This interview is part of our Content Visionaries series, asking content leaders across industries for their insights into findings from our Content Operations Study. This interview is about content operations maturity.
When the pandemic hit, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health was pushed into the spotlight. With top experts in public health, respiratory viruses, and virus transmission, as well as a widely-used COVID-19 data center from Johns Hopkins University, the school had to immediately and swiftly shift their communications efforts to COVID. The school’s Associate Dean for Communications and Marketing, Lymari Morales, and her team, leveraged their newly created content vision and strategy to hit the ground running.
Morales credits this vision and strategy, along with her talented team, as the reason the school’s content operations have been hugely successful amid the pandemic. In this interview, Morales gives her views on what it takes to work towards higher levels of content operations maturity and how to address the top challenges most teams face along the way.
MORALES: In terms of content operations maturity, I think it depends on the organization. In some organizations, content might be really core to their mission or what they need to do. In some cases, it might be more removed. A key step is figuring out what is the role of content in your business and the right level of time and resource investment that should be spent. So I think one struggle is figuring out the right level, which is where people can get stuck spinning their wheels. And then of course, the workflow involved in content can be really challenging. Workflow is all about what are the right ideas, how to get things written, edited, reviewed, etc., and people can end up spinning their wheels in those steps as well. I think those are all challenges that organizations face at varying degrees, depending on the role content plays in their mission.
MORALES: Looking at your scale, it was really easy to determine our content operations maturity level. I believe we’re thriving. The team is absolutely awesome. We’re definitely sustaining and innovating while constantly thinking about the return on investment. I would say we’re thriving, not to say we don’t have our challenges or things that we’re working on, but we definitely have a lot of good things going and are figuring out how to sustain and evolve and innovate within those things.
MORALES: Our content operations maturity level has changed. We’ve definitely grown in terms of the amount of original content that we produce. Part of it was spurred by my vision when I joined, and then part of it was spurred by the pandemic and the demand for information that it created. We create a lot more original content for social media than we did previously. Content that’s self-contained in social media graphics and lives natively on those platforms, versus prior to my arrival, it was primarily sharing links to other existing pieces of content or media mentions.
The second growth area is now we create a lot more informational or explainer articles on our flagship website, which we didn’t do nearly as much previously. Previously, article content was more consistently within our magazine. We also created an entirely new podcast product that currently produces episodes three times a week. Regarding our magazine, it’s an excellent product, but we felt that there was not a big, incremental difference in the value it provides by having two issues instead of three per year. And so we scaled that back to free up some of our best writers and editors to contribute to some of this other content that we’re now creating. There were also some other things we stopped doing or scaled down internally in terms of requests that we would get so that we could be essentially more proactive and less reactive in terms of how the team spends its time.
MORALES: It impacted us right away. We felt that our school and our faculty had a lot of expertise to bring to the conversation. And initially in those first months, February, March, April of 2020 there were so many basic questions about coronavirus, such as how does it spread, what do we know, what did we not know, how do I protect myself, etc. Being experts in public health, having experts who have focused on respiratory viruses and virus transmission, and pandemic preparedness, we were equipped to answer these questions even though we were of course still learning about this particular virus. Right at the outset, we wanted to find ways to share their expertise with the public and answer the many questions that were out there.
Right away we started doing webcasts and solicited questions for the webcast so that our experts could answer the questions directly on the webcast. Now everyone’s doing webcasts, but we were pretty fast moving and doing them in February and March of 2020. We had huge numbers at that time, because again, there were so many questions. That was also the impetus of the podcast that we created, which answers the questions people have in short interviews. And we also created an email inbox, PublicHealthQuestion@jhu.edu, where you could submit questions to be answered on the podcast. It really did inform the episodes that we produced.
We started creating a lot of web articles that focused on information, such as explainer articles, and we had a search driven strategy for that. We really tried to think about, again, knowing what questions people had, what might they be searching for on Google? And could we create articles that would come up to answer those questions? Related to that, we did create a question and answer database on our website that has consistently been a highest performing page and feature.
MORALES: We did. I’m proud to say we’ve won three national awards. We won a gold for our magazine that was produced in summer 2020 from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). That was particularly rewarding because there was a challenge that they had to figure out what type of COVID content would be helpful in a slower medium, like a print magazine, and would stand the test of time. So to be timely, but timeless to an extent. And the team did a really good job of thinking of those kinds of longer tail stories and angles to cover in the magazine. And then they also had some really compelling illustrations, including on the cover.
The podcast also was a CASE Circle of Excellence Award Winner. So that’s just been a huge success. We’ve had more than 6 million downloads. It has been really successful in reaching people who we might not otherwise reach in a really accessible format, which is 12 to 15 minute interviews.
And then our audience reach and engagement team, which includes social media and PR and media relations, won the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Public Relations Professional of the Year award. We have been placing more than 800 media mentions a month. That success also represents a great synergy between traditional PR and more modern tactics like social media.
Those are some of our externally validated successes. I would say the growth of our social media is another major success, with a focus on the native original content. Most notably Instagram, where we have taken a humorous light, graphic, visual tone to sharing public health information. And it’s been really acclaimed in just increasing followership and also the comments that we see on the posts. We are always happy to see people saying things such as this is really good, thank you for this information, thank you for explaining it in this way, I’m going to share it with my classroom, I’m going to share it with my youth group, or I’m going to share it with my church group. Something we’re really proud of is how we’ve made the information accessible on that platform and been able to reach new audiences in doing so.
