Why Facebook Likes Content Strategy: ConFab 2011

Why Facebook Likes Content Strategy: ConFab 2011

Facebook Likes Content Strategy

Session description: What prompted Facebook to embrace content strategy, and what motivated them to scale the practice so quickly? A discussion of the rapid evolution of the team that’s shaping content strategy for more than half a billion users worldwide.

Speaker: Sarah Marx Cancilla, content strategist, Facebook

Quote marks indicate direct quotes. If there aren’t quote marks, it’s paraphrased. To read tweets from all attendees at this session, search hashtag #FBCS on Twitter.

The skinny

Without a doubt, ConFab was put on by people who care about the details. How do I know? Power strips at EVERY THIRD SEAT.

What she said

Sarah has been at Facebook for a year and a half, she says, and this session will walk us through how she built her content strategy team.

“The culture at Facebook can best be described as a hacker culture.” What does this mean at Facebook? “The heart of the company is the engineering department. And the engineers are very empowered” to take risks, all in the name of innovation. There was a very high tolerance for bugs, including content bugs.

But the content is highly visible. Facebook is a place where 30 billion pieces of content are shared monthly. Plus, “there’s no such thing as a minor content change: change one word, and you get lots of coverage in the mainstream press.” Even if Mark Zuckerburg didn’t know he needed to hire a “content strategist,” something would have to be different. That’s when Sarah joined the Facebook team.

Since then, she says there have been three phases to the evolution of the content strategy team at Facebook.

Phase one: Build awareness

At the time Sarah started, she was the only content strategist. First, she had to apply content strategy to content strategy. “I really had to set aside any hope of being the content strategy savior sweeping in on a spreadsheet.” She had to learn her audience (how to talk to engineers, how to talk to designers) and communicate in the right way (analytics, visual information). Before there was a “Top News” section, there was discussion of calling it “Best of Day.” All she had to do was juxtapose “Best of Day” with posts sharing negative news. And that was the end of “Best of Day.”

Next, she had to demonstrate value. She reworded the “Connect with Friends” module—which was extremely low-priority—and her small changes helped 6,000,000 people invite friends, find friends or check out Facebook Mobile. Um, yeah, value.

Finally, she had to friend everyone. Lunchtime helped. Adding two more content strategists helped, too.

Phase two: Focus on impact

“There was no shortage of projects on which content strategy could add value,” Sarah said. They had to prioritize. User education would be high impact. So, when the new Facebook profile was released, the content strategy team led the project to create the “Take a Tour” module. Making the tour optional was key; the majority of users took the tour; the vast majority who took the tour completed it (80%); and many of those who took the tour said they preferred the new profile.

Then Facebook added two more content strategies. Still, at the time, there were 600+ engineers, 26 designers and 5 content strategists. So…

Phase three: Multiply reach

Now, the team is focused on efforts with a far-reaching impact. They are building out a full-scale pattern library that will integrate with the UI library and the design standards. There’s a content strategy session in the engineer boot camp. They’re teaching engineers to better writers. And they are continuing their “friend everyone” approach—engineers who work well with them are called FOCS—”Friends of Content Strategy.” T-shirts are coming soon 😉

Audience participation

How sustainable is the hacker culture versus the more mature content culture you’re trying to create? That really depends on how the company expands. “I think Facebook has been pretty remarkable at sustaining that culture as long as it has. I hope we retain a lot of that hacker influence long into the future. It has been healthy for us.” You can’t get trapped in your mind—if you wait too long on your deliverable, it’s a completely different site.

How do you get developers to even read pattern library stuff? “They really are clamoring for it.” It’s so DIY at Facebook that they just want to go do it, but they’re slowing themselves down because they want to know the right way to do it. We’re optimistic about how it will be embraced.

What sort of activities help you train engineers to write better? Have they worked? Apart from engineers, there are a lot of people creating content for the site, who are focused on communications. We use writing workshop, lunches…even a Facebook group where we can ask questions. In terms of engineers creating copy, “people are so smart there. … It’s not like they’re bad writers.” They see the ways it’s working and observe the successes.

How do you work with the 26 designers on the team? Content strategy is part of the design team. “We sit with them, we drink with them, we eat with them and we work with them closely on projects.” We all recognize that the best content comes from that kind of active collaboration, the constant informing back and forth.

Arienne Holland

Arienne has spent 20 years in communications, ranging from graphic design to journalism to PR to marketing and formerly Raven's Director of Marketing and Education.

Arienne has spent 20 years in communications, ranging from graphic design to journalism to PR to marketing and formerly Raven's Director of Marketing and Education.