Content service thinking

Could thinking about your content as a service transform how you serve your users, online and offline? I'm starting to think it could.
A complex system of content, devices, and people, with the words' Content as a service' on a screen at the centre

Content service thinking means acknowledging that content is a central part of how organisations — especially charities — provide joined up services to users.

In this article, I’m exploring how adopting a ‘content as a service’ perspective can enhance impact, engagement, and service delivery. I’ll also take a quick look at what implementation can look like.

What is a service anyway?

When you think of ‘service’, you might think of:

  • Public services, like the National Health Service or the postal service
  • Services we buy, like those from hairdressers, agencies, or piano teachers
  • Service as availability/reliability/regularity: mobile phone service, a bus service
  • Customer service as part of, or after, a transaction
  • The act of service – helping others

The definition I like best in this context, is this one:

A service is something that helps someone to do something…That something can be short and straightforward, like buying a chocolate bar, or it can be long and in multiple parts, like moving house. What unites all services is that they help us to achieve a goal, however big or small it may be.

*This is an excellent book that you should read if you’re interested in services and service design.

The connection between content and services

‘Helping someone do something’ is pretty close to how I define content. For me, content is about providing a user with the right information in the right way, to help them do something. So given that, it’s not surprising that I’m starting to see a bigger and bigger overlap between content and services.

I work (almost) exclusively with charities, arts organisations, and nonprofits. And that experience is another reason why I feel like content needs to be seen with a service mindset.

A huge number of nonprofits are service-driven. Their operational model is to provide services, from housing, food banks and healthcare services, to education, advice, helplines, and more. But it’s rare that I hear of organisations that think of their website content as part of these services.

All too often the team that’s responsible for delivering the service is disconnected from the team that does the content. And I think there’s still a faint sense that the website isn’t the ‘real’ thing that the charity does, or a ‘real’ place to provide services. But that’s not the case.

A huge number of charities offer advice and information on their websites. And there’s been an impressive uptick in the quality of this content in recent years from some charities. It’s partly the ongoing work of ‘digital transformation’ in the sector. The high-profile, high-visibility, much-emulated content design work at GOV.UK and the NHS had a big impact too. And the pandemic was a step change. For many organisations, face-to-face service delivery was no longer possible. There was incredible mobilisation to move services online, and also to make information, advice, and other sources of support available online.

But I think we can take it further.

Enter content service thinking

The information and advice on these charity websites is a service, in a very literal sense: it’s a way that the charity can serve the public. And it’s a crucial bridge to the ‘real-life’ service, too.

My husband, Thom, is disabled. Finding out about the services available to him — many of which are offered by charities — is an incredibly inconsistent and frustrating process. Why? There’s no content – or no good content – about them online. All too often we find out about services by word of mouth. Searching Google or visiting relevant organisations’ websites is fruitless. Then there’s the countless digital dead ends we get stuck in because the content doesn’t connect with the ‘real life’ service.

I think ‘content service thinking’ could change this. The word ‘thinking’ is key. I’m not talking about adding a new role or modality alongside content strategy, content design, and content marketing. And I’m not trying to cut service design and service designers out. I think of it as a mindset. A mindset that sees content as:

  • a crucial way in which an organisation deliver services and offers good service to people
  • part of every stage of the user journey
  • a skillset to be deployed every time written information is provided

How content service thinking changes things

What difference does it make to think about content as a service, or as a key part of the services our organisations offer? To answer that, we need to look at how we think about content right now.

At the moment, I think a lot of organisations see content as:

  • A team or a responsibility. People (or maybe just one person) who’s responsible for content, or in smaller organisations, a responsibility that gets tacked on to someone else’s role
  • A nice to have. Something that’s an add-on to the real service and work of the charity
  • A means to an end. A way of marketing, selling, or fundraising, getting engagement, documenting the work of the organisation, or sometimes just keeping a partner or stakeholder happy (We’ve all been there, right?)

