Learning the principles behind creating and sustaining effective web content is important, but it’s always helpful to see how someone else has put them into practice. With that in mind, we reached out to Tim Jones, executive creative director at North Carolina State University, to talk about how he is using content strategy at his institution.
Jones came to content strategy through journalism, working as a newspaper reporter for almost a year after college. In 2001, he took a job as an information officer at the College of William and Mary in 2001, arriving just as the college began transitioning many print publications to the web.
In 2007, Jones came to North Carolina State University as the director of web communications, leading a new group created to support a recent redesign. Last year, he spent seven months as interim chief communications office before assuming his current role, where he oversees web, print, digital, photography and video.
“We do a lot of marketing and communications, which is a really great vantage for content strategy, because you are looking at how all of these things fit together,” Jones says of his current role.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Jones touched on editorial process, mobile, multichannel publishing, institutional buy-in for content strategy, advocating for content, embracing a strategic approach and much more. (Please note: audio transcripts are available by clicking through to the SoundCloud page for each audio clip.)
Establishing an Editorial Process
MC: You mentioned that you came on in ‘07 to take the reins after this redesign project. And so, obviously your background in content came to shape the direction that communications at NC State took. Can you talk a little bit about how that came to be?
Jones: N.C. State had a pretty understated web presence before they went through the redesign process, and a big focus for the redesign that I inherited was improving the value of the homepage real estate.
It was a content-heavy design. So, we took advantage of that and really tried hard to define clearly what we were doing from an editorial perspective, spending a lot of time outlining the kinds of stories that we were using, why we were choosing those stories, and what we hoped we could influence as a result of those decisions.
When you manage the central homepage there is a lot of interest in the way that you make decisions about what content you choose and what you choose not to use. We learned early on that consistency in editorial judgment is really critical, and to do that we needed to put it in writing at least internally. So we had a guidebook on how we made decisions about what kind of content we were going to promote, what we were going to use where and also providing those outlets for content that wasn’t going to make the homepage cut. And that process is enlightening. You learn what your university values are, you learn what people find important, who your audiences are, and you really have to spend some time and commit to those kinds of decisions.
We spent a good bit of time on that, and using that as a real educational opportunity. Just sitting down with the communications folks and talking through what works in the digital space, what’s not going to work, what we’re trying to do at the university level in terms of recruitment or fundraising or general support and awareness efforts and how we were going to go about that. And then really trying to work with folks to bring them along and get them engaged and helping contribute to that process.
The Mobile Impact
MC: Tell me a little bit about how N.C. State’s focus on content has evolved with the emergence of mobile and the emergence of location-based services, and what new considerations you’ve had for content in the context of these new platforms.
Jones: We started working on a location-based services tool sort of at the height of the Foursquare and Gowalla check-in [craze], really trying to get in on that identity. We got the check-in working, we got the geolocation stuff working, and we got all that working, but we had nothing in the tool or no real reason to have it outside of it being a nifty tech trick.
We came to the realization that we needed a content first approach there. Once we took a step back and moved in that direction, we spent a lot more time deconstructing our existing content, looking for sources of content that might populate and feed this tool, things that might make the most sense in the mobile context. And that process alone was therapeutic in a lot of ways and really enlightening. We were able to evaluate what we have, what works and what doesn’t in certain contexts, how to structure better, what technologies we needed to put in place to improve that process. The calendaring system that we had wasn’t producing the kind of code that would work in this context, so we had to make some adjustments.
That whole process, just evaluating it from a content first perspective, changed the entire project. It’s been a long process. It’s delayed it quite a bit, but I think for the right reasons. Now we have a tool where it’s a lot clearer what we’re trying to do with it—we’re trying to get people to contribute content, but also the opportunity to deliver content in the mobile space. We focused a lot on events early on, because of talking to students about what would be most useful in the mobile context: “I just want to know what’s going on around campus.” It’s a big, sprawling, 2,000-acre campus, and so if I’m in the library and I want to take a study break, I need to find something to do. And mobile context is perfect for that, but not all event-driven content is perfect for the mobile context.
There is this moment where you look at this thing and say, hey, we’ve done some awesome work with this content. We can use this in our social space, we can use this in our homepage, and we provide this to the other colleges and units, and we can do it all because we spent the time analyzing and structuring our content to be effective across the platforms. And that really sort of shaped the direction we moved with the location-based services, with mobile and ultimately with our broader web strategy.
