August 30, 2017
Keynote Interview with UX and Content Strategist Rebekah Cancino

The sixth annual Ingeniux User Conference is just around the corner, and we are thrilled to have Rebekah Cancino, Content Strategy and User Experience Lead at Onward, join us as a keynote speaker for the event. 

In our exclusive pre-conference interview with Rebekah, we chat about the important intersection between content strategy and design. We then go on to discuss how organizations can use a cross-discipline collaboration approach to improve their content strategy.

If you haven’t registered for the 2017 Ingeniux User Conference: REGISTER HERE

And don’t miss Rebekah’s keynote on Thursday morning at 9:00 AM!

Riley Edmunds: First, let’s start with the basics. Where did you start your career and what drew you to content design and digital strategy?

Rebekah Cancino: I started my career in working for a corporate magazine that’s now owned by Forbes. While I was hired to do work in marketing, I was so drawn to the editorial strategy side of things. Understanding what audiences needed, and translating those needs into organized bits of information felt exciting and purposeful to me.

My interest in that would grow even deeper in my next job out of college when I went to work for a CRM software company. While working as marketing coordinator there, I began to get more and more involved in the UX side of things. The development director there became my mentor and pulled me into all sorts of conversations about features, functionality, and user flows. I started to learn about the intersection of development and design, of usability and content, and I fell in love. Side note: that mentor went on to become a lead developer at Tesla. I’m forever grateful for the time and effort he put into helping me expand my technical literacy and design knowledge. It was around this time I felt a real pull to user experience design and web development, but wasn’t sure how to marry that with my own skillset in content. And then I discovered content strategy.

It all started one day when I attended a small content strategy meetup, run at the time by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. That turned out to be such a pivotal step in my career. Sara encouraged me to step out into an agency career and introduced me to the world of content strategy. I finally had a name for that work that I’d been dabbling in, where user experience design and development intersected with content.

After that I ventured into agency land as a content strategist at a small UX design firm, and then went on to lead the content strategy team at one of the largest agencies in Arizona where we used a holistic approach tackle complex digital projects for clients like Aetna, PetSmart, and United Way. In my spare time, I took over co-organizing events for Phoenix Content Strategy after Sara moved to the East Coast. 

Along the way I met a lot of truly wonderful people who became comrades and coconspirators, one of them, Chris Corak—a technical SEO expert, and I got along so well, we decided to venture out on our own and start Onward (my current consultancy). These days we specialize in bringing a user-centered approach to data-driven content strategy and helping large companies bridge the gap between content, UX, and technical SEO.

RE: We hear a lot about the intersection of content and design these days. A successful web experience requires a solid strategy around each. Would you agree that people often struggle to bring the two together effectively? What kinds of struggles are you seeing?

RC: Content and design are really inseparable. They both need to be informed by real, researched user needs in order to be effective. A lot of organizations I’ve worked with struggle to bring together content and design in a cohesive way because their organizational structure or workflow makes it super challenging. Sometimes teams can have competing goals or, in subtle ways, be set up to compete with each other and battle for influence and decision-making power. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a lack of shared knowledge around goals, research findings, deadlines, or dependencies.

In the midst of all this struggle there are teams who are working through their challenges and finding their flow. Whether it’s a tight-knit team at a small company, or disconnected departments in a large organization just taking time to be intentional about sharing goals, coordinating workflow, and learning more about the work each team (or team member) is doing can be so helpful.

RE: In the past, you’ve spoken quite a bit about breaking down departmental silos to create a collaborative content strategy. Can you tell us a bit more about this philosophy?

RC: Jared Spool once said, “People don’t experience content, development and design separately. Why should making things be any different?”

We keep bringing more of our lives online. And with each new digital experience, feature, or functionality we create, there’s more content. Content isn’t just words on a page or copywriting, it’s the information at the heart of every digital experience there is. This makes it incredibly hard for any one person or team to “own” or manage effectively.

From content on a web page to structured markup, and metadata and interface text—it takes a village to get it right and a sound strategy to bring it all together cohesively. Whether it’s the words on the page or the style of a button, all of that is determined by an underlying skeleton and structure. Having a holistic strategy that helps to determine not only what is there, but how it’s created, who’s responsible for it, and why it’s there in the first place is critical.

I believe a key step to creating this kind of successful cross-discipline content strategy for web work starts with understanding the diverse content roles, responsibilities, and needs of content stakeholders throughout an organization and creating flexible guidelines, tools, and resources that empower them to make smart decisions around the content they’re responsible for in the work they do.

RE: No doubt diverse opinions from different departments will positively impact the content organizations put out on the web. Are there any specific example(s) you could share – small or large – where this type of content strategy really moved an organization in a positive direction?

RC: Absolutely. One example that comes to mind is a health insurance company who was targeting individuals shopping for their own health insurance coverage. They had decided to move forward with a redesign and the content was largely determined by marketing folks. They hadn’t really consulted anyone else. One curious SEO specialist wondered why they hadn’t been consulted on the project earlier, before the content had been determined. They did a bit of research and found that an overwhelming number of people who were searching for health insurance related terms were also adding keywords that were specific to their own personal situation, things like “health insurance and maternity” or “health insurance for immigrants.” At the time, there wasn’t a plan to create any content specific to these topics. Based on the volume of searches and potential organic visibility that they might have missed out on, the project leads decided to plan for this content in the website.

This meant working with product subject matter experts in the organization who understood the details, interviewing real customers to understand their needs, and working closely with brokers and customer service folks, too. In the end, instead of duking it out with competitors at the “request a quote” phase in the customer journey, this heath insurance company was able to enter the customer journey much earlier in the research and consideration phase. A few months after the redesigned website launched, they saw a 125% increase in requests for quotes and a substantial reduction in bounce rates, too. These sort of results would never had been possible if other departments and roles weren’t allowed to influence the content of the site.

RE: I’m sure there are also times when departments butt heads trying to collaborate on content. Do you have one or two pieces of advice for someone just starting to implement this type of approach to content strategy in their organization?

RC: If you can, get together with other departments and map out the whole process, step-by-step, of creating the new website or digital product. Take a look at each step and figure out what content is associated with that step, who needs to be involved, and in what way. This kind of working session at the beginning of a project might seem like a big investment in time, but it can save hours of rework and frustration that comes from misunderstanding dependencies and content needs from multiple perspectives.

Find ways to communicate early and often. Collaborative content strategy doesn’t mean every department needs to be working together every step of the way, it means that teams need to coordinate at critical moments. Find out what those moments are and use team communication tools to help bring in the perspectives needed before you go too far down one path. Use technology like Slack, Trello, Google Docs, or even good old fashioned conference calls. Find what works for your team and try to keep communication documented and open to everyone so it stays accountable and traceable.

RE: One final question for you: Is there anything you’d like to share with attendees prior to your talk? What do you hope they’ll take away from your presentation?

RC: I’m hoping attendees will take away practical tips and inspiration that they can use to unite their content, design, and technical SEO. So, if you’re reading this and planning on attending, I’d love to hear more about the biggest content and collaboration challenges you’re facing. What’s got you stuck? Where are things breaking down in your organization? Are there any specific things you're hoping to learn about? I’m all ears.

If you have any questions for Rebekah prior to her talk at the conference, send them to

See you in September!


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