Expert Interview: Content Strategist Sally Bagshaw always puts users first
Talk with Sally Bagshaw about digital content and you talk about information, business strategy, user experience, and more. It's not always easy but she has some tips that anyone can use to get started.
Today, Sally Bagshaw is Canva's Content Strategy Lead, a role she was well-prepared for after years as a consultant with clients including Virgin Australia, Westfield, and Bunnings.
She’s helped grow the field of content strategy in Australia and beyond, too. Sally has run the Brisbane Content Strategy Meetup since 2012, and she’s made more appearances on conference stages around the world than we can list here. When Australia’s leading digital event, Web Directions Summit, added a new Content track last year, Sally was a natural choice to help curate and MC the line-up.
But despite all the community-building and evangelising, "content strategy" still isn’t a term or a role that everyone understands in the same way. So when we caught up to talk with Sally, we started by asking how she views the discipline.
Sally onstage at Confab Central, the world's largest content strategy conference, in Minneapolis, USA.
A user-centred way of thinking about content
To explain what content strategy is (and isn’t), Sally compares it to working as a copywriter, which is how she started out.
"Writers and strategists are both content nerds at heart," she says. "We love language, we love words, we love communication. That's the main similarity between those roles. As for the differences, when I started out in copywriting and content creation it was very easy to focus on the thing that you had to do right now. You would get a brief or some sort of direction about what people wanted to achieve. And then you work very hard to create the piece of content that was going to best meet those needs."
While creating content is mostly about conforming to a brief, content strategy brings in larger questions about the user experience.
As a content strategist you have the opportunity to think with more breadth. Your surface area is a lot bigger, so you can look beyond the one thing that you're writing now.
"Whether it's an article, a blog post, a piece of training material, or a product page, it's your job to look at how all those things are connected together and really understand them from a customer or user’s point of view. What is their experience as they navigate their way through your customer journey?"
It’s typical for Sally to reel off four examples ("an article, a blog post, a piece of training material, a product page") in a signal sentence. Sally has spent years thinking about web content in countless forms, and how to make it succeed. Her experience and clarity of mind mean that her advice can apply equally to websites made for ecommerce, entertainment, or community-building. You might be a small business getting ready to build your first site tomorrow, or a century-old corporation trying to tame an out-of-control online presence - either way, thinking about user journeys is going to help a lot.
Sally says, "That journey might be from an initial SEM landing page through to sign-up, or through a training course, or more of an e-commerce journey with a product page, shopping cart, confirmation emails and all those things. As a content strategist, you always ask: What's the connection? What's the next step? Your role is to make sure that there's no friction in that journey, and that it makes sense because you're providing the right information at the right time. Understanding the user’s intent at each step, looking at it all together."
This brings in the related discipline of User Experience. UX is more closely associated with design than with content, but the lines are seriously blurred. Job titles like 'UX copywriter' or 'content designer' are becoming common, coming in through the door that content strategists opened.
I don't think there is much difference between content strategy and UX. It's less about the title, more about the method and the way that you think about things. It's just a slightly different lens.
"In the role that I have now at Canva there's lots of crossover and the people who I work most closely with are design researchers and product designers who apply that design thinking too. It’s a very user-focused way of doing things. We all really understand the customer, what their needs are and the problems they're trying to solve with our product," Sally says.
User-first thinking works for small businesses, too
Content strategy has a methodical base, drawn from the same foundations as UX, but the work that people like Sally produce is bespoke. What works at Canva might not work anywhere else, but the same style of thinking will pay off anywhere.
"Even if you have a really small site, the most important thing to figure out is what the customer truly wants and how it aligns to your business goals. There should be an overlap between those two. That’s the sweet spot, where you can work towards your business goals in a way that is appealing to your customers and answers their needs," Sally says.
Once you’re thinking strategically about content you’re going to avoid one big, common mistake.
The easiest trap to fall into is that quantity is a good thing.
"The reason to create more content is because there's an actual need for it from a customer's point of view. Not because someone said that a blog or a miscellaneous article or resource page is a great idea."
Before you can make decisions based on what users want, you need ways to listen to the people who use your website.
"For small business owners, and even larger places, there's value that you can only get from actually talking to real customers, and from hearing their concerns, and from watching them use your product. That's where you can get insights to make good decisions about what your websites do," Sally says.
"This is where you uncover stuff that you might not have thought about, even if you gather information in lo-fi ways. It might be a couple of face-to-face interviews, running surveys, talking to your sales team or your help and support teams. Get an understanding of what your users are about and then the rest of it's much easier to do."
Think before you type
When you follow Sally’s advice, a lot of the thinking that goes into content production happens before you start writing (or illustrating, or podcasting, or filming). Don’t touch that keyboard (or pen, or microphone, or camera) before you understand the user journey that you want to support.
Map out the series of steps that you’ll take people through. What order should those steps be in? What information will they need to move on confidently? What will they have gained by the end?
"As long as you're breaking down that customer journey to make sure that you don't have any gaps or points of friction, you’ll enable people to engage with your website, whatever goal you have for it."
Before you start working on content, understand your users and how you want your website to work for them. (Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash)
Once you know what your content needs to communicate, and how to tell when it’s working well, you’re ready to start creating. Or perhaps you’re ready for someone else to start creating for you.
Working with external creators
It can really pay off when you bring in a specialist writer or creator to work on your website. Sally has experience on both sides of this working relationship, so she knows what it takes for things to run well.
