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Content Strategy Interview with Jonathon Colman of Facebook

Posted on Feb 3rd, 2014
Written by Lee Odden
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    Jonathon Colman1.3 Billion.

    As of February 2014, that’s about how many active monthly users there are of Facebook. Imagine the content that gets created amongst all those connections – updates, photos, videos, blogging and plenty of cats.

    But Facebook isn’t what this post is about. Not exactly.

    The subject of today’s post is Jonathon Colman, a Content Strategist at Facebook. Jonathon and I first met when I was programming a Search Marketing track for ad:tech. I had known of him through his participation in the search marketing industry and really appreciated his results focused approach to optimizing online marketing performance.

    As a SEO at REI, Jonathon could not only show much revenue per keyword the company was making but also how much revenue was being lost because of slow loading web pages.  I noticed he was also very attune to customer experience and content – something many SEOs are just catching on to now.

    An insatiable learner (Masters in Information Science), wicked smart, focused on results, kind and thoughtful, Jonathan is definitely someone you can learn a lot from. In this interview he shares his journey from REI SEO to Content Strategist at Facebook, offering really useful tips, tools and resources along the way.

    You were with REI as an Internet Marketing Program Manager doing SEO and then a Principal Experience Architect role doing IA, UX, and content management work. What motivated that transition?

    I’m at my best when I’m learning new things and facing new challenges with other people who are passionate about what they do. Facebook, where I’m at now, is a wonderful place for learning from people who are passionate about being open and bold, moving quickly, connecting the world, and having a big impact.

    Before focusing full-time on content strategy, IA, and user experience, I was REI’s SEO, creating their content marketing program and sustainably growing their organic traffic by orders of magnitude. Before that, I was managing the digital marketing program for The Nature Conservancy and helped lead them to win two Webby Awards.

    Before that, I worked in desktop publishing and was a “webmaster” (hey, remember those?). Before that, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer working on public health issues in West Africa. And before that, I was a technical writer for IBM and wrote a few books on their OS/400 operating system.

    So it’s been a long, winding journey to Facebook. My motto (shamelessly stolen from J.R.R. Tolkien) is that “Not all those who wander are lost” – and you can see why!

    And now you’re at Facebook as a Content Strategist, congratulations! How has your work with search and user experience prepared you for your current role?  Has anything from your past experience been an obstacle to overcome?

    You know, it’s a funny thing – almost no one comes to the field of content strategy as a fully born content strategist. Not a one of us came out of junior high school asking to see the RFP for the content management system or the brand guide for voice and tone.

    Instead, we enter the field from all over the place: copywriting, editing, marketing, advertising, content management, information architecture, user experience, visual design… the list goes on. That’s a big part of what makes it such a fun industry! Everyone has something important that they can teach you.

    That’s a good perspective for working at Facebook, where we have core values around being open and building social value. We know that everyone has something to add, especially when they can be their most authentic selves. So if you’re a content strategist who comes from a background in marketing, engineering, publishing, editorial, user experience, information architecture, or some other field, we value your input and want to help you have an impact.

    So having an understanding of search algorithms and indexation, people’s seeking behaviors (and how a system responds to them), web analytics, and conversion optimization all help me create better content experiences for the people using Facebook. But I think the chief SEO-based skill that helps me out is just being inquisitive and curious about how I can best help people find what they’re looking for.

    There’s quite a bit of momentum towards content marketing in the digital marketing world, with everyone from SEOs to public relations to advertisers getting into the space – each, seemingly, with different definitions of what content marketing or content strategy is. How do you define content strategy? How do you define content marketing?

    In my Epic List of Content Strategy Resources, I tried to parse a few definitions from leaders in the field like Kristina Halvorson and Rachel Lovinger. My goal was to show how content strategy is fundamentally different than content marketing. I include several more definitions of content strategy in my talk “Why Our Content Sucks”.

    Regardless, I still get plenty of e-mails and comments asking about content marketing, so I think the better question is this: are content strategy and content marketing compatible? A simpler way of asking that is: can you have quality, trust, growth, and revenue all at the same time?

    Of course the answer is yes. Content experiences aren’t a zero-sum game, they’re not binary, and they’re not a competition between silos within an organization. When you look at the organizations who are growing sustainably year after year, most of the time you’ll see quality content and content services are a strong part of their strategy.

    Likewise, if you want to see who the leading organizations of tomorrow are going to be, take a look at who’s doubling down on content – not quantity of content, but quality of content experiences and services.

    As SEOs seek to redefine themselves (organic marketing?) in the end, aren’t we all just marketers and communicators?

    I think ultimately we’re all trying to find the best ways to serve people and meet their needs, especially the needs that they don’t know that they have. Marketing’s one way to do this, sure. But so is user experience. So is product development. And the organizations and brands who can produce this sort of serendipity sustainably are the ones who are earning media attention and word of mouth.

    That’s the sort of organic visibility and positive perception that money can’t buy. And you don’t get it from one-off link-building schemes, infographics, or viral campaigns – you get it by consistently producing amazing content and services. But to reach that goal, you have to start from the perspective that content is an experience, not a feature. Content is a system, not a commodity. And most of all, content is people.

    That’s the key to content strategy and it’s only real secret I have to give up here. As they said on the Simpsons: “The Greeks knew it, the Carthaginians knew it, and now you know it.”

