Governing digital content across multiple business units
On the Content in Practice podcast, Brandon Young and Chelsea Watt from BC Hydro’s Digital Team talk about the governance of content on the utility company’s website.
BC Hydro is a crown corporation that provides electricity to most of the Canadian province of British Columbia.
The company’s website is managed by the Digital Communications team, which is part of Corporate and Marketing Communications. The team is led by Brandon Young. Chelsea Watt is the manager of digital content and social media.
We’ve been working with Brandon, Chelsea, and other BC Hydro content teams for a number of years. I sat down with them to talk about the content challenges they’ve faced and how they’ve worked to address them.
A transcript of this podcast is below. Music used in this episode was created by Lee Rosevere, Happy Puppy Records.
Content in Practice: The content governance podcast is produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, and presented by Content Strategy Inc. Theme music by Lee Rosevere, Happy Puppy Records.
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BC Hydro is a crown corporation that provides electricity to much of the Canadian province of British Columbia.
The company’s website is managed by the Digital Communications team, which is part of Corporate and Marketing Communications. That team is led by Brandon Young. Chelsea Watt is the manager of digital content and social media.
I sat down with them in a meeting room at BC Hydro’s corporate offices in downtown Vancouver, and I started the conversation by asking them about the greatest challenge to creating content for bchydro.com. Chelsea said that the sheer volume and age of the content were big issues.
Chelsea Watt: For me that would be the starting point. Where do you even start?
Brandon Young: The volume is one thing. Historically, we didn’t start from a place of strong user experience focus or content strategy focus. Really, the website and how it was used, mechanically, if a SME or internal business group has a request, we put up content. As a result, over the years that continues to grow. It’s now about trying to reel it back and at times can make it a little more difficult that if we’d just started from a blank slate.
CW: Our website was never designed. It’s not like we set out to do all the things it’s doing today. It’s just been a continual evolution of things we had to do, and then over the years we’ve added things that we want to do or that we know we should do. But you’re still working from a framework in some places where that went up because it’s a regulatory document that we have to put up because we’re a crown corporation that has to put up regulatory documents. And now there’s a thing called the intranet so you can do that.
And then, one day, online account logins and functionality got added, and that’s how a lot of the website has evolved, is it started with, “We have to do a version of this, so let’s just do it.” It’s not like a lot of other companies where you set out, “What should our website have,” or, “What would people actually want to have on our website.” That’s definitely not where we started.
So BC Hydro’s website was originally set up to be a place to post information, without the same degree of strategy that would go into such a project today. And at that time, each line of business had control and authority over their own sections of the website. But that led to an online experience that was inconsistent. Brandon and Chelsea and their team have been working over the years on a slow transformation of the website, and how it’s managed.
CW: A lot of it has been a slow evolution and a slow education of what the benefits of working with our team, specifically, and coming at it with a user-centred, more strategic content approach. Starting with whether that’s areas of the website that we control more directly and making some improvements there, and building a bit of analytics and data that we can then take to the first internal client that was really eager to try new stuff. Or it’s a customer-facing group and therefore is more inclined to think about user experience.
Over the past few years we’ve really worked to build up those sections so that there’s kind of that groundswell and there’s kind of a strategy that people can see in place and see that success. We’re benefitting from the fact that everything else is going more digital, too, so the internal clients that we’re working with, even if their day-to-day life here isn’t super digital, they understand what our customers are expecting and what our audiences are expecting because it’s what they expect when they leave the office with everyone else and they can start to understand the argument that we need to be moving closer to that.
BY: We’re not perfect by any means. And, to build off what Chelsea said, we are still growing and I think still trying to build equity in the organization and establish firmer governance than we’ve had. Certainly I’d say that we’re in a position where it’s better than it’s ever been before and we have enough confidence in our stakeholders that we need as little data or evidence as ever to be able to get stakeholders and programs on board with our strategy.
