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Lullabot is an agency that had its beginnings in Drupal development. Since then it’s branched out into design and strategy. Boasting clients as varied as IBM, MSNBC, and Tesla Motors, we wanted to learn more about the agency and how it approaches content strategy.
To do that, we sat down with two Lullabot employees, Erin Schroeder and Greg Dunlap, to discuss everything from how to stand out as a content strategy candidate to looking after your mental health.
First, let’s get to know our two interviewees.
Erin Schroeder is a content strategist. She works directly with clients on strategy and UX, including running workshops and conducting research to inform her work. She joined the company last November, having started out as a journalist before moving into copywriting and content strategy.
Greg Dunlap is the director of strategy at Lullabot. He comes from an engineering background with over 20 years in the field. He says this is key for being able to ask the right questions earlier, and bridging the gap between design and development. He also works with clients, but also has hiring, management, and development responsibilities.
We’ll learn more about both Erin and Greg as the interview goes on, so let’s get to it.
The benefits of a content strategy agency
It’s a discussion that’s been had countless times before, and one that will be had countless times to come: agency or in-house? With endless considerations based on cost, time, project type, and other areas, we asked Greg and Erin their thoughts when it comes to content strategy.
Cutting through the politics
Erin pointed to internal office politics to support the use of an agency. She says that agencies can come in as a “neutral third party” which can be beneficial for getting projects moving, or “getting the bird out of the nest” as Erin puts it.
Greg echoed this, telling us that leadership teams can often listen more to outsiders. He says it makes him feel ”sick” to come in and find great ideas have been ignored internally, only for him to suggest the same and suddenly see people jump on board, something he’s experienced from the other side as well. As unfortunate as this is, it’s frustratingly common.
A lack of baggage was also cited by both Erin and Greg. When an agency comes in there’s no long standing disputes or hard feelings involving themselves to wade through, which means ideas and suggestions can get a better, fairer hearing. Not to mention consultants have lots of experience in communicating to stakeholders across departments.
This all means agencies can help to cut through blockers and red tape in ways internal employees may struggle to do.
Amplifying voices and levelling up
Erin told us that agencies are perfect for targeting weak spots in companies. For example, agencies not only bring their skills, but their expertise in processes and building teams, challenges which are difficult to get right.
While this can happen in the form of direct training, it’s something that happens organically over time too. Erin gave us an example of an agency working on retainer, offering help and support as needed, which in turn taught the team new skills and expertise.
In this case, agencies become an “extension” of a team, working on projects from planning to launch, and then making sure it’s a success post-launch. Erin said this can lead to a company realising they need to build out their team internally to take on these responsibilities. While this would lead to the company and agency parting ways, Erin considers this a “win”, proving the value of the relationship that was built.
For organisations without the resources to build their own teams, Greg reiterated how their existing employees can learn a lot from agencies over time.
“I think a good reason to bring in a consultant is if you have an internal team that is feeling a little in over their head and want to be leveled up. We see so many problems and see so many different clients, we've got a lot of knowledge in our toolset, and, when we come in and work with an existing team, my goal is always to empower that team with the knowledge that I have.”
Empowering teams isn’t just about skills though. Erin talked about how she wants to amplify internal voices that are being ignored at a detriment to the whole organisation, something that solves the problem Greg has seen where smart ideas are ignored.
To do this, Erin said they work closely with teams, explaining their decks, data, and analytics that they’ll take to leadership. This means the team and the consultants can “all stand behind it”, making sure the attention and authority doesn’t all go to the agency.
Essential support and hitting the ground running
Greg told us about a prime example of when a company should hire an agency.
“I think when I've seen us bring the most value is when we have a client that has a project that is gigantic, and their internal team also has to keep the lights on. And so we’re supplemental to them during a phase in which they are in over their heads.”
For Lullabot, this might happen when a client is building a new website, but they still need to keep the ball rolling for their existing site. With a ton of experience in this area, it’s pretty straightforward for Lullabot to drop in and quickly provide the support that’s needed.
Erin echoed this sentiment around being able to get to work quickly, particularly in relation to copywriting.
