Written by Scott Solomon, Content Marketing Manager at eZ Systems

In a 30-minute sit-down interview, I had the pleasure to discuss a multitude of topics with one of the foremost leaders in user experience and content strategy for the web and mobile. Below you will find the interview in full along with a 30-minute video of Karen's discussion at our re\VISION Boston event. 

First, give me the brief synopsis on Karen McGrane, your background. 

I think I’m one of the rare people in this industry that literally came in through the front door. I have a graduate degree in human computer interaction and technical communication. I studied content strategy and information architecture in graduate school and I have been doing that pretty much ever since, it’s been my whole career. I think a lot of people in the digital space got here via other means – they were print designers, or graphic designers, or architects or something, and I’m just a true digital native. It’s all I’ve ever done.

Interview continues below. 

Whats the best advice youve gotten in your career thus far? 

Just broadly, on any subject? I used to work for Razorfish, which is one of the big digital industries, and for a time I reported to JP Maheu, who was the CEO. In one of my performance reviews, we were talking about what you do and how your career evolves, and he said something that has always stuck with me, which is that as you evolve in your career, you need to take personal responsibility for making sure that you get to do the things that really make you love your job because the world will conspire against you. The demands for your time, expectations for what it is you should be doing – you can very easily wind up spending all of your time on things that are not the thing that you love. 

I see that from a lot of people in the digital space, whether they’re designers, or developers, or writers even. As you get more senior, you move into a management role, you move into more of a leader, a role where you’re nudging and moving and making spreadsheets of things, but you’re not actually doing it anymore. I see a lot of people really struggle with that, like “What is my identity as a designer or a developer if I’m not actually coding or actually designing anymore?”

I think the answer for that is very different for every person. Some people love being in management, some people have to be hands-on, some people can move back and forth. But I think to know for yourself, like what is the part of your job that you really love doing? What’s the part of your job that you have to do in order to feel satisfied? Make sure that happens; make sure it happens every week, or every month, or every quarter. Build it in, because no one is going to take responsibility for that except you.

So, we know the publishing world has changed obviously. Would you argue that its changed for the better or for the worst? 

Well… [Laughs] Talking to people who worked in the magazine industry in the ‘80s or ‘90s, I think those halcyon days are gone. I’m sure it was a lot of fun. Somebody told me that LIFE magazine, every Friday when they close the issue, would have carts of champagne wheeled around the office. They had a champagne party every single week. Those days are gone. So, if that’s your definition of good or good quality, or a good working environment, you might be sadly disappointed.

But I think in general, I love that the publishing industry is so much more diverse than it used to be. It’s just straight economics, right? It’s the law of supply and demand. Now that the distribution channel is no longer a monopoly, there’s just room for so many more voices, so many more perspectives, there’s just so much more to read and do and experience.

The flipside of that is that because the distribution network is no longer a monopoly, there is the illusion that the revenue has gone down, that the bottom has fallen out of the market. That is true in one sense. If you were a traditional publisher and you made your money off of being the only one that had the printing press and the only one that had the trucks to deliver things, yeah, you probably don’t make as much money anymore. But the idea that so many more people can participate in that and have a shot at it – some people can choose to do it for free, and there’s a lot of handwringing about that but there’s also a sense of “Well, if I love doing this and I want to write, to publish these photos, to share these videos and I’m doing that purely for the craft of it and I want to share that with the world,” I think it’s a great thing that you can do that now.

You talk a lot about separating content from form and you talk about developing a content strategy that treats all forms as equals. To go over the concept for people, why is this necessary in todays digital environment? 

When you look at the landscape of different devices, and platforms, and screen sizes, and what not, the idea that the model of publishing that we have that’s based on print, where it’s like somebody goes in and lovingly handcrafts the content so that it fits perfectly on this piece of paper and it’s styled and designed for it – it doesn’t work anymore. It didn’t work on the web ever, but we kind of pretended that it did. We all just sort of bought into this notion of “Well, we’ll just use the same mental model and the same approach that we used from print.” 

