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Inside Content Design at BT with Rachel McConnell

Published 12th May 2021 15 minute read
"As a content designer, 80% of your success and your growth isn't down to the technical side of doing the work. It's down to all those other things that you have to navigate to do the work."
— Rachel McConnell Inside Content Design at BT

Rachel McConnell is a UK-based content design manager at BT, who has a strong and varied history in content, including positions at Clearleft and Deliveroo.

We sat down with Rachel to find out more about her current and previous roles, how a huge company like BT is structured, and what career progression looks like there.

Rachel McConnell
Rachel McConnell

Career history, at-a-glance

  • BT logoBTContent Design ManagerJanuary 2021 - Present
  • BT logoBTContent Ops ManagerMay 2020 - January 2021
  • Clearleft logoClearleftContent StrategistMay 2019 - May 2020
  • Deliveroo logoDeliverooSenior Content DesignerJune 2018 - May 2019
  • RSA logoRSAHead of Digital ContentJanuary 2015 - May 2018
  • MORE TH>N logoMORE TH>NMarketing ManagerJul 2011 - December 2014
  • Unilever logoUnileverAssistant Brand ManagerJan 2006 - Jul 2011

Rachel’s beginnings

Rachel’s path to her current role at BT was by no means a straight one. With content and non-content roles along the way, Rachel’s starting point was the same as many others in the content industry: journalism.

She started the NTCJ qualification with the aim of becoming a journalist, but then something dawned on her.

“I kind of realised that if I became a journalist I might have to spend years and years in local council meetings before I’d start to earn good money. And I was like, ‘Oh, god, I'm not sure about this.’”

— Rachel McConnell

Instead Rachel decided to switch to PR or advertising, getting a job at an ad agency as PA to get her foot in the door. After getting onto the company’s graduate training scheme—with her boss’s blessing who said she was a “terrible” PA—she worked as an advertising buyer for a few years.

From here Rachel made the jump to Unilever where she worked as a learning and development project manager putting together the marketing foundation programme, before moving into a brand role, leading the product launch of Flora Cuisine. But after a few years, she felt a change in the air.

Making the switch to content

“I saw that social media was taking off, and I saw that the future was becoming more digital.”

— Rachel McConnell

With this realisation, Rachel decided it was time for something new. And in 2011, she moved on from Unilever.

“I got a role as a social media manager [at RSA Insurance Group]. And part of that role incorporated writing all the articles that we would link off to. And so the more articles I was writing, the more I was working with the digital team and with the web team.”

— Rachel McConnell

During this role, two content editors left the company and Rachel decided to go for one of the positions. Instead of getting one, RSA rolled the two jobs into one content lead position and she got the job.

But it was as a content lead that Rachel noticed an issue: the disconnect between editorial and UX.

“Loads of the people who were doing the more UX design stuff didn't have content writers working with them. It was just designers and developers chucking in any old words, and it kind of enraged me a little bit. It's like, why am I writing all this editorial stuff, but not working with you on the experience design?”

— Rachel McConnell

It wasn’t easy to make change happen. Rachel was working across multiple teams and advocating for more collaboration between editorial and design. But this wasn’t just a matter of a company being slow to change its ways. The gender divide also played its part.

Photo of Kesri Smolas
Kesri SmolasLinkedIn iconI help teams to create and innovate. Also Founder of Drovers Rest Farm Camp - a space for teams to gather and to dream.

Rachel has incredible drive and talent. She has natural talent for marketing and leading teams. She always aims high and never fails. She has a very positive can do attitude and is a pleasure to work with. She shows initiative and does not have to be looked after. She takes ownership and drives the business forward always coming up with great new ideas and implementing them with executional excellence. She manages teams and agencies very well inspiring them and giving them great direction. I would love to work with her again.

Getting content design taken seriously

“That was pretty hard, because it was an all-male digital team –I always felt like I had to say something ten times before anyone listened to me, but if a guy said it everyone went, ‘Oh, yeah, we should really do that.’”

— Rachel McConnell

Rachel also told us that it’s hard to get content design taken seriously as discipline in general. She said that with the field being “70%, if not more, female” many content designers aren’t as comfortable “shouting about” their success, something she says men are more likely to do.