We also launched a newsletter, an external-facing kind of all-in-one, here’s everything you need to know in one newsletter. And that has been a huge, huge, huge success. It’s called Expert Insights, and has more than 80,000 subscribers currently. We have continued to iterate on this newsletter in terms of the approach and the frequency, but it’s been a success from the start, and we want to keep it successful. And so to your point in your model about sustainment, what worked in June 2020 may not work in June 2022. But it’s a product that we want to keep. So we have to continually ask ourselves, what do audiences want now?
MORALES: So the third one first, having no strategy or plan, that was the mandate I was given when I started in my role. The team really needed a unified strategy and vision to follow. My team is extremely talented and capable, but it seemed like the efforts weren’t necessarily laddering up to a vision. So, I came in, listened and learned first, and then worked with my team to co-create a vision and put that vision on paper. We did that in late 2019 to start piloting it in January 2020 and then the pandemic came. But it really did serve us well because essentially we were all aligned on the strategies and tactics that we felt would be most valuable in any environment. And then when the pandemic came, we just were already playing from the same playbook to apply those ideas to this information moment.
So I definitely think that it is very, very important to have a strategy and vision that everyone can rally around, both for the people doing the work and then also for the people wondering why is so much time and resources going into this. But the point of it is that a strategy should be able to answer at least what the goals of your work are.
In terms of the issue of different approaches across the organization, I think that is definitely a problem that many face. I would say the most centralized team or the highest level team within an organization can create that north star vision, then other teams should be able to follow it. And we have that model at our school because I oversee a central communications team, but within each academic department and research center, of which we have more than 80, many of those have their own content operations and their own content leaders.
And they don’t necessarily have to follow our vision, but we’ve made our strategy clear and available to them. We gather those groups quarterly to talk about what we’re working on, to share ideas, to answer questions, and to give input. And we also make ourselves available as strategic advisors. Essentially we hope that they would follow a similar playbook and we hopefully make it easy for them to do that.
When it comes to the issue of no direct evaluation, that’s always challenging. But with digital we have so many metrics that we can use to gauge the performance of our content. And it’s actually very helpful in terms of pushing back against things that people ask you to do internally that may not have an audience or may not have a great return on investment. It’s science because there are specific metrics, including clicks and reach and all of those things. But then there might be a reason to do something strategically for the organization to be on the record or even to communicate internally. So you have to take all that into account. In any conversation we are asking: who are the audiences and what does success look like? Success can be measured quantitatively or qualitatively.
MORALES: That’s really tricky, but what comes to mind in terms of content jobs is obviously you need writers, you need editors, you need designers, and you need people who understand audience and analytics. And then in our school, we’re lucky to have project managers. I would say this is a really often missed role that can be really valuable. We have two project managers on our team and whenever we have a cross platform effort—something that we’re working on and it’s going to have iterations on web, social, events, and podcast, etc.—they help coordinate across the group. And that’s very valuable so that the content producers and channel owners can kind of keep their heads down, getting the work done. They’re not bogged down by coordinating with their colleagues.
MORALES: To achieve higher levels of content operations maturity, I think you need something other than email and that is for sure. This is a very important point, which is that it is very difficult to run a content operation with email and Word docs. I do not think that is a recipe for success, I think you need something else.
So for us, we need shared docs of some kind, whether Google or Microsoft teams, so that you reduce version control issues and you can collaborate more easily, which is critical. We use Slack to create channels for different projects, efforts, and conversations, and to share information really easily, especially in terms of sharing news developments or updates.
And then we do use Trello, which is really valuable. There’s lots of different ways in which we use it, but just keeping track of lots of moving pieces and being able to have everything regarding something all in one place. We use a Trello board as a content planner, so you can have a card for each different piece of content. We label them by different channels and then they can all be viewed on one calendar. So you can see all the podcast episodes, all the web articles, all the magazine articles, and all the events all on one calendar. But each of them has their own card that travels alone.
MORALES: To get to those higher levels of content operations maturity, you need to know what you’re trying to achieve. It always has to work backwards from that. You don’t want to produce just for the sake of producing and with content, you can get on a hamster wheel where you’re just churning things out. You need to know what goal you’re trying to achieve, both for your audiences and for your organization. And then I think once you have that, you can work backwards from that to figure out what will truly help you achieve those goals.
Then of course always be willing to learn and iterate. So your initial ideas or approaches might not be the best ones. And again, you can get quantitative or qualitative feedback and you should be willing to adjust. On many of our most successful platforms, we’ve changed the approach or we’ve changed the frequency, even when it’s going well. We’re constantly asking ourselves what we need to change. We also conduct reader surveys.
And then of course, figure out what your team does best. What are the strengths of the people working with you and how do you leverage those in the best way possible? Our podcast is a great example of this. When we had the idea, I knew of a person on our team who was a podcast junkie, and I gave her the opportunity to produce the podcast. And it was something that she was thrilled to have the opportunity to do. So she really ran with it. If I had just saddled someone with it who wasn’t excited to do it, we probably would not have had the same success.
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