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Natalie Marie Dunbar on Scaling Content Strategy

“There’s so much more that content strategy can bring to the table.”

Natalie Marie Dunbar is a senior manager of content design at Walmart. She’s the author of From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice. In this conversation, we discuss content strategy, how it might differ from information architecture, and how to stand up a content strategy practice.

Natalie has asked me to let you know that rosenfeldmedia.com has a promo code for The Informed Life listeners. The code is INFORMEDLIFESTS, and it’s good for 20% off the purchase of any Rosenfeld Media book until December 31, 2022.

Show notes

Disclosure: I received Natalie’s book for free as a previous Rosenfeld Media/Two Waves author.

Show notes include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Transcript

Jorge: Natalie, welcome to the show.

Natalie: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Jorge: Well, I’m happy to have you on the show. I recently read your book, which came out fairly recently. So, for folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Natalie

Natalie: Yes. I am Natalie Marie Dunbar, and I am the author of From Solo To Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice. When I’m not writing books, I work as a senior manager of content design with Walmart, currently. And I’m a voracious reader. I love to write, and I’m passionate about content strategy.

Jorge: Well, Walmart is a large organization. How many content strategists are there in Walmart?

Natalie: We have… Oh! We just got a couple of people who joined our team recently. I think we’re at around nine now.

Jorge: Wow!

Natalie: There are other pockets of the business that may have one or two strategists. But for our UX design organization, that’s around the current number.

Jorge: How did you get into content strategy?

Natalie: Completely by accident. I came from marketing communications to journalism. I was a newspaper reporter for a bit at the time when print journalism was starting to decline as people were moving online. I knew that online was the place to be, so I taught myself how to hand code. My skills are very obsolete, but I always tell people that I can still make things blank on a page. Maybe! I don’t know. Maybe that code is obsolete as well.

But I just wanted to understand how things worked on the back end. I was just fascinated by technology. And ironically, one of the first books that I purchased in this worldwide web space was another book on information architecture — before yours came out, I think it was. I’m trying to see if I can remember the author. It was a blue book. Oh, I have it right here: Information Architecture: An Emerging 21st Century Profession, and it was written by Earl Morrogh; I think it is.

But that book – even though I’ve got to be honest, there was so much in there that I did not understand – but it did help me to understand that online was where I wanted to be. And there was a point where I got really granular, and I was just like, “I want to be able to work on a job… on, you know, having to do with being online, the internet, websites. And I want to be able to do it at my kitchen table.” And I’m at my kitchen table! Which is basically where I wrote the book, so… Yeah, that’s my story.

Jorge: I’m just hearing you describe it and kind of nodding an agreement internally because my trajectory is similar. I remember learning about the blink tag in HTML code. But it sounds like you clearly specialized from that. And my sense is that content strategy might be one of the areas within this broader domain that is most closely aligned with your background, especially in journalism, right?

Content in support of the experience

Natalie: Yeah. So much of what content strategy is about… and I say content strategy because I’m a bit of a purist. There’s content design and UX writing, and there’s a lot of overlap, but there are some distinctions between those three things as well. When I talk about content strategy, I’m looking at the end-to-end experience and how content can support those experiences.

I’ve had roles as a content strategist where other than putting together decks and audits and inventories, I didn’t do any writing at all. But it was definitely the writing that got me into digital content. And then the first time I think I heard the term “consumer experience” or “user experience” was when I started to pivot from more of a marketing and SEO focus to “how do we support these experiences?” and what is user experience and how can content be used to help the user achieve whatever task that they’re trying to achieve.

Jorge: The distinction, as I’m hearing it there, particularly between something like content strategy and you mentioned content design and also what I would think of as copywriting, seems to be one about granularity and how close you are to the production of the actual text, as opposed to conceptualizing the whole, right? Like, how these pieces all fit together.

Natalie: Right. There are some roles that I’ve had where I’ve done all of the things, right? I tend to love to solve puzzles, so to speak, and figure out how things fit together and how they should work together. And when I talk about content, it’s not just the copy. It’s: depending on, let’s say, a higher education experience rather than a full three paragraphs of text to describe a student experience at a university. Why not use a video? And let there be a testimonial. So, it’s not just the words on the screen; it’s also: what are other expressions of content, so to speak, that can be used to tell a story better?

Jorge: Right. So, content is broader than text, right? There’s more to it than that.