Content Strategy for Communications
MC: Can you talk a about communications—news, media relations, social media—and how the content first approach has influenced those communications channels and how you’re telling N.C. State’s story to a range of audiences?
Hear Tim Jones’ response:
MC: Can you go a little more in-depth about planning for multi-channel content and how that is managed on a day to day basis?
Jones: As we’ve improved and increased the number of properties we manage—Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, central web presence, media stuff, all across the board—we look for places where we have the highest potential for reuse and impact. I think it is important, when you don’t have a lot of resources, to take a hard look at what you do have, figure out what works and then do more of that. Just do that better and do it more often and more frequently and not focus so much on the holes you have.
Hear more from Jones about this process:
The other thing that has been really helpful in terms of reuse of content is a well-defined messaging architecture. I cannot say enough about that part of content strategy. Identifying your key messages, prioritizing them, and then figuring out how to tell the story of those objectives is a really key piece of content strategy. So we’ll sit down with our writing team and say, “Here is the messaging architecture in an actual document. Here is what we’re looking to do. We need some stories that fit this. Come back with ideas for stories and give me a headline, give me a short headline. Give me a Facebook teaser, and give me a question that goes with Facebook and give me an interactive element.” That’s part of our story brainstorming.
And when we keep an editorial calendar, we require all of our contributors to identify which business outcome or which bottom-line action their stories or their content is going to support. We require them to identify if it is apply, support, or contribute, and they have to identify the audiences and the targets in order for it to be included in our editorial calendar.
Getting Buy-in for Content Strategy
MC: You mention how there are a lot of people across N.C. State that have some communications role, whether it’s their full time job or it is part of their job, and you talked about how educating people is a huge part of that. Can you talk a little bit more about how you do that? How do you get people invested and involved with the content efforts?
Jones: We do a lot of work leading by example. And what I mean by that is, we develop things internally that we can point to as we talk to our constituents and our groups around campus to say, “See, we had this story and we took it here. And then we did this with it and this is how it is influencing our ‘apply, support, contribute’ [model]? Do you have anything that can do the same kind of thing?” And really putting them in a position to inform, advise and contribute and help advance the university’s broad messaging initiatives and the outcomes we’re looking for and turning to them for their expertise and empowering them to contribute.
Hear more about how N.C. State’s 125th anniversary has provided a platform for getting campus content contributors aligned with university messaging and goals:
Outcomes from Content Strategy
MC: You talked about this “apply, support, contribute” model to which all content should tie back in one way or another. So, I was wondering if you have any examples of ways that has come to fruition—tangible outcomes from this great content strategy approach.
Hear Jones’ response:
MC: We talked about the success you’ve had in getting people on the same page and really creating and managing content in a way that’s driven by those three core goals, and tying that back and driving action. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the challenges that you’ve encountered in getting this across.
Jones: When you simplify something to three words, there is a lot of disagreement about which three words you choose. So, agreeing on “apply, support, contribute” has been a challenge, but as you talk about it and realize how broad those objectives are, particularly “support,” you can bring people along.
I think decision-making is always a challenge. Just committing to a consistent approach that fits neatly with the university strategy can be a pretty big challenge, and we’re lucky that we have very strong leadership at N.C. State. We have a really good, solid strategic plan, and people laugh at me when I say we read and rely on the strategic plan to guide decisions, but man, we actually do. And I think from a communications perspective there’s no safer thing to do than use the university’s strategic plan, but it also provides a lot of interesting insight into where the university is headed and gives you some creative freedom to advance those goals in ways that you see fit.
I think our challenge is getting people to think strategically. To think about university objectives first. Really trying to bridge that gap and provide the opportunities for mutual benefit.
Hear more about Jones’ approach to being strategic:
Advocating for Content
MC: You have been lucky in being able to advocate for content for a leadership role. How would you advise people at other institutions who may not have had as much success in advocating for content or maybe want to do all of the things you’ve talked about but don’t have that leadership role or maybe need to find a way to get a seat at the table?
Jones: Stop thinking about it as property of the web or property of the print or property of marketing. Content strategy is an institutional thing. The best content strategy is institutional and it’s multiplatform. So, whatever it is that you can control and whatever it is that you can influence, be strategic about how you do that and build a case over time.
Hear more from Jones about how to advocate for content:
Content strategy should always be a work in progress. It should always be evolving and always be a goal to improve it. I think that’s important. I encourage people to not lose hope if it doesn’t seem like it’s going quickly. Every time your content becomes more strategic, the better your university gets.