Karen McGrane on content strategy

Karen McGrane has been challenging common misconceptions about content strategy and design as a writer, speaker and practitioner for more than 20 years.

A former VP at Razorfish, Karen works as an independent consultant, helping companies such as The New York Times, Disney and Conde Nast get the most out of their content. She’s also the author of two best-selling books, and the host of the excellent Responsive Web Design podcast.

We caught up with Karen recently to discuss at what point startups should start thinking about content strategy, how to communicate your brand within a product, and why you should stop thinking in pages.

If you like what you hear, check out more podcast episodes. Or subscribe to the Inside Intercom Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or over at SoundCloud.

If you’d prefer to read Karen’s insights, a lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below. Short on time? Here are eight quick takeaways from our chat.

  1. When you’re working at a large company, content strategy isn’t just about semantics. It’s also about organizational change.
  2. All companies like to think of themselves as publishers these days. But the needs for traditional publishing companies versus product companies that are new to content are very different.
  3. When should startups start thinking about content strategy? Rather than waiting until it becomes a problem, everyone can benefit from thinking about content right away.
  4. The content within a product is one of the strongest ways to communicate the voice and the personality of your company.
  5. We’re moving away from websites as destinations. When content is separated from form, we’re left with modular, reusable components that can go anywhere.
  6. New contexts and interactions in mobile force us to rethink how we style content. How does content on a webpage translate to an audio interface?
  7. With AI and IOT enabling new contexts every year, the need to apply long-term thinking to content has never been greater.
  8. Selling content strategy to your team is a delicate balance – you have to figure out what’s going to make that change happen.

Elizabeth McGuane: Welcome Karen. For the sake of our listeners, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Karen McGrane: Sure, I have been an information architecture and content strategy, user experience consultant for going on twenty years now. I’m one of the few people in this industry who really came in through the front door. I have a graduate degree in technical communication and human computer interaction. I led the user experience practice at Razorfish for about ten years. Then for the last ten years I’ve been an independent consultant. I focus on content strategy heavy projects, a lot of IA work. A lot of what I do lately is less about the front-end website and really more about organizational process and consulting.

Bringing content strategy to the table

Elizabeth: That’s exactly what I wanted to start off talking about. I know your second book, Going Responsive, is really as much about organizational change as it is about design. It occurred to me that organizational change is something that consistently crops up when we talk about design, even more particularly when we talk about content. What are your comments on that?


A common example of the content challenges faced by organizations. Credit: Karen Mc Grane

Karen: I think it’s such a big subject that, honestly, I look at this as a generational shift. A lot of the challenges that I think people like you and I face in design or content are really rooted in larger organizational structures. Or how does content fit into our processes? I think one of the reasons that these changes are really challenging to make is that organizational structures change slowly. You’re dealing with people’s jobs, people’s careers. It’s not like companies can go in and be like, “Okay, we’re going to rid of all of our employees and replace them with shiny new employees that understand all this stuff.” You’re working with people’s human ability to change, and that’s hard.

I realized a few years back that a lot of the problems that I was having was I’d design something that I thought was really great. I’d then come back six months later or a year later, and it would all be torn out, or it not would not work the way I expected. I saw myself getting frustrated with that. Why were these people ruining my beautiful design? What’s wrong with them? I really came to realize that I was the problem there. It was my belief that if I just designed something really nice, everybody would change and want to use it and change their process and workflow. Well, that doesn’t work.

Over the years, I’ve really come to focus a lot more on the internal processes and org structure and culture change that needs to happen. I think it’s really important work, but it’s work that operates on a much longer time horizon than just redesigning a website.

Elizabeth: Sure. It’s often a glacial pace of change.

Everyone’s a publisher

Elizabeth: I’m curious, you’ve worked with the New York Times, you’ve worked with Conde Nast, you’ve even worked with smaller publications like The Toast, which we’ll talk about later. They’re what I would call actual publishing companies. Most businesses and startups are now setting themselves up as publishers, getting into content marketing and so on. Are there different content needs or even different organizational change needs in publishing companies that get content, versus product companies that are maybe new to content?

Karen: That’s a good question. I actually do. I would say probably the majority of my work these days is with non-publishers, working with hospitals or technology companies. I’m working with an architecture firm right now. I think that they do have different problems than traditional publishers have. I often describe the traditional publishers as a little bit like the canary in the coal mine. They have been forced to adapt to the changes in digital much more quickly, and it’s been much more painful for them. For traditional publishers, their understanding of editorial processes, and that their entire business is geared around doing that well, gives them some language or some tools that they can put in place to start adapting.