Natalie: Absolutely. It’s really any element. I mean, we’re not creating the visual design, but we may have some input into the hierarchy of information as, you know, how it’s presented on a screen. And also end-to-end, we’re looking at [things] more from a 30,000-foot view, but sometimes we have to zoom in and get deep in the weeds as well and understand whether, say, there’s existing content in an app or on a site, and we have some future state goals or KPIs or whatever we’re trying to hit.

We need to be able to look at and assess current-state content to figure out if it’s going to help us meet that future state goal. And if it’s not — if it’s outdated or if it’s trivial or whatever — we need to be able to make a recommendation to sunset or archive old content and to speak about what gaps might be created from that. And then also be able to speak to, “Hey, why don’t we… instead of these three paragraphs of text, let’s use a video, let’s use an infographic,” or whatever it is, and then think about how that carries across the experience as well.

Jorge: I think that that is starting to hint at the subject of your book. I’ve read other books on content strategy, and one of the things that stood out to me about your book is that it doesn’t aspire to be so much about content strategy per se as it is about building a content strategy practice, right?

Natalie: Yeah. That was one of the things that, when I first started chatting with Lou Rosenfeld… there are so many excellent how-to books. I mean, Kristina Halvorson — who I was lucky enough and blessed enough to have write the forward for my book — her book, Content Strategy For The Web, helped us understand who we were in this digital space and also pave the way for so many other excellent books on the how-to of content strategy.

But my challenge as I was coming up through my experience and moving into leadership was trying to understand how do you build a team that’s sustainable. Because I would see, especially in larger corporations, many of my peers — folks that I’ve met in meetup groups and things like that — we would be solidly placed in, say, UX. But there might be another team calling themselves content strategy and marketing.

And so, you had this need to differentiate between the two. And then sometimes, when there were budget constraints or need for reduction in force or whatever, many times the UX content strategist would get absorbed into a marketing function. And it would change a bit. There was still the element of UX, but it wasn’t the main focus.

So, how do we create a space — a practice space — where UX-focused content strategists can work their trade and grow the discipline to a place where an organization — or, if you’re working at an agency, your clients — understands that content is an asset, just like any other part of a business. And in fact, it’s one of the first things that people may encounter when researching or looking into doing business with a brand.

And I just felt like the one thing that I didn’t see out there in terms of books was something that could help folks figure out how to stand up a practice. That’s one of the questions that I would often get asked after speaking at a meetup. My last in-person talk was World IA Day in the Los Angeles area like two weeks before we shut down for the pandemic. And trying to help this room full of IAs understand, “yes, there are some overlaps, but there are some distinctive things that we do.” And the questions that I got afterward were like, “how do I find somebody like you? How do I build a team like that?” and so, that was a validation for the need for a book like this.

Why build a content strategy practice?

Jorge: I want to come back to the differences between information architecture and content strategy. But before we get there, I’m wondering why an organization should look to create space for a content strategy practice internally. And I know that large enterprises — you know, companies the size of Walmart — I think that many of them, particularly the ones that for whom their web presence is super important, I think at this point, most of them get it. But why would other organizations – I’m thinking maybe like mid-sized organizations – why would they want to think about building out an internal content strategy practice?

Natalie: I go back to this notion that content strategy is all about creating copy. And while that could be true, and it is true in some organizations, what is missing from that is the planning for having the right content. I’m going to paraphrase Kristina Halvorson that having the right content in the right format for the right person at the right time. And if you’re working on digital content from a marketing point of view, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But that may not be a priority focus, right? You may be thinking more about how do I create content that will end up on third-party sites? You know, end up as “this content originally appeared here, and now it’s on this blog,” or whatever. We’re looking internally to understand how we can use content in support of visual designs and the ultimate user experience to, again, help convert people from what I call being curious to converted — to a customer, a member, whatever it is that you’re looking to do.

There’s also the structural part of content strategy from a UX point of view. That’s where we start to walk in lockstep with our information architecture folks because we’re looking at content modeling and content structure. Now we’re all getting into this space of content design systems.

So, in the book – and I’m sure folks that are familiar with the content strategy space might know this diagram – Ann Hadley wrote an article for a content marketing website back [in] I think it was 2017. It’s a Venn diagram, and it shows the front end of content strategy and the back end and the overlap. And the front end is kind of like the place where I like to play because it’s more close to the user.

