Further developing the Content Strategy

It has been a fascinating process developing the councils first content strategy, the personal learning and development which I’ve had to do as well as helping others understand the benefits of what we are calling a content strategy has also been an interesting and rewarding challenge.

In an email conversation with Sarah Lay (my unofficial content strategy peer review person) we touched on the issue of whether the content strategy I am creating is actually what the content strategy community would recognise as one…we both agreed and concluded that it didn’t really matter, as long as it did the job!

We touched on the fact that in #localgov we are really getting to a point where a group of disciplines are coming together and depending on your organisation it is likely to approach it slightly differently.

The types of things the content strategy is informing, linking to and dependant on are (in no particular order):

  • Communications strategy
  • Engagement Strategy
  • ICT Strategy
  • Information Strategy
  • Access Strategy

It has replaced a traditional web strategy altogether in my mind as we recognise that the “web” as a platform is essentially how we will manage our ICT infrastructure.

So unpicking the old web strategy further, a new strategy which is the responsibility of my ICT colleagues is an Application Strategy – this is essentially the strategy that informs our delivery of online services.

In my informal consultation on the draft content strategy, it has become clear that:

a) everyone agreed with the spirit of the document but it relied on conversation and explanation to answer people’s questions as they weren’t found in the document < but this is what the process was intended to tease out.

b) I didn't clearly articulate the strategic direction and focused too much on the 2 year roadmap < people were actually more engaged in where we are going than I had anticipated.

c) people didn't understand some aspects of what it is being proposed and the full extent of how we would apply a global experience language < My view is that it will be a complete rule book covering our web domain and not just the visual design of it, it will also form a critical and core part of a future procurement and commissioning framework for web/digital stuff.

One of the benefits of developing a content strategy is that I don't feel we need a social media strategy now. If we get the content strategy correct then our use of social media platforms to increase the engagement and interaction with our content will naturally increase…this does not mean that our use of social media will simply go crazy…but more than we will focus on the needs of the content, where the audience is and how we connect our content with the audience…the logical conclusion is that it won't be on our website but in social spaces.

And it is this strategic direction which people are really supportive of and are really engaged with…I've got one more week of informal consultations then a period of refinement and amendments on my document (which I've already started) then the content strategy will be ready for formal sign off internally by our corporate leadership team (gulp).

The next few weeks are going to be interesting.


Why I think #LocalGov hasn’t really cracked #Facebook

This won’t be a long in-depth post, I won’t be quoting research or statistics.

My thoughts are quite simple really and if I compare the relative success of twitter by councils as opposed to facebook, it isn’t really rocket science why it hasn’t worked.

Lets start with a few key things about twitter.

  1. you only have 2 privacy settings – Open or Closed
  2. twitter is a wider environment not specifically tied into people’s personal or family social networks.
  3. twitter is not about existing networks but actually helps people to build and connect to larger ones
  4. you don’t need approval to follow someone (unless you’ve blocked your account)

Now compare that to facebook and you can start to understand some of the complexity that exists for councils before even reaching someones stream.

  1. the privacy settings are multi-level, multi-user and are only becoming more complicated as each month passes.
  2. facebook is more about existing connections and networks
  3. the process of connecting requires both parties to approve.

So take these simply things and then think about how a council fits into this picture.

I appreciate I’ve simplified so much here but you don’t need me to tell you all the differences between them….

So my assumption and conclusion is that twitter is great for those people who want to find out information without having to seek approval from people…in fact a bit like subscribing to an RSS feed but with opportunities to actually engage with the content.

The use of facebook will only ever “really” work for local government when we actually already have connections with people…so it really could be seen as an extension of a CRM system as opposed to a communications platform as it is about existing connections and not about creating new ones.

Once you see it in this way, you’ll start to think of more appropriate ways to use it.

So the reason local government hasn’t cracked facebook is because it is trying to reach “new” people and not focusing on adding value to those people it already has connections with…this is one reason I believe libraries make such good use from facebook.

Moving away from web strategies and it’s about time

In my role one of the outputs that I was expected to create was a revised Web Strategy, which at first I was more than happy to do, I wrote the previous one so it wasn’t really an issue to simply refresh it in line with current priorities and national drivers.

However once I got going I started to notice a difference in the conversations I was having with people and more importantly the conversations with people about “the web”.

The big shifts were primarily about what people think “the web” actually is?

Some people naturally thought it was a single website and in particular the councils website, others were clearly thinking more about “the web” as a platform for service delivery and transformation and others were thinking it was an online repository for information about the council and a few other definitions as well which in their own way were right.  It is in fact all of those things and of course more…but this was certainly not the view when I wrote the last strategy.

I’m fortunate that a number of the areas above have their own strategies and are embedding “the web” directly into those strategies, so it makes it easier to simply work out what aspects we actually haven’t got a plan or strategy for. For example we have an ICT Strategy, Access Strategy, Information Strategy and we are currently producing a new Communications Strategy.