“I think it’s hard to hire writers, and I say this as a former writer and former journalist, that can fit in. Hiring from within means you've got to get someone ramped up quickly on your style guide and things like that.”
In comparison, you could hire an agency that does this on a regular basis, and therefore “can move much quicker” when it comes to adopting style guides and content approaches. This saves a lot of time, and allows the agency to bring their strategy experience to content production from the off.
The benefits of a content strategy agency
Now let’s get an idea of how Lullabot approaches content strategy itself. To do this, Greg told us about one of his favourite projects, which involved working with the US state of Georgia.
“Basically the project was that they had an existing Drupal 7 site that ran a little over two thirds of their state agencies. They wanted to upgrade it to the new version of Drupal, which at the time was 8. At the same time, they wanted to implement a new design system. They didn't have a design system before, so they wanted to implement one, so a company called IDEO was brought in to do that work. We were also brought in to do the content strategy work which would be handed off to the developers to build.”
There were a lot of important considerations for this project beyond a general update of tech. Greg said how their stakeholder, Nikhil Deshpande, was integral for bringing focus to the end user to the project. The insights this brought meant they had to consider content beyond the web, and think about integrations with technology like Amazon’s Alexa.
But it wasn’t all about the end user though. The state employees who would be using the system to upload content and govern their sites were just as important too. Greg said it made sense in some ways to have these sites self-governed, but it led to poor strategy and inconsistency.
It was then part of Lullabot’s job to figure how to incentivise the editors to be more constituent-focused and how to be more structured in their approach, along with retaining the flexibility they needed in creating content.
Ultimately, to truly understand what work is needed, Greg says there are three areas that needs to be covered:
Interviews and workshops with stakeholders
Content inventories and audits
UX and design audits
Let’s take a look at these in more detail.
The importance of workshops and interviews
Workshops in Lullabot’s case mainly mean three days onsite, running through a range of exercises to better understand how the state workers were using the system, their issues with it, and where they thought it could be improved.
One such exercise involved giving everyone ten minutes and some post-its to write down all of the websites’ problems they could think of. A surely cathartic experience for the workers, the post-its were then organised into topics. This produced a slew of possible improvements, which were then prioritised, giving Lullabot an insight into the most important fixes according to the state employees.
Then there were the interviews with people within the state agency, and with end users as well. Through these conversations they found out what worked and what didn’t work for people on both sides of the website.
Strategy statements and rallying cries
The Georgia project was before Erin’s time, but she had her own example of the importance of these workshops and interviews, specifically in figuring out what a website is really aiming to do.
She’s currently working with a philanthropy website which wants to encourage giving in their community. Erin told us about the importance of a core strategy statement that would unify the actions of the different siloed parts of the organisation, and how workshops were key for creating one.
One workshop centred around the core strategy, aiming to find out the big ‘whys’ of the project, beyond the usual website goals. Erin wanted to know what the content would do, how it should make people feel, and what experience they were trying to create. In other words, the organisation needed a “rallying cry” they could “stitch onto a pillow and put in their office.”
A technique Erin often employs in her workshops is Mad-libs that help people order and focus their thoughts, aims, and ideas.
With these two ideas nailed down, they can guide the entire project and help to keep everyone on the same path.
Using data and research to lead the way
Using the Georgia project as an example again, Greg ran us through their other two main research methods.
“One is a very, very large content inventory and high level content audit process. This is where my engineering work really came in handy because I ran Screaming Frog against all of their state agency websites and ended up with a gigantic spreadsheet of a million new URLs.”
From here Greg was able to group these URLs in various ways, such as by state agency, and then run sentiment analysis on these groupings.
“For instance, I could do a sentiment analysis and say, ‘Oh, the law enforcement sites have a much lower sentiment rating than the environmental sites do. What can we do to look at that?’”
The third method involves an in-depth look at the user experience of a website.
“Our UX strategists spent a lot of time doing a design audit of the sites, basically looking for all of the common patterns across the site and how they're represented in the front end.”
With all of this data to hand, Lullabot’s approach would be clearer, and they would have a good idea of how to implement a system that works, and which encourages the right behaviour and discourages the wrong behaviour as a built-in attribute.