Now with mobile phones, and tablets, and smart TVs, and watches, and Google Glass, and God knows what else is going to come next, the idea that we have to have new production processes that allow us to create content separate from form, or that allow us to encode the meaning of what we want to communicate in a way that isn’t completely dependent on visual styling… It isn’t completely dependent on layout, or sizing, or styling cues derived from print –that’s sort of a mind-bending thing for human beings to have to wrap their heads around. That basically up until this point of human history, we never had to think about that and now that’s our biggest problem. 

So, I think that the idea of separating content from form is a conceptual ideal. It’s not like every single thing has to be completely separated from its container – there’s still going to be lots of things that have containers around them. But the idea is that we have to start talking about what it means and we have to get people out of their completely print-based mindset. Mobile, broadly, as this crazy zombie apocalypse of new devices – I think that’s a huge catalyst. It’s the kind of thing that, when you start explaining it to people, they go “Ohh…” They have this huge light bulb moment where they’re like “Ohh… Right, yeah! If we want our stuff to work on all of these different things, we can’t just pretend like print is the real place where somebody is going to read it, or that the tools that we use from print are the only tools that we can have to communicate meaning.” We’ve got to have new things.

How do you feel mobility has already impacted content strategy and how do you feel that will change in the future? Ive started watching House of Cards, and the show talks about Slugline, how the writers are using their phones to write. Do you see something like that ever happening, or is that happening already?

Sure. I’m writing a book right now and I’ve written some of it on my phone. When you talk about mobile, I always try to emphasize that it doesn’t mean getting your stuff to work on a smartphone. It means how do you set your content up so that it has a fighting shot of being rendered appropriately on whatever device, or platform, or screen size, or resolution, or input mechanism somebody wants to use to interact with your content.

One of the things I’m fond of saying is that you don’t get to decide what device somebody uses to go on the internet. They get to decide that. It’s our mission and our responsibility to provide them a good experience for whatever device they happen to use.

Adapting content to the times is something youve spoken, and with the pace of technology, times are changing fast. Originally I wanted to say Whats the next big thing that a content strategist has to prepare for?but then you were talking about how its hard to predict. What would be the best way for a content strategist to prepare for the next big thing when they dont know what it is?

One of the things that I love most about content strategy and information architecture in particular is that it has longevity. That quote from Jason Scott, that “Metadata is a love note from the future,” I’ve seen that pay off for organizations so many times. The investment in structured content, in taxonomy, in semantic metadata – those things are not sexy and they’re not shiny. I think it’s sometimes hard for organizations to articulate why they should put the work into doing that. But it pays off in the long run, it really does. You continue getting value from that content in ways that you would not have if you didn’t have that metadata in place, if you didn’t have that structure in place.

I guess my advice for content strategists is: It’s up to us to articulate to the organization the value of the work that we do. Nobody wants structured content, nobody wants taxonomy. No one wants those things for their own sake. It’s up to us to figure out how do we demonstrate the value of our work, how do you tie the investment in structured content to the goals of the organization; that they want personalization, that they want reduced translation cost, that they want true multi-platform publishing.

I’ve said many times that, for me, mobile is a Trojan horse. I could never walk into the CEO’s office and talk about structured content. I could, but it’s not as good of a sell as it is to go in there and talk about mobile, because that’s what they care about. They’re like “Oh, the numbers say we’ve got to be on mobile, the platform is growing. How do we get business value out of it?” If I go in and say “You want to succeed on mobile? You have to do this.” That’s a way stronger sell than just saying “But structured content and taxonomy is a wonderful thing for you to have!”

So, I think my advice for content strategists is to figure out how to tell those stories. Anticipate where you want to go, anticipate what else you might be able to do with this and sell the value of your work through that lens.

What advice would you give a publisher thats either struggling at the digital transformation or beginning a digital transformation? What steps would you tell them to take first in that journey?

That’s a very tough question. I’m really deeply sympathetic to traditional publishers. I sometimes don’t think I come off as sympathetic to them, but I really am in that the type of culture change that we’re talking about is not just hard to pull off, I think it’s nearly impossible to pull off. If you look throughout American business history at the number of times this kind of transformation has happened and whether the company is able to pivot and adopt some new way of working, there’s not a lot of buggy whip manufacturers that are now making transmissions. I, in no way, trivialize that challenge.

