Selecting Software: The Right First Question

May 29, 2014


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As a content strategy consultant, I'm often called upon by brands seeking to find ways to solve complex content challenges. Far too often, they start off their quest for a solution by asking the wrong first question: "What software do we need?"

This is the wrong first question for a variety of reasons. The most important reason is that software products are tools, not content solutions, no matter what software company marketing mavens would like you to believe. Tools help content professionals solve content challenges and meet business goals. Tools, by themselves, do not solve content problems.

Experienced content strategists know that determining the right tool for the job means asking the right first question, "What are you trying to accomplish?" The answer to this question is usually quite revealing. Most teams attempting to overcome content challenges have difficulty clearly articulating the problem they hope to solve without ending up in the weeds. They start by attempting to describe the problem as they see it, but somehow digress into discussing implementation issues, tools, and technologies.

Savvy content strategists have developed processes designed to extricate the information they need from their clients. The process usually starts with helping the client articulate the challenge, define goals, and explicitly declare the measures to be used to determine success.

The right first question is only the beginning. There are always additional questions in need of answers before talk of software selection begins. Some typical questions include: Why do you create the content you create? How do you create it? Who creates it? Where do they do this work? What does it cost you to create it? What do you want it to cost you tomorrow? Without knowing the answers to these questions (and many others) selecting the right software for the job is likely to be an elusive and expensive guessing game.

It's important to do your homework before you go tool shopping. Software company salespeople are trained to help match your problem to their 'solution'. They make commission each time they convince you to solve your problems by purchasing software. They lure you in with the promise of a positive return on investment (ROI) -- a promise that might become a reality, if you know exactly what you are trying to accomplish and why. But, chances are, you don't.

"If you don't know why you create the content you do, what is costs to do it, what your goals for that content are, and how you will measure success," asks Steve Walker of Experis Global Content Solutions, "how will you know if you succeeded?"

"If you don't know the answers to these questions," Walker asks further, "how can a software salesperson promise you ROI? They can't."

Calculating ROI involves mathematics, not a list of features or the inclusion of sexy buzzwords in a white paper or web presentation. Calculating ROI involves predicting potential savings and revenue. Predicting increased revenue involves a mix of psychic power, lessons learned from the successes of others, and a little trial and error. But, to predict savings you must know what it costs to do business today.

"Sure," Walker says, "some software companies produce ROI calculator tools that they claim will help you determine likely ROI. But, upon close inspection, most of these calculator tools are nothing more than a clever way to get you more interested in purchasing software."

"They're smoke and mirrors and seldom do anything more than map your problems to the features in the software they want you to purchase," Walker adds.

So what's a well-intentioned knowledge worker to do when put in charge of finding the right tool for the job?

One approach is to seek help from a neutral third-party to help you find your way.

"Find someone to guide you through the process," advises Sean Mattson, Senior Director, Global Web Marketing at Hitachi Data Systems. "You need someone who has been-there-done-that. Someone knowledgable with a proven track record. Someone not beholden to a particular software company. That's what we did. As a result, we not only avoided the mistakes of those who tried solving similar problems, but we also completed our project on time and within budget."

Tools and technology decisions should be informed by a both a complete picture of the problem to be solved and a clearly defined, measurable set of goals. If you don't have the knowledge and experience required, perhaps the best first question will be to ask someone more experienced for help.