It is centralized, for the most part. We do have a bit – bits and pieces – that we do have distributed authoring for specific programs. But in some cases it makes a lot of sense. I think the challenge with us is that we do have very big customer segments. But at the same time we do have dozens and dozens of mini-clients or mini-customer cohorts that do have specific web needs. And sometimes it actually makes more sense to have a distributed model specifically for them.
The challenge for us currently, and it probably will continue to be, is how do you establish a centralized governance model but resource it so that you can still fulfill the end goal. And I think that’s the problem we’re kind of always faced against. There’s this insatiable amount of content and insatiable number of requests that we want to get to. And even if we do a better job of intaking them all, we still run into the problem of, “Can we do it?” and “Can we deliver it in a way that we have enough energy and time for all of them.”
CW: I think what we’ve seen a lot of success with is taking discrete pieces, whether that’s a section of the website or all of the content related to a particular topic, and really centralizing a project to tackle that area and working really closely and really bringing the stakeholders along within that group so that they understand the strategy. And from there, from a governance standpoint, we move back to our regular web updates and maintenance processes where they just make a request.
But there’s still a little bit of oversight from our team where, if they’re requesting things that aren’t the strategy that we just spent a couple of months putting together, that it’s kind of going back. But it is a little bit of getting stuff fixed in big pieces as part of a project or part of an initiative, and then once it’s in a good place, as Brandon said, trusting the stakeholders to stick to what we agreed to, and from a resourcing standpoint, scaling back to just a little bit of oversight to make sure we’re not going to end up in the same spot we were, two years later.
BY: In a perfect world, everyone is kind of drinking the Kool-Aid and understands the strategy and why we should shift the way we’re preaching. But I think it’s going to take a little bit more time to get there. But we’ve seen change already.
CW: I think in a perfect world, just like dominos, we would do a project individually with each group or each section, one after another, so that the end result would be everything’s in a great place. And then maybe you have to start over with the first one again. But I think there’s just some areas that, whether they’re a super niche audience or it’s just everything on that site has to be posted for a regulatory reason, that we’re probably never going to prioritize them because by the time we would have capacity to deal with that, the higher priority ones would probably use another look or there’s a new initiative or new functionality that we need to tackle. So I think there’s always going to be sections and content that, from a governance standpoint, we just don’t govern them. But the big pieces, for sure, we’re getting there.
BY: Historically, the team in its inception really was the traditional just web updates and take direction from whoever the subject matter expert is that’s delivering the request to begin with. Now, we’d like to position ourselves as this field of expertise that can provide the right strategy whether it be web-based or whether it be a different channel altogether. If it’s in the digital space, let us look at your challenge and provide our recommendations based on the mix of channels that we operate and give you that advice, or counsel.
And it hasn’t always been easy. It’s been tough.
I think a lot of business groups have been receptive and you’re offering to help, for the most part, so it’s a pretty good message. But you get people that are often set in their ways and it’s a bit of a change management exercise to say, “We should take a few steps back and maybe the defined solution of posting a PDF, for example, isn’t the best way to deliver this message or tackle the problem. Maybe it isn’t on the website at all.”
There’s a few things that come to mind on how we’ve been able to do that. It’s a work in progress, we’re still working on it, and it’ll probably never be done, but outside help has always been a useful change agent for that. Your firm’s help has always helped supplant our recommendations in data, and as a data-driven organization that, more than anything else, has helped reinforce strategy. Especially in something as nebulous as web content.
So research and data that validates the recommendations or why we’re recommending what we do. We can’t win everything overnight. Let’s take things slow and even if it means conceding some things in the short term to get people on board and receptive of the change. That’s okay, and it’s being okay with not everything being perfect. But that’s okay. It’s a process. And as long as we’re progressing that’s a win.
The difficult – not difficult, but challenging – governance-related requests: “I want to do it this way,” “I think we should do this,” are actually kind of, for the most part, an unsatiated ask for content marketing. So I do think what we’ve been able to do is we have a regular weekly Monday meeting to review content, we have a regular monthly meeting for long-term content planning.