She points to the design community as an example of a discipline that’s well-established, and explained why she thought the content design one is different.

“I think content is often viewed as a ‘softer’ skill when in fact it’s really strategic and technical but nevertheless it tends to attract more women. If you look at the design community, it's still predominently straight, white guys, and they're all so confident getting into heavy debates on Twitter and stuff like that. That doesn't really happen in content design – we’re much quieter and never really shout about what we do or our successes. We need to do more of that.”

— Rachel McConnell

Eventually a big digital transformation project appeared on the horizon and Rachel jumped at the chance to lead it, but to focus on that, she needed to build the content team she needed. After four years in the role, she finally got the team she wanted, with it eventually growing in size to six people.

Not long after this Rachel felt it was time for something new. RSA were cutting head count and merging roles, so she decided to take voluntary redundancy. After seven years with the company she figured it was a good time to move on.

From big and slow to small and fast

By the summer of 2018, Rachel found herself at Deliveroo as a senior content designer. This role was without the people management of her old position, and allowed Rachel to “just do the craft, to just do the writing”.

Rachel also found it easy to sync up with the company’s engineers.

“It was really nice to work with such user-centered developers. They were exactly the kind of engineering team you want to work with. They were just really, really user-centered.”

— Rachel McConnell

The way things were done were very different to RSA, too. Despite the size of Deliveroo, Rachel was part of a team of just five content designers. But what they may have lacked in size, was made up for in agility.

“I went from this massive insurance company that took ages to get anything built and live, to being, ‘Right, we need copy ready to go live in ten minutes time’. That was kind of cool.”

— Rachel McConnell

But despite this, Rachel felt like there was something lacking from her role, and within a year, a new opportunity to become a consultant arose.

“After a while, I started to miss the leadership side. That's when Clearleft asked me if I would like to go there and be a content strategist. I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, that's pretty cool. I can go out and be like more of a consultant and do more consultancy work.’”

— Rachel McConnell

This was the perfect job to utilise her experience building content teams. For a year she helped other organisations improve their content approach, including looking at how they were structured, seeing what the barriers were to creating good work, and helping them with capability building.

And amongst it all, Rachel wrote a book titled Why you need a content team and how to build one, too.

After a year at Clearleft, and with a ton of hands-on and consultancy experience under her belt, Rachel moved to the company she works at now: BT.

Why you need a content team and how to build one
by Rachel McConnell LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 6 Nov 2018

Imagine a world without Lorem Ipsum. Imagine a world where content was so widely recognised as an integral part of any digital experience, that content experts sat within all areas of a business. It’s not too far away, particularly as we move towards chat, voice UI and conversational interfaces. Great content is at the heart of any seamless user experience — it’s no longer enough to rely on visual design alone. This book helps you to understand your content maturity and how to increase it. It explains the different content roles, including the nuances between them and the overlaps. It’ll help you recruit the right content experts — explaining what to look for and how to interview them — experts who’ll take your digital journeys to the next level, and beyond.

Getting onboard with BT

This was another big change. Joining BT meant going from essentially a team of one consultant, to working with a huge content team in-house. But Rachel happily found that BT took content design seriously. There were no uphill battles to fight to get her work properly recognised.

“That was really important to me. For years and years and years, I was plugging away trying to get content design recognized at the top. And here it actually is recognized at the top. So it's nice to work somewhere where part of part of that advocacy work goes away.”

— Rachel McConnell

Rachel started her BT career as a content operations manager, and while she still has involvement in that side of the work, her current role is content design manager. This involves leading a team and hiring new employees.

The nuts and bolts of the role

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the role, Rachel works in the framing and capability ‘alliance’ (we’ll get into what an alliance is and how BT structures its workforce shortly). Aligned with content operations this involves determining the foundations of other teams, such as looking at information architecture and how that’s implemented across BT’s websites.

Rachel was able to draw on her experience at Clearleft from looking at company structures to spot barriers and help improve their capacity, essentially “facilitating the delivery of the strategy”. In other words, the “glue” that keeps any good content creation approach together.

At BT, improving efficiency around the content production process has been a focus—if there are common blockers or problems getting in the way, Rachel will find a way to fix them and get everyone up to speed on the new approach.

