Laura Porto Stockwell has developed a strategy process that connects the dots between business goals, brand aspirations, market opportunities, and user needs. The intersection of those elements, she says, “Is where the magic happens.”
Laura applies her strategic approach to both top-level digital strategies and to content strategies for her clients as the CEO of Big Thinkers Society.
We talked about:
- her transition from community journalism to digital agency work
- her pioneering content strategy work at early digital agencies like Ikonic, marchFIRST, and Razorfish
- her content-strategy process
- the relationship between content strategy and digital publishing
- the ongoing challenges of prying content out of clients
- the relationship between digital, branding, and content strategies
- her definitions of strategy and content strategy
- her interest in media ecology and digital literacy
Laura Porto Stockwell is the CEO and Founder of Big Thinkers Society, an agency that helps organizations embrace digital to connect with the world in new ways and helps professionals level up their strategic skills through flexible, online classes.
Over the past 25 years, Laura has brought innovation and inspiration to clients including Ford, Microsoft, Nike, T-Mobile, Toyota, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And as an executive leader at agencies across the U.S. and Italy, she’s helped bring a culture of strategy to creative environments.
Laura is a regular speaker at industry events as well as a frequent guest lecturer at the University of Washington. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder and an M.A. in Media Studies from The New School in New York City.
Here’s the video version of our conversation:
[Not an actual transcript – just my quick notes on first listen-through]
0:00 – my intro – journalism > digital strategy > content strategy
1:00 – Laura intro – content strategy near and dear to her heart – journalism degree – off to Prague – newspaper community reporting, translated nicely to digital, since there’s so much community – first digital job report at Seattle Times – put whole newspaper online on bulletin board every day – next 10 years at agencies – Razorfish, marchFirst, etc. in LA, San Francisco, Milan, New York, and Seattle – started 4 years ago.
3:10 – content strategy in late 1990s
3:35 – story of marchFIRST – Ikonic proposal writing working with CD-ROM content strategy group – “fearless leader” there was Eric Johnson, a total content-strategy visionary – great group of folks – USWeb bought them, and then merged with CKS agency, then purchased/merged and became marchFIRST (still gets emails from colleagues there every March 1) – became a prominent global agency – she moved to LA and ran content strategy for southwest – 2000 or so web bust sank the company – 2004 Razorfish with Karen McGrane some of the pieces picked up there –
6:15 – what was content strategy then?
6:25 – when at Seattle Times, she founded ST WebWorks, launched web dev team to build sites for local advertisers – team was developer & designer, assumption was that client would provide content – OK for 1, 2, 3- page website, but realized need to understand content better – she can’t find content-strategy explainer video: fake client at desk, cartoon-ey, put cocktail napkin notes online, culminates with UX, designer, and content person skipping through a park together – still an obstacle today, content never ready – had to figure out a strategy – developed a documented process (that she still has) for strategy (market and user needs), moving into structure (taxonomy, metadata, SEO, etc) > creation > maintenance – 2004 at Razorfish, as content strategist for a Fortune 10 company, did a content audit – found dated content, e.g. – so need processes in place to maintain content – that process still serves her today
10:45 – challenge of getting content out of clients and then maintaining it – how do you craft a content strategy for a client?
11:20 – first, really understand what exists – backing up a bit – now, as a digital strategist, she’ll start with, Understand business goals. What is the market opportunity?
so things like competitive audits – took a while for companies to get that website *is* their brand – so first figure out biz goals – what are they trying accomplish? Are there brand pillars we are trying to support? Sales we are trying to make?
Then, what’s there – content audit – what exists – many tools to help with inventory but need assess quality of content – what is the top 20 percent? the top 100 pages people look at? auditing, then gap analysis – are those needs articulated earlier being met? – Also will look competitevly, tone and style of competitors’ messaging – also doing more social work than big web dev these days – same analysis process: what’s the conversation?, and do you want to be part of it? – summary: audit, inventory, gap analysis, and then from there make recommendations
14:10 – execution, too? or just strategy?
14:20 – used to do it all – strategy, writing, update home page daily, etc. at marchFIRST they were called the Content Strategy and Creation group – both strategists and writers and other creators (video, etc.) – often execution is done by creative team – her preference, more of a publication/editorial approach – content strategists more like editors – she’s more interested in the strategy – her role: works with writers to make sure they’re creating content that meets strategic goals
16:10 – publisher vs. strategist – clients think about that?
16:35 – hired at Razorfish in 2004 by Karen McGrane to grow strategy side – has started numerous content strategy groups – sits down with project manager or biz dev person and asks, How does this look? – showed ridiculously pared-down Gantt chart showing a week of work – she actually worked on the content strategy stuff for 9 months – so she starts with explaining to clients how strategy is a process [see above] – and then the clients get it – challenge is that clients don’t understand the steps and having that process is key because can then say, Here’s what you need to do – her process list has about 20 items on it, doesn’t always do them all, but can show why it’s OK to skip a step –
19:35 – relationship between digital, branding, and content strategies – your take?
20:15 – teaches classes at Big Thinkers Society and tackles this all the time – her theory: if you have a good strategy in place, you can use it in whatever way you need – she defines strategy as “connecting the dots between the client’s business needs, what their brand aspires to be, what the market opportunity is, and what the user needs.” magic happens when these are connected – sometimes is a content strategy, sometimes a social strategy, sometimes a UX strategy, – content is a feature of each –
22:30 – how she defines content strategy: “Optimizing digital as a communications channel.” – her masters is in media studies – media ecology approach – web has literally changed the way we think – and new devices – the digital “thing of the day” – Alexa/voice, AI, VR, etc. – each new interaction changes the way we think – so “don’t you want to use that channel in the most effective way and really optimize it to be authentic?” – you no longer want to through your brochure online – content is key to using these new channels effectively –
24:00 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows
24:15 – media ecology – brings it to her work because – you’ve got to meet people where they are
24:55 – persistence of “push” mentality in a “pull” world –
25:15 – anything last?
25:25 – yes. Facebook and the controversy there – her angle: social networks are inherent to social – OK, where can you go if you want to leave Facebook? The Well? it’s still there, the original online community – Diaspora has been around 10 years but either have to build own server of find trusted host – not about data, more about experience – FB makes it look easy – backend of FB is inconceivably vast – we somehow think we have a right to a good social experience – maybe being a little presumptuous in thinking that FB owes us – good or bad, the trade-off is ads – we’re ready and open for an alternative – she’s really interested in the reactions people are having to FB issue – and how closely held it is – big question: “Do I have to break up with Facebook?” that’s where I connect with people – fine if folks want to leave FB – she’s fascinated by folks’ emotional responses
29:35 – recording this right after Cambridge Analytica reports – also my thoughts on Derek Thompson on regulating FB like a public utility, also Jaron Lanier and others on how screwed we are as long as FB holds our attention and is selling it – Tim Berners-Lee and other initiatives to re-decentralize the web –
31:25 – yep, we have had that for a long time, BBSes, and have it now, but it’s a pain to use – people want an easy way to connect – she’s big fan of media education, her kids, e.g., get that media is biased – and believes that when we’re adults it’s on us to manage our media consumption – don’t have to pick up phone when it rings – we have this kind of immature approach to media, a belief, e.g., that media is unbiased – in Europe, diversity of perspectives built into media – almost irresponsible how we think about media – she knows and gets FB, both as marketer and consumer
34:15 – usability at Facebook – vs. old Usenet bulleting boards
34:40 – Cialdini’s Influence – can use the weapons or defend yourself from them
35:10 – her passion project would be a media literacy initiative