The Global Content Value Chain: Technical Communication Perspective

An Interview with Dmitri Ragano

Dmitri Ragano understands global. He is currently a senior manager, Internet Applications at Herbalife, a global nutrition company.  And, he as good reason since his experience ranges from working in mobile communications in Japan to supporting Fortune 50 companies at Razorfish in the late 90s.  He’s a world traveler, a content strategist and the published author of Employee of the Year, which can be purchased on Amazon.  Dimitri sat down with Al Martine of TechWhirl a while ago to discuss, shifts and trends in the world of content strategy, effective content teams and his views on making a global content value chain successful.

Al Martine (AM): Dmitri, thank you for taking some time to talk with me today.  Before we get to content strategy, teams or value chains, let’s start with a little background.  How did you get to this point?

Dmitri Ragano (DR):  I’m glad to be here.  Thanks for asking me.  I’ve gotten here by always looking for new experiences that could help me better understand this new communications industry.  I became interested in the Internet in my final years of as an undergraduate student in the Journalism Department at San Francisco State [S.F. State] University.

I knew I wanted to work in communications, which had an international component, but not in newspapers.  My professor and mentor at S.F. State always told us to chart our career looking at the future.  The Internet was still pretty new at the time, but it seemed like it was going to be the future.  At the time it was limited to Gopher, Archie, Veronica and other research tools, but it showed so much promise that I knew I wanted to help determine the course of this new medium.

I’d studied Japanese in school and had an opportunity to study in Japan in 1995.  My first job was with a subsidiary of CSK, which is the parent of Sega.  My role was running a website, and being an editor and journalist.  It was a great experience but after a year in this role I decided it was time to head back to the US.

Returning to the US, I went to work for a Venture Capital in Silicon Valley, which was the U.S. investment wing of a  large Japanese mobile communications distributor.  At that time, the Japanese market was an early adopter of mobile phones.  It went from almost no phones in 1994 to around 50 million in 1998.  Japan was a very lucrative market.  I really enjoyed my time at the VC firm, because I got to meet a lot of entrepreneurs; learn about investing and how to get relationships together—entrepreneur and investors.

A mentor of mine from San Francisco State had founded a company, which was eventually purchased by Razorfish.  Razorfish was, at the time, one of the three or four largest digital consultancies in the world.   I left the VC firm in Silicon Valley and went to work for them in 1999  We were doing some amazing things with some of the biggest clients in the world at that time such as Cisco Systems, Nokia and Vodafone.

After leaving Razorfish in 2002 and working for a few other Internet consulting firms in Japan and US, I decided to take a job offered by my client Herbalife in Southern California.

I’d wanted to move from the agency to the client side of the business and Herbalife provided that opportunity.  I’ve been there coming on 8 years.

(AM): Wow, that’s quite the resume and frequent flyer miles.  What were some of the things you picked up at Razorfish?

(DR): Razorfish really showed me the value of combining different disciplines to get the best and most creative outcome for a project.  They had three rules in the office: no cubicles or walls, everyone’s interconnected and there’s no imposed hierarchy.

We had island-like tables in our main work area.  They deliberately placed people of different disciplines and skillsets at each table: the idea was to get the coders, the creatives, the MBAs and the project managers sitting alongside each other as an inter-connected team and start some interesting conversations.  We may have had a Java programmer seated next to an information architect , who was in turn working across from a project manager and a graphic designer.  We would debate and push each other to find the best and most creative solutions drawing on the team’s collective talent and experiences.

My time at Razorfish really helped me see the value in finding often-unlikely combinations.   I took with me from Razorfish a belief in the importance of mixing fields so that the cross-pollination of those different disciplines can happen.  There’s a lot of canonizing of Steve Jobs right now and while at some level it’s become a cliché to talk about all the things he did as one of the great innovators in our field. But one thing he’s famous for the really influenced me is how he did such an outstanding job looking across various disciplines or arts to find meaningful associations.  Whether it was calligraphy and computer science to get us to a family of fonts, or finding the right way to combine the Internet and data storage, he seemed to always find great combinations.