You know, you’re getting your inputs from research, or you may be working side by side with a user researcher to figure out if something that you’ve created and created copy for, or maybe handed off to a UX writer to create copy for… does just make sense to the user or that kind of thing. And working side by side with the visual designers and everything.

So more like, “what are you seeing on the screen?” Whereas the backend content strategist, that’s the content modeling and working more with the engineers, URL redirects, and that kind of thing, but all of that kind of falls under the umbrella. And then in the middle part, that’s where we start to get close to our IA partners where we’re talking about labeling and nomenclature and wayfinding and that kind of thing.

I may have veered off a little bit from the original question, but yeah, those are just some of the spaces where content strategy can really support the business goals and understand the user needs and how those things come together. And I think many corporations, especially midsize, as you were saying, they think, “well, we already have copywriters. Why do we need content strategy?” But once they understand what it is and what it can do, then, “aha! I see. I see why we need this.”

Differences between content strategy and IA

Jorge: That makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve been asked the question before, like at conferences and stuff, I’ll be giving a presentation on information architecture, and I’ve had it come up a couple of times where someone has asked me at the end, “and so what’s the relationship between information architecture and content strategy?” And I remember the first time I was asked that, I was a little hard-pressed to draw sharp distinctions because I do think that there is a lot of overlap, right?

Natalie: Oh, yeah.

Jorge: But I think over time, and especially the more I’ve learned about content strategy — and I’m now I’m going to reflect my understanding to you hopefully so that you’ll correct me — it’s that both fields have a concern with this high-level, big-picture strategic set of distinctions that comprise the environment. But content strategy takes more of kind of a narrative lens to it, where you are conveying information, whereas information architecture tends to take the more kind of environmental perspective. Like, we’re defining an environment with these labels. Or a context might be a better way of thinking about it, right?

Natalie: Right. So, I talked about when I spoke at World IA Day; it was probably the most frightening thing I’ve ever done. Because — full disclosure — I’ve worked with and collaborated with IAs, but I don’t consider myself an information architect by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, there was a time when I kind of thought information and content were one and the same, and thankfully, authors like you and Lou have helped me understand that they are not the same.

The way I try to break it down is probably overly simplistic, but I think of information architecture as being structural design, like a house, and content is the stuff that you put in the rooms in the house. And the overlap is defining [that] the kitchen is not the place where the bed goes, which is really simplistic.

But when I’m talking with people that are not in any kind of UX field at all, that’s what I try to help them understand. Because they’re like, “well, it’s just information.” I’m like, “well, content is not information necessarily. It is, but it’s not in the way that we break it down between our disciplines.”

So yeah, that’s… I was really intimidated by speaking to a room full of IAs. And things that I do when I’m nervous, I open with a joke. “This content strategist walks into an IA conference and…” you know? Got a chuckle out of the audience, thank goodness! But, yeah! Thankfully, the talk was well-received.

I kind of did a play on… what was it called? “Information Architecture and Content Strategy: The Experience Making Magic of Tidying Stuff.” So it was like, with a hat tip to Marie Kondo, with her tidying things. But it was meant to show that overlap. It was meant to show how we work together to help people navigate digital information spaces.

Jorge: And ultimately, we’re trying to create a cohesive experience, right?

Natalie: Absolutely. That cohesion is everything. Yeah!

The construction metaphor

Jorge: I want to get back to your book because there’s a construction metaphor that runs through the entirety of the book where you’re using examples from the construction trade…

Natalie: Yes.

Jorge: … to shed light on building a content strategy practice. And I’m curious about how you came to construction.

Natalie: So I …first, as I was going through the process of trying to… You know, now I’ve got this topic. Now, how do I break it down? What is the centerpiece of this topic? And I kept thinking – and I talk about this in the book – I would hear people talk about standing up a practice. I’m like, “well, if you stand something up, you’ve got to build it.” okay. That’s interesting. And then, on the flip side, it was like, well, what do you need when you build something?

I had experience building a practice at an agency, and then I went to a medium to large-sized organization and reconstructed a practice there. There had been one; they got laid off, and then the business realized, “Okay, I think we made a mistake. We need these people!” And so, the steps that I used to build out the practice at the agency — which was a very small practice, there were two full-time content strategists — and then we would bring people in who were more of the editorial and copywriting focus, depending on the client project that we were working on.

