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Paul Ford may have coined the term “content strategist” but he’s certainly not the only expert in it. This week Paul and Rich are joined by Postlight’s Associate Director of Digital Strategy, Chappell Ellison, to discuss the three pillars of content strategy. She also discusses the difference between editorial and technical content strategists, shares her journey in finding the role, and explains why content strategy work will only continue to grow.

Transcript

Paul Ford Just so people know, just because you play Metroid on Twitch doesn’t mean you get a job Postlight.

Chappell Ellison Actually, I don’t know. That’s about how I would hire. [Rich & Paul laugh] I’d be like, you’re in.

[music ramps up, plays alone, fades out]

PF Richard.

Rich Ziade Paul, do I have a fun fact for you?

PF Oh, what’s your fun fact?

RZ Do you know who coined the phrase ‘content strategy’? 

PF I do.

RZ Who Paul?

PF There’s been research—

RZ Just answer the question.

PF I’m sure other people use it before me but apparently, I was very early.

RZ You are the world’s first content strategist. 

PF I may have been the first person to have a website which is like I’m a content strategist for hire. The reason I know this, I didn’t know this because I came up with it. Rachel Levenger, our friend over at Razorfish research determined was like, I think it might be you.

RZ As the origin.

PF It’s annoying. It’s annoying when I do things. So that was annoying.

RZ Well it is. It’s true. There’s just this deep seated bitterness and envy that I deal with everyday working with you. But here’s the irony. You don’t have a clue what it means.

PF Well, okay, actually, I do because I’ve done in the meantime, I did content strategy engagements. But that’s not—we’re going to talk about all of this.

RZ Well we have an expert in the room with us today.

PF Thank god!

RZ Who’s actually finally is going to actually define the word properly and take it out of your hands as a pioneer here.

PF What’s her name?

RZ Chappell Ellison. 

PF There we go. I was wondering if you would do Edison, because I did that for a while, but it’s Chappell Ellison.

RZ Sounds flattering. Get the disclaimer out of the way, Paul.

PF What’s that? 

RZ Chappell is an Associate Director of Digital Strategy at Postlight. You can check us out at Postlight.com.

PF Chappell, have you gone into the HR system and notice there’s like a flashcard system that helps you learn all the names and titles. 

CE I have seen that yes.

PF It’s pretty exciting. 

CE Yes, it’s definitely exciting to be here. [Paul laughs] No this was the long con! I actually just wanted to get on this podcast. So I figured the best way to do that was to get employed.

PF Oh, absolutely. uprooting your career and rebuilding all your relationships just in order to get this peak experience.

RZ Credit score takes a hit but she’s on the podcast.

CE Worth every second of it.

PF There you go.

RZ Chappell. Welcome.

CE Thank you. Thank you very much.

PF So you are a content strategist, I’ll go ahead and say it. So you don’t have to say anything awkward, which is you were in a company called Huge for a long, long time, you also teach at the School of Visual Arts, just like I used to be, well, I bailed, but you did not bail. And you’re also a Twitch live streamer. I kind of want to get into that at a certain point. But so you come to us, Huge, actually a very well known practice for your content strategy, we do quite a bit to actually for the MTA, MailChimp, places like that. Tell us what a content strategist is and does.

CE I was told y’all were gonna give me softball questions.

PF Oh my god, there’s a moment in the discipline when people start defining the discipline that makes you want to throw everything out the window. Have you been in those meetings?

CE Yeah, and this is actually I think the curse of a content strategist is we’re constantly having to define ourselves. And that’s okay. I don’t mind. But I will take a swing at what content strategy is, or what I’ve come to see it as. Content strategy is the ordering, optimizing, and maintenance of anything you might upload, download, store display in a digital experience.

PF You know, what happens is people are like, hey, that’s a nice looking design. Thanks for making that design. Now, let’s put all those little boxes up on the website. Oh, that’s good. Website looks good. All done. Except it isn’t because people keep publishing, they keep doing all kinds of things, they have to make art, they have to put the art somewhere. And then over time, oh my god, people get into pickles.