And to integrate the broader groups, specifically the ones that generally have the most events or the things that are happening that would have previously fallen to evergreen content, “I want to update my page or section,” when maybe that’s better as an Instagram post or something like that, we’re able to catch a lot more of those requests and actually plan them in a way that makes way more sense. The right channel, the right fit. And by virtue is actually reduce the number of rogue requests for page updates that are outside the strategy or the project completion plan, as Chelsea mentioned.
CW: Where it starts a lot of time is still that very tactical relationship. “This program is ending,” or, “We need to update this page,” or, “The language here is out of date.”
I think where our team has gotten really good is transitioning those into opportunities to deliver more of that value that Brandon spoke about.
“Actually, I think this could make a really good story,” or, “We just re-did this section in a new way that I think could really be effective for this.” Or introduce new functionality on a different page: “We’d actually like to recommend that you try this out,” or, “Have you looked at the search data for your page,” or whatever it is.
Not necessarily reaching out to every client group across the company to set down a meeting and try and pitch a new relationship, but when they are coming to us with that tactical, long-standing stuff, taking that opportunity to demonstrate some of that value and then when we do that, I think it’s really leaning on the stuff that Brandon spoke about. For smaller requests, maybe it is just some data. “Hey, we actually took a look at the traffic for this page and we think we that we should make this change.” If it’s a bigger thing, sitting down with them and saying, “I think it’s time we looked at this section as a whole. Your content is completely outdated. Let’s talk.”
The shift in how Brandon and Chelsea’s teams approach the governance of content has corresponded to a shift in the kind of content that is being created. BC Hydro doesn’t have a problem getting customers. As a crown corporation, it has an effective monopoly. So the BC Hydro website has a much different purpose than another company’s might. While most customers are visiting bchydro.com to check their account balance and pay their bill, BC Hydro is taking the opportunity to deliver much more for those customers who are interested in energy conservation.
BY: Smart meters have some great tools now available for them to be able to look at their energy use in a way that they never were able to before, down to an hour you can see and historically compare that information and really look at trends and look at how new products or new electronic that they’ve purchased have affected their energy use.
So from a value perspective we certainly offer a lot more, and I think everything else on the site is really trying to support that. Whether it’s helping them with conservation efforts, promoting some of the rebates available to customers, often throughout the year, and a lot of our content and content marketing is really based around behavioural stuff, and promoting programs that help our customers, too.
CW: It’s a little bit of future proofing, in a way. Part of the reason we need to be more like that is because that’s what people expect. And, yes, if you look at our demographics of our customer base, maybe that’s not what they expect now, because we’re BC Hydro, and boring. You can certainly tell. More people still call the call centre to move their account even though you can move it online. But they’re not always going to be our customers.
People that are 19, 20 now that live at home, or maybe they just have their first apartment, that sort of stuff. Every year, more of those people become our customers. So I think it’s a little bit of future proofing now. I think we’ve seen how difficult it is in an organization to change something that hasn’t been changed in 20 years.
So I feel like we’re putting in the work now that 10 years from now someone’s actually going to say, “This is absolutely mandatory; we have to do this.” Because we’ve seen that on a number of other things outside of digital that suddenly it feels like the company realizes we need to do something. So I feel like that’s what we’re doing with the content, is moving towards where we’re going to need to be.
BY: We’ve had marketing programs for years and years and years. Predominantly our focus has been “power smart” and that’s conservation. It’s coming up on our thirty-year anniversary, and there’s often been rebates and market transformation with regards to Energy Star products. So at the core of it, that’s really where our efforts are rooted in. That stuff aside, how do we provide useful information to our customers on how they can manage their bills. Stuff that’s valuable to them to help them reduce their electricity use or help with any questions they have related to our business.