And as content folk, we all know what happens as a result of this kind of thinking:

  • We get brought in at the last minute and can’t do our best work
  • We’re siloed away from the people doing ‘the real work’, making communication and collaboration harder
  • We expend a lot of time and energy on gathering information and knowledge, and there’s duplication of effort everywhere
  • We have to build content as static web pages (or even worse, PDFs) almost all the time
  • We know the user journey is fractured, because different people ‘own’ different stages
  • We struggle to track content impact beyond clicks and views
  • We have to fight harder for budgets and resources because we’re not ‘mission critical’
  • We’re vulnerable to redundancy when times get tough

In contrast, imagine seeing content as part of the service, as part of the heart of what the organisation does:

  • Content is part of the team running or building a service
  • Content is closer to the mission of the organisation, and the connection to the ‘real work’ is unmissable
  • Information and knowledge flows more easily around the organisation
  • Content is developed in an evidence-based way, and the real impact is measured, too
  • Content can be built in different ways — not just relying on static web pages
  • The user journey is better because it’s joined up from end-to-end
  • Organisations can allocate their resources more strategically and work in a more efficient way

Implementing content service thinking

One way to implement this approach would be less about content service thinking, and more about a straight-up service design approach.

The GOV.UK service manual [link opens in a new tab] gives us a good idea of what that looks like. A service has a service team, made up of a:

  • Product manager
  • Service owner
  • Delivery manager
  • User researcher
  • Content designer
  • Designer
  • Developer

Some charities and nonprofits (outside GDS and the NHS) are using approaches like this, and building dedicated service teams. If you have the resources and remit for this kind of restructure, it could be a great way to go. But it’s not a pragmatic approach for many organisations. So what’s the alternative?

Some charities will bring in an agency to do the work. This can be a good solution if you don’t have the resources in-house. It’s not without pitfalls, though. Not many agencies have content designers on staff, and I’ve found myself being hired to plug this gap many times. It can also be demoralising for your in-house team to see exciting work being farmed out. Not to mention all the juicy opportunities for learning and career development that you’re paying an agency to get.

So again, I come back to the ‘thinking’ in content service thinking. Implementation can be about skills, mindset, and process rather than hiring or adopting a new way of doing things.

Assembling a cross-functional, multi-disciplinary team will be a familiar approach for most organisations. It can work here, too — as long as content is a meaningful part of it. Rather than building a new team dedicated to one service, you bring together the key people involved in the running of the service, including content, as a project team. Within that team, you then need to work hard at building processes, communication, and collaboration, so that everyone can bring their expertise to bear. You can also look at increasing content expertise through training, peer support, and pair working.

What it looks like in practice

For example, let’s imagine a health charity focused on a specific disease. One of their biggest areas of focus is early intervention.

  • They have nurses who run the ‘early intervention service’, who are out running mobile diagnosis clinics in key communities at risk
  • They have a peer support helpline, which gets a lot of calls and emails from people who have just been diagnosed
  • They have people sending leaflets and materials to GPs to promote testing and diagnosis
  • They have a comms team that runs the website, which has a few pages on symptoms, getting diagnosed, and what to do after a diagnosis

In this siloed scenario, there’s lots of pockets of knowledge and expertise, but it’s not joined up and it’s not efficient:

  • The nurses see it as ‘their service’ and are focused on real life delivery. They’re not looped in with content, apart from occasionally being asked to contribute to content (which they find tough, because they’re always on the move)
  • The peer support helpline has invaluable lived experience, and documents on their shared drive filled with insider knowledge. They don’t talk to the nurses because they’re not in the same office and they’re peer support, not diagnosis
  • The team working with partners, like GPs, writes its own leaflets and materials (and finds this tough, because writing is not their thing)
  • The comms team knows that the website could be doing so much more, but they don’t have the subject matter expertise, and they find they never have a good enough call-to-action to help the user get to the next step

Now imagine that all these people worked in one cross-functional team, dedicated to building an early intervention service, where content is seen as integral:

  • The details of the mobile diagnosis clinics are available on the website
  • The peer support team share their lived experience, so that everyone has a much better understanding of what it’s like when you’ve just been diagnosed and can communicate with more empathy
  • Knowledge from the nurses and the peer advice team (and everything on that shared drive) is turned into structured content, so that the comms team and the partner team can both draw on it to create content, leaflets, and other resources
  • Users have a more joined-up, consistent experience

In conclusion

I think adopting content service thinking could be the shift that the discipline needs, in some sectors, at least. It’s a mindset change, rather than a whole new way of doing things. But that’s part of the appeal. It’s a pragmatic, affordable way to integrate content more deeply into the fabric of an organisation’s service delivery. And the benefits — breaking down silos between teams, improving the efficiency and impact of services, and providing a more seamless, supportive experience for users — could be huge.

If this is something you’re working on, if you read this and feel excited, or you want to (politely) disagree, I want to hear from you. Drop me an email at lauren@lapope.com.

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