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Content-tious Strategy

Issue № 274

Content-tious Strategy

by Published in Content Strategy, Writing28 Comments

To those of us who work daily and intimately with words, the phrase “lorem ipsum” sounds out a special kind of death.

Lorem ipsum, that loyal chum of designers, is the placeholder signaling text-goes-here the world around. Text goes here, that is, in this ominous black box. It works, after a fashion: it gives us a valuable feel for the contours of a webpage, providing an undifferentiated pour of words down a page’s columns. It also distills copy down to an ornament, making decorations of our content assets and all but insisting the content will sort itself.

But a website isn’t a Christmas tree, and I’m not feeling festive.

Let’s level. It’s an open secret in our daily work how often the challenges posed by content elude our collective talents and acumen. We’ve all been there. For me, lorem ipsum makes it personal. It personifies the proposition at the heart of what content specialists do and mocks how often the manifold complexities of content can get the better of all of us.

It’s happening because we haven’t been talking.

The mission of Content Strategy

Everyone knows content is fundamental. You’ve also heard this about content: it’s complicated, it’s messy, and, it’s someone else’s problem.

Our wider profession has tried to take on the challenges of content. Information architecture has given us a grammar for presentation and organization. Visual design has helped users feel like readers, retaining the familiar look of print culture standbys: newspapers and magazines. Search engine optimization has delivered new strategies for content discovery, for serving audiences and finding new ones. As emerging technologies have become mainstream, technical architects have made the complex functional.

The field experts of content, often called content strategists, play a critical role not addressed by these colleagues. Our professional existence is staked on one particular stock in trade: the ability to reason out the real contents of that black box filled with lorem ipsum. Content strategy addresses the specific purpose, form, and development of the content assets that we have at hand, or those that circumstances (and our analysis) require us to produce. The analysis of content and assessment of its value lies at the core of our labors.

We all need desperately to get past lorem ipsum, but also to stop worrying content as though it were some daunting glyph. For that to happen, content strategy has to stand up and be counted.

Stalking the content specialist

For years now, content strategists have hidden in plain sight at design agencies and other organizations, particularly those that manage vast sets of information. But the field of content strategy lacks profile: defining texts, leading practitioners, conference panels, and intellectual property. There are consequences.

In a handful of years, the publishing and communication industry has seen an upheaval so comprehensive it’s doubtless sent Gutenberg’s corpse into full rotisserie twirl. We’re all consuming and producing exponentially more content than ever, even as our print culture fades—and the content strategy toolkit has not become part of the conversation, let alone kept pace with it.

Our training nominates us to be the sherpas, but in this chilly new landscape, our compass needles are stuck and frostbite is setting in.

Call it an identity crisis.

For one thing, content specialists remain a minority (bordering on statistical nonentity), resulting in too little attention to the work of too few[1]. For another, we’re word people and not given to flashy self-promotion. Finally, the unkind march of technology on our cousins in the print world—editors, copywriters, and publishers alike—has left that industry, the one we can help the most, suspicious. Are we the robo-copywriters hellbent on replacing them, or worse, the latest mealy-mouthed jaw artist the professional services world has coughed up?

Given this, we need a model for articulating the merits of content strategy and a zoology of its native speakers.

Weasel words

Content strategy. The words just waterfall from the tongue, don’t they? Like sandpaper.

An emergent field of practice hatched from user experience design, the phrase “content strategy” greets most non-initiates as wordy, not word-wise.

Last winter, I set out to disprove that hypothesis. Pleading a need for healthy self-regard, I made tracks for Wikipedia, where a group of moderators summarily rejected my three attempts to submit a basic but faithfully researched entry for “content strategy.”

Forget griefers and trolls: there’s no existential put-down to compare with a righteous Wikipedian’s. They cited “weasel words”; I cited exasperation, and retired to a long night of the pseudo-professional soul. Now I know how information architects felt in 1995.

And the more things change, the more they don’t. A recent posting to an information architecture mailing list put the situation rather plaintively. An inquiring IA had been assigned to do some content strategy, and was wondering, understandably, just what this entailed. Fair question, but the answers were all over the proverbial map. Content strategy needs to get past its “dark continent” reputation, or live forevermore as the here-be-dragons squiggle on the edge of the user experience design map.

To make things more difficult, it seems that for some, “content strategy” is merely the latest in a sad parade of meaningless buzzwords. Particularly among marketers, it’s subject to furious name-dropping. To see what I mean, try my recipe for a dreary evening: set a Google Alert for every mention of “content strategy” and its derivations, read the results, stir well, and set oneself aflame.

The cocktail napkin model of content strategy

What I needed was a map of my profession; what it took was a cocktail napkin.

One day over drinks, a colleague pressed me for my personal take of the wider, uncharted CS world. A few hurried scrawls later, I had something that—love you, beer goggles!—made a good deal of sense. It was provisional, it had gaps, and it needed polish: but it stood up as a credible visual primer.