In my previous role I lead on a piece of work which was essentially an ICT focused Web Strategy, the main objectives of it are to refresh the web architecture to make it fit for purpose and also reduce costs through the provision of common solutions. This is (in my humble opinion) a web strategy as it focuses on the web as a platform from which other things can be developed and provided, after all that is what the web is – a platform.

With the other strategies all pretty much extending the remit and scope of the previous web strategy – either a spark of genius on my part to lay foundations, or it failed to meet anyone’s objectives ! – I along with a few others asked ourselves what are we trying to produce and should we produce anything at all.

This was when I remembered a conversation with Sarah Lay from Derbyshire County Council who produced a Content Strategy as part of her studies – so I contacted Sarah and whilst she was unable to share her work at this point in time she was able to provide some pointers and her justification for producing a content strategy.

This conversation and an afternoon searching the web reading articles, blog posts, research and anything related to content strategy I decided that we were missing the most important strategy  – a Content Strategy < obvious now but we simply hadn’t considered it.

The realisation hit me like a flashback as I went through the approach, expected outputs and benefits at a high level and sure enough, the reason for our current failures in our web technology and platform, our content, online services and even our online democracy offering all came down to the lack of a content strategy.

We haven’t been asking what we want our content to do, we have been asking what we want our website to do and this is the reason we haven’t fully embraced Social Media as well as why some people don’t see the value…when you come at it from a content perspective you can see a variety of benefits and added value with content.

Now I’m still working on the details but broadly a Content Strategy will help the council in the following ways:

  • Specifying the key themes and messages in line with the Communications Strategy.
  • Providing a clear purpose for all content.
  • Conducting a content gap analysis and specifying the structure of content.
  • Ensuring the councils content is accessible, reusable, shared, open* and linked*.
  • Ensuring that appropriate metadata frameworks, retention, review and content life cycles and related content attributes are in place and content is properly managed.
  • Measuring and evaluating the success of our content.
But I guess one of the key objectives and outcomes is that we hope to have increased engagement with our content regardless of where someone interacts or consumes it.
It also helps focus our thinking on what we require of technology as we need to ensure that the technology supports the objectives of the content and not a website.
This is a fundamental shift in thinking as a previous key objective was to grow the number of visitors of the council website from, for example 3.5 million visitors a year to 6 million visitors over 3 years. But what is the point in that measure if your population is only 700,000 and no one is actually engaging with content?  So it is about asking the right questions and we will continue to measure visitors but it won’t be a key part of evaluation.
Anyway getting to the point where we actually have a strategy isn’t going to be straight forward as in conversation with Sarah she reinforced the need to adopt an evidence and research based approach, which I entirely support and was surprised that as a sector we haven’t pushed this harder…in fact “we” tend to use external reports such as Better Connected as our only research base…I have my views on Better Connected and whilst I think bits of it add value, unfortunately it is not greater than the sum of its parts when you read the whole thing!
We need to do some work before we can get a comprehensive Content strategy, but we are certainly in a better place now as we know the direction of travel and we know the stages we need to go through.
The first stage being an Audit and Analysis of our content, some of this is already underway but we now have a greater focus and because we are framing this within a content strategy we are now asking ourselves whether the existing methods of measuring success of a website apply across to measuring the success of content….the issue is that the majority of measures don’t exactly match so we need to rethink our approach to evaluation.
It is a journey and one we should have taken years ago, but I’m just pleased we are actually now taking it. I’ll share more over the coming weeks as things start to take shape and my thinking clears…

Customer Service and Engagement – are they aligned?

I’ve read two kind of related blog posts this week and they got me thinking about the current culture in Local Government and the approach by many councils on customer service  and engagement.

From what I hear from other councils, progress is being made on rationalising services and centralising common functions to enable cost reduction and in the harsh reality we face redundancies. Now I’m not suggesting this is the wrong approach but I do wonder what the intended outcomes are for all of these councils.

I’m going to acknowledge up front that the scale of public sector cuts and the speed in which these are happening are also causing me a slight concern, not because I think they are wrong but because of the potential for decision makers to make knee jerk reactions to situations without really thinking or considering the longer term outcomes that the local government sector in particular has a role in.

Lets get to the blog posts, the first post Via CapGemini:  What can we learn from small businesses about social media and customer engagement? made me think about the skills and approaches required to do customer service effectively. This then made me think that is “good” customer service really something that the public sector ought to think about right now in the context of huge cost reduction and job redundancies…It took me a few minutes, to argue with myself and accept that Customer Service is essential and a fundamental aspect of delivering and contributing to cost reductions in the medium to long-term. I don’t believe we have a short-term approach available in this area. My view is that if you haven’t started a customer service programme of any kind then it is likely to be about 2 years before you start seeing any return on investment.