CE It is a lot because I look at, you know, your website, it’s like buying a house with a three car garage, you only have maybe one car at the time. And then you don’t get two more cars. So you just start filling those bays with things, you know, like bikes and all that. And then one day you get to the point where it’s panic mode, because your house is so full of stuff.

PF It’s also like website, what is that? Because then you’re gonna have your apps and you have to have a make—it has to work on Google Home. Google has to be able to say the things.

CE I guess I look at it as in terms of the digital experience, there are kind of three pillars of what makes it up and one is design. One is the infrastructure and then one is content. And so you have the—infrastructure has always been owned by engineering. The design is owned by product design. will then who owns the content?

PF Traditionally at Postlight, we just said, product I guess?

CE Yes I guess and but and that’s what happens, is typically engineering or product, they kind of take on that burden of content when a content strategist isn’t around. I would not necessarily recommend that, though I will say I know many product folks and engineering folks who are great with content, it’s not to say you can’t be done. But I do believe there is value in having a person whose specific purview is looking after your stuff.

RZ I want to come at it in a different direction. But it’s worth noting that if you need just that one web page that just has an explanation about something that never needs to change over many years, you don’t really need a strategy for that, you’re just putting up a notice.

PF Well, they made that technology. That’s called PDF.

RZ PDF. Yes, that will work.

PF Right? The downloadable, like here it is, government organizations love to sum it up into a report, put in a PDF. It’s digital, now they did their job.

RZ Let me ask it a different way, you know, getting inside the head of the business buyer. I think I’ve met an executive who says, boy, I could use some content strategy.

PF Yeah, it’s one of those disciplines too.

RZ What is the state of things, such that it’s like, you know what you need, you need content strategy to get you out of this hole, what’s happened?

PF Before you answer that, the way we end up doing a lot, is like the product requirements, just all these things start to shake out.

CE I had a manager, former manager and mentor who talked about content in terms of asset versus liability. So your content really should be your greatest asset as a business. It’s the thing people are coming to you for, here’s what we offer, it’s what you have that really sets you apart. And of course, design plays a role in that as well and how it served to you but your content is, so it’s, it’s yours. And it’s important. And so what happens by the time a client has come to me, they have realized, either consciously or subconsciously, that their content has now shifted into the liability space. And that is where a content strategist comes in, and needs to help you kind of knock it back out of that side of the spectrum back over to asset. And so that can come out in many forms, right? Because I will say there really only two client problems when it comes to content strategy. Is everyone ready? 

PF Get on the mic. Get in there. 

RZ Get in there.

CE Okay, stay with me. This is a tough one. The two problems that clients have when it comes to content is one, too much of it. And two, not enough of it.

PF Oh, let’s just end the podcast. 

RZ Have a great week everybody.

CE Good night. Good night. So how does this start to manifest, right? The second one’s easier, you don’t have enough content, right? 

RZ Get going.

PF Let’s get some content in here!

CE So what does that look like? That means maybe you’re launching a little Software as a Service, you know, you’re really excited about it.

PF Got my funnel.

CE Got your funnel. And then oh, no, we have nothing on our site that speaks to the developers that need to work with us and make this a piece of software that travels. So you might start to look at a content strategist to help you figure out what you need to say to these people, where you need to say it and how often you need to say it. And they create that plan for you. And boom.

PF What is that plan? Actually, because I think this is one of those disciplines where it can be very deliverable proof. So how do you give people things that they can actually act on?

CE You know, first, we have to see what kind of resources they have. Do they have anyone to make the content? This is the problem. Everybody wants content, but no one wants to make. It’s hard to do.

PF And let’s actually—what’s content in this context? 

CE In this context—[Chappell laughs]

PF We’re going all the way down to the turtles on the back of the elephant.

CE So in this case, let’s say in this hypothetical, let’s say that what you’ve determined, we look at everything, we assess the client’s problem, we need to reach these developers. So we decided, you know what you need documentation, you need a really great documentation experience that helps developers understand how to build with this platform. 

PF So it’s the stuff. It’ the word, the pictures, the podcast, the stuff.

