Putting Content First: An Interview with Chris Collette

Chris Collette

Last week I had the chance to chat with Christopher Collette. Chris is currently a principal at Clarity Group. According to his bio, he has been “practicing content strategy long before it had a name.” I reached out to Chris because he is someone with a well-established career and is also an alumnus of Pratt SILS. I was curious to hear about his work over the last 20+ years as well as how he felt his MLIS degree has fit in.


Erin: So you do content strategy at Clarity Group?
Chris: Yes. Clarity Group is a collective with my husband and his business partner. Basically, I am an independent digital experience strategist of content. I really sit at the intersection of technology, user experience, business strategy, content and brand, and I kind of bring all those pieces together in whatever way. So obviously, being a content strategist, I put that at the forefront and say, “Well, if you’re designing any kind of experience or program, you really want to think about that first.” That, along with the other things that you think about as well like your technology solutions and your user experience. Essentially, what are you trying to solve in the business and how can we use these tools and disciplines and things to help to advance that?

Do you have projects you’ve particularly enjoyed working on at Clarity? Or could you just talk a little bit more about some specific examples of past work you’ve done?
Well, Clarity is a relatively new venture for us. We only came together around April, and the thing is, with Clarity, we work on projects together, but I still have my own clients. Each of the other partners in the venture also have their own clients. So we come together as this unit but we also do other things as well.

I think one of the projects that was the most exciting for me, believe it or not, was actually with Goldman Sachs. I was at R/GA at the time and I actually worked with them in two different instances. One was to re-haul their entire web presence back in ‘07/’08. We spent a lot of time, flew all around the world and got to do a lot of interviews. The interesting thing for me was that we really tried to put the content first and then design a system that was, I think, really quite elegant for them and actually really helped them. They basically wanted to be hated less; that was their big goal [chuckles].

Then we went back again a couple years later. I was still at R/GA, and we went and did what they called GSAM, Goldman Sachs Asset Management, which is a little bit of a different business unit. I really got some good ideas and principles of content strategy, and how you can actually use a content program to illuminate what the business is doing. For example, we were saying, “How do you illuminate the value that Goldman Sachs brings to the world as opposed to just making them a lot of money?” It was based on a lot of infrastructure projects around the world. We were talking about having a series on this thing that was in Venezuela or Peru where, because of this one sort of trolley system, they were able to bring a whole series of economic prosperity to a village that was basically cut off from being able to get from the village into one of the cities. Goldman Sachs did their funding, so we said, “That’s a feature story. Go take a photographer there. Get a videographer there. That’s the kind of stuff you need to be doing.” And that’s really a content strategy piece. Tell that story and it will soften all the other stuff. Like, “We’re not just making money for ourselves. The work that we do actually does good around the world.” So that was one of the things, I think, that’s sort of a classic example. Now they never did this because they couldn’t get past their own selves, but those are the kind of ideas that content strategy can bring as well as all the taxonomy and making sure things are tagged right and all that. But it’s really about using content to fulfill a business or a user goal. That’s what it really comes down to. It’s such a basic question, but the basic questions are sometimes the hardest ones to answer. You know, I’ll ask “What are you trying to do with your business?” I don’t care about your content or your design or your website or your app or your blog. What are you trying to do? Get more customers? And the answer initially will be like, “Uhhhhh, I don’t know, make more money.” Well, that’s not really strategy.

Sort of on the flip side of your experience with Goldman Sachs, what would you say are the biggest challenges that you face in the work that you do?
I think getting organizations to really understand this kind of stuff and why it’s so important. When we start these conversations, from the start–whether it’s from brand, whether it’s from content, whether it’s from user experience, whether it’s from digital–we try to get to that business question early on. Getting them to articulate a business strategy, I think, is the biggest challenge in anything. Otherwise, just do what you’re doing now. If you don’t have a strategy, why are you going to spend $2 million on your website if you don’t know what that website is trying to do?

I think another challenge is that organizations still are very traditional in the way they approach these things. So getting an organization to think in a digital-first way, at least in that kind of channel, is challenging. They produce content all the time. They put it out there because their boss told them to put it out there and then there’s the next one, and the next one, and the next one… They never look back and ask, “Did that have any meaning or value? Did anybody read it? Did it move the needle? And what’s the scale we’re trying to move the needle on?” So all of those things, I think, are really critical. Before you do any of this stuff it’s about asking those critical questions. Organizations don’t do it because it’s hard, and people have jobs that are tied to that and ways of doing things… “Well, Doris always did that. She’s written the alumni profile for 30 years for our magazine.” Well, do you still need that magazine? Probably not. But I think it really comes down to that challenge of asking “What are you trying to solve?” and then building up from there. Companies will go, “We need an app!” Ok, why do you need an app? Who’s going to manage the app? Who’s going to design it? Who’s going to update it? Organizations get sold these bill of goods and they say, “Oh yeah, let’s do this because we need to and because everyone else is doing it.” But they never ask the fundamental question: “Why?”

