Questioning Authority: Our interview with Colleen Jones, author of Clout

Content Strategy was a big hit in 2010 and hows no signs of slowing down. In this interview, Andrew speaks with Colleen Jones, one of the content strategy's "newest" faces. Colleen discusses her new book and what clout means for the future of the web.

Book cover for Clout: the Art and Science of Influential Web Content, published by New Riders.

As far as user experience designers are concerned, 2010 can be easily summed up in two words: Content Strategy. Never before has such a relatively new discipline received such widespread press. Sure, if you were one of those designers “in the know,” you’ve probably read an article or two about Content Strategy on A List Apart. But the rest of the world didn’t have a clue…until now.

Today, companies of all sizes don’t just mention Content Strategy, they’re starting to practice it! Content is all the rage—and the pervasive question? “How do we create content that users will care about and act on?”

Fortunately, one content strategist has the answer. Colleen Jones is the principal of the Atlanta-based firm, Content Science. Leveraging over a decade of experience, Colleen helps her clients figure out, first, how to prepare their digital content strategy and, second, how to make their content work for them. In other words, she helps her clients attain clout.

In her new book, Clout: The Art and Science of Content, Colleen shares her most sagacious advice in just over 200 pages. How she did it, I just don’t know. In this interview, I dig in deep: asking Colleen questions about her new book, her prior consulting experience, and what her forthcoming clout means for the future of Content Science.


Hey Colleen! Thanks so much for taking part in an interview for UX Booth readers. To start, could you tell us a bit about yourself, including your role as the owner of Content Science?
It’s a pleasure! I’ve been tackling content and UX challenges for 13 years, now. After long stints at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Cingular Wireless, I began contracting on my own. In early 2010, I started Content Science. We work with many of the corporate headquarters, niche brands, and government agencies here. Atlanta has quite a few startups, too, and we advise them about the UX of their digital products.
That might sound like a very diverse background, but I’ve found the variety to be really, really helpful. I know what it’s like to be on the “client side” and have to live with content, technology, and design decisions for a long time, not just a project. I also have learned how to understand context, or the situation, quickly. I’ve worked on websites, IVRs, mobile devices, applications, kiosks, and just about anything interactive. And, I know first hand what it’s like to balance organizational goals, many stakeholders, and user needs. Throughout it all, I’ve made some mistakes and had some successes. So, I share my best lessons learned about content in Clout.
I imagine that writing an entire book about Clout was a very difficult process. Most notably because my experience with the web points to a meritocracy: the more positive work you do, be bigger your reputation – your clout – becomes. Yet this approach is, like most things of substance, easier said than done. How did you determine which characteristics inspire clout in today’s audiences and, more importantly, the crucial steps in which content novices could go about attaining it?
You’re right, it was difficult. I worked very hard to make the book easy to read but also meaningful and thought-provoking. I think people hear some confusing advice about influencing online. My goal was to end the confusion with advice grounded in solid principles. I included insights from my experience and principles of rhetoric as well as psychology. I also talked to persuasive design expert B.J. Fogg of Stanford University, who graciously let me reference his work on influencing behavior.
I think it’s interesting—and, at times, frustrating—that clout is not only about the positive work you do. As a simple example, you can create awesome content or an awesome product, but if no one knows about it, your organization will not achieve clout. So, awareness is very important. But, how do you make people aware of your awesome work without annoying them? It’s tough, but Clout offers principles to help.
And, in a survey I conducted early on about the book, I knew that readers wanted examples and case studies. So, I spent much time talking to people with all kinds of organizations such as Newell Rubbermaid, North Carolina State University, WhiteHouse.gov, Grasshopper, HowStuffWorks.com, and more to help show those crucial steps. The result is Clout has more than 150 examples and case studies.

Indeed, I found it difficult to put the book down! But, now, I’m curious: out of those 150 examples, what are the takeaways? What elements of content strategy constitute a “working knowledge” for today’s internet professionals? Creating any sufficiently complex website require close collaboration between a group of professionals. As a consequence, any particular team member needs to understand how their work relates to the website as a whole, including its content strategy. So what’s the foundation?
You make a great point about collaboration. I would say that three elements of content strategy are essential: analysis, editorial, and architecture. You need analysis to understand your content and your situation, or context. That’s what drives your strategy. Then, you need editorial to turn analysis into ideas, calendars, workflow, and quality content. You also need architecture to plan how your content is structured, how it’s displayed, and where it will be delivered, such as a website and mobile devices. Then, you need analysis again to decide whether you’re getting results. If not, then you need to adjust editorial and architecture.