Photo of Andy Budd
Andy BuddLinkedIn iconDesign Founder, Board Advisor, Speaker and Coach

Rachel is a super talented content strategist, with a drive that will see her go far. She's an active member of the international content strategy community, and well respected by her peers. A great public speaker and author, I could not recommend her more.

The importance of training

Rachel is heavily involved in training as well, having just put together a nine month training program and workshop for content designers. It’s a three part course involving theory, workshopping, and practical application. With the aim to get “everybody to the same level”, Rachel says even experienced content designers will learn new things on the course.

She’s also been involved in a skills mapping process.

“Content designers, content editors, and product designers can take a survey that asks them lots of questions. Then it spits out their skills wheel and shows them where the gaps are.”

— Rachel McConnell

This enables BT to “really clearly identify training needs” and then roll out the training that will be most effective in meeting them. Content designers themselves are also encouraged to share their knowledge and experience through lightning talks.

Bringing together people working in content is important too, along with getting them to workshop together. One such example is the monthly Content Collective which usually attracts around 60 attendees, and often includes workshopping.

Rachel stated the importance of attendees inputting to, and suggesting these activities.

“Rather than saying, ‘we're going to do this’, we’re actually saying, ‘what would you like to do, and what are the things that interest you?’ and making it relevant to them.”

— Rachel McConnell

This makes things more of a “two way street” and leads to far more engaged attendees getting the support and experience they actually want.

And on top of all that, there’s interviewing to be done, too.

Interviewing for a BT content role

Rachel took us through her interview process, first revealing that there are no “take home tasks”. She told us she doesn’t want people “spending days” on them, and notes that many people rarely have the time for that, and it could put people off from joining the company.

“I'm a single mum with kids and a full time job and I’ve been in this situation, and finding that time is hard. And then at the end of the day, you're just thinking, is this even worth it? If this is what they expect of you in the interview, what will they expect of you when you're working there?”

— Rachel McConnell

Instead, shortlisted candidates are given a 15 - 30 minute task as part of the interview itself. When they’re done, the candidate talks through what they did and why.

But what kind of tasks are they given?

“A typical task might be, we give you one of our pages, and we ask you to tell us what you think the user needs were that determined the page. Or we might ask you to analyze what's on the page and evaluate whether it's doing its job and what improvements you might make.”

— Rachel McConnell

Prospective candidates may also be asked to run through a project they’ve worked on previously, or to write an email convincing a stakeholder to run tests based on a hypothesis.

Including the task time, a typical interview lasts around an hour to an hour and a half. Candidates are asked competency questions, and ones specific to the role and their skills.

“What we're looking for is someone who can show that they've got depth in their experience, that they're not just saying buzzwords. And also, someone who talks passionately about content design, and you can see that they've really got the kind of the passion there to create good work and advocate for the user.”

— Rachel McConnell

They also look for people who might not have a direct content designer background. A candidate could be coming from a related role, such as a copywriter or UX designer, or they may not come from a pure content background at all.

Nevertheless, a content design background is a benefit, as Rachel wants new hires to be able to hit the ground running. Prove that, and you’re on the right track.

BT also takes diversity and inclusion seriously, something that needs to be considered at the start of any hiring process. To this end they have a Diversity and Inclusion guild to work on these efforts. You can read more about BT’s diversity and inclusion policies here.

Onboarding and feeling welcome at BT

Once the hiring is done, it’s time to onboard the new employees. In a world where many are working remote, it’s a tricky process to pull off.

“I think it’s really important with remote working that we do make people feel part of the BT family if you like. They don't just get a laptop and be told ‘off you go’. It's more welcoming than that.”

— Rachel McConnell

This means inductions are important. New hires get introduced to their squad, the people they’ll be spending time with, and the wider content team, but the onboarding at BT goes beyond that.

Mentorships, a buddy system, and working groups all play their part in introducing new employees to the company and making them feel welcome. They also make use of regular meetings that draw lots of employees.

“We have a monthly meeting that we call the Big Design Gathering, which is the whole of the design team. We normally welcome new starters through that meeting and give them a bit of an intro so they get to understand who else is on the design team and who their wider counterparts are.”

— Rachel McConnell

But it’s not just about the first week or two, it’s about making sure new workers have a role that’s a good fit for them. To this end, BT have plans to change how people can choose to work.