CE It’s all the stuff, you know, and that’s the thing you know, that’s why we refer to it as content is because it’s so broad. Yes, content is assets, like images and song files, but it also can be a chatbot line. It can be a piece of code that you download from something after you put in your zip code.

RZ Three minute video.

PF One of the fundamental things that is very hard to communicate in a platform development context, and this will sound absolutely bananas—but it’s that good stuff is better than bad stuff. For real. Like people are like well, we just got to fill something in the box. It’s like, if it’s good, yeah, if it’s good, they will read it. And then they will do things because you told them about it.

RZ I think one of the things what’s happened over the last, I’m gonna say 10 years which I probably mean longer than that, is that brands that would never view themselves as quasi media entities are finding themselves not just needing to put together the usual marketing brochure but they actually had to create stories and pictures and narratives over time again and again to engage people. Like Airbnb has a magazine right?

CE And across multiple surfaces. I mean, this is the future of content strategy and why I do feel this discipline will become more important is because the future is distributed everything. I was on an airplane once, I saw that you could like, log into like the Wall Street Journal on the headset in the TV in the back of the headset, right? Yeah. And how do we possibly build content and plan for distribution in such a scale, you can log into anything you log into your toaster, you can log into anything, and content has to be served up to you and right now the way we’re doing it is very retrogressive. We’re having to build the content individually for each platform. About as good as we’ve gotten is like we’ve made the responsive thing.

PF I remember early days of my career there’s big thing where it was like we’re gonna make 8 page versions of newspapers that they slide under the door in the morning.

RZ What year is this? 18—

PF 1845, it’s my Telegraph. I’m a shapeshifting wizard and this is why I love this business.

CE This explains so much.

PF Exactly, so that sounds comical now. Like we need all this time and energy to slide some pieces of paper under your—because, let’s say you’re in Madrid, but you want the New York Times. Here’s your eight page version. Yeah, like faxed to you. Yeah, essentially. And that sounds comic, but it’s like everything we’re doing now will sound that ridiculous in about five or six years.

CE Yes. 

RZ If you want to look for an example of something gone horribly wrong because of lack of content strategy. We are at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. There is a digital display in the elevator when you’re coming into the building.

CE Oh, I noticed that this morning.

RZ And I think what it’s doing is this, I think two thirds of the screen is is just like CNN or Fox News.

PF Usually fox news these days.

RZ Yeah. And then the bottom third is clearly pulling in like an RSS. 

PF It’s an RSS feed often from the Times business section.

RZ Often from the Times.

PF But the entity encoding gets a little tricky. 

RZ Well, no, sometimes you’ll see five great things to do with your home. Yes. And then it’ll go to the next headline. And there’s nothing more. It’s really terrible. And it could it could say on the bottom how to get rich in six easy steps. And right above on the TV at that moment is a horrible tragedy unfolding in the news.

PF Or just Fox going like, you know, yet again, Joe Biden. And then right below it is just like New York City business. Like it’ll be like some media thing. 

RZ It’s terrible. What that is to me is we left it to the machines to do the content strategy, effectively. I find that I don’t do a good job of explaining why you need it. I what I find myself doing is talking about the horrible, tragic consequences of not doing it. It’s easier to get people, especially business people to just appreciate the gap rather than what should go in the gap.

PF I’ve been on a bunch of engagements along these lines. And what happens is, people are really cheap when it comes to getting things like this done.

CE It’s also incredibly expensive sometimes.

PF Yeah, that’s the other part. 

RZ They don’t want to spend the money on this. They’ll spend the money on the stuff they don’t understand.

PF Well content production, it’s just—you’re just like, um, what, no.

CE It is a slog. But you know, content production is the tiniest sliver of the kinds of services you can offer to help a client. There are a lot of things I think, if explained well, and a few case studies, a client can really see how it works for them. But I mean, content production for me personally is probably the part of content strategy I would like to deal with the least, but that said, you got to get it done sometimes.

RZ Let me be the client in this engagement because I have an issue with the words content strategy.

PF God bless you, Chappell. Good luck.

CE I regret so many things. [Paul laughs]

PF Well, you’re the client. Do you have any idea what you do?