If I were advising a traditional publisher, I would tell them to be very, very clear about the value that the organization gets from digital or programmatic tools and how that gets layered on top of the value that they get from editorial processes. When I look at the traditional publishers that I’ve worked with, that question of what is the value of our editorial vision and voice versus what are the robots doing, you can understand why there’s a huge amount of fear around that. People are losing their jobs and they’re being replaced by robots, and everybody is pissed about it. For you to go in there to say, “Oh, but it’s going to be so wonderful! The robots are going to do all these things and it’s going to be faster and easier!” You can totally see how everybody digs in their heels and fights that tooth-and-nail. It hurts the organization, it hurts the long-term success of the business and I think a lot of them are going to fail. A lot of them are going to fail, and when they do the Harvard Business School case study of why they failed, that’s going to be the reason they failed.

How do you make that happen? I think you have to be able to layer on that kind of technology and demonstrate the value that different digital technologies and different technical workflows provide while still making a clear-cut case for the unique editorial vision and voice. The problem there is that the digital publishers don’t have that. They don’t have a huge editorial team that’s hanging on tooth-and-nail trying to fight for that turf. They’re just like “Sure, yeah. We’re running on a tight staff, we have the robots doing these things for us, it’s great.” I don’t think the traditional publishers will ever get there.

What are some of the biggest challenges youve seen when it comes to multi-sites?

I just believe there’s a lot of work to be done in the content management industry and I think that a lot of publishers, a lot of organizations in general, are saddled with legacy infrastructure that is hard to use, that’s cumbersome. But yanking it out and fixing it is a three-year multi-bajillion dollar project that no one wants to sign up for because it’s probably going to fail and they’re going to get fired. So, what do they do? They spin out some WordPress blogs. That’s the easiest possible solution for a larger, more intractable problem. But now you have two problems.

Now you have these organizations that now have three different CMSs, six different CMSs, a hundred different CMSs, and they try to integrate them but the work that they have to put in to even… They’ve dug themselves into a hole and now they have to put the tunnel work in just to get back to parity, just to get to baseline. I don’t know the answer to it. In some cases, it’s going to have to be a “We’re going to kill it with fire and start over” scenario. In a lot of situations, if I were to say that, I would get laughed out of the room because it’s like “Yeah, we wish we could kill it with fire, but we can’t.”

I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer to that problem. It’s a real problem, it’s a genuine problem, it’s a problem that will continue to get worse with mobile and people coming in and being like “Oh, now we’re going to have a mobile CMS.” No, you aren’t. What are you talking about? When they’re faced with the pure need to get something out quickly, are they going to try to do it with their legacy and cumbersome CMS? No, they’re just going to layer something on top of it.

What’s the answer? It’s probably going to be middleware. Like, “We’re going to build a sedimentary layer of middleware on top of it and then hope that the technology catches up so that at some point in the future we can integrate it all.”

What would you do if you were consulting someone and they were saying, Okay, were going to spin out these WordPress blogsand youre like No, no, no. You shouldnt do that.What benefits would you place in front of them for the reasoning behind having one CMS?

The logic behind all of that really does need to come down to: It’s got to be revenue driven. I feel like I can articulate the case for this by talking about other large enterprises – so, hospitals, universities. Those are examples where I see a lot of the same behavior happening. Like, we have a cumbersome CMS but people just go off the rails and start spinning out WordPress blogs. They have to have some financial disincentive to do so. That means that the core IT function basically has to say “You can use our system for free and we will do the best we can to make it work the way you want it work, or you can spin out a WordPress blog but there is an organizational cost that is attached to that. You will have to pay for that and it’s going to cost you more. Even though you think WordPress is free, it may be from a WordPress site standpoint, but from an IT standpoint, for us to manage and maintain those sites, you can’t do it.”