Haha, yeah. I can’t even tell you how many useless apps like that I’ve encountered.
Oh totally. I probably have 20 on my iPhone right now that I downloaded the first time I got my first iPhone 6 years ago. I haven’t opened them up since but they just keep transferring to the next iPhone [chuckles].

So I know you work at an agency now, and earlier you mentioned working for R/GA. Have you always worked for agencies? Have you ever worked in-house anywhere?
In my career I’ve been in three distinct kind of roles. I started in the agency world: Siegel+Gale, R/GA… I’ve been a freelancer who’s also worked with agencies as a freelancer, going in as part of their team. I’ve also worked in-house on the brand side, if you will. I worked at IBM for about 6 years. That was a huge education of understanding how a truly large business really works. It’s slow-moving, but when they make a move, they really move. I also worked with the College Board for a couple of years, and that was really interesting working at a non-profit. I really liked that experience a lot. They’re the publishers of the SAT, the Advanced Placement program, and a lot of education advocacy and things like that. I worked with them developing a content strategy, along with the user experience piece, to make sure that the content that was being published was actually helping the mission of the organization, which is really what content strategy is all about.

That’s really interesting. So what do you do now to keep up with what’s going on in the field? Are you in professional organizations? Do you read blogs, publications, anything in particular?
That’s a great question. I really try to keep abreast of current developments of what’s going on in the industry, even just through project work now as an independent consultant. We go in and then we will actually help organizations and firms sort of source the agency. Sitting with them and working with them, they sort of bring the ideas to us. But yeah, blogs… I’m teaching a course right now on content strategy, so just making sure I have the most up-to-date kinds of resources and things there. Obviously, reaching out, getting involved in the community, and engaging with them in the dialogue. I’m not a big tweeter. I’m not a big person on industry conferences and things like that, but I do try to keep up with all that as a consumer of information and then bring that to my client work and for courses. I deliver webinars. I do sort of co-review sessions for organizations where I come in and give them a primer on content strategy, how it integrates with their business, and where the pain points are.

Neat! Where are you teaching?
I’m teaching at Columbia University in their Master’s of Strategic Communications program. It’s actually an all-online course, which is very interesting. It’s done through Adobe Connect and all the content and everything is written in the whole platform so there’s no in-person kind of teaching, which is an interesting dimension of delivering it.

That is interesting. I’ve always wondered what taking an online course would be like. Pratt doesn’t offer any classes online.
There are pros and cons. I just had my first session a couple of days ago and it went well, but it is very different. I actually taught at Pratt as well a lot of years ago for about 12 years in the Design Management program. That was all in-person, so I was very used to that rhythm. It’s different when you’re in this mediated environment where it’s you and a webcam and a headset. It’s kind of cool.

That does sound cool. Well Chris, thanks so much for talking to me today, and I just have two more questions for you. As you know, I’m concentrating in UX at SILS. Something that my classmates and I have noticed when we talk to people working in UX is that a lot of them are sort of perplexed by our LIS degrees. I guess they’re used to people coming out of programs like General Assembly. As a Pratt SILS alum, how have you found your LIS degree to fit into the field?
I think it’s actually the best degree to have to approach user experience and content strategy because it gives you depth and dimension in a way that other fields of study don’t. I think it’s probably the most perfect fit for this work because you know, we think about taxonomies, we think about information and how it’s structured, and we think about user behavior. I even mean some of the courses we take as part of the foundation like that one having to do with research methods that’s part of the core four classes. It’s all about how libraries are delivering information. They’re engaging with people, and you have to go do a reference interview in-person, over the phone, and through chat. Those are user experiences. People seeking to find a solution to a task or to complete a task: that’s user experience. It’s designing a system. So, who better, especially when we’re talking about information and information in digital systems, who better equipped than people who are skilled in library science? I think sometimes it takes a little bit of explanation, but once people understand that…

I also think we, as librarians or trained as librarians, are inquisitive by nature, which I think is also one of the key tenets of the User Experience person. It’s not presuming that something is; it’s asking questions and observing, and then designing solutions around the information that you gather. For instance, if you put the desk here and you want people to come through here, but they’re actually going around the desk to do what they needed to do back there, then just move the desk. Design a solution in that way. It’s really the best training ground, I think, for this kind of work.

Yeah, I agree with you completely. It’s actually really helpful to hear you articulate it this way, because it’s going to be helpful for me when I have to advocate for librarians when I go out into the world. So I just have one last question for you: Do you have any words of wisdom or quick tips for grad students like me about to enter the field of UX?
Be engaged. Reach out. Use the network. Use the community. I think the User Experience community, especially the Content Strategy community, is so welcoming and it’s ever expanding. We are always looking to help people come along, to mentor, and to find projects to do. Even though it seems this little piece you’re doing may not be the grand content strategy or user experience, just get experience. Start working with the tools and the principles and start doing things, and then just build from there. Again, reach out and use the network. I’ve been so fortunate to have been in this community for 20+ years of my career, and I’ve met so many great people who are still colleagues and friends and peers. It’s all about collaboration. There’s more work to go around than there are good people to do the work, quite honestly. So always just engage engage engage.