RZ Yes. It’s a serve service called AirCnC. 

PF Okay, what is that? 

RZ It lets you rent—

PF CNC machines? [Rich laughs]

CE Let’s rent CNC factories.

RZ Oh wow. You’re losing the client. The client’s walking out!

CE Okay, okay, jokes. Tell the jokes to go the waiting room. Yes,

RZ It’s Airbnb, for boats.

PF You know, you need a new web something, you need a new or maybe an app—

RZ I need engineers, because people have to be able to list their boats. And rent the boats.

PF You’re coming to us, you’re coming to Postlight. I’ll be the sort of lead salesperson on this, you know, sort of like, okay, well, we’re gonna get you all that stuff. It’ll be like Airbnb. But for boats, absolutely 100% love boats, I want to introduce you to Chappell, she leads up content strategy for us. And now, I’m going to just go take a call out in the hallway.

CE Wow.

RZ Wow. What a team.

CE You’re the worst. [Chappell laughs]

PF I really, I would never do that. But boy has that happened. 

CE I’m already updating my resume. Not a company I wanna work at.

PF Here’s Paul, he’s not that great. But I think he can be helpful to you, bye!

RZ Let me tee it up for you, Chappell. I’m spending a ton on SEO. So I’ve got people getting to the site, I need more people listing their boats, and they’re not doing it, they’re coming, they’re clicking around, they’re spending about 40 seconds, and they’re bailing. 

PF That’s what you have to do you have a boat, you have to bail.

CE So this is interesting, because I’m not going to start with content strategy, which might sound strange, but there is a huge importance when we hear things like this, to really understand why people are dropping out. And until we know that we can’t make a better recommendation for you. So what we need to do first is a little bit of user research. And the fact is, if you put a little bit of time and investment in the upfront, maybe a couple weeks, we can hear why users are dropping out. And it will save you money and time in the long run. Because we can start to identify the problem, and then we can find ways to address mitigate it very quickly.

RZ Pause the scenario. I mean, what I’m hearing here is that is content strategy, like one of the tools that’s going to solve my problem? I mean, if your business user listening to this podcast is that one of the things that could be—because I’m assuming I got to hire more engineers. 

CE So no matter your discipline, if you’re a senior practitioner who’ve been in, you’ve been doing this a while, you have to have research, you just have to. Because I don’t want to waste your time making recommendations that are built off of assumptions. Now I have been doing this a while. So I have some very good inclinations of why some drop off can be happening in your experience, but I need to look at your website, understand the design flow. And then I need to talk to actual real humans who have tried to use it and figure out what’s going on. Once we figure that out, I can actually figure out, okay, if it is that the folks who visit the site, they get to the point where they get stuck, and they’re like, well, I couldn’t find any help information in your site. So I just closed the tab, well, then I might be able to propose, hey, we can just do a quick help guide for you.

RZ For listing my boat.

CE For listing a boat, or some, we just take that user flow and add in a little contextual help copy in every place that users getting stuck. And it’s something that can be done actually relatively quickly. And that’s more of an acute issue that we can address quickly. But there might need to be some longer term help content or FAQ things that have to happen. And there might be some longer term user kind of journey fixes that have to happen. Yeah, but that’s such a typical problem I hear all the time. And you actually can take a little squat in and in in a month actually fix a pretty acute problem, though it might be a band aid, or a bigger issue. And that’s what you hope to sit with the client say let’s talk about the bigger thing.

RZ Yeah. What I’m hearing here is a product thinker, who’s thinking about Okay, well, it turns out, you know, hate to tell you, but it’s taken four seconds, between clicks for the next thing to happen. And you’ve got an engineering challenge, because your people are bailing, because they’re getting frustrated. But it could also be what you just described, we’re working on a project internally at Postlight, top secret project. And I’ve been effectively the product lead on it.

PF You’ve been effective as the product lead. 

RZ I appreciate that, Paul, thank you.

RZ And one of the things I gravitated to and started obsessing over was onboarding, yes. Which is less technical, kind of confused the engineers and the designers on the project. 