Most big companies still segregate their online work across separate departments like I.T., Marketing, Creative Services and Corporate Strategy. This is a dated approach. When you are creating an online business, technology, creative, marketing and strategy are all inter-related so closely. You won’t be successful if the people working in these disciplines don’t feel like they are all on the same team with common goals, motivations and channels of conversation.

(AM): You were kind enough to add me as a LinkedIn friend.  Since it was available, I used it to do some preparations for this interview.  All good stuff but one phrase caught my attention: “I am committed to helping companies and organizations leverage the disciplines of project management, computer science, and the creative arts to enrich relationships with their customers.”  Beautifully phrased, but can you elaborate on its meaning?

(DR): Sure.  This relates to what I just talked about. Companies are focused like never before on the Internet in all its forms, from mobile, social media and the web as dominant channels of communication.  And, many companies do all of these areas. But to really take advantage of the Internet strategically, you have to unlock the relationships between the three things that I mentioned [project management, computer science and creative arts].

You’ll need to have incredible engineering—incredible developers and architects who can build an amazing platform for your company to leverage on the web.

But, if that’s all you’ve got, and you don’t have the project management that can work with the business to set strategic objectives and execute on those objectives while pragmatically solving the problems around execution, then you’re going to have limited success.

Most of my career has been in the role as some type of project manager or engagement manager.  What I’ve learned, and what numerous studies from McKinsey, Gartner and Forrester point out is that 80 to 90% of IT projects fail, not because of the technology but in their failure to build teams and plan properly.  It’s the communication, prioritization, planning and cooperation that only come when people are aligned around the same objectives.  And that’s the project manager’s role.

The greatest engineering team and project managers are fine, but you still have to have people who really care about the user experience.  This is what I mean when I refer to the creative arts.  These people really care about the experience of the consumer who will be the end user of your web site or software application.  The creative/user experience team ensures that this application  is usable, relevant to the end user needs and marries the user’s needs to your corporate business objectives.  That’s what the creative people do—they are focused on a great experience for the customer.

Success is getting all three of these components —project management, engineering, creative arts—to work well together.  Getting these three parts together isn’t easy, which is why I think large companies struggle with how to handle the Internet.  Should we put it under IT, PMO or Marketing?  And there’s no magic answer to that question, because it depends on the dynamics of your organization.

Regardless of where you park it, it’s really the effective cooperation and integration of these processes that makes it a powerful force.

(AM): Right now, who’s doing it right?

(DR): I think it’s difficult for large companies to do it well across the board because they have such large audiences.  Google does it well for certain products and certain experiences but in other areas they aren’t that good.  Disney is another example.  They have some very good experimentation in mobile and content.  These services help enhance the experiences when people are at their parks.

A lot of smaller companies do it very well because they can be more targeted.  Let me give you an example, I’m an enthusiast for politics and economic issues.  I like to read a lot of blogs and they are smaller in their scope and targeted to very specific audiences.  Talking Points Memo is a great blog about politics because it combines reporting, opinion, community and multimedia for a targeted specifically targeted audience.

Another example comes from a friend of mine, Seth Harwood.  He’s a mystery novelist.  He has a great site for an audience who is interested in social media and the mystery genre.  Or, people like me who really like mystery, fiction, and social media.  He provides access to his novels and audio recordings (of the novels).  He has a specific community of people drawn to what he’s providing.

The best sites are ones that create a great user experience for a specific audience and I think the challenge for bigger companies is that you have so many different audiences with so many needs and objectives that the complexity of satisfying all of their needs is too much.  The larger companies start to experiment with different approaches.

Maybe these companies have more than one site.  One site that provides very common content or applications those appeal to everyone.  But, they have another site that focuses on one segment and functionality.  Larger companies are always struggling with the best way to address the complexities.  You’re not going to get everything right all the time if you’re a big company, so that means the feedback mechanisms must be very good, as well as, the processes for making quick improvements.

Global content strategy focuses on multiple content sources and multiple device delivery

(AM): Last year at LavaCon Conference, you presented on the Global Content Value Chain.  For those folks who weren’t there, can you provide an outline?

(DR): For me, the Global Content Value Chain is the process of laying down a few operational fundamentals for managing content in your company at home and abroad.  There are five key areas to focus on: 1) creating a content [development] strategy, 2) conveying the message throughout the company and securing buy-in; 3) behaving like a media company; 4) accepting everyone is a potential author or publisher;, and 5) finding balance between global and local ideas.

1.      Content Strategy

Before anything else, it’s crucial for a company to develop a strategy and ongoing operational processes to maximize the benefit of your content for global audiences.  For us—professionals who work in content—this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many companies don’t do this step.

2.      Convey the Message and Secure Buy-In

The next part is really in line with the first, but sometimes it’s not obvious to those working in large organizations. Leaders need to make sure that the message [of the strategy, benefits, and expectations for content management initiatives] is conveyed to throughout the entire business in a way that is relevant and motivating to them.

For instance, take finance—often it’s not obvious to corporate finance why content is a core asset. But sometimes the benefits aren’t immediately obvious to marketing or branding either, even though marketing and branding are places that we should have a more sympathetic audience.

To make it relevant to finance, we have to help them value the assets and to understand that content is an asset.  I have a term, Content ROI [return on investment] that I often use in these types of conversations.  The fundamentals of Content ROI are a little different for each organization, but each version will rely on metrics.  Sometimes it’s showing visitor engagement, or reduced calls to our call center, or it’s increased conversions to leads or sales through your web product funnels.

Convincing the marketing group around the benefits of a content strategy may require talking through the ideas with a lot of different groups, since there are often a lot of different branding groups.  Many people who are CMOs or brand evangelists don’t come from a content background.  Often it’s just a matter of building a good case on why having a universal content infrastructure is important, because content enables everyone in the world to interact with your brand, message and products and this is more important than ever before.

If you can’t get buy-in on your Content ROI, then you need to rethink your entire content operation.  For us at my company, we’ve done just that this year.   We’re the content management group, but we’re now in the same organization as analytics and business intelligence.  The metrics are so important that we want a number of ways to see the ROI.

Thanks to the tools of our company and this focus, we can see globally what content is being created; what is being published to our digital channels and what conversions are occurring out of that work.  We want to track this work within our business intelligence systems and tie it to economic productivity of our web users, the consumers and distributors who are the audience for our content.

3.      All Companies are Media Companies

The next key area of the Global Content Value Chain is that all companies are media companies.  They need to behave like a media company and have some discipline around content creation, distribution and metrics.  If you’re a media company like Disney, Universal or CBS, it’s part of your DNA to have discipline around creating, distributing, pricing and tracking content.

At media companies,  content production and editorial schedules do not happen spontaneously.  There is systemic planning, the creation and maintenance of an editorial calendar, and constant evaluation of the success of this content output.  They’re tracking it from how many people watch a video to how many came to a site launch.  My company, your company, every company who wants to be successful in today’s age needs to be following this approach if they want to be successful since the content we provide to our audience via the Internet will be a decisive factor in our company’s success.

4.      Everyone is a Potential Author or Publisher

Closely associated with the concept that all companies are media companies is the parallel idea that everyone in your company is a potential author.  It’s an important decision on how many people globally will be part of your content strategy and how you’re going to support them. Because you may have more people in your organization creating content than you would have had a couple years ago.

These days I’m on the phone at six in the morning working with our Moscow-based European marketing team, who then works with the Mongolian team to do content planning.  We’re discussing our SEO strategy for Mongolian language web sites!  We’re talking keyword density, PageRank.  So you’re talking to co-workers on the other side of the world about creating the right content for optimal keyword density for their content in a language you barely knew existed. (For instance, I had no idea Mongolian uses a Cyrillic alphabet like Russian until I got on the call.)