But, within the organization where I went later, we had content strategists embedded in all of the… I think there were like five main experiences within this business that had a content strategist embedded in [them]. But it was about, like, how do we make the business case? How do we explain to others, what it is that content strategy is and what it’s not, which is super important? You know, how do we build those relationships with cross-functional teams? What kind of frameworks do we use? What is the right size for the practice? Especially as the demand starts to increase.

And there we’re talking about scaling. And then, you know, trying to measure success and not in terms of the project level where we’re like, are we hitting these specific KPIs? You know, what’s the acronym of the day, OKRs? What are we trying to achieve as a practice? Are we serving more internal clients? Is the number of projects that we’re doing increasing? And so on and so forth.

And those were the steps at both the agency and the larger organization. Those five steps or components became the basis of the content strategy practice blueprint, which is what I call it in the book. That blueprint was like, “ah! construction metaphor!”

Many careers ago, I worked in building management, and I was an admin for the construction manager of the building management company. And I wanted to learn a little bit more about what the different terminology was, and just understand a little bit. I was always fascinated by buildings, and I found a book called Why Buildings Stand Up, which is still a favorite book of mine to this day because it just made it… And more so, told the story of construction. Rather than, you know, just a manual to understand, you know, beams mean this, and struts mean that. And it just told a beautiful story of how buildings are created.

And so I leaned on that, the feeling that I had when I read that book. And it all came together. It’s like, I want to able to build a practice. How do I do it? Let’s use this construction metaphor. And that’s how it came to be.

Standing up any practice

Jorge: One of the things that I found exciting about your book is that, as a reader, I’m not looking to stand up a content strategy practice. But I could relate to the arguments you were making in that, even though the book is focused very much on standing up a content strategy practice, the way that I interpreted it is this is how you stand up a practice. It could be an information architecture practice. It could be anything.

Because the things you were talking about — how do we define the scale of the team versus the organization’s needs, how do we explain what we’re doing, how do we make the business case — these are challenges that I think teams face universally, whenever they’re trying to do something new in the organization, no?

Natalie: Absolutely. And I’m really glad to hear you say that because I make the distinction in the book about this being UX-focused because that’s what I know; that’s where I’ve spent most of my career in digital has been in this UX space, if not all of it. And I wanted to be able to, hopefully, beyond content strategy…

There’s someone in the book whom I interviewed, Barnali Banerji from McAfee. And she was the person that reached out to me just blindly on LinkedIn and said, “I am trying to stand up a team. I have UX writers, but I feel like I need content strategists, and I want to understand how to structure job reqs and explain to management the difference between UX writers, content strategists, and even content designers.” And so, we had a conversation which I’m really glad to say turned into a virtual friendship.

But actually, it was that conversation that was top of mind when Lou first approached me about writing a book where I wanted to be able to speak to UX leaders. So, even if you are not necessarily looking to build a full-on content strategy practice, maybe as you’re building your UX team, thinking, “what are some of the cross-functional disciplines that I need to build this team?” and you happen to find my book, you’ll find that there are steps there that are relatable across functions, I think.

I’m really glad to hear that that’s something that you got out of it. So yeah, I’ve been excited about getting that kind of feedback because as I was writing and I was like, “this could apply to so many different things!” And at the end of the day, it’s definitely about relationships in terms of understanding, listening to understand what it is that each of us brings to the table in the UX space and how we work together.

So you could almost say building a sustainable UX design practice, building a sustainable information architecture practice… I think some of it, if not a good portion of the book, would still apply. Just substitute whatever discipline you are.

Scaling the practice using the tools of the practice

Jorge: Well, that definitely came across. And the other thing that I noted is that not only is the idea that you are building a practice focus of the book, and that that practice can be a practice, like we’re saying, in a variety of disciplines. One of the things that I also appreciated is that the approach to building a practice leverages the tools of the practice. It seemed to me that there were several instances of… I’m going to paraphrase at a very high level, but saying things like, “you know, this is how we do things when we’re actually doing the work of content strategy, and you can also use those practices for the building of the practice itself,” right? It’s like designing the thing that designs a thing, using the tools of design, which is

Natalie: Yeah! Yeah. I try to, again… what is it? Kristina Halvorson, “Content Strategy Quad.” There’s information from Richard Sheffield’s The Web Content Strategist’s Bible. There are diagrams that are based on Kevin Nichols’s, Enterprise Content Strategy. Now those are things again that help you at the project level.