Other businesses don’t have any sort of true publishing process or editorial process. When you go in and talk to them, you realize how badly they’re struggling. The website might look perfect, the front end’s okay, but then you look at their processes internally. We have this Excel spreadsheet, and then we copy that into this Word document. Then we email it to somebody and then there’s this form you have to fill out online. Then we copy that into another Excel spreadsheet. It’s so painful. It’s almost like they don’t realize it could be better.

It’s like they have been just struggling and duct taping along for so long now; they just assume that that’s how you work. I really enjoy those kinds of projects. It’s nice to be able to come in genuinely as an outsider, to say, “Oh hey, there’s a better way to do this and I’m going to help you get there.” In many ways, it’s such a relief to them. They wouldn’t have ever thought about it themselves because that’s not their business; that’s my business.

When to start thinking about content

Elizabeth: Exactly. I’m in the position of having started at Intercom as a content strategist on the product team and I’m in a company that’s always really cared about good content. But there wasn’t actually that role for content within products. You’ve worked with organizations that have been around a long time.

For startups or new organizations, at what point should they start thinking about content strategy? Do you think it’s something that they’ll only really understand if they run into the problems first? Do you think it’s something that we can start to embed earlier and earlier on in the company’s lifespan?

Karen: It’s much like user experience design. I think content strategy is for everyone and is appropriate for every organization, but it’s a question of at what scale you’re doing that content strategy. The types of challenges that I go in and work through with a very large scale enterprise might be much more focused on content modeling, editorial and production work flow. Making large scale changes or even re-platforming a CMS. Those are changes that happen at a magnitude that might not be relevant to a startup.

A startup probably could also be looking at a variety of processes that come from content strategy, whether that’s figuring out messaging and tone of voice. It could be defining a much smaller scale editorial and production work flow, but still thinking about that as a process rather than just as something that happens haphazardly. I think that in the same way, that the tools and techniques of user experience design will help a team and an organization stay focused on the needs of their users, or the needs of their customers.

I think the tools from content strategy will help organizations of every size stay focused on how their customers or how their users want to read and interact, and what they’re coming to the website to learn and know. I think those techniques and that mind set is every bit as important whether you are a five-person startup or a five-hundred thousand person enterprise.

Your voice in your product

Elizabeth: I thought that thinking was incredibly evident in the work that you did with The Toast. For our listeners that don’t know about it I guess you’d describe it as a satirical, literary, feminist online journal?

Karen: Yeah, I think that’s a good description of it.

Elizabeth: Did they reach out to you on Twitter? Is that how the design work happen?

Karen: No. I reached out to them.

Elizabeth: Oh, wonderful.

Karen: I had had a conversation with Jeff Eaton, the developer. He worked on the implementation of the project. He and I were just talking about The Toast and how great it was, and I told him it was my dream project. We said, “What if we just told them that we wanted to redesign it?” I hope it’s in no way disrespectful to the fantastic people at The Toast when I say their previous website was hot garbage.

Elizabeth: It was charmingly naïve.

Karen: It was a disaster. I loved the writing, I loved the voice. You got the sense of their personalities coming through so strongly on that site. The actual web design and development as this layer of smog that was holding them back. I just looked at it and said, “I just want to fix that so badly. I could make that so good.” I tweeted at them. Nicole Cliff tweeted back at me within twelve hours and said we need to talk.

Elizabeth: That’s great.

Karen: It turned out to be a really wonderful project. I do not say this about any project that I work on. It was seriously the best project I’ve ever done.

Elizabeth: What I loved was you took their voice, and especially their sense of humor, and you actually embedded it in the design and the experience. It really made me think about how do you bring a company’s voice into the product, into the actual thing that you’re designing, without doing away with things like ease of use and usability and so on.

How did you retain their personality without doing away with the cardinal virtues of information architecture?


The Toast’s recirculation modules help you find related content, while preserving a sense of humour. Credit: Karen Mc Grane<

Karen: Too often, people think that voice only comes through in the actual substance, or maybe, perhaps in the design. If you’re somebody like me, with twenty years of experience in information architecture, I think that one of the strongest ways that that comes through is in the IA. It’s in the taxonomy. It’s in the metadata. When I say that, it sounds so wonky that people don’t believe me. The Toast is a great calling card for being able to show how the connective tissue that holds the site together, if done really well, can be one of the strongest ways that you communicate the brand and the voice and the personality of the site.

Eileen Webb did some really, really fantastic work with them on cleaning up their tags. I think they got this idea from The Awl who had lots of long, funny tags that didn’t go anywhere. That’s great from a personality standpoint, but it makes your information architect heart weep when you see 6,000 tags that have only one article attached to them.