PF Well, no one’s excited when the product is under development and you’re talking about the features inside and you’re like, the one thing we got to work out here is how the tooltips are going to go for the first five minutes.

CE And onboarding is it I found a divisive term in the tech world. Some people love the term, some people don’t. And it means different things to different people. 

PF There’s also an ethos that you should just be able to drop right immediate stress into the app and you should know exactly what to do at all time.

CE It’s a toughy.

PF Yeah, before we go on, there’s a thing that didn’t happen in that conversation, which I think is it’s really interesting in the client service context because people come to us sometimes they can always kind of wanting a little excitement and drama, and you came in you say, this is the right thing. So what we do with our clients, which is just like, let’s just take a look around here as far as like don’t rebuild the house until we check the windows. And then as you know, but I think when people hear content strategy they hear Airbnb magazine. The magazine for Airbnb!

CE Well that is, I would look at that more as editorial strategy. And that’s what content strategy is, I would say, a very large spectrum. And on one side of the spectrum is editorial. And on the other side is technical. If you, the AirBnb for boats said, we want a magazine, I would want a content strategist who’s on that editorial side of the spectrum. But if you are Amazon, some large retailer, and you’re like, we need to recategorize all of our products, I’m going to say you need more of a technical content strategist who can understand taxonomy inside architecture on a deeper level.

PF Where do you sit? 

CE So I call myself, I am cursed forever to be a generalist. 

PF Me too.

RZ Isn’t that the problem here? Isn’t that one of the challenges with content strategy and advocating for it? I mean, that is a hell of a spectrum.

PF You have a couple things going on. You have everybody trying to define the discipline, then you have it being kind of like—it falls into two kinds of budget, either the budget where it’s like, why didn’t we already do this years ago, this is annoying, or the like, God, Sally really thinks this is the thing we have to do. So I guess we have to do that magazine.

CE And then you have also the problem of content strategy is defined so differently at every place you go. I have friends who are content strategists at Google who do things that I would never do and vice versa.

PF Like kill a man.

CE Like kill a man. 

RZ Do they call themselves content strategies?

CE They do and you know, a content strategist at Google, the ones I know, I would probably refer to them more as a either a content marketer, content marketing strategist. They tend to be kind of writing and managing a longer form projects. Because how it’s been historically at Google, content strategists only work out of product. And only UX writers work in product.

PF Didn’t Facebook roll up content strategy into design?

CE They call it content design. This is part of the problem. No, no one knows what to do with us.

RZ Look, design has its own problems figuring out what it actually is.

PF That’s the internal conversation. 

RZ That’s the internal conversation. I fear that content strategy is going through a similar—

PF The good news is it always has been and always will, as far as like—

RZ Does it belong inside design?

CE No. In fact, I’m kind of against that, because that’s part of the value, I think a content strategist brings to a project. A product designer, they can think we think very similarly, we think in systems—but a product designer is biased towards a visual outcome, in a way a content strategist never will be. So in essence, I feel I can maintain—I’m not gonna say non-bias, but I’m much less biased towards that final visual outcome. And so that lets me do the thing I really want to do that I feel morally obligated to do, which is to essentially be a litigator on behalf of the user. And that’s often what content strategists are doing. I don’t care what the visual outcome looks like, I can tell you when I think it’s beautiful. I have opinions on that. But I see when I look at the beautiful designs here at Postlight that product designers can make in their sleep, I can tell they are beautiful. But when I look at them, I’m just seeing the backend. I’m seeing how does the person who has to use this every day, how will it effect—

PF You’ve got to put stuff in those boxes, right?

CE And I’m also seeing from a user size, how is this going to affect them every day.

PF There’s a different level of priority for applying sort of really strict content thinking to different kinds of engagements, right? So like, there’s a lot of stuff where it’s, it can be additive, we’ll help you with the navigation site. And then I think about a website, Postlight had nothing to do with this website. But like the Mayo Clinic’s website, which is we’ve a rule in my family that you’re not allowed to go to any other medical website, but the Mayo Clinic’s website, because otherwise you’ll end up on a forum deciding that—

RZ You don’t want to go to malaise.webmd.com?

