How mature is your omni-channel content strategy?
A model to assess how you're doing
Customer experiences of organizations are more relevant than ever before. Experience designers look beyond specific products, services or systems and begin to design for ecosystems. Ecosystems in which people interact with organizations in multiple ways, when and how they want. In these interactions, customers use content available in physical and digital channels of the ecosystem. They even use content beyond the immediate control of the brand.
It is apparent that a focus on customer experience is essential to become economically successful in this new environment. The ultimate goal is to provide excellent customer experiences which are relevant, attractive, useful and credible. By providing these kinds of experiences organizations will build long-lasting engagements. However, they must work on competencies to achieve this, of which customer experience excellence is the most important one. It’s a major challenge to develop this competence and it involves multiple aspects, such as culture, governance and insight in customer needs and behavior.
Designing for omni-channel ecosystems not only deals with the interactive and visual elements of experiences, but also has a significant content dimension. In this post, the role, value and meaning of content in products, services and brand experiences are addressed. In this context, omni-channel content strategy is a mandatory precondition for excellent customer experiences and should be part of the customer experience excellence of organizations.
For the purpose of analysis, we developed a maturity model with which we can assess the current state of omni-channel content strategies and for identifying steps towards excellent customer experiences in ecosystems with omni-channel services.
The remainder of this post addresses the structure, value and use of the maturity model.
The maturity model’s purpose
Like any model assessing the maturity of organizations in a specific domain, the model identifies developmental stages towards an ultimate goal: a content strategy in place to deliver, support and facilitate excellent customer experiences in a world with omni-channel services and systems.
The first stage in the model is called mono-channel. In this stage, the content strategy addressing content and content management focuses on just one type of interaction with customers in a single channel. Customers interact with a single channel for exploration, purchase and support. A good example would be the traditional brick-and-mortar shop where all interaction, communication and engagement takes place.
The second stage is called multi-channel in which a customer selects one channel from various ones, considered the best or the most appropriate given a specific context. In this stage, content is organized per channel, and there is no or limited content management. Communication and distribution channels are related to the purchase channel. Each channel operates independent of the others, with its own pricing, stock information, and opportunities for making contact. For example, a customer purchases in a shop and also pays in the shop. For questions, support and information exchange, phone calls are made to the shop.
In a cross-channel context, customers interact with multiple channels, all consistently branded. They select a channel for purchase and communicate with another channels. Content management is focused on one or more channels, but it’s not integrated for all channels. For example, customers make purchases on a website, they pick these up in a physical store and make support calls to a service center.
In the fourth and final stage, all customer experiences are orchestrated in the omni-channel ecosystem with physical and digital interactions, content and branding. Content is designed and developed for all channels and content management is optimized for the channels. Customers select a preferred channel for purchase with a consistent (brand) experience. The organization provides a single source of information for pricing, features and branding across channels. All channels are fully integrated with each its own role and content is designed with the customer in mind. For example, customers select products on the internet, but can pick up their purchases in physical shops as well. They call customer service to reserve the purchase in a shop of choice and they pay with their smartphone.
Alternative names that can be used for these maturity phases (instead of according to the channel compositions: mono, multi, cross, and omni) are: absent, ad-hoc, regular and systematic, as defined by research firm Forrester.
A three-layered model
Beside the four maturity stages, the model consists of three layers or areas of analysis: the content itself, its underlying structure and how organizations create, maintain and deliver content.
The first layer is focused on the content experience. It addresses the most visible content dimension and represents all content used in interactions, channels and touch points of customer journeys. Content containing different messages is delivered in formats, like text, images, video, or audio. This layer also entails content from marketing activities, social media and physical and digital branding. In fact, this layer looks into operational content characteristics.
Underlying content architecture
The underlying content architecture is the second layer of the model. It is the content abstraction layer and looks at explicit modeling. Furthermore, the layer deals with issues such as re-usability, style guides and principles for communication design. A technical landscape is its foundation and includes content management systems, design libraries and appropriate creation tools.
The third layer addresses features of an adequate organization and includes all competencies to support customer experience excellence. The layer focuses on aspects organizations can influence directly, like employee experiences, implemented governance models and a company culture which stimulates certain behavior, values and purpose.
Facets as the details in the three layers
So far, the three layers are defined in general terms. To determine the maturity of each layer more detail is needed. Therefore, each layer consists of four facets. When a facet within a layer is assessed, several parameters are taken into account.
Content experience layer facets
The usability, relevance, consistency, and accessibility of content determines the maturity of the content experience layer. These facets are looked into for analysis of this layer.
Usability in relation to content. It is a known concept and is regularly taken into account for multiple channels. Usability can also be an integral part of development processes for specific or all (digital) channels. But often, usability is only applied to task completion, error prevention and satisfaction in interactions.
Relevance looks into the point-of-view in content development: organization- versus customer-centered. Also, it addresses if and how user research is conducted. Sometimes, content fully mirrors organizational characteristics. In order to determine what users need or want user research is necessary. This kind of research can be absent, but also regularly or systematically planned and executed.
