The Discipline of Content Strategy

by Kristina Halvorson

52 Reader Comments

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  1. Fair enough, Bob. I do think there’s more to content strategy than writing, but I’m also happy to accept that many writers have been doing content strategy for a long time, maybe because no one else is there to do it or maybe because they’re the best person to do it.

    But I think if we just use the term ‘writer’, we will encourage people to ignore the larger issues of planning the content. And I say this as someone who thinks of himself primarily as a writer.

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  2. Firstly, thanks Kristina for writing this article and for kicking off a much-debated debate on on this under-covered area. For the first time, I think I’ve read an accurate summary of what it is that I actually do! I’ve never thought of myself as a content strategist before and it’s nice – and reassuring – to see the role defined. It’s also good to hear how others in similar fields have reacted in the comments.

    @Patrick Sampshire

    If we’re looking at analogies with print, a content strategist seems more analogous to a publisher, although certainly not identical.

    Having moved from print publishing to digital, I definitely agree there are parallels here. In fact, the book publishers I worked in used the job title ‘information architect’ to describe those resonsible for style guides, structuring the content of a book and ensuring consistency. The techniques and interactions I saw in print editorial were highly valuable before moving to digital. Hopefully, this post goes some way to changing that.

    The issue seems to be that the content strategist role is long embedded in print but is just surfacing in digital.

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  3. My comment just went awry on posting. I intended to finish with:

    The techniques and interactions I saw in print editorial were highly valuable before moving to digital.

    The issue seems to be that the content strategist role is long embedded in print but is just surfacing in digital. Hopefully, this post goes some way to changing that.

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  4. I’ve been meaning to read this post (and it’s mate) fully for a week or two, so I’m late to the commenting party. I was a wee bit surprised to see this topic on ALA. I’ve been reading since the beginning – when it was an actual list.
    Rachel, I thought it was interesting that you sidelined the reference “We have to be experts in all aspects of communication in order to do this effectively.”
    Yes. Why not?
    I think talk about “Content strategy” is a dodge. It seems like a software industry oriented way to compartmentalize something that is unpleasant. As an IA or UCD or UX person you’d never come up with “Button Strategy” or “H2 strategy” and then sick a team of “experts” on it.
    Content is the SOLE REASON for a page or site. Right after you ask your client “Who is your audience?” (often it’s not that group at all—but that’s another discussion entirely) you ask them “What do you want to say?”. (I usually couch it in questions like “What is your objective?” and “What do you want the a visitor to know, do or feel?”)
    The process should always be: visitor, content, design. So,  “designers”, in whatever form they take (I think the term “freelancer” is too broad a term), must know and understand content in whatever form it takes: text, image, sound or video. We would never create a “video page”. Instead we would discover what content is needed to achieve the goal of the page and if video is needed, how it could be accommodated.
    I’ve been involved in web design for 12 years, CD-ROM multimedia for 3 years before that and video for ummummum years before that (Yes, I’m old.) This is not a new problem. People with communication needs very often get locked into a solution before they understand what their need really is. When a customer comes to you and says “I want a website” the first question to ask is “Why?” not “What kind?”
    You have be willing and able to turn work away if the answer to “why” doesn’t match your ability. In the same way you would expect a writing or editing professional to turn the work away when their client says “I want a website!”. That’s what professional communicators do.

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  5. I think the essence of this piece should have appeared first in a place like Forbes or the WSJ. If you’re a writer, designer or anyone with web experience, you get the underlying criteria of Content Strategy. Because you’ve lived it. (And most of the comments here seem to verify this.)

    It really is about drawing a line in the sand; asking the owners and budgeters to consider the value of thinking before doing, of strategizing before creating. Of course, if you’re smart, it all comes naturally and you just do it.

    But we’re in the very early days, really, of the web—especially from the standpoint of corporate infrastructure and culture. So, the mere idea of a strategy for content feels very new.

    Content will only improve if we encourage improvement. Share this article with your company’s leaders.

    Thanks for the thought leadership, Kristina!

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  6. Amen to Mr. Kindness’s comment. It is difficult at best to sell the check writer on the value of the cost of developing solid content strategy and following needed content. Writers are expensive and many large corporations do not have in house writers available to dedicated to web writing they don’t understand how to do. (SEO? isn’t that a toy store?) Anyway, you get my meaning. I am all for solid, disciplined content strategy and execution but when you run and agency like I do it often comes down to getting client’s to buy the first layer of improving their site and teaching them the value of SEO as you go. Anyone else see it this way? Thanks for listening.

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  7. Me again.

    It’s amazing and inspiring to see people so passionately engaged in this conversation. Writers, editors, information architects, producers, project managers, agency owners, SEO professionals, designers, developers. We’re all in this together: The quest for better content.

    I’d like to bring the conversation back around to what I think is at the heart of my essay. We all need to assume responsibility for the content planning and development process. Agencies. Clients. Collaborating closely to reach our shared end goal of useful, usable content.

    No other area of web design and development requires this level of cooperation and shared responsibility. Not everyone can do IA. Not everyone can create visual design. But everyone can write. This is why it’s easy to assume that someone else is capable of “doing” or “getting” the content.

    Content strategy needs a name, because its activities and deliverables are often overlooked and undervalued. That said, I don’t really care what you call yourself. Just be accountable. Put content at the table at the start. Don’t look away until it’s done … and it’s awesome.

    Thanks again for the dialogue!

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  8. I work with prospective authors who want to write non-fiction books. Everything you say here about content and content strategy can apply equally to the creation of a book. Very often I find that books appearing in the empowerment/personal growth field, or from various coaching disciplines, are nothing but fluffed-up advertorials for the author’s speaking career or seminars. The content of some of these books is poorly thought out, lacks an authentic writer’s voice, and sometimes appears thrown together at the last minute.

    I have always adhered to the principle that good writing is good writing….period. No matter what what the venue is for content, it actually has to SAY something useful and to say it well.

    Thank you for taking on this very important subject. I concur with everything you’ve said.


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  9. Having come from print, I sympathize with those who simply want to be called writers or editors. Helping the client to properly articulate their message (the “why?” behind the web site) is our central mission, and it almost always involves the properly chosen written word.

    But I think Ms. Halvorson is arguing that “content” includes just about everything. This is analogous to my old-time notion that all parts of a publication – layout, type, graphics, paper, etc. – need to support the purpose of the piece. In the same way, written and visual content, page design, site functionality, etc. must all support the purpose of the site.

    It wasn’t until I read this piece (and I admit that I’m not well plugged in, but regardless) that I realized that I’d heard this message from experts in IA and usablilty, but I was never quite sure who was supposed to be responsible for it. The critical process of making sure all the components support the purpose of the site seemed to fall between disciplines, and perhaps fall on the hard-pressed project manager.

    Working on my own, I’ve tried to do this essentially by shoving all the hats on my head at once. But for larger projects and organizations, I like the notion of the “content strategist” being the person who is explicitly responsible for seeing the forest as well as the trees.

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  10. This has been a giant dilemma I have faced in any of the freelance work I have done: are clients willing to engage in the content development process? Having studied to be a writer in college, I am a huge proponent of well written, valuable content. Being a web-head, I also want that content to be searchable, well presented and, of course, highly usable. I almost always go into a project assuming that the client thinks just as much about their content as I do. My experience has been such the opposite. Once a client realizes that content development requires a huge amount of effort on their then the enthusiasm fizzles and developing content becomes as enjoyable as getting teeth pulled.
    At some point, I do understand that design elements contribute to content, but they are never the content in themselves provided that there is a predefined context which suggests otherwise. So, how do we engage clients in the development of text? How do we steer them into a process that goes beyond color scheme and layout. After all, those elements are just frames, just borders that house the “material” that is actually useful. When you are working on how do you get Joe to understand that what we write on his site, what information he presents to visitors is just as valuable as the sign on his store front? And then, how do we engage Joe in the process without making him wonder whether or not you should start paying him for his time rather than the other way around?

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  11. Matthew: this is a really good question, and I think it’s central to the whole discussion here. In working with my clients (mostly small business and non-profits), I find that they may have a specific goal for a web site, but they have not really figured out what they want to say. The part that’s fun for me, and almost always appreciated by the client eventually, is helping them articulate their message or purpose. This can bring benefits far beyond the web site.

    In your example, why does Joe think his coffee shop is a great place for people to come? What is special about the place, the service, the people, ….? It may be something he or she feels strongly about, but has never considered advertising. Or it may be something that they have not quite put into words – but that’s the part where you can help. Once you draw out those ideas, that message, then you can go to work.

    Sometimes it’s easier for the client to accept paying for development time than for this process – even though this beginning is the most crucial part – but you can build that into your proposal. If things go well, your client will be a more enthusiastic and productive partner in the development process.

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  12. I am really pleased to see this article out there and it is something that has been ignored for too long. Not only from the clients, but also from professionals in the UX field.

    There are always those who say “˜yes but of course, we do this implicitly as part of our jobs as editors, writers, producers and publishers —it is nothing new’ but actually real content strategy work is more than just producing great engaging content.

    I wrote an article about managing evolving sites and actually the core of this concentrates on points raised in this article. Content strategy is a discipline in its own right. It actually combines all the separate elements of user experience, information design, content and knowledge management into one cohesive philosophy and importantly, actionable area. Without content strategy, all the information that a site produces will be lost, due to no metadata, no logical structure or SEO consideration.