I think a really great example of client trolling was to make them go through all of their tags and tell us which ones were real and which ones weren’t. That wasn’t just to be mean to them, that wasn’t just punishment for their funny tags. It was actually something that paid off really well, what’s called re-circulation in the publishing industry.

There’s a lot of different places in the site where you can see other articles that are in the same series or by the same author or in the same category. Previously, they might have had one related content module. But we managed to infuse that through the entire site. I think that for some of their more regularly published content, being able to get to the previous episodes or stories in that series is really helpful. For a small publisher, every additional click that they can get coming in from a social link is ad revenue; that’s the whole business.

We did anything we could to improve the performance of the site. So that if someone came in from Twitter or Facebook, and previously wouldn’t have been able to read that article at all [due to load times], we could suck them in and get them to click on a couple of other things. That’s an entire business model right there.

Separating presentation from content

Elizabeth: Business models are a great way to start the next thing I wanted to talk about. I know that you’ve talked about things like content cards and responsive design; content not being locked down to a page model. Presentation being separated from the content.

I’m curious how you see the overlap between business models that are very much founded on a website being a destination, and the principles we see content going in, which is about freeing content from particular forms. Is there a conflict there? Is it just a semantic thing?

Karen: I think that my most recent book, Going Responsive, was really a book about organizational change that I hid under the cover of …

Elizabeth: Responsive.

Karen: A book about responsive design. My last book, Content Strategy for Mobile, was really a book about information architecture that I hid under the cover of mobile; a little Trojan horse to get in these ideas. I believe so strongly that the web really is about smaller bits of content. Small, more modular, reusable chunks of content or components on the front-end that can be connected together through metadata. It isn’t really about publishing pages anymore, it’s about thinking in systems.

I’m 100% confident that that is the way the web should work, and I believe that I’m going to be working on that for the rest of my career. I’m very happy to look throughout the rest of my career and think, okay, if I can make a small but meaningful impact on the world of web design by advocating this way of thinking, I will be really satisfied with my work and life.

I think it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around.When you look at the history of human communication, we have hundreds or thousands of years of putting ink on paper, and thinking about what a sheet of paper is. The idea is now that there is no page. There is only bits and pieces that you can connect together in different ways. People don’t naturally think that way.

When you separate content from presentation, you have a sense of the priorities and the relationships of that content. But that’s not literally described by what it should look like, or where it goes on the page. Those questions about how priorities and relationships translate into styling and layout, is two separate conversations. I think that’s very, very difficult to figure out, I think it’s challenging for organizations to start thinking that way.

I think today with the rise of mobile devices, that’s really the inflection point. People really start to get it. I will go into meetings sometimes and it’s like someone will have separated content from presentation in their head. Now that you have to publish to a website and a mobile app and a watch and a kiosk, you’ve really got to figure these things out.

I will say that one of the benefits of responsive design is that at least you can just manage and maintain one website. For many of these larger organizations, getting their content onto a website and an app platform means they have to think about this in new ways. If they can just deal with the web and app question, and not deal with the app question plus three different websites, that’s a much easier way to solve that problem.

Where does content go beyond mobile?

Elizabeth: Absolutely. I think the new paradigms that you’re talking about, well not new anymore, but mobile and so on, makes it obvious for people because they see the end result.

We’re building things very, very fast here at Intercom and we’re constantly thinking about new ways that messages, a particular type of content, can get out into the world. We’re looking at things like notifications and cards, sub-message level things that can go inside messages. We’re also thinking about what happens next. What happens when completely new contexts are available and people aren’t just on a phone. Do you see new context that are beyond mobile becoming important in the next 3-5 years?

Karen: I don’t know if I would give you a guarantee that this is 3-5 years.

Elizabeth: How close is it?

Karen: I definitely think that voice interactions and audio interfaces will be a huge new leap forward, in terms of how people interact with technology. Think about what’s happening with Siri or Amazon Echo, or the types of interactions that people might have in their cars. I think those interfaces, that format of interacting with content and services, is a fantastic example of what it truly means to separate content from form. For example, what emphasis means in a visual layout is totally different from what emphasis means in a voice interface.

I don’t know when this is going to happen. I have no promises that it’s three-to-five years or even fifteen-to-twenty years. I do think if we’re trying to figure out what interactions with technology look like over the next fifty years, audio will be a huge component of it. When you really start imagining that, it starts to make you break down what’s actually semantic information versus what’s styling information. You realize how much of our ability to encode the meaning of content or the relationships of that content is totally dependent on layout.