But taking a step back, it’s also meant to — at least the way I mentioned it in the book — is to let’s look at those tools, and as you said, let’s see how we can apply them at the… I make the distinction between the project level and the practice level because I didn’t want there to be confusion. I also stretched out a bit and talked about service blueprints and journey mapping and those types of things. I’m not an expert in those areas, but what I find is if I use tools and terminology that my cross-functional teammates understand, that is a way that I’ve seen that you can bridge that gap of understanding where there may be some friction about bringing on a content strategist.

Many times I’ve heard, “well, yeah! It’s great that you have this content strategy lens, but now that’s just going to add so much more time to the development process or the new product, development process, or whatever.” And I’m like, “Actually, it’s going to save time,” you know? We’ll put in a little bit of time in the beginning, but in the end, instead of scrambling to fill in boxes with copy, you’ve got a plan that you can start with from kickoff and follow it all the way through to launch.

And once we’ve gone through that process a couple of times with our cross-functional partners, then people start to understand. “Oh, I see how this benefits,” you know? And if I can use terminology that they understand, then I’ve got a better chance of gaining that alignment, which is so important. Because then we’re all racing towards the finish line together, and we’re going to cross that finish line together.

And that was the goal of bringing some content strategy tools and frameworks, but also frameworks from other disciplines so that people could see, so people could see themselves in the building of this practice. That’s how I’ll say it.

Jorge: Right. And I’ve had conversations with designers who are in organizations, and they’re serving individual contributor roles. And in most cases, the conversations hinge around their being tapped for a management role, right? So they have to make this transition from individual contributor to manager. And one of the concerns that always comes up there is, “well, do I have to stop being a designer if I’m going to become a manager?”

And one of the things I got from your book is the notion that, in some ways, you don’t stop being a designer; it’s just that you’re working on a different medium somehow. Or the object of design is different. Maybe you’re no longer working on the artifacts that people experience, but you’re working on the design of the thing that will design those artifacts, you know?

Understanding how the parts contribute to the whole

Natalie: Right. So, if I were to lean on construction metaphors again — and I’ll probably get this a little bit wrong — but it’s like stepping from a journey person’s role or a specific craft into, say, a foreman or something like that, where you’re all of a sudden maybe you’re not as hands-on, but you can be when you need to. But now you’re looking at how all the crafts and all the trades work together to build a thing.

Jorge: And the hands-on experience gives you the ability to really grok how these things come together to actually

Natalie: Absolutely. Yes. That’s, that’s the key. Because if you don’t have that understanding of how those crafts work, you know, even if your specialty is different from another, you still understand how these things work together.

I think I talk about that a little bit in the book about how different pieces and parts of the structure “talk” to each other to help a structure stand up. And if you use that and take a look at it from a UX lens, then you start to understand how we work together with our visual design partners and our information architects and developers and so on and so forth.

A lot of it is about teaching and educating all the time. And working with teams in ways that help them understand, again, that it’s beyond the copy on the screen or within the experience. There’s so much more that content strategy can bring to the table. So understanding how other trades work with content strategy – using trades – yeah! That helps to… you know, when you step into that role of being the practice builder, then you can better articulate what needs to happen to make the practice sustainable and scalable.

Jorge: And I think that in providing a framework for doing that, your book is going to be very helpful to a lot of folks in organizations. And I just wanted to say: if you, who are listening, find yourself in a situation where you suspect that your organization needs to scale up the practice, I think that this is a book that is going to help you, regardless of whether we’re talking about a content strategy practice or not, for the very reasons that we’ve been talking about. So, don’t let the word content strategy in the subtitle turn you off from the book.

All right. So Natalie, where can folks follow up with you to find out more?

Closing

Natalie: I am on Twitter and Instagram. My handle on both is theliterati. T-H-E-L-I-T-E-R-A-T-I. I am also on LinkedIn. You’ll find me under my full name. My mom’s probably singing: I’m finally using my middle name: Natalie Marie Dunbar. And I love when people reach out to me, especially on LinkedIn, and have questions. I do a little bit of informal mentoring and just love to talk with anyone about content strategy and UX because I’m so passionate about it.

Jorge: Well, you heard it, folks: read the book and then send Natalie your questions.

Natalie: Please do.

Jorge: Thank you, Natalie, for sharing with us today.

Natalie: Thank you so much again for having me.