"A good writer can give you something much better than you would ever be able to do yourself - and that's the point, right?"
You're investing in someone to come in and to create content for you. So respect that expertise, give clarity in terms of direction, and give them as much fuel as possible.
The early stages of the relationship are most important. For larger pieces of work, Sally suggests that you start out by working together.
"If it's a really big project and you're trying to develop quite a lot of content, then try a bit of co-creation early on with subject matter experts who can provide good, constructive feedback. Work together on one or two examples. The conversations that come out of that help build that relationship. Then if you need to give more critical feedback later, things are in a better place," she says.
For smaller engagements, it’s enough to have pre-prepared material for the creator.
The better your briefing process, the less editing you'll need to do later. (Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels)
"The best I’ve seen were briefing kits that basically said: ‘This is our voice; This is what we do and don’t say; Here are key messages about our products; Here’s who our audience is.’ That last bit gives you a bit of information about key customer segments - not necessarily personas, but a look at who you need to write for and what they are like. Then there can be a bit of empathy for the person you're writing for.
"Examples of what you're trying to achieve are really helpful, too. That's the fuel to go off and write something very good," Sally says.
"As the website owner, another obvious thing is having your style guide down pat, so you won’t have to edit style issues. You want to avoid spending time on refinement and fine-tuning, which comes when you haven't provided clear enough direction in the first place."
Being clear is also important when it comes to giving feedback to writers or creators. Sally says, "The worst feedback that you can give is vague feedback."
Writing professionals value very clear feedback. Designers joke about clients who say, ‘Make it pop’, and for writers the equivalent is like, ‘Make it a bit more fun’. Sometimes being really prescriptive is not a bad thing, especially if the message isn't getting across.
If you ever receive work that feels like a complete mismatch, Sally’s experience is that "something has gone wrong in the briefing process - so examine that, rather than try and rework the thing that's very wrong."
Don’t let built-up content overwhelm you
"It's very easy to create. It's very hard to take away."
Web content tends to build up over time. As your customers change and your business evolves, older content becomes less effective. Sally says, "The more content you create, the more noise you create as well. Customers have got to wade through all that information regardless of what it is."
When your website is bloated, or your visitors are getting lost, you need to revisit what’s been published. This is known as a content audit, and at its most thorough it means opening a new spreadsheet to list and evaluate every page on your site. Content strategists have been known to bond over horror stories about weeks-long audits that fill every cell from A1 to ZH56214. But as ever, Sally knows some ways to keep your goal in mind, and keep the work manageable.
Before you start, decide what successful content looks like for you and your audience. Can they use your content in the way that you want them to? For different businesses that will mean different things: selling products, building a community, training or education, whatever it may be.
"Then develop some criteria or benchmarks, and then assess what you have at the moment.
"Does your sales content have strong call-to-actions? Are you showcasing your best products? If you're more into news, is it always up to date and relevant? You might have other quality scores for readability or voice and tone. Choose things that make sense as key scores for you."
When you have a clear definition of success it’s faster to audit content, and more obvious where to start rebuilding.
Sally says, "I think people get a bit stuck on this idea that you have to burn things to the ground or tackle everything at once. But, no."
"What is the most important thing? What is the biggest point of friction that's preventing your websites from performing? Prioritise that and tackle it in a way that makes sense with the resourcing and the budget that you have."
Exactly how to fix content depends on what it’s not doing. "If it’s that things are really off-brand in the wrong voice and tone, there’s rewriting to do. If it's that people aren't finding things, maybe that's an SEO thing that you need to fix."
Which leads to the trendy conversation of our times: Can AI fix it for you?
"AI has gaps around things like creativity and coming up with truly new ideas."
Building AI into content production
Unless you’ve been living at the bottom of the sea, you’ll have encountered a few opinions about artificial intelligence lately. ChatGPT and its robotic competitors are changing the way that content gets made. If you believe the direst warnings we’re heading for future filled with unemployed creators, writers, and editors.
Sally isn’t preparing for an enforced career change just yet.
"AI is amazing. I'm totally not against it. We just need to understand the things that generative AI can do well and things that it can't do well, at least for now. These models have been created by scraping the Internet and then predicting what the next word should be for different inputs. It can be very good, but it has gaps around things like creativity and coming up with truly new ideas."
You can use things like ChatGPT in your content creation workflow, if it helps accelerate where you need to be. But I think, at this point in time, there's still a really important place for the human part of that workflow.
So what is it important for humans to do? "If you are playing in that space, there's a lot that really good content people can shape and guide along the way as you're using that technology. Again, it's scraped the whole Internet which means that it’s taken up all of the biases, all the wrong information, everything. So you still need the common sense and the creativity of an actual person for a truly good result," Sally says.
"You just need to pick and choose where it makes the most sense to bring AI in and where it's better to invest in true design and people who can think things things through. And AI doesn't solve product problems either! That's another place where people have to come in."
It’s all about people
The way Sally sees web content, people come first. Most obviously, content is there to help people get things done. As a creator or owner of content, it’s your job to help your visitors achieve things. You need to understand them and what they want.
Content creation is people-focused as well. Relationships between client and contractor, manager and writer, or user and researcher are all crucial. Generative tools have their place, but they need empathy and creativity supplied by an organic counterpart. The better everyone works together, the better the work that you’ll get done.
So if you’ve been thinking about website content as a way to fill in a template, or as something that comes from SEO keywords, or as something to do after you’ve locked in your website design, perhaps think again. Remember that content isn't just part of the experience...content IS the experience.