The organizations that start planning for this future now are the ones that are going to have a fighting shot of getting their stuff to work appropriately on whatever new platform or device comes along. If you don’t start thinking this way now, ten years from now when this is a reality, you’re not going to be able to get there. Some other organization is going to have had ten years of a head start on you.

Elizabeth: I would say voice communication is something that is even more specialized than editorial content was. Just as we have found lots of ex-journalists becoming content strategists, we might be looking to podcasters and radio, or people who just understand verbal communication, in a much more meaningful way.

Do you think that, just as we’re starting to get this wider understanding of what content strategy is, do you ever feel that it will become more embedded? Or do you think as content formats change, we’ll have new requirements, new specialisms? UX has been around for a number of decades and it’s approaches have changed. Do you think that that will happen with content strategy as formats change? Not just from long form to short form, but from written to audio?

Karen: Absolutely. User experience is one discipline that seems to have massive shifts in structures every five years or so. Information architecture evolving into interaction design, evolving into content strategy, I would not imagine that we have stopped the evolution of the types of roles and specializations that we need to have. The idea designers should also prototype or also design in code, there’s quite a bit of movement in that space now. If I were twenty years younger, I think the types of tools and the types of ways that I would communicate my design decisions would be very different.

I think the same thing will happen with content. I think we will need to have new and different specializations to cover the full range of narrative and storytelling, and interactive content and audio, and whatever else is coming next.

Elizabeth: Where do you think the interesting hires are going to come from? We talk about journalists, but there’s also game writers who are really, really well suited to that space. Do you think there’s any particular ‘go and study this’ advice that you would give to young people starting out?

Karen: Well, I guess I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I teach in an MFA program in interaction design at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I think that academia moves even more slowly than large corporations.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Karen: I think that it’s taken universities twenty years to even get a glimmer of what’s going on in the digital world. I started teaching in this program seven years ago, and I think if you look now, there is many more programs out there for people to study digital design or interactive design, or some form of digital content strategy.

In the next ten years or so, you might see a world in which employers are looking to hire people who have a college degree or a graduate degree in this industry. It may be somewhat laughable today that, other than having a computer science degree, most people who work in this industry have been trained in some other discipline. They’ve been trained as journalists or communications professionals or whatever.

In ten years or so there may be more high profile programs that are actually focused on interactive design. Carnegie Mellon’s had a program like that for twenty years. We may have more people coming out of programs like that and employers may be actively recruiting for people who have been trained in the digital world as opposed to just being trained more broadly in say, journalism.

Playing the long game

Content is the engine behind every medium. Credit: Karen Mc Grane

Elizabeth: It’s interesting that as the formats become more diverse, the technology becomes more complex. We’re starting to see much more in depth work in AI and robotics, and on the other side of the spectrum, work drawing from the humanities and drawing from people who understand communication.

How do you feel about that and how it’s evolving. Is it making you more excited about the future? Or do you think it’s going to make organizational change even harder?

Karen: It’s like humanities drive for new technology has not yet be sated. I do think that the innovation that’s happening in those spheres, internet of things and robotics, are always compelling, interesting things to learn about. I enjoy keeping up on a little bit on what’s happening in those spaces.

I’m also so sympathetic to organizations that have to parse through it all. Is this actually relevant and meaningful to my business, or is this just yet, another fad? I’m very sympathetic to that because I think there are marketing teams within the organization that are incentivized to think about this next shiny object, and not necessarily think about the long term value that they might gain from particular decisions. Then you have technical teams that are really struggling to keep up with the pace of change.

I think it’s hard to know at any given moment whether the decision you’re making is for a fad, or for something that actually will have long term value. I personally think that most organizations suffer from not investing enough in the long term and not thinking systemically enough about their content management system, about information architecture and taxonomy and content modeling, in a way that will give them long term value.

I think there’s too much attention paid to very short term campaign focused thinking. Let’s put something out, it’ll be up for three months and then it’s done and now we’ll never think about that again. Those decisions, I think, are vestiges of print advertising or TV advertising and that’s not really how we should be thinking about the web.

Selling it to the whole company

Elizabeth: Absolutely. I’m curious how has your approach to that changed over the years? I would imagine that now when people bring you in, you are very well known and a published author. They probably know a little bit about what to expect, anticipating and hoping that you can help them. Has that changed your approach to their problems?

Karen: Yeah, sometimes people ask me, “How do you sell content strategy?”

Elizabeth: That’s the question.