“We’ll definitely be looking to make sure people get the balance they want and make better calls on how people use office space. It's going to be a lot more flexible, which is awesome. I think so many big companies are now realising they've got to adapt.”

“You can read more about how we’ve adapted onboarding for remote working on our design blog too.”

— Rachel McConnell

Photo of Chris Harding
Chris HardingLinkedIn iconContent Strategist at Canyon Bicycles GmbH

Rachel's flexible and considered. Never afraid to suggest ideas or new ways of working, she's an extremely valuable member of any organisation. Her work ethic is to own any challenges presented to her; which is to be admired. I always enjoy working with her, as she has a great sense of humour and is able to keep her head above water, despite an ever shifting landscape.

BT’s structure: alliances, tribes, and squads

BT is a huge company offering a wide range of services, not to mention they own EE, too. With so many things going on, and with so many employees, how do they keep everything in order? Through a structure based on alliances, tribes, and squads.

Alliances are the largest of the three, being made up of between 60 - 100 people, and they focus on parts of the customer journey.

“One might be helping people to learn about what phone to buy. Another might be buying, as in actually making the decision to purchase.”

— Rachel McConnell

Alliances are then made up of tribes which have a “collective theme” to work on, such as looking at how to make a more personalised user experience for customers. An example of this we discussed was the BT website knowing you’re a broadband customer before you even log in.

And within tribes you have three to five squads, with each one working to more defined goals that contribute to the collective theme. In this case, it could be defining the experience for a logged-in app user.

The squads themselves include:

  • A product owner
  • A product designer
  • A content designer
  • A researcher (although sometimes this is done by a centralised research team instead)

BT are also encouraging their content and product designers to get to grips with research, another example of their internal training.

“One of the other good things that's happening at BT, because we've got quite a small research team, they're working really hard to democratise research, and allow people to have the skills to do it themselves. They’ve just launched a fantastic internal training course.”

— Rachel McConnell

Beyond research, there are centralised teams taking on the data science, analytics, accessibility, and SEO responsibilities, too. Importantly, the centralised teams work closely with squads to make sure all of our project’s bases are covered.

Taking SEO as an example, Rachel explained BT have a head of SEO, but each alliance will usually have their own SEO who will be directly involved in the work. On top of that, the SEO team is on-hand to work on projects whenever they’re needed.

“The SEO people work kind of like consultants. They help the content designers assess their current SEO maturity, and then work with them to take steps to improve that maturity.”

— Rachel McConnell

Rising through the ranks

While we’ve already spoken about the ongoing training BT offers, we asked Rachel specifically about progression and how the company supports that. One of the first aspects of this we discussed was the ability “to move around” within BT.

This could come in the form of moving from the EE app to working with BT Sport, or it could be changing roles entirely.

“You might find that in six months or a year's time, you think ‘Oh, actually, I'd like to go into content design for another squad.’ And those opportunities are always there.”

— Rachel McConnell

Rachel gave us some recent examples, including content designers moving to new squads, others being promoted into more specialist roles with a focus on coaching and mentoring, and one becoming a product owner.

There are big plans for the future in this area as well. Rachel notes that with such a big team, losing people can be a worry and she sees a more formalised approach to progression as useful for combating that.

This will build on the skills mapping we looked at earlier, but it’s also about ensuring there are clear career progression paths that make sense. Being able to move around the company in a flat way is fine, but it’s the ability to move up that keeps people engaged and invested.

What BT look for in content designers hoping to progress

“One of the things that we found with our specialists is that they are the kind of people who will always want to support other people. They'll also take the lead in things, and demonstrate they have knowledge of the wider business context beyond their specific role.”

— Rachel McConnell

Rachel was clear this didn’t mean they were after one type of person though.

“It doesn't necessarily have to be someone who's an extrovert, or shouts the loudest in every meeting. It's the person that demonstrates the competence to be seen as a role model to other people, and to be able to help them be better at their jobs.”

— Rachel McConnell

Photo of Clara Cambridge
Clara CambridgeLinkedIn iconSenior Marketing Manager

Rachel has been a valuable addition to my team - she has an intuitive understanding of social media, combined with a positive attitude and a natural way of putting people, stakeholders and suppliers at their ease. She has been a great asset to my team in terms of both her interpersonal skills and her technical capability.