    In your role with search marketing, I recall you being one of the best examples of someone that really tied analytics and performance to drivers of performance optimization. With content strategy, does that same accountability exist? Can you share some ways content marketing and content strategy are accountable to business performance?

    Definitely! I made the argument at Confab this year that content strategists must become data-literate if we’re going to advance our cause. And we should be held accountable to the same analytics systems and business metrics as everyone else. So if we’re going to talk about concepts like quality, engagement, loyalty, and other factors, then we need to be able to back them up with numbers as well as qualitative results. After all, analytics can tell you what people did, but not why.

    In my presentation, I drew some hard lines in the sand, making judgment calls about productive metrics and tools that help us gain actionable insights… and those that we should stop measuring. I think Ben Yoskovitz, co-author of Lean Analytics, puts it best when he says “If a metric won’t change the way you behave, then it’s a bad metric.”

    Another problem is that most folks approach accountability for metrics as if it were nothing more than some sort of heavy cudgel to be wielded with bitter impunity: “you’d better reach my arbitrary goal OR ELSE!”

    I think that’s wrong-headed and counter-productive, especially over the long term. I think of accountability as being a warm blanket, a way of setting strategy, aligning people, and choosing priorities that are based in reality. In short: everyone should sink or swim together rather than stabbing each other in the back.

    In setting goals, you have to look at the big picture: you’re not just running a campaign over a week or a month or even a season. Rather, you’re building the history for a brand and an organization that’s going to (hopefully) endure for a hundred years… or more!

    What lessons have you learned about content and working at a social network company in your initial time at Facebook?

    Primarily, I’ve learned that it takes a lot of people with a lot of passion (and no small amount of Philz coffee) to make great content experiences. At the start of 2013, the Facebook Content Strategy team was 11 people strong and now, one year later, we have over twenty. And we’re still hiring!

    I’ve learned that “Quality” isn’t a definition; it’s a conversation. Our team uses a clear set of content principles – content should be Simple, Straightforward, and Human – with a strong set of standards in all of our work to ensure that we approach each new product from the standpoint of empathy for the user’s experience.

    I’ve also learned about the concept of “Ruthless Prioritization” because there’s so much work for us to do and so much opportunity that we need to focus on just the top priorities or else we won’t be able to succeed at our mission of connecting the world. I’m constantly asking myself: how can I best use the time given to me right now?

    What do you love about Facebook?

    Beyond the technology, the scale at which we work, and the massive scope of the challenges we face, I’ve really fallen in love with the people I work with. Our content strategy team is amazing and I’m learning so much from my colleagues. And I’m working with people from all over the world who bring diverse knowledge, experiences, and talents to bear on every product.

    And I particularly love Facebook’s openness. Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the leadership team hold an hour-long Q&A every single week where they answer employee questions. If you’ve got a question, you can ask it and get an answer.

    That’s amazing to me – I’m just some guy asking a question on a Friday afternoon and here’s Sheryl Sandberg taking time to be direct and honest with me… and hundreds of my colleagues in offices all over the world. How can you not love that?

    What are some of your favorite content strategy tools?

    Here are three great, non-traditional content strategy tools that most folks are unaware of:

    • The Up-Goer Five Text Editor. Looking to communicate using the simplest language possible? This tool highlights every word you use that’s not part of the “ten hundred” (one thousand) most popular words in the English language. Based on a brilliant XKCD comic.
    • Need a synonym for the word “things”? I did, recently. And this is where I found it. There are many places where you can find related words – Google even shows word etymology in search results now for all you budding philologists out there – but this one is fast, exhaustive, and (most importantly) easy to use. See? Content isn’t just text; it’s an experience!
    • I recently started using this for personal projects and really enjoy the simple, elegant interface. It looks valuable for small, distributed teams who want a better system than sending a Word doc back and forth over email. I always enjoy using lightweight tools for heavyweight problems.

    What information resources do you rely on to keep yourself fresh with content strategy trends, news and best practices?

    Here are my top 10 go-to resources:

    Any tips for budding content strategists seeking a career in the field?

    Be quick to laugh and slow to anger. Invest your limited time and energy in the people, ideas, and things that matter most to you. Follow your interests and curiosities out the door and into the world. And when you meet interesting people (oh, and you will!), buy them coffee and listen to their strange tales.

    Just for example, here’s my strange tale: as a youth, I was very interested in comedy without knowing why. This was at a point in my life when I was so shy and introverted that I had a hard time talking with anyone. So when I was in college, I got ahead of my fear by forcing myself to audition a comedy improv group and – surprise! – they took me in. The tactics I learned about interacting with people on-stage also crossed over into real life off-stage. They were lifehacks for introverts.

    Turns out that I was natively interested in helping people to laugh because laughter creates connections. With each person I meet, I’m always curious about what might make him or her laugh. This leads to splendid conversations and friendships… and, when combined with alcohol, more than a few unfortunate incidents with family members during the holidays.

    Even so, these skills helped get me into (and through) Peace Corps service in West Africa. And I still use them every day at Facebook and on stages all around the world when I speak about the confluence of marketing, information architecture, and content strategy.

    So: follow the paths where they may lead. Let data be your guide, but keep learning new things so that discovery, intuition, and even chance play a part in your destiny. And in your identity.

    And remember: “Not all those who wander are lost.”