At the end of the day, electricity powers a lot of stuff, and you’d be surprised how many topics indirectly relate to us. I think for us it’s been, “How do we talk about these things in a way that relates to the average person, and how can we deliver our messages that aren’t really ours but that are interesting and relevant to them.” It sounds simple, but that in itself has been the battle. We don’t need to talk in corporate, program-speak to relate to people. And we don’t have to hit the direct way of the message to deliver it. It can be an indirect way.
CW: When I started on the digital team our social media channels were entirely energy-conservation focused. They were actually called, “Power Smart BC” or “Power Smart,” they weren’t called, “BC Hydro.” I always call it the fluffy bunny. Everyone’s always happy to hear about it.
It’s a space that we own, too. The benefit of being kind of that crown corporation is that we’re the only ones talking about it. We’re the only ones expected to talk about it. We’re the only ones customers expect to hear that from. If you’re looking at recipes, yes, Williams Sonoma or someone might do content marketing on that. But you could also get it from a million other places. Whereas when it comes to energy conservation, people don’t expect to get it from anyone other than us. So that’s always been our foot in the door. And over the years we’ve been able to push it more and more towards actual content marketing, where it’s less about promoting the programs or the rebates or whatever it is, and more just about delivering really interesting, engaging content. And then as that really started to deliver on helping our campaign success, helping reputation, whatever it is.
I think we’ve slowly been able to take that approach out of conservation and apply it to some of the other stuff we want to talk about. In the winter, outages and storms and powerline safety, no-one expects to hear that from any other organization in the province, but they’re also not super keen to hear it from us. It doesn’t affect their pocketbook, it’s not going to save them any money at the holidays. But we’ve been able to take those learnings and take that approach and deliver some of that safety stuff in a way that people might actually listen to it. Which has been really important.
And then because we have all of this attention from conservation, we’ve been able to sneak in some other stuff that, as Brandon said, is not really ours to talk about but we know people are really interested in. And then if they know that we’re going to deliver that, then they keep coming back. Having that energy conservation space has been huge.
As BC Hydro becomes more mature in its practice of content, there’s been a shift in the content roles that employees need to play.
CW: It’s been really interesting. I think not just staffing up but I think also how we distribute the resourcing and succession planning. There’s one role on my team, digital content and social media, that previously was kind of in the mix with a whole bunch of different things in terms of sometimes it was social stuff, and sometimes it was video, sometimes it was web updates, sometimes it was communications strategy and planning. And then there would be a change in that and now that role is pretty much 100% content strategy. That’s definitely been a shift that we made when we saw the opportunity to dedicate that resource to that work and it’s been super helpful. I think taking on a lot of the enterprise content strategy stuff that’s the bigger pieces whether that’s mobile or anything like that.
The other one for me is just succession planning. We have a mix on the team of people who have been here a long time and have tonnes of knowledge about what we’ve done before, what’s worked in the past, systems, clients, everything. And then we actually have quite a strong contingent of people who have been here two years or less. On the web content side, specifically, we’ve had some changes, and it’s been a challenge to resource that in some aspects, but it’s also been a really good opportunity to have all these standards and all this governance in place that I can just sort of hand to some of the new people and be like, “This is how we do this.”
BY: Our newsletters, our channel growth has all been around delivering stuff that people care about that’s interesting to them. We get that instant validation and can show through results that it works. So that’s the internal sell and then for us we have a bunch of people on the team that want to do that – it’s way more fun, to be honest – that are passionate about it and see the creative challenges and how we can talk about these subjects in a way that is interesting and fun.
So I think the good news is that it makes it a really fun work environment, to try to be thinking like a media organization to some degree. We have a huddle every single morning where we talk about trends and things that happen and how and if they relate to us at all and what we can do to reference it. And that’s probably the most fun I have every day, that ten minutes that we talk about what happened the night before.
CW: Honestly, I’ve worked on the team eight years now, and I wouldn’t think that I could still find new things to say about electrical heating in the winter. But I still do. We still put them in the newsletters every year. And every year they’re still the top story. So I just give the people what they want now. They want electrical heating stories. So that’s what they get from me. Slippers and whatnot.