Consistency of content supporting the brand experience is the next facet. Brand values, brand promise, tone-of-voice and house style determine this experience. The application of these elements must fit the channel features. Tone-of-voice and house style are implicit or explicitly documented, and applied in some, most or all channels.
Accessibility relates to content designed and developed for people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive abilities. Content is (in)accessible for all people in none, most or all of the (digital and physical) channels.
Underlying architecture layer facets
To assess the maturity of the underlying content architecture, the model addresses the separation of form and content, the use of models for content and metadata and the question of how future-proof the underlying content architecture actually is.
The separation of form and content is the first facet. In some organizations, there is no separation of form and content at all. In this case, content is created as discrete pages in the content management system (CMS) in which form and content are completely inseparable. When form and content are separated, dynamic content parts are stored independently from their final publication. Content is created, stored and delivered for most or all channels, independent of form.
The second facet focuses on formal expressions of structure in content models, related to the channels involved. A content model is an abstraction of the structure of content types, like a white paper, a product description or an FAQ. At the lowest level, content is unstructured and content models are absent. Using and upscaling content models for one, multiple or all channels is the way to go.
If content is enriched with metadata based upon a (semantic) model and if it relates to the channels involved is the scope of the third facet. When (administrative) metadata from the CMS is used, there still is no distinct metadata model. If there’s a metadata model for all digital channels, it can range from a limited set of metadata to a comprehensive semantic metadata model serving all customers and channels ranging from controlled vocabularies to ontologies.
The vision, architecture and model on how content and channels can evolve in the near future (3-5 years) entail the fourth facet. Sometimes, organizations have no idea, vision or architecture on how their content and channels will adjust to important market trends. Occasionally, there’s just an implicit vision for some channels (e.g. mobile). Content architectures can have a few future-proof capabilities. In such a case, the architecture takes future requirements and features into consideration and is extensible. For example, an architecture based upon the COPE (‘Create Once, Publish Everywhere’) paradigm is more future-proof than others.
Adequate organization layer facets
To determine the maturity regarding the content organization, the model addresses the following facets. The effectiveness of the content (‘KPI-awareness’), the ways in which teams are assembled and the disciplines involved, the methods for the creation, curation and delivery of content, and the integration of content development and other design and delivery processes in the organization.
The first facet covers measuring the effectiveness of content and how the results are used. Often, effectiveness is not measured at all, nor are test results interpreted. Decisions are based upon strong opinions, anecdotal evidence or incidents. Increasingly, organizations use KPIs (‘Key Performance Indicators’) to measure effectiveness, but lack a systematic interpretation of test results nor do these provide input for further actions. Content effectiveness can be systematically measured and interpreted, but this only occasionally leads to actions. At the highest maturity level, content effectiveness is systematically measured and interpreted and decisions and actions are based upon objectified results from analyses and research.
The organization and casting of content teams and the disciplines represented are the scope of the second facet. Often mono-disciplinary teams develop the content, organized in independent silos. In other cases, adjacent disciplines get involved, but on an ad-hoc basis and from other silos. These disciplines can be involved on a regular basis. At best, multi-disciplinary teams develop content and are organized according to stages in customer journeys or around specific themes.
Methods, techniques and tools for content development are part of the third facet. Options range from ad hoc to systematic. Content is not developed according to explicit methods and standards or content for (one or more) channels is developed according to unified methods and standards. When content for a few channels is developed according to unified methods and standards then it is a small step towards a situation in which content for all channels is developed in such a way.
The relation between content development and customer journeys in general and customer journeys with a content lane in particular are addressed by the final facet. Sometimes, customer journeys are absent at all or they are mapped on an ad-hoc basis. More often, customer journeys are used regularly, but only for digital channels and experiences. In an omni-channel content strategy however, content is developed, integrated and re-used in multiple customer journeys that result in maps that also contain a content lane.
Added value of the maturity model
Organizations in need of an omni-channel content strategy can use this maturity model for analysis, planning and alignment. The model delivers value in multiple ways. It decomposes the complex notion of omni-channel content strategy and it provides indicators to improve the content, the content architecture and the related organization. Also, the model is a tool for analyses of the current state and provides indicators for possible future states. It delivers input for a roadmap of growth, development and decision making. And finally, the model frames omni-channel content strategy in the broader context of excellent experiences for customers and customer experience excellence as the organizational competence of this moment.
Using this maturity model in a specific situation and having assessed the layers and their facets for the different levels of maturity might be visualized as follows.
About the author
Peter Bogaards (a.k.a. @BogieZero) is the editor-in-chief of our blog BiRDS. Peter also works as a curator and coach at Informaat experience design. He has been an online content curator avant-la-lettre in various UX-related fields for almost three decades, choosing what he thinks is interesting, relevant or remarkable to share.
Content strategy (16), Omnichannel (3)