Coming back to the issue of rationalising and centralising functions etc…This can and does work, but I think it needs to be approached in a way that de-couples the layers of those functions so that only the relevant parts and the appropriate processes are actually rationalised and centralised.

For me Customer Service is not a process that can really be centralised or rationalised, it need to be main-streamed and embedded in the core culture of an organisation in order to really support success  – in local gov terms this really means cost reductions – and the following extract from the blog post sort of highlights my thinking.

There’s a counter that many people from our offices get their lunch from that also draws in a long line of people from the local area. Like most business districts the block is crammed with competition, all essentially selling the same product at the same price. And yet this little spot, tucked away on a side street, is always consistently busier than the competition. So what’s driving people to make the extra effort to reach this small corner of the city to buy highly commoditised products; sandwiches and coffee?

The business is run by just two people, one front of house and one in the kitchen. For the front of house they apply three key principles to engaging with customers;

  1. Know who I am; know my name and what I like / don’t like.
  2. Respond appropriately; consider my current mood. Am I looking for a quick purchase, do I have time to explore new products, do I have time to engage in a more lengthy conversation.
  3. Make me feel valued; make me feel like a valued customer and reward me for my loyalty (but make this sincere by building it over time so I feel like I’ve earned it).

SO the scale of operation is very different from local government – But let me explain my thinking….Local Government is being pushed to become even more local and connect with people and to ensure service users and wider citizens are involved in service design and decision-making, but how can this level of connection and relationship exist or even emerge unless we start to build relationships in new ways and understand what people really need.

The 3 principles are very relevant to Local Government Channel Management Strategies:

1) Know who I am – This is supported through approaches to Customer Relationship Management but also and probably increasingly through local engagement activities whether online or offline…We have already created relationships in many different contexts, but have perhaps not connected up the relevant information.

2) Respond appropriately – Ensure that the channel is able to meet a variety of user scenarios…quick reporting of a problem, to a slightly more complex application process…Whatever the channel it needs to respond, signpost and direct people through an appropriate and efficient process to meet their request.

3) Make me feel valued – I simply see this as acknowledging someone in a community has something to say and contribute to the design of services, we need to reach out to these people (offline and online) and ensure that their views are recognised and valued alongside others.

The second post again from the CapGemini blog : Are you willing to crowdsource your customer support to a p2p community? got me thinking about how customer service agendas need to be more aligned with our underlying democracy and engagement agendas.

When I read about engagement strategies, approaches and frameworks I always read about connecting with existing communities to ensure a long-lasting connection and relationship or if one doesn’t exist work on nurturing a community over time.

Now I am more than happy with this and it makes so much sense  – however have we in local government or central government connected this engagement agenda and the focus on connecting with existing communities with the customer service agenda and in some ways the Big Society agenda.

The following extract might help explain my thinking a bit more:

The advantages of integrating customer support communities into your customer service strategy include:

  • Increased credibility: Studies show that 44% of consumers trust people that are just like them (Edelman Trust Barometer 2010), and 74% of consumer purchasing decisions are affected by key influencers on social networking sites. Gartner shows that customers value advice of other customers more than that of a company’s employees. Real customers providing a service to other customers improves the credibility of information.
  • Expert Knowledge: Users with a strong interest in the product often have profound product knowledge and can provide detailed answers to even complicated issues. Especially with highly technical products these experts are closer to other customers than contact center employees because they face the same challenges in using the product. Dell’s IdeaStormcommunity, for example, addresses its customer’s expert knowledge and creative power by providing a platform for new ideas and suggestions around its products.
  • Lower cost to serve: Enabling customers to help other customers can also reduce the volume of direct customer contacts, thus reducing contact center resources. The transfer of customer service to online communities ensures 24/7 support which would create high cost to service when provided by conventional channels. Linksys by Cisco Systems for example stopped its email support one year after its community launched. Since then peer-to-peer support has replaced a large number of customer contacts (Forrester May 2010).

When I first read this part of the blog post, I wasn’t sure whether they were really talking about customer service or engagement or both and I’d missed the connection between them?

Anyway, I had started to think that the 3 main areas are also linked to the cost reduction agenda and whilst I am not advocating we make even more people redundant, one could argue that in time if our engagement strategies are successful, then we could look to create “community based” helpdesk and service support groups from within the community itself and support the over-arching customer service agenda.

After all this thinking I asked myself – are Customer Service and Engagement Agendas aligned and should they be to maximise the opportunities to government and communities?

This is merely a collection of thoughts at the moment and it likely to be some way off into the future before the levels of maturity around engagement reach a stage where government can have meaningful conversations about taking over some support and assisted self-service functions.

Sometimes I wonder whether I think too much 🙂