PF Yeah, you’re suddenly like, I guess I have, you know, yeah, throat media or something. I just like it’s horrible. And so but you know, Mayo Clinic, it’s bullet lists, and is structured. And you know, there’s actually a content structure and hierarchy there that I’ve internalized over. I know, 5, 10 years looking at it, and that has the same function is design. Like I know how that’s gonna work and feel on I know how to get into it. 

RZ They are siblings, though, aren’t they? I mean, a good designer will always tell you, I’m going to think about how the users experience their interactions or design.

CE And make it better, like that’s why we’re here right?

PF Design cannot go as deep, easily, right? So like, if I have a taxonomy with 25 layers that has millions of different nodes in it, I can organize—

RZ Define taxonomy for the audience. 

PF Sure. So Parent/Child relationships like I have a What’s a good subject—whales. You know, I have a website about whales and under that are the different—maybe I organize them by oceans, maybe I organize them by the kinds of whales.

CE By how cute they are.

PF Exactly. And maybe I have a good search tool that lets me facet and explore whales by cuteness, some are very cute, some are not cute at all, some whales are just freaking ugly. And so like I want to be able to get in there and figure it. So I’m doing some content strategy, I’ve inventoried and analyzed all the whales I’ve gotten and the existing whale content, I’m starting to put it together. Now I’m going to organize it in the database such a way that I can explore actually through that taxonomy before I even read about the whales because it’s this also, it’s like when I’m searching when I’m buying shoes, like the same thing.

CE Right. And it’s not to say that designers again, I’ve known so many who are very skilled at handling content, they have to be right, we all have to understand each other’s realms in some way.

PF Postlight is a serious type hierarchy shop,. I mean, it’s it’s people are Yeah, just you know, double down here.

CE Right. But it’s again, allowing someone the room to truly dive deep in their practice. So like you said, If I were designing a taxonomy for whales, it’s gonna be so multi layered and multi nuanced, because that’s my product. That’s what I create. Whereas a designer, part of their brain is naturally going to be thinking, if they’re working on a taxonomy, it’ll be like, how’s this going to manifest visually? And it makes it so that the deep thinking might not go quite as deep, because they have another responsibility, they have a burden of that visualization.

PF Well, you know, the thing I would say is that when you’re working with text and narrative, and you’re searching through lots of it, and it could be farmer websites, lists of whales, shoes, whatever. There’s a common tutorial explosion of options that emerges very, very quickly. If I give you three different ways to facet something, I’ll give you millions of responses if you’re not careful, right? And I feel that that is not a problem design can actually solve, it can create an interface that helps you get to that information, but how it gets structured, what metadata gets added to the data, how that’s all going to interact, really happens at like symbolic and word level.

CE Well, that’s the thing I also I don’t want them to have to solve that.

PF No that’s be terrible. Everyone would have to do the noun project for every project.

CE Right. It’s such a burden, just like I shouldn’t be solving, you know exactly what the hex code is for, you know, like, I shouldn’t have to do that work either. These are just different realms. But I will sell it like I did go to school for design, I have that background, and I wanted to be a designer. I am not a visual designer, but I have found that the processes and approaches are strikingly similar. Especially now that it’s product design, graphic design, different world. Product design though, it is about creating systems in order.

PF In product design and content strategy the overlap is far more significant than sort of more classic visual design. God it’s so hard with all these—because it’s like editorial design versus content strategy and editorial strategy versus content strategy.

RZ They’re probably people listening this podcast who don’t know it and are like, shit this is me.

PF And also a lot of people would like to get out of the media industry right now because it’s on fire.

RZ Let’s talk about that journey and what your experience was and you know what we can share with others in terms of, you know, deciding Hey, I’m shifting careers and I’m going to focus on becoming a world class content strategist.