Content strategy is a broad field and can be usefully considered as a continuum that accounts for differences in approach, deliverables, and disciplinary interests.

The approach a content strategist uses depends strongly on her professional training and education. Many, for example, have library or information sciences backgrounds, which seem to predispose them to one approach; likewise, to the opposite extreme, for those with journalism training. Content strategists draw on skills across this spectrum, but any content specialist you know will adhere to one of these camps more than the others.

Information Architect / Copywriter as Content Strategist

Between the left and right poles in my diagram lies the birthing ground of content strategy: information architecture itself. Information Architects (IAs) and copywriters seem to precede content strategists in many organizations. Where content strategists are absent in name, it is common to see information architects fulfilling similar duties. You know them and you love and/or loathe them: this is the domain of peerless grammarians, those sticklers for editorial polish.

Information architect-writer combos may act as copywriters as well, supporting IA and filling out copy decks for site content. Another common job for this sort of content strategist is to create a brand/messaging strategy that outlines how to communicate with users and with what types of content. They also commonly produce the humble but highly annotated sort of wireframes that, bursting with detail, explain exactly how both interaction and content will work. This is the model of the content strategist at her most holistic.

Content Analyst as Content Strategist

If your content strategist is detail-obsessed, she is a content analyst. The most prevalent content strategist working today has a background in library or information sciences. She functions most comfortably at the level of content as data, not copy (see above) nor product (see below). With a focus on metadata, taxonomy, the semantic web, and search engine optimization (SEO), the content analyst thrives in sifting large data sets, providing strategies to corral, deploy, and manage the content in an orderly or seductive fashion. By and large, she doesn’t dabble in copy.

Content analysts are gifted at understanding process flow, but don’t always recognize human or organizational factors in the creation and maintenance of content. They produce many common core content strategy deliverables, but are perhaps best suited to detailed content inventories or audits, matrices, and gap analyses. They make fine architects of content management systems and scrupulous stewards of content migrations. Their skills are widely applicable.

Editorial Specialist as Content Strategist

Another type of content strategist is the media industry subject matter expert. Hailing from a digital publishing background, she retains the terms of reference of her former editorial masthead role, often becoming a consultant to publishers, producers, and backend staff alike. The editorial specialist’s perspective on content is as an editorial product. An editorial strategy, produced by such a specialist, outlines how different content producers can fulfill their roles as publishers. The content assignment at hand may not even resemble a magazine or television program—this may instead be the model she imposes to shape a strategy, knowing from experience how such organizations and revenue models work. Editorial products online are of course evolving rapidly, and the editorial specialist is only as sharp as her industry knowledge. Yesterday it was paid content archives and blog stables; today it’s social media and content syndication plays; tomorrow it’s lean-forward video.

The editorial specialist’s work reflects the intersection between product development and industry best practices. She may be conversant not just in the finer points of publishing or broadcasting, but also in business strategy, analytics, organizational roles, and workflow design. As a result, she is typically the most adept content strategist at managing editorial teams and liaising directly with organizational leadership to craft strategic objectives for content.

Further afield is the rising class of specialist content creators who are themselves increasingly as literate in, say, producing short-form online video, as in devising distribution plans or meeting performance targets.

Get me a rewrite

We need to clearly define our role, our tools, and our value.

Emboldened by my napkin epiphany and the encouragements of others, I’ve drafted a post online to continue sketching out the content strategy landscape. If you have a model for content strategy and the talents of its practitioners, I have time and an edit button waiting to be pressed. To my great delight, this is a task colleagues of mine are starting to undertake in earnest. Like the napkin-map, the result is bound to be untidy and imprecise, but it will be a success if we accomplish two things.

  1. We must expand the audience. Our content dialogue needs to engage the broader, nonspecialist community of content producers and consumers alike. In plain language, please: we all have a stake in the future of content.
  2. We must promote our work’s worth. If we’re going to advance our field of practice, we must offer our fellow content strategists fresh means and metaphors to help others understand what we do, and why.

A beginning

An innocuous blog post parked itself in my inbox the other day. Another “content strategy” alert…another sickening piece of spin? Yes and no.

Here was a post from a recently launched blog describing good jobs for English majors. And here was its summation for content strategist.

Content strategists combine the skills of writers, editors and publishers to think in a holistic way about what users should see when they visit a site[.]

Not bad at all.

It’s a start and it’s yours for the revising, colleagues of content. Ready your red pen: content strategy is ready for its rewrite.

Notes:

[1] In The Web Design Survey of A List Apart in 2007, a cumulative total of 1.2% of respondents identified themselves as writer-editors. Among design agencies of the sort that contract me, the number falls to 0.3% [Page 27; figure 1.1].

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