I’ve talked to lots of people across organizations, trying to play that whack-a-mole game. You have to lock things down. You have to lock down URL creation, you’ve got to lock down security, you have to manage that ship really tightly. There needs to be some carrot and some stick, and the carrot needs to be “We’ll work with you, we’ve tested this, we’re innovating on our CMS, we want to help you make this a better product. We know that if you do this within our system, it will perform better on search, it’ll be faster, and it’ll be easier to maintain. You can go off and do your own thing, but the stick there is it’s going to cost you.”

Whats more important, better user experience or better content?

The model of an iterative process, the idea that we are working in a more “agile” fashion, the idea that many organizations are moving more towards a continuous deployment model so, rather than the one big redesign, they’re just doing small little tweaks constantly or more frequently – I think that that iterative model is something that really, really needs to be worked into the relationship between design and user experience and content.

When you look at legacy print publishing processes, there was editorial and there was design; and those two things didn’t really need to intersect that much. I work with a lot of magazine publishers and talk to them about “What do you do first? Do you write the words first and then design it, or do you come up with the layouts first and then tell your writers to write to fit the hole?” Both of those things are true. Some of them are very words-first, some of them are very design-first, some of them are 50/50. But the idea that that has to happen in a very tight collaborative loop doesn’t really exist, or it doesn’t exist in the way that it needs to in digital.

So, I think that a lot of our web processes have adopted that workflow. We started out and it was like “First you design everything and you make the boxes and you give somebody a template and you say ‘Fill in the template,’” and we’ve kind of swung over to the opposite vector. I was on a project recently where somebody was arguing that the client should rewrite every single piece of content on their website before they did any structural work, before they did any work on the CMS, before they did any design work. I was like “Well, that’s equally crazy, just in the other direction.” [Laughs] You don’t want to rewrite everything, because then guess what? Then you’re going to go in and structure it, and you’re going to build your CMS, and you’re going to design it, and you’re going to find out that you wrote a bunch of stuff that doesn’t fit and you need some stuff that you didn’t write. All of that has to happen in this really iterative process.

We’ve made great strides in making the relationships between designers and developers more iterative – they’re tighter, they sit next to each other, they’re the same person. I think we should be doing the same thing to make design and content a lot more agile.

I recently wrote a blog post about who should manage the CMS in an organization, whether its the CMO, the CIO, or the chief digital officer. My conclusion was that in most cases it should be led by the CMO with a very close partnership with the CIO. Do you agree? What are your thoughts? 

That’s another one of those questions where I think it’s a generational thing. Organizational structures evolve probably the most slowly because you’re dealing with people’s careers. You can’t just tear out all of your employees in your company and replace them with shiny new employees. I think what you see is the relationship between marketing and IT continuing to evolve and the very function of those groups continuing to evolve.

Like with what you’re saying, one of the things that I’m starting to see is the office of the CMO taking over more of these functions and having IT report into the CMO. Not all of IT; there’s the server functions and keeping the equipment running – that still stays in IT. But the customer-facing digital technology functions all report up to the CMO. But I think that’s just sort of a way station in the sense that the place that we’re going to get to is that the entire marketing/IT function is really just the digital function. When people talk about “Well, should the digital officer run that?” Well, today that digital group is sort of a carbuncle that they bolted onto the side. It’s like “Oh, well we need some digital people. Let’s get some of them. They’re going to sit in the basement, and they’re not part of the real business. We’ve got to keep them off to the side.”

The truth is that 20 years from now, the marketing function and the digital function are going to be the same thing. The skills of the chief marketing officer are going to be so grounded in digital. I see that in the publishing industry too. I tell this story of when I did the redesign of the New York Times ten years ago, New York Times Digital was a separate business. It was in a separate building. You could tell that they were like “Well, we know we need a website but we can’t allow this digital thing to infect the rest of our business, so we’re going to keep these people off to the side.” After the work that we did was completed, that was when they opened their new building, integrated the teams, integrated the businesses.

It’s a generational thing. What I think you should do right now is not the same answer of where you’re going to go in the future. To make the best decision for what you should do right now, you have to work with the marketing and the IT group that you have today. You’re not going to force it to evolve to where it’s going to be 20 years from now. You’re just going to have to roll with it for a while.

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