“What we can do is we can give authors the tools to serve user needs and make sure that the things that most serve the user are the easiest and most instinctual to do. And the things that don't serve the user are the hardest and least instinctual to do.”
Erin offered a warning on this though, saying that a lot of care had to be taken in implementing changes to avoid “upturning” the author’s world and creating more problems. Preparing for this harks back to interviews with the authors themselves, and knowing how to extract good answers from them.
She notes that many authors might be more “neutral” when it comes to the system, but “when push comes to shove” they will have an opinion to share. What’s integral is getting these opinions prior to implementation, rather than it becoming a complaint post-implementation.
What it’s like to be a content strategist at Lullabot
Moving on from specific projects, we wanted to get an idea of how the content strategy team itself works at Lullabot. To give us some insight, Erin ran through a typical week for her.
“Each week we start Monday off with a team call, where a randomly selected group of employees and leaders talk about what’s going on in their lives. It’s very open and cathartic to have the space to get to know each other and share what’s happening outside of your home office.
“Otherwise, my days and week depend on my projects. Often my projects have weekly or twice a week touchpoints with clients where we’re planning for what’s ahead, or demoing what we’ve done in the past few days. I also have internal touchpoints with my Lullabot colleagues on a project so we can plan around what we want to deliver this week, and how. There’s no shortage of communication, even in a remote environment, and I really appreciate that because I work better collaboratively than alone most times.
“When I’m not in those touchpoints or client demos, I’m working on client work. That could be discovery – such as content inventories, stakeholder interviews, or website audits, to building out reports for strategic recommendations, content matrices, etc. Our Strategy team also meets on a weekly basis, and it’s a great place to get feedback, collaborate, and solve obstacles.”
Greg also explained how and when his team fits into a project.
“We are typically brought in very early in the sales process for a project, so before it even begins. We consider content to be a critical piece of the puzzle, and so as the proposal and budget are crafted, strategy is involved in putting together their pieces of it. Then most of our large-scale projects will start with a combination content/design phase.
“Both teams work very closely and iteratively to work through a content plan and design system that works well and in harmony with each other. At that point we typically hand it off to the dev team and slowly ramp off the project, although we're always still available if they need anything.”
This combination of client work and company culture is something Lullabot instils from the off. The company is fully remote making getting to know teammates and colleagues “paramount”. Erin told us that onboarding at Lullabot focuses heavily on culture, creating lots of opportunities for employees to meet, talk, and ensure they feel connected.
That’s not to mention a yearly retreat where the entire company is brought together to meet in-person. This year’s was conducted virtually due to the pandemic, and you can read about how that went here.
This approach is clearly having an impact with Erin saying she feels like she “knew her colleagues like they worked side-by-side at a desk” despite living nowhere near each other.
Development and training
It’s not all client work and internal communication though. Enabling employees to improve and develop is well-supported. Money and time off is supplied, which could be used for anything from conferences to certifications to books.
There’s a collaborative aspect to this within the company too, as Erin explains.
“This year the entire Strategy team attended Confab (albeit virtually) and it was such a great way to share an experience together. We even “divided and conquered” so we could cover as many of the sessions as possible and come back together to share what we learned. Our team is always on the lookout for new courses, workshops, etc., that we can share with one another to continue building our expertise.”
Greg and Erin’s advice for content strategists
With decades of experience between them, we turned to Erin and Greg for some career advice for all the content strategists out there. First we asked Greg what he looked for in a candidate as a person hiring in the industry.
How to stand out when applying for jobs
He told us that variety in experience is important and that, for an agency, specialisation is “not necessarily a great thing.” This is because it’s important a content strategist can tackle the multiple problems a project may throw up. If they’re too specialised they can end up “sitting on the bench” when their skills aren’t called for.
But Greg makes it clear that this isn’t about having to be a master writer and a master coder to be considered for a job. For example, rather than looking for someone who can code, he needed somebody “who understood the basics of how the web works, of HTML, and the principles on which the technology lives.”
He says all content strategists should have this kind of knowledge. This enables strategists to better align with other workers, such as designers, because you know about many capabilities and constraints before having to have them explained to you. This improves your ability to work more effectively with others.
Curiosity is also key, says Greg.
