Content Strategy at Facebook – an Interview with Jonathon Colman

Jonathon Colman is a content strategist at Facebook. At CS Forum Helsinki he will talk about how to align core values with content strategy. We had a chat about what content strategy is like at Facebook – and also about Tolkien, the Finnish language and content strategy in general.

What do you think is the role of content strategy for business in general?

I really like what Erin Kissane has to say about this: “we don’t make things – we make systems that make things.”

And to be successful in that, I think that content strategists have to be engaged with systems thinking. Not just technological systems… those are relatively easy when compared to the real challenge: human systems. People systems. Political systems. The trade-offs between values and emotions and meaning all within power structures.

Trying to solve for those systems makes implementing an enterprise component-based content management system seem a lot like trying to find snow during the winter in Helsinki.

So when Rachel Lovinger says that content strategists need to be brave, I think this is exactly what she’s talking about. No one’s going to tell you how to create these systems or solve problems with them; as the content strategist, it’s your job to figure out both what works best and then what is realistic within the confines of your organization’s realities.

That’s where much of the exciting work is happening in content strategy today: creating content systems, processes, standards, and governance (and, through them, experiences) that help people support the core values and purpose of their business.

Unfortunately, that’s often much harder to do than you might think. My presentation at the CS Forum will talk about some of the difficulties in translating organizational core values into content strategy, especially when those core values don’t exist or – worse yet – actually do exist, but are not truly core to the organization’s culture and beliefs.

What does a content strategist actually do at Facebook (e.g., what’s your typical day or job description like)?

Ha, there’s never a typical day at Facebook! And keep in mind that I’m so new here that I’m still getting lost on our campus. And, um, in my own building.

Most people are surprised that we have a Content Strategy team because Facebook is all user-generated content, right? But when you look closer, you’ll start to see that Facebook isn’t just what your friends and family share online. There’s a lot of content, design, and structure in place that helps guide you and set the tone for your overall experience with Facebook.

That’s where our team comes in. We strive to build trust with the 1.15 billion people all over the world who are using Facebook. The content we create should give people context, set clear expectations, and generally keep everyone informed. To accomplish that, we must be simple, straightforward, and human in all of our communications, messaging, and design.

So we always try to use plain, simple language and design – we’re aware that people using Facebook may just be there for a few moments, so it’s important to be concise. But we balance that the need to give people enough explanation and structure so that they understand how our products work and can make informed decisions about how they use them. Most of all, we seek to create content experiences that are friendly and respectful – like you’re talking to your neighbor, not a computer.

If you’d like to learn more about how content strategy works at Facebook, you should join the discussions on the Facebook Design blog. And I should also mention that we’re hiring!

How did you end up working for Facebook?

I’m now on my fourth or fifth career – I’ve lost count! It’s no wonder that my motto is “Not all those who wander are lost” (from J.R.R. Tolkien; more on him later). I’ve been a technical writer, a front-end producer and web designer, a marketer focused on SEO and social media, and now a content strategist and IA. So, just like my dog, I’m something of a mutt!

Most recently, I was working for REI as their principal experience architect, a fun role in which I strived to connect business goals with systems strategy, user experience, and the structure of our content. Prior to that, I led the SEO discipline for REI, growing their organic search traffic by over 160% in just a few years while driving strong increases in online sales.

But most of my past work is focused on non-profit causes and service. I used to co-lead and set strategy for The Nature Conservancy‘s digital marketing team, where I helped lead them to win two Webby Awards. I also pioneered their use of social networks to engage with their most passionate constituents and other supporters. Through a variety of strategies, the Conservancy grew a strong, engaged community and quickly became an early leader in fund-raising on Facebook and other social platforms.

Earlier, back in 1999, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa, where I focused on public health, capacity-building, and health infrastructure. I like to think that I’ve carried my service orientation, ability to improvise, and interest in sharing knowledge, language, and culture with me all the way to Facebook.

Content strategy is trending big-time right now: do you see any risks about it? Any pros and cons?

I love how our community is growing all over the world. Whether you’re participating in the content strategy communities on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, or LinkedIn, you’ll find a smart, diverse group of people who are engaged in learning and sharing their knowledge and experiences. As a new content strategist, I treasure those interactions and benefiting from the wisdom of others.

That said, similar to what Daniel Eizans pointed out a few weeks ago, there’s a large influx of content marketers entering this community. Perkele – I’m one of them! And this new population is going to change our conversations and our communities, if it hasn’t already.

And – take a deep breath with me here – that’s OK. We have a lot to learn from content marketers and other technical marketing disciplines, just as they’ll benefit from interacting with us. We can help them understand the systems, structures, research, and usability that all goes into a great content flow or experience. They can help us understand how the organization can grow and drive measurable engagement and conversion from those same content experiences.

Both perspectives are valuable and it’s all right – expected, even – that we’re going to argue about process, workflow, metrics, and accountability. But where we may diverge, what should bring us back together is our organization’s strong ideology, as expressed in our core values. This negotiation and give-and-take is some of what I’ll be talking about in my session at the CS Forum.

What do you think people expect or want from companies online in the future?

In the future? Ha, we still haven’t even figured out the present! Havuja perkele – in many ways, our discipline is still trying to solve the problems from the last generation of web sites built in the mid-2000s.

No matter the timeframe, I think that people will always need us to focus on the things that have always made web sites great: simplicity, clarity, usability, quality, and empathy in providing information, structures, and services. No matter the interface or device, those concepts will always be helpful and sellable… and therefore in demand by employers.

Our language and tactics may change over time, but the “corest of the core” strategies tend to stay the same. Put another way, there will always be a need for people who can, as Abby Covert states, “make the unclear clear”.

Who is your personal content idol?

My content idol is J.R.R. Tolkien, whom I’m convinced was one of the world’s great first content strategists… though as an Oxford dean, he preferred the title of philologist. He created entire worlds, languages, and systems that culminated in a new genre… and I hear that he also wrote the odd novel or two.

Tolkien loved language so much that he created several phonologies, grammars, histories, and even scripts for his work on The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien also did much of the original artwork himself as well.

Most people don’t know that Tolkien was enamored of the Finnish language – he actually taught himself how to speak, read, and write it so that he could better enjoy the Kalevala, an epic collection of Finland’s oral folklore and mythology written in the 19th century. And one of Tolkien’s major Elvish languages, Quenya, is based entirely on Finnish.

Upon discovering a Finnish grammar book, Tolkien claimed that it was as if he were “entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before.”

You can almost hear his passion dripping from those words. It’s the same way that Rachel and Cleve sound when they’re taking about structured content. The same way that Karen sounds when she’s saying that the world needs IA more than ever. The same way that Kristina sounds when she’s opening up Confab.

And the same way you’ll sound as you’re leaving the CS Forum this year: excited, energized, and empowered.

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