Much of the advice you give in the book is especially valuable to those who are new to the web in terms of content creation. Did you write this book especially for these people (bloggers, content creators at startups, etc.)? Most beginners haven’t heard of a content audit or a style guide. I ask this question because – back when I lived in Atlanta and attended the local Blogger meetup – conversations about blogging inevitably tended towards what would otherwise be described as content strategy and clout.
Clout has layers, like an onion. If you’re new and want only basics, you can peel those off easily. For example, if you’re deciding whether to spend money on SEO tricks or better content, you’ll learn I think you should spend it on better content and why. If you’re more experienced and want to dig into deeper topics, you can. For example, the idea of WhiteHouse.gov as an influential media property raises some interesting questions about freedom of the press. The book mentions them but doesn’t make you analyze them in painful detail. I promise that Clout doesn’t make you cry like an onion can.
Also, Clout can help people who you might consider to be content experts, such as journalists or technical communicators. The book shows how their talents are needed in surprising new areas. In a way, I hope this book gives them some deserved career juice as content strategists.
Finally: now that your book is complete, what are your future plans for attaining and sharing clout with a broader audience? Writing this book certainly brings clout to your consultancy. Have you considered lending it to any of the ailing parties you mention in your book? For example: the ad industry or the health industry?
For the health industry, I just learned that CDC ordered Clout for training. That’s a very encouraging start.I’m hopeful for the advertising industry because many advertisers and publishers seem ready for a change. Those parties need to speak more, but I’ll help move the conversation forward. Also, Peter Merholz and Karen McGrane have sparked interesting discussion about how UX fits into all this. I added my two cents in a recent blog post.

For the technology, design, and marketing communities, I’m reaching out in 2011 more than I ever have. For example, Tim Jones of North Carolina State University and I are speaking at the O’Reilly Where 2.0 conference about content and location-based services (LBS). Most talk about LBS is social and technology, and we’re going to bring content into the discussion. Wish us luck!

Realistically, it will take more than a book—and many more people than me—to create lasting change in these industries. But, I’m doing all I can to be a catalyst and won’t stop anytime soon. I’m excited about the growing content strategy community around the world, too. It’s bustling with talent, ideas, and accomplishments. Count on hearing and seeing much more from this community in 2011!

Closing thoughts

Thanks again, Colleen, for taking the time to share your thoughts with our readers. If you’ve got questions for Colleen, feel free to ask them in the comments below!

About the book

Results. Everyone wants them, whether to sell more products, spread good ideas, or win more funding. In our busy digital world, the way to results is influencing people on the web. But how? An ad campaign won’t cut it. A Twitter account doesn’t guarantee it. Manipulative tricks will backfire. Instead, you need quality, compelling web content that attracts people and engages them for the long haul. Clout explains the key principles of influence and how to apply them to web content.

About our Guest

Colleen Jones

A veteran of the interactive industry, Colleen has guided or supported strategic initiatives for global brands, government agencies, boutique brands, and savvy startups. She has presented about content strategy, user experience, and interactive marketing around the world. Colleen is Principal of Content Science, a content strategy and UX consultancy and can be found at @leenjones on Twitter.

About the Author

Andrew Maier

Andrew is a lifelong student of the design community, who co-founded the design publication UX Booth in 2008 to share his journey. He currently serves as its Editor-in-Chief. When he's not heading user-centered design initiatives for clients, Andrew dabbles in civic design. He lives in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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20 Comments

  • Kevin Reply

    @kevdog Sounds like a great book…

  • Fabiana Simões Reply

    I’m kind of hoping to figure it out with the book : )

    Nice and inspiring interview.
    I’m definitely interested!

  • Sarah R Reply

    Not everyone in the world has or wants a Twitter acount…

    • Matthew Kammerer Reply

      We understand, in the future you can simply enter with your email address.