Performance tracking and evaluation

Tracking an employee’s performance is also key to career progression, and BT does this in a number of ways, including with metrics and OKRs (objectives and key results). But they also use more tailored methods.

“We give people a personal development plan. We sit down with people on an annual review basis, and they get 360 feedback from people, but we also ask what areas they would like to develop into, where they feel they need to improve your skills, and where they see themselves going.”

— Rachel McConnell

Once Rachel and BT have that information, they see it as their job to help get the support and direction they need. One example came to Rachel’s mind.

“I recently had a career conversation with someone on my team. She said she was really interested in service design. I said, ‘Okay, cool. Well, let's sign you up to do a service design workshop, and buddy you up with our service designers. And then you can be their go-to content person. They can learn from you, you can learn from them.”

— Rachel McConnell

What was obvious from talking to Rachel is that progression is about “helping people fulfil their potential”.

Advice, recommendations and tips from Rachel

What advice would you give someone who's looking to start a career in content design?

“As a content designer, 80% of your success and your growth isn't down to the technical side of doing the work. It's down to all those other things that you have to navigate to do the work. It's things like collaboration, communication, and learning; being able to navigate big organisations and manage stakeholders.”

“You can only learn so much about content design from doing a training course. When you get into a really busy commercial environment, where you don't have time for a lot of research, designs are needed by the end of the day, or you’ve got to put an AB test live tomorrow. It's the flexibility to be able to work super fast if you need to.”

“My biggest piece of advice is that you can’t only have one way of working. You can’t say you can only work like this, or write like that. You have to be prepared to adapt.”

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about interviewing for a senior leadership position?

“I'd want to know the impact that they'd had in previous roles. As you move up an organisation it becomes more about influencing stakeholders. They're going to be very focused on outcomes. It will be about demonstrating your impact. Have you made some amazing efficiency savings? Have you driven up the value of content design? Have you increased revenue for the company?”

“I would also want to know that someone is there to further not just themselves, but the discipline. And I want to know that someone's in that role for the good of the people that are working for them, that they're going to be doing all they can to create the best culture for those people. Because I think the role of a leader is to create a culture where the team can thrive.”

Which industry professionals should people be following right now on Twitter?

What books would you recommend content designers get their hands on?

Strategic Writing for UX: Drive Engagement, Conversion, and Retention with Every Word
by Torrey Podmajersky LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 5 Jul 2019

This book teaches you how to write with the user in mind, including how to strategise your copy work and get the results you want.

“Strategic writing for UX has got some really good exercises in there, I love the conversational design one.”

— Rachel McConnell
Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose (Voices That Matter)
by Nicole Fenton LinkedIn icon Twitter icon and Kate Kiefer Lee LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 4 Jun 2014

Packed full of real world examples, this book teaches you how to write in a way that meets your users needs and your business aims.

“One day you're going to find yourself in a room with marketing stakeholders, putting together proposition messaging, and you're going to have to help them do that. For that, this book is really useful.”

— Rachel McConnell
The Content Strategy Toolkit
by Meghan Casey LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 18 Jun 2015

From audit to analysis, strategy to implementation, it’s the ultimate collection of everything you need to create and launch a content strategy.

“I’ve recently revisited this book and realised just how many of the tools and techniques in it are so relevant to ops, things I was doing but hadn’t even realised someone had already written about! It was in some ways ahead of its time.”

— Rachel McConnell
Cultivating Content Design
by Beth Dunn LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 13 Apr 2021

Cultivating Content Design gives you the power to fundamentally change your organization’s approach to great content—with the tools and team you already have.

“I reviewed this book for Beth and found it a lively and helpful read, reminding all content designers how they can help build advocacy in their business.”

— Rachel McConnell

Finally, is there a particular site or product that you think does content really well?

“I recently signed up for PensionBee. It's like a breath of fresh air compared to dealing with other pension companies. It was so simple I was thinking I've missed something really important that’s going to come back to haunt me. I also really like the straightforwardness of Bulb’s content, and the playfulness of IKEA’s content.”

PensionBee website image
PensionBee website
Bulb website image
Bulb website
Ikea website image
Ikea website