CE You are correct, you cannot go to school for this there are many things you can’t go to school for in our industry but definitely not this there might be a few informal classes. And the only reason content strategy for now will continue to be a discipline is through the generosity of mentorship, honestly, which I would encourage anyone who is perhaps listening to this thinking I’ve always—I think I have the skills to be a content strategist, I don’t know where to start. I mean, you can find me on LinkedIn, find me on Twitter, reach out and I can at least maybe help you get on the road give you a few books get you started on the path because we’ve got to continue to expand and fanned the flames of this thing. And diversify it because truly if that’s the only way the internet continues to be for everyone is if it’s built by everyone, right? So in terms of how I got here, I did start in design and that did give me a kind of a leg up into this world but I was in design—I went to design school right at that like y2k time when it’s like Photoshop 3, and the teachers were like drop shadows. Yeah, and the teachers are like, well, we, we should probably learn to use these computer things, but I don’t let’s just go measure type of pike of rulers.

PF You kids are so great. 

CE And so I did not have this notion that I would go into what was called web design at the time. But eventually I started working in design writing and communication. And I wound up working at Etsy. This was before they were a public company a while back, it was like 60 employees, you know. And I got to help with, I worked a part of their editorial group—I got to help with, they stood up this whole publishing kind of experience for all of their wedding content and their wedding products. 

PF Talk about an org where editorial actually really makes a difference.

CE It does, it contextualizes.

PF People want to read and connect to the things that are sold on it.

CE Oh yeah, the woodworker it’s very, it’s a very romantic view. It’s important. 

PF It’s about crafts people doing their craft. 

CE Absolutely. 

PF It’s part of what you’re buying.

CE You know, it was good that they hired writers. And so I got to sit with their product team and actually watch something be made, because they needed my input as a content author. And that turned the light on in my head where I was like, what if I started to work on making these helping make these things so that writers could publish? And that’s where I started to flip kind of my head into going from writing and media and journalism into this kind of strategy world.

PF Rather than fill in the box, I will figure out what the box should be.

CE Correct. 

RZ So you didn’t apply, new role opening job opening content strategist at Etsy, you just sort of drifted over there and said, hey, I can help you make the machine not just—

CE Yes, I started, you know, I was started there as an editor and it went from there. And then—

PF There tends to be more demand for that than there is for the writers, right? So like, that’s actually a sensible career move to go over there and introduce yourself and say, I’d like to help because if they needed to do, I’m guessing.

CE It’s actually fantastic. And I would say if you are—there’s so many great media companies, if you are a writer and editor, and there’s a product team, try knocking on a door and just—

PF I’ve introduced many product teams to the writers, and they’ve never, they’ve never met one.

CE And those are your constituents. Truly.

PF I know. This is a big Postlight thing, which is, especially if you’re doing any kind of content oriented platform, like you got to sit with the people who are using it.

CE Yeah and we have gotten so good at building editorial platforms that we make a lot of assumptions.

PF Yeah, no, no, no. 

CE And that’s where you have to step back and say, you have to pretend not like it’s the first time you ever making an editorial platform. But check yourself.

PF There’s a reason even beyond that, which is like, and Rich will attest to this, right? Like, unless they buy in and start using it, you won’t get it to make its way through the organization. Because editors are not like excited adopters. They’re like, oh my God—

RZ They tend to hold on to whatever crappy process there you got used to.

CE Once you master it, to learn another one, you’re burned, you know, you have trauma and to learn another, another publishing platform is a nightmare. I’ve been that person. And that’s part of why I think I’m a better content strategist.

PF Don’t take my thing away. 

CE Absolutely. After Etsy, I worked in the government as a digital strategist was my next step. I got strategy in the title. And you know, I was working on TeamSite, a version that was 2003 or something, and it was a true nightmare.

PF Yeah, it’s not good.

CE You create this emotional, like relationship with your CMS data.

PF You got to get those pages out. And then they’re like, well, we got a new one. And you’re like, I don’t want it!