  • Erling Reply

    Thanks for the interview. I added Clout to my list of books to read. Looking forward to learning Colleen’s ideas on how to persuade and raise awareness without annoying. @XDstrategy

  • safeharb Reply

    Great interview. I’m looking forward to reading the book – both to learn new insights and information and to obtain a cohesive POV on experiences I’ve encountered while wearing a number of hats through the years: technical communicator, usability practitioner, and information architect. @safeharb

  • Parker Short Reply

    Great interview. I’m planning on using clout to think through ways to combine content with usability for both my company and my personal blog. Engagement gets thrown around a lot, but I’d like to read something that offers some guidelines with experience to back it up.

  • Mudassir Azeemi Reply

    2010 was the year for me when I learned most of the UX stuff and build the habit of pointing good & bad usability practices around me. 2011 is the year where I will explore the two main topics in UX:

    1- Usability Testing
    2- Information Architect / Content Strategy

    So Clout may become my “Don’t Make Me Think” like book for writing the contents for products. Let see.

    @mmudassir

  • Jacqueline McNally Reply

    It’s certainly refreshing to see a book about content.

    I was particulary interested in your background at CDC and the various products and organisations for which you have developed a content strategy.

    My primary role is technical author, and since the early 90’s I have been developing online documentation in the areas of science and technology. On Monday I start a new contract at the Marshall Centre for Infectious Diseases Research and Training. One of the tasks is to implement a communication strategy for the Centre, and I’m sure your book will be most helpful. @tsukusenai

  • Mccasal Reply

    I’ve been a webdesigner for years. I keep saying clients and agencies I work with: content is the key.
    I now have a proof of it with Clout. I’ll read it, keep it in my bag and hold it like a crazy priest screeming : “I told you heretics!”
    Kidding guys…
    @mccasal

  • eAnka Reply

    @e_anka – this book seems a perfect read for me – I need to change the way I develop websites and take it to the next level, to generate solution rather than a design only. I also think about switching from my role of web-developer to an entrepreneur and becoming my own client (developping some websites for myself). Thanks for a great interview!

  • Steve Grobschmidt Reply

    Would be interested in snagging a copy of Clout, to get another perspective on content strategy and ways to ensure it’s not overlooked or marginalized on projects. (Twitter handle: @AquinasWI)

  • Justin Reply

    Sounds like a great book! I am looking to use it for getting a better look at how to effectively increase clout as a part of a new project i’m working on with a larger company. Would be interesting to see what advice and examples are in this book to back up my recommendations for web content strategy. @jtuckr

  • Erica Minton Reply

    I’ve been struggling with content strategy for a while now– I’m so thrilled to see a great resource for this (previously) evasive topic!

    If I won a free copy of the book, I would use it to pull together a quick presentation for my agency with my favorite learnings from the book– I would also be happy to post that on Slideshare so anyone else could use the resource, if the author was interested!

    @redrabbit

  • Colleen Jones Reply

    Wow, all of you have spot-on expectations for how Clout can help. My fingers are crossed for you to win!

    Erica, I’d definitely be interested in that presentation. ;-)

  • Matthew Edward Reply

    This looks like a really promising book. I read the sample chapter, and have marked it as ‘to-read’ on my goodreads account

    I’ve been working on the upcoming version of one of my most important business sites, and have been reading (and reviewing) books on Web usability and web content, one after the other for the last couple of months.

    I’m a proponent of the new rules of marketing: help people easily find what they want instead of telling them what they need.

    I plan to improve my skills in these areas for my own internet projects as well as for clients from here on out!

  • Amy Lew Reply

    @amy_lew — I’m looking for a job in the new year, so I’m going to need to continually adding content to my portfolio. I’m also resolving to blog more. I need all of this content to reach the right audience and speak to them and compel them that I’m right person for the job. I think Clout can only help me with that.

  • Brandon Guillermo Reply

    Thoroughly enjoyable post. At a recent meetup I attended, someone new to SEO asked about it. He was flooded with so much info, he finally said “I think I’ll keep delegating!”

    Content has always been a starting point and constant with me, and it is a mean balancing act to discover effective promotional techniques while creating it.

    Opinions range from folks dismissing SEO altogether because of the volatile algorithms, to those that evangelize PPC.

    At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how a page ranks as much as retaining a visitor. Continued focus in this area is definitely a wise investment.

  • Suzanne McDonald Reply

    I agree content may be a better investment than many SEO tactics, especially if you have a limited budget.

    While SEO drives content strategy, your content should focus on humans, your customers or would-be customers.

    Great content incorporates SEO, and a content strategist or copywriter worth her salt should be optimizing your content for you.

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