October 10, 2011

Handling Content with Care: Hilary Marsh, Content Strategist

With experience in web content and print publishing, as well as writing and editing, Hilary Marsh focuses on many factors in the creation, communication and management of information. Content strategy, including content management, are rising disciplines in a digital society—particularly in the workplace. Marsh is both a practitioner and speaker of these disciplines. Here, she shares her perspective on handling organizational content, which constitutes more than the written word:

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself? 
Where are you from? What do you do for a living?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland and Chicago. Went to college for magazine journalism and worked in that field in NYC for several years. I became a copywriter for Avon Products, and discovered the Internet in 1996. Since then, I have focused on online communications.

Currently, I’m the director of the member website for the National Association of Realtors® (NAR). REALTOR.org is the online hub for all the resources, programs, information, and tools that NAR produces for its members, as well as other audiences. I’ve worked at NAR since 2005, joining as the site’s manager of editorial development and becoming managing director in 2007. My role encompasses more than only content strategy, although that is obviously a big part of it. I focus on Web strategy—our goal is to engage members more fully in what NAR produces. To accomplish this, I need to ensure that we know what members want, understand how to best communicate it to them, make sure that they can find what they want online, and make sure the site’s technology supports us well. So, that entails working with pretty much every department in the association. It keeps me pretty busy!

What is your statement about being a Content Strategist?
A content strategist is a teacher, cajoler, hand-holder, role model, and curious question-asker. She/he is a journalist, an editor, a speaker, and a mentor/educator. And she/he is also both patient and creative.

What is Content Strategy?
Online, content strategy is presenting information with an understanding of the needs of both the reader and the “generator.” Unless the information meets the reader’s needs, the content generator can’t meet their goals. It’s also an understanding of the context for the information—the reader’s context, as well as the way the information fits into a timeline, again, both for the generator and the reader. By the way, “reader” isn’t an ideal term (although it’s better than “user,” in my opinion): The goal of a piece of content is usually the reader taking some kind of action—participating in a program, taking advantage of an offer, etc.—as a result of the content. In the last few years, online content strategy has grown to encompass social media too. I helped create NAR’s social media strategy in 2007—we now have a director of digital engagement on our team, who oversees our network of social media channels and ensures that we share our information with members wherever they are, among other things. Another really important component to content strategy is Web and content governance. In a nutshell, that’s identifying who has the power to make decisions about what goes on the website and how, and what doesn’t–and the Web team needs to play that role.

My whiteboard

How did you arrive at becoming involved 
with content strategy for the web?
In the late ’90s, I was trying to figure out how I could take my background in publishing and promotional writing and apply it to the Web. In 1999, at a conference in San Francisco, I first heard the term from, I think, Molly Wright Steenson, and I instantly knew that it was the perfect term for the role I was trying to invent. I haven’t looked back since!

Why did you choose the web as your medium?
The web brings together editorial and promotional information beautifully. It allows people to get to what they want on their terms. It’s available 24/7. And it’s interactive and portable. I’ve really enjoyed creating online dialogues with people. My name is my profile name everywhere, so I’m pretty easy to find online. Since NAR’s members, REALTORS®, are so socially savvy as part of their profession, many of them have connected with me personally.

In addition to your work in Content Strategy, you also practice
Content Management—what is this?
Content management really means two different things. It means the exercise of having plans for content. For example, every piece of content needs to have a life cycle—birth, growth, maintenance/evolution, and finally archiving or deletion. Content management also refers to the tools that enable content to do what it’s supposed to—get created; reviewed; be promoted where, when, and how it makes sense; housed; and then archived.

What are your recommendations for software/web-based tools 
to use for collaboration and getting things done?
My team is based in both Chicago and DC, because we work with NAR’s departments in both cities. We’re all on AIM all day, so we’re accessible to one another. We rely on Basecamp to stay up to date on our various projects. I’m personally a huge fan of Dropbox for sharing and co-creating documents, but others on my team favor Google Docs more. We’re fluid.

My messy desk, including water bottle and lunch fork still in place mid-afternoon

What tools do you use to work on your ideas
and make them grow?

I spend pretty much my entire day talking, listening, and writing. I make sure to connect with a variety of people inside my organization, and I also try and find time to connect directly with our members, as well as with the people at our state and local associations who interact with members most closely. The vast majority of ideas come from what I learn through all of those interactions. I ask for feedback and listen to it very closely.

How does time factor into your making of your work?
My preference is to do all the thinking and planning, and then create something. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury to follow that process, and instead we have to start with something and then iterate. Right now, for example, we’re planning to launch a redesigned site in two months, and we haven’t even finished all the designs yet. So obviously what we launch with will be a start but far from perfect. I’m working on accepting that.

What is the most rewarding part of making your work?
Presenting information so that it is engaging and so that it works. As a counterpart to that, it’s helping people understand the value of communications, which is more about the recipient than the creator.

Is there a part of your work that is particularly trying
and how do you deal with it?
We have internal politics, often resulting from conflicting goals. I do what I can to understand the other person’s goals and make sure they understand mine, and see them as complementary rather than conflicting. At my organization, positive relationships are the ticket to that success.

How do you stay creative? Do you draw? Or keep a journal?
In my spare time, I spend as much time knitting as I can find time for—it really brings me so much peace and sanity. The concrete, tactile experience of knitting is a great balance for my work. My favorite part about knitting is that at the end of the effort, I have something to show for the time—hopefully something beautiful as well as comforting. I also do other homebody things—I’m an avid cook and gardener and make my own yogurt and cleaning supplies.

What are some of your sources of inspiration?
I try and surround myself with creative, artistic folks. Some of those work at my organization and others are in the Chicago creative, digital, arts, or craft communities.

Who and what do you recommend to learn more 
about Content Strategy and Management?
Kristina Halvorson, who I met many years ago when we spoke at the same conference, is the most famous content strategist nowadays. Gerry McGovern also has really interesting, often controversial things to say about Web strategy, content, and information architecture. My friend, Lisa Welchman, is the guru of Web governance—she pretty much invented the field. If you ever have the chance to see her speak or read her materials, please do! Lou Rosenfeld and Steve Krug are my favorite go—to sources for usability and information architecture, which is finally waking up to the value of content and content strategy.

What’s your advice to people who aspire to get involved 
with making things on the web?
Oh gosh, I’m not sure where to start in answering that question. I guess it would be to define what that means for you, and then study websites to see how they do it differently. The good thing about working on the web is that the internet itself is the best source for information about everything!

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All photographs courtesy of Hilary Marsh.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews