Content, Content Everywhere: An Interview with Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a content strategist who’s helped Harvard University, Autodesk, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and many other clients make sense of their content strategy. She’s the author of Content Everywhere and articles with The Pastry Box, A List Apart, and more.  We took a little time to get some great content from her about how she started out on the web, helping clients really understand content strategy—not to mention her upcoming talk at An Event Apart Atlanta.

How and where did you get your start on the web?

It never occurred to me to work on the web. I wanted to be a writer—which, of course, to me meant writing for real, a.k.a. print, publications. I went to journalism school; I wrote for my alt-weekly; I reported on city council meetings; I dabbled in copywriting. I’d used the web for social connection in chat rooms and mailing lists since the Nineties, but it didn’t dawn on me to make it a career until 2007, when I saw a job ad for a web writer at an agency in Arizona, where I lived while my husband was in grad school. The ad talked about communicating with clarity, about making websites make more sense, about helping users find what they need. I was intrigued.

So I became a web writer at this agency, and I loved how interconnected web content was, and how it could help users in so many ways. But pretty soon, I was frustrated. I kept hearing things like, “there’s no budget for content” or “the client is going to handle that”—and then watching those projects implode or stall. Or, I’d get handed a sitemap three weeks before launch by a PM who’d shrug his shoulders and say things like, “I have no idea what goes on that page.

That’s what brought me to content strategy: necessity. I wanted to do my job well, and to do that, I had to start asking tougher questions and nosing my way into projects sooner. It wasn’t quick or easy. I told my colleagues and bosses why this mattered—and how it would make us money—over and over. I walked to our developers’ desks and asked a million CMS questions. I took designers to lunch. I also stepped on some toes and made a million mistakes, but eventually, it worked: I was part of strategic discussions. Content became a part of the project-planning process.

How did that turn into you writing your book, Content Everywhere?

During all this time building a content strategy practice, I was firmly focused on the desktop—all the way into 2010. Mobile just didn’t seem applicable to me; in fact, I am certain I’ve said the words, “no one would want to do that on their phone!” more than once.

But I started working with government and higher ed—organizations with diverse user groups and a need to be inclusive. And I soon realized a problem: the content that I’d been working so hard to make more human and useful was stuck. It was designed in big ole pages meant for big ole screens. It looked like crap on mobile—if it was accessible at all. So I started investigating what needed to change.

What I realized is that we can’t afford to assume how or when a user will need our content. If I truly cared about content, I couldn’t just focus on copy. I had to design systems and structures that would let that content endure, meaningfully, wherever and however it was viewed.

In about 2011, I changed my whole process to focus on structure, repeatable systems, modularity, interconnectedness, and reuse. Then Responsive Web Design came out, and it hit me: other content people need to get this—now.

I wasn’t convinced I knew enough to write about it, but I started talking to Rosenfeld Media anyway. The result is Content Everywhere, which came out in 2012. It’s all about looking at content not as a series of pages, but as a sustainable, modular, interconnected system.

What’s one of the trickiest client challenges you’ve faced in your consultancy, and how did you overcome it? You can absolutely withhold names to protect the guilty.

By the time I was working on the book, I was planning and modeling content for all kinds of devices—and feeling pretty good about it. I could look at a mess of existing stuff, prioritize it, weed out the garbage, structure it, and chunk it up. It felt good, like I was tying up all the loose ends.

Then one day I was in a CMS training session with a client, and someone said, “I don’t get why we can’t just paste our press release here. Why do we need all these fields?” Another staff member said, “Well, I can’t use that new events system. It won’t replace my Word document.” And I realized something that, of course, is obvious in hindsight: it doesn’t matter what I know about the content if the people who are going to create, manage, and sustain it don’t know it, too. I needed to learn how to bring people along with me—people who looked at their website as a place to stick their stuff, not an interconnected system of information their users needed to navigate. These weren’t bad people, or stupid people, or lazy people. They were people who felt overwhelmed. People who hadn’t been part of the process and were now expected to change their jobs because of my decisions.

So I realized I needed to do two things. The first was to spend as much time building empathy for the people inside an organization as I did for the users outside of it. If internal people are understood and listened to, if they feel valued and supported, then my odds of getting them to live out the strategies we’ve identified go up a millionfold. The second was to think of content strategy as something that happens with my clients, not just for them. The more they are actively part of the process—even for wonkish things like content modeling—the more likely they are to grok them at a deep and sustaining level.

How does that approach relate to your talk for Atlanta, “Content Amid Chaos”? What will attendees take away from it?

I talk with designers and developers about content constantly, and it always elicits the same groans: there’s too much of it, it’s no good, it’s always late. It’s corporate, crappy, confusing. It’s out of touch with the responsive-user-centered-future-friendly-mobile-first-multi-device website we’re trying to build here. Why won’t they just do what we tell them is right?!

But that’s the thing: people don’t do stuff because you tell them to. They won’t change behavior just because you sent them a PDF of the new content requirements. They do stuff because it feels right. Because they can see themselves in it. So my talk in Atlanta will help designers, developers, and anyone working on web projects stop getting worked up about all the ways their colleagues and bosses are doing it wrong, and start collaborating with others to make small, meaningful changes over time—changes that achieve results people can see and feel.

Why is this topic so important to you right now?

I’m excited to give this talk because I think the web profession is at a turning point. We’re good at making stuff—we’ve been building and designing and iterating for a while now. But if we’re moving toward a world where everything’s on the web, then we’re also moving toward a world where everyone is a web worker. Only, most people don’t have the experience we have with the web. Once a project launches and we move on to the next thing, they’re out there creating content and adding navigation and building forms the best they know how—which isn’t very well if we don’t teach them. And our users suffer as a result.

That’s why I think our role now, more than anything, is to be catalysts for change—to inspire and motivate and educate people outside of our field, and by doing so, help them get more confident working amid the chaos of the web.

Thanks, Sara!

Sara Wachter-Boettcher will present “Content Amid Chaos” at An Event Apart Atlanta 2015, Feburary 17-19, along with eleven other brilliant speakers.  Don’t miss your chance to learn from the best—register today!