Karen: I hate to say it, but I guess the result of having a point of view and putting your ideas out publicly, writing books and speaking, means that when people hire me, they’re hiring that point of view. That’s why they hire me. I don’t have to really sell it to them. Or maybe a better way of putting it is I already did all of the selling by putting out my ideas and hopefully it resonated with people.

As I’m in there working with organizations, I have to negotiate with people who get it, the people who bring me in are the ones who will say, “Yes, we need this. Please help us do this.” Then also I have to negotiate with people who don’t get it, or people whose personal or organizational goals and power are not aligned with making the kinds of changes that I’m recommending.

They may be people who have a print focus and their power base is putting out a print magazine. Coming in and saying, “Hey, what if we took all the stories out of the print magazine and took all the formatting off of them and put them on the web. People could search and find them and cut them up in different ways.” Those people often don’t like that, that’s not what they want to have happen.

I sometimes describe it as a hug with one hand and a smack on the head with the other. You have to figure out what’s going to make that change happen. Sometimes it’s really doing a lot of selling and explaining and trying to get people excited about the vision. Sometimes it’s going to the executive and saying, “I need you in this meeting because you’re going to be the one who says, no, we’re doing this and there’s not arguing about it. We’re just going to do it.” That’s what’s so interesting to me about organizational change. How you figure out where you need to nudge, and where you need to let things lie.

Elizabeth: Sure. It’s as much an emotional process as anything else, I would imagine.

Who do you think is doing content well today? Both in the big organizational space, or the new players on the field that you think are doing exciting things in content?

Karen: I am actually quite interested in a new crop of content management systems that are emerging today: tools like Contentful, where I’m on the advisory board, or CraftCMS. Content management is so dominated by very traditional enterprise software sales. I’m not going to disparage any of the platforms on the market today, but I think that it is a very traditional enterprise sale. It is very focused on having a bunch of sales guys come in and tell the client to tell the prospective customer that the product can do whatever they want it to do. Whether that product actually does that or does it well, is a completely different conversation.

I am very sympathetic to large enterprises that are wrestling with the decision of which platform do they go with? I don’t think it’s an easy process at all. I don’t think that the CMS vendors are all that well aligned with explaining to their customer what the product does well and what the product doesn’t do well.

I think there’s a new crop of products coming on the market place, and probably one of the strongest selling points of them is that they are de-coupled. Rather than selling a monolithic system that is intended to solve every content management problem that you might have, from content repository to personalization, to managing the content, to building the web pages, to publishing the web pages. They actually just focus on a smaller set of those problems. Typically the content repository and the author experience.

Then with APIs that come out of that, you can have other systems on the front-end to actually manage the page building and the page publishing. You can have other systems that manage personalization or other business rules. I think the idea of choosing micro services rather than one monolithic system has its own set of problems. I think it shows that there’s innovation in this space. That if a large enterprise were considering what they’re going build in the future, rather than thinking of it as one giant package that they either have to keep or have to tear up the entire thing when they want to upgrade, they may think of it as set of smaller services that have APIs that talk to each other. With something like that, you can innovate, you can make changes to one piece of it, without necessarily having to tear everything out.

Elizabeth: Seems like such a simple thing. Just to close, I wonder if there is one piece of advice that you would give to someone starting, maybe a new product business, that has some kind of content focus? Even if they weren’t particularly aware that content was even part of what they were building. What’s the one thing that you think people should keep in mind to consider in terms of content strategy as they’re starting out?

Karen: If would ask them to spend the time up front, discussing the content and discussing the content structure. It’s work flow, the editorial processes, the goals of the content.

Separate that from having a conversation about what that new product should look like. I think that really pays off, and I know it’s hard to do. I can’t tell you how many meetings I walk into where I’m like, “Hey, we’re going to have a conversation about this content and what it’s going to be, and how it’s going to work, and how it’s going to be structured.” Everybody sitting there in the room being like, “When are you going to show us a picture of the webpage?” I’m like, “I’m never going to show you a picture of the webpage.” They don’t like that.

That’s the right way to do it. It’s not that you never design the website. Spend the time focusing on the goals of the content and the structure of the content before you jump into those conversations about what should this look like and how many links should there be. Those other decisions about the design are so much easier. Sometimes when I talk to designers, they say it’s frustrating because we can never get the content.” I’m like, “You’re not having the right conversations about the content.”

If you spent the time up front, doing these very traditional content strategy processes, your design process will be easier. You will know what the pieces are going to be, you’ll have those components in place, even if the you don’t know what the actual words are. That’s would be my advice – that content strategy offers tools and a process that can help every organization.

Elizabeth: Well, it’s powerful advice. I absolutely agree. Karen, thank you so much for joining us today.

Karen: Thank you for having me.