That wouldn’t have happened five years ago.  That wouldn’t have happened five months ago, but we have had to scale our organization for an environment where everyone is involved globally in the content process.

At Herbalife, we sell our products through distributors in a direct selling model similar to Amway.  We need to have very sophisticated ways to get them the content they need.  They may need logos, business cards or car wraps (we do sports sponsorships).  Sometimes they need good assets for their Facebook pages or assets for their website.  We need to give them ways to access these assets no matter where they are located.

5.      Balance Global and Local

To be effective, you need to find a good balance between global or centrally conveyed ideas and then have a mechanism for transferring great local ideas across the company.  When done correctly, you can have a duality of core messages, brand, and ideas that are relevant to one, 20, 70 or 100 countries.

For the global company, they will communicate and convey global messages and global brand.  However, this can’t be just top-down.  Innovation is not a command- and-control top-down process.  Leaders in companies need to be aware and recognize that a lot of great ideas come from the field.

It’s important that these local ideas are then transferred across the company.  We see this in our company.  There are some remarkable innovations at the local level.  We want to have mechanisms to observe, incubate and finally share these amazing ideas globally.

Korea is one of our biggest and most effective offices.  They’re one of our biggest markets and they provide some wonderful ideas whether its mobile, social media or just using our content in creative ways.  They’re constantly pushing the bar and coming up with ideas that need to be part of the global strategy.  They’re motivated because it’s not just them; it’s happening to everybody.

None of this happens if you don’t have feedback systems and maintain a constant dialog with your local markets.  There needs to be an infrastructure that is responsive to ideas that come back to HQ from Mongolia, Norway or Cincinnati.  It doesn’t matter where the ideas come from as long as you’re receptive to them and can incubate them and then proliferate them globally.

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is essential to Herbalife’s global content delivery strategy

More on Dmitri’s presentation, Global Content Value Chain, at LavaCon Conference 2011

(AM): Final Question: What’s next?

(DR): Part of the fun is that I don’t know the answer to that question.  I think that the opportunities in the space in which I work, content for global audiences are only going to explode from here on out.

I think that for my company, my work with Herbalife, there is so much more we can do.  Our core mission is nutrition, which is a major issue in the world today.  Not just here, but in many, many of our markets around the world.  There’s going to be so many exciting opportunities around providing better content to further our goals.

I really think we’re just at the start of delivering Herbalife’s mission.  We’re at the heart of a few global mega trends – an increased awareness of nutrition, an aging population; the obesity epidemic. People really need better nutritional content to manage their lives.  Imagine if you knew if you had all the right nutritional content when you sit down for dinner – where the food came from, where the ingredients came from, what fertilizers were involved, and where it was manufactured.  People want more content on nutrition.  That’s very exciting for me.

In terms of overall, whether it’s working in content, fiction, or professional content strategy, I think I’m very lucky to be at the forefront of a lot of emerging new media.  Anyone in technical writing who wants to write a book has the tools and opportunities their fingertips.  A book today isn’t what it was a few years ago; the industry is going to continue to transform.

It won’t be too long before you download your book, read by bed stand, and then you connect it to your car so it will be read aloud to you on the way to work.  My guess is that it’s only a couple years before something like that happens.  We’re working in a space now where technology is going to transform the medium we work in, because for me there’s a social component to the work that we do that maybe there wasn’t initially.

(AM): Thank you so much for sharing some of your life experiences and thoughts on content strategy with our readers and me.

Al Martine

A former non-profit fundraiser and strategy \ change management consultant and now he's the head of TechWhirl Janitorial Services. If it's going well or poorly with TechWhirl's websites he's probably the one to thank or blame. You can connect with Al through his Google + page.

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