“We’re looking for somebody who is filled with questions, who wants to know more about not just us, but about our clients and about the work. I often say that one of the biggest skills that somebody can have in our work is an endless curiosity for how organizations work together and with each other. And that curiosity is something that when I see it, it's a big plus to me.”
Three takeaways for job-hunting content strategists:
Wide-ranging and varied expertise and knowledge will get you noticed
Knowing how the web works is key but you don’t need to be an expert in everything
Foster curiosity in yourself and let that drive you
Getting prepared for an interview
With Erin being a recent hire to Lullabot, we asked her how she prepared and approached her interview. Two of the main aspects unsurprisingly echoes what Greg looks for in a content strategist: broad skills and curiosity.
She said she made sure to put across her skillset, having come from a journalism background, moving from that to copywriting, and then to a healthcare agency. Both of the latter involved websites with lots of content, obviously a big plus for a content strategist. This goes back to what Greg was saying about needing an understanding of how the web works.
Erin also linked her time as a journalist to her “natural curiosity” and a want to “pull on the thread of the sweater” to see what happens. She says this is an excellent skill for driving discovery work and getting to the crux of how a website functions and behaves.
She noted her interest in solving complex problems too, and how she combines this with a “bird’s eye view” that’s essential as a consultant coming into a company. Not only do you need to fix the problems, you need to know how to identify them as well.
Finally she talked about her love of teaching. She spent a year as a community college teacher after she finished graduate school. Not only does this give Erin the skills to level up clients, but to mentor and develop future employees.
Communicating this broad range of skills effectively clearly played a major role in Erin landing her job at Lullabot.
Making the jump from in-house to agency
We also asked Erin about the difference between working in-house and at an agency, with variety came up again. She says that this is what keeps her interested, and links back to her journalism days when “no two stories were the same,” except now “no two projects are the same.”
This is something she enjoys, and that she gets more out of, but she notes it can be “hard to let go” when a project she’s worked so deeply on comes to an end, especially if the client moves on.
She also contrasted in-house work, which she says involves lots of defending your work and directly fixing problems, with agency work, where you’re “passing on the tools” to clients and hoping they get picked up.
Ultimately she says if you’re someone who likes lots of control, then in-house might be for you. If you’re more interested in teaching and consulting, then an agency may be more up your street. Erin says the latter type of work has a “warm and fuzzy component” when she’s able to help people and share her expertise.
Joining the leadership team and the changes that brings
Greg was promoted to director of strategy about a year ago, and we wanted to know how this came about and how it changed his role.
He told us that there wasn’t a formal role to apply for to begin with. Instead the promotion came about with the plans to hire a new employee. Greg realised he would be “shepherding” this person through their new role, as well as training them on how they do strategy at Lullabot.
This would obviously change his role and so Greg wanted this change to be formalised as an actual position. He says this was an excellent way to move up, particularly in contrast to how others get into management and leadership positions.
“A lot of people come into management through the backdoor. They do the work of management for a long time before they finally are given that title. And I didn't want that. I wanted to say, ‘Look, we know that I'm going to be doing this work, so I want this title.’ If I was going to give a tip to anybody who's looking to move into management, it's that I would resist efforts to backdoor you into responsibilities without making it formal.”
In terms of the actual changes to his role, he expected to be spending more time hiring and managing, but there were unexpected changes too.
“I think the thing that happened that I didn't expect was that being promoted into that position started bringing me into more conversations internally about sort of the company's direction.”
He says this has involved discussing aspects around hiring policy and company growth, something he’s enjoyed due to his interest and fascination with where Lullabot will go next. Another unexpected change was around how his time was spent.
“We have a policy internally where people who are managers are only expected to bill 20 hours a week instead of 30. And I was just, ‘Oh, I've only got one report. I'll be fine with the thirty. I'll just keep going with my project load. And that was a mistake.”
Greg soon found it just wasn’t possible to keep up the same amount of client hours as before, but he also found less time for internal working groups too. Although he says he's happy to get out of the way where “his voice isn’t needed.”
Keeping your mind healthy and watching for warning signs
Mental health is of course an important subject, especially when it comes to our work lives. We asked Erin and Greg about how they look after themselves in this respect.