CE Yeah. And so if you are in editorial, and you really want to make this pivot, which is a lot of people. And in fact, hiring content strategist is really difficult right now, if you want to hire anyone technical. I do really actually worry that that is the side of content strategy that is becoming more rare, maybe extinct. And for a lot of reasons, that’s probably a whole other podcast episode. But I see that floundering a bit. And it’s the editorial side that’s exploding. And a lot of that is because a lot of people are leaving media, because it’s a difficult environment. And they want to move into content strategy. However, just because you’ve been in publishing for a while, it doesn’t mean you’re ready yet for what a content strategy strategist can offer. Yeah, so for those folks, I would recommend starting to look for books about systems and understanding systems and systems design. That tends to be the place where they have the biggest gap because I know, I was there. As a, you know, in editorial, you know how to make a brief and how to write it and edit it. And you know how to produce content—

PF Well you get your thing done, and then you go on to the exact same thing again.

CE Yes, but it’s the powers of 10 situation where you’re, you’ve gone a few levels up to be a content strategist. You got to go all the way to the top. And you have to be able to see the entire system, every part in it, understand where it works, where it’s broken and how you can address and fix it.

PF What kind of system? Right, we’re talking about like systems thinking?

CE Yeah, systems thinking anything about systems, even reading a book about the incarceration system in America will make you better at your job at building systems for people, because that’s what we’re doing. That’s a product—

PF That’s a hell of recommendation. So if you want to understand—[Rich laughs]

CE No, no!

PF If you want to understand how to build a website, the best thing to do is understand our terrible mass incarceration system in America.

CE It’s heavy. What I mean is it increases your your empathic awareness of others who enter a system. It helps you understand that almost all systems are built with bias. And they have flaws because humans are flawed and systems are built with an intent.

PF So I mean look okay, so you really mean that people should get in touch? 

CE I do.

PF How should they get in touch?

RZ Cell phone number?

CE Yeah, absolutely. No, so I mean myself, my name is Chappell Ellison and you can find me on LinkedIn, you can find me on Twitter, just don’t read anything I say there.

PF Your tweets are pretty good.

CE They’re alright.

PF You’re on Twitch too.

CE I am on Twitch.

PF Are we allowed to talk about that?

CE You can, I do sometimes stream games live.

PF It’s definitely on the weekends, Chappell is streaming retro games.

CE I do! And that’s fun. I do that occasionally on the weekends.

PF We should also point out you are wearing today a dress you made yourself.

CE Out of children’s bedsheets.

PF There are vehicles in the dress. What are the vehicles?

CE It’s a blue blueprint of Star Wars vehicles.

RZ Pretty amazing. 

PF It is really good because it just sort of, it’s nice and abstract and then it’s—

CE And then it hits you.

PF And you’re like, that’s a star destroyer right there. 

CE It sure is. And it’s amazing the conversations you have with absolute strangers when you were a Star Wars dress. [Rich laughs]

PF Yeah, that’s a high stakes game but you’re playing it.

RZ Paul, second fun fact, Chappell is our 100th employee at Postlight.

PF Wow. It feels just like yesterday.

RZ Postlight—what does Postlight—we’re not gonna do this again.

PF Let’s do it again. We’ll do it real quick. You have big goals to make things matter for your business that are digital and we are going to just help you get there. If you’re big org, if you’re a small org, if you’re not for profit. There’s a piece of work we did that everybody should go check out, probablefutures.org. Nice piece of work that we just released. 

RZ Case studies are up. Propablefutures.org. It’s beautiful. 

PF That’s just that’s a good example of the kind of work we can do. 

RZ Storytelling with good tech.

PF Good, deep technology. Mapping databases.

RZ It’s very cool. We’re gonna be talking more about that kind of work.

PF And we have a lot of content strategy skill and actually quite a bit of content strategy experience in the organization.

CE It’s about to get better.

PF Finally! [Chappell laughs] It’s that 100th that tilted it over, right?

CE Your scopes are now gonna be like “we’ll do this and that” and then it’s just gonna be two pages on content.

PF That’s right. Finally, finally.

RZ Check us out at postflight.com. Reach out at hello@postlight.com. Give us five stars, wherever there are stars.

PF Anywhere, that’s right. Alright, Rich.

RZ Chappell, thank you.

CE Thank you. It was my pleasure.

PF Come back on. We’ll talk about more stuff.

RZ Have a lovely week, everyone. 

PF Bye, everybody!

[music ramps up, plays alone, ends]