was more to it.

So I started to play with ‘the figures’.

Why I love statistics

When I got my hands on my first intranet, I was so excited! After years of creating radio and print content, with no idea whether anyone was listening or reading, I finally had a medium where I could see what my audience was doing.

That transparency has fascinated me ever since. So it was to the site statistics that I turned to see what was really going on with our website sales.

What is success?

Allow me to digress a moment to talk about success. Simply put, the success of a website depends on that website’s purpose.

If your website is a commercial one, like the one I was working on, success is often defined by the number of online sales you make. If your website represents a university, tafe or school, it’s fairly easy to define success by the number of students who sign up to courses, using that website.

Websites that provide product help and support stand or fall by the calls they stop from going to the call centre, i.e. how many customer questions they answer.

These definitions are fairly simplistic and only measure one aspect of a website’s function. But they’re also the measures most site owners care about.

Simply put, is the website making me money?

More than meets the eye

There’s a lot more to a website than simple conversion and there’s more to measuring conversion than counting how many orders came through the sale channel.

Websites are the first port of call for most people researching any transaction, be it a sale, an enrolment, a support call or booking a restaurant. More people research online than through any other media.

Websites are often the most viewed envoy of an organisation’s brand. Your website may be the only interaction your customers have with your company. It may define their entire experience of your brand.

A successful website can make its visitors feel good enough about a product, service or company that they decide to buy the product or service, or transact with that company directly – on the phone or in a bricks and mortar store.

I often research restaurants online, but I’m not very good at eating their meals through my browser.

What do you measure?

So what do you measure to know if your website is succeeding?

The first thing you have to do is define what success means for your website. The obvious answer, “Does it make money?”, will only take you so far.

Success can be many things.

Your website is only one conversion channel for your company. Success on your site can be giving your customers the information they need to pick your product, find your nearest bricks and mortar outlet and go there to shop.

Success can simply be your customer finding your phone number or email address so they can contact you.

Success is giving your customer whatever they need to complete the task they came to your site to complete.

If you really want to know how well your site is working, you need to dig deeper.

There are a few aspects to ‘success’ for a website.

  1. Search engine ranking – how your site stacks up against your competitors on the search results pages of Google and his mates is a key indicator of how well your site is performing.

    You will need to decide what keywords or terms are important to each page or section of your site and measure your ranking for those terms.

  2. Visits to your site – obvious but still a vital statistic. More people coming to your site means more people possibly transacting with your company.

    It’s a good idea to look at your unique visits as well as repeat ones.

    Unique visits show the success of your site marketing – cross linking, search engine ranking, EDMs etc.

    Repeat visits show the success of your site content – the page content, calculators, info graphics and other content your site provides.

  3. Behaviour on the site – what your site visitors do while they’re on your site tells you a lot about what the site is telling them. A very insightful exercise is to follow a site visit from beginning to end:

    How did the site visitor enter? – what search terms did they use to find your site or a page on your site

    Where they go once they were on the site?

    How did their path through your site match the way they came in? Did the pages they looked at match the search term or entry page they chose?

  4. The Exit – how and where your site visitors leave your site can tell you if they found what they were looking for.

    If a site visitor exits your site via the Contact us page, it’s good bet that they ended up calling you. This can either mean success – a customer called – or failure – they had to call us because they didn’t find what they needed on the site. Which one depends on where they went on the site before the Contact us page.

    If a site visitor exits your site from a product page they may not have found a product that suits their needs or they could still be in the research phase of the buying cycle.

    Where site visitors leave your site half way through your conversion channel – sales form, enrolment form etc – you can be fairly certain that there is something about the site that has put them off or blocked their task.

Measure these together and you’ll get a pretty good picture of how well your site is working for your customers.

So what did I do?

You thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?

I looked at each measure detailed above and I learned a lot about our customers. I learned that they used different words to describe our products than we did. This meant we were targeting the wrong keywords and, as a result, we were not faring well in the battle of the search engines.

Then I looked at visits to our site, what people were doing when they visited us and where they were exiting. I found it took around 3 to 4 visits for a person to commit to buying our services, on a good day. What I also found is that the most popular task on our site had nothing to do with sales, but was all about revenue. Yet we put all our time and effort into our sales channel.

Our digital sales team were all over the pluses and minuses of our sales form, so I looked at the paths to it. I found that many people were dropping out before they got to the form, as we made the path to the form confusing and the messages about our services unappealing.

I pulled these findings together and shared them with my team and our managers. We changed the way we measure our site success and we changed how we prioritise our site improvements.

We started winning the search engine game, more of our customers found their way to our sales channel and we put a bit more spit and polish on that other revenue generating channel.

Now it’s up to you

All this requires a bit of lateral thinking and a large amount of Excel spread-sheeting, but I’m confident that you’re up to the task. You made it this far.

If you want to know more about how to measure and improve your website, I can help. You can find me at

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Obedience training for your website