    Time, resources and energy are all necessary ingredients to this domain, and I do not doubt that you will have your detractors. But I am so happy to see this formed and especially at the IA Summit. All the best with it Kristina and Rachel and thank you both for bringing it to the fore.

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  13. I totally agree with the thrust of this article. I work with clients in the non-profit world who seem to have even less time or capacity to write meaningful content. In my experience with them, though, it’s not that they don’t have content – it’s that they don’t know how to organize and edit it. And unlike HTML or other technical skills, it’s not something you can teach. Becoming a expert content writer/editor can only be done by experience. Unfortunately most of the powers-that-be don’t see this skill as important or worth allocating budget for.

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  14. Working in e-commerce I have consistently seen companies considering content as a sideline, something that gets prioritised only to assist SEO, or provide information so fundamental to the sales process they see a step change in conversion by not having the content on the page.

    It seems obvious when stated that a website is simply a means, not an end.  Without compelling content you very quickly have an undifferentiated site.  This is something that has shown up on user research run on our site recently. 

    The good news is that because the bar is very low in ecommerce at the moment, there are low hanging fruit to be had by all!

    The difficulty is that trying to put a business case around the benefit this can bring is very difficult.  However, pointing the decision maker at this article would definitely be a start!

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  15. As technology has advanced, people have become more and more informal in their communications.  In a lot of ways, this is great;I think people are writing and reading much more than they used to.  However, what they’re writing and reading isn’t always grammatically correct, and people don’t seem to want to take the time to proof their writing.  While this is okay when you’re sending a text or email to a friend, it is definitely not okay when you’re sending an email to your coworkers or posting a blog on your company’s site.

    Editing and proofreading aren’t fun for most people.  It takes time and knowledge, and it can be extremely tedious.  However, if company’s don’t want to take the time to edit their content, then they shouldn’t bother writing it in the first place.  It’s like the saying “Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt”.

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  16. I attended almost all the CS panels at this years SxSWi and was initially blown away. Here was a newly emerging practice that seemed to solve all the problems of wasted production time on assets that miss the mark.

    As I dug, I realized that to be effective at CS, a Content Strategist must have the most diverse skill-set in the entire production team. One part web writer, one part UX / Designer, one part social media specialist, even with splash of advertising and traditional marketing experience. That is like trying to find a unicorn!

    Yes, there are well respected CS practitioners making waves in the industry, but most of their websites do not reflect what they are pushing. It is my belief that good CS is the marriage of copy and design. If one is out of whack, the whole thing doesn’t deliver. The practice is so new, I am on the fence about exactly what constitutes a good Content Strategist and what balance of skill-sets one must possess to be effective in that field in a real world production environment.

    Looks great on paper, loved the book, all the buzz is great… now show me the goods!

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  17. The technical separation of design and content seems to have been good for the explosion of content onto numerous platforms but if “good CS is the marriage of copy and design” (quoting AXZM above) aren’t syndication and CSS the enemy of good CS?

    I’m really liking what Boing Boing and Dustin Curtis are doing with their “special features” blogs, making blogazines rather than blogs. Sure the content will read okay in a reader (or Instapaper) but they’re designed to be consumed as a marriage of copy and design.

    Perhaps HTML5 and CSS3 will help us create something that is both beautiful and semantically sensible – a marriage of WYSIWYG amd WYSIWYM.

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  18. Kristina,

    Thanks for this great post. I referenced it in a training session presentation I put together called “A Content Strategy Toolkit” at my agency. I posted it on SlideShare, so I hope you find that useful too.



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  19. Well, it’s almost 2011 and our publishing team is still grappling with defining roles/processes for website content publishing. And we’ve been at it since the mid 90s! For example, amongst our group of a dozen bright people with impressive skills/backgrounds, “Who is responsible for catching typos!?” is still a common cry when some sort of ‘gotcha!’ sneeks onto the public website.

    With over 25 years of design/publishing experience (first print, then online), I’ve evangelized and diagramed myself blue in the face regarding publishing roles/processes as I understand them. Still, our group struggles with ‘learning to float’.

    Can you throw me a life-jacket ALA? Is there quasi-definitive documentation on web publishing roles/responsibilities to be found? Don’t think I . . . can tread water . . . much longer . . .. Please help me! (blub, blub, blub)

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  20. The need for content strategy, and one or more content strategists, on a design and development project is definitely apparent. In a situation where there isn’t the manpower to assign one person to that job title exclusively how would a small development team, or even just a single developer, best be able to integrate more content strategy into their work flow? Basically, if you had to narrow your bullet points down by half, what items would you select as the most important? Understandably this may result in a product that is not ideal at first, but at least it would be progressive steps that could be worked into the work flow eventually creating better products.

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