Erin, who has depression and anxiety, has been going to therapy in various forms for years, something she says she’s been fortunate enough to access. Greg noted the importance of looking after yourself in order to help others, something that’s integral for his leadership role. He says keeping his work life sane and safe is “really important.”
They both talked about knowing when to move on, too. Greg says that as soon as you start to hate your job even a little bit, that’s the time to start looking elsewhere.
“I've been in so many situations where I've stayed on the job until I could not stand to work another day. And the problem with that is that if you start job hunting, then you are going to take the first thing that falls out of the sky. And that's not the way to job hunt. It's not good for you or your career.”
In a similar vein, Erin talked about not leaving a job because of being worried things will fall apart without you. She says if a company is making you feel this way “you shouldn’t be there” at all.
Fighting back against impostor syndrome
Impostor syndrome is a serious issue and one Erin has experience of. She says when you see others in the industry writing books, recording podcasts, and all the rest, it can be easy to think you’re falling behind even though that’s far from the case.
Along with Greg telling her “there's a reason we hired you: it's because you're awesome,” Erin offers this advice to tackle imposter syndrome.
“I think when you're applying for jobs, if you're getting interviews, even if you don't get those jobs, they're interviewing you because they're interested, because something about you is awesome. Something on that resume is awesome. Something on your LinkedIn is awesome. Something with your byline somewhere is awesome. Even if you're up against a bunch of candidates and you don't get that job, someone was interested in you for a reason. So don't don't let that take your self esteem down to zero again.”
How Lullabot supports its employees
It was good to hear from Greg and Erin that Lullabot takes the mental health of their employees seriously, and that this results in concrete policies.
Greg says that what helps a lot is that the company puts “an enormous amount of trust” in its employees, and treats them as adults. An incredible example of this is that after six months, all staff get a company credit card.
Not only is this a display of faith in employees, it means no one feels pressured to shell out for a client meal knowing it may take a month or two to be reimbursed.
“If you need to book a flight, you just do it. And if you need to buy something or you're out with a client and you need to buy dinner, you just do it. I've never been nickeled and dimed about costs on flights or about buying dinner for a bunch of us. When I go out, everybody acknowledges that we're all adults and we know how to make good decisions.”
There’s also an open books policy where anyone can find out the financial situation of the company. Greg says this offers a lot of “psychic safety” as there’s no way to conceal the company taking a bad turn. This allows Greg to feel safe in contrast to his worst work experiences where he felt like “the rug was going to be pulled out from under him” at any time.
Then there’s the matter of billable hours that we briefly touched on earlier. At Lullabot, employees are expected to bill 30 hours a week, compared to most agencies’ 40. This gives staff the space to fit in their internal work, such as admin and professional development, rather than piling it on top of client hours.
This is on top of the agency not working weekends or after hours, even when clients have pushed on this. Greg says Lullabot’s management has “consistently backed” him when they’ve faced this issue.
Erin and Greg’s quick-fire recommendations
Who are the people you recommend others to follow in the industry?
Which books would you recommend people read to help develop their skills?
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Describes the value of content strategy, discusses how to audit and analyze content, and looks at ways to maintain content over time.
Is there a particular site or product that you think does content particularly well?
"Atlas Obscura is one of my favorite websites. I just love their navigation. I love the way they put their stories on a sepia background with a dark brown font. I know it's really silly, but because they're such big stories and they're very detailed and they're very like obscure things, they just make them easier and more enjoyable to read. They've got incredible stories, and I just love the overall experience on their site."
Are there any courses or workshops you’d recommend people look into?
"I've got a whole host of Nielsen Norman Group workshops that I now inspirationally want to take. I think the work that they do and the research they do is really fascinating."
What’s your favourite industry conference?
"I think if anybody can find the time or the resources to do it, go to Confab. I think it's one of the best digital conferences that I've ever attended. I've gone in person as well, and I think it's fabulously done. There's so much networking and so much goodwill."
"I've spoken at a lot of conferences and I have never experienced anything that even comes close to what Confab provides from a speaker experience. It's so professional and so well run, and they just put so much care into everything. It's really fantastic."