Why I embrace content strategy (and you should too)

Posted by on Feb 4, 2010 in Content Strategy | No Comments
Why I embrace content strategy (and you should too)

“A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.” – The Wizard, Oz

“I hate our Web site.”

That’s how many of my projects begin. A client calls, in a tizzy and in a rush. The company’s or the program’s Web site (in the client’s words) sucks, and the client is finally sick of it.

At first glance, the site may be (but is not always) nice-looking, with cool graphics, an attractive color palette. But try using it. Try reading it. Try navigating it and wading through content once you get a few levels down, where the interface design devolves from lovely and engaging to mucky and clumsy. Frustrated yet? So are the client’s customers.

The client wants a redesign, pronto. A “facelift,” they may call it. A “makeover.” At this point, it’s my job to back everyone up and analyze why the Web site does indeed “suck.” And almost always, the answer is crystal-clear: the site has no content strategy.

It doesn’t just need a facelift. It needs a heart and a soul.

Bandwagons, start your engines
At this point let me say that by even writing this post I feel like I’m jumping into the content strategy parade that is taking the Web world by storm this year. Fueled by the publication of the book Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson, content strategy is the discipline du jour. It’s the subject of blog posts and Tweets (search for the hashtag #contentstrategy), online groups, and programming at popular Web events such as SxSW. Content strategy is even getting its very own annual conference, debuting this April in Paris, France (and I am proud to say I have forked over the euros to attend).

The world doesn’t need another blog post about content strategy. But over the past several months I’ve made the decision to shift the focus of my business to this important discipline, as the foundation for all of the Web project work I do. I haven’t quite perfected my elevator pitch to friends and family about this change — it isn’t easy to explain Web content strategy to people who don’t live in the Web world — but I do want to explain to my clients and peers why this focus is important to me — and to them.

Content strategy essentially combines everything I’ve already been doing in my work: using business strategy to drive Web content, site architecture, user experience, design and functionality. The difference is that the content strategy comes first, and that the entire process of a site design begins with a well-developed plan for what content should be featured on a site, based on a company’s strategy, goals, audience needs and position in the competitive landscape. The content strategy then drives all other decision-making: information architecture, UX and UI design, functionality, even the choice of a company’s content management system.

What content strategy is, and what it isn’t

There’s more to it than this of course. A true content strategy has to do with not only what the content should be, but where it’s coming from, who’s authoring it, and how it will be managed post-launch. It may include an editorial strategy, an editorial calendar, a style guide. It’s an end-to-end plan for content — rare in a world where content has long been the most-often-neglected element as well as the one that’s hardest to wrestle to the ground in any Web project.

There are hot debates across the Internet about what exactly content strategy entails (some people believe it’s more about classifying and organizing content than about managing it going forward, for example — everyone seems to have a variation on the definition).

And as with any “awakening” in a community, the clamor for content strategy has led to a great number of misunderstandings and misinterpretations among people whose hearts are in the right place but who are repurposing “content strategy” to their own end. I recently read an article that detailed “10 content strategies for 2010,” which included “launch an email newsletter” and “write some white papers” in its list. No. Those are things that may come out of a strong content strategy, but they are not in themselves content strategy.

Kristina Halverson herself course-corrected hungry content strategy disciples on her company’s blog a couple of weeks ago, reinforcing the true definition of content strategy:

Content strategy is a plan to get you from where you are now with your current content (assets, operations, distribution, maintenance, and so on), to where you want to be. But for some reason, we want to skip that part and rush ahead to the execution piece. Which is why we tend to mix up content strategy … with tactics.

Content strategy is the reason for having a Web
The Web is content. People forget that. It’s the entire reason for the Web in the first place. The nature of that content has changed; now content can be text and video and audio and animation and interaction. But it’s still content. People don’t come to the Web for design. They come to solve a problem, to complete a transaction, to learn something, to find entertainment. That involves content in one form or another.

When companies decide to launch a Web site, they know they need a Web presence. They have a sense of what they want to communicate. They know they want something attractive and engaging that wins prospective customers over to their side. Maybe they want a shopping cart, or an online forum, or a cool interactive Flash. They think about content enough to determine what pages they might want, in order to complete an information architecture and build the site framework and navigation. But they don’t think about the guts of the site ahead of time. And therein lies the problem.

As Kristina Halvorson eloquently describes in her book, content development almost always comes in the final one-third of a Web project — after the IA, after the wireframes, after the user testing, after the visual design, after the CMS has been selected and almost completely implemented. What happens next is classic: a Web writer (and how many times I have been that writer!) or a cross-functional team of contributors comes along with a bunch of Word docs. An SEO specialist slaps on some keywords (and the writer rewrites to make the copy search engine-friendly, often rendering it human-unfriendly, but that’s a topic for another post). A content producer copies and pastes Word copy into the CMS and proofreads it for funny characters and formatting.

Launch day. The site looks great! But over time the cracks begin to show. Content is confusing, repetitive, incomplete, inconsistent or dull. It’s also really hard to find. And did I mention out of date? The online forum has a bunch of spam comments. The blog hasn’t been updated in three months. The Web site, quite simply, sucks.

What you get with content strategy
Starting with the guts means you’re starting with the heart and soul of a site, the why and how. What are our goals, and what content helps us achieve them? How do we execute content in a way to meet our specific goals?

Just as example: a company wishes to distinguish itself as a thought leader in its niche. How do we do that? Do we have a truly distinctive voice to bring to the table, a unique point of view and proprietary knowledge that we can share? How can we offer it up in a way that’s engaging, and to what end are we doing so? How do we put the resources in place to sustain our approach over time?

What you get with content strategy is the foundation for a rewarding customer experience that communicates your company’s or organization’s value while meeting your strategic goals. If it’s done right, here’s what that looks like:

  • Your site tells a multifaceted, but cohesive, story about who you are, what you’re all about, how you’re different and what users can or should do next — from home page to deepest-darkest detail page.
  • Your site design leads users to the most important content and functions, while empowering them to find the content they want the most.
  • Your site provides valuable information to users who will come to see it as a go-to source for decision-making, professional enrichment, problem-solving tools, or whatever other purpose your content serves.
  • Your site delivers what it promises to deliver. Enough said.

By the way, content strategy isn’t just for Web sites. It’s for your entire online presence, including social media platforms you’re managing. If you’re trying to answer the question “Should we be on Twitter?”, you’re asking the wrong question. Content strategy governs everything you publish online, and content across platforms should be inextricably linked.

I have so much more to learn, and 2010 is my year of immersing myself in content strategy and user experience by attending conferences, reading everything I can my hands on, listening to podcasts and meeting others who are as passionate about this discipline as I am.

But suffice it to say that my focus on content strategy will be a good thing for my clients. At An Event Apart in San Francisco recently, programming guru Jeff Veen declared, “We can make more Web!” Which is great. But in partnership with my clients and with content strategy at our